I’m always interested in what makes bass players tick. My questions come from my own curiosity as well as a bit of my own insecurities. I asked John if he would be interested in participating in an interview. Thankfully he agreed. You’ll find some great insights and advice for life as a bass player who splits his time between Toronto and Nashville and points in-between while on the road. John has been very generous with his time in answering my questions. So much so that I’ll split the interview into three parts.
SCoB: John, thanks for being open to participating in this. There are a lot of questions here so I don’t expect an answer to every one. Some of the questions could have been shorter but I added more to them to explain where I am coming from.
I expect recording a conversation using these questions in person might ultimately be a better way to go but not easy to coordinate. Some questions are my own. Some are from a book by NYC bassist John Carey, The Working Bassist – What You Really Need to Know to Survive in New York City.
SCoB: Do you come from a musical family? I didn’t so I wonder where the music comes from in other musicians.
JD: Yes, there was lots of music in my family, but none were professionals. Mom played and sang in church, many of my cousins played all kinds of instruments. I had a weekend band in high school, and my brother had a band as well. We worked almost every weekend back then.
SCoB: Where did you grow up and who was around that influenced your playing? How did you choose bass as your instrument? Based on your Tonight’s Vinyl posts on Instragram you’ve done a lot of listening to many bassists.
JD: I grew up in Kerwood, a small village near London. On a farm actually, so country was always on the radio, or pop music. I grew up liking both. I remember a couple of songs that made we want to play bass, T-Rex’s Bang A Gong, and Tommy James’ Draggin The Line….That bass part was great! ( I just googled those, both came out in ’71) Exactly when I was 13, and started playing bass.
I actually started out on piano at my mom’s insistence, I hated those lessons, but am now thankful I took them. Then I took guitar lessons, but when we decided to put a band together, there were 3 guitars and a drummer, I was the worst guitar player, so they told me I better get a bass.
Through high school I was self-taught, basically just trying to figure out from records what the bass player was playing. It was so much harder than nowadays. No internet, no digital devices to slow things down, no YouTube videos showing you how to play things. And even books were few and far between. It was a lot of work learning stuff!! The first high-tech thing I had was a 2 speed cassette deck, which would slow things in half, but also put the bass an octave lower, which made it really hard to hear!
But a bit later I really did start to listen to a lot of players. For me, Leland Sklar and Willie Weeks were my 2 big ones. Early on, I would listen to those 70’s era pop/country rock records, and I decided I wanted to play on records. A bit later I got into a pretty serious funk and Jazz-fusion phase, guys like Jaco, of course, The Yellow Jackets, Uzeb, the funk stuff of Larry Graham, those Chaka Khan records, Rufus, Steely Dan…..I really worked hard on that stuff, but I don’t think too much of it stuck. But I guess it gets stored in the brain somewhere.
But really, I think as a player, you become what you absorbed as a teenager, when you’ve got lots of time to practice, and your brain is a pretty big sponge. So when I listen to that stuff, I hear a lot of that in me.
SCoB: Your discography reads like a who’s who of Canadian music. How did you end up as Bruce Cockburn’s/k.d. lang’s bassist? I imagine it’s word of mouth in many cases. Although my own experience has been that half of the gigs I get are from people who heard me. The other half is people I have asked if I could play bass for them. What’s your experience?
JD: Well you’re right, usually word of mouth. Although for the k.d. lang gig I took a chance that paid off. A friend of mine in Ottawa, where Miche Pouliot (k.d.’s drummer) lived had heard they were looking for a bass player. I phoned them up (I wanted that gig badly) and asked about auditions. They didn’t know me from Adam, and therefore wouldn’t pay my way out to Vancouver, but I said fine, I’ll come out. It paid off, they needed a bass player who could sing harmonies, and I was their best option. They later told me there were better bass players and better singers, but not both. I can’t tell you how many times being able to squeak out a b.g. harmony has got me work. Point being, I guess, do as many things as possible! I’m a good driver too, and I can fix a B3. Ha!
But one gig does lead to another. Ben Mink was band leader and fiddle player on that gig, and he was producing songs for Colin Linden. We at that point lived in the same building and one day Ben asked me up to put some bass on a Colin track. That led to a 25 year (so far) relationship with Colin that is still going strong. I started touring and recording with Colin, and then a year or so later Bruce Cockburn asked Colin to put a band together to tour Bruce’s new record, “Nothing But a Burning Light”, that T. Bone Burnett had produced. So that started a 3 year ride with Bruce, which later led to recording 5 or so of his records.
And somehow in there I started playing and recording with a bunch of the Canadian country artists.
But more to your question, yes, most of my gigs are from people who’ve heard me. You really have to meet as many people as possible, play as many styles as possible, and always try to do a good job. And when you see a chance, you take it, as the song goes.
In part two John talks about working in Nashville and his approach to studio sessions. Here’s a clip of John playing with Bruce Cockburn. Click for Part 2