Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Interview With Dave Marks

Dave Marks - From The London Show To Thunder Row

Dave Marks is one of the extraordinary musicians met by the TMBG contingent at the London Bass Guitar Show.

We’re happy to give you an exclusive on this incredible artist - the Thunder Row Dave Marks interview.

First, a bit of background info.

Dave Marks is a busy freelance musician living and working out of London. Since 1997, he has worked as a professional musician, producer, writer, arranger, teacher, gear demonstrator and magazine writer (journalist??) Aside from his full playing, teaching and masterclass schedule, Dave maintains a heavy web presence, blogging on his own site and keeping his YouTube channel stocked up with fresh content.

To list all of the artists Dave has worked with over the years would take a mammoth amount of space. Instead, we are including the links to his various websites at the end of the interview.

Students and the bass-curious...do yourselves a favour and soak in Dave’s wealth of knowledge and information. Watch his videos and learn. I’m sure you’ll be impressed with the value of his material as a supplement to the TMBG course.

So read on. Here we go!

TR: How did you like the London Bass Guitar show?

DM: I absolutely loved the show. I'll be entirely honest - before something like this, you always have that moment where you think, “What if no one shows up?!?!” Because there has never been anything like this in London (certainly not since I moved here in 1997) there was no model to base it on - no way of knowing what to expect. But it was absolutely rammed with people!

TR: Lots of things to see and do?

DM: There was a great wealth of gear on display, loads of great players and clinicians and above all, it was a great chance to catch up with a lot of bass playing friends who I never get to see! Let's face it, you're not likely to bump into another bass player on your gig, unless someone's double booked you! It was also very reassuring to see what a vibrant and varied community we have and that they were prepared to come out, en masse, and support the show.

TR: Which did you do more of when you were there - feature your own skills (the masterclass sessions) or take in the other exhibits and performers?

DM: I was running the masterclass room, so I was a bit all over the place at the show. I had to make sure that each performer had the gear they needed, could get their laptop routed into the PA, if they needed special assistance or wanted me to participate in the workshop. It was pretty full-on, and it ran start to finish over both days. In between my duties, I also ran around trying to catch a few performances, see a few friends and even managed to do a little demo-ing for EBS and Musicman, so it was a whirlwind weekend for me - I managed to pack everything in!

TR: What was the finest bass you saw at the show?

DM: I didn't really trawl through the gear too much - I have enough basses at home and really shouldn't be tempting myself! Saying that, I was over at the MusicMan stand and got my hands on a 4 string Musicman Reflex bass.

TR: I know a few of our Thunder Row students will be interested in hearing the details of this.

DR: I was extremely surprised by it. It delivered the classic MusicMan sound that I would expect, but it also had a load of other, extremely usable tones that ranged from P-bass growl to a much more hi-tech sound - more like a Fodera-type boutique bass. That was my surprise bass of the show. To be honest, I own enough basses that I want more obscure and unusual instruments now - old short scale things that sound ugly but have loads of character and they don't show up at shows like that.

TR: How about the players? Which bass players stood out in your mind?

DM: Over the years, what I look for in a bass player has changed so much. When I was younger it would have been the most hectic, the best chops, the craziest bass playing. These days, I love hearing the person in the playing. The guys who really stood out for me at the show were Gary Willis, Janek Gwizdala and Mark King. I love hearing such individualistic playing - they're the kind of players that - if I heard only four bars - I would instantly know it was them. For me, that's worth more than any amount of chops or flash.

TR: Speaking of the person, let’s talk a bit about yourself. You play several instruments. What makes the bass special among them?

DM: I love that pivotal role that the bass has. I sit between the drums and the guitars, so I get to influence the feel of the music from a rhythmic standpoint and I can control the harmony depending on which bass notes I play. For example, I find that when I play guitar, I just don't have that feeling of power and weight that pushes the music forward. That being said, the guitar can sing out and float over the rhythm section, so for me each instrument has something about it, that makes it feel great to play.

TR: You love them all.

DM: I think of myself as a musician first, and the instrument on which I make the music...it's not irrelevant, but it's not a huge deal to me. I love to play and I love to interact with musicians. I can adopt an entirely new mindset for each instrument, because I understand the different roles that each should play and I take great satisfaction in being an ingredient that contributes to the whole sound. I can find that satisfaction in just playing shaker or singing BVs if the band sounds hot.

TR: When did you start playing bass?

DM: I started playing when I was thirteen. I was a crap guitarist and the bassist in our band sang. We got in a new guitarist, the singer handed over the bass and I began on this long road. :-)

TR: Do you prefer playing the bass or teaching it to others?

