TOWARD THE TOP OF ANY LEGITIMATE LIST OF GREAT ROCK & ROLL BANDS THAT NEVER QUITE ATTAINED THE POPULARITY AND ACCLAIM THEY DESERVED, YOU’LL FIND KING’S X. FORGED IN MISSOURI IN THE MID ’80S AND SHARPENED IN THE HEAT OF HOUSTON, TEXAS, THE TRIO OF GUITARIST TY TABOR, DRUMMER JERRY GASKILL, AND bassist dUg Pinnick released its debut, Out of the Silent Planet, in 1988, following up with the powerful Gretchen Goes to Nebraska in 1989. On Faith Hope Love , King’s X , and Dogman , the band continued to play to its strengths: smart lyrics, lush harmonies, and a heaviness ahead of their time, accomplished via the oracular employment of drop tunings long before the sludgy sea change out of Seattle made the practice commonplace.
Leading from the bottom, frontman dUg Pinnick brought with him a fantastically diverse mixture of ingredients—gospel-tinged vocals, a groove sensibility steeped in R&B, and a penchant for gnarly bass tones. With his frequent use of 12-string basses (slung super low by the terrifically tall southpaw) and bi-amped rigs, Pinnick created one of the most distinctive bass sounds in rock & roll, in and of itself a tremendous achievement.
A prolific songwriter, Pinnick has long collaborated with artists outside of King’s X, and his catalog of solo albums continues to grow. That the caliber of his collaborators would be high should be no surprise, but dUg has outdone himself in Pinnick Gales Pridgen, in which he teams up with guitar badass Eric Gales and drummer extraordinaire Thomas Pridgen. As the power trio was preparing to enter the studio—mere months after recording its self-titled Magna Carta debut, dUg took some time to talk shop.
How did the Pinnick Gales Pridgen project come together?
Mike Varney [of Shrapnel Records] called me up and said, “Hey man, do you want to do something with Eric Gales?” I’ve known Eric for years, and we had always talked about doing something together. So I said, “Hell yeah!” I had just written around 20 songs for my solo record, so I had about ten songs left over. We ended up taking five of my tunes, and we co-wrote the rest of them. We did it all in about 10 days. The fun was in letting everyone do what they do and be themselves, especially with Eric and Thomas.
How does bass factor into your songwriting?
Writing songs on a guitar for the past 20 years, I haven’t thought a lot about my bass playing or how to approach it; I’d just put what was needed in the song and keep going. It’s stupid, because bass is what I love to do the most. But in the last few years, I’ve been jamming with a lot of people, and I’ve been able to just make up bass parts, nothing else. It’s brought me back to that place I was when I started making up bass lines and having fun. It’s just, Hey, let’s get this groove going and dance underneath everybody while they dance on top. I’m really enjoying that.
Let’s talk tunes on the PGP album. “Black Jeans” is great, with its haunting chord progressions.
I think that’s what Eric liked about it when he first heard the demo. I went to that second chord, and he turned his head and went, “Ooh!” Th en he stepped up to the plate and took the song where it needed to go. My version was faster—I was thinking of a Johnny Cash kind of twang, but it turned darker. The first thing Tom said after he heard the demo was, “Hey, can we slow it down?” When they did what they did to it, it turned into another animal to get excited about. It’s actually my favorite song on the record.
The riff on “Hang On, Big Brother” is pretty killer, too.
That’s a hard f’ing thing to play! I’m doubling Eric on the bass, and then I’ve gotta sing. . . . I tell you, I don’t know how I’m going to do this stuff live. But I’m up for the challenge. I come from King’s X, where we pull off a lot of crazy-ass shit, so I know it can be done. I’ve just got my work cut out for me.
Does the band have tour plans?
We’re working on it. Nothing’s final yet because everybody’s busy. But we’ll make it happen.
Back to the tunes, the groove on “Angels and Aliens” is deep.
When Eric came up with that riff , all I could hear was the bass line to Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher.” When I started playing like that, Thomas immediately put four on the floor, and we just locked into it.
Aside from Larry Graham, who else do you like to borrow from?
Jamie Jamerson, except I play with such a wiry tone. And Chris Squire, all the time. One of the things I love about him is that he’s so funky. On “Roundabout” or “Close to the Edge,” he’s a f’ing monster—he commands. I try to incorporate that in all my bass playing now. If you’re going to be in the background, command the band. Connecting a note or playing staccato or leaving holes literally changes the mood and groove more than anything else in the band.
What gear did you use with PGP?
My Schecter Model T, with custom Seymour Duncan pickups. I have five sets of those pickups, and I put them in whatever bass I’m playing. I’ve never found pickups that growl quite like them— they’re crucial to my tone.
