Chris Bierden is the first to admit he’s hit the bass player’s jackpot with Poliça. The Minnesota alternative trip-hop band’s 2012 debut album, Give You the Ghost, gained critical acclaim, thrust the group onto big touring bills with Bon Iver, and landed them key slots on the festival circuit. Along with an effects-driven vocalist and two highly technical drummers, the result is a bass-driven sound where Bierden takes the rhythmic and melodic lead by picking his way through funky grooves and rubbery fills and belting his falsetto vocals. On Poliça’s latest album, Shulamith, Bierden’s role is even more dominant than before, as he takes his sense of countermelody to the next level while bottoming out with an even deeper tone. Whether his muted picking attack is plowing the trail ahead or if he falls deep into the pocket of his drum team’s polyrhythmic grooves, Bierden’s bass is always the glue that holds everything together.
You’re in a unique situation, being the only stringed instrument in your band.
I describe it as a bass player’s dream, because I get free rein to play the countermelodies of what Channy [Leaneagh] is singing and the counter-rhythm to what our two drummers [Drew Christopherson and Ben Ivascu] are doing. I get to do whatever I want, so it’s an ideal outfit for a bassist to play in. I’m very lucky.
How do you approach playing with two drummers?
A lot of the heart and soul of a band falls into the drummer’s style, so to play with two drummers with two very distinct styles is amazing. As a bass player, I do have to be mindful of how many beats are going on and which rhythm to latch onto. It can also become a battle of the low end with two kick drums and a lot of low tom work. We have to really make sure we’re playing together or it can be too much.
Did you dial in your tone differently on this album?
I love great bass tone, but I’m not a tone junkie at all; in fact, I have more questions than answers on the topic. But I recently acquired a ’76 Precision Bass, and it sounded beautiful on this album. We wanted to make my bass a little dubbier this time around, so we rounded up the low end and rolled off the rest. And this is the first album where I used reverb and chorus pedals, which really enhanced my sound.
Describe your playing technique in Poliça.
I’ve always been a pick player and I love to palm-mute, so I usually play pretty close to the bridge. It does change my tone quite a bit and I get more of the mids from playing at that position. Picking is not always the most ideal tone for this band, because I’ll want something deeper or wider, but I can usually get away with it by tweaking my amp. The band has a fairly bluesy undertone, so I usually stay in a pentatonic range with my playing. I get to do a lot of fun blues scales and runs, but I like to mix it up. I like baroque playing on bass.
How do come up with all of those bass fills?
A lot of times I catch myself doing things and I don’t know where they’re coming from, and other times I’ll think to do something just a second before I do it. I see a lot of patterns on the bass, and I’ll spontaneously experiment with them for fills. A lot of times I’m hearing my fills for the first time when I play them. It’s half playing what I hear, and it’s half my fingers going where they want to go.
Poliça, Shulamith [Mom + Pop, 2013]
Basses Fender Marcus Miller Jazz Bass, 1976 Fender Precision Bass
Rig Gallien-Krueger 800RB head, Ampeg SVT-410HLF cabinet
Strings DR Strings Sunbeam Mediums
Effects Boss RV-5 Digital Reverb, Boss CEB-3 Bass Chorus, ZVex Mastotron Fuzz