For this month’s installment of The Chicago Low Down, we visit with bassist Patrick Mulcahy. Originally hailing from Melbourne, Australia, Patrick Mulcahy has been professionally based in Chicago for 10 years. During this time he has had the opportunity to play at many of the top venues in the city including The Green Mill, Auditorium Theater and Vic Theater. He has performed with Patricia Barber, Fareed Haque, and John Wetton to name a few. He is a founding member of District 97, a Chicago based progressive rock band that is rapidly becoming one of the hottest bands on the national prog rock scene. His playing has taken him all over the world with performances in Turkey, Poland, Macedonia and Switzerland.
Tim: So tell me a little bit about your introduction to music and the bass?
Patrick: It’s funny because many of the people I play with now were people I played with back in the day when I started playing music. The reason I started playing bass was because that was the instrument they didn’t play.
Tim: Were you an electric or upright player first?
Patrick: Electric first.
Tim: And when did you start playing the upright?
Patrick: I started halfway thru my junior year of high school. I played electric bass going into my freshman year of high school. I don’t really know why I started double bass, I know my parents wanted me to play it. Both my parents are classical musicians.
Tim: So when did you start to really take music seriously?
Patrick: Not until after high school. I wasn’t really college material right out of high school. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I took a year off. About halfway thru that year I started taking lessons with Chicago bassist Scott Mason. Those lessons really inspired me to take music and my bass playing seriously, and I continued on at Roosevelt University.
Tim: So how and when did District 97 come to be?
Patrick: Well, I was always close with those dudes, we were always best friends and lived together. We went to high school together and I even went to grade school with the drummer Jonathan Schang. Our first band was Jonathan on snare drum, me yelling and a dude playing trombone, called The Firebird Rockets. (laughter). Then we started a prog rock band in high school. We always wanted to get back into playing more complicated rock music so we just ended up writing some music for my senior recital at Roosevelt, and that was the beginning.
Tim: Now I can remember, I was actually on the bill with another band at Lilly’s in Lincoln Park for what was the first District 97 gig.
Patrick: Yeah, I remember that show…
Tim: But the band lineup has changed since then right?
Patrick: It has. That actually turned out to be an auspicious night for us. That was the night, I believe, that we asked vocalist Leslie Hunt to join the band. She was actually also playing that same night in a duo, but Schang knew about her from some other groups she used to play with in Chicago. Also at that time, we were just an instrumental quartet with Sam Krahn playing guitar. Sam eventually developed tendonitis problems and we decided it was best for us to part ways. Shortly after that we got our current guitarist Jim Tashijian.
Tim: So how did things evolve from just a band playing around Chicago, to a nationally, and soon to be internationally, touring group.
Patrick: It actually happened in kind of a hilarious way. We at one point had marketed the band as “Chicago’s Number One Progressive Rock Band”. We had gotten Chicago Symphony Orchestra member Katinka Kleijn into the band playing cello, and we were getting heavier into our sound. So we put this claim of being the number one prog rock band onto a bill somewhere, which lead to this dude checking us out named Charles Snider. Charles is a progressive rock historian and enthusiast, his website is www.progressiverock.com. He saw our promo, and said “who are these guys, I’ve never heard of them”. So we sort of became friends with him, and eventually he pointed us in the direction of a label called Laser’s Edge, who we are still signed with today. So we sent our stuff to them, and from there we ended up discovering the progressive rock and progressive metal community and marketed ourselves to them.
Tim: Tell me a little bit about the new album, “Trouble With Machines”? Especially the writing process and where you guys recorded it.
Patrick: We found out that we are all too opinionated to do the collective writing thing. There are five people in the band who all have very strong and different opinions about what should happen in a song. So things work way better if someone comes in with a complete vision of the song. Otherwise it takes an embarrassingly long time to complete a song. Writing is a big challenge for me personally. I write really slowly and the music with District 97 is extremely layered and very specific. There is not really room for just saying “you do your thing here”. Also writing lyrics is a difficult thing. I write all the lyrics for my tunes that I bring to the band. That takes a lot of time and is something I am really self-conscious about.
Tim: Can you talk a little bit about your process of writing lyrics and how you bring those and melodies to a singer?
Patrick: For me personally, I try to have things worked out as much as I can before I bring a song to the table. But that usually ends up being pretty different than the final product. Then I meet with just Leslie and figure out what works for her and what doesn’t work, and then we change it accordingly. We have a great working relationship.
Tim: And where did you guys record the new album?
Patrick: We recorded the album at I.V. Labs in Chicago with Chris Harden. We did our first album there as well. This one differs from the first one in that the writing is more group oriented. Everybody, except keyboardist Rob Clearfield, wrote a song for this album. The first album was all Jonathan’s writing. It’s a ridiculously layered album, so the recording process was very time consuming. We really developed a connection with Chris and we really think he understands our music. We are really happy with the way it came out and the way it sounds.