Initially I was thinking that I didn’t want my King’s X tone—I thought I’d try a new approach, with just an Ampeg SVT. But when I got up to the studio, I realized I hadn’t played like that since I was 20 years old, and I just couldn’t find the sound I used to love. So I pulled an EQ out of their rack and used an Orange [guitar] amp that was there in the studio, with a miked 4x12 Marshall cabinet.
What about picks and strings?
I use medium picks and DR Strings Hi-Beams. With every other bass string I’ve used, the low string always goes dead right away. But DRs last a long time.
Just months after releasing Pinnick Gales Pridgen, you’re going back in to record another album.
This time I don’t know what’s going to happen, because I’m not going in with any songs. The three of us are going to try to write together; I think it will be even better.
The band is unique in that everybody seems to be a southpaw.
Eric and I play left-handed, and Thomas plays right-handed. The weird thing is that Eric is actually right-handed. When he started playing guitar, his brother was left-handed and played upside down, and he taught Eric to play that way.
And I’m actually ambidextrous—I bat left handed by throw right-handed, for example. When I bowl, I’ll use both hands. It can mess with your brain, because both sides of the brain are dominant, so it can make your brain freeze up. Somebody will say, “Go left,” and I’ll go right. As for playing bass and singing, that’s easy. Th ere are two things going and once, and they have complete independence.
You play with the low strings on top. Have you always played that way?
I started upside down. After about six months, a guy told me it might be easier if I switched it. I just did whatever anybody told me back then, so I switched around. I sometimes wish I hadn’t, because then I’d be able to pick up anybody’s bass and play it.
It seems as if you never rest from writing. What’s your process?
In the last few weeks, I’ve been mixing my blues band in the mornings, and then I’ve been putting vocals on another band I have with George Lynch and Ray Luzier from Korn in the afternoons. It’s given me a lot more energy just to be really busy. I’ve played all over the world for a lot of people—I’ve done a lot. It’s not that I don’t want that anymore, but writing and recording is just more fun now that I’m older.
You recently relocated from Texas to Los Angeles. What precipitated the move?
I’d been living in Texas, and the music business turned to shit. So I called my brother up and said, “Move into my house.” He moved in, and I grabbed my guitars and came out to Los Angeles. I told myself I’d give it five years. I’m going to play with everybody I can, have some fun, make some music, and see if I can get a check coming in every month.
When I got out here, I ran into a lot of people who’d say, “Hey, let’s do something.” If I can be in a studio making music with somebody, I want to do it. That’s been rejuvenating—I feel like I’m a teenager again. The fun part about it is that I’ve been playing and writing for so long that I’m no longer insecure about things. And the people I’ve been working with are top-notch, so I’m not in there thinking we’re writing a bunch of crap.
King’s X was one of the first bands to droptune. How did that come about?
Before we got a record deal in King’s X [in 1987], Ty played a lot of bluegrass with his dad, and bluegrass often calls for dropped tuning. Ty wanted to write a song that sounded like “She’s So Heavy” by the Beatles, so he wrote “Please” in Drop D. He played it for us and he said, “This is really different. I don’t think it’s any good, but I just played something that I felt.” When Jerry and I heard it, we looked at each other and went, This is awesome! I went home and drop-tuned my guitar, and I realized how easy it was to play. We both started writing in that tuning, and we’ve been there ever since.
What’s your preferred tuning these days?
I play in Drop C [CGCF], and I write everything in C or lower. When we started pulling out my demo songs for PGP, they were too low for Eric. He said, “Let me drop my guitar one step, not two.” No problem. And that gave it all a different flavor.
Did you start out as a bass player?
I played saxophone for a semester in school when I was 12, and then learned the bass. I was in choir from middle school through college, and I was always in some kind of group that was singing. Bass was a dream. The first time I heard bass I was three years old—it was Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers playing “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” on my cousin’s old record player. I liked the vocals, but it was the bass line that got me. From that point on, all I listened to was bass. I played bass for the first time when I was 23, when a friend of mine brought one over and said, “Here, check this out.” When I could play my first lick, it was one of the most exciting times I’ve ever felt in my life. I couldn’t give that bass back.
A lot of people identify you with 12-string bass, even though you mostly play 4-string.
I did play it a lot of 12-string on Faith Hope Love and King’s X [1990 and 1992]. I got the idea from Tom Petersson from Cheap Trick. He’s the originator, the godfather. King’s X was touring with Cheap Trick in 1988 for our first record. Cheap Trick is one of my favorite bands in the whole world, so I was trying to hang out backstage and be cool. At one gig,, right before they went on stage, I said to Tom, “Man, that 12-string is cool.” He said, “Check it out,” and he took it off and handed it to me. I went, “Dude, I want one of these,” and he told me to get in touch with Hamer and ask them to make me one. About six months later, Hamer called Ty and asked if he would play one of their guitars. I called them up and said, “What about me?” They went, “Well of course you, dUg!” So they built me four 12-strings.
