Thom Bowers

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Thom Bowers probably flies under the Theme Music radar for a lot of people, serving as the group’s most consistent and prolific bass players, only occasionally popping out from the back for a spotlight moment like this gem from Themestock III (which he asked me to sing with him). When my bass player no showed at Themestock rehearsals the next year, I asked Thom around 11 pm the night before the show to step in for him on a song he’d never heard. He readily agreed, played flawlessly, and helped create my favorite Themestock performance of mine. Ironically we’re invisible in each other’s performances.


You’re primarily known for your bass playing, but you also play piano and obviously have some musical training. Can you talk about when and what you started playing?

I took piano lessons from age 5 to 10, and it gave me a decent-ish foundation, but I wasn’t really sure what to do with it, and I also fell into the cliche of “love music, hate practice” so I gave it up shortly thereafter.

The rock ’n roll bug bit when I was a teenager, and I decided I wanted to play drums. That lasted for a year or two. Then the neighborhood lads with whom I was playing decided to recruit a better, more experienced drummer, while at the same time the bass player switched to guitar. Valuing time with the group more than the instrument I was playing, I picked up the bass to fill the gap, and it’s been my primary instrument ever since.

I’m mostly self-taught as a bassist. Before I actually owned an instrument I used a fretboard chart made of cardboard and shaped like a bass neck to learn finger placement. I preferred sheet music and tab in the beginning, because I had trouble picking up low tones by ear. Later, I learned the trick of listening to a cassette player in high-speed dubbing mode to make the bass lines pop a bit more, which is a technique I still use today with audio software.

How long have you been making music with Matt Meldrum in the band Sons of Nothing? Which album would you recommend someone listen to in order to get a solid feel on what the band has to offer?

I have been collaborating with Matt for a little over 15 years. It’s funny the way Sons Of Nothing has sort of come full circle. It started in 2001 as a studio-based solo project: a collection of songs I had built up over years in bands, and I invited various friends to just come in and play a bit here and there. I didn’t expect it to go any further than that, but eventually it also became a “real” band that made two albums together and toured regionally with a semi-stable lineup for a number of years. After I met Matt, we started writing songs together, and that partnership really solidified SoN’s musical identity. Since I moved from Utah to California, the live element has been more difficult to maintain, so these days we’re a largely studio-based duo project, working long distance and recruiting various friends to play a bit here and there. Not unlike Theme Music collabs, but with slightly longer gestation periods.

To get a good sense of our sensibilities, I would recommend either our 2006 album Clarity, or any of the singles we’ve released via Bandcamp over the past couple of years (particularly Ricochet and Brave Old World).

When did you move from Utah to Los Angeles?

I moved to Los Angeles on January 2, 2009. The move was made primarily for personal reasons, but I can’t deny that it has been a professional and artistic boon as well. I’ve made a ton of friends, and enjoyed amazing opportunities that simply would not have been available to me if I had stayed put.

In the war between melodic bass players and timekeepers, you appear to side more with the former. Do you find you have to restrain yourself at times to prevent from being too busy a player?

At times, yes. I recently heard that Bruce Gary of The Knack describes his drumming style as “tasteful overplaying,” and that’s generally what I’m aiming for as well. Sometimes I can go overboard without realizing it, so when participating in a Theme collab, I prefer to record my part as late in the process as possible, so as to not step on any toes. That may seem counterintuitive, since the bass guitar is usually seen as a foundational instrument, but it’s so much easier to play strategically and resist my instinct to fill All The Space that way. And of course the collab leader always has the final say on “too much” versus “not enough.”

How many basses do you own? What do you use to record? (What kind of mic, interface, etc.)

I own three electrics that are technically Fender Jazz basses, though one of them began life as a Squier, and none of them are exactly factory standard. They were all either modified or custom built by my friend Ray Opheikens, who is both a mad scientist and mad collector. I also have an Ibanez acoustic-electric, which is what I’m playing in every direct-to-camera solo post I’ve made for Theme Music where a bass is involved.

