Whether it’s his lifelong collaboration with Beck,
his command of the
daunting Nine Inch Nails bass chair, or his ever-expanding collection
of rare instruments, Justin Meldal-Johnsen has always been on the
cutting edge of what’s hip. He’s done sessions for everyone from the
Mars Volta to Dixie Chicks to Black Eyed Peas to Pink to Macy Gray,
and as a producer, he has worked with a diverse list of acts that includes
Paramore, Tegan And Sara, M83, and Neon Trees. In an age of categories and
stereotypes, Meldal-Johnsen’s wide-open ears and deep skills allow him to be a
musical chameleon who’s always juggling
a juicy workload—who else would be tracking bass on Garbage’s new Not
Your Kind of People, Jason Mraz’s Love Is a Four-Letter Word, and the next
Beck record, all at the same time?
But lately, the man known for frenetic yet precise showmanship and
blistering melodic lines seems to be showing a strong air of maturity. He
still rocks a mean key-bass and can shred as much as ever, but these days,
the 42-year-old Meldal-Johnsen is savoring the space between notes and
thinking twice about those boisterous fills. In other words, JMJ is on the top
of his game in a whole new way, and he’s bringing a new definition of hip.
You’ve been very busy lately. What’s currently on your
I just finished doing bass and production for the Tegan And Sara record;
now I’m getting started on the new Paramore record that I’m producing.
After that, I’m back to work with Beck touring and recording. It’s a very
exciting and busy year.
What can we expect from the bass on Beck’s new album?
This record is all about the bass’ sound character linking up with the
snare and the kick that conveys the feeling of the song. A lot of times he’ll
takes bits of my improvisation and make bass lines out of them. But when
I say “Beck record,” there are big quotation marks around that, because there’s
probably enough material for four very different records. I don’t think
Beck has revealed this yet, but I will tell you that we have performed on what
seems to be more than one Beck album to come.
What is it like working with Beck after all these years?
I know what he wants and that’s gotten easier, but it’s still a difficult
It’s never easy, because Beck has very few restrictions to his music, and he
just doesn’t operate in a small box. Because of that, it keeps you on your
The other thing is that he works really fast. He has no interest in you doing
after take. Working with Beck is never resting on my laurels, for two reasons:
his expectations, and the caliber of musicians in the room with him. That’s a
thing to dive into, but I never go into it thinking I’m going to have a casual
How has producing changed your mentality as a bassist?
I think it ultimately makes me play simpler on bass, because as a producer,
I’m always trying to find and create space within the music. Especially
when you get artists like Neon Trees or Paramore, they want the type
of feel I get with M83 that’s very cinematic, multi-layered, thick,
tracks with a lot of programming on it. So that transcends the bass
playing, because with all of that, I still have to make room for the bass
guitar. Sometimes when I look back at my work over the years, I feel that I
things too busy. I don’t regret anything I’ve done, but there are certain
I realize I probably didn’t need to do that fill on the second chorus also.
it’s just maturing my bass playing a little and making me value the silence
What’s your ideal way to track bass?
I find myself needing one of my B-15s and a DI handy, and I want to
use minimal compression and minimal EQ. I want the EQ to come from my
hands and from the amp. But when I’m producing, I’m trying more to innovate
and find some other angles for the idea of bass. I always love coupling
synth bass and live bass at the same time, and I actually do that on almost
everything. Because of that, sometimes I want the bass to have a stringier
and almost guitar-like sound that cuts through. To achieve that I’ve been
re-amping through guitar amps or using just a DI and taking the bass and
bypassing it so that there’s not a lot of serious low end; that way it becomes
more of a harmonic instrument.
How does your approach change from recording with a band to touring
With the exception of NIN, when I tour I feel that I have to be allowed to
be myself. It’s a tall order and can be hard on the artists sometimes, because
you’re supposed to be a sideman and cater to the artist, blah, blah, blah. But
when I perform, I like to let loose and have a good time, freak out, show off,
explore the bass. NIN was an exception because the nature of that band and the
economy of the bass parts. I couldn’t necessarily be a ham because it was more
about folding yourself into this really powerful whole.
