Steve Lawson: Even Steven

Read and learn...

Steve Lawson, the man sitting opposite BGM and delivering anecdotes about his eye-opening career, is munching on a chapati. Why so? Because, for no particular reason, this interview was conducted over a curry in darkest Oxfordshire.

We like to think there's a metaphor there. After all, Steve's music – like the nation's favourite cuisine – is a banquet of sound, a smorgasbord of tones and a feast of innovation that makes his fans drool with anticipation. If you want light, easily digestible soundscapes (like poppadoms), Steve's music has them; if you're after thunderous, meaty layers of epic experimentation (maybe a lamb vindaloo?), he supplies them in abundance. And it's all absolutely joyous to consume. Possibly we're overdoing the analogy, but you get the point.

It's not just music that attracts Steve's fans. The guy is a renaissance man of bass: teaching, writing, composing, performing and experimenting with a commitment to creative diversity and a connection to his followers that few other musicians can command. Enthusiasm shines from Steve, whether you're interacting with him as a listener, a reader, a student or, as in this case, a colleague with mutual interests in exotic cuisine. Let's hear the man tell his story in his own words, and pass the chutney…

How did you start playing bass, Steve?

I grew up playing violin and trumpet – really badly. My brother and sister played instruments, as does my mum, and when we moved from Wimbledon to Berwick-on-Tweed the kid next door played drums and one of my schoolteachers was selling a short-scale, no-name SG copy bass for 25 quid, just before my 14th birthday. So I got it. I quickly broke the G string and I didn't even know you could buy new strings, so I wedged the broken string under the bridge riser and played it like that for 18 months.

Why bass? It was Nick Beggs, Curt Smith and John Taylor: they were the coolest looking members of their bands. Then I saw Level 42 doing a giveaway on some Saturday morning show. I couldn't really hear bass at that point: I would buy stereoised versions of mono recordings and pan them to one side. Listening to isolated Jack Bruce on Goodbye Cream was an education. Yes were another big obsession: the bass was so clear, which was inspiring. Then I broke my wrist when I fell off my bike, and got kicked out of my first band because I couldn't play for a long time. They were better without me.

I then borrowed a Vesta distortion pedal off a friend and blew up my first amp, which was a keyboard amp, and got a little five-watt guitar amp instead. I just sat there playing Pixies and Jesus & Mary Chain tunes, because by then, alongside getting into prog, John Peel changed my life. My taste diversified hugely into indie, hardcore, Zimbabwean music, electronica… Prior to that, I'd been into hair-metal bands like Bon Jovi, Europe, Def Leppard, that kind of thing. My bedroom wall looked like some sort of homoerotic dream, with all these dudes with long blonde hair! From there I discovered thrash metal bands such as Metallica and Anthrax. Frank Bello is an amazing bass player, and really stood out for me.

How did you find your direction when it came to playing bass?

The great thing about small town life in somewhere like Berwick-on-Tweed was that I got to be a goth who listened to George Benson. I could enjoy Wet Wet Wet and Extreme Noise Terror. The Chart Show on Saturday mornings used to rotate the rock, indie and dance charts, so I'd get to see videos by Prong and Stump or Orbital and some really out-there stuff. I got into the UK hardcore scene with Napalm Death. As a result of all this, my early bass experiments were pretty eclectic. Most of my music GCSE compositions were ripped off from Napalm Death. I submitted them with minor variations as my compositions.

I started out playing with an acoustic guitar player's thumb pick, because I kept dropping plectrums, so I would hold a thumb pick like a plectrum. I never heard of anyone else doing that. I didn't really have a clue what I was doing at that point. Through reading guitar magazines, more or less in the same month I bought compilation albums by Stanley Clarke and Weather Report's Jaco years, and also Kings Of Sleep, Stu Hamm's second album. It was a whole new world of bass exploration and an introduction to fusion.

