Bass Musician Magazine, May 2014 Cover Interview with Scot Alexander…
Picture a time and era where videos of “buzz” worthy bands circulated on MTV in mass rotation, where Alternative Radio exploded with sounds of Seattle, post gunge, neo grunge, modern rock, punk/alternative and T-shirts paraded across High Schools with odd band names like Green Day, The Pixies, Weezer and Radiohead. Believe it or not this was only a decade in the rearview and the remnants of this music evolution and saturation still clings tightly in the present moratorium of physical media, which has changed hands with internet presence and social media.
There were few bands in this arena that possessed any long term standing and didn’t instead fall by the wayside as a casualty and fodder or “one hit wonder” status. Most bands hit the fire why it was a blazing tempest and moved on to accounting, or real estate; leaving the life of a musician as a very faded dream. “Backwater”, “Low”, “Plowed”, “The Freshmen”, “If You Could (Only) See”; the list goes on infinitely– you’d think that most 90’s alternative bands put out one great album (or single) and fizzled hard and fast- the discarded audio cassettes now in a storage container and band shirts that are only good for painting or housework. Longevity seems to dog some of the most affluent artists and whoever comes out on the other side wins. But imagine doing what you love for two decades? Scot Alexander of Dishwalla has made this rarity a reality.
In 1995, the fledgling Santa Barbara rock quintet Dishwalla released their debut Pet Your Friends and the subsequent single “Counting Blue Cars” blasted the band into the stratosphere of heavy radio and MTV rotation, claiming Billboard “Rock Song of The Year” honors for 1996, with all the perks of a band who just struck musical gold– including Gold record status! A lot followed that would have left most bands at their ropes end, especially based on that initial success. The 1998 music merger of Universal Records took what gold was left while dropping many an A&R guy and a whole lot more bands, some whose records had just been released. But Dishwalla was “lucky” and were retained along with other A&M Records artists like Soundgarden and Sheryl Crow, only to have their record released and an abrupt marketing push dumped, leaving the band questioning the immediate future.
After releasing three more studio records and a spectacular live release in 2006, Scot took a sabbatical from the band and performed studio work (including Amy Grant’s hit remake of “Big Yellow Taxi”). This year, Dishwalla has returned to a regular touring schedule and written new material for the coming year. I chatted with bassist Scot Alexander about the pitfalls of fame and the origins of his style. Scot also shared what he learned along the way: “…here I am 42 years old, just got off a successful tour with Vertical Horizon and Tonic and I feel like the most blessed guy alive. AND, I’m enjoying my instrument more than I have since I first picked the thing up!”
Maintaining any kind of longevity extends its share of heartache, but most stories worth hearing have plenty of lessons within.
Interview with Scot Alexander
Hey Scot, you guys just wrapped up a successful tour with Tonic and Vertical Horizon. When was the last time you toured on this scale?
Well we’ve done some one-off shows and short runs here and there for the past couple years, but really our tour last December was the first club tour we’d done in almost 10 years. Now, going into theaters with Vertical Horizon and Tonic, we have not done anything like this since the late 90’s with Sheryl Crow. Also, this is the first tour back with our original drummer, George Pendergast, which has been awesome.
The band stopped touring in 2005. I wanted to do one last album with the guys after Opaline (in 2001). So we made the self-titled “Dishwalla” album in 05′, it came out, I did a few shows and said goodbye after 13 years. It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do, but I really did not like the direction things were headed in.
How different is it now compared to when you started?
Well, we (ok “I”) was so young when we were first signed (I was 23). We took a lot for granted. We did work hard, but I think going straight onto a major label and sucking up as much “tour support” dollars as we did (from the record company), we did not realize how good we had it. Now all of us bands are in the same boat; Gin Blossoms, The Verve Pipe, Tonic, etc., trying financially to make a tour pencil out is very difficult when you’re solely relying on yourself. Obviously the business side of music has changed a great deal in 20 years. You still write, record, play live, etc. Just the money is not what it used to be! haha
Is there a specific show that stands out over the years?
I loved playing the famous Red Rocks Amphitheater (CO) in the rain. As we played the song “Moisture” (which was last in our set), it was if we summoned it to fall from the sky! Haha. Also fun that night was having to guide an extremely inebriated band that played after us through the labyrinth of tunnels under the venue to get to the stage! haha A total SpinalTap moment. Playing Woodstock at the original Yasker’s Farm location was very cool for me too. I remember looking at that Woodstock record sleeve as a kid just amazed at how many people were there. Fast forward 20 years, and there’s my band on the stage. Unreal.
