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interview: Michael Manring

By Anthony Garone

Bass virtuoso and new age music pioneer known for his work with Michael Hedges.

Some Context

Below is a 1-hour interview with Michael Manring conducted on Monday, December 7, 2015 at 11AM at Michael’s house.

Don’t know who Michael Manring is? Check out his entry at Wikipedia! 

Check out our private house concert with Michael featuring Andy West!

I’ve been listening to Michael’s music since the late 1990s. He is an unbelievable musician and incredibly creative. I never thought I would see him perform live, but I had the opportunity at NAMM 2013 to see and barely hear him amidst the chaotic din of “shredders.” Two years later, I’m sitting on his couch in his living room having a conversation. What an experience!

Interview Audio (Podcast)

(NOTE: hitting the “play” button requires a hefty download of the entire audio file!).

Or, download an mp3 .

Interview video

There were some issues with the audio that were my fault entirely. Sigh. Thanks to Bob Mendelsohn  for his help filming this!

Interview transcript

Anthony: Hi, this is Anthony from MakeWeirdMusic.com and today we are here with Michael Manring. Michael, part of the purpose of the site is to introduce musicians and music enthusiasts to new kinds of music and new musicians. I thought it would be cool if you could just introduce yourself. Tell us a little about your musical history and what got you to where you are today.

Michael: First of all, thank you so much for doing this, for helping those of us who make weird music, to get it out there and connect with the folks who are interested in this kind of stuff because it’s not for everybody. It can be a challenge for people to cut through all the other information that’s out there. People who have really big budgets to spend to get to promote what they do, so we really appreciate homegrown support for guys like us. I know you’ve talked with a lot of my friends. We’re kind of a team in that way.

But, yeah, my name is Michael Manring and I fell in love with the bass guitar when I was ten years old and it just got a hold of me. There’s something about it that just really spoke to me and has never let go. I wanted to be a rock star when I was a kid. I thought that would be really fun just because that’s all I knew you did with a bass guitar. But as I got older and learned a little bit about the music business, I really didn’t think I fit into professional musician-kind-of-personality.

I kind of wanted to be a music teacher and I kind of headed in that direction, but I just kept getting gigs and doing a lot of stuff. I got really interested in music therapy  and I really pursued the idea of being a music therapist for a while and everybody just said to me, “Oh no, don’t do that. You’re better off being a player. There’s no money in it and it’s an untested field and you work really hard and you don’t know what’s gonna happen. It’s really very, very sketchy, so you’re better off being a player.”

Actually, as it turned out, music therapy is a really blossoming field and there aren’t enough people and it generally pays pretty well. So, it was just one of the many career turns that I probably should have been more intelligent about. But, things have worked out okay. I just love music, I love playing music and I love playing for people. So, it’s actually been okay.

Rock Star and Woodstock

A: Tell me about that transition. Who did you listen to that made you think, “I wanna play the bass. I wanna be a rock star.” And then, were there musical influences or was it organic development of who you were and learning more about the industry that made you shy away from that rock star element?

M: The first thing that we all kind of got into, all the kids in my neighborhood got into was the record Woodstock . We were all a little young for the Beatles  phenomenon. We knew about the Beatles, but it just didn’t connect. At that point, we were kind of more into younger kid things. But Woodstock really kind of grabbed us all. We were all fascinated by it.

One of the things about that was there’s a lot of different kinds of music at Woodstock. You know, Jimi Hendrix  was there, but also Ravi Shankar  and Sha Na Na  and Richie Havens . All kinds of stuff. For me, at least, and I think for some of my friends, too, that was part of the appeal. This whole world of different things going on and there was kind of a lot to learn. “Where is this coming from? What is this doing? How do these people get to what they’re doing?” That was a real fascination. So, the first thing I was into was just kind of everything. Just getting into listening to all of it, trying to figure out what it was.

For me, the bass was the common thread through it all. I just loved the sound. At first I didn’t know what the sound was, actually. As a younger kid, I always loved the sound of the bass, but there wasn’t a lot of information about music in those days, so you’d hear something, you’d hear a sound, and as part of an ensemble, you don’t even know what’s making what. There wasn’t a lot of music video in those days, either. So, it took me a while to figure out that it was bass, but by the time Woodstock came out, that kind of information was much more available and you knew who the players were, what they were playing, and so that’s what really got me into it.

Really, anything with a bass on it was something that was fascinating to me, and even stuff without bass, except bass was the thing that always tied it together. Hendrix was big early on, and The Who , and also Steppenwolf , and Grand Funk Railroad , Sly and the Family Stone  was really huge inspiration to me. That was one of the many times in those days that I heard a song and just loved it and finally someone said to me, “You know, that part right there–that’s the bass playing that part.” And I just thought, “Oh my God! That’s the bass? That is so cool!” So, those guys were kind of the original inspiration.

The Music Industry

But, I got pretty quickly into jazz as well. Got fascinated by all that. Then got into classical music and contemporary music and avant garde music and different folk musics and just kind of soaked it all up. I just wanted to be part of that. As I got older, when I got to be 17, 18, I started seeing how the music industry works and that it’s… Oh, how can one say politely? It’s good in the music business if you’re not an introvert.

