Interview – Dreaming Spirits with Mark Egan
Mark Egan sat down with us to discuss Dreaming Spirits, recording the album, and to share news of upcoming endeavors.
Mark Egan, our July 2014 featured cover interview, has joined with percussionist Arjun Bruggeman to release Dreaming Spirits.
Mark’s signature bass tone washes together with Arjun’s wonderful tabla and frame drum playing to create expansive, meditative soundscapes that decorate the album. A prime example of the duo’s interplay can be heard on the track, “Mombassa”.
Mark and Arjun, who are longtime collaborators with Kirtan artist Krishna Das, are joined by guest guitarist Shane Theriot.
Shane’s playing integrates seamlessly with the duo and offers chances for great conversation with Mark’s bass lines, as in “Wave Motion”.
Mark sat down with Bass Musician Magazine to discuss Dreaming Spirits, recording the album, and to share news of upcoming endeavors.
I understand that you first started working with Arjun when you both played with Krishna Das?
Yes. I first met tabla player Arjun Bruggeman in 2008 at a recording session for Krishna Das in New York City. Guitarist, composer and producer, David Nichtern asked me to play on a project he was producing with Krishna Das. For those that don’t know Krishna Das, he is a spiritual teacher that performs Kirtan, which is a form of meditation in the format of all-and-response of Indian prayers and scriptures. He’s written, recorded and performed many songs with an instrumentation that is usually Harmonium, Voice, Tabla, Bass, Finger cymbals, guitar, violin and cello.
Since that first session with Krishna Das I’ve recorded and toured with he and Arjun in the United States. Bassist Mark Gorman also plays and records with Krishna Das on the west coast and in Hawaii.
From the very beginning, Arjun and I have had a great musical rapport playing together and have always talked about recording a project. Finally, last year in January, we got together and recorded all of the music that’s on the new Dreaming Spirits record.
What was your vision for the record, coming from the duo perspective?
Arjun and I had had spoken about what we wanted to do before we got together in the studio. We decided on some different time feels and different tempos; Arjun had some great ideas for tabla grooves and tone drum possibilities.
In preproduction I also had made some bass loops from a Roland RC3 Looped. I made some very long, extended ambient loops with volume pedal and two Lexicon PCM-42 delays with 10 seconds of delay. I also used the Strymon Time line effects delay pedal as well as the Strymon Blue Sky reverb pedal. These harmonic waves/beds are similar in some ways to the way that tabla functions in Indian music as a drone. Arjun and I improvised over these pre-recorded bass waves for some of the original sessions.
Additional pre-production ideas that I focused on were thinking of different key centers and tempos that I thought would be fun to experiment with and improvise over along with some specific bass line sketches and chord sequences that we could develop.
Most of the recording started as improvisations based on the above ideas and the basic concept was “Let’s do something in this tempo and in this type of feel and in this key and possibly around this tabla groove or bass line.”
We’ve played a lot over the last ten years and we know the different directions that we can explore. Our main focus was to be creative and enjoy doing it.
Arjun had a lot of ideas that he wanted to experiment with various drums that he had brought to the session. Arjun was originally a drummer so he not only plays tabla, but also frame drum that he plays on “Spirit Blues” and “Framonics”. He also played drums on some of tracks, tom-toms, cymbals and shakers. He also played tone drums, which are wooden drums that look like a box with carved wood tone bars that he plays these with his hands.
He came in with two songs that were basically solo pieces on the tone drums. One we later titled “Joy Ride” and the other is called “When Spirits Dance”. He recorded these pieces first solo and I then transcribed them and found bass lines and melodies and made the arrangements around his tone drum performance.
As post production evolved it seemed that we needed another voice for the instrumentation so I contacted guitarist Shane Theriot who I have been playing with for the last few years in the New York area. Shane is a very versatile guitarist and was the perfect choice to enhance the music that we had pre-recorded.
