Scott Thunes: Un-Ghosted by Tom Wictor
I used to be a music journalist. It was the best job I ever had, and I loved it. Unfortunately for me, it didn’t work out. A combination of factors–mainly my own problem with bottomless rage–ended my career. However, I got to meet, speak with, and write about some fantastic musicians. It’s all in my book Ghosts and Ballyhoo: Memoirs of a Failed L.A. Music Journalist.
Rick Suchow asked me if I’d like to find out if I still had my chops as an interviewer. I agreed, and for my first foray into the field since 2001, Rick let me choose the man I called the Collateral Ghost, Scott Thunes. It was an odd experience interviewing Scott again, because we’ve become friends. He’s no longer a ghost or Former Frank Zappa Bassist Scott Thunes. Now he’s just Scott.
He’s still one of my favorite bassists, though. He can’t peel off that label.
Since we first met in 1996, what’s the most profound difference in your life that you want to talk about?
In 1996, I had just removed myself from LA and repaired to my old stomping grounds. I went from desperately scraping by on a month-to-month basis – going from having a ‘regular’ gig with Dweezil Zappa (rehearsing 5 days a week for a year and a half) in 1988 to going on a tour with him, to recording with the Waterboys, recording for Seal (having the entire project be scrapped and started over, twice), recording for Wayne Kramer (not getting to tour with him), getting fired by Dweezil, not getting to tour with the Waterboys (even after auditioning for the touring band), recording with Andy Preiboy, touring with Steve Vai and touring with FEAR (none of which made me rich or anything remotely similar, actually, only just scraping by. This is all over a six year period and most of those acts didn’t ‘pay’ like a ‘real’ gig would.) all the while living in a pretty cool apartment and having great friends, female companionship of differing qualities and quantities, and actually physically performing music either with others or at home on my computer – to being with my new girlfriend in Northern California.
This doesn’t sound like much on the face of it, but since that time – 1995, leaving LA – EVERYTHING that’s important and good for me has happened. Two children. A happy, informative, sex-filled romp of a 17-year marriage with the world’s finest woman. Two books written filled with my words (disclaimer: Tom and I are collaborators). Traveling the world performing GOOD if not GREAT music and getting paid for it. Learning after all these years to actually ENJOY playing the bass, exactly how I want to play it, with music that interests me on several levels, on a schedule that allows me to be a stay-at-home dad, and learning TONS in the process. Owning a house. Living in Marin County again, finally. Actually having a reason to live.
When we met in 1996, I had basically just been let out of my Contract With LA – and as anybody whose been trapped in a contract they discovered later was wrong for them, you know what it feels like to be trapped by your own decisions – and I hadn’t had a chance to assimilate all that had happened to me. You asked me some questions and we had two great conversations that allowed a large portion of my then-recent past to be put to bed. I was able to investigate my legacy online (this was the beginning of the internet) and quash many rumors about me (such as the one that “I broke up the ’88 band”. It took several years for that one to run its course and die a coward’s death). I was able to speak my mind about things I felt were important and became the New Scott Thunes – one who wasn’t just a ghost or a rumor in many people’s minds – but a real person, dare I say a ‘real adult’, one that answered anybody’s question about my past or working with Frank Zappa no matter how small.
And that’s just cleaning up the past. My present is truly a rebirth. Not in any religious sense, but in a physical way: I am different from that person in that I finally killed Teenaged Scott Thunes, the boy who thought we would die in a nuclear holocaust and therefore had no reason to live. No reason to aim for the future. I had trapped myself in the present, learned nothing, kept nothing, moved through life like a ghost, haunting only myself. And you, of course.
You’re now the permanent temporary bassist for the Mother Hips, who play what they call “California soul.” It’s a style of music I never would’ve associated with you. What do you get out of playing in the band and playing their music?
First: I am completely free to play anything I want after illuminating the basic chord changes, riffs, and structure of the songs. Fortunately, the two previous bassists, Ike and Paul, were fantastic bassists. I am very lucky to have a wonderful backlog of delightful melodic and riff-oriented data to work with and am in no way attempting to destroy what they have created. I’m attempting to put my stamp on music that’s already been written.
I’m playing at least 85% Scott Thunes, if not more, depending on the song. For instance: Paul Hoaglin wrote a bass line for a song called White Falcon Fuzz. It’s what would be called in classical music an ‘obbligato’. It’s a medium-slow tempo song in 4/4 with a bass line that continues through most of the verse in near-constant 16th notes. Normally, you could call that ‘funk’ or ‘busy’, but the way Paul heard the song – and I guess got ‘permission’ from the composer, Tim – he was able to make the song HIS by rumbling along in the forefront of the song with what would – at least in my ‘day’, the horrible 80’s in LA – be completely rejected by most producers. It makes listening to the song a completely different experience than merely following words and a melody. There’s a constant fluidity yet an in-your-facedness to the whole thing that makes me so happy to be involved in it. That’s even before I put my stamp on the bass line.
