When it comes to the upright bass, Stray Cats bassist Lee Rocker is the most prominent musician playing today. In a rare unplugged moment for Bass Guitar Magazine, the great man tells us why we should consider ‘going double’. Interview: Raz Rauf. Pics: Tina Korhonen
Lee Rocker is one of the most influential upright bassists out there today. This is old news, of course: he’s been at that same standing for over three decades. From 1981, when his band the Stray Cats released their eponymous debut album, right up until last year’s covers collection Night Train To Memphis and Rocker’s own Hot And Greasy live series, he has been creating exciting music in his own, inimitable but inspiring fashion. Indeed, when our interview takes place at the London Bass Guitar Show in March 2013, we’ve just witnessed Megadeth’s David Ellefson extolling the virtues of Rocker.
“I do think that I’ve influenced a lot of players,” Rocker accepts. “I know when I started in the late 70s in New York, and then I moved to London in the 80s with the Stray Cats, there really wasn’t upright basses to the extent there is now. It was really a rarity and it’s not any longer. It’s become a lot more mainstream and I do think that 35 years of doing it, on my part, has had its effect.”
It’s Lee Rocker’s use of the upright bass – or the double bass, stand-up bass, or bass violin – that has always set him apart. The Stray Cats were responsible for a major rockabilly revival in the early 80s, but their influence has still been keenly felt in the 21st century through the sounds of mainstream bands such as White Stripes and Kings Of Leon. Rocker’s influences, however, come from farther afield.
“My favourite players are not really rockabilly,” he begins. “The guy that I’m probably closest to is Willy Dixon, who was a great writer, producer, singer and bass player. He was a blues man, but he also played on a lot of the early rockabilly records with Chuck Berry and all. He just had a fantastic slap bass, right-hand technique. Bill Black is another person whose playing I definitely loved, and in addition to those guys, as far as the left hand goes, I would say Ray Brown is a jazz player that I really studied. There’s a fantastic book, Ray Brown’s Bass Method, which was a huge influence as well.”
If the upright bass strikes you as an unconventional instrument, it won’t surprise you that it wasn’t the first instrument that Lee Rocker picked up. “I came to the upright bass through a different circuit,” he explains. “I grew up in a musical family. My dad was a solo clarinet player with the New York Philharmonic and my mum is a music professor at a university in New York, so I grew up with classical music and I played cello as a kid, probably from seven or eight years old to maybe 13. At that point I transitioned from a cello to an electric bass. I was playing electric and enjoying it – and I still do play some electric here and there – but then a few years later, the music that I really loved had upright bass, so at that point, at around 15, I got an upright. Essentially, I had a different transition from cello to electric to upright.”
Rocker’s first bass was an electric – “I don’t know where it was made, but it was called the Live Wire. I think that was a point where I wanted to play in a band with my friends in a garage and it was cheap. It was red” – but, as far as he recalls, he sold it to get an upright bass, and the rest is history. In terms of favourite basses, though, Rocker is non-committal.
“I don’t know if I have a favourite or not, but I love the uprights I’m playing now,” he says. “Recently, I’ve been working with a company called Kolstein Basses out of New York, and they’ve done two different Lee Rocker models. I love those instruments and I was involved to a degree with how the neck feels, and the electronics. I didn’t put them together, but I definitely had my input on those issues.”
With over 30 years of experience, what are Lee Rocker’s tips for being a great bassist, or at least playing bass well? “I don’t think there really is a secret to playing well,” he ponders, “but I think that one of the secrets of being a musician is to listen, and to listen well. It’s kind of like a conversation: if one person’s doing all the talking, it doesn’t work.”
“I also think, as a bass player, that it’s really helpful to be able to play other instruments besides just a bass, whether it be electric or upright,” he continues. “Playing an instrument that can play full chords, either guitar or piano, gives you a broader overview and I think one of the most important things on a bass is to know what these chords are made up of. Then you’ll know what the arpeggios are, you’ll know what G minor 9 is and you can apply that knowledge to your single-note instrument. You don’t have to play a chordal instrument to know that, but you do need to know what notes are in what chord and how music flows.”
