Trip Wamsley Interview
"It's Better This Way": An Interview with Trip Wamsley
By Max Valentino
[This interview was written for and published on TalkBass.com in July of 2003.]
Trip Wamsley is not a “new discovery” for the world of bass playing, but a voice with something to say on the instrument and well worth noting. Trip has released a new CD, “It’s Better This Way”, which further demonstrates both his playing ability and compositional acuity. A departure from his previous release “Dancing About Architecture”, the new CD is wholly instrumental and features Trip’s lyrical and evocative melodic style, as well as three duets with his former teacher Michael Manring.
Trip credits the fateful day early in 1982 when he heard "Silly Love Songs" by Wings as the day he decided that music was for him. He would often accompany his band-director father to area music stores where he would see bass guitars. The young Trip thought basses were, as he puts it, "...big guitars for dumb people...". Trip's school had a bass that was not being used, so he brought it home and learned to play "Summer Nights" from the movie "Grease". With his first song under his belt and some newfound confidence, Trip set out to make music with a friend who had recently started playing drums. Their association lasted for many years, much of that time without a guitarist.
Forced by the circumstance, Trip's playing took on the rhythmic bass and melodic lead roles, a situation, which gave him an appreciation of the musical possibilities. Trip is quick to credit his drummer friend, who played with incredible speed and an absolute lack of respect for the downbeat, as an inspiration to study the bass more seriously. Play "in the pocket..." as he says. He studied with Michael Manring in 1991 and 1992, which was an experience Trip says consisted of scathing invective and brutal honesty. Trip credits Michael with the phrase "...be deep Wide awake and slow...". Visit www.tripwamsley.com for more information.
I recently spoke with Trip in depth about the new CD, his new son, and music in general. Blessed with a musical ear and sardonic wit, Trip’s views on bass and music are particularly insightful.
Max Valentino: You recently became a Dad. Congratulations. How is everything going? And, how has fatherhood impacted your music and career?
Trip Wamsley: Everything is going fine with the family so far. My son was born 4 months premature. My wife developed something called “HELLP” syndrome. She had chronic hypertension, elevated liver enzymes, toxemia, and a host of other symptoms. The only way to “cure” this was to take the baby. Initially, it was done to save her life. I went in with her for the emergency C-section and when I saw my boy, I can’t explain the wave of emotion for both mother and child. It made me grow up and realize what is REALLY important. Bass-wise it put things into perspective in that it didn’t matter how talented and groovy some people perceived me to be, because there was no Hot bass licks or gear that would fix the situation at all. I would have to say the influence that this is having is I have really begun to look at what really counts in my playing. Also re-examining the deepest core of why I play. It’s not something that can be put into words or flippantly discussed. This situation can’t be put into notes either. The event of Xander’s birth, the matter of my maddeningly deepening love for my wife and child is just so profound that putting it in a “bass-song” almost seems silly. Really. In a nutshell, I have realized that my music isn’t as deep as life. It’s not as deep as God, salvation or truth. Humbling, in other words. But, there again, C.S. Lewis wrote “when a man thinks himself humble, he is very conceited indeed.” So, when I ponder THAT, it’s back to square one.
A lot of readers may recognize you from as a clinician for Gallien-Krueger. You recently parted ways with them. What’s new in your career?
I am with Salwender International as a part-time clinician/artist and overall swell guy. I have a proposal from a MAJOR amp maker in the works as well. We’ll see how that pans out. GK was a great job and I met a lot of nice people through them. Though I am playing Glockenklang now, I still think that GK makes just about the best amp in that “Guitar Center” price range.
How did you start playing bass?
I started playing it because I fell in LOVE with the way it sounds. Pure and simple. I started by picking things up off of records. (For the young bucks, records are 12” pieces of vinyl that rotate at 33RPMs and the sound is amplified via a moving needle placed in a “groove.” They are actually wonderful sounding things!)
I did this for hours and hours a day. I still do sometimes.
Who, and what were your influences?
Here is where I get into trouble! Most of my influences are mostly British and not “politically correct” in bassdom. I started with Paul McCartney and John McVie of Fleetwood Mac. Here is a list of some of my faves: Curt Smith of Tears for Fears, Brad Lang of ABC, Colin Moulding of XTC, John Taylor of Duran Duran, Pino Palladino, Martin Turner of Wishbone Ash, Sting, Tony Lewis of the Outfield, John Entwistle, Geddy Lee, Les Nemmes of Haircut 100, Scott Thunes, Mark King of Level 42. Mick Karn. Trevor Horn. There are still so many! And they are still mostly British. Suffice it for me to say, that they just had a “sound” that appealed to me.
