Bill Wurtz: “Bass is a hypnosis tool. If it’s done properly it makes you like the song better without knowing why”

YouTube sensation Bill Wurtz has a secret weapon - bass guitar - but not in the way you’d expect. He reveals the method behind his three million subscribers...

You may have come across Just Did A Bad Thing, an insanely catchy song on YouTube, accompanied by a day-glo video of brain- frying proportions, written by Bill Wurtz, who performs the song on various instruments

I first heard it because my kids played it on constant rotation on the school run, and soon became fascinated by the super-funky bass part (as well as the line ‘All the things I’m supposed to do and the places I’m supposed to go are cancelled’, which made me laugh like a drain for some reason).

Tracking the elusive Wurtz down, we requested an interview - and he kindly said yes, revealing an unexpected fact about his bass parts in doing so.

Bass is a huge presence in your music, isn’t it?

I ran away from anyone who tried to teach it to me. I’m wholly self-taught

“Well, although bass was never my primary instrument, at a certain point, you come to realise the amount of control that the bass has in music, and what it’s really doing for the song. Suddenly I became completely obsessed with it, not as an instrument but as a power. For instance, a bass player can change the C chord that the band are playing into an Am7 if they want to, and that’s serious power.”

Are you a trained musician?

“Yes, I trained myself in theory and am very well-versed, but I did it all myself because I ran away from anyone who tried to teach it to me. I’m wholly self-taught.”

Is theory useful for what you do?

“‘Theory’ may be fun, but it’s made of liquid and has a tendency to melt. The music comes first and then you figure out how to describe what happened, although fully describing it can never be done. One of the classical composers said, ‘We will never understand music, but music understands us readily and instantly.’”

There are a lot of funky bass parts in your songs. Is it frustrating to know that most of your subscribers will be listening through a tiny phone speaker?

“Yes, they can only hear the hi-hat. It’s a strange time period we’re going through now, with the devices that people use. The weird thing is the duality of the situation because some people are listening in the comfort of their car, with huge amounts of bass in the system, and for that reason a lot of today’s music is actually made with emphasis on the bass. But then a huge percentage of the audience is listening with absolutely nothing below a certain frequency.”

Pancake proof

Is there a solution to that?

“I used to be quite scared about it. When I first started putting videos on Vine, the very short platform, I was terrified because there’s always a feeling that you’re going to bulletproof-test everything on the pancake speaker before you put it out, but then again, I had some successes with it without ever doing that test, so I felt like I should just trust it - which is insane because I’m doing a lot of crazy bass stuff that won’t ever get heard. For some reason, once I got some hits on Vine and I knew that a lot of people were probably not listening with decent headphones, I learned to trust and not worry about it.”

So you’re not concerned about this?

I’m doing a lot of crazy bass stuff that won’t ever get heard

“Yes, although it makes you uncomfortable when you think about it and you realise how many people are not hearing the bass. It’s an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ kind of thing.

“There was only one time, on the song Hallelujah, where I obsessively said ‘I’m gonna do the whole arrangement starting in pancake mode’, so I set the EQ to simulate the iPhone, basically a low cut up to 500 or something. It sounded about right so I built the whole arrangement with that in mind, paying a lot of attention to the percussion and the high end of the chords.

“It’s the only time I’ve tried to do a pancake-proof mix. I assume producers must do this all the time, given how much music is heard in a bass-less way.”

You’re clearly a very proficient bass guitar player, judging by your videos.

“Thank you. I find it comes naturally and I’ve been in enough bands to feel like I’ve got somewhere with it. I don’t have nearly enough stage experience on bass, though - I always think that everything you learn about bass, you’re going to learn by playing live.”

Is it correct that your bass parts are actually played on a keyboard, but in the videos you mime those exact parts on a bass guitar?

“Yes, because no-one wants to see a band full of keyboard players, or at least I don’t. I often think that I must be wasting my time, trying to get this crazy bass fill worked out, and I’m doing all these takes and I’m like ‘Oh, I missed this note halfway through’, even though it’s just for a video and it doesn’t really make a damn difference either way.

“I use notes all the way down to B, but my real bass is only a four-string, so in the videos, to keep at least some appearance of musical accuracy, I play everything a fourth up. Otherwise, what would I do on those low Cs? This basically simulates the appearance that I am playing a B-E-A-D bass. This can be problematic when the fills get really high. On some songs that don’t go below E, I just stick to standard.”

Do it for real

The tone is reasonably similar to that of a bass guitar.

“I think that has to do with the way I play it and the durations of certain notes. If you actually listen closely to the bass sound, it doesn’t sound real at all. I wasn’t trying to fool anyone, but at the same time I wasn’t expecting such large numbers of people to be fooled. But then again, I’ve found that if you mess with the decay and the durations, you can go a long way to sounding like a real bass guitar.”

Have you ever considered using a real bass guitar on the audio?

“There might be a lot of advantages to using a real bass, I should probably start doing that. I usually have about different tracks that I’ll use, depending on whether I want a muted note or the occasional pluck. If you do it at the right time, a pluck can be really good.”

How do you make interesting bass- lines while still outlining the harmonic structure of the song?

“The key to learning what the bass can really do is try to be uninteresting for as long as you can, and make sure you do what’s necessary. As you gain more experience it will become irresistible to blow the door into another dimension, and still be home at 5pm for dinner.”

Why is bass important for music?

“It’s a hypnosis tool. If it’s done properly it makes you like the song better without knowing why.”

Will you ever do bass lessons online?

“Most of my videos are supposed to be bass lessons.”

How long did you practise bass in general before you became proficient?

“Practise? Forget that, I say do it for real!”

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