From Bergantino: In this Bergantino artist spotlight, we welcome our new artist, the amazing Tony Grey, to the Bergantino family! We asked fellow Bergantino artist Mitch Starkman if he would like to fire off some questions to Tony and he enthusiastically agreed!
Tell us what you have been up to currently, musically or otherwise?
Since the lockdown happened, I thought there was an opportunity to finish the educational work I have been doing. I have been writing a blueprint to obtain creative freedom all the way from picking up the bass for the first time to be able to play whatever you are hearing. It’s a huge course and has taken me about five years to fully develop.
During the lockdown, I decided to work on some unfinished album concepts I have always wanted to do. The first is a solo bass project that has some originals mixed in with some jazz standards. The second project is another solo project with a few guests that is more in the electronica vain. Over the last couple of years, I have been experimenting with Ableton, and this project was a great learning experience for me. The third CD is a full band project with all originals. The musicians include Mino Cinelu, Mark Giuliana, Mike Stern, John Shannon, Romain Colin, Obed Calvaire, Naveen Kumar, and Ryan Cavanagh. All these projects have been co-produced and mixed by my first-grade buddy Leon Hughes. I’m currently working on a project with the legendary Bob James too, which is a great honor for me.
Tony, tell us where were you born and raised and how you ended up in the US?
I was born and raised in Newcastle, England, which is the northeast of England. It’s right on the border of Scotland. As a child, I was forced to learn piano from the age of 4 years and until I was about 12 or 13 years old. I didn’t really take it seriously and wasn’t motivated. The piano teacher didn’t look for what inspired me. It felt like a bunch of mundane exercises that I didn’t particularly like, and it seemed like more of a chore that took time away from my friends.
Drum and bass music and raves were very popular in England when I was growing up, and I gravitated towards being a DJ, which was a great musical experience for me. I became obsessed with the music and really wanted to learn how to create it. As I was getting older, the DJ lifestyle was not really looking great for me, and I was starting to think of what my future looked like. My dad talked me into joining the army so I could learn a trade. I was always a very shy person, and the army really helped me have confidence, discipline, and respect for myself. It was on my first break from the army when my life changed dramatically. I was picked up at a train station and got into a bad car accident where I ended up breaking my back. I was immediately medically discharged from the army, which devastated me.
During my recovery, my stepdad randomly brought me home a bass guitar and said, “Hey you should learn how to play music. It’s good for your soul.” He was irritated at me bumming around feeling sorry for myself and thought music may help to give me something else to focus on.
I started practicing and quickly became obsessed as it blocked out whatever emotional trauma I was experiencing. My dad reached out to the great guitarist John McLaughlin, who happened to be my uncle, to see if he could give me some advice with music. From there, John called me and sent a bunch of tapes and books. I went to see him at a concert in Scotland. At that time, I didn’t understand or know what jazz music was at all. I literally had no idea what I was witnessing. John asked me if I wanted to go to America, and things moved fast from there. He looked me dead in the eye and said, “There is time.” Fast forward a year later after practicing every day for hours, I packed my bags and went to live in Boston to study at Berklee.
At that time, I felt very overwhelmed with everything. I went from playing an instrument I didn’t choose to help me heal, to leaving England to study at a school where it was every student’s dream to be there. The level of musicianship seemed impossible for me to achieve, and to be thrown in amongst them was not easy to take psychologically. I was determined not to be the laughingstock of the class, so I became very driven and focused with my studies. I just had to lock myself in the practice room and find my way.
I was speaking to John McLaughin quite a lot, and he would motivate me more philosophically than musically about the mind and what is important in life. It was really inspiring. John really helped me, for whatever reason, to pursue music even though I had no track record of being a musician already.
What do you think it was that attracted you to the electric bass specifically when you first started out playing music or did you start on another instrument?
Piano was my first instrument, but I didn’t stick with it. The bass was purely because of circumstance. I had no specific interest in learning the bass and didn’t understand the function of it or the role of it. Because John McLaughlin was my mentor, I was focusing on him and wanted to sound like him. He is a virtuoso guitarist, and I kind of started learning how to run before I could walk.
