An Interview with Miles Mosley
Since then, we’ve wanted to learn more about this unique bassist who is pushing the upright to new heights, who studied with legendary bassists John Clayton, Ray Brown, and Al McKibbon, and who has one of the best “how I started” stories we’ve heard.
In this wide-ranging interview, Miles delivers, sharing his life as a bassist, his inspiration and his approach to pushing the sonic envelope.
Who encouraged you to step out front as a bass player?
There wasn’t really a “who” that initially provoked me to step out front. It was a “What”. I realized that my personality was not conducive to being in the back shadows. For many years I didn’t think I had a choice, however the climate of the music industry and the types of people that we’re being credited as “singers” made me believe that even if singing wasn’t going to be my strong suit at first, it was a good way to get people to pay attention to my bass playing. I’ve always written songs and lyrics, I just hadn’t had the courage to be my own front man. But the notion of running your own project hit me like a ton of bricks… “You can’t fire yourself.” This sense of freedom, like going into business for yourself, made it so that I could shine a lot brighter as a bass player fronting a band. Luckily there are a good handful of legendary bassists who have forged the role of bassist as front man, so there were a lot of good examples to follow. Once I honed my sound as a bassist, I felt that putting it in an environment without restrictions was better suited to me than trying to force my sound on other people’s projects.
Where did you grow up, and what was your upbringing like?
I grew up in Los Angeles, California. I had a wonderful upbringing during a wonderful time in this city. There were a lot of opportunities available that my parents went out of their way to provide for me. I grew up in a hugely loving and rock solidly stable family environment that was chock full of music. There wasn’t a huge range of music in my home. I always hear artists say “my parents listened to everything at home.” Not mine. My parents had a formula for the music enjoying experience. Every now and then there might be a random, off-genre, record but mostly it was Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson Trio, Marvin Gaye, Dinah Washington, Gil Scott Heron, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Ray Charles, The Band, Peggy Lee, Joni Mitchell and the other greats within those genres. That was pretty much the heavy rotation. Music was an honored experience that we paid attention to and discussed. It wasn’t a background kind of thing. I feel very fortunate to have been raised in a home with that particular musical landscape.
Is your family musical?
My parents love and respect music and musicians, but that’s where it stops. My father has a critically discerning ear, and some pretty solid convictions about what “good music” is supposed to sound like. He was instrumental in making sure that I never got too comfortable, and continued to push myself on my instrument. As soon as I got cocky, he’d throw on a Ray Brown record, or if I was playing Pop music he’d put on some Motown with Jamerson on it and put me solidly in my place. He was very humorous in the way he did it so it always made me feel inspired, not deflated. My father is from the Pell City, Alabama. Being “good” at something was not enough during the time he grew up, you had to be “great.” He helped me understand that.
My mother was a hippie in the 60’s putting roses in the barrels of rifles. It was all about emotion and intention with her. She used to say “I don’t care if you decide to be a Sparkletts man (nothing wrong with that btw), as long as you love it with all of your heart you’ve got my support.” The concept of “unwavering bravery” was probably my mother’s largest contribution to my music.
How did you get started on upright bass?
I started playing music in junior high (grade 7). I was to attend a comic book drawing class and the class got shut down because there weren’t enough attendees. I had the choice of going to either orchestra or art appreciation. Frankly, because I wanted an easy grade I figured orchestra would be easiest. I picked the upright bass because it was the only instrument you didn’t have to take home with you. It was pure laziness, however, it backfired because now I have to drag it all around the planet! (laughs).
In any case, I remember playing the “A” string and it resonated through my body. I thought to myself, “This is AMAZING!” Shortly after that I began to notice that I was able to change the mood of an entire song by which notes I, and only I, played. The human brain deciphers music from the bottom up. Having control of major and minor cadences or dissonance was a power fix, and I definitely became addicted to the control the bass had over the entirety of a song.
You have a very unique approach to the upright bass. Who inspired you to develop your approach and style?
I was inspired in stages. At first the only thing I wanted to be was Ray Brown. I transcribed every solo and every walking line. That was probably the first five years of my playing. The more I sounded like Ray, the happier I was. I remember one day buying a record with Ray Brown playing with a big band as a soloist. This CD release included out-takes of Ray performing the same piece multiple times. At one point I realized that he had more or less mapped out his solo for the sake of consistency. I had studied him so closely for so long I was able to predict each solo as I heard it. It was in that moment that I decided to stop transcribing bass players and start transcribing other instruments. I felt I had really soaked up all the Ray Brown I could use at that moment and wanted a new challenge.