As for any association with my past musical endeavors, on the one hand I agree: it’s – on the face of it – not ‘prog’ or punk or pop-metal, but it’s certainly ‘Alternative’, as iTunes likes to call Zappa music. But it’s not ‘California Soul’ either. The phrase was in one of their songs and it stuck to a degree – labels are useful – but I call it straight-up rock and roll. They’ve made an effort to explore as many styles as they can. There’s a huge psychedelic aspect to their earlier musics, and after about album 4 or so, a strong Country element. Neil Young. BeeGees (early). Merle Haggard. We aren’t a ‘jam band’ as much as a band that has very strong songs with robust skeletons that you can put any muscle or skin on at any time. It’s not just me. The other boys are almost as free with their own parts as I am.
But none of it would mean anything unless I was playing with a drummer that I could love, adore, and worship as I do my man, John Hofer. He’s got a punk background but is a groove master. I’ve never been so happy playing music as I have been with him. It’s actually, easily and by far, the best musical experience I’ve ever had in my life, and it’s all due to John and his spectacular sense of time, musicality, and humor. He’s actually learning more how to listen to me, too, so it’s fast becoming something I’ve never even remotely had the joy to experience in many of my previous endeavors.
I recently had a dream in which you reconstituted the Zappa 1988 band. If you had a magic button that would give everyone on earth except you and your family amnesia, would you press it and then reconstitute the band? Why or why not?
For me, it would seem that there might be a ‘what if you were to still be in the Zappa band? What if you could have magically reached into his pants and discovered his prostate cancer? What if he wanted another bassist after the 1988 band ended?’ type structure to most people’s understanding of a musician’s life.
Let me move into the realm of possibility, though. “What if’s” are fun. My main concern would be with making it a more enjoyable experience and lengthening it to the furthest possibility. That would mean ‘would I have been less of an asshole during rehearsals’. Of course. Knowing what I know now – being the person i am now – I could easily see myself not giving one flying fuck as to the attitudes of the musicians that made my job untenable, unreasonable, and impossible, and just letting them be jerks. But even my current level of desire of fairness would make me balk at treating them ‘nicely’ or ‘gently’. They were assholes to me. Admittedly. They caused the break up more than anybody else, me included. But if I could ameliorate in any way the tensions that caused them to be the way they were to me, I’d do it. It’s a breakdown of what I want compared to what I wanted. I would do MORE to keep the band together knowing it was that close to falling apart even before we left. I just don’t think the other guys would be making that same effort, even now.
But to answer succinctly: There is absolutely no question: that button would remain locked away forever.
In 2011, you began playing with Dweezil Zappa in his show, Zappa Plays Zappa, in which you perform Frank’s songs. The Scott Thunes I have in my head would’ve found that experience extremely complicated on just about every level. My imaginary Thunes may even have felt a little pain or sadness revisiting that era. How was it for the real Scott Thunes? In the videos, your only apparent emotion is joy.
Yeah, pretty much. After a year of playing with the Mother Hips and 5 years of playing with my friend, Kyle Alden, getting back into a semblance of a regular musical schedule was easy and smooth. I fell into a bathtub filled with ice cream – rehearsals, hanging out with musicians, and playing live on stage were all completely different than in the ‘old days’ – my level of musical on-stage enjoyment was supported by my deep comfort and joy with my family. Nothing could get me down. Well, almost nothing.
With ZpZ, I had a multi-level emotional-satisfaction matrix pre-organized. I had no idea what songs I’d be playing. I only knew I could ultimately remove the pain I felt being fired by Dweezil 19 years before by being a living part of a modern organization dedicated with all its power to the display and performance of Frank’s music, which, no matter what happened between my youth and my adulthood, invested my initial musical experiences. When I sat in with them on an earlier tour, I’d already erased the tension of being in the same room as him by seeing the band on its first tour and hanging out backstage. Seeing Gail (Frank’s widow) and some other band members I’d had lasting tensions with (Joe Travers, Terry Bozzio) and having a good time washed a lot of shit away.
I was raised on Frank’s music, and playing it live with him was gravy. I would have been perfectly happy to just know that music. Being an active part of its creation and formulation – along with the other part of recreating history – was awesome, but nowhere near as awesome as others think I should think of it.
Some of the songs on the ZpZ two-week mini tour were songs I performed – with my original bass parts – during 1988. But the larger share were songs off of “Freak Out”, an album I was actually NOT all that familiar with. I was raised on albums 2 and 3, and so it was fantastic to be a part of an operation where not only my technological input was welcome, my musical and personal input was desired as well. I could be a ‘tribute band’ musician, performing the bass parts as carved in stone; an archeologist working directly with the source materials. But I was also asked to be Scott Thunes – “Holy shit! Scott Thunes is going to be performing with us!” – and that’s something NOBODY else in the world can be tasked with. That, by itself, is a great, great honor, and I recognize my anomalous position in the world. The fact that it came from Gail herself – along with Dweezil, my ex-boss – made it doubly powerful. So many different threads of awesome had to come together to make that happen. I was chuffed to bits to be requested specifically and to play with the high quality of musicians that Dweezil and Joe put together. Thank _____ for my convenient Winter Hiatus with the Mother Hips. I wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise.
Once upon a time, you told me that you were happy, even though you weren’t playing. I accept that. Is it presumptuous of me to say that although you were indeed genuinely happy and completely fulfilled as a person, you’re a tad happier now that you’re playing regularly, since you’re doing what you love?
Your daughter Hazle is an astonishing musical talent. She’s fully formed as a singer, songwriter, and musician. Let’s discuss two scenarios: one, Hazle doesn’t do anything professionally with her musical gift, and two, Hazle decides to do something professionally with her musical gift. What are your thoughts as a father and musician on both scenarios?
