What goes twang, thump and pank? Probably Mark King, bass player and vocalist in Level 42, then again it might just be his right thumb. We discuss digits, strings and things.
Squinting into the Californian sunshine, Mark King comes to a decision. "We're being a bit 'English' about this, aren't we?"
Absolutely right, I concur from behind equally slitted eyeballs. We look like two doner kebabs staring at each other.
Fact is after trouping all the way to Los Angeles, him to record the new Level 42 album, the hack to ask questions, we five minutes ago elected to conduct the interview by the swimming pool... and promptly dragged two chairs away from the big yellow and under the nearest available shade. In true pastey skinned, Brighton beached, British fashion we're lurking under cover, while tanned LA beauties chuck us amused grins and occasional lumps of water. Just wait until I've got this knotted hankie over me 'ead. Then you'll see.
It wasn't always like this. To be honest it was never anything remotely resembling this. In two and a half years, Level 42 have risen from the new discoveries of the Brit-funk movement to record in one of America's most prestigious studios — The Complex — with one of the world's best known funk bands helping on production, namely Larry Dunn and Verdine White from Earth Wind & Fire.
And in the same time Mark has been recognised as an innovative bass player with an uncanny feel for harmony and rhythm. Not bad considering he started out as a drummer.
And stranger still when you realise there's only one member of Level 42 who DIDN'T begin life as a stick wielder. The eventual drummer, Phil Gould, studied percussion at music college, as did keyboard player Mike Lindup. Guitarist Boon Gould is MUCH more normal, after all he only commenced his musical career as a bass player. Adds a whole new meaning to musical chairs.
Yet it must play a large part in the secret of Level 42's success; that ability to find a groove, settle into it and steam ahead with a passion and sub-conscious understanding.
Mark, Boon and brother Phil hail from the Isle of Wight. In 1978 Mark and Boon set off to bum around the US of A, searching for gigs. "MY idea of the music business was that you walked up to John McLaughlin and said, 'look, I can do this,' and there you were, the next drummer in the Mahavishnu Orchestra," admits Mark.
They didn't get a single session and only saw one gig in the entire four-month stay. Returning to London and teaming up with Phil and Mike, it was obvious they couldn't form a band with three drummers/one guitarist, so the rest of the jobs were shared out.
"When I started on bass I didn't have a great deal of musical knowledge. I don't read music. At the time I was working in a music store when I saw two black American guys come in and play a bass with the side of their thumb, so when I picked it up I started to play that way, it looked pretty good and it didn't occur to me that there might be limitations."
That battering, cracking method of hitting the strings has since become well popular with funk bass players, though some who employ the traditional finger-plucking method have had problems changing over. Mark was there from the start, so what exactly is going on under his thumb?...
"I hit the strings right on the base of the neck because the whole thing works from striking the frets. You're rattling the strings against them to make it fire for you, and you do that with both hands, y'know, it's not just the thumb on its own. It's like drumming between the two hands, a sort of syncopation which looks much faster than it really is."
Doesn't that knock the living daylights out of the side of your thumb?
"Yeah, it really does. I've split this thumb so many times (holds knarled, suffering digit up to the light) that now I wind gaffa tape round it. When we started I thought 'oh, I can't wear anything, it'll spoil the sound', but when the fucker split and I was still having to play every night, it was agony and I decided sod this, where's the gaffa?"
What basses do you use?
"I'm glad you asked me that. They're Jaydees made by John Diggins in Birmingham. I've got serial numbers 3, 4 and 5 of the old Super Natural Classics.
The '3' was the first bass I ever owned. I've got another white one with stars up the neck and he's building me two more, an eight string and... um... one which... er... lights up."
How did you stumble on them?
"Just by accident. I bought the first one in what used to be Sounds music shop in Charing Cross Road. When we first got our deal and the advance money I was looking around, trying out Wal basses, but nothing was really happening. I saw this Jaydee that was going for a horrendous price — £700 — and I said, look I can't afford that much. And they said, well, we're only selling it for the guy, it's not the shop's, 'phone him up and make an offer. The most I could raise was £500 and that did it."
What attracted you the most?
"The sound of the thing. It's John's own active electronics which are very wide ranging. You can pass through a lot of sounds without going into that squawky parametric stage. They run on two 9 volt PP3 batteries, one to power the LED.
"That's something which has been changed from the original because when I first had them there was only one battery. Because I do so much hard gigging I can say to John, this isn't happening, that's not happening, and he can put it right. He can also build in phantom powering, but it's another electric link in the chain, one more thing that can fuck up and blow your head off.
