Juan Alderete is a bassist perhaps best known for his involvement with 80s speed metal band Racer X and modern prog-rock band The Mars Volta. His main creative outlet now is his band Big Sir. He was kind enough to talk to Dan Bogosian before he headed out for a tour with The Mars Volta.
UG: I read an interview you did the other day where you said ‘We’re not in the black yet, but we’re going to get there.
I want anybody who’s interested to know and maybe they don’t make a living being a musician, that – just because I’m in the Mars Volta, it doesn’t mean as much as you would think. It means something if you’re Omar who is the leader of the band with a giant catalog or if you’re Cedric and you’re the lead singer, and you both who were in another big, giant band; that matters. But every other member that has come through this band, they try to go do stuff on their own and I think promoters and a lot of people think you really have a lot of pull, and it just doesn’t translate. And it isn’t because the music you’re doing isn’t good or whatever, it just doesn’t matter. And I am here to say that I’m in the same boat when I do anything outside of The Mars Volta. Mars Volta, yes, I get to play festivals and sit in a tour bus, but when I do Big Sir, I'm in a van with Lisa and we're traveling. In the UK, we were in a Prius. You know what I mean?
When, why, and how did you pick up bass guitar?
When? I grew up in the bay area, and I had some friends who wanted to put a band together and one guy had a guitar and the other guy was a drummer, so I just said “Sure, I’ll play bass!” My father was a jazz fanatic, he loved jazz music – he didn’t play, but he always offered me to come listen to the bass solos. He loved upright. So it seemed natural that I would become a bass player.
When I set out to do it, I had an older brother who was listening to prog-rock at that time. [imitating] ‘You know, if you play bass, you gotta be the best. You should listen to Stanley Clarke, because he’s the best.’ And he tried to get me into Return to Forever but it wasn’t for me, and I’d listen to his Yes records, and I liked those. Then I would listen to Zeppelin, but, you know, you just kinda go on your path of what you like and you don’t like.
But I did get really good, and I have to say I excelled past my band at that time, and then I’d get in another band and I’d excel past them, and then other bands would try to poach me, so I said “I gotta do this for a living” and that’s when I made the decisions to drop out of college and go to Musician’s Institute – primarily just so I could just play music all the time, not because I wanted an education or whatever. I thought that would be cool, too, but I really just wanted to meet musicians because I had a vision of a band that I wanted to do, and where I lived, there just weren’t any musicians who were into what I was into.
So I moved to LA and I ended up playing with a bunch of musician’s in music that I wasn’t into, [laughs] which is so ironic but that kinda started my whole career.
It’s kind of funny how that played out. I know I’ve read other interviews where you’ve gone on record and said you weren’t really into the ‘Racer X’ sound, but it just happened to be that you could play that fast so you were the guy to go to.
It was like that. Paul was friends with my roommate. I had two roommates, and one roommate, this guy Greg and he was in the bay area and we knew him from there, and my friend Bill and I went to Musician’s Institute from the bay area to LA, and then Greg kind of tagged along because we knew that it was dead up where we lived in the bay area. So he came with us and he was already friends with Paul Gilbert, and so he was talking to Paul said “I’m looking for a drummer,” and he goes “Oh okay, my roommate’s a drummer, and he’d be into it, but, he’s kind of playing with this bass player” and Paul goes “Well that’s cool, I’m looking for a bass player, too.” So we went and we jammed with Paul and he didn’t like the drummer, but he liked me because, you know, he would show me stuff and I could keep up with him on the speed thing.
So my drummer friend with that moved back to the bay area when we finished school, and I stayed in LA and found myself in a metal band when I was really into a lot new wave, and some of the punk stuff that came out of the UK and some punk stuff that was happening in the states. I just had this vision that I wanted to be like a kraut-rock meets punk-rock meets British-new-wave. You know, I was very strong headed in what I wanted to do but then I said “I moved to LA to be a musician professional, so I might as well make a record with Paul and it won’t my career.”
But then once you jump into it, I go into it. Next thing I knew, I was looking into these Gary Moore records, and Loudness records. I was never a fan of Rising Force, though; I wouldn’t listen to that, but, then I started listening to metal and I started like some metal but I can’t say I was ever a metal dude. My hair was long and all that, but I wasn’t into it.
That’s a good description. “I wasn’t a metal head, but my hair was long.” Excellent qualifications. If you weren’t into metal at all, though, how did you learn to play that fast? Especially on instruments like bass, there’s not a lot of fast playing, especially in the late 70s, early 80s kraut-rock new-wave scenes.
I came out of my Stanley Clarke phase and there was a lot of 80s bass players that were really phenomenal players, but they were playing fretless. There was this guy, Mick Karn, who I absolutely love. I forget what his name is, but there was this bass player on Thomas Dolby’s record which kind of came later. But there were all these records at this time that had British fretless players who were probably influenced by Jaco and I thought “well, there’s kind of a prog element to it, so I’m familiar with that” and I was kind of into some of Zappa’s stuff. You’re into it, but you don’t really know. You think you can put some bizarre, weird band together.
I figure that’s how Les Claypool did it.