Let’s call her stopping her meteoric rise to fame with a well-placed ‘open letter to VIBE Magazine saying ‘goodbye” Scenario “A” and her ‘fuck it, I’m the Next Big Thing, damn it’, Scenario “B”.
Let’s call my ‘Father’s Take’, “F”, and my ‘Musicians Take’, “M”.
Now we have. FA, FB, MA, and MB. That’s the “Fathers Take on Scenario “A”, etc…
FA: FUCK! I can’t believe this shit. All that work, all that time and effort. I can’t understand how she could throw that all away.
FB: New house (for her parents), Grammy, Actor Boyfriend, Movie Star. What’s not to like?
MA: She’s smart for hedging her bets; the sheer number of female singer-songwriters already at the starting gate is unbelievable. Now she can study Medicine!
MB: FUCK! I can’t believe this shit. All that work, all that time and effort. I can’t understand how all this didn’t happen to me!
In our own conversations and in online postings I’ve seen from you, it seems to me that the two things you find most difficult to tolerate are boorishness and hostility. Am I correct in this observation, and if so, how the heck can someone with a low tolerance for those characteristics function in the music world?
They can’t. But I don’t have to ‘function’ in the music world. I only have to function in the Mother Hips world. Or the Online Zappa World. I’ve met far fewer people and of a much higher quality ‘this time around’. The Mother Hips fans are in their 40s, college-educated, love music above all things, and want to please me; they want me to like them. Zappa fans – of whom I pretty much only meet the European Variety – are all in their 60s and 70s and are similarly intelligent musically-adoring. Both groups accept oddities in their fellow humans and are wide-ranging in their values and interests (although the Zappa-heads are generally sedentary and bookish, while the Mother Hipsians are outdoorsy and boisterous) so it’s rarely boring. Also, rarely ‘booring’! (I also accidentally made up the word ‘wrongwriter’ when I tried to write ‘songwriter’ for the previous answer. I hope to find a place to use it very soon.)
Also: I have a couple of elements either built-in to my make-up or learned through hard lessons: I have grown to be amused at many an antic that would have made me blush previously, and I’m much less prone to taking grief from losers. Yeah, I know: ‘less prone’. Funny, right? Ahem.
You recorded the album Pink Things with drummer Steven Menasche and guitarist Ron Kukan. It’s a collection of spontaneously improvised jazz pieces. What makes it different from other improvised music is that the goal was clearly to create actual pieces, not the usual wanker-cacophony that people call improvisation. In fact, I once sent you a link to a video of a famous bassist playing in his improvised-jazz band, and you told me you watched only a few seconds of it. “I don’t do that shit,” you said. You also once said that improvisation left you dry back in your jazz days. So I was surprised to see you playing improvised jazz. What made you do the album, and how did you and the other musicians keep the pieces under control?
I take issue with your statement “… the goal was to clearly create actual pieces…” That’s pretty much totally wrong, and I have the emptied-out brain and the dried-out bucket of ‘licks’ to prove it. The goal, for me, was to keep Ron K happy. He paid me to ‘support’ him. He NEVER said anything like that, though: that’s my take. But, having accepted his money and worried myself sick for days before and after recording concerned with how he could have possibly received my performances with anything other than complete disgust, I can honestly say that I became the New Scott Thunes either in Part or in Whole because of the rigors of mental focus necessary for this to work for RON. But imagine my surprise when I not only received my money for a job well done, but – much like Frank – the tiniest of verbal gestures from him soothed my fragile and nascent musical ego and gave me confidence to preserver the next night. I went from ‘not playing music’, to calmly and gently accompanying my friend Kyle and his lovely Celtic-tinged songs for a few years, to working with Ron in a sweaty, fear-filled atmosphere of dread at my absolute inability to function in my chosen field. I owe him everything, and I have no problem saying so.
I WORKED HARD for my money, and for his approval, and for my additional musical knowledge. Stephen Menasche worked his ass off editing that stuff to make it what it was. To this day, I have no idea how he did it. I would have preferred to perform Terminal Bobbing for Apples rather than imagine what was going through his head while listening to it over and over.
In a way, after everything, after Frank and FEAR, the only gig I can’t just walk into with calm is making the drive from my house to Ron’s studio. They are not butterflies in my stomach: They are fucking Rhinos.
You’ve played rock, jazz, classical, punk, folk, and I’m sure some other genres. Is classical still your favorite, or is it all good?
When I told you that, I was not only in a ‘classical phase’, but reacting strongly to my recent troubles. Classical music does a lot for me. I cried like a baby at the recent San Francisco Symphony performance of Stravinsky’s Les Noces. I had no idea it was going to be performed and I’d only heard it on record. Seeing it come alive – it’s a theater piece, so there are costumes and acting (to a degree) – was magical. But My Poor Family has to go through at least one Daddy Crying Episode a week – if not more, thanks to many awesome post-Buffy TV shows that have tons of Heart to go with their Head – that are musically-based, and they don’t truck much with that classical jive, so yeah: Rock Music in its basic form moves me quite well.
