Mick Jagger, Jon Bon Jovi, Meatloaf, Joan Jett, Hall & Oates and many other members of rock’s elite have recruited Kasim Sulton at one time or another, but his best-known gig has always been with the legendary songwriter Todd Rundgren, whose band Utopia he joined back in 1976. “Back when I started in the band,” he confides, “it seemed to me that I could get away with playing a lot more than I do these days. Whether by choice or by design, on a lot of the stuff that I play today I’m safer than I used to be. The perfect example is Meat Loaf: with that first Bat Out Of Hell record I did, if I had gotten paid by the note I would have retired immediately afterwards! I played so much because nobody stopped me and told me to take it easy. I had free rein on what to play: if you look at the bass tracks on Bat Out Of Hell, there’s a ton of stuff going on. We were all music directors on that record, even though Todd produced it. He was relying on the musicians to produce what we thought was right for each song.”
Rundgren was obviously right: after all, Bat Out Of Hell has sold over seventeen gazillion copies by now and has earned its place in the pop music canon. However, Sulton hasn’t always contented himself with being a sideman: his solo career now extends to two albums – Quid Pro Quo and All Sides – and tours, one of which saw him play at the 12 Bar Club in London in July 2008. “I like being in a band and playing off other people and sharing ideas,” he explains, “but the onus is on me to make every single decision, which gets a little tiring. It’s your behind which is hanging out, and there’s no-one else to blame when things go wrong.”
Asked if he feels able to play flashier bass parts when he’s his own boss, he replies: “No, actually it’s entirely the opposite. When I do my solo stuff I’m much more conscious of not overplaying and leaving room for other instruments, melodies and lyrics. It’s important that everything has its place, so I keep my playing more simple. My solo stuff is extremely pop-orientated, so it becomes a lesson in taking one step at a time.”
Sulton recalls his early days as a kid whose career direction was decided by a certain band of Brits. “I saw the Beatles on TV and decided that that was what I wanted to do with my life. I started playing the guitar when I was nine, but then when I turned 12 there was a band which needed a bass player – and I said I’d do it. My first bass was a Gibson EB0 and then I got an EB3, which had two pickups. I painted it silver, for some strange reason. I wish I still had it: those basses tended to sound really distorted and crunchy, because they had this huge humbucker up by the neck.”
His later influences were similarly un-American, he says. “I was a big John Paul Jones fan, and also of Ron Wood when he was playing bass in Jeff Beck’s band. John Entwistle too. McCartney influenced me after Sgt Pepper, because until then I hadn’t really noticed his bass playing – even though there had been some great stuff in his early playing. I was never a big jazz fan, but I did listen to Stanley Clarke and Alphonso Johnson, plus Jaco – absolutely – and Charlie Mingus. Chris Squire was the closest that I would really come to appreciating progressive music – I love his playing.”
Nowadays Sulton delivers the goods on a signature ‘K Sulton’ bass made by US luthiers Archer, who have impressed him greatly. “A friend of mine was looking after Archer guitars and wanted to do a line of basses,” he explains. “I’d been approached about doing a signature bass before, but it always seemed that you’d just slap your name on a range of basses that had already been made, and I didn’t want to do that.”
“I also didn’t want to make a guitar that cost $3000 or something,” he goes on, “so I told my friend that I’d be happy to do it if I had total control over everything that went into making the bass – the design, to the wood, the colors, the electronics, the neck, everything. They said yes. And I said, on top of all that the bass can’t cost more than 500 bucks, because I want a kid to be able to walk into a store with his parents and buy one. On the other hand, I didn’t want to design a $100 bass where you need to take a taxicab from the strings to the fretboard, ha ha!”
He continues: “They went along with everything I suggested, so I designed the body and the headstock, along with suggesting where the electronics could go on the body and so on. We went through a few prototypes, and I’ve used nothing else but that bass for the last four years. It travels really well. Everybody seems to be really happy with it.” And that includes the most senior names in rock’n’roll: long may it continue.