Steve DiGiorgio, Extreme Metal Session Ace

 I just gradually became this “session player.” I love it. I don't care what it's called, I'm just so happy to just plug in and jam with somebody else. ‘Cause everyone has killer ideas, no matter what level of musician or what age of band they are, there's always something new and killer about playing with someone different, and as long as they keep giving me the chance to keep doing it, I'll keep doing it.

Interview conducted and edited by Bryan Beller
Interview original transcription by Joseph Arruda

Photo by Colin Davis

Where are you from, where did you grow up, and where did you go to school?

I'm pretty much a California boy. I mean I moved out from the East Coast when I was a little kid I was in New Jersey, but as far as music and everything, I picked up everything out here, and I never went to any other school. I went to normal school, but I never went to school for music or anything.

Are you self-taught?

Not really. I played different instruments when I was young through school, so obviously the fundamentals were all there, and I learned to read in class. Started on woodwinds, I switched to brass, then ended up on strings. So I kind of was programmed the right way, but it was really just whatever public school would teach you. Plus, since I switched around instruments so much, I never really specialized. So it didn't seem like I was a prodigy or anything by any means.

I kind of started playing bass in this style of music like anyone else – I just sat on the side of my bed next to my stereo, just playing to albums. But that's when a lot of people first started to learn music in general, and I had already been, as a kid, playing music constantly.

It's kind of a hybrid of self-taught and classically trained, I guess. It's somewhere in the middle. What I’m playing now is definitely self-taught know what I mean? [laughter]

Is this all Northern California?

Yeah, all in the Bay Area pretty much. I live about an hour east of Oakland/San Francisco. That's where I've done everything.

What was the breakthrough moment for you? What was the first gig?

It's hard to say. I guess I'm going to have to use a few more sentences. During the last year of high school, my band Sadus got together. We started off right away playing thrash metal, and that's pretty much all I did when I was 17, 18, 19. As soon as we went in to record our first album, right away I went with some other buddies – their bass player, they got into a fight with him or something – and all of a sudden, emergency situation, they were short a bass player. So right after I recorded my first album ever, I recorded my first session album, and it just kind of went like that for me early on.

It was definitely because we were buddies. And the third band I recorded with, Death, was also friends. It wasn't because I had a reputation or a business card going around. I guess there was plenty of guitar players, singers, drummers, everything, but there just weren't bass players, so I just kind of fell into a lot of these gigs. And by luck, a couple of the albums became really well known in the underground. Back in the late ‘80s it was definitely the underground music, I mean Slayer was still trying to poke its head out. Because some of those early sessions I did got widespread, my name kind of went along with it. So I don't know if I really had a breakout moment, I think I just kind of oozed into it, somehow.

You really don't hear about that too often, but you were there when the whole thing began in a way. I didn't realize that Sadus was a band that you were in still in high school. It's hard to get earlier than that. What year was that – ‘86?

We formed the band in ‘84, and we just played some shows last year. I just made these cool tour posters on my computer – I was like screw it man, I'm gonna flaunt it – and I put “25th Anniversary” all over it, and it seemed fun. We've had that killer camaraderie and brotherhood for so long. It's kind of a lie because we've only put out five albums [laughter], but we've been together steady so it’s not really a lie, but it's like a fake celebration. The fact is we've been together since ‘84, and it’s been the same exact same lineup. So we kind of celebrated it, but instead of people coming up and saying how cool the poster is, people just come up and say, “Goddamn you guys are old!” [laughter]

So how old are you now?

I just turned 42.

Ah, that's still young…compared to people who are older than you.

[laughter] Exactly. Me and [former Death drummer] Gene [Hoglan] were born in the same year, you know, so we kind of go through life with the same attitude, we kind of boost each other up while these kids keep coming out with their new tricks. [laughter]

How did you become the studio guy in these extreme metal genres? Is it as simple as you just right out of the chute you were in more than one band, and then people saw you were in more than one band and then thought “Oh, he's the session guy”?

Yeah, pretty much. That’s the really, really simple version. Like I said, they were friends of ours first, and that's why it was easy for them to ask me to come play with them.

The first band was called Autopsy, which is just a really underground death metal band, but the drummer of that band used to play drums in Death. So Autopsy was my first session gig, but it was just helping out friends. But because of that connection, the guy from Death called me, who was mainly a friend just knowing that I would fill in.

But the first Death album I did a session on was a huge seller. I think we did that album back in ‘91. Back then, to be selling those kinds of numbers was massive. My name just got out there with those releases. And then, right away the following year, I went back and did the next Death album, so boom-boom, two big selling death metal albums came out.

