Steve Jenkins - May 2006
On his acclaimed 2004 debut solo project, Mad Science, Steve Jenkins established himself as one of today's brightest up-and-coming electric bassists by merging serious bass chops and a sophisticated sense of melody within the context of groove-oriented compositions. While a student on scholarship at Berklee College of Music, Jenkins honed his advanced technical proficiency through his studies with renowned bass instructor and long-time faculty member, Bruce Gertz. In addition to his work as a solo artist and touring with guitarist David Fiuczynski as a member of the Screaming Headless Torsos, Jenkins performs alongside Vernon Reid and many other world-class musicians while based out of New York.
In this interview, Jenkins talks about Mad Science, his influences, studying bass at Berklee, playing with the Screaming Headless Torsos, and teaching.
How did you initially get involved with playing bass?
I was into music at an early age. At age three, I was climbing up to the piano and learning things by ear. I played with the radio and stereos that were in our home where I heard all kinds of music. I also took piano lessons and even played trumpet when I was in elementary school. When I was eleven, I started to dabble with the guitar. My parents were very supportive of my curiosity towards music. I bought my first bass when I was 12. I had a pocket full of money from cutting people's lawns all summer so, naturally, I had to have something to show for all of that work. I was torn between buying a skateboard or a bass. It was really that arbitrary. However, as it turns out, this whole bass thing was probably already in the cards.
Who has had the most profound influence on your approach to bass playing?
My influences on bass are pretty diverse. Here is a partial list: Prince, Jaco, Me'shell N'degeocello, Marcus Miller, Paul Jackson, Victor Bailey, Larry Graham, Matthew Garrison, Oteil Burbridge, Gary Willis, Tim Lefebvre, Squarepusher, Fima Ephron, and Doug Wimbish.
I was also lucky enough to study with two great bass players including David Dyson and while I was at Berklee, Bruce Gertz. They both had a tremendous impact on my playing. Right before I graduated high school, I met Dyson at a Living Colour CD signing in Georgetown. He was hanging out with Will Calhoun, Living Colour's drummer, and a friend from Berklee. I recognized Dyson from an article in a magazine. He gave me a business card, and a few days later, I called and asked him if he taught lessons. For whatever reason, he took me on as a student. David was the first bass player that I ever studied with that had his own sound and concept. I was, and still am, totally knocked out by his playing. I really think it was Dave's lessons that have carried me the furthest as musician.
Bruce Gertz has taught everyone from Victor Bailey to Matthew Garrison to Skuli Sverrison, and several others. Many of his past students were influential to me so I wanted to go to the source, or one of the sources, of their learning. Bruce got me to deal with harmonic content in a way that stretched and strengthened my abilities as an improviser and a bass player. He was also very encouraging and wasn't shy about telling me if something was good or if it sucked. I learned a whole lot from him.
Aside from the people I already mentioned, I would say that all of the musicians that I play with on a regular basis as well as my musical peers influence my playing.
Could you tell us about, Mad Science, your debut project as a leader?
I had been thinking about doing a CD project for a long time. I felt the compositions and ideas that I had been writing were strong enough to document. Thanks to the affordability of home recording, I was able to cut costs by recording the basic tracks in a studio and doing overdubs, mixing, and editing at my place on my own time. Mad Science features some of my favorite musicians on earth including David Fiuczynski, Adam Deitch, Jeff Bhasker, Sam Kininger, and more. Dan Brantigan co-produced and mixed the project and played trumpet and flugelhorn on two tracks.
I didn't set out to make a "bass" record. Instead, I wanted to put together a cool collection of tunes. Don't get me wrong. I definitely picked some spots to do my thing, and there are plenty of solos on the album. However, my focus was primarily on the compositions and overall vibe of the tunes. People seem to really like Mad Science and not just musicians. It has received some wonderful reviews in music magazines.
How would you categorize your music?
I would say that my music is a combination of everything that I love about funk, jazz, hip-hop, electronic, rock, world, and fusion music all rolled into one. I'm trying to stay away from using the word "fusion." To me, it's a dated term that means nothing, but the average writer for Rolling Stone would probably call it jazz-fusion.
How did you record your bass parts on Mad Science?
I recorded direct and with microphones in front of an amp. The microphones add warmth, and the direct sound retains the clarity. You can really get a nice blend that way. Ironically, some of the best sounds were achieved by going straight into my Mac G4 through the Digi001. I also used an Aguilar outboard preamp when we recorded "Zeta Reticuli."
Where can viewers check out your music and pick up your CD?
My CD is available for purchase directly through my website, SteveJenkinsBass.com. Listeners can also hear samples of the tracks on my website. You can also purchase it from CD Baby, iTunes, Audiophile Imports, and Abstract Logix.
Do you have any plans to release another recording as a solo artist?
I do, and it's going to be different than Mad Science. Lately, I've been listening to a lot of Radiohead, Squarepusher, the Mars Volta, and Prefuse73. Besides the music being amazing, the production on those recordings is phenomenal and awe-inspiring. I want to do more with samples and programmed beats mixed with live instrumentation on the next CD. There will be some great musicians on my next album, and more than likely, there will be vocals. I also plan on using the computer more like a musical instrument in my next venture. Mad Science was only the tip of the iceberg. Everybody who liked it should stay tuned!
Besides your own music, what other projects are you currently working on?
