Bassist Spotlight: Todd Bell (Braid, Hey Mercedes, Mary Me, The City on Film)

Hey Mercedes @ The Sinclair, Boston, MA, 2016. (Photo: Tom Agostino)

If you have ever been in the same room with Todd Bell you will understand why I tracked him down for my Bassist Spotlight interview series.

Todd is a master of the low-end groove, playing the "song" while also writing his own melodies and hooks within any composition he's performing on. That sort of style has always attracted my ear and has definitely influenced my playing on recordings that you can hear in 32 Frames, Supertouch, and Miracle Drug.

If you know Todd's body of work, you will love what he's got to say about his background and technique. If you've never listened to his bands and playing, you're welcome. He is what this interview series is all about. 

Introduce yourself to everyone.

Todd Bell - a native of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Milwaukee resident for 20+ years. Teacher, cat person, husband, dad, and bass player. I've played with and recorded in Braid, Hey Mercedes, Mary Me, and The City on Film, among others.

How did you first get into the bass guitar?

For as long as I can remember it has been my favorite instrument. I loved watching the bass player and how he interacts with the band since day one. I didn't pick up the instrument until later in life, maybe 21-22 years old? Crazy right? 

I did it to play with some friends for fun in our first band. We used to practice on the flat of a mini-ramp in my friend's barn. We were skate rats who loved music. I've been playing since.

Todd skating in the early '90s

Did your family support you playing music when you were getting started?

I stopped going to college early on to tour and "see the world on the band's dime." It worked! My parents did not fully understand, but they knew it was a passion I shared with my bandmates.

My dad was a mechanic and he would often give us a phone diagnosis of our van troubles, which were often. It was a crazy blur and experience I would never trade. Once my parents knew we could make it work and we were all-in and gung-ho, they appreciated our audacity.

Braid (Photo courtesy of Polyvinyl Records)

Do you play any other instruments?

Not really. Guitar poorly. I have an acoustic lying around. I always wanted to learn a horn. Maybe trumpet? It's never too late!

You are a lefty player. Did you ever try switching or has it been ride-or-die lefty your whole career? 

I've been air-guitaring lefty since I was a kid. So I was doomed from the beginning. My first bass was a Fender Squire righty upside down with the nut and strings reversed so I could play it lefty. Because of this, there were no blocks on the top neck for me to define frets and the headstock and top horn were on the "bottom" making it incredibly heavy in my fret hand. Definitely not the way to learn.

When I got a real lefty it made it much easier. Lefty through and through for me. When I finished my Masters's Degree in Education in 2011, I treated myself to an all original lefty 1978 Fender P-bass. That has been my main sled since.

Braid @ First Unitarian church, Philadelphia, PA, 1998. (Photo courtesy of Todd Bell)

Have you always played with a guitar pick? Also, what do you think about how playing with your fingers sounds versus a pick?

No. I've experimented with both but can only play truly fast with a pick and that is my preference for faster material. There are some slower songs in Braid I play with my fingers part of or all of the time ("Movie Clock Star," "I'm Afraid of Everything," "No Coast," "I Keep a Diary") because of the tone difference, which I like on quieter songs.

I think it's fun to mix it up. It can be fun and challenging. I'd be forced to do it now and then as I used to drop picks all of the time too - I'd go to my fingers quick while looking around for another pick.

When picking, what do you find yourself doing more of, downstrokes, upstrokes, or alternate picking?

Depends on the song and chug, but it's mostly alternating down/up.

When you were writing with Braid, and Hey Mercedes would you keep the first versions of parts you would come up with, or would you take them home and work on them?

80%+ of the material I've been apart of was probably hashed out in a live room practice space. So, I would work on my part at home now and then and bring it back in or noodle around and change/upgrade a part at practice depending on what the song needed or the song became.

It's a fine line for me to write a part I am happy with that is not too noodly when I have two crazy guitar players and an amazingly technical drummer to compete with. You have to find the right mix of parts to glue it all together so it makes sense and isn't too busy. 

How would you, and your bandmates remember ideas before everyone had cellphones?

We recorded on cassette tapes into a boombox radio and wrote stuff down. We tabbed it out sometimes. Eventually four-track recordings and the like. Mostly our own devices and crappy demos until we hit a studio, which was usually a friend helping us work out mic placement and helping us record.

During the songs, what other instruments in the band are you hearing/locking in on? Do you ever drift away from the drummer? 

