Stu Hamm: Road Diary

Stu Hamm's Unique New Solo-Bass Project Focuses on the Songs
By Chris Jisi ,

“All of my songs are about something, but no one ever asks me that. Instead they ask about what technique or gear I used.” So says Stu Hamm in discussing how his captivating new solo-bass album, The Diary of Patrick Xavier, is rife with information—from the story of the album’s genesis to details about each song. The ten-track disc was inspired by a traveler’s diary Hamm found in Italy during the course of his usual road practice of reading a book, leaving it at the hotel library for the next guest, and taking a new book. “Reading this student’s diary and seeing that we were on the same type of quest, in many of the same places, gave me the jumping-off point for the record,” he says. And plunge in he did, with an intimate yet intense album of bass-only 4-string creations that range from romantic ballads and modern-classical meditations to tapped, slapped, and strummed jazz, funk, and noise art. “The duality of the album is that the listener can delve in artistically, or it can be pleasing music to put on in the background.” Hamm turned to crowdsourcing to fund the project, learning a lot along the way.

Why did you choose to make a bass-only album?

I like to switch it up. Nothing beats playing with a band, but I’ve been listening to what’s called post-modernist minimalism, with composers like Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt, through the website Hearts of Space [hos.com], which bills itself as “Slow music for fast times.” The other key influence is Pat Metheny’s album One Quiet Night [2003, Warner Bros.]. It’s such a beautiful record, and you can hear all the imperfections. On my older albums I spent so much time editing out the string squeaks and rattles. Here, I embraced it all; you’ll hear me rushing or out of tune at times. I like the austerity of just solo bass. On most of the songs, the art is the interpretation, not improvisation.

The opening ballad, “Goodbye,” is a prime example of your minimalistic approach. At first it seems like a chordal piece, but upon closer listen, it’s mostly just a top and bottom note.

As you know, writing is rewriting and getting rid of as much unnecessary material as possible. Originally I was playing a lot more on “Goodbye,” but I kept thinking, What else can I take out? Ultimately, it allowed the notes and spaces to have much more value and depth. A funny contrast is that while recording it, in my head I was hearing a Latin groove pounding away, to help me keep time, but that also enabled me to leave more space.

“My Boss Drives a Mercedes … but I’m working for minimum wage plus tips” moves from mildly peeved to angry in mood.

That’s sort of my socialist song [laughs]. The title refers to both a cheapskate producer I knew in L.A., and the clubowner’s car in the parking spot at a place I used to play in Santa Monica, where I’d make $20 but have to pay six bucks for a glass of wine. It’s a tapped piece that relies on dynamics and some tone- and volume-knob turning to get the moods across. At the end, I reverse the fingering and tap the melody down low, which makes for some comic relief when performed live—the result of the influence the Marx Brothers’ brilliant meld of comedy and music had on me.

You give a shout-out to Michael Manring on “Buono Notte Amore Mia, Ovunque Tu Sia.”

This is a nod to his song “The Enormous Room” [from Thonk, 1994, High Street], which I’ve seen him perform on his Hyperbass—he’s one of a kind. I tuned the E string on my Washburn to a D, so that I could Hipshot it down to a C, while playing the harmonics. The title means “Goodnight My Love, Wherever You Are.” I found a poem in the diary, and I tried to write a melody that exactly mirrored Patrick’s words. This is one of six tracks where I used my new Markbass S.T.U. head and cabinet. I had asked them to make me a rock & roll rig, and they came up with a great tube-preamp head and a 2x15 cabinet that has incredible bottom end and as much definition as a 4x10 cabinet.

“Chopping Wood” has an unmistakable open-strings element.

I love my open strings. The first time I took notice of the concept was in Jaco’s solo on Weather Report’s “Havona” [Heavy Weather, 1977, Columbia], where he bounces off the open G string [at 3:35]. Upright bassists are masters of open strings in jazz, James Jamerson used them ingeniously, and I’ve been using them ever since; I had a tune on my previous album [The Book of Lies, 2015] called “Open String Aria,” where I tried to use as many open strings as possible up and down the neck. The challenge on this tune is the phrasing against the meter. I was hearing four, six, and seven-note phrases played as 16th-notes. I had a loud quarter-note click in my headphones to help dial them in.

Speaking of phrases, “The Weeping Beech” and “The City” have interesting development.

“The Weeping Beech” was inspired by a couple of pieces by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. It’s basically one phrase that becomes longer and longer, until it’s all played together, and from there it sort of deconstructs. This was a killer on the fingers, as I was trying to let every note ring as long as possible.