Most of my recording has been done through a Roland Edirol UA-4FX audio capture device, though last year I traded up for a Focusrite Scarlet 2i4. Despite dangling my toes in the waters of Reaper and Garageband, my primary DAW continues to be Audacity. For vocals, I currently alternate between two Audio-Technica mics, an AT2020 and an AT2035.


Van Halen
And the Cradle Will Rock
29 August 2012

Was this your first TM video? I assume you came into the group through your friendship with Robbie Rist? How long have you two known one another?

I met Robbie through mutual friends shorty after I moved to L.A. He added me to the group, and his solo bass/vocal video for Elvis Costello’s Human Hands was the first TM video that I remember watching, so it’s safe to say he was both instrumental and inspirational in getting me involved.

My first TM solo video was Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy DIamond for the Deck Of Cards theme. I didn’t know the term “fishgun” at the time, but I suppose it qualifies since I spent several years in a Pink Floyd tribute band. I was nervous about taking the TM plunge and specifically whether the solo bass thing would work, so I went with a song that was super comfortable.

“And The Cradle Will Rock” followed shortly thereafter, part of a series of posts that I made while my girlfriend and I were on vacation in Europe. We spent time in Norway, Denmark, Scotland, and England. I wasn’t traveling with an instrument, so the scavenger hunt challenge of making music along the way — commandeering a hotel bar piano, slipping into a quiet corner of a guitar store, even using an iPad app on occasion, whatever I had to do to get the tunes out — became part of the fabric of the trip, and made for a nice little collection of souvenirs. Twelve, in all. I think it may also have been something that distinguished me a little early on in my TM participation: “Oh hey, the American guy travelling in Europe has another guerilla video!”

Forgive my complete ignorance of xylophones, but how do you work out an arrangement for a hard rock song while wandering through Tivoli Gardens? Was this something you’d done before?

I share your ignorance of xylophonic technology. But there was a big one in the middle of the kids’ playground at Tivoli Gardens, and the whimsy of playing a hard rock tune with that sound in that setting just tickled me, especially considering the lyrics of that particular song.

And no, I had never done anything like this before. In reading the other Deep Dive interviews you’ve posted, I’ve noticed a recurring pattern of TM providing inspiration and opportunity for people to unlock creative impulses that they never knew they had, and provide them with experiences that they never knew they wanted. That was certainly true of my adventures in Europe, and I will always be grateful for it.

What goes through your head while you’re playing an unfamiliar instrument? I mean are you thinking musically or mechanically? Or put another way, how consciously are you thinking “I have to hit this note with this mallet and this one with the other”?

It was a little bit musical and a little bit mechanical. I knew the bulk of the song would be carried by the vocal, and that most of the music under it was just two alternating chords. Once I had that worked out, the rest was pretty easy to fake with random fills, and a descending scale to approximate the main riff. Also, I can’t remember if it was because of the mallet cords or the camera angle or what, but for some reason I was forced to play it upside down, so you can see I’m going right-left to move down the scale, rather than left-right. Wacky.


The Monkees
Goin’ Down
7 April 2013

Besides being a go to bass player for several Themesters, you’re known for your solo bass performances, something you don’t see very often. How long have you been doing that?

Only as long as I’ve been doing it for TM. I guess I was still clinging to the belief that a bass is not that interesting without a band around it, but when I started doing solo videos for TM I had no other instruments, so using the bass was a matter of necessity. Learning that not only could those arrangements be pulled off, but that other folks actually enjoyed hearing them, was a major revelation. It has done so much to open up my perception of the instrument, and expand my own musicianship.

I’ve seen some video of you playing at open mics. How do solo bass songs typically go over?

Not all that different from other instruments, for the most part. I think the novelty of it is lost on the non-musicians in the crowd, and even for the folks who notice, it wears off pretty quickly and becomes more about the overall performance. It also depends on the length of the set. At a certain point, I do run up against the tonal limitations of the instrument, and the fact that my voice is also in a baritone range can make for a very samey palette if it goes on too long. So I do my best to offset that with the song choices and mood shifts. I’ve always been a set list junkie so that stuff is important and interesting to me anyway, but now I try to take even more care with the craft of it all.

Arrange songs for these performances: how much do you add beyond what you would play if playing with a band?

It depends on how much of the original song is being carried by the bass line. Occasionally I’ve just ported a regular bass line straight over and it works out, but usually I approach it as you would with an acoustic guitar, figuring out the chords and adding in the more prominent riffs and melodies where possible. Sometimes it’s a combination of those two approaches, and over time I’ve found that sort of hybrid technique sneaking in to my “band” playing as well. ‘Cause I need another excuse to take up even more space!

Brilliant video idea. How many takes did you have to do? Anything a bit funny/odd happen in the shooting of this video, he asks, having seen the end of the video?

Heh. I think splicing in that bit where the bass got stuck in between the hallway walls — still no idea exactly how that happened, by the way — was my first attempt at using iMovie to edit video.

There were surprisingly few takes, all things considered. Maybe half a dozen, and I only got all the way through the song twice. I spent several days woodshedding to make sure I had the lyrics down cold, so any blown takes would be failures of choreography and timing rather than flubbing a line. Fortunately the music is really simple, which allowed me to better focus on all the other moving parts, so to speak.

A special shout out to my girlfriend, who was behind the camera for this one. Like Ginger Rogers before her, she had to perform the same thing backwards… sans heels, fortunately.


 

Tears For Fears
Woman in Chains
28 October 2014

Seems like this had to be a daunting task to take on having only done side work and live solo videos up to this point. Was it your love of the song that caused you to up the ante?

Yes, my love of the song, and of Gayle Graizzaro’s voice. By that time, Gayle had already invited me to participate in some terrific collabs, and I was determined to reciprocate her generosity.

I had actually considered this tune for Themestock 3, but the arrangement just seemed too daunting, and the call of the puppets too hard to resist. But then Gayle and I met in person at TS3 and hit it off as friends, and getting to play in the band for her chill-inducing performance of Soul Of A Man got me all inspired to take this tune on right away while the Man/Woman theme was still happening.

I think it was the right choice, because making a studio recording allowed us to really get granular with the performances and production, and left us with this lovely souvenir. And of course Gayle knocked it out of the park — her vocal is simultaneously so heartbreaking and so uplifting.

This song has such incredible texture to it. How did the arrangement evolve? Were you looking for specific instruments like djembe and kalimba or did you just find people who you knew could contribute random percussion?

Mostly the latter. The original recording is incredibly dense and nuanced. Given enough time and motivation, I’m sure Owen’s audio wizardry would be up to the task of a “fantasy camp” recreation, but we only had a week to pull it off, so the idea was to steer away from that and strip it down to just piano, bass, and drums, with a little extra percussion for added color. We recruited as many folks as were available to add whatever unusual instruments they had at their disposal, and started piling on those layers. Eventually we also added flute, guitar, and strings to fill things out, so the original intention was diluted a little, but I like that the foundation of it gives our version its own texture, while still being recognizable and reasonably faithful to the original.

Since you hadn’t done much video editing up to this point, you farmed out the work to John Fremer. Did you offer any input about the overall look or leave that up to his capable hands? If the latter, how did you feel when you saw the marriage of Owen Hodgson’s mix to John’s video?

I don’t remember any instructions for John other than the Stillwater mantra of “just make us look cool,” and he went to town on it. I like the various moods and modes he created with the filters, giving each musician their own visual identity, and I’m glad he went out of his way to highlight the percussionists. Some great cross-cutting too, especially the section from 3:45 to 4:15. Just beautiful timing, there. The blue sky fade out at the end was John’s idea, and caps things off nicely.


Stan Ridgway
Walking Home Alone
21 December 2014

I made this video, but have no recollection of putting it together. I’m going to start with the repeat of the last question. Did you tell me anything about what you wanted? This time John mixed and added the title card. Any recollection of how you felt upon seeing the final product?

Other than wanting a general sense of “noir,” I don’t remember any specific agenda that I had for the visuals. I loved the results, both from you and from John (I would use those cinematic title cards for every video if I had the wherewithal) and still really dig the texture and mood, especially in Karen and Carey’s clips. And I really dig the last shot, where you have me pausing at the street corner on the final chord, and stepping out of frame just as the music slides away. I didn’t plan that, but it dovetails nicely.

