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In The Loop


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In The Loop

A Roundtable discussion with  Michael Manring, Steve Lawson, and Rick Walker

by Daniel Elliott


Most of the time it’s business as usual for the professional music community, but every once in a while something really interesting happens.  And fortunately for me, I was lucky enough to be there when it did.  Last July, solo bassists, Michael Manring and Steve Lawson, along with percussionist, Rick Walker got together for a five date Northern California tour affectionately billed as The Worlds First Bass Looping Tour.  This was a follow-up to the highly successful Worlds First Bass Looping Festival that took place in Santa Cruz, California last January.  About a week before the tour kicked off, I got together with Michael, Steve and Rick via online chat to talk about their inspiration for this wild and wonderful idea. 

Daniel: I'll start out with some questions.  Feel free to interject at your whim.

Steve: Great Daniel.  Go for it!

Daniel: Can you give me a little background on looping, specifically Bass Looping?

Michael: I'll take a crack at this.  I'd say that looping probably goes back to the first experiments with electronic "Musique Concrete", but probably the most listened to more modern beginning was with Robert Fripp and Brian Eno.

Steve: Was that when you first became aware of it Michael?

Michael: Yes.  I had read about tape experiments about the time I got some of those early records where those guys would actually make a long loop of tape and run it through a reel-to-reel machine. Of course, there was the original Echoplex - as far as I know the first device designed for tape loop stuff.  And I suppose you could consider the Mellotron a looping device.

Steve: The Mellotron was definitely a loop device!  We all owe a great debt to Rick Wakeman. laughs

Michael: I don't think it was too easy to make your own Mellotron loops, though.

Daniel: How does tape looping and digital looping differ other than the medium?

Rick: There is so much more flexibility with the advent of modern, real-time digital loopers.

Steve: I think that physicality played a big part in how people related to tape looping; you could see it going round.  You could keep the tapes if you covered the record head.

Rick: I used to do this in the early eighties, in shows with people like Henry Kaiser.  We would disengage the erase heads on the old tube Echoplexes.  It gave us 3 minutes of loop time.  We would do a long piece then walk off stage and let it be intermission music.

Steve: Yeah!  I've read about doing that, Rick - I was far too young to have anything to do with it though. laughs

Rick: Such a baby…

Michael: There were tube Echoplexes?

Rick: Yeah.  They’re modeled, along with the transistor ones, in the Line 6 DL-4.  I love how those machines degraded the signal; great for live dubbing.

Steve: Digital information is far more nebulous, getting back to the original question.  I wouldn't say it's more malleable, but it certainly has made a few things possible that weren't before, like better signal quality.

Rick: Certainly, and significantly, the ability to sync which we will use a lot in this tour.

Steve: Definitely!  The syncing and the ability to do all the things that you could do with tape but at the touch of a button makes it much more available to people like me who would never have got out a splicing block and chopped up bits of tape.  Now, the skill set required to be involved in looping is much smaller - you don't need to be proficient at tape editing and tape-head modifying.

Michael: The skill you need now is pushing little buttons at exactly the right time!

Steve: Exactly, Michael!  And I can cope with that.  I can push buttons in time (most of the time), so looping is now available to a putz like me.

Michael: Well, of course, it's not just pushing buttons, but how you push them! laughs

Rick: Actually, Steve has inspired me to work with loops that aren't perfectly timed.

Daniel: What do you mean?

Steve: Shall I explain that?

Rick: Yes, explain.

Steve: Basically, when I began looping, I would panic if the loop wasn't spot on, but I soon began to realize that after a period of time playing over a particular loop, the glitches became part of the groove, and I would play to them, and overdub in time with the original loop.  I started to view the contour of a loop as a landscape with peaks and troughs, which I then work on learning, so that I can work with it rather than against it

Rick: The Balinese have a concept, ‘Jam Karet’, or ‘time is rubber’.

Michael: It's a fun game to record random loops of noise and then try to find the groove within them.  Tim Alexander loves to do the random loop thing.  We did some of it on the first Attention Deficit record.

Steve: That's a great record, Michael!

Michael: Thanks!

Rick: You would think that this technology would be limiting, but it has been incredibly liberating to me for these reasons.

Steve: Absolutely.  You start to relate to music on a far more evolutionary level, rather than a verse/chorus back and forth level.

Daniel: So when did the idea of Bass looping come along?

Michael: Hard to say when bass looping started, but Jaco Pastorius’s live solo, ‘Slang’ got a lot of bassists interested.

Steve: Slang was certainly one of the first, but before Jaco, Eberhard Weber and David Friesen were both experimenting with looping on upright basses.

Daniel: Rick, being a percussionist and the mastermind behind this little shindig, why did you choose to bill it as a 'bass looping' fest as opposed to a 'looping’, fest?

