Since 1997, New Jersey Progressive/Mathcore giants Dillinger Escape Plan have been blowing audiences away with their blend of searing musicality, intense live shows and sheer stamina within an industry that often treats such bands unfavourably. For most of that time, Liam Wilson has been providing the low end, lending his own brand of earthshaking lows and chainsaw-like tones to 3 full length albums & 2 EPs (which includes the Mike Patton collaboration ‘Irony Is A Dead Scene’).
Having just started the UK leg of their tour with Mastadon, I ask Liam about his relationship with bass, music in general and how he considers these elements within the grand scheme of things.
Straight away I would like to thank Liam for taking the time to share his thoughts, I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did:
- Can you tell us about your musical up-bringing, what you were musically subjected to as a child and did any of it stick with you?
I grew up in a idyllic, yet rather musically and artistically bland environment as far as my direct surroundings were concerned. Both my parents were pretty young when they had me and were divorced before I was 3, so I spent a lot of time with my mother’s parents, who spent most of their time reading books, watching the news. I used to think my Dad had a lot of records, until I got a bit older and realized he only owns about 100, they’re mostly classic rock, and they spent most of their time on the shelf - but we’d listen to the radio and talk about lyrics a lot.
My Mom’s friends were all ‘party people’ - so there was a lot of pop and club stuff…So it wasn’t the iconic scenario of some artists who talk about their parents being artists or musicians, the house full of instruments and recordings - I wasn’t really pushed in any real direction outside of neighborhood athletics - but there was always music around to dance to, or to discuss and relate to the musicians making it. My Mom and I would go see performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra whenever we could, but that wasn’t really until I showed a strong personal interest in music. I feel my attraction and attachment was always there from time immemorial. My Mom says she listened to a lot of Stevie Wonder’s “Songs In The Key Of Life” when she was pregnant with me, and I do love that record…So, I’m not sure what was nature or nurture there? I remember hanging out with my friends’ older siblings when I was like 7 or 8, and hearing Mercyful Fate’s “Don’t Break The Oath” in their room and thinking that was scariest, most intense thing I had ever heard…Scarier than any Friday the 13th or Nightmare On Elm Street flick, scarier than Vincent Price’s monologue on “Thriller”…From there I was voracious about copying every metal tape they had - Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth, Iron Maiden…all that stuff…Those experiences had a huge effect on me that I think directly correlates to what I’m doing today.
- What led you on the bass guitar? Were there any instruments that came before it, or was it an instant attraction?
I believe I always wanted to be a musician. There are home movies of me as a very young child running around with tennis rackets and such playing them like a guitar. I first thought about guitar, and then drums. It wasn’t until I was about 11 and I went to this summer camp of sorts, kinda like an “outward bound” outdoors thing. We’d hike the Appalachian Trail, go canoeing, rock climbing etc. that I met one of the instructors and started talking about the music I was into. Faith No More, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Primus, Led Zepplin, Living Colour - that was the stuff I was really into then. I made mention that I wanted to play drums, and he agreed that there were some cool drums on that stuff…but he was a bass player, and those bands had really great bass players too, and suggested that maybe I was responding to that? I think it was a combination of my idolization of him as a older male mentor figure at that time in my development, and his also maybe being correct in his assumptions about what I was reacting to - whatever it was, I came home with a fierce desire to start playing bass, which I eventually did after about 6 months of constantly pestering my Mom. I think there was also something to be said about relating to the bass players in those bands too…I dug Flea, and Les more than say Chad or Tim…I liked how cool and collected John Paul Jones and Muzz Skillings were when compared to Jimmy Page’s or Vernon Reid’s ostentatious showmanship. When I did the soul-searching, and took inventory on my true inner-self, I just kinda felt like I was already a bass player before I even had one.
- Have you any formal musical schooling, or previously taken lessons? How important do you consider such things verses finding your own path?
One of the stipulations to my Mom helping me get my first bass was that I had to take lessons. So, I took lessons at the local music store with some surprisingly great teachers for the first year or so. I also went to the pre-Paul Green School Of Rock “Band Camp” - the National Guitar Summer Workshop - and got into some really intense studies up there. Looking back, the most important thing about going up there was that I was surrounded by kids my age who were really passionate about playing too - something I didn’t find very easily in my neighborhood growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I was introduced to some really great music too - that was the first place I ever heard Jaco, or Cynic, or anything considered underground, or “hardcore”. I really believe in working things out on both sides of the classroom door.