My second band was called EARS – Eric, Adam, Robert and Steven. We played a couple of pub gigs and I started to get into tapping and playing chords. By that point I had my second bass, a Westone Spectrum DX. The jump from the SG to that was huge, and it looked so futuristic. I'd dropped the thumb pick by then, but being left-handed, it has always taken me way longer to develop right-hand dexterity. Maybe that's why I was so drawn to chordal playing and fretless: they're both way more left-hand dominant than 'slap in E Dorian'.

Some techniques took me literally years to learn: that Victor Wooten double thumbing technique took me 18 months to properly assimilate, and I've had students get to the same place in about three hours!

My third bass was a Japanese Fender Jazz, and that was when the tapping and chordal playing came into their own. I was playing bass constantly, alongside doing AS Level music at school, which I failed. I was told that I got the highest mark the school had ever had for composition, which was all done on an Atari 1040ST. But I went into the practical exam drunk. Definitely one of my worse decisions: the exam was delayed for some reason, so a friend and I decided to go to the pub, on an empty stomach… not good. But I was lost in music: playing bass all the time and not really studying for anything else. I messed up my A levels, but got into music college in Perth in Scotland on audition. I did two years there and then met a mullet-haired Canadian gospel singer who was touring around Europe and asked if I wanted to go with him. I said yes.

How did you come across Modulus basses?

For the summer between college and touring, I worked 12 hours a day in a factory, seven days a week. I saved up enough money to buy a new bass. The Bass Cellar on Denmark Street had this amazing Modulus Q4, and the sticker on the headstock said £1799, reduced to £1400 in a sale. It played so beautifully, and Grant, who ended up at the Bass Centre, commented on how well it suited my playing.

They'd obviously had this bass since the shop opened a year earlier, and the guy serving me said, 'How much money have you got on you?' I told him I had £830. He said, 'All right'. I basically paid less than half the list price, including a hard case. I found out years later that £830 was apparently less than they'd paid to get it in. That was the beginning of my relationship with Modulus. It's a 1991 bass and I bought it in '93. It was bright red – Ferrari red – and the electronics were all EMG. The Modulus Q4 was heavily modified in 1999 when I was going on tour with Howard Jones. I got Martin Peterson to strip it and put a maple top on it, and replace the pick-ups with Lane Poors.

What amps have you used over your career?

I started out with a Carlsbro Viper that got me through college. After college I bought a Korg A4 multi-FX, then an ART Nightbass preamp/processor and a pair of Peavey 2×8 powered top-boxes that had no bottom end whatsoever! Then I had a Trace 4×8 and a 1×15 which I bi-amped with a Peavey power amp. That's what I had until I met Mark Gooday at Ashdown. Ashdown was 1998 to 2003, then I was with Accugroove until 2007, and then I endorsed Markbass to 2013, when I went to Aguilar. Each change came as the requirements for my solo set-up morphed, getting gradually more hi-fi. The Aguilars took me by surprise: I had no idea they would be as perfect for my solo set-up as they are! I've never had a sound like it.

What did your early stint on the road teach you?

I spent two years travelling with the gospel singer, which mostly helped me work out what I didn't want to do in music. That said, touring was a lot of fun, and the discipline did help me make sense of everything I'd learned in music college. It was also good for my timing, thanks to working with a great drummer. And I got some studio experience with him, and incorporated some chordal and tapping arrangements in the context of pop songs, which was an important experiment. I was still living on virtually nothing: I made three grand in my first year as a professional musician – a vital life lesson for anyone wanting to play solo bass!

One of the things I learned from those early sessions was that if you want to be a successful studio musician, save people money. I learned to nail the bass part while the drummer was doing his part, rather than just play along and do it properly later, and producers really appreciated it. I'd grown up with stories of people spending months in the studio, but the reality was that bass and drums were normally done in a day, or a day and a half at most. The quicker you could nail it, the more work you'd get.

How did you get into using loop effects on bass?