What originally led you to the bass guitar?
A need to be involved in what I loved most in life, which was music. I started on drums (had a elementary school teacher say I “didn’t have the music in me”) so gave that up. Then I was given a cheap acoustic in my early teens. We didn’t have money for lessons but I had a friend that would show me what he had learned after HIS guitar lessons! haha
From there, it’s the age-old bassist story of… Friend says… “Hey we’re getting together to jam today after school today and need a bassist. There is one there for you to use even”. The rest is history. I was addicted. All I wanted to do was play, study, learn, listen, just immerse myself in music. It truly saved me in my teen years.
There always seems to be a shortage of bassists starting out but a ready available bass and amp in the corner of the practice space! How odd. Haha. And what were your earlier influences?
A total hodgepodge. It’s all over the map, I was raised on my Mom’s record collection which was all the female rock vocalists of the 70’s Linda Rondstant, Bonnie Rait, Carol King, Carly Simon, etc + a LOT of Beatles and a LOT of Rolling Stones, Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac. I still love all that stuff.
Though the music I was into in 1987 or so when I started learning bass had all these incredible bassists! Peter Hook of Joy Division/New Order, Andy Rourke of The Smiths, Horace Panter of The Specials, Brian Ritchie of Violent Femmes, Simon Gallop of The Cure, Mani from Stone Roses. Although diverse, all this music was all BUILT on the bass. The bass had a distinctive voice which is what I love.
I hear some McCartney in your playing…
I was/am a McCartney freak. Also from that era, Chas Chandler from The Animals and of course John Entwistle. Sometimes if I’m doing a session and the producers says… “you know, something more McCartney-ish” I’m usually just giving my version of Chas Chandler and they are happy!! Haha! I studied 60’s bass a lot. Then I studied 70’s bass a lot. Just dug into my Mom’s record collection and we had those (records) like “hits of the 60’s or 70’s compilations, so I would just study everything. I just love it all.
Your playing on Pet Your Friends is superb and really moves the verses, choruses & bridges in interesting ways. The tone, the mix- it really is prominent.
Thanks so much. Crazy it’s coming up on 20 years since it’s release!
Sometimes you just connect with a group of musicians, and your ability is elevated by their talent. They were like my big brothers and I had to rise to the gig a bit. Also, having great songs, great vocals, great players to jam with made my job pretty easy and gave me a lot of freedom. Those guys were all so solid at their instruments, you could really just kick back and play anything and it would sound great! haha
I came into that recording situation, 23 years old thinking I was God’s gift to the instrument! Haha! About a day into the tracking process I felt extremely humbled. I had been in the studio quite a bit, but never under the direction of a record producer that had made multi-platinum records and an A&R guy (that thankfully LOVED bass). I have to thank our A&R guy Mark Mazzetti for always fighting to keep the bass volume up in the mixes. It was truly a group effort and obviously the sum was more important than the parts (truly, since our biggest song had me playing 8th notes for about 4 minutes)!
Playing eighth notes with accuracy is lost on a lot of beginners though. What was your gear like for that album? It sounds like a P-bass through an SVT!
The funny thing is, in our initial meetings with our producer Phil Nicolo (Butcher Brothers) about how I wanted to approach things. I said, well… (producer/bassist) “Don Was says the ONLY way he will record bass is through an 60′-whatever Ampeg B-15 with an AKG D-112 in front”.
Our producer was like, “1st off, Don Was can kiss my ass”.haha
He suggested we use this new British direct box, a Ridge Farm “Gas Cooker” (ridgefarmindustries.com/cprod.htm) and we’ll re-amp it through the B-15 at mixdown. So that is what we did. Almost…
The signal chain for all of Pet Your Friends was either a 68 Jazz Bass (which belonged our drummer’s dad) or my MusicMan Stingray (depending on the song) plugged into the Gas Cooker DI, into a Teletronix (UA) LA-2A tube limiter into the Neve 8048 console to tape. The album is all analog.
So, we get to mixdown and Phil (our producer) says… “This sounds pretty good, do you still want to re-amp it”. After listening back, we all loved it just direct, so that is what we went with!
(**Nicolo as part of “The Butcher Brothers” producing team in Philadelphia, oversaw many artists who found prominence in the 90’s: Urge Overkill, Luscious Jackson, Cypress Hill, as well as Dishwalla.)
