My Life as a Bass Player: The History of a 30 Year Love Affair
It was the summer of 1991, I went on the usual annual trip to Montreal with my parents to visit my grandmother and a few other relatives. On the way, we stopped in to see my aunt Judy, who had recently moved into a nice big country house with my uncle Tom. The previous year, I had been at her old place and watched my cousin Simon playing a bass in his room through a giant amp and it must have triggered something within me, though I didn’t recognize it at the time. Simon and his sisters were away at camp and I asked Tom about the bass, he encouraged me to borrow one of his and try it out. It was an 80’s Fender Precision with the black painted headstock and a white sparkly finish, the same style that Duff McKagan would years later base his signature model on.
The bass ended up coming with us to Montreal and one of our outings in the city now included searching for a book on learning how to play it.
Even though I was frustratingly terrible, I knew I wanted to persevere, and scarcely two months later I purchased my first bass from Brad Fleury, a friend of my brother. It was a shitty black BC Rich Warlock which would suit me extremely well in the very short term. Famously used by Nikki Sixx and Bobby Dall, two players I would have to try and mimic in my first band, which I joined in the fall of ’91 with two high school friends, guitarist Ryan Powell and drummer Mike Hamilton. I cringe now thinking back about how I must have butchered those hair metal classics. About 8 months later I was kicked out of Cyclone and replaced by Metin Yorgan, ironically the original owner of that bass.
The sea change was happening, the year that punk broke, and I was more than ready for it. It was the spring of 1992 and over the next few months I would turn 16, start a punk band, go to my first concert (Lollapalooza ‘92), buy my first “proper” bass and play my first gig. This next bass would become my musical confidante and absolute #1 instrument for the next 24 years. It was a black Ibanez SR885 LE 5 string, manufactured at the Fujigen Gakki factory in Nagano, Japan at the end of 1990. Since it was used as a rental for a year, I ended up getting it for the sale price of $899, marked down from $1199. I had been eyeing it for quite a while, as months earlier I began taking bass lessons from Dan Sebastian, who was based out of Cambridge Keyboards (/ Murch Music / Long & Macquade). I soon followed Dan to his home studio though I didn’t stay for long, I was probably with him for less than 2 years total. But in that time I learned enough musical theory to raise me up several levels and was forever converted to the genius of both Rush and Thelonious Monk, shaping my worldview from that point forward.
The Gun Bunnies formed just as summer holidays started, my childhood friend Brent King brought me over to jam with drummer Lee Bradbury in his cramped bedroom. This was my first taste of working on original songs and I wrote my first bass line for our first song, later titled “Somewhere to Go”. Several weeks later, Wes Karr joined on vocals and we continued writing and rehearsing, for the most part moving in to my next door neighbour Trevor Cole’s basement. By the end of the summer we were ready and played the first in a series of gigs at The Cave in Cambridge, on August 28th, 1992.
Changing our name to Gravy Brain, we continued playing shows into 1993 with other Cambridge bands such as The Mighty Fishermen, Prime Evil / Social Deviance and Live Sex Show. By way of a high school biology class, I reconnected with another childhood friend, Matt Greenhough, who was the lead singer of his own band called Potato House. At some point after being booked for “March Break Maddness” at the legendary Volcano club in Kitchener, Potato House’s bass player decided that he would not play the show. I was tapped to fill in and ended up playing their set and again immediately after with Gravy Brain. This would be a pivotal moment for the next stage of my musical history.
Gravy Brain had been slowly dissolving and once it was decided that I would form a new band with Greenhough, Potato House guitarist James McAlister and drummer Matt Brooks, I quit and never looked back.
My musical horizons were dramatically expanding and my bass playing was feverishly trying to keep up. Our new band, later named Here Comes Jim, was to begin jamming in the summer, but an unfortunate suplex accident prevented Brooksey from playing the drums for several weeks. By the time we were ready to start, I had been hanging with another guitar player from school named Shawn Vanderloo and I asked about bringing him down. Our first practice together birthed the song, “If Only”, which featured the best bass line I had written yet.
HCJ would hone a sound that tread a fine line between British indie heroes like the Smiths, Joy Division, the Cure and Suede with American “alternative” rock like Dinosaur Jr., Alice in Chains, Nirvana and the Pixies. When Vanderloo quit in the spring of 1994, he was replaced by longtime friend / roadie / cameraman, Craig Stanhope, cementing the “classic lineup”.
The change forced McAlister to become the main songwriter, as he had been in Potato House, and pushed our sound further into the stratosphere. This progression was helped by the addition of Stanhope’s punk rock sensibilities, bringing elements of the Misfits and Fugazi to the table. Over the next 3 years, we would write close to 40 songs, record many of them in several different studios, play shows around the region, and clock in hundreds of hours in the Greenhough’s basement.
We played our last gig on July 24th, 1997 at Mrs. Robinson’s in Kitchener.
To be continued, maybe….