The Roots’ Owen Biddle Branches Out
It’s after midnight. The Roots are in the studio with John Legend, tracking a jammed groove they’ve come up with to fit their take on the 1969 Les McCann/Eddie Harris classic, “Compared to What.” About halfway through, Owen Biddle organizes the rhythmic and melodic fragments he’s been dabbling with, just in time for the third chorus. In many ways, his resulting ear-grabbing sub-hook (which instantly becomes the song’s bass line in all subsequent performances) is a defining moment in the meteoric mainstream rise of the Roots, and of Biddle’s status as the latest bona fide bass hero. Wake Up!, last year’s hit Legend/Roots collaboration covering inner-city soul anthems, would go on to win three Grammy Awards (including Best R&B Album), creating a ripple effect in the music world. Hip-hop’s most respected ensemble quickly became the backing band de jour for everything from NBC’s Haiti Relief Telethon and Jon Stewart’s Rally To Restore Sanity in Washington D.C. to Carnegie Hall’s Tibet House benefi t and Comedy Central’s inaugural Comedy Awards. Meanwhile, Owen’s fresh musical and sonic perspective on the art of improvised R&B bass singlehandedly revitalized hip-hop’s bottom, while leading the larger bass community to ponder the quick-to-the-lick 6-stringer. Who was this low ranger?
Owen Biddle was born on October 1, 1977, to a family with colonial bloodlines, and raised in Philadelphia’s Center City section. Drawn to his parents’ classicrock record collection, he took up guitar to play along after his first choice, drums, were deemed too loud for the house. At age 14 Biddle was given a G&L bass that was left behind when his cousin’s ska band broke up. Armed with pointers from his cousin and an instructional videotape he found of the English series Rock School (featuring bassist Henry Thomas), Owen taught himself the bass line from TV’s Night Court theme and got into school and neighborhood bands. At 18, while working in a Philadelphia music store, he was invited to a jam by producer Anthony “Ant” Bell. There, he encountered bassist Harold Robinson. Owen recalls, “I started on guitar, with Harold on bass, and I never felt more heard and empathized with. Anything I played he anticipated and was two steps ahead of me, like he was reading my mind. That awakened me to a whole new level of listening, feel, and passion.” Biddle drew upon the additional influences of Les Claypool, Jaco Pastorius, Victor Wooten, Jeff Berlin, and Anthony Jackson, and headed to Boston’s Berklee College of Music.
Following two uneventful years at Berklee, where he “mostly hung out alone” and took a job in the medical profession, Biddle returned to Philadelphia in 2001. He formed the glamrock band Pepper’s Ghost and joined guitar pop group the Trolleyvox. Not long after, Ghost’s lawyer, who also represented the Roots, recommended Owen for one of their studio jam sessions. The pairing clicked, and as a valued member of the Roots talent pool, he played, produced, and co-wrote two tracks on their 2006 CD, Game Theory. In August 2007, Leonard “Hub” Hubbard announced he was leaving the Roots after 15 years, and Biddle was offered the bass chair. In his August ’09 BP feature interview, Owen talked about joining the Legendary Roots Crew—drummer/ bandleader Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, MC Tarik Trotter, guitarist “Captain” Kirk Franklin, keyboardists James Poyser and Kamal Gray, percussionist Frankie “Knuckles” Walker, and sousaphonist Damon Bryson—and detailed the daily doings at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. At that point, the show was being picked up month to month, and the Roots were still commuting each day from Philly. A lot has changed in two years.
How does it feel to be a member the most in-demand backing band in the land?
It has definitely been a whirlwind; I haven’t even had time to process it. My resumé has this huge spike in it! We’ve gotten to do some really cool gigs, and I’m actively trying to not take it for granted. For me, when it comes to that kind of role, Paul Shaffer and Rickey Minor’s bands are the masters. We’ve been learning so much.
What have been some high points for you?
There have been many—we’ve had only good interactions with artists so far. Backing Sting at the Haiti Relief Telethon was great; he got to rehearsal while we were jamming and said, “Keep it going!” and he jumped right in on acoustic guitar. Bootsy Collins sat in on bass and vocals with the Roots all night on a recent Fallon show; we did “Tear the Roof Off the Sucker” at the end. Probably my standout memory was the night we did two songs with Bruce Springsteen on Fallon. When I first encountered Bruce and Steven Van Zandt, and they saw my bass, they lit up like two kids in a guitar store: “You have a 6-string bass!” Then Bruce told me this story about when he was young and trying to get his tone together on guitar. He wanted to get more of the lush sound he was hearing from players like Jeff Beck, so he ended up buying this Gibson that had a real smoothness to it—but people kept saying, Hey, that’s a cool-sounding bass you have there. It turns out he had bought an EB-6! [For more on this short-scale Gibson 6-string, see Retro-Rama, April 2011.] So we bonded over 6-string basses, which is almost surreal.
