Global Bass Online August/September 2001
by Edith Hofmann
I would like to introduce you to one of our most extraordinary musicians here in Switzerland, the double bassist Mich Gerber. I had the great pleasure of talking to this very gentle and shy man about his music, his new tour starting July 6th and a lot more very interesting things.
Originally, Mich was interested in Fine Arts and went to the College of Art to learn Theatre Painting. Attracted by the visual effect of the double bass he decided to buy it just to have one of these wooden sculptures at home, and began playing around on it a little bit. He soon found out that he liked the vibe of the double bass and his fascination for this instrument grew. He played it more and more until he decided to go to a conservatory after he finished his education as a theatre painter.
After his graduation from the conservatory in 1983 he played a few years in the classical Symphony Orchestra of Bern. He then left to play in various bands, experiencing all manner of styles from improvised music to Jazz, free Jazz, from Rock onto hardcore, and then in an Avant-garde classical orchestra with hardcore tendencies. Then at that point he made up his mind to pursue a solo career. Mich had developed quite an unusual style for a double bassist. His debut album 'Mystery Bay', was filled with melancholic, middle eastern sounding melodies interspersed with smooth techno beats as well. His second album and his most recent 'Amor Fati', melts tradition into modernity by melding the sounds of the double bass with DJ 'scratching'.
The upcoming tour is promising to be something very special. After gigging the big Swiss open air concerts last year and enjoying the festival atmosphere and the large stages, heís going back to the bas(s)ics and doing the aforementioned 'Midsummer Night Tour' solo. Using no additional musicians, no DJ, no drummer, just his double bass, (which heíll be looping live). To the concerts, which will take place in peaceful environments like beach baths, a castle ground or a romantic lakeside, heíll carry his own specially built stage along with the PA and equipment all himself.
Global Bass: What are your reasons for going on tour all alone, without any added musicians?
Mich: Thatís how it was in the beginning when I started working with live sampling, only with the double bass. And it is the most concentrated form of my music.
GB: But doesnít that mean a lot of stress; doing everything on your own and all at the same time, while still providing a stage performance?
Mich: Yes, indeed, but itís also a lot of fun! I still like playing with other musicians. But solo, everything is concentrated much closer to yourself, I can arrange everything on my own. I like it both ways.
GB: What songs will you be playing?
Mich: Well, Iíll play songs from both Mystery Bay and Amor Fati, as well as some brand new tunes. And of course also the older songs will sound different solo than they had for the latest tour. The songs keep changing all the time, but thatís what theyíre supposed to do.
GB: What kind of people come to your concerts?
Mich: This is pretty much mixed up which makes me feel very happy. Thereís everyone from the classical fan to the techno freak, and all ages. Thatís how itís supposed to be, and that makes me really happy.
GB: On the coming tour you will also be playing at a ladies swimming baths. How are you allowed to do that???
Mich: (Laughs) Good question. The ladies baths at St. Gallen are closed at night, and the Zurich one is open for public at night.
GB: That means that men can also come to watch you there, it won't be just yourself as the sole man in the midst of a sea of women?
Mich: Yes, unfortunately. But we have chosen those sites because of their beautiful location, for example the ladies baths at St. Gallen are in a beautiful place at a natural pond.
GB: How did you come to know of these places?
Mich: We asked the people about romantic sites in their cities, and I then visited many of them, Iíve been traveling a lot.
GB: Youíre taking your own stage with you, which has been built especially for this tour. What does it look like, is it similar to the one in your latest press picture, the one where youíre balancing your bass on your hand?
Mich: No, not so massive. When I was in Turkey last year I saw these special lamps they had. With those we built a frame for the stage concept. As there is no stage in the places Iíll play weíll have to carry all with us, the stage, PA and everything.
GB: Particularly on 'Mystery Bay', but also on 'Amor Fati' there is a strong middle eastern touch. Where does this influence come from?
Mich: I always traveled a lot with the music and the various bands, and from there I took home lots of impressions and atmosphere. And furthermore, Middle Eastern music isnít that far away from ours. Historically seen, this music came from the Middle East to our Mediterranean countries in the middle ages and was adapted and developed further. But the places of origin are quite the same.
GB: Your music sounds very melancholic; are you a thoughtful, melancholy kind of man?