Let’s say that. If you’re an extravert , that’s really a good quality. And I kind of struggle with that. I’m really, really happy just sitting in my room playing music, always have been. But, getting out there and marketing myself is not a skill I have and, in fact, it’s hard for me to even think that way. So, that made me think that, “Maybe that’s not the best career choice for me because that’s always going to be a struggle.” I met a lot of people who were just really good at that and a lot of them just naturally so.

It’s really impressive when you meet somebody like that. There’s a tendency to look down on that skill, I think–the skill of being able to market yourself. But I know quite a number of people for whom it’s just a natural ability and it’s not forced and I’ll always admire those people. But, that’s not a skill I ever had!

A: Yeah, that’s a very tough one.

M: It is. But, it’s nice when you meet people who are good at it, especially when they’re great musicians as well and they just kind of honestly are able to share with you the excitement about their own music.

On the Road

A: And when did you start becoming a professional bass player?

M: I started doing professional gigs in high school, actually. In fact, I was asked to join a professional big band–you know, like a jazz band–in high school with guys… I would have been the youngest person in the band. I did a lot of gigs with those guys and they wanted me to join, but I had to say no because we would go out and do a gig in the general area, but it might be a gig three hours away, so I’d get home at 2 in the morning and then have to get up at 7 to go to school. And that was a little rough and I didn’t want to quit school.

I did pretty well in school, actually, and I wanted to–at least for high school–I wanted to finish. So, I started playing professionally at a pretty young age and just kind of kept going. After high school, I went to Berklee School of Music . I stayed there for an academic year, but I got a gig. I was doing a lot of gigs there as well and I got a gig on the road at the end of my academic year at Berklee and went on the road playing music. And I’ve been playing music ever since, professionally.

A: Who was the first touring gig with?

M: I guess the first touring gig was probably that big band, actually, where we weren’t really touring. It was kind of local, but we would go out.

A: I see. So you were playing regularly with that big band after your first year, which led to other opportunities.

Disco

M: Yeah, I did that kind of while I was in high school, but kind of had to back out of it just because I couldn’t finish high school and do that at the same time. It was too much. Right out of Berklee, I went on the road playing top 40 music, which in those days was disco.

In those days, we wore the platform shoes and shiny, shiny shirts with collars that went out to here. Aerodynamic. And we played Boogie Oogie Oogie  and Disco Inferno  and that band was a road band. We all lived in different cities and so there was no home to go to. So we were on the road always. Usually play out a week or two weeks in one place. Most typically hotels, you know a hotel ballroom or there were little hotel disco clubs. And then we would travel on a Sunday to the next place and then play there.

I lasted about 6 or 8 months just touring out on the road. It got pretty tedious pretty fast.

A: Musically? Or contextually with business related things?

M: The worst part about it, for me, was since we were playing–we played, like, 5 sets a night or something. I really couldn’t practice very much.

A: 5 sets a night?! Oh my goodness!

M: Yeah, it was a lot of playing. I would practice for a couple hours in the day, but I was kind of burnt out from playing. I wasn’t really making much musical progress. And for me, that was the hardest part of it. I did have to come to terms with the fact that I really wasn’t that interested in the music. I mean, I loved playing, and it’s always fun to play any kind of music, but when you’re playing the same tunes night after night, every night…

A: With no improvisational opportunities…

M: Well, this was kind of a nice band because we were all Berklee people. Everybody in the band could play and everybody could play jazz. And when they let us get away with it, we would! But, we got fired from a couple of gigs for that very thing.

A: 3 sets in?

M: Yeah! And being on the road, that was not pretty, because you were completely dependent on whoever hired you for your meals. So, if you got fired, you didn’t eat.

Getting into Jazz

A: Tell me about your musical progress, then. You’re evolving as a musician, you’re listening to jazz, you listened to a lot of genres, you go to Berklee for a year, and then you’re playing with a disco band. So, obviously, you have to change some priorities. What did that look like and what did you do after you left that band?

M: My education in music was mostly jazz. So, that’s kind of how I learned about music. Even though I was playing upright a lot in those days, too, I had to give up upright after going on the road with the disco band because I couldn’t take an upright for that gig and obviously that was not welcome there. So, unfortunately, my classical career was pretty brief, which is probably for the best because I never got really good at the upright. I guess I was really interested in playing classical music on the upright with the bow, but it’s a huge commitment and I didn’t seem to be making the kind of progress I wanted to.

But, yeah, so the background in jazz was really helpful. There’s two ways to think about jazz. You can think about it as an idiom, which means you’re thinking about the kind of phrases that are used in jazz and the kind of rhythms that are used in jazz. But, jazz can also be looked at academically. So, in order to be able to play jazz, you have to understand music in a remarkably comprehensive way. Looked at in that way, it’s just a great musical education because, if you’re looking at it that way rather than as an idiom, you can understand and play jazz, in that sense, you can almost play any kind of music because you have this kind of nuts and bolts understanding of how things work.

