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Bassist Rob Calder’s Humble Approach to Playing, Recording and Enjoying the Journey

Bassist Rob Calder is the ultimate freelance session player.

His resume includes playing live and recording studio albums with Passenger/Ed Sheeran, Matt Nathanson, Dope Lemon—even Kanye West. He has toured across the globe and spent much of his post-college life, where his love for bass was solidified, playing to huge crowds with Passenger and acts like Angus & Julia Stone and Irish singer/songwriter Declan O’Rourke. I spoke with Rob Calder about humble beginnings, finding joy in the craft of playing bass and the continued journey towards simplicity…

I happened upon you while talking with the guys from the alternative rock band After Planet. They were saying “you have to interview Rob!” So I had to go look up your website and when I realized who else you were playing with, it occurred to me how prominent your playing has been with Passenger as well as other singer/songwriters. My kids were singing “Let Her Go” (from Passenger) on the radio constantly–and here you were playing on it!

So how did you get started?

…How did I get started? I basically picked it up the instrument like at the start of my college career.

I was like every other kid. My story’s not unique at all. I started with piano and I didn’t really like it. And I was in orchestra for a time and I was so uninspired. I hardly practiced and then eventually I gave it up. And then as a goof, I picked up the bass just right before my freshman year started at Indiana University and I loved it immediately. It was, I mean, basically one of the very few moments where I had an epiphany… Oh, I’m going to do this for a long time.

Kind of a late start.

Yeah, a late bloomer, I think. I still feel that way. I don’t know.

So as a goof? That’s funny. Usually people have a hard time explaining this, because a lot of people will ask this question “Why did you pick the bass guitar?” There’s a lot of people who automatically think that guitar is this complex instrument and bass is so easy. And I think that people who are not musician types don’t quite understand how important bass is.

Yeah, people get attached to it quickly. I immediately was. I can say I was a bass player first. I wasn’t one of those people who started out on guitar and then switched because nobody else wanted to play bass. I actually loved it. But the thing is you are right, the bass is easy to play. I feel like it is… I don’t want to mystify it too much.

I think there are a lot of tasteful things you can do, and I hear that in your phrasing and the way you fill in space within the songs, much like Paul McCartney. I know that for me, I didn’t appreciate McCartney as a kid starting out on bass. I couldn’t appreciate him until I got older.

Same, I actually didn’t love Paul McCartney until later and then I became like, obsessed (laughter), I’m sure it’s obvious in my playing.

A lot of people wear their influences on their sleeve. Do you have anybody else who influenced you besides McCartney when you started out?

I tried to learn every lick that Geddy Lee ever played. I tried… and you know, I probably failed (laughs). I think I listen back to it now and I don’t quite hear it as much, but at the time it was pretty new to me and I loved a lot of that prog stuff, like Chris Squire and Tony Levin and anybody that was playing any song in 5/8 or 7/8 time. I was drawn to them initially because I thought that was cool. It is cool.

It’s ok to admit that today.

It’s back! (laughs)

How did you develop your style, sort of on the fly or did you actually start leaning towards something you liked? I noticed some of the live performances you were playing using all your fingers, thumb included on your picking hand. Do use a pick as well when it’s called for?

Yeah I use it as well. I do love playing with a pick too, as it brings out a completely different tone and approach. You know it’s like a different instrument with a pick, and I think that’s really good because otherwise I’ll get completely bored always doing the same thing. One of the great things about being a freelance bass player is you get to try something new every day with a new band. I know the fingers vs. pick debate, but I think that the way that you hit the string with your right hand whether it’s with a pick or with the side of your finger—any kind of different way that you touch those strings is going to have a huge impact on your tone. In fact, I think the entirety of tone comes from that point of impact. I think the more approaches you apply, there’s your pedal board.

And I love effects, but when you talk about style… I just… I don’t know if it’s a style, but it’s a concept that I really decided to focus on.

Seems to be working, you definitely attract a lot of artists just based on just your style of playing. 

What do you like in the way of effects, when you do use them?

My favorite effect is an overdriven amp in the studio—that’s my favorite effect, and I know it’s not a pedal board. Underrated. I do like distortion pedals and I’ve got an Electro Harmonix… not sure which make, I’m really bad with models (laughs).

I think you’re right. Very overrated compared with the ability to actually use a solid bass with good pickups and a decent amp.

Yeah, I think that’s the magic. I do think that’s the magic, but I do have a pedal board and occasionally I’ll plug it in. I’m not averse to it, but I’m usually—bass, cable, amp— let’s do this!

You have recorded with a bunch of different producers including Rick Rubin and Mitchell Froom, how adaptable were they to you in the recording process—were they hands-on or did they let you do your thing?

Their recording style, in my opinion, is once you get into the studio with those guys—pretty much all of them—they don’t tell you much. They’re happy that you’re doing what you’re doing; I think getting into the studio once you’re sort of like… trusted. The thought is: “Okay this guy can do what he’s doing”. Mitchell Froom was somebody who was notorious for being sort of hard on musicians that are related or brought in by the artists themselves. He had stories that  terrified me (laughs). But the interesting thing is the moment you sat down and you’re sitting there playing with (session drummer) Matt Chamberlain… he totally didn’t tell me anything. He was like, “Yeah, that’s good”. It’s like there was no direction—I didn’t feel like he was micromanaging me at all.

