Interview with Bassist Mick Mahan, “No Excuses”…
How did you get started playing bass to where you are today?
At a really early age, around the age of four, I was paying attention to music and was able to recognize the feelings and emotions it could evoke. That’s what music is all about… a gift that can make you happy, or give you any number of different emotions and feelings. A song that had a big impact on me was Del Shannon’s “Runaway”. It’s a minor-ish kind of song, has a great vibe and it’s an emotional piece. That really struck a chord with me and I became interested in the effect music had on other people and what it would be like to do that kind of artistry. Once the Beatles hit, that was it, I was done. Everyone in the audience was crying, screaming and going crazy. Each of the guys had such a strong personality. They had their own thing and each was definitive. From that point on, I wanted to play guitar.
My Uncle Eddie had a country vibe, did a lot of Hank Williams songs and stuff like that. He would sit in the living room and sing and play on an old Gibson single cutaway guitar. I was young and it was the first time I had seen anyone performing live. It was so amazing and so cool to me. I didn’t have a guitar so he gave me his Gibson until I could buy my own guitar. It was a Vox Ace, sort of a Strat knock-off and it had three pickups on it. I think I probably paid two hundred dollars for it at Dusi Music, a local store. Years later when I met Chuck Rainey, he told me he bought his first bass at that same music store. Chuck Rainey is a bass hero to everyone, but particularly to me because we’re from the same side of our hometown. We have a lot of the same influences and I consider him a kindred spirit.
After I bought the Vox, I got in a band called the Illusions with guys older than I was. We started playing dances and private parties, and I made a little bit of money. Shortly before I got into high school, the band I was playing in lost our bass player and I ended up doing it because… well, somebody had to do it. I borrowed a bass from a friend and bought records, 45’s, to learn the bass lines. It was right around the time Led Zeppelin arrived on the scene and John Paul Jones was a highly influential bass player for me. What he was doing at the time was sort of a fusion of R&B, true R&B like James Jamerson, mixed in with a rock player. Bass lines like “Ramble On”, that’s like a Jamerson bass line. I had no formal education it was all learning by ear and emulating as closely as possible. When you learn bass lines, they’re so much about the feel. You can learn HOW to play the bass lines, but trying to get the FEEL of that into your playing, is a whole other thing. Winter in Ohio has pretty foul weather, and it lent itself to staying indoors a lot. It was easy to stay home and learn music. I wasn’t interested in learning how to read music, or approach it from an educational standpoint. During those days, people didn’t necessarily teach you what you wanted to play, so I taught myself. Bass is underrated, but it’s the heart and soul of the rhythm section. Bass and drums create the foundation for a band. I liked that role. You have to like repetition without becoming bored. Bands want a foundational kind of player to hold it down.
Ohio was a great place to grow up in the sixties and seventies. There were some amazing bands and a lot of the local musicians from Cleveland and Youngstown went on to have great careers. That whole pocket of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan was such a hotbed of great music to experience. How many kids grow up going to see Joe Walsh for 50 cents and are fortunate enough to be around that kind of musical power? You take a guy like Gregg Bissonette, who can play any style with authenticity and just bring it 100% all the time. He came from Detroit and had that kind of influence. Chad Smith is also from Detroit and had that same influence. The influence was pretty incredible and the bar was set really high. Once I moved to Los Angles, I realized in order to compete with that level of player, I needed to get my act together. To be a journeyman in Los Angles in the 80’s, you had to read music and you had to know how to speak the language. That’s when I got turned on to studying at The Grove School of Music. I found that something I thought was not effective became very effective, because I was able to communicate the language at an educated level. I was successful at learning the educational aspect of music at that point because I was older and ready to digest it, and also the way education was approached at The Grove School. Even now, I’m able to incorporate that same approach when I teach. I’ll volunteer to teach an elementary school, and because the kids understand their ABC’s and know how to count, they can grasp the notes and a scale. If you present music and music education to kids in a fun, simplistic way, they’re going to understand it and hopefully develop a life-long appreciation for it. At a young age when you’re really open and sensitive to these things, they’re able to bring it into their world and make it their own. As a kid, I had some great musicians to go see all the time who were able to influence me into doing what I do to this day.
Tell us about some of the artists you have worked with.
Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, I worked with artists like Lisa Hartman, Rick Springfield, Ambrosia, Philip Bailey and The 5th Dimension. That’s how it was back then. You got one or two gigs and then things started moving. I worked for songwriters and composers like Boyce and Hart, Henry Mancini, Prince, Bobby Caldwell, Jack Tempchin and dozens more. There was so much work going on that you could easily transition to several different musical situations: playing, songwriting, and getting into the publishers’ studios and cutting demos. Songwriting and composing became a passion. I wrote songs, film cues and TV music incessantly. In the 90’s and into 2000 I worked with artist such as Montrose, David Foster, Sheryl Crow, Alan Parsons, Sophie B. Hawkins, Barry Manilow, Dixie Chicks, Marc Bonilla and the Dragon Choir, Keith Emerson, Glenn Hughes (The Boys Club) and Martina McBride. Around 2005 I was involved as principle with the formation of California Transit Authority (CTA), Danny Seraphine’s project after a many-year hiatus. That was great being able to do those two records.
