Phil Soussan had a self-admitted, “very confused,” musical childhood. He started out as a classical violinist but loved the Beatles. In the early ‘70s he was drawn to bands like Free but was simultaneously introduced to ‘50s American rock and roll via bassist and bandleader Bill Black. He went through what he calls the ubiquitous (for a bass player) Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke phase, but was also heavily into punk music, like the Clash and what he calls attitude rock. It’s this latter influence that seems to most permeate his latest endeavor. “If you listen to some of the attitude that comes across on Last In Line II, it comes from the sort of post-punk era and those influences,” he attests. “I liked Killing Joke. It was a little dark and maybe a little gothic, but there was something I really liked in the attitude.”
Soussan was born in London on June 23, 1961. His early bass-playing influences included Andy Fraser, Paul McCartney, John Paul Jones and Trevor Bolder. “I was hugely influenced by David Bowie,” he recalls. “And Trevor was a fantastic bass player. I was also influenced by a lot of American blues musicians, Willie Weeks, Ralphe Armstrong, Tom Fowler—all of the fusion guys, and tried to learn as much as I could from them.” All of these seemingly disparate influences coalesced into Soussan’s solid playing style and got channeled into a successful career playing for rock royalty. He landed on everyone’s radar in the ‘80s with his first high profile gig in Ozzy Osbourne’s band, not only appearing on The Ultimate Sin (Epic, 1986), but also co-writing the album’s hit single, “Shot In The Dark.” From there, he played with Billy Idol, Vince Neil, Beggars & Thieves, Johnny Hallyday (the “French Elvis”) and Steve Lukather. In recent years he’s become a regular performer in the Las Vegas-based history of rock n’ roll show, Raiding The Rock Vault.
In 2016, Soussan joined Last In Line, the band featuring the original Dio members Vivian Campbell (guitar), Jimmy Bain (bass) and Vinny Appice (drums), along with vocalist Andrew Freeman. When Bain died suddenly, just before Last In Line’s first gig on Def Leppard’s Hysteria on the High Seas concert cruise, in support of their debut album, Heavy Crown (Frontiers, 2016) the rest of the band were committed to honoring the bassist’s legacy by touring to support the album. Appice knew Soussan from their time together in Big Noize, a hard rock tribute band that featured members of Quiet Riot and Rainbow and played songs from their shared history.
Soussan’s tone and musical temperament made him ideally suited to assume the post previously held by Bain. Not only did he ably fill in on the tour to support Heavy Crown, but he also has now ably assumed bass and co-songwriting duties on the Last In Line’s sophomore release, simply titled II. Songs like “Blackout the Sun,” “Landslide” and “False Flag” demonstrate a commitment to the kind of foundational playing Bain established on Last In Line’s debut, all while adding the melodic nuances and gritty saturated tone Soussan is so adept at channeling through his own playing style. II also benefits from Soussan’s aforementioned post-punk influences and oozes with a similar kind of attitude and aggressiveness. The tunes are tight, and the performances are terse—simply put, Last In Line is on fire on II and a lot of that has to do with Soussan’s musical input and songwriting acumen. We caught up with Soussan in LA, in June, just as he was preparing to jet over to the UK for Last In Line’s appearance at the Download Festival.
What’s your approach to getting a great bass tone in the studio?
Fortunately, I had the luxury of being able to experiment quite a bit on this record. Very often, they’ll spend a lot of time on the drums and guitars and then, when it comes to bass, it’ll be like, “Plug it into the DI. Ok that sounds great [laughs].” And yeah, it sounds great on its own, but in the mix, you hear everything nicely put away and occupying its own space and you might walk away feeling a little disappointed, as a bass player, because, while it’s there and it’s doing the job, it’s not really cutting through.
So, that’s getting into the philosophy on the function, or role, of the bass on any given song or album…
To me, the sound of the bass has two purposes. One, is to of course, fill in the low end and tie in what’s going on musically, and the second one is to convey what it is that you’re doing without getting in the way of anything else. So, that was the challenge.
What was your signal chain on II?
I experimented with a DI and with a cab, as I always do. I had a DI that was going through my API, and I was using a really good Seventh Circle DI, and I split that off and it went into a little Ampeg Portaflex PF-50T head and a 1X12 cabinet that I have. And I was able to really drive that how I wanted. And then I used a couple of additional pedals like I use live, just to saturate the amp to the point where I wanted. It really sang.
What bass did you use?
For this album I wanted to get something a little more traditional sounding, so I used a p-bass. I have Spectors and a Wal and the Ernie Ball Music Man Sterling, but I always come back to, when I want to get a particular attitude, the p-bass. It’s not even a Fender. It’s another brand. It just sounds great. I ended up using that on the record.
Are you primarily playing with a pick, or your fingers, these days?