Did you have formal music training?
I went to Berklee and my degree was a performance degree. I went there in the summer of 97 and stayed for two years. My first real training on bass came right after that initial 2 years. A record label came to Berklee and held auditions for a bassist and a drummer. I had bonded with a Scottish guy called Alan Brown who is a great drummer and a great friend. He was always super positive and really encouraged me to audition with him, I decided to do it mainly for the experience. It was one of those things where I just showed up and had no expectations. I somehow ended up with the gig and quit school to go on an adventure. I really had no idea what I was getting into, but things moved quickly from there. The band moved to a place just outside of Philadelphia. The band was put together and signed to Terry Elis who is a pop music legend and discovered a lot of stars in the 80s such as Blondie, Pat Benatar, Huey Lewis, Billy Idol, Jethro Tull and many others. He wanted us to be a boy band who played our instruments well. I was still really a beginner and still struggled to fully understand my role in music, but I had a project to really invest in and I had to learn specific songs rather than trying to wrap my head around theory and how to dissect John Coltrane solos. It was the perfect departure and training for my current growth level. I got to really focus on locking in with a drummer, being on the road and living with a band, which isn’t always easy. We ended up filming pop videos for MTV and toured southeast Asia extensively for 2 years, which was an amazing experience. We had 3 top 10 songs and got to play some huge concerts in India, Thailand, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Bali.
I felt by the end of the tour I had grown so much as a bassist and had learned some valuable lessons along the way that would put me in good shape moving forward. I remember being on the road in a hotel and seeing 2 of my first classmates from Berklee on TV, which were John Mayer and Gavin DeGraw. It reminded me how lucky I was to get the opportunity to meet these amazing young musicians, and I realized how the music world is not just about isolating yourself and studying; it’s also about building a community with other musicians chasing their dreams.
I've always heard your playing as having a depth and sophistication both technically and musically. Did you have a particular vision of how you wanted to sound early or did that develop more as you went along?
What initially inspired me about music was melody. Usually when you learn the bass, you’re not really clued into the melodic side of music. My first teacher and mentor was John McLaughlin who is a guitarist so I was drawn to playing more like a soloist. The first sheet music he ever sent me was John Coltrane’s solo over the Jazz Standard Oleo. I had no real reference of what else to learn so I guess my technique developed quite quickly.
Some of the feedback I received was usually commenting on things like; my notes weren’t being articulated clearly. I would slow things down even to 20bpm and really work on hitting the notes accurately with a good posture and form. I try also to visualize and internalize the sound I’m going for as I’m playing. This really helped with feel and touch and helped make the notes more expressive. I also played along with recordings with no volume on my bass and really tried to fall inside the feel and touch of whatever I was listening to.
I think it is such a privilege to do what you love to do, and it takes a lot of determination to follow your dream. In life, I’ve had a lot of knock backs along the way, so I always try take a lot of pride and care in what I do. I wrote a blueprint from A to Z of how to learn creatively as you go and apply everything you learn and into your musicality, and I am happy that you can hear that “depth,” Mitch, as you call it. That’s very flattering.
One artist that comes to mind who inspired my playing is Bert Bacharach. I really love his sense of simplicity and melody. I was and still am a huge Michael Jackson and Prince fan. Every time you saw them on a concert or live performance on a DVD you would see that it was a show from the very first moment to the last moment; it all meant something. They both shine in the perfection of expression in the most profound way. I was also drawn to Miles Davis and his simplicity of how to choose the right notes and express character. Listening to Miles led me to people like Marcus Miller, and when I heard Marcus Miller play fretless bass, I was blown away by his melodic sense and intention. You could really feel what he was trying to convey. From there I found Mike Stern and Pat Metheny, and all these different guys popped out from listening to them.
You've played for/with some amazing artists. How did working with musicians like John McLaughlin, and Hiromi, for example, influence or affect your approach to bass playing and music from before you had played with them? Can you explain some of the impact they had on you?