The Woodland Hills Drum Club was an amazing experience I had through my association with Mark Craney. We would set up three drum sets and guys like Mark Craney, Gregg Bissonette, Doane Perry, Vinnie Colaiuta, Terry Bozio, Richie Hayward, Myron Grombacher, Tris Imboden, John Robinson and Will Kennedy would play with Larry Wilkens on guitar and me on bass. We played for ten years doing a Monday night jam thing, and a couple times a year we would throw a benefit. One night, in walks Tony Williams, and you just hear everyone go “Oh my God, Tony Williams is here”. Tony didn’t play with us, he just stood there and watched. The respect we all had for that guy was just amazing. The Drum Club introduced me to so many musical connections. Mark Craney once told me, “You don’t play the bass, you negotiate it”. That’s something I carry with me all the time. He had a profound impact on my life and I remember him saying “No Excuses” and he brought it every time. Every drummer has their own personality and where they place the beat, whether it’s in front, behind, or in the middle of the beat. I’m kind of a middle of the beat player. I loved those drum collaborations and the drum community, because it’s such a strong community. These guys are competitive, but they share their knowledge and they’re proud of it.
This whole thing with Pat Benatar came at probably one of the worst times in my life. It’s post-earthquake in Los Angeles in 1994 and I’m on my hands and knees in my kitchen, chipping up and replacing old tile and the phone rings… It’s Neil Giraldo and he said he got my name from Myron Grombacher and some others and would I “like to come audition for the band?”. We’re just talking, getting familiar with each other when call waiting clicks in and I say, “Would you mind holding for one sec, I got another call and I’ll get rid of it?”. At that same exact time that I’m on the phone with Neil, Doane Perry from Jethro Tull calls and says Ian is putting a band together, and asks if I would be interested in doing that. Well, there was no work in LA at the time because the earthquake had devastated everything, and here I am on my hands and knees in the kitchen, laying tile and all of a sudden, I get a call for TWO great gigs. I talked to both guys and thought about it a bit more. Pat and Neil were a family and a team. My wife at the time was pregnant and the whole family situation really appealed to me, so I chose the Benatar gig. First, I go play with just Myron and Neil. Then I went back and played with them a second time. Finally, it was time to meet Pat to ensure that I was the right choice for the band. She comes into the room and asks to see my socks, so I lift my pant leg up…she sees the white socks and says, “Ok, you ARE from Ohio, you’re in the band”. That was it and I’ve been with them ever since. It’s been great working with people of that caliber… she never sings a bad note, consistently great night after night and he’s an amazingly talented guitar player.
What gear do you use when on the road?
I’m using two TC Blacksmith amplifiers. These are 1600watt amps, and I’m using them bridged into four 4×10 cabinets. That’s a firm sound, and it doesn’t even have to be loud. I play a lot of Fender basses these days. I really like the product that comes from Fender right off the line. Even as a manufactured bass, it’s the first electric bass and provides a solid classic sound. Their quality control is so high and so good. Another one of my favorites that I use for almost all recordings are my Tobias basses. I have several Tobias basses that I absolutely love and believe that Michael Tobias is just one of the best luthiers on the planet. He has a design that fits my hand, my personality and unbeatable playability. It’s just a well-designed instrument. Bartolini pickups have always been my favorite sound. The growl is what I love about them. You still get plenty of clarity with the right amount of grit. Lately, I’ve been checking out the Vintage and Fret King basses and really impressed with their basses. I have a Vintage Jaco fretless jazz and a Fret King Perception 5 string and they’re great instruments. As far as the acoustic basses, I use Boulder Creek. You just plug it in and you’re off to the races. There is no feedback making a bunch of noise with the Boulder Creek acoustic basses. The Boulder Creek products are very high quality and sound amazing.
Any advice for aspiring bassists?
Yes, it’s actually an obvious answer: Practice! Practice! Practice! Keep your hands on the bass as much as possible. Make friends with your instrument. When you work on things that challenge you, it ultimately makes you play better. Rehearsing the same licks will not get you to a new level, but playing things out of your comfort zone will. That’s not to say that you don’t practice your normal warm up exercises, scales, etc., but constantly push yourself.
So what’s happening for you currently?
The Pat Benatar summer tour will be starting up soon, along with the usual gigs and sessions in Los Angeles. Writing and recording are a constant in my world. And after many years of research and planning, I’m finally realizing a dream of mine this year and opening a pizzeria called “Parma Pizzeria Napoletana”. As one famous pizziola said to me “You should make great pizza because you’re a bass player and you understand feel”. It’s an interesting comparison between music and pizza, because I consider them both to be an art. I’m a foodie… so it makes sense.
Visit online at: