Bassist Mike McKaigg – Why Is Music Important (The Panel Experiment) by Brent-Anthony Johnson…
Who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Mike McKaigg. I play bass with LoNero, and trombone with the Concord California Salvation Army Brass Band and various other local gigs -including occasionally sitting in with my friends the Giant Garage Spiders (local Bay Area jazz/funk ensemble). I’m a San Francisco Bay Area native, and I studied music at Chabot College in Hayward, California. My many great teachers there included Frank Sumares, Cindy Browne-Rosefield, Kurt Patzner, Gene Graves, Tim Devine, Otto Meilenz, Bill Shannon, John Gove and Rick Flores.
My introduction to playing an instrument was from my grandfather, Harold McKaigg. He played all the low brass instruments from trombone to tuba, and he started me on trombone when I was six years old. I grew up in the Salvation Army Church and I clearly remember sitting in a service where was asked, “which instrument do you want to play?” I’m sitting there watching my father on the alto horn, my grandfather on baritone, and my uncle on trombone. Somehow, I gravitated toward the trombone.
I picked up the bass while in high school. All my friends were metal heads and most played either guitar or drums. I found myself drawn to bass.
My discography includes two cds with LoNero “Relentless” and “JFL” plus our upcoming work that is titled, “The Defiant Machine”. I’ve also done three recordings with the Concord Salvation Army brass band: “Our God Reigns”, “New Pastures” and “Synchronization!”. Also, a Christmas jazz cd with the Chops Big Band named “Holiday Chops”.
One of my most memorable gigs was in college when I was given the opportunity to play with Leslie Uggams. She came to Chabot College with her musical director Gordon Goodwin and her rhythm section. Two days before that show, my teacher Frank Sumares came to me and asked if I was free that Saturday because one of the other trombone players in the evening jazz band couldn’t be there. I asked if he had the music so I could look over it and he just smiled and said “you’re playing with the big boys now. You’ll see the music Saturday afternoon and perform it that night!”
Who are your primary musical influences?
I’d say my biggest influence on bass would be John Deacon of Queen. He has a way of playing those great melodic lines (often in the mid to upper register) yet the bottom is never lost. Of course, I’m very influenced by many others such as Geddy Lee, Steve Harris, Billy Sheehan, John Patitucci, John Entwistle and Tony Franklin.
What are you listening to musically, in the past 12 months that has enhanced the way you think about music and your craft?
I’ve been listening to a lot of different music lately. Most often I have my iPod on shuffle in the car. It’s easy to forget what is in my collection sometimes. I have over 17000 songs spanning genres from rock, metal, jazz, country, pop, classical, and film soundtracks! Even in the more familiar songs, I’ll notice something different each time I hear them. Some songs that may seem simple will have some very interesting things happening. I was on YouTube just the other day and stumbled upon a video of Olivia Newton-John’s live performance of the song “Xanadu”. The song started with the bassist playing a line reminiscent of James Jamerson on “I Can’t Help Myself”! But the next thing I hear are 32nd note runs through the verses! Yet, as crazy as the bass line was, the groove was still there. I think that’s what really struck me about that performance and going back to my influence in John Deacon and others. The ability to play something interesting on the bass that can grab attention… But, at the same time, not step on others’ toes or lose the groove.
How does your personal musical voice directly relate to the function of the basses? Also, what are your main instruments?
In a rock band, I see the bass as being a bridge between the drums and guitars. I’m very focused on the kick drum to establish the groove… but I’ll hear some cool lines from the guitars and either double them on a short phrase, or develop a counterpoint to them. I also feel that in any type of musical situation there is a certain responsibility that comes with “the heavy strings”. I once played with a guitarist who told me, “If you play the wrong note, everyone out there is going to believe you because you’re giving us the root and they’ll think I messed up.” I don’t believe that is always the case. But, in some genres, the bass can be more prominent than in others. As far as my personal “voice” is concerned… what I feel, or what I hear in my head, will come through though I’m aware of certain aesthetics that come with the style of music I’m playing.
My main bass right now is a custom six string fretless. It has a Warmoth Gecko 6 body with a custom made Moses Graphite neck. That bass caught a lot of attention on our recent tour, and I’ve had it for a little over ten years now. The Gecko is actually designed for a 35” scale but I wanted a 34” scale bass. I contacted Moses about it and no matter what idea I had they were very accomodating. I was just asked to have Warmoth not route for the pickups or bridge – as Moses did the rest. Once I got it back, I found a local guy named Steve Patience (unfortunately, I learned he had passed away a few years back) who did a beautiful clear coat on the body. The pickups are the Seymour Duncan Steve Bailey fundamental fretless system. I also wanted it to be headless so Moses installed an ABM headless system on it. The bass is perfectly balanced, great tone, and very comfortable to play.
Describe your musical composition process.
