Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Mick Karn, fretless bass, and finding your own voice

As far as I'm concerned, there's only one bass player that really mattered in rock music: Mick Karn.

Nearly anyone who plays fretless bass cites Karn or Jaco Pastorious as the inspiration. These two people created a language and style that made every musician in every genre think about bass in a different way.

Karn was originally a bassoon player. He credits learning classical bassoon and other wind parts (he played all the wind instruments on Japan's records, too) with shaping his perspective on bass playing.

It's fairly obvious - Karn's bass lines have far more in common with symphonic wind parts than the typical "play 8th notes on the root" that passes for bass playing in most popular music. If nothing else, Mick Karn proves that being educated about different styles of music is critical to making your own music more interesting.

Mick Karn achieved something rare in music, and especially instrumental music: he created a unique, instantly identifiable voice. A recognizable sonic entity. You hear him playing on a record and it is unmistakable.

Finding, or more accurately, developing that voice is difficult but rewarding. It is part of how you stop being a mere copyist or pastiche factory and start being a true artist.

Painters spend entire careers looking for that kind of presence and signature. You know them when you see them - the painters you can identify from across the room. Franz Kline, Magritte, Rothko. I'd put Mick Karn up there with any of them.

That voice can be limiting, I suppose. If you speak with a distinctive accent, people make fun of it. And you end up being reduced somehow: "The guy who plays fretless bass THAT way". "The person who paints everything with dots". "The idiot with the sponges". But I'd rather be made fun of for being unique than blend in with everyone else any day.

I still remember first hearing the sound of fretless bass in Rock School videos and on the Japan compilation "Exorcising Ghosts" that my friend Jen DT gave me (and for which I am eternally grateful, Jen!). I thought it was beautiful and mysterious. I also understood it was very difficult to play and compared to the synthesizer, somewhat sonically limited.

I used to practice instruments a lot, striving for proficiency. But I eventually realized I was more interested in songwriting and composing than being a virtuoso (not that they are exclusive!). For many years, I said fretless bass was the only instrument I'd consider practicing on to get good.

Mick Karn's untimely passing had me listening to his work and I was inspired. I'm not getting any younger, and there's no time like the present. I recently bought a Squier Vintage Modified Jazz Bass Fretless and am teaching myself to play many of his bass parts as well as some things by The Police, Gary Numan (Mick Karn played on "Dance", and Pino Palladino played some great fretless parts on "I, Assassin"), and many of my other favorites.

Fretless bass is a wonderfully expressive instrument, like the human voice in many ways. I don't expect to approach Mick Karn's level of eloquence on it, but I hope to perhaps belch out a few phrases on an upcoming recording project.

Thank you for the music, Mick Karn.

Japan. "Visions of China"

Dali's Car. "The Judgment Is The Mirror"

Japan. "Swing"

Japan. "Gentlemen Take Polaroids"


MMI said...

I was very sad when I heard about Mick's passing back in January. He certainly inspired me in many ways (not the least of which was to rent a fretless for a while as a teen) and I had the good fortune of seeing him play here in Toronto. I have long admired his singular voice.

But as sad as I was, I find it very cool that he continues to influence and inspire. I look forward to reading more about how you get on with "your new friend".

BTW, you might be interested in checking out Steve Lawson (another interesting fretless player).

Unknown said...

Ah. A Dirksen von Mast fan, I see

Bassdriver said...

Mick was an absolutely unique voice, a personality that will continue to inspire. One of my main influences, up there with Tony Levin and Pino Palladino (both alive and well, fortunately). He's truly missed.