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Percy Jones

 

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Percy Jones


  photo courtesy of Fred Ruegg

 

Although he had expressed a wish to keep this interview in the present, with enough having already been said about days gone by, no article about Percy Jones would be complete or ‘right’ without some acknowledgement of the many years he spent with Brand X and other progressive bands. 

Though a bit of a hackneyed claim, in this case it is nonetheless true: Percy truly is and was, a bassist like no other. Admittedly, lots of bass players have been referred to this way, but in Percy’s case, it is much more of a correct description than just an easy way to describe someone without really doing any work.  

From his fat liquid sound, his rollercoaster of sliding notes, harmonics, ‘pops’, muted percussive sounds and his ability to dance at the very edge of dissonance, his unconventional interpretations of what a bass line could be all add up to a style you will see with no other. If comparison were to be drawn, the closest you might come to Percy’s style is Michael Manring’s. 

It should be noted here however, that much of this was being done by Percy well over 25 years ago, when Michael wasn’t even really in the game yet. Michael certainly deserves all the praise he has received, but in many ways Percy was doing it all, just as well, and a long time ago, with Brand X.  

BRAND X was the perfect 1970’s and `80 venture into Jazz/Rock fusion. It was Return to Forever, The Mahavishnu Orchestra and King Crimson, all rolled up into one: but with more humor and irreverence than all of the others combined. The very nature of the style of music, with it’s leaning towards pomp and circumstance demanded the levity Brand X brought to their music, for balance, if nothing else.  

Throughout the entire history of Brand X, with all their many releases, Percy either was in the band or his presence could still be felt. For many fans, it was thought that Percy was Brand X.


Although it can come off sounding a bit like a traveling salesman's line at your apartments front door, it is correct that no lover of bass player styles and influence would be complete without some of Percy’s recorded work.  

These days Percy spends much of his time in New York, the days of Brand X long over. Maturity often demands that you put things into order, stop thrashing about and begin doing only what is important to you. With that in mind, his concerns and interests now run to his current project. It is something he is very proud of in his own understated way, with a band called ‘TUNNELS’. We talk with Percy of this, that and many things in this article, acknowledging the importance of the past but embracing the present and the future…

 

TUNNELS 

 


  

with Percy Jones on bass, Marc Wagnon on Midi Vibes, Van Manakas on guitar and Frank Katz on drums

~photo courtesy of Andy Kjellgrin

Percy:  I would rather talk about the present and the future than about the past. I’ve done so many interviews where they ask again and again, “Where did Brand X get together?”. It’s all about Brand X. I’ve sorta told all the same stories over again and again.”  

We’ve got this group called ‘Tunnels’. It’s a 5 piece group that has been going on and off for 5 or 6 years. It’s pretty much a fusion type of group. We did a self-titled record actually called “TUNNELS’ about 6 years ago and this past summer another one was released called “Painted Rock”. It’s good stuff, though not particularly groundbreaking.  

Global Bass:  Well, why do things always have to be groundbreaking? If a band puts out an album every year, they are allowed to repeat themselves for an album or two before branching out. However if a group releases an album every 3 or 4 years, their fans expect them to recreate themselves completely, each and every time. What a pile of crap!

Percy:  You’re right, it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s  a nice piece of work (the new album), I think for this kind of music, it’s very good, I’m happy with it.  

GB:  Bunny Brunel released an album earlier this year called ‘CAB’, very fusion-filled, very Return to Forever. Is this newest album along the same lines? 

Percy:  Well, I’ll tell you what we try to avoid with this group is what I consider sort of the negative side of fusion, which is very cliché. It was a style of music that was in my opinion originally very exciting. It was something new that had an edge to it and then it sort of degenerated into ‘Music for Washing Dishes’. Like ‘Fusak’. There were a lot of groups that took the essence out of it and it just lost it’s edge, it became predictable. 

So with Tunnels, we try to avoid that aspect of it, we try to keep it fresh although within the fusion style. That’s why I say it’s not particularly groundbreaking, but it does have that edge.  

GB: Are both these albums readily available on labels?