Quite distinct from the Tears For Fears cover, this song has a much more open production with just a handful of instruments. As a consequence, the bass does a lot more work. That seems pretty common in his music (at least based on what I’ve heard of it). Do you think that plays a role sometimes in your liking particular songs or artists?

A little bit, yeah. I’m always going to gravitate to something a little more strongly if I dig what the bass is doing. But in this case, my attraction to Stan Ridgway’s music is all about his persona and the world building he does in his songs. He’s a great storyteller.

It just occurred to me that I’ve never farmed out a bass part for a collab that I’ve led. I played on them all. I tend to think of it as me taking on that chore to spare someone else the bother, but maybe that’s overly selfish and control-freaky on my part, and I ought to try rectifying it on a future project.

By the way, the more sparse production and arrangement on this one is pretty close to what we originally intended for “Woman In Chains.”

A little bit of acting in this one. In your solo videos and some of your side man efforts you can get a little goofy. Do you enjoy hamming it up? Is it something you consciously do as a vocalist, essentially acting out the emotions or words of the song?

Sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, and sometimes self-consciously to the point of making me cringe in hindsight. But yeah, I enjoy hamming it up and I’m not afraid to get goofy. David Lee Roth once said: “The goal is to delight. Whether you use darkness and horror, or smiles and celebration, to delight is your obligation as an artist.” The list of live performers who I consider my role models includes Roth, Henry Rollins, and “Weird” Al Yankovic, so I’m all about swinging for the fences.

The trick is staying congruent, making sure what you’re doing doesn’t clash with the overall tone of the piece, unless that’s the point. Sometimes I have trouble gauging how much is too much emoting on-camera, especially while lip syncing. I think I’m overdoing it in “La Sagrada Familia” (see below) for example. This one’s a mixed bag, but with more good than bad, I think. Carey conveys a lot more with her stillness than I do with my mugging.


The Swans
God Damn the Sun
15 February 2015

Creme soda? Ginger ale? Or did Thom Bowers start drinking the hard stuff?

Not only creme soda, but diet creme soda! That’s how much of a square I am. But having what could pass for a finger or two (is that how these things are really measured? I have no idea) of whiskey sitting on the piano seemed appropriate to setting the mood.

You do two things in this video that you didn’t often do in Theme Music — play piano and sing lead. You also chose a song with an extremely low vocal. Whenever I asked you to sing on something you always seemed so grateful that I wasn’t merely asking for bass. How do you feel about yourself as a vocalist? (After hearing the original, I think you completely nailed the vocal.) Would you like people to ask you to do more vocals on collabs?

First of all, thanks for the kind words about this vocal. There aren’t too many songs written in that range, and it’s one of the few things I think I do well, so it’s always fun to show that off.

I have… complicated feelings about my singing voice. I’ve sung lead, at least part-time, in every band I’ve been in, so it’s definitely a part of my musical identity. But there are problematic aspects to that. The style of music I favor and the sound of my voice don’t often match up, for example. I have a recurring challenge with pitch, despite my best efforts to overcome it, which is especially frustrating because I love harmony singing more than anything. So, often I feel very self-conscious and insecure about myself as a vocalist, especially as far as recording. I have no trouble singing in front of people, but machines make me nervous.

And while I would like to sing on more collabs, I do understand why it doesn’t happen that often. There is such an embarrassment of riches in TM as far as singers go, it makes sense for folks to gravitate towards the strongest and/or most flexible voices whenever possible. Mine is a pretty specific and often temperamental tool, so it’s not necessarily going to be the right one for the job a lot of the time.

The original has no piano on it. When you realized this song was on theme, what made you decide to arrange it for a solo piano rendition?

Partly for the visual — drunk and depressed plays better hunched over a piano than holding a guitar, in my opinion — and partly since the vocal was already in that subterranean range, I thought a wider tonal palette would be good for contrast.