I think considering what tools I was working with, my surroundings, my peers, my physiology, my upbringing - I needed some sort of formal thing to help guide me, but that said, I think you make the most progress when you’re uncomfortable and have to struggle a bit for it. I believe that having someone who knows you and knows their stuff too, and who is willing to push you objectively and constructively is really essential to realizing your full potential. No matter how you go through this gauntlet, what people try to show you - they only show you - you need to do the work yourself. All those hours spent taking lessons, that stuff just taught me how to figure out what I wanted to learn on my own, and maybe it helped me to explain my approach to my students a little more clearly…who knows? To each their own…I still attempt to practice all that fundamental stuff. I still go back and re-read all the articles I didn’t understand or see a use for in the back pages of a stack of old Bass Player magazines I have in my work space.
- You’ve been a member of DEP for nearly 12 years, how do you feel that you’ve grown as a musician, be in technically or otherwise, in that time? Do you feel you approach the instrument, or indeed music, any differently now?
I certainly have more confidence, and its a lot more rewarding to work when you have an audience that responds strongly to the music you create - that certainly didn’t exist for me before I joined this band to the extent it does now. With the lineup we have now, I get to play with really impressive musicians, and have played with some really great musicians who are no longer in the band. They’ve all shown me something (or lots of things) - hipping me to records that really changed my life or my approach to my instrument and the music we’re making. They’ve all pushed me in some significant ways as a person and a player. They’ve helped me define where I set the boundaries for myself at any given time, and how best to smash through said boundaries with their help and support. I really get to cut my teeth on so many different aspects of music with this band and as a result, I feel much more keen to the whole scope of being a musician, not simply a bass player, or how I contribute solely to this outfit.
Learning the business side of things through the successes as well as the mistakes we’ve made is experience you can’t buy. My understanding of what goes into making a show happen, what to expect from the staff, the promoters, etc. at venues and festivals through touring, and working for local promoters when I’m not on the road is invaluable, and humbling information to any traveling musician - or anyone who works in the industry. The whole process, all the moving pieces involved - its all really fascinating to me. I can’t always be as objective as I would like to be about how I’ve grown as a musician, but I know I’ve grown tremendously as a person since I started playing - and exponentially over the last dozen years - so there’s no way those two parallels aren’t inextricably intertwined. In the early years, my impression of what music is was sorta limited to the sound and look of things, MTV, radio, “the local scene” etc. - but now I feel music as a universal field of energy - like the light spectrum, radio waves, or magnetic polarity - something to be harnessed, manifested, directed, and healed by. Whether you’re aware of it or not, its always there, and its always affecting, and being affected by anyone who chooses to tune in and broadcast it.
- You’re primarily seen using a pick live, is that as a result of the nature of the music you’re playing, or simply a personal preference to approaching the instrument?
When I first started learning Dillinger songs and trying out, there was a part of me that was still trying to stay a purist and play with my fingers - because the 10 years or so leading up to my trying out, that was what I was most comfortable doing - but that didn’t last very long. Playing with a pick didn’t come easy, and I struggled with it for a long time before it started to really gel and feel like an extension of my hand and not a prop held in it. The more frustrated I got, the more I tried to throw myself into it until eventually I started seeing results and realizing all the possibilities that were opening up to me that simply weren’t there without the pick. I’ll always try to maintain my facility with my fingers, and see the pick as simply another spice on my rack of right hand techniques - not better or worse. For Dillinger, it seems to be the best and most comfortable way to execute the sounds and shapes I hear in my head when we’re writing. Some parts I switch to fingers because it just feels right, but the majority of the time, I think the pick serves the nature of the songs better in Dillinger. There are other projects I’m involved with where I play more 50/50, and still others where I use no pick at all.
- Do you utilize any other techniques in the studio or in your playing outside of DEP?
