by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2017 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
Percy Jones’ elastic fretless bass guitar concept is one of a kind. His combination of harmonics, glissando, vibrato, and three-finger right-hand techniques has enabled him to tell thrilling stories through his instrument across a diverse career.
Jones is best-known for his work as a co-founder of the revered British jazz-rock group Brand X, which reunited in 2016 after a 17-year break. His session work also graces some of the most important albums made during the ‘70s and ‘80s. He partnered with Brian Eno on three pioneering recordings—1975’s Another Green World and 1977’s Before and After Science, and 1980’s Eno and Jon Hassell collaboration Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics. In addition, Jones has recorded with the likes of Richard Barbieri, Fovea Hex, Steve Hackett, Roy Harper, and David Sylvian.
As a solo artist, Jones released several boundary-pushing albums during the '90s, including Cape Catastrophe, Propeller Music and Tunnels, that explore the intersections between rock, electronic and jazz realms. He also has another band named MJ12 in parallel with Brand X, featuring drummer Stephen Moses, saxophonist Chris Bacas, and guitarist David Phelps. It’s a more improvisation-based take on Jones’ jazz-rock instincts. MJ12 released a self-titled album in 2016.
Much of Jones’ career path can be traced back to his initial impact with Brand X. During the ‘70s, the band featured many heavyweights from the British studio scene, including Phil Collins, John Giblin, Robin Lumley, Morris Pert, and Peter Robinson. But it was the nucleus of Jones and guitarist John Goodsall that provided the band with many of its hallmark, instantly-identifiable musical and compositional traits, including memorable melodies and hooks, and mercurial solos. Both Jones and Goodsall are core to the new Brand X lineup as well, which also features keyboardist Chris Clark, drummer Kenny Grohowski, and percussionist Scott Weinberger.
“There’s an incredible mutual respect Percy and John have for each other,” said Weinberger. “They’re like brothers—but extreme opposites. They’ve been through a lot together and they have a unique ability to listen to and riff off each other in sync that is often quite complex, yet they make it sound fluid and easy.”
There was a previous Brand X regrouping in between its initial 1980 dissolution and latest incarnation. In 1992, a Jones solo album morphed into a Brand X album titled X-Communication. That led to a seven-year run, including another studio release, 1997’s Manifest Destiny—arguably the band’s most eclectic and forward-looking effort to date. The group broke up again in 1999.
The new Brand X lineup just unveiled a live recording titled But Wait... There's More! featuring new interpretations of classic pieces from its first four albums. It has since begun adding repertoire from the ‘90s into its shows, which are enjoying rave reviews from audiences and the band itself. The group is enjoying a renaissance of interest, as well as a band chemistry built on both an appreciation of its history and mutual respect.
“The best word to describe Percy as a bandmate is unselfish,” said Weinberger. “There isn’t a single time I’ve been on stage with Percy that I’ve not looked over during a show a said to myself ‘How does he create so much rhythm, tension, dynamics, and such a pure sound that’s so distinctive?’ Out of nowhere, he can unleash a ringing harmonic that cuts right through everything. That’s the moment I look over at the audience and see they have that same look of amazement on their faces as I have.”
How did the new Brand X lineup emerge?
In July 2016, I was approached about putting the band back together by Scott Weinberger. The idea was to have me, John Goodsall and Kenwood Dennard from the early days of the band along with the new guys. Phil Collins was the original drummer and the one a lot of people associate with Brand X, but Kenwood stepped in quite early on in the band’s history. Phil was often unavailable because he was always busy with Genesis.
An issue with making this happen is we were geographically all over the place. I’m in Manhattan. John is in Minnesota and Kenwood is in New Hampshire. Logistically, without some help, it really wasn’t possible. I should also mention we never got paid any royalties from the Brand X recordings. There was nothing in the bank we could pull from to do this ourselves. We sorted it out and got together in New York City to play.
