By the Editor@EltonJohn.com
In this, Part Two of our conversation with Elton’s bass player and backing vocalist, Matt Bissonette talks about working on Elton’s latest album.
EltonJohn.com: Wonderful Crazy Night was your first actual album for Elton. Did you feel any pressure?
Matt Bissonette: No, I don’t really put pressure on myself. I know that I’m not the greatest bass player in the world, but I know I’m not the worst. I’ve been playing with them for a couple of years already so it’s comfortable.
The good thing with playing in Elton’s band is you’re not just playing the same song the same way every night. Every night he’ll play it differently on piano. That’s the freakiest thing about being in the band – it took me a while to get in my mind that Elton will play something and he’ll look at me like, “Did you see what I just did?” He told me a couple of years ago, “I used to always look at Bob [Birch] [on stage] and now I look at you to make sure that I’m doing good.” That blew me away. That’s a love of music right there. So, we’ve always been jamming [playing really well] on tour and we took the jamming into the studio for this album. All Eton wants you to do is bring something to the table. Don’t play it safe, just come in blazing and play from your heart. I figure if I make big mistakes I make big mistakes – I’m too old to worry about it.
EJ.com: How much gear did you have in the studio?
MB: I had a couple of my regular stock of Music Man 5-strings; I had a couple older Fender Precision Basses (P Basses), one with roundwound strings and one with flatwound strings, so that would be more like the older sound. Then a couple of Hofner basses for different kinds of sounds with those. And a fretless and my electric upright that I used on a couple of songs.
[In preparation] I was listening a lot to the older Elton records and listening to Dee [Murray]’s bass sounds. Trying to make it “classic” sounding without sounding like a regular “stock” bass. We kind of used a bit of everything, though. It was surprising – I’d plug something in and think, “Oh they’re never gonna like this”…and it made it on the record!
I did one over-dub: a fretless on Claw Hammer. Bob used to tell me this, “You get one shot with bass, with Elton, and you’re moving on. So make sure you play it right the first time.” So when we recorded Claw Hammer, before we did anything else I said, “Hey, let me just put this fretless idea on it.”
I think that there is a way to look at bass and a way to look at Elton bass and they are two different things. Sometimes you go into a session and you know you just gotta do [steady] “bmp-bmp-bmp-bmp” and you’ve gotta stick with the pop song like everyone else is doing it.
And then there’s Elton. For this album he wanted to make something that was fun and bouncy and lively. And I just figured if I’m jamming that much while we’re playing live then he probably wants me to do it in the studio. And I want to do that too! I don’t want to play it safe. I want to take chances and have the bass be like in the old days when they weren’t worrying about it. The spirit with Elton is you’re just making the music – if it gets on the radio or goes to number one or whatever, great.
There are moments that I’m really proud of, when we all locked in together and looking at one another and laughing and smiling. I’m proud of the whole record and the way it sounds. And I think a lot of it was because we’re all friends and we’re all playing together all the time.
EJ.com: Do you put any effects on your bass?
MB: I think over the years I’ve learned to keep it clean to start with and trust the engineer. The effects they have now on the computer are so great; you can change it while you’re mixing [as opposed to locking it in during the recording], you don’t commit to it so much. I plug straight into my Direct Input (DI) on the board and I have the amp in the back room so they’re blending the amp sound with the DI. I think I put a little bit of delay and chorus on my fretless over-dub, and on England And America and some other songs I was kind of fuzzing out my amp a little bit to make it more gnarly, but I really didn’t go too overboard…once you go too far you can’t come back.
EJ.com: It sounds like you are really working up a sweat on England And America.
MB: [laughing] Yeah. That was probably the one song that we actually thought about more than the other ones. Nigel could have gone half-time or double time on the drums. So that was the one that we scrutinized the most because it was of a produced song, ‘cos it was so big and broad. So I think my job was to just be “slappin’ the bass!”
EJ.com: Blue Wonderful is almost at the opposite end of the spectrum. Very melodic. Very “Dee.”
MB: Thank you! The good thing about some of these songs is there are a lot of places for the bass to stick its head out, you know? On Blue Wonderful there’s a couple of lines where when we play it on stage Davey looks at me like, “Make sure you get that in.”
I was amazed, when I heard the album mixes, how loud they put the bass! That was the way they used to mix back then, the bass was so loud. I remember a couple of times we would be out on the road – Elton has this monstrous PA system that he puts in his dressing room and you’d go in there and it just blows your face off. And once or twice when we heard it backstage he’d go, “There needs to be more bass on this thing.” And I was like, “Right on! Where has this guy been my whole life??”
EJ.com: On a song like I’ve Got 2 Wings, in the verses you really lay back and then you percolate during the choruses. Can you talk about building a part?
MB: The way that I love to approach bass in a song is that you can’t go too much further when you start out with a lot. Music to me has its ups and downs – once you expose too much it can sound like you’re jamming all the time. And some of Elton’s songs really build.
I try and stay out of the way of Elton’s left hand, too. He’s playing loud in the bass with his left hand so you try and not muddy up the bottom end. So sometimes you’ll play higher in the neck and sometimes that makes you play busier, because you can really hear the notes. Dee played higher in the neck on Rocket Man, for example.
I’ve Got 2 Wings was one of the songs I used the upright bass on. And I wanted the bass part to build more and more. I didn’t want it to be repetitive – the same thing every chorus. I sometimes wondered if I should make it more repetitive but then when I listen to the song I go, “No, it’s more loose and fun and not predictable.” I’m still figuring that stuff out.
EJ.com: I think I hear some upright bass on Tambourine as well.
MB: Yeah, Tambourine and I’ve Got 2 Wings. I think (I could be wrong on some of this stuff), as we started recording that, John was playing the cajón (keeping the time) and Davey was playing acoustic guitar and it was all kind of “folksy.” And I heard the timbre of it and the word “tambourine” and immediately thought of Ray Cooper. So it was one of those woodsy kind of songs, and I thought, “Nothing sounds woodsy like a wooden upright bass!” So I brought in my Azola upright. It’s a stick bass, almost an electric-acoustic bass but it sounds more in your face and direct than a traditional wooden upright, so we went with that.
EJ.com: Is there a song that you liked working on a bit more than the others?
MB: I really like Claw Hammer. I thought it was kind of Peter Gabriel-ish…kind of spooky and mysterious-sounding and different than anything he’s done in a while. And it becomes a pop song in the chorus, almost kind of like a Country song. I like the way that song turned out – hippie-ish and groovy. They’re all really cool in different ways. I’m glad I got to get some upright on the album, and get some different tones. And [the song] Wonderful Crazy Night was just rocking from the top! That’s my five-string playing really really low notes. Sometimes some guys don’t like that on the record, ‘cos it’s so low. I mean, it’s a low C on the bass, just thumpin’! I remember one day at The Village studio, Edge came in (U2 were recording there at the same time) and they were cranking that song on playback really loud. I had to go out of the room. But I could still feel it.
EJ.com: Had you worked with T Bone Burnett before?
MB: I never had. I’d heard some great things about him, obviously. He’s like The Great Encourager. He was the same as Elton, he never said do this or do that. If there was ever a problem he’d just come in and nudge us, “Try this…maybe play a little softer…” or something like that. He kind of pops his head in at the right time. He produces from a distance sometimes. Keep all the sheep herded; keep it focused and not make it over-produced. He’s just a great guy…and couldn’t be more laid-back.
EJ.com: Did Elton comment on your work on the album?
MB: Yes. He wrote me a nice letter saying how happy he was with how the record came out and with my playing and everything.