When faith no more decided to end its 17-year breakup and began writing its first batch of songs since 1997’s Album of the Year, the band skipped the customary media frenzy and got right down to business. And when the musicians dusted off their gear to collaborate as a collective once again, the rustiness and confusion that typically plagues newly reunited bands was nowhere to be found. It turns out that for this unconventional, genre-spanning outfit, things hadn’t changed at all since Faith No More’s start in the ’80s and peak of popularity in the ’90s.
No one was happier about the seamless nature of operations than Billy Gould, who not only wrote a large chunk of the new material, but also engineered and co-produced what would become the band’s seventh album, Sol Invictus. The 52-year old picked up directly where he left off, creating devastating bass tones and using his impeccable note placement to create riffs that hit hard. The album’s grinding single, “Superhero,” captures Gould at his finest, rocking a syncopated, decibel-pushing bass line that goes head to head with Mike Patton’s fervent vocals. His heavy pick work on “Separation Anxiety” and “Cone of Shame” offer the same signature tone that bass players have been trying to cop from him since the band’s 1985 debut, We Care a Lot [Mordam].
Back in those days, Gould’s special brand of distortion came from a cheap bass rig with holes in the speakers. Nowadays, his iconic frequencies are courtesy of his Zon Billy Gould Signature Bass, built specifically for his ideal gain-driven tone. But while his gear has changed significantly over the years, his relentless approach in the studio as a producer and player hasn’t, which is why Faith No More has once again hit its mark.
What was it like stepping in the room together to write after so many years?
The hardest part was getting the process started—nobody wanted to be the first one to throw something out there. Once it picked up its own momentum, it just started flowing, and the rest of the songwriting came pretty easily. Even with the long break, we find that it gets easier over the years; I’ve known these guys since 1980, so we know each other’s tastes, and we work together very well.
What motivated you to get back together?
People still want to see us live, which always takes us by surprise, and we’re constantly getting offers for shows. We’re not really backwards-looking people, so we figured we might as well get back into our creative spark to put some new material out there for us to play.
A lot has changed in the industry since you released your last album.
Things have changed a lot. I mean, we recorded our last album on two-inch tape because that’s what you used back then. But I don’t think our approach has changed. We were never a band that was going to be immediately successful, because we were doing some odd things that not everyone would get or appreciate. But that mentality has done well for us. We do it for ourselves, and I believe that’s why so many of our songs have stood the test of time.
Had you been writing throughout the hiatus?
I never stopped writing. Even during our hiatus, I just kept writing and writing to continue getting better at it. When we got together, I brought in a lot of ideas I had been writing over the years, but we wrote collaboratively in the studio a lot, too.
How do you write when you’re conceptualizing songs on your own?
I approach the bass as a songwriter. When I write, I’m taking all the rest of the instruments into account, much like a composer would. Every musician has a different way of writing, and every approach is good if it works and the music is good. As a bass player, I’m always finding a way to put myself inside the song to make it better and give it some personality, without dominating it.
What kind of bass tone were you going for on this record?
My bass sound on Sol Invictus is the tone I’ve always had. When I first started playing bass in this band, all I had was a cheap little amp and a terrible old bass, and it had this warped tone that I had to work with. But somehow, I found a way to make that tone strong, and it became part of my sound. I still have that approach toward my tone, and it all stemmed from having terrible gear.
What was your setup in those early years?
A Peavey Mark IV silver-knob amp with distortion and a Peavey 4x12 cabinet with holes in the speakers. You can find those heads now for $100. They’re like Volkswagens, because they last forever. The tone is much thinner than on the amps they make nowadays, but the sound they make is unique.
How would you describe your tone?
It sounds like the instrument is grunting. People do it with guitars, but you don’t hear it with bass much. Bass manufacturers traditionally go for a pure, low-end to high-end balance, but to me, that’s not really rock & roll. Even if I lose a little balance with it, that’s fine as long as it has the bite. When my bass is growling and grunting, it feels like I am expressing myself through it.