I learned so much in that process. Our producer harshly said to me on the 1st day of focused bass tracking… “Would you either play ALL loud or ALL soft so I can set the damn compressor”? “Look Scotty, when I get Hugh MacDonald (from Bon Jovi) in here doing sessions, you know what he does? He watches the meter (on the console) as he plays, and we use zero compression”! “If you’d like, I can get him down here in 20 minutes to play your parts for you”! haha
Haha- no pressure, right??
That was his Philly sense of humor, but it also taught me a great deal about dynamics and sound in the studio. So, us Santa Barbara dudes had to harden up quickly to handle the hardcore, right-coast studio vibe of Studio4!
Was the success that came so early and quickly for Dishwalla a blessing or a curse?
When success comes our way in life you just have to ride it and appreciate it while it’s happening I’ve realized. It’s not so much the time-frame that it happened in (which was quick for us) The band formed 92′ we were signed 18 months later to A&M, the record came out in 95′ and “Counting Blue Cars” was #1 rock song in the country the summer of 96′. From there, it was out of our (the band’s) control. In retrospect do I wish the label had made different marketing decisions which would have helped us in the long-term? I used to, but I’ve realized you just can’t do that to yourself. It’s all a game. Either you play, or you don’t.
I could see that. Long-term fate isn’t always in the hands of the artists though, and that would be frustrating.
Perspectives change though… When the band split up around 06′ I would have said our circumstances were a curse. Now, here I am 42 years old, just got off a successful tour with Vertical Horizon and Tonic and I feel like the most blessed guy alive. AND, I’m enjoying my instrument more than I have since I first picked the thing up.
You guys experienced more success in a year than most bands achieve in their entire career!?
It was a wild ride. A lot of emotions. I remember when our A&R guy presented us with our gold record, it was a weird feeling because we’d worked so hard to that point and were so afraid we might lose it all tomorrow if we couldn’t follow this stupid single! A lot of pressure was on us.
Was it frustrating when And You Think You Know What Life’s About (Dishwalla’s 2nd release) came out and the giant merger of Universal Music Group left you guys (and a lot of bands) without marketing or any kind of push? It’s a good record, as good as Pet Your Friends with a lot of the same components, and yet it has its own vibe.
Extremely painful and frustrating. A years’ worth of work, a studio we built from the ground up, we put everything into that album. Our first single off the album “Once In a While” was released and was #1 most added first week out at rock radio, and it was looking like we were on our way to another success. The song was special to me as it was the first song I’d contributed as one of my compositions, so I was really proud of it. The first thing that went wrong (which everybody always says is the worst thing that can happen to a band at a label) happened to us… We lost the A&R guy that signed us in the first place. We were assigned a great replacement, but he didn’t know how to direct us (and we needed some direction). He was a “yes man” and we loved him for that, but it wasn’t the best situation. Then 2 weeks before the release of the album we got word the merger was going to happen of Polygram to Universal. They dropped pretty much everyone but us, Soundgarden, Cheryl, Gin’s, Sting, Blues Traveler and that was about it. No more money means no more promotion! haha We toured for a few months and then we were REALLY in an odd situation on a new label (Interscope). Basically twiddling our thumbs for a year the only thing we did was a song on the soundtrack to American Pie.
Has your musical tastes changed over the years?
Genres are totally irrelevant with me… I’m still attracted to the same stuff I dug when I was a kid. Hooks and grooves. Maybe a little mellower… haha
My kids make fun of the fact that I want NO music on much of the time!
My kids want to hear One Direction or One Republic- some band with one in it!
What in your iPod gets the most rotation?
Unfortunately (and fortunately because it means I have a job) I’m generally listening to music which I have to learn for a gig. In fact, that’s probably 80% of the music I get to listen to is material I’d rather not listen to! Haha Like many, I’m really a working musician when I am home not doing Dishwalla related stuff.
Is there a record from your formal years that stands out- like one album that really wanted to make you pursue music??
There’s a lot of “game-changer” records as a bassist for me. I think the first record I ever bought on my own as a little kid was Queen “The Game” so probably that one! I think I just wanted to be able to play “Dragon Attack” on the snare! haha
I agree! The Game and just about anything else John Deacon played on!! Haha
Opaline (Dishwalla’s 3rd album), which brought you back into the mainstreams view, was intense and moody, but tracks like “Mad Life” & “Somewhere in the Middle” had a lot of that pop structure and melody that were in the first 2 records.
