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New School: Darren Michaels

Darren Michaels

Atlanta-based bassist Darren Michaels is helping to expand the role of our instrument. With extended techniques and an open mind, Michaels has been finding new sounds to convey his music in both band and solo contexts, though he dislikes the term “solo bass.” It’s not the technique that drives him, but the connection of music with his listeners that makes him create.

“My goal is to make music to which real people will listen and emotionally connect,” he states. “I’m not doing it to impress other bassists. There’s nothing wrong with music for musicians, but I want to make something my grandmother would listen to.”

We caught up with Michaels to get his perspective on the instrument, music, and what all bassists should at least attempt.

What makes you new school?

Broad-stroke perspective shows all of us electric bass guitarists as new school. That being said, even amongst us bassists I can definitely be described as treading comfortably amongst the new school ilk. I feel it is just trying to be open that allows this for me.

Quite plainly, it is my attitude towards what sounds are acceptable from my chosen instrument in both solo and ensemble contexts. Also, I place very little limit on what physically defines a bass guitar. Things like the number of strings, the number of frets, tunings, string gauges, woods/construction materials, and electronics are all things on a bass guitar in which I welcome evolution and permutation. I am also very open to the pitch and range of tones coming from basses. Techniques and especially amalgamating techniques really crank my tractor. Heck, if you went to Taco Bell, ordered a 7-layer Burrito, took it and started pounding on an eight string, fanned fret, graphite composite bass that was tuned in minor 2nds and sported laser pickups with a midi output, I would find something cool about it. Seriously, it can really get that absurd. Of course, listening to a P bass with flats played with a pick roaring through a vintage Sunn rig gives me goose bumps as well.

Like I said before, I just try to be open. If it is bass and it gets me feeling and thinking, and that dopamine starts trickling through my gray matter, then I am all about it. I am not entirely certain that makes me new school, because I feel the folks who created the styles now considered old school possibly had/have similar outlooks. Maybe that makes me more old school than anything. I don’t know. It’s like asking me what my tongue tastes like. It’s hard for me to know.

How did you discover new school style?

I still feel on the path to discovering my style. Ignorance of tradition and dogma gave me the first steps onto it. That much is for certain. When I first picked up a bass guitar, I had no idea of the goliaths who defined the world of bass. I did not care to try to find out. I just liked the noises basses made and wanted to explore them. I did not give a single thought to being hip or continuing a tradition. The bass just seemed like this mysterious undefined. Those first steps really echo strongly in my current state of mind.

Then I started feeling a deep physical urge to play when I was away from my instrument. I just wanted to feel a bass rumbling away up against my chest and gut. I’d just ache for it sometimes. Still do. Anyway, once I had a bass on me, I kept trying to find ways to increase that rumbling sensation. There is something about a bass resonating up against me. It’s like it rearranges my guts back to the order they’re supposed be. Following that sensation, in a very stumbling way, lead me to sounds that I really dug and still dig. Sustained open strings, melodies mid neck, harmonics, slaps, and chords all helped me find my jollies. I’d just hang out exploring these noises and chasing bliss.

Since I was way into painting, I started mixing sounds like a painter would mix color. I wish I could explain that better. I’ve been asked about that before, but I have a hard time articulating my thought process. The music I make is composed more like a painting in my mind.

Isolation also helped me bumble my way onto this path. When I picked up bass, the house I lived in was surrounded by cow pastures and mountain ridges. I knew no other musicians. That meant I had no one to play with, but it also meant there was no one to naysay any of my ideas or fancies I wanted to investigate. I did sit and learn tunes like most players, but I also tried to learn the parts other instruments were playing. Mostly, I just tried to write songs on bass. A lot of them appear on my first solo album.