But I also have an aversion to ‘Top Ten Lists’ and Desert Island Discs. My brain doesn’t work that way. I don’t have a favorite anymore, anyway, if I ever did, so I can’t say whether I’ve matured or devolved or just given up. I’m very comfortable skimming the surface of music in all its forms. I get tons of juju from the arts all day long, but dig this: I’ve purchased an iPad, a new laptop, noise-canceling headphones, all to make my now-frequentish airplane travels useful and entertainment-filled. But I can tell you that I’ve pulled out my old iPod with all my favorite music on it maybe once or twice during flights in the past three years, and that includes the 5-hour Coast-to-Coast’ers and the Atlantic Crossings. Music is not as much a boredom-destroying tool as a library of my past loves who I am allowed to revisit at will, no strings attached.
Oh wait, you were talking about performing… Shit. I’m sorry. No, I can’t have classical on the list any longer. I’m not allowed to lie to you. I haven’t touched a string bass for that music in forever, and my time spent banging out MASSIVE amounts of low-frequency BALL-CRUSHING sound waves has given me a new lust for more More MORE MOOOAAAAR! Classical can’t touch that. The scurrying upright basses at the San Francisco Symphony, for all their technique, didn’t – to me – look like they were having anywhere near as much fun as I have whenever I play with the Hips. And they can’t drink beer.
Is it true that if you hadn’t had a career in music, your second choice would’ve been acting? If so, what do you find appealing about acting?
Huh. I haven’t ever thought about ANY career, let alone music, let alone acting. My wife thinks I should do all sorts of shit: that I should be a writer, and that I should exercise more, yet I do as little of any of that as I possibly can so I can concentrate on new ways to see my wife naked. When I was a youth, I played the bass. Then I grew up a little, and it helped that I’d spent all that time messing around on the four strings. I got to be in a band playing it. Rock and roll, brother. Made hardly any money but I played some awesome shows and made people happy. I could never in a million years imagine that just around the corner would be ZAPPA and whatever else that meant. But I still had to work at shitty jobs (busboy, liquor store) in between tours with Frank. Music was NEVER a career for me.
Then, when I wasn’t doing music with Frank or Dweezil or anybody, I had to do temp work – typing, filing, data entry – and that kept me humble and I suppose ‘normal’. I would have done ANYTHING – even acting – to pay the rent on my apartment. Even then, I couldn’t find enough work and had no money at times, borrowing from the Aunt.
My love of acting is much like anybody else not a celebrity in LA: I’m sure if I had enough work to be an actor and only get to do that then I’d learn to hate it. Until then, it sounds like something fun to do.
You’ve said that other bassists are often surprised at the range of tones you achieve with your pick. From what I’ve seen, you vary the region of the string you play (closer to the bridge or closer to the neck), and you vary your physical attack (up-and-down strokes, downstrokes only, dynamics, etc.). Do you consciously use these techniques, and did you practice them?
Yes, and no. I haven’t “practiced” since I was 22, and I don’t intend to start now. I started playing with a pick after giving up fusion and jazz back in my college days (which, for me, were my ages of 16 and 17. I went to College of Marin – alma mater of Terry Bozzio – during what would have been my Junior and Senior year of high school) and getting back into ‘rock’ thanks to DEVO. I still played some classical on my then-owned upright bass (subsequently stolen) and learned a lot about the guitar, even had a few years ‘not playing’ in between then and when I started playing with the Young Republicans and the Readymades back in 1979. I was given Joe Jackson’s “I’m the Man” and told to learn to play like Graham Maby. Even though I didn’t have a Precision Bass, my 1965 Jazz Bass worked fine for that type of music. My pick was an extension of my hand, which was a machine designed to create great walls of low-frequency building damage. Technique was something ‘artists’ did to ‘improve’. I worked hard, menial labor in the Musical Mine Fields to make butts shake and break amplifiers.
Later, I learned how to play with my fingers again in the Motown cover band I was in during 1987. For me, I don’t even have much of a preference any longer, as the two previous Mother Hips bass players were each a “finger player” and a “pick player” exclusively, so the bass parts of the songs I play actually force me to alternate, most often in a single song. I like to use the fingers for the verses and then pick that shit on the choruses.
Now, do I use them consciously? I didn’t think about it until playing for a week with the Pink Floyd tribute band, House of Floyd, a few years back. There’s a song that contains a groove was ‘borrowed’ by the Mother Hips. The PF song is “Echoes” and the MH song is “CHUM”. It’s basically a semi-funky groove in E, and it goes on. Some would say ‘on and on and on…’ but I have learned a lot staying in the groove by that riff.
My conscious use stemmed from slowly, over the course of, say, ten bars – I’m talking REEEEL SLOOOW – picking the entire pickable length of the string, starting at about an inch from the tailpiece to the base of the neck and back, never altering my stroke, but maneuvering my arm so the pick stays at the same angle no matter how far along the string I have moved. And doing that the entire length of the solo, sometimes for 5-10 minutes.
That’s very interesting and I learned how to do that, but I don’t think I ever felt the need to perform that bit of pseudo-technicality again. It’s a form of mental masturbation – not that there’s anything wrong with that – but if I’m not getting the point across to the audience – the point of that exercise was changing the tone of the note-attack much like the opening of a filter on a synth or moving your foot ever so slowly on your wah-wah pedal – you might as well hang it up.
