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Interview With Bassist Percy Jones

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Interview With Bassist Percy Jones

Bassist Percy Jones… KEEPING UP WITH JONES! PERCY, THAT IS…

By David C. Gross (DG) and Tom Semioli (TS) 

And now this public service announcement from Percy Jones addressing the negative gossip that permeated social media upon his departure from Brand X:  

There were some pretty negative narratives going out when I left Brand X that I’d retired, or that I had stopped playing…that my hands were messed up and I could not play anymore…Those are all rumors! I am in good health…I can play and look forward to doing more recordings and gigs!

Self-taught and greatly inspired by Charles Mingus and British and American rhythm and blues, Percy Jones plies his craft with a repertoire of glissandos, harmonics, and three-finger riffage, among other techniques, in his work as a jazz-fusion prog-rock master. A composer, arranger, sideman, collaborator, multi-instrumentalist, and solo recording artist, Percy has anchored several watershed sides, most notably as a member of Brand X, and with Brian Eno, Roy Harper, Steve Hackett, David Sylvian, and Tunnels to cite a very select few.

From his home somewhere in New York City, Percy ruminated o’er his early years, influences, his gravitation to the fretless bass, Brand X, and Brian Eno’s cake methodology among other topics! 

TS: It’s a sad day Percy; we lost Charlie Watts. Your career as a player commenced in the mid-1960s with The Liverpool Scene, talk about the impact that the Rolling Stones had on your generation of musicians.

PJ: When they started out with Brian Jones, they were much more of a rhythm and blues outfit. And to me, it was a lot edgier than they became later on. I preferred the earlier stuff they were doing. After Brian passed, they took a straighter, more rock and roll path. Which is not to criticize them! But to me, they were more interesting then…

TS: Were you aware at that time that Billy Wyman was playing one of the first fretless basses? 

PJ: Yes, I’d see him on Top of the Pops and other shows and but was playing a fretted instrument. 

TS: Actually Percy, that was a fretless Framus Star bass. Bill pulled the frets out and filled them with putty or a similar substance which gave the appearance of fret lines, but there were no frets!

PJ: Really! I didn’t know that. Kudos to his intonation, he sounded great. 

DG: Rock drummers of that era came from the jazz idiom – after all, there was no ‘rock and roll’ – so bass players had to swing as well.

PJ: Exactly! 

TS: In your formative years you absorbed British rhythm and blues, the aforementioned Stones, Graham Bond, Alexis Korner, Georgie Fame…then you were turned on to American blues such as Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters…what was it about American black music, which was borne of slavery, that appealed to working-class British youth. 

PJ: I don’t know exactly why. British musicians somehow related to it, which does not make much sense! There was no slavery in England at that point. I remember an African American friend of mine, and he was complaining about British musicians stealing from blues guys. And I explained to him ‘no, they’re playing that music because they love it!’ Myself included! Certainly, there have been instances where the blues originators were ripped off…but not from the musicians.  The British bands reintroduced the blues to America. If not, some of those artists would have remained on the ‘chitlin circuit.’ 

TS: My wife is African American…

PJ: So is mine!

TS: …and we watch Later… with Jools Holland and marvel at how British artists play rhythm and blues with more conviction than Americans! They have more soul! 

PJ: Amy Winehouse was a perfect example of that! 

DG: After WWII you had all this American music flowing into Liverpool, London, and the British port cities…. then when the Stones came here, I was twelve. I knew nothing of American blues…but I knew their music because of the British bands. It’s what we refer to as the “big M” – it’s music and either it touches you or not. 

PJ: Also the media, in the first half of the sixties, had a limited number of radio stations. In England, it was really just the BBC. They just played pop. The station that really caught my interest and the attention of my peers was Radio Luxembourg. You couldn’t hear them in the daytime. We had to wait until the sun went down so the signal would bounce off the ionosphere. The signal faded in and out…usually when it came to my favorite part of the tune! (laughter) We’d have to re-tune the radio every fifteen minutes or so. But that just reinforced the fact that we were starving for what Radio Luxembourg was playing …Chuck Berry, Booker T… what an education! And this was before the pirate ships off the coast of Great Britain got started…

TS: Pirate radio was a huge influence on the youth of your generation.