You can apply that to any kind of form that you find yourself in. So, then it’s a matter of just trying to adapt to the other idioms. Adapting to other idioms can be very, very challenging, so that can be a big part of it. But at least you can understand the fundamentals of music. You know, what notes can be played and how you can play them, that kind of stuff. So, that was really helpful.

Fusion Band

The education I got at Berklee was really helpful in that way and it allowed me to kind of pursue this kind of dream of trying lots of different things. So, after Berklee and then after I left the disco band, pretty quickly I joined an original fusion band in Washington D.C. That was great. That was a lot of fun. In those days, we played about three gigs a week playing original fusion music, which was amazing! I don’t think you could do that now.

A: Paid gigs?

M: Paid gigs! I mean, we weren’t making much money. We were kind of all living in our parents’ basements. But, you know, we were getting by and you could afford to get a car and, you know, do okay. And we got signed to Tappan Zee Records, which was–I think it was a CBS offshoot in those days. It was run by Jay Chattaway  and Bob James , I think.

We worked on a record and we got a local studio, a really good studio in the area, was backing us. They gave us all their “off” studio time. That tended to be between, say, 8PM and 10AM. And so we would often have run of the play all night long. That was great. I started to learn how to work in the studio and that was definitely eye-opening and a good experience.

We spent ridiculous amounts of time working on our record and, as is often the case, that only made it sound worse. But it was a great learning experience. The record company, Tappan Zee, folded just before we finished the recorded. So we did all that recording, not for nought certainly, but the record never came out officially. We at least recorded cassettes and sold them to our friends and gave a lot of them away. That was fun.

So, then after that band, when the record company folded and things were changing and it was harder to get gigs, we saw the writing on the wall that being an original fusion band didn’t have as much a future as we’d all hoped. So we disbanded and I moved to New York to be a starving artist there instead.

To New York

A: But, it was a lot cheaper then to be in New York…

M: In New York, it was cheaper then, but I think it was still the most expensive place in the country, so it was still a challenge. The thing about New York then is it was really, really rough and where I lived was really, really rough. I got beat up…

A: What years were this?

M: I moved there maybe in ‘82 or ‘83. Around in that time. So, it was a hard place to be, but it was amazing. I mean, New York–it still is amazing, but in those days, everybody basically on the east coast who was creative kind of ended up in New York. That’s kind of the way it worked.

A: Yeah, The Kitchen 

M: Yeah, the Kitchen was just getting started…

A: David Byrne , The Residents, Laurie Anderson … Amazing acts played there all the time for cheap.

M: Yep! That’s right!

A: You were there?

M: I was there. Yep! I couldn’t afford to go to a lot of the cool stuff that was going on. But I was around a lot of it. And there was an amazing art scene as well. Keith Haring . [NOTE: See Keith Haring artwork here on Artsy .] You’d see Keith Haring paintings that would just appear overnight.

A: The Banksy  of that time, I suppose?

M: Yeah. I was involved in a lot of dance. The dance world. One way of making a very small amount of money as a musician is to accompany modern dance classes. Some people know about that. I used to love doing that and working with dancers and writing music for choreographers. The dancing was amazing then. It was great to be in such a creative place.

Jaco Pastorius

Jaco Pastorius  was there then, too, and he was my idol at that point. It was just absolute borderline worship, I guess. And that was neat because I could see him play often. I would bug him whenever I felt like I could get away with it, bug him with lots of questions, and he finally said, “Well, just come for lessons.” And so I took some lessons with him as well. So that was kind of a good experience.

A: Kind of?

M: Yeah. [Laughs.]

A: Do you want to explore that a little bit?

M: Sure. It was kind of complicated for a bit because it was an incredible opportunity to get to spend time with him and see him play often and sit down and play music with him because he was such an idol and such a hero to me. But, it was difficult also because he was such a mess.

It was really hard to be around him because he was in so much personal turmoil. And he was very ill. That’s probably the cause of all his very, very bizarre behavior. He was extremely self-destructive. Not sure I’ve ever met anybody who was quite that self-destructive. It’s amazing that he lived as long as he did because he was the kind of person who would do something really stupid for no reason. Jump down a flight of stairs, hit himself in the head with a beer bottle. Just… “Okay?”

That was hard for me that there was this person who I so, so wanted to be, but he didn’t want to be himself. He didn’t want to be. That was a really complicated conundrum for a 22-year old person.

A: How long were you taking lessons from him?

M: It was very intermittent, off-and-on for a couple of years while I was there. Maybe 2 years. He was, sort of by choice, he was often homeless. It was very hard to get in touch with him, even when he had an address or a phone number. So, you never knew what was going to happen. He would say, “Hey, show up at this place tomorrow and we’ll do a lesson.” And he wouldn’t show up.

So it was very sort of sketchy and I would just meet him at a gig and he’d say, “Here, let me show you this.” He’d show me some random thing! I still feel just so bad for him because he had a terrible reputation, especially in New York. An awful reputation. And, you know, I guess it was deserved. I went to a lot of gigs where he wouldn’t show up and gigs where he would walk off the stage and gigs where he would try to get in a fight with one of the other band members or the bartender or somebody.

