Master bass shredder Julie Slick discusses her latest album with her low-end duo EchoTest, what it’s like playing with Adrian Belew and Tony Levin, and why thinking is evil.
“You can be a shredder all you want and play a thousand notes a minute, but it won’t mean anything if you can’t play the foundational role, too. As musicians and artists we should be always be thinking outside of the box and breaking rules, but we definitely have a responsibility to serve the song and the people we’re playing with.” Those wise words are easy for Julie Slick to say, as she has clearly mastered both of those skill sets and proven so with her time playing with the Adrian Belew Power Trio, Crimson Project, and her bass duo EchoTest. Holding down the foundation is a principal concept for us bass players, but when we say that Slick can shred, we mean that Slick can really shred — even to the degree that she didn’t bat an eye in taking on the intense bass work of legends like Tony Levin and Les Claypool in trading licks with Belew, or locking in alongside drummer Danny Carey of Tool during select live trio shows. Julie has always been a highly competitive person who enjoys a good challenge, which is why the odd-time-signature, fast, and complex bass lines that she conveys are almost second nature at this point.
To step even further out of the box, she’s become known as a major innovator with pedals and effects, as her unconventional frequencies shift from riff to riff whether she’s playing her Lakland Vintage P-style basses or her Decade 6, which is equipped with an onboard MIDI controller to add to her array of sonic options. Playing alongside a pedal guru such as Belew is the perfect platform for her to hone her wild sounds — but her true playground for experimentation comes from her own band, EchoTest. Alongside fellow bassist Marco Machera and contributors Alessandro Inolti on drums and singer Jennifer Founds, the group has just released its latest album, Daughter of Ocean, whose nine songs form one vast movement of music that weaves thematic crescendos with ominous and dark undertones. The interplay of Slick and Machera is highly rhythmic throughout, often finding peaks in melodic moments like “Sleep” and “Tiger Races.” Like everything Julie touches, the album is as enjoyable, wildly impressive, and unconventional as it gets. Once you think you’ve started to pinpoint where the music is headed, you quickly realize you’ve been deceived — and much like Julie’s regular travel itinerary, the journey just keeps progressing.
That’s another thing you should know about Julie: She is a nomad, and not in the sense of a college student studying abroad or casual world traveler, like a lot of touring musicians. She truly is a wandering explorer, a constant gypsy. In the course of the three months that we spoke leading up to this story, she was seemingly on a new continent every week. In one conversation she was preparing for the release of EchoTest’s new album in Italy with Marco, the next she was in Berlin playing shows, and the next she was on a rock & roll cruise ship somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Though she was born and raised in Philadelphia, the 33-year-old virtuoso has been traveling the world her entire life looking for her next adventure and next destination to explore — which explains a lot, given that her musical odyssey has always mimicked that same trajectory.
It’s rare to find a bass duo. What do you like about playing in that format?
I had always worked with other guitar players or drummers my whole life, especially with my brother being the amazing drummer that he is, so I didn’t expect to gel so well with another bass player. But Marco and I like a lot of the same music, and we both come from the same school of musical influences — Adrian Belew, Talk Talk, Pink Floyd — and we approach the bass in a very non-traditional way. I never want to be pigeonholed with my role of what the bass is supposed to do or what it’s supposed to sound like, and Marco approaches things the same way. Bass is just a vehicle for us to convey our musical expression. He knew that I used a lot of pedals and that I have a MIDI pickup on my bass, so he wanted to approach it more in a prepared way and go the more analog route. I quickly realized that the sonic space he takes up is very percussive and he utilizes the low B a lot, so it made sense for me to use my Lakland Decade 6, which I call the Slick Six. I’m able to make that bass sound different because of the MIDI pickup and the Roland VB-99 [sound module], so I’m able to make it not sound like a bass. And then I end up processing it through these Eventide Harmonizer pedals that allow me to jump up and below two octaves, depending on what I want from it.
You must be met with constant misconceptions about your Lakland Decade 6 being a guitar and not a bass.
I call it my “hard-to-play bass, easy-to-play guitar.” It feels different when you pick it up, and if you pick up a guitar and then pick up one of those, you’ll feel the differences immediately. Obviously the scale is different, as it’s taller than a guitar, the strings are much thicker, and the frets are farther spaced. It’s really comfortable under my hands, but it is way different from a 4- or 5-string, so I can’t shred on it like I can on one of those because everything is so close together and I dig in really hard when I play those other instruments. I have to play it completely differently. And I run it through all of those processors, so I have to be careful about how expressive I am because if you bend a note it could sound very bad — or it could sound very good, depending on what you’re going for.
What was the process like for Daughter of Ocean?