PJ: Which was why the BBC shut them down and confiscated all their equipment! But the BBC also poached a lot of their DJs… including John Peel. At that point, the BBC started to ‘smell the coffee’ and realized that they needed to change their format. 

DG: If you can’t beat them…. hire them!

PJ: Yes! (laughter) But getting back to your point, African American music had such a huge impact on Britain. No question about it. 

TS: Among your early bass mentors was Danny Thompson…

PJ: Yes I was still living in Wales at the time…and me and a couple of mates went to a gig in Hereford to hear Alexis Korner. The rhythm section was Danny Thompson and Terry Cox…which would later go on to Pentangle. The show really caught my attention. Alexis was really a blues guy…yet Danny Thompson was a hybrid of jazz, blues and folk. There was all this fantastic syncopation going on which I hadn’t heard before. I’ll never forget that gig…it started steering me more towards jazz. 

DG: I always felt that at a certain point when your playing matures – you just can’t keep doing what you used to do. As Oliver Wendell Holmes says ‘your mind stretches and you can’t go back!’

PJ: Absolutely. You cannot go back… 

TS: Tell us about meeting one of your heroes when The Liverpool Scene first came to America. 

PJ: I first came to New York in 1969 with The Liverpool Scene and we played at Ungano’s. That’s when I met Charles Mingus. We did a set for the press…and after we finished playing Mike Evans, the saxophone player, said to me ‘Mingus is here!!!!’ We were both huge fans. I look over at the buffet and there was Charles, filling his plate up with food! He certainly didn’t come here to see us. We went over and talked to him. He was playing at the Vanguard and invited us. We arrived and the place was almost empty. Of course, we sat upfront and it was pretty much just the Mingus band and us! 

We had just finished a British tour opening for Led Zeppelin. Our first gig in the U.S. was at Kent State opening for Sly & The Family Stone. A total mismatch. When we walked on stage the audience started laughing at us before we played a note. They sat through our set with ‘polite toleration.’ Sly comes on and the place goes berserk! We also did some dates with the Steve Miller Band, The Who, The Kinks…

When we were in New York, there was a bar on 48th Street called The Haymarket which had Red Barrell, a British beer. All the bands from England would hang out at this place. 

TS: Did that plant the seed for your emigrating to New York City?

PJ: I did start thinking about it…all the possibilities. After all, New York was exciting, there was the jazz scene… 

TS: Let’s discuss the fretless bass…how did you gravitate to the instrument?

PJ: All the players I was listening to and admired were playing upright. There were a few electric players that I liked…there was a guy with George Fame, Cliff Barton, who played fretted bass who I thought was quite good. I had a hollow-body fretted Gretsch bass   – I can’t remember the model number, but it had a spike at the bottom so you could position it like an upright. I filed the frets down. In 1974 I saw an ad in the back of Melody Maker for a fretless Fender Precision bass for only 200 quid. I had just received a publishing advance the week before. I met this guy in North London and it was “in good nick” (British slang for great condition) so I purchased it. 

I immediately felt comfortable on it. I started doing things that I could not do on a fretted bass. Of course, my intonation needed work, among other things.    

DG: Was it a lined fretless?

PJ: No but it had dots….

TS: That must’ve been rare to find a Fretless P bass in 1974…especially in the UK. 

PJ: Absolutely, I had never seen one. It was fortuitous timing…

DG: I paid $160.00 in 1969 in New York City for a fretless P bass… those old P basses had lovely rosewood necks….