Initially, I was somewhat unsure because I didn’t know what three guys who haven’t played together for 40 years would sound like. I also wasn’t sure how we would be received by audiences even if we pulled off something musically coherent. We rehearsed and it sounded pretty good from the get go and we quickly gained confidence that musically, it was going to be solid. So, we did the first gig and it was really well received. I was pleasantly surprised and from that point we kept going.
In 2012, a Brand X reunion with different members was announced that never got out of the gate. What happened?
Oh god. The original idea sounded quite promising. It involved John, myself and David Sancious playing keyboards. I’ve always liked David’s work and he was up for it. So, the organizers put out an announcement on Facebook with quite a lot of promotion saying that this new version of Brand X would be performing soon. But the problem was, they were unable to set up any kind of tour. They would find one gig in one place and then another hundreds of miles away, two weeks later. I think David got fed up with it. Next, they contacted Patrick Moraz to be the keyboardist, and then he got tired because there was nothing happening. So, the organizers had these plans, but they couldn’t pull off the logistics of booking gigs. Also, if you put a band back together that hasn’t been together in 30-40 years, you need more than a two-hour rehearsal for everyone to play the material well. That has to be factored in as well. Sometimes you have people who have ambitions like this without understanding the nature of what’s involved in the reality of it. Norman Bedford, our new manager, knows how to do this stuff. That’s why we’re out there now.
What made this regrouping appealing for you?
It’s because the music is still exciting to play. That’s the main motivation. I definitely had some trepidation early on. It took me a couple of days to decide to do this at all. We’ve had several reincarnations of Brand X with different lineups. For instance, we went out as a trio with John, Frank Katz and myself in the ‘90s. It was always tough going. Once we started rehearsing and realized the magic was still there, that’s what made me want to push on with this. I think it’s a good thing.
Tell me about the decision to focus on the band’s early output for the initial reunion tours.
Norman told me a poll was done asking fans what their favorite Brand X albums are. He said the predominant answer was the first three albums are the most popular. So, he suggested we do material from those albums for the first tour. Now, we’ve started pushing into Masques with “The Poke” and Do They Hurt? With “Noddy Goes to Sweden.” We’re moving up through the years now. [laughs] I’m happy about that, because I think there was good stuff on the latter records too, which I’d like to get to.
What are the possibilities of recording a new studio album?
I hope we can start writing new stuff. That’s what I’m ultimately looking forward to. I’d like to see it evolve. I don’t want to be stuck in a situation in which we’re forever playing old material. We’ve been talking about it and band members are totally up for it. I like the challenge of doing new stuff and experimenting. Without that, I’d probably lose interest.
Describe the chemistry of the new lineup.
It’s working out well. I was very impressed with the keyboardist Chris Clark. He’s really accomplished as a musician, and has a lot of technique and musical knowledge. He’s very enthusiastic and put a lot of time into learning the material. Musically, he really holds it together. Kenny Grohowski is now with us on drums. He’s a younger guy and really impressive too. We had to get a new drummer recently because Kenwood is a professor at Berklee. He’s not available a lot of the time. We decided to tour more and the only way to make it work was to find someone else for some of the time.
John has a style all his own. I can’t think of anyone else who plays like he does. He also has a unique writing style. People often tell me that my bass playing and his guitar playing work well together and that it wouldn't be Brand X without it. So, it seems it’s meant to be. It’s why we’re trying to keep it going. John and I get along well. We’re very different personalities. It’s a yin and yang thing. Our original manager Tony Smith said “The musical tension between the two of you going in slightly different directions is productive.” We disagree on certain things and argue about them, resolve the situation and move on. Musically, he’s more of a rocker and I’m a bit more of a jazzer, although I don’t really consider myself a jazz musician.
How does the creative process work between you and Goodsall?
John would come with tunes but he wouldn’t specifically tell me what to play. He’d give me a chord sequence or some notes, but he would let me come up with the details of what the bass lines would be. The same thing went for music I brought to the band. I wouldn’t give him too much detail on what I felt the guitar should be doing. I let him come up with parts that he felt worked for him. I think working this way is how you get the best out of people, musically. You can’t constrain them too much.
