IN HIS EARLY 20s, JOSEPH KARNES was stuck in Los Angeles traffic when he had an epiphany. He had been juggling a steady flow of music gigs with a few acting auditions, but as he sat at a red light on this particular day, he realized that playing bass was all he really wanted to do. He immediately went home to woodshed, setting in motion a chain of events that lead to gigs with Colin Hay, Five For Fighting, Desktop Rulers, and John Cale. Most recently, Karnes has been holding it down with high-energy R&B/soul revivalists Fitz & the Tantrums.
Karnes, raised by a bass-playing dad, grew up listening to legends such as James Jamerson and George Porter Jr. When his friend Ethan Phillips asked him to sub a few times in Fitz & the Tantrums, he jumped at the chance, and when Phillips decided to move on after recording the band’s 2010 breakout, Pickin’ Up the Pieces [Dangerbird], Karnes’ vintage sound made him a perfect fit for the Tantrums’ old-school approach.
What’s it like playing in a band with no guitars?
When I first joined, I didn’t think of it in terms of that, but later on, I tripped out about the fact that I was the only string instrument. It made me listen to the horns more—and the band as a whole—to see what everyone was doing and which melodies I could jump on and off.
Do you play the lines straight, or do you change them up?
In the heat of the moment, I get in a zone and play what feels best. One of the biggest factors is how big the stage is. If there’s a big stage, I’m going to move around more, and I might stick closer to the original bass parts. But if it’s a smaller stage and I’m stuck in the corner, I’ll focus more on my playing and probably play more notes.
There are echoes of James Jamerson in your playing. Is he a big influence?
When I began playing bass, Jamerson was the first guy I gravitated toward. Sometimes, his lines sound busy, but if you break it down, he’s playing about half the notes you think you hear—it’s all in his note placement. His high notes carry over, and his groove is relaxed. That’s something I always strive for.
How do you get your vintage tone?
The main bass I’ve been playing this year is my 1969 P-Bass with flatwounds. Flats give me that warm, old-school tone that does so well with this type of music. For slow songs, I’ll palm mute and play with my thumb, because that gives a dubby, upright kind of sound. When you’re playing the upright, you have to dig in; if you apply that approach to electric bass, you can get a really funky tone.
What can we expect the next album to sound like?
We’ve definitely been feeling the Motown-meets-’80s sound, but that’s evolving, too. I’ve been using a pick to get an almost punk tone, and then I’ll switch basses and play with my fingers to get a deep dub sound.
How do you approach writing bass lines?
I always think in terms of fundamentals. Some songs require me to be in a supportive role, some songs need the bass to be out front, and some songs need a signature bass part. I always try to bring a signature bass line to the table. I like lines that repeat, like ostinatos that are perfectly stated.
HEAR HIM ON
Desktop Rulers, Desktop Rulers [Headwreckers, 2010]
Basses 1969 Fender Precision Bass, Fender ’62 Reissue Precision Bass, 1969 Fender Jazz Bass, 1950s Kay upright, 1967 Fender Mustang Bass
Rig Aguilar DB 750 head and DB 410 cab; Aguilar Tone Hammer 350 head and GS 112 cab
Effects Aguilar TLC Compressor, Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail reverb, Boss PQ-3B Bass Parametric EQ, Éclair Engineering Evil Twin tube DI
Strings D’Addario Chromes flatwounds and XL roundwounds (.050–.105)
Picks Planet Waves Medium