Being prolific is nothing new to Billy Mohler. Between producing and playing on numerous albums—including new records from Jimmy Chamberlin Complex [Honor], Dan Rosenboom [Points on An Infinite Line], and ARO [Vacare Adamaré]; playing bass on the Stephen King miniseries The Stand; playing drums alongside his wife, bassist Becca Mohler on War Tapes' latest release [Only Time Will Tell]; running his record label, MAKE Records as well as his own music school, Cal Heights Music, Mohler has had a remarkably busy year. That’s not to mention raising three kids; taking care of a dog, a cat, and four chickens; constantly shedding his arco chops on upright bass; and surfing whenever he finds the time. With no shortage of passion or work ethic, Mohler has thrived during a period when most musicians have been sidelined due to the pandemic.
From the time he first picked up a bass to his studies at both the Berklee College of Music and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at UCLA, Mohler has been a highly driven person. After his school days, the California native went on to perform with such artists as Herbie Hancock, Dolly Parton, Lady Gaga, Wayne Shorter, Steven Tyler, Kelly Clarkson, Macy Gray, Awolnation, The Calling, Pat Benatar, and Liz Phair. Recordings he has appeared on as a session bassist have sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, and his compositions have been used by global brands including Coca-Cola, Sherwin Williams, Finlandia, and Sworavski. With no desire to slow down, Mohler is growing more in demand. If his accomplishments as a producer, player, educator, and businessman keep accumulating at their current rate they just might keep up with his ambition.
This past year has been like nothing we’ve seen before, but you’ve kept busy through all of it. How did you adapt to everything?
I think I was able to adapt to the shutdown because I’ve been off the road for a while now. A few years ago I made a decision to stay home and focus on producing, writing, and doing more sessions. When the pandemic hit I had just started working on a record and I got that finished working remotely. A small group of bassists in town started a Zoom hang and it was great to connect with everyone, and affirm that we’re all in this together. I also used the time to go through my hard drives and finish up projects that never got over the finish line.
You’ve been doing some scoring on the TV show The Stand by Steven King.
My friend Nate Wolcott, who’s a brilliant performer, writer, and arranger, asked me to play bass on the session, remotely. Nate and I have been playing jazz gigs around town for the past few years. It was challenging because it was exclusively bowing, which I hadn’t focused on in awhile. I found my arco book from my Berklee days [Complete Study of the Double Bass by Edouard Nanny], brushed up, and dove in. Nate sent me ProTools sessions with scratch MIDI parts, along with the score. I recorded multiple takes to create a bass section, prepped the files, and sent them back. The first episode aired a few weeks ago.
You released the new Jimmy Chamberlin Complex album during the lockdown. What was that process like?
That was a fun project to dig into. Jimmy, Sean Woolstenhulme, and I wrote and recorded the music in 2016. I sent the files off to [saxophonist] Ben Wendel [Kneebody, Solo], [trumpeter] Shane Endsley [Kneebody, Invisible Bird], [saxophonist] Frank Catalano [Charles Earland, Von Freeman], and [keyboardist] Adam Benjamin [Kneebody, Dave Douglas], who added their parts. We finished the album, but we decided to make an acoustic record cut live at Sunset Sound, in L.A., in early 2017. That came out the same year and it’s called The Parable. When the pandemic hit, Jimmy and I were talking and we realized we never put out the original 2016 recording. We felt like it needed one more song to be complete, so we remotely recorded the last track, titled “Commitment.” Honor is available on all streaming platforms and the vinyl version will be out in March 2021.
What’s it like working in a rhythm section with Jimmy?
Jimmy is my musical brother and one of my best friends. We’ve been making music together since 2001, and we released two Jimmy Chamberlin Complex albums previous to Honor [Life Begins Again, Sanctuary Records, 2005; The Parable, MAKE Records, 2017]. JC and I connected early on over our love for Miles, Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, and ’70s fusion. Working with Jimmy is amazing. He’s always pushing the band into new directions, while pushing his own playing and inspiring us to be better musicians.
Your tone is fantastic on the album. How did you record your bass?