Percy:  The first album, which was called ‘Tunnels’ came out on a small label called OZONE. That label also put out a BRAND X record called ‘X-Communication’. That label, well the guy disappeared on us.

GB:   Quite literally? He disappeared?

Percy:  He disappeared! He personally disappeared, along with the money. 

GB:  Now that he is out of the picture, do earnings from the album now come back to you? 

Percy:   Well, we got the rights back fairly recently, so we are with  this other label, which is owned by Marc Wagnon, the vibe player in Tunnels. He put this label together called Buckey Ball Records. He also has a website called BuckeyBall.com.  

As I said before, we also did a more recent one called ‘Painted Rock’. Just actually this week, they released a record by Marc’s wife, Sarah Pillow, a classical singer. (Editor’s note: Sarah’s album features ancient music from the 15th and 16th century, reworked an sung from this present time.) 

GB:  Are you on that album?

Percy:  Yeah, John Goodsall is on it as well!


John Goodsall

 GB:  So has John stayed a friend all these years?

Percy:  John lives in L.A., we play together from time to time. Not that often, because I left Brand X a couple of years ago.  

GB:  Were you able to maintain any other friendships from those times?

Percy:  I had pretty lost contact with everybody but John because all the other guys live in England. Robin Lumley lives, I think, in Australia. So we’re all scattered all over the world. 

GB:  That’s a bit of a sad thought. Do you talk to Phil Collins at all?

Percy:  No, I don’t think he keeps in touch with anybody. Nobody hears from him.  

GB:  How about Frank Katz, the other drummer?  

Percy:  Oh, yeah, I play with him quite regularly. He’s also the drummer in Tunnels. He’s also on this ‘Sarah Pillow’ record I just mentioned.  

GB:  How about gigging these days?

Percy:  Well, once in a while. The band is operated like ‘Have Band, Will Travel’! Once in a while, a gig will come up and we will go out and play, but it’s sporadic. We’ve never done any intense touring, it’s just a gig here and a gig there.  

GB:  Are you still playing Synth as well as bass?

Percy:  With Tunnels I just play bass. For my own stuff, I play keyboards. I am a terrible keyboard player, but I can use keyboards to write. I can piece it together! I wouldn’t be able to go out and play in ‘real time’. I just don’t have the chops, you know. 

GB: Inevitable question, what kind of basses are you using these days?

Percy:  Well, I’ve been using Ibanez. Most people are surprised by that, they say “Why did you stop playing a WAL, they’re such great instruments?”. Which they are, and the reason for that is that I just felt like a change. Ibanez approached me about playing their basses and the first one they sent to me, I remember the UPS guy bringing it here. I took it out of the box, I picked it up and I thought, ‘Well this thing is not going to sound any good! It’s too light!”.  

I put it back in the box! I actually forgot about it. A couple of weeks later when the guy from Ibanez called up and said, “Well, what do you think?”. I said, “Oh no, I haven’t played it yet!!”  

I thought that I had best at least play it, so I went back, took it out of the box. I was very pleasantly surprised at just about how good it sounded!

GB:  They have very narrow necks, haven’t they? How many strings was this one?

Percy:  This was a 5…The interesting things was that it had Piezo pickups, and that was a new experience for me. I found I could get more dynamics in my playing based on how hard I played rather than riding a volume control or whatever. Very sensitive to the dynamics of your playing.  

GB:  How about the Boutique Basses out there? The 7, 9, and even 15 string basses. Have they ever drawn your interest?

Percy:  I found going to 5 string was quite a major change! Six strings would just be too much. In fact, I did a gig not too long ago at a place called The Knitting Factory and a guy came down with a beautifully made 6-string.  

I just couldn’t play it though, it was like playing a canoe. It was too wide and I just didn’t feel that I could handle it. I got lost on the width of the neck, and the damping factor. There’s the extra string to be concerned about damping when not playing it. To me just going from 4 to 5 strings, I had to rethink my thumb position and keeping it all under control. So, I would never consider going to 6. 

GB:  Being well over 40 myself, I have to consider the physical aspects of a 6-string as well. The old paws grow tired faster!

Percy:  As I’ve gotten older it does get harder to play. I’ve gotten a bit stiffer. I don’t think as quickly as I did when I was in my late 20’s. I just have to keep fit.


  Percy as a young pup!

 GB:  Also at our ages, we begin to realize it isn’t necessary to always play 6000 notes a bar!

Percy:  Right, the speed thing and the dexterity, that’s just one factor of the whole thing, you know?  

GB:  So how did ‘Tunnels’ come about?

Percy:  In the early `80’s, I wasn’t in a band at all, there was nothing going on. I had been doing a lot of writing and had a whole bunch of material. So what I did was I started going out on my own with a machine, doing sort of a solo gig but with sequences and that sort of stuff. That was originally supposed to be just one gig. It was a venue in New York that called and asked me if I wanted to play there. That led to another gig and another gig and I ended up doing that for a couple of years. I wasn’t particularly happy working like that because I would miss the interplay of working with other musicians. But at least it was an outlet and I was reasonably productive.  

GB: Plus no one could show up at the gig drunk, unless you were. There were no arguments and nobody fooled around with women and disappeared for days or got arrested at customs on ya unless you where there! 

Percy:  Yeah, not a problem that way. (Laughs) Not when I just had myself to rely on and the machinery. There were some nightmare moments with some ‘midi madness’. So I did that for a couple years and actually released a record called ‘Cape Catastrophe’. It’s on Hotwire Records, out of Germany.  

People said to me, “Well, why don’t you do this sort of stuff with a band?”. I thought it would be nice to start playing with people again. I knew Marc Wagnon was interested in doing something. He was working in a band called Doctor Nerve, here in New York. He played Midi Vibes, so there was a potential there for all different sound sources all controlled by the Vibes. 

Then Frank Katz I had jammed with one day at a Drummers Collective. He was a good candidate.  So originally it was just a trio with myself, Frank and Marc. We rearranged some of the material I was doing solo, and I wrote some new stuff. I think Marc wrote a couple things and we went out as a trio. We were playing at The Knitting Factory, those sort of venues. Then we added Van Manakas on guitars, he had played with Gil Evans and Miroslav Vituous,  I think, so it’s been that same lineup for quite a while.  

GB:  So when you are not gigging with these folks, what do you do to pass the time musically?

Percy:  I have been doing a lot of writing and I’ve gotten rather interested in what I would loosely call Techno Music, believe it or not. Some people are shocked when I say this, but I am interested in sort of the sonic qualities of it and I go to Europe most summers. It is quite interesting how Techno is developing in Europe.

Some of it’s terrible but some of it is quite interesting. It’s starting to develop musically. It’s something that is developing and I think it’s going to develop into something that is very interesting in a few years maybe.

GB:  Are you incorporating some of this in your solo recording?

Percy:  I do demo’s here but I have to go into the studio to actually record. Maybe before too long I could do the ‘hard drive thing’ on my computer.

GB:  Now as to family, do you have any kids and are they musically inclined at all?

Percy:   Yeah I have a 19-year-old son. He just moved to Norway.

GB:  It’s hard enough when kids grow up and move away, but it must be worse when they move far away.

Percy:  Yeah it’s hard.

GB: Why Norway?

Percy:  He heavily got into languages, he’s very talented. He went to a New York Public School, which was terrible, really terrible and I don’t think he learned much there. But he started teaching himself languages including Swedish and he learned Swedish to the point where he could speak it very well. Now of course, Swedish is not that far, not that different from Norwegian. I don’t know that much about languages.

GB:  Is he a musician himself?

Percy:  No, he says he doesn’t want to be poor!  So he went to Scandinavia once with his mother on a business trip and just liked the culture. He also didn’t like New York, I didn’t either.

GB:  How long have you been there?

Percy:  Oh, twenty years.

GB:  Any chance of getting out of there?

Percy:  Oh I might, it’s just a case of ‘Where am I gonna go?’

GB: Have you ever been invited to do any sort of bass duet?

Percy:  It’s funny you ask that. Just before I went to Wales back in the summer, I did an interview with a radio station in Philadelphia. The guy, a Mike Harrison, he does a sort of fusion show at the station and he wants to set something up for me to do something with Alfonso Johnson. Alfonso is one of my favorite electric bass players.

GB:  What about his playing speaks to you?

Percy:  It’s just so expressive. It’s like the guy is talking to you, there’s just something very organic about his playing.

GB:  I would have to say the same about your playing as well.

Percy:   Oh, good!

GB:  So do you think that it might come to pass?

Percy: It might, the ball is in their court. I am into doing something, so… .

GB:  With the new breed of bassist now coming up through the ranks, some of the roles are blurred, some players have made a career out of wandering into an arena previously reserved for guitarists and keyboardists.

Percy:  That’s actually an aspect that I am not too crazy about. You know what was interesting, and this is just a personal opinion, what was interesting was that Bert Gerecht (of Hotwire Records) sent me a CD that he’d put out. It was a compilation of loads of bassplayers. There were some really good players, a couple of them were scaringly good in terms of technique. But there were a lot of guitar-like qualities about it too. I was impressed by the chops and everything, but there was something about the way it was functioning in the music that didn’t really connect with me.

I was listening to this CD and then it came to a track by Carol Kaye and it had this sort of, you could called it ‘Old Fashioned Bottom End’ sound. It sounded really refreshing, compared to some of the other stuff. She doesn’t have the chops that some of these other guys had, but it just caught my attention right away.

GB:  The pendulum swings, but it always come back to this…does the song make sense, does it say anything, does it go anywhere?

Percy:  Right, it’s gotta have a function. It’s gotta say something. It’s like watching athletics, the Olympics. When it gets like that, it doesn’t talk to you any more. The critics of fusion always complained about that.

GB:  Did you ever become much of a collector of instruments?

Percy:  No, I’ve always lived in really small apartments!

GB:  Did you ever pursue teaching?

Percy: I taught at the Drummers Collective for a couple of years at one point and I was teaching here at home for a while. I actually decided to stop doing it because it was affecting my creativity.

GB:  How so?

Percy:  I was spending so much of my time analyzing what I was doing so that I could convey that to the student that I was starting to think too much about how I was fingering things and what was considered ‘correct harmony’, or ‘not correct’. I was becoming so academic about it that I actually stopped this so I could start creating again. You have to break rules and get out of habits to create.

GB:  Did you find the students were asking you to figure out parts of songs they liked so that they didn’t have to use their brains, and figure it out themselves.

Percy: Worse than that! They were actually asking me to teach them solos that I had played on such and such a record! It was improvised at the time. You would have to sit down and listen to what you played 15 years ago and try to figure out what you did.


 BRAND X with Percy at the time of the release of their ‘Masques’ album

GB:  One Brand X question, if I may, along those lines?  When you were gigging with them and you were moving into a song off one of your albums, were you all allowed much free-reign in your solos or did you perform them note for note?

Percy:  We kept the framework that was on the record, but there were always these open sections where you could go anywhere. That was to keep it fresh.

GB:  With Tunnels, the same freedom?

Percy: Oh yeah, the same thing.

GB:  Do you play often these days?.

Percy:  It depends, sometimes we don’t play for 6 months and then someone will call up and say we have a gig. We’ll call a couple rehearsals and do the gig, then maybe not play again for 2 months. It just goes on like that.

GB:  If you had your choice, would you play more or less?

Percy:  I would like it to be busier, but that’s just the way it is right now.

GB:  Is there a goal with your own material to get busier? To make it more The Percy Jones Band and maybe even get back to chasing an album?

Percy:  Oh yeah. I really have a big ambition to do Something New. That sort of goes back to what I was saying about the Techno stuff. Those guys, although they are not playing in ‘real time’, they are programming, but they are breaking the rules.

For example, they are putting the bass on the upbeat and the kick on the downbeat. They are getting away from this thing that has gone on for years, which is the bass phrasing the kick drum. This was something that got started back in the `60’s. It has gone on for so long. What they are doing is in some ways very primitive. At least they are getting away from it.

GB:  This kind of thinking peaks your interest then?

Percy:  Yeah, anybody who gets away from what’s become ‘the norm’, I always take my hat off to them. I think that’s the sort of stuff that drives music along in terms of creativity. People breaking out of these styles and coming up with music that is unpredictable.

Music that is unpredictable is always exciting. It is an interesting time, things are in a state of flux. Things are going to go somewhere quite soon, I think. It’s ready to pop, within the next 5 years. It’s going to be very exciting and I’m going to be part of it.

Right now, I see a big disparity musically between each side of the Atlantic. Tens years ago, it was quite similar, you would hear certain types of music and it would be hard to figure out where it came from, the U.S. or Europe. Now that gap is widening again.

You’ve got the Techno thing in Europe and you’ve got Rap in the USA. You talk to the kids around here that listen to Rap and you ask them if they listen to any Techno and they’ll say ‘no, it’s too fast’. They just don’t relate to that feel. One thing I don’t like about Techno, loosely speaking, is it tends to be a programmers area. I am hoping it can get into a situation where more of it can be done in ‘real time’.

GB:  You could help direct that!

Percy: There are ways of doing that, so if that happens I would be very comfortable with it.

GB:  A personal question that you don’t have to answer…was there ever a time when Brand X was really flying that you were rolling in money?

Percy:  We never made any money from the music.

GB:  For all the notoriety?

Percy:  Brand X, of all the bands I’ve been in, I think Brand X was the most successful, but we never got royalties from that. Nothing, not a cent.

It’s a long story, the management that also manages Genesis, Phil Collins and even Peter Gabriel for a while, he claims that our debt to him was so great that he is still recouping royalties to repay that debt.

GB:  And when does this end?

Percy:  Oh it goes on and on, he refuses to give us any accounting. I’ve tried several times, going through lawyers, to get him to furnish accounting, to explain what this supposed debt is. They just refuse to do it.

To tackle it I would have to hire a really good lawyer that would probably cost me $100,000. So you see why I am really anti-record company?

GB:  With Marc Wagnon owning the record company you work with now, being a friend and in the band you are in, is it a different matter entirely?

Percy:  Well, yesterday I got a cheque from him (Marc) for $300. It was really nice. It’s a small amount, but I got it! It’s better than getting absolutely nothing.  It’s a weird situation, I go into Tower Records still, here or Tokyo or London and there are still Brand X records in there, so they can’t say they are not selling. Somebody’s getting it.

GB:  Do you have a fairly comprehensive collection of all the recordings you have played on?

Percy:  Most of them yeah, there’s a couple of Brand X records that I don’t have and have no interest in having, because they were put out without our blessing. Somebody took the out-takes, put a compilation together and put it out just trying to milk it to the max.

The other thing is when these records do come out, we have to go out and buy one, they don’t even send us one. I am not going to go out and buy a bunch of out-takes that as far as we were concerned should have gone in the garbage. They take the name off you, they take the artistic license off you.

The worst aspect of all this is when you read a review that slags it off, that says ‘This is not up to the standard that these guys used to do’, but they don’t know that we didn’t want even want it to come out in the first place.

 

Percy has given a lot to the world of bass playing, and is not done giving just yet. Take a look at some of his Brand X recordings, but also give a listen to his solo releases, and his work with TUNNELS and Sarah Pillow. He helped shape and direct almost single-handedly the world of jazz/fusion bass playing  in earlier days, and if he has his way, he will be instrumental in shaping some of the music to come in this new decade as well.

 

You can reach Percy via Bucky Ball Records @

http://www.buckyballmusic.com


Sarah Pillow with Percy Jones on bass

You can also get copies of Tunnels albums, Percy’s solo albums, Brand X music (only this time Percy gets the benefit!), and albums Percy has played, on such as the above ‘Sarah Pillows’ new release, all at Bucky Ball records. Any questions you may have for him may be directed through the above web address as well.

 

                                                                                      

 

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