Global Bass Online November 2001
Over the last year I've interviewed a couple of Chapman Stick players, people who started out as bass players and then moved on to Stick. Like many of you, I've often looked at the possibilities offered up by the Stick and been tempted to follow in their footsteps. This month I'm talking to one of the world's foremost exponents of the instrument, Jim Lampi. Jim, an American, is now living in London. He took up the instrument in the late '70's, but came at it from a very different angle than a bass player might.
"I was a sax player and I did a bit of guitar. I took it up instead of piano because I wanted a compositional instrument…maybe I should just plug it in and show you what I mean, it's just got a massive range." At this point, I should explain that during the interview Jim would demonstrate a lot of the methods and tunes that he would talk about by actually playing them live to me. It was a bit like the world's smallest gig, making the interview thoroughly enjoyable for me, although a touch more difficult to type!
"So I was using it more with a sort of piano technique," he continued, "although what I'm writing now is more of a trio sound and I'm two thirds of the trio so I'm going for more of a bass sound at this time." Jim demonstrated this 'two-thirds' sound to me with a bass heavy groove with overlaid chords and melody.
The instrument that Jim predominantly plays is the Grand Stick, a twelve-stringed instrument as opposed to the ten-string models that we are used to seeing in the hands of players like Tony Levin or Nick Beggs.
"It has the same range but the crossover is different, it's a bit thicker sound." He explained and went on to demonstrate. "This is a standard tuning so I have it in fifths in the bass, only I have an extra string on the top."
Here's my middle 'C', on a ten-string it would end there but I've got the 'G' above that too. On the treble side, it has more of the range of a guitar so here's the low 'E' on a guitar. So overall five and a quarter octaves, but there's the same note that I would have had on my ten-string as my highest note."
In the late 70's there weren't many Stick players around, in fact Jim bought the instrument without ever having heard it being played. He had read an article about the instrument in the Los Angeles Times, written by Leonard Feather. "He wrote well respected articles about musicians and concerts in L.A.
I was living down in San Diego at the time and he talked about this great instrument that had been designed by Emmett Chapman. It had the range of a piano and it was polyphonic and polyrhythmic, all the things that generally at that time only piano players had. Because it was still at that time just standard analogue acoustic instruments."
I suggested to Jim that the Chapman Stick might be an instrument that would suit a pianist very well, as they already have the right sort of musical viewpoint from which to play it. "There are two different ways to approach it that I've seen. String players, guitarists and bass players generally have better tone because it's still a stringed instrument right? So once you hit a note you know what to do with it and you're comfortable with that. Piano players often have a better sense of percussiveness on their fingers and dexterity in a polyrhythmic sense and also the concept of root-chord coupling and things which guitarists aren't that used to."
After playing around with his first Stick for a year or so Jim decided to ask Emmett Chapman for some lessons, so he went up to L.A. to Emmett's small, family run factory to continue his studies of the instrument.
Gradually he began to incorporate it into a trio setting, playing simple stuff at first for just a couple of songs each night. All the while he was also learning to use it as a compositional instrument.
"I had the concept that it was kind of a piano, so I wasn't looking at it as a bass player might. It hadn't been defined yet as a bass player's instrument so I was just taking it from the basis of reading about it and seeing Emmett play and wanting a piano type instrument. So I just kept working on tunes.
I think my first real solo job was when I moved up to the San Francisco area and I got a happy hour job where there were lots of drunks and they wouldn't notice what you were doing. I'd sit up there doing a lot of the songs that were out at the time like this", he explained.
He then played an impromptu jam of Weather Report's 'Birdland', "I'd also try to sing at gigs which is actually quite good for you because you'll notice that a lot of stick players play in this position, looking at the neck all the time and if you want to sing you have to get used to not looking at it. So in the long run it was good".
Before Jim eventually settled in London, he spent a lot of time travelling and playing around Europe. In the early '80's a lot of American music clubs were giving way to disco and putting in dance floors and sound systems. Jim was prompted to travel Europe because of an abundance of gigs that were available at the time.
"I first came over and just traveled around for the summer and met quite a few people, it was great. I'd just take gigs wherever I could find them. I bought a beat up car in Amsterdam. Sometimes it was great, sometimes it wasn't, one moment I was sleeping in someplace great, next moment I'd be out in my car and it's raining and my feet are sticking out the door, you know!
