Stewart (right) and Seether
WHAT DO YOU HEAR WHEN YOU think about South African music? If you’re like most folks of a certain age, you’ll remember the musicians on Paul Simon’s Graceland, or Johnny Clegg, or Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who have all indeed made some of the richest contributions to that country’s vast musical legacy. But if you’re under the impression that this southernmost African nation produces only major-key pop harmonies and dance-friendly, indigenous melodies full of sunshine, well, you’d be wrong.
Just ask Dale Stewart, bassist for South Africa natives and longtime U.S. residents Seether, who specialize in a grunge-meets-metal sound that has won the band acclaim and a serious following around the world. “We were always more focused on heavier music and what was going on in the States,” says Stewart. And it wasn’t just metal: Dale also cites James Jamerson and Billy Sheehan as major influences. On his band’s early albums, Disclaimer II  and Karma and Effect , Stewart is the model of selfless, straightforward support.
The band’s latest, Holding Onto Strings Better Left to Fray, finds the group reverting to its original trio configuration—Stewart, drummer John Humphrey, and guitarist Shaun Morgan—after years of label-imposed second guitarists. On tracks like “Country Song,” Stewart provides unflashy, warm support and melodic interest, keeping Humphrey and Morgan connected and sometimes doubling the guitar parts. The formula seems to be working: the record debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart in June 2011, selling 61,000 copies in the first week, and it topped rock, alternative, and hard rock charts.
Did you guys do anything out of the ordinary for the Holding Onto Strings Better Left to Fray recording sessions?
We had been touring for a really long time and were all feeling the burn of being on the road, so we came home, took a year off, and did nothing. It was great. When we decided to start working on the new album, we got together in Nashville, put our ideas together, and it was a true collaboration. We took enough time off to where we wanted to get back into it and be creative again.
What were your main goals for the bass on the new album?
I try to never overplay. Knowing when not to play is almost more important than knowing when to play, so I pick and choose when I’m going to go for it on certain parts. It’s human nature to want to be in the spotlight, but I’m never afraid of playing root notes or sitting back on a simple groove.
What did you learn about recording bass from producer Brendan O’Brien?
The cool thing with Brendan is that he always says, “Just go for it, dude. Whatever you want to do, just go full steam ahead.” If he has suggestions, he steps right in, but for the most part, he lets the player be the player. He gave me a lot of freedom to do whatever I wanted; he observed every little nuance of what I did, though. As a player, I like to stay behind the beat quite a bit, but Brendan picked apart my bass lines and would sometimes suggest laying back or playing in front of the beat.
Did he tell you what gear to use on the record?
Actually, I used all my own gear, which is rare. So many producers have a ton of gear, and they’ll be like, “Try this bass, try this pedal, you definitely have to use this amp.” That sucks, because I always want to play my own stuff. It can take away from focus in the studio, because when I use new gear, I’m not just thinking about how to nail the parts—I’m thinking of how different the bass feels. But this was different; I used my basses, amps, and pedals, and that made it special to me. We ran a DI on top of putting some mics at my amps and we really got a great blend. Using my stage rig gave it my own distinct sound, and that should be very obvious on the record.
Which bass players have been your biggest musical influences?
Early on, I was really into James Jamerson, and I listened to his playing all the time. I’d have to say my biggest influence on bass is Billy Sheehan. I can’t say he’s a direct influence, because I can’t play anything like he does, but I love him as a player. He’s someone I have tremendous respect for. I got to meet and hang out with him a few times, and I was relieved that he was so cool.
How did you get started on bass?
I was 18 years old when I first started playing bass. I had been playing guitar throughout high school, but no one played music in my town. Everyone was into rugby, soccer, and cricket, which I tried for a little while. After high school, some friends said they needed a bass player, and I told them I’d keep my ears open in case I found someone. Then they told me they wanted me to be their bassist, and even though I told them I couldn’t play bass, I joined the band. That’s where I met Shaun, who was playing around town in another band. When my band broke up, Shaun asked me to join Saron Gas, which eventually became Seether.
Did you take bass lessons, or are you self-taught?
I took some guitar lessons as a kid, but I have no formal training on bass. I’ve done it all by ear. I can’t read music and I don’t know music theory, and when I joined this band, Shaun and I had no idea what we were doing. Anything we know now just comes from doing it for so long.
Troy McLawhorn joined the band in 2008 but has since left. Are you going to fill his spot or move on as a trio?
We are going to stick with being a three-piece. We love it. It’s how we were until our label suggested that we add another guitarist, but it hasn’t worked. It feels a lot better having three instead of four—it feels like home. It’s us onstage, no backing tracks and no fill-in guitarists, just three guys up there having a good time and making as much noise as we can. That’s Seether. We have the confidence to roll as a 3-piece, no doubt about that.
Do you play differently in a trio?
I’ve started playing power chords so that it fills out the sound a bit; when I strum chords on bass, it really rings out and makes a huge sound. On “Country Song,” I actually play the intro riff on an acoustic guitar set up on a stand so that I can keep my bass strapped on. I have a stuffed hippo on the stand so that it mutes my bass while I play the guitar, and when it kicks into the chorus, I step back and start playing bass.
You’re a fingerstyle player, but lately, you’ve been playing with a pick.
I mainly play with my fingers, but I do use picks sometimes now. To be honest, I really just had picks made so I’d have something to throw into the crowd during shows [laughs]. Sometimes I grab one and strum chords with it, but I also strum with my fingers, too. I don’t really have a specific technique—I just try to focus on playing dynamically, especially being in a three-piece. The softer parts have to be soft and the louder parts have to be huge, so I try to control a lot of that with my hands more than my gear.
Word is that you have a Schecter Custom Series bass in the works. How did that come about?
I went to the Schecter factory one day and got to meet the vice president. When I told him that I loved their Avenger guitar and wished I had that body type for a bass, he dug one up and gave it to me. Now they’re making me a signature-series Avenger bass. It’s flattering and surreal. I’m like a little kid about this.
I’m keeping the design pretty standard— I’m putting in the EMG pickups that I use, and I’m making it a really long and heavy bass. I think the weight adds to the tone and the warmth. I’m using a rosewood fingerboard, and I’m going with an all-black body with black hardware and tuning pegs. I want to keep it metal-looking and metal-sounding.
How do you feel you’ve evolved and matured as a bassist since the band’s early days?
I think I’ve just developed through playing a lot and playing with a lot of different people. Working in the studio always makes you reflect on how you play and why you’re playing. I hope I’ve just absorbed all of these things I’ve learned over the years. I don’t regard myself as an amazing bass player—I’m not a technical wizard—I but if I can just be solid and hold down my end, I’m happy.
HEAR HIM ON
Seether, Holding Onto Strings Better Left To Fray [Wind Up, 2011], Finding Beauty in Negative Spaces [Wind Up, 2007]
Bass Schecter Avenger
Rig Two Hartke LH1000 heads and two Hartke 8x10 Hy-Drive cabinets
Effects Dunlop 105Q Crybaby Bass Wah, Boss CEB-3 Bass Chorus, Boss ODB-3 Bass Overdrive, Boss Tuner
Strings Dunlop Bass Heavy (.050–.110, for CFBbEb tuning), Dunlop Bass Medium (.045–.105, for EbAbDbGb tuning)