That’s how he’s still doing it.
Yeah! He was in this metal band called Blind Illusion and then he kept tweaking his sound and then he became who he is, and it’s like you just never know. And I think because I listened to AC/DC and I really did love AC/DC and I really love Van Halen, and the element I loved about Van Halen is that he was innovative. So I wanted to be innovative, and so I saw the Women And Children’s First tour and then I saw Billy Sheehan playing and I thought “Whoa!” You know?
So I thought I’d incorporate some of that! I'll play two-handed, I'll do harmonics.
But then I had a Mohawk when I met Paul. [laughs] There was all this weird crap I used to do. Anything went back then because there weren’t enough styles or genres that defined people. It was still kind of a flood gate. You’d see hardcore dudes in metal bands and vice-versa, you’d see shaved up hardcore dudes and he’d be in a metal band. It was exciting in some ways, but you were kind of lost a lot. I just figured, you know, I had chops; I could keep up with Paul and make a metal record. And when I heard Paul’s stuff, you gotta remember, I never heard stuff like this so when I heard it, it was all innovative to me. I was like “This is some mean, metal stuff, prog metal.” I didn’t even know he was ripping off Yngwie Malmsteen because I didn’t know who Yngwie was.
It wasn’t until I was in the band for like a year and Paul wrote this song called YRO and I was just like “…what?” and he goes “Yngwie Rip Off” and I went “…oh.” And then he’d always catch me listening to Yngwie going, “eh.” I used to really like the Gary Moore stuff, I thought that stuff was kind of proggy meets rock meets some metal; I kind of dug a lot of that stuff. But again, you were just like “You know, I’ll do this, see where this goes, what are you gonna do?” and all my friends in the bay area are like “I told you not to get in the metal band, now you’re a metal monkey.” [Laughs]
You’re beyond repair at that point. [Both laugh.] Do you still talk to Paul at all? Is Racer X ever going to tour or record again? Are there any plans?
Paul and I are always going to be really close because he and I basically started Racer X. He didn’t know what he was going to call himself; it wasn’t going to be called Paul Gilbert, but he wanted to be in a band, and so it was me and him and then he got Jeff Martin to sing and he got this guy Harry on drums. And we were like a band, “What should we call it?” And I go “Why don’t we call it Racer X, that’s Speed Racer’s brother.” And then he loved that idea so we went with it. Little did we know, it would really be a big thing in Japan; we never even thought of all those things back then, but it was.
I don’t know if we’ll ever do anything anymore, because I’m such in a different world. When we did get back together in the 2000s, we were supposed to all wear outfits. And I was like “That’s cool, cause I can be somebody else.” Cause I wasn’t what they were into. Those guys are all into metal. Scott’s in Judas Priest, you know, Jeff’s still in metal, Paul’s kind of into metal but he really is into pop music...just listen to his solo records. But if we all wear outfits, we can be like superheroes, then we had a record called Superheroes, so I said “Let’s just be superheroes.” And so we’re like “Yeah! We’re gonna do it!” And we toured Japan wearing our outfits, and it was awesome. And then we played the Whiskey, and those guys all chickened out. Not me though...I wore a Lucha Libre mask the entire show in 100 degree heat on stage!
It sounds like in Racer X you were behind a lot of the creative ideas; maybe not musically, but at least in terms of names, and big funny ideas.
Don’t get me wrong: everybody’s really good at that. The day glow stuff was Paul’s idea. Jeff was always coming up with really hilarious ideas. Scott was kind of the temperament; when it would get too crazy, Scott would go “We can’t do that. That’s gonna look dumb.” So it was a good balance.
When Bruce was in it, he was always just kind of along-for-the-ride. He was too consumed with the fact he had to play in a band with Paul Gilbert and try to keep up, you know?
Yeah. How does the writing process differ from each band you’re in, between the Mars Volta, Racer X, or and Big Sir?
Definitely, the majority of the music comes from Scott Travis and Paul Gilbert in Racer X when I was in that band. I didn’t write that much in it. The Mars Volta – I don’t get to write anything in that. It’s not my band, its Omar’s band. I just contribute my bass ideas sometimes, and sometimes the bass lines are written for me.
Big Sir is my collaboration that started with just me making tracks with this drum loop because I was bored and didn’t have a band. Then I started putting keyboards on stuff and I played for Tim Commerford who is in Rage Against The Machine, and he was just into it. There was a song called Nonstop Drummer and he was like “man, this is just awesome; this should be a band.” Then Bruce, Tim Commerford and I started Big Sir and then we needed a singer, and at that time I was in a band called Pet that was on Tori Amos’ label, and I asked Lisa, the singer, if she would sing on it and she did. Then Big Sir came alive, and of course, Tim and Bruce dropped off and Lisa and I continued it.
We’ve done three full length records and then a remix record over the course of, I don’t know, twelve years? Fifteen years?
I think the first record came out in 2000, so twelve years.
"Just because I’m in the Mars Volta, it doesn’t mean much. It means something if you’re Omar who is the leader of the band with a giant catalog."