Thanks, I used a couple of different setups. For half of the tracks I used my Moollon Jazz Bass into a Noble DI, into an Ashdown ABM 600 EVO IV head, into a Ashdown ABM 410H EVO cabinet. The distortion is coming from the ABM 600’s tube preamp. The second setup is my 1977 Fender Precision Bass into a 1964 Ampeg B-15. I used a 3 Leaf Audio Octabvre pedal on a couple of tracks, as well as an echoplex for some overdubs. The cabinets were miked with a Wunder Audio CM7 Fet S and a vintage Sennheiser 421—that I purchased from Robert DeLeo—and they fed into two Tree Audio Branches.
What are your thoughts on the challenges of recording bass?
A large part of it is how the bass sits and interacts with the kick drum. Some tracks require more midrange or low mids and not as many sub frequencies. I’ve found that sometimes removing some low end around 100hz will help the bass cut, while giving the kick drum its place in the mix. You can hear an example of this on “Commitment,” the last track on Honor. I did a pass with my ’77 Fender Precision and sent it to Jimmy, and he thought it was too big! So I took another stab at it using my Moollon Jazz Bass with the back pickup rolled off, which yields a P-Bass-like tone, but with a bit less low-end. That did the trick.
What is your ideal tone?
There are a number of factors, first and foremost is a tone that compliments the song. It should also support the track and make a statement, without needing a lot of notes. One of my favorite aspects of bass playing is when I can get a sound that propels the band, regardless of the notes I play.
How does being a producer inform your role as a bass player?
I think it has expanded my ears and my ability to know how to approach playing a song in a session, in that I’m thinking about the ensemble and not my specific bass part. I want the group to sound great, and more often than not that means staying out of the way. I started working for [famed producer] Linda Perry a few years ago, and I’ve learned a lot from her.
How does your jazz background and jazz sensibility translate when you’re working with pop, rock, and dance artists?
Whether it's an arrangement issue, the key not working for the vocalist, or needing to create a new version of a song on the spot, having a background in jazz has been a big help. Being able to give artists chord options on the fly, if something isn't flowing, or helping to get the song from the bridge back into the chorus, while adding an arrangement twist—all of that has been essential for my career as a producer.
You released Focus! in 2019, your first record as a band leader. What was it like moving into the bandleader roll?
That was a super fun album to make. I’d been demoing songs while playing at ETA and Sam’s First, my favorite music spots in L.A. Once I got the material to where it was ready to record, I called Shane [Endsley] to play trumpet, Chris Speed to play tenor sax, and Nate Wood, my best friend since childhood, to play drums. I brought in another close friend, Dan Seeff, [Aloe Blacc, Anderson .Paak] to produce the album. Dan helped me a great deal. Having him onboard made the process very rewarding. My main concept for being a bandleader is to stay out of the way and let everyone do their thing.
Another project you just released is the new album Points on an Infinite Line, by trumpeter Dan Rosenboom. That’s a wild record.
It was intense to make. Dan is a prolific composer who has a knack for writing very challenging music. The first rehearsal was brutal! I showed up and he had lead sheets for everyone, but even with charts the music was incredibly difficult. I had to put a lot of time in to get comfortable with the songs. We did a three night run at Sams First and the music gelled. A few weeks later we tracked the record in a three-hour session, where more than half the songs are first takes. Dan gave everyone their space to create and bring their voice to the record.
How does your approach differ from electric bass guitar to upright bass?
I tend to play more instrumental music on my upright, and as a result there’s more room to stretch out. My electric bass sessions are usually playing behind a singer, so I’ll take on a more supportive roll.
How important is having the ability to utilize different techniques in your playing?
I think it’s important to have an extensive vocabulary to draw from. I started as a finger player because of the early influence of Cliff Burton and Geezer Butler. When I heard Flea on “Higher Ground,” I got into slapping. I discovered and loved pick playing and got deeply into that. I took a lesson with Gary Willis where he taught me thumb-and-palm muting, and a lot about fretting-hand muting. And then there are all the subtleties you pick up along the way, like note duration, dynamics, and moving your plucking hand closer to the bridge or fingerboard to get a different touch and tone. All of it can be used to influence the music and best serve the song, which is always my number one goal.
