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West Coast Get Down: An Interview with Miles Mosley

Miles Mosley
Photo by Jeff Myles

Miles Mosley is a man that keeps busy. Since we last talked with the Los Angeles native, he’s done extensive touring and been featured on several albums including Kendrick Lamar’s chart-topping To Pimp A Butterfly. His most recent work can be heard on bandmate Kamasi Washington’s album The Epic, where Mosley supports a wall of sound in an innovative new sound in jazz.

Mosley and Washington are part of the West Coast Get Down, an influential collective of jazz musicians that have become a staple of the Los Angeles scene. The lifelong musical partners recently hunkered down for what turned out to be a prolific studio session that turned out an album for each of the members. Mosley’s upcoming album can be previewed on his new website.

We caught up with Mosley to get the scoop on The Epic, getting a good tone, his new signature Blast Cult bass pickup, and how to create a musical scene.

The Epic has to be one of the most fitting titles to an album, ever.

Kamasi Washington: The EpicThe album actually is epic in that it is quite long. The band is so large and the arrangements are so unique that I think it really goes back to a time when you really digested an album. We live in a world where everything is so small and tidbits and little pieces that you rarely get something that forces you to take your time and learn something about it and develop a relationship with it. Being a vinyl collector, that’s part of the charm of it; you’re not skipping around fast forwarding. You’re putting an album on and forging a relationship with it, and that’s really special.

It seems like the album’s recording process hearkens to that, too.

The story about the making of The Epic is really special because it wasn’t just that album that was made during that time. Long story short, when Kamasi was thinking about making a record, he was going to do it in the same way that he had made all of his records to date by just going to a home studio and knocking it out. He sat down with me and our drummer Tony Austin, who is a phenomenal engineer and composer. I was working on my record and had some pieces to finish up there with a strings section and chorus. So we thought, “If we just pool our resources together, we’ll be able to book just one strings session to cover all the bases we need [for each others albums].”

In talking about that more, Tony and Kamasi and I realized that the other members of the West Coast Get Down, which is a collaborative that’s been together since we were 13 years old, we all had albums to finish. So we all pooled our resources together and everybody agreed to play on everybody else’s record for free and that we would in turn shut out the month of December and work really hard to get all this music done. The process really was about turning down all the gigs and shutting in and really putting in the work from 11am to 2am every single day. It was crazy.

What ended up happening was that Kamasi walked away with 45 tracks or something like that. We recorded 130 tunes in 30 days and finished six albums. [Keyboaridst] Brandon Coleman finished a record, [pianist] Cameron Graves finished a record, [trombonist] Ryan Porter finished a record, I finished my record, Kamasi finished his, and [drummer] Ronald Bruner finished his. At the end of it, we have all these great albums and The Epic was the first to come out. After this we’ll decide which one comes out next, but for now we’ll focus on letting this one shine as brightly as possible.

Miles Mosley with Tony Austin

That process is something most people don’t get to do anymore.

We were able to do something really special that people don’t get to do very often, but I think that you don’t have a group like the West Coast Get Down around but once a generation. I think the interesting thing about the West Coast Get Down is that each person has a skill set outside of their instrument that becomes useful. Obviously Tony is an engineer. I have an administrative side to me that allows me to organize large projects, and Kamasi is really good at getting all these busy guys in the same room and getting everyone to believe in the concept.

We’re musicians that grew up together, learned their instruments together, and continue to support each other side by side. You end up with a sound on record and on stage that is a lot of ESP [that comes from] many, many years of listening to the same records, discussing them, challenging each other, and staying on point because you see everyone else getting good around you. You want to keep doing innovative things. It’s a really fortunate time in our lives to get some recognition.

In that respect, how much is The Epic collaborative and how much is it really strictly Kamasi?

I would say it’s 100% collaborative. Obviously the compositions and songs are written by Kamasi and developed over the years of playing them with the Get Down. I think in the case of Kamasi, aside from him being a tremendous saxophone player who I think has a voice and sound that is new for this generation, the sound of his record is the sound of this band. It is the fact that those guys are playing this music. Kind of like the Miles Davis Quintet. People play those songs all the time, but it’s not the same because it’s not those characters.