I was recording some pretty exciting tracks with producer-engineer and bass player Mark Piro (from the Polyphonic Spree) and he shared a noteworthy story with me, it went something like this: after laying down some bass lines he was really proud of over some otherwise “vanilla” sounding music, the engineer turned to him and said, “yeah man, this is really great stuff, but after we mix this down, its going to sound like pissing on your own leg - a warm feeling that only you’re going to notice.” What I’m trying to setup with this story is that I’ve done all kinds of complex things in the studio - there’s tapping, sweep picking, alternating finger style stuff as well as some double-layered sections hidden in Dillinger recordings, but I’m pretty sure that Steve (Evetts) and I are the only ones who know its there, and even then, I’m not sure if I still hear it on those final masters or if just think I do? I’ve got some pretty good facility with my right hand, I’ve got the Victor-esque triplet-thumb stuff in my arsenal, and I think I could probably slap through something with some decent feel too, but I’ve yet to really find the proper place for that stuff in any sort of up-front way…If Frank Lloyd Wright were a bass player instead of an architect, he’d probably be my guru (and in some ways is anyway) - I try to build bass lines like he designs buildings - no ornament unless it serves a true function.
- DEP live shows are notoriously hectic affairs, where do you place any importance with regards to being more static physically & hitting everyone note correctly verses rocking out, but perhaps missing some notes? Or should the two not be mutually exclusive?
“Correct” is a subjective term. I remember having a conversation with Ben about this early in my tenure with the band, and I think we’ve had this conversation with almost everyone who’s spent time in the band since - you have to place equal, balanced attention to both, because the two really aren’t even - or shouldn’t be - on the same axis. It’s not a matter of trading one end of the spectrum for the other; if technical performance is A-B, and physical performance is X-Y (math-core anyone?) then you’ve only got 2 dimensions. That’s a 2-D way of visualizing it, and as far as I’m concerned lots of bands perform in just 2 dimensions. If you look bored or like you don’t have any command of your instrument, that’s exactly what the audience is going to feel. I don’t want to see how good you’ve been at practicing, I want to see what it looks like when musicians are fully possessed by the music, and all these incredible sounds coming out of their instruments.
Its come to a point now where I can’t really play the stuff as well standing still as well as I can when I move; when I at least have enough room to get my chin into it and stomp around! That’s when it moves into a 3-D sphere for me. I’m aware there’s a certain physical expectation associated with a Dillinger show - I know because I have expectations of certain performers too. How we perform, for me, is simply an extension of the music. This is what this stuff looks like, feels like to us…like we’re channeling it, its just electricity in the air and we’re being electrocuted by it. I just do what I feel for that show. I just try to keep moving, keep breathing, “dance” and create my own sphere of rhythm…I try to maintain ninja focus on playing really well in the beginning of the set, and by the 2nd or 3rd song - barring technical problems - I’m already pretty deep in the zone - the dial has been turned up to 11, my “intellectual mind” is clocked out, but my “witness mind” is in full effect.
- Can you walk us through your processes when it comes to writing parts/recording DEP’s albums. It’s no secret that Ben takes the reigns with regards to writing the music (please correct if wrong), so what are you trying to bring to the table when you’re called to record?
Ben is responsible for writing the lion’s share of Dillinger material, or at least what starts the ball rolling. That said I’ve worked out 90% of my bass lines for Dillinger by myself or reworked on the fly with the helpful ear of Steve Evetts in the studio - no one can do the work for me, and I’m the only one holding a bass when we’re on stage. Somewhere during the process of demoing the first cuts of drums with guitars, I’ll go and sorta dragnet for everything I need to work on the stuff at home. That might mean transcribing guitar parts, drum rhythms, or getting demo files. I’ll come back when I’ve got a good grasp on most of it and jam it out with Billy and Ben, or just Billy, and really carve into and iron out the subtleties.
As is true with all rock-rooted music, sometimes the lines I choose are directly supporting the guitars melodically, so in those instances where I’m playing a lot of unison lines, I guess Ben writes my parts, or they wrote themselves. When we’re in the studio, I record my parts after everyone else’s, so there’s equally as much information to reference and support coming from drum parts and accents, as well as vocal melodies and even what the electronics may be doing - all that stuff informs my parts. I think bass players are naturally there to glue everything together. Function over form is the name of the game in most cases.
I guess I’m trying to be objective and play the kind of bass that I want to hear when I listen to whatever song I happen to be working on. I don’t want it to sound like a guitar player with a bass in his hands - which is unfortunately what a lot of heavy music sounds like to me (not to say some of those dudes aren’t doing it well, but I’m not trying to be one of those dudes). I just sorta want to reveal the lines that I heard in my head when I first heard the song without bass. I try to measure twice and cut once, playing the minimum of what I feel the song deserves. I don’t want to congest things further by leaving room for all the instruments to breathe a little.