From the original two recording sessions with Arjun and myself and the addition of Shane’s great overdub sessions we had about two hours of music that now needed to be arranged and edited. I then spent about six months orchestrating, editing and producing. It was a lot of fun and creative to experiment with different bass melodies and effects. I was able to play my Pedulla 8-string fretless and 5-string fretless on backgrounds and melodies along with experimenting with different ambient effects. Even though I played bass on the original tracks, I added more bass melodies, effects and harmonies to the tracks and edited various jams into new pieces.
In the sessions, after the preproduction, you were playing together in the studio?
Yes, for the original sessions we set up facing each other as I was going direct with my bass, so there was no sound leakage from my bass into the tabla mics. All of the tabla and bass was recorded simultaneously. We later overdubbed tablas on top of songs with frame drum and various bass melodies on top of bass grooves. A few of the tracks such as “Village Call” started with just Tabla as Arjun played three different high tabla creating the melody which I later transcribed, double on bass and added bass chords. Later, Shane overdubbed Acoustic guitar strumming, lap slide guitar and electric guitar solo on the out vamp.
The songs on the album have a feeling of conversation in them. They feel very organic.
Whenever Arjun and I play we are always listening to each other and very much in the moment. As I mentioned, we have spent a lot of time playing together with Krishna Das over the last ten years. His music is very groove oriented and we always are having a musical conversation when we play together. We’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of hours in concert, so we know each other’s playing very well so being in the studio was an extension of that conversation and a very organic, evolving process.
One thing I really love is not only his sensitivity and the way that we can play together, but it’s not the typical odd-meter type of Indian music, which is sometimes more of the traditional music you associate with tabla. Arjun is an American and started playing drum set and percussion, and then he played tabla. He has a more Western approach to playing tabla even though he has studied and knows the tradition of classical Indian music. Arjun can play tabla with the sensibility of playing a drum kit with kick and snare.
But there’s another factor: the sound of my basses, the Pedulla fretless basses fit beautifully with tabla. Sonically the frequency range fits so well with the low tabla (bayan). When we lock in on a feel, it really becomes one sound with the bass and low tabla and I love that. That’s not dissimilar to locking in with a kick drum, but the tabla has a nice mid-range punch that I like with my basses. It’s a very alluring sound.
Your fretless comes across with a sound that resembles a vocalist.
The fretless bass can create a vocal sound because it’s like a cello; that’s one of the reasons why I’m so attracted to it. It has much more sustain than a fretted bass and you can play microtonaly around the pitch, which gives it that vocal quality.
Another reason the fretless bass speaks on this project is that the recording is very open and sparse, because of the orchestration. With such an open instrumentation it allowed me to be expressive with my fretless basses and fill in different spaces. Whereas if there were 4-5 musicians playing with a full drum set, I wouldn’t want to take up as much space and would play accordingly. In this case it was such an open canvas that it allowed me to really experiment and react to the tabla and guitar.
Let’s talk about Shane’s contribution to the album. How did he become involved?
After Arjun and I recorded the three days of duo sessions, I was starting to edit and do post-production by adding s bass melodies and bass pads over the tracks. I realized that we had recorded lot of music and it would be nice to have another voice on the project. I didn’t want to fill it up with all basses because it would have been too much and be monotonous, so I had the idea to add guitar. I had recently been playing with Shane in New York on a date at Richard Bona’s club called Club Bonafied with vibist Steve Shapiro. I asked Shane if he would be available to record at my studio in Connecticut to enhance what Arjun and I had just recorded.
I asked him if he played acoustic, which most guitar players do, but most just play it as a second instrument, but he really plays it as well as electric, just beautifully. I sent him some MP3’s of what Arjun and I had recorded along with some of the basic charts for the forms.
When he came to the sessions he had done a lot of homework and came up with several altered tunings for his acoustic guitar. Even though some of the songs were in E minor or D major or B major, that he could have just played on the [standard tuned] acoustic, he had interesting altered guitar tunings for the songs which created different timbres and made him play different parts. When you do altered tunings on a guitar or bass, it’s a whole different universe of chord and melody fingerings and you have to figure out different parts as you go. He came with altered tunings for each song. I was so impressed that he had spent a lot of time on it and really spent time learning the music.
