Interview with Mo Foster
Many if not all artists wrestle with their own identity at one time or another. `What am I first and foremost: a bassist, singer, songwriter, all or some of the above?` In listening to your new release, TIME TO THINK, am I safe in saying that you are past that point in your life, that the quest for who you are and what you are, is somewhat settled?
•I wish. I’ve no plan. I’m endlessly searching and trying many things. Some of them work, some don’t. I write music, I produce, and I have, in the past, been privileged to play with, for example, Jeff Beck at The Greek Theatre in LA, Phil Collins at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, jazz composer Gil Evans at The Montreux Jazz Festival, and The London Symphony Orchestra at The Barbican theatre in London. Every gig was wonderful (or terrifying) in its own way – and I’m sure there will be more like them – but right now I’d rather play with my own band.
You state in the liner notes for this album, that though it would have been nice and easy to record TIME TO THINK with the same musicians you have recorded your previous two solo albums with, but it was simply also, time for a change. This time out, you decided to work without a drummer. This can allow the music to find its own natural rhythm, not dictated by constraint. The listener is given the freedom to find his or her own pulse to the music - were these some of the goals you set out to attain?
•The CD liner-notes explain in detail how I arrived at the idea of not using a drummer after hearing a live Miles Davis track when only the piano and bass were playing - but it still swung. The concept generated a remarkable freedom and clarity for all of the musicians, but there was no room for any musician who could not keep perfect internal time. Ironically a friend of mine said that when he listens to the CD he creates his own drum parts in his head. I also wanted to create music that would sound effortless and relaxing. As in my earlier CDs Bel Assis and Southern Reunion I wanted to create music that ultimately was the kind that I would buy.
As in other recordings with no formal drummer, were you able to enjoy dictating or pacing the rhythm at some points and then leaving that up to the pianist or guitarist to take over that role when the music demanded it?
•Although we did try to keep to a tempo this was necessarily stretched if the emotion demanded it. And ironically, whereas most musicians do have a tendency to speed up slightly if unchecked the acoustics of the church had a strange affect on us all and on some tracks we even began to slow down slightly. One take of ‘Guardians’ almost ground to a halt. In addition about half of the music had never been seen before. So, as if it wasn’t hard enough already, we were sight-reading the parts. And in some way I think it made all of us play more economically. I had the task of conducting any tempo changes – such as endings – with the neck of my bass. In that critical acoustic you mustn’t rustle or squeak or even breathe as the final chord dies away. At the end of one piece I found myself balanced on one foot and pointing – for several seconds. Very comical.
With TIME TO THINK, if seems there was an effort to make an accessible album, something that most people, even and in particular, non-musicians, could derive something from.
•Very much so. I see no barriers. It’s emotional. Various friends have reported that they enjoy listening to the CD to relax, to do the ironing, and in one case to give birth! At the same time it is possible to detach and just enjoy the exquisite soloing of these guys.
This is very far from yet another bass solo album, more a collection of real songs, with real meat on the bones. (Every month we are inundated with bassists solo projects that sound more like finger exercises or worse still, ego exercises, than they do as anything remotely musical.
• I think that is the point – they are songs, songs which, although they have been crafted and carefully structured, allow a certain freedom to the other players for them to add their own very strong personalities.
Some of our most favorite albums have been bassists in a band context, guided by the discipline of working with others, others that are calling the shots. Many bassists when loosed from the constraints of working for someone, just go nuts, acting as if the more notes they played the better the album MUST BE! These albums invariably get played once, perhaps twice and then never again. The bassist ends up back in a band ensemble, where they might have best stayed in the first place. What events of maturity must happen, do you think, to a bassist to allow them to circumvent this tendency to overplay on their solo releases? In essence, how the heck did you do it?!?
•Three decades of studio playing has taught me to be aware of the needs of the song, the requirements of the bass line and the actual sound that I’m making – the duration, timbre, and attack of each note. When routining a song its good to shove out lots of ideas (too many even) some of which may even become hooks. But I also realised that if you can play one note beautifully - and in the right place – then you are on the way.