Mich: More thoughtful than melancholic. But I also believe that minor thirds carry better, they have more depth, heavier vibes than the major ones. But I also did some major things, even a piece with minor and major thirds.
GB: You've written film music as well?
Mich: Yes, for some documentation films.
GB: Also about the Middle East?
Mich: No, thatís funny, not at all. One film was on the death sentence in America and the other on childrenís suicides.
GB: All cheerful films with happy music?
Mich: (Laughs) I think, right because the music is somewhat different it causes a tension in the film. Itís amazing, how interpretable something can be if you work with contrasts.
GB: Was the film first done and you wrote the music afterwards, or did both things developed in unison?
Mich: For those two films both directors wanted a certain tune from me that already existed, so we only adapted it to fit properly to the film. Another film on the McDonalds restaurants all over the world was presented to me in the raw version, and I then wrote the music to it. And last year I was in the desert of Namibia. That was fantastic. I had the order for a film of Balthasar Burkhardt, he was making a panoramic film on the desert, turning a circle in a helicopter, and I could join him and then compose the music to the film.
GB: Regarding other countries; you've also played a couple of days in Beirut, Lebanon?
Mich: Yes, that was an invitation. Through some twisted paths one of my CDs made it to the Lebanon. This always makes me very happy when my music takes ways Iíd never have thought of. You know, Beirut is said to having been a pearl of a city before it became the powder keg of the near east. Now there are bombed buildings all around the city, and thereís no house without firing holes. But despite this the city is very busy, loud, pulsing, and the whole atmosphere is very exciting with lots of contrasts, the whole city also being divided by an imaginary border line into a Christian and an Islamic part.
I was playing in a theatre in the Christian part. No one knew me, they just came out of curiosity, but then they turned to be very spontaneous and warm. That was a great experience. And I also played at Nicosia, Cyprus. This city is really parted into Greek Christian and Islamic Turkish by a wall through the midst like the Berlin wall used to be, and UNO protective soldiers and everything. The city is round and the wall cuts it right through the middle, and as the area is very flat you cannot see from the Greek part to the Turkish on the other side. So I was playing in a courtyard of an old Middle Eastern palace in the Greek district near this wall, and in the middle of the concert a muezzin started praying from his tower on the other side of the wall, and I spontaneously accompanied him on the double bass, in the Christian district.
GB: That must have been very moving and thought provoking. What kind of music do you personally listen to?
Mich: The question should rather be what I donít listen to. I love all kinds of music, I listen to any new stuff, be it DJ compilations, classical music or songs, Iím not affixed to a certain style. I like good songs, nice melodies, no matter which style.
GB: Was it difficult to get established in the Swiss music scene, especially with your extraordinary style and influences?
Mich: Thatís never easy and the more unusual the style, the heavier it is. However, if you do mainstream, you are confronted with other problems. My success developed continuously.
GB: You also traveled a lot. Is that another hobby of yours as well as the music?
Mich: I love being on the road, yes. Last year I was almost constantly on the road with my music, but otherwise I donít travel.
GB: I imagine youíre never on the road without your double bass?
Mich: (Laughs) No, rarely.
GB: But you started playing music quite late in your life ?
Mich: Well, I grew up in a musiciansí family, and as it usually is I had to learn an instrument when I was a child. I started with playing piano and then changed to the violin. Of course I didnít like practicing and so this came to an end and I only dealt with the Fine Arts. I was a lot more interested in this then. Iíd never have thought Iíd become a musician.
GB: So what finally got you choosing this life as a musician?
Mich: Somehow this also went along with the Fine Arts. It was that time when the whole Performance Art thing came up and almost broke the arts from their traditional way. This had melted somehow with the performance music and everything ran together. And then I saw this Art Ensemble of Chicago at the Museum of Art at Bern, a group holding the whole Black-American tradition, celebrating Afro-American music. I was very fascinated by them, finding the music a very direct media. This directness, without detour through comprehension, convinced me.
GB: On Amor Fati you worked with DJ Dustbowl and the famous singer Imogen Heap. How did that come about?
Mich: I used to work with 'DJ' before yet. I believe that the lean, percussive Scratches fit wonderfully to the double bass. You can even take words or whole sentences or record something separately and then use it in a rhythmical way. And furthermore I like to link the past with the present, to take the musical culture of earlier days into our world today.