That led me to phase two: I started transcribing Clark Terry, J.J Johnson, Charlie Christian, and Paco de Lucia. These solos opened up the instrument in new challenging ways, because the way their instruments phrase lines aren’t as easy, or inherent, to do on the upright. From that point on, anything I heard that moved me, I tried to put it on the bass. When I heard Jimi Hendrix, I tried to emulate it, even before I used effects, I would just scruff the bow on the bass. I think it was the combination of different styles and different soloists that allowed me to execute a unique sound on the bass.
We know you studied with John Clayton, Ray Brown, and Al McKibbon. What did they think of the direction you were taking upright bass, and did they have any input or influence in that?
Well, both Ray and Al died before I really got the pedal board together. But in my experience with them I think they would have seen it as interesting addition to the instrument, but would have encouraged me not to lose my “sound” in the board. To use it as a catapult, not a crutch or disguise. John and I have never talked about my use of the board. I was very fortunate to have legends for teachers, and for all of those players, WHAT you play is the most important thing. Maintaining musicality comes first. So I don’t think the pedal board would be looked on poorly by any of them, but they would definitely put a discerning ear to what I was playing when using it, to ensure that it was not masking errors of any sort… That’s a really funny question for me to think about. It makes me smile.
How did you become interested in running EFX on your upright?
I think I can pinpoint the moment. I was playing in a nine-piece band led by, in my estimation, the world’s most forward thinking and powerful tenor player, Kamasi Washington. The band consisted of a tenor saxophone, trumpet, trombone, piano, keyboards, electric bass, upright bass, drums and congas. The sound was massive. Everybody in that band had incredible facility on their instruments and we played once a week at 5th St. Dicks in Lemiert Park in Los Angeles.
I kept running into trouble every time it came around to my solo, because I never got to play with the same energy as everyone else. If I played music that got the band excited, they’d have to hold back or else they’d over-power me. As bass players know, often times the difference between a good solo and a great solo is how cohesive and energetic the input from the rhythm section is. It is our responsibility to make peoples’ solos take flight. I felt, as a bass player, I never got any of the same support I was giving. I diagnosed the problem at first by adding a distortion pedal with an octave up so that I could pierce through the band. I went many nights fumbling around with pedals, and screwing up a lot of solos but over the course of a couple of years, and the patience of a really amazing band leader, I was able to hone a sound that let the horns play backgrounds, the drums bang away, and the bass solo still be the loudest most powerful thing in the moment.
What are some of the challenges you’ve found with your style, and what solutions have you come up with?
There have been a lot of challenges. The biggest problem I’d say was the fight to maintain a “wooden” sound to the bass despite all the processing. I think that the action on the bass has a lot to do with that, and also the velocity of play. It is more important to play with less amp and dig in, than to play lightly and rely on the amp. I think this is the key to maintaining the wooden efforts that separate the upright from an electric bass.
The next challenge is feedback. Everyone knows about this. My main suggestions are to plug your F-holes, and get really well aquatinted with your volume pedal. Feedback has to become a subconscious battle. It has to always be on your mind but it can’t be distracting, so knowing when it’s coming and why is the key. Every bass is different and each one is going to have its own issues in certain areas. Navigating that takes practice. I locked out a rehearsal studio for a day and took an SM-900, 2 4X10 Cabs and an Ampeg 8X10, and sat with it and tweaked my instrument and playing style until I had both master channels of the SM-900 cranked all the way to the top while playing and sliding in and out of wanted and unwanted distortion. There’s no quick fix, and it’s a huge challenge. But as bass players, we get scared of it happening to us so we don’t put the time into figuring out why. Bassists aren’t really given the type of time to address and fix problems that other instruments are because if we’re not rock solid, the whole band starts looking around at you like “Man! Come on!” Going into a private environment to figure it all out was the only way I’d have time to diagnose the problem. After I felt like I had it together I invited friends of mine into the room and basically said “Bet ya’ you can’t get me to feed back!” I had the band play full-on and continued to tweak. I moved the pick-up into weird places, I put the pedals in different orders, moved the amp, moved myself, and then presto, it worked.
