Robert "Bubby" Lewis: A Mad Maestro's Next Adventure

June 28, 2017

Robert “Bubby” Lewis remembers his first Winter NAMM Show like it was yesterday. It was 2003, he was 17 going on 18, and he had been playing bass for a couple years. He was there with his older sister, the drummer Benita Lewis. “I was at the Ken Smith booth playing with Etienne Mbappé, and I had my eyes closed,” he begins. “I didn’t know anybody—I’m from Flint, Michigan, so I just knew names. I didn’t know what people looked like. I opened my eyes, and I saw this big security-guard-looking dude staring at me. When I put the Ken Smith down, he grabbed me by the shoulder and said, ‘Come with me.’ I’m trying to text my sister, like, ‘Help!’” Bubby laughs at the memory. “So he walks me down to Mike Tobias’ booth and makes me sit down and play. When I finish, Mike says that if I ever wanted a bass, he’d be happy to build me one. The security guard tells me I sound great. I thank him, and then he says, ‘I’m Andrew Gouché.’

“I was like, wait … freakin’ Andrew Gouché?”

A decade and a half later, Bubby is less likely than ever to be thrown out of NAMM. Thanks to Gouché, he landed the bass chair with Snoop Dogg in 2007, shortly after he moved to L.A. for good. Now a familiar MTD-booth presence at the annual Anaheim music gear-and schmooze-fest, Bubby spends most of his time on the road and in the studio with folks like Ai, Jhené Aiko, Dr. Dre, Lupe Fiasco, Tha Game, Warren G, Daz Dillinger, Kurupt, Kim Burrell, the Clark Sisters, and Stevie Wonder, constantly refining his knowledge of groove, tone, soloing, complex changes, and every facet of being a working pro in the 21st century.

It’s no wonder, then, that Bubby’s debut, 1up! Adventures & Quests Episode III [Lewis Entertainment], has more than a few bass-tastic moments and famous friends. On songs like “After Church” and “The Mad Maestro Show,” Lewis throws down, and an all-star team—including drummers Phillip Greenwood and Chris Coleman, guitar gods Frank Gambale and Allen Hinds, Bangladeshi bassist Bassbaba Sumon, Bubby’s Flint homeboy Eddie Brown on keyboards and vocals, Michael Tobias, Daniel Tobias, and Gouché himself—turns out to help him celebrate. Highlights include “Gold Rush,” with its furious, funky soloing by Coleman; “Cosmic Travelers,” a fusion-style throwback featuring Hinds; “Space Food,” a beautiful ballad with wicked synth bass and trippy vocals; and Bassbaba’s Bangla-flavored beatboxing and bass on “Healed.”

But 1up! also reveals the unusual soul of an adventurer charting his own supremely custom-made journey. Bubby takes over most of the album by himself, creating elaborate productions with MIDI bass and laying down reverb-soaked soundscapes that flaunt the distinctive tone of his flatwounds. Introspective instrumentals like “I’ve Decided,” “Quests,” “Fortress of Solitude,” and “Colors Here” showcase his production skills and solo aesthetic, while tracks like “Creation,” “&,” and the funky “Adventures” have the sweeping orchestral textures and nostalgia-inducing General MIDI flavor of vintage Japanese video games, thanks partly to his Roland VB-99 V-Bass System. Like any good cinematic experience, there are interludes (“Words from a Sage,” “Lungz”), blowouts (“Juance Upon a Time”), and narrated thank yous (“Ending Credits/Next Time on 1up!”). 1up is indeed packed with quirky flavor all its own.

Bubby may have built his reputation as a gospel/hip-hop/R&B bass dude, but listening to his debut reminds one that this anime fanatic and composer/producer for Marvel Entertainment and Fun-imation is also a voracious listener who devours everything, from “punk rock, metal, Bollywood, J-pop, K-pop, and C-pop to freakin’ bossa nova.” We sat down one night in April before he went onstage with Snoop Dogg to find out what he’s thinking when he plays those random-sounding chords, why he worships John Patitucci, and how Indian and Arabic music have influenced him.

What inspired this album?

I listen to everything, and a lot of people assume my record would have a million licks and chord changes. But what I truly love to create is music for games, Japanese anime, and films. I’m soloing on some songs, but this album is more like Asian pop. I wanted to put out an inspirational, videogame/anime/film score with some bass on it.

What song was the toughest?

“Passcode.” I kept hearing these patterns go by in my mind, and instead of recording the chords and then soloing over them, I decided to solo first and put the chords down later. But I was just showing people how I practice.

Is that how you practice soloing?

Every time I plug in my bass, I start soloing. With no music behind it, it sounds like a bunch of rubbish. But I hear chords in my mind and I try to solo over them. I explain that to people, and they’re like, “You don’t practice songs?” Nah. Sometimes I just sit down and start playing whatever I’m hearing.

You don’t warm up over common chord progressions?

No. If it sounds like a bunch of random notes, well, that’s because it is random notes.

I’ve seen the crazy fingerboard stretches you do.

Somebody wrote me one day and asked me why I do all those stretches if they can’t ever be used, and I was like, Speak for yourself! Maybe you can’t use them, but I do, and so do lots of my friends, like Hadrien [Feraud] and Federico [Malaman].

