Josh Werner: Bass Meditations - Bass Magazine - The Future of Bass

New York bassist Josh Werner has made a career out of collaborating with a diverse list of artists, including Lee “Scratch” Perry, Wu-Tang Clan, Matisyahu, Sly and Robbie, James Brandon Lewis, Popcaan, and Ghostface Killah. But for his latest solo album, Werner decided to put the focus solely on bass, as his unaccompanied LP, Mode For Titan, is exactly that: just bass. Produced by frequent collaborator and mentor, dub legend Bill Laswell, Werner was inspired by his fellow bassist to explore improvisation, movement, and sonic texture on the album—much of which was written and captured in the moment in the studio. The result is a meditative, low-end journey where rhythm and melody partner with space and stillness to create a transformative experience for the listener.  

Given the strictly-bass setting, Werner still manages to explores a wide sonic terrain thanks to his varied arsenal of instruments. This includes his custom sitar bass, 8-string electric, upright bass, and his collection of vintage 4-strings. Layers of effects added to the equation makes for a diversity of tone that changes from track to track. With Laswell pushing him out of his comfort zone, Werner shines on “Traversal,” “Mode For Titan,” “New Compass,” and “Ship of Theseus,” where his expertise in reggae, jazz, and trip-hop manifest into creations all their own. He was also able to merge painting—his other artistic passion—into the project, with his beautiful abstract work being featured as the album art.

In a time when tours, concerts, and most sessions have been halted due to the pandemic, Werner has not only remained productive, inspired, and prolific, he has etched the next chapter of his musical path, and has found his purest voice as a musician in doing so. We caught up with him right before the release of the album to discuss the process, what it’s like working with Bill Laswell, and how he channels his state of Zen through his playing and his art.

Photo by Bianca Casady

Photo by Bianca Casady

A bass-only record is an ambitious project. How did this album initially come about?

The album’s producer Bill Laswell and I discussed creating a solo bass record after the Lee Perry record we made together [Rise Again, 2011]. I loved Bill’s Invisible Design [1999] release; it was inspiring to hear minimalist, bass-driven compositions, and I had some general song concepts that I thought could shine.

What inspired you to only use bass for this album?

Initially, I was thinking we could have drums or piano on a few tunes, but after some discussion with Bill, it became clear we had to make an all-bass statement. I felt great about that, because when I first started playing, I used to compose without an amplifier—just the body of the bass resting on my chin so I could feel the frequency. The resulting songs were stand-alone pieces for the instrument, and they were physical, personal, and very minimal. I’ve kept that idea in mind ever since—to return to that pure expression. And with the new album, I finally did.

What was the writing process like?

Half the compositions I brought in; some of them I’d written the night before the session [“Quiet Star,” “Mode for Titan”] and some were improvisational pieces [“Traversal,” “Arcane Path”], where Bill and I chose a mood and a sentiment. Then Bill and engineer James Dellatacoma would set up sound treatments, and I would respond to them.

How do you approach improvisation on bass?

The improvisers I admire the most are constantly composing, so when the time comes, they can tap their well on the spot. I have always instinctually strived for that. I never stop mentally compiling themes, lines, and concepts, because I want to always be ready to communicate and have some gems ready for the conversation. This record felt unique. Bill’s choice of pedals literally kept me on my toes! There were times when I hit certain notes and the pitch and modulation would respond so randomly, I was forced out of my comfort zone and into new territories, which added an element of improv.

How did you go about getting your tone in the studio?

Every bass we used had a different tone, but my fingers proved to be the common thread of my bass sound. I also change the location of where I play on the neck in relation to the pickups, and on my vintage basses I have strings that are very old. I keep one newer bass with fresh strings on it for doubling, picking, and leads. We tracked using an Ampeg SVT, a flip-top B-15, and the two main basses were my ’81 G&L L-1000 and a ’66 Fender Precision. With those tools, and Bill and James at the helm, I was in good shape to get a solid sound.

What was it like working with Bill Laswell on this project?

It was a great experience! I trust Bill. I respect his production and direction, and of course I love his playing. I’ve been working with him since 2006, so we have a rapport. It’s not hard for me to know what he’s thinking about the music. James and I also go back a bit. He has a great studio presence, so there is trust and respect in the room. Bill is efficient, concise and sharp. If you perform well during the session, you can get so much done.

What is the biggest take away that you learned from him in the process?

If you trust the tone and spirit of the instrument, you can always make more space for the right moments to shine. Let the empty space conquer, just like the notes do.

How has his playing and mentorship impacted you overall?