PJ: Yes they did. I built a pre-amp and put it in the bass, as the basses had low output in those days. Back then with a passive P bass, the longer the chord you used, the more you lost the high end. My preamp had no EQ, it was just to boost the gain. It still had that classic P bass sound. Brand X didn’t have a record deal at the time. We used to jam in a studio in South London just for fun. Then we got a deal from Island. We had six weeks before our first recording and I made the determination to really learn how to play this bass. I really crammed, practicing for hours every day. 

TS: How did playing fretless alter your technique in that now with no metal strips on the neck, it’s all about intonation, intonation, and intonation!

PJ:  Intonation was my biggest challenge. But luckily, my left and right-hand techniques didn’t need to change much… 

I found that I could express myself much more. I could play quarter notes and deliberately slide into the note, as a singer does. To me, fretless is much more expressive, like the human voice. And you don’t have to worry about fret noise. 

TS: You have to be a more deliberate player on fretless. Every note has to mean something.

PJ: Yes. I once had a bad experience right after I moved to New York. I got on this session and the producer took one look at my fretless, and said ‘we don’t need that!” He went in the closet and brought out a fretted Fender P bass, and ordered me to use it. I wasn’t used to it, and I’m not a great reader. I think this was a chord chart. I was totally uncomfortable with frets by then. This producer guy stood over me – he was about six-foot-six and three hundred pounds! I got through it. But I’d realized how far I’d come with the fretless…

TS: In 1976 another fretless player burst upon the scene – Jaco Pastorius. And by ’77, when Brand X did its first album, the sound of the fretless was becoming popular.

PJ: Exactly. Back then there was hardly anyone I knew that played fretless. I think the guy in Canned Heat, Larry Taylor, played fretless. 

DG: And let’s not forget Freebo with Bonnie Raitt! What I find interesting about your playing is that you carved an interesting niche – we can hear one phrase and we know it’s Percy! However, there are thousands of Jaco imitators! Were you conscious of him which made you more conscious of where you were headed? Or were you headed there anyway and that guy from Florida was just playing the same instrument?   

PJ: I first heard Jaco’s solo record when it came out…with stuff like “Donna Lee.” I thought ‘wow this guy is pretty good!’ You really have to give him the credit for introducing the fretless to the bass community. Certainly, more than I did. Then, later on, I started getting critiques from some people saying that ‘Percy is a Jaco rip-off!’ That was rather disappointing. Of course, I have the utmost respect for Jaco. He was a great, great bass player. 

TS: Getting to Brand X, how did Phil Collins have time for the band given that he was busy with Genesis? 

PJ: He didn’t! Like I said earlier, we used to get together every week and jam for fun. And there was this guy who used to help us with equipment and somehow he hooked up an audition with Island Records. The A & R guys would listen to us while we were just making stuff up. And loved us and we got signed. We started rehearsing at Island studios and did a record for them with vocals – sort of like Average White Band. We didn’t like the record, so we asked Chris Blackwell if we could do another. We changed the lineup in the band, the original drummer stepped out, he was more of a groove drummer and we needed something different. Danny Wilding, one of the A & R guys suggested we ‘try the guy in Genesis!’ I didn’t know much about them at the time. Bill Bruford came down first, and he turned it down.  But Phil liked it and joined the band and we did an all-instrumental album, but Island did not like it. They did not want to put it out. But the Charisma label picked it up, with help from Phil… and that was Unorthodox Behavior (1977). So that record, which broke us, almost never came out! 

At that time, we were mostly doing one-nighters in the UK, punk clubs in London, sometimes we’d drive up to Manchester. Phil did a lot of those. When we started getting US tours, he could not do them because of Genesis. At one point Phil said ‘if you guys could hang out for a couple of years, I might leave Genesis…and play with you guys full time’ And I responded, ‘no you can’t do that! It would be totally impractical’  

I called up Alphonso Johnson in Los Angeles, then I called Kenwood Dennard in New York. I came over a couple of weeks earlier to rehearse with Kenwood. The rest of the guys came over and we had more rehearsals and it shaped out good enough to do the gigs. From then on we used several drummers; Kenwood, Mike Clark, Chuck Burgi, Pierre Moerlen…all great players. 