Yeah. But Tim and I started it like three years before that, you know what I mean? So it’s basically fifteen years. Cause we used to be best friends.
I didn’t even realize you knew Tim. I love that music, too, but I wouldn’t have realized, pre-Mars Volta, you were into that sort of alt-rock scene.
No, are you kidding me? If you look at the Rage records, I’m thanked on almost all of them. I met Rage Against The Machine when they were playing Raji's, which was like a 300 capacity club in Hollywood. And I met them then, and I was in a band called Distortion Felix and that was my indie rock band. Pet was really indie rock. That was kind of the turning point, after Racer X; we did The Scream, which wasn’t what I really wanted to do. And then The Scream singer went to Mötley Crüe so I said “Let’s do a record like Check Your Head,” and then we started doing a record with the producer from the Beastie Boys, Mario Caldato Jr., and then we did that for a while but it still wasn’t what I wanted to do.
So I started going “I’m gonna do this indie rock.” I’ve always wanted to do these bands that existed like The Jesus Lizard, or Shellac, or Tortoise; there were all these bands doing these things that I had always wanted to do, so I just went for it and Pet was kind of in that situation, and Distortion Felix was, and then Big Sir was. I kind of just finally found myself, and that’s kind of how Big Sir came around.
So Big Sir, I hear drum loops or I make drum loops or I play with drums and then I write these songs with Lisa and we create them, go in the studio, and then make our record.
How do you feel about your latest record with her?
I love talking about Big Sir, I’m really proud of this record. I just want to say about the process of it. Lisa, when we started this record, she was still living in France so we had to do it through the internet and then she came out and we did some stuff at a studio where Cedric had played drums, Jonathan Hischke of Dot Hacker played bass, and Money Mark was there at the sessions.
So we had this whole ensemble and I had written a bunch of stuff with Lisa, we did it and recorded it, and were like “yeah, that’s cool, but…” I kept writing on Logic, writing beats and hip-hop stuff and that’s always what I wanted to do and now Logic’s made it easy for me to make my own beat.
So then I played Lisa a bunch of stuff and she thought of doing the record half electronic and half live band, so we did. So if you get the vinyl, the first side is electronic and the second is full band, with Cedric on drums and the whole team.
I think more now that we’ll probably rely on making this stuff ourselves. That’s just the way the world’s going. Can’t really afford going into the studio, there’s not enough money in it. There is money in it to live; you don’t want to do it unless you absolutely have to go into a studio. I write so much, and I’m always there with my headphones on trying to come up with beats and then I’ll put very minimal keys on it, and Lisa might put keys on it. I play bass, and sometimes I play guitar.
If we need help and I know the part I’m hearing is more difficult, I’ll ask a friend to come in, whomever I know. They’ll come in, and we’ll finish the record. And the next record will probably be more like that, more drum loop oriented with bass and synth bass and stuff. We’ll see how it goes, but you gotta follow technology and see where it’s going.
You’ve got to be real smart with how you tour and how you make your money, and what you do with that money. There’s not a lot going around; you take record sales out of the equation, it’s all about touring or licensing. And trust me, we’re not the only band trying to get licensing. Every giant band knows that that’s where the money is. You’ve gotta get it to survive.
So Lisa and I, when we went out on tour for a whole month, we played almost every day. We had three days off in a month. And we didn’t cancel a show and made everything on time; we sold merch and came home with some money. But it wasn’t easy, but it’s just what you gotta do, it’s the modern world. You gotta get out there and you gotta huff it and kick ass.
We’d get to the venue, I’d set up most the gear, she’d be setting up the merch table. We’d sound check, eat and wait till we go on because we were the headliners. We’d play, and then as soon as we finished playing, she’d go to the merch table, sell the merch; I’d get the gear and load it up into the car and I’d go to the merch table so we could sign stuff for people. Then we go to the merch table, grab all the merch, throw it in the car, get in the car, and drive to the next city. And that was like that for a month. But we made money, so I can’t complain.
That’s crazy. Do you already have plans for the next Big Sir record? You sort of implied you did.
Yeah, I have a lot of ideas. The last record, I would send Lisa stuff, rough ideas, and she’d cut it all up and make a whole song out of it and I’d be like “Gaw, that wasn’t what I intended for it.” So this time I’m going to write complete things, and send them to her. And if she doesn’t like them, I can always use them for something else. But I used to not want work too deep on something if she didn’t like it, but now I’m doing so many more projects, so if she doesn’t like it, I can figure something out for it. But I’m gonna give it to her, and she’ll probably still cut it up and add stuff, and then we’ll make the arrangements for her vocals and see what happens.
And then you’ll tour nonstop and pack the merch table yourself.
Our band on tour is the iPad, that’s our drummer. I have one of those docks, and so I throw the iPad in there, pull up the screen, go into iTunes. They’re all playlists, I hit play. Whatever. She and I start doing our thing, I play bass and I sing, she sings. We play keyboards, I sometimes play synth. It’s just a two piece and we’ll probably make money. We can’t afford to take Cedric with us. [laughs]
He’s too much of a hired gun, too expensive for your price range?