His support has been huge. I’m lucky to have someone who has been through so much in the music world to lean on and talk to. He’s also hipped me to lots of artists, musicians, and history. The era when he arrived and made his mark in New York City is the era I grew up listening to, so when we talk art and music, I’m in awe. You can hear the history in his work and you can hear him breaking history, as well. I strive for that impact of content. He’s certainly a guide for many of us in the circle. As a producer, he’s as brave and open as it gets. Just look at the scope of his work, it’s massive. It’s a deep friendship, and I’m grateful for it.

Photo by Alison Clancy

Photo by Alison Clancy

What was your main goal in creating this album?

I wanted to express something new, with a solid foundation that shows my taste and spirit. I have a belief in the frequency and range of the instrument, and I wanted to make something we could listen to and dig. In modern ambient music the bass feels a bit overlooked. If you know your legendary dub masters [King Tubby, Lee Perry] and your classic Eno records, bass is an essential element. If you want heavy spiritual, meditative power, you’ve got to go deep.

Despite the wild year, you’ve been very busy and prolific. What have you been working on in this span?

I’ve got an improv jazz project with the saxophonist James Brandon Lewis; we cut a live record that will be coming out in December on the RRGEMS label [with Ches Smith and Patrick Holmes]. I’ve also been playing on sessions and writing with dancehall reggae producer Dreskull, including tracks for Mabel and Justine Skye. And i’m finishing my second solo songwriter record under the name JD Werner. I recently produced a few songs for Dustan Louque, one with Nels Cline and the saxophonist John Ellis. And I’ve been painting quite a bit.

How do you feel the impact from the events of this year will change the landscape of the music world going forward?

It’s a tough time for musicians. We’ve all seen the projects and tours cut, and I’ve seen some talented people have to leave the city. I feel for everyone hit hard. Making a living in this business is already tough, and without live performance it’s hitting a new level of difficulty. I do think some opportunities will arise. I truly hope people get back to buying CDs and vinyl, and that they begin to once again appreciate the value and importance of music in their lives.

What’s the best way for artists to adapt and overcome the situation?

I’d say if you are a working musician, now is the time to get your home studio set up; reach out to the bands you want to work with; start to think about other ways to make money, so the financial pressure is off. Make some space for your creative energy and try to document what you do well. It’s a great time to finish projects and get to work on aspects of the business that have been put aside due to lack of time.

You are also a respected artist. How does painting inspire your music and vice versa?

I got back into visual art after a 15-year break. I needed a new creative outlet where I could break some patterns and create a new story. When I paint, I’m not thinking about genres or gear or anything, I’m just moving colors and structures around. So this pattern-breaking experience of learning a new medium gave me a feeling of freedom when I got back on the bass. I was painting quite a bit during the making of this record; I think the cover art shows my headspace. When I get back to the music after heavy painting sessions, it feels light and easy. It’s been opening up my creativity and keeping some magic in the mix.

How have you evolved as a bassist since you first moved to New York City?

My career evolved by my being in the city and around the artists I love and admire. That has been an education in itself. When I moved here, I said yes to gigs where I didn’t even know the genre of music. I would just gather references, keep my ears open, and wing it! It always worked out, and my confidence grew with the experiences. So did my taste. Now I can curate my own path. I’ve always had the drive, but the time and experience can’t be rushed. Once you’ve actually lived it and reached for a dream, it does get easier, in many ways.

What is your best advice to other bass players who want to get to where you are?

Play the music you love, with love. Say yes to things that may be a bit over your head, and find a teacher. If there are no gigs, make some. Get your sound together and play only what’s right for the music. –BM

Gear:

Basses: 1981 G&L L-1000, 1966 Fender P Bass, Englehart Upright bass 1994, ’70’s Fender Fretless Precision Deluxe, Custom Sitar Bass, Ibanez 8-string bass, Gibson Thunderbird Reissue

Rig: Ampeg SVT Classic, Ampeg B-15 Heritage Flip-Top, Ashdown ABM 115 H Evo, Ashdown ABM EVO bass head

Pedals: Electro-Harmonix Melotron9, Digitech Bass Whammy , Digitech Bass Synth Wah, Earthquaker Devices Space Spirals, Electro-Harmonix Bass Big Muff, Crybaby Bass Wah, Pigtronix Envelope Phaser, Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail

Strings: D'Addario EXL160 Regular Gauge Nickel Wound, ECB82 Chromes Flatwound Medium, Zyex, Helicore Hybrid 

Listen to the album: Here 

Follow Josh: Here