EVOLUTION HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE HALLMARK OF JUAN ALDERETE de la Peña’s three-decade career. From his days as a Musicians Institute student and his mid-’80s tenure with shred gods Racer X to his sensitive pop duets in Big Sir and lowfrequency soundscapes on the Mars Volta’s lean new disc, Noctourniquet, Alderete’s muscular, fluid bass playing has continuously evolved to accommodate—indeed, to create—forward-facing concepts in modern bass.
But in this dire economy and with album sales at their lowest since the 1990s, Alderete is using his adaptive skills in a new direction: adjusting to a smaller-scale idea of what it means to get paid for his talents. “There was a time when the Mars Volta had a giant crew, and I didn’t have to carry my own gear, put my own basses away, or string them up,” he says. “But you have to evolve.
“The good thing about the digital world is that it is easier to make good-sounding records,” Alderete continues. “But being an artist for a living has been compromised, because people don’t want to pay for those records.” His stripped-down tours prove his point. During the European jaunt he recently undertook with his collaborator in Big Sir, vocalist Lisa Papineau, the duo hit 23 cities in 25 days, traveling mostly by van, sleeping on couches, being their own roadies, and manning the merch table. If you think that sounds like an itinerary for someone just starting out, not a 48-year-old Grammy-winning artist with a rare blood disorder, you’d be right.
We sat down with Alderete to talk about his new effects website for bass players, working with drummer Deantoni Parks, his love aff air with compression, the future of touring, and the Mars Volta’s surprisingly lean new aesthetic.
Noctourniquet, your seventh album with the Mars Volta, doesn’t sound as lushly produced as some of the band’s previous records. Was that a conscious decision?
It’s very simple compared to our other records. The songwriting has gotten simpler. There are no long passages, and there aren’t any real difficult unison riff s; it’s more textural, like a Radiohead record. [Guitarist] Omar Rodríguez-López and [vocalist] Cedric Bixler-Zavala really love “Krautrock,” and I think they put a lot of that element into this record.
How did you track your bass parts?
I cut most of them live; I might have fixed some things here and there, but most of it was all just one take. We miked my 1968 Ampeg B-15, but for the heavily distorted bass parts, like on “Zed and Two Naughts,” I used my SVT-VR and 8x10 so I could get really loud. I don’t like hitting the B-15 hard. It’s not made for that; it’s made for straight bass. And I played a lot of fl atwound strings.
When and why did you start using flatwounds?
I started using flats in the mid ’90s because I wanted that ’60s or ’70s sound, like James Jamerson or John Paul Jones [Note: In his February ’08 cover story, Jones told Bass Player that he stopped using flatwounds early in his session career.] For this record, Omar really liked the way the fl ats sounded, so I used them. I’ve been using Ernie Ball fl ats, which remind me of the bass tone on vintage records.
You use a lot of effects. What role does your Boss CS-2 compressor play?
It kicks off the other pedals like you wouldn’t believe. Any effect I put after it becomes more hectic and crazy because the signal is getting compressed and accentuated by the high-end boost. The fuzz sounds huge, but you put the compressor before it, and it’s gigantic.
Besides my hands and my instrument, I’d have to say that the compressor is the most important factor of my sound. It makes everything I play a little more focused. I think I would have been a much cleaner musician had I not found that pedal, but I can’t not use it now.
How important are your amps to your sound?
They’ve been good to me and the Ampeg stuff sounds great, but to be honest, I’m done using bass amps onstage with the Mars Volta. It’s all about monitoring. The sound guy isn’t miking me—he’s reamping me though Pro Tools. I had a soundman tell me, “I’ll put a mic up there because you want one, but that doesn’t mean I’ll use it.” They are always trying to get fewer mics onstage so they can make the vocals and the drums sound better. That’s what it’s all about. So eventually, I just gave in.
Why even have amps onstage?
So I can sound good for myself. The audience is hearing whatever the engineer wants them to hear. My hands are in there and my effects are going through the DI, of course, but it’s the real world. If it’s not my ideal sound coming through the PA, so be it.
You had an incredible connection with former Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore. What’s it like playing with Deantoni Parks?
Stylistically, Jon is probably the best fi t with the way I play. His feel is like John Bonham-meets-Afrobeat, and our common ground was probably Led Zeppelin. Deantoni is way more a musician than I am. He can play anything. He’s a pioneer of that instrument, like Eddie Van Halen on guitar or John Coltrane on sax. He’s conceptual; he doesn’t think in licks, he thinks in musical concepts. He’ll take a simple guitar riff and make it go into another world or genre, and it all sounds tight. It’s like having Miles Davis in the band.
What’s the story behind your new website, pedalsandeffects.com?
I’m going to show other bass players how crazy and freaky we can get with pedals and how we can innovate. I don’t use pedals to get traditional sounds; I like things over the top. I don’t want it to sound subtle. I want my instrument to sound like something else so that it’ll take me somewhere I haven’t been. So the website will be me exploring pedals and sounds and approaches to music.
What’s the secret to making a living as a working musician in this day and age?
Have more than one project. Besides being in the Mars Volta, I play with Omar’s solo group, I helped Cedric with his solo record, I play in Big Sir, I have Vato Negro, and I’m always talking with other musicians about doing stuff. Sometimes it materializes, sometimes it doesn’t, but I’m always looking. You have to. It’s the only way you’ll be able to survive. Otherwise, treat your music career as a thing you do on the side, and go get another profession.