Without that maturity, this leaves a pretty dismal group for us to chose from when it comes to new releases. (It affects greatly who we put in the magazine. I really thought when we started this mag and the previous one that there was a whole world of new ideas out there, when in fact, few are truly creative, the rest are mere copycats.) So few of the newer players want to take chances, they all have to be Jaco or Marcus, seldom opting to just be themselves. What do you feel these people are afraid of?
•I don’t think they’re afraid of anything. There’s an old adage that says “if you’re going to copy someone then copy from the best.” Inevitably you start out borrowing ideas from other people. It’s what you do with them that counts. And the development of your own sound. Which can take a lifetime. I’ve listened, not only to bass guitars and upright basses, but also church organ pipes, synthesisers (especially Stevie Wonder), tubas, cellos, and bassoons for inspiration (I was a real bore on orchestral sessions, endlessly asking questions). I tried to be aware of the envelope of an instrument – and I think my fretless now has a sound that is somewhere between that of a cello and a euphonium. I have to coax notes out of it! It’s taken a very long time to find this sound.
Do you see any glimmering of hope on the horizon of anything truly new, either as a player (feel free to name names) or a band with an actual new style of music.
•Nothing at the minute but you never know. There is always the chance of a stunning surprise. After all who could have predicted the Beatles?
A perfect example of this playing-it-safe-mentality is a new release I received from a progressive band (I love that term, the last thing it actually is these days IS progressive!). They were supposedly from the here and now but everything they did was a direct step back to early Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Not one whit or originality and not one new idea. (It is fine and well to have people influence you, but allowing any one band or bassists to dictate your musical path is disastrous.) The sad thing is these guys were all in their early 20s, a time when creativity often is at its strongest. So instead of cutting new pathways through the musical underbrush, they opt for the beaten path.
•It may surprise you to know that I was once in a progressive band called Affinity. We were contemporaries of such other new bands as Yes, King Crimson and the New Yardbirds who later became Led Zeppelin - although we leant a little more towards jazz and we were managed by the late Ronnie Scott. It was a genuinely progressive period involving much experimentation. Everything was new. Those periods are impossible to recreate. I spent part of last year producing and re-mastering back-catalogue albums for Angel Air Records. Amongst the batch were Affinity, our first album, and Live Instrumentals, which I recorded at Ronnie Scotts Club in January 1969. Whew, 34 years just shot by!
Can you give us some examples in your mind, of those that did not fall into that trap, that gave us true bass musical statements and not at the expense of the rest of the band or the music.
•Certainly. And these will be some of my heroes.
Jack Bruce for his ability to drive the music and play around with time.
Carol Kaye for her terrific lines, books and attitude.
Jet Harris of the Shadows - possibly the first bass guitarist of any significance in Britain - and a great jazzer.
Paul McCartney, Leland Sklar, and Jimmy Johnson for their beautiful melodies.
Jaco Pastorius for helping me to discover a sound.
Larry Graham for showing me how to hurt my thumb.
Marcus Miller, Stanley Clarke, and Mark King for their up front attitude and sound.
Sting for his economy.
Ray Brown for his swing and unerring ability to play the right note.
Ron Carter for his taste and low-note growl
Steve Swallow for his gorgeous upright bass solos when he was with Gary Burton’s quartet.
Stevie Wonder for inventing the rules on synth-bass.
Mike Manring for his warmth and clever tunings.
J S Bach for writing every bass-line
You have been credited with creating the first college course on bass playing in the UK. Can you tell us a bit about what brought that about and was it patently clear at that time that there was a need for such a training ground for bassists? How long did this College course route go on? Does some version of it exist still at this time?
•Nothing was clear. That only happens with hindsight. In reality I wanted to discover if I could teach. I had met the head of music at Goldsmiths College and we decided to start a one-afternoon-a-week course that would last a year. It was 1975 there were no precedents. It was an interesting year. I think a few of the players learnt something but I was losing money – I was having to cancel sessions just to be there. So at the end of the year I handed it over to Laurence Canty who kept the course going for a further twenty years.