Do you prioritize playing what you hear instead of muscle memory?

Muscle memory is one thing, but knowing what you want to play, and executing it, is another. Some guys play scales or modes when they start soloing; everyone has their own method, and there’s no right or wrong way. Personally, I get a rush from trying to create melodies as chords go by. It’s much easier to think, We’re in E minor, so let me slide up on the G string to the 12th fret and play some E minor pentatonic licks. But I like the challenge of coming up with a melody on the fly.

What inspired you to develop the connection between your ear and your fingers?

When we were growing up in Flint, I used to be in awe of how my boy Eddie Brown would be looking at the ceiling and playing all this stuff on organ. I couldn’t figure out what scales he was using, but it wasn’t a matter of scales—he was hearing stuff and just playing it. And Allan Holdsworth, may he rest in peace, saw dots on his guitar neck that represented all the notes he could play over a particular chord.

So when you hear a chord, you visualize the notes?

Everywhere on the neck. And Frank Gambale, my other hero, said the same thing. If you know where the notes are, you can play whatever you want. Now I’d seen three people playing exactly what they heard, not practicing a lick and then trying it out later.

If playing what you hear is crucial, what’s the best way to feed your mind new ideas?

If you listen to the same stuff, you’ll hear the same stuff. I grew up in church, and I was listening to a lot of gospel, funk, R&B, and hip-hop, but when I started checking out rock and country, it changed how I heard things. Listening to Indian music really affected me.

How did you get into Indian music?

When I discovered there was so much outside of Western music theory, I began listening to a bunch of raga, qawwali, and Sufi music, and after that, I went on this tangent, studying classical Indian music and classical Arabic music.

How did it influence your playing?

It changed the way I hear stuff. Somebody will ask me to solo on a jazz tune, and yeah, I could give it a Charlie Parker approach, but instead I might hear what [Hindustani classical vocalist] Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan would do. That’s how it happened for me.

Did you play bass along to world music tracks?

In Flint, my next-door neighbors were Sri Lankan, and there were a lot of Jewish and Israeli people in our neighborhood. I would be going to my friends’ houses and listening to the stuff they were playing, people like Oum Kulthum, and they’d make me copies. I’d go home, listen to it, and go from there. But later, with Google and YouTube, I went further.

How important is it to you to stay open to different flavors?

If you want to progress and expand, you have to have an open mind. A lot of my homies diss punk rock and metal, but try playing those classic Robert Trujillo bass lines while jumping around onstage with Suicidal Tendencies. Steve [Thundercat] Bruner had [Suicidal leader] Mike Muir call me for a couple gigs in Japan, and it was a workout! Sometimes I’ll be on Bass Player’s Instagram feed, and I’ll see a picture of a 6-string bass with all those comments about it not being a real bass. I want to say something, but there’s no point in me trying to convince people. They’ve already made up their minds.

I heard that you were inspired by Patitucci’s 6-string early on.

When I was younger, I wanted to play drums, so my sister Benita, an incredible drummer, turned me on to Dave Weckl’s Synergy album [1999, Stretch]. But when the title track rolled around and Tom Kennedy started out with a solo, I was like, “Screw the drums!” I followed Weckl to the Chick Corea Elektric Band, and when I heard Patitucci, it was official: I was going to play bass. I wanted a Patitucci signature Yamaha so bad, but my parents wanted to see if I was serious, so they bought me a Cort Curbow 5. I played the snot out of that mug.

What was it about Patitucci that moved you?

There’s something about the way Patitucci makes his bass sing. He can hit just two notes in a solo, but the way he uses vibrato on those notes will send you into tears. I loved all the technical stuff, but I could feel his voice. And then I heard Frank Gambale in the Elektric Band, and I hadn’t seen any bass players playing that fast; sweep picking—what the heck is that? I bought all his records, and I came across Mark Varney’s Truth in Shredding [1990, Legato] featuring Gambale and Allan Holdsworth. So in my world, the three kings are Patitucci, Gambale, and Holdsworth.

Have you ever gotten flak for making 6-string your main instrument?

So many times! Dudes write me all the time asking if starting out on 6 will prevent them from getting gigs. I tell them that if somebody won’t hire them because they play a 6, they don’t need to work with that person, anyway. People dog Yves Carbonne with his fretless 12-string, but what he plays on that mug is beautiful.

I’ve learned that the more I can appreciate what everybody else is doing, the more it helps me be versatile. If you don’t like a certain type of music, don’t buy it and don’t listen to it. I don’t like mayonnaise, so when I get a burger, do I get mayonnaise on it? No. But there are eight billion other people in the world, and they keep making mayonnaise. Clearly, somebody likes it.

INFO

EQUIP

Basses (all by MTD) Signature 5-and 6-strings, Saratoga 5-string, as well as a 4-string, fretless and MIDI 6-strings, a 6-string with tremolo bar, and a 7-string
Strings Signature MTD tapewounds, signature La Bella tapewounds, and other La Bellas
Rig Gallien-Krueger Fusion 550 head, GK Neo 412 4x12
Effects Roland VB-99 V-Bass System, Roland GR-55 Guitar Synthesizer, Roland GT-10B, SY-300 Guitar Synthesizer, Gallien-Krueger Plex preamp

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