TS: I recall hearing Brand X on FM radio – it was an amazing era in that we had such a wide array of genres in the mainstream. Prog rock, jazz fusion, punk, hard rock, pop, electronic music…

PJ: It was a good period in time. I remember towards the late 70s we started getting a bit of flack from the British press…I remember we played at Knebworth Festival and there was a review in Melody Maker that read ‘Brand X sounded like pebbles on a tin roof!’ Of course, that was when punk was coming on strong. And that was supposed to be the new ‘working class’ music! 

I remember going into the Marquee Club where we used to play a lot in the 1970s, and I stuck my head in and the place was jam-packed. A punk band was playing – all fast tempo three-minute songs. Everybody was jumping up and down, beer flying everywhere, sweat… I immediately left and never returned!

DG: And then you move to New York City in the 1980s. 

PJ: At the time we were playing here frequently. In fact, we were doing more gigs in the US than Europe. Then I met my wife, who is a New Yorker….so it made more sense to live here.

DG: You were teaching as well.

PJ: Yes, for a while at Drummers Collective. Though I never felt that I was very successful at it. I’m not an academic player. I studied at University of Liverpool – but that was electronic engineering! In terms of music, I am an autodidact. What I know of music I picked up from being around people who know music more than I did…and I’d ask a lot of questions. In a recent version of Brand X I’d been hanging around with Kenny Grohowski and he’d be discussing all sorts of topics such as metric modulations. I had no idea what he was talking about. But if I hear it, I can try and play it! 

DG: Your education in electrical engineering intertwined with your bass playing in terms of creating effects, pedals. 

PJ: Yes, that was very useful as I built many of my own effects. I don’t use them much now thanks to digital technology. But I’d have two ninety-inch racks…I have yet to find commercial versions of some of the effects I used, so I may have to construct a few more. I kind of miss that ‘analog’ sound I used to get. 

DG: Your pull-offs of the G string off the fingerboard, was that a calculated thing or did you just do it one day and think ‘wow this is great!’ 

PJ: I was actually trying to get a sitar-type sound. I pulled the string until it’s almost off the fingerboard. And it starts ‘buzzing.’ Sometimes I’ll pull it right off the fingerboard – 

DG: Right, there is no pitch when you pull it off the fingerboard, but it is an ‘effect.’ 

PJ: Yes, and the bottom string rattles. For me – all the things I do are trying to express something. I’ve tried putting washers, matchsticks under the strings which would slide down the fretboard… to make different sounds. 

DG: John Cage would love that! 

PJ: Ah, it was too unpredictable! 

TS: PAKT – your latest project features guitarists Alex Skolnick and Tim Motzer and drummer Kenny Grohowski. Your music is available for streaming and download. With digital distribution – is it ‘the best of times or the worst of times in that artist such as yourself, who are ‘out’ of the mainstream, can go directly to your audience rather than submit your work to a record label and hope that they put it out and promote it?

PJ:  I have two thoughts about that. On the one hand, it’s good because it makes it easier for artists to get their music out there. In the 60s, 70s, you could get a record out unless a record company behind you. But now you can do it, and control the business side of it as well and not get ripped off by a record company. 

Maybe the negative side of it is that there is such a huge volume of music out there that a lot of good-quality stuff gets buried.  

DG: How did PAKT come together? 

PJ: I stopped playing with Brand X – I could not stand the management anymore. I could not stand the way they were doing business. 