[laughs] I just want people to know I’m out there hustling. It’s not like I’m in The Mars Volta tour bus, kicking back. I’m out there hustling.
What you can get in this music industry right now that you still have things to go to in order to hustle. I’m hustling for pedalsandeffects.com and I want it to survive and I want to continue to do my art form, and it’s hard. I want people to know we’re all struggling artists, too.
Do you have a favorite record that you’ve ever played on? Do you play favorites at all, or are they all equally in your heart?
I can’t really say ‘favorite’ because I don’t listen to a lot of stuff I’ve done. But I could tell you that I know what the ‘pinnacle’ of everything is. I mean, obviously, with Racer X, it is Second Heat. Second Heat is the pinnacle of shred to me because you know, you had two guys who were just blazing on guitar, and you had the bass player who did his thing like that, and then this drummer who was just insane, so Second Heat was good for the lineup.
Then I’d have to say, The Scream? That record, I can’t even relate to anymore. It was a band Bruce and I did after that called DC-10 that only did one record. Pet, we only did one record. Distortion Felix we did two records, but Big Sir, I’d have to say my favorite is the new one. And I don’t mean it because its new, it’s kind of very similar to the first record where it’s kind of what Lisa and I do together.
And then Mars Volta I’d have to say the new record, Noctourniquet, and then Frances the Mute. Those two records are my favorites. I mean, Frances the Mute is where Omar let me really have more freedom than I did on any other record. I love Noctourniquet because it has one of my favorite musicians that I’ve gotten to play with of all time, and that’s Deantoni Parks. So, and I think Omar and Cedric wrote a great record.
What’s your favorite record by anyone? Just, favorite artist, favorite song?
I’d have to say the Band of Gypsies record. I always tell people that. I love that Band of Gypsys record. Anything off that Band of Gypsys record just blows me away. If they were that rough on us, and they said you only get one record to this island, I would take Band of Gypsys.
Do you have any favorite musicians to play with? I know you just mentioned Deantoni Parks, but in The Mars Volta alone you’ve played with many different drummers, several keyboardists, but you spent all of the 90s in a ton of different bands, and you have Big Sir, Racer X, and you went to the Musician’s Institute. Do you have a favorite musician to play with, and anyone you haven’t played with that you think would be cool to?
Yeah, I mean, because you’re a bass player, you’re the rhythm section, I always go to drummers. So I have to say, Jon Theodore and Deantoni Parks, it’s so exciting playing with those guys. But then I’d have to Abe Labriel, Jr., he was in DC-10 with us for a while. I just don’t think of Abe a lot because it’s been so long since I played with him. So Abe, Jon Theodore, Deantoni Parks; those have been some of the best musical experiences I’ve had in my life.
Omar’s like, I can’t really say. He’s a great musician, but I don’t get to do a lot with him; he doesn’t collaborate with me, so it’s not like I get to really say “Yeah, this Mars Volta record” or “this Omar solo record” because I don’t get to collaborate, because he writes everything. I admire him as a musician, of course, but working with him? I don’t get to work with him. [Laughs]
You’re the machine and he’s the operator.
Yeah! I’d have to say, I guess it would always be drummers because you’re a bass player. Electronic things? Yeah, I would love to make a record with Squarepusher, Tom Jenkinson. I don’t know how it would come out, but that guy’s the guy if I was born fifteen years later? I would want to be him.
When I was younger I wanted to be Jaco or I wanted to be John Paul Jones or James Jamerson or David Sims from The Jesus Lizard, but if I was born a little later, I’d want to be Tom Jenkinson because he’s an unbelievable musician. He happens to play my instrument, but he’s just a trail blazer. He just came in, took a scene on, and lit it on fire, you know? This guy’s doing stuff out now, there’s this whole scene in Los Angeles called the Low End Theory where guys are doing some pretty interesting electronic music. I’m not a big dub step fan, but Low End Theory is not about dub step; it’s about hip hop and electronic music.
It’s hard for me to keep up because I play bass, so to try and go into that world almost seems like I don’t know if I’d be taken seriously. Although having said that, we saw Holger Czukay who was the bass player in Can at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood a few years ago, opening for Omar, John and Flea, and he did a whole electronic set with synths and everything as if he were Squarepusher. And I was blown away like, “Shit. I guess you may never be too old to go do DJ sets.” He was crazy, it was awesome.
Even Skrillex, now he’s the biggest thing in the dub step scene but he was the vocalist from First to Last for however long.
I’m not a fan of Skrillex. There’s an element of dub step that turns me off and it’s that meathead element that kind of goes into heavy metal. I think that’s why you find a lot of metal guys who are into dub step and I don’t know what that element is. I can’t really pinpoint it, but I just see dudes going to dub step shows and beating their chest, and I’m just not into that.
You and I more alike than I would have ever suspected. I know you make it sound like it’s a total dictatorship, but that’s why I’m asking: in The Mars Volta, is it democratic beyond songwriting? Do you have a say in the tour, set lists, or are you basically just Omar and Cedric’s bass player?
