Two Bass Hit: An Interview with Jeff Pinkus and Steven McDonald
The Melvins have followed up last year’s double album, A Walk with Love & Death, with a double bass album. Pinkus Abortion Technician features both Steven McDonald and Jeff Pinkus laying down the low end on original tunes plus some outstanding covers.
The album title is a riff on the name of a record by the Butthole Surfers, with whom Pinkus was a longtime member. Its opening track “Stop Moving to Florida” combines James Gang’s “Stop” and Butthole Surfers’ “Moving To Florida,” while the band also tackles the latter’s “Graveyard.” Although the album has two killer bassists playing together, it doesn’t come off as a “bass album.” Instead, Pinkus and McDonald complement each other’s playing in a natural way, often with Pinkus riding the low notes and McDonald tackling the upper register. It’s obvious to both players that the focus is still on the songs.
As if the album wasn’t good enough, the Melvins will also be going on tour with the two-bass lineup. The extensive 10-week outing will start at the Casbah in San Diego, California on April 26th and make its way across the U.S. and Canada before winding up in Las Vegas on August 14.
We caught up with the bassists to get the scoop on the new album and their upcoming tour.
How did this project come about for you?
Jeff: I had been joking with Buzz [Osborne] about it. I was saying I wanted to play on an album with those guys and joked, “Hell, I’ll even play rhythm bass. [Steve] can play lead bass and I’ll play rhythm.” Buzz said, “That could possibly happen. We’ve had two guitar players and two drummers, so why not two bass players?” I just left it at that, thinking it was a joke. Of course, I’d do it, but I didn’t think it would actually happen.
He had wanted to put it out as an EP or a limited edition thing. Then I told them I had some songs so they told me to come out [to record]. They were still working on another record, so they asked if it was ok if Steven played on it. I said of course because we are two totally different styles of bass players, so it would be really cool. Buzz said, “Yeah, Steven is a really talented musician and a good guy, and you’re a weirdo.” I think that’s how our initial conversation went.
Steven had a song and I had four songs and Dale had a song. I actually play banjo and guitar and bass on it. I’m officially the number one chair of Melvins banjo. I can’t say I’m number one chair of Melvins bass yet, but I’m happy being number two or three.
Steven: This will be my third round of touring with the Melvins and the third album I’ve played on. I started touring with them on their Basses Loaded album, which has six bass players on it. I was one of a stable of players. I always think of the Melvins as rock and roll polygamists, and I’m a sister-wife.
Basically what happened was we made the lion’s share of this album last year at the same time we were making the last album, A Walk With Love & Death. In fact, I didn’t even know we were going to start on this album until Jeff was already in town. I was over in my studio working on the bass lines for A Walk With Love & Death when Jeff had written a few songs and came to LA. He started them with Buzz and Dale [Crover], so I just came in later and tried to lay down an overdub that was not stepping on anything. That usually put me up higher [on the neck]. So far I’m primed to be the “lead” bass player, though I don’t want to make any assumptions because I know Jeff has some fiery fingers, too.
Jeff, you have a new banjo album out, too. How does your banjo playing affect your bass work?
Jeff: I think it helps with bass playing a lot. It forces you into playing new kind of stuff. All the sudden you’re hearing different note arrangements in your head when it comes to split-second options.
What was the division of labor like between you two?
Steven: It all happened very organically. We didn’t have meetings about it. Buzz has an expression that I like. He says, “Meetings are for people that don’t want to do any work.” Rather than to assemble for a preliminary discussion, we dove right in.
Jeff: Steven is a monster. He did some really great stuff on my songs and his songs and Dale’s songs. There’s one song where I play banjo and he plays bass alone as a live recording. He’s just a lot of fun to play with.
How did you decide on the Butthole Surfer songs to cover?
Jeff: That was all Buzz. He really wanted to cover “Moving to Florida” and “Graveyard”. He wanted to do the faster version [of “Graveyard”] and I wanted to do the slower version, tuned-down kind of style. The original slow one had all strings tuned to D on the bass, but we compromised and did it in one of the Melvins’s down tunings with an in-between tempo.
I really love the version of “I Want To Hold Your Hand”. I’m not sure if you helped choose that, but it has some really nice bass work including the outro.
Steven: That’s actually a cover of a cover. Obviously, it’s a Beatles tune, and it’s the second Beatles song I’ve covered with the Melvins. I’m a bit of a Beatles fanatic so I think they’re placating me a little bit. That arrangement is less like the Beatles and more like The Moving Sidewalk which is a late ’60s psych-rock band, pre-ZZ Top Billy Gibbons band.
Another song with some great playing is “Break Bread”.
Jeff: I wrote that tune. Dale and I actually recorded that with the original guitar player in my band Honkey a long time ago. We revived the song since we never did anything with it. Steven threw in some leads on there. He has all the filtered bass tones whenever you hear that.
Steven: I have a co-write for the album on the song called “Embrace the Rub.” That’s co-written by my wife Anna Waronker of That Dog and also Josh Klinghoffer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I think that makes this the first time ever a Red Hot Chili Pepper has collaborated on a Melvins album.
Can you give us a rundown of your gear?
Steven: On this tour my instrument of choice is going to be a 1984 24-fret B.C. Rich Warlock, which has lots of upper register accessibility. It will be the first time I’ve toured with this bass since about 1989. I dug it out and I’ve fallen back in love with it.
I put together a pedalboard, but it’s non-solidified. So far it’s got some fuzzes like the Russian Green by Stomp Under Foot but then I’ve got an Earthquaker Devices Organizer, which makes your instrument sound like an organ. We might be introducing some choral sounds to the Melvins. Of course, in a dark, fucked up way. I’ve also got some filters and wahs. My amp is a Gallien-Krueger RB1001 head and an Ampeg SVT 8×10.
Jeff: At the moment, I’m going into the Polytune 2 into the Electro-Harmonix Bass Preacher, then into the Mu-FX, then into a distortion pedal that a local Austin guy named Tim Allen makes. It’s based on a FuzzFace design, but it has a lot of options. From that, I’m going into a Super Shifter PS-5 into a MicroPOG into a Boss DD-3 digital delay. I’m rounding it all off with a Ditto Looper X2 that I had lying around.
I recently switched from using my old Mesa Boogie 400+ that I used for years. It got dropped by folks who were helping us move gear twice on one tour. Replacing twelve tubes is not fun, easy, or cheap when you’re on the road. I started using the Acoustic 370’s. I liked that so much I bought another one, so that’s my go-to right now. It’s a lot more durable and I have no problem getting volume out of it.
I know you’re a Flying V bass guy. What’s the deal there?
Jeff: That’s a good question. I’ve just always liked the way they feel when you play on them. It’s really difficult to go from a V to a different guitar if you break a string. I should be getting my second EGC one when I get to LA. It’s the same as the one I have now except it will be anodized. It’s all aluminum, and I found out why the pickups sound so hot and good. There’s a steel plate that goes around the pickups which directs the magnets up stronger. I’m not sure the physics of it all, but it definitely comes off hotter and stronger. The thing that really brought my sound together though, is the Bass Preacher. I was using some different preamps and stuff. It turned out the sound I was really trying to get was from that one.