Global Bass Online July 2001
"Michael Manring Played on MY album"
Global Bass spoke to Michael in our first issue, shortly after the release of his Alchemy Records album, 'Book of Flames'. Now with a flurry of new releases, including ATTENTION DEFICIT's 'the idiot king' and his work with Scott McGill and Vic Stevens, 'Addition by Subtraction', it became clear that it was time to do an update with this incredible musician.
Prepping for an interview is vital, yet sometimes it appears it can do more harm than good. It is a given that Michael is a world class bassist, but just how good he really is became quite obvious to this writer as I was putting notes together for the chat.
Visiting that great website Bassically.com, I opened up a file with Michael playing his ZON Hyperbass at a Bass Day `98 event. The file shows him using the Hyperbasses' bridge to raise and lower the tone of each strong as he was playing. As well as this captivating sounding effect, he is triggering a harmonic or striking a note, then reaching down with his right hand and moving the machine head of the respective string exactly from key to key, never a cent out of tune. Harmonics, hammer-ons, slides, the aforementioned drop tone bridge and his impeccable control over tuning all add up to a haunting liquid piece of music that just leaves me shaking my head. This is where the 'more harm than good' part comes in...I had been rattled. Over the years I have interviewed hundreds of artists, yet every once in a while one comes along that makes me ask some questions of myself.
What do you say to a musician that is so ridiculously good that you begin to wonder if you can say anything of interest to them at all? I knew I had one of two choices. Either cancel the interview and hide under a rock or go back to that earlier interview and try to capture a sense of what the man was like. Find an angle, locate a window through which to speak, to connect.
As to the nature of the guy, the answer was in the previous interview. He's a genuinely good and decent guy. Not arrogant in spite of the fact that he could be if he chose to be. The man just has his chops all sorted out. So instead of the 'look how wonderful I am' routine, he takes the quiet path. He knows he is way past competent on his instrument but he has no need to tell you. Instead he shows by example.
I personally know 50 bar band bass players who all told couldn't equal his ability, yet each one of them more conceited, more self congratulatory than Michael could ever be. One of the biggest lessons I've learned since starting this magazine is that the larger than talent, usually the more gracious the personality. I never would have guessed, but it seems to hold true.
When we last spoke to Michael, it was fairly shortly after the death of his good friend and fellow musician, the incomparable Michael Hedges. Michael M. had been thoroughly shaken by the death of his close friend, so I knew to step very lightly. Now a year and a half has passed, and if time doesn't necessarily heal all wounds, it does soften the edges. For close friends and family members, however, though the scar tissue forms, great sensitivity still rests just beneath the surface. I kept this in mind when broaching the subject. Having lost two close musician friends this past three years I knew what was often on my mind.
I asked Michael if from time to time on stage while playing if his mind would drift back to a time when he could spin around on stage and there his friend would be, playing like a 6 string whirlwind.
Michael: Oh absolutely, I never really know when it is going to hit me. I will often be playing, in the middle of something and it will all come back to me. It was different with Michael too because the connection was real real deep. We had this sort of telepathy.
Global: We had talked a while ago about the fact that the brilliance that Michael Hedges carried exacted a toll.
Michael: He was a very unusual person! He was actually a very happy person. He was a really sweet guy, very happy. He had a sense about him that very few people have. He lived life way out on the edge.
Global: Yes, you had said that some of the things he did were pretty far out there.
Michael: (laughs heartfully) Almost EVERYTHING he did was pretty far out there! I don't know what 'Best Friend' means, but he was my best friend. I just loved spending time with him, he was easy to be around. He was an unusual person, most of those characteristics were very funny.
Global: In talking recently with Jeff Berlin and Dann Glenn,
it was broached that many bassists have to 'work through' a period in their
playing where they confront the massive image of Jaco Pastorius. Do you have
feelings about this?
It happens with every instrument that someone comes along early on and really defines qualities that really stay with the instrument. That's just part of what happens.
