Post Number: 528
|Posted on Monday, January 04, 2010 - 5:52 pm: |
-Mar 27, 2008
Phil and the Dead went on to break more gear ground with numerous other innovations—some of which were revolutionary, some just odd. One of the Dead’s weirdest gear setups was 1974’s notorious “Wall of Sound,” a towering PA system that used 55 600-watt McIntosh power amplifiers and separate speaker systems for each instrument and vocalist. Phil actually had four speaker systems—one per string—with the ability to change their configuration using an onboard control, thanks to more Alembic magic. Several years later, Lesh began playing Modulus Graphite 6-strings; at the time, very few bassists had even heard of an axe with more than four strings. In the ’80s be became one of the first bassists to use a wired-fret MIDI system, which he used during the Dead’s open-ended “Space” jams.
In 1997 Phil began the Unbroken Chain Foundation, a community-service non-profit, and has played numerous benefit shows with his band Phil Lesh & Friends—some to help fund unsung composers in his favorite musical genre, modern classical. And after over a decade of letting things slide, Phil is going once more into the breech of state-of-the-art bass design.
Today’s bass technology owes a lot to the Alembic electronics you were involved in early on.
Yes—the Grateful Dead was driving that. I wanted more tone out of the bass; I wanted to be able to boost any area of the frequency spectrum. But most of all, I wanted the tone to be consistent across the instrument’s whole range. We talked about having tracking filters, where the frets were wired—so every time you fretted a note it would close a circuit, the instrument would know what note it was, and it would send a signal to an outboard filter, which would then shift so the filter’s center point was the root. The tracking-filter idea never caught on, though. Neither did the quad bass we developed, where I had one amp system for each string—although that was amazing the few times I tried it with the Wall of Sound. I had two bass speaker columns, each 30 feet high. I think there were 16 speakers in each column. So I had eight speakers for the E string, eight for the A, and so on. But it never went far enough; I should have had footpedals to change the configurations. It was also impractical: In order for it to work, the speaker sets needed to be separated—but in that case the pattern wouldn’t make sense to any one musician onstage. It would make sense only to someone standing 50 feet in front of the stage.
Was one particular bass the guinea pig for these experiments?
Yes—my second Guild Starfire. We called it Big Red; then we stripped all the paint off it and called it Big Brown. It had LEDs in the neck and touch-sensitive switches and everything. The Guild was very fragile—it had layer upon layer of circuit cards inside it, and it was always in the shop, like a British car. Eventually I went back to basics and played a Music Man bass for a while. But I still have the Guild, with all the same electronics as well as the power supply and the cable, which is like a hose.
How did you get interested in 6-strings?
I had known about the Fender VI [tuned EADGBE]—but then around ’81 I heard someone was making a true 6-string, tuned from B to C in 4ths. I thought, Now that’s an instrument. I saw a Modulus Graphite ad, called them up, and asked, “You guys make fiber-graphite, neck-through-body 6-string basses? I want one.”
Anthony Jackson’s Fodera Contrabass 6-string had already been around for a few years.
Right, but those instruments were wooden. At the time I thought a wood neck wouldn’t be rigid enough to sustain the tension from all of those strings. But when I heard they were making necks out of carbon fiber, the same material they use in spacecraft, that hooked me. I’ve played Modulus basses ever since.
My early Modulus basses had a balance problem—they were peghead-heavy, so they wouldn’t sit on my body. Finally I got them to make a special body for me that had more mass down toward the tailpiece.
Did your playing change when you went from four strings to six?
At first I played mostly on the middle four strings, with an occasional foray to the top string. I used the B string mostly to get a fretted low E. The bottom string is difficult to play in tune above E, and it’s so heavy it’s hard to get the right amount of overtones so you can hear the pitch. So I can’t use all six strings all the way up the neck, because it doesn’t sound right. But I can go up the neck and treat it like a 5-string tuned E to C, which works well.
Basically, playing the 6 just made it easier for me to stay in one position, because before I’d be going up and down the neck all the time. That was a boon—and I just loved the instrument’s versatility.
What motivates you to venture down below the low E?
