Whether it’s his lifelong collaboration with Beck, his command of the daunting Nine Inch Nails bass chair, or his ever-expanding collection of rare instruments, Justin Meldal-Johnsen has always been on the cutting edge of what’s hip. He’s done sessions for everyone from the Mars Volta to Dixie Chicks to Black Eyed Peas to Pink to Macy Gray, and as a producer, he has worked with a diverse list of acts that includes Paramore, Tegan And Sara, M83, and Neon Trees. In an age of categories and stereotypes, Meldal-Johnsen’s wide-open ears and deep skills allow him to be a musical chameleon who’s always juggling a juicy workload—who else would be tracking bass on Garbage’s new Not Your Kind of People, Jason Mraz’s Love Is a Four-Letter Word, and the next Beck record, all at the same time?
But lately, the man known for frenetic yet precise showmanship and blistering melodic lines seems to be showing a strong air of maturity. He still rocks a mean key-bass and can shred as much as ever, but these days, the 42-year-old Meldal-Johnsen is savoring the space between notes and thinking twice about those boisterous fills. In other words, JMJ is on the top of his game in a whole new way, and he’s bringing a new definition of hip.
You’ve been very busy lately. What’s currently on your plate?
I just finished doing bass and production for the Tegan And Sara record; now I’m getting started on the new Paramore record that I’m producing. After that, I’m back to work with Beck touring and recording. It’s a very exciting and busy year.
What can we expect from the bass on Beck’s new album?
This record is all about the bass’ sound character linking up with the snare and the kick that conveys the feeling of the song. A lot of times he’ll takes bits of my improvisation and make bass lines out of them. But when I say “Beck record,” there are big quotation marks around that, because there’s probably enough material for four very different records. I don’t think Beck has revealed this yet, but I will tell you that we have performed on what seems to be more than one Beck album to come.
What is it like working with Beck after all these years?
I know what he wants and that’s gotten easier, but it’s still a difficult process. It’s never easy, because Beck has very few restrictions to his music, and he just doesn’t operate in a small box. Because of that, it keeps you on your toes. The other thing is that he works really fast. He has no interest in you doing take after take. Working with Beck is never resting on my laurels, for two reasons: his expectations, and the caliber of musicians in the room with him. That’s a fun thing to dive into, but I never go into it thinking I’m going to have a casual day.
How has producing changed your mentality as a bassist?
I think it ultimately makes me play simpler on bass, because as a producer, I’m always trying to find and create space within the music. Especially when you get artists like Neon Trees or Paramore, they want the type of feel I get with M83 that’s very cinematic, multi-layered, thick, productionheavy tracks with a lot of programming on it. So that transcends the bass playing, because with all of that, I still have to make room for the bass guitar. Sometimes when I look back at my work over the years, I feel that I played things too busy. I don’t regret anything I’ve done, but there are certain places where I realize I probably didn’t need to do that fill on the second chorus also. Maybe now it’s just maturing my bass playing a little and making me value the silence between the notes.
What’s your ideal way to track bass?
I find myself needing one of my B-15s and a DI handy, and I want to use minimal compression and minimal EQ. I want the EQ to come from my hands and from the amp. But when I’m producing, I’m trying more to innovate and find some other angles for the idea of bass. I always love coupling synth bass and live bass at the same time, and I actually do that on almost everything. Because of that, sometimes I want the bass to have a stringier and almost guitar-like sound that cuts through. To achieve that I’ve been re-amping through guitar amps or using just a DI and taking the bass and bypassing it so that there’s not a lot of serious low end; that way it becomes more of a harmonic instrument.
How does your approach change from recording with a band to touring with one?
With the exception of NIN, when I tour I feel that I have to be allowed to be myself. It’s a tall order and can be hard on the artists sometimes, because you’re supposed to be a sideman and cater to the artist, blah, blah, blah. But when I perform, I like to let loose and have a good time, freak out, show off, and explore the bass. NIN was an exception because the nature of that band and the economy of the bass parts. I couldn’t necessarily be a ham because it was more about folding yourself into this really powerful whole.
What did you take away from your time with NIN?
Discipline, patience, the nuances of working with someone who knows exactly what he wants, and figuring out how to operate in those parameters. I also learned a lot about stamina and how to pace myself through really long shows. It was physically demanding material, and I found it very helpful because it added new dimensions to my playing and made me more focused.
Tell us about your playing techniques and how you achieve your tone.
I always keep a pick in between my right-hand pinkie and ring finger, and I came up with a way to flip it into my hand so it’s always there for use. I roll it between my thumb and index finger. I do it all the time with Beck, where I’ll play the verse with my fingers and the chorus with a pick. I don’t know how that came about, but it was subconscious and I literally discovered that I was doing it. All of a sudden there’s a pick in my hand, and for a while I wouldn’t recall how it got there. Otherwise, I like to roll off the volume knob and play close to the neck sometimes. I’m good at tap dancing on multiple pedals, and I like quick changes in music. I like very fast picking, which works well mirroring synth bass on tracks.
How do you make your playing so authentic in such a wide range of genres?
I’m really good at replicating things, but I always have to ask myself, How much am I imitating and how much am I expressing my own voice? It makes me concerned. Sometimes I’m worried that I’m working too hard putting something together that sounds like something else. Mostly, I’m just trying to make a song sound good, so I don’t know it if I’m doing it. Playing one style or being known for one thing is an antiquated concept in my opinion. For me, I want to look at the biggest picture possible as I create a bass line.
What’s your best advice for tracking bass in the studio?
Play lightly. I keep learning this over and over again, but the best bass sounds in the world come from bass players who don’t choke the life out of their instrument. And here’s a weird one that I have to tell you: Don’t grip your bass too tightly. Don’t have it too close to your body, don’t grab too hard with your left hand, and don’t press it too hard with your right forearm. I’ve learned that a lot of the tone gets stifled when the bass isn’t allowed to vibrate because of the player’s body. Also, be obsessive about tuning. You should always be in tune; so many players don’t keep on that because of laziness. Pitch and rhythm are the two biggest components of bass. Know the weakness of your instrument and never force anything.
Garbage, Not Your Kind of People [Stunvol ume, 2012]; Jason Mraz, Love Is a Four Letter Word [Atlantic, 2012]; M83, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming [Naive, 2011]
Basses 1966 & 1975 Fender Precision Basses, 1976 Gibson Ripper, 1980 Gibson RD Artist, 1966 Guild Starﬁre, Guild Starﬁre reissue, 1967 Fender Mustang, 1964 Höfner President, 1965 Höfner Very Thin, Gibson Thunderbird, Ibanez Musician, Aria SP1000, Harmony H22, Rickenbacker 4003, EKO Hollowbody, Steinberger XL2, Roland G707, Ovation Magnum II, Schecter 8-string Hellcat Bass
Rig 1970s Ampeg B-15N, Ampeg Reissue B-15R, Aguilar DB 751, Aguilar DB 412 & DB 810, Aguilar DB 115 & DB 112, Mesa Boogie 1x15
Effects Tronographic Rusty Box, Aguilar TLC Compressor, Guyatone Delay and PS2 Phaser, Line 6 M9 multi-effect, MXR M-80 Bass DI+, various Pigtronix effects, TC Elec- tronic Corona Chorus, TC Electronic FlashBack Delay, EBS MultiDrive, EBS ValveDrive, Boss OC2 Octave, Ibanez Harmonic Delay, Electro- Harmonix Bassballs, all Moogerfooger pedals, Montreal As- sembly pedals
Synths Korg MS-20, Access Virus TI2, Moog Mini tour