“I’m loving the tone I got on Night Train To Memphis,” he says. “Over the years I’ve worked very hard and it’s down to the instrument and the set-up, of course. With the upright it’s down to microphones and placement. In the studio I generally use a combination of microphones, DIs and amplifiers. Sometimes I’ll be recording six different sources of bass and blending them, but it always comes down to the mic – it’s 90 per cent of it. The other 10 per cent is if I’m going to blend in some amplifier.”
“Depending on the bass that I’m using, some of my instruments have an EMG active pickup and a transducer, and I take a DI off of each pickup,” he says. “So there are two sources, and I’ll have an amplifier in another room, that’ll be a third source. Then I’ll have two microphones – one low by an F-hole and one up by my fingers, so that’ll give me five different sources of bass and then we’ll go, ‘Let’s have a little bit of this and a little bit of that’. What I generally find is that the bulk, 90 per cent of it, is the low microphone down by the F-hole.”
The only effect that Rocker really uses is the addition of the amp in the mix. “Sometimes I’ll lean a little more heavily on the amp, as I did in the past. The early Stray Cats records weren’t such a traditional upright sound. It was a real hybrid, because I would be using more of the amp source than the mic source.”
Having achieved an optimum bass sound over time, has recording albums become easier with experience? “Every record is different,” he says. “The Night Train To Memphis record was very easy in the sense that it was a collection of songs that I had played my entire life and hadn’t gotten the chance to record, so we went in virtually live and did that. Previous to that, I did a record called The Cover Sessions. That was me taking songs from the 70s that I basically grew up hearing on the radio. I did my own thing to them with upright bass and banjos and ukuleles and, although I didn’t write any of those songs, it took a massive amount of effort and time for a whole load of reasons. I was trying to do something new with existing material, but also, like we were saying, if it’s got strings, I like to play it – so I picked up a lot of instruments I’ve next to never played before. I played mandolins and things, so that took time.”
And what of the Stray Cats in 2013 and beyond? “Well, we started in my dad’s garage in 1979 and it’s been an on and off thing ever since,” he explains. “I think the last time was four or five years ago when we did a US tour, but there are no plans on the agenda right now. I just think it’s a natural thing, when something lasts this many years, that you have other interests – musical and otherwise – and sometimes, every once in a while, you return and do what you started with. It’s kind of a normal thing to part ways here and there.”
In the meantime, Rocker is planning on starting work on a new record, which will be out at some point towards the end of this year or the beginning of 2014 – and he is still touring, playing 50 or 60 shows a year and dividing his time between New York and Los Angeles.
“I’m into a schedule now that I’m really happy with. I don’t tour like I did years back,” he explains. “As opposed to touring where we’ll go out for six weeks, I’ll do a couple of shows a week and then just return home. For me at this point, I’m happiest working this way and it works for me.”
Here’s one Stray Cat who seems perfectly at home.
Ten other double bassists you need to know about
Jazz legend Ray Brown wrote a book, Ray Brown’s Bass Method, revealing his teaching philosophy and theory in some depth. If it was good enough for Lee Rocker, it’s probably good enough for you.
One of the most prolific songwriters of his time, there wasn’t much that Willie Dixon couldn’t do. He made the postwar Chicago Blues scene what it was but, having also worked with Chuck Berry, also acted as an important bridge with rock’n’roll.
Formerly of Californian punk rockers AFI, Geoff Kresge swapped his bass guitar for an upright bass when he began work with his current psychobilly band, Tiger Army.
Versatile contemporary double bassist Edgar Meyer can play everything from bluegrass to classical, enabling him to work as a session musician in Nashville as well as in chamber groups.
One of the most important American composers in history, Charles Mingus has influenced many with his driving style. His autobiography is a must-read.
Kim Nekroman is the bassist and lead singer of Danish psychobilly band, Nekromantix. He used to be in the Danish Navy and his bass is in the shape of a black coffin.
Having come to the realisation that piano doesn’t work as well as bass in a rockabilly band, Living End founding member Scott Owen also came to find that it’s easier to balance oneself upon a double bass.
François Rabbath is considered to be one of the great bass virtuosos of our time and his three-volume book, Nouvelle Technique De La Contrebasse, is his major contribution.
Having been the first jazz musician to win the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 2011, Esperanza Spalding has been a regular in the Billboard 200, charting three times.
An unparalleled teacher, Oscar Zimmerman saw his students fill positions in orchestras across America.