Justin Beck doesn’t beat around the bush. Never has. The 41-year-old native New Yorker tells it exactly how it is, which is why we believe him when he talks about his partiality toward bass. Especially when he explains his disdain for guitarists who pick up a 4-string and simply follow along with their guitar riffs. “That’s f-ing lazy, corny, and most of all, vain. Guitar in our music is a mere percentage of our audible offering, so for me, bass lines following my guitar work would simply be too one-dimensional and boring. The irony is that the instrument I play live is the wackest instrument regarding pecking order of importance in our music.”
Widely known exclusively as a guitarist, Beck has always been the man behind the music and writing of post-punk heroes Glassjaw since their inception in 1993, which naturally includes all low frequencies. This may be news to fans of their music, as bass plays a highly dominant role in their heavy sound, which has influenced countless bands and players over the years. Though their lineup has always solely consisted of Beck and singer Daryl Palumbo, GJ has had a revolving door of live bass players over the years, with Manuel Carrera chalking up the longest residency (1998–2000 and 2004–2015). Beck has written all of the bass work on each of their three albums and four EPs — a staggering fact, given the tremendous playing that those recordings contain.
Glassjaw’s latest, Material Control, is the band’s first full-length in 15 years and includes all of the rancor, honesty, and serious musicality that GJ is loved for. Beck captures brutal tone within deep bass lines and charging choruses on “New White Extremity,” “Shira,” and “My Conscious Weighs a Ton.” His sound is more dynamic and up-front than ever, and that’s saying a lot given his playing on previous records Worship and Tribute (2002) and Coloring Book EP (2001). And while his guitar work is stellar as always on Material Control, Beck is quick to downplay his efforts on all fronts. “I want my legacy to be my bad bass playing first, even worse drums second, and wack-ass guitar fourth. I still haven’t figured out the third yet.” This might be the sole instance where Beck doesn’t tell it like it is.
Describe the role of bass in Glassjaw’s music.
Glassjaw is a crude drum-and-bass band played with a very New York dialogue. I feel bass in heavy music is generally the most neglected instrument, despite being the most required tool needed to drive a band. It’s the most versatile instrument that is as percussive as it is melodic. It’s always been one of my favorite parts of our band, as it drives melodies without being a literal lead and really helps a tiny three-piece play heavy music without being too dependent on a guitar.
How do you approach writing your bass lines?
The approach or process really isn’t thought about. There is no plan of attack, I guess. I’d assume, like most people, one would tinker on their instruments and strike a mode that resonates, and from there, build a greater composition. For me, I share my marginal talent across bass, guitar, and drums, so the origin of any song or riff is a case-by-case basis. Some bass lines start the process and can be the genesis to a song, and the instrumentation works around it, and at other times a simple chord structure or drum beat on loop for 45 minutes might bring out a bass line. Generally, tinkering on a loop and trying different modes and rhythms is how I land most bass lines.
What are the main basses that you use?
Since 1999 it’s been a Fender PJ, with a maple neck and nothing active. Recently the kind people at Music Man introduced me to the Caprice, which is one of my favorites — light as hell, and it plays like you have a cheat code to the instrument. Caprices are very fluid, have great tone, and are fun to play. Definitely bringing more into the fold.
What’s your ideal bass tone?
My ideal bass tone is somewhere between what you hear on tracks like “Do I Do” by Stevie Wonder [Nathan Watts on bass, listen HERE] and “Heed the Warning” by Chaka Khan [Anthony Jackson on bass, listen HERE], but played with about 20% more gain and 75% more negligence.
How do you achieve that?
Since 2000 I’ve been leveraging digital tones and driving them through any which power amp I have around. I develop tones primarily using Line 6 gear and emulating old SVTs with a ton of gain and mid-tones. A good majority of the tone comes through the hands — not that they’re magical, but be it with fingers or picks, it’s important to attack the string in as close to a thumb-slapping way as possible. That gives it the full tubular body and depth of the string. You can’t hit it too low on the bridge or too high on the neck, or it won’t pop off right. You have to hit it just right to really achieve that slap tone that you’d get with your thumb, without looking like you’re playing at a booth at the NAMM convention.
You also produce Glassjaw’s music. How does that inform your playing?
In all fairness, Daryl and I chip away at the final product together, but I guess writing and production to us are the same difference. We never get to a point where a third party is interjecting a fresh opinion. So we’re constantly challenging what we bring to the table.
Does producing yourself make it hard to be objective?