Aside from the musical guests, what has been the show’s most positive aspect?
Especially early on, it was having to spend so much time jamming in rehearsals to come up with music for the show, which brought the band closer creatively. Now with some perspective, I think it’s how much we’ve become incorporated into the show. My assumption at the beginning was we’d be a separate entity kept quiet in a corner somewhere, but thanks to Jimmy and the writers being fans, we’re part of the show’s identity. The writers come to band rehearsals to get ideas on how to use us in sketches. As someone who loves comedy, getting to act is really fun, especially playing my alcoholic “wife” Renee on “The Real Housewives of Late Night”—which happened largely because I was the least resistant to dressing in drag!
Let’s talk about Wake Up!. How did it come about, and how did your role flesh out?
John Legend had first reached out to Questlove about doing an album of cover songs during the 2008 presidential campaign. We approached it in our usual organic way, listening to the originals and extrapolating from there. We played through and recorded the songs live as a band for the most part, and in the case of “Compared to What,” that was just a jammed groove we had going, and Questlove heard the song over it. John had no specific directions for me, but I felt a great rapport with him because he’s tremendously focused. There’s no mistaking his meaning when he plays, and that allows you to fall right in with a complimentary part.
How deeply did you dig into the original bass parts, and what did you take from them?
I listened and was certainly influenced. Some parts are fairly close to the originals, such as “Hang On in There,” “Hard Times,” and “Humanity”—you couldn’t come up with a better bass part than the inverted chord movement of that line. I was already a big fan of Willie Weeks’ playing on Donny Hathaway’s Live, which has “Little Ghetto Boy.” That’s my favorite track on WakeUp! in terms of where I felt I brought my own approach to a song. Honestly, I’m bad at copying notes and the specifics of a part, which requires the right side of my brain— I’m more left-brained. I think maybe the gift I have is to be able to feel the energy and intention of the person’s musicality, and to tap into that. That’s what I get mostly from listening to other players; I’m like a musical vampire. I thrive on their feeling, and I think that’s what music is all about. Ultimately, the musician I want to become is one who has equal balance between their right and left brain.
The Roots also back Booker T. Jones on his new CD, The Road From Memphis.
That was another organic recording cut live as a band in a few days. Booker had sat in on the Fallon show several times and wanted to do a CD with us; he wrote all the songs with us in mind. I was left to my own devices on bass, aside from some key unison fi gures I play with Kirk. Again, I just tried to match Booker’s energy and intent, and everything fell into place.
What was it like working with the CD’s producer, Dap-Tones bassist Gabriel Roth?
That was a thrill, because I have so much respect for him as a musician, producer, and engineer. He’s the ultimate minimalist bassist, playing just what’s needed and rarely stepping out. I wanted to honor and be sensitive to that, and not overplay in his presence. He didn’t offer anything part-wise, but he worked on my sound in the control room and made a few suggestions about my levels. He really captured what I do, which is amazing to think about.
A key part of your style is to constantly vary your bass lines, while also liberally filling. Can you trace your approach?
At the core is probably a basic need to be free and creative, and to use the side of my brain that invents. There are so many opportunities to do that in subtle ways on bass that I feel like I’m always making something new. I dislike the concept of a bass solo—I mean, I have one in the Roots show, but that’s a free, standalone, hopefully entertaining event. When it comes to an ensemble, though, I’d rather improvise inside the song, as opposed to being featured. With regard to filling, it’s part of the stylistic lore of R&B bass, something I got from Harold Robinson, James Jamerson, Jaco Pastorius, Anthony Jackson, Pino Palladino, gospel players, and many others. I think that was a big part of my connection with Questlove: We both love soul music, and he has said that after Hub he was looking for someone who played with the concept and feel of ’60s and ’70s bass players.
The other key to your style is your 6-string. Does the instrument’s range aid in your upper-register excursions?
