When Mike Lepond first joined Symphony X, he had the unenviable task of filling the bass chair left vacant by Thomas Miller. Not quite a household name, but Miller is one of the unsung virtuosos of progressive metal bass, who, like Marcel Jacob (Yngwie Malmsteen, Talisman), would subsequently influence singular-sounding bassists of the ensuing generation—Andreas Blomqvist from Seventh Wonder comes to mind. Following in the footsteps of a cult phenom could be a daunting task for just about anyone, but LePond had the skill set and disposition to take up the reins.
As a struggling musician in the New Jersey rock scene through-out the 1980s and ’90s, in 1999 LePond was encouraged to try out for the Jersey-based Symphony X by a friend of the band’s guitarist. “I was blown away by the complexity in the playing and writing,” he recalls. “It was on another level, and it inspired me to practice an obscene amount of hours to learn the material. After two stressful auditions, I got the job—happiest day of my life.” Since then, he’s recorded five records with Symphony X, including the brilliant Iconoclast [2011, Nuclear Blast] and more recently Underworld [2015, Nuclear Blast], and toured the world many times over.
In 2014, LePond stepped out on his own and released his first eponymous solo record independently under the moniker Mike LePond’s Silent Assassins—an onslaught of traditional power metal in its purest form. He recently released his sophomore effort, Pawn and Prophecy, under the same moniker. It’s a full hour of headbanging riffs, kick-ass vocals, and lyrics that tell epic tales. Drawing influences from the classic metal bands of the ’80s, it features some of LePond’s most prolific bass playing yet. “Black Legend” boasts Geezer Butler-style minor-pentatonic riffing throughout. “Antichrist” combines awesome diminished-riffing in E and F# that resolves nicely into a Phrygian major chorus in G#. “I Am the Bull” utilizes an 8-string for the intro and main riff, which goes back and forth between diminished and Phrygian major. The title track is a 21-minute opus based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. “Avengers of Eden” is a straightahead Motörhead-style song, and “Hordes of Fire” harkens back to Judas Priest. It’s obvious, from Pawn and Prophecy, that LePond is as passionate about his heavy metal influences as he is about incorporating more highfalutin ideas from literature and music theory.
How did you first get into playing bass?
When I was 13 years old, my father took me to see Kiss at Madison Square Garden. I saw Gene Simmons breathing fire, spitting blood, and flying through the air. He became a superhero to me, and I wanted to play bass just like him. Shortly after that, my dad bought me a Univox bass from a local mall. I took lessons from a jazz teacher for a year while trying to learn every Kiss song that was released at the time.
Who were some of your other main influences?
My first influence was Gene Simmons, and that was cool because I learned some nice walking-bass ideas from him. As I got older I got into heavy metal. Geezer Butler [Black Sabbath] influenced my minor pentatonic chops, Steve Harris [Iron Maiden] inspired my right-hand speed, Joey DeMaio [Manowar] introduced me to power chords and 8-string, and Geddy Lee [Rush] taught me how to tie all these styles together. In the past ten years, the guitar playing of Ritchie Blackmore in Blackmore’s Night has heavily influenced me. I have been listening to his Celtic pieces and transposing it to my bass. It has given a unique edge to my style and writing.
How did you record your bass on Pawn and Prophecy?
Originally, I tracked with a DI and with a Kemper [modeling amp] Ampeg sound for dirt. My idea was to blend them together. When it was time to mix, the mixing/mastering engineer had his own Ampeg plug-in that he liked better, so we mixed the DI sound with that one. The result is a fat, round, biting tone that cuts through the mix nicely. I also made sure the guitar tone wasn’t loaded with low end. Too much low end [on the guitars] is the main reason you can’t hear the bass guitar on modern heavy metal albums.
How did you prepare for recording, and is that different from songwriting?
Some songs are written on guitar, so I don’t have any idea what the bass will do until I sit down with the scratch tracks and work on it. It’s much easier when I write songs on the bass, because I have a better vision of how the song will turn out. My preparation for recording is very simple: I don’t have a recording setup at home, so I just write the song and rehearse it. I then go to a local studio and lay down scratch tracks to a click. After that, I send the tracks to my drum programmer, and he lays down the drums. Once I have the drum tracks, I then record rhythm guitars first. I prefer recording bass to a solid bed of drums and guitar.
Do you practice often?
When I was first learning, I would practice all day long. I would constantly work on bass lines from my favorite players and songs. These days, life isn’t as simple and there are more responsibilities, so I only practice before a recording or a tour. For a recording, I try to write as many of the bass lines as I can. I always get better tracks this way, rather than just improvising. For a live situation, I tend to improvise much more, and my focus is on memorizing all the parts to the songs.
Can you talk a bit about your technique?
I am a fingerstyle player. I primarily use two fingers because it gives me more of an attack. I use three fingers only if it can help me play the part better. My specialty is the Phrygian major scale—I use it in many songs from Symphony X and Silent Assassins. I get bored sometimes if there is too much major and minor pentatonic going on.
Any advice for BP readers?
Don’t learn the hard stuff first. Your musician friends are going to brag about how they can play all this complex stuff, but you have to start from the beginning—learn the blues first. That will give you the building blocks you need to move forward. Learn from the great bassists of the 1960s and ’70s. After you have mastered that, then you can go into the shred stuff. Take music theory classes and listen to other instruments, as well. All these tips will help you learn the language of your instrument.
Mike LePond’s Silent Assassins, Pawn and Prophecy [2018, Frontiers Music s.r.l.]
Basses Caparison C2 Series DEB-E
Amps Peavey Tour 700 head, Peavey VB-810 cabinet
Pickups EMG 35DC
Effects Tech 21 Bass Fly Rig