Regarding editing and being objective on my shit — in my head, I have this scene replaying from when I was in elementary school. It was my band teacher, Mr. Bonasara. This guy was a beast. He looked and sounded like a good fella and was a master trombone player. As a teacher he’d smash instruments, make kids cry, and really get results expecting and demanding respect from all his students while wearing his shiny white pants and a fancy Coogi sweater. He made you focus on your craft as an individual, but as a bandleader and conductor, he knew how to get a bunch of children to respect their craft regarding the collective and their team. He’d address each section of the band accordingly, whether they were excelling or in violation. One thing he’d constantly address was the bass section — the tubas, trombones, etc. I was a trombonist, and he’d constantly remind us, “Ey, yo! You guys see these pretty little ladies?” as he pointed to the flute section. “These, my friends, are the picture, and you’s guys in the back are just the frame.” He would drill down: “The picture isn’t anything and not a final composition without its framework, but don’t get confused and think you’re the center point. Know your role and be the best frame.” That meant a lot, but then I’d see him shred on the sideline on his trombone, realizing that even the frame can be made of gold and have some diamonds and shit.
Ross Robinson produced your first two albums. What did you learn from him through that process?
Darryl and I really appreciate our time spent with him and making those albums, but we learned that that’s not how we approach recording.
Coloring Book was a huge album for bass.
Coloring Book was the first time I really let my hatred for guitar mature to such a point where I eliminated the traditional guitar altogether. Technically speaking, that’s a six-string bass — a baritone Fender Jaguar tuned like a Fender VI — for audible space where typically my guitar parts would have lived. Then for the avoidance of frequency redundancies, I said screw it and wrote my bass lines with a 5-string. It was a much different approach on playing and tonality, which we hadn’t done in over ten-plus years, so to bring us into that zone again was a fun experiment. Then for Material Control, we came back to center, leveraging our more traditional tones and approaches and just went gully as hell.
You left a minute and a half of an isolated bass ostinato at the end of “Stations of the New Cross.” What sparked that?
Daryl and I appreciate a good theme and some subliminal messages.
The chorus line of “Shira” on Material is a rock bass player’s dream to play.
Thanks man, that’s one of my favorites. I just sat and jammed on that riff for a few hours and kept on finding all these fun passages in it that just made sense.
How did the syncopated bass placement of “Strange Hours” come about?
“Strange Hours” originally had a meandering melodic bass line that was slow, sultry, and sad. I think we were in the studio explaining to someone the pulse and urgency behind the song, and I started hitting that pulse for communication purposes, and I realized that’s what it should have been the entire time. The pulsing communicated the urgency against a borderline-nonexistent beat, and urgency was an adjective we wanted applicable to all the tracks on this record.
Worship and Tribute was a big album for bass. What were your writing sessions like for that record?
The process has been fairly static for us for some time, and most of those songs were indeed part of a similar process to most of our body of work. The areas where I got to evolve the bass on those tracks specifically were when the band returned for two weeks to New York for the holidays. I stayed back in L.A., and I just played against my guitar parts every night alone in an apartment and dove deep into finding more rolling, droning bass lines that looped around moving guitar modes. That was the biggest thing for me on that record — [having] the time to play against other music and actually jam with myself to flesh out an idea to another level.
What’s next for Glassjaw?
Who knows? Maybe a new album before 2040.
When did you start playing bass?
Probably when I was 14 or 15. I had a spare guitar and swapped it with a friend who had a spare bass. I needed to track demos for myself and needed a bass to wrap it up.
Which bass players have impacted your playing?
I don’t have one I’m jocking at the moment, nor one that I could name-check. But I think growing up in the ’90s in New York is the main influence on my playing. When you’re growing up with institutional acts like Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, and Yes, but then discover bands like Burn, Into Another, and A Crown Hate Ruin, your young teenage mind can really run with it as the scope of what instruments can do. The forums are so vast and unlimited. Not just funk, not just punk; it can really be anything.
How does your love of old-school R&B and world music influence your playing?
I’m not educated enough to drill down and explain all of the technical principles of the music I listen to, but fluidity, rolling lines, and counterpoints with rhythms from player to player are my biggest takeaways. Constant movement is always needed — flamenco, salsa, Gnawan, or Middle Eastern music are big examples of that. There is always a pulse running, and the song never resolves. Constant movement is my shit.
What advice would you give to a bass player?
Think outside the box, but execute within. -BM
Bass Fender Precision Bass Deluxe, Music Man Caprice
Rig Ampeg SVT-4PRO
Pedals Line 6 POD X3
Strings DR Strings Pure Blues (.045–.105)