BY STEVIE GLASGOW
LAST MONTH, WE CELEBRATED THE life and legacy of Mick Karn—who passed away earlier this year—by examining his tenure with Japan and looking at Mick’s considerable solo output. This month we turn to his work as a sideman with such artists as Gary Numan, Kate Bush, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, taking a closer look at the gear he used to get his signature sound.
SWEET & RAW
For a flavor of Mick’s fingerstyle flair as a sideman, check out his mesmerizing work on “Sweetheart Raw,” the standout track from No-Man’s Loveblows & Lovecries— A Confession (Ex. 1). Here, his animated line contrasts effectively with the barren atmosphere of the track. Mick tuned his E string down to D for this one, as evidenced by the open-string rakes in the main riff. Other highlights in this realm include the wicked slide- and harmonic-soaked groove on Gavin Harrison’s “Aim” (from Sanity & Gravity, 1998).
HARMONY OF THE SEERS
Karn’s sense of harmony was founded on his keen ears rather than theory books. “I spent too much time when I was young being told that this note can’t be played with that one,” he told BASS PLAYER in February ’06. “I have very strong ideas about the way music should be written, and if it sounds good that’s all that matters to me.” Gary Numan was one artist who trusted Mick’s musical vision, as typified by the bass man’s “outside” harmonies on Numan’s “She’s Got Claws” (Ex. 2), including the audacious ear-bending descents heard during the first verse or the juicy C# that he superimposes over a C major chord halfway through the second verse. Also check out the way he introduces a destabilizing 4th (B) over the F#maj7 verse chords on “Lunette” (Ex. 3, from Yoshihiro Hanno’s Liquid Glass) before outlining a D6 vibe in the fourth bar, as the F#maj7 tonality continues to linger.
SENSUAL SHAPE SHIFTING
To dig into more of Karn’s bag of tricks, relish Mick’s maverick open-string chorus riff on Kate Bush’s “Heads We’re Dancing” (Ex. 4, from The Sensual World), and the sparse, exotic support that anchors the single-chord wash and searing vocal improvisations found on Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Michael Brook’s “Intoxicated” [Night Song]. Karn could also comfortably slip into a straight pop mode, such as on Nina’s “Happy Tomorrow” [Nina] or Joan Armatrading’s “More Than One Kind of Love” [Hearts and Flowers]. For a special treat, cue up Bill Nelson’s “Glow World” (Ex. 5, from Chimera), which Mick flecks with Karnisms that are both subtle and unmistakable. It’s also well worth hunting down the Polytown album—a striking study in collaboration and improvisation that was completed in a mere three weeks, with Mick, guitarist David Torn, and drummer Terry Bozzio improvising their parts separately. Listen out for the sonic treat that Mick serves up on “Open Letter to the Heart of Diaphora”; his double- tracked stereo-panned lines (a favored Karn device) on “Honey Sweating,” and “This Is the Abduction Scene,” featuring strangely accented rhythms and a gutwrenchingly distorted bass sound.
Mick Karn stripped the frets from his first bass around the time of Japan’s sophomore outing, Obscure Alternatives [Hansa, 1978], although he continued to use a fretted Ibanez during rehearsals for the recording. Karn later switched to a fretless Travis Bean aluminum-neck model before turning to Wal basses, the brand with which he was most closely associated. One Wal in particular—a custom-built fretless model with a Brazilian mahogany core, African tulipwood top, humbucking pickups, and an active preamp—played a key role in his career. Mick also played a graphite-neck bass made by luthier Steve Klein, featuring an alder body, Bartolini BB4C pickups, a Bartolini NTBT 18-volt active system, and an E string-extending Steinberger DB bridge, in addition to occasionally recording with a 5-string bass. He favored DR Strings and Trace Elliot amps.
With Gary NumanDance [Beggars Banquet, 1981]
With No-ManLoveblows & Lovecries—A Confession [One Little Indian, 1993]
With Gavin Harrison Sanity & Gravity [Resurgence UK, 1998]
With Yoshihiro HannoLiquid Glass [Medium UK, 2005]
With Kate BushThe Sensual World [EMI, 1989]
With Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Michael BrookNight Song [Real World, 1996]
With Joan ArmatradingHearts & Flowers [A&M, 1995]
With Bill NelsonChimera [Ume Imports, 2005]
“Sweetheart Raw” Words and Music by Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness. (c) 1993 HIT & RUN MUSIC (PUBLISHING) LTD. All Rights in the U.S. and Canada Controlled and Administered by EMI BLACKWOOD MUSIC INC. All Rights Reserved International Copyright Secured Used by Permission. Reprinted by Permission of Hal Leonard Corporation
“She’s Got Claws” Words and Music by GARY NUMAN. (c) 1981 UNICHAPPELL MUSIC, INC. Used by Permission of ALFRED MUSIC PUBLISHING CO., INC. All Rights Reserved
“Heads We’re Dancing” Words and Music by Kate Bush. (c) 1988 KATE BUSH MUSIC LTD. All Rights Controlled and Administered by SCREEN GEMS-EMI MUSIC INC. All Rights Reserved International Copyright Secured Used by Permission. Reprinted by Permission of Hal Leonard Corporation