Kamasi is not afraid to get opinions and process them. Obviously being a bass player, I have a specialization in strings in general so I conducted the strings when they were there. He would check in with me about different ranges and what type of lines violins or violas could play and that kind of thing. He did that with everybody, in that he would get their opinion on his ideas to make sure that it was headed in the right direction. Ultimately, the executive decisions came from him, but I think the sound of this record was a collaborative thing and the execution of it was collaborative as well. Without Tony back there twisting the knobs then running in to play drums, or me hanging signs and pointing everyone in the right direction, I don’t these things would have happened. But I think that’s a beautiful thing instead of a diminutive thing. It’s beautiful that a bunch of cats can get together and pull each of our dreams into the light. Each of these records are also different. My record doesn’t sound like The Epic and neither does Ryan Porter’s. Everybody is masterful in their genre.

You’re on the whole album, but Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner is on a few tracks with you, too. Did you have any issues staying out of each other’s way?

I’ve been thinking about this more than I have in the past because it’s been such a natural collaboration when Stephen and I are on the same stage at the same time. We have the same birthday, and I think I’m definitely the earth element and he’s an air element. So without any conversation whatsoever, we stay out of each others way.

If I had to analyze what we’re doing, it’s that I’m playing low when he’s playing high and he’s playing low when I’m playing high. We make sure to stay out each other’s register but sometimes the sound of us playing together starts to feel like a chorus-y effect, and that works, too. I think that works for a couple reasons. First off, while both instruments are called bass, they’re really different instruments. He’s playing a six-string, fretted, hollow-body Ibanez while I’m playing a One4Five by Blast Cult. Upright is inherently more percussive than electric bass. You can pop and slap [on electric] obviously, but there’s more percussion to the upright bass. I’m a little bit more in sync with the percussion and he’s more in sync with the piano and the harmony. We’re kind of feeling different roles just as it goes to what we decide to latch onto. He’s going where Brandon and Cameron are going, and I’m going where the drummers are going. We’re sort of translating that together.

Your tone on the album is fantastic. Can you tell us a little about the recording techniques you used?

Miles Mosley with Star BassThe recording techniques on bass for The Epic were two-fold. For every song, Kamasi would tell me whether he wanted “Big Mama” or he wanted “Star Bass.” Big Mama is a 250-year old German bass with a stunning sound, but it doesn’t have a lot of bottom. It sits really well in the mix because it can sit just above the bass drum and has a really pointed, clear tone. It’s not watery, though. The action is not super low or anything so it doesn’t do the Ron Carter thing, it does more of a Ray Brown thing, which you and I know is gospel. I think that was recorded with a U47 [microphone] a foot off the bridge and a U67 a foot off of the f-hole.

If he wanted the Star Bass, which was my Blast Cult One4Five, that would go into an Aguilar 751. He would mic the amp and take a DI off of the pedal board through a Reddi box. We wanted to have two distinct upright tones. The way I affect the music is different depending on if I’m playing Big Mama or the Star Bass. The good thing about the Star Bass is that Blast Cult has a pickup called the MonoLux, which is what’s on the bass right now. It’s a pickup that’s encased in wood, so it has its own microcosm of a tone. [Jason Burns of Blast Cult] designed something that’s trying to sound as much like Big Mama as possible, and he’s getting really close but of course I start stepping on distortion pedals and wahs and it doesn’t really matter how close he’s gotten [laughs]. It’s a great sound, though.

What effect are you using on the solo in “Magnificent 7”?

Halfway through the solo, I step on a delay pedal called the Aqua Puss by Way Huge. The tone is my direct sound plus the delayed sound so it sounds like a filter is kicking in. I’m playing [a syncopated rhythm] and the pedal makes it sound like I’m playing [a lot more notes]. So it’s the sound of a delay pedal with a high pass filter on it.