About 20 years ago, I did a session for a singer and there was a guy telling me exactly what to play. I thought to myself “Why the hell doesn’t he hire someone who reads music to do this?” I can’t sight read notation. I can read a chord chart. I’m pretty much an autodidact. I didn’t study music formally, although I did study engineering when I was younger. That sort of situation isn’t one I work very well in. I think the same is true for John. We need freedom to play in our own style. That session went very badly. I was asked to play all these little intricacies. The word came back a couple of months later that he said he thought I was terrible and he couldn't understand how I got into Brand X in the first place. [laughs]
Some musicians feel not reading music has benefited from them creatively. What’s your perspective?
I think there’s some truth to that. I’d say it makes you have to be more creative, because there’s no other choice, really. If you have the notes in front of you, you’re just reading them and it probably limits your creative input. You’re playing what’s written. I know some classical musicians who can’t improvise at all. They can’t get into that mindset. So, the limitations work both ways. I would never discourage someone from learning how to read music, though. If you want to be a studio musician, knowing how to read is a big asset.
I consider Manifest Destiny, Brand X’s last studio album from 1997, the band’s apex to date. How do you look back at it?
It’s interesting that you say that, because most of the time, that album is never mentioned. It’s as if it never existed. I’m surprised to hear you mention it, much less say you like it. I was very happy with Manifest Destiny. It was a bit of an adventure to make and I have to laugh about it in retrospect. We originally made it for a German label called Lipstick, who planned to put it out. We recorded it in Los Angeles and it was a tough project because we had a small budget. We were always fighting the clock, but we got it done. I thought it came out very well, but Lipstick didn’t like it at all. The guy at the label said “This is not a Brand X album.” They refused to put it out. This leads me to another point. I don’t see any point in repeating yourself. We tried to do something different every time with Brand X to keep life interesting. But their reaction was very negative. It didn’t sound like the earlier Brand X Lipstick was expecting.
Manifest Destiny incorporated a lot of modern influences, including electronic and world music elements. It was a fresh take on the band’s sound.
It reflected what we were listening to and into at the time. I don’t think we made a conscious effort to go in a specific direction. David Hentschel, who produced and engineered it, also has really good ears and did a great job on it. Everything sounds really good. We were lucky to have him involved. Also, it was made in a different era. The original Brand X records were all made on analog equipment, including 24-track tape. The only digital stuff we used earlier was stuff like Eventide harmonizers. When we got to Manifest Destiny, it was recorded on a Mitsubishi digital recording system with all the outboard stuff being digital. The album was inevitably going to sound different just based on that, not to mention the fact that it was new material. We weren’t even playing the same instruments as we did in the ‘70s. So, I was surprised by Lipstick’s reaction. Manifest Destiny ended up coming out on a label called Purple Pyramid, so it saw the light of day.
There’s another funny story involved with the recording. There was a German guy who said he was a journalist hanging around the studio while we were making it. He said he was going to be doing an article for a magazine. We were never quite sure who this guy was and we joked amongst ourselves that he was a spy from the label who was keeping track of what we were doing.
There was a limited edition version of Manifest Destiny with two bonus live tracks, with Pierre Moerlen replacing Frank Katz on drums. How did Moerlen become involved with Brand X during that period?
The reason Pierre joined us is because we had a European and Japanese tour coming up and Frank had some sort of passport problem. It had expired and couldn’t be renewed in time for us to get on the road. So, we had to find another drummer really fast. Pierre was suggested to us as an option. As soon as his name was mentioned, I thought back to 1976, when Gong called me in to audition for them. I was living in London at that point. I went over and played with them, but they had everything written out in notation. As I said earlier, I can’t read music. So, we played a couple of tunes and sort of waffled through it. Then they said “Let’s go to the pub.” So, we went and had a pint. Then they said “Let’s have another. And another. And another.” [laughs] Eventually, we got back to the rehearsal room and they said “It’s 6 o’clock, let’s call it a day.” Needless to say, I didn’t get the gig.
