Bassist, musical director, and producer extraordinaire Stu Brooks unleashes thunderous new albums with Dub Trio and Griz and discusses what it’s like playing in the Saturday Night Live Band.
“Regardless of what style of music we’re playing, I always try to be aggressively low in frequency. We want our sound to be an aural experience, but also a physical one. Whether it’s dub, punk, or metal, I try to swing the bass like a telephone pole.” For a man known for dropping dirty, towering frequencies in a multitude of heavy genres, you’d never know it from Stu Brooks’ mellow demeanor as he strolls the sidewalks of Los Angeles in route to a yoga class while discussing his playing. Having recently transplanted from his longtime New York residence to the West Coast, the Canadian-born bass player and producer is as calm as they come, which is quite contrary to the intensely heavy music of his band, Dub Trio, which just released their fifth studio album after an eight-year gap since their previous effort.
But Brooks hasn’t been simply working on his asanas and meditating in the lull since then. The 40-year-old journeyman has kept busy recording, musical directing, and playing alongside electronic funk artist GRIZ, jazz drummer Mark Guiliana, Matisyahu, Peeping Tom, Kanye West, Dr. John, Pretty Lights, and 50 Cent; he also occupied the bass chair for the Saturday Night Live Band and is heading up an all-star set at the 2019 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. Additionally, he’s been working on a custom signature bass with Alleva Coppolo that is able to cop his deep dub lows and his aggressive midrange attack. His obsession with tone is evident on every project he lays his bass down for — and no album proves this more than Dub Trio’s newest.
Titled The Shape of Dub to Come (as a nod to 1998’s The Shape of Punk to Come by post-hardcore pioneers Refused), Brooks, drummer Joe Tomino, and guitarist Dave Holmes deliver a mash-up of slow-burning metal riffs and introspective dub grooves. Evolving from heavy to mellow vibes as the album progresses, the record welcomes guest collaborators with vocal cameos from fellow bassists Meshell Ndgeocello, Troy Sanders of Mastodon, and Buzz Osborne of the Melvins. Tracks like “Half Hidden,” “Forget My Name,” and “World of Inconvenience” display Brooks’ filthy tone, use of dynamics, and command of his technique, all attributes honed by his countless hours both behind the mixing board and on the other side of it. Brooks articulates his thoughts about the album recording process, the importance of technique, and the role of bass in a trio with great clarity as he saunters the busy streets of L.A. You’d never guess from his mild-mannered poise the kind of monstrous frequencies he unleashes when he picks up his bass.
What caused the lag between Dub Trio records?
We were out on the road a lot backing other artists. Between Matisyahu and Peeping Tom, we were out on the road nine months of the year for a while. And then Dave and Joe both moved out of New York.
When we finally got down to writing and recording, we had to approach things differently.
How did the writing process go?
It was definitely a gradual process where we’d come up with ideas individually and then send them to each other via email. A few times Dave and I would get together in my studio and hash out some things, and then we’d send them to Joe and he’d play to them. It wasn’t until we had maybe ten sketches that we finally all met up to work on them together. It was just a week before our studio session when we first played all of these songs as a band. It was crazy for us to write and record songs without testing them out in front of audiences like we had always done. But as soon as we got in a rehearsal room together, it was as if no time had passed whatsoever. We’re brothers and we always just click.
How involved were you with the writing?
A lot of the material stems from Dave’s riffs, and then I extrapolate and interpret my bass parts. I write a lot of the verse riffs where the dub stuff is happening. It’s pretty balanced collaboratively. Some things are mathematically composed, and other things come from improvising on variations of the main riff.
How did you go about tracking the songs?
Each song was recorded a little differently. We did a lot of pre-production beforehand and used that as a road map. We tracked guitars and bass in my studio with programmed drums initially. Once we got to Studio G, nailing the drums was our first priority. We hoped for the best for the bass, but I knew I could always re-track anything I needed to. There was a lot of comping [compositing], where we’d do two takes and find the best parts of each and then edit them and do overdubs after that. Songs like “Needles” and “Computery” were done at my home studio. We did eight days of tracking sessions and knocked out the whole album. We always do our records very quickly and try not to overdo or overthink anything. We try to preserve the magic of the moment and use as many first takes as we can.
