Emma Anzai: Rising To The Challenge

After recently joining Evanescence, Australian-born Emma Anzai is pulling double duty with her own band Sick Puppies

Emma Anzai: Rising To The Challenge

After recently joining Evanescence, Australian-born Emma Anzai is pulling double duty with her own band Sick Puppies

When Evanescence parted ways with guitarist Jen Majura in early 2022, longtime bassist Tim McCord put down his 4-string to take over guitar duties, leaving their bass chair vacant for the hard rocking outfit’s upcoming world tour. Their problem didn’t last long, as one quick call to an old friend confirmed that Sick Puppies’ co-founder Emma Anzai was coming on board to handle their low end. Known for her fast-tempo slapping and heavy songwriting with her Australian-formed trio, Anzai had a short span to learn a lot of material before she hit the road for Evanescence’s arena tour with Korn. The band’s five albums’ worth of chart-topping music forced Anzai to work through slower tempos, pocket-focused lines, and a large portion of backup vocals, which made her push herself in ways she hadn’t before. To no surprise, she rose to the challenge and exceeded all expectations, solidifying her place in the band’s lineup.

In addition to all of the rapid growth in her playing, Anzai had recently made a big change to her sound, as the longtime Warwick bass player had made the transition to Music Man Stingray basses in the year prior — even adding a 5-string to her arsenal for the first time. Between her new choice in instruments and her new double-duty responsibilities, she found herself more inspired than she had been in a long time, especially in the wake of the pandemic dormancy. That inspiration became evident onstage, as her firepower thrilled sold-out crowds and Evanescence fans all over the globe, adding a new excitement to singer Amy Lee and company’s resurgence following the 2021 release of their album The Bitter Truth. For a self-proclaimed introvert who expresses herself through the heaviest forms of music, Anzai found herself right at home playing through large stacks of amps, heavily effected with her Darkglass distortion.

Currently, her time is limited thanks to a 2023 tour with Muse and Evanescence on the horizon, but Anzai is carrying over her inspiration to Sick Puppies, who have been working on their new album for several years now. With the finish line in sight, it will be a great relief to wrap up production on the record, as the pandemic greatly sidelined their efforts and even prompted them to go back and rework what had already been written. Since the release of their latest album, 2016’s Fury, Sick Puppies have welcomed a new lead vocalist and guitarist in Byron Scott, their hard-hitting metal sound on the new material evolving accordingly. 2023 is shaping up to be an exciting and prolific year for Anzai, who is looking forward to the workload along with the opportunity to grow as a musician. With each new opportunity and test that arises, she’s up for the challenge.

You’ve known the members of Evanescence for a while. How did your joining the band come about?

It was quite the surprise when it happened. When they needed a bass player after Tim [McCord] switched from bass to guitar, I got the call and agreed to join them. Sick Puppies had toured with them long ago for one of our first tours, and I remember Amy being super cool. She’s still the same now with support bands, the crews, and everyone she comes in contact with. I always remember that, because it was 13 or 14 years ago, and the women-in-music thing was different back then; we used to have conversations about it all the time. It’s funny because it’s evolved a little now, but we still currently have conversations about it. Being a woman — especially with me touring with all guys and having no other women around back then — it was great sharing our experiences and having her to hang around with. I was a lot younger, and I like to think I’ve learned a lot since then and grown a bit. At the time I was a little naïve, but she was helpful in solidifying what I had already felt. It’s nice to come full circle and share these new experiences together. She’s been such an anchor for me for so many years.

Do you think there has been progress for women in music?

For sure. I watched the recent Alanis Morissette documentary [Jagged] —she hit in the early ’90s, which was a little before my time — but she talked about how hard it was being out there as a woman who has a voice. She was always being told by producers and managers that she couldn’t do certain things. We’ve definitely come a long way since, and I don’t think that’s the attitude anymore. That’s a good thing, but there’s still a ways to go. It’s still kind of a subliminal reaction that gets into your psyche when you see a female playing bass, that you take note of it. It’s very small and subtle, but hopefully that lessens up even more over time.

What was it like learning Evanescence’s catalog in such a short span?