From watching YouTube videos of the Mother Hips, it’s clear that you never play a song the same way twice. Plenty of bandleaders would find this intolerable in a bassist. They want the bassist to be “in the pocket” and provide a rock-steady foundation for the music. How does your approach work in a band that has two technically accomplished guitarist-vocalists who do lots of solos?
Fortunately, this particular band has a sort of philosophy attached. It’s not apparent, and it’s not written in stone, and they never mentioned it to me either in our sporadic and rare rehearsals or before or after gigs. But it’s obvious once you check them out, that, other than the drummer, Tim and Greg fuck around just as much as I do, in completely different ways. My great joy in playing with this band is the serendipitous amalgam of our disparate techniques and approaches to the songs.
The fans expect it much like Grateful Dead fans expect “Space” or ‘Drum’ (or whatever that thing’s called). They don’t KNOW they’re watching a wild-note party on stage, but my part – the part I ‘may’ play or the part I ‘have’ played – is exactly as possibly wrong as Tim’s might be in the exact same area.
I’ve played with enough guitarists to know when somebody is playing ‘wrong’, or they’ve forgotten the part, or they hate the original part so much they’re hoping to play it ‘their way’ long enough so it becomes etched in stone (Frank might catch you not playing a part he gave you, and, in rehearsal, he’d call you out to the whole band in what was known as “The Clamp”), but Tim wrote the fucking song! He can do whatever the hell he wants! And I have to give it to him: he’s a true master at it. Getting the right note in a place where you’ve never tried to play that part there at that time in that song. We’ve accidentally hit the same brand new riff at the exact same time – unwritten, unrehearsed, and not even acknowledged either before or afterwards – a lot of times. We get along very well on stage. Musically.
To me, that speaks volumes on the basic nature of this band. It’s not ‘nebulous’, and it’s not ‘free’ as much as it’s extremely OPEN. Mistakes are not bad things. In the words of the famous PBS painting teacher, Bob Ross “There are no mistakes, only HAPPY ACCIDENTS.” I think that’s it.
The solos, oddly enough, are the most locked-in parts of the songs. We don’t ‘interact’ all that much for that type of thing. We really are not a jam band, at all. The solos are a place for the guitarist to feel free to play what they want, and not ‘play with’ or play against anybody else. There’s a comfort-thing going on, but there’s also a ‘forget about it’ thing going on. I don’t want to disturb their solo with some bass mumbo-jumbo. I really do get my rocks off so much, all night long, during most sections of the songs, that ‘going bonzo’ during solos just isn’t interesting, required, or desired. It’s a super-win-win.
Also, since the solos are part of the composition of the song, most times, there’s a build-up aspect to the solos that preclude any fucking-around on my part. It has to pay off RIGHT HERE, and putting my own stamp on that part of the composition is just not going to happen.
Do you have a preference between studio work and playing live? And in one session, did you really use your knee to make a cracked double bass playable?
Oh god. YES. Studio work blows. I have had so few ‘happy moments’ in recording studios – remember, I’m not a studio musician NOR a full-time member of most of the organizations I’ve been party to, so recording has, for the most part, been absolutely abysmal activities. I can say that recording with the Waterboys (Dream Harder) was AWESOME. We all had a great time, great producer (Bill Price), great songwriter, great drummer (Carla Azar), in a great city (NYC), and tons of money per song. I truly felt welcomed, personally and musically, even though I was playing – for the most part – pre-composed bass parts. I was also able to compose and perform my one standout upright bass part (for the song “Love and Death”) that I’m still quite proud of to this day.
With my friend, Kyle, I had to borrow a friend’s upright to record some of his Celtic-flavored songs and the back has been repaired many times but never truly ‘fixed’. In the last song, I realized the basic key of the song forced one particular note to resonate the whole bass egregiously because the back was rattling free. I had no time – nor the inclination – to get a chair or stop the proceedings, so I did what any normal musician would do under the circumstances and I lifted my knee up to the back of the bass – I’m pretty tall, so it wasn’t a problem – and pressed, with, oh, mild pressure, to keep the back from moving. We’re still very close friends, so it must have worked. And yes, that song is on album, although I can’t remember which one…
When you play live, you look over the audience’s heads, you look at your bandmates, and you almost never look at your instrument. Describe what’s going on in your mind during a live performance.
Actually, I think I divide my eye-focusing time rather judiciously amongst all the elements you’ve described WITHOUT leaving out my bass. After you mentioned it once, several months ago, I try very much to not look at it, alternating with looking at it with LASER-intensity.
My main focus is to NOT MAKE EYE CONTACT with any members of the Mother Hips fan base. It’s deadly.
They’re really nice people. But they have very little in the way of boundaries sometimes. It’s a great lesson. Much like some bands need huge barriers set up to keep the masses at bay, this fan base has no understanding of the lip of the stage. It’s not a glass partition to them: it’s a place to hold their drinks while they attempt to get my attention. It’s not that I’m the ‘new guy’ as much as maybe, possibly, I might actually be the one to allow communication to proceed through the partition.