Since 2003, I've been in David "Fuze" Fiuczynski's trio, KiF. We just recorded a new CD in April. It's me on bass, Fuze on guitar, and Skoota Warner on drums. Musically, it's a cross-pollination of funk and electronica-influenced grooves with Middle Eastern melodies and harmonies on top with dashes of funk and free-jazz. It will probably come out at the very latest by spring, 2007. I am also the bass player for Fuze's other band, Screaming Headless Torsos.
I'm getting ready to record another CD with a guitarist named Chris Buono and Tobias Ralph on drums. Chris teaches at Berklee College of Music and has played with people like Graham Haynes and Rodney Holmes. Tobias is an amazing N.Y.C. drummer who has played with everyone from Duncan Sheik to 24-7 Spyz.
In addition, I sometimes work with Vernon Reid. I'm getting ready to do a few gigs with him in June. Vernon is one of my biggest heroes and influences. It's a blast working with him. Besides that, I'm always writing music and jamming with friends as often as possible.
How did the gig with the Screaming Headless Torsos come about?
Fiuczynski is the bandleader so he already knew my playing pretty well. There had been a few occasions where we would jam on some of the Torsos material. There were also several occasions where it looked like I might tour with them. Finally, I subbed for Fima Ephron in March 2005 when they toured Europe. Then, I got a phone call in October, 2005. Fuze said he was making some changes and wanted to know if I wanted to join the band so I told him yes. It's kind of surreal. I was a huge fan of the Torsos after their first record came out in 1995.
I have to say that I love Fima Epron's bass playing, the original bassist in the band. My style is totally different, but I try to retain the vibe that Fima brought to the music while staying true to my own musical instincts. If you haven't heard Fima, check out the Torsos track called "Free Man." It's one of the best bass lines I've ever heard.
Between your work as a solo artist, playing with David Fiuczynski as a member of the Screaming Headless Torsos and KiF, as well as other projects with musicians such as Vernon Reid, what is it that allows you to play such a diverse collection of music?
I think it's because I basically go for it, and I use whatever musical information I have to make something work even if it's unconventional. I'm definitely not afraid to experiment. It might also have to do with my love for the pocket. I can totally play solo lines as fast as Fuze or Vernon Reid, but they like that I can hold it down like a bassist who only plays grooves. I've done all kinds of gigs, from wedding gigs to singer/songwriter gigs to pit orchestras and so forth. Somehow, all of those different experiences helped me build and refine an approach for working with all kinds of musicians.
With all the side projects you are involved in, have you found the time to play your own music live?
Yes, but I'd like to do those sorts of gigs more frequently. Last summer I did a couple of shows. One was a trio show in Boston with Sean Rickman on drums and Fuze on guitar which was killin'. The other one was at the Blue Note in New York City where I showcased the music on Mad Science.
As a Berklee graduate, what were the most important lessons you took from there that you are now able to utilize?
Berklee has been great to me. They gave me a substantial scholarship and supported what I was trying to do. The bass department is also a truly amazing group of musicians and people. Having said all that, a good portion of the learning I did at Berklee happened outside of the classroom. I had some wonderful teachers, and I developed a lot as a musician and a person. However, in a lot of ways, my learning also had everything to do with who my peers were. I was lucky and met some great people. My friends were, and continue to be, people like Adam Deitch, Eric Krasno from Soulive, Jeff Bhasker who plays keyboard and produces for artists like Goapele and The Game, and Sam Kininger. Besides jamming and playing music, there was a lot of listening to music going on. It was also a great place to share and exchange information.
If there was one thing that I had going for me when I was there, it's that I had my own concept of how I wanted to sound and I followed that vision. I didn't let the politics of school or what anyone said to me influence what I was going for as a musician. I think studying there reaffirmed my own convictions about what I ultimately wanted to do with music. While there, I learned some concepts that further enhanced my musicianship and overall skill as a player.
What is Berklee's Bass Lines program, and what kind of instruction do you offer there?
Berklee's Bass Lines program is an intense 3-day program designed to give prospective students and bassists of almost any level a first hand look at what the college has to offer a bass student. It generally takes place during the first week of June. Most of the people who attend are somewhat serious about music, and many are considering Berklee as their choice for college. For some, it is where they get to size up their competition. Some people just want to get a little deeper into playing bass so they come to check it out.
In 2003, Rich Appleman who is the chairman of Berklee's bass department asked me to teach at Bass Lines, and this will be the fourth year in a row that I will be teaching group lessons and ensembles. In years past, teachers have included most of the bass faculty including Bruce Gertz, Danny Morris, Joe Santerre, and John Repucci.
Do you teach privately, and if so, what are the most significant components of music that you try to emphasize to your students?
I do teach privately, and I also give correspondence lessons. I figure out the student's goals before we start. There are a lot of possibilities with music and with bass, and I make sure that we are on some kind of focused path. Most people who want to study with me are looking for something specific. Many students want to expand their technique, their groove, or their knowledge of harmony. I like showing people how to integrate new concepts into their own playing.
I always emphasize groove and melody. These are the two components that all successful bass players have at their disposal. I don't like to put limitations on what people should and should not do on the instrument. I do point out what people who hire bass players are looking for though so students have a point of reference.
Lakland Skyline 55-02 Fretted 5-String
Brubaker Custom Fretted 5-String
Aguilar AG 500
Aguilar GS 210
Aguilar GS 212
Digitech Envelope Filter
V-Tech Distortion Pedal
Radial Tonebone BassBone