No. The only thing I’ve ever had any influence on is drummers, but that’s it. When they fired Jon Theodore, Omar had this other drummer and I never felt that he could really keep up with our band, especially coming from Jon Theodore, you know? There was no way this dude was going to keep up with Jon and his legacy.
And after a month or whatever, I just said “oh man, there’s gotta be more drummers out there,” and I took it upon myself to start looking, and then I would play Omar Deantoni Parks and be like “this dude, check him out.” And you know Omar’s running an industry; he’s running a business. He’s not going to just make moves to make moves. You know, it’s not that easy. I just figured I’d plant a seed and when it got to the point where that drummer wasn’t working out, he’s like “call this dude up, let’s see if we can hook up with him.” Then Deantoni played with us on the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ in a 2006 run and then he had to go back to his band, because he was devoted to his band at the time.
Then we found Thomas (Pridgen) which I found through Mike Varney from Shrapnel Records, he turned us on to Thomas. Then Thomas was in the band for a while, then he didn’t work out, then I found Dave Elitch through some friends. He played with us for a little bit, but we needed a permanent member, and then it just so happened that I was making a record with Deantoni and he just texted me one night and said “What do I have to be in The Mars Volta?” and I said “You know how this works! Call Omar.” [laughs] So he called Omar and now he’s back in our band, which is just a godsend.
Is being in the Mars Volta stressful? It sounds stressful.
It’s stressful; it was stressful during the whole Amputechture tour, and then we went into Bedlam in Goliath. The music was so complicated, and that was stressful. And you know you had click tracks playing in your in-ear-monitors, and they’re changing tempos and they’re all odd meter, and it’s just hard. You’d be playing a part in one tempo, and then they’d introduce the new tempo to the next section, and you’d have to jump on it while the other one is, just… ahh, it made me so crazy sometimes.
And you know, then you’d have this overplaying drummer, and eight members…
A bassist’s worst nightmare.
Yeah! And all of us at some point have a hard time knowing where the songs at because they drummer’s overplaying; it was hard, it was very stressful.
And you know, the lineup changes are never easy, they’re always stressful. They become your friends, or they become not-your-friends, but one way or another, you’re sad to see your friends ago, but if you’re glad to see somebody go, that means you had conflict with them.
It’s not easy.
There’s great moments, don’t get me wrong – winning a Grammy was super fun, beyond what we thought it would be, because we never thought we’d win. That was fun. There are great times when you’re having a blast at a show, but you’ve got to cherish those moments because it’s a band that’s very volatile in every way. You’ve got to just take the band with the good: there’s gonna be good times, there’s gonna be bad times.
How did you go about learning the bass lines on the Mars Volta album you didn’t play on, De-loused in the Comatorium? Did Omar just show you the bass lines since he probably composed them the first time?
"I made the decisions to drop out of college and go to Musician’s Institute – primarily just so I could just play music all the time, not because I wanted an education or whatever."
No, I just learned them. And there’s always this part that everybody talks about with rhythm sections and guitar players or whatever. There’s this song called Roulette Dares and there’s this section that to this day I really struggle with.
That’s actually my favorite TMV song.
Yeah, that’s one of my favorites. And there’s that middle section that has this weird middle section that turns around, and if you’re not right on it, you’ll get lost it and be off of it. And Jon used to just nail that part; Jon was so good at that.
But again, you just get in there and you just learn the songs and hope that they like it, and when I went in there for my audition, they liked it, and I really was surprised they didn’t audition anybody else, you know? [laughs]
But hey, you got the part! When you compose a bass line for your own band, Big Sir, or when you writing one for Racer X or whatever, what goes through your mind, and when you use effects, do you have the effect in mind when you’re writing the bass line, or do you write the bass line and then the effect comes in the play?
Yeah, the line comes first and then, for me, it’s usually the drum part that dictates it. Sometimes I write the bass line first, but sometimes I hear loops or a drummer will play a beat and I’ll just write something on the spot. Those are usually my favorite ones.
Like I was telling you that song earlier, Nonstop Drummer, I heard a drum loop, I said “Bruce, hit record,” – well, first I asked Bruce “Can I record on this?” cause Bruce made the loop, and then Bruce said “yeah, sure.” So he hits record, I started on the bass line all the way through, and he goes “man, you heard it like that?” and I go “Yeah. Give me a keyboard.” So I put some Rhodes on it, and the song was done. And I just heard the loop and the loop told what to do with it. That really is true with how I work in Big Sir a lot of the time.
But I think in some of the other projects I’m doing, some of the collaborations or whatever, a lot of times its just inspiration of some other musician that gets you to play differently, you know?
What motivated you to start pedalsandeffects.com?
Lots of questions from fans, you know what I mean? You know, I don’t know how to answer that one beyond that. Can you rephrase it so I can get a better grasp on it?
What gave you the idea to do pedalsandeffects.com?
Besides the fans, it’s not like I was all like “wow, I want to make a website.” I go to youtube, youtube is a phenomenon. My nephew wanted to learn how to do origami; he learned to do it just watching youtube videos. You know what I mean? Everybody goes to youtube to learn stuff. I go there for Apple Logic stuff. I won’t know and I’ll go to youtube and some guy will show me for free.