And that was an incredible experience. And for those producers, nobody looks at the bass player anyway— let’s be honest with how it is. (laughter)

Passenger has kept you very busy!

Yeah, we just got done with 2 years of touring and we keep recording records. I’ve done 4 records with him and then the touring. With his current tour, which is winding up, he went back to just him and his acoustic guitar. Then we will be convening again at some point at the end of this year, and he is really prolific—he writes so much music.

It’s interesting how you started out your freshman year at Indiana University and then… to be in front of those crowds. You must be thinking, “I couldn’t have predicted this!”

I certainly didn’t, but I’m definitely happy for the development. It’s been really interesting that with all of these artists I somehow managed to fall into… like connecting with… all these international artists… like the brother/sister Angus & Julia that are Australian, and then also Declan O’Rourke who’s Irish and Mike who’s Passenger and he’s English. It’s been very strange and I often have found that this is mystified much more than any career. How did I end up on this continent over here?

It’s wild. I’m really blessed.

I guess it’d just be something that’s normalized for you and you say “This is great, I get to do this!” whether it’s 500 people 50,000 people.

Yeah it doesn’t matter, at some point the size thing (is there), but much more importantly is the feeling of being blessed, you know? I appreciate it every day…the opportunity to do this for a living, because it does not come to everybody. And there are so many good players out there… great, amazing bass players.

Your bass I mainly see you play with is a P-bass that looks like you added a single coil to it or was it originally designed like that?

Exactly, it’s a P-bass that had a single coil attached to it. It’s a 1968 Precision, so that that would be worth quite a bit more if it didn’t have that pickup in it. So honestly that’s how I could afford it. (laughs)

And do you have other basses in rotation?

I have some backups but (the 68’) is what I use primarily. Yeah, if I have a choice I’m using this one, it’s my main instrument. I can get the most out of it and it’s really sturdy. But I also have a 64’ Hofner Club bass that I use a ton for recording and I’ve got a Harmony from the 60’s. That’s a real interesting one… I sometimes use an NS design upright. Those are kind of a little bit obscure I guess. It bolts on to like a fancy, retrofitted drum-hardware stand. It’s really interesting design and I’ll use that for recordings. If I’m lucky to do a full record with an artist where towards the end whoever’s in charge says, “Let’s make this (track) sound a little different,” that’s when I say, “Hang on, this is a weird one” and everybody’s like, “What the fuck is that?” (laughter)

How did you get hooked up with the guys from After Planet out there in California? Sort of a different style of music compared to what you mostly play.

I love bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and Sugar. Earlier bands I’m way into. That’s the kind of music they do. And they wanted me to play with them. I am super enthusiastic about their style. I think their music is amazing. Yeah, so they’re out in California and LA and I’m based out there.

And you recorded with them on their new EP Prévisionniste?

Yes, depending on what you heard. I began recording with them and we’re slowly working through the tunes. So yeah.

For me, they definitely have a Failure-type vibe, and I always love those guys. After Planet is an extension of Failure’s classic Fantastic Planet for me. I definitely have heard your work in the songs. And I hear overdriven amp or effects—some gnarly stuff, whatever it is!

Depending on what it is, I mean, there could be some plugins going on. But yeah, to me it’s always the amp. If I can drive the amp, that’ll be the coolest.

As for amplification, what do you typically use?

I love the Ampeg B-12, not the usual 15, and I drive the shit out of it and just make it go as hard as it can. And that’s what sounds amazing.

More pronounced?

Yeah, but you have to put it in a padded room because it’s just gonna wail… nothing that you can do in the basement of your mom’s house! (laughs)

That’s when we have to remind the bass player that nobody needs to hear the bass player! (laughter)

Your band Schmetterling was probably the coolest of all the stuff I listened to on your webpage robcalder.com… It seems very indulgent. What started that and what’s the direction you’re taking?

Awesome. I’m glad that you’re into it.

It is totally indulgent. It started off with me just trying to familiarize myself with logic and I had been collecting these basslines and I dropped them in and just started creating these super-whack beats,. After that I tapped in some keyboard parts and next thing you know, I was making these “answer to no one” songs that weren’t destined for any like singer/songwriter anything, which I do so much… this will just be for me.

Then I started jamming with my friends, Steve Elliot (guitar player) and Brian Griffin (drums) and they were like, “What are we gonna play? We actually could do some gigs.” And very sheepishly, I got some of these demos and they’re really kind of crazy. I wasn’t gonna show them to anybody, but those guys interpreted my whack beats and my weird melodies and they made it super cool—made me realize this actually could be something. So as we speak it’s being mastered right now as a record for release!

Looking forward to it. It’s super cool. I love to put stuff in a category but I have no idea how to categorize it!

Awesome, I’m tickled you like it. I’m really stoked about it!

Check out Rob’s hefty volume of work @ robcalder.com/ including his hard to define, but exceptional band Schmetterling. And look for him playing live, coming soon to a continent near you!

Also, check out Rob driving his Ampeg B-12 hard with After PlanetIG @afterplanet on their upcoming EP Prévisionniste. 

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