Soulfly's Mike Leon: “I use slapping and popping all the time - there’s something about the attack”

(Image credit: Vladimir Artev/Epsilon/Getty Images)

Mike Leon, who first came to the public eye with the band Havok, currently holds down the low end with Soulfly, the tribal metal band led by sometime Sepultura founder Max Cavalera.

Far from being content to pedal on a root note, the solution employed by many an extreme metal bassist, Leon brings a basketful of techniques to the band’s shows and to their crushing new album, Ritual. We caught up with Leon in mid-tour....

Tell us about the bass-playing on Ritual, Mike.

“I play with my fingers, and I always have. I struggle with a pick, because I’ve never really approached the instrument that way and I also never really played the guitar, except for fooling around. For live, and on record, I have to have my fingers.”

Did pick playing ever appeal?

I always loved Flea. The first time I heard a Chili Peppers album I was like, ‘Is that even an instrument?’

“There were a few pick players that stood out to me when I was a kid, one being David Ellefson of Megadeth and another being Justin Chancellor of Tool, who has an undeniable pick tone. For certain techniques, like string-skipping, where you have to travel a certain distance holding a pick and route it accurately, I prefer to dedicate my thumb to one string and pluck the other one. That’s how I’ve always approached it.

“I’m left-handed, but I play a right-handed bass, so I’m not sure what the hell that’s all about. I think it’s because I learned to fret with my left hand when I was young. My first instrument was the violin.”

Did playing the violin help you when you became a bassist?

“Definitely, because it was my introduction to music in general, but also because I learned how to read sheet music. I was also in chorus for a while, which helped me learn the notation and the literature of music. When I was about 13, I picked up an acoustic guitar and played it with my fingers, and my dad was like, ‘If you’re playing with your fingers, you should try playing bass’ and I never looked back.”

Who were your influences on bass?

“I always loved Flea. The first time I heard a Chili Peppers album I was like, ‘What in the hell is that sound? Is that even an instrument?’ and then I found out it was Flea.

“Also Bakithi Kumalo from Paul Simon’s band - I remember hearing the Graceland album and I thought his bass was a horn, because his tone was so crazy rich and I didn’t know what a fretless bass was at the time. His bass playing is undeniable in those songs.”

You’re one of the few bassists in extreme metal who performs string pops.

All three of us use a Digitech Drop pitchshifter for droptuning. You can dial it to take you down as far as an octave

“We open our set with a song called Frontlines. It’s very thrashy and it has a lot of string skipping, and where some people would just ride on the root note, I go note for note with our guitarist Marc Rizzo. I use my thumb as a drone note on the low E and then pluck the rest of it.

“I use slapping and popping all the time, actually; there’s something about the attack. I’m a big fan of Ryan Martinie from Mudvayne, and the way he’ll pluck in an insanely aggressive way.”

What gear are you using?

“I’ve been with Peavey for five years now. For a while, I was using their all-tube VB3 head, with one of the matching 8x10 cabinets, and I also have a 2x15 of the same cab, but I’ve recently switched to using two of their little Mini Mega heads in a rack.

“When we have the space, I run one of them to an 8x10, with a dirty Darkglass signal which is a lot more punchy, and I also do a clean mix down to the 2x15s stacked on top of another, underneath the 8x10. That is just nasty! And I’ve been playing ESP basses for almost 10 years - for Soulfly, I play a series 405 five-string.”

You use some super-low tunings in Soulfly.

“Yeah, a lot of our songs are down in B, so we’ll just skip down to the low string. Also, all three of us use a DigiTech Drop pitch-shifter for drop-tuning. You can dial it to take you down as far as an octave - it’s handy when you’re abroad and you can’t take extra basses for different tunings. We go down as far as A for some tunes.

“You’ve got to be on your toes in this band; if Max calls out an old Sepultura tune that’s in D, for example, you blast the hell out of the pedal real quick, haha!”

Ritual is out now on Nuclear Blast.

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