Everyone has had huge impacts on me in different ways. Hiromi believed in us more than we believed in ourselves. I always thought it was impossible to play the music the way she wanted it played because it was so technical and so intricate. She would put us on the firing line sometimes with very little time to prepare the music, and we would have to go and record or film a DVD. Somehow, probably due to her faith and our pride, we would always rise to the occasion and come through for her. She was also so detailed about the feedback she would give us after the show. In the hotel, you would get a little note under the door saying, “Hey listen to this recording from last night’s show. In bar 35 of the 4th tune you were rushing that note or you were playing too loud.”
She was very specific, and it always kept us on our toes, so I was never in the comfort zone. There was always something to work on, and she was very determined to get the music across the way she envisioned. Hiromi always expected great energy as well on stage, and even if you were tired, she would step up and lead by example, which was infectious. She would always remind us that it was our privilege to play for people and that this might be the only opportunity we ever get to play for them, so we had to bring our best no matter how we felt. She had that kind of mentality, which was beautiful.
Obviously, as I mentioned, John McLaughlin has been my biggest influence in my own music. He always encourages bravery in music. He was always talking about finding yourself in his music, so it didn’t come across as academic. He would say, “You need to be more Zen, Tony, you need to be more Zen.” He was always pushing me to find myself but in a pure way.
Someone else who was inspirational for me was David Fiuczynski who is a guitarist from New York. David, or “Fuze” as we call him, is now a professor at Berklee. He was one of the craziest guys I ever met, and he was always pushing me to have more dirt in my playing. He would say, “You sound too pretty, man. I need you to be less polite.” He encouraged me to think outside of the box a little bit and push myself into areas that I wasn’t naturally good at. He introduced me to folk music from all over the world when we were on the tour bus; it opened my ears.
With his music, he incorporates modern grooves or modern harmony over the top of traditional world folk music. This became a massive influence on me.
Do you use the 6-string almost exclusively now or do you change it up? How do you decide and what are the main differences you notice in your approach and playing when you do?
The 6-string was circumstantial. It wasn’t like, oh I would love to play the 6-string bass. I started on a 4-string bass and moved to the 5-string tuned with a high C after seeing the great bassist Matt Garrison, who was in McLaughlin’s band at that time. Hiromi’s music required notes that were out of my range. On tour, I would bring two 5-strings, the low B and high C, and I would just interchange depending on what song we played. I was kind of avoiding playing a 6-string simply because I thought they would be too big for my hands. After visiting Vinnie and Joey at Fodera, they assured me they could build a compact 6-string that would be easy for me to transition to. I was really shocked at how playable it was. My only experience with a 6-string up until then was seeing and feeling Anthony Jackson’s bass, which seemed so big. Fodera has really helped me shape my voice as a bassist, and I’m very happy and honored to be endorsed by them as a signature artist. My current 6-string is literally the size of a guitar and doesn’t lose any tension in the strings.
What is important to you in an amp and cab and what have you learned and look for? How has Bergantino filled that search?
That’s a great question, because I think it is circumstance. Over the years I have played through a lot of amps. Sometimes on a gig, you use what’s there. My Fodera basses are active and quite powerful, and I’ve always had a hard time getting the clarity of tone where I could just express the dynamics with my fingers instead of constantly adjusting the EQ on the amp head and bass to cut through. I want the low end to be big but also the mid and high range to cut through warm and cleanly. When I came across Bergantino, I was amazed that I didn’t have to dig in and adjust my EQ all the time. The notes are ridiculously clear, and I feel like I have total control over my dynamics now. Jim Bergantino told me I’m going to hear all my imperfections, which in turn has improved my technique and touch. It has brought me closer to my instrument, which will inevitably propel me to the next level.
With a new sound comes new choices possibly for matching that gear to your voice and vision. Have you settled on what combination of Bergantino cabs and head you may use?
How have you been setting the controls on the Forte D so far, and what changes to those setting might you make as you plug in some of your other individual instruments? I love the Forte D. I love and NXT112 for my local smaller gigs. I like the 112 at smaller gigs because it’s light but it surprisingly gives you the punch that you are not expecting with a small rig, so I love that. When I combine it with the NXT210, it becomes a much fuller luscious sound, and that’s my gig right now. In my studio and for larger stages I use the Forte HP along with the 210 and 112 combined, which is an incredible and powerful sound and set up
How have you been setting the controls on the Forte D so far, and what changes to those setting might you make as you plug in some of your other individual instruments?