With every new recording opportunity, I try to achieve more personal tones via any new gear I’ve amassed. I attempt to write lines that reference things I’ve done in the past with clever new twists, or to perhaps respectively nod to things that have had a fresh and significant influence on me since the last time we were writing new songs. I’m always trying to make my parts more memorable, more lyrical and poetic in a sense - although its pretty saturated music, so that’s always my biggest challenge. I’m usually trying to show a little more mastery of my craft since the last recording, and some deeper understanding of music at its most fundamental levels.
I just want to bring my A-Game to the table every time I’m called to do anything with my bass.
- Can you tell us about what gear you’re currently using? You’ve previously had a long-time association with G&L basses, although I know you’ve been spotted with Warwicks recently, what was the thinking behind changing things up, most notably from humbuckers to single-coils?
Since late 2011 my main bass is a semi-custom Zon Sonus 4 string with active Bartolini P-J style single-coil pickups (under 2 humbucker covers). The neck is graphite composite with a “phenowood” fretboard - it never shifts, the notes chime like church bells, and the sustain is outrageous. The bass has changed my life, its truly teaching me new things. I’ve got nothing bad to say about G&L basses, or Warwicks - in fact I think they both make really amazing instruments, but the Zon is really what my hands want to hold. As for humbuckers, I guess it was an experiment of sorts, and I do like how hot and ferocious humbuckers can get, but sometimes they’re a bit too ballsy-sounding for me. Single-coils aren’t always as thick, but they seem to work better when running through the distortions I like to use - mainly an Sansamp Bass Driver DI, Aguilar Tone Hammer, and as of this morning, a Fuzzrocious co-conspired and custom made distortion/envelope expression pedal that I lovingly refer to as the “Dirty Mother Trucker”. I’m taking it out on tour right now to test it out and give him some feedback (Pun Intended). I’ve got a few other pedals laying around - some pretty cool Boss, Digitech, and Dunlop stuff that occasionally find their way into my signal chain depending on what songs we’re planning on doing for that string of dates.
As for heads and cabs, I own an Ampeg 8x10 driven by an ‘70 SVT Classic in the US, and a SVT VR if the Classic gives me any problems. Anywhere else in the world, or if for whatever reason it doesn’t make sense to travel with my rig, I prefer pretty much the same stuff, but I’ll ultimately use whatever tube heads I can find or borrow and run it through an 8x10.
I’ve also started taking an A Designs REDDI out in the US for that little extra something.
- I believe you’ve previously mentioned that you no longer practice bass outside of learning what you need to for DEP, that you’d much prefer to spend time with Yoga or other meditative techniques. Does this mean that you feel you’re at a pinnacle of your playing from a technical point of view? Or just that you feel that more progress (mentally/physically etc) can be made away from the instrument?
To dispel any rumors or misunderstandings - I still ‘practice’ bass - sometimes a lot, sometimes hardly at all. I find that I make the most, or at least feel the most personal growth when I’m writing my parts for whatever songs I’m working on - all the practice prior to that is kinda like inhaling, and when I’m writing, I’m exhaling everything I’ve filled my “lungs” with. I spend a lot of time just jamming along to records, figuring different parts of songs out, pretending I’m in whatever band happens to be playing through my speakers. I try to spend time working with software like Ableton Live, I’ve got a drum set I occasionally bang along to records on…I go to local open-mic jam sessions whenever I can, I still have a teacher locally, and I’ve taken lessons while on tour. I still have a very strong relationship to my instrument. Do I spend as much time developing new techniques, working on speed drills, and exercises? Not so much these days - and its not because I think I’m already “there” - because I feel as though I’m still really far from it and always try to maintain a beginner’s mind - wide open, and willing to make mistakes.
But, that said, I probably play more now than I ever did, and I try to play with different musicians all the time. I try to focus on my strengths and develop those as much as I can. I try to make sure my weaknesses aren’t too weak, but I understand that I will always have weaknesses, and that’s part of the charm and traction to the sounds I’m producing. I always leave at least one “Persian Stitch” in my wake.