DM: I love to play. I don't think anyone ever started to play so that they could become a teacher. Saying that, I do love to teach, but in a different way.

TR: How so?

DM: I love that feeling of knowing that I've helped to guide someone on their journey. Even so, that will never compare to the excitement you feel when you're onstage in front of a huge audience and everyone is firing on all four cylinders. That collective energy which occurs in a room is like nothing else I've ever experienced.

TR: Who are your bass heroes?

DM: Honestly, I don't really feel that I have heroes any more. I don't aspire to play like another bass player - there's no one I hear and think, “I wish I sounded like that.” I still hear guys these days and I love what they play, but I aspire more to the musicality that they display - to the pure flow they seem to demonstrate from ideas in their head and heart, to a sound that we hear. They make me want to sound more like me and to play more musically in the moment.

A great bassist will make the band sound good and will bring something to the song that helps it to convey the emotion - whether that's a blistering solo in a fusion tune or pumping 8th notes in a rock song. I've come to appreciate sound, space, note choice, a sense of form and development in a song - all of the less tangible stuff - playing fast is just simple mechanics. Playing beautifully is something else...

TR: Who did you listen to coming up?

DM: When I got started I was into rock and metal, so my guys were Cliff Burton, Jason Newstead, Dave Ellefson, Rex Brown, Jeff Ament, Mike Inez and of course, Flea.

TR: Flea! But of course!

DM: As I got older, I started exploring Gary Willis, Victor Wooten, Marcus Miller - guys who really raised the bar in terms of what I felt was physically possible on the instrument. I also found the guys who’ve had massive influences on me - the holy trinity of bass: Pino Palladino, Anthony Jackson and Tony Levin.

TR: Do they still influence you today?

DM: Without a doubt - they're each great song players, crafting lines that make the band sound great, that enhance the mood or message of the song and still manage to sound like themselves. That, for me, is the holy grail of bass playing - individualistic support playing.

TR: Who are you listening to now? Do you mostly stick with UK artists and indie stuff or do you listen to any mainstream USA?

DM: I listen to the strangest mix of music, and it's probably not what anyone would expect. I listen to a lot of soundtracks - recently I've been loving “La Secretas de sus Ojos”, “Hannibal”, and “Inception.”

TR: Ahh, you took my advice on the “Hannibal” soundtrack.

DM: Since you suggested it, I have devoured it.

TR: So to speak...

DM: The final 3 tracks in particular are just incredible. I'm a big Mahler fan, so large-scale lush orchestration gets the hair on my neck to stand up. I love the grand scale of soundtrack music and it keeps me from listening in an analytical way. I can't help but hear most music in an “intelligent” way - I can recognise chord changes, guitar sounds, the time signature, the form of a pop song, etc, but soundtrack stuff is so far removed from that type of writing and arrangement. Also - most of it has no bass! So it keeps outside influence pouring into my bass playing.

TR: And today’s modern music?

DM: In terms of new releases, I have to be honest - there's very little that catches my attention. I've been having a sort-of rock renaissance - going back and exploring a lot of the music I listened to as a teenager: Dream Theater, Pantera, Thunder, Extreme, Pearl Jam, and so on. Other mentions have to go out for "Peace and Love” by Tommy Sims, “Happiness” by Hurts and “Kaleidoscope Heart” by Sara Barielles. I use Spotify on my iPhone, so I can dip in and out of millions of albums, but those are the ones on heavy rotation.

TR: What has to happen for you to enjoy a particular tune?

DM: I have no system for this. I can love everything from the heaviness of Pantera to the beauty of Tony Bennett. If the music is made with pure intention, you can hear that - actually I think you can feel it. Pop songs used to be a platform for someone to express themselves - just listen to “The Stranger” by Billy Joel or “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush. Compare that to the dirge that occupies the charts these days. I don't separate music by stylistic parameters - I can just hear music where they mean it and music where they don't.

TR: You recommended on your site that people take a look at the John Mayer “Where The Light Is” DVD. The bass player on the “John Mayer Trio” section of that DVD is Pino Palladino. He’s part of your holy trinity. That must be part of what draws you there.

DM: He is and always will be one of the greats. He's a prime example of a great musician, who just happens to be a bass player and amazingly, he managed to become hugely identifiable and recognisable in the context of pop songs. That's no mean feat. Just listen to “New York Minute” by Don Henley, “Wherever I Lay My Hat” (Paul Young's cover) or “Get Here” by Oleta Adams. These are historically significant bass recordings for me - as important as anything Jamerson ever played, and all three were big chart hits.