Styx
Castle Walls
10 April 2016

We have arrived in Styx land. We’ve talked a bunch about the band privately, but for the sake of the readers (please, won’t someone think of them??), when did you become a Styx fan? It just HAD to be when you were a kid, amirite?

I was around 15 years old when I really became a fan, but as soon as I started delving into their records I was surprised to realize how many of their songs I already knew, just from what was on the radio when I was a kid.

By that time, they had more or less dropped off the pop culture radar, and that created a sort of mystique that made them even more interesting to me. It wasn’t until the mid-90s that I was finally able to see them play live, on their reunion tour. A few years later, the band made a few lineup changes and rededicated itself to full-time touring, and I’ve now had the pleasure of repeating that live experience 72 times. It never gets old.

You had to have been a Rush fan for a longer time though, right? You’ve been a part of a couple killer covers, most notably Mike Gamble’s Red Barchetta collab.

Actually, no. Styx came a year or two earlier. They were my gateway drug from regular pop/rock into the proggier stuff.

Rush will always have a special place in my heart, though. And finding ways to make their, well… acquired taste more palatable for the TM folks who would not normally partake has been one of my great joys of participating in the group.

So strange to see you, Bill Shaouy, and John Pecak (half of The Windows!) on a prog cover. Who instigated this prog-ject? Was it Tom, because otherwise I’m wondering why some other Styx aficionado wasn’t invited?

If you’re referring to yourself, I do believe you had enough on your plate that week! But yeah, I already had a long-standing date with Tom Bishel to do a Styx cover as soon as the opportunity arose, and we may do another one day. He’s one of TM ‘s bigger fans of the band, and has a great voice for this kind of material. If I recall correctly, this was also his first vocal after being hospitalized for a heart issue earlier that year, so it was a cool way for him to get back in the game.

This is a song that I fantasized about covering in every band I’ve ever been in, but was never able to pull off. All of the players on this track are fantastic musicians who were in exactly the right headspace, and Bobby Phillipps really knew how to tie it all together with that AOR style production. Seriously, a dream come true.

The “I’m coming, Elizabeth!” gambit. Such an obvious ploy. Anyway, we’ve done a couple or three Styx songs together; in fact, Renegade is one of the most watched songs in Theme Music history (74K and counting!). Can you talk a little about your contribution to the Blue Collar Man/Angry Young Man mash-up we did for Themestock III?

I don’t think I can take much credit for that — the only real contribution that I made was figuring out where the segue between the two songs should be. All the rest of the arrangement coolness was your doing, I believe. But it sure was fun to play, especially with the live band at Themestock. That pop of recognition from the crowd when we launched into the “Fooling Yourself” chorus was pure joy; one of those great on stage moments when you remember “oh yeah, THAT’s why I wanted to play in a band in the first place!”

I particularly remember seeing Joe Giddings lose his mind for a minute there. For the record, the concept was mine but you figured out how to fix the tempo shift as well as the places to staple together.


Alan Parsons Project
La Sagrada Familia
10 April 2016

Have you ever been to the unfinished basilica in Barcelona designed by Antoni Gaudi? If so, I’m curious whether that enriched your appreciation for the song in the same way that visiting the Reichstag made me appreciate the original Call of Duty video game.

Heh. No, I have never been there, but I’d love to go someday. I am kind of obsessed with it. I’ve taken in a boatload of articles and documentaries on the subject over the years, all because this song captured my imagination so strongly when I first heard it.

You’d done a couple of pretty sizable collabs at this point, but nothing on this scale. Can you talk about how your experience in Theme Music up to this point informed your decision to think big?

Partly being inspired by others pulling off productions equally epic in scale or greater, and partly just gradually building up through my own experiences. Plus, being active enough in the group to know who’s who and what they’re capable of, and having the guts to ask for their help. That last one isn’t always easy for me. Truthfully, I’m rarely comfortable in a leadership role. To put it in Aaron Sorkin parlance, I don’t want to be The Guy; I want to be the guy that The Guy counts on. But I can step up when it’s important, and “La Sagrada Familia” was another of those bucket list, lifelong dream selections. In fact, every TM collaboration that I’ve led falls into that category. None were undertaken on a whim. That’s one of the reasons I do them so rarely, along with the aforementioned insecurity about my singing and my relative lack of engineering chops.