I play with both. I started off playing with a pick, then became a finger player, then, when I started working with Ozzy in the mid-‘80s, I went back to using a pick. With John Waite, I used fingers. When I play in a rock band, I tend to use a pick. In Last in Line, when you’re dealing with someone like Vinny, who you can’t really describe as being a gentle drummer, you really have to have some way of holding your own. And so, it’s my goal, not just to hold my own with Vinny, but to drive him a little bit, the same way that he drives me. I really admire people like Geezer Butler, who is a finger player and manages to make it work so well in Black Sabbath. In the same way, I found a way to play with a pick which is pretty unique, and it works well for me.
What’s unique about your picking technique?
I approach it in a way that’s very aggressive and capitalizes on harmonics, so I try to make the instrument really sing. If I’m playing a note, I want it to be rich in harmonics, so that any time I slide up to a note or I hammer-on, I get a lot of harmonic ornamentation to it. And that really works well with the kind of saturation I’m getting from the amp—you can really hear what’s going on. I really dig in on it. I almost use a pick like a guitar player would, trying to pinch harmonics and trying to get all of that tone out of it. It usually comes at the expense of my first and second fingernails though [laughs].
Do you think that, even though Jimmy Bain’s passing was tragic, it allowed Last In Line to evolve, musically?
Inherently, having Vinny, Jimmy and Vivian is going to have the DNA of the original Dio band. I don’t think there’s anything they did to try to make it sound that way. That’s just the way it is, it’s just the way they are. But I definitely think the band has had a chance to evolve into something slightly different. And I hazard a guess that that might have to do with the fact that there was a personnel change… in myself.
Was Jimmy an influence?
Jimmy was not only a good friend of mine, but he was also an influence. He was quite a bit older than me, which I’m always in a rush to tell people [laughs], and because he was older than me, he was someone I looked up to. He did some really great stuff and was a really underestimated musician. He was not just a bass player, but also a guitar player, a singer, a keyboard player and he was a well-rounded songwriter and musician. What most people seem to remember about Jimmy is that he marched to the beat of his own drum and desired to spend as much time living his life the way that he wanted to live it. But as a musician, he was very underestimated.
When you first joined the band, did you relate to what he was doing, musically?
I spent my first couple of years in this band basically emulating Jimmy Bain. I was playing his parts, whether they were parts he played with the Dio songs that we perform live, or it was trying to reproduce the parts he played on Heavy Crown. I was sort of trying to channel Jimmy—thinking about how he would approach it, and how he sat back and anchored everything down—that was his primary thing.
He also came up with some very key, signature parts as well.
Every time I play the song “Last in Line,” it’s a bass line I wished I had written. It’s really unique and cool and it’s got elements of all the things I love, whether it’s the Andy Fraser kind of sliding stuff, or just the driving thing that he did so well. So, when I tried to take it to the next record, I naturally was going to bring in a lot of my influences, but at the same time I wanted to try to keep it within the realm of what was already there.
Tell me about the songwriting process for II.
We did this record in a way that was very unusual, maybe for today—a bunch guys going into a room and literally jamming and seeing what would come up. I was actually kind of anxious about it. I didn’t know if it was going to work. I played in the band live, and we had a great time playing live, and then when it came down to being in the studio, and we were going to have to write another record, there was a little bit of uncertainty about how it was going to work. But everybody was eager to find out. I remember calling Viv and saying, “Hey, I’ve got some ideas, I’m going to put some stuff down on tape, just so we have some riffs and things we can start messing around with, so that we don’t look around at each other with a blank stare.” And his response was, “Don’t bring anything in. That’s not how we’re going to do this. We’re going to do this the same way we did the last album and the same way we did the first three Dio albums. Just come in with nothing—with a bass. I’m going to come in with a guitar, Vinny will be there with drums, and we’ll see what happens.” And I said, “Ok. That’s what we’ll do.”
Wow. No pressure.
[Laughter] Yeah. So, we got together, and I started playing this one riff I had, and Vinny started playing along with it and Vivian came in just a few minutes after that and before you knew it, we were starting to record all these songs. In today’s way of working, that’s quite unusual. Everybody has a recording studio next to their coffee machine and it’s like, “Let’s go write something, record it, do a reasonable sounding demo, bring it in, sift through it, pick our favorites and rework them.” So, to have a band that just wants to do things in an old-fashioned way is great, and it’s true to the music and it’s true to the influences that are in that room.
I can’t think of a better way to represent your collective history than doing it in that way.
I have to tell you a little bit about the guys in the band. Vivian is so open to just about everything. His whole thing is, “Let’s try it.” And Vinny is a very inspiring drummer. He won’t play anything in a very conventional way, if you just show him something. He’ll turn it around somehow and turn it into something you never really imagined. And so, all of a sudden, you’re hearing a very different part. And with this kind of creativity going on, you’ve got to come up with stuff that sounds different.