Have you done anything like that since that time? Teaching videos, holding classes or doing clinics?
•I have given the occasional seminar at various London colleges, but this is rewarding and worthwhile only if people ask questions.
I know for myself that when I started in 67 the only hero I could find was Jack Bruce and then in late 69/70 it was Chris Squire and Stanley (72) and then of course, Jaco. Who out there in the present batch of bassists extraordinaire, catches your interest and why so?
•Tragically the industry is presently set up to be indifferent to musical prowess. So if there are any great players out there I haven’t seen them. And there is no longer a studio scene for players to rise through the ranks. It’s sad. In the 60s/70s there were magazines – such as Beat Instrumental and Melody Maker – dedicated to the new instrumentalists. It was an exciting period. Apart from the specialists, the current magazines are just not interested – it’s all fashion. And this is also the period when an act can appear on Top Of The Pops featuring four (miming) singers and a record turntable! And I hate watching bass-players on TV who are clearly miming to either a synth or a sample. Where is the dignity?
You are also credited with being one of the first bassists in the UK using effects pedals. What were you looking for that brought you to the pedals themselves?
•In the studio I had been using an English made HH Combo amplifier which had a feature called ‘sustain’. This was in reality a sort of enhanced fuzz unit. I toured the US with a small band in 1974. Upon arrival in New York we went straight to 48th Street and devoured anything new, including a line of peddles by a new company called MXR. I bought a distortion and phase 90. It was delightful to be able to play on stage with effects that were only previously obtainable in the studio.
You seem to have mixed emotions about long tours, in one sense it is steady employment, yet in another, it takes you out of the loop of those in demand for session work, which is another huge financial resource. Do you do much touring these days, or does your expanding role as a producer reduce the necessity for that?
•It may seem surprising but my last world tour was with Phil Collins in 1982/83. I have performed the occasional small tour such as with the Gil Evans British Orchestra in 1983. Plus the occasional gigs with friends in London clubs. Whilst I enjoyed touring with major artists such as Phil Collins and Jeff Beck I began to feel the need to be more than just a hired hand. I needed to promote my own music and this was first made available with the solo CDs Bel Assis and Southern Reunion. Simultaneously I extended my career as a record producer with albums such as The Old Hyde by Deborah Bonham, the younger sister of the late John Bonham. It was a joy to work with Deb’s nephew Jason Bonham on drums and also guitarists of the calibre of Robbie McIntosh and Dougie Boyle.
One of the things I really thought would flip me out over the years is meeting those that I have always admired in the music industry, particularly bassists. I know this is of course an email interview, so the dynamic is different, but I also do a lot of in-person and phone interviews as well. I always wonder if I am just gonna get in there and freeze up. So far, nothing like that has happened during the interview yet! It is usually after the interview, that I find the reality of having spoken to my hero hits me. Problem is that often I have a friend with me for the company to the interview and more than often they aren’t bass players, so they either don't know or care who I have just interviewed! It is an odd feeling to talk to a hero and afterwards have no one to share the experience with. Now I know you interviewed George Harrison at one time and that must have been mind-numbing! Have you interviewed anyone else since those heady days? If so, can you tell us of your adventures?
•Interviewing George Harrison in Abbey Road Studio 2 was the most amazing experience. He was such a sweetie, and he would occasionally help me out by answering questions that I hadn’t even asked! I have also interviewed bassists Tony Levin and Marcus Miller - both for the now sadly defunct magazine Making Music. It was great to meet the guys. Tony told me the secrets of his choreography with Peter Gabriel – ie they were all hopeless but learnt whatever Peter could remember. And Marcus let me play his bass - but it still sounded like me! That was yet another proof – and I’ve played Charlie Mingus’ bass and Jeff Beck’s guitar – that the sound is in the hand positions and finger pressure of the player – it’s not the instrument.
From what I have read, you are not so much of a fan of Direct Input devices as many others in the producers chair are. Do you, in your recordings or those you do for others, have the latitude to teach others in the benefits of live recording?