Do you still play 12-string?
I try to pull it out on at least one song per record, because everybody wants to hear it and see it.
Why did you move away from 12-string?
I got lazy. One thing about a 12-string is it doesn’t work well if you’re just playing along with the guitar. You’ve got to write a song on a 12-string— like Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy.” But I usually don’t pick up the 12-string when I have a song to write. I’ll grab a guitar instead. So it just slipped away from me. I wrote “Human Behavior” [Dogman, 1994] on a 12-string. That’s why it’s real minimal and primal. The 12-string has all these harmonic chiming artifacts that turn it into a huge sound.
The instrument is notoriously difficult to play. Can you off er any pointers?
First off , you need to get the action really, really low, and you have to use light-gauge strings all the way around, even on the bass string. If you’re a pick player, you want the little strings on the top, and if you’re a fingerstyle player, you want the little strings on the bottom. Because if you hit the big string first, you’re going to miss the octave strings.
Whether it’s 12-string or 4-string, you have one of the most distinct bass tones in rock & roll. How did you cultivate it?
When I was coming up, I was listening to James Jamerson, “Duck” Dunn, and all those soul players who played finger style and had a nice beefy sound. And then I was really into Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder, who were playing that percussive kind of sound with a clavinet. When I heard “Roundabout” by Yes, I went, What the hell is that? Here was this clanky clavinet piano sound on a bass— the thing that I love the most. I remember I ran to the music store and said, “How do I get that kind of clangy, twangy sound?” The guy looked at me and said, “What you talking about?” For a year or more I couldn’t find that sound; I’d turn all the treble up and all the bass down, but I never could get it right.
Then I read an article in Circus magazine with John Entwistle. I had just gotten a glimpse of his live tone [on The Who’s Live at Leeds], because the bass wasn’t as clangy on the Who’s studio records. When I heard that tone, it turned my ear. In the article he talked about Rotosound strings, so I went to the store and bought some. They were something like 50 bucks, so I used them until they died—after a week or so.
So I’d found a sound for my bass, but not for my amp. A kid had given me an Ampeg BT-15 with two 1x15” cabinets. They rocked, but they didn’t have that clang I wanted. One day, another kid showed up where I used to practice when I lived in Florida, and he had a Traynor YBA-1 amp. I plugged into it, and all the sudden, there that sound—clank. I traded my Ampeg for the Traynor, and kid looked at me like I was an idiot. But I wanted that sound- I’d found it, and I wasn’t about to let it go! I ended up getting seven of those heads, and I used them up to until Faith Hope Love. They were pretty old at that point, and I began to move over to other amps. Those Traynors were the key to my tone.
What specifically did you like about them?
They had a crystalline, bright high end that danced around you. I haven’t found in any other amp yet-that tone is just gone. I pull out my Traynors and listen now, but I can’t get used to it anymore. Times have changed, and sounds have changed. We’ve gotten bigger, louder, and deeper, so those old Traynors just don’t sound right anymore. It’s an amazing sound, but there’s very little low end.
You’ve long been a big proponent of bi-amping, using guitar amps for your highs and bass amps for your lows. How did that come about?
I went to a Yes show and saw that Chris Squire had both guitar amps and bass amps. I couldn’t afford that, but I kept it in the back of my mind. For the second King’s X record [in 1989], I told our manager that I wanted bass and guitar amps, and he got them for me. From that point I experimented with lots of different guitar heads. Mesa Boogie, Fender, Egnater—I’ve tried a lot. I used an Ampeg SVT for the low end, dialing all the high end out for a fat, compressed sound. Th e high end on top tells you what the notes are, so you get a solid wall of low end that doesn’t step on anything.
How do you view the role of bass tone in a band context?
Bass is the most important instrument, but it’s the one that has to figure out how to fit it. Guitar players are married to their sound—you don’t want to mess with that. Drums are what they are. Bass is ambient, so you need to dial your sound around the band and still give that audio illusion that you’re getting bass in your face.
I’ve spent years EQing, dialing frequencies in and out. When you put bass through a guitar amp, you just get mud. So you need to take the low end out of that channel and treat it like a guitar. You have to drop out from 4kHz up to 20kHz, because up there is just clunk—no sound. Your tone sits between 500Hz and 2kHz. Down low, I keep it flat.
My tone is an animal that needs to be mixed right or it’s really annoying. I Iike the growl to come through, but not to be in your face. A lot of engineers bring the high end up because they think that’s what I want, but it’s not.