You can understand why people didn’t think highly of him. I saw him be very, very mean and rude to a lot of people, but he was very, very kind to me. Really kind to me. We had wonderful conversations. Underneath all that, he was a really smart guy. He knew everything about music.

We would sit and talk about Bartok  and Chopin  and Stravinsky . He was very supportive to me, often, especially when it was just the two of us. He liked to just sit and play together a lot and we’d play jazz standards usually. When we were done, he’d slap me on the back and go, “Oh man, you’re the best on earth!” Which was not true. Definitely not true. Especially compared to him.

But, I think he knew I was a nervous kid who was uncertain and he was just trying to be nice. He thought, maybe I guess, I had some potential. I would pester him with millions of questions and he was always very patient about doing his best to answer them. He had trouble concentrating a lot, so you just had to keep–“Come on back!”–reeling him back in. There was a lot of that. But, he was never really rude about that, at least not with me.

I asked him a lot about specific parts, “When you played this line,” or, “How did you phrase that?” or “How did you finger it?” He’d generally get really spacey for a minute and I’d bring him back and he’d go, “Oh, right. This is how I did it.” There was a whole lot of stuff he didn’t remember or didn’t think about. There were a lot of things I asked about and he said, “You know, I never thought about that.” Or I’d ask him to play something for me and I’d say, “It seems like you’re doing this. Is that right?” He’d say, “Yeah, I guess that’s right.”

Oddly, he really wanted to teach. He had this dream of having a bass school. One of his pet peeves was that if you’re a bass player, there was no Chopin and Scarlatti  and Beethoven  sonatas to work on and to allow you to advance your craft. He wanted to start that process, but he was, as I said, he had so much trouble focusing that that was just never going to happen. So, it was interesting, especially being in New York at that time when it was just so dark and so dangerous.

A: I lived on Long Island as a kid and I remember going to the city. It was, “Don’t look up because people will know you’re a tourist and you’ll get mugged!” I was terrified of New York City as a kid.

M: Yeah, I had a lot of bad things happen.

Michael Hedges

A: So, not long after that, you started getting involved with Michael Hedges  and Windham Hill . How did that happen and can you tell us some of those experiences?

M: Yeah, that was really great. The music in New York in those days reflected the sort of darkness of the social scene. The kind of music we were doing, I was playing a lot of dark, heavy, complicated music. There were just amazing musicians there then, as there are now, as there always have been. And it’s how I got to play with some people who were just really, really high-level musicians. But, the whole thing just felt so heavy and in those days, I was getting really interested in bass as a solo instrument and the possibilities for that.

I had discussions with Jaco about that as well. When I talked to people in New York about that, I got a lot of very blank stares. I think one of the things about New York in those days is there was a lot of artistry, but you kind of had to fit in to one of the available boxes. So, you kind of had to be a jazz musician or a fusion musician or an avant garde musician. Those were three places that I liked a lot. I was kind of interested in all those things and some other things as well. I liked all those worlds, but there wasn’t a lot of crossing between them.

The lines were pretty clearly defined and I was never really comfortable with that. As soon as there was a line drawn in the sand, the first thing I wanted to do was cross over it or erase it entirely. That didn’t go over so well in New York and the idea of wanting to be a solo bassist was kind of like that, too. “Well, nobody’s ever done it so it’s not something that can be done,” which is not the way I think. “Well, nobody’s ever done it, so maybe it’s a good idea.” That’s sort of how I think.

And I had already started working with Michael Hedges when I lived in New York. I had known him for a couple of years even. I met him before I moved there, I think, or maybe about the time I moved there. When I met Hedges, he was not the Michael Hedges that we all came to know. He wrote his own music, but it was mostly pop music. I don’t know if he–when I had met him, he had maybe written one or two guitar instrumental pieces. That was about it.

But, he looked like Neil Young , and he loved Neil Young, and he sounded like Neil Young, and he made a meager living playing Neil Young songs in bars every night, but he was studying contemporary and electronic music composition at Peabody Conservatory. So, he had this really super-high-level musical mind, but loved playing pop music and so we hit it off, you know, immediately. We definitely saw eye-to-eye. He was definitely a person who did not want to fit into one box or another.

Hedges and Guitar

So we became fast friends, but we were both starving musicians at that point. We both hadn’t developed much of an independent, recognizable sound. It’s funny, in those days, there was kind of a circle of our friends. We were all music-heads. Michael was, by no means, considered the best guitar player in our circle. In fact, he was kind of down low on the rungs. That group, everybody looked up to Pat Martino  more than anybody else, and with good reason. He’s just an amazing, amazing player. So, all the guitar players, and some of us bass players too, wanted to be able to play like Pat Martino.

Michael couldn’t really do that. It’s weird. He had all the understanding to do that, all the brain power to do that and more, but somehow it didn’t connect with him. I don’t know, it was kind of odd, especially since he ended up studying with Pat Martino.