On the “techno-muso” end it would be: Bunny Brunel, Anthony Jackson, Abe Laboriel, and some others I can’t think of right now. Sorry. On the Solo end: It would be Michael Manring, Alex de Grassi, Will Ackerman, Steve Lawson (recently. That looping thing…got me.) Michael Hedges, and Estonian composer Arvo Part. Oh yeah, and Philp Aaberg.
How did you get started doing solo bass?
I will put it this way: a. From the first day, I realized that it was a Bass GUITAR, that all of the “guitar” techniques were instantly available. Then I realized that “other” things that guitarists didn’t do were also readily available. So the Solo seed was there from the get-go. I immediately started “soloing.” It was really bad imitations of Hendrix. I had a fuzzbox of some sort and I was delighted that I could make the bass feed back! b. Reflecting on 14-year-old idealism I viewed it as a possible pathway to social acceptance. A need to rise above the crowd and perhaps gather self-esteem in the process. That was an error. The exact opposite happened and I was ostracized for some years for being “weird.” In retrospect I made a lot of mistakes as a person that caused this. I was forcing my agenda on people. That is the BIGGEST mistake that you can make. I should have realized that things were going to take place in due time. Oops for me. Things are better now! c. I am from Lake Charles, LA. It is not a small town, but it’s still not a cultural Mecca (It’s getting better though!) and there was nothing to do but play, really. I started doing alternate tunings to fight boredom before I had heard of Manring or anybody like that. I thought I was smart until I heard the Windham Hill boys. Manring, Hedges, de Grassi and others. That really spun my head around!
Your career profile as a bass soloist is on the rise, and fittingly so. How do view to “role” and evolution of the bass at this point, and what do you foresee for the future of bass-dom?
I don’t know about on the rise. My name is being batted around a bit more lately. I don’t get to play out as a soloist often enough because I have no idea how to book myself and promote my tunes. It’s still an underground thing, which makes it difficult to explain to promoters and other music biz types. Steve Lawson is a master at self-promotion and I am watching what he does closely because he’s nice about it. I get no feelings of him puffing himself up. I am getting better these days because of watching Steve. I really just need a booking agent. That would help a lot. Agents need to make money though and solo bass isn’t going to make them the same money as The Goo-Goo Dolls. That’s cool. I am at peace with that. The evolution of the bass in pop music seems to be stalled. The fretless bass has become almost extinct in that genre. With the exception of perhaps the Mudvayne guy, whose interview I really enjoyed in BP, I haven’t heard anyone interesting. I am Open to suggestions. Also, in pop, I don’t hear anyone who has a sound. I hear good tones, but NOT a sound or a unique voice.
As for the “role” of the bass, I think that roles are for actors and actresses. The Bass is multi-faceted! There is so much music in this thing, the Bass Guitar, that discussing THE ROLE negates its true power and beauty. No one ever talks about the role of the French Horn, Cor Anglais, the Flute or the Harp. Why the Bass? Why pick on us? I think that as bass players we should have a forum on the ROLE OF THE GUITAR. It could go something like this: The role of the guitar in pop music today is to tune down to drop-D or something and then place one finger (NO MORE!) on the strings and set the amp for maximum blastissimo and chunk away! OR: The guitarist shall go weedloo, weelee, meemeoeoe, shwong, and relegate the drummer and the bass person to an endless 12-bar ostinato. But, if we were to do that, then we would be assaulted with outrage from guitar players everywhere. It’s a double-standard folks and I don’t like it.
As for the future of bassdom, I think that things are turning around and we will be treated with more dignity and respect in the coming years. I do see good composers emerging in solo land. Steve Lawson comes to mind and I still just adore Mick Karn and Percy Jones.
It seems lately that “solo bass” are becoming more accepted, whereas these were once considered quite a novelty. Many, still, seem to be quite “chops-intensive” and lacking in both harmonic diversity and melodic development. Your new CD is brimming with both. Your melodic sense and phrasing sound especially refined. How do you work on developing both your harmonic and melodic awareness?
Let me start by saying that chops aren’t art. Not at all. Chops are tools. I could have the most ultimate set of tools and I still can’t build a house or build and tune a car engine. Chops guys tend to be like Ozymandias and their music says, “Look upon my works ye Mighty and despair.” I do despair. I am in awe of their speed and agility but I am not changed in spirit, and I sometimes feel that I am not faced with truth. In my own playing I am searching for truth. I am still in the shadow of my influences; I want to find “me.” That’s so hard. Really hard.