Rick: We started the Worlds First Bass Looping Festival because Steve wanted a gig in Santa Cruz and I'm a marketing genius. laughs

Steve: …And a humility expert. laughs

Rick: Specifically, because I fell in love with putting on festivals with great limitations as a way of inspiring new music and creativity.  I' m proud to say that I have introduced 28 artists in the last two years who had never played out of their bedrooms  Ironically, when I produced the World's First Bass Looping Festival, I performed as a bassist, but on this tour I may be the only one to not play bass at all.

Michael: We’re living in interesting times now with all the possibilities that technology offers, all the world's cultures on each other's doorsteps, old conventions breaking down. I think bassists like looping because we are very aware of the concept of accompaniment. Oddly, I think bass lends itself well to layering, too.

Steve: Preach it Manthing!  I guess it's the range and the combination of all the elements of music - rhythm, harmony and melody - that makes bass so good for this rather rarified form of megalomania.  There is definitely a bassist mentality that lends itself to the kind of subservience to the music that is required in looping.  And the bass is designed to play with other instruments, which means that space is inherent in the sound.

Daniel: In that Santa Cruz Show last January, Rick and Steve did some pretty interesting things with the bass and a pair of drumsticks.

Michael: Let's keep it clean, now! laughs

Rick: Yeah, I malleted Steve's bass as he controlled the harmony.  Neither one of us knew where it was going

Steve: You mulleted my bass?  Oh Malleted.  My mistake.

Rick: Mad cow kicking in…laughs This game produces great results with every bassist that I've tried it with.

Steve: on the subject of games, I think that it's a really important part of experimentation to 'play' in the child-like sense of the word.  Too much 'new music' disappears up it's own ass ‘because the people doing it have forgotten that the basic model for childhood discovery and experimentation is ‘play’.  And that's what Rick's mullet game does; it introduces a fun element that may or may not have hugely significant musical results.  As it was, the piece was pretty cool.  One journo said it was the highlight of the show!

Michael: Yeah, I guess we all have the desire to feel that what we're doing has more significance than just goofing around!  But, goofing around is important!

Steve: And the lesson is to learn that goofing around is sometimes more vital and progressive than reading a textbook.  As Michael Franti said 'I am deadly serious about us having fun'.

Rick: I love that quote.

Steve: Franti is THE MAN!  He’s possibly the most important musical influence on my life at the moment.

Rick: How did you get involved with looping, Michael?

Michael: I've always goofed with little echo machines, but getting my first JamMan was a revelation.

Rick: Me, too, I felt like my life changed that day.

Daniel: How about you, Steve?

Steve: I'd read about Michael using one, and was fascinated by the idea, and then when I started to write for Music Magazines, I requested one for review - the perks of the job.

Daniel: You mentioned earlier that in this show, the three of you are planning to sync your loops together?  After building multiple layers with both basses and adding layers of looped percussion, won't it sound very cluttered?

Rick: Not if we’re good musicians.

Michael: People used to think that you could never have two basses playing simultaneously, but I think the available texture of the instrument is so vast that it lends itself well to playing many parts in music.  Clutter can be a useful texture at the right time.

Rick: I have muting switches on the board and plan on doing a lot of real time mixing so we have that dubbing potential of muting and un-muting tracks live. This helps with clutter.

Michael: We're starting to bridge the gap between live and recorded.

Steve: Definitely!  I also find that there's something meditative about looping - the repetition of it is like prayer, or chanting, or liturgy.  It's a monastic pursuit... potentially.

Michael: That's a strange phenomenon!  Even a loop you don't like at first will get interesting as it repeats

Rick: Someone once said meditating is listening to God and praying is talking to God; looping lets' us do both simultaneously. 

Michael: Amen!

Steve: I sometimes leave the same loops running for up to 13-14 hours, just listening to the interaction.  Not great for the audience, so I restrict such practices to my little office, which is in a church and has a very inspiring stained glass window

Daniel: Fourteen hours!!! never mind Mad Cow Disease.  I think you have Mad Looper's Disease. laughs

Rick: Mad Looper's Disease, hmmm…another marketing concept..?

Michael: A corrupting influence on our youth hopefully!  Looping, I mean.

Steve: We live in such an immediate culture that 14 minutes is considered epic and if that's the cooking time, it's considered inedible.

Michael: Maybe looping makes you listen to things more closely.

Rick: Definitely!  I'm astonished by how little listening seems to happen in western culture.

Steve: It also, as I said, means that music evolves - the layers build up, and the origins are still there.

Michael: Kind of like taking a picture so you can study a single moment in time?

Steve: There is definitely the feeling of being involved in something vital, something of value, something truly creative here.  This is art for the sake of art, for the sake of the journey - no definitive statement, no great plan to make cash by watering it down, no agenda other than to make it available, and that feels great! But, also quite alien in the modern entertainment climate.  I went to see Abe Laboriel play last night, at the Baked Potato.  For the second set there were 6 people there, four of who were on the guest list, so $20 worth of audience. He and the other guys just played their asses off. I've never seen anything like it.  He was jumping up and down and beating up on his bass like Bill Laswel and loving it – grinning and just being thankful for the gift of music. That was the same thing; not counting the audience, but counting the blessings of being able to play music with like minded people.