What’s great about taking your time and really trying to capture a moment in a recording session is that you lose the fear of doing a bad job. You’re able to just try something. When you’re crunched and you know you’ve only got two days and the whole band is looking at you, if you make a bad decision you’ve gotta start over. You could be ruining someone else’s good take, particularly in jazz, where everyone is at some point in time improvising, but with this we were able to take chances all along the way, especially in our solos. Kamasi was really good at sifting through all of the takes and picking the version of a song that featured the person he was trying to feature on that song the best. He might not have been as happy with his solo on that song, but he would give it to me because I would play a great solo and say, “That one is all you.” That’s a really humble thing for him to do.

A lot of the West Coast Get Down guys worked on the new Kendrick Lamar record, too. Do you see the jazz element as coming into favor in hip hop?

I think the jazz element you find on the Kendrick Lamar record is something I’d certainly be a fan of hearing more often. Hip hop came from jazz and funk. All the original samples are of great jazz musicians playing on funk records. So, if anything, it’s a return to the roots of the kind of music that hip hop came from. I don’t think that there’s any hip hop cat you could ever talk to that wouldn’t have preferred to have a live band, because that’s the mentality of that music anyway. The fact that it’s being celebrated more now is something I’m excited about and I hope it continues.

There are a lot of great musicians with great things to say that have a lot of sustenance to them. I’m not sure that it’s necessarily going to change the landscape of pop music, per se, but I think it’s going to have a larger stake in the overall landscape of popular music. It’s like how EDM came around and you start to see those elements change. I think you’re seeing a lot more live stuff with people like Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson. There are horns all over that stuff. So I think if anything the live band element is coming back and that’s fantastic, because nothing else sounds like that. You can’t really fake that. Don’t get me wrong: we’ve done really great jobs with creating electronic music. That’s also very difficult to do and has its own sound, but it’s nice to hear the sound of musicians making decisions on a record again, because that’s gone away. Everything has been very polished. What made Motown and Stax so special was great musicians making informed decisions on great songs. I think they’ll get a little bit more real estate.

It seems like you and the guys you run with have a great thing going. How does someone create a scene like the West Coast Get Down?

Miles MosleyHistorically, it’s been hard to pin down how to do that. You’ll get a scene like in Seattle when grunge came around, or like New York in the ‘50s. I think the first thing that has to happen is that you need to have a lot of free-thinking individuals in the same place at the same time and over a longer a period of time than you would think. [Just] having a bunch of really innovative artists in a city doesn’t really do that. You have to have people that are at least doing the same thing or railing against the same thing.

Once you have that, then it’s about making a place where all of those people can share their ideas repeatedly and consistently.
When I was on tour with Jonathan Davis of Korn and got back to L.A., I realized there was no place to go hang that had musicians that I liked to listen to. At that same time, the Piano Bar in Hollywood opened up and asked if I would come in. I said, “Yep, I think I can do something in here, but you can’t charge for it and you can’t tell us what we’re going to do.” Luckily, the two main guys that run the Piano Bar, Jimmy and Ryan, are also musicians so they loved what we were trying to do and never told us what kind of music to play or how loud to play it or anything. Now you have a group of like-minded individuals with a place to express those ideas twice a week.

Then what happens is those musicians begin to tell other musicians and other people that they’re there expressing what they think music should sound like these days. When that core group of musicians are not playing, other musicians will get other nights. All of the sudden, you have this hub where people go because there’s a sense of quality. There’s a standard that’s met each night. You begin to get fans from different people’s groups seeing everybody else’s groups because people begin to fall in love with the place and not just the people. This has been a long time coming for us. I mean, my manager, Barbara Sealy, has been with me since I was 13 and she’s been with all these cats, too. She’s the reason why most of us were able to get college educations. The scene is not just musicians, it’s also people that do the inner workings of it and the people that help guide it in the right direction. It is the music business, so you have to do some sort of business, but oftentimes in creating a scene there’s not a lot of money being exchanged. It is a bunch of people falling in love with an idea and perpetuating it.
If I had to do the 1-2-3’s of it, it would first be to find a group of musicians larger than just the band you’re playing with. Find three or four bands. Then find a place that treats you fairly, so you’re not paying to play or something like that. Try to get several nights of the week or run a residency for three months and see how it feels. When the Get Down started at the Piano Bar, it was a new place and a new concept, so there weren’t a lot of people there. You need three to six months to make something that has 500 people at it on a Wednesday night. It takes time.