Tim: When did you guys release “Trouble With Machines”?
Patrick: May of 2012. One thing that stands out about that album is that John Wetton, the former bass player and lead singer from King Crimson, is on the record. He sings on one of the tracks, “The Perfect Young Man”. So actually, when we go to Europe in May, we are playing with him. Part of the plan for the tour is that we are going to do a set of District 97 songs and then a set of King Crimson stuff, with him, but he is just singing. So I will be playing all his bass parts on those songs.
Tim: Damn, that’s very cool.
Patrick: It’s kind of bizarre really. Of course, normally he would be playing but he doesn’t feel like playing bass anymore, he just wants to sing. So that’s been a cool challenge to learn his parts.
Tim: Are you at all intimidated to step into his shoes on stage with him?
Patrick: We have performed with him once already, and he was super cool. He is a really nice guy and I think everything is gonna be cool. And I am sure he will politely suggest things, if anything needs to change. I am definitely going to be approaching things from a humble place. I literally grew up and went thru high school listening to those King Crimson records religiously. The King Crimson albums “Red” and “Starless and Bible Black” are some of my favorite shit and to be playing that stuff with him, playing his bass lines, it’s pretty crazy.
Tim: Are you planning on trying to play his bass lines verbatim, or are you going to be putting your own spin on things?
Patrick: That’s been interesting, because listening to them, it’s clear that he’s not sticking just to one bass line. He is really kind of improvising. So I am really listening for things that stick out as integral parts of the songs, especially some of the fills that he does. Generally I am just trying to play something in the spirit of what he did.
Tim: So what’s coming up next for District 97? I know you mentioned the European tour.
Patrick: The tour is definitely a big deal. We are writing a lot of music, and I am writing a lot of music for the next record. In fact we are writing so much that for the first time we are going to have to go thru an editing period to whittle things down to what will actually be on the record. Jonathan, our drummer, is about to start playing in this band with Phil Collins’ son. He is getting the chance to meet Phil and spend a couple of weeks with him in Miami, which we were hoping will lead to some new connections and opportunities. All in all, everything is pretty tour focused right now.
Tim: Now shifting gears away from District 97, what other notable projects have you been a part as of late.
Patrick: Well, I just finished an album with the great vocalist Sarah Marie Young. It’s called “Too Many Februaries” and we are looking forward to that being released very soon. Sarah’s thing has been really awesome cause I get a chance to play both electric and upright with her. It is definitely a totally different set of challenges with her group and couldn’t be any more different than District 97. It is much more groove focused. I have also been doing some stuff the last few years with vocalist Patricia Barber, which have been some of the cooler gigs I have gotten to do. We were just in Portland, and we have some stuff coming up in Canada and New York. I play all acoustic bass with Patricia.
Tim: What are the challenges that use face-balancing time between playing upright and electric bass?
Patrick: It’s a huge pain in the ass. I don’t know why, but gigs always seem to happen like a week and a half of upright gigs and then a week and a half of electric gigs. There is almost never any blending going on, which seems to be just random chance. The two instruments are completely different in my opinion, like say playing trumpet and piano. Basically, whenever I know I have some important upright gigs coming up I will make a determined effort to shed upright to get back into some kind of shape, because it falls away so quickly. With electric gigs I feel like I can kind of hang on for a little longer but with upright it’s different. Gear wise it is pretty annoying because it is hard to find a rig that works really well for both. I used to love using my little micro GK MB150 but mine died after many years of service. There doesn’t seem to be an easy way around it.
Tim: So tell me a little bit about your gear and what you use?
Patrick: I play a 5 string Sadowsky on all the District 97 stuff. I also have a 5 string fretless Elrick New Jazz Standard, which I really love but being a fretless, it doesn’t work in nearly as many situations. I also have a 1975 Rickenbacker 4001, which I bought because I used to be obsessed with Geddy Lee. I typically play out of an Ampeg 4×10 or a Markbass New York 1×15. I use a Realist pickup with my upright and usually plug straight into my Markbass rig. The upright is a German rip off of a Juzek, it is about 80 years old. My ideal rig is a big ass tube SVT with a 8×10. I don’t use any pedals with District 97 but I am in a band called Face Time with saxophonist Tony Barba and drummer Makaya McCraven and that’s almost all effects. The effects I use for that are a standard Big Muff, the POG II octave, a reverb/delay unit that I can’t remember right now and sometimes an MXR DI for a little grit.
Tim: Thanks for your time Patrick, and good luck on the European tour.
For more information about District 97 music, tour dates and more, check out the website www.district97.net