Bass and pedal master Juan Alderete talks tone, injury recovery, and his new role holding it down for Marilyn Manson.
Juan Alderete is a master of versatility. From the progressive rock of the Mars Volta to the alternative hip-hop of Deltron 3030 and Dr. Octagon to backing up singer/songwriter Emily Saliers (Indigo Girls) and blasting out high-octane punk-rock shows with actress Juliette Lewis, Alderete has performed in just about every genre of popular music over his 30-plus-year career. But it hasn’t always been that way. Alderete cut his teeth as a “band” guy, first in ’80s shred-metal act Racer X and then the Scream, a blues-rock outfit that included one-time Mötley Crüe singer John Corabi. “It was always my own band, so it was basically my rules — meaning how I approached playing bass and songwriting,” he recalls. “When those two bands ended, really, the only way to do shit was to play for other people. It was a lot of figuring out how to get work.”
Clearly, he’s figured it out, as his ethos has led him to some unique gigs, most recently a coveted post in Marilyn Manson’s band. He joined in November 2017, did a year-long tour in the States and abroad, and is now contributing to Manson’s forthcoming record, which is being produced by Shooter Jennings. When he’s not on tour, he’s also been successfully squeezing in original projects. His collaboration with vocalist Lisa Papineau in Big Sir is two decades strong now. It’s a passion project that allows him to focus on his sublime fretless technique and nuanced art-rock songwriting chops. The more recent Halo Orbit is a similar original collaboration, featuring guitarist suGar Yoshinaga and drummer Mark Guiliana, which explores a 21st-century combo of electronic, hip-hop, funk, and soul. Meanwhile, Vato Negro continues to be his outlet for effects-oriented bass playing. And, he continues to review products at his wildly popular website pedalsandeffects.com, which is dedicated to his passion about otherworldly soundscapes.
Juan has been off the road since the Manson tour ended in November 2018, rehabbing some long-overdue wrist surgery. Ten years ago, he took a spill while biking home from the gym, but he’s toured so much in the past decade, he hadn’t had time to properly address the injury. “I got lit up on a pothole in South Pasadena and flew in the air. I put my hand out and broke my wrist. I toured with a cast on, with the Mars Volta, and never really stopped touring, so it didn’t heal right.”
We spoke to Alderete at home in Los Angeles, gearing up for rehearsals with new Marilyn Manson drummer Brandon Pertzborn. They are heading out on the road this summer on the co-headlining “Twins of Evil” tour with Rob Zombie (as they did last year). He’s also been contributing to the new Manson record. “So far, I’ve played on four or five cuts, which I hope will make the record. Of course, I hope I’m on every song.” As usual, Alderete was candid about his approach to rehab, landing the Manson gig, and his transition from “band guy” to hired gun.
What’s the rehabbing process been like?
I had the surgery right after touring ended in November. I couldn’t play for two months. In the third month, I started to play. Four months, I was frustrated. Six months into it, I started to have a breakthrough. Jon Button from the Who told me it took him a solid year to feel good about his wrist.
What’s been the most challenging aspect?
After touring with Manson, I realized my finger playing was really suffering. So, I had to get the wrist cleaned out. Pick playing was never an issue. Now, after six months, I can do shit again. In November [2019, a year after the surgery] we’ll see where it’s at. I practice two to three hours every day, with my fingers. It’s not that I don’t have speed or endurance or strength — it’s just coordination. It’s like I have to retrain my brain. It’s clumsy.
You’ve been utilizing active electronics and thumb picks as part of your rehab.
Active because you don’t have to dig in; the electronics hype the bass, so you don’t have to play as hard. I’m using thumb picks because the thinner the pick, the more hand strength it takes to grip. The thicker the picks, the easier to grip, and the thumb picks are easiest because the thumb mostly holds the pick [because of the wrap around].
I understand you got the Manson gig through a referral from your ex-bandmate Tyler Bates.
At the time, my dad was really sick, and it was pretty heavy on the family and me. A lot of decisions needed to be made. I was helping my family deal with my dad, trying to extend his life. So, I was at home a lot. Deltron and Octagon were gigging here and there, but not a ton of work. And then, my pop dies and at that same time, Tim Lefebvre recommended me for this gig with Emily Saliers. The next month I was on tour with Emily dealing with that. Then Tyler called and said, “Hey, would you be interested in playing with Manson?”
What was touring with Manson like for that first year, after going through such a life-changing event?
