Bassist, composer, academic, author, progressive bass legend: for Professor Sean Malone, music is a form of philosophy. Joel McIver meets the great man, who provides us with a finger-stretching guest lesson with Cynic’s ‘Kindly Bent To Free Us’
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I don’t pick up the bass unless I want to: it just so happens that I always want to! I’m still learning as a bass player, and in fact, I don’t believe that learning has an end. If anybody said they’d reached the pinnacle of their skills, I’d disagree, because it suggests there is nothing more to discover. I think of music as an ongoing dialogue between the ideas within and you and the world around you, neither of which have limits. Because of that—for me at least—music is a source of endless fascination.
I’m a professor of music theory as well as a touring and recording musician. The past two or three years I’ve been putting quite a bit of time into touring with Cynic and the John Wesley Band, and how much time I spend in the classroom depends on the semester, because lately I’ve been doing more research than teaching. I’ve also released two albums under the moniker Gordian Knot, which is an umbrella name for a composing outlet. I’ve been fortunate to have had musicians such as Bill Bruford, Steve Hackett, Trey Gunn, and Jim Matheos participate in that project.
As a theorist my research interests are centered on music cognition, including formal systems and the perception of musical form. Meta-theory (rules for rules) and musical gesture are a part of that work as well. Along with bass and Chapman Stick I also play the piano and the guitar, though mostly for composing and teaching: I like to say that I’m a guitar owner rather than a guitarist.
I started playing bass at around 17 years old, and for the first year I was just trying to find my feet. My first bass was a Cort headless copy of a Steinberger, which I played for about a year. I saved every single penny for that year and bought a Kubicki X-Factor fretless, and by then I was committed to bass: I was all in.
Kubickis are like the DeLorean of basses, in a way: everything about them was new when they first came out. I think they were ahead of their time in lots of ways, and they never really had their day, which is too bad. I had an 18-volt version, and though it sounded great and played very well, I didn’t quite get the sustain I needed from it: for years, I thought I just needed to improve my technique, so I kept working and working on that. Later, I was teaching with Gary Willis at the National Guitar Workshop and he had a prototype of his early bass, and I tried it, and it was effortless to get the tone and the sustain I wanted, so I knew I needed to make a change!
Most people assume I play fretless because of Jaco Pastorius, but that’s not the reason. I’m a big fan of Jaco – one of the books I’ve written for Hal Leonard is a collection of transcriptions and analyses of his solos – but the sole reason I’ve played fretless from the beginning was because of Mick Karn of Japan. It’s such a cliché to say ‘There are very few people who you can call truly original’, but everything about Mick’s musicianship was original and unique. It’s still hard to believe he’s no longer with us.
Mick’s work with Japan, Dali’s Car, and his first few solo albums are rich in a kind of creativity that you don’t see too often. His profile never got as high as it should have but I believe that he’ll have his day, although sadly not in his lifetime; something that’s likely true for most innovators.
Until 2013 I only ever had one bass at a time. I played Gary Willis’s signature Ibanez for 10 years, and when I was moving house one day, a very large crate of books fell on it. It literally snapped the electronics cavity off, and so when I got a message from Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert about beginning pre-production for the new Cynic CD, I had no instrument! Ibanez made one for me as a loaner, and then they asked me if I’d like my own bass.
My main bass is an SR 5005E. It’s a custom instrument, because they don’t offer fretless on that model. It has an uncoated neck, which I like because it’s warmer, but I also have a coated neck that I occasionally put on if there’s going to be a lot of wear and tear. I also have a 4004, fretted, which I played for half the set during the Cynic tour of Japan – that was the first time I played a fretted bass live.
I don’t consume music in the same way that most people do, so when I’m asked what kind of music I listen to, it’s difficult to give a meaningful answer. I enjoy it of course but music is much more than entertainment: it’s something closer to the way George Crumb described music, as being “a system of proportions in the service of spiritual impulse.