Right about the time he died, he started being able to play like Pat. He started being able to play that way, kind of with his own style. He was really interested, when he died, he was trying to go in some new directions. He was playing a lot more electric guitar and playing sort of his own version of that way was really neat. It’s a shame that he didn’t get to see that through because it could have been really cool, what he was coming up with in that way.

But in those days, that kind of style wasn’t connecting with him, but he had all this amazing musical talent and skill and understanding and so, instead, he kind of went this other direction. Instead of working toward playing these sophisticated lines, very interesting harmonically, he kind of did the opposite. He played very orchestrally, slower music and simpler harmonically. He tended to play music that was relatively simple harmonically, or maybe just more open harmonically. Less chromatic, maybe you could say. And developed that into this amazing artform.

What a privilege to get to spend time with him and watch him going from being a real copycat to being a real original, watch him go through that process and kind of go through it with him because that whole period, we would have these long talks about music and life and stupid things as well.

Development as a Bassist

A: Yeah, so what about your development? You went from disco band to fusion, which isn’t nearly as quiet as what you did with [Michael] and what you’ve done as a solo bassist. It’s kind of funny for me knowing a lot of your solo music outside outside of Thonk to hear you talking about being in these kind of rock sort-of instrumentation bands. Yet your solo music is so quiet and what you’ve done with Michael Hedges, that was so quiet. How did you end up taking your technique, which I tell everyone is “extraterrestrial…”

M: Thank you…

A: I like that you find that a compliment. It’s exactly what I mean. But, can you talk about your evolution? He’s coming from a Neil Young context, you’re coming from fusion and disco and he’s probably had his rock stuff, and then you guys become the faces for New Age music and a new, very soft sound.

M: Yeah, it was wonderful. It was especially wonderful to have a compadre in that process. We actually came from sort of similar backgrounds, although you’re right–mine was a little more sort of Sly and the Family Stone, Led Zeppelin , and Wayne Shorter , where his was a little bit more Neil Young and Joni Mitchell  and Jethro Tull . He was a big Jethro Tull head. But, you know, I was a fan of all those people as well. It’s just more that’s what we fell into, I think.

We both had come from rock music backgrounds. Rock music was sort of the gateway drug, I think, for a lot of us into music. In fact, we both were huge fans of Van Halen  when we met. That was one of the things that we really–I think within the first two minutes of our first conversation, we talked about Anton Webern  and Eddie Van Halen  and Joni Mitchell, I think, and realized: “Okay, we’re gonna have to hang.”

So, yeah, it was a fascination with all these things and kind of youthful stupidity and enthusiasm where we’re just really into all of it and probably didn’t have as much common sense about wading through the good and bad as we should have, actually, but at that age, it’s probably a good thing. We were just thrilled by all of it and we both really wanted–we dreamed, I guess I should say–about creating our own approach. That was the dream. It doesn’t seem to be as much the case in music now.

The Holy Grail

I don’t know if you find that true, but, for a lot of us in those days, that was the holy grail: if you could come up with your own approach. It didn’t really even matter if that approach was especially sophisticated. Just having your own sound… that was the highest level. Just copying somebody else was something you did out of necessity, but it was a bad thing to do in the long term. That was really only a stepping stone toward coming up with a sound of your own.

So, that was our dream: somehow taking all this music and distilling it down to something original. We wanted to reflect all of these musicians we loved. We wanted to carry that sound forward somehow at the same time. And we’re foolish enough to maybe think we could do that somehow. So, you were asking…

A: Finding your own sound–that was the holy grail. And you guys pursued that and found it.

M: Yeah. He certainly did and it was amazing to watch. Especially amazing to watch this person who had a lot of potential as a musician, but was not somebody that anybody paid much attention to, honestly. Even at the conservatory, he was not a star student. Neither there nor in the social circle of us “cats.” But he was able to really–It was a fascinating process of acknowledging your own strengths and weaknesses and looking at the things you love and distilling it all down and thinking about it a lot and having a lot of experiences and trying a lot of different things and feeling things out a lot and creating something beautiful out of all that. It’s really a beautiful thing to watch happen.

More Jaco and Finding Yourself in the Mistakes

A: I had read something you said quite some time ago that you were trying to emulate Jaco’s sound and you kept doing things that were “mistakes,” but then you found that those “mistakes” were you. They weren’t really mistakes, they were your own style coming through. Can you talk about that and when you discovered it?

M: Absolutely. That was a really interesting experience. Really, my whole life there was this notion that the holy grail was really to develop your own thing. But as I got more into Jaco and started to understand his music more and his approach more, I was just so blown away by it that I thought, “Nobody’s ever going to do any better than this. The best you can be able to do is just emulate him and try to do it in a good and respectable way.

So, that was my point of view when I went in to study with him. That was all there was to the bass. It was to just play in that style and try to do it well. Maybe there were other things you could do, but you, at the very least, had to be able to understand this very deep and rich world that he had created before you could move on. So I just worked really hard at copying him and what he did and, as you said, I would play through his pieces often with his help and with his pointers and there were just certain things I just couldn’t get.