Not only did you cover a Meshell Ndegeocello song, “Forget My Name,” but you also had her sing on it. Was playing her bass parts nerve-racking?
It was funny because I remember the moment being in the studio behind the board and actually saying, “Okay, let’s erase Meshell’s bass line so I can track it.” I mean, come on, that’s pretty surreal. I was a little nervous about it, and I wasn’t sure if she was going to like it, but we flipped it from its original afrobeat feel to make it a one-drop dub. I mimicked her line but altered it into my style to work as a dub track. Luckily, she was really happy with it.
What was it like working with Troy Sanders?
We sent him a couple of instrumental tunes, and he picked “Fought the Line” and brought it to his studio in Atlanta and tracked vocals to it. He’s such an amazing person whom we love so much, and we felt so honored that he’d do that track with us. I was genuinely moved by his lyrics, and he definitely poured out his heart into that song. That’s all you can ask for when you collaborate with someone.
That’s a nasty bass riff in the verse of “Bad Comrade.”
That was my response to a riff we were playing with. That verse part just came out when we were cycling on it — that’s what my instincts told me to do. I use a pick with distortion on roundwound strings for the first bar and then quickly switch to fingerstyle with flatwound strings. There are a lot of subtle little improvisational parts to that song where I’m working off what Joe and Dave are doing. I wanted to capture an 808 style [music inspired by the Roland TR-808 drum machine] with some movement in there.
What do you like most about playing in a trio?
I’ve always felt that a trio sounds bigger than a quartet because there is more opportunity for space, and space creates a larger dynamic within the music. When we add people to play with us, we find that the mix gets smaller. You always have to find a balance. It gives the bass a much greater role within the music, too, because I can explore more and not step on any toes.
Your playing technique changes pretty frequently.
My technique is definitely dynamic; I change up my right hand quite a bit. When we play dub I play very softly, almost on the neck, to get that super-low, rich tone. Occasionally, I play 12 frets above where my left hand is fretting to try to get a synth sound out of it. Depending on what effects I’m using, such as a lowpass filter, I’ll dig in harder depending on how the amp and effects are working, even if it’s a dub line. In those instances I’ll raise my right fingers about two inches off the string and will pound them down to strike each note. I do almost all of my muting with my left hand. That’s where I dampen my strings and really control the note duration. A lot of that is in the moment and how I’m reacting to the sound of the room, the stage, the monitors, and everything. We bass players can control so much with just our touch.
You and drummer Joe Tomino have been working together for 20 years now. What do you love about playing with him?
We’re an extension of each other at this point. Oddly enough, people think we’re twins. I don’t see it at all, but when we’re on the road, at least once a day people ask us if we are. We’ve even started to walk the same and stand with the same posture. There’s a lot of intuition between us that has developed from playing and spending so much time together. We really don’t have to verbally communicate when it comes to music anymore. We both seem to know what the other is going to do and what the other is thinking.
You two even live-sample each other’s parts during shows. How does that work?
Joe has an effects stand next to his drums where he’ll pop on delays and reverbs and distortions onto himself that go through an effects feed into the house mains. I also have a [Shure SM-]58 mic that comes from his snare, and I run that into a volume pedal that goes through a synth, delay, and reverb on my chain. I open up the volume pedal to activate the mic, and then I’m able to dub him out while I’m playing bass. Before the song I’ll get the settings that I want, and sometimes I’ll grab a bar of what he’s doing or sometimes it’s just a one-shot of his snare and I’ll even smash a spring reverb box to get that aggressive King Tubby dub sound. We always use that as a key to our improvisation. It helps us expand our grooves and have a cool dialog of back-and-forth conversation. It allows us to interact even more with each other within the music.
What’s it like being the musical director for Griz?