It was a long one; it definitely feels like I gave birth to a daughter. It actually started out as my third solo album, and I’ve had this theme and this concept since 2012, when I first moved out to L.A. from Philly for the one year that I lived there. I started writing the album’s first bass track way back then, so that just goes to show you how long this has been in the works. I always had the idea that it would be a concept album that was one big piece of music. I’m a fan of full-length albums; I’m not one to just release a bunch of singles and EPs. Then I met Marco in 2014 in Italy, when I posted on Facebook that I wanted to play some shows in Europe after the Crimson ProjeKCt tour was over, and he reached out that we could play some shows together in Tuscany — and it was a magical moment when we started playing together. I never intended to start a band with him, but it just clicked. We popped out our first album out quickly, and then we rebranded ourselves as EchoTest, and we put out two more albums under that name. I had this album on the shelf the whole time, and once our previous album [From Two Balconies] came out, I felt like we had filled out enough creative space and it was time to work on this.
How did you go about writing, once you finally decided to embark on the project?
A lot of times, I write the first half of songs and hit a wall and send them to Marco, and then he finishes them. I often write the really aggressive parts, and Marco writes the pretty stuff. I was grateful because we needed some nice songs with vocals, and Marco came through with the final songs that balanced it out; otherwise I think it would’ve been a little difficult for most people to get into. That helped bring it a little closer to the mainstream aesthetic. We never overthink things; we just go what we feel and what comes from our hearts — that’s why we’re called EchoTest, because that refers to an echocardiogram [ultrasound imaging of the heart], not to sound too cheesy.
How is your playing different on Daughter of Ocean compared to your previous album?
I wrote From Two Balconies with vocals in mind for the songs. When I linked up with Marco, I kind of forced that music onto him, and we completed all of it. I wanted to make things more palatable and easily acceptable for more listeners. I was inspired by Tina Weymouth for that album, as I was playing with a Talking Heads tribute at the time, and the way she writes is just so groovy and her bass lines really don’t change much throughout the songs. I mean, “Once in a Lifetime” is just two notes on bass that never change. “Supercell” was my ode to a Talking Heads song, where my lines don’t shift much until the ending, when it explodes. It was a bit of a darker album because of what we were going through at the time, and you can hear that in the music.
What do you love about playing with Marco Machera?
His strengths are my weaknesses and vice versa; we have a yin–yang relationship. We play to each other’s strengths, but in very different ways. Even with tone and register, we are usually on opposite ends of the spectrum to really fill it all out. I love the way he thinks and writes music. Every time I have an idea and send it over to him, I can never guess what he’s going to do with it, but when I get it back from him, it’s like Christmas morning for me. I’m always just so excited to hear it, and I’m never disappointed. We both love [director] David Lynch, and we put in the credits that the record’s sound design is inspired by his work. It’s not an album that you can put on in the background or shuffle through the songs to fully appreciate it; it’s meant to be an experience, and both of us put so much into making it that way. I just love the way his little Italian brain works. Actually, that sounds mean; put that he has a brilliant Italian brain [laughs].
Tell us about your playing technique.
It’s really about whatever services the song. I learned how to play with a pick first at the School of Rock from a guitar player, and at my first lesson he asked me if I preferred a pick or fingers; I was 12 years old, so I felt most comfortable playing with a pick. I tried to play guitar at first, but I struggled with barre chords, so I quickly switched the bass, but still felt comfortable with a pick. Then I went kind of backwards from what a lot of players do and I learned all of the other techniques after that. I played with a punk band in England when I was 19, and that’s what helped me become a “shredder,” because it wasn’t necessarily about how many notes I was playing with my left hand, but I had to be really fast with my right. So I gained that facility that way. I use pretty thin picks; I hold it so it’s on its side and the tip isn’t what’s hitting the string, because it would break instantly. That’s how I can get really fast movement.
You use picks and a whole slew of techniques with Adrian Belew.
When I joined Adrian’s band, I had to learn all of these Les Claypool bass lines — and I definitely don’t have Les’ hands, so I needed a pick to pull all of that off. I also had to play Tony Levin’s bass parts, which he used his “Funk Fingers” for [sticks that attach to the fingers and strike the strings percussively]. I suck with those, so I had to really up my technique to match that sound, and I also had to get my slap chops up to hit Les’ parts that he wrote with that technique. I never wanted to just be a poor copy of those players, so I had to figure out how to pull all of that off authentically. It’s something I’ve really enjoyed doing. Now I just try to do it and not think about it. I always like to say that I try not to think too much because I think thinking is evil [laughs].
You’re known for your heavy use of pedals. What do you love about effects on bass?
I’ve been fascinated by sound ever since I was a little kid. I think my love of recording and capturing sounds started with the movie Home Alone and the little Talk Boy recorder that Kevin uses in it. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I’ve been recording on cassettes and things ever since I was five years old. It took me to the age of 11 to find the bass, so before that, I would tinker around with different things like a little Yamaha monophonic synth, and I would mess around with my dad’s guitar and his flanger pedal and delays. When I started playing bass it was natural for me to jump right into pedals. It became my tool for my expression, so it never felt like I was breaking any rules or anything.
How has playing with an effects wizard like Adrian influenced your use of them?