In life as in music - I try not to water every apple on my tree. I make every effort to work smart, not hard, because my belief is that if I just water the roots with some sense of consistency, every apple will ripen accordingly. I ‘practice’ meditation every day. I ‘practice’ yoga and breathing with more deliberate intention as often as I can. I ‘practice’ understanding, and being an objective person. I try to leave things better than I found them. I feel like everything you do is directly connected to everything else around and within you - as above, so below - and that there’s a metaphysical nerve-ending attached to every action you execute that relays messages back and forth to your inner-self. I think if you’ve lived your life well and with some air of truth; if you’ve been in love, if you’ve ever fallen out of it, or been denied it; if you’ve ever been out of control and reckless to test your limits, if you’ve done something risky and perhaps illegal, or whatever - if you’ve made an real and concentrated effort to be alive and reach for something, then there’s no way those experiences won’t play a role in everything you say and do, with or without your instrument.
- Can you tell us what you have going on musically away from DEP currently?
DEP keeps me pretty busy, but I’ve got a few things in the pipeline. I’ve got a project with my friends in the SF Bay Area - Ali and Craig from Nanos Operetta - which is quite a departure from the Dillinger sound, but still really intense and evocative. We’ve got a lot of music already scored out and arranged, but there’s still a lot of work to be done as far as how the stuff is going to work in a more ‘rock’ context (for lack of a better term). Finding the right musicians to complete the lineup, and the time to rehearse, has been the biggest hurdle so far. I’m not really going to say too much more about that just yet, other than that Its something I feel really connected to and excited about, and that also gives me a lot of room to explore some of the other styles of music that I’m influenced by and it capitalizes on my more fully-realized role as a musician and not simply a bass player. This project may also have some collaborations in the near future with a Russian theatre group, but I don’t want to say too much and jinx that prospect either.
I’ve also had an ongoing collaborative thing going on with a songwriter named Alexis Hadafi, for his project called Peelgreems which also includes some heavy hitters like Kenny Schalk from Candiria and Morgan Agran on Drums, and Michael Manring playing bass on tracks that I don’t. Pretty unique, happy…fun!
-Any bassists/bands/artists that you’re particularly enjoying?
Bobby Vega is my newest guru - he’s really changed the way I think about the pick and being funky with it. I think that Justice Crosses record was pretty crafty, really dirty and bass heavy. Gil Scott Heron and Jamie XX’s remixes “We’re New Here” was one of my favorite records from last year. Mahavishnu Orchestra, and John McGlaughlin/Paco De Lucia/Al DiMeola’s Passion, Grace and Fire is musicianship at its finest and most awe-inspiring. Jonas Helborg’s work on Good People In Times Of Evil is something I always go back to if I need my head rearranged. I love Tom Waits’ work - his songs all have such a unique personality and character - probably because he’s got such unique personality and character. Avishai Cohen Trio’s Gently Disturbed is truly mind-melting musicianship for an updated jazz trio format. Trilok Gurtu and Robert Miles’ Miles Gurtu record has some pretty nasty playing on it. The Dusty Fingers compilations, Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, Stevie Wonder’s stuff from the 70’s, Tower Of Power’s self-titled record…those records are where my sweet spot really lies.
-What might be one piece of advice, or a mantra for the bass players reading this, both beginner and advanced?
I can’t emphasize the “Live your life” part of it - you really gotta be yourself and believe in yourself. Sometimes you have to spend a lot of time by yourself to understand who you really is and how everything is connected to everything else…and what better way to spend that time with yourself than with your bass in hand?
Listen more. Live your life like its one big improvisation. Strive to play what’s not there yet without changing things too much. Learn to visualize the things you want and point yourself in that direction so every move you make brings you somehow closer to your goals you have for your life. Stay calm and focus on your breathing when things get stressful and difficult. Always remember, fast is just slow sped up. Dare to make mistakes because you’re always only 1 fret in either direction away from turning errors into so-called ‘happy mistakes’.
In closing, I gotta plug two books I think are invaluable to a broader understanding of “MUSIC” - Victor Wooten’s The Music Lesson and Joachim Ernst Berendt’s Nada Brahma: The World Is Sound.
Huge thanks again to Liam.
For further reading, thoughts & elaboration, please check out Liam’s blog ‘Reinvention Of The Real’ here: http://reinventionofthereal.com/
Current UK tour dates with Mastadon can be found here: http://www.seetickets.com/Tour/MASTODON