Global: Do you find that there are people that try to do that to you? That there is a ManThing going on here? (Michael uses the term 'ManThing' on his website, usually to do with activities he is involved in). Do they say, "How will we work past Michael"?
Michael: There's a little bit of that and its always flattering.
Global: 'Addition by Subtraction' is a BIG album. Kind of like King Crimson meets Return to Forever.
Michael: Yeah, that was very very challenging. We played a bunch of live gigs, and there are some pieces on that that I just haven't memorized quite yet.
Global: Is it proving to be a matter of charts to
get around that?
Global: How you tie in with these folks?
Global: Do you think of yourself as being a phenomenally busy
Global: Do you feel your life is hectic?
Global: I know this comes across like a Teen Magazine,
but are you a single guy?
Global: Meaning you? Being 'driven' drives other people right up the wall, doesn't it? I do understand.
Michael: I think it's hard. I've been lucky to have some really great relationships with people, I feel lucky, the whole thing seems to leave these people and me on really good terms. It's a tough thing that asks a lot of somebody.
Global: Do you recall that drawing that our staff artist, Vlad Filopovic sent you, playing 3 basses and arms flying everywhere?
Global: Since seeing that drawing there is a part of me that almost views you in that stance, almost a cartoon character! Not in the derogatory sense of the word, but standing at an airport, covered in bass cases, bags and your SWR bass amp, loaded right up to the last ounce. Is this somewhat accurate?
Michael: I think a lot of people think of me as a cartoon character. My physical appearance is quite 'cartoon-y'. I do a lot whacked out things!! I think it fits, my physical appearance is pretty 'cartoon-y'. So whether I like it or not, I think it fits!!
Global: Have you ever just tried to buy the seat beside you on the plane?
Michael: I haven't, but I'd like to do that. Not
however at this point. Yeah, I am always fighting with the airlines as to what I
can get away with. Now I've got this great new bass case that holds two basses!
That's made my life so much easier!! To be able to carry all my stuff in one
load! I can't go that far though.
Global: Am I correct in saying that for yourself we can still find you in concert holding 2 basses while you have someone holding a third bass as you play it! This does beg the question, "Why is he doing this to himself?".
Michael: Well I have this odd, almost juvenile sort of thing that I never grew out of. If something like that occurs to me, I just have to try it. Believe me, I've tried things that are a lot more absurd than this.
Global: For example?
Michael: There's guy who plays on the boardwalk in Venice, California. He plays a P-Bass with his foot! With one foot. He really has a groove with it. Ever since I saw that I wanted to try it...(falls into laughter). I failed miserably!
Global: How does he do it?
Michael: He wears a sock. Well, it really sounds good, and that what interested me. For me, I try these things and most of them just never pan out. The thing with playing 3 basses at one time, it just really fired my imagination. I can work with 3 different tunings, I can get all sorts of interesting things happening between the 3, coloring the tones. In the recording process I can pan in different parts of the stereo field, I can do all kinds of things you can't do by playing one bass.
Global: And though I take you seriously, my mind is racing back to the Spinal Tap movie where he's kicking the violin held in its stand.
Michael: Oh, yeah!
Global: I do have to ask you how you manage to do this without beating these three basses to death.
Michael: That happens, they're pretty beaten up.
Michael: A lot of practice. It's a challenge. Playing the piece I wrote for three basses was really really hard. Had I not written a piece where I played two basses I might have given up. The 2-bass piece was very easy, actually. I was kinda surprised. It just seemed so natural and came together so easily. Once I got the hang of it and really got into it I wanted to write more pieces like that.
I would actually consider doing nothing but playing 3 basses for a while. There's the shtick aspect of it, I don't deny that. I certainly take advantage of it. People can laugh and enjoy the show and tell their friends, "That guy played 3 basses at one time!". But what I am really interested in is what I am actually playing with that, but if I can entertain people in the process, then that's good too.