Is your tone important to your sonic identity as a player?
A lot of people credit me just for my tone, but knowing where my spots are in the music—and how to arrange my lines into the song—is a big part of it for me. You can hear my bass lines, but they don’t walk all over everything; they sit in the right place.
What was your signal chain in the studio this time around?
Generally speaking, I always use a DI, and I always use an amp that’s breaking up. Recording music with a lot of harmonics like cymbals and guitars, you need the bass to come through. So I used my amp with my overdriven tone, and that’s how I got my sound. I used my Zon bass, which is the only bass I’ve ever really played since 2001. It has a parallel drive circuit that has my tones, so I don’t have to bleed it out of the amp as much.
How did your Zon signature bass come about?
Joe Zon gets a lot of calls about my bass and my tone, so he was going to make a copy of the bass I use. But I liked the tone I got in the studio, and I wanted people to have my sound no matter what they plug it into. The signature model is my exact bass body, but the circuitry took a couple of years to figure out. It’s great because you can drive it hard and it doesn’t break up at all.
What did you want specifically in this bass design?
I have small hands, so I wanted my bass to be accessible. The longer the neck, the better the bass tone is, so for tone and function, it has to be a good mix of the two. I have the pickups and the volume knobs how I want them, so these basses genuinely feel identical to the one I’ve always played.
What was it like to produce and play on Sol Invictus?
I’ve always had both roles in this band. A lot of bass players become producers, and I can see why. It has to do with how bass fits into the arrangements and how it’s the bridge between the drums and the rest of the instruments. For me, that’s just how I think, and producing and engineering has always been a natural thing for me.
How does producing change your mentality as a bass player?
As far as recording goes, you have two speakers, and you’re trying to get the most sound that you can out of them. As a bass guitarist, I look at how I work with the kick and the snare to make sure I’m getting the maximum amount of impact. If the sound gets muddy and the tones get smaller when the arrangements are solid, then the goal is always to make it bigger. Producing helps my bass playing a lot because I can build rhythm-section arrangements that will sound huge live. People want to know what kind of amps and basses I use, but the arrangements can enhance the sound much more than those things.
What are your tricks for capturing big bass tone in the studio?
The best way of getting a big bass tone is in your hands. If you’re using a pick, it’s in your wrists, and if you aren’t, it’s in your fingers. How much you can physically squeeze out of your instrument is the best place to find your tone, much more than any bass or any amp.
Talk about your playing technique.
Back in the day, I didn’t need to do much because my amp was so shitty. But now my strength comes from my wrists, from working out and developing those muscles over the years. We’ve always played an aggressive kind of music, trying to push the downbeat as hard as we possibly can. That’s more of a physical thing I’ve had to develop with my arms over time.
How did you first start playing?
When I was 12 years old, [future Faith No More keyboard player] Roddy Bottum started a band, and they needed a bass player, so I picked it up. It felt pretty natural to me. The thing about bass is that you can start getting up to speed and playing songs relatively quickly; I was playing a Cream song by the end of the first bass lesson I ever took. That’s cool, and it made me want to play more and more, but then I started to plateau. Bass can seem like an easy instrument, but it’s really not as easy as it seems.
What is your advice about recording bass?
Pay attention to your arrangement and how you write. Make sure your parts are solid, that they’re in the right place, and that you’re locked in with your drummer. No amount of recording or editing will fix something that isn’t arranged right. Second, make sure that you’re not out of phase, that you’re getting the full signal, and you’re maximizing every drop of your instrument. And third, do whatever you want as long as it feels good. Don’t ever be afraid to experiment. When you step outside your comfort zone, a lot of exciting things can happen. That’s how most of the best music is made.
Faith No More, Sol Invictus [2015, Ipecac]
Bass Zon Billy Gould Signature
Amp Aguilar Tone Hammer 500, two Ampeg SVT 810 8x10 cabinets
Strings Dunlop Nickel-Plated Steel mediums