“The City” is my ode to both San Francisco, where I spent some of the best years of my life, and film composer Bernard Hermann, who scored the Alfred Hitchcock and Ray Harryhausen movies I grew up on. Hermann wrote a lot of single-note melodies, often outlining 7th chords. I wanted to have a song on the album that was one long melody, with no chords or groove.

ALISON HASBACH / TRUEFIRE

What’s going on in “The Ballad of Billy Pilgrim,” with its waves of distortion?

This is the track where people will ask for their money back [laughs], but to me it’s one of the best songs on album—meant to be listened to loud through headphones. Billy is the main character from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, who becomes unstuck in time. I wrote and recorded it on my laptop near Pescara, Italy, which is where I found the diary. It’s basically about how when you visit certain places where important events have happened, they’re still occurring in some emotional way, like memory-quakes that wash over you. I’ve never been a big effects guy, but this record has me exploring them. The main distortion sound was something I came up with for a song on a tour with guitarist Jennifer Batten, which also incorporated long delays and swells on my volume knob.

Both “Smoke Break” and “Hello” have overdubbed basses.

“Smoke Break” was a jazzy melody I was working on with some phrases that approximate the false-fingerings saxophonists do. I decided I wanted to solo on it, so there’s the melody track, the chord and groove track, the solo track, and the backbeat-tapped-on-my-fingerboard track—which was the hardest one to mix. I’ve been doing the tune live using the looper in my Zoom B3n.

“Hello” was inspired by spending Christmas 2015 on a cruise through the Galapagos Islands. I wanted to have the melody on fretless, requiring a second track. The problem was I played the chordal part on my Washburn with a True Temperament fingerboard, and when you compare the harmonic 3rd on that bass to what’s generally accepted as a 3rd in Western music [equal temperament], it’s about a quarter-tone flat. So, when I played the melody on my fretless Fender Urge II where I normally would, it was sharp; I had to move my fingers back to get in tune.

What led you to choose crowdsourcing to fund the project?

Understanding the reality that no one is beating down my door to finance a solo-bass album. I’m just not going to sell records like Kendrick Lamar. Fortunately, my longtime engineer and partner in crime, James Boblak, is way better at social media than I am. He turned me on to Indiegogo, and it’s been awesome. I ran a campaign that had all kinds of perks. I offered signed copies of the album, patronships where your name is included in the credits, and pre-release copies where you listened to some of the tracks and gave your input, and got listed as a co-producer. I sold Skype lessons and offered my services as a bassist on people’s tracks. I have a buddy in [the band] Nelson who told me fans pay to be their roadies for a day, so I offered VIP packages and the opportunity to be my production manager/roadie for the day. I sold everything out, and that allowed me to hire a graphic artist for the booklet, spend more on mastering, rent a safer vehicle for the tour, and stay in nicer hotels.

How has it been going on tour?

Very well. At my first gig, a woman named Mary was my production manager. She brought windshield wiper fluid because it was snowing out, she helped me with my merchandise table and getting my basses ready, and we had dinner and chatted. I had a VIP in Indianapolis who was a trombone player in my high school jazz band, and another VIP who brought a friend who was recovering from surgery. They sat backstage, we had dinner, I played their favorite songs at soundcheck, and we took photos.

Would you recommend this route to other artists?

Absolutely. It’s a great way to be in control of every aspect of your music. Now the album is also available at CD Baby and iTunes, but initially I had to send out all the copies, which was time-consuming, especially with overseas orders where you have to fill out customs labels. My main takeaway is: Don’t hesitate to add expensive perks to your campaign. There are folks out there who will be interested, and it will boost your intake. I had a request for my most expensive perk, an executive producer slot, after my campaign ended. I’m very blessed to have retained a great core of fans who come out to my shows and want to have a physical CD in their hands, read the booklet, and have it signed.

One last question: Have you heard from the real owner of the diary?

Not so far. As I say in the liner notes, the names have been changed to protect the guilty. I know he was in the film industry in L.A. for a while, so we’ll see if that leads to any connections back to the record. I’d love to meet him.

INFO

LISTEN

Stuart Hamm, The Diary of Patrick Xavier [2018, UbikMusik]

Egidio Salvucci

EQUIP

Basses Warwick Stu Hamm Prototypes (green and red); Washburn Hammer (with True Temperment fingerboard); fretless Fender Urge II (with GHS Black Nylon Tape Wound strings)
Rig Markbass S.T.U. Signature head and 2x15 cabinet
Strings GHS M3045 Bass Boomers (.045–.105), L9000 Phospher Bronze Acoustic Bass Guitar (.040, .056, .076, .096)
Effects Zoom B3n Bass Effects Pedal
Other RiverStraps straps, Wireworld Cable Technology cables