Going back to Brand X, I thought “He’s not going to like what I do.” But we flew Pierre in from Paris to Los Angeles, and started rehearsing. He was very tired after coming off a long flight with no sleep, but musically, it was sounding good. I said to Pierre “Do you remember that time I auditioned for Gong?” He laughed and said “Oh yeah. Sorry about that.” And that was the end of the conversation.
It all fell into shape pretty quickly and he was very reliable when he was with us. I got on with him both musically and personally. He was a very likable, easy-going guy with us. In fact, when we toured Europe, he used his own car, because he lived in Strasbourg. I would drive around with him while the other guys were in the van. I was very sorry when I heard he passed away. It was a shock.
Brand X’s first reemergence after breaking up in 1980 was the X-Communication album from 1992. I understand it began as a solo project. How did it morph into Brand X?
That was done in New York City. I was approached to do a solo album by someone who had worked with a band I was previously involved in called Noise R Us. I said “Yeah, that sounds interesting.” I approached Bill Connors to play guitar on it and he couldn’t do it. Then I approached someone else who also couldn’t do it. Then we thought “What about getting John Goodsall?” And John was up for it. I had already been playing with Frank Katz on and off, so he was the obvious choice as drummer. So, the band for my record ended up being John, Frank and me. The guy at the record label, Ozone, said “We should call this Brand X.” I was really against that. I said “No. We need to make a break from that.” He kept at it and said “If you call it Brand X, it’s going to sell a lot more records. Things will be easier.” So, I finally went along with it and it came out as Brand X. It was done on a very tight budget in a little studio in Brooklyn. Again, we were trying to beat the clock, doing the best we could do. It came out quite good considering the conditions we were working in.
It was musically darker than the earlier Brand X. There was more diminished stuff. The earlier Brand X material was more major-minor and consonant. I think it was okay to be darker. It was a darker period. Like Manifest Destiny, the album reflected what we were listening to and doing at the time.
The last incarnation of the original Brand X saw the band split into two simultaneously-existing lineups during 1979-1980. Tell me what was going on.
Our management at the time, Hit & Run, who also managed Genesis and Peter Gabriel, complained we weren’t selling enough records, so we needed to make the music more accessible. Even one of Hit & Run’s accountants got in touch to tell me that. I thought to myself “Jesus Christ, even the accountants are telling us what to do.” So, at that point, there was a bit of a rebellion. I disagreed with all of this. I said “If we start pandering to different audiences or try to consciously get a bigger audience, we’re probably going to alienate the people who already buy our records.” That was my take. I put my foot down and said “I’m going to do exactly what I want to do.” I was being pig-headed about it, but I was following my instincts. Other people in the band disagreed with me and agreed with Hit & Run and decided to make music that was more accessible. So, the only solution was to have two lineups. There was one lineup with Phil Collins, Robin Lumley, John Goodsall, and John Giblin on bass. The other lineup was me, Peter Robinson, Mike Clark, and John Goodsall. Goodsall was diplomatically on the fence. He disagreed and agreed with everything simultaneously. [laughs] We would record music in shifts. The first band would record during the daytime from 10am to 6pm. My lineup would work from 8pm until 4am. The results of that work can as two lineups can be heard on the albums Product and Do They Hurt? You can hear the situation in the music. It’s a little schizophrenic in terms of direction.
That sounds clinically insane as a band operating construct.
It was, yeah. As I said, there was really no another solution, apart from me to concede to Hit & Run. I have thought about the situation since and I probably would have done the same thing again. It became a musical marketing construct, actually. As for whether it worked, the proof was in the pudding. Hit & Run soon dropped us after that and it was the end of Brand X for quite a while. Tony Smith, who runs Hit & Run, hammered the final nail in the coffin. I had moved to Brooklyn as the band was coming to an end. I received a call from him one day out of the blue and he said “I just can’t manage you anymore. It’s just too difficult.” And that was it. It was immediate. Brand X was over. He also said “Feel free to go with another manager.” He then added something to the effect of “But remember, I’ll be looking for any money that’s owed to me.”
