Knowledge Is Power
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2006 Anil Prasad.
For the majority of his three-decade career, Bob Nyswonger has been best known for his influential role as the bassist and a singer-songwriter for three of the Cincinnati area’s most legendary and adventurous rock acts: The Bears, Psychodots and The Raisins. The groups share line-ups featuring combinations of Nyswonger, guitarists/vocalists Rob Fetters and Adrian Belew, and drummer/vocalist Chris Arduser. Their playful and intelligent lyrics, superb musicianship and inventive arrangements have garnered them significant regional acclaim, as well as several stints in the national media spotlight.
Currently, Psychodots and The Bears are part-time entities that their members engage in between individual projects. Nyswonger is no exception, having just launched his first solo album Deposition. The eclectic disc features a variety of songs Nyswonger had penned over the years that didn’t quite fit into any of his group contexts. Its 11 tracks are comprised of addictive power pop cuts, raucous rockers, flickering ballads and the occasional ambient excursion. Nyswonger handles all of the lead vocals and plays most of the instruments, including guitars and keyboards. Arduser, Fetters and Belew, along with fellow Cincinnati mainstays drummer Bam Powell and singer-songwriter Lee Rolfes also contribute to the disc. Nyswonger’s daughter Carmen provides vocals as well.
In addition to his solo career and his work with Psychodots and The Bears, Nyswonger is one third of two other Cincinnati trios: Bucket, a contemporary Americana-oriented band with Powell and Rolfes, and Tickled Pink, a groove-oriented alterna-rock act also featuring Powell, as well as guitarist Scott Covrett. Innerviews readers planning a trip to the Ohio area are well advised to investigate the rich and varied universe of gigs Nyswonger contributes to in the region.
What can you tell me about the creative process behind Deposition?
I’d written several tunes that for various reasons weren’t really right for any of the groups I play with—songs that I thought deserved to be served up with some sort of studio treatment. The creative process at that point is fleshing the tunes out and producing them. There is a pretty wide stylistic diversity on the record, so figuring out how to make the individual tunes true to themselves and then hang together sonically as a collection was my goal. My studio is pretty primitive by today’s standards. I don’t record or mix on a computer. I have a dedicated hard drive recorder and I mix through a real, though very cheap, analog console with patch cords and fader—just like grandpa did!
In general, how do you go about channeling inspiration into concrete musical ideas?
Honestly, there’s no method I’m aware of, other than just making some time to play an instrument for a while or stare at a blank sheet of paper. Sometimes you get lucky and a great phrase shows up.
What tend to be the biggest musical challenges you face in your creative process?
Execution, both on a technical performance level and in production. I’m still learning how to produce an overall sound I hear in my head. Also I don’t have a lot of studio experience as a vocalist and it’s real tough when the producer side of my brain is saying “I wonder if this hack might possibly have a better take in him?” and the ragged throat frustrated singer side thinking “that asshole is gonna make me do it again…” Sometimes it takes me a little while to make a guitar part sound right. I’ve been pretty spoiled in playing with incredible guitarists for a long time.
What are some of the things you do as a musician to try and shake yourself out of any routines or patterns that you might fall into?
Retuning a guitar is a great way to change perspective, as is picking up an unfamiliar instrument. You wind up using your ears. Routines and patterns aren’t necessarily a bad thing though if they take you where you want to go.
How does songwriting for a solo project differ to contributing to a group project for you?
The process is the same. I think it’s a little freeing when you don’t have to convince another human being to sing your lyrics.
What yardstick do you use to measure whether or not a song you've written is worthy of public consumption?
If I make it all the way through a tune—that is put it in a finished form and either record it or just play it and sing it every day for a few weeks, it’s probably okay. I usually abandon something before it gets anywhere near a finished form if I don’t think it’s going anywhere. It can take me anywhere from a few days to a few decades to finish something.
Describe your overall philosophy as a bassist.