In terms of phrasing, it’s all about sentence structure. It must have a beginning, middle and an end. It can be atonal, (which I really love) or tonal. Also, I just do REALLY BAD imitations of Bill Frisell. That helps! Look at a solo in words: Bob went over there to the thing and an agar like plane, cookie. It was a foofboof. The bridge. That made no sense. Probably not even to the biggest James Joyce fan. You have to go somewhere. Manring blew me away with his phrasing. His tunes provoked an emotional and spiritual response. Karn does the same thing for me. That’s the ultimate to me. I used the term “solo bass” to describe what you do, especially in regards to your new CD, “It’s Better This Way…”. But listening to your music, that almost seems to be misrepresentation. Your music strikes me not so much as “solo bass” pieces, but rather the works of a composer who just happens to be a bassist. You use the bass guitar almost like an orchestra, and make great and effectual use of its timbral and dynamic range. Can you walk us through your process of composing on the bass?
I deal with colors. What does this music do in terms of color on a canvas? I get into the SOUND. That’s it. There is an Eastern thing that says that we resonate to certain tonalities. I tend to go for things that are Wide and spread out or, I just go for atonal mayhem. That’s where I seem to resonate. Arvo Part makes use of spreads of scales and stacked thirds among other things that move in Parallel, contrary, and oblique motion. Also, there is forward motion in his music. That’s a crucial element for me. A sense of movement is the top priority. Dynamics are just as important as motion. Dynamics separate the men from the boys. That’s the crucial element of getting the meaning of what you are playing. Hitting the volume control is not the use of dynamics.
Calling me a composer is a bit of a misnomer. I am such a total rock guy that I just really call them “ditties” or tunes. That’s it. If I were to label myself as a composer then I probably wouldn’t be able to compose at all. I wouldn’t have any fun because then I would be a serious composer. That’s not me at all. The real me is the guy playing along with “View To A Kill” by Duran Duran!
In reference to composition, your work, especially on the new CD, is not so much a display of technique and chops, but rather a collection of very well crafted instrumental tunes, which just happen to use some remarkable techniques in their performance. The tracks such as “20 Years Too Late” and “Don’t Do Me Any Favors” feature some extraordinary polytonal, two handed playing. Could you explain some of technical side of your playing?
I composed “20 Years” using a pick. I really enjoyed the perversity of it. Then I did it on a fretless which, DOUBLED the perversity and produced much fun. I do have a Dark side. Which comes out every do often. As for the technique, I just did that thing where guitar players sweep the notes and then tap at the end of the phrase. Steve Vai uses this to great effect. That’s all for that one.
“Favors” is just that minor-seven up to the 4th dominant thing that so many players use. It’s just some taps on the right and hammers and pulls on the left. Nothing new there. Then I just blew a solo on top and played some pithy fills to flesh out some harmonic content and there it was. The fills were done in an altered tuning I made up on the spot that I don’t even remember. Typical me.
Your right hand, especially, provides quite a bit of tonal variation and dynamics. What are the right hand techniques you employ?
I use the two-finger thing for most passages. When I want a softer sound on a melody then I switch to my first finger, skip the second and use my ring finger. Then I vary my hand placement to achieve the desired tone. I don’t use tons of EQ or compression or anything like that. I also work hard at playing very slow and listening to what I am hearing when I produce a note. That’s very hard work. That’s the key to controlling dynamics. For me at least. Amps should just have enough headroom to accommodate the range. That’s all. I don’t worship amps.
I also use the “rasgueado” technique for strums, a flatpick, my thumb and some things that use all of my right hand digits. Similar to what Abe Laboriel and Matt Garrison do. I recently discovered that you could do that Vic Wooten stuff with a flatpick. It’s really fun and plan to use it in a composition at some point, but only if its good tune and not a bunch of licks. I have to start rehearsing with a pick slowly to get better control. I just have some mushroom clouds going off right now. Nothing too interesting dynamically.
I am sure the readers, as gear happy as Talk-Bass-ers are, are very curious as to what you use. Could you tell me a bit of what gear you are playing now?
For amps I have a Glockenklang Soul head and 212 and 115 cabs. Both cabs have tweets and the tone is very accurate. Close to my Tannoy near-field monitors. It’s just louder. It sounds great onstage and in recording. It tracks notes evenly throughout the range of all my axes, which to me is the most important thing. This is the best rig I have ever had. But, while I love its tone, I have to be able to sound good through anything you know? That’s where having a good bass and good technique come into play.
I have 2 Zon fretless fives. Both have a high-C. One is a Sonus with 3 mag pickups and a Piezo system. The other is Legacy Special. Both of those basses are total workhorses and are the most reliable basses I have ever had. The tone is fantastic and I can always count on them. I have 3 Alembics. One is a fretless Orion five with Europa electronics and a colobolo top. It is a wonderful bass with the most dynamic and clear sound I have ever heard in a fretless. Love that thing. I also have an Epic 4 fretted that is awesome as well. I have an 8-string that is amazing as well. It’s like a 6 string bass with 2 more! It’s fun to play and useless in a rock band. It doesn’t make it out of the house often. I have a Status S2 classic fretted 4 that is my main bass for just rocking out. Last and not least I have an old Aria SB 1000 which I use quite often in my home studio. It has a most unique tone and is tons of fun to play. I should also like to mention that the people of Alembic, Zon and Status are among the nicest, most brilliant, and supportive folks around. They have always listened to me and treated me with dignity and respect. They always answer the phone too! For strings, I use DR Low-Riders in nickel and steel. Nickel for fretless and steel for fretted. They last a long time and have great tone and flexability. They are a very nice a supportive company too!