I really love that idea, and all the guitar pedal ones typically are just these guys who are just in their studio or room and they kind of play a tele and they’re looking for smooth, milky sounds and I’m like “man, is there anyone out there doing over the top stuff?” I really want to see what a pedal does, you know. Subtleties? You’re not going to hear that much of a difference. If you’re using a reverb “subtly”, then what does it matter what reverb you’re using?
But if you’re going for fuzz, over the top fuzz, and you want your bass to just sound like it’s lighting up a venue or an arena or something, I want to know who’s doing videos for that and there wasn’t anybody so then I just said “I’ll do it.” I’ll show these kids what I think is good. Everybody’s comprehension of distortions and whatever is all different.
For me, like I really came up in that era of indie rock where these guys were playing with distortion on everything. You listen to any of the Touch and Go era of music, or if you listen to Nirvana records or whatever, they were obsessed with distortion and making it sound cool. It’s a vital part of the music, grunge, a lot of distortion, Soundgarden, whatever. So distortion became an important thing, but I kept noticing more bad distortions than good distortions on bass. Guitar, that too; but, I don’t play guitar so I’m not going to comment on it. But bass? A lot of times I could just go “ugh, that’s awful.”
So I’ll just give them my perspective, because it’s not an easy thing to do. Once you buy a pedal, and it doesn’t work, you’ve got to sell it. You lose money. But what if there’s somebody you trust? That’s when I said “pedalsandeffects.com.”
Does that mean your plans for the site are going to be primarily doing videos of yourself demonstrating pedals? Or featuring reviews?
It’ll be everything. It’ll be reviews, it’ll be chaining, how to change pedals, how that changes the sound if I can articulate that with the gear through the video. And I’ll talk about pickups, the bass instrument; hopefully eventually I’ll bring in my keyboards and start showing how they sound. Take a very used keyboard, and then run effects on it and be like “look what can you do with this,” you know?
A lot of the Big Sir keyboards aren’t just straight keyboards and they’re not soft synths. I’ll take like a junky Yamaha or Casio keyboard, run it through a ring modulator and a vibrato pedal and a delay, and people will go “What’s that synth?” And I say, “exactly!” It doesn’t have to be soft synth.
Yeah, of course I’d love to have a Moog Voyager. I’d love to have one of those, but that’s a ton of money and I don’t believe I’m a good enough keyboard player to invest in something like that just yet. So I just take what I have and tweak it. And people always go “You know how to get sounds. What is that synth?” There’s a DX-7 that I ran through a Fairfield circuitry ring modulator. That is my favorite sound on the Big Sir record. People always ask “What is that?” You gotta know how to just get into it and listen to the full spectrum of a band.
Listen to what you put down, and then if you’re putting overdubs of effects on something, blend it in. It’s more how to blend it in to make it sound like a full ensemble, you know what I mean?
Yeah. It’s so funny because the last person I interviewed was Ian MacKaye, and he never used any effects. He had the perspective of “They’re really cool, but I’m not into them” sort of perspective, and then you’re here like “I’m not going to get a Moog, so put it through effects!”
That’s so funny. Fugazi is great. My old band, Distortion Felix, opened up for Fugazi a few times. And the one thing – they didn’t have any effects, but the one thing everybody in the audience wanted to know how to do, was they would put their pickups, they had those weird micro phonic pickups and they’d get that weird feedback stuff. People thought it was effects, but it was the all natural hissy feedback.
How much do you think bassists’ sounds are shaped by their bass versus the amp versus the effects versus the bassist themselves?
Obviously, it starts with the hand. I remember the guy who invented SWR bass amps called me and he goes “you know I’m a big fan of Marcus Miller. Everybody’s obsessed with his bass, and his Sadowsky pre-amp, and it’s a mid 70s Jazz. Everybody thinks if they get that bass, they can get his sound. I’ve heard him on so many other instruments, and he always gets that sound.” So it doesn’t matter what bass: it’s the hands.
And, for your overall sound, with effects, the perspective of that is it really is what people do with it. The newest installment of the pedalsandeffects, I had just received this Rainbow Machine by Earthquaker Devices, so I thought “well, here’s my friend Jonathan Hischke, who’s a great bass player and really knows effects, and here’s me. Let’s both look at it for the very first time, and see what different sounds we get on the very first try.” So I go in there and I get a weird finger tone thing that sort of sounds like Scofield stacking fourths or something, and I’m like “whoa, that’s crazy sounding.” And then I’m doing the harmonic thing that sounds cool cause I’m always doing harmonics on bass. And Jonathan gets it and he just does this simple chord thing that has all these crazy effects, and it just goes to show you the different mindset of what you want to do with it. You’ve got to think or hear something ahead of time. I’ll read a description of the pedal and I’ll see if I can get it or I’ll go buy it because I’ll go “if that’s true, I’ll do with this.” A lot of time it’s emulating a sound you’ve heard on some other record.