We set about to do a record with more 70’s songwriter-ish vibe and still retain some of the arena-rock chorus thing from the first 2 records. It’s really quite diverse, yet the most cohesive record of our career. We were into new bands at the time like Coldplay and Travis and were super into the production of Sarah McLaughlin’s Surfacing which has a beautiful bass sound. Also, I’m a huge fan of Lee Sklar, and that was the vibe I wanted on bass for Opaline. More space in the groove and longer notes. I pretty much used this 65′ Precision on most of the record. The ProTools engineer, Curt Schneider (who was the bassist for Five For Fighting) sold me the bass during recording, I loved it so much!
It also launched a live album, which is very atmospheric and has a lot of crowd energy.
Do bands rely too much on studio effects these days and end up blowing it live? You don’t have to name names!? Lol
It’s really weird, a minor quip of mine recently is that pretty much every show we do these days with a new front of house engineer, he/she asks… “Ok, what channels are your “tracks” comin’ down”; which is like hilarious to us and insulting at the same time. Tracks are just common place now. We’ve always played along with percussion loops which are triggered in real-time on a couple songs, but that’s the big difference with us, we’ve always wanted to play the electronics like it’s another instrument. Not be tied down to a click for a whole set.
To answer your question though, I’d say many bands are relying a bit too much on “tracks”. What does Imagine Dragons sound like without 40 tracks of Pro Tools running live? I don’t know, but I’m curious. haha
I’m convinced Imagine Dragons are a studio formulated band, but apparently they serve it up pretty decent live.
Our band has always from the beginning sounded large live. To the point that when we made Pet Your Friends, the label thought it turned out “too polished”. In actuality, it was five guys playing in a room, recording to a tape machine with minimal overdubs. It was just how we sounded when we hang out. haha
What has helped your playing over the years?
The biggest help for me (or anyone’s) is just playing as much different music as possible with different people. Just mix it up. Then, you bring that experience back to your primary project with a different perspective and you start coming up with parts that your band mates are going… “How did you think to play that”?
Also, When I left the band in 05′, I quit playing for 3 years and came back to the instrument with a renewed interest. When I came back I actually took a few lessons (which I have never done in my life, I’m totally self-taught) from an ex LA studio guy from the 70’s, and that opened up some things for me and helped my technique greatly.
Have you studied anything outside of the genre?
A little. I graduated from high school early so that I could go to a local city college and take music classes. So I had the usual music theory, I took String Ensemble so that I could study the upright a bit and I had a wonderful class called Jazz Improvisation which I loved. It basically was just an excuse to jam with a bunch of different people every day. Ultimately I wanted to go to Berklee, but it wasn’t in the cards for me because of the expense and also a couple of the bands I was in at the time started doing pretty well. Really, most of my study came from books. My jazz teacher, Dr. Wood handed me “The Evolving Bassist” by Rufus Reid first day of class and said… “Scott, this is now your Bible”!
What has been the songwriting process over the years?
We have no set way. Songs like “Counting Blue Cars” for example was the guitarist and I jamming on some chords and the singer opening a lyric book and going for it. Then, there are songs like “Once In a While”, I wrote at home and brought in for the band to do their thing. So it’s a combination of jammed musical ideas and singular written ideas. So sometimes I might also be playing guitar or keys depending on how the song was conceived.
Are you guys writing new material now?
Yeah, we are at a point now where I think we have enough material to work with to start recording the new album. We wanted to have it done by summer, but we shall see! We kind of just need to put our lives on hold, and get together to record it.
Awesome, man- good luck with the new stuff and we’ll look out for you on the road. Thanks
Scot’s Gear and the Mutant eBay Bass –
I pretty much have no allegiance to gear, it comes and goes in waves. If I’m not using something, I off it! Early on, I was an endorsee of SWR, then it was Gallien Kruger. I’ve been using Ashdown stuff for the last few years for the amps and cabs. I sold basically everything when I quit playing in 2005. Now I pretty much have all my basses covered, but about 80% of the time I use this funky, 5 string jazz bass that I built. A quasi-Lakland thing with a neck I acquired off a guy on ebay in Indonesia! I figured the necks he was selling were factory 2nd’s or something. Actually, Lakland told me the guy had stolen those necks from the factory! Anyway, it’s just a passive Jazz with Lindy Fralin pickups and Hipshot hardware. I love it, but it’s about time I just have Lakland build me a proper instrument! haha For session stuff, these days it seems I’m generally using one of my semi-hollowbody basses (60’s Harmony H-22, custom Revival “4005”, 70’s “Electra” Gibson knockoff) or my P- Bass.
Effects, I’ve been using the Boss Bass Overdrive since the day it came out and I have an old Boss Dynamic Filter from the 80’s which I love for an envelope filter. I do have a Demeter preamp on my pedalboard and my MXR octave, and that’s it!