It was quite a rough time for me. I went from playing in a good band to moving furniture for a living. I hadn’t been living in New York for very long and had yet to meet many people. I didn’t have a pool of musicians I knew that I could play with. I was a new guy. So, I got a job with a furniture moving company just to survive. My income had been cut off. My son had just been born and I needed to have money coming in. It was a big lifestyle change.
How did moving furniture physically affect you?
I was careful about it. It was more rough on my back than my hands and arms. I did it for about a year. Now, I have back problems which probably originated from that.
What enabled you to get back into being a full-time musician again?
I got out of furniture moving initially by starting to work with my wife who was making jewelry for a living. I helped her out with that. Then one day, I was in a supermarket in Brooklyn buying carrots and this guy named Lloyd Fonoroff came up to me and said “Are you Percy Jones?” I said “Yeah.” He said “I play drums in this band called Noise R Us. I live in the neighborhood. Why don’t you come over and play with us?” So, I went over and it was fun. I played with them for a while. It wasn’t full time, but it kept me together musically. It had a sort of punk vibe to it, with some jazz thrown in. It also had a horn section. The guy who wrote most of the stuff had a really interesting writing style, with odd time signatures and interesting harmonies. The band ended up being threatened by Toys “R” Us, so it had to change the name to Paranoise. They did records for Island and Ozone. I’m on some of those. It was through Paranoise that I got connected to Ozone Records, leading to the making of what became Brand X’s X-Communication.
Brand X’s ‘70s output, originally released on Charisma, has been reissued several times over the years. Why has that part of the catalog not recouped?
That’s a good question. We had a publishing contact with Hit & Run. Tony Smith definitely invested in the band, but it’s a question of how much he invested. After I moved to America, not long after he dumped the band, I called him up and asked him if he could let me have some royalties, because I was hard up. He said “I can let you have a couple of grand, but you’ll have to sign an extension to the publishing contract.” I did that and in retrospect it was a big mistake. So, he still has the publishing. He’s been recouping money the whole time, up until the present. It’s claimed that money is being recouped against a debt, but we can’t get an accounting for what that debt is or where it comes from. I recently spoke to a guy who used to work at Hit & Run and looked after Brand X on a day-to-day basis. He told me “Well, you guys never lost money.” He went on to say “When you did American tours, you made money on some of them and lost a bit of money on others. But you never lost huge amounts of money.”
In 2014, Universal released a Brand X box set titled Nuclear Burn compiling all the Charisma-era recordings. Did any businesspeople communicate with you prior to it coming out?
That was interesting. Someone at Universal wrote me and said “We’re putting out this Brand X box set. Is that okay with you guys?” I wrote back and said “It’s fine with us, as long as royalties are paid directly to the musicians.” There was a bit of a pause and they wrote back and said “We’re putting this out and all royalties will be paid to Hit & Run.” I was told later I should have had a lawyer write that letter instead of doing it myself. That box set also has horrible artwork. All the money for that box is going to Hit & Run. This situation isn’t that uncommon in this business.
There has been some mythology built up about Bill Bruford being considered for Brand X. What is the actuality of the situation?
The original drummer was John Dillon in 1973. He was in the band when we initially signed to Island Records, sort of miraculously. We did an unreleased album for them that had vocals. The band also included Pete Bonus on guitars, Phil Spinelli on vocals, and Robin Lumley on keyboards. I usually describe it as a below-Average White Band record. [laughs] It had a sort of funky thing going on. Island were quite happy with the album, but we weren’t. The original recordings might be in Island’s vault somewhere. Either that or they destroyed them. I have no idea.