Still, on occasion, a big festival stage or planetary alignment will throw the whole thing out of whack, but I’ve become really good and fast at diagnosing where the problem is. For instance, I put my monitors either behind me, or on my right side – that way there’s nothing extra leaking in to the f-holes. It’s a slippery slope. (laughs)
What advice do you have for other bassists interested in pushing the sonic envelope?
My best advice would be to pick your battles. If it’s sheer volume you’re going for, focus on that first. If it’s effects, then maybe you can get away with less volume and focus on the quality of interesting tones. I wasn’t able to do it all at once. I started with effects because I thought a different tone would help me cut my solos through a band. So, for me, the volume war was secondary and the slightest improvement meant the world. Musicality is the most important thing. I try not to do things just because I can, but because I actually HEAR it in my head. I avoid stepping on tons of pedals just to see what happens. Obviously at some point I do that in order to learn the board, but not randomly in a performance. It takes practice. Essentially, you’re adding a new string to your bass. That’s the easiest way to think of it. First sculpt the sound you want your initial 4 strings to make. The sound that you’re going to support the people you’re playing with.
THEN, figure out what your solo sound is going to be, and what options you have. As time continues you’ll begin to meld the two together, but I found it easiest to think of it in separate compartments. Comping Tone, Solo Tone. Other than that, the fastest way to push the sonic envelope is bow work. If your bow work is good it’ll allow you to send more sustained tones into your effects which give them more time to mangle them however they’re supposed to. Otherwise the decay on the bass is so fast most effects won’t really work all that well.
What did you study?
I studied Western Classical music and Jazz. Period. I went through all of the Francois Rabbath books, from start to finish. I transcribed a ridiculous amount of jazz records. Oscar Petersons “We Get Requests” is Jazz Bass Playing 101 in the John Clayton school of thought, and he’s right: bow work is number one. If you can’t play with the bow you’re really driving the car in third gear without unlocking the rest of its’ potential. Practicing bow work is all about long tones, and scales. Over and over and over again.
I got all, and I mean ALL of my dexterity from one string crossing, nonsense phrase I made up when I was in high school. I played it with a metronome everyday faster and faster until I could play 16th notes at 190bpm. With my scales intact the dexterity from that phrase made speed a non-issue. Classical music is really the best way to learn the instrument. Having a piece of music with rigid guidelines is a necessary forum to operate in when trying to learn an instrument completely. Additionally, since you can reference exact recordings it gives a great barometer for your progress.
Frankly, I think that without a teacher the instrument can’t be pushed as far as necessary. If you want to study the Upright you have to study with someone. It’s too easy to develop crippling habits that will hinder you in the long run.
How do you practice singing and playing at the same time?
First it’s important to understand that as a bass player or soloist of any kind, it’s really important that you sing what you play. The best way to make honest music is to sing the lines that you play. It entrenches your mind and soul into every note, keeps you focused, and ensures that you don’t play things from an egotistical point of view. Since I was taught that lesson long ago, I was somewhat familiar with making vocal noises and playing at the same time. The trick was to sing something different than what I was playing.
Essentially all I did was loop a bass line with a syncopated rhythm to it. Something that started on 1 but then moved to up beats or triplets before landing on 1 again. I’d loop that line and then take a lyric and start finding where the words fell with the line, and off the line. I remember the experience being almost like meditating. You’ll find yourself in a bit of a trance. I didn’t use this song in particular but something like “Come Together” would work, or “Who Knows” by Band of Gypsies is even better. You’ll see how the line moves in and out of the vocal phrase. Finding the pocket of the words compared to the bass line is the trick. So, once I’d done that for hours on end, I had pretty much accomplished the trickiest part. Playing whole notes and singing was easy. Then I’d put fills and things between vocal lines so it sounded like there was an actively involved bass player in the band and not just goose eggs. If you listen to the way Nat King Cole comps behind himself that was my model for supporting a singer. I think that even if you don’t plan on fronting a band, learning to play and sing at the same time is a great way to get a good understanding of how the notes we play as bassists are crucial to the singers we support. When we get super “creative” and start straying from putting the root on the downbeat, it does put extra strain on the singer. They need root notes to find their relative pitches. Sometimes it can really excite a song when we, as bassists do something out of left field, but when you learn to sing and play it really helps you pinpoint where and when to step out of line. Ultimately it will make you a more favored bassist amongst singers and help you lock down more gigs. That’s a good thing!