I acknowledge that it's a silly thing to do, but if you don't try doing something, because you're afraid that it's silly, then you miss out. That to me, I feel that so much about life in general. You shouldn't be afraid about trying and looking and thinking about new things. My whole life is centered around trying to work with ideas like that.
Global: I think that way leads to mental well being. Mental equilibrium is often a by-product of an interesting life. As long as you're excited about the next conquest.
Michael: I'll tell you, it's such a funny feeling, when you first go to perform a piece like that, where you're just about to play and you think..."Nobody's ever really done this before! I have no idea if you can actually do this!"
Global: It's been proven that a human being can only juggle 7 items at one time, less, but no more.
Michael: Is that right?
Global: Yes, it's to do with timing, reflexes, movement of joints and the speed they are capable of. I know I shouldn't tell you that! Is there a part of you that's thinking, "Hmm, four basses. I wonder...where can I get some arms cloned on?"
Michael: Everybody asks, so yes, I have done it. Beyond 3 it's all the same to me, because I use the same technique. It's mostly just playing 2 at any one given time.
Global: So do you find you spend long periods of time completely by yourself, Michael?
Michael: Yeah, I do. (laughs) Yeah, pretty much!
Global: You're working with Steve Lawson and Rick Walker, the percussionist.
Michael: Yeah, now Rich & I haven't met yet but we are going to be doing this little tour together.
Global: One of the comments you made in the liner notes for an album you played on called Yo Miles, is "not a bad little band". 'Little band!" You would need a crowd permit just to rehearse! There's no money to be made on this with 13+ members. All you would end up with for gigs would be bus fare and a pizza.
Michael: Actually, what is odd about that band is that we are pretty popular. We play at the Fillmore and we've been selling out, which is about 1200 people. It kinda surprised the hell out of me because that music always seemed to be the music that no one wanted to hear. It's dark and repetitive and not very melodic.
Global: And yet our on your web page you refer to it as being fairly 'open'.
Michael: It is really. It's been a real treat doing the project. The people involved, the musicians and other people, have done a lot of research and have shared it with us. What's going on, what it all means. Of course that group of people is just fascinating to work with.
Global: So for all intents and purposes this is a different kind of person, musician than you normally would hang around with. You mention that even lunch breaks were a fascinating experience.
Michael: It was just great, the playing was great, even just hanging out was great. I had all these great perspectives, like, one person would say, "Well, when I played with Mariah Carey..." and the other person say, "Yeah, well when I played with Cecil Taylor"...
Global: Excuse the way this sounds but I suppose you could pipe in with, "Well, when I played with...myself!"
Michael: Yeah! (laughs).
Global: Is there a part of you that was ever tempted to
join some one else's big project and just be in the role of bassists for a
while. Like Victor does with Bela Fleck?
Global: They might not be so happy having you in the band, but you would be in bliss!
Michael: I've had a couple of offers to do some big stuff. But I am not really that happy in a real commercial situation. Some of those gigs are prestigious but they are also pretty brutal. You go on the road for sometimes up to a year. That's all you play for a year.
Global: Now you are working on another solo project. Is it something that involves only bass, is that still going to come about?
Michael: I still have one more optioned with Alchemy Records, but they are trying to decide what is going to happen with their future.
Global: So as a business, you are moving along, keeping
yourself in picks and strings?
Global: I have a suspicion that if you were able to be
omnipresent you would be doing even more. If we could clone you, you would have
a separate person to attend to the business end of things as well.
Michael: I kinda can't, I do as much as I can but I don't care for the 'cold call'. Talking to Steve Lawson and those guys, they are sooooo much better at the business than I am.
Global: So you wouldn't make a good salesman?
Global: It's a balance you find yourself amazed at then?
Global: Do you have copies of all these records?
I saw on the Internet some guy saying "Yeah, Michael Manring is on my new record!" I thought this guy was trying to scam me, but then I hunted down a sample of the tune and sure enough, it was me. I remembered playing the tune, but I don't remember the guy! I felt terrible. I think what had happened was that I worked on his tune with somebody else. I just hope he paid me!!!
