San Francisco-based low-ender Desmonde Mulcahy had been performing in various bands around the Bay for years before he hit the bassist jackpot when he was approached to form an instrumental surf rock trio with guitarist Steve Walton and drummer Michael Molenda. “Steve called me out of the blue to join Surf Monster,” says Mulcahy. “I thought, Who doesn’t like surf rock? I was also interested in being part of a power trio because I enjoy the purity. You’re kind of naked and afraid out there with only three of you, but you’re also not competing musically and sonically with a bunch of other instruments, as you would in a large band. More room for the bass!”
Pulling from the 1960s sound of classic California surf rock, the trio recently released their self-titled debut album, which features beach vibes and booming bass tones provided by Mulcahy’s Mike Lull bass and his powerful, barrel waves of grooves. Locking in with the solid drumming of Molenda and the tightly plucked rhythm playing and far out soloing of Walton, Mulcahy blends walking bass lines and propulsive riffs on the infinitely enjoyable album. His playing on “Mariana Trenchmouth,” “Squidward,” and “Flying Squirrel” demonstrates the full range of a genre that celebrates low end just as much as it does soaring guitar solos. We caught up with Mulcahy to discuss the new album, the art of surf bass, and the joys of playing in a trio.
As a bassist, what attracts you to surf rock?
Surf rock supports a variety of styles, which is fun and interesting. The early classics pull from rockabilly for their bass lines, as walking lines and runs up and down the scale are typical in old school surf tunes. The Ventures version of “Walk Don’t Run” is a great example.
What is the fundamental role of bass in the genre?
The role of the bass in surf rock is just as important as in other styles of rock, but it’s especially critical in Surf Monster because we are a power trio. Bass is one of the three legs of the stool, so to speak, so I must help drive the rhythm, groove, and feel to make the songs work. Surf rock is guitar-centric, of course, but the bass line provides the foundation for the guitarist to layer his or her melodies on top.
Being in a trio is usually an ideal situation for us bass players. How does that influence your writing and playing in the band?
I need to make sure I stay out of Steve’s way, as well as simultaneously complement what he is doing melodically and harmonically. Then, there’s the issue of space and dynamics—elements that create a huge impact when only three instruments are playing. As both a writer and player, I have to decide whether a song would benefit from laying out entirely for a spell or playing extremely sparsely. It’s not about blasting walking bass lines all the time. Ultimately, the job of a rock bassist is to groove and create a propulsive rhythm section, but I’ve found the trio format opens things up for me to add in melodies, riffs, and even sound effects that can be heard much clearer than if I were competing with multiple guitars, keyboards, vocalists, and percussionists. It’s liberating.
You recently released a self-titled album. What was that process like?
It was so much fun recording the album. We had the challenge of trying to complete the work during the pandemic, so during the height of lockdown we shared song ideas by passing GarageBand demos back and forth. I’d get a guitar track from Steve, I’d come up with a bass part, record it, and then send off the track to Mike. It sounds like a lot of extra work compared to jamming together in a room to create songs—and it was—but I enjoyed being able to focus more precisely on the bass lines. I could sit comfortably at home and run over things until I was completely happy with what I was playing.
What were the studio sessions like for recording your parts?
It was super comfortable for me because we recorded the tracks live. Old school. No click track. We were all in the same room, and we played until the group performance was 95% locked up for each song. During the sessions, we’d only fix a bass, guitar, or drum mistake here and there. We committed to cutting the tracks as a band. Later on we added a couple of vocals, some sound effects, a theremin, and a guitar overdub or two just for spice. For the most part, what you hear on the album is a band playing together as a unit.
We recorded all but four songs at GetReel Productions in San Francisco with engineer Rob Preston, and we produced those tracks ourselves. For the remaining four songs, we worked with producer Jerry Stucker at Rancho Rivera Recording. That was interesting, because Jerry wanted a more contemporary pop sound, so while we recorded everything live-in-the-studio again, he used triggers on the drums during the mix to get more of a polished sheen to the rhythm tracks. It was great to experience both processes, and the band was real happy with how everything turned out.
You primarily play with your fingers, but your tone cuts through with nice midrange growl. How do you dial in your sound?
I’m glad you like the sound. I don’t like a bass tone that’s too dark or muddy. I think it’s important that the articulation of all the bass notes be heard, so while I go for some low-end warmth, I also focus on the intelligibility of low-midrange and midrange frequencies. Because a lot of surf bassists use picks, I need my attack to clear and present when I’m using my fingers. My main bass helps out here. It’s a Mike Lull M4V that lets me select an active or passive pickup output, so I have good control over the tone. For the album, we recorded the bass direct, as well as miking my Genzler Magellan 800 amp and Genzler cabinet. My amp settings were actually the same that I use when playing live. If a song did need a slightly darker tone, I’d switch to my Fender Precision.
What do you like about your main Mike Lull bass?
I just love it! It’s a bit lighter for a full-scale bass—which I like—and it has the best feel of any bass I’ve ever played.
Tell me about your playing technique.
I’m primarily a fingerstyle bass player. I only use a pick on one or two cover songs we surfed up that need a more percussive, rock-style drive, such as “Our Lips Are Sealed” by the Go-Go’s. I’ll admit I’m not comfortable with a pick. I like the warm yet clear tone, as well as the control of dynamics and attack I get when using my fingers. For example, touch is so important with fingerstyle playing, so deciding where and how I want to hit the string opens up so many options for tone and feel.
You also play in the David Bowie cover band Rebel Rebel. What is it like taking on the iconic bass lines in those songs?
I’ve been a fan of Bowie for so long that his music is in my DNA now! Playing Bowie bass lines is a real treat. He had such good bass players in all of his bands, and I think he really gave them a lot of flexibility to create the bass lines they wanted. Many of those bass lines can be challenging to play properly, so it can be a lot of work learning the parts, but it is really rewarding to get them right. And I love playing them in a band. So powerful.
What are the biggest challenges that his music presents?
Bowie changed styles either subtly or drastically with every album. You get familiar with the Spiders from Mars era, and then it’s all different for Station to Station or the Berlin Trilogy. You have to be on your toes, and it helps to try to get into his artistic mindset for each period of his catalog.
Who are your greatest bass influences?
I guess the first was Mel Schacher of Grand Funk. I loved how he played, and those Grand Funk albums put the bass right out front. As a kid who was into bass, it was wonderful not to hear the bass buried in the mix. Then, of course, the groove and creativity of Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones was huge. And, to this day, I still love the bass work John Entwistle laid down on the Who’s “The Real Me.” It sounds so good.
It’s hard to describe. There’s something about the bass that just touches me. It’s interesting that bassists tend to stand in the background, but what we do is key to making the sound of a band work. A guitarist can get all flashy and play with tons of effects, but the bass is right there, anchoring everything down, keeping the groove compelling, and adding a familiar warmth to the frequency range that I believe makes listeners feel comfortable and secure—even if they can’t articulate why they’re feeling that way. Like most instruments, I look forward to discovering new ways to play the bass, exploring different timbres, and pushing the envelope on techniques—it’s a never-ending journey. For me, it’s all about four strings and that fat E string! –BM
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