He had great sensibilities about the guitar approach for each song. For instance, on songs where the bass was featured predominantly as melody, he came up with really interesting acoustic rhythm parts that added a groove that he then doubled. He then would add lap slide guitar in places, which created pads in the background somewhat like synth pads. We later added a lot of ambience with reverb and delay that created more depth of field in the mix.
There were times where I didn’t play a bass solo, because I didn’t want to play bass solos 3 or 4 times on the same song. Shane played some great solos and he totally fit into the feeling of what we were doing on the original tracks. He really had the vibe of what we had recorded initially with the duo – so much so that it sounds like we recorded the music all, together in an organic way.
That’s the sign of a really gifted player (Shane), that he can immerse himself and superimpose himself onto something that’s there and really become a part of it and be in the moment of it. He’s a very talented player.
Let’s talk about the recording side and how you recorded your bass.
I played my Pedulla basses direct through two Millennia TD-1 mic preamps with EQ. I also went direct through two Radial JDI direct boxes for some of the overdubs. I recorded in stereo using two lexicon digital delays along with effects such as Strymon timeline, Stymon Blue Sky and TC Electronics Chorus.
I didn’t use compression on the basic tracks but later in the mixing used a few plugins for compression and EQ.
Do you have dual pickups on your bass, then?
I have two pickups (P/J) but one ¼ ouput on my basses, so a mono output. I went mono out of my bass into stereo effects. In this case I used 2 Lexicon PCM 42’s and on some tracks I first went into a TC Electronics chorus. The left and right signals then went into two Lexicon Digital Delays which I used for delays and looping. Out of the delays I went into two Radial JDI direct boxes then into the mic pres. From the mic pres I went directly in the ProTools HDX system.
The bass is really less of a pure solo feature on the album and instead adds presence to the songs. The melodic content in your solos is amazing.
The music took on its own life when we started playing and recording. I think the sound of Arjun playing tabla and his sensibilities and the way that he grooves along with all of my past sensibilities and experiences made me react to the sonic spaces and play more impressionistically rather than just solo above everything. I felt like I played inside the sphere of the music and was just reacting to the spaces that we were creating. I had no awareness or desire to try to play with more of a solo feature. The music didn’t call for that and I generally don’t like to go in that direction.
When I did solo it was more from a melodic approach and inspired by the setup of the space.
I feel like this album is a very personal statement because of the openness of the orchestration and the overall tone of the recording.
On the first track, “Village Call” the bass improvises throughout the A sections over a Maj #11. The intent was more of a collective improvisation even though the bass is featured.
In recording this project Arjun and I weren’t trying to be commercial or come up with airplay material. The only goal was to sit down and play improvised honest music. It was all about what was in the moment and I love to play that way.
What’s coming up next for you?
We are producing a video of the trio about the making of the CD as well as some live performances in the studio that will be on YouTube and social media. We’ll hopefully be doing some live dates as a trio in the Northeast.
Another project that I’m working on is a duo record with Danny Gottlieb, drums and bass. Danny and I go way back to our days at the University of Miami and the Pat Metheny group experience. We have recorded several sessions that feature compositions and improvisations that draw form our 47 years of playing together. It’s a very open project with multi tracked drums and basses and features our experimental side of things. That will be released later this year.
I’m also working on a record with drummer Karl Latham and guitarist Vic Juris that is a follow up to Karl’s last recording “Living Standards” where we recorded modern standards such as
“Riders on the Storm”, “Tax Man”, “Day Tripper” etc. It’s so much fun playing with this trio as
Karl and Vic are team players and great musicians.
I am also a member of the Outreach Orchestra that performs every summer in Austria with great players from New York and Europe. It is a player/composers collective and very creative ensemble.
Follow Mark On the web: