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Steve Lawson's Solo Flight

with Andy Long

When Steve Lawson was a child his mother declared him to be 'the least musical member of the family'.  Anyone who listens to his solo debut, 'And Nothing But The Bass, Live @ The Troubadour', or indeed to any of the session work he has recorded, will be forced to ask the question, 'What on Earth was that woman talking about?' Steve has developed into a gifted and imaginative bassist, whose melodic ideas and encyclopedic chordal knowledge are at least equal to many (currently) more well known artists.

That less than prophetic label from his mum came as a result of aborted attempts to learn a variety of instruments, as Steve explained.

'My brother plays clarinet and my sister plays flute and guitar and is reasonably good at both of them, mum's incredibly musical and plays Northumbrian pipes.

My first instrument was recorder and I was very good at recorder because I had an ear for melody but I had no ear for harmony. When I was about nine I tried guitar and it made me cry, because I played an E Major and a G major and they sounded exactly the same. I then tried piano, teaching myself one song from a hymnbook, the only song which was in "C" and had nothing bigger than a quaver in it. I got about eight bars into it and thought, "this is the most laborious thing I've ever tried". Then a failed attempt at violin and trumpet, the violin lasted a couple of years, the trumpet lasted about a year.'

Thankfully, this was not the end of Steve's musical career and, after moving to Berwick-On-Tweed, (England) he bought himself a bass and joined a local band.

'It was a little SG copy and was just rubbish. After a short while I broke a string and didn't know you could buy new strings, so I had it tied round the bridge and I played it like that for a year and a half. It had stickers up the side of the neck telling me what note it was and when I took them off they took all the lacquer off the bass and completely ruined it. It had bits off Tippex painted all over it.'

A badly broken arm marked Steve's exit from this first band and at the age of fifteen he bought his second bass and spent the best part of a year in his bedroom with a guitar amp and a distortion pedal making what he describes as 'the most appalling noise imaginable'. 

However, it was from this point on that he began to think that solo bass was a viable project. A few years later Steve managed to get into music college and it was there that he discovered some of the bass players that we all love. Artists like Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius and Stu Hamm. It was also there that he first heard Nick Beggs play in Iona. 

'That was quite a radical point for me to hear him and what could be done. I got interested in Chapman Stick but then transferred that onto bass because I couldn't afford one. Writing a bunch of solo pieces whilst I was at college I began to see that it was possible to play solo on bass and that the ideas I was having were better than some of the people I was listening to and I thought "well, even if I can't play them I can see that the ideas are better than some of the stuff that's going on here", so I had something to aim for.

While at college Steve met up with Canadian singer-songwriter Johnny Markin and soon agreed to spend some time touring and recording with him. 

It was during this time that the chordal and melodic ideas he had been working on since college all began to tie together. It was also during this time in Lincoln that Steve recorded a few albums with Chris Bowater and Trish Morgan, as well as with the aforementioned Johnny.

A while later Steve moved to London. 'I continued gigging with Johnny for a while and recording with Chris but I also started to gig around in London and meet a lot of musicians. I started teaching at Drumtech and eventually met up with Jason Carter at a point when he was just starting a quartet with Nick Beggs called "Ragatal". I went to see them play and thought they were one of the most amazing bands I'd ever seen, the combination of sounds, electric violin, acoustic guitar, Chapman Stick and tabla was superb. 

I stayed in touch with Jason for a couple of months, Nick was then busy with Howard Jones and Jason wanted to do an album featuring the quartet. Nick couldn't do it so Jason asked me to come and try out and it worked really well.'

The Ragatal album "Fragments Of Grace" was released in 1998 on the Arc Music label and received a lot of critical acclaim. The album featured one of Steve's tunes and working with Ragatal helped him to further develop his ideas.

'Having got the JamMan, which is the 32 second loop device that I use, I started to think about ways of playing these tunes on my own, so at the second Ragatal gig at St. Lukes which is the church I go to in London, I played a solo tune using the JamMan and the reaction was fabulous!'


Soon Steve was playing solo gigs in his own right, kicking off at The Troubadour in London supporting the Chapman Stick soloist Carrie Melbourne.

After the move to London Steve also began working for Bassist Magazine, which has since been incorporated into Guitarist Magazine, something that he is very enthusiastic about. 'Working for Bassist has been a Godsend because I've got to jam with and nick ideas from a lot of my musical heroes, people like Danny Thompson, John Pattittuci, Abraham Laboriel, Michael Manring and it's been invaluable getting their feedback. I've also had two trips to L.A. paid for by the magazine, I've met people in the industry through the magazine, people at other magazines and connections with manufacturers.

The companies whose equipment I use are very supportive and also understand that, because I'm a journalist, I can't have an exclusive endorsement deal because I've got to be honest. If Ashdown or Modulus or somebody make something that's rubbish, I've got to say so. Everyone knows that whenever they send me a piece of gear I'm going to give it an honest review. I'm very fortunate that the equipment I have got is stunning.'

That leads us on neatly to look at Steve's gear. Steve has been playing Modulus basses for a few years now so I asked him what keeps him going back to them?

'Well, my experience with Modulus began when I left college and went shopping for a new bass. The shop that I went to was by chance the only Modulus dealer in the UK at the time, and this hideous porno-red Q4 was within my price range, it played like a dream and sounded like nothing I'd heard up `till then, so I bought it. Recently I had the bright red finish stripped and replaced with a gorgeous maple top by Martin Peterson of Sei Bass in London.

That was my only bass for years and I love it, so when it came to getting a new bass, Modulus was my obvious first choice. The first one I got was a Modulus VJazz fretless, which was sent to me to review for Bassist and 
I loved it. It filled two gaps in my bass needs - firstly it's fretless and secondly it's passive so gives me a more old school sound. 

Fortunately, after I paid the shipping and duty on the bass, Modulus let me keep it. It's so costly to ship basses to the UK, it would've cost them almost what the bass was worth to reimburse me the shipping and duty, and then to ship it back as well!!!

My most recent bass buy is my Modulus 6 string fretless, which is basically an Oteil bass, but with different wood choices, a lined wooden fingerboard, a custom Celtic goose inlay, Lane Poor pick ups and Bartolini electronics. I ordered this after playing a fretted one at the NAMM show in '99 and then saving up for it for a year! 


By this time I'd met the guys at Modulus, and was able to stipulate all the custom options I wanted on the bass, and am so happy with it - it really is as close to the perfect bass as I can imagine.

The great thing with Modulus is that not only do they make great basses, but they are actively working with the Rainforest Action Network to find renewable, sustainable alternatives to the various tropical hardwoods who's stocks are dwindling and need to be protected. 

I love playing gorgeous basses, but don't really want to play a bass that I know has contributed to the destruction of the rain-forest, so to have quality with a conscience is a great combination.
'

Steve also has a Rick Turner Renaissance five, quite an unusual bass. 'That's another one that I was sent to review that I ended up paying for! Rick's a bass building legend, and his Renaissance series are what he calls 'amplicoustic' - designed to be played plugged in, but with hollow chambers and piezo pickups made to give a great 'acoustic like' sound. I think the magic is in the pre-amp buffer that Rick has built, but whatever it is, he's got something special and it's another unique bass. 




'I did a recording session with it recently and it was just beautiful. It's not the kind of bass that I'd play all the time - that would be like eating ice-cream for every meal - but my bass arsenal would be deficient without it.'

Steve was tagged by Bassist as the 'Gadget Guru', a bit of a sad title but nonetheless accurate. Steve loves toys. Although he steers away from Midi technology, describing it as 'out of your control' Steve uses all manner of effects to enhance his compositions. One of his current favorites is the E-Bow, a tiny gadget that electronically simulates a bowing sound.

Steve was introduced to the E-Bow through the music of Michael Manring and it can be heard to great effect on the ambient piece 'Drifting', I asked him about his current favorite toys.

'My latest acquisition - which is actually still officially on loan, is a Line 6 DL4 delay modeler. It gives me up to 28 seconds of loop time, which I can then double in speed and pitch and flip back to front to give an effect that one reviewer described as sounding like 'disgruntled operatic bats'! I'm not sure about that, but it's a great atmospheric sound that gives my another dimension to soundscaping. Backward sounds are very evocative, we all have things that we associate with them, so I like using that.

Other than that, I'm still exploring the Lexicon MPX-G2 which I've had for about a year and am still finding new things about - it's got so many layers of editing and allows me to create so many bizarre noises. But I guess 
More importantly, it gives me a really nice true signal when I'm just using reverb or a simple delay sound.
'

Just to complete the set I asked him what amplification he favors.

'For the last couple of years, I've been using an Ashdown C110-300 1x10 combo, which is unbelievable. I still can't quite get my head round an 
amp that is so small and yet so full sounding. For bigger gigs I've got a Trace 1x15 cab that I run off the bottom of it, but I'm about to buy an Ashdown 2x10 instead to run it with the combo in a vertical 3x10 mini stack.

My biggest problem on solo gigs is working out how to patch all the effects and gadgets, at the moment, I run into the Ashdown, out of the effects loop send into the MPX-G2 which has an SWR Interstellar Overdrive in the FX loop for distortion, from that I go into the Line 6 DL4, which has two sends, one going into the JamMan and out into a Raven Labs Master Blender via a Visual Volume Pedal, and the other going straight into the Master Blender. It works quite well, but is a little complicated and has too much wire involved, so I'm working on new ways of patching it to cut down the signal chain!'

All these toys can be heard working together on Steve's album. Oddly enough, it was an album that was never originally intended for release, as Steve explained.

'I bought a MiniDisc player and I record all my gigs, just for reference...and narcissism.' he grinned. 'I archived a few of the pieces on my website and well over 100 people e-mailed me to ask where they could buy it, so I thought that if that many people want to buy it and it hasn't been heard by a particularly wide audience, presumably there's a market for it.

So I've got a friend who's got ProTools and I went and mixed some of it and recorded some other gigs. Half of the tunes on the album come from the second gig at the Troubadour. I did one duet in the studio, or actually a trio for two basses and a pianist. The rest of it is completely live, exactly as it went into the mike.
'

Steve's compositions are often very melodic, making great use of chordal arrangements. Sometimes they are far more abstract and ambient, but the album is certainly not a 'chopfest' of blinding speed and tapping frenzy, like some solo bass albums I could mention, so why didn't Steve want to show off his chops?

'When I was at college I got very into technique and we used to have competitions to see who could slap the most notes in a minute. It was very tongue in cheek but we still did it. I try very hard to make sure that all the gadgets and technical side of it is serving the music. 

That sounds like the kind of thing anyone would say even if they weren't doing that, but I genuinely do try and make sure that's what's going on, that I'm not just saying "look how fast I can play". I did go for sound rather than speed, not because I technically couldn't do it, because I probably could, speed is actually just a matter of practice, ideologically there's very little going on, it's just a matter of playing fast. I could have done that, but I've got no interest in that, I don't listen to music like that. My number one musical obsession is an American guitarist called Bill Frisell. He's got more technique than anyone I could ever imagine and yet if you listen to any of his last five or six albums, there's hardly a semi-quaver on any of them. It's all about the relationship between sound and space.'

I asked Steve to explain the inspiration behind some of the pieces on the album, beginning with the opening track 'The Inner Game'. 'I was reading a book called "The Inner Game Of Music" which is all about the psychology of playing and writing and improvising music and, having read most of the book, I found I was doing most of it already so it was a great encouragement. 

But there's a lot in there about relaxing and how to get relaxed before gigs and the fact that the tune is actually fairly simple to play means that I stick it at the front of the set and I don't have to worry about it and it's my way of getting into it. So instead of sticking something really 'twiddly' at the beginning, messing it up and feeling terrible about myself, I put something simple there.

"The Virtue Of The Small" is from a book called "The Tao Of Piglet" which is a book explaining Taoism from the point of view of Winnie The Pooh and Piglet, it's brilliant. Although the understanding of origins is different from that of Christianity I don't think philosophically it's incompatible. I think it's actually informed my faith rather than detracted from it and there's a sense of understanding the natural order of things and the way that God has made them that I could relate to and say "Yeah, there's reason and purpose behind things and we fight against the way things are far too often and waste a lot of energy." I found it incredibly helpful and I found it strengthened and informed my faith quite a lot.

"Bittersweet", the piano and bass tune was a chordal arrangement I'd had kicking around for ages and I found myself one afternoon playing it whilst thinking about the fact that I'd had two people quite close to me die recently, one was my girlfriend's mum, who was obviously a lot closer to her than she was to me, and the other was my uncle. 

He was about sixty, his mum had just died and he'd suddenly got a new lease on life. The tragedy was that he was just about to do all these amazing things and then he was gone. He left so much behind him because he had it all waiting to do. 

That was a huge tragedy - far greater than my own personal loss - that he'd waited too long. I can't think about death too long without thinking about my own future, so thinking about that the whole thing took on a different kind of shape, it stopped being quite so floaty and ambient and I actually wrote a tune that creates the right kind of feeling in me.


I'm never too sure what it means to name an instrumental, it's a strange thing to do, but I think that's the first time I've had a specific event inspire or encapsulate what was going on'.  As a teacher and as a musician Steve Lawson has a lot to offer so I asked him for his one top tip for us lesser mortals (I thought that would throw him - and it did!)

'One tip? Oh God, that's impossible! Er, probably "get lessons" - that pretty much covers it all. Or if I was being a little more obtuse, "listen and learn", and if I was trying to be pithy and Zen-like, "imitate, assimilate, innovate." - there's three, each person can choose one for themselves!'




Steve's album 'And Nothing But The Bass' is available direct from his website at:

http://www.stevelawson.net/wordpress/ 

Andy Long is our correspondent in the U.K. and the author of numerous articles in Global Bass for a number of issues. Andy will be continuing over 2001 with a series of interesting and provocative interviews with some of the U.K. best and brightest bass players. 







 

                                  

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