Now aged 67 and as focused as ever, the four time-Grammy-winning pioneer is talking to us today about his new album, The Message, written and recorded in France and Belgium with a young band of incredible talent. As with pretty much everything Clarke has released since he first came to the public’s attention in the early Seventies, his new album isn’t just another collection of tunes. Appropriately given its title, The Message is Clarke’s implicit appeal to the listener to listen up, wise up and pay attention to the state of play in today’s troubled world. Assisted by a stellar cast of musos, including beatboxer Doug E. Fresh and trumpeter Mark Isham as well as the core band of keyboardists Cameron Graves and Beka Gochiashvili and drummer Mike Mitchell, Clarke delivers music that spans a wide range of genres.
Congratulations on the new album, Stanley.
Thanks! The kids did a great job and played well. It just came together – it’s actually a European record in many ways, because we wrote it and recorded it over there.
What’s that bass you’re holding on the cover?
That’s a sneak preview of a bass that Fender is going to release. I’ve been playing Alembic all my life, but I’ve also been building basses with a friend of mine in New York for quite some time, and we release them from time to time under the company name Spellbinder. The new bass looks like a Fender Stratocaster, so we took it to Fender and they loved it. It has a reverse headstock, like a Jimi Hendrix bass, which gives the E string a longer scale by the time it gets to the tuning peg. When you pull it, it’s a little looser, and the sound is a little different. It’s a very cool bass. Fender is considering the model name right now, but we would like the world Strato in there somewhere.
What was the philosophy behind the design?
What I wanted to make clear with Fender is that it isn’t a replacement bass; most guys that make basses say ‘Okay, you can take this bass and get rid of your Warwick or your Fender or whatever’. This is an actual addition, much like a guitar player has a Strat and maybe a Les Paul and this and that. With this bass you can play bass-lines and it sounds great, or you can really play solos with it.
Sounds like a lot of us would enjoy playing it.
What’s cool about bass players is that they come from all different starting points. Some guys start out on upright bass and move to electric; others are guitarists, and move to bass. You can tell when a guy comes from guitar world, because he’s very heavy, and almost lopsided; he can play great solos and chords, but when it comes to bass-lines, he’s weak. Then you have the other type of bass players, who are really strong with bass-lines and what have you, but maybe they didn’t do enough homework on the subject of chords and scales and all that stuff. I think both guys will enjoy this bass. Personally, I enjoy the bass universe right now because of all the different types of players.
That’s one of the things I love about your new album. Whether we’re talking about tone, sustain or note choices, there are tons of different kinds of bass on there.
Yeah, yeah! It’s fun for me because the universe has really expanded and exploded since the days of the original guys who go all the way back, like James Jamerson, up through Jaco Pastorius and myself. I wish Jaco was still around to check it out, he’d probably really enjoy it. All the older guys too; Jeff Berlin, Anthony Jackson, Chuck Rainey, and then you’ve got the younger guys like Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten – the turbo bass player!
The man is unstoppable.
I like Victor because he can go on the stage alone. He’s got a good 35 minutes in him, without any other accompaniment. If you go on stage in front of a couple of thousand people, with just a bass and some higher techniques, can you do a show? How long will you last before people yell you off the stage? Victor’s got at least 35 minutes. I can do 35 or 40 minutes, but I can pull out both basses, you know. That’s the test. At that point you have to have all the skill sets. You’ve got to be able to play great bass-lines, solo, chords, and be able to speak on the mic.
A lot of young players appreciate the importance of that global approach to bass, judging from the bassists we interview.
You know, there really isn’t a book or a bible that codifies all the various techniques that we do. It would be nice if a kid who was 13 or 14 years old could pick up a book that has everything – how you slap, how you play chords, how you play ‘Giant Steps’, how you play in a country and western band... just everything together. That would be really something.
Let’s talk gear. Has your signature Alembic bass changed much over the years?
The only thing that the Alembic people did for me was put a boost there. The bass is pretty much standard, but there’s a little switch that they put in, real close to the five-pin input. It gives it a quick boost of 5dB, I think. Other than that, it’s pretty simple. For electric bass I use Rotosound and DR strings, and for acoustic bass I go with Thomastik, out of Austria.
Are you still using amps for live shows?
Yes, I use Ampeg. One of the great things about that company is that they’re everywhere. We play a lot of small venues with backline, and everybody has Ampeg. I like their cabs because they have a warmer, fatter sound, and the Alembic bass likes that.
What else is in the chain?
I’ve been using EBS pedals for a long time, and I love them. I think they’re the best. They can fall, or you can step on them; they’re really roadworthy and they sound great. These guys are a real class A company, they’ve been taking care of me for years. Their Microbass is the best thing for acoustic bass; it’s the secret of my live acoustic bass sound. It handles everything – it’s an EQ, a direct box, a preamp. There’s nothing you can’t do with it.
Do you have a lot of bass gear?
I have bass gear in a storage place, for sure, but I got rid of a lot of the electric basses; at one point I had over 100 of them. I thought ‘Why do I need all these? They’re just collecting dust’ so I gave some to friends of mine, and got rid of others, and I’m planning to get rid of even more. I also have many, many amplification systems, and I don’t know what to do with that stuff. Warwick sent all these cabinets over, and I was so happy, because I loved them – but you know what, I travel a lot, so the only chance I ever have to use them is in LA.
So what is the message of The Message?
The message is one that people have been trying to disseminate since the beginning of time. It’s real simple; just a message of love. As musicians, we have the luxury of globetrotting and seeing the planet as smaller than a guy would who’s lived in a small town all his life. There’s at least 50 skirmishes or battles going on all over the world; it’s amazing how much violence there is. Whether it’s land, power, money, religion, we human beings can sometimes get caught up in that stuff and forget who we really are. Music reminds us who we are. Take three or four guys from different demographics in a room, and if they’re all fans of Metallica, say, or they’re at a Metallica concert and they’ve all got their fists raised in the air, at that moment there’s brotherhood between those people. That’s one of the beautiful things about music, and it’s a form of love.
In what way?
I like the definition of love as degrees of affinity, where people get closer. It’s just people being together in brotherhood. So if someone listens to a song on my album and feels a little peace in their heart for that moment, and a little humanity in their world, then my job is done. It’ll take a long, long time to get the job done, but someone might as well start it!
The Stanley Clarke Band’s album The Message is out now on Mack Avenue. Info: www.stanleyclarke.com.