It’s been said the best bands are like a family. Instead of a birth order, there’s a band order. Like the wild-child younger sibling, a lead singer and/or guitarist scores the fan and media attention. And, like the middle child, the humble bass guitarist is underrated and under-appreciated.
“Bass is one of the most crucial (and paradoxical) elements of music,” says bassist and journalist John Barrett, “It can melt into the furthest recesses of a song, yet it often simultaneously anchors the whole ship.” It’s a sentiment expressed in online reports and on social media recently, after the deaths of three renowned bass players. In remembering and mourning Chi Cheng, of American alternative metal band Deftones; Chris Bailey, co-founder of Aussie pub-rockers The Angels; and Neil Smith, a one time AC/DC and Rose Tattoo member, musicians and fans highlighted the value and respect all bass players deserve.
A bass guitarist and his bass lines are the ‘skeleton of a track’: the low-pitched strings of notes that link a song’s harmony with rhythm, keeping the beat steady and locking in with the drummer to produce a band’s sound – its groove and soul. While there are the occasional bassist-free success stories – The Black Keys, The Doors, The White Stripes – they’re few and far between (and some still record songs with a low end, it’s just not a bassist playing it).
“The bass, no matter what kind of music you’re playing, it just enhances the sound,” says jazz bassist Charlie Haden. “When the bass stops, the bottom kind of drops out of everything.” Imagine songs like Daft Punk’s ‘Around the World’, Interpol’s ‘Evil’, Nirvana’s ‘Come As You Are’ without their recognisable basslines. Where would The Who be without John ‘Thunderfingers’ Entwistle, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers without Flea, Led Zeppelin without John Paul Jones, and The Beatles sans Paul McCartney’s inventive and intricate basslines? The late bassist Cliff Burton was considered by many as the heart and soul of heavy metal band Metallica, and Rolling Stone Magazine named him the ninth greatest bassist of all time (check out his solo on ‘(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth’ from the band’s 1993 album, Kill ‘Em All). Current member Robert Trujillo continues to melt faces. Motown wouldn’t sound the same without the legendary bassist James Jamerson and his electric Fender. Credited with bringing the previously ‘minor’ instrument to the forefront, Jamerson is responsible for the low end on countless 60s and 70s classics by Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, and the Four Tops, among others.
Michael Duthie plays bass for up-and-coming West Australian band Shy Panther. “It’s hard to pigeonhole,” says Duthie of the band’s sound. “Primarily it’s trip-hop (moody, down-tempo electronic music), but different songs have a different mixer with it. Sort of like having a bottle of vodka and a bunch of different mixers to have it with. I think people get a bit of jazz, blues, alternative, indie blend throughout the set.” However it’s described, bass is essential. “I think there is a bit of stigma around bass players,” he says, “but regardless they do play a key role within the band.”
On stage, Duthie’s one of six. There’s Rhien Tan on keys and laptop, Kynan Tan on synth and laptop, drummers Ben Santostefano and Chris Wright, and Daniel Fragomeni takes lead vocals (including looping pedal). Duthie’s content with standing in the pocket: “I understand the importance of what I’m doing.”
On the back of a busy 2012, Shy Panther continues to build a solid grassroots following and attract decent crowds to gigs, especially in their hometown of Perth. Their debut EP Dozen Clouds Wide, released in July, recorded solid sales and scored some airplay on Aussie indie radio station Triple J. The boys went on to play last year’s Parklife Festival and Groovin’ The Moo, ending the year on tour with fellow West Australian rocker Abbe May. While they’re planning to stay put for now, Duthie describes 2013 as “hopefully a dive into the great unknown.”
So, do bass players ever get the girls? “Only if the singer, the guitarist, the keyboardist, or the drummer all say no to her.”
‘Dozen Clouds Wide’ is available on iTunes and TripleJUnearthed.com.