Reed Mathis on Risk & Reward

“The Bass can play many roles—background, foreground, and in-between—without being overly showy or basscentric,” says Reed Mathis.
By Jimmy Leslie ,

“The Bass can play many roles—background, foreground, and in-between—without being overly showy or basscentric,” says Reed Mathis. “It’s just sound, and it’s empty sound unless you make it choicelessly.”

The classically trained maestro has a world of options at his fingertips with bass in hand. And the phone rings like mad for the sonic adventurer who logged 15 years with the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, and the past five with the neo-psychedelic band Tea Leaf Green. He picked up a plectrum in 2010 because it “makes the bass feel like a drum,” but still prefers the more vocal-like quality of fingerstyle for solos.

At press time, Mathis was working with ten different ensembles while TLG was on road hiatus. The band is releasing a free single each month in 2014. The most recent is an epic penned and sung by Mathis called “Nature Made You Music.” It features Mathis’ patented split-signal sound and showcases his orchestral flair. The title is essentially the Mathis manifesto.

Can you exemplify your point about making sound choicelessly?

Examples of choice-based playing are genre, gear/tone, style, licks, and techniques. We make these choices in order to impress and be accepted. But genre and style are social decisions, not musical ones. You cannot choose or reject the music inside you. It’s like your height, or eye color. Sure, you can buy a fancy amp, wear platform shoes, practice difficult techniques, dye your hair, or wear tinted contacts. All that is designed to mislead and manipulate your audience. Thus it is empty, and by definition imitative. Your true music cannot be improved upon. It can only be revealed. And that is not a question of tone or technique. It is a question of courage, honesty, and a willingness to be misunderstood— possibly rejected. All music of value is made that way.

Can you explain some of the compositional choices you made or didn’t make when composing the bass line and fills for “Nature”?

Honestly, none. Like every song I’ve ever written, “Nature” has no bass line at all. It has chords, and rhythms, but no “part.” I improvise it every time. A good improviser sounds like he or she is playing a composed part most of the time anyway.

What was your M.O. when you laid down the bass in the studio?

I gave absolutely no thought to the bass playing. We laid down the vocals and drums first. I did the bass line in one take—you know, “First thought, best thought.” Then I did two takes of flourishes, and used probably 20 percent of that in the final mix. I also played piano and guitar on this track, although neither is featured.

What did creating “Nature” reveal about your own musical instinct?

We all want to be successful and avoid humiliation. So there’s always the sensation of pushing through and past your own fears—out into the light where everyone can see your creation. It never really gets easier. But that’s kind of what the song is about. As Jimmy Fallon said, “You gotta risk it to get the biscuit.”



Tea Leaf Green, Coyote Hearing Sessions, “The Ladder,” “Nature Made You Music” [Greenhouse, 2014], In the Wake [Greenhouse, 2013]; Marco Benevento, Between the Needles & Nightfall [Royal Potato, 2010]; 7 Walkers, 7 Walkers [Response, 2010]; Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Winterwood [Indpt, 2008]


Bass Fender American Standard Jazz Bass
Strings Rotosound Jazz Bass RS 77LE Monel Flatwound Heavy (.050–.110)
Rig Aguilar AG 500 head, two Aguilar DB 212 2x12 cabinets, Fender Twin Reverb
Effects DigiTech Whammy Pedal, Snarling Dog Bawl Buster Bass Wah, Pro Co Rat II distortion, Ernie Ball VP JR Volume Pedal