What did you take away from your time with NIN?
Discipline, patience, the nuances of working with someone who knows
exactly what he wants, and figuring out how to operate in those parameters.
I also learned a lot about stamina and how to pace myself through really long
shows. It was physically demanding material, and I found it very helpful
it added new dimensions to my playing and made me more focused.
Tell us about your playing techniques and how you achieve your
I always keep a pick in between my right-hand pinkie and ring finger, and I
came up with a way to flip it into my hand so it’s always there for use. I roll
between my thumb and index finger. I do it all the time with Beck, where I’ll
play the verse with my fingers and the chorus with a pick. I don’t know how
came about, but it was subconscious and I literally discovered that I was doing
All of a sudden there’s a pick in my hand, and for a while I wouldn’t recall
got there. Otherwise, I like to roll off the volume knob and play close to the
sometimes. I’m good at tap dancing on multiple pedals, and I like quick changes
in music. I like very fast picking, which works well mirroring synth bass on
How do you make your playing so authentic in such a wide range of
I’m really good at replicating things, but I always have to ask myself, How
much am I imitating and how much am I expressing my own voice? It makes me
concerned. Sometimes I’m worried that I’m working too hard putting something
together that sounds like something else. Mostly, I’m
just trying to make a song sound good, so I don’t know
it if I’m doing it. Playing one style or being known
for one thing is an antiquated concept in my opinion.
For me, I want to look at the biggest picture possible
as I create a bass line.
What’s your best advice for tracking bass
in the studio?
Play lightly. I keep learning this over and over
again, but the best bass sounds in the world come
from bass players who don’t choke the life out of
their instrument. And here’s a weird one that I have
to tell you: Don’t grip your bass too tightly. Don’t
have it too close to your body, don’t grab too hard
with your left hand, and don’t press it too hard
with your right forearm. I’ve learned that a lot of
the tone gets stifled when the bass isn’t allowed to
vibrate because of the player’s body. Also, be obsessive
about tuning. You should always be in tune; so
many players don’t keep on that because of laziness.
Pitch and rhythm are the two biggest components
of bass. Know the weakness of your instrument and
never force anything.
Garbage, Not Your Kind of People [Stunvol
ume, 2012]; Jason Mraz, Love Is a Four Letter
Word [Atlantic, 2012]; M83, Hurry Up, We’re
Dreaming [Naive, 2011]
Basses 1966 & 1975 Fender Precision Basses, 1976 Gibson Ripper,
1980 Gibson RD Artist, 1966 Guild Starﬁre, Guild Starﬁre reissue,
1967 Fender Mustang, 1964 Höfner President, 1965 Höfner Very Thin,
Gibson Thunderbird, Ibanez Musician, Aria SP1000, Harmony H22,
Rickenbacker 4003, EKO Hollowbody, Steinberger XL2, Roland G707,
Ovation Magnum II, Schecter 8-string Hellcat Bass
Rig 1970s Ampeg B-15N, Ampeg Reissue B-15R, Aguilar DB 751,
Aguilar DB 412 & DB 810, Aguilar
DB 115 & DB 112, Mesa Boogie 1x15
Effects Tronographic Rusty Box,
Aguilar TLC Compressor, Guyatone
Delay and PS2 Phaser, Line 6 M9
multi-effect, MXR M-80 Bass DI+,
various Pigtronix effects, TC Elec-
tronic Corona Chorus, TC Electronic
FlashBack Delay, EBS MultiDrive,
EBS ValveDrive, Boss OC2 Octave,
Ibanez Harmonic Delay, Electro-
Harmonix Bassballs, all
Moogerfooger pedals, Montreal As-
Synths Korg MS-20, Access Virus
TI2, Moog Mini tour