Through that I met some people who invited me back on a summer tour the next summer in Scandinavia and I ended up there. It just fell into place so easily up there, I started playing with different people, a lot of good musicians, it was a nice influence.
I ended up in a student house with lots of classical musicians and all kinds of musicians so in a way I was gaining an education just by relating to all different kinds of people.
It's a small, close-knit thing, unlike some places. You know the jazz players and the classical people and you'd go to a party and there'd be the theatre people and the mad artist stumbling around, It's a very small city kind of community, so you meet people fast.
I ended up in Paris, played around there for quite a bit. I was thinking of going back to the States and Emmett told me that they didn't have any reps in England so I thought, 'Oh well, I'll come to London and see what it's like'".
Amongst the work that Jim has been doing there have been sessions with Kenyan singer-songwriter Zac Sekobi, who Jim describes as 'a really fine guitarist and singer and songwriter' and who also plays a Kora-type instrument.
Also a No. 1 single in Italy for Argentinean singer-songwriter Marie-Claire DeBaldau led to her putting a band together for a tour over there. Jim was invited to be a part of that band.
On top of all that, Jim has released two solo albums. The first one 'TV Weather', was released in 1991 on a subsidiary of the Polygram label. An instrumental album, I asked Jim to explain the inspiration behind some of the tracks, which he did, and yes, he played them to me at the same time.
"Part of it was inspired by playing the stick, just explorations around a stringed instrument. A few different styles on there, this one got a bit of airplay around the States" said Jim, playing a snippet from 'Petite Pause'.
"So it was almost more of a pianistic mixture of things. I was also listening to classical stuff at the time so I was trying out a few ideas. Trying to get counterpoint out of different parts, so you'd hear that bass part but hopefully you'd also hear kind of a harmony going on.
Also Michael Hedges was doing this kind of percussive thing (demonstrates) so I think one piece in there, just for fun was written like 'Big Guitar'". "So it was almost like trying to be a big guitar and still play the bass line".
I sat and watched in awe as Jim played these pieces, I noticed that he was using the thumb of his right hand a lot to tap out notes, whilst his left hand maintained more of a conventional guitar grip, but when I mentioned this to him he was quick to show me a whole range of other possibilities.
"For some of the classical things you can even use your thumb for this direction" he explained, playing a classical-style piece with his left thumb active, "just trying to get different techniques out of the instrument. You've got all the hands so it depends what you're trying to do, sometimes I'll use the thumb like this," he showed me more of a thumb-slap groove.
"It's actually more writing a piece and then thinking 'How am I going to get the bass line I want?'. You can also break up the hand in different parts like this", as he went on to demonstrate a style in which the fingers are spread over all the strings. "So these two fingers are doing the parts of the chords, these two fingers are doing part of the bass part and these fingers or the thumb can be doing the extra note so you don't have to reach so far and you can also be complimenting in chords.
One track on the album that ended up with that kind of thing happening was 'Look At The Moon'. The second half is double time, more instrumental and so it's that same concept kind of stretched a bit. So these fingers in a way are doing bass.
These are doing part of the chord comping and then the melody's being played while some of the chords are coming here. So the ideal is trying to get that rolling, bubbly effect because of so many parts going on."
Jim continued on to demonstrate the piece - you had to be there, trust me! Jim's second solo album, 'Young Lions' was a song-based album, I suggested to Jim that bringing vocals into that solo stick scenario must make it take on a completely different aspect.
"Yeah it does, I used a friend's little studio set-up. Some of my favorite albums are the singer-songwriter's concept of the song supported by whatever instrumentation.
Usually the instrument that they write the songs on, so you get kind of a real distilled version of the songs. In a way the songs on the album are like that. There's one on there called, 'She’ll Take The Chrysler' for example.
Actually, I'm going to redo that as an instrumental because I really like the melody. Some of the songs I'd written quite a long time before. I had one that was going kind of like this." He played me part of the song 'Candy'.
One of Jim's more high profile gigs in recent years has been with renowned singer/songwriter John Martyn. John came to see Jim play at a solo gig in Soho and asked him afterwards to play with him. So what was that like?