I had heard Imogen Heap previously and thought that this was the voice I was looking for. I could also have gone to the direction of ethnic chants, but this would have been too simple, too obvious. Iíd rather wanted to compose real songs with the voice in the center of it all and not just an add-on. And the voice and aura of Imogen fit so properly, it was a great co-operation.
GB: What made you choose this approach? More often than not the melodic part is taken by other instrumentalists and the bassist just lays down the groove.
Mich: I love playing by bow. To me, the double bass is a bow instrument first. Thatís also why I chose to join the Conservatory instead of the Jazz School, as they put more weight on the bow technique.
GB: Do you also play other instruments, or is the double bass your 'one great love'?
Mich: Of course the double bass is my main instrument, but I tried others meanwhile. But I did that just for myself, not for performing. I tried Cello and I also played the trumpet for a long period of time.
GB: Did you learn these yourself, or did you take lessons?
Mich: I took a few lessons, just to know how it worked, principally.
GB: What does your technical equipment look like?
Mich: I use only a Live-Sampling Systems without Sound-Effects. I have various generations of the Paradise Loop Delay and the Echoplex. Iíve got three of them enabling me to play or mute single sequences on each of them. Thereís a Schertler pickup built in the bridge of my bass where the sound is being split, one line going via a D/I Box directly into the PA, and the other gets into a Mackie mixer, where itís being split again into the various loops. From there it gets back to the mixer and without any amplification directly into the PA.
GB: How many loops can you pile up?
Mich: Theoretically thatís unlimited. But of course, from 10 on the quality decreases, it gets overfilled. Sometimes less is more! (laughs)
GB: You have to play very exact, especially on an non-fretted double bass...
Mich: Yes, you have to practice that. But compared to normal playing I am very much in the center of it all as I have to be in time with my feet also for controlling the loops. This makes an entire body feeling that I like very much. You are pretty much in the center of the music.
GB: Where do you get the ideas for the noises you produce on the bass on top of your conventional playing?
Mich: Thatís partly also from the times in the classical Avant-garde, where you were stretching the limits from where tone ends and noise begins, and even using noise itself. And I studied those whole upper tone stories, that you can split each tone into various upper tones. This works pretty well with a string instrument played by bow. I like flageolets. And I like to experiment. On the final song of 'Mystery Bay' for example I lay a bamboo stick, as itís used it for growing plants, on the bridge and played with the bow on the wood stick instead of the string. The vibes are being transposed from the bridge to the instrument. In southeastern Asia they even have instruments with wooden strings, a string doesnít necessarily have to be metal.
GB: How many basses do you own?
Mich: Iíve got two, a 2/4 and a full bass, a huge animal that has of course a lot of volume. On that one I play the bass lines at the recordings for the fat bass sound. But usually I rather play the 2/4. It just fits into my hands more properly with its smaller measure. The tone volume of course is smaller but as I play it mostly using the bow or over the PA this doesnít matter. The sound of course is leaner compared with the big animal, but I like the lean sound.
GB: Do you compose intuitively or build upon theoretical rules? Are your songs harmonically structured, or are they just left to develop organically?
Mich: This varies from song to song. I often put on a kind of a task to myself, a musical theme, as for example this tune with the minor and major thirds still containing one melody, or once I wrote a tune consisting of only fifth parallels which are so forbidden. Iím attracted to things like that. Then I work it out until I like it.
GB: In drumíníbass itís quite unusual to play a double bass instead of an electric bass with lots of effects. Have you ever considered playing electric?
Mich: I did it at the time when I played this Hardcore-oriented music. There I played an electric with lots of effects, of course, with fat distortion and everything. But after a while I came back to the upright. I canít play both. I admire the people who are capable of both, but I canít. But it surely would be great being able to flip between the instruments just as it fits to the different songs. But as I love playing the double bass by bow, it was an easy decision.
GB: Are you planning to release a new album shortly?
Mich: Iím planning the release of a CD in New York, to enter the US market. This will be a compilation of 'Mystery Bay' and 'Amor Fati' in new versions, and a couple of previously unreleased things that we are still recording.
You can read more about this incredible and inventive musician at his website: http://www.michgerber.ch
Copyright © 2000-2009 Global Bass Online