I’ve been a huge fan of Adrian since I was 13 and saw him on a VHS tape and discovered his work with King Crimson. I’ll never forget putting in the cassette and listening to “Frame By Frame” and getting goosebumps. Six years later I was playing in his band, which is just insane. I like to think that working with him was getting my doctorate. I don’t know if it’s through osmosis or playing with him for so long or troubleshooting his rig, but I learned from him how effects can be used. When I got the Eventide Pitch Factor, it became a new ballgame. Being able to access all these frequencies that I couldn’t access with my hands opened a whole new world for me.
Outside of pedals, what is your ideal clean bass tone?
I love P-Bass tone with lots of midrange and compression. My biggest three influences are Jack Bruce, Chris Squire, and John Entwistle, may they all rest in peace; they all had that very aggressive growling tone that cut through everything. I actually played a Rickenbacker before I started playing with Adrian, but when I started learning the material I had to have a lot of versatility in being able to slap things and being able to tap things like on “Elephant Talk,” and the Rickenbacker wasn’t versatile for all of that. I had always wanted a Fender Precision but with a Jazz neck so I could shred, so I tried out a Lakland P-style bass in San Francisco, and it was so buttery and perfect for me. I had to have it. I reached out to Dan Lakin — this was back when he still owned the company — and luckily he was a big fan of Adrian’s and wanted to work with me. I’ve been playing Lakland basses since 2008. I love everything they make.
How did you first land the gig with Adrian?
A lot of it was being in the right place and right time, but it also took a lot of work to get there. It all started through the School of Rock. I was one of the original students in the first class in Philly. There was no brick-and-mortar school at that time; it was actually just like the movie, which came out after all of that. The girl in the movie [portrayed by actress Rebecca Brown] was pretty much based on me. We knew there was something special with the school, and it started blowing up before the movie was ever made. It got the attention of Adrian, and he came out to one of the shows that was for Les Paul’s birthday at the Roseland Ballroom in New York. After that he agreed to tour with the All Star School of Rock band, and in 2006, the owner and creator of the school, Paul Green, called me and told me that my brother and I could play with Adrian if we made it up to New York to sit in on a gig, so my parents drove us up and we played with him and it was amazing, and I thought that was it. Two months later my Motorola flip phone kept ringing — it was Paul, saying that my brother and I were going to audition to be in Adrian’s band. We flew down to Nashville and clicked immediately with Adrian and knocked out the rehearsal in one day, and after one run-through of the set, he looked at us and said we killed it. It was a risky move for him to bring in two kids to his band, but he said that we breathed fresh life into his music. And I’ve been playing with him ever since.
You also get to work with Tony Levin. What’s that like?
It’s a dream. I still pinch myself all the time. We would play together in Crimson Project and trade lines and grooves, and it was amazing to actually feel how he feels everything and articulates everything. I mean, he’s a true master, so it was unbelievable to work with him like that. It made me such a better bass player to see how he played. Even after 100 shows with that band, it was surreal to me.
Do you feel pressure to perfectly replicate the lines of Levin and Claypool when you play their parts?
There are times when I can mimic them really well if I’m playing their iconic lines and the songs needs them. But because those lines are coming from my hands and through my experiences, they just come out the way that I play them. Otherwise, I’d have to be thinking, and like I said, thinking is evil.
How did you first start playing bass?
I was 11 when I first picked up a bass, after struggling with guitar, and I’ll never forget looking over at a fretless Gibson Ripper that was in my dad’s collection — I saw that it had four strings, and I gravitated right toward it. I was a shy kid, so I figured I could play one note at a time and nobody would notice me, which is hilarious now, given what I do. My dad was excited that I wanted to play it, and he showed me some Jack Bruce and John Entwistle bass lines, and then he played me some Stanley Clarke music, and I just started crying when I heard it. I was floored; I thought I would never be that good.
How have you evolved since then?
Somewhere along the way, when I was 22 or 23 and getting more confident, having had the gig with Adrian for three years, I naturally became more extroverted. I became more comfortable onstage, and I started moving around more. Sharing the stage with people like Adrian, Tony, and [drummer] Danny Carrey brought me out of my shell. And also, the audience does it for me. It’s very different playing for a standing room versus a seated audience; I feed off their energy and reciprocate it. I definitely think that I play more flamboyantly now because of that. Confidence is key.
But thinking is not?
EchoTest, Daughter of Ocean 
Bass Lakland 55-64, Lakland Decade 6 (with Roland GK3 MIDI Pickup), Lakland Bob Glaub 44-64
Rig Aguilar Tone Hammer 500, two Aguilar SL 112s
Pedals Roland VB-99, Pigtronix Philosopher’s Tone, Mantic Vitriol Distortion, Eventide PitchFactor Harmonizer and H9 with Barn3 OX9 Switch, DigiTech Luxe Polyphonic Detuner, Pigtronix Infinity Looper
Strings D’Addario ProSteel Rounds
Picks Planet Waves