When a pre-teen, Stones-obsessed Mickey Madden decided to pick up a bass and start a band with his best friends, he couldn’t have known the heights he, Adam Levine, and Jesse Carmichael would climb over a 20-year span. For Madden, it’s always been about strengthening his funk, R&B, soul, and rock lines and infusing them into hook-filled pop music—an approach that has sent Maroon 5 to the top of the charts and the center of the music industry.
Rather than hole up in a studio with a solitary producer, Maroon 5 called on an all-star lineup of pop hitmakers to help produce and co-write V , its fifth album. The result was a revolving door of collaborators—including Max Martin and Shellback, Benny Blanco, Rodney Jenkins, Sia Fuller, and Nate Ruess— and a track-by-track approach that allowed the 35-year old bass player to focus on every line and every riff, taking time to develop the best feel for each individual song.
Madden responded to one of the album’s most interesting challenges—writing around prevalent synth bass parts—by stepping step up his picking game to deliver a muted, thumping tone that’s the opposite of the warm, deep fingerstyle he’s used on past albums. It paid off on tracks like “Sugar,” where his groove carries a danceable cadence under Levine’s crooning tenor vocals, and on “Maps,” on which he sports a feel reminiscent of Sting with the Police. Creating a cohesive album with so many cooks in the kitchen might not have been an easy task, but thanks to Madden’s consistency, V gels together with an unbending rhythmic foundation.
What was the writing process like for V?
Adam has always been our main songwriter; he’ll bring in ideas, and then we write our parts in the studio around them. But the last couple albums have been different—we’ve brought in outside writers. Adam helps them finish the songs, and then we go into the studio.
What was it like working with so many producers and composers?
It was a lot of fun to have that variety. It’s nice having a different vibe in the studio from day to day. Each producer had a different working style, so we had to adapt to each producer’s methods, but we learned a lot from all of them. It’s cool to have just one producer and I’m sure we’ll do that again, but for now it’s fun to bring in a lot of people to make a record.
How did that change your recording process?
We worked on a song-by-song basis, because there were so many different producers handling the tracks. The songs were already formed, so I had to kind of work backwards—I would come in a few times a week, we’d track the drums, and then I would work out my bass lines. It wasn’t a week straight of just bass sessions, like I had done in the past.
How did you like writing around so many synth bass parts?
That was a fun challenge, and it affected me a lot in terms of sonic frequencies. In the past, I’ve preferred more of a low, woofy, no-attack kind of sound, but on this stuff, so much of the low end is being handled by synths, so now I play thinner, more midrangey tones. And I play with a pick a lot more so that it cuts through. It creates a whole other space in the sonic palette for me.
Did that get tough on any of the tracks?
The song “Feeling,” which is one of my favorites, has a lot of synth bass and it moves in a really cool way, but it’s definitely counterintuitive to the way I play, so it was a bit of a challenge. I had to find a way to fit in with the synth work while not stepping on any feet. Some of the rhythms, the accents and spaces, went against my instincts, so I couldn’t just sit down and knock that song out; I really had to think about it.
Did you use any new gear on this album?
This time I used a Gibson EB-2 hollowbody that made it on the record a whole lot. The EB-2 has such a great midrange, but it has a baritone switch, too, so it got some insane low end that is so heavy. It sounds nuts! Otherwise, I used the same setup I’ve used on the last few records. Almost everything was running through the Ampeg B-15 I always record with, and I used my ’65 Fender Jazz Bass for a few songs.
What do you think about when you write your bass lines?
The bass is the bridge between the rhythm and the melodic instruments, and it sits perfectly between the drums and guitar and keyboards. You just know it when you hear it. From the first record on, I wrote a lot around drum parts, and that was a big part of my writing process, but now we use a lot of drum machines, which still generates the foundation for the rhythm. And I’ve come into my own more now, where I can zero in on the drums and let them lead the way.
How has your technique changed over the years?
I play lighter than I used to. Everyone plays a little differently, and I definitely do notice a difference in sound when someone else plays my bass on my rig. I like my tone to have less attack but still push a lot of air onstage. The adrenaline of the show used to make me dig in, but I don’t do that quite as hard as I used to. Now I use a lot more restraint, and it generates a better tone.
It seems like you guys have very different mindsets for the studio and your live show.
We approach recording and playing live entirely differently. Recording and writing is about restraint and tearing away elements until we have as little as possible. But live, we’re releasing built-up energy, and we stretch out a lot more. We respect each other as players and friends, and it spurs us to try to impress each other every night, which keeps things interesting even when we’re playing the same songs. I’m very lucky that way.
Why is the bass guitar your ideal instrument?
I like playing a supportive role that glues the music together, and that role matches my personality outside of music, as well. I wouldn’t want to do what Adam does, and what he does so obviously suits him; he’s had that personality since we met when we were young. I don’t necessarily like being in the spotlight or at the front of the stage. I love performing and playing, and it’s a pleasure to be up there playing the part in the band that I do.
Describe the role of the bass in Maroon 5’s music.
It’s to give tone to the rhythm section and melodic counterpoint to the harmonies and the melodies of the guitar, keys, and vocals. It’s always just been a matter of finding and sitting in the sweet spot. I try not to be flashy, and I try to write myself a supportive role that still has its own voice. The bass might just be one piece of a bigger picture, but it’s definitely an important one.
Maroon 5, V [Interscope]
Bass 1964 Fender Precision Bass, 1965 Fender Jazz Bass
Amp Ampeg SVT-CL, Ampeg SVT 810
Strings Ernie Ball medium gauge