The way Blue October’s Matt Noveskey sees it, there are two types of bass players: “There’s sort of the guy who got pushed onto the bass because he wasn’t the greatest guitarist in the band, so he goes, ‘Okay, I’ll try four strings instead of six.’ And then there’s the guy who’s a bass player by nature. It’s what he’s meant to do. He’s somebody who really enjoys being the glue of the band. I’m a bass player—it’s in my blood. I’m a bass player for life. I had two uncles who played bass, and my brother played drums. I’m all about rhythm, and I grew up on Motown. It was more or less predetermined that I would play bass.”
Not only is Noveskey an enthusiastic and dedicated member of the 4-(and sometimes 5-) String Club, he’s constantly looking for new recruits. “I’m always pushing kids to play the bass. I tell them, ‘It’s a beautiful, underappreciated instrument, and you should pursue it. You get to play drums and guitar at the same time if you play the bass.’ The bass player is often the underdog in the band, but he’s also the one who sets the strategy for the songs. There are so many benefits to playing the instrument.”
For the better part of 20 years, the Michigan-born Noveskey has occupied the bass seat for the Lone Star State alt-rock band Blue October. There was a two-year stretch, from 2002–04, when he went off on his own. “I had to sort out some personal things, and I had unfinished business as a songwriter I wanted to explore.” But after receiving a phone call from the band’s lead singer, Justin Furstenfeld, Noveskey realized that he missed his old gang, and he rejoined the fold. “Being in a band is more than just making music. It’s about chemistry and friendship. We’ve been through highs and lows, and during the lows we found that we can really lean on one another. I learned how rare that was when I was off on my own.”
One of the band’s high points came in 2006, when a pair of hit singles, “Hate Me” and “Into the Ocean,” propelled the album Foiled to platinum status, and in his view, Blue October’s new album, I Hope You’re Happy, is already a success. “This one is really special to us. We produced it ourselves, with no second-guessing from producers or anybody. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had some amazing producers—but at some point you have to take off the training wheels. We went in as a strong, unified team, and we listened to our instincts.”
There are times on the new record when Noveskey dominates the proceedings—his massive bass lines drive the ultra-peppy, ’80s-laced title track and the gonzo-electronic gem “Colors Collide”—but he insists that the song is always the star. “I got to try a lot of cool stuff out on this album, but I never get in the way of the Justin’s vocals. I learned that from James Jamerson. He played such bouncy, hooky parts, but you always heard what the singer was putting out there. That’s something I always keep in mind: Do your cool shit, but always play in service to the song.”
You say that playing bass allows you to play drums and guitar at the same time. Can you elaborate?
It’s something I learned when I first picked up the bass. It’s a percussive instrument, and that’s what attracted me to the bass. I remember sitting down with cassette tapes and studying my favorite bass players—Flea, Les Claypool, James Jamerson. They made each song move in a very rhythmic fashion. Plus, growing up with an older brother who played drums, I was really aware of rhythm. I didn’t approach the bass like a guitarist; I came at it from a drummer’s point of view. “How does the bass work with subdivisions within the song?” That kind of thing.
Were you always a fingerstyle bass player?
I was. I started as a fingerstyle bass player. I did a lot of slapping, and I was also a big Geddy Lee fan. I was interested in how he plays fingerstyle when he does this sort of flamenco thing. But some of my other heroes played with a pick, guys like Eric Avery from Jane’s Addiction, so later on I started playing with a pick. There are benefits to both techniques. On the last couple of records, I’d say 80 percent is with a pick. I get that nice, gritty overdrive sound—very New Order and the Cure.
What was your first good bass?
My first few basses were garbage, but early on I got a Peavey Foundation for 200 bucks used, and I’ll tell you, there was something about it. It played and sounded great. I figured out a lot of stuff on that bass, and I’m kind of glad I learned on it instead of some fancy boutique bass. It forced me to be a better player and really learn how to work my fingers. My first really nice bass was a Warwick Fortress I. I played Warwicks for a while.
What was your audition for the band like?