My band is different – or maybe they’re the same, I’m not aware enough of other band’s methodologies – in that they make an extremely concerted effort to remove themselves from the standardized band/audience dynamic. Before I was in the band, I went with him to an out-of-town gig and I asked Greg what he thought about some hot blonde standing near the side of the stage who was staring at him all night. He replied that he ‘didn’t see her at all’, that he always keeps his head down and his eyes closed when he sings. I thought that was the worst thing I’d ever heard. When you’re on stage, it’s a micro-blip on the time-radar of life. You gotta see everybody, all the time, for your time will end and that view will disappear from your life… then I started playing with them and BLAM! Eyes to the floor. Wow, that’s a neat guitar you got there, Timmers. Is that a NEW cymbal? The pattern on that carpet is Moroccan, yes?
Why? Because I can’t believe what one has to deal with every night. It’s bad enough that some over-excited or over-served audience member really wants your setlist enough to steal it before the set is over (so many times I can’t count), but what’s worse is the conversations THEY need to have WITH ME while I’m working. I’m trying to setup my pedal board (yes, I finally have a pedal board and I’m very proud of it, but I’m getting to the point where I’m willing to pay somebody $$$ to set it up for me so I don’t have to be ‘that guy’ who is ‘available’ while the other guys – the guys they actually want to connect with – I am, after all, just the ‘new guy’ in their favorite band. The other guys are the reason they HAVE a favorite band – are sitting backstage drinking beer, writing soon-to-be-stolen set lists and talking to their wives across the country). I literally need all my brainpower to do this. I’m about to fucking blow your mind away, musically – it’s all I am thinking about and care about at this point in the evening – and you’re about to explode with some bit of history about the band that has nothing to do with me. But, I’m the ‘bass player’ and therefore it’s open season. I’m sorry, but I’m working. Really. THIS, more than the other shit, is my job. Nobody is going to do that shit for me.
Though you’ve said that storytelling is the lowest form of communication, I demand that you tell an entertaining story about your music career that will make readers see a whole different side of you.
When I was on the road with Frank, the first time – 1981, 21 years old, never been on the road before – I played Portland, Oregon. After the show, I walked down the metal stairs in the old theater we were playing and at the bottom were several chairs. In these chairs sat some people. Two of them were girls. One of the girls was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen. She was wearing a dark blue, satiny, patterned 50s dress and she had a pixie haircut. I was smitten. I ‘knew’ what she was doing there – looking for a date with a rocker, or, even just a bass player in a comedy-oriented rock group – and I wanted to be with one of ‘those girls’ that I’d heard about my entire life just as much as she wanted to be with me, even though we’d never met.
I don’t-for-the-life-of-me remember what we talked about or how I asked to follow me – probably just said ‘follow me’ – but I took her hand in mine and walked her outside. Somehow, we got to my hotel and we fucked. I had a girlfriend back home but we had an agreement – I could do whatever I wanted on the road – and I was going to make the most of it. Over the course of the next two or three weeks, we ended up in this area again and again. I ended up being with her almost 7 delightful nights in total. When the band finally left the Pacific Northwest, I had been royally laid by the prettiest girl I’d ever seen. (Road-de-virginized, we called it.)
We were more than that, though. We were pals. We saw life the same way. On top of that, I was the Puppy (Zappa band terminology for ‘newbie’ or tyro, first tour-guy, or any other word you want for rank amateur) but out of the gate got the cutest girl any of the older guys in the band had ever had (and I even beat one of the other young guys to the ‘groupie’ game. His story needs to be told, though. Someday…) I still have an 8×10 of her in that dress that she gave me the first night. I have no idea why she had that made, but it’s a life-saver for somebody like me whose memory is shot. She’s so fucking pretty…
After the tour was over, I got a phone call from her telling me that she’d sold all her stuff and was moving out of Portland and she wanted to see me as soon as possible. I told my still-girlfriend that she was coming down and my girlfriend said “Ok, you can do what you want, just don’t fuck her in our bed”. Portland Girl showed up soon, I was in my robe, and she wanted to fuck immediately. I felt so shitty about it. Not only did I tell her what my girlfriend said – I couldn’t fuck her in my bed and there was nowhere else to go – but in the intervening months, Portland Girl had gotten a perm, and her adorable pixie cut was grown out and dyed a shitty flavor of reddish with huge curls that made my toes curl, my stomach twist, and my penis go permanently flaccid. I couldn’t get dressed and get us out of there soon enough. Fight or Flight kicked in.
My friend and I noticed there was a Three Stooges film marathon going on in town and we brought Portland Girl with us. Afterwards, I discovered exactly how much girls don’t like the 3 Stooges, and how much this girl didn’t like me. I’d broken her dreams. I’d crushed her soul as much as anybody has done so to another person. Sure, I hadn’t invited her, but I had accepted her visit, and that made me her host. Sure, I was young, but I was also smart and capable (oh, I probably did way worse things to girls I liked later on) and I should have known better.
She packed up her stuff and left, and I never saw her again. I my have gotten an angry letter from her, but it’s a hazy memory. Funnily enough, I became friends with the group of friends she had in SF, where I lived, and for a few months afterwards, we all hung out together.
You’ve recently offered to play my new MusicMan Sabre for me, since I can’t play anymore, and you also said you’re thinking of buying a Rickenbacker. You’ve stuck with your ’65 Fender Precision for decades. What made you want to play a Sabre and a Rickenbacker?
When I worked with Steve Vai in Russia back in ’94, I borrowed a taxi yellow MusicMan Sting Ray 5-string. I was amazed at its sound and build. I was immediately attracted to it on a visceral level. I hated the look, but the taxi yellow ameliorated my negative feelings and the power that came out of it was extremely addictive. I swore I would own one someday.