Where does the grind in your tone come from?
The guitar amp. You can turn the gain up to the point where it’s just big fuzz, or you can back it up to a place where it’s just about to break up. If you do that and put the low end with it, it works really well. The other thing is that the low end has to be compressed really tight. If it’s not, the two signals fight each other. That’s why I say the low end has to just sit in that one spot and let the high end give you the emotion.
What’s your cabinet preference?
There’s something about Ampeg 8x10 cabinets that I haven’t found in any other bass cab-the consistency of the deep low end. If you’re going to use high end, you’ve got to get deep along with with it. The higher you go, the deeper you’ve gotta to go. And if you narrow it up, it will just turn into this nasally, ugly thing. They don’t make them any more, but I used to use Ampeg SVP-Pro preamps. In the early days, that helped me perfect my tone. I’ve never been able to get back to that. I’m happy with what I got now, but that was heaven for me.
What’s your rig now?
I use a Fractal Axe-FX. I basically programmed my old rig right into it, and now I can’t tell the difference. I just run that through my Ampeg power amps and cabinets. Now I can just stick the Fractal in my suitcase and go.
How do you apply compression?
I’ve found you need to apply compression at the end of any signal; otherwise, you’re going to get a weird DI-type sound. Even with my Fractal, I put compression after the speaker emulator, so no matter how big the room is, there’s still a compressor squashing the whole thing.
What’s happening with King’s X?
We’re getting ready to do some shows in May and June, and we’re going to do a new record sooner or later. We needed a bit of time to evaluate the last 20 years. In recent years, it’s been a struggle to make a living on tour and selling records, so we’re figuring out what we want to do. We’re all proud of each other and encourage each other because we love each other.
When it comes time to tour, what do you need to do to prepare?
For us, if we practice for a couple days then we’re good to go for a few months. Even if we have a week or two off , we can still show up and do sound check and warm up a little bit and go do it. If it’s a longer run, we need to practice for a couple days to reconnect. But a lot of times we don’t even have to rehearse. We went to Europe one tour and didn’t rehearse. Before the first show, Ty said, “You know, we haven’t rehearsed.” I said, “I know.” He said, “Well, it ain’t the first time—we’ll wing it.” And we went out there and stomped it.
Like Fishbone, and Bad Brains, King’s X has long been on the verge of mainstream success, never quite getting there.
When we first came out, people who were really honest said, “Look, you guys are ahead of your time. Just know that.” They say there are two things you don’t talk about in rock & roll: politics and religion. We talked about both, so there you go. But that’s who I am and that’s what I do. I’m a hopeless romantic when it comes to doing what I want to do and hoping that somebody will buy it. I can’t bow down. I tried. We tried to write pop songs in certain areas in our career, and you know what happened? Nothing. So I’m done with that.
The people that love King’s X are deep thinkers. We’re unique in where we’re coming from—the way that we grew up. I come from a dark place, and there are people that come from that place that understand that loneliness, feeling like you’re worthless and that nobody cares. But you’re not angry and you don’t want to beat everybody up and scream. That’s the kind of stuff that I write. The people that grab hold of that are there forever. They’ll buy everything I put out, because they know I’m speaking to them as they know I’m speaking to myself about just getting through this f’ed up world. There just aren’t enough of them! [Laughs].
How is your solo album, Naked, coming along?
It’s really good. It’s coming out in May, and I’m excited about it. All my friends love it. They could be lying to me, but they seem to be more excited about this than anything I’ve done in a long time.
I’m playing everything on it, and using Toontrack for drums. Lyrically, it’s deep. When you move to Los Angeles, in the first couple years you either leave, kill yourself, or suck it up and figure it out. So for the last two years, I just told myself, Hang on, it will straighten out. I did a lot of soul searching, asking how I could get to this point where I can’t make a living doing what I’m doing. It was very frustrating. But I’ve realized that I did and now still do live a great life. I got to live my dream for a second—it doesn’t last forever. That was the biggest lesson I had to learn. When you get to the mountaintop, you’ve got to come back down and let somebody else get up there. I’m okay with that now. Th e thing that I love is I have enough respect in the music community where I can make music with people, and there’s value in the marketplace for at least a little bit.
You’re putting the album out yourself?
I actually had a couple of record deals I almost signed with, but at the end of the day I thought to myself, You’ve written music for fifteen King’s X records, five solo records, and however many side projects, and you own nothing. So I decided I wanted to own this record. I got a couple friends together, and we’re putting it out on my own label, with a distribution company behind it. Hopefully I’ll recoup and pay bills for the next few months. That’s good enough for me. I’m really excited about it—you’ve got to hear it.