I was in a lot of bands, and I was in pretty high demand. If you’re a good bassist, you’re gonna work because everybody needs you. I expected the Blue October audition to be intense, but it wasn’t. I had done my homework and studied the first record. The stuff was pretty straightforward; I was used to playing Rush and Primus and King Crimson, so I felt confident. I flew down with their manager to catch a show in Austin, and the next day I jammed with them. It probably took all of 30 seconds for everybody to realize, “This is a match.” I loved them and their music, and they dug what I was doing. The audition was super easy, and it was just meant to be.
How would you describe your musical relationship with drummer Jeremy Furstenfeld?
It’s kind of unspoken. We both lead sometimes; there’s a nice back-and-forth between us, depending on the song. We just rehearse, and the stuff evolves. I can be a bit of a pain, though. I’m always the one who says, “We didn’t do this right. We didn’t do that right.”
At the risk of sounding corny, Jeremy and I have grown very close as friends. There were periods when he couldn’t talk to Justin, so a bond developed between us. What we have is more than musical, but I think our friendship helps us as a rhythm section, too. I sense what he’s going to do, and vice versa.
Was there anything different in how you tracked your bass for the new album?
Part of my routine lately has been to track bass last. If we’re stacking everything and I’m not tracking live with the drums, I like to wait until everything’s in there and either recut my bass part or just wait until the end so I can see how it fits with the vocal. It really works, because the worst thing you can do is step all over the vocal—you completely mess up the song’s vibe.
Is that how you approached the song “I Hope You’re Happy”? The bass line is way out in front—very ’80s retro, like a synth bass, but it never steps on the vocals.
Absolutely, and that is a synth bass! I kick off the song with a real bass, and then the synth comes in and repeats the pattern. What you’re hearing is a blend of the two throughout. I’m using a pick with some overdrive to get that gritty, organic tone. I definitely wanted to go for an ’80s thing, kind of what [Duran Duran’s] John Taylor used to do when he matched his bass up with a synth.
“Colors Collide” is an intense electronic track, but it feels as if it’s built around your bass line.
That was one of those days when Jeremy and I took our time and just did whatever we wanted, for hours. We kept trying things to outdo each other, and everything just got cooler and cooler. There are two bass parts going at the same time: a staccato picky part, which actually almost sounds like a baritone or a guitar, and another part on a 5-string, which sounds really low. It’s a great blend.
“Let Forever Mean Forever” stands out from everything else. It’s a simple track with an easy bass line that moves everything along.
I got to bust out the old Fender Precision with flats. I went straight-up DI and just did a very warm, thumpy deal. It’s funny, because Justin kept going, “Flatwounds! I love those flatwounds. Do it again—more flatwounds!” It’s like he’d never heard that sound before.
You mentioned going DI in the studio. When you use amps, what do you go through?
In the past I set up an old Ampeg classic rig in a bathroom with tile floors to get a barky, nasty sound. And then we’d run a nice clean rig and blend that with the DI. On this record, I depended on my Aguilar Tone Hammer amp. I cannot express how much I love that thing, and I love that it doesn’t color the sound too much—it’s very natural.
You’re involved in so many pursuits: You co-own Austin’s Orb Recording Studio, you produce other artists, and you have side bands. Does it ever get to be too much?
It gets a little hectic. I have been known to spread myself a little thin at times, but I’ve gotten better at building teams. That helps me to concentrate on each thing as it comes up. The band comes first, but I enjoy doing all kinds of things. And I’m constantly setting new goals for myself. I’d like to get into theory next. I know what to play on the bass kind of intuitively, but I want to know why I play it. There’s always so much to do and learn. Fortunately, I’m not a very complacent kind of guy.
Blue October, I Hope You’re Happy [2018, Up/Down], Home [2016, Up/Down], Foiled [2006, Universal]
Basses 1974 Fender Jazz Bass, 1983 G&L SB-2, Sandberg Electra TT4, Berly Guitars ‘51 reissue P-style
Strings Ernie Ball Mediums
Amps Aguilar Tone Hammer 500 head, Aguilar DB 410 cabinet
Effects Various Aguilar pedals, Old School FX Invisible Robot fuzz
Picks Dunlop Ultex .73mm