I started working with Griz in 2017 when I produced a record of his, and then he wanted to put together a live band and rearrange his music for a 15-piece setup. One stipulation was that he wanted no sends and no playback, so my job was to put all of that together. At first I thought it would be easy, but it ended up being a huge task. There are a lot of sounds to manage for that music, so being the bass player, I use my super-deluxe pedalboard with everything on it to get any tone that I need. I have to emulate some crazy bass lines that have about 20 automated parameters. When I first heard the stuff, it was a little overwhelming, because it is dubstep with so much going on that was hard to emulate. I was able to find the main DNA of the bass parts and replicate those live while keeping them as simple as possible. It’s super fun because I have to do really futuristic stuff and also very vintage-sounding parts.
What was it like holding down the bass chair for Saturday Night Live last November?
It was a thrill to cover for James Genus on such a huge show. My wife worked on SNL doing sound for a while, and I have some friends in the band, so there are a lot of familiar people when I walk in the building. I took comfort in that. Everyone was so welcoming and great to be around. It couldn’t have gone better; it was a huge opportunity that I’m so thankful for.
How did you prepare for it?
I knew that the audition was coming, and I knew sight-reading would be involved, so I prepared by reading through R&B and funk and playing a lot of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and Tower Of Power charts. Eventually the call came, and I was given the set list about a month in advance. I had to pull from stuff I was studying 20 years ago at Berklee before I went off track and started Dub Trio. I probably played the theme song a hundred times before I played it with the band. I went in and did the audition with Lenny Pickett, the bandleader, in his office; he had me read and play through a couple of tunes. At the end, he looked at me and said, “Well, you’re not a non-reader,” which I took as a compliment coming from him. The next day I got a call from him saying that Kanye West made a last-second change and wanted a live band on the show, and he asked me to come in because James was already away with Herbie Hancock. I went in, and my first time on the SNL stage was with Kanye. That really helped me get comfortable in that space.
How has being a producer and engineer changed your mindset as a bass player?
I learn something every time I record something new. I’m finding that nowadays I like adding bass to songs last, and I’m realizing that I can get more mileage out of the bass with simplicity and by focusing on tone rather than more activity on the fretboard. I’m really enjoying the freedom of having my own recording studio and saving the time for sound design and making interesting new sounds. That does affect the way that I approach bass, by stepping into the producer brain when I’m on the other side of the glass. It’s easier for me now to hear which takes are good and what will work best for the song. Getting the right tone while you’re tracking will save you a lot of time in the long run. Being an engineer has honed that for me.
Why did you choose the bass as your musical outlet?
I love being supportive, and I don’t necessarily like to shine too bright or outshine other people. I like helping other people excel, and bass is a very supportive instrument that achieves that. As I’ve developed my own sound I’ve realized the power that the bass has and how important it is in modern music. It’s a very physical instrument. I might be in the back, but I’m definitely affecting you both physically and sonically. We move the music. At the same time. you are controlling the harmony and rhythm — no other instrument has that much influence over the song. Is that biased? Are we biased in that? No? Okay, good.
Dub Trio, The Shape of Dub to Come [New Damage]
Bass Alleva-Copollo LG4, Olinto 4-string, Moollon J-Classic IV, Atelier Z 4-string
Rig Two Aguilar 751s, Aguilar 700, three Aguilar DB 412s
Effects 3LeafAudio Octabvre, MKII and Vulcan XL, Bananana Matryoshka, Meris Ottobit, Panda Audio Future Impact, DOD Meatbox, EarthQuaker Devices Hoof Reaper and Hummingbird, Solid Gold Funkzilla, Red Panda Bit Map and Tensor, Recovery Effects Sound Destruction Device, Aguilar Agro and TLC Compression, Dunlop/MXR Volume Pedal and Carbon Copy, MOOG MF-101 Low Pass Filter, DigiTech Bass Whammy Pedal, Eventide H9 Harmonizer
Strings La Bella 0760M Deep Talkin’ Bass Flatwounds, 1954 Original (.052–.110), La Bella RX-S4C Bass RX Stainless C (.045–105)
Keybass Moog Model-D, Roland System 8