I won’t lie, it was intense. I never had to do anything like that, because I’ve only ever had my own band. This was a whole different ballgame and such a time crunch. Not only that, but Amy asked me to try the backup vocal parts, too. It was a pleasant surprise, but at the same time I had such abject terror. I didn’t even know if I could do it, and I started questioning my own ability. I knew I had to rise to the occasion. I had a bad case of imposter syndrome, and it made me super anxious. But it was good, because I’ve always admired musicians who are able to learn whole catalogs in a short window, and I wanted a chance to do that. When it finally happened to me, it was very difficult, but I’m so happy to have done it. Amy and the guys were terrific at helping me make my way through it. 

From a bass standpoint, how different is the music of Evanescence and Sick Puppies?

If I were to pick one thing, I would say the tempos are very different. Sick Puppies songs have this very high-tempo, energetic, kind of punky feel, and if you’re going to do a fill, it has to be fast. With Evanescence, the feel is a lot more groovy, which might not be the right word. It sits way more in the pocket, and that’s great as a bass player, as it requires me to lay back. My problem is I like to rush because I get excited and I’m used to playing fast music. In learning these songs and playing them live, I have to control myself. I almost have to lower my heart rate to hit these fills and not be too excited in the moment. It’s a cool learning experience, and I always crave expanding myself as a bass player and getting pushed to play differently than I normally do.

Do you change your tone to match the sound of Evanescence?

Tim had his tone all dialed in from what he did on the albums and on the road, and it’s pretty much one solid sound that he used for everything. He spent the time over the years painstakingly modeling Darkglass tone, and I absolutely love Darkglass gear along with my Music Man basses. I didn’t need to change anything with that combination. He knows what he’s doing and what works for the band’s songs, so I just went with it. Even before this, I had been switching to Music Man basses, so it worked out perfectly.

What inspired you to switch to Music Man Stingrays after playing Warwick basses for so long?  

I still love Warwick basses; they are the sound of Sick Puppies. When you pick up any bass, it has stuff in it that makes it unique. When you grab a Warwick bass, you want to slap it and thump it, and that’s what led me to write a lot of the Sick Puppies material. During the pandemic I decided to experiment with a 5-string bass and a different brand. I was at home doing videos and recordings, and I wanted to test out something new. Music Man gave me 5-string that I loved, and they were super-supportive. The B string sounded amazing, and the bass felt great to play. It’s true that instruments have songs in them waiting to come out when you pick them up. I wouldn’t have done a lot of those things on a Warwick bass. And playing a 5-string was something I hadn’t done. I always stuck to what I knew, so it was good to branch out and experiment.

Did it take a little time to adjust to playing a 5-string?

It was difficult at first. If I’d had to transpose any songs that I play on 4-string, I would have been lost — mainly because I play drop tunings on a 4-string, so the shapes and the muscle memory are different. I’d been doing it for years, so I wanted to break away from that. The 5-string made me stretch out, and eventually when I wrote something, it was off the cuff, out of necessity of feeling so different. That made me grow as a player. I want to go back and try drop tunings on the 5-string.

How does your technique differ between Sick Puppies and Evanescence?

There’s a lot of thumping, percussive playing, and other techniques that I use with Sick Puppies that I don’t use in Evanescence; I have to have a lot of restraint. I couldn’t play that way over their music because it simply wouldn’t work. I have to know when I can add a little flair and when to chill and just groove.

How was the recent tour that you completed with Korn? It was cool to see you stepping in with Evanescence, and Ra Diaz stepping in with Korn, at the same time.

It was eye-opening and affirming for me, and very exciting. I love Korn and listened to their early albums when I was young. I’ve always liked Fieldy’s bass playing. Meeting Ra was great; he’s a super nice guy who is always the first to say hello, and he makes you feel comfortable. We would chat about being in the same position as the bands’ new bass player, and we bonded over it. As for the tour, the chemistry was terrific, it was very professional, and everyone was happy to be there. When you have good people all on the same page, it creates a great community atmosphere, so every day was a lot of fun. The hangs with everybody were as good as the shows.

How excited are you for your big tour coming up with Muse?

I’m really damn excited, and super-lucky! I remember in 2006 we did a Big Day Out tour in Australia and Muse was headlining, so that’s another full circle for me. I love it because they’re a band that always ups their game — whether it’s their musicianship or their production. It’ll be a good learning experience, and I’m looking forward to watching them every night.

What is it like playing sold-out arenas and festivals on the scale that you do?

