Innerviews, music without borders

Michael Manring
Solo Voyage
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2005 Anil Prasad.

Michael Manring has waited a long, long time to make a solo bass album. In fact, he’s been thinking about it since he was 10 years old, just a year after he first picked up the instrument. At age 44, the electric bass virtuoso finally got the chance with his latest release Soliloquy.

Solo bass has been fundamental to Manring’s approach since his first big career splash in the early ‘80s as a sideman for the late acoustic guitar innovator Michael Hedges. Believing solo guitar and solo bass were equally important, Hedges gave Manring regular solo spotlights during gigs. The rapturous response eventually led to all-solo bass shows worldwide and the inclusion of a handful of solo pieces on Manring’s previous three CDs that otherwise focus on ensemble-based jazz, rock and electronica work.

A full slate of collaborative efforts and session work, as well unsupportive record label executives, made finding the time and resources to record an entirely solo bass disc challenging. In particular, recent years have found Manring occupied with several adventurous jazz-rock projects, including Attention Deficit with Primus drummer Tim Alexander and ex-Testament axeman Alex Skolnick; Yo Miles!, a band inspired by Miles Davis’ mid-‘70s fusion output; and McGill/Manring/Stevens, which just released What We Do, a disc of modern takes on jazz standards.

With the encouragement of his enthusiastic fan base, Manring recently chose to temporarily put his other projects aside and made time to realize his childhood vision with Soliloquy, released on his own label Manthing Music. The disc’s 14 tracks run the gamut from mellow and meditative to funky and flamboyant, with the goal of capturing Manring’s feelings and thoughts about solitude. To that end, Soliloquy finds Manring employing the entire range of his instantly-recognizable blend of altered tunings, slapping, tapping, strumming, plucking and harmonics.

Part of Manring’s unique sound also derives from his unconventional choice of instruments, such as his signature Zon Hyperbass and the Zon Legacy 10-string bass. The Hyperbass plays the most dominant role across Manring’s career, with its advanced tuning mechanisms that enable him to quickly rifle through more than 100 different tunings in a single piece.

In addition to making a highly personal musical statement, Soliloquy is designed to shatter preconceptions about the limitations of bass guitar as a solo instrument. We began our conversation by discussing the philosophical perspective that motivated Manring to make such a significant contribution to the modest, but evolving library of solo bass albums.

What were the key considerations you kept in mind when conceiving Soliloquy?

It goes back to being 10 years old, playing bass alone in my room thinking “Wow, it would be really cool to do a whole record of solo bass.” Even in those days, people said it was a terrible idea and that no-one would ever buy that. They said that’s not what the bass does. However, I’ve always felt the sound of the bass is so expansive and rich that I could listen to it for hours and hours without getting bored. It’s capable of an enormously broad emotional range. But even though I felt that way, I had to really think about why other people might not be interested in a solo bass album. I came to the conclusion that for many, the sound of the bass is very monotonous. That’s why it’s always been a goal of mine to keep a lot of variety in my sound. What impresses me about this instrument is the wealth of sounds and the variety of timbres it’s capable of. That’s something I tried to explore and offer up to people on this record. I wanted people to understand the different things you can do with this instrument, from a manual, technical standpoint and also by changing the timbre of it electronically. That’s why each piece on the album has its own little sonic world.

Describe some of the approaches you explored on the record.

I used five different basses on the record and they are all significantly different from one another. Every one of them has completely different pickups and are made from different kinds of woods. Most of them have radically different set-ups. The Hyperbass has piccolo strings. One bass is acoustic. And then there’s the 10-string bass that has five sets of two which I tune to unusual intervals. I also play the basses in lots of different ways. For instance, on “When We Were Asleep in the Earth,” I don’t actually play the strings. Rather, I play by drumming on the body of the Hyperbass with my fingers and allowed the strings to vibrate in sympathy with the drumming. “Selene” was recorded in concert at a show in San Francisco. “Makes Perfect Sense to Me” is based around a harmonizer-like effects program I made on my Boss VF-1 multi-effects processor. In addition, I recorded all of the pieces live without overdubs or fixes. I wanted the album to feature real, contiguous performances as opposed to so much of the music we hear today which is edited to death.

Tell me about your compositional process.