Rarely and only on breaks do I drift too far from drums. Or if there is a drum only part or bass only part. It's our job as rhythm to keep it going. I'm locking on to everything! 

Kick first and foremost ("Que Siraz," "Never Will Come For Us"), but then it's guitar lines and writing parts between the two guitars, sometimes I'm following the vocal line ("First Day Back") - whatever makes sense and best fits the song.

Are there any songs that were really hard to play live?

Yes! But we eventually just cut them from the set [laughs]. When we did the Frame and Canvas album tour I know it was challenging to play "Consolation Prizefighter." It was hard to get it to sound right and not like a big old mess. Too much going on.

Also, Hey Mercedes had a song called "What You're Up Against" that was a fave but hard to pull off. We had to play it on the Everynight Fire Works album tour though. It was fun when it worked! 

What bass players have inspired your technique/style?

Lou Barlow of Dinosaur Jr. and his chord style for sure. I love Mike Watt, especially the fIREHOSE stuff, Andy Rourke (The Smiths), Donald Dunn, James Haggerty, and Karl Alvarez (ALL, Descedents) also come to mind.

Are there any drummers who make you change the way you play when you're with them?

All of them affect the way a bass player will play. That's my root, listening to that kick. I've been lucky to play with only a handful of very talented drummers, which makes my job easier. Getting to know their style, changes, and go-to's.

Being familiar with a player and what they're going to do so you can lock-in together is essential to playing and being comfortable live.

What is your favorite amp, bass guitar pedal set up?

GK 800 RB through an Ampeg 4 or 8x10. I've had lots of luck with the older GK RB's. They're pretty indestructible solid states and that's what I need on the road. I've spilled multiple beers on them, sweated gallons into them, knocked them over, dropped them down flights of stairs and they turn on. That's what I need.

I've been playing around with Sunn heads and cabs and they're fun too. I'm not that big of a gear head. Rat pedals are fun. I usually run everything through a SansAmp and then have another dirty Sans setting for drive parts and then I'll just use a tuner.

In the past, I've also used a Boss bass EQ pretty flat with the level up for an additional boost to cut through the rest of the band during certain parts.

Braid (Photo: Shawn Scallen)

After Frame and Canvas came out in 1998 Braid played in Louisville, Kentucky. The show is probably one of my favorite Louisville shows of all time. We booked it at the Big Rock Pavilion in Cherokee Park in the summertime. My band at the time opened (Drifts Get Deeper), Aasee Lake, and Boilermaker played as well and we had a big BBQ. Thank you guys for giving Louisville, and my friends that amazing memory, and thank you for letting my band open the Cincinnati show the next night at the Tuxedo Club!

That particular Louisville show was a fun one. We were friends with Boilermaker and Duncan Barlow from Aasee Lake, so it was definitely a party! I remember it well under the outdoor pavilion!

You toured everywhere with your bands, is there another city you would like to live in? 

Boston, Seattle, and San Francisco have all been on the list at points. I love Tokyo too. But honestly, Milwaukee is where it is at for me. A great mix of community, art, skateboard and music scenes, and good schools. Great food and lots to do in the summer.

I live a block from Lake Michigan in a nice neighborhood. I'm lucky to have achieved that for my family. Hard work pays off.


A post shared by Todd Bell (@tbell71)

How have you and your family been dealing with the lockdown, and all the social unrest this year?

I broke out my bass and have been playing more for sure. I've been recording a few songs with some friends for a fun little project too. Also, I've been playing Dungeons & Dragons in the last few years with another friend group online, the first time since I was a teenager. It's been giving me something to look forward to during COVID times - that social connection and schedule for games.

I also have been running every day for nearly two years. That has been a nice mental and healthy addition to my crazy life - squeezing in a 5k every day ain't easy but it is keeping me sane.

Also, I have two young children and I am a teacher so surviving in a mostly virtual school world while managing all of that along with normal life has been crazy. I hope we can come out of this on the other side for the better. I'm hopeful.

Have you been working on any new music?

Like I mentioned above, I played on a friend's tracks a few weeks ago. We also did a fun covers band with some pals a few years ago too. Nothing serious and it's nice to dust off the cobwebs and play. 


A post shared by Todd Bell (@tbell71)

Finally can you give any advice to someone picking up a bass guitar for the first time?

Do what you want, any style, and play with a group of people as quickly and as often as you can - that's what will make you progress the fastest. 

Playing with others, being social, feeling the energy, and figuring out ideas and parts is where the enjoyment comes from for me.


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Tagged: bassist spotlight, braid, hey mercedes