Besides having the right chops, what helps players get the most desirable gigs?
Most dudes get gigs because they are easy to be around. There are so many artists who don’t want stress; they just want to focus on the craft and the art, so they’re going to pick someone who’s effortless to be around. Music is just one small part of it. It really is. The most important things are experience and learning how to navigate through life— that’s how you navigate through your career.
How hard is it to manifest such a life?
It’s one thing to be an artist, but making a living at it is insanely hard. It took everything out of me to reach a level where I could make a living at it. It just gets harder and harder, and I’m getting older, so it’s going to get harder.
Do you think your education has helped you keep working?
Yes and no. Yeah, I took out a student loan and went to Musicians Institute, but I didn’t really go to school because I got into Racer X right out of the gate and I spent most of my time practicing shred to keep up with [Racer X guitarist] Paul Gilbert. He was playing 16th-note triplets at 210 bpm, and I had to get mine up from 130 or wherever I was at. By the end of the band, I was in the 180s, but I could never be as fast as him. My point is that you’re going to get into these environments where you have to adapt. I didn’t play that way, so I had to alter my playing. And that’s when it becomes about making a living.
So is that what you learned at MI? How to adapt?
I came to Los Angeles to be a career musician, and that’s why I did Racer X. Even though I wasn’t into metal, I said to myself, “It’s a record and he’s asking me to do it, and I should do it.” It sounded like the future of heavy metal to me. When I made that first Racer X record, I started to realize that I was into innovation, and I’m still like that. I’m constantly evolving and developing, and that’s what has been happening with my style. I found that I could apply it to different things.
Who would you say is an inspiration for your role in Big Sir?
Dali’s Car, the band with [Bauhaus singer] Peter Murphy and the late, great Mick Karn, was a big influence on the way Lisa and I view our vocalsand- bass relationship. Mick played unbelievable fretless; I was into Jaco, too, but Jaco played R&B and jazz. I’m not in that kind of band, and I don’t compose music of that nature. Big Sir is like hip-hop meets new wave—it was important to hear what fretless could do, compositionally, in a genre that I play.
What’s the songwriting process like in Big Sir?
Over the years I’ve gotten more into Logic and programming beats. Sometimes I’ll sample something, enhance it with different bass drums or snares, throw chords on it, and send it to Lisa. She arranges it and cuts it all up in Pro Tools and sends it back to me. Sometimes that’s good, but sometimes it’s too much work for me. We did this record all on our own; we didn’t have any money. This is the modern world, man. This is the era of making your own records.
What affect has that had on touring?
There’s just less money for touring nowadays. You can see the effects of what’s happened in the industry over last 20 years on a guy like me. Other bass players see me and they’re like, “Whoa, this dude’s going to wrap up his own gear.” Hell yeah! I can’t afford a tech on Big Sir tours. And that’s what most musicians are going to experience in this day and age.
Do you have any advice for players trying to take their technique to the next level?
Don’t focus on licks and stuff that you’ll never use. Practice playing grooves, solidly. That’s what’s really important.
The Mars Volta, Noctourniquet [Warner Bros., 2012]; Big Sir, Before Gardens After Gardens [Sargent House, 2012]
Basses 32"-scale 1962 Fender Jazz Bass reissue (made in Japan) modiﬁed with Hipshot Bass Xtender and Hip- shot bridge; fretless 1971 Fender Precision Bass with an additional Bartolini Jazz pickup, a Starz Guitarz bronze bridge, and Hipshot Bass Xtender
Rig Ampeg SVT-VR head, Ampeg SVT-810AV 8x10 cabinet
Strings Ernie Ball 2806 ﬂats, Ernie Ball Hybrid Slinky nickels (.045–.105)
Picks Dunlop Tortex .60mm, Dunlop Delrin 2.0mm
Effects On small pedalboard, for inter- national tours: TC Electronic PolyTune, Boss CS-2 Compression Sustainer, Dunlop Crybaby 105Q Bass Wah, Boss VB-2 Vibrato, Boss PN-2 Tremolo, DigiTech PDS 20/20, vintage Electro- Harmonix Bass Micro Synth, DOD Meatbox FX-32 SubOctave, Line 6 M9 Stompbox Modeler, Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, second-generation Sovtek Fuzz, WMD Geiger Counter Bitcrusher, MXR M288 Bass Octave, EarthQuaker Devices Ghost Disaster Delay/Reverb, MXR Custom Audio Electronics MC- 403 Power System. On larger pedal- board: Dwarfcraft Eau Claire Thunder, Wren & Cuff Pickle Pie B Hella Fuzz, WMD Utility Parametric EQ, Behringer Memory Man, Dwarfcraft Hax, Wren & Cuff Tall Font Russian, Amptweaker Bass TightDrive, EarthQuaker Devices Rainbow Machine Polyphonic Pitch Shifting/Harmonizing/Alien Aliasing Modulation Generator, EarthQuaker Devices Hummingbird ll Repeat Percussions Tremolo, EarthQuaker Devices Organizer Polyphonic Organ Emulator
Accessories Mono M80 Dual Bass Case, Mono GS1 Betty strap