Would you call that essentially the beginning of it, in terms of genre-classifying it [death metal]?

Definitely death metal, and definitely the beginning of it. Not the very, very beginning, that was the mid ‘80s, but it was super-underground, and unless you knew where to look or had the right person show it to you, death metal was really, really new and very hard to find. So by the time I had recorded with Death, death metal was exploding massively. And because of that, my name got really spread out there wide.

My personal level with that was a friend connection, but the result of it made me this really well-known session bass player, and I just made more friends by touring and playing. Now it’s to the point where e-mails and phone calls and all kinds of crap comes in from so many different level bands. [There’s] really intriguing ones, music that I find interesting that's only going to sell ten copies, but I do it anyway cause its fun. Then there's stuff that doesn't seem so fun to play but I go and grab it because it's kind of a big payoff. Other stuff you take low pay because it looks like its got major promise to get big…you know, all that kind of stuff. Then there's those gigs you have to kind of find a reason to say no. [laughter]

So I don't know. I just gradually became this “session player.” I love it. I don't care what it's called, I'm just so happy to just plug in and jam with somebody else. ‘Cause everyone has killer ideas, no matter what level of musician or what age of band they are, there's always something new and killer about playing with someone different, and as long as they keep giving me the chance to keep doing it, I'll keep doing it.

These three projects that I just checked out, let's just talk about the genres first and then I'll ask you about each one of the bands, in terms of the way you approach power versus progressive versus the really hyper-technical death metal in that Italian band. Talk about how you approach each one of those differently...or do you approach them differently?

Yes. What I approach differently is mainly how to deal with the people involved with the project. I don't want to just come in and say “this is me,” I want to come in there and make the bass the most interesting it can possibly be within the context of what is already going on. So, in that regard, you must approach it differently, because sometimes there's a drummer that’s just going frickin' sick all the time and it's hard to find parts to complement that, or to double that up, you really gotta approach it coming in the back door.

Then there is the stuff that's really straightforward, and the people involved are asking you to really decorate it and keep out of the shadows and have fun with it. In that regard, I gotta be cautious not to go too happy. Usually when someone says “just kind of follow along and just play bass,” that's kind of when I go sick and piss everyone off. And when someone says “hey, have fun with this and go crazy,” I get so cautious. I write little meek things, worried that maybe I gotta keep the lid on myself sometimes. [laughter]

The Charred Walls of the Damned album, that’s coming out in a week. Is that a band that's actually going to tour, or is that just a studio project with all these high name guys, and how did that come about? And why is that power metal?

I don't think it fits in perfectly with in a categorization of power metal. It blends in with that because it's not far off, but it's not a perfect example of power metal. I'm not really an expert on labeling or genre-ing. It's got elements of thrash, stuff like that, but the arrangements are very non-progressive, it's very formula-matic, and the vocals kind of give away the style. As soon as you hear it you’re just like [sings high “metal vocal” falsetto], I guess for the most part we call it power metal because it's basically about the power of it. There's not a lot of showing off on the instruments, there's not a lot of show off on the arrangements. It’s just pure power and it’s heavy metal.

As far as that, it's the drummer’s band. He went ahead and wrote all the material on guitar, and then got with the guitar player, who is also the producer of the whole project, and they re-fitted the riffs for a guitar player. And as they were doing that they recorded the drums, so when I came in guitars and drums were done. I went ahead and put bass lines on it, and they would say, “This part is really busy vocally so just lay back, and this part you know, think of something kind of cool...have fun with it,” and we just went through it like that. I left and then the vocalist came in and did his stuff. It just seemed to be a project band for the drummer.

Richard Christy?

Yeah. It's just something he wanted to do, and he just called upon his friends. We've all been involved with Richard a lot through the years, and it’s easy for him to hook us up. And once the album was done – I guess everyone enjoyed doing it – he just threw out the idea that like, “Hey,if we get show offers, are you guys down?” And everyone said, “Sure, why not?” And everyone in this band is really busy, full time.

Yeah, it's got kind of a supergroup thing going on.

Yeah, kind of like that. So if everyone's schedule is clear, and something pops up at the right time, we'll do something. Everyone's got that open for the future. But we all realize that we're all really busy with other stuff, so this band is definitely not anything to be worried about.

Futures End, which is more straight-up progressive metal stuff – what was that like?

That is a completely new startup band. It's a brand new, “hey, let's put a group together, let's think of a name, let's draw a logo,” first album kind of stuff.

