Peter Muller - January 2008
More than four years removed from the release of his acclaimed debut on M-Vibez in 2003, Peter Muller has produced his second solo session, The Flow. With his classic 1979 Fender Jazz bass, Muller blends funk, contemporary jazz, r&b, and soul sounds with oriental and latin elements over the course of 10 remarkable tracks that he compiled in his own Wave Island studio in Germany and released under his own label, Mullenium Records. As a sideman and leader of his own group, Muller has become a well known bass figure throughout Europe over the past two decades and is widely acknowledged for his ability to improvise heavy grooves and his profound passion for funk music. Between his own solo projects, Muller works as a recording engineer and maintains a busy schedule mixing and mastering numerous side productions for artists who are seeking to capture the Muller sound.
In this interview, Muller talks about his background as a bassist, The Flow, recording bass parts, slap bass playing, producing, and distributing his music through his own record label over the internet.
What led you to pursue becoming a bassist?
I came in contact with jazz very early because my father plays piano and acoustic bass. He wasn't a professional musician, but he played regularly with several bands. I was just a child at the time, but sometimes I had the opportunity to watch him and his bands play. Even though he played jazz bass, the bass wasn't my first instrument. I loved the drums, but my parents thought it would be good for me to learn a harmony instrument first. Since I didn't feel that connected to the piano, I decided to learn classical acoustic guitar when I was about nine years old, and I took lessons for about five years. When I later discovered funk and soul music, I was fascinated by the sound of the bass guitar in that environment so I started to slap on the acoustic guitar, imitating all the stuff I was hearing. I can't even count the number of guitar strings that I broke, but in the end, I felt that the acoustic guitar wasn't for me. One day, a friend of my father who was also a bassist offered me an old Hofner bass which he didn't need anymore. That instrument was really an improvement over my acoustic guitar, and I spent hours practicing on it each day. After about a year when I was 14, I started to rehearse with local bands, and I discovered that the Hofner bass certainly had limits so I needed an instrument more suited to the type of music I wanted to play. I really liked the sound of the Fender Jazz bass from the first time I heard one, but they were so expensive. Eventually, I found a deal on a second-hand Jazz bass that sounded fantastic. The price was reasonable so my parents bought it for me, and it is still my main instrument today.
Are there any bass players which have been particularly influential on your playing?
The first bass player who influenced me in a big way was Mark King. His group Level 42 was very popular in Germany by the time I started to play bass, and because of him, I started to practice slapping. Doug Wimbish was also a big influence on my playing. I liked rap music and had all the Sugarhill recordings that he played on. The stuff was so funky. A little later, I discovered Marcus Miller. His playing seemed to cover a greater range of music and playing techniques. It sounded deeper and so soulful to me. As a result, I became a huge fan. A recording which really changed my attitude towards music was Tutu by Miles Davis. I was maybe 16 by that time, and from that moment on, I was sure that the mixture of jazz, funk, and other styles was the way I wanted to hear and make music. Another bass player I always liked was Stanley Clarke because I was fascinated by how he approached the bass with a guitar-like attitude. Strangely, I was never much into Jaco who has been a big influence on most bass players, but in the past few years, I have come to appreciate more and more of what he was doing. Sometimes I can't figure out why I didn't pay more attention to his playing earlier.
Can you tell us about your new recording, The Flow?
The way the new recording was produced was quite different from my first solo project, M-Vibez. Most of the parts except for the bass were recorded on location at the studios of the guest musicians. I traveled around between different cities in Germany and England to capture the creativity of them in their own environments. In addition to recording the different parts, we spent time just hanging out so the recording situation was free from the pressure of specific schedules and deadlines. I think that process had a very positive impact on the final results. Back home, I sat down in my studio, Wave Island, and put everything together. Some of incredibly talented musicians featured on The Flow also appeared on M-Vibez, but I was also fortunate to have legendary guitarist Tim Cansfield play on several tracks. I met him during the production of Frank Mead's recording Shout It Out back in 2003, and we have become good friends since then. Another musician I met in England at a gig was Tim Weller. He's a top flight drummer in London, and I'm proud he did a tune for me.
Last year, a person who I know that plays hip hop told me about having or not having "the flow" which simply means that if your rhymes are cool, fluent, and in the groove, you got the flow. I liked the expression because I think it also works well for any instrument. When I was searching the internet about the flow, I found a psychological meaning which fit exactly what I was feeling when I produced my new recording. The psychological explanation of the flow was proposed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as being the mental state of operation in which a person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing, characterized by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. I really found myself in this explanation because even though the new recording was a lot of work, the production felt very right, and everything flowed so smoothly.
How do you capture your bass tone in the studio?
On M-Vibez, I recorded the bass direct. With the EMG pickups that I have installed in my bass, it sounded great without any preamps, but over the last few years, I have become a fan of the tube sound. About two years ago, I began endorsing Aguilar Amplification. The Aguilar DB 750 is a great example of how tubes can color a bass sound without changing the character of your instrument too much. I used the DB 750 on a couple tracks on The Flow. The other tunes I recorded with an SPL Channel One which I bought originally to record vocals in the studio. When experimenting with it, I discovered that it gives a nice flavor to the bass. It has a sweet compressor as well. For the software, I used several different programs because we recorded in different studios, but Logic and Steinberg software was involved.