You have a big body of music education behind you, from Berklee to the Monk Institute at UCLA. How much did that sculpt you as a player?
I’m very fortunate to have been able to study at Berklee and at the Monk Institute; it laid the foundation for my career. My teachers at Berklee were Whit Browne, Bruce Gertz, Oscar Stagnaro, and Jim Stinnett. They each had a big impact on my playing and my outlook as a musician. They set the bar incredibly high every week, and never let me be comfortable. Whit got me started on upright bass my sophomore year, which was something I’d always wanted to do. He would have me learn a standard and I’d come in the following week confident that I had the melody and changes down, and he’d start the song in another key! After Berklee, I auditioned for the Monk Institute at USC and I got accepted. While there I studied with Christian McBride and Darek Olez, and I got to perform with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Clark Terry, Jimmy Heath, Terri Lynn Carrington, Terrence Blanchard, Barry Harris, Russell Malone, Billy Childs, and Diane Reeves. Both Berklee and the Monk program had touring schedules, so I got my first road experiences, as well.
Your wife, Becca Mohler, is also a bass player who plays with you in War Tapes. How great is it living in a bass household?
It’s amazing! I’m working on her first solo record right now. Playing drums in War Tapes, with Becca on bass, was one of the coolest experiences. We got to travel and play music together—I couldn’t ask for more.
How and when did you first start playing?
I started playing bass in the 8th grade, at age 15. I was into metal at that time, and my friends had a thrash metal band that played a school lunchtime concert. It affected me in such a profound way that it was all I wanted to do. I went home that day and asked my parents for a bass. They agreed to get me an awesome red Fender Precision Bass as long as I would take lessons every week. I’ve been studying it ever since.
Who are your greatest bass influences?
There are so many! Wilbur Ware and Anthony Jackson are a constant source of inspiration, as well as Jimmy Garrison, Dave Holland, Steve Swallow, Aston Barrett, Carol Kaye, and Geezer Butler. I’m also super inspired by friends like Tim Lefebvre, Chris Chaney, Bob Glaub, Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Alan Deremo, and Dave Wilder, to name a few.
You run the record label Make Records on top of everything else. What inspired you to take on that role?
I started MAKE Records with my longtime friend Aaron. I had produced a handful of developing artists that ended up signing record deals. The thought was to take one of those projects and try to put it out ourselves. I liked the idea of being able to sign bands that I hadn’t worked with. If the record is great, let’s put it out! In addition to the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex, we released Divine Accidents, by Butch Vig’s band, 5 Billion In Diamonds; Vacare Adamaré by ARO [Aimeè Osbourne]; War Tapes’ EP, Only Time Will Tell; and MAKE the Holidays Bright, Vol. 1, featuring eight artists, for which 100% of the profits went to MusiCares COVID-19 Relief. –BM
Basses: 1961 Fender Precision, 1966 Fender Precision, 1966 Fender Mustang, 1978 Fender Precision, Fender American Original ’50s Precision, Hofner Beatke Bass, Moollon P Classic, Moollon J Classic, Univox Hi-Flier, 1890 Czech flatback acoustic bass (with a German bow and David Gage Realist pickup)
Strings: D'Adarrio, Gabriel Tenorio (for bass guitar); Pirastro Eva Pirazzi Slap E, A, and D strings, LaBella Golden Tone G string (for upright)
Amps: Ashdown ABM 600 EVO head, Ashdown 410H EVO cabinet, 1964 Ampeg B-15, Gallien-Krueger MB150
Effects: Noble DI, 3 Leaf Audio Octabvre, MXR Octave MXR280 Octave, Fulltone Bass Drive, Boss OC-2, Crowther Audio Prunes and Custard, Guyatone SD2 Sustainer, Electro Harmonix Big Muff, Way Huge Pork Loin, Way Huge Fat Sandwich, Dunlop Echoplex Delay, Boss CE-1 Chorus
Other: MXR Cables
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