My earliest memories are of composing music in my head. I can remember composing little melodies and listening to music on the radio and changing it in my mind. So, composing for me is a really deep part of who I am. I try to integrate composing into everyday facets of my life. I usually don’t have much time to write stuff down in notation.  A lot of ideas get captured on my little Zoom PS-02 palmtop recorder when I’m practicing. Also, during long flights, I’ll spend a lot of time thinking about themes and orchestrating pieces in my head. I also create a fair amount of scratch notes on paper in which I write down a few musical notes and thoughts about how I can organize ideas in different ways. Some of the pieces on Soliloquy were very difficult to compose. Some would take months for me to put together, pull apart, look at each note to decide if it really fits, and put the piece back together again. I’d fill up tapes and tapes during the process. Other pieces on the album are hardly compositions at all. They were more a case of “I’d like to record a piece like this” and I went ahead and recorded them without practicing.

What attracts you to unconventional instruments such as the Zon Hyperbass and 10-String Bass?

The bass guitar’s frontiers are wide open. If you play piano, you are somewhat affected by its long and very beautiful history. But the rules aren’t as set with the bass guitar. The options are much more broad. The instrument was invented by Leo Fender in 1951, so it’s really an instrument of this time and place. It’s still evolving too, as evidenced by those Zon instruments. Having these options gives me the opportunity to express ideas and emotions about being alive in these extraordinary and unprecedented times. We’re also living in very dangerous times in which we’re facing amazing challenges to civilization. As an artist, I feel I have a responsibility to work in unique ways that deal with those issues in a musical manner.

Where does your fascination with altered tunings stem from?

It derives from a desire to expand the expressive palette of the instrument. When you change the tuning of a string, you’re also changing the tension. You alter the way it vibrates and that alone says something different. If you tune the string very loose, it gets a floppy sound. If you hit that string hard, the pitch goes sharp, then it goes a little flat, and then it comes to rest in a center pitch. That sound has an emotional resonance with people. They perceive it as loose, funky, fat, and wild. If you tune a string really tight, you tend to hear more overtones than fundamental. People tend to hear that as more proper and organized. So, changing the tautness of a string opens up a whole palette of different emotional possibilities. If you mix strings of different tautness together, you can draw from an even bigger set of emotional choices at any moment. It blows my mind on a daily basis that most bassists don’t take their basses and change tunings.

Your work with Yo Miles! finds you playing Michael Henderson’s two-to-four note bass lines for up to a half-hour at a time. Given the complexity of your solo output, what appeals to you about that style of bass playing?

I don’t feel playing a two-note bass line like on Miles’ “Ife” is any harder or easier than playing a more intricate solo piece. I put just as much thought, work and energy into playing either one. The goal is always the same—to find out what the music is all about, what it has to say about who we are and how it can resonate with us as human beings. I really love the fact that a lot of Miles’ pieces from that era are built around the bass. Michael has an amazing, bouncy kind of feel, that makes those old Miles recordings so funky. He’s been a hero of mine since I was a kid. Henry Kaiser, who co-leads Yo Miles!, asked me not to try to replicate Henderson's style, but to try to play the lines in my own way. So, it was a matter of trying to find ways to maintain the integrity of the lines while making them my own. The bass lines are very simple and the tunes go on a long time. It was necessary to introduce some variation to avoid monotony,  but at the same time, the variations had to remain in the spirit of the original line. There has been a lot of water under the bridge since those original Miles recordings, so I was trying to balance the post-Jaco era concept with that ‘60s kind of sound.

What are some recommendations you have for bassists seeking to develop a unique voice?

The main thing is to have an open mind and not assume that anything is impossible or should not be done. You should try things out, no matter how stupid they may seem, if you think some interesting possibilities might emerge. You should also really listen carefully and think about each thing you play, what it says and what the possibilities are within that. And if you have a bizarre new idea, don’t force it down people’s throats. It’s important to look for a place where that idea really fits and then offer it as an option. If you’re doing a session and have a strange idea you think might work, don’t insist that’s what you should do. Instead, you might consider saying “There are a couple of different possibilities here. There’s this way that’s more conventional and there’s this really bizarre and interesting idea. I’ll play them both for you and you decide what you like.”

You’ve been outspoken about getting the music industry to take the bass guitar more seriously throughout your career. What’s your take on the state of the bass today?

The bass is in an interesting place. The fact that the bass became so important to pop music is a double-edged sword. Pop music is so ephemeral and represents planned obsolescence. Does that mean the bass is also subject to becoming obsolete? I hope not. My fear is the bass could easily become the sackbut of this century. The sackbut was an instrument that was wildly popular in the 17th Century, but no-one plays it anymore. I think things are healthy right now, but we stand at a crossroads where the bass could either really develop or completely disappear. What happens will entirely depend on the depth with which people dedicate themselves to both listening to and playing the instrument. For me, one of the keys to the instrument’s longevity is to take a positive attitude no matter what musical context I’m working in. The question I always ask myself is “How I can participate in the music I’m working with while keeping that bigger picture in mind?”

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