Do you have any recording recommendations that you could share with us for getting a great bass sound?
I do believe that the most important variables involved in getting a great recorded bass tone is the instrument and the way you play it. No equipment that is found after your bass in the signal chain is going to greatly enhance your sound so you have to start with a good instrument. The gear is only there to support the sound you already have so thinking about why to choose a particular piece of equipment only makes sense if you have a concept for what you want to hear. My Fender has a very clean sound character but I chose EMG pickups because it makes the high frequencies even more sparkling. If you looked at the EQ settings on my amps or in the studio, you wouldn't find any extreme settings. I boost the low frequencies here and there, depending where the kick drum sits in the mix, and I also add a little compression to smooth things out. Good bass technique will help you to obtain the best and cleanest results possible.
When using slap techniques to play your music, how do you avoid becoming repetitive and predictable since bassists often tend to revert to the same types of patterns?
I think that just listening to music helped me a lot. When I was younger, I checked out every bass line or slap lick I could find. With that experience, I figured out what would sound new and interesting. There is nothing more boring than hearing a bass solo full of typical licks especially since slapping becomes easily outworn. It's just not possible anymore to impress people with only techniques. I think it's the expression and soul in your playing that makes the difference and captures the attention of the listener so I recommend that you learn the standard licks and then avoid them!
Since you have been utilizing the same Fender Jazz bass since 1983, why did you choose that bass, and what makes it so essential to your music?
There is simply a connection to the instrument which makes it easy for me to play. Everything about the bass feels and sounds so familiar to me. There are a lot of instruments out there that sound great so I could easily find another one, but my Jazz bass is like a friend which guarantees that you'll have a good evening.
How has producing and being an audio engineer helped you to become a better bassist?
Composing, producing, and mixing music definitely helps you to see the whole picture. If you stop focusing only on the bass, you learn to understand its function better. As an engineer, you also learn to integrate more fully in a group sound. Plus, I learned a lot about other instruments, too.
What advantages are there in releasing recordings on your own record label?
Finding a good deal with a major label as a bass player, or any other instrumental artist, is almost impossible. Going with another small independent label doesn't really make much sense because there aren't any advantages. You'll earn only a very small percentage of your record sales, and the promotion possibilities are limited. It has never been cheaper to record high quality music due to computerized studio technology, and it has never been easier to get your music delivered to the whole world through the internet. The best option you have today as an independent musician is to record your own music, put together your own record label, and sell your music through the internet. You just need to be flexible and open to the business side of music. I think the time when a musician only had to concentrate on playing his instrument in order to survive is definitely over.
How has the internet impacted your ability to distribute your music?
With internet sales and digital downloads, the significance of getting your music on the shelves in a record store greatly declines. If you go to a record store anywhere today, you'll find mostly recordings of pop music which are on the charts and sell easy. The real music lovers around the word who look for alternative types of music have discovered the internet as a viable source. That is why it is the ideal place to promote yourself. Don't worry if you don't have a distribution deal and therefore are not present in the big chain stores. Even if I would sign a deal to sell my recordings through a distribution company, most of the shops won't order them because jazz recordings don't sell well compared to pop music. If a store was to order your recordings, both the store and the distributor are going to keep most of the money so the amount you receive is very minimal. It is better to sell your music through your own online shop and increase your profit to keep things going. If your recordings sell really well, you can then employ some people to help you.
Do you get the opportunity to play your music live with a band?
There are a lot of opportunities if you wish to play under any conditions and pay your band out of your own pocket. Promoters, event managers, and the clubs generally don't want to take any risks. This has become a big problem in Germany, and I think it is a problem everywhere. Most of the professional musicians I work with are making their livings through touring with well know chart acts. Between gigs, they are teaching. Although these musicians would prefer to perform my material rather than what they are playing on their pop gigs, I can't ask them to tour with me for weeks at their own risk. That is why I can only schedule sporadic gigs where the money is guaranteed. I'm always working on making new contacts to find promoters who want to bring us to their venues, and I hope I can interest them more and more with every recording I make.
Where is the best place for viewers to listen to your music and purchase your recordings?
You can purchase my recordings through the online shop on my website. People in the United States can also easily order my recordings through CD Baby.
Now that you have released your second recording as a leader, what would you like to accomplish next?
Besides continuing to promote my own projects, I'll be producing saxophonist Frank Mead's next recording so I will sit down and compose some material for him. I really enjoy producing so I hope I can work with many more interesting artists in the coming years.
With Frank Mead:
Shout It Out
1979 Fender Jazz Bass 4-String Fretted With EMG Pickups
Modulus Genesis 5-String Fretless
Aguilar DB 750
Aguilar GS 410
DR Hi-Beams For Fender Jazz Bass (.045, .065, .085, .105)
DR Sunbeams For Modulus Genesis (.045, .065, .085, .105, .125)
EMMA Discumbobulator Envelope Filter Pedal
EMMA Transmorgrifier Compressor Pedal