Interview With Bassist Chris Agar
Bassist Chris Agar…
We recently had the opportunity to chat with Chris Agar, an NYC area bassist who is currently laying down the low end for indie rocker Collin Stanley. Agar collaborated with Stanley on his latest single, “Gone Through Hell,” a highly introspective song detailing the isolation and uncertainty Stanley felt during the pandemic. Recorded at Bull Productions Recording Studio in Miami, Agar channels John Paul Jones, and masterfully builds tension throughout each verse until it explodes into an eventual frenzy.
Read on to hear how the song took shape, and how he wrestled with a Gibson Grabber to get that bass tone.
How long have you known Collin, and how did you originally become acquainted?
I met Collin over six years ago in a tiny rehearsal space/percussion studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for a female-fronted rock band called DDWhite. The space couldn’t have been bigger than 10 x 10 and barely fit all of us. One of the first tunes we jammed was “Ramble On” by Led Zeppelin. At the time, I was playing upright bass with Tiffany (the frontwoman) and we had more of a folksy rock vibe. Collin suggested I switch to the electric bass to allow for more flexibility and to get harder tones.
Collin and I quickly realized we had mutual friends and instantly connected over our love of the Detroit music scene since we both had a strong connection to the region. We have a well-established creative relationship and have collaborated on many projects, including some of my own. The idea for Made on Tape was hatched in Collin’s kitchen and he co-wrote and played guitar on my Working Flakes project.
Tell us about your live rig/setup whenever you guys play together. Do you have any go-to’s for his project as far as pedals or guitars?
Living in NYC, you quickly learn to adapt to all kinds of rehearsal scenarios, and it’s difficult to maintain a consistent rock rig, in terms of amplifiers and speaker cabinets, unless you don’t mind pissing off your neighbors.
Obviously, you can tell that saturation/distortion/overdrive is a big part of the bass sound with Collin Stanley. I typically use an Ashdown Nate Mendel Dual Overdrive, which gives a TON of flexibility. One circuit sounds more like tube amp distortion, and the other is heavier, and you control them independently. You can even switch on both circuits simultaneously for BIG distortion.
I like semi-hollow basses, probably because I studied and play a lot of upright bass, too. I frequently use the Epiphone Jack Casady signature bass when performing with Collin because it gives such an amazing sustain and very aggressive sound all on its own, no effects.
Did you collaborate virtually or in person at the studio for the new single?
In-person. Collin and his roommates got COVID in the early days when we didn’t know how that would turn out, but after a few months, we started getting together in a studio space in Greenpoint. Collaborating remotely is amazing and has opened up a lot of opportunities, but I much prefer being in a room with someone. The feedback is instantaneous, and we trust each other’s instincts as much as our own, which is rare in a creative relationship.
How did you approach and arrange “Gone Through Hell” on bass? Did you draw some inspiration from your own personal experiences with the pandemic?
All I can say is that being in New York City during this time was a real eye-opener. I’m genuinely relieved that most people living in other parts of the country/world didn’t really ever feel the urgency, but we literally had bodies filling up cold trucks outside of hospitals back in early 2020. The city that never sleeps suddenly stopped, and it was simultaneously horrifying and peaceful.
Collin’s initial idea brought these emotions to the table, and I just responded. Musically speaking, he came in with that riff that you hear in the post-choruses, and all I did was take a nugget and put my own rhythmic flavor on it. You can extract so much if you limit yourself… I highly recommend checking out Bernard Hermann film scores for a masterclass in this concept.
GTH has a bit of an anthemic, Zeppelin-esque vibe. Who are some of your bass heroes? Are you a big John Paul Jones fan?
Hell yeah! John Paul Jones is one of the godfathers of rock bass, and his musicianship helped fill out those Zeppelin records with all the other instruments as well. Like I mentioned earlier, Collin and I connected on “Ramble On.”
I’m one of the fortunate minority who studied bass for four years with one of his heroes, Robert Hurst. His credentials are too numerous to list here, but you might know him from playing with Branford Marsalis, including in the Tonight Show band in the 90s and on films like Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”. He’s the one who taught me “if you put rhythm first, everything else will follow.”
Another bass hero is Tim Lefebvre. When I was visiting NYC in 2005, I believe it was my classmate Theo Katzman who hipped us Michigan kids to the 55 Bar, where I got my socks blown off by Wayne Krantz, Lefebvre, and Keith Carlock. This musical moment inspired me to want to move to NYC, which I did nine years later. Tim and I connected during this pandemic and I got to relay that story to him. His groove is immaculate, and his sonic palette is unmatched in the bass community.
In terms of recordings, the big heroes for me are Tim Commerford, for his tone and attitude; James Jamerson for his fearless improvisation over “pop” tunes; Flea who inspired me to get my first Musicman Stingray; Tina Weymouth for her foundational playing in Talking Heads; and Charlie Haden for his incredible lyricism in the low register of the bass. Plus, society needs another “Liberation Music Orchestra.”
I could talk about bass players all day and I feel guilty for leaving out about 500 more who I love dearly.
Which fuzz pedal are you using on it? It sounds mean as hell!
You may be surprised, but no fuzz pedals were used in the making of this tone…
When Collin and I were writing and coming up with ideas in the studio, I was just plugged straight into an Apollo 8 interface, and I used the Marshall JCM8 plugin for ridiculous distortion.
However, that’s not what you’re hearing on the record.
During the pandemic, Collin was living in Miami and making connections down there. We recorded at Bull Productions Recording Studio with the engineer Ryan Haft.
I tracked the bass with the in-house Gibson Grabber, recording live along with the drummer Cristian Acevedo. I had to fight that bass, but I love struggling with tough instruments. Ryan heard my demo tone, so to achieve big heavy nastiness, he set up an old Ampeg SVT tube head on an 8×10 cabinet. Then he CRANKED the drive.
That’s the tone. Unfortunately, I’ve never heard a pedal that can quite replicate the sound of a big bass amp breaking up in a room. I’m sure readers are familiar with Tim Commerford’s live rig of three SVTs and three 8×10 cabinets. He’s got one for “clean”, one for “medium” and one for “heavy.” It’s not for show, those things move some fucking air in the best way.
When will we be seeing you perform with Collin? Are there any tour plans on the table?
Our main focus has been on writing and recording, and there’s more coming down the pike. We’ll start hitting the local scene before going out on a tour, and I so very eagerly look forward to performing live again. That human connection is so important, and humans have been making music together since the dawn of time.
Finally, if you had your own signature bass, which features would it have, what would the finish be, and how many strings would it have?
I’m a less-is-more type of player, so my signature bass would have one pickup like the Jack Casady or Music Man Stingray, and it would only have three strings, E, A, and D…and a tone knob. Can’t forget that. A volume knob, too. I don’t really care about the finish cuz you can always cover it with stickers or refinish it.
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