Creating a scene is about more than anything else picking a home. Where does this go down so people can attach to it? It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. Lots of time.

Tell us about your new signature pickup.

I’ve been working closely with Jason Burns of Blast Cult since he’s redesigned his Channel Blaster and Mono Blaster pickups. Now it’s a tailpiece that has a preamp built into it. The pickup system, if it’s a Mono Blaster it’s one pickup that goes into the bridge and is attached by a tension adjuster. If it’s a Channel Blaster it has two, so for the slap guys you get one for your fingerboard and one for your bass.

What I think is most appealing about it is that the pickup cartridges are hot swappable so you can just pull it off and put on another one. Different kinds of woods have different sounds, and these aren’t subtle changes. If I know I’m going to be playing in the low register in first position and I know I want a big, wooden, full sound, I’m going to use something that’s made out of smoked maple. If I want a really fast, punchy, tight sound, I’ll use swamp skunk. There are five or six different cartridges. That means you can get one pickup system and have a few different sounds instead of owning four of five different gigging uprights because you like [your tone] to lean this or that way. Because the preamp is built into the bridge, you don’t have something additional on the floor. The preamp has bass, treble, and mid controls with a couple dip switches to set the mid point where you want.

To me, preamps are really helpful for people that gig around town or on tour and have to plug into different amps all the time. It’s really easy to start from the beginning by getting your tone close to where you want it straight from the bass and making the adjustments there. My philosophy is that you want to make the least amount of adjustments as possible as soon as possible. To have it go too far down the line and have too many cuts and boosts before you come out the amp, you’ll end up with redundancies and tonal contradictions without realizing it.

As bass players, we are the fundamental of all sounds. What bass player plays in one kind of band? If you’re making a living at this, you play all different types of music. To be able to really have a tone you’re proud of just by having a couple cartridges, I think it’s a revolutionary design.

So I’m going to be working with Burns on a cartridge myself that you can add to a MonoBlaster or a ChannelBlaster, or even just the MonoLux, which is just the pickup without the preamp. I’m going to have my own at some point. We’re still doing some of the R&D on it to decide on the tone that I feel would get cats sounding the way that I like to sound. My sound doesn’t have a ton of bottom on it because I play really fast. I’m more of a mid-range guy. When I want to add the bump, I just step on an octave pedal. I’m going through all the different exotic species of woods to find something that is really muscular and punchy and fast. I’m really excited about it. I should have mine ready to go in the next month.

What else do you have going on right now?

I premiered a ballet with the Elisa Monte Dance Troupe at the beginning of this year and it looks like we’re going to add on a couple sections to it so it will be a larger piece. That’s really exciting for me. The Elisa Monte Dance Troupe is a group of young, forward-thinking dancers. I love composing and I love dance and the marriage of the two. Being able to express that and take that off the list was a treat.

I’ve also got a feature film I’m scoring called “Halfway” featuring Quinton Aaron. I do a lot of trailers and stuff like that, so I’m always composing. BFI, the duo I have with Tony Austin, is working on an EP and we’ll probably get some tour dates coming up once we know what Kamasi’s tour schedule is. There will be a lot of touring on the back end of this year.

Additional photo credits: Peggy DeRose (with Blast Cult bass), Josh Hartley (black and white photo) and Woolf Haxton (BFI photo)

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Cat Moses

Cat Moses

I’ve been following these guys for years, they are brilliant. Miles is extraordinary, I’ve NEVER heard anyone do what he does on the bass. He can play faster than anyone I’ve ever seen or heard. He’s phenomenal, best bass player around, that’s for sure!

Anthony Cook

Amazing group of fine jazz and fusion musicians.Miles is certainly a very innovative upright player.Met and seen Miles in action,and the guy has chops, but he can also play a great supporting role at any time .Cool modern jazz with a twist .