TR: Which do you prefer? Composing your own stuff or playing other people’s masterpieces?

DM: I love different things about each task. Writing is hard and I'm very strict with myself about it. I spend a lot of time crafting compositions, re-drafting, sometimes agonising over extremely small details and often, there's a point past which you begin to detract from the music by watching over it too closely. When you feel like you get the balance right though, it's a wonderful feeling. The thing I really love is actually hearing the other musicians I play with bringing the songs to life. That's what I love the most - with a great band, anything you can play - original or covers, can be a magical, immersive, almost transcendent experience.

TR: How does playing other people’s music inspire you in your own compositions?

DM: I think whether we choose to accept it or not, we are a product of what we listen to. The “you are what you eat” in a musical sense. Listening to different artists opens my ears to the possibilities. For example, listening to The Bad Plus opened my ears to a whole new approach to harmony and arrangement that I had never come across before. Imogen Heap helped my sense of sonic arrangement. Boo Hewerdine made me want to write better lyrics. I think when you hear someone that does something so well, rather than wanting to be like them, I use them to raise the bar in terms of what I expect from myself.

TR: Always looking to broaden your own skills.

DM: It's an unforgiving approach, but I love the challenge.

TR: What’s the best song you ever composed?

DM: I really don't know. Different people get different things from each song, so it's hard to pick a best. I think I'm most proud of the songs I co-wrote with Jo Webb, namely “Acrobat”, “Purple Rain” and “Master of Puppets”. They worked as great commercial rock tracks, but had a layered narrative in the lyric. I aspire to write stuff that speaks to people on different levels - that they get a gut feeling from, but that also gives them something to connect to in their experience of life.

TR: Do you have one that you’re not so fond of?

DM: I think everyone who writes has a lot of material that they discard. If they don't, they should. I worry that too many people just write stuff and throw it up on the internet, whether it's good or not. The channels through which we can find music are over-saturated. There are too many artists with too many albums, featuring too many songs and only one lifetime for us to listen to them. I actually wish people would exercise a little more quality control. I'd be happy to see less music released, if I knew it represented the pinnacle of someone's musical efforts. Then finding new music becomes a joy and not so much like looking for a needle in a big pile of (mostly crappy) needles.

That being said, there are projects I've worked on where time and money have taken it away from my control and I've not been a huge fan of the finished result. That's the joy of the music industry - deadlines and decisions made by people who don't care quite so much about the quality.

TR: Do you prefer composing alone or in collaboration with others?

DM: I think of them as different processes. I find when I compose alone I can be a little too obsessed with small details and I can linger too long on things...slowing down the process. Saying that, even when I write alone I love to send things around to friends to get some feedback.

When I write with other people I love to keep the energy up - keep ideas coming, try to refine the ideas as quickly as we can, but to do that, you need to write with people you trust. I have to be able to rely on the musicality of a co-writer, that they'll hear things objectively and be open to rewriting, moving things around, changing fundamental parts of a composition if it isn't working.

A lot of people become very attached to their ideas and lose sight of the big picture. Then co-writing becomes an exercise in diplomacy and ego-stroking and that I'm not so fond of. If you can find the right people to work with, I'd say I prefer co-writing. Things that other people suggest can pull you off in a direction you would never have gone in alone and for me, that can be a magical experience.

TR: You play a lot of different styles of music. Do you have a favourite?

DM: For me music is like food. Variety is where it's at. I find that genres don't mean so much to me - it's more to do with a particular band, and in some cases a particular album or song. If I'm working at home, I'll have classical music or soundtracks on, in the car, it might be rock, funk or singer-songwriter stuff. In the gym it's metal. If I'm in the mood for Ella Fitzgerald, Pantera isn't going to cut it, but the same thing happens in reverse.

TR: That’s “tasting” music. What about “cooking”?

DM: When it comes to playing, I love the challenge of each different style - the groove aspect of funk, the instinctive improvisational aspect of Jazz, the sensitivity of an acoustic singer-songwriter and for a rock gig, I love wearing my bass low and smashing with a pick while I run around onstage and find things to climb on. They're each a totally different mindset and each has something that I love. I think I would probably struggle if I could only play one style the rest of my musical life.

TR: You believe strongly in the idea that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we are playing an instrument, and that it should always be fun. How do you ease nerves and stay relaxed when taking the stage for a gig?