He was never critical about it. He didn’t want me to play like him, which is kind of nice. I guess I should have listened to that more from him. I was just trying to get it right, really. There’s some things I couldn’t get and those were the wrong things in the music until I finally realized that those “mistakes” I was making were not actually real mistakes. That was me! I was never going to be able to play like him because I wasn’t him.

Spending time with him was really effective in that process, too, because it was obvious we were just such different people. I could never be the kind of person that he was, and I shouldn’t! Part of it was that he was suffering so much, it was just painful. It was so hard and there were times when he would say, “Hey, I can give you a lesson tomorrow,” and I would just say, “Yeah, I can’t do it,” because I couldn’t bear the thought of spending time with him when he was really a mess because it just hurt too much to see somebody like that.

It made me do a lot of soul searching because it was just what you have to do, it’s the kind of person you have to be to make really good music. I definitely came to the conclusion that it’s not worth it. I still feel that way. If that is how much pain you have to be in–and he caused a lot of other pain, too. I mean, he gave a lot of people joy, but there was a lot of people around him and he caused a lot of pain. I didn’t think it was worth it.

So, yeah, I realized that that’s just not me and these little reflections when I’d try to play his music, those things never were going to go away and they shouldn’t because those little things are me. So, I’d try to turn it around and develop those things instead of just trying to get rid of them from my music. Trying to develop those things, tended to be like little phrasing things, tonal things that he did because of the structure of his hands and the structure of his mind. Certain things that he would play.

So I stopped trying to do those things and then more and more things that he did. But at the same time, there were things he did that I could do well, so I tried to hold on to those things. I always want my music to reflect the enormous respect and appreciation and love that I have for his amazing accomplishment, but it started to be more about these other places to go.

Spending time with Michael Hedges was great because he was very much in that mode, too, and he loved Jaco. Loved him to death. Loved him almost as much as I did, but he recognized that there might be other places to go. So, it was really great to have somebody to bounce ideas off and to share things with and try things with. Michael was fearless. Fearlessly creative, I guess you’d say. He would try all kinds of crazy things.

I think of myself in somewhat that way, too. At the same time that all this was happening, I’ve always been one of these people who didn’t tend to say “no” to gigs. Largely because I couldn’t afford it! If anybody offered to pay me anything, I had to take the gig.

The Bass Itself

A: At what point did you start experimenting with the hardware of the instrument? Nobody does what you do, which is part of what makes you so interesting to watch.

M: Hah. Thanks!

A: Listening to your music, if you weren’t a technician on a stringed instrument, you’d probably never realize that you are constantly changing your instrument and the strings through hardware augmentation.

M: Thank you! I’m glad that it’s not that clear because I’m always worried that the techniques will overshadow the music.

A: Not when you hear it. When watching, it’s almost like this whole other world of WOW.

M: Good! I can’t say I care that much for how it looks, but I want it to sound nice. That’s the important thing. There were a lot of different things going on and I ended up doing a lot of very unusual gigs of all different kinds. I was also very into avant garde music, so I played a lot of way-out-there stuff. I played in a band once where it was myself, a guy who played a whole bunch of stuff that he had mounted on an old wheelchair that he would bang with things, and another guy who dragged a huge chain around on a piece of plywood.

A: Sounds about right. New York?

M: Pretty far out there. We were all New York guys. We did this one in DC, actually. All two gigs we had for that band. There was a lot of different things going on and just a lot of experimenting, trying different things. At the same time, I had met Darol Anger  and Mike Marshall  and I’m not sure they get the credit they deserve for how incredibly creative they were. I mean, almost off the charts, actually, because those guys would just do anything creative.

At the time, they were well known for creating this fusion of jazz and bluegrass, which is really amazing, but they were just completely fearless creatively. One of the things that really impressed me is they wanted to have this certain kind of band and Daryl, he’s a violinist, he wanted to be the bass player, somehow, in the band. That was his idea. He wanted to be a bass player somehow.

A: While you were in the band?

M: No, I wasn’t in this band. It was a band that they had. But, he wanted to do the bass function somehow, so he got a cheap old cello and put flat wound electric bass strings on it, but still tuned it in fifths, like a violinist tuned, so that he could play it, and he just played it like a bass. I can’t remember even how he tuned it. He just said, “Okay, I’m a bass player now.”

That kind of fearlessness really impressed me. The important thing is the ideas and you don’t need to have any barriers to your passions, I guess is what I’m thinking. So that really struck me and made me think more about taking more chances creatively and trying different things and starting to look at the instrument and different ways the instrument could work.

There’s this tendency among us bass players to think that the bass was perfected in 1962 by Leo Fender  with the 1962 Fender Jazz Bass . It was the perfect form and that it could never get any better than that. There’s nothing wrong with that way of thinking. That’s a totally fine way of thinking, but there may be other ways to think about the bass and those other ways may create maybe even as much music as has been created by thinking about the Fender bass of 1962 being the highest pinnacle that can ever be reached.

A: I hope so, considering you play a 3-octave fretless neck with Hipshot detuners  everywhere you look.