To see that many people come out every single night is amazing. To see it with my own eyes was quite the experience. There’s a part in the set every night when Amy sings “My Immortals,” and she tells everyone to turn on their phone lights. Suddenly you see all of that light from the side of the stage, and it’s kind of emotional. People coming together to do something like that, mixed with the song itself, is an unreal experience. With life there are so many ups and downs, but in that moment I know how lucky I am to be doing this.

When can we expect the new Sick Puppies album to be finished?

We’ve been working on it for years, and it’s taking way too long. There were a lot of issues involved with the delays, and then when the pandemic happened, we knew it wasn’t the right time to release it. We’re still on track, but it has taken awhile. We’re slowly but surely putting the final pieces together. It’s difficult with me juggling both bands, but we see where the pieces fit and it’s on its way.

What can you tell us about the music?

It’s Sick Puppies as we’ve all known it. There’s a lot of melody, and some sweet songs, but at the same time there’s a lot of heavy stuff. There’s a bit of me singing on it, like the previous albums. I’m excited for our fans to finally hear it.

What can you share about your bass playing on the new songs?

Ooh, my bass playing. Man, we’ve been so focused on the songwriting that I guess I haven’t put that into words myself yet. On our previous albums my tone had been pretty clean, but this time around I wanted to drive home the Darkglass tone and strike a balance of being able to slap without it breaking up too much. Tone is definitely my biggest evolution on the album.

With both Sick Puppies and Evanescence, your role as a singer continues to become more central in the music. How natural is it for you to sing and play?

That’s the one thing I need to practice a lot. When you’re writing, you’re doing everything separate — the bass, the vocal, or the harmonies. You don’t even think about it until you go to play it live. Then you’re like, Oh, shit, I need to figure out a way to do this. It’s very difficult when you’re playing a rhythm that counters the vocal in a weird way. Sometimes you can modify it for the performances, but I usually try to get it down as conceived.

Being a technical player who uses different approaches, how has your style evolved over the years?

I believe it’s gotten a lot simpler. In the beginning you’re like, I’m going to slap this and play this fast and hard. Now I’m appreciating tempo, groove, and pocket. You can get your chops up and do things that are fast and technical, but there is equal, other-end-of-the-spectrum skill in being able to sit in the pocket and hold it down. You might not be doing anything fancy, but it sounds so damn good with the drummer. That’s something I’ve come all the way around to now. I use the technical aspects tastefully, whereas years ago I would throw everything in there at once. Part of maturing, for me, is knowing what’s useful for the song and what’s not.

Slapping has always been a big part of your sound. How did you first get into it?

Back in Australia, when I first started playing. I dug it because it’s like playing guitar, but it’s also like playing drums. I love the percussive element. Something that had a big influence on me is a band from Australia called Pre.shrunk; they had two bass players and a drummer, and they were awesome. I remember seeing them live, and they were doing some crazy shit with slapping. They’re also the reason why I wanted to play a Warwick, because one of them played one. Then I saw players like Victor Wooten, and Louis Johnson — I got his instructional video and was blown away. Players like that and Flea made me love that sound and want to do it.

What is your ideal bass tone, and how do you dial it in?

I’ve come to realize that I like a slight fuzz over everything, but at the same time, I want to be able to slap something and have it not break up terribly. The sweet spot for me is right in the middle where you can hear the definition of the notes, but at the same time it has all that fuzz around it. Darkglass does that well.

What is it that attracts you to heavy music?

With singers, it’s an outlet where you can release a lot of energy, and it’s very cathartic. It’s been scientifically proven to calm your nervous system. Same goes for drumming, apparently; it’s good for you to hit things and tap things. For me, aggressive music is a catharsis. I’m a very introverted person; I was shy growing up, and in school I didn’t use my voice a lot — I didn’t use my words to articulate things. But music would do that. I could feel heard and also be able to release the frustration of not being able to speak up or use my voice. A lot of people feel that way about rock music in general.

Why bass? How does its role in music resonate with your personality?

Being solid. You have to hold everything up. Also, you’re not in the forefront usually, and you can pick or choose how much or how little you step up. You don’t have to be the center of attention, but the impact of the bass is huge. It suits me very well. BM


Bass Music Man Stingray 4- & 5-strings

Rig Ampeg SVT Classic, Ampeg SVT 810

Pedals Darkglass B7K Ultra

Strings Ernie Ball Slinky Mediums

Picks Jim Dunlop Nylon 1mm

Follow Emma: Here

Photography by Steve Thrasher: Site / Instagram

Jon D'Auria   By: Jon D'Auria

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