We asked Chris Blackwell if we could not put that album out and do another one which was all instrumental. He reluctantly agreed to that. We realized if we’re going to be doing instrumental stuff, we needed to get a different drummer. So, we had Bill Bruford come over and rehearse with us. I was all for having him in the band. We offered him the gig and he turned it down. He said “I don’t want to spread myself too thin” because he was playing with Gong at the time. One of the Island A&R guys said “You should try this Phil Collins guy out. He’s really good. He plays with Genesis.” So, we approached Phil and he came in and played. We liked him and he liked us and he ended up joining.
Tell me about your other current group MJ12 and the musical vision you have for it.
MJ12 started out five years ago. I’ve known the drummer Stephen Moses for a long time. He was in Noise R Us briefly before we went our separate ways. He played with Alice Donut for a long time. We hooked up again five years ago and started doing duo shows with invited guests. Stephen would book these little gigs in Brooklyn and we’d invite a horn player, a guitarist or cellist to sit in with us. Once, we had a guy who played an amplified bicycle wheel with us. [laughs] These improv gigs were fun and probably a little self-indulgent. I suggested to Stephen that we make this stuff a little more structured, with written material that has an improv side to it. It eventually evolved into what you can hear on the MJ12 album that also has guitarist Dave Phelps and saxophonist Chris Bacas on it. It’s similar to Brand X in that there are tunes and structures, but it’s more open in terms of improvisation. I enjoy playing with MJ12 immensely. I definitely want to keep it going.
You’ve done four albums in a trio with Scott McGill and Ritchie DeCarlo in recent years. What made that lineup appealing to you?
Scott and Ritchie invite me to play on records and at gigs from time to time. I enjoy playing with them. We didn’t really rehearse much before. We would show up at the gig and play. So, there was a lot of improv going on because we didn’t have any other choice. I think some productive stuff came out of it. The last album we did, Third Transmission, is the strongest one. Both Scott and Ritchie are good musicians. Ritchie is definitely a rocker with a lot of chops. Scott is into a lot of different things, including fretless guitar and Stockhausen’s work. They’re interesting people to play with who like to push boundaries.
You collaborated with Richard Barbieri on two of his albums, Things Buried and this year’s Planets + Persona. Provide some insight into that collaboration.
I like playing with Richard a lot. He’s a synthesist with a really unique style. His sound is really recognizable. I first met him in Japan in the early ‘80s, playing with Masami Tsuchiya. A couple of years later, Masami did a tour of Japan with Ippu-Do and asked me to join him. Richard and Steve Jansen were both in the band. Of course, both were in the band Japan. I also met Mick Karn in a club in Tokyo years ago. We all got to know each other.
Richard told me that he and Steve used to go to the Marquee and see Brand X back in the ‘70s and that he liked what I did with Brian Eno as well. So, he first asked me to play on Things Buried, which was his first solo record. I was in Wales at the time, visiting my family. So, I’d go up to North Wales and record with Richard there. I just recently did a track for Planets + Persona called “Solar Storm.” I recorded that at home.
A couple of years ago, I also played with Richard in Sweden with Isildur's Bane. They have an expo every year and invite guests to play with them. So, I got invited and Richard and I were on the same gig. We got to play live and that was a lot of fun.
In terms of the process, Richard would provide guidance. When we did Things Buried, he would say things like “Don’t play so many notes here,” “simplify things here” or “you can go nuts there." [laughs] So, there was direction, but he’d also give me a lot of freedom. I didn’t get any direction for “Solar Storm.” He just said “Between here and here, you can play a groove, and then before here and here, you can go nuts a little bit.” And that was it. I did the track and sent it to him and he liked it immediately. We didn’t have to redo anything and he didn’t edit it down.
Reflect on your days with The Liverpool Scene, your first major band.
