“WHEN STEVEN FIRST MIXED THE RECORD, I thought the bass was too quiet,” says Nick Beggs, recalling the final stages of his work on Porcupine Tree mastermind Steven Wilson’s new progressive rock opus, The Raven That Refused to Sing. “But I didn’t want to say anything, because I didn’t want to be that guy—y’know, the bass player who says the bass isn’t loud enough.” Almost a month later, Wilson shot Beggs an email explaining that, after repeated listening, he had come to the conclusion that the bass was, well, too quiet, and he asked Beggs for his opinion on the matter. “‘You’re probably asking the wrong person,’” Beggs recalls responding with a hearty laugh, “but, in my opinion, every record ever made has mixed the bass too quiet!” The upshot? On the final mixes, says Beggs, “Steven bumped up the bass 2dB.”
Whether by direct or indirect means, Beggs has made a career out of bumping up the bass, from the Larry Graham-approved slap figures on his band Kajagoogoo’s classic ’80s single “Too Shy” to the pummeling Chris Squire-like 16th-note power riff that fires up the intro to The Raven’s leadoff track, “Luminol.” In between, Nick has plucked, slapped, and picked bass with an impressive array of artists, including Alphaville, John Paul Jones, Kim Wilde, and ex- Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett, as well as charting hits with his own projects Ellis, Beggs & Howard and Industrial Salt, and quietly releasing noteworthy solo albums featuring his other favorite instrument, the Chapman Stick.
While Beggs’ formerly elaborate ’80s hairdo and prodigious slapping technique (often doubled by synth bass) may have been more akin to ABC than ELP, his work with Wilson—which also includes 2011’s epic Grace for Drowning—betrays him as a dyed-in- the-wool prog rocker for whom the driving styles of Squire and John Wetton are very much home base. “When I was doing Kajagoogoo, I consciously avoided playing like that because, back in 1983, it was so very unhip,” Beggs explains. “People simply did not want to hear it; you couldn’t even reference it. So it was an act of will. But even then, I was very much in the headspace of, not playing “lead bass” per se, but driving the band—dictating what the chord is doing and creating a groove, and feeling that it was my job to do it. In Yes, Chris Squire was always sitting so high up in the mix over Bruford’s jazzy grooves, and it made it all really interesting and angular, and I have always seen myself in much the same role. That Squire approach has become quite contemporary again, and as it’s the style I grew up playing, it’s quite easy for me to slip back into that.”
The Raven That Refused to Sing finds Beggs at the sonic center of some heady company, as Wilson convened a kind of neo-prog all-star band, including heavy hitters like guitarist Guthrie Govan and drummer Marco Minneman, of whom Beggs says, “He’s incredible, and he never plays the same thing twice. You really have to know your roadmap, or it’s quite easy to get lost.” After a career of tightly controlled recordings built on overdubs, Wilson opted to record his new supergroup live in the studio, even tapping legendary engineer Alan Parsons to helm the sessions. The result is an airy, crystal-clear document of a band building a complex multi-tiered sound around Wilson’s deep prog architecture, and at the center of this elaborate design, Beggs’ bass both holds down the fort and drives the mothership. Still, it was Wilson the architect who had the task of making sure his designs were carried out, in great detail.
“Steven had done all the demos at home,” Beggs recalls, “and they were very complete. So after he sent them to me, I said, “Well, what do you want me to add to this? The bass parts you recorded sound great!” And he said, ‘I’d like you to learn them, because we’re going to go to America and play them as a band, and I’ll be playing guitar.’ So I wrote parts out, because I tend to do that anyway when I’m trying to remember something—if I’ve transcribed the parts, then in the studio I can just pull them out and see what was I doing in a given section.”
Even with precise transcriptions, Beggs found that certain passages were still not exactly what Wilson was after. “There was a part in the bass solo section in ‘The Watchmaker,’ for example, that he wanted to be played exactly the way he had played it. We had quite a few go’s at that; I thought I was playing it exactly as he wanted it, and he was hearing something different. There are times when I have trouble hearing it, and he has to show me the nuance he’s talking about.”
Elsewhere, Wilson left room for experimentation and extemporaneous sounds, which Beggs was only too glad to fill with some Chapman Stick, as he does in the lovely bridge to “Drive Home” and throughout “The Holy Drinker,” which features Wilson himself handling the bass duties. “Steven is a very fine bass player,” Beggs notes, “but he’s quite a lot shorter than me, so when he plays my basses, they look huge on him. He looked up at me at one point, huffing and puffing a bit, and said, ‘God, playing the bass is so physical—how do you play this all the time!’” Beggs is a great admirer of Wilson’s “peculiar way” of playing the bass, and says that much of his aim during the making of The Raven was to play more like him: “Which is ironic, because in a lot of ways I think what he was trying to do was to write parts for me to play. But really, we were both channeling Chris Squire.”
While Beggs broad tonal palette and versatile technique means he’s comfortable playing with his thumb, fingers, slapping or using a plectrum, the aesthetic direction of The Raven meant that he recorded the bulk of the album using a pick on any one of his clutch of Spector basses, including the Spector Coda5 on which he cranked out the aggressive opening lines of “Luminol,” which he speculates is “just about the best bass sound I’ve ever gotten on record.”
On the album’s title track, he took his brand new fretless Spector NS-5H2 on its maiden journey, and elsewhere he leans heavily on Euro4LX. These three basses, along with the Chapman Stick and a Roland V-Bass System processor for effects and EQs, form the crux of Beggs’ onstage setup with Wilson’s touring band, backed by a pair of TC Electronic cabinets—an RS212 and an RS210—driven by a TC RH450 head. “It has multi-band compression built into the system, which helps make everything that comes out of it, bass or Stick, sound really present and punchy.”
As for the tag on Beggs’ website describing his occupation as “Bass Player, Chapman Stick Player, and Spaceman,” Beggs offers a practical explanation: “Time and time again I’m told that I’m not of this planet, and I’m kind of surprised, because I thought I was doing a really good job of concealing it. I only want to get on with you all—I mean you no harm!”
Steven Wilson, The Raven That Refused to Sing [K-Scope, 2013]
Basses Spector USA Series Coda5 with Aguilar humcanceling pickups, Spector Euro4LX, fretless Spector NS- 5H2, fretless Spector Legend5 Classic
Strings Spector USA Nickel, .045–.105, and .045—.130
Rig TC Electronic RH450 head, TC Electronic RS212 and RS210 cabinets
Effects Roland V-Bass System, TC Electronic Classic Series TC XII Phaser, Boss AB-2 2-way Selector