Then I quit music. I even had my ’65 P-bass lent out to a friend for a couple of years (I think I had my ’65 Jazz Bass lent out for more than ten years to two different friends of mine).One of my first musical events (sitting in with ZpZ in Santa Rosa… 2006? 2007?) I had to play my Jazz Bass ’cause my P-Bass had a bad jack and hadn’t been looked over by a technician since my last professional ‘gig’ 15 years previous. I’d put flat-wound strings on it ’cause I think I wanted to remember what it was like as Younger Jazz-playing Scott.
This is all to show how little effort I put into ‘having the perfect instrument’ or collecting basses. After getting some 5-strings in the 90s (through Dweezil, I was given a Jackson stereo 5-string, each string separately panable, and when I was with Vai, I got an Ibanez, both of which I still have lying around or lent-out) I had no use for my ‘old school’ Fenders and everything just… slept.
But ever since I was a 13-year-old rabid Yes-listener, I’ve wondered what it would be like to own a Rickenbacker. Part of me thinks that my desire for an extremely bright tone – mostly through J.J. Burnell from The Stranglers and Tom Fowler from the 70s Zappa band with their Precision Basses – actually came from Chris Squire and my constantly-listening to Yessongs. I’d just finished listening to Led Zeppelin and John Paul Jones’ flat-wound tone and I was enthralled not just by the music and it’s non-blues-based soundscape, but the absolute in-your-facedness of the Rickenbacker tone.
I NEVER thought about owning one. It was just too far-fetched. Once I was playing, I was a Fender guy. Except for the Carvin period (my two matching Carvin’s that Frank made me get/use for ‘recording purposes’) – 1981-82 – and the 90s 5-string period, of course.
But having the option to actually lay one? Both? What with my new-found desires for being an actual bassist – loving the feel of the strings, the neck, holding the body close to me, feeling the air move behind me? – I want to play ALL THE BASSES!
Many people have asked about your rig, but you’ve never really described it in full. Will you do so now?
This is my least-favorite music-oriented question for two reasons: I have had very little in the way of choice as to what I play in my past, so I don’t have A SYSTEM that has been honed to perfection over years of trial and error. I’m also very lucky in the way of having had two wonderful endorsement rigs that have not only happened to fall into my lap serendipitously, but actually ‘given me my sound’.
When I toured with Steve Vai in 1993, we went to Europe. Most often, gear is rented overseas to save shipping costs, so because of a personal relationship with the owner of Trace Elliott, I was able to borrow and use one of their 600 Watt heads with a 10-band EQ, plus two cabinets, 1×15, and 4×10. Over the course of the few months I was there, I blew up about three heads, fell in love with the fourth, and then blew that up. The last one I ended up with was finally given to me to keep through the efforts of my then-bass-tech. (Thank you, forgotten-named roadie!) Also, I requested – more as an ‘ultimate wish list’ type thing – a 4×12 cabinet that they so gracefully manufactured and sent to me. Before I got a chance to use it, it got stolen from my home in LA. GHAAH!
I was able to use the full rig for my next band – FEAR – and I used the ever-loving crap out of that rig for that year. It looked so good next to Lee’s full Marshall stack. It was everything I ever thought I’d need. Plus cool phosphorescent green ink and blacklight front light!
Then: no more reason to own it. For 17 years it sat in my basement. Then, when I needed to play with my Celtic-oriented-music friend, Kyle, and my casual Surf Music gig, it was too damn big, so I bought an SWR Workingman’s 12, which I used for a year or two until Kyle bought an Ampeg B-115 combo amp. I sold that SWR as soon as I could. A 12′ speaker is just not ‘Scott Thunes’ if you know what I mean.
The Trace Elliott came out of mothballs for the Mother Hips and both cabinets were just overkill. I could get ‘my sound’ from just the 4×10 cabinet and I’d been quite happy with it. But I always wanted to know what to do with the lone 1×15 cabinet, as I found it had a blown speaker. From the cabinet and the speaker itself, I couldn’t discern what ohm-age to replace it with so I called the owner of Ashdown Manufacturing, as only he could give me the info I needed, and his answer was quite illuminating: “why do you want to replace some 20 year-old speaker? How about you just get a new rig from us?” So, uh, I told him, ‘yeah, uh, that’s a good idea’. Actually, I was kind of freaking out. A: because anything NEW and FOR ME is a special event. Very rare. B: Worried about my sound. “What about my sound?”
So, after about 7 months it showed up, my ABM 500 RC EVO III Chrome-faced rack-mountable Ashdown amp, plus a 1×5 and a 4×10 cabinet. Because the Mother Hips travel so much and we don’t ship equipment, I end up using backline gear most of the time. When we rock local gigs – depending on the size of the venue – I usually use just the 4×10, but lately I’ve been feeling the need for a bigger sound at lower volume, so I’ve been bringing both cabinets. This has changed my sound distinctly – it’s much harder to get the crunchy tone I desire – so I’m having to augment with pedals, something I’ve never had the option to go through.