To backtrack slightly, the decision to cover this song was preceded by another APP cover for TM, The Turn Of A Friendly Card. While putting together a team to tackle that one, I was contacted by Mark McCrite, who was doing the same, and rather than compete we decided to join our forces. The result was pretty darned wonderful, so I tried to get as much of the same team back as possible for this one, and having that strong core gave me the confidence to invite other folks who I had never led in a collab before, like Carey Farrell, Sheila Doyle, and Michael Mitsch, who all turned in superb performances.

APP was one of the bands that Matt Meldrum and I bonded over when we first met, so I’m always looking for an excuse to cover one of their tunes with him, and having Mark in the producer’s chair again was fantastic. John Fremer was back on video duty for this one, and had at least as much to juggle as Mark or I did. His use of Michael and Carey’s footage is both brilliant and hysterical.

You managed to post this song and the Styx song for the same theme. On the same day, in fact. How long did it take you to recover from that one-two punch?

Yeah, that was a crazy week! I also played on your cover of “Burn Down The Mission” for that theme (more on that below) which was a pretty steep climb all by itself. I either ate my Wheaties or had a ton of time on my hands, or both. As I sit here right now, I can’t imagine mustering up that much drive again. But there is a strange feedback loop that sometimes happens with creative projects where as long as everything is working, the more you take on, the more inspired you get, the more energy you have. Tricky not to let it slip over into overwhelm and burnout, but I guess I managed it that week.


Original
Everything Is Over
25 November 2017

 Do I recall correctly that the song’s lyric was borne out of a Robbie Rist rant on The Spoon? Can you provide a summary or is that the song itself?

Not so much a singular rant, but a chunk of Robbie’s worldview, which has been repeated on the show numerous times, in various permutations. To give you some idea of how far this theme goes back, episode #40 of the podcast is titled “Everything Is Over,” which felt cumulative to me at the time. We just wrapped episode #299 this week, and it still comes up regularly.

Anyway, Robbie is often preoccupied with the all-consuming entropy of existence, and laments that most of the pursuits in life which he sees as worthwhile, especially the artistic ones, have been swallowed by post-modernism and are no longer the domain of explorers and innovators. That may come across as cynical or absolutist in a vacuum, but he always delivers it with such wry resignation that you can’t help but be charmed. I hope I’ve been able to capture that spirit a little bit in the lyric.

Do you agree with the argument or is it more of an opportunistic composition where the premise more or less had to be turned into a song?

A little of both. I agree with some facets of it on some days, event hough the older I get the harder it is to trust that I’m not just projecting my own sense of creeping mortal dread on to the rest of the world. But I was able to use that ambivalent point of view in the song as well, and the last verse in particular is much more personal to me and some of my specific life experiences.

Some of us have gone through living and dying based on people’s comments — what’s your take? Are you one of the healthy ones where you’re grateful for what you get and not too disappointed when a post gets overlooked?

Oh, I wish! I mean, I try my best to separate out the quiet satisfaction of a job well done (or, at least, done) from the dopamine hit of a post like or a nice comment and enjoy both on their own terms, but I have yet to crack the code where the one fully compensates for lack of the other. I know some folks who have admirable zen about it all. I will probably never be one of them.

But really, when you consider just how toxic the cocktail of social media validation and artistic temperament can be, the success of Theme Music is even more remarkable and touching. So many stories of improved self-esteem and creative fulfillment and even found family have grown from this project, and to think it all started as a novel way for Matt Brown to organize his record collection. Just extraordinary.


NRBQ
Riding in My Car
2 January 2018

Was this your first participation in Secret Santa? Did you purposely wait until I left TM to do this? Was this a song you’d ever heard of? Did you like it or feel obligated to do at least one of the tunes you were assigned?