Were you ever skeptical about this process?
There were a few moments here and there where I remember looking at the guys and thinking, “That’s a really cool musical part, but does it really fit?” And the response was, “Well, if we played it, then it fits.” Let’s make it our own, you know.
Vivian was always one of my favorite guitarists to come out of the ‘80s. He was always so tasteful.
He has a very, I know he’s Irish, but he has a very British way of playing, a very non-American way of playing, whereas someone like George Lynch represented something that was very characteristic of American players, whether it was Eddie Van Halen or Jake E. Lee or whomever. It was a certain sound and a certain way of playing. When I listen to Viv, I hear Rory Gallagher and Gary Moore and Brian Robertson. And those guys had an incredible attack. They could play one note and you knew the air was moving in the room. He has incredible technique too. He can take a very simple riff and make a powerhouse out of it without having to rely on distortion pedals at all. He just uses a Les Paul straight into an amp.
How was it working with fellow bassist Jeff Pilson (Foreigner, Dokken) as producer?
I’ve known Jeff for a long time and thought it was cool because I don’t normally do many projects with another bass player. Usually there’s one bass player involved [laughs]. Jeff is a really busy guy and there just wasn’t enough time allocated to do the entire record together. It was a hybrid way of working. We did a lot of work on our own and we did some work with Jeff as well. He was there when we cut most of the basic tracks. There were a couple of other things we did after the fact, but he was a really inspiring person to be sitting in the room with because he would listen through and we would work together in terms of what we were keeping and what we were going to redo. He did a lot of stuff with Viv as well. We ended up doing a lot of stuff on our own too though, which is why there’s a co-production on the record.
I understand that you consider your wireless system to be pretty crucial to your live sound.
Yeah, live I’d been struggling with wireless equipment for a long, long time. It’s always been a compromise. It’s not like using a cable, which I don’t want to use live for safety reasons. I sing as well and have had enough electric shocks that I don’t want to deal with those anymore. So, I started using the Lectrosonics system and my whole life has changed. It’s allowed me to get the sound that I get in the studio, live. Other bass players have asked, “How are you getting that punch out of your bass?” I’m just using an Ampeg and adding a little gain to the front end, using some pedals, nothing else, and this Lectrosonics system has been insane.
What’s different about them?
Wireless systems typically have companding built into them, so they’ll compress and expand on the other end, and that has a sound to it. Years and years ago, I remember using the early Nady stuff, and it was very complementary to the bass, but as things have evolved, all of a sudden, I found myself having to make these compromises. They’d cut out or sound odd or I’d lose notes. It just didn’t sound big. Lectrosonics makes stuff that is industry-standard in the film and broadcast world. The reliability is amazing. They are built to some kind of military-avionics specs. They can’t have a drop out in the film world because reshooting a scene could cost tens of thousands of dollars. They started to introduce musicians to their technology. I was one of the few people that started using their systems. Now they have a who’s who of guitar players who are hip to it. It’s a big part of my live sound.
Tell me about Raiding the Rock Vault. How did you get involved in that?
I came in at a fairly early time on that show. Hugh McDonald was the bass player and so Hugh and I started rotating on the show. When he was out with Bon Jovi, I was coming in. It’s a really fun show. The first time I saw it, was the first time I played it. They sent me a tape of 29 songs and said, “Can you learn it?” It has to go in a sequence. And so, I learned it and went in and played… no rehearsal. It’s a great opportunity to play with Jay Schellen [Hurricane, Asia], who’s an amazing drummer. Robin McAuley [McAuley/Schenker Group vocalist] great talent. Paul Shortino [Rough Cutt vocalist]. These are pros—guys that have been doing it their whole lives. It’s really polished. Sometimes Dave Amato [REO Speedwagon guitarist] comes in, or Rowan Robertson [Dio guitarist]. These guys are just phenomenal. Where else can you see those kinds of guys playing and having fun, playing some of the most formative songs of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s?
Basses Ernie Ball Music Man Sterling, Fernandes “Revival” P-Bass (MIJ), Spector NS-2
Amps Ampeg SVT-2PRO Bass Head, SVT-810E Bass Enclosure
Strings Rotosound RS66LD Swing Bass 66 (.045 - .105)
Picks Dunlop Delrin 0.96mm
Effects EBS Billy Sheehan Signature Drive, T-Rex Karma Boost, Ampeg SCR-DI Bass DI with Scrambler, sobbat DRIVE Breaker DB-Bass
Accessories Lectrosonics Digital Hybrid Wireless
-HEAR HIM ON:
Last In Line II, Last In Line (Frontiers, 2019)
For more on Last In Line, visit them online @ https://www.lastinlineofficial.com/
For more on Raiding The Rock Vault, please visit https://www.raidingtherockvault.com/