This is my first interview for 2020. I can't thank Carlos enough for the opportunity. I was able to get 16 amazing bassists to participate last year in 2019. When I would think about what I wanted to ask these talented people, I always seem to think of the same core questions that feel the most relevant to everyone. I still have some amazing bassist pending from last year, which hopefully will come out soon.
I was excited that Arthur Smilios (Gorilla Biscuits, CIV, Token Entry, World Be Free) got back to me so quickly last week, so it made sense for him to be the first. It's a real treat to interview Arthur, because of how much I listened to his bass playing. I'm sure I owe him some money because I've ripped his style and hooks often in my life. He has a real appreciation, love, and devotion for the instrument that's contagious. His answers really reinforce the point of this interview series.
I love the bass, and so do other people. You can learn a lot from the bass guitar/being in a band, and sometimes it can really take you far in your life. It all depends on how you treat it.
Introduce yourself to everyone.
My name is Arthur. I am the bassist for Gorilla Biscuits, and I have played in a few other bands/projects as well.
How did you get into playing the bass guitar?
When I was first getting interested in music, I saw a photo of John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin, playing a Fender Jazz Bass. I remember thinking that it was the most beautiful instrument I had seen (incidentally, I still feel this way). Because of that, I began to listen to the bass parts and decided that this was the instrument I wanted to play.
Do you play any other instruments?
I do. I play guitar, banjo, and harmonica. I have played guitar in a few bands.
Did/does your family support your music?
My mother, with whom I was living at the time, was incredibly supportive of me. She loved music but never had the opportunity to express that love, so she encouraged me to play. She bought my first guitar for me. When I told her that I wanted to play bass, she made a deal with me: I learn guitar and if in six months, I still want to play bass, we would revisit the conversation. True to her word, she bought me a bass at the agreed-upon time.
How do you write your parts for your bands?
In stages. First, there is learning the structure of the song, the root chords. Sometimes, a line will present itself, then the final part is listening to the melody and if appropriate, incorporating it into the bass line.
Have you always played with a pick?
I have always played with a pick, albeit reluctantly. I prefer the sound of playing pizzicato but with GB, certain songs necessitate the attack that can only be achieved with a pick. Sometimes, when nobody in the band is paying attention to me, I'll lose the pick and play properly.
What are you doing more, upstrokes or downstrokes?
It depends. Mostly downstrokes, especially in parts where the bass is the driver, along with the drums.
Are there any parts in any of your songs that kick your ass to play?
Only if we are having one of those shows where we are playing the songs too fast, which because of adrenalin, sometimes happens.
What bass players have influenced your style?
The aforementioned JPJ of Led Zeppelin is the reason I picked up the instrument. John Entwistle of the Who is close behind. Over time, I learned to appreciate the genius of Paul McCartney as a bassist, not just a songwriter. James Jamerson pretty much wrote the proverbial book on electric bass, so either directly or by degrees, all-electric bassists are influenced by him. He was the first to treat the bass as a harmonic instrument.
Jaco Pastorius's playing is well beyond my capabilities, but his philosophy and tonalities impacted me greatly when I first listened to him. Carol Kaye was another bassist whose work is ubiquitous, although we don't even realize it. She played in countless 1960s and 1970s sessions.
Are there any drummers who have changed the way you play bass guitar?
Every drummer with whom I've played. Sam Siegler's playing taught me how to lay back a little more. With Luke, I like to try to follow his fills with my own. Petey Hines was the closest one I could get to playing with John Bonham, although I imagine that playing with Alan Cage would be similar.
What is your favorite amp, pedal, bass guitar combination?
I have always been a Fender guy. I have a 1962 reissue Precision and a 1964 reissue Jazz. That's all I have ever needed. It's the same with amplifiers: Ampeg. I'm currently playing a PF-350 solid-state head (always 10" speakers). It's 350 watts in an eight lb (2"x11"x11") module. As the salesperson said to me when I picked it up and commented on how liberating it is not to have to carry around a 90 lb head anymore, "technology has been kind to bassists lately." There is one pedal that is indispensable for heavier music: the Tech 21 Sans Amp. I don't think I need to elaborate on this. I have been using GHS strings for more than 25 years now.
I recently switched from Boomers (.040-.095 gauge) to Pressurewounds (.040-.096 gauge), which offer a slightly mellower tone, but still growl. For non-GB playing, I put flatwounds on my Precision Bass to get that true 1960s classic tone. My equipment is pretty simple. With this combination, nothing more is really needed.
Do you have any gear horror stories from tour, or has your gear always been on point for you?
I've been lucky. Fender and Ampeg are resilient and reliable. I also don't abuse my equipment. I've always said that there is no reason to blow out an amplifier. Unless there is a defect, a blown amp is the result of misuse.
Dogs or cats?
I'm an ethical vegan, so I love and respect all non-human animals, but I am a true ailurophile. My wife and I serve two cats and I marvel at them every day. There are three things I worship: the sun, the sea, and cats.
Have you ever come up with an amazing bass riff in your head, and then forgot it?
At least once an hour. I am pretty much always thinking about bass lines. I love this instrument and I owe so much of my joy to Clarence Leonidas Fender for creating it. I wish I could have met him before he died.
Is there any band past or present that you would love to fill in for?
I still fantasize about playing in Led Zeppelin and the Who, but I am neither good enough nor worthy. Strictly from the perspective of songs, Oasis and the Clash.
Is there anything in your personal life you’d like to tell us about?
My cats own the basses and I ask their permission to use them. They always grant it because they are generous souls.
Do you have any words of wisdom for someone picking up the bass guitar for the first time?
Yes. Please choose the bass because you love it. Too often, I hear about people who pick the bass because "it's easier than guitar." I'm not going to explore the verity of this statement, but I will say that this motivation will result in being a mediocre bassist—and not even from a technical perspective. If someone isn't completely passionate about something, it will manifest in their execution.
The bass is a special instrument. The rhythm section is not a place for spotlight seekers; however, the gratification comes from knowing that you and your drummer are the foundation upon which the rest of the band constructed their edifice. They are the visible parts of the building, but that structure could not have been built without the unseen foundation.