Not really. For me, the B string is a lot more relevant than the C, which I don’t use much except for the occasional chord, or to show a keyboard player a specific voicing. The 6 hasn’t really changed the way I play; I still think like a 4-string player, but there are a few more opportunities for notes, especially down low. What I do like is having something visually provocative, which sorts people out for me—from the open-minded to the purists.
Tim Cloonan, the incredible luthier at CallowHill, put the instrument together for me. It’s a vintage approach to a modern bass. It has a short 30" scale, which I love because it changes the envelope and provides a plumper fundamental. I use flatwounds, which are also strong on fundamental and have that sort of built-in muted tone. The two pickups are Fat Stacks by Nordstrand, which I keep full on, in single-coil mode. Add in the warmth of the mahogany body and it has a classic, understated, all-purpose tone that I use for almost everything. If I really need a Fender sound, I’ll play my J-style CallowHill J(unk) 6.
Opposite your retro side is Mister Barrington, your trio with drummer Zach Danziger and keyboardist Oli Rockberger. What insight can you offer into the band and the concept?
I’d long been a fan of Zach, and he and Oli fi rst approached me at a Roots show right after we started doing Fallon. They left their MySpace page as a contact, and when I heard their music—which had Adam Dorn on some tracks—I was scared of how good it was. The simplest classifi cation is jazzy R&B electronica, but if you ask me my approach to the music, it would be more like, what I would do if no one were looking over my shoulder and I went with my first bass impulse! Basically, we each bring in some ideas and then jam and develop them further. Some of the music is programmed and manipulated, but most of it is played live. Then we listen back, make decisions, and do some pruning. No one really leads; we all serve the aesthetic of the song, and additional improvisation and exploration is at least 40 percent of our live shows.
One of the interesting characteristics in Barrington, whether you’re playing live or to a loop, is your ability to imply different feels and lag way back on the time.
For me, lagging or laying back comes from focusing on the drums as much as I do, while also trying to have a metronomic sense of where the beat is. You need to have both to willfully sit back or go outside of the beat—sort of like having to know how to play “in” harmonically before you take it “out.” Pino was the first guy I heard playing in the J Dilla production style of deliberately unquantized bass, with folks like D’Angelo, but by the way he plays it, you know he has a thorough conception of where the meter really is.
What do you foresee in your own career and for music in general?
I want to finish my studio at my new home in Woodstock and have that be my Manhattan Project, musically—to be a magnet for like-minded, interesting people. I don’t see myself as a solo artist; I’m a collaborator. I’ve always said collaboration is my religion. I’d like to cultivate a consistent aesthetic with different artists and make inspiring records that we tour with, as well. Speaking generally, I see the merging of man and machine continuing. The technology is too appealing, and Pandora’s box is open. I think music is inescapably bionic from here on. Having musicians accept and adapt to this process more and more is a plus, but really, I don’t think it has ever mattered whether you play an instrument or not. If someone has a strong enough character musically, it will come across, no matter what tool they use. My belief is it’s not the means, it’s the intention.
Basses CallowHill signature OB-S 6; CallowHill The J(unk) 6; Burns Marquee Bass
Strings Thomastik-Infeld JF346 Nickel Flatwounds; DR Nickel Lo-Riders
Rig Ampeg PF-500 head, PF-210HE and PF-115HE cabinets; Ampeg Micro-VR head and SVT210AV cabinet (on Late Night); rented Ampeg SVT rigs (Roots on the road)
Effects TWA Triskelion Harmonic Energizer TK- 01 (with Godlyke-modded Roland EV-5 Expression Pedal); MI Audio Crunch Box; Electro-Harmonix Bass MicroSynth; Holy Grail Plus reverb
Other Mono cases and straps
With the RootsWake Up! [Columbia, 2010]; How I Got Over [Def Jam, 2010]; Game Theory [Def Jam, 2006]. With Mister Barrington Mister Barrington [Amazon/iTunes digital download]. With Booker T. JonesThe Road From Memphis, [Epitaph, 2011]. With Al GreenLay It Down [Blue Note, 2008]. With DuffyEndlessly [Mercury, 2010]. With KellyClarkson All I Ever Wanted [Sony, 2009]. With TrolleyvoxThe Karaoke Meltdowns [Transit of Venus, 2006]. With Taylor DayneSatisfied [Adreneline, 2009]. With Kindred The Family Soul The Arrival [Hidden Beach, 2008]