We headlined some big festivals in Europe. He’s really big over there. It was a lot about trying to get a feel for it, but for anyone who’s lost a parent, the grieving is crazy, so it was just hard to take it all in. I’d go do these festivals, playing in front of 200,000 people, and there’s like this heaviness to everything. Everything was really emotional. Between the Emily Saliers and Manson tours, I never had any time to deal with it. My family was grieving, and I wasn’t there for them, but that’s the story of my life. As a touring musician, you miss everything: weddings, funerals, birthdays. It’s crazy what you sacrifice. People don’t really realize it. But I know my dad would’ve had it no other way. He’d have said, “You go out there and tour and do what you love,” which is what I did, but it wasn’t always easy.
Didn’t Manson recently lose his father as well?
I think his dad passed six months before mine, so he was going through it as well. It was pretty crazy.
Were you able to incorporate effects into Manson’s live shows?
When they asked if I wanted to do this, and I said yes, Tyler was like, “I want you to be comfortable — do what you want. I want you to bring your sound.” I’m always a little wary when anybody says, “We want you to do what you want.” I think I learned after the first try that that isn’t necessarily the case. So, for the first rehearsal, I brought 12 or 15 pedals, and they were like, “It doesn’t sound right.” So, I adjusted a few things and I’m thinking, “This sounds huge!” but they still didn’t think it sounded right.
What adjustments did you need to make?
I looked at the bass tech and said, “Hey, do you have all the gear that was used before me?” And he said, “Yeah!” So, I said, “Can you hook it up?” We took a little break, he set it up, we came back in, I started playing, and they were like, “Fuck, it sounds amazing!” People always want what they’re familiar with. You can never just come in and change shit. You have to ease it in. And so, after a few months, I started bringing more pedals and adding different sounds in between songs. But I pretty much stuck to the script of heavily distorted bass. The only thing I might do is chop it up with tremolo. I use the EarthQuaker Devices Hummingbird and just chop up my signal.
Are you playing mostly with a pick in Manson?
I recorded with my fingers [on the forthcoming record] because that was what they asked for, which was awesome, but when I joined the band they were like, “You’re always going to play with a pick,” and I was like, “Okay, cool.” But in the breakdowns, I have to go to fingers. That way I can retain some low end and be dynamic. With the pick, you lose low end because hitting hard is what clips the low end out. But when you lighten up, the bigness comes back. I think I’m comfortable enough in this situation to trust that I can do what I feel is appropriate. I’m not shredding up there. I’m not trying to stand out. It’s a gig and I just want it to be great; I want him [Manson] to be stoked and comfortable. And I’m super animated, so there’s a lot more theatricality than me just focusing on bass technique.
What did you adopt from the previous bass rig?
A Mesa Boogie overdrive that they always used. I let Mark Lubetski, the tech, run it because he’s been there longer than me. He’s a top-notch tech; he’ll listen to the room, he’ll listen to the stage, he knows now what I like. It has a lot to do with EQ as well — you have to do your best to fight all of the obstacles that every room gives you. I think there are some musicians who understand these concepts, some that don’t, because maybe they live with in-ears and no amps, but we’re using live amps. We’re not using in-ears. So, I deal a lot with phase cancellation, the room fighting you, bass traps — you just get all that onstage.
How and when do you figure out how to combat those issues?
When I’m at soundcheck. I’ll walk around to find the sweet spots, where I can hear myself, and then find where the trouble spots are, so I know not to go toward that area because I’ll get lost. If I stand in certain spots onstage, and it’s a bass trap, I don’t hear myself, so I know to not kick it in that spot. If there’s something time-specific I need to hear, like drum counts or whatever, I find a place to stand where I can hear it. This is stuff that’s vital to survive a gig — knowing how a room is going to come back at you. The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco is an awful room for bass. I’ve never had a good show there. I played there a bunch with the Mars Volta and Deltron, and every time it’s like, “Uh oh, here comes a shitty gig.” It’s just a bass trap; there’s no low-end, no resonance, nothing.
Tell me how you went from being a band guy to getting gigs as a hired gun.
I learned it in Pet [’90s band with guitarist Tyler Bates]. They called SWR looking for bass players, because they were having hard time finding someone. They went through all these shredders, and nobody got the gig. I went in there with the attitude of, “I’m going to play exactly what’s on this record.” And they loved it. That’s exactly how you approach gigs.
Why do you think nobody else cut it?
I think all the other guys were going in with their own style and placing it upon this band, whereas I went in there thinking that the band made a record, and they want to sound like that record, so that’s what we should represent. Look, I was trying to work, so I just figured I would ease my shit in. And you always do; you eventually ease it in. When I went out for the Mars Volta, I did my best to cop what Flea did on De-Loused in the Comatorium [2003, Universal], and then eventually, the situation became my own. On the second record, Frances the Mute [2005, Universal], I’m playing fretless, I’m playing a ton of effects, I’m shredding. I created my shit within that.
Is it the same with the rap artists you