Blow Them All To Pieces: A Bass Playthrough and Interview with Suzy Starlite
Starlite & Campbell have just released their third studio album, STARLITE.ONE, which delivers the husband and wife team’s unique blend of art, prog, and psychedelic rock in two distinct sounds. The concept album was written and recorded to be heard like a vinyl record with “Side A” and “Side B.” All of the music still hangs together, and that’s thanks in part to bassist Suzy Starlite’s killer playing.
Today, we’re happy to present a bass playthrough for the new song “Blow Them All To Pieces.” After checking out the song, we had some questions for Starlite, who came back with some serious wisdom. Check out the exquisite touch and tone on “Blow Them All To Pieces,” followed by our interview with her.
STARLITE.ONE is available now through Bandcamp.
The bass line for “Blow Them All To Pieces” has so much space but also helps move things along. How did you go about writing it?
The songwriting process for the new Starlite & Campbell album STARLITE.ONE evolved from a combination of collaboration and experimentation in the studio with my husband and musical partner, Simon Campbell.
We are so obsessed with serving what the song needs we really don’t mind who sings lead vocals or writes the verse, chorus, or lyrics, usually co-writing everything together.
So unusually, “Blow Them All To Pieces” was written by Simon in fifteen minutes following a heart-wrenching conversation with our postman. It transpired that he was Ukrainian, and when asked about the war, he confided that he was beside himself with worry as he had not heard from his parents in some time who still lived in Ukraine.
With the story and meaning in mind, the approach to writing the bass line was one of tender sobriety, responding to the open-tuned guitar chords and Sequential Prophet-5 with a sympathetic rhythm that provided an almost rocking movement – as if in the arms of your parents or loved one.
The A part started with the guitar and guide vocal, then bass. I filled in the gaps with those almost BladeRunneresque synthesizer chords. There is a lot of pedaling going on, as I love the tension that creates and also melodic use of the major third on the bottom.
I am honored to be a Mike Lull artist, and for this song, I chose to use my Lull M4V, which is strung with flatwounds. When played sensitively, it can sound like an upright double bass, and that’s what I imagined when I was playing.
The melodic bass line responds to the vocal melody and compliments with a counter melody to provide emotional tension and tell the story of the heart that words alone are not capable of. When I write those lines, they just appear – I rarely think of what chord we are playing or what note (unless I’m stuck) – my heart sings a melody, and my fingers do their best to follow.
The timing is all-important in this song – the two-spliff back feel where it’s sloppy, loose and unhurried, sensitive with the occasional flourish, and then, of course, there are those little breaks where it appears to lose time – almost a 6/8 feel.
There is so much space in this song. The intro has everything, and then the first verse drops starkly naked to a dry vocal and guitar, which accentuates the emotion.
The B part again began with Simon’s Fylde custom six string, which he later overdubbed with his Fylde 12 string. We wrote the synth motifs together, and I played them on the Moog Matriarch. I was totally stoked to be playing my Aulos FIfe that I had bought with tips from my Saturday job when I was 15! It felt like those days of battle when soldiers marched, playing drums and flutes. And when the drums kick in – the bass kicks in – the engine room unites for a few moments of rhythmic rocking out together in the heat of battle before the bass dances a short motif to bring the piece to a close.
The intermittent distortion at the end is our Gamechanger Audio plasma rack that we had recorded a couple of weeks before, which accidentally played at the end of the track when I was recording the fife overdub, I played in response – totally improvised.
Were you trying to channel any of your favorite bassists in your approach?
There are some songs you write you think, ah, this has that kind of groove from a certain style, and then you will think of the bassist associated with that feel, like James Jamerson for Motown, Tina Weymouth for Talking Heads, Chris Squire and Greg Lake for progressive rock and Carol Kaye for basically everything!
When we were writing the album, we started off by creating a playlist of inspirational songs called “Six Friendly Monkeys Living Under the Stairs” from a dream I had – you can see the influence on the album cover collage artwork. We soaked our souls in music from John Cale, Leonard Cohen, Scott Walker, Os Mutantes, Arvo Pärt, CAN, Low, Stereolab, The Flaming Lips, Joy Division, Robert Wyatt, Fontaines DC, Wet Leg, Daniel Lanois, Queens of the Stone Age, Black Midi, Jacques Brel, Bowie, Matt Munroe, Trisomie 21, Radiohead, Miles Davis, The Smile, and The Fall et al.
There are certain grooves that really turn me on from our Friendly Monkeys playlist, but I guess I don’t really think about other players per se. Sometimes for inspiration, I’ll play a similar feel of a song and learn about what is possible from a bass line perspective, but it’s more geared towards the song than a person. I’m always learning, and the joy is still there!!
What bass and gear did you use to record?
