“The gigs all went very well,” says Percy Jones of the recent reunion of his band Brand X, which performed a successful string of shows this past fall. “We hadn’t played together with this lineup doing this material since 1977, so there was initially a sense of trepidation not knowing how the music would connect after 39 years. That was quickly dispelled after the first gig.” It was an event that the band’s many fans have long awaited, and there are more dates planned for early 2017.
It’s hard to believe that four decades have passed since the Welsh bassist first emerged as an early fretless pioneer. Inspired by the playing of upright master Charles Mingus, young Percy filed down the frets under the G string of an old Gretsch semiacoustic long-scale bass, creating what he called a hybrid fretted-fretless. He eventually ditched it for a fretless 1974 Fender Precision, and with that he was off to the races. Developing a unique approach, Jones delivered chops-busting angular bass lines and peppered them with sputtering three-finger fills, double-stops, and sliding harmonics.
Co-founding Brand X in 1975 with guitarist John Goodsall and others, the group pushed boundaries with its inventive instrumental music and garnered wide attention when Genesis drummer Phil Collins joined a year later. Brand X helped define jazz-fusion’s late-’70s heyday with well-received albums like Unorthodox Behavior and Morrocan Roll. After the group split, Jones continued on with a string of creative projects, including his group Tunnels and his 1990 solo release Cape Catastrophe. Although he has increasingly veered into experimental music with recent releases, the past year has seen somewhat of a return to form for Percy with his latest quartet MJ12, which released its debut album this past summer, and the reunion of Brand X.
How did the Brand X reunion come together?
John, [drummer] Kenwood Dennard, and I had the opportunity to get together and play here in New York back in the summer. The results were quite good, and we also had the opportunity to do a short tour with the help of promoter Norman Bedford. We decided, initially at least, to do material from the first three Brand X albums, since they were deemed the most popular, and it was from the period when Kenwood played with us. When we started rehearsing the material, with a bit of memory jogging, it was quickly apparent that the old spark was still alight.
How is it different now?
I think our individual musicality is broader than it was back in the day. We’ve all played with other bands and projects and gained experiences, so it’s all more mature. Also, the technology has changed enormously since the late ’70s. Now we have better-sounding PA systems, the whole gamut of digital technology, etc. Back then, the only digital gear I remember seeing was by Eventide. The process of getting recordings out there has changed with the advent of the internet.
What was your personal highpoint in Brand X, musically?
It was probably when Kenwood Dennard joined the band, because Phil Collins was always too busy with Genesis. We started gigging and touring, and that’s when I think the band became really coherent and tight. That was a good buzz for me, to be in a band that was really doing its thing well, I thought.
Your new band, MJ12, grew out of a project you had with drummer Steve Moses.
I’ve known Steve for a long time. Not long after I moved to New York in the ’80s, I was in a couple of bands with him, and then we went our separate ways. I started doing some solo gigs and put Tunnels together, and Steve went off playing with Alice Donut. We got back together just a few years ago and started doing these little improv gigs in Brooklyn, just the two of us, and we’d invite guests to come and sit in. In Brooklyn there are loads of really good players, so there was never a shortage of people. We were playing in really small dive bars and DIY places. I suggested to Steve after a while that maybe we should try writing some stuff and making it a little more structured, but without losing the improv aspect. So we started writing little bits and pieces, and then two of the guys who subsequently sat in, David Phelps and Chris Bacas, eventually became permanent members.
For the past few years you’ve been playing Ibanez basses with piezos.
Yeah, the first bass they gave me several years ago was an Ergodyne, and it wasn’t so great [laughs]. It had a plastic body with both magnetic and piezo pickups. I eventually took off the magnetic pickup because I never used it; I just used the piezo, and I started hearing some possibilities with it.
What were you hearing?
More dynamics. Piezos are very responsive to how hard you play—they pick up the attack really well. A magnetic pickup will capture the high-end transients, but piezos will pick up a bit of a thump, like an upright bass, actually, so it’s a different kind of dynamic. The problem, though, was that I was getting clipping. I put a scope on the output of the piezo, and I was amazed that they were getting like 12 volts peak-to-peak off the pickups. The preamps just couldn’t reproduce that. The pickup was running off a 9-volt battery, so it can’t reproduce a 12-volt input, and there was no room for a second battery to bring it up to 18 volts. So I built some charge pumps and put them in there—a charge pump is a small chip and a couple of diodes, which essentially doubles the battery voltage. So that cured the clipping problem.
What had you been playing before?
Up to that point, I had been playing Wal basses, which I loved. They’re great instruments and I got a lot of good results with them, but I got to a point where I was getting a little tired of my sound, and I just felt like changing gear a little. So I asked Ibanez if they could make another version of the Ergodyne but with a wooden body, with a dense wood. They came up with a second one that was mahogany, a big improvement, so I played that for a while. Then they gave me two more with just piezo pickups, a bolt-on version and a neck-through version. And these sounded better again; it was just another increment in quality.
Both are 5-strings, and you tune the low string to C instead of B. Why?
When I played a 4-string, I would sometimes detune the E string down to a D or a C. For example, on the first Brand X record, Unorthodox Behavior, the bottom string is tuned to a C, so I sort of got accustomed to that interval. When I eventually shifted to 5-string, I just decided to make that bottom string a C rather than a B.
Can fans expect any future live or studio Brand X releases?
I think we’ll be doing some live CDs. A new studio album of the old material would be rather pointless, but when we eventually get to writing new material, it will definitely be in the cards.
Percy Jones, Cape Catastrophe [1990, Gonzo]; MJ12, MJ12 [2016, Gonzo]; Brand X, Unorthodox Behavior [1976, Charisma], Masques [1978, Charisma]; Brian Eno, Another Green World [1975, Island]
Bass Customized fretless Ibanez Grooveline 5-string
Amp Euphonic Audio (EA) iamp 800 combo
Strings DR Strings LowRiders (.045–.125)
Effects Eventide ModFactor and TimeFactor