•DI is fine and it has its strengths. Especially if the engineer has to set up very quickly. But nothing can replace the warmth of a good amplifier cabinet and the right microphone. There will necessarily be some leakage onto the microphone but as long as everybody’s playing is fine this can only enhance the emotion of the sound. I can’t stand lazy engineers who have never learnt the art of mic placement. I once did a session at a studio that only owned one microphone – and that was for vocals. That was fun!
That you prefer using the sound of the room as much as the sound of the direct box, to capture the kind of voice you want and need your bass or any other instrument to speak with. Do you still try ways to opt for live recording to capture the passion of the music? Something a board and a direct box can and will never do?
• I love using real acoustics. But the more open and live the sound, the better the players have to be – it’s hard to drop-in an instrument because of the ‘spill’. And you have to know the ‘arrangement’ in advance.
Aside for an interlude with Alembic, you have not much catered to the big move to utlra expensive custom boutique basses, 6 and seven-string behemoths Do the 4 and 5 string instruments still say all you need to say? (Its funny how 5 string seems so normal now, when even 10 years ago it seemed like trying to play a telephone pole, odd how we adapt!)
•I had heard players like Anthony Jackson playing notes below E. But it was only in the studio when I was called upon to reproduce songwriter’s demos - in the key of C - that the five string bass became necessary (songwriters somehow always managed to play sampled-bass on keyboard with ‘C’ as the lowest note).
Are you involved in looping or any effect pedal configuration just to give you that special combination of sounds? What about midi or the triggering of voice synths in any way?
•For twenty years I have been a composer of library/production music and, as you can imagine, I’ve used every technique in the book. Including very long repeats. So looping is not really that new to me. But bass-players like Steve Lawson are now able to take the equipment on the road and perform a live one man show.
With Time to Think (T2T) out there, are you doing much performing in support of other artists or are you working T2T for yourselves exclusively at this time?
•I would love to put on a series of concerts. The only constraints are the availability of the right halls (which must be none-smoking – I guess that rules out Germany) and the availability of the musicians (who, being the best, are expensive).
When the life of T2T has run its course, is there another CD in the works, even another tour loosely set up? Or is it Studio Time once more, both as a producer and a sideman?
•It is my intention that T2T never runs its course. Have a look at Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis – it’s still in the racks after forty years! There is always another CD in preparation but presently I am caught up in promoting my label, Primrose Hill Records.
If this newest release just suddenly caught fire and agents were falling all over themselves to get you to sign with them, could this develop into a long term project once more? Would you be willing to take it wherever it took you?
•Yes, of course. When a situation presents itself you assess it and decide on a course of action. I would love to tour with my band but only if it made financial sense. We have the music, we have the players.
Your career has brought you many anecdotes and tons of road stories these are the glue that ties together times of great pleasure for musicians of all sorts. On your site, you have included many that most of us who have done the long-term-tour-thing can relate to or have experienced themselves. Am I right in saying that as your career continues along, new ones, new anedotes, crop up all the time? Will you be adding them to your site when you get the opportunity to do so?
•Of course I love stories. I wrote a book called 17 Watts? that is composed almost entirely of musicians’ stories. Musicians are among the funniest people in the world. And yes, I’ll be constantly adding new stories, one-liners, and observations to the web-site.
Am I safe at saying you will stay in this line of work as long as it stays as much fun as it has been for you so far?
•I have been a musician and composer for the whole of my professional life. I find it unlikely at this point that I will revert to being a physicist! Although I still read the New Scientist magazine.
Am I safe in saying that your days as a math and physics teacher are over?•If you read my book 17 Watts? - which is semi autobiographical - you will know that I was never a teacher of maths and physics. I had, however, studied for a degree in physics at the University of Sussex. Later as a research student at a college in the East End of London I was so bored that I used to clean the floors at the end of the day not with brushes but by pouring very expensive liquid nitrogen which would sweep the dust out of the way. Long days in the studio may be exhausting – but they’re better than working!