I had done Secret Santa at least once before. I actually covered R.E.M’s Cuyahoga at your behest, and one of my favorite originals, Get Lost Again, came from a Secret Santa fake title. Never did find out who gave me that one. Or the NRBQ tune, for that matter. But I did like the song, and thought it was a good candidate to pull off as a fully produced solo dealie.

Oops, forgot “Cuyahoga!” Is this your first full-on self-production where you sang, played multiple instruments, and shot your own video? Why’d you wait so long?

Yup, this is the first. The long wait was due to technological intimidation, the plentiful producers available via TM, and a hefty dollop of laziness. I had experimented with audio engineering and video editing before, but nothing came of it that I would want released into the wild. This felt like the right time, and the right tune, to stretch a little and do it for real.

Most of the audio was recorded and mixed in a single day. It’s ridiculously simple, mix-wise: just various pans and levels, all done in Audacity, no effects on the tracks except for those that came from the sources. The music is all bass and keyboards (using the acoustic bass for percussion sounds) and a little vocal layering here and there.

You’d already shot some driving in your car footage for another TM video — which is obligatory for members, like the ass brand is for Themestock participants — but here you actually had a song all about the subject. How did you go about plotting how much footage to use versus how much “studio” footage?

There wasn’t much actual plotting, it was all sort of made up as I went along. The time-lapse footage was taken over a single trip from Los Angeles to Woodland Hills and back. I hoped it would cover the song’s entire running time, but fell well short of that. Instead of shooting more, I made a few modifications to the song’s arrangement, adding that live acoustic break in the middle (which turned out to be the biggest monkeywrench of the entire project when I had to integrate it to the rest of the footage via iMovie) and splitting the “to” and “from” trips to go on either side of it. Even after that, there wasn’t quite enough to cover the first half, so I reversed the daylight footage, hoping that either no one would notice or no one would care. So far, no complaints!



Elton John
Burn Down the Mission
10 April 2016

As is my tradition, the tenth video is a self-indulgent choice, one of our collabs. But as we’ve worked together 75+ times, I left it to you to pick. Why did you go with this one instead of say Sail Away Sweet Sister which ends with a loooong bass solo?

I chose this one because it was, no joke, one of the toughest bass assignments TM has ever thrown my way. That looooong bass solo in the Queen tune was sweet, no doubt, but “Burn Down The Mission” is essentially a bass solo all the way through: there are so many odd, angular fills using outside notes, only tangentially connected to what the drum groove is doing. And Tumbleweed Connection, groovy piece of art though it may be, is not the most cleanly mixed record ever made and lots of those notes are buried deep.

We were fantasy-camping the tune and I didn’t want to fake it, so between ferreting all the parts out, learning to play them correctly, and trying to make them flow with what the rest of the band was doing, my circuits were fried extra crispy. You can tell in the video that my bass miming is nowhere close to what I played on the recording in places, cause I flat-out couldn’t keep it all in my head.

I dedicated the performance to my friend and fellow Themester Teresa Cowles, who I have watched play that song on stage numerous times, making it looking totally effortless. It is anything but.

Once again you and Bill are on an early 70s epic here, and I think this could easily be called a prog song. Together, along with John Fremer and Steven Young, we were in a band called the Sons of Lazaro, which was a twin shout-out to the first song we covered, Uncle Green’s St. Lazaro, and your band, Sons of Nothing. What was your favorite track that band did together?

Oh, I’ve got a ton of favorites from that band, including the Shaouy/Fremer original Where’s The Train and Uncle Green’s St. Lazaro, which kicked it all off, but the most fun video to shoot was definitely Sugar’s Believe What You’re Saying. Great fun to fully indulge my aforementioned hammy tendencies with all the telephonic shenanigans, and I’m particularly proud of the sunglasses-under-sunglasses bit at 2:45.

When you are a side man and do a cover where the project manager gives you free rein, how do you decide how faithful to be to the original? Can you give an example of when you went way off book and were pleased by the results?

An early example of that would be the first collaboration I did with Gayle Graizzaro, Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine. I was following the broad strokes of the original, but had to re-create a wide and eclectic spread of instruments with just the bass, so it got pretty loopy in places. It turned out great, but listening back now, there’s just so much playing, and I have no idea where some of those bits and pieces came from.