Michael: Abe is great, such good energy.

Daniel: Michael, a recent article about you stated that, "Few bassist have put more energy into stretching the instrument's boundaries” than you have.  Where does your creative energy come from?

Michael: Thanks!  I'm not really sure where creativity comes from.  In my case I think it's probably mostly adolescent curiosity.  It’s that goofing around thing again.  There seems like there is so much that needs to be tried.  I feel we've barely scratched the surface of life's possibilities. Bass is just a good symbol for that concept.

Rick: Every drawn breath is a blessing; every time we get to be creative and share that with others is a blessing

Steve: What we’re trying to do is something beautiful, something honest, something fun, something of substance.  Bass is a great symbol of newness.  It’s such a young instrument, and as a result is diversifying so fast, from the number of strings, to tuning, to new pickup technology like the Lightwave pickup, to modeling, e-bow, extended techniques, processing, hipshots, all that stuff.

Rick: Guys.  I hate to break in, but I have to go.  Thanks so much Daniel.

Daniel: See you soon Rick, and thanks.

Rick Leaves

Daniel: The Hyperbass was a pretty creative way to expand the instrument.

Steve: I agree.  The Hyperbass is so far the pinnacle of that expression of newness, an astonishing vision of where electric instruments can go - all credit to you and Joe Zon for doing it.

Michael: Thanks Steve.  I don't know if I can accept such a compliment! There is so much more to do with the bass that I find it a little overwhelming.  Thank goodness there are folks out there like yourself who are really taking the instrument to interesting places.  I'm just goofing around with my one tiny corner of what's possible

Steve: For me, watching you and seeing the paths you’ve taken through music has been so inspiring, from the duo stuff with Michael Hedges through the solo material, Cloud Chamber, SadHappy, Yo! Miles, Attention Deficit, Patti Larkin, John Gorka.  Your enthusiasm for music in all its facets is something that has served as a parallel path that makes it all a bit less lonely.

Michael: Well, Steve I feel incredibly lucky that our inspiration goes both ways!

Daniel: Michael, what started you down the road of alternate tuning?  Was it an accident - boredom with a certain key signature?

Michael: Alternate tuning was a possibility so I was curious about it. It just happened to yield a lot of sounds I like.

Daniel: Steve, do you also experiment with alternate tuning?

Steve: Only drop D and C really, but I've just got a cello, to explore fifths tuning a little more.  I use alternate tunings to bust out of my comfort zone, to force me to play new things if I feel like fourths is getting stale.

Daniel: Do you get to do much looping with your other projects?  Ragatal, Howard Jones etc.

Steve: Ragatal was pivotal for me, as we wanted to be able to do solos and duos within the band set up, so it gave me something to aim for with regard to performing solo.  My first solo live things were with Ragatal. No looping with Howard though, sadly.

Michael: How did you like working with the Indian rhythmic concepts Steve?

Steve: The main lesson I learnt was that the fundamental music unit was silence - zero or nothingness seems to be central to a lot of Hindu thinking and music starts from there, so the whole idea of music growing from nothing was revelatory.  Also, the degree of intricacy in the subdivision, but the elasticity of the timing was beautiful.  I recently did a Ragatal gig with two extra percussionists and a sitar player, as well as tabla, guitar, electric violin and me.  That was mind-blowing to be soloing with that going on behind me. The Ragatals give the music that same meditative quality that loops have - that sense of instant familiarity. 

Michael: very cool!  Wish I could've heard that.  I'm sorry to say I've got to scoot now, too. Thanks for the intriguing conversation, guys!

Daniel: Thanks Michael.  I'm looking forward to meeting you in person.

Michael: Thanks!  See you soon!

Michael leaves.

Daniel: Let me ask you one last question Steve.  What do you recommend for other artists interested in venturing into the Looping concept?

Steve: Just do it!  Get a simple loop box like the DL4 and get started. Experiment - nothing is off limits.  It's only sound after all and you aren't going to do any harm with it!  I'd suggest getting a few CDs as well.  Probably mine would be cool. laughs  Also, the David Friesen live CD.

Daniel: Thanks Steve.  I'm just so excited about seeing the three of you together.

Steve: We’re excited about playing.  I’m looking forward to seeing you next week.

Daniel: See you then.

Steve: God Bless!


Daniel Elliott has been playing bass and writing songs for about 20 years.  He’s also been highly active in supporting and promoting music in the Northern California region.  He is currently recording an album with the band, The Threshing Floor, which should be available in November and will begin working on a solo album very soon.  Other recent endeavors include establishing the publishing company, Much Grace Music and working on a book tentatively titled, The Art of Worship.






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