Of the few bassists who play a 7-string bass, no one makes it sound quite like Jeff Hughell. The veteran death metal musician gets a unique sonic fingerprint through his instruments and his unique techniques. He works the entire fretboard with lots of two-handed tapping and sweeping runs.
Hughell’s individual sound and dedication have led him to work with a list of some of the most prominent metal bands including Vile, Brain Drill, Rings of Saturn, Six Feet Under, Reciprocal, Feared, and more. Most recently, he’s been focusing on his own music. His latest release, Chaos Labyrinth, serves as an example of how far the bass can be taken in heavy music.
We caught up with Hughell to get his background, his touring tips, his album, and his opinion on whether metal bassists get the respect they deserve.
How did you get into music? Did you come from a musical family?
No, not really. I started playing when I was about 13. I had always been into rock and metal. I had an older brother that influenced me with Metallica and Slayer and all that good stuff back in the day. I always just kind of wanted to play, and I had a good friend in junior high that played the guitar. I started playing guitar first for about a month, then got into the bass and realized it was more suitable to my fingers since I’ve got large fingers [laughs].
So that kind of started there. I did jazz band when I was in high school and played the upright bass all through high school and a year of college. Right after that I started playing for Vile, which was a death metal band. I’ve been playing death metal and other types of metal ever since then.
Did you kind of fall into death metal, or did your tastes just get heavier and heavier as time went on?
I wasn’t really into death metal, per se. I’ve always been a big Pantera fan and liked all those other thrash metal bands. When I joined Vile, I wasn’t really familiar with that much death metal. Once I got into it, I realized that it’s a whole different level of musicianship that you have to have to play it. So I got into that aspect and then got into bands like Dying Fetus and Suffocation and the bands since then. That was back in ‘98 and ‘99. Since then we’ve gotten bands that are even more technical and really push the envelope of what death metal is.
It keeps growing. I just got into Archspire within the last couple months, and that band is just insane. They have a really amazing bassist as well.
An interesting point of your career is that you’ve been able to jump around between several very successful bands. How did your career take that kind of path?
A lot of it is because you’re in bands with different people, then they have other projects that they are in and you get hooked up that way. Like I said, I was in Vile originally in ’98. Then I left the band in late 2000, then I did a few shows with them in 2006 and Marco Pitruzzella was playing drums for Vile. He was also playing drums for Brain Drill, and that’s how I got into Brain Drill.
I’ve always just looked at what’s a good opportunity and what will keep me busy. After Brain Drill, I joined Reciprocal, which I’m still in. I had a friend that worked with one of the guys in Rings of Saturn that showed them to me and I was just kind of blown away at the musicianship. I found out that they needed a bassist for a tour. One of them hit me up and I did it. It was a cool tour with Decapitated and Decrepit Birth. So then I looked for what was open again. The Six Feet Under thing was just that the guys at Metal Blade knew who I was and they needed a bassist. Mike Faley of Metal Blade recommended me and [Six Feet Under vocalist] Chris Barnes knew who I was from my work with Brain Drill so he gave me a call and offered me the gig.
It sounds like it’s really about networking.
Yeah, it’s all about networking. If people know that you’re a down-to-earth person… I mean, playing music is a small part of actually going on tour. You have to be able to get along with everybody and not have an attitude. If you’re not easy to work with, you could be the best musician in the world but no one would want to have you in their band. You have to live with these people.
On that note, do you have tour tips?
Probably one of the best things is just to get out there and see what’s around. If you’re in a town, try not to just sit in the tour bus the whole time. Go to the local places and experience it rather than just sitting around. If you do have a big backstage area, it’s good to sit there and work on your instrument to keep things fresh. You have to keep busy. Don’t just go on the road and drink 24 hours a day [laughs]. That’s not going to help you.
Are you compelled to write music all the time, or do you have to sit down and decide to write something?
I constantly just come up with ideas. Once you come up with an idea, it might come at the most random time so you just have to voice the riff or whatever into your voice memo on your phone, then you can go and play it on your instrument later. Sometimes I’ll actually record it straight to the computer and later come up with another idea and keep going that way. It’s really just random. It’s not like I say, “I have to go write some music right now.”
Chaos Labyrinth is such a varied album with lots of different feels throughout. There’s lots of heaviness, but lots of unexpected turns like on “Evolution.” There are also a ton of guest artists. How much of the album did you leave open for improv and how much did you have written out for them?
Most of it was me writing it. “Evolution” is actually the only song that I wrote with someone else. The guitarist on that track is my best friend Tyler Lane. We’ve been playing together for 20 years, but we hadn’t done anything together in almost 10 years. We wrote that song together and passed ideas back and forth and improvised things. That’s the only song like that. The rest of the songs I just told the musicians to do what they want on [certain] parts.
For example, the guy on the keys – Marc Gilson – I would just send him the tracks and say, “Do whatever you want and add parts whenever you think they’re necessary.” A lot of his stuff came out really cool just because of that.
The title track has wicked bass solos by Alex Webster, Steve DiGiorgio, and Sean Martinez. How did that track come about?
I actually wanted more bassists to be on that song. I’m not going to name other names, but I had seven or eight bassists that I wanted to be on the song. Of all those bassists, I think it was like seven of the eight immediately said yes, but in the end only three came through. It’s one thing to say you want to do something, but to actually record it and be confident and send it back is a whole different thing. You know, everyone is busy with their touring schedule and everything.
Alex has done a lot for my career, personally. He’s the one that got Brain Drill signed. He’s always shared all the stuff that I’ve done and told people about me. He is a great guy and I was really excited that he came through and got the track for me.
“Let It Go” seems like a very suitable ending to the album. What’s the story behind it?
The Rings of Saturn tour that I did was really brutal. It was almost 40 days with very few days off in a van with five guys when there’s really only room for four guys. People were sleeping on merchandise. At that point in my life, I didn’t think that I was going to be touring anymore. It was the first thing that I wrote [after that], so it was like, “Whether I tour or not, I’m still going to be playing what I want to.” That was the first song I wrote for this album. It’s almost like a classical piece that flows through.
It was a miracle that after that I got offered to play for Six Feet Under and I’ve been doing more and more since then. It was certainly a turning point in my career, but it’s for the love of the instrument. Whether I got that offer or not, I would still be playing and doing solo stuff. The fact that I got into that band gives me a whole new level of motivation from meeting all those people and getting out there.
Do you think that metal bassists get the respect they deserve?
I think that they do now, definitely, but it’s all about the media. It’s all about what the media is pushing. Different publications will do “Bassist of the Year,” but that bassist might not be the most amazing. They might just be in the band that the media is pushing you to like. Whether they’re the greatest or not, they’re in the band that’s probably selling the most albums that the record label is pushing to be in publications.
I do think there is more respect in general now that has to do with the guys that are doing more constantly impressive things. Jaron from Archspire, who isn’t in the band anymore but is on the last record, has been pushing the envelope. Dominic LaPointe, too. Those guys are just amazing. It gets more and more extreme as you get more bassists that are inspired by that and want to push. Metal bass keeps getting better, and it all started with guys like Geezer Butler and Cliff Burton and Alex Webster.
What is next for you?
I’m working on a new album now that has even more awesome guests on it. Hopefully that’s going to be out this fall. I’m also working on another album with me and a bunch of other bassists including Kevin “Brandino” Brandon. He’s known for playing with Aretha Franklin and Justin Timberlake and Outkast, but we met up at Bass Player Live and we hit it off immediately. He liked my solo stuff and suggested we work together. We’ve already got one track done and we’re working on the rest of it with a bunch of other great bass guests. It should be out sometime in 2016.