Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Kim Deal on Playing the Bass

I've been trying to find this article online for some time now and it magically popped up yesterday.

"The Pixies' Kim Deal Turns A Modest Approach Into A Big, Big Sound", Bass Player, November 2004 by Bill Leigh

"No chops" demanded the Boston-area MUSICIANS WANTED ad seeking a female bassist with vocals. It also mentioned an odd combination of preferred influences: folk trio Peter, Paul &Mary and punk rockers Hüsker Dü. "I thought that was funny," grins Kim Deal, recalling how her response to that 1986 listing led to the formation of the Pixies, a band that so inspired a generation of alt-rockers that 12 years after their last album and breakup, the recently reunited group's tour dates have been among the hottest tickets of 2004.

"I think they were really looking to meet rock chicks."

"No!" replies Kim's twin sister, Kelley, her bandmate in the Breeders, the side project turned successful main focus after the Pixies' demise. "You think?"

"Joey once told me so," laughs Kim. "Little did they know they'd end up with a married woman!"

Serially puffing smokes at Kelley's kitchen table, Kim simultaneously exudes a relaxed ease and a slightly nervous creative energy, not unlike her complex contribution to the Pixies' distinctive sound. On song after song, Kim pumps out picked eighth-note lines with a top-of-the-beat steadiness that both upholds and upends the jagged phrasing and bipolar dynamics of vocalist/guitarist Charles "Black Francis" Thompson, guitarist Joey Santiago, and drummer David Lovering. At the same time, she counters Francis's frantic whispers and screams with her own bright, almost girlish vocal harmonies and leads. The mixture brings as much earthiness and charm to the Pixies onstage as it did on their five albums, the first two of which credited Kim only as Mrs. John Murphy. "I lost my identity," she explains, smirking. "Not really. I was pretending that I lost my identity."

Deal had come to Boston with her then-husband, Mr. Murphy, from Dayton, Ohio, where she now lives a few neighborhoods away from her sister. It was in Dayton, as a 13-year-old, that Kim taught herself guitar by picking through her dad's tablature books. In a few years Kim and Kelley were performing covers and originals in bars they were too young to be in.
Soon after arriving in Boston, Kim answered the ad that led to the Pixies, but she hadn't really played bass before. She laughs, "I probably said, 'I play guitar but I'm sure I can play the bass-it's only got four strings!'"

The Pixies used their relative inexperience to develop a musical style that deliberately departed from the Spandex-wrapped rock chops prevalent in the late '80s-just like the ad said. "We weren't really good players back in the day," notes Kim. "And I think that's a good thing." Another ingredient in the Pixies recipe was a conscious eschewing of rock's blues bloodline as a way to avoid clichés. "How many friends do you have that pick up a guitar and start playing the blues?" she complains. "And I don't mean the rhythm of the blues-that stuff's cool. I'm talking about those little pussy two-and-a-half-second licks. Aaarggh, they make me cringe!

"But I guess it's more than just 'No blues licks,'" she continues, trying to clarify the Pixies philosophy. "It's 'Nothing standard.'" Odd-length phrases, strange lyrical themes, and a do-it-yourself attitude was the result, and Deal's own creative imprint was always there, from her bass-craft and vocal contribution on Pixies albums like Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, and Trompe le Monde to "Bam Thwok," the catchy, download-only Pixies ditty Kim wrote earlier this year.

Today the 43-year-old not only has years of bass-playing experience, she also has the knowledge that there's something about her playing approach that has inspired others to play and learn bass. "I tell you, for what I don't play on the bass, I can actually hear people making those same decisions on records. And people say nice things; [Concrete Blonde's] Johnette Napolitano told me she started playing bass again because of me. Even guys; they think, If she can do it, I can do it. That's a good thing, and if girls think the same way, it's really good. I think a lot of people say they learned to play bass because of me because there are plenty of songs on the records that are pretty easy to follow. It's not like I started with Rush songs."

Pixies songs have such a range of dynamics. How does that play out in your bass work?Not much. I don't play any harder or quieter. When you're building a song that has dynamics changes in it, the last thing you want is for people to actually play quietly on the quiet part. You just take stuff out. You build the song so the part is quieter; you don't play quieter. At least I wouldn't.

So it's a matter of layering.Exactly. As a bass player, I'm either in or out. The drums are either in or out; I don't think David is bashing any harder. He might use more cymbals on something that's louder, though.

You excel at one of the harder things to do as a bass player: to play eighth-notes really steadily. I am good at that, aren't I? It's not easy to do. A lot of players lag behind. It's so irritating. And they're playing with their fingers, so they never really get a good attack at the top, and one hit is louder than the other.

When you started out, were there certain things you were listening to that helped you develop that kind of playing?Since we started in the late '80s, I think we had a Joy Division or a Cure-like keyboard bass thing going on. Mainly I knew what I didn't like. I didn't like going with the kick drum. There are songs I do that with, but they don't irritate me like bar bands where the bass is constantly going with the kick drum, even when it's supposed to be a rocking number. I knew I didn't want to do whatever that was.