We’re really going back now. I studied at the University of Liverpool in 1966. I started playing with a couple of other students while I was studying electronic engineering. One guy who was studying law was a guitar player named Andy Roberts. He had been playing with some of the Liverpool poets like Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten. Back in the ‘60s, there was quite a prolific poetry and music scene in Liverpool. So, I was in this all-student band with Andy and we played around a little bit. He told me there was this thing called The Liverpool Scene and said they’re looking for a rhythm section. I was asked to come along and play, which I did. It started out as a poetry and music band, and then gradually morphed into something more rock and roll. At the end it was more rock and roll than poetry. It was definitely an unusual band. I stayed with them until 1971.
My bass playing hadn’t matured very much by then. I don’t think I did anything to write home about. It was a very good experience and my first professional band. It had a learning curve and I have good memories of it. We didn’t make much money and there was a lot of road work. In England, during the late ‘60s, where was a thriving pub and club circuit in which all of these underground bands were constantly moving around the country playing. I’m talking about bands like Jethro Tull and Chicken Shack back then. Eventually, the record companies started signing them up because they saw there was some money to be made.
At what point did you realize you had arrived at a unique voice on your instrument?
It was soon after leaving The Liverpool Scene in late ’71. I moved from Liverpool down to London and started doing a lot of jam sessions. That’s when I felt I was able to get something together in terms of a style. My technique was starting to get better. I was practicing a lot. Brand X came out of these jam sessions. It was just a bunch of guys who got together every week to jam for fun. But it was a very productive time for me. I started to figure out stuff musically. I felt like I was getting my foot in the door in terms of a sound that was my own. I switched from fretted to fretless bass, and that was a big step forward. I immediately felt comfortable on the fretless and found I could express myself a lot more on it. So, from 1971 to 1975 is when I was really starting to get into something productive.
You contributed to Brian Eno’s groundbreaking Another Green World and Before and After Science albums. What were those sessions like?
They were very rewarding for me. I always came out of those sessions feeling like I did something good that day. Eno knew how to get the best out of the musicians he used. He’d give you enough freedom to do your own thing, but also knew how to direct you so you didn’t get too self-indulgent. I’d do a take and to keep things on the rails, he’d say things like “What were you doing there? Those two bars? Repeat them. Make a groove out of that.” So, I’d make a groove. At the end of the day, it was a very creative situation.
Some of his ideas didn’t see the light of day. I remember one occasion when he gave us each a sheet of paper and a pen. He said “Write down the numbers one to 100.” Then he said “Percy, on one, you’re F#, Fred Frith, on two, you’re C, Phil Collins, on three, play a cymbal.” So, he gave everyone these things to do at certain numbers. Then he started a metronome and we all did it and it sounded ridiculous. [laughs] So, there were some instances when his ideas didn’t work. But I have to give him credit for trying all sorts of things. Sometimes he’d break out his Oblique Strategies cards to figure out what to do next. Sometimes he’d say “Let’s have some cake!” [laughs] Then he’d pull out some paper plates, forks and cut everybody a slice of cake, and we’d stop and eat for five minutes. I had a lot of fun working with him.
At one point, Eno expressed an interest in joining Brand X. We had done a couple of gigs at The Roundhouse in London. He showed up and seemed interested in what we were doing and said “I could do something within this.” I would have been up for that, but the next thing I heard was “No, it’s not going to work” and he completely changed his mind. That was the end of it, but briefly there was some sort of intersect there.
You joined Soft Machine briefly in 1976. Tell me about that experience.
Soft Machine was stuck for a bass player because Roy Babbington, their bassist at the time, left them on short notice. Brand X was playing at Ronnie Scott’s at the time this happened. John Marshall and John Etheridge came to the club to hear us and liked what I was doing. They hired me to do a long European tour. Most of the gigs involved us opening for John McLaughlin and Shakti. At the end of the tour, they offered me a permanent gig, but I turned it down because Brand X was very active. Had it not been for that, I probably would have stayed with them. I enjoyed playing with Soft Machine and they were very nice people to work with.