One of the guitar players in that group has been my musical buddy for a long, long time, and it's one of those situations where it's like, “Hey, we should make something together, let's record, let's make a band.” And it’s been going on for years. We just could never...I don't know, it just wasn't there yet for us to sit down and do something together. And then one day he calls me and says, “Hey, you know I got another guitar buddy. He's a shredder like me and we're writing these amazing songs and you're the bass player for the project, man.” So I checked it out and I said, “You're right...I am the bass player for this!” [laughter]

They're two shredders, man, and they complement each other. They're humble to each other. There's no competition, but you can tell they inspire each other to just go off. It's just two frickin' amazing shredder dudes, and they love to write, too. We're composing. Even after I'm off the phone with you tonight, I'm going over to write for the next album.

It's really inspiring, because we really vibe off each other, [we ’re] really into each other’s ideas, and the songs are coming fast. And the singer [has] a very unique sounding voice, very melodic. And it’s fun to write these heavy parts and have him kind of smooth them out over the top with his vocals.

The mix on that one is good too. You're really cutting on that.

Yeah, we did that by ourselves at the guitar player’s house, on his Cubase. We started out in the studio, and the guy that was going to do it for us, his preliminary mixes...I mean, we know that we had to go in and make adjustments, but it just seemed, working day by day by day, like we were so close to how we wanted it to sound mixed. And we handed it to someone else and we were like “Gah!” and we had to start over. So we just said we would do it ourselves and hope for the best. It’s not perfect, but it’s kind of cool. It’s our first album. I guess you're allowed a few faults when you put out a first album.

So inside of sounds like it’s got a bit more edge in the sound. Do you use a little bit of overdrive on your sound as a rule?

Not too much. Not to where it becomes defined by the word “distortion” at all. There's a normal amount, I just have a really aggressive right hand. I just really dig the strings into the pickup, and so if I open up the top end on it at all – anything from the mids all the way up to the high fuckin' clicky zone – if that is present in my tone, it just really sticks out.

And I go for that sound, I like that sound. I liked when Steve Harris was just coming through. It just sounded like metal. You heard that rattle and that clank, and it was perfectly in time. I just love that sound. And playing really aggressive music, stuff that's going by super fast, stuff that has a wall of guitars – poor me, I need to think of something – you know, so that tone is something I really rely on. I like it nice and clear, and nice and attack-y. That's the only thing that I really rely on to be part of the mix.

It is really evident on that mix. That's not my typical tone. Actually none of those albums are my typical tone, and I guess its because I don't have one. Those three albums are really the focus right now because you asked me to pick something kind of relevant, like stuff that's coming out.

That's the drill of the article. But I can hear from listening to those three records the common elements of your sound, even though they don't sound “the same.”

Well, then you did some intensive listening, because those are not only three different sounding bands, but really three different sounding mixes. I think I got totally buried on the power one [Charred Walls Of The Damned]. Some stereos it comes out on, but it’s one of those things where you really have to squinch real hard to hear. [laughter]. I hate that.

In Futures End the mix was better because we were all in charge of it, plus the band really wanted to hear the bass. We wanted to hear everything. And then the Faust [project] just turned out to be like that because we were kind of playing with the tone in the studio. The way his guitars are, and they are so low tuned, and the way the drums [are], kind of evolved into this real clicky [bass] sound and we just went with it, and sent the trial mix over to Italy and the guy freaked out. Just loved it. So we said screw it, just go with it.

The difference with that band – you know how I said Charred Walls was [about] being good friends with someone for years, really easy call up to get that job? [And] Futures End again, just buddies wanting to start a brand new project from scratch? But Faust was a complete out-of-the-blue, here's-an-email-saying, “Hey, you want to play on my record? Check out my song.” Never heard of the band before, never met the guy before. I flew to Milan to learn the stuff and record it at his place. I just got off the plane and there was this one long haired dude with a black shirt standing there, and I just went up to him and he just looked at me, and I said, “OK, cool!” I mean, that's how we met. [laughter]

One of those sessions I just went in totally dry, not knowing anything about the band, not knowing who was involved or anything. Turned out to make a really killer friend for life. He's a great guy and I helped him. He had planned a certain way to mix the album in Italy and I turned him on to a guy I have up here who did a really great job as far as he's concerned. There's been some good reviews on it, I guess that other people agree. But that was just a totally different situation than the other ones.

The approach for all three of them is still the same. Like I said, make each leader – the visionary of the band – just make him happy with what I'm contributing to the song. As long as they are, the listener kind of reacts the same way.

Why fretless bass in metal?