"I've had a few shitty electric shocks on stage and I'm a bit scared about that. There was one where this thing arced. I only got near the mike and it whacked me in the gob."
What other changes has he made?
"I bend harmonics and I do it by pushing on the length of string between the machine head and the nut. On a fretless you can hit the harmonic and run it up. On a fretted you can't do that, which is why I push the string behind the nut... I can bend a third... on a good day a fourth.
"But when you're trying to play sensitively, the strings often catch in the nut or creak, so John's devised a roller nut for me. The string sits on two ball bearings and it rolls up and down, it's a great idea. And he's done other things like fitting Cannon sockets or reinforcing weak points.
"Because John makes them by hand he can change anything I don't like. He makes the necks very fine for me, I like them thin and flat, but I also like a shape to them so it gets wider as you travel up the neck.
"That way it's much easier to feel where you are when you're playing. If you're like me you don't want to be glancing down at the neck all the time, especially when you're trying to sing to the audience."
Where do you find your harmonics?
"For me they run from the twelfth fret right the way up to the second, but mainly clustered from the eighth fret down. That's one of the good things about having a full scale or extra long scale bass. It gives you a greater harmonic range and more volume to the harmonics with so much string speaking.
"They're in between frets as well. That's the funny thing about harmonics. I'm sure if I'd been taught that they're 'here' then it would have freaked me out."
What Amps do you plug into?
"I use Trace Elliot now, a 500W head, the AH500 going into two 4x10 cabs, but I have two more 4 x 10s at the front of the stage. The problems I found with Ampeg or Acoustic, which are the only comparable gear, is that they were very middley amplifiers.
"I run the Trace Elliots quite hard and the way I use the graphic equaliser is different, I suppose. Most people have this misconception about equalisation... let's get this nice sweeping curve, or gull's wing, or whatever, which is not what graphics are for. They're to punch in and out what you do or don't like, so mine has sliders flying around all over the place, it looks really jagged... the road crew go... uh oh ..."
Do you change the settings much according to the venue?
"Yeah, every day because the halls are all different. The way the stages are baffled changes the sound entirely. The idea of me running four cabs is to help the outfront sound. I do have problems getting my sound from the 10in speakers to come out of 15in bass bins which are not so quick.
The 10in go ah..ah..ah when you're stabbing away, while the 15in go aaaaaahhhh (asthmatic). By the time they've gone out and come back another three beats have been banged off on the 10in."
Is there any special sound you 're looking for?
"Well, I think I'm getting towards it. I'm being able to realise it more on this new album, mostly thanks to the engineer Chris Brunt. It's very tight but believe it or not I roll off a lot of middle frequencies on the Trace Elliot and on the bass. It seems that if you want it to go 'click' and be fat and round at the same time, it's down to the top and bottom end only... very strange.
"The Jaydee has two humbucking pickups also made by John Diggins and he does all sorts of things in terms of phase splitting and swapping between the individual poles of either pickup. I mostly use the tail or the two together, I don't like the neck one on its own. It's too... leathery."
And do you use any effects to help out?
"The Bell Labs ADT is great, and very reasonable in terms of price and what you can get out of it. There's a maximum delay of about half a second and they're in stereo. They're about 100 quid and if you're paying 80 or 90 for a Boss or something, you might as well get the Bell Labs for more facilities and less noise, it's sort of studio/hi-fi quality.
"And I use a Yamaha E1010 analogue delay for a lot of the effects. I find that's very handy because, you know, most effects stem from a delay of some sort. The Yamaha can go from nothing to 300 milliseconds and it also has its own oscillator for modulation so you can sweep the sound. It's a good unit."
And what about strings?
"They're Superwounds which have the core going over the bridge and the outer winding that stops short. I use very fine gauges — a G at 30 then 50, 70 and 90 which are light for bass strings. I've tried all the other makes and they seem to snap easy — it's got so bad that two strings have broken at one time — but the Superwounds don't do that, maybe because they use a stronger hexagonal core."
And what about heroes?
"My big hero in terms of musicality is John McLaughlin, and a guy who really knocks me out for bass lines — on a synth — is Jan Hammer... so funky, unbelievable.
"My role in the band is bass player and even when I may be getting around on the fretboard like nobody's business, I still have to fulfill that role. A lot of players have gone out of line in that respect. You take someone like Stanley Clarke. It's hard to know whether the buy is a bass player, or a frustrated lead guitarist... he's turned into a parody of himself and forgotten all the great things he did.
"Also I like Marcus Miller and... er... Verdine White."