Classic interview with late genius unearthed. Words: Joel McIver

There are some pretty dark atmospheres on your new album, More Better Different. Does this reflect your state of mind while you were composing or recording?

If you consider this CD to be dark, I suggest you listen to my previous album Each Eye A Path which focuses on personal upheavals and distressing periods of my life. This album, for me, is probably the most positive and bright I’ve written since Titles in 1982. As music is a form of self expression, it can only be a reflection of a state of mind while composing or recording.

It’s a multilayered work and a rewarding listen, but will also be quite hard work for the casual listener or Karn novice. Will people take the time to listen a few times to get the full flavour of the music, do you think?
That has never been the motivation for me. I can only hope that I successfully translate my feelings into a medium that can be understood. It’s an added reward, if in the process, I’m lucky enough to have enough people who enjoy it for their own personal reasons.

Your bass playing is awe-inspiring as always. Do you compose on bass?
No, never. I would have to call that a bass solo, something I don’t particularly enjoy doing or listening to. I compose with drums and a few chords. I tend to look at the bass guitar in much the same way as a vocalist might a lead vocal, I think the overall composition would suffer if the other parts were only there as a backing or an afterthought.

Do you generally record the bass parts first or last?
Sometimes the bass parts can act as an indication to what may be possible when the piece is finished and so partly recorded early on, but it’s usually the last instrument to be added.

What’s your current favorite bass and amp setup?
I don’t really have a favorite setup. I shouldn’t be saying that as I’m sponsored by Trace Elliot who kindly let me use their latest models when and where I need them. I’m not very fussy about amps and, on the rare occasion that I may suddenly decide to use one for recording, borrow whatever the studio may have lying around, which tend to be guitar amps.

What effects do you use?
Nothing in particular, just whatever may be at my disposal. Digital effects from the computer or just double tracking the clean bass.

Which is your favorite of all the basses you’ve owned, and why?
Definitely the Wal I use on every recording and tour since. Probably for sentimental reasons as well as feeling comfortable with its weight and strings that only get changed when broken.

It’s a cliché perhaps, but was Jaco Pastorius an influence?
I made a point of never listening to Jaco until I was forced into it by my record label (CMP) in 1995, so I wouldn’t include him as an influence. Jaco seems to be the only player people use as a comparison to anyone who plays fretless bass, regardless of style. I fail to understand how anyone can compare his outstanding technical ability with my inability to read music or even play simple scales! I was listening to Stanley Clarke, who was a big influence when I first began to play, particularly ‘School Days’. Apart from him, any of the 70s pop I was a fan of, only made me want do something different with the bass and be heard.

What are the key things to bear in mind when studying and practicing fretless technique?
I’m the wrong person to answer that question, as I never actually practice unless it’s to remember how I played something in preparation for a tour and only play when I have to record the bass. If I were to give any advice at all it would be to forget what anyone else is doing and find your own individual voice.

What is it about the fretless bass which appeals to you?
The obvious answer would be its low frequencies. I enjoy being able to feel what I play.