Well, I just love the sound of it. When I started to play it, I just liked that sound. There are tones you can get on that you could not get on a fretted, and I wanted that for me. Once I found the sounds I was looking for, I stuck with it. It gave me my own kind of little niche in a big, big sea of unoriginality and look-alikes and do-alikes. I kind of had a little thing of my own, and I just kind of built on it. I try to make what I play sound fretless, because it's just basically something I like.

Can you give me a rundown of the axe and gear you use?

Well, the past couple of years, I have a new kind of bass. It's by a company called Thor Bass. It's an American company, and as a matter of fact it's a one man shop. But he does have his basses out there. There's websites, and you can even find them for sale in eBay, so it's not a unique instrument, but it's very, very custom, because he only builds them when you order them.

Is it a 5, or 6, or a 4-string custom?

It's a 5-string fretless, and I string almost all of my 5-strings up to C, low E to high C, so it’s really just still a 4-string with some options to go higher. And I use a hipshot on my low string, so I have kind of a poor man’s 6-string, so if I need to I can click down and get low enough if people want 'em. I do have an ESP 5-string fretless strung up low B here, just because you know, I have it, and if I need the notes, it's there. But I've been using the Thor bass almost totally the past two years, and I’d been kind of a big ESP guy before that. And I still integrate my ESP in there, because there are certain sounds on certain basses I still need. Before ESP, I used Carvin, and before Carvin I was a total, total Rickenbacker-head.

How did you get your chops together? Did you just learn music, or did you actually have programmed exercises?

No, unfortunately I never really worked on anything. I didn't really sit down and rehearse anything. I never worked out of a book or any kind of lesson plan. I always regret that because I would just be so much farther along if I did, And now that I'm an old man…

Well, your technique is pretty solid! How did you get your speed together?

Just basically starting off in a thrash metal band with two guitar players that, when they picked, it would sound like someone just kicked a beehive down a hill. I mean, their hands were blurry! I started off on bass with fingers, and just as an experiment, when we got these thrash guitar players I switched to pick just to try it out, and I would watch their hands and say, “How the hell could I pick like that?” and there was no way, my mechanism was just totally different to keep up with them. So, I realized I had five picks – well, my pinky never touches a string, and my thumb doesn't really pick, it just kind of bashes [laughter] – so I had several picks on my hand without using a pick.

I just developed this quick finger technique without even kind of pre-planning it. It just kind of came out as my only way to keep up. I mean, they were just hell-bent on playing fast, fast and faster, and that's all it was about back then. When we were young, if we weren't the fast band in the world, well, show us who's faster and give us a day, and we'll be faster than them the next day. [laughter]

That's the only way my technique came out, as far as speed, is because I had to keep up with those guys. I didn't really analyze my technique or realize I had one until other bass players started asking me about it, and then I had to start thinking about what I was doing. And that totally screwed me up. [laughter]

What are your thoughts on the role of bass in modern metal, and how does it contrast with what was going on in the late ‘80s and the ‘90s?

Well, my thoughts are pretty violent, what I believe the role in modern metal should be, because [of] this new standard that came about. I don't know when exactly it happened. It gradually happened over a short period of time, though, [where] bass players were just really not holding their own part of the band up. They were just...I hate to sound so damned conceited, but they were just really lousy bass players. Maybe they were good musicians, but what they brought to those recording sessions just was not good enough, and they were getting squashed.

You know, guitar players were finding all these new tones, and de-tuning, and just [saying], “Uh, the bass is interfering with my low end,” and you know, that's bullcrap. It just evolved that way. That might be fine for some failed rhythm guitar player that got demoted to bass, or someone who just wants to hang out and be a cool guy and fake playing bass. You know, that might be fun for them, but for most of us serious musicians that really want to make something of it, make it interesting, really entertaining to listen to, it's frustrating because now there's this standard in place that engineers/producers/guitar players/the whole bit, they just want the bass to hold down the low end and just barely be audible above “on mute.”

And it just sucks, because we were all influenced by the same hard rock and early metal bass players. I mean, can you imagine taking the bassline off of anything on Blizzard on Ozz [1980, Sony], or anything by Rainbow, or Black Sabbath or Iron Maiden? You know, taking the bass out of any of that stuff – would you even recognize it? I mean, Zeppelin, so many bands...the bass is not [just] holding it down, the bass is creating a complete part of the song. I'm influenced by those guys, and the way they carried their own in a song made other musicians inspired to listen to what they play, and even so far [as] to pick up the instrument and do it themselves. And the bass players who set this new standard in metal to where we’re just mixed in so low and with such crap tone, something that sounds like a tuba with pillows stuffed down in the bell...that kind of stuff is not inspiring to want to be a metal bass player.