I don’t often get to sit and “compose” a tune. Ideas will pop in my head as I’m going about my day. But, in a band context, I sometimes find it difficult to get ideas across since I don’t play guitar or piano. What I do contribute to the songwriting process (sometimes) is bridging ideas – getting from point A to point B. There may be two different riff ideas and the question of, “how do we get there?” will come up frequently. That’s where / when I chime in. From there, whichever option works the best for everyone gets used. In the tune “Morning”, from our album “Relentless”, I wrote a multi-track bass piece. There is no looping on that track! Every part was played all the way through. That was another case of a single idea with layers being added to it. There were four bass tracks, plus my good friend Steve Spicer playing drums on the latter half of the tune.
How does music affect your culture and immediate environment?
I need music wherever I am. I have music in my headphones at my office during the day. Can’t imagine my life without it. There’s too much talk on the radio for me… Which is why I think I’m usually listening to music on my iPod. Music is very prominent in my family as well. My wife is what some refer to as a “triple threat”: she dances, sings, and acts. My kids will make up songs while playing around the house. There is a long line of brass players on my father’s side of the family and guitarists/keyboardists/singers on my mom’s side. As another point of family pride, my cousin Paul Woodward is the co-principal trombonist with the Black Dyke Band – one of the most prominent brass bands in the UK.
What would you be, if not a professional musician?
Currently, I balance my time as a musician and also as a computer support technician. I am working on leaning more towards the musical career, though, and more opportunities are presenting themselves. It’s definitely where I’m happiest, and where I feel my calling is. The tech work keeps the family fed and in a home. Aside from that, I’m also gaining more interest in health and fitness. I’m in the gym at least an hour every day, and I’m practicing capoeira twice a week… or as much as my body will allow. Honestly, if not a musician, I would need to find an artistic outlet of some kind.
What is the greatest sacrifice you’ve ever made while in the practice of being a musician, and how did that sacrifice affect you?
Rehearsal and the occasional tour do take time from family. LoNero recently had a month long tour supporting Tony MacAlpine. The tour was fantastic and we gained a lot of new fans… but, the time away from the family was tough. I made sure Skype was set up at home so my kids could see me. I’m very thankful that I have the support of my family to pursue these musical endeavors. Without that support I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would be.
Describe your standing practice regimen. Also, what technical (and musical) aspects of your playing are you currently working on?
I don’t really have a specific routine. LoNero is working on a new album. So, I’m mostly working to develop my parts for our new songs. We played some of the new material on our recent tour, and I’m glad to have had that stage time with these songs. It adds so much to the recording to have lived the songs live. Since I’m mainly playing the fretless now, I’m working to keep my ears well tuned and maintain solid intonation. Being a trombone player (I feel) really helps with intonation, as well. I’d like to continue improving my technical ability – since much of our new music is getting more challenging. Regardless of the technical aspect, musicality is still number one. I want people to walk away singing not only the guitar parts, but also be moved by what I’m doing in the music.
What does music, and being a musician, mean to you – at the deepest level of your being?
I come from a family of musicians. Some professional, and others for worship or just for fun. For me, I feel it is who I am. Doesn’t matter what I’m doing… there’s always a tune in my head and my right hand will start moving as if I’m playing the bass. My wife told me years ago that if I ever stopped playing music she would send me to therapy!
How important is it to understand the Language of music?
I’ve never understood those who don’t want to learn to read a simple chart or pick up any theory. Some say they fear learning the language of music would impede their personal style. My response to that would be, “would taking a language class strip away your abiltiy to form an original thought?” I don’t see theory as a set of rules as some do but it is the dictionary of our language. If I couldn’t read a chart or understand when someone says, “let’s jam on b minor”, there are so many opportunities I would miss out on! Don’t get me wrong… there are many great musicians out there who don’t read a note and most likely couldn’t tell you the scale they are playing, and they deserve our respect just as much as anyone else. I just feel I would be limiting myself if I didn’t learn as much as I could.
How do you collect the series of seemingly random influences and articulate them through music?
I don’t think it has ever been a concious thing for me to incorporate my influences. It just seems to happen and I sometimes will notice it after the fact. One of our new songs“The Burning of Ideals” from “The Defiant Machine” has a section of the tune when the guitars “go clean” and there’s a piano track. During that section I play a simple melodic line outlining the chord structure in the upper register. When I listened back it reminded me of something John Deacon played on “Sail Away Sweet Sister” by Queen. It’s always interesting to hear what others hear in my playing as well. They may have a different idea of what influenced a certain line.
Can music ever truly become commercial? Why, or why not?
How do we put a price tag on music? That’s a very tough subject. We want to place a value on our art… but how it’s measured is the challenge. I think, a perceived standard is established now with iTunes. Yet, if we’re just at the beginning of getting our “art” out there, it’s a tough sell. At one of our shows recently, on tour, I overheard someone at the merch booth for Tony MacAlpine say to her husband (who was looking at the CDs) say, “don’t buy the cd, just listen to it on Spotify.” There are many artists out there who do very well in making music to be licensed for TV, movies, video games, etc. Kudos to anyone who can make their living through their art since there are so many out there who want it for free. Considering all of this, I’m not sure how to answer why or why not in regards to music becoming truly commercial.