So early on you were thinking about what kind of a bass player you wanted to be?I wasn't really thinking about me as a bass player-it was more like I couldn't participate in a band that's going to sound like those bands. I knew there was no possible way I could stand there and do that. I would quit. I'm not a musician like that.

So that meant deciding not to play with the kick drum?It was more of an automatic knee-jerk response. I didn't want to just go with the kick drum because that's what the bass is supposed to do.

But you chose not to go with the guitar, either . . . .Oh, you mean doing the heavy metal riff when they all go together? That kind of stupidness is sometimes kind of fun. There's one song we do, "Planet of Sound," where we do that. It's fun. But it's supposed to be dumb fun.

What is your approach on bass with the Pixies?To play eighth-notes-not always, but most of the time. We're not a dance band. It would be awful to try to play some sort of interesting, intricate rhythm over a 4/4 drumbeat with the hi-hat constantly on the eighth-note. The bass in Pixies is just glue; that's all it is. It's not supposed to be something else.

Both the Pixies and the Breeders seem to come from that "do what you can do" punk style of music making.I'm all about that. If I see somebody up there onstage who's just playing scales really good and showing their dexterity, it's like watching somebody type! It's not like I'm a sucker for a-melodic stuff, either, but if it sounds pretty good, I'm way more into that than the virtuosos.

Is it harder to achieve that sort of visceral, feeling-based thing the more you know about music?I swear, I think I've done a pretty good job of blocking all knowledge from me. I purposely have used a lot of restraint when it comes to theory. I've made sure I did not know that if I played a certain chord, that the 5th belongs there instead of the 7th. Maybe some geniuses can see that a certain note belongs there and then be able to choose not to use it, but that kind of knowledge might just block me. I feel like I'd get lazy if I knew the 5th was supposed to go there. I'd just holler out, "Yeah, it's a 5th," instead of waiting until they make a mistake on it and hearing it. You can hear when something sounds good. Even when it's theoretically wrong, it can still sound really super.

But unfortunately, because I don't know any of that theory, I would barely be able to jam on a blues gig. I would make as many mistakes as the notes I hit.

Do you ever write by jamming?I have, but it's not like jamming on a blues song. It's more somebody coming in with an idea-even if it's two chords together, or even a drum beat-and then you try to find a cool rhythm or something within that. But if I did the other thing, to jam, you almost have to declare what music you're going to be in and the writing is already done in a way. If you're jamming on a blues, you already know you're playing a blues song.

What was your first bass?I borrowed Kelley's bass. It was an Aria Cardinal series. I thought it was so cool because it was just a piece of plank wood or something. It was the weirdest-sounding bass. At first I was always like, I'm playing a dumb bass; it's not a Fender, so it's not cool. But then we played with My Bloody Valentine, and that band's bass player had an Aria Pro, too.

When you first started with the Pixies, how did you decide whether to play with a pick or your fingers?I played guitar with a pick, so I just naturally played the bass with a pick. It was so much easier. At the time I didn't even know bass players played with their fingers so much.

Have you played with your fingers since?Yeah, I can if I practice. There's some stuff on the Breeders' Title TK I played with my fingers. I played standup bass on some songs, too.

Have you taken lessons on upright?No. I just use a little piece of tape to mark things, and then I play my thing.

With the Breeders, though, you've mainly played guitar. Why did you decide not to play bass in the Breeders?Because I write with the guitar, it never occurred to me not to play what I just wrote. The first Breeders thing came out in 1989, and I had been a bass player only for three or four years, so it didn't really feel like my instrument. It still doesn't feel like my instrument.

It doesn't?No, but I think I'm good at it.

Why?I don't know. Maybe it's because I'm not a bass fanatic. Maybe because I'm so detached from it I can step back and look at the instrument. And maybe the bass is the type of instrument that sounds good when people have that attitude towards it. Slapping and popping and all that stuff can sometimes sound really good, but if your ego is only validated when you get a chance to show your skills, you can pretty much ruin a song if the song can't support that rhythmically or melodically. I want to sound good, but I have no desire to show my virtuosity on bass. When I pick up the bass, my ego isn't tied to an attention-grabbing bass part. The bass sound I like is more of a static, groovy thing. I like bass lines that maintain the rhythm of the song. There's other bass playing I like where it's a lot of lead, but the lead is still on the scale of the song.

Like who?Like John Entwistle from the Who. With him, there's a lot of lead playing-there's hardly any rhythm going on-because he's gathered so many notes along the way. There's a lot of movement. I like [Tom Petersson's] bass playing in Cheap Trick, too.

I think my bass playing with the Pixies does sound different. It was in the late '80s before the 808 thing was involved in a lot of stuff, so the bass had a normal, pretty low range that wasn't earthquake-low. It wasn't subsonic stuff. [Ed Note: The Roland TR-808 was a drum-machine whose low, resonant kick-drum sound has been used in a lot of hip-hop, dance, and techno music.]

What's your main bass today?My main bass is a Fender Precision, and I plug it into an Ampeg SVT. I also have an Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay; I try to swap onstage but there's just no time between songs. The Precision is coral-colored, a classic custom color. It's a '62 reissue.