Some of my basses are naturally bright sounding and some are very heavy in the low end. I always try to stay as flat as possible with the Forte D. My new 6-string Fodera has a beautiful bright tone, so on the amp I bump the bass a tiny bit and also bump the low mids at one o clock. I have the treble and high-mids back like at 11:30, which gives me that beautiful balance. If I need extra cut through when I’m soloing, then I can engage the bright button, which is subtle but really makes the difference. I can really feel Jim’s passion with these cabinets and amp heads. He is so meticulous, and you can tell he’s really put so much time into perfecting his vision. For me they really stand out in the bass world, and I couldn’t be happier to be using them.
Can you talk a bit about what you are bringing to the world of bass and music education in a conceptual way and what your vision is to bring to students?
I feel that the experiences I’ve had in life is why I have gone deeply into the educational world. I was so intimidated by everyone at school and felt I needed to almost ignore the lessons I was taking at Berklee because I didn’t understand them. I sat and wrote a map of what would it take to get from point A to point B in my own comfort zone so I could absorb and learn music, and apply it creatively. I started documenting everything I was practicing and the results it was having on my playing. Looking back at all my notes, I was paying attention to the breakthrough moments; from there, I would refine all these light bulb moments and create a learning curriculum that I would learn myself. My idea was to unlearn music and relearn with creative application.
My vision, which I am very passionate about, is that I think you should be restricted only by your imagination. I think when people play music, there is a tendency to play from muscle memory or learn licks and learn patterns. I believe it’s important to find your own voice as a musician with the vocabulary we all use to make music. My educational work is based on a creative learning system.
In my career, I was fast-tracked to become a professional musician with hardly any musical experience, and I started playing when I was 19 years old. I just wanted to develop a curriculum that guided the student through the theory along with instant creative application. I always asked a lot of questions to fellow musicians and teachers on my travels and found a path forward that worked for me. Really the concept is to unlearn what you think you know as a musician and relearn it with creative application. For example, if I’m working on a scale, by the end of that study, I want to be able to improvise freely and be able to capture that color with melodies and compositions. I have several books written now that cover a wide range of concepts. My academy Tony Grey Bass Academy (www.tonygreybassacademy.com) is a 2-year course with about 1000 lessons on different topics from bass playing to soloing to composition to ear training whatever you want to get into.
What else do you like to do when not doing music?
I love to hang out with my family. I have two boys, a fourteen-year-old and a very young baby, and I love to spend time with them and my wife Holly. I love soccer, so I am always watching my home team Newcastle United. I’m also obsessed with and love playing darts. I feel darts is a great game for musicians as it requires focus and really helps you to be mindful of your posture with your body.
Any other plans or things coming up you haven't mentioned?
Over the last few years, I have been writing and arranging a lot of music. I have 3 albums’ worth of music I am focusing on releasing this year. One of those albums is a full band project featuring some fantastic musicians, including Mark Guiliana, the great drummer, and the legendary guitarist Mike Stern. It also features some of my closest friends in music: John Shannon on guitar, the legendary Minu Cinelu from Peter Gabriel and Sting and Miles Davis on percussion, Roman Collin on piano, Gregoire Maret on harmonica, Obed Calvaire on drums, Ryan Cavanaugh on banjo and my dear friend Naveen Kumar on flute and Darshana Ananth on vocals.
I have also completed an album consisting of originals and jazz standards that I love to play, which are all solo bass arrangements. The 3rd album is more electronica-based original music.
I’m also in a deep collaboration with the great pianist Bob James, which will hopefully see the light in 2022.
Thank you to Jim and Holly Bergantino for the opportunity to express myself through your wonderful equipment. Mitch Starkman, thank you for your great questions, and thank you for the initial introduction.
MITCH: It’s been great to talk with you and hear your thoughts. Tony, thanks to you and Holly for including me. Looking forward to hearing more of you on upcoming projects. Cheers!