Tribal Tech founding member and bass boss Gary Willis talks to Mike Flynn ahead of the band’s first ever UK visit
Listening to fusion heroes Tribal Tech motor through their mash-up of rhythmic interplay, funk-edged grooves, slinky swing and dazzling solos – all dispatched with breathtaking technique and high-spirited abandon – you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d never stopped playing together. Yet that’s exactly what they did some 12 years ago. Rocket Science, their studio album from 2000, found them casting aside the shackles of sheet music in favour of pouring their collective reserves of musical experience into fresh sounds, completely of the moment. The resulting music often found them all jiving on a singular groove. Co-leader Scott Henderson’s ring-modulated guitar zigzagged in vicious lines, keyboardist Scott Kinsey pulled Joe Zawinul-esque textures from his synths, drummer Kirk Covington dished out beats of shimmering complexity and at the heart of this seething mass was bass behemoth Gary Willis, pushing and pulling at the music’s core.
The silence after such a euphoric musical high was deafening. Fortunately, the creative foursome began to establish themselves as solo artists, with Willis moving from the southwest US to Barcelona, Spain to take up a teaching post at the prestigious Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya conservatory. He also set about self-producing his own rich and complex solo albums and adventurous live projects, both as a laptop-enabled soloist and with the experimental electronica jazz trios Triphasic and Slaughterhouse 3.
With two benchmark-setting releases, No Sweat and Bent, already to his name, Willis brought his fascination with intense electronic jazz and Squarepusher-esque beats to fruition on Actual Fiction, which also featured Tech drummer Covington, but also took his studio chops to a new level of creativity.
It was perhaps natural that his latest solo offering is a return to something purer. Aptly entitled Retro, his latest album is a trio outing with Hungarian drummer Gergo Borlai and Catalan piano/keyboard maestro Albert Bover. With Willis providing the centre of the threesome, Retro finds Willis stretching out like never before on record, even by his own high standards. The fretless playing on this album traverses every stylistic boundary with virtuosity, hooked to his most emotionally powerful ballad playing to date.
As one of the most influential bassists around today, and one who has made countless innovations and refinements to the modern electric bass vocabulary and indeed instrument design – not least with the proliferation of ‘ramps’, which Willis first implemented (or even invented) in the late 1990s – how does he maintain such a level of technique, applied with such taste? And where does he take it from here?
“To answer your question I’d have to take myself more seriously than I want to,” comes the wry reply over a Skype link from his Barcelona home. “I don’t know, but it’s in my nature to create – if I may be so bold – and that has to do with building basses, hacking effects pedals, web design – whatever. So as long as it feels creative I’m going to keep pushing in that direction. So in this particular instance [on Retro] I wanted to explore the depths of expression. This is a pretty personal album, there’s nothing to distract you from anything, it’s pretty stripped back to the bare bones, it’s how we play together. But that’s a scary question, where do I take it from here? I don’t worry about that at all, I wasn’t thinking about that when I recorded it. It’s about having something to say, and playing with these great musicians and exploring what can be done in that setting and with that material.”
The range of sounds that Willis draws from his relatively simple setup is astonishing – whether it is his trademark sixteenth notes, his three-finger pizzicato plucking, palm muting or the odd scrape of a thumbnail. But it’s his commanding work on the album’s ballads, notably ‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘Tarde’, where his emotive sustained notes make for some of the most compelling moments. The album is Willis’s most powerful statement so far on the instrument, he explains. “In this respect it’s difficult to carry, especially compared to my last album with all the electronics and the kitchen sink. Whatever I do, and what the other musicians do, has to carry the record. It’s like certain actors are required to carry a movie – so that was a challenge, but the nature of expression is to discover what can be done.”
Effortless expression features highly on Tribal Tech’s X too, with the band laying down a series of heavy-grooving live jams over three days in Scott Kinsey’s LA studio in the summer of 2010. Willis explains how these were refined in post-production, which retaining that all-important live chemistry on which the band has always thrived: “We didn’t get distracted and were able to really focus on the tracks we were working on. I was just taking care of the three tunes I was responsible for, so I could dive into those, send them off and get feedback from the others. The same thing happened with Scott’s two tunes, so we spent a lot more time in post-production developing the songs and exploiting what we’d already recorded.”
Are there dangers of killing the band vibe with this piecemeal approach, when the interactive energy that comes when a band are all in the same room together is lost? “Logistically it’s been possible for 10 years, but there’s an art to overdubbing that I’ve acquired,” he says. “I’ve had to acquire it, because I look at the recording process as permanent. I’ll avail myself of whatever technology is available so that I don’t have to hate something for the rest of my life! I reserve the right to do that, so in certain instances there have been things that I’ve recorded that I hate, but at the same time I’ve had to learn how to respect the vibe, and the energy of how it was originally recorded.”
He adds: “You have to be careful which ideas you play, because you can ‘magically’ hook up with the drums and it makes it unbelievably unrealistic – but on the other hand you can play a solo and it won’t have anything to do with the other musicians. So there’s an art to using your vocabulary in those kind of situations to make it sound complementary but not contrived.”
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In spite of being a master educator as well as one of today’s most virtuoso bassists, Willis takes an entirely realistic view of the prospects for young musicians today – so much so that he even warns against following in his sizeable footsteps to become the next big bass thing. “I can’t honestly say that you will get what you deserve – the world doesn’t work that way,” he muses. “The only thing that I can be sure of is that you have to enjoy the process, and then the result is whatever, but if you don’t enjoy the process then it’s not worth it no matter what the results are. I’m not here to hold out people’s hopes that if they stay working hard they’ll get somewhere. The industry and the nature of music, and the nature of how people consume music and art is changing so drastically and rapidly that I can’t say that 10 years from now that anyone will be playing a bass – who knows? I said this years ago, that the future of the instrument is…” he pauses to hold up his iPhone, “… is this screen, but extending the length of the neck – that’s your interface for the future. So one thing that I can add to that is that it’s equally or more about your imagination. If you have an active and engaging imagination then that’s a big part of future-proofing yourself. Being able to imagine solutions on the instrument, solutions on the computer, solutions for expressing yourself.”