Bass is a support instrument, but the devil’s in the details. I’m a Libra so it should be no surprise that I’m always seeking a balance. The number one priority always has to be to serve the song and do whatever it takes to bring it to life, even if that’s something very simple. On the other hand, I tend to want to do something more interesting harmonically than pound root notes. The trick is to strike a balance between being supportive and interesting. I like having sonic choices, such as acoustic or electric upright; fretted or fretless bass guitar. Ultimately I want what I’m doing to be interesting enough to stand on its own melodically and propel the tune properly. I’m never going to be a chops kind of player like Victor Wooten or Les Claypool, but I have enough technique to do pretty much anything I can think of that would be useful, and hopefully enough restraint to play the right thing.
You perform on guitar and keys on the new album as well. Describe the opportunity the album provided you in terms of stretching out.
I don’t do much writing on bass. In fact, the bass part is usually the last thing I think about when putting something together. The main reason I didn’t use other players much on this record is that I couldn’t afford to pay them, and I wanted it to be as much a solo record as it could possibly be. It’s a personal statement. There was no one around to tell me to forget singing a falsetto part or to put that accordion down.
Who are some your key musical influences?
My mom taught me how to use a record player when I was very young around age two or three. The first records I recall having in heavy rotation were Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti and Johnny Cash’s I Walk The Line. I loved all the British Invasion stuff, particularly the Stones and Kinks, and later on, The Who. I had the pleasure of following Todd Rundgren’s development from Nazz onward too. I found his writing and production very inspirational. I also loved Syd Barrett, Zappa, King Crimson and Warren Zevon, as well as the very talented guys I play with. In terms of bass influences, there’s John Entwistle for his sound and technique, and Tony Levin and Paul McCartney for taste and musicality. James Jamerson, John Siegler and John Wetton are other inspirations. There are so many.
How have you evolved as a musician over the course of your career?
I’m a better listener now. I think I understand what I’m hearing a lot quicker than I used to. Knowledge is power, right?
You've worked with Rob Fetters and Chris Arduser for decades. Describe the chemistry that has enabled the musical relationship to continue for so long.
When your common experience goes back to junior high, there is a certain level of communication you have that is hard to explain. Back then it was very competitive with different bands in school. We all had this drive to be the best around and I think we recognized the potential in each other early on. We’ve always had high expectations of each other and do to this day. That’s why it still works.
Psychodots recently put together a new album titled Terminal Blvd. What was the impetus to make new music after such a lengthy hiatus?
We did it because we had the opportunity to do in a great facility and we had some tunes we wanted to record. There it is: means and motive.
What was unique or different about making Terminal Blvd. compared to previous albums?
It came together very quickly without a lot of second-guessing. The idea was to keep it simple, immediate and direct with as much of a live feel as possible.
What happened to the "lost" Psychodots studio album that hardcore fans keep referring to?
It’s a collection of tracks done on blackface ADATs. It’s essentially a “live in the studio” session we did when were winding down playing regularly in ’96. They’re on the shelf in my studio. I had a track called Great Communicator that I did the vocals for and added some guitar to that I was going to put on Deposition, but then we put it on Terminal Blvd., so all the better. There might be a few other useable tracks, but honestly if we wanted to release any of those tunes now, we’d probably do much better cutting them again a la Terminal Blvd.
When you’re not performing or recording, you have another career as a real estate agent. It's been said that "real musicians have day jobs." What's your perspective on that viewpoint?
There doesn’t seem to be any pattern to me, or much correlation between talent and success in the music business. I can’t really see wasting much time thinking about it. I used to think about it constantly and it made me crazy toward the end of the first Bears epoch. At this point in my life I’m just gonna do what I want to do. I would dearly love to be able to earn a living playing music, but I guess I’m not enough of a schmoozer or self-promoter to pull it off.
When did you officially decide that you needed to pursue another career to keep food on the table?
It was very tough decision. I reached the conclusion I had to do something when the Bears wrapped up in ’89. I had two young children and my wife was working her tail off. It wasn’t fair or right. I had never been anything other than a musician, had no real skills or education. I took some classes and got a real estate license. I’m extremely diligent and have a lot of experience and some designations, but it’s not a real job either. You can work your ass off for months and get nothing for it. Stay in school kids.
Is Deposition the first of a series of solo albums from you?
I’ll no doubt do more recording. I’d like to do some more sonic or atmospheric type stuff, plus I’ve got a lot other tunes written that deserve to be done. Both of the other trios I play with—Tickled Pink and Bucket—want to record new material as well. So, there’s a lot to look forward to.