We’d reformed in 2016 and I could never get a proper accounting of how much money we earned; how much was spent. It’s important to talk about this – even though it’s negative. In March or April of 2019, I said that I’d give them until October to come up with the accounting, if you don’t I’m not going to continue. October comes, and still nothing. I said to them ‘do you remember our conversation?’ The response was ‘no.’ How could they not remember a discussion like that? I waited a few weeks – nothing. I had spreadsheets – 116 gigs, gas tolls, everything – I never got them back. One of the guys lived in Florida and told me that lightning had struck a tree outside his house and fried his computer that had all the Brand X financial information on it. One conversation it was a laptop, another conversation it was a desktop…and then I just said ‘f’ this – but I still consider myself an owner of the band with John Godsall. And I expect to get royalties. So that was a sad ending for Brand X. 

PAKT came together since I was looking to do something after Brand X. Of course, I had played with Kenny in Brand X but never with Alex or Tim. We played our first ‘gig’ in Brooklyn not knowing if it was going to be successful or not. There was no one in the audience because of COVID restrictions – we were all wearing masks. It was recorded and made it available immediately for download, and it came out pretty good. It’s the first time I’d ever done anything like this. I’m okay with this way of doing things as long as the audio quality is good. (Available on BandCamp.com on MoonJune Records)

I don’t like music that’s heavily compressed.  

DG: Are you planning any solo shows in the future?

PJ: Not really, I also have my MJ12 band with Chris Bacas on saxophone, Steven Moses on drums, and Alex on guitars. We have shows coming up… 

DG: When are we going to see a reissue of Paranoise  “Start A New Race” (1993) which also featured Antony Jackson on contrabass? 

PJ: When I first moved to New York City, I had a job moving furniture. Brand X lost our record deal, I was out of work… And I was in the vegetable section of my local supermarket and this guy came up to me and said ‘are you Percy?’ I said ‘yeah…’ ‘Well I’ve got a band, do you want to come down and jam?’ And I went down and played and they were called ‘Noise Are Us.’ And it was good stuff so I started playing with them. Interesting compositions. They had a horn section and a vocalist, doing all sorts of odd time signatures…very adventurous, we used to play CBGBs a lot, which had a fantastic sound system… I played with them for about eighteen months, then Toys Are Us threatened to sue them. Which prompted the name change to Paranoise. They got signed to Island and I played on one album, and Anthony Jackson did some of the tracks. Those were great memories….

TS: What are some of the records that you are most fond of and represent your best performances? 

PJ: All the Brand X records, the albums I made with Brian Eno… there’s the title track of Masques (1978) which is just bass and prepared piano…

TS: When you work with someone such as Eno, what do you learn from him that you apply to your role as a bandleader?

PJ:  Brian is a very smart individual. What he did with me and the musicians he worked with was to give us slack. He allowed us to be ourselves and to play our own styles. He has a way of directing you to make a contribution to the music that he wanted to hear. He never asked me to play something I was uncomfortable with. 

TS: Eno strikes me as a bandleader akin to Miles Davis, wherein he has a knack for bringing people together. Again, I’ll reference Before And After Science (1977) – a bona fide masterpiece is that it’s great to hear your personality in the context of Eno’s artistry. And the musicians don’t overshadow him, they enhance what he was doing. The same goes for Another Green World (1975). 

PJ: Agreed! And he recorded a lot of stuff which was not used. I would overdub on electric…upright. It was experimental and a lot of fun. 

DG: Brian intended to create background music with such albums as Music For Airports (1978) which was anything but background music!

PJ: I’m still looking for Music For Washing Dishers! (laughter) I was at a session with guitarist Fred Firth and Phil Collins and Brian handed us a piece of paper and instructed us to write down the numbers 1 to 100. The he went: #1 – Percy you play an F#. #2 Phil you hit whatever note you want…. #3 had rhythmic instructions. Then he’d switch on a metronome …and Phil threw water bottles across the room! He was trying to hit a bicycle parked in the studio in time with the click!  

Another cool thing about Brian is that he is always open to suggestions. You can’t do that with many bandleaders… On a session, he’d say ‘let’s have some cake.’ And he’d get paper plates from under the desk and bring in a cake and then we’d stand around eating and we’d forget what we were talking about. I wonder if that was a deliberate technique! 

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