Alternate Tunings

M: Yeah, I kind of decided to join that camp and just see what else was possible, what could be done. I had always been interested in tuning the bass in unusual ways and was very discouraged from doing that by my friends and teachers and colleagues. And rightly so! If you want to play Led Zeppelin tunes, there’s no point in using a tuning different from what they were using. But if you want to do something else, then it might be wise to use different techniques and tools.

One of the things I discovered is that you can tune a bass to anything. It’s such a strong instrument compared to other instruments that it’ll take all kinds of altered tunings. And then hanging out with Hedges, he was completely fearless about tuning his guitar. One of the things he did is he was really interested in using these different tunings and one of the drawbacks of doing that is, especially if you use a really low tuning, it decreases the tension on the acoustic guitar and the acoustic guitar becomes much quieter.

So, it can be really hard to hear a guitar that’s tuned really low. But he was finding ways of playing the acoustic guitar electrically, really innovative ways of doing that, many of which have become standardizations now that many of the crazy ideas he had when we were poor starving musicians that he was cobbling together with duct tape and paperclips have become standard ways of doing things. Kind of bizarre. But because he was able to amplify the guitar, he found ways to amplify it really, really loud levels.

In fact, for a while, he was into playing really, really loud. Some of the loudest gigs I’ve ever played were just duo gigs with Hedges.

He was able to use a lot wider variety of tunings and to see that kind of creativity, I would feel stupid if I didn’t try to see if the same kind of lack of limitations could be pursued on the bass. So, there was this wonderful time where I was just around a lot of really creative people.

Musical Experimentation

In New York, I had been around this really dark kind of scene and the music tended to be very dark, kind of also very chromatic harmonically, not a lot of prettiness in what we were doing in those days, and I kind of got burned out on that. I kind of started to feel a little–I don’t know, a little unnecessary in some way. I just kind of wanted to play something–I found myself in those days wanting to play something pretty and naïve. Something that wasn’t cynical and heavy and dark.

So, moving in that direction, and that didn’t go over well in New York, that was not something people wanted to hear there, but I was coming out here [San Francisco] a lot and people here were really interested in that kind of sound. Hedges was also interested in that kind of sound. He had been doing a lot of contemporary music, a lot of atonal  music. There’s no tonal center , there’s no “home,” it’s all really dense intellectually and not a lot of hand-holding for the listener.

So we both were kind of in this place where we wanted to experiment with music that was–I guess we didn’t feel obligated to do that. We could go there if we wanted to, but we didn’t feel like we had to. A lot of other people were that way, too. Some of our heroes: Terry Riley , still alive, still making amazing music, still a huge hero, was doing that. Steve Reich  also, who was in Terry’s band actually, one of Terry’s first bands making amazing music and just a huge hero to us.

That was something that was kind of happening and we were interested in pulling that into the mix, too. Basically as much as we could get into the mix! That’s what we wanted to do, all these different kinds of sounds. Little by little, these things just gelled out of all these different approaches. And our own abilities and limitations and just wanted to enjoy it, really. Just wanted to have fun at the same time.

Tuning the Bass

A: When did these hardware augmentations pop in?

M: Oh, right. So, I got interested in all these different tunings that could be used on the bass and I realized there were so many tunings you could use on the bass. In fact, I often tell people that it’s really easy to tune a bass string over the range of about a 5th, and that’s 8 notes.

So, if you have a 4-string bass and each of the strings can be tuned to 8 different notes, the number of possible tunings that you can have on that instrument is 8 times 8 times 8 times 8, which is 4,096. That’s a lot of tunings! That’s more music than (possibly) pieces you’re going to write in your entire life. So, there’s a lot of tunings to work with.

I got interested in the idea of using tunings more dynamically, not having to be just “stuck” with one tuning for the entire piece, being able to move to different tunings. Hedges was really interested in this, too, something we’d talk a lot about and try different things. We tried to con guitar builders into coming up with things that would allow us to do this. Most of them thought we were completely insane. In some cases, probably rightly so.

But when I met Joe Zon , he was the first guy I talked to that said, “Oh, that’s a great idea! We could do that for you!” I was shocked! He had been coming to a lot of my gigs and bringing his lovely instruments. He started saying, “You know, I’d really like to build you a bass.” I said, “I don’t think you want to build what I want.” He said, “No no no, try me!” So I said, “Well, this is what I really want.” So I started describing something very much like the hyperbass that we made. And he said, “Oh yeah, we can do that.” I think sometimes he regretted being so open to it.

The Hyperbass

We started working together in, I think it was 1989, maybe 1990. We started working together on this dream bass. He had a lot of really creative ideas, too. So we said, “Let’s just put everything that we can in one instrument and see what happens.” And so we started working on this bass that he ended up dubbing “The Hyperbass .” And it was a real project. My part in it was really easy, it was just coming up with weird ideas, but he had to figure out how to make all these things work and it was a lot of things that hadn’t been done before.

A lot of mechanical challenges, a lot of electronic challenges, a lot of woodworking challenges as well. He made it all work and put it all together and invented this amazing instrument. And I’ve been playing that instrument ever since!