DM: It's amazing how much our pre-gig rituals help to prepare us for playing. Getting dressed for the gig, loading up the car, driving to the show, setting the stage, doing a sound-check - it's all part of telling your body that we're going to play tonight. I notice this in a huge way when I jump up on a jam night or if I get invited onstage in someone else's gig. I find myself far less comfortable and much more prone to nerves when the act of playing is thrust upon me. It's bizarre. I'm also much more comfortable when I know I'm playing with good guys.

I used to be nervous if I'd be onstage with great musicians - feeling like I'd have to impress them with my playing. Now I just love slipping into a great ensemble - everything you play sounds better because it's framed up so well. A drummer with great time allows you to relax into the groove, a singer with great stage presence gives focus to the music, a great guitarist will help you to hear and feel the harmony. With a great band, I can play in a very simple and sparse style and still sound like a very accomplished player. “Standing on the shoulders of giants” if you like.

TR: You also place serious importance on being organised and disciplined when it comes to playing professionally. Being responsible. Showing up on time, making sure your gear is squared away, etc. Sounds to me like you haven’t a lot of patience for irresponsible behaviour. Is that so?

DM: If everyone does their job properly, we can all get onstage and have a great experience. Everyone comes to the stage feeling good, with a relaxed attitude and their mind totally on the music . That is the ideal setting for performance. If I'm having to run around looking for band members pre-gig, or someone's asking to borrow my gear because they didn't bother to bring their own, it's just a distraction and it can't help but detract from your performance. It's amazing just how much of our musical ability - of that flow from ideas into notes, is tied up in feeling relaxed and focused.

TR: You’re a perfectionist.

DM: Regrettably so. I try and let things happen and love the purity of the moment and the intention, rather than a “perfect” gig, song or solo. I've learned to love things with all of their imperfections, because they are a real representation of the things we experience in life. Imperfect, but awesome.

TR: Have you yourself ever been the guy to hold things up? You know? Back in the younger days? If so, is that why you have developed such a sense of reputation and responsibility as a musician?

DM: Every band I was ever in, I always looked on myself as someone that could move things forward, or be lazy and add nothing or in some cases, be a pain and prevent things from growing and developing.

I took charge of all sorts of stuff, from booking gigs, photo shoots, sessions, designing CD covers, websites - pretty much anything I could be involved in. In some cases it was very positive, because I got a clear idea of all of the processes that are involved.

In some cases I look back thinking that I was pouring time into something that no one else was matching and ultimately, it didn't matter how much I worked - those projects had deadwood in them - people whose laziness required me to work so far beyond my fair share. I'd have been better off finding other people to do those jobs and having everyone contribute to a pot to pay them.

Sometimes it's just as important to learn about what you don't want to be, as it is to figure out what you do. I now know that I do not want to be that pack mule in a band. I want to be a great part in a larger machine, where all parts are functioning at their best. A great team always gets things done more quickly, elegantly and excitingly than one poor self-flogging individual.

TR: As a teacher, what organisational advice would you give to students who simply want to play the bass in a less formal setting - with family, friends, etc?

DM: For people who play for fun, I suppose the important question is this: “Is it fun for you to just play bass, or to have people enjoy the music you make?” If you’re only playing for your own satisfaction then you can approach it any way you like. If you wish to contribute to a band or play for other people's entertainment, I would suggest a little study and practice - nothing too heavy, but enough to make you more fun for the other people to play with. For example, a drummer with crappy time is no fun for a bass player to play with. It reduces the whole experience to an exercise in clinging on!

I always encourage my students to become the sort of musician that others would want to play with. That attitude will lead you on to bigger and better playing experiences and allow you to get more rewards out of those experiences.

TR: You are very “online” oriented in your approach. Your web page states you can be hired to record bass tracks and send them out in various digital formats. Is this the future of music recording?

DM: I think every time technology takes a leap forward, people start using it, because they can. For the foreseeable future, I believe people will embrace this because of the possibilities it opens up for the home musician who wants the best players he can get, but can't afford to fly them in, pay for a studio etc.

For me though, there really is no better experience than putting human beings together in the same place, having them “share the air” and create something in that environment. People lament the loss of “classic” sounding songs and performances - it's because so much stuff is recorded piecemeal. In some styles, where interaction isn't that big a deal, you can still get very satisfying results, but for me, it always feels better when things happen live, even of the performances are a little scrappier for it. I'll take excitement over clinical efficiency any day.

TR: In terms of teaching, you really take full advantage of what the internet has to offer in terms of getting information to the students. Are sites like YouTube re-defining what it means to teach music?

