Steve Lawson is the epitome of new school. After beginning to play solo bass in the late 1990s, Lawson has been utilizing his love of technology and community to not only expand the scope of the instrument’s identity, but also to bring players together in discussions through social media.
Steve’s advocacy for a “do-it-yourself” career, including releasing your own music and performing house concerts has inspired many others to try the same.
We reached out to Steve to learn more about his approach to bass and music.
What makes you new school?
It seems to me that the essence of what you’re describing as “new school” is “no school”. I never saw myself as trying to be part of a scene, or even to fulfill a particular role with my instrument. I just wanted to be a part of making the best music I could, and doing all I could to add to that. So when I started playing solo, that carried over. I was always a little wary of anyone who tried to define solo bass as though it was a style, and so treated my bass as an instrument like any other, without the “tyranny of groove” that so much of the conversation about the bass as an instrument suffers from. I attempted to soundtrack the inside of my head, and the world as I saw it, so instinctively drew on a lot of influences and sounds to try and make meaningful music. And it ended up that very few of those influences were bassists!
How did you discover your new school style?
My approach was a mixture of schooling, experimentation and cannibalism. I did two years at music college, and from that got a grounding in certain technical fundamentals on the instrument. The experimentation came from a curiosity about what was possible with the instrument, and then when I discovered it, with looping and layering the bass.
The cannibalism came from those musicians whose music made most sense to me as an approach to performing solo in that sound-tracked-world kind of context – people like Bill Frisell, Joni Mitchell, Jonatha Brooke, Michael Manring, David Torn, Doug Wimbish, Robert Fripp, Terje Rypdal, Theo Travis…
Do you have any Youtube videos that shows off your thing?
There are loads! My YouTube channel has links to hours and hours of live footage of me playing, both solo and in duo with my wife, Lobelia.
What kind of gear do you use?
Bass-wise, I use three Modulus basses. My main bass is a 6-string fretless that’s been custom rebuilt for me after British Airways destroyed the original body. I also have a 6-string fretted with a carved top (the only one like it they’ve ever made) and a 4-string fretted that I’ve had for almost 20 years. I love everything about them.
My rig is comprised of a Lexicon MPX-G2 preamp/processor, a Looperlative LP1 looper, a MOTU Ultralite Mk III soundcard/mixer and a pair of Mark Audio AS602 powered speakers, which I discovered through Michael Manring. Mark Audio is the pro-audio side of MarkBass, so having audiophile PA speakers, designed by a company that really understand bass is an absolute god-send.
My strings are all Bass Centre Elites – custom flats on the fretless and Nickel rounds on the fretted basses.
All my cables are Evidence Audio, and I also use an EBow, G7 Capos and Jim Dunlop Slides!
What kind of gigs do you get with your new school style?
Since having a baby, my wife and I have played almost exclusively house concerts. I do occasional gigs opening for other artists, as well as festival appearances, and I’m not averse to playing in other venues. But when we play as a duo, the logistics of having a two year old with us means that most normal venues are out-of-bounds for us. But we love playing house concerts, and we’ve got to meet so many amazing people, and play some really great shows as a result, I’m not sure I’d swap back even if we could!
Any traditional playing gigs?
Not enough! Before I started playing solo in 1999, I had a pretty successful career as a sideman, playing with all kinds of interesting people. The one big downside of starting to play solo at a time when telling people you’re a solo bassist was like saying you made your own shoes, was that people assumed I’d ditched “normal” bass playing. But I still love doing a great job, playing the bass role in any setting. I love playing with singer/songwriters, in rock bands, soul bands… I do occasionally do covers gigs, and had an amazing show in Thailand earlier in the year with an all-star band that was more fun than I’ve had on stage with a band in a long time. But I’d love to do more of it!
Do you have albums where we can hear your new school style?
I think pretty much everything I’ve released, available to listen to and download from my site, would come under the new school banner!
Where can we find you on the web?
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a few collaborative things, with Seattle-based banjo-legend Danny Barnes, with Carl Bahner who’s a drummer I first heard playing with Julie Slick and who blew me away, and a couple of others that are in the pipeline. I’ll keep you posted! I’m also soon to start working on a new solo album.
What else do you want to share?
Just to say thanks for taking the time to highlight players that are doing unusual things with this great instrument of ours. I love the bass, I love its history and I love where players like Michael Manring, Matthew Garrison, Janek Gwizdala, Trip Wamsley and Victor Wooten are taking it. The web has opened up so many opportunities for sharing and learning about music that just weren’t available to us before, and we’re reaping the benefits of that in terms of access to outstanding experimental music that transcends the old genre shackles that the record industry use to try and place on us. It’s an exciting time to be a bassist!