You mentioned ‘how he sounds like himself no matter what bass he’s playing,’ because I remember reading a long time ago, Les Claypool saying the same thing. But the way he realized it was he was drumming for Electric Apricot, and he was doing Oysterhead at the time which had Stu Copeland on drums. And I remember Les Claypool, no matter what he did, couldn’t get his hi-hat to sound as good as Stu’s but Stu could just play any hi-hat because he was Stu Copeland and Les Claypool was Les Claypool.
Right! There’s nobody in the world who can sound like on hi-hats on snare, that conversation that a drummer makes happen like Deantoni Parks. He has more resources between the bass drum, snare, and hi-hat than anyone I know.
But then on the other hand, you have a drummer like Jon Theodore. And I don’t believe any drummer has ever sounded as much like Jon Bonham as him. He literally can fool me. He could literally send me something, A-B, and be like “Is this Bonham or is this me?” and I couldn’t tell. He sounds like Bonham, you know? And that’s so exciting. It doesn’t matter the kit or whatever, it’s that mind to matter, nervous system to muscle that creates things like that.
Whatever’s in their hands, they can do what they want. It’s amazing.
You’re making me wish I was in a band with Jon Theodore.
Yeah, if you love Bonham, man. I’m surprised Jimmy Page or Robert Plant haven't called him up yet. Once they do, they’ll be like, “Oh my god.”
What was your first setup, and what was the first song you played?
I think the first song I ever played was Evil Ways by Santana. It was. [Sings bass line]. I’m Latino, so I’m gonna learn a Santana song! You want to know my first instrument?
First bass guitar, yeah. First instrument? Did you play an instrument before you played bass?
No no no. That was my first time to play an instrument. And it was an Alvarez precision bass copy.
The Santana thing makes me laugh because your reasoning is just so sound. [both laugh] What gear are you currently using, and how has your setup changed over time?
I guess in Racer X I just used a compressor pedal and a wah-wah pedal. Sometimes a chorus, but that was it, so I only had 3 pedals. And then in the 90s, my main bay was using the Boss CS-2 compressor again, with a Sovtek fuzz, which I love, and then sometimes I would use a wah just to get filtering sounds, I would play a whole bass line filtered out. And I would use an Electro Harmonix micro-synth and so that was my basic setup for that.
Then as I developed into Vato~Negro, which we haven’t talked about, but Vato~Negro I started in the late 90s with my friend Matt, and it was just me and him. We couldn’t find any guitar players who wanted to do what we wanted to do, so we were just doing like drum and bass riff rock or whatever, but it me with all these effects I kept acquiring in the 90s. I had tremolos, choruses, delays, vibrato pedals, micro-synth pedals; I would just buy stuff. At that time, I had, I don’t know, forty or fifty pedals. And I would just go through them and I started making the Vato~Negro records, but I couldn’t get anybody to put them out for the longest time because it was just bass and drums and nobody wanted something like that.
So then I got into The Mars Volta, and at that time Omar had a huge guitar pedal board system, and so I started building my pedal board. At first, I had probably twelve pedals on stage, and then it turned into twenty four, and then it turned into forty eight, you know?
Then it got out of hand, and you just stuck with that.
Yeah. And then now? With what I’m going on tour with, is fourteen pedals, and that’s it. And it’s just like my basic my tuner, my Boss DS-2, my Boss vibrato VB-2, my OC-2 box, all the old stuff I came up with. And then you start getting the newer stuff, the Earthquaker devices, Organizer, the Rainbow Machine, the Ravi Sitar by Electro-Harmonix, and then I have a couple old school DOD pedals. I’ve got three of them. I’ve got this weird fat pre-amp that just enhances low end, I’ve got a sub harmonic sub for blowing up PA systems, and a DigiTech 20-20 which is like a delayed sampler that lets you manipulate samplers. And then a Line-6 DL4; you’ve always gotta have that for sampling to play stuff. And that’s my pedal board rig.
And as far as my basses, I’m using and only available in Japan 1962 Fender Jazz bass that’s a thirty two inch scale. I’m using Ernie Ball flat wounds on that. And then I’m taking my spare bass, I’m not taking my main fretless out, but it’s still a 1972 Fender Precision fretless with Ernie Ball round wounds with a P/J setup. And those are the only two basses I’m taking. So my gear fits in a Pelican case and you can fly with it. My two basses, you tape up together, so I’m flying with that, and then I’m flying with my clothes, and my laptop’s in my backpack, and that’s how I’m travelling.
And we’re renting gear. I’m renting Ampegs everywhere we go.
For someone who says that’s the simple rig, that still seems like quite a bit compared to your average bassist.
"I love talking about Big Sir, I’m really proud of the latest record."
Yeah, if I was just doing flat wound bass? I would just a compressor pedal and a tuner, and my 1962 re-issue 32 inch jazz bass and then I’d rent bass gear. But because it’s The Mars Volta, it’s a little more involved. But when I toured with Big Sir, I think I had only eight pedals.
But the kids get bummed out now. They told me when I was on my Big Sir tour; they were like “This is all?” And I’m like “Man, I don’t make enough money to fly over what I’d love to fly over.” Trust me, if I could, I would have at least thirty pedals on a pedal board, but I can’t afford it.
Do you listen to any modern rock or metal bands, or what new bands have you listened?