Dramatic effect! Rarely will I go below G on the E string, but some situations just call for it. You can’t stay down there for long, though, because it gets muddy. Also, the notes don’t like to stop—you can’t just lift your fretting finger to stop the note; you have to stop the vibration with your hand. That’s true of all the strings, of course, but the bottom string has more inertia, so you have to make more of an effort to stop it—making it difficult to play fast down low. But for “dropping bombs,” it’s great.
When did you start using MIDI?
In the late ’80s. An Australian engineer named Steve Chick was making MIDI bass systems, so we contacted him and said we wanted a MIDI setup for 6-string. So he made a custom system using the wired-fret concept: This string contacting this fret would mean that note. The system would just know—you didn’t have to deal with the pitch-recognition delay, which made all the other MIDI basses impossible to play in time. I’m still not sure whether I’ll have MIDI on my new basses, though.
What kind of touring are you doing this year?
A brief tour in the summer, and maybe something in the fall, probably with some local shows. I’m not going to burn it down like the Grateful Dead did. The Dead hardly ever had more than three weeks at home. There were so many constraints on us; we had 50 people working for us, and 90% of our income was from touring, so we had to keep going.
My goal with Phil Lesh & Friends is to take the Grateful Dead’s first-set concept and weave it all together. I’ll start by just calling a key, and in the middle of the first jam hopefully I’ll think of something I want to do, and I’ll try to steer it in that direction. Then I’ll call, say, “Eyes of the World”—and boom, we’re in it. But by that time we’ll have built something that weaves in one direction, and out of that I’ll keep calling songs on the spot, without a set list.
It certainly must help to have inherited the Dead’s audience.
And how! There’s certainly enough audience to go around for every member of the Dead who wants to have a band. The Deadheads are just the salt of the earth, and one reason I’m doing this is to restore a sense of community for them, which they thought they had lost forever. Now, when one of us goes out with our respective bands, it’s a chance for the community to get together. They’re the Grateful Dead now, and I think it’s wonderful they’re keeping that flame alive.
Are you writing new material?
Well, this is just the beginning for me. My so-called career as a bandleader is only a year old. I’m mainly trying to continue to play Grateful Dead music for people, because that’s what a lot of them want to hear. But I’m slowly adding great tunes I love from the ’60s, including jazz tunes. I wrote a couple of songs during the Dead’s last songwriting spasm in the early ’90s, and I’m reworking those for my band.
What about “serious” compositions?
For a couple years I’ve been working on an orchestral piece that involves 29 Grateful Dead songs, all orchestrated together. I’m deconstructing them, taking the raw material—a melodic line here, a chord pattern or rhythmic riff there—and weaving them together like a tapestry. In some sections one song is accompanied by another; at one point I have “Dark Star,” “Playing in the Band,” “Saint of Circumstance,” and the “Terrapin Station” fanfare all going simultaneously. Playing these songs with different musicians, as I’ve been doing with Phil Lesh & Friends, has given me greater insight into the symphonic potential of the songs, and it’s a good way to get closure with that material.
What would you recommend for a novice who wants a taste of modern classical music?
My hero, Charles Ives. Try his Fourth Symphony—that’s the piece I always play for someone who wants to know what it is now, since everyone knows what Beethoven sounds like. Also, Elliot Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra.
Do you listen to much popular music these days?
Some. I’ve been getting into Latin music, and for the last five years or so I’ve been deeply into African music. That’s the hippest shit on earth. [Senegalese bandleader] Youssou N’Dour sometimes has three meters going on at once—6/4, 12/8, and 4/4—but they all fit together. Also, every beat is the one. My drummer, John Molo, is very fluent in that kind of thing, so I’ve been trying to bring it out in my band. Sometimes I say to them, “Here we’re going to play one, one, one, one.” Or we’ll be going along and I’ll say, “Lose the meter! Just play a pulse!” Whatever happens tends to sort itself out.
The most exciting thing about pop music today is it’s starting to become really international, with the rhythmic vitality of Latin and African music. I don’t like a lot of stuff I hear on the radio, but every so often something comes on that really grabs me. The science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once said 99% of everything is crap—but boy, when you get that 1%, it’s a diamond.