There are two guitars that I used on the recording of STARLITE.ONE
The Mike Lull M4V for this track is strung with Thomastik-Infeld Jazz Bass JF344. Having tried a fair few other brands, I always come back to these as the gauges just feel perfect, and they have a fabulous tone… and they last forever!
The second is my signature Mike Lull custom Starlite T4, which has monstrously powerful humbuckers, which really makes it sing; it feels like plugging into your flying dragon – like in the movie Avatar!
STARLITE.ONE is an ArtRock / ArtPop album and required something different from the bass. For the first time, I have moved away from Thomastik-Infeld flat wounds to Curt Mangan Nickel wound light 100 round wounds, and the T4 is my first bass with round wound strings. Tortex pick
On the amp front, I have been using our custom-designed Supertone “Matamp” 200W valve (tube for our American friends). It’s very similar to the very first Matamp’s, which then became Orange Matamp. It has a modified guitar preamp as opposed to one dedicated to bass, so I suppose it’s similar to my 1974 vintage 200W HiWatt DR201 in that it could be described as “general purpose.” In both, the transformers are enormous and, hence, fiendishly heavy, but that iron really allows the amp to bloom. On “Blow Them All To Pieces,” I used the HiWatt.
I have a few cabinets at hand and the whole of this record was made using the Bergantino 610 (no tweeter). On past records I have used the Supertone “Matamp” 4×12 loaded with heritage Celestion G12H, which are made in the UK.
The only pedal I used on the album was a Hudson “Broadcast” set to stun. It can be very dirty indeed, but I just used it to grind up some of the tracks on the record, the lead single from the album “Saving Me,” being a good example as the bass is pretty exposed at the beginning. As I mentioned before I do play loud and the amp distortion is a part of my sound. When I’m playing live, engineers are not allowed a DI box anywhere near the bass – microphones only!
The cab was mic’d with a vintage Neumann U47FET and a Sennheiser MD421. Some of the time I recorded the bass into Pro Tools directly via a Rupert Neve Designs RNDI and API512C preamp, set pretty hot and occasionally straight into the amp, but I play very loud to really make the amp work, which does cause an unacceptable amount of leakage and damage to the foundations.
I rarely use the actual DI signal, choosing instead (if we have just DI’d the bass) to re-amp using a Little Labs multi z pip 3.0.
We have a number of vintage compressors, but usually Simon’s choice for bass is the DBX 165, which we use on each of the microphone channels. Currently, we never EQ or compress on record. The album was mixed on our CADAC J Series console, and we use the exceptional three-band EQ.
On the subject of guitars, all my electric basses – the two Mike Lulls mentioned before, 1974 Fender Precision, Gretsch Thunder Jet – are passive, and the cable that goes from the guitar to the preamp is really important.
We use our in-house manufactured Supertone MinCap “A” cable featuring Sommer SC-SPIRIT LLX wire which has the lowest capacitance around, and gold-plated Neutrik connectors – the business end switching. You can’t believe the difference when compared with a regular cable.
I also have a Fylde King John acoustic bass, which has a Headway active under-saddle pickup up, where, of course, cable impedance isn’t critical to the sound.
Touring this album is going to be tricky, and I recently sold my trusty Lehle RMI Basswitch IQ in favor of a GigRig G3 Atom with a bunch of pedals.
My setup is constantly evolving; the latest state of play can always be found on my website, and I will update with my latest touring setup when we return in November.
What advice do you have for bassists going into the studio?
I had to laugh the other day when I watched a video interview with Leland Sklar and Rick Beato where Lee talked about his special “producer” switch on his bass for studio work. I won’t spoil the story, but it’s definitely worth a watch, and he has some great stories about working in the studio.
I’ve been recording from almost day one as a bass player and have learned a few harsh lessons. It’s crucial that you really listen to your sound, how the bass line is sitting in the track, and whether it’s serving what the song needs.
If you are a real low-end dweller, mostly below the seventh fret and working in a typical live rock band, it’s really tricky to hear the detail of your playing; ringing notes, clacking, and buzzing strings are all camouflaged by the overall sound of the band but when recording everything is revealed – warts and all.
Am I crashing the vocal? Is this major third or fifth working with the bass synth? Do I need to play that note an octave up or down? All these are vital, but fade into the cheap seats if you have poor technique.
The bass is unforgiving, and the thing is, you don’t always hear it and need to train your ear to listen out for this stuff.
Muting or dampening strings is an essential technique that I am working on with every new song we write, play, and record. I think that’s what I like about growing as a musician and bass player, you never just arrive – it really is all about the journey.
If anything – the main thing that I would say when working in the studio is that your priority is working as part of a team and serving what the song/project needs – don’t ever lose sight of that – the song is your true north.
Oh, and the most important thing… Work with the best drummer you can find.
If you want to read the full story of my “Walking The Bass Line” series on VIBES.