BASS EXPO 2014: The session musician industry is one many people would love to find their way into. If you don't fancy the idea of being tied to just one band (ie, your own), but love the idea of stretching your wings and playing with multiple artists, session work is for you.
That said, it's a hard nut to crack: there are endless amounts of incredible players all trying to get hired, so you need to be on your A game in every way. Understanding good self-promotion, industry etiquette, networking without being pushy... these are things you will need to learn in order to get regular work - be that live or in the studio.
Lee Pomeroy has spent years learning such skills. A master bassist who has recently been voted Best Bass Player of 2013 by the Classic Rock Society, Pomeroy has shared the stage with the likes of Take That, Robbie Williams, and Steve Hackett. A multi-instrumentalist, he writes music for TV and film, too, and is soon to be branching out into writing for other musicians.
If you're a bass player - or any musician, really - looking to break into the session musician world, Pomeroy's sage words will give you a head start.
You're a multi-instrumentalist and top UK session musician. How did you get into this line of work?
"It sounds corny, but it's just lots of hard work. Firstly, it was a lot hours of practise and then building a repertoire and a reputation from lots of gigs. I've done all sorts of gigs from folk, jazz, blues, pop, rock, dance, trip-hop, jungle... All to get experience and to learn how to play in different styles. I had a ball doing it too and I still go out and do pub gigs when I'm not on tour. Basically, if you do a good job and are easy to get along with, people will re-hire you and also recommend you for other work."
You play keyboard as well as guitar, but bass seems to be your main instrument. What do you find so special about bass?
"Ah, well, bass is power! The bass can turn a G major chord into an E minor7 just by dropping from G to E. Plus it holds the groove and sometimes the harmony, and it can make people want to dance. You can make the music push forward or lay back and I love having that power.
"Chris Squire [Yes] was the first bass player I heard who really made the bass stand out and showed how powerful it could be. He could alter the groove and the harmony at the same time and I found that really exciting when I first heard it. It still excites me to this day. It was his sound that really got me, though - that massive grinding bass tone he had blew my mind."
"It's all very well being the best player with the biggest chops, but if no-one can stand being in a room with you, you're in trouble"
You're one of the most in-demand session bassists in the industry. Aside from playing skill, what qualities do you think helped you arrive at such an esteemed position?
"It's all because I'm a cheeky, cockney geezer! I think it's a lot of work and little bit of luck. I've always had a good work ethic and a can-do approach to music and that seems to stand me in good stead. Also, I think being able to sing is a real added extra. I know lots of really wonderful musicians who don't sing and I think they're missing out a bit.
"The reason I got the Take That gig was as much because I could do good backing vocals as well as play bass. So it can definitely be an asset. I also play guitar, keys and some drums, too, and I'll happily dive in on another instrument if needed.
"Other important factors are simply being a nice person to be around, turning up on time, knowing what you're doing. That goes as far as anything else because it's all very well being the best player with the biggest chops, but if no-one can stand being in a room with you then you're in trouble. Put the kettle on, too - that always goes down well."
Along with your songwriting partner Martin Price, you compose music that has found its way into TV and film. Do you write to a certain brief for such projects? How does it work?
"Mostly it will be to a brief that is provided by a production company, publisher or ad agency. Sometimes they will have no idea what they're after, so we ask them to provide some graphics or a storyboard and then we can start writing music to fit the pictures we see."
What are the pros and cons of writing music that has been commissioned by a film/TV company?
"The pros are many, the cons are few. Music is its own reward for a start, so I find writing absolutely joyous. The creative process is something I've always enjoyed and when you do write something that the publisher or TV company love, it's a fantastic feeling. It's also still a nice buzz to see your bit of music come up on the TV while you're having your egg and chips. The only cons are if the brief for the music keeps changing, you can end up feeling confused as to what the client actually wants. But that tends to get sorted out in the end."
When searching for musicians to help bring your own music to life, what qualities and skills do you look for?
"Between Martin Price and myself we can cover a lot of the instruments, but if we need a sax player, for example, I'll go through my book of numbers and call up a sax playing mate to help out. Most of the musos I know are really great players, and top notch chaps, so I know they'll do a fab job with minimum fuss. When it comes to more classical players, we go on recommendations from the publisher or from a fixer."
Do professional qualifications help you land jobs, or is talent and experience just as important?
"I guess it depends on the gig you're going for. Talent and experience will always be a good thing to have. I have no formal training in music - I'm completely self-taught - so I wouldn't be the right guy for say, a pit orchestra, but I might the the right man for a pop gig. All knowledge is power, so I can't imagine that having qualifications it would ever do you any harm."
"Get out there and gig. There are a few session agencies you can sign up to as well but I did it all through gigging"
How can someone find session musician work? Are there organisations or forums they could sign up to?
"You know, I would say just get out there and gig. There are a few session agencies you can sign up to but I did it all through gigging. That's the only way people can hear what you do. It's like setting up your market stall. If people like what your selling, they'll buy."
Can you recall your first big break for us please?
"Yes, it was for a band called Genaside 2. I'd been recommended to them by their sound engineer, Jon Easton, whom I'd worked with a few times on other gigs. They needed a bass player for some festival shows that were coming up. Genaside 2 were a big influence on The Prodigy and they asked us to do some massive outdoor festivals with them in 1997. The second show we did was televised on MTV and we played to 350,000 in Red Square. That was the first time I'd played on such a big level. I'd done clubs, pubs and some theatres up until that point but that was something else."
Is it important for budding session musicians to have a web presence, or some kind of profile where people can view their work?
"It can only help matters if you have a website, Soundcloud, or Facebook page or something like that. It will make it easier for people to look you up and see and hear what you have done. So I'd say, yes, get yourself advertised!"
What tips could you give newcomers on networking? Is there a way to get work without being pushy or hounding?
"That's a tough question because I'm terrible at networking. I'd say go to gigs and try to meet lots of musicians. You can be friendly and interesting without being pushy. Just try to make some connections. And if you do get to exchange contact details, be cool and don't plague them with messages as that can put a lot of people off.
"The session agencies route might be a good idea too. First put a CV and some tracks of your playing together, contact some agencies and send them in. But for me, it's all about the gigs."
Do you think work experience would help a budding session musician gain a profile in the first instance? How about joining a band?
"Absolutely, it's fundamental really. That's the way to learn your craft for sure. You could be the best player in your bedroom and then fall apart when you get on the band stand. You have to keep your ears open at a gig and learn to go where the band goes. It's symbiotic and can be different every night."
You've played with some huge pop artists including Take That and Robbie Williams, the former time and time again. What's your advice for getting re-hired?
"Love what you do, be a nice person to be around, turn up on time, have good equipment, leave your ego in the bin. You should also learn the music, be open to ideas, be a team player, be sympathetic to the music and serve the song. Finally, keep your ears open."
You are also in a prog rock band called Headspace. How does your experience of writing with and for other artists help with your own band?
"I don't write for other artists at the moment but I am working on that. The TV writing I do has a big impact on Headspace and vice versa. Some of the heavy, guitar based production music I have written has been directly influenced by the band. The more you write, the better you become at it.
"Headspace is a joyous group to be in. We are all great friends and we have a ball when we get together. We're currently working on our new album which should be out later this year."
Interview: Claire Davies
For more information on Lee Pomeroy and Headspace, visit the official Headspace website.