In 1990, you made a solo bass album titled Cape Catastrophe and performed shows to support it. What made you go in a totally solo direction during that period?
That came about because I didn’t have a band at the time, but I was writing stuff. I remember going to Sam Ash to buy a cheap Roland sequencer. As I was walking out of the store, I ran into Elliott Sharp. He said “Hey, I’m curating some gigs at The Kitchen, do you want to do a show there?” He then looked at the box under my arm and said “You can use all that stuff if you want.”[laughs] I said “Yeah, okay.” So, I went home and cooked up the sequencer, got it working and programmed a 45-minute set. I did the gig at The Kitchen—just myself with machines. It went fairly well. Then I started getting more gigs in this format. I did several at the old Knitting Factory and other places. I did a whole slew of stuff with bass and a four-track sync to a sequencer and drum machine. It was an electronica approach.
It was really a way for me to be out there playing while I didn’t have a band. The whole time I did it, I was planning on getting some sort of band together again. I looked at it as a temporary thing, but it went on a bit longer than I anticipated. In retrospect, I’m glad I did it. It was an interesting time, but after a while, I missed playing with other musicians.
During that same year, you performed on Suzanne Vega’s Days of Open Hand. How did that opportunity come about?
Her producer Anton Sanko played keyboards on my solo record Propeller Music. He was working on that record with her and called me in to play on it. Suzanne seemed like a very nice lady. I actually played quite a bit of stuff for it and they didn’t use most of it. It was very nice to be involved, but I wish they hadn’t taken out so much of the bass. I would have been much happier if they had left my parts in their entirety. I’m on just one track titled “Predictions” and what I did was severely edited.
You had an ambitious trio called Stone Tiger with Bill Frisell and Mike Clark between 1982 and 1984. It didn’t get past the New York gig scene or demo stage. What do you recall about that band?
I guess you could have called Stone Tiger fusion, but it was very edgy. Bill has a very unique approach to the guitar, so just based on his involvement alone, it was very interesting. It was an enjoyable band with a lot of potential, but we couldn’t get any interest from record companies. We also had a hard time getting gigs. It just burnt itself out in the end, particularly as Bill started getting very successful doing his own thing. I can’t explain why it didn’t go anywhere. There are a lot of things about the music business I still don’t understand, right up to today. I just go with the flow. I try not to fight it or figure it out.
Even if you’re not fighting it, the business is more complex than ever. What’s the reality for you in terms of keeping hand to mouth in the current climate?
It’s very, very tough these days. Income isn’t predictable. It’s still one week to the next. I might have a good week and then I’ll have a bad week. I never know what’s to come. MJ12 only plays locally in New York at quite a few dive bars, where we’re at the mercy of whoever shows up. Someone passes a bucket around and we get whatever the punters throw in. It has been getting better as we go along. But most of the people who come don’t know who I am. I’m just this older white guy with a bass. People don’t tend to come out to see me, although a few do. The majority of listeners are just people that happen to be in the bar having a drink. So, it’s that sort of situation. Brand X is a different situation in that it has a following.
How do you feel you’ve evolved as a bassist and composer over the decades?
I think I’ve done pretty well. I feel like I’ve achieved something and have something to offer. At one point in my career, I got a little despondent because I was getting a lot of comments about being a Jaco Pastorius clone. I resented that quite a bit and didn’t think that was accurate. I don’t hear so much of that anymore. I mostly get compliments these days. There’s always somebody who doesn’t like what you do, but they tend not to say it to your face. It’s stuff you hear second-hand somewhere. But when I do get negative feedback, I’ll listen to it. Sometimes there is some validity to it that I pay attention to. Otherwise, it makes no sense and I move on and don’t worry about it.
Ultimately, I’m never happy with what I’m doing. I’ll never be at the point where I’m happy. There are always things that happen when I play that make me think “Shit, I didn’t quite reach that. I didn’t do that right.” I’m always striving to be better. So, the evolution is never-ending. I’ll keep at it until I croak.