"It was great, it was fun, also a great band. Great players, the drummer's great, I'd love to have him play in my project. Super tight drummer, and Spencer Cousins on Keyboards, who's the MD of the band. He has been through most of the variations although he is constantly playing with different people too.
John Gibbon played bass on one of the tours, which was great fun because John Gibbon's a great bass player. So I had a chance to sit back, I didn't have to cover the bass parts exactly.
Alternatively, we'd sometimes even do two bass parts. Sometimes I would be doing something almost ‘guitaristic’, so in a way I was like a piano player who was just using the instrument depending on where it sat in the group".
As well as playing on a recent John Martyn album Jim can also be seen playing with him on the video release, 'Tell Them I'm Somebody Else'. Meanwhile, another recent project that he has been involved in is an album called 'Digital Dreaming', a collaboration with Australian musicians. But as Jim says, it's not an album of traditional Australian music.
"It's not meant to be historical, it's meant to be London mix meets Australian. Nobody was trying to say that it's not authentic. The producer, although he comes from a straightforward keyboard background, his medium is cutting and pasting and mixing. So he'd cut and slice and do all kinds of production things to it. Frank Yamma, an Aboriginal singer-songwriter, took part in it and we let him sing whatever he wanted to sing.
So it's a really international mix, we'd go out there, record some things, come back and we just did everything we wanted to do. The Stick would just float in and out of there, make atmospheric noises and stuff, growling noises, noise quality, that's what we were looking for."
It's an intriguing sounding work, it's been released in Australia on the Warner Massive label and will hopefully be gaining a wider release. Check Jim's site for updates (www.lampimedia.com). Not now, silly person, we’re almost done!
Jim's latest project is a new solo album, that he is still in the midst of recording. "The album will be based on a kind of trio sound, it's going to be a bit more punchy," he explained. "I'll probably also have a really great percussionist, Chris Wells, playing on it, he's played with lots of people. He played with Paul McCartney on something and he goes to Brazil all the time, so he'll probably be bringing that kind of influence to everything.
The tracks are a little bit more root-based.", he continued, demonstrating one of the new pieces. "I'm going to record most of my parts at home and then later I'll come back and put it together and bring in the other parts. Maybe do some of them live if I feel like that'll be better."
Hopefully we'll see the release of that album by the end of the year. Just to close the interview I asked Jim if he was using any other Sticks at the moment. I'd only seen the Grand until then.
"Ooh what I do have, down in the basement, this is a bass magazine right, you might find this kind of fun, I've got a prototype." He enthused, jumping out of his seat and running downstairs. Meanwhile I was left to play with the Grand Stick. I resisted the temptation to make a bolt for the door with it and tapped out a few scales and the odd chord.
Then Jim arrived back with the 'prototype'. "I've got to get it on the CD at some time. It's set up like the bass side, it's a bass stick prototype. It's got two different types of pickups on it, a Lacey and a Bartolini. You can switch and blend between the two. It has seven strings, goes down to the 'A' below bottom 'B' on a five-string bass so it has a huge range." he said, demonstrating this strange-looking instrument.
"Emmett does make an eight string instrument that's more like a guitar, The NS Stick. But I liked this one, I think it looks like a little weapon, I partly liked it because it was such a funny looking little thing, here why don't you try it out?"
The recorded interview ends with the sounds of me tapping out natty little riffs on the widest-range bass I've ever played and wishing it was mine - ah well, maybe one day?
Dear Santa (a.k.a. Emmett Chapman): Please send Andy Long this prototype. He has been a good boy all this year, doing all this writing on Chapman Sticks for free.
Andy Long is quite probably a Leprechaun living in a country named after a large mammalian sea-going creature. Wales. In spite of himself, he is actually a very talented bassist with two CD’s of him and his Christian rock group, Third Day Rising. He has been a long term writer for Global Bass, whether we like it or not. And we do.
Funny to the core, with a great deal of disrespect for his vaunted Editor, taunting him at every turn, Andy has wormed his way into our affections, well, a lot like a worm, maybe a tapeworm, yeah, that’s it. A tapeworm. Isn’t there something you can take for that?
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