A more recent, and deliberately deconstructionist, example is the cover of Yer So Bad that Chris Jackson, Robbie Rist, and I recorded for the Theme Music Tributes Tom Petty project. I don’t think I referenced the original’s bass line even once. I just molded my part around the track that was handed to me, which had already been through the double taffy-pull of the other two guys putting their own spin on it. It was like some freaky slo-mo improvisation exercise, and I was delighted with the final result.

How about when you do an original? I imagine that differs depending on the songwriter, but what’s your process in terms of thinking about what works for a given song?

It really does begin and end with what the songwriter or producer is looking for, and some hold the reins a little more tightly than others, but TM has proven to be a great training ground for flexibility. So, whether it’s the more hands-on approach that Bill Shaouy took with The Other Town, where most of the songs had very clear blueprints to follow, or the decidedly hands-off deal that you and I usually have, where the only rule is to be home by the time the streetlights come on, I’m comfortable either way.

Then it’s just a matter of figuring out what the song needs, and most pop/rock/country is fairly similar on that score, but there is the occasional stumper: on Independence by Nancy Gardos, the tune was so delicate, and the track I got was only mandolin, brushes, and the lead vocal. I had a really hard time finding the right balance to keep from falling off the tightrope, but Nancy and Matt Brown were super supportive and had great suggestions on how to make it work. Recently I had to get proggy for Ted Kissel’s Insomniac Counts The Sky, which pushed my playing boundaries about as far as they ever have been, but steady leadership won the day yet again.

I really can’t help but bring a bit of myself to the party regardless, and I’d like to think that the folks who have used me multiple times have done so because they like my style and approach specifically. I suppose the worst case scenario would be working with someone who doesn’t know what they want, but also doesn’t like any of the ideas presented to them. Fortunately, that is something I have yet to encounter in TM .


 

Do you ever find yourself coming back to these recordings and/or videos nostalgically or out of a feeling of accomplishment… or are you onto the next thing?

Yeah, I do find myself coming back from time to time, especially with the collabs. I have a pretty strong sentimental streak and it’s nice to remember the teamwork and the post-posting vibes, as it were.

In addition to your musical forays, you have a face made for the radio, no wait, I mean a voice, yes, a speaking voice made for the radio. Can you tell the uninitiated about your podcasts?

Sure! I do a free-form comedy show with Robbie Rist and Chris Jackson called The Spoon, which is like a weekly journey down a rabbit hole of conversational hyperlinks. No topic is off-topic. We have our sober moments, but we generally like to keep it light, even if the humor is of the gallows variety. I also co-host Superenthusiast Radio with Travis J. Coleman, in which we embrace pop culture as the one true faith, and discuss at length all manner of media and fandom thereof, often getting alarmingly nerdy along the way.

Both shows feature special guests from time to time, and The Spoon in particular has a long list of current and former Themesters in its rogue’s gallery. Check out the archives for conversations with Matt Brown, Joe Giddings, Bill Funt, Jessica Hebert, Jonathan Aronson, Lee Flier, Scott Erickson, Carey Farrell, Circe Link, Christian Nesmith, Nikki Savitt, and Mr. Bob Fenster, just to name a few!

Additionally, I did production, engineering, and occasional color commentary for the first 90 or so episodes of Every Friday With Dan And Olivia, featuring Dan Miles and actor/musician Olivia d’Abo, and I had a stretch of producing the Friends Of Dan Music Podcast, but wasn’t on mic for much of it.

When and how did you get into doing voiceover work? Assess the validity of the following statement: It must be a piece of cake to just sit and read a book out loud, no challenges whatsoever.

Yes, it’s a piece of cake…BUT WHICH KIND!?

Like so many of the good things in my life, I owe my VO experiences to Robbie Rist, who trained me well and then pointed me in all the right directions. I currently make the bulk of my living wages as an audiobook narrator, which has been my dream career for only slightly less time than being a rock musician has. If that’s settling for second place, I’ll take it in a heartbeat.

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