When did you switch from the Aria?We were working with [producer] Gil Norton for Doolittle, and he looked at my Aria bass and was like, "Uh, no." So I had to go to Boston and buy a bass because he refused to record mine!

How did you record back then?I usually brought my Peavey Combo 300, and I think I had a Marshall. I always thought it was cool to have a Marshall bass amp, but it never sounded good. The first two records were the Combo 300 and the Aria bass. I'd have a DI in addition to the miked combo, so I'd have something thin and something thick.

Usually we did what I think most bands did in the late '80s: You all got in your iso booths and played all together, hoping to keep the rhythm tracks. You decided which drum track you wanted, did a couple of punch-ins if the bass needed it, and then started working on guitars, which was a bit of a bigger deal since guitar players are so concerned with their sound. And usually they're stuck with the worst mics in the stupidest booths.

Are you concerned with your sound?Not so much with the Pixies stuff, because I feel like I can't grow. I have to sound like the records. I'd love to play this Gibson Thunderbird I got-it's so gorgeous-but the tone is way too big and beautiful and round. It's just not the same.

Did you keep using the Precision after Doolittle?No. I got a Music Man StingRay for Bossanova because it was active and had a different sound. I was experimenting with bass sounds then. I used the StingRay as my main instrument live, too. I don't know why. I think probably because it was a little less country-sounding than the Fender. And then, for Trompe le Monde, we were doing a song in the studio and whatever bass I was using was out of tune high up on the neck, which was bothering Gil, so I went and got a Steinberger. I played it on one song; it was kind of okay because it had this weird, organ-y sound, which I liked but I was really embarrassed to play it. It's odd; there's no headstock. I don't know why they do that. People were riding me because I didn't have a headstock. But my tech, Tommy, made me a cardboard headstock for it-not to fool people, just to make me feel even stupider!

There was a long break between those albums and the current tour. When you first started rehearsing, what was it like playing these tunes again? It was weird. I'd been playing the bass a little, but it's different than playing it for seven hours in one day like when we were rehearsing. I had these big blisters. I thought I wasn't going to remember the parts, but my fingers were just moving! Muscle memory really did kick in. But it's strange to go back and forth from bass to guitar. I remember when I first started playing guitar after the Pixies, I'd plug in and think, This guitar sounds so high-endy! And-ouch!-I was breaking strings; you have to be so delicate with it. I really missed the bass then. I like playing the bass.

So you hit it pretty hard?Yeah, with a pick you've got to hit it hard.

Do you pick by the pickup?It depends. Usually farther up, but if I'm doing a muffle, I'll lay my hand on the bridge and my pick will end up back there. Or sometimes I'll go back farther, but I'm usually in the middle.

Do you keep the tone all the way on?Yeah. Playing with a pick, and using a Fender in the first place, you can pretty much leave the tone all the way up. With the StingRay I roll off the treble a little.

Do you tweak the EQ knobs a certain way?No, usually the bass tech will. I just need it to be on and reasonably up, and the front-of-house guy will figure it out. It's an SVT-you're going to get the same sound. There's no pedals; there's no outboard gear at all.

Any special picks?The green Dunlops with the little turtle on them.

How about strings?Whatever anybody puts on. Hopefully they're old. I can't take new strings. I think I have a set of Dean Markley Blue Steels.

How do you approach singing and playing bass?It's so hard. It was so much different from playing rhythm guitar and singing. I really had to practice. Since what I sing with the Pixies is usually not the lead melody line, it doesn't always start at the top of the four-count, so that makes it hard, too. Also, for some reason, all of our guitar parts are kind of odd-maybe it's because of our "no blues" rule. So especially live, if we're playing on a stage where I can't hear the band, my bass is just going to sound like [makes a muffled, whooshing sound], and then Charles's guitar is going to sound like [makes a buzzing sound], and then I have the drummer. So the only pure note I have onstage to clue me in on the pitch is Joe's guitar [imitates smearing, twangy, double-string guitar bends]. So yeah, that was hard live. I'm better live now because I wear one earplug. But it was really odd-especially starting "Gigantic." Whatever I was singing would work, until the introduction of an actual note, that is.

As a songwriter, have you ever performed solo? I've never played a show solo. I would feel ridiculous. Why should I put that on anyone? I wouldn't want to make someone sit there for even five minutes. Maybe if I was doing covers, I would faithfully sing covers, but . . . .

This might be evidence that deep down you actually have more of a bass player's personality than a guitar player's.Absolutely-and whatever that guitar player thing is, I don't think it works well on bass. It's bad enough to do all that stuff on lead guitar, but on bass it's like, Oh, hell no. It's the same thing with funk players. Most of funk is playing where the holes are, anyway, so you have to be restrained enough to have the holes. And even bassists who you think are virtuosos, like reggae musicians, if you listen, there's not a lot of variation. They could play the shit out of it, but they use restraint. And isn't that what makes somebody good on an instrument, no matter what it is?