The Zon Michael Manring Hyperbass. It allows me to change tunings in two different ways. I can change strings individually or collectively on it. It also has a separate output for each string, so it has a quadrophonic pickup so I can process the sound of each string separately. In addition, there are pickups in the body so I can play it almost like an acoustic instrument, I can tap on the body and create sounds or use those body pickups as an additional sound source. And as you mentioned, it has a very long fingerboard, allows me to play in higher ranges than you can on the normal bass.

So, I mean, really super super lucky to run into Joe and we’ve had a really close friendship ever since. He’s built a number of other instruments for me. At this point, that’s pretty much all I play is his instruments because I just love them so much and he’s so good at what he does. It’s really been a great partnership.

Composition on the Hyperbass

A: How has this instrument shaped your composition and the physical act of playing since you’ve received it?

M: It really opens things up. For me, I see it as a logical extension of the bass guitar. I know for a lot of people it seems like something, as you said, from another planet. For me, it’s just a logical next step to make. It’s a real blessing to have this tool that has these whole other set of capabilities.

There’s a ton of stuff I haven’t done with it yet. There’s a lot more that can be done and there are lots of additional design ideas that we’d like to try that we haven’t had the time and money to pursue. So, there’s an awful lot that needs to be done. It’s just a thrill to be able to pursue these ideas and see where they go. And a number of them have really been very fulfilling. There’s a number of things I’ve done with the Hyperbass in particular, a number of pieces that I’ve written that I’ve been playing for 20 years and have just been enormously fulfilling and given me a lot of joy. And other people sometimes seem to like hearing them too, so all the better.

Working as a Solo Bassist

A: Can you tell me about a career as a solo bassist playing the kind of, I’ll call it “weird”…

M: Please!

A: “Weird” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad,” but “weird” means somebody being themselves in a way that you don’t hear often. “Unique” is probably a better term for it. “Weird” is a marketing term. What is that like for you that you’ve made a career of being a “weird” solo bassist? Bass magazines all over the world write about what you do. How has that been and is that the direction you ever expected your career to go?

M: I definitely didn’t expect it to happen this way. All the smart, well-meaning folks around me told me it wasn’t going to happen. They all said, “You can do a little bit of this solo bass thing, but it’s not something that anybody’s ever going to be really interested in.” And it didn’t turn out that way.

It’s a funny thing about a creative world like music, as soon as you think you have a rule, you might be right for that month or that year or even that decade. But if it’s a creative world, things are going to change and it’s going to be hard to pin things down.

So for me, it’s been a real blessing because I just love the instrument so much and when you play it by itself, you can really hear all of its nuance and all of its color. All the little poetry that goes on with the sounds and all the emotions that it’s capable of expressing. And all of the ideas, all the intellectual ideas it’s capable of expressing with all of this sound, both subtle and gross, I suppose, that it’s capable of.

It is an enormously rich instrument, sonically, because all the time it’s creating very low sounds and very high sounds all the time and a lot of sound in the middle as well. So, the idea of playing it solo has always been a passion for me. It’s something I kept on the back burner for a lot of years because I was passionate about playing other kinds of music as well, but the solo thing is something that I could never really give up because it really is such a beautiful sound, I think, regardless of who’s playing it.

Overall, it’s just felt really lucky to have found myself there, especially after Hedges died and I didn’t have somebody, that really close friend, anymore to play with. Then doing more solo stuff really felt good. I don’t know what more I can say on that specific topic, but it really has been a blessing to do that. I’m just so thrilled and so thankful that people are accepting of it because I think it is a bit of a stretch as a listener.

When you ask anyone to listen to anything new, people have busy lives and most people don’t want to spend a lot of time on music and they’re stretching their minds so much just to survive in this world, you kind of hate to ask them to stretch them anymore just in listening to music. But there are people who like to do that.

A: And they’re all over the world and you now have the capability to reach them. It’s awesome.

M: It’s amazing. I mean, it really is amazing. That’s one of the thrills about it for me. This kind of music is equally effective in Bogota as it is in Boca Raton. So, you can go all over the world, there’s kind of no reason not to play everywhere. I’ve had the chance to travel all around and play this crazy music for people and it’s been amazing. I wouldn’t have traveled much, I think, myself if I didn’t need to. If I wasn’t invited to by the music-making process.

I’m actually kind of a home-body. One of the things I enjoy most is just sitting by myself and playing music. It’s been a great privilege to be able to travel around and have amazing experiences and meet incredible people and see incredible things all over the world. That bizarre, amazing, wonderful magic of being able to have music connect people. I’ve played in a couple bands where no two people spoke the same language and yet we could–it’s a terrible cliché–we could communicate through the medium of music.

Even though it’s a cliché, I never get tired of that magical aspect–one of the many magical aspects of music of completely obliterating all kinds of barriers and borders, linguistic and geographic and cultural, even.

A: Well, that is fantastic. I think we need to wrap it up, but I have a hundred more questions so if we can do this again in the future…

M: I’d love to. Thank you so much for coming to my home.

A: I really appreciate it.

M: My pleasure.

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