My point is, if you don't want bass, that's fine. Just don't have it. I'm sure there is a lot of music that is fine without bass, but I enjoy playing it and I enjoy listening to it. You can look at my e-mail inbox, there's a lot of frickin' people that enjoy it as well.

If you are going to have it, let's hear it, let's make it just as important as the other instruments in the band. And for the bass playing community, we really gotta create the new standard, which is going back to the old way of just, record something, write something that's worth hearing. If you want to fight for your decibels, make sure you got the shit to lay down for it. It’s true, sometimes you have to fight to be heard in metal. But you have to give them something worth fighting for!

Do you feel vindicated in a way, seeing all the technical and more prominent bass stuff going on in metal today? Guys like Jeroen [Thessling] from Obscura, and young guys coming up, pulling off crazy stuff, and they are up in the mix? Do you feel you were a little ahead of the curve in a way?

Yeah, well, I don't really put myself in that whole wave, but I do notice that stuff is coming out. I pay attention and I look for it, because that kind of stuff inspires me, when I see these newer bands or young musicians coming out, and the bass player is just really going for it and drawing a lot of attention. But also, the main thing with all this “new style” as far as the whole vindication thing, I mean, if it really is a cool bassline, it's gotta make sense and be cool to the song. Because there have been some bands where the bass player is just full of technique, and he's just going crazy, but you sit back for a minute and go, “What the hell is he doing? He's just going off. It doesn't make sense.” So I acknowledge there is a lot of talent there, but tone and feeling and good ideas are kind of the key to it.

You don't have to be super-technically gifted to make something sound cool, you just have to have cool ideas. And the ideas come from everywhere. Not just your own head, but everyone else in the band, maybe someone else in the studio winding tape – oops, I don't use tape anymore [laughter].

But, that's the main thing, is the cool ideas, and when I hear I feel vindicated? Yeah, a little bit. I do fly the flag…[unintelligible]…and bass players need to come out of the darkness and grab a piece of that spotlight. So I feel a little vindication when someone is holding their own.

The bass is just something I have always loved, and when I find another good bass player, it just pumps me up. It's exciting to listen to that music. That's how I discovered Obscura. I don't normally listen to that style of music anymore – I'm kind of burned out on it after so many years – but when you throw that kind of bass playing in there, it's like, “Wow, we gotta check this out! This guy's going crazy and it sounds killer!”

Last question: what recording are you most proud of, and why?

[groan] I can never answer that. I don't know. I honestly, I can't pick anything. I mean…

Gene [Hoglan] said, “If you want to hear what Steve is up to, listen to [Death’s] Individual Thought Patterns.” [1993, Relativity]

Well, yeah, ‘cause he played on that, he's trying to make you listen to him!

[mutual laughter]

That's a crack-up. So what's the Steve DiGiorgio answer?

I don't know. That album, I guess, gets me a big percentage of my recognition. But to me it’s so incomplete, because once everyone was so pumped up with what I brought to it, I was like, “Oh, well, now I know what you want, let me try again, ” but, of course, you don't get to try again, it's done. So, I don't know.

See, that's why producers are good sometimes, because they tell you when enough is enough. I honestly still, when I hear it...I did most of that stuff on such short notice. I came out and learned it, [and] we were in the studio days later. But there was a rescheduling thing with the mix where I got to come back and fix some of my stuff, so I prepared these other cool things. And it just seemed weird, because if I did them in the context of the main recording, maybe it wouldn't have seemed [like] so much. But since I came back with new ideas to embellish, it just seemed like one hot lick after another. The engineer was like “Dude, are you kidding me? No, knock that one out, that one out, and that one out. That one can stay, but that one and that one...”

I was like, “Awww, you're killing me! They were cool licks! Now that I’ve lived with Gene's drums for a while, now I can see where I could go with it. Before I was just trying to stay in the part, now I could go crazy!” He's like, “You're goin' crazy enough!”

That's a weird one for me, it was so long ago.

But seriously, is there another one where there was an unqualified, “Yeah, everything went right on that...I really dig it”

No, never. [laughter] I'm still looking for it.

Fair enough.

I'm going to do an all bass album, and you're going to be on it too, and we're all just gonna get together and make this album and just make people sick with it. [laughter] There will definitely be bass in the mix, because that's all it will be [laughter], and then when someone says, “What's your favorite album?” I'll say, “That one!”

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Liam Wilson of The Dillinger Escape Plan

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