DM: Definitely, but not always in a positive way. Again, there will never be a substitute for being in the room with a person. Being able to move their hand a fraction of a centimetre to show them how a position should feel can take ages over a webcam. Also, with something like YouTube, there is no way of monitoring what the student does with the information. If they misinterpret it, I have no way of knowing, unless they are kind enough to leave a comment that illustrates a total lack of understanding.

A good example is the debate that rages over a “one finger per fret” bad-habits video I posted. A lot of people couldn't grasp what I was saying or just responded emotionally because they felt I was attacking something they had been taught, in many cases by a teacher they respected. It shows me that they don't get it...and I feel I was pretty clear about a very simple concept. So if I teach something more complicated, how many people are misunderstanding that lesson?

I suppose ultimately the main problem is that there are a lot of crap teachers out there - some are good players, but terrible educators. And with no filter or system for discerning the good from the bad, students can be lead down strange paths into nonsensical musical ideas. Like all things, I believe it will blossom and develop and eventually we'll get back to the old school approach, human beings in a room, sharing the experience.

TR: Being a big fan of Blues, I was listening to your style-file recording of “Ghost” on your lesson site. Talk about effectively using “space” in the slower Blues numbers. How does one learn this skill?

DM: Space is a hard one. Many players feel like they need to fill up the space in a tune, to feel like their presence on the gig is validated by lots of notes.

It might help to think of it like this: when you go out on a first date, the conversation has to flow. Long pauses or silences can feel awkward and uncomfortable, but when people are in love, they can sit in silence or stroll without speaking and it feels lovely. The difference is that you've relaxed into the idea of love. You don't have to keep talking. You can enjoy the things going on around you, which are all made more enjoyable by the company of your loved one.

In a song, if you're comfortable with yourself as a player, you can be a part of the song and within that, you can step forward and contribute, but you can also step back, listen and enjoy the other instruments. Play too much, it's distasteful and distracting, play too little, it sounds empty and doesn't give fullness and support. Ultimately, it's a balancing act - some players do it instinctively and with such grace that it's very powerful.

One thing that always helped me was recording my gigs and listening back the next day. Getting a feel for how I played, what worked and what didn't. That really helped me in trying to find that balance.

TR: Let’s talk about the future. What do you have coming up in the next couple of months?

DM: I'm working on quite a few projects at the minute. I'll be releasing an album with a new group I've put together - it blends Jazz, Rock, Electronica and orchestral elements. It's still taking shape, but it's pretty epic stuff. It features Mike Outram on guitar, Neil Angilley on keys and Darby Todd on drums. I'm also putting together a funk project called SuperRude to record some funk tracks that I've written over the last few years. It's very exciting - I've basically cherry-picked my favourite players in London for this project, approached them and they've all said yes! It features Hannah Vasanth and Tim Oliver on keys, Julien Brown on drums, Ben Jones on guitar and Will Fry on Percussion. I'm getting dates in at the minute for recording an EP in the start of June, so I should have something ready by late June.

I'm also doing all my usual gigs around town and a couple of international things, my private teaching from home, some RhythmMatters masterclasses with Darren Ashford, and MusicMan has a big product release that I'm getting involved in. Recently my phone has been ringing for a couple of projects that are top secret. I'm not allowed to talk about them, but if they happen, it would be pretty awesome for me as a player.

TR: Secret, eh? That’s very exciting. What about the long term goals? Where do you see yourself in ten years?

DM: I'd like to write, release and tour more original music. I try not to think that far ahead, because the landscape of the music industry now is unrecognisable from ten years ago. No one could have planned around online piracy, the iTunes store, YouTube, the death of Myspace, the rise of Facebook - it seems mad. As a result, I just try to roll with what's happening and try to stay ahead of the curve if I can. Playing great music with great musicians never changes, so I suppose that's what I aspire to. Most of the other stuff that I look forward to is outside of music - moving out to the country, raising kids, having dogs...you know, real life stuff.

TR: Are you involved with any charities or community groups?

DM: I used to, but I must confess I've fallen off the map a little. I find myself so flat out these days I barely have time to see my girlfriend never mind anyone else! I try to put a lot of free stuff up online and I get emails all the time from kids all around the world who can't afford lessons with a teacher. They tell me it makes a real difference to them having this quality of material available for free online, so I suppose in that way, it's helping others.

TR: The material you post online is priceless. On behalf of everybody at Thunder Row, we thank you for talking with us.

DM: You’re very welcome.

Information on Dave's impressive body of work can be found at the following sites:

© 2011 CL Seamus for Thunder Row

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