Global: And being the great business man you are telling us about, you'll have no records of it!
I noticed on your web pages that SadHappy is on hold right now. You're involved in recording right now, but not touring.
Michael: We're gonna, we have some recordings in the can, we're gonna finish it up and put it out. It's a scheduling problem. The problem like these is because they aren't on a deadline, they get put back. So my solo record, the SadHappy stuff and the other stuff like that, always gets pushed back. If somebody calls and says, "I'd like you to play on this record, but it has to be done by Tuesday", then that's what it calls for.
Global: I'm not trying to be cold here but those kinda things are what pay the bills.
Michael: (Pauses) Well, that was always my thought, but I've realized, even though I haven't sat down with a calculator, that my own records sell better than other records that I play on. It kinda surprised me, I'll have to look into it more. If I was a better business man I would know how to prioritize things like that. It seems like I actually do have something of value in my own career that I should be paying more attention to.
Global: Do you think of yourself as a `Social Creature'?
Michael: I'm not at all. If it weren't for the bass, I wouldn't have ever gotten anywhere. I don't know if shy is the right word...
Global: But the people you trust, they form a sort of
mutually symbiotic relationship, each taking care of the other?
Global: In speaking to Percy Jones, easily one of this era of music's finest bass players, I was shocked and angered to find out that all those years and all those albums with Brand X gave nothing to him and his band mates. For all the albums sold, none of the money made it back to them. That is indescribably insane and categorically wrong.
Michael: I hope you'll say something about that, because he is so brilliant. He's such a brilliant bass player. He never quite got his due.
Global: Much of your own personal success seems to come from
your versatility. Fretted, fretless, bass juggling.
Global: What? You play piano?
Michael: Well, that's the funny thing about it, I don't! I was with Windham Hill all those years. They got the idea to do these Christmas records, holiday music. I had been the Windham Hill bass player, when they sent out the call to everybody on the label, "Hey everybody, send in your demo's". So I sent them all this nice stuff played on the bass that I had worked so hard on, and as an after thought I sorta threw in me kinda noodling on the piano. What I gave them at first was me playing one of my piano versions of an ensemble piece. They thought it was great. They in fact asked me to do that on the record. The record went Gold!
Global: That is so odd, to work on one craft your whole musical life and it gives you enough to eke out a comfortable living, then the one you noodle around on just to phrase chords and experiment with in writing is the one that makes the biggest musical dent with regards to money and records sold. Life can be so odd.
Michael: It was odd. I've never practiced piano. I took piano lessons as a kid, I enjoyed it. I've always loved the piano, and I always wanted to play it. I loved the instrument but not as much as bass. I can make a nice 'sound' on the piano. I can play something that sounds pretty and frankly for that moment, that was what they wanted. Something emotive, something appropriate.
The lesson I learned from that is to not be afraid to do new things. Any weird little skill you may have, you never know how it is going to pay off. In my case, I just enjoy doing all this stuff. I liked playing New Age Music, and the next day playing atonal thrash, to me that's fun. It wasn't some great intelligent decision I made to be versatile. It was kinda why I decided to become a professional musician. I just enjoyed playing music and I didn't so much care about what kind of music I would end up playing.
I was scared when I started branching out. I was scared
that I would piss a lot of people off, and I have pissed some people off! People
who really got angry because I stopped doing the pretty New Age stuff.
(Editor's Note: For the uninitiated, THONK is a deft and daft rock influenced album that comes across like Segovia meets Deep Purple. A must-have for those who like their chops with a dash of pure musical joy and humor).
Global: An associate of mine recently told me that
a woman approached him at a gig and called his Bass a guitar. Instead of being
offended, he realized that was exactly as she saw it: an oversized guitar. Pass
me the smelling salts!
You can find more on Michael and the 950,812 things he is up to these days at:
You can also find his recordings and other great stuff like learning video's at this site.
The new Attention Deficit album 'The Idiot King' including great picture of one spongy-nosed dog!
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