From my earliest experiments with a distortion pedal, I'd always seen the bass guitar as distinct from the bass role. I loved what the role meant, and what had happened within that pop and rock tradition. I was and still am a huge fan of Jamerson, Pino, Lee Sklar and Bernard Edwards – all those players who did so much within songs – but I never saw that as the only frame for the bass as an instrument. I wanted to explore it as a sound source, a compositional tool, so when I read an interview with Michael Manring, describing his Lexicon JamMan, I knew that was what I wanted to do.

It took quite a few years to get from experimenting with a two-second delay to doing solo gigs, but having the possibility of layering parts without having to tap them… I'd done so much tapping, but still ended up sounding like two mediocre bassists duetting whenever I played two distinct parts. It looked great, but when you isolated the lines, neither was what they could be if I could loop one and then play the other over the top. The performance and composition potential of looping was apparent straight away, but I'm still exploring the possibilities now. Sometimes it feels like I've just scratched the surface!

I've always steered clear of anything pre-recorded: even now that I'm using drum sounds live, I play them in, rather than triggering loops. Every aspect of the music has to be unique to that gig. Pre-recorded tracks removes some of that potential for newness, and ties you down in a way that my improvising brain would find impossible to deal with.

What is the philosophy behind your songwriting?

This was closely tied to with my discovery of looping. Right from the start, I never wanted to become the 'demo monkey'. I didn't want to make music for bass players: technical displays that were compositionally hollow. But my musical ideas would start out completely fluid – just frameworks for live improv – and then any one composition would only become 'fixed' when it was recorded. That journey, the process of iterating the song ideas live, was where I found my style, my approach to integrating improvisation with simple, open compositions. The bass became my voice, but I didn't want my music to be just bass-sounding things with no tunes. Sometimes, what I recognised as 'the song' would just be a sequence of effect patches that worked together. I learned very early on that I could improvise much more complex music than I would ever write and learn. So the song is always really simple, but the layered complexity is where the magic happens.

Doing what I was doing, there was a huge amount of pressure pulling it in different directions. I knew that I could have gone completely ambient, into the New Age floaty world. Or I could have made a more wanky, flamboyant bass record. There are elements of both in what I do, although my first wholly ambient record was done last year. I was hired to play a live accompaniment to a guided meditation, which I recorded: it's a 45-minute sonic bath, and really lovely. But for the most part, I'm soundtracking the world as I see it, and the world as I see it isn't all smooth. It always needs that edge to it – the bump in the road.

My thinking was originally, 'Don't have a plan B because there'll be a time when you take it'. I'm not as obsessive about that these days: my thinking changed in early 2000 from the main aim being to play music all the time to wanting to make the music that I cared about with a level of success that won't kill it. Because success can kill it just as easily as failure can.

What's next for you?

The sessions for my planned new album have been so fruitful, I've ended up releasing two albums on the same day, A Crack Where The Light Gets In and The Way Home. Both are, at least technically, a pretty big departure for my previous solo albums. As well as playing bass, I'm using a MIDI controller made by Keith McMillen called the QuNeo, which allows me to play percussion and synth parts too. Everything is still recorded live with no overdubs, but I've been able to indulge, in my usual meandering, exploratory way, my love of hip-hop and electronica grooves, all within the context of my layered bass sound world.

So it's a departure of sorts, but it will be deeply familiar to those who know my work up until now. It's heavily influenced by a few of my collaborators – most notably Daniel Berkman, with whom I made the FingerPainting 10-album set, and Divinity Roxx. My duo project with Divinity is one of the things I'm most excited about right now, and when we were developing ideas and writing, she just started playing drum grooves on her M Audio keyboard's drum pads. It sounded so cool and worked so well, I had to try it. She's been a huge inspiration of late.

The upcoming shows with Jonas Hellborg are going to be wonderful too: he's been an inspiration for 20 years, plus I have a fledgling project with Jon Thorne on upright and Rob Turner from GoGo Penguin on drums. There's a lot to get excited about. I just want to keep making exciting music with brilliant people. Life's way too short to work with arseholes, but I keep finding wonderful people who are willing to collaborate on something new, to move outside their, and my, comfort zone to making meaningful, exciting music. That's the biggest compliment of all!