Just a little while after picking up the instrument, I got to hear a recording of Victor Wooten. That left me very puzzled, and it’s one of those moments that remains burned into my memory. A year or so after that I happened upon a concert in a high school auditorium. Michael Manring opened the show with a solo set. He kicked off with “Monkey Businessman.” I was so floored that I spent the rest of the set and at least a week after in some sort of shocked, subterranean state. Here were two guys that were masters at what I was bumbling around trying to do. I knew I’d never play or write music like them, but I felt green-lighted. It was like someone unlocked and opened a door AND put out a welcome mat.
From there, affordable looping pedals opened up more doors and allowed me to play full solo sets and entire nights. Learning looping was a great way to understand using dynamics and filling up the frequency spectrum with a bass guitar.
Lately, I blatantly pilfer from those cleverer than me and repurpose those things to fit my own needs. Players like Trip Wamsley, Steve Lawson, Seth Horan, Stuart Liebig, Jeff Schmidt, Stew McKinsey, Chris Cardone, Aaron Gibson, and Scott Fernandez are all doing a lot of leg work charting new ground. My plan is to hang back, steal their stuff, and maybe pick up a few pieces they may miss.

Share some of your videos with us.

I’m abysmal at trying to represent myself on Youtube. I do have a few vids up, but none with the looping thing. Here they are in all their lo-fi grandeur.

What kind of gear do you use?

The three basses that I’m lucky enough to play are a Jerzy Drozd Obsession Excellency IV Custom, a Jerzy Drozd Obsession Basic V, and a Warwick Thumb Bolt-on VI.

For a rig I use a Glockenklang Soul head and two Glockenklang Space Deluxe 112s.

I’ve got a scattering of effects pedals, but I travel with a Boss GT-6B multi effects pedal.

For looping, I’ve got the Boomerang III. That’s been my favorite looper I’ve ever used.

I also use Circle K Strings and often wish they would have been around since I picked up a bass.

What kind of gigs do you get with your new school style?

I’m a total opportunist and play solo wherever I can. That can be clubs, coffeehouses, listening rooms, house concerts, restaurants, schools, art galleries, small festivals, stores, fund-raisers, trade shows, and craft fairs. Once my town legalizes busking, I’m going to try that on for size.

Any traditional playing gigs?

Yeah, I do my best to hold down the bass chair in Abby Wren & What It Is. We’re a soulful, southern, funk rock band. Rarely, I work as a sideman for singer/songwriter types.

Do you have albums where we can hear your new school style?

I’ve released three albums as a soloist, green (2002), equilibrium (2004), and Cumulo (2008). Cumulo can be found on Bandcamp. Also, I push a little bit on the album with Abby Wren & What It Is. That’s on their Bandcamp, too.

Where can we find you on the web?

My site is darrenmichaelsbass.com. From there you can find me on Facebook and Twitter. As a symbol of my undying optimism, I still have a Myspace page. Of course there’s Bandcamp and CD Baby.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a new solo album, but I don’t expect to be done anytime soon. Abby Wren & What It Is has a lot of dates, and we’re working on new material. I’m putting together a solo bass festival for November 10th in Atlanta called BassUp! 2012. Most importantly, I’m honing my chops at being a dad.

What else do you want to share?

I hope that one day the term “solo bass” disappears altogether. Most other instruments are more highly held in the public mind. If someone sits at a piano or pulls out an acoustic guitar, onlookers most likely assume that person will play a song on that instrument. If someone pulls out a bass guitar, most folks think it’s there to accompany another instrument.

If you are a bass guitarist, you owe it to your instrument to at least attempt learning solo bass. It’s a part of what is vital to secure our instrument’s longevity in the bigger timeline of music. The more of us there are playing solo bass, the more folks will view bass guitar as a complete instrument. They will assume bassists can play solo and the descriptor of “solo bass” will just go the way of the Dodo.

I’ll leave with this idea. This is to the musicians reading this. The next time you want to tout your own music online or to your friends, consider lifting up another musician instead. Point out someone else’s merits and what you find great about their music. Take a step further and flash mob their gig. Go further and help a band from out of town come play your town. If there are no venues near you, throw a house party. Invite your neighbors and their kids. Be the scene. Could you imagine the place we’d take the music if we each offered the next person a hand up? I think that would be a beautiful place.