Well, there is Jonathan Hischke's Dot Hacker. His bass is trail blazing.
I really love this band Torche. This guy Jonathan is the bass player, and he’s really, really great. Torche is an awesome metal band. There’s a lot of metal bands coming out that are influenced by the indie rock that I was really into, so it’s not like metal bands are influenced by Slayer. I mean yeah, they listen to Slayer and Metallica, but they also listen to Trans Am or they listen to Shellac or they listen to the Jesus Lizard. So I really like a lot of these bands that are coming up that have this element.
There’s a band called Russian Circles that seems to me to have that influence. But again, it’s not something I go buy. If you want to know what I really, always actively for? I love hip-hop, that’s what I listen to. I listen to hip-hop 90% of the time. I get in the car, and I listen to hip-hop.
I would not have guessed that. Are you planning to do a hip hop record behind my back, too?
Check this out, Lisa and I in Big Sir played this really great show in London a couple months ago, and I don’t know why I said it on stage, but I said “We’re going to play this song Nonstop Drummer. I remember reading a review about this song, and they said “Big Sir is very trip-hop like Portishead.” And I guess we sound like that because we have a female singer, but when I read that, I thought, no, I was writing a Cypress Hill song. You know what I mean? I ask myself, what would Cypress Hill do? Or what would DJ Premier do? Or what would Dr. Dre do? Or what would Timbaland do? That’s the way I think. I don’t think “What’s Portishead doing?” I don’t think that at all. I listen to hip-hop. I’m a huge hip-hop fan, I always have been.
Check this out, when I met Paul Gilbert, not only was I listening to New Wave, I was listening to Nucleus and Afrika Bambaataa. I saw RUN DMC on the Tougher Than Leather tour. I saw the Beastie Boys on their first tour, I saw Public Enemy on their first tour.
When you joined Racer X, you had a mohawk and were listening to Public Enemy. That’s the way I’m going to envision it from here out.
Well, it wasn’t Public Enemy, back then it was UTFO. People are like “what is this?” and I’m like “oh it’s UTFO.” And I had a low rider. Paul would get in there, and I had a mohawk, and I was listening to UTFO.
That is awesome; that’s a beautiful image for someone who likes a lot of different kinds of music.
And he would always rag on me to grow my hair out. “You gotta grow your hair out.” And I’m like “Alright, I want this to work.” I’m a team player, so I started growing my hair out.
You’ll fit the metal image, but it’s not who you are.
Yeah, and LTD got ripped off and broke my heart, but when LTD got ripped off, part of me went “Alright, you know, I have to make a living off this music thing. I’ll play this metal thing.” [laughs]
You should probably place a phone call for Jon Theodore and try to get in with him and Zach de la Rocha for One Day as a Lion.
I haven’t heard from that in a while and that’s certainly hip-hop. Us three did a track together for the Fahrenheit 911 movie soundtrack. It was right as they were starting their One Day As A Lion project.
Yeah, I’ve talked to Jon. Zach’s working on the lyrics and Jon’s on tour in Europe right now with DaMFunK. And all the kids are really excited cause they get to see Jon Theodore tour. He’s got a really big fan base. So he’s out there touring, but god, are you kidding me? They got a guy who plays synth and it covers all the synth, but I would always jump at a chance to play with Jon, because it’s always a blast.
What advice would you give to bassist’s who want to make a name for themselves, either in their own band or by working around as musicians like you did for a lot of years before starting your own project?
Again, I think I started off with Racer X, it was like a band. And even though I said I really didn’t know metal, and I didn’t write a lot, I was still a band member. The Scream was a band; DC-10 was a band. Pet was a band when I joined even though they already had a record out, and Distortion Felix was a band. It wasn’t until The Mars Volta that I got in and was ‘hired’, you know?
But I think the thing that kids have to know is you really have to be open to everything. If I wouldn’t have taken Paul Gilbert up on his offer, who knows? I might have gotten to a point where I wasn’t making any money and have been like “god, I’ve got to do something else. I can’t make a living at this.”
You’ve got to look at every opportunity and see if it’s worth it for you to try to get something out of it, and I did. I got a lot out of Racer X. I got Paul as a great friend, he’s awesome; Scott and Jeff, too. They’re all really cool dudes. When we get together, all we do is laugh our asses off. We’re a band. You just never know. I never thought I’d have gotten along with metal guys at that time as well as I did.
Same thing with The Mars Volta. One thing people don’t understand is that, yeah, it’s difficult being in that band sometimes, and it’s fun being in that band sometimes; when it’s fun, it’s because those guys are hilarious. They’re two of the funniest guys in the world, and people don’t know that. Omar and Cedric are so friggen funny. They make you laugh till you have tears in your eyes.
I would not have guessed that. And Lisa doesn’t make you laugh to tears?
No, Lisa and I have a different relationship. Our humor is almost the same when we get together; we just play off each other. When we get bored is when we get funny. It's the kind of humor that only us two get, most of the time. As high art as Lisa is to me, she can be first grade dumb with humor. Or maybe she just comes down to my level.
Interview by Daniel Bogosian
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