My friend Bryan Kehoe – from M.I.R.V. in SF – works for Jim Dunlop, and through him I’ve endorsed MXR units. I’ve got a Bass Fuzz Deluxe, Bass Octavizer, 10-band EQ (with gain/volume for adding crunch), Phase 100, Carbon Copy Analog Delay, Blue Box, Micro Chorus, Envelope Filter, and the new Bass Overdrive. Also, a Bass Wah-Wah, and a Jim Dunlop volume pedal (plus a tuner). I hand-built my wooden pedal board and have to take off the first four units when I travel ’cause I don’t have room for the whole thing in my bag, along with the power daisychain and connector cords.
They also supply me with my strings, which are the Robert Truillo (Hi, Robert!) model in standard gauge (45, 65, 85, 105). But I have a nasty habit of breaking ‘D’ strings, so Bryan is having me try out their new Heavy Core, which, as of yesterday, kept me from breaking that sucker for about 6 gigs in a row. I broke that run yesterday in Park City, Utah, about half-way through the show. But I think I may keep using them. We’ll see.
I use Gibson Country Gentleman Heavy picks, which are also known as round triangles. I go through about 3 a night.
Another friend of mine works at MONO Cases and supplied me with my M80 Dual Bass soft-shell case. Breaking strings means always bringing a spare bass. Sucks! Fortunately, my second bass (a 1990 Japanese Fender Precision A/E, given to me by my friend, Hilary Hanes) has a hollow-body design and is about a pound lighter than my primary P-bass.
If you could go back to, say, early 1981 while keeping all of your present-day memories, what–if anything–would you do differently?
I would have spent at least as much time practicing my singing as I did practicing my bass, so I could have kept singing with Frank. I got my mic taken away after 1982 after forgetting lyrics to my songs a good percentage of the time and somehow not being vocally-up-to-snuff. My recent adult financial dealings might have helped me save more money. I might not have been as fucked during my ‘dry’ years (between 1984 and 1988 when Frank didn’t tour) but between my loaning money to friends and family, it also might not have ultimately helped me later on. I would have done my taxes for those 12 years I let that whole responsibility slide. I wouldn’t have purchased that 1978 BMW 2002. I would have asked Tommy Mars to tell me everything he knew, musically, every single moment I was awake and near him, rather than keep my distance due to our personal differences. I would have constantly practiced the keyboards and taken drum lessons.
But the biggest thing I would have done differently, and it would change everything else that happened afterwards, is this: When I was 20, I started taking composition lessons from my brother’s composition teacher. I had an idea that I was going to be a conductor, so I got an accelerated lesson-plan from him and I was doing great, playing in the Young Republicans with my brother. Derek told me to call Frank and I did. Everybody says that you should always say ‘yes’, always go for the chance. But I always dream of exactly what WOULD have happened if I hadn’t made that call. If I hadn’t taken that chance. If I really didn’t believe my brother when he said he’d spoken with Frank directly and Frank told him to have me call him. I dream of meeting the challenges of going to the conservatory, continuing to make music with my brother, and actually doing something with my talents other than wasting my youth playing rock and roll.
But NONE OF THAT MATTERS, as I truly believe that every step I took, everybody I met, and everything that happened to me – each and every thing – was the most important thing that has ever happened to anybody on the face of the planet we know as Earth, as it caused me to meet, fall in love with, marry, and have babies with my wife, Georgia.
On my 50th birthday, Georgia threw an awesome party for me. Ninety people were there. It was perfect. A speech was requested… nay: demanded. What better time in my life to go on at length about all the wonderful things that have happened to me to get to this point, to pontificate ad nauseum and have everybody trapped, requiring their attention. To righteously raise my fist at the injustices that had befallen me. This was it. The moment people wait their whole lives for. I got up on the table where the food was, stood tall and facing the throng. I threw apart my arms, symbolically embracing the entire group, and I spoke. The following paragraph is the entirety of my speech.
In 1996 you told me that you hadn’t listened to Zappa’s music in years. In 1997 I came to your house with a video of a show in Spain, I think, from the 1988 tour. Your father-in-law and I were watching it, and you came out of the kitchen and ordered us–shouted at us–to turn it off. Now you’re playing the music that you once couldn’t bear to hear. What changed?
The people I’m playing it with, obviously.
Earlier I asked about you playing improvised jazz. Would you agree or disagree that your career has been one endless improvisation, both in terms of the actual music you’ve played and the various jobs you’ve had? And are you happy with the results?
Yes, and very much yes.
I went to my wife’s ex-life-coach about 6 years ago, to meet about the possibility of becoming a client, and she asked me how certain life-events happened to me. “How did you get in the Zappa band? How did you meet your wife? How did you find that instrument that you love so much? How did you get that job? And that job? And that job?
And each answer was the same. I met somebody, or knew somebody who knew somebody else, and chance brought us together. Chance brought that event to fruition. One of the reasons my brother had his life-long resentment of me was that I never ‘worked hard’ for anything, and yet he struggled with all his might – as a composer, a guitarist, a person who needed love, a brother – and never ‘got anywhere’. Yet I went from fail to triumph, over and over again, with very little in the way of focused direction or wish-fulfillment.
To this day, I have yet to discover a methodology that allows me to plan, organize, or even see what might happen. I literally just go with the flow. Anything that inhibits my flow puts me in a state of agitation. Composing or working means being in another flow that might keep something else even more awesome from happening.
I’m kind of broken right now, so it’s probably not the best time to be asking me.