The new CD, “It’s Better This Way” sounds remarkably clean and pure, especially in the varied tones you get from your basses. There seems to be quite little effects, with the notable exception of the very tasty tempo-timed delay used on “Firm Foundation”. Was this a deliberate decision to display the musical, timbral and dynamic possibilities that are in the bass guitar?
The music was just there. That’s all. The music decided what it wanted and I tried to give it what it needed. The only thing that I really HAD to do was the delay thing. I love atmospheric guitar playing. It doesn’t really exist too much in pop music these days. I remember being disappointed that as a bass player I have to do it to hear it again. I would rather have had a guitar player on it to take it to a better level. But a Matchless combo and Stevie Ray Vaughan impressions just wasn’t going to do it. That was part of the impetus to aquire the Alembic 8. The atmosphere thing that is.
Two aspects of your playing which really strike me are your fretless intonation (even on double stops and chords), and your very creative and original use of harmonics. Share with us a bit on how you achieve this?
I practice intonation in many ways. Playing with people is the best. Second using a keyboard and Sustain pedal is good one. Third play slowly with a pitch reference and don’t use too much vibrato. I work on hitting the note dead-on then applying vibrato and what not. As for Harmonics, there’s nothing new there. Just really bad imitations of the usual suspects. I don’t have to mention names here. I do want them to kick-ass and scream when appropriate.
Michael Manring guests on two tracks on the new CD, and your duets with him are simply beautiful. How did this come about?
I opened a show for him and I just asked. Then I had to pay him, put him on a plane and feed his face. I think he had a good time. I took some lessons with him in ’91 and ’92 and he was really hard on me. So he can take a lot of responsibility for the comments in the last question. He’s also able to play tunes on the bass and not just wank. He’s a rather Bright fellow too. It made him an obvious choice. I really want to do a record with him and Lawson and compose some written cells that are to be improvised on. I would just sit and watch and add some bits here and there with the 8-string or something. That might be fun. As for the duets, we just played and that was it. My parts were mostly down and whilst he was doing his I was outside on the phone with my wife. The solos at the end of “The Deeper Thing” were totally spontaneous though. That was the high point of that month!
So, Trip, what have you been listening to lately?
Frank Zappa, The Best Band You Never Heard. I am really getting into Scott Thunes these days. Plus I adored the interview he gave in BP and to a greater extent the complete interview in the Thomas Wictor Book, In Cold Sweat, Interviews With Really Scary Musicians. That’s a fun book. Suzanne Vega, Solitude Standing. Jon Gordon on guitar and Mike Visceglia on bass just rules! Love those guys! I have been listening to Te Deum by Arvo Part.
What do you consider your greatest musical strengths and weaknesses?
I think my greatest strength is knowing the difference. I don't like chops for chops sake and I can't listen to shred playing for very long. I would rather hear good tunes and solos with some "meat." My weaknesses are many. Let me itemize them:
1. I have no natural sense of timing. I have to work 10 times harder than anyone else just maintaining what little I have. I can't bear to have timing errors corrected in Pro Tools. So all my solos are on the natch for better or worse.
2. I have no natural sense of rhythm. I have to work VERY hard to maintain what little I have.
3. I cannot for the life of me understand jazz harmony. I like it very much but my brain will not go there. Jazz players can NEVER explain anything at all. I just quit asking questions.
4. My brain goes 200 miles per second all the time. I also tend to talk too much when I am nervous. Which, is almost all the time. Then, when I am quiet people think I am sick. In talking, thought is murdered. We talk when we are not at peace with our thoughts. A point made in "The Prophet" by Kalil Gibran.
5. I am sometimes quick to anger. It can show in my playing. Oops.
If there were one bit of advice you could pass on to the readers which could help them in becoming better musicians what would that be?
Become an interesting person; that will help you be an interesting bass player.
Ask music what it wants from you. Not what you want from music.
The world doesn’t owe you or me anything for being perceived by some as talented and groovy.
Be a friend. Be a husband. Be a father. Be a wife. Be there for those that love you. There is someone who does! St. Paul said that love is the greatest. I am inclined to agree.
Realize that beauty is where you find it. It’s always there.
Life is not a joke. Neither are you.
Play because you love it. The deeper reasons will come later.
Fame is fleeting. Obscurity is forever. I’ll take obscurity.