What are your experiences on the electric bass?
Oh, Dearest Electric Bass. It’s been so long. At this point in time in my life I play electric bass only when it is absolutely necessary. Sometimes it is the ONLY sound that will suffice. In my line of work that’s rare but it does come up. I played electric bass in high school a lot. I loved Tony Levin, Victor Wooten, Michael Manring, and all the other usual suspects. It wasn’t until I listened to Jaco Pastorius’ Word Of Mouth that I put the instrument down. I decided at that moment that I had nothing to offer to the electric bass. Jaco had already done what I thought was most interesting to me. However, the upright bass had loads of untapped ability left in it, and I felt, that after all the hard work I’d put into the upright I should just focus all of my time on really doing something interesting on it. I think electric bass is a wonderful instrument but I think we can all agree that it is a world that has a lot of people helping to push it forward.
I’ve been accepted on a lot of gigs because of the versatility of the upright. I can cover cello lines with the bow, I can slide around with that beautiful upright tone, or I can dig in and push just like an electric. I think that I’ve modeled quite a bit of my style through the urge to compete with electric players and try to outshine them. It’s a great challenge for me and I appreciate all of my electric bass-playing brothers for challenging me every day.
Tell us about your gear.
Custom King Double Bass modeled after my 18th Century German upright. The King Double Bass is the corner stone of my sound. Without it nothing that I do is even remotely possible. They are a very brave company, and I really appreciate that they keep the traditional body of the bass intact. They build instruments with a wonderful resistance to feedback, and that obviously is invaluable. I wouldn’t play it at a classical concert, or even much bother using a mic on it, but when it comes to pushing sound, nothing does the job better.
SWR Amps, always, since 1998: Small gigs I use the California Blonde Medium Gigs I use the Black Beauty Large Gigs I use the Working Pro 700 with 2 Goliath 4×10 I’ve always used SWR amps. Their simplicity and quality of tone, is all I’ve ever needed. I know there are a lot of boutique amps out there that people enjoy for upright but I’ve always been able to get the tone I love from SWR and since I tour a lot I really appreciate having an amp that is so easily found in any location in the world.
Pedal Board: Aphex Compressor Boss OC-2 Boss FV-500 Fulltone GT-500 Micro Pog Line 6 Echo Park Boss RC-20 My pedal board is an ever-evolving beast. I change things around constantly in search of new balances and sounds. Most of the pedals above are staples of the board but I’m always open to new ideas!
Cables: Hand Made. When touring I realized that making my own cables, or at least knowing how was a really good thing. It meant that I’d never be in a bind when in the trenches. If a cable fails I just break out the soldering kit and make another one. I don’t necessarily notice any big help when it comes to tone or anything I just like the control of not having to find an open music shop at midnight, because of a silly cable. It’s also much cheaper and more reliable.
What’s next for you?
Well now that the new milesmosley.com has been launched and all of the videos are up from theStarM: Live (recorded at Korn Studios), it’s time to hit the road! My team is looking for a new booking agent, and I’m hoping to be able to tour for the majority of the year. I’ll be releasing an EP in the next couple of months with “L.A. Won’t Bring You Down” and “Guantanamo”. You can hear those on the site right now. I’ll be adding two new songs to the EP as well.
I’m also working on the score for a feature length film while I’m in Los Angeles. I’ll be releasing that music as its own record sometime this summer.
I’m really focused on letting small ideas be big ideas right now. I’m sharing my music as easily as possible. You can get “Bear”, my 2007 release for free just by going to my site and signing up for the mailing list. People have responded really well to the new site. I keep it bursting with new content every week.
I’m currently holding a residency in Hollywood where I play every week just to keep the dust from settling. It’s a joy to be able to step on stage and try new things and push the boundaries of my music with my musical friends. All of my performance dates are on the site.
I’m really interested in supporting the internet free press. I’m eager to do webcasts, and interviews for awesome sites like notreble.com. I think the future of my industry is going to come from the artist reaching their fans, and supporters through the entertainment vehicles they prefer to use. It’s sites with independent thought like notreble.com that give us a filter and a home for information we care about. I’m eager to continue being a part of that scene.
My main goal is to continue creating good music and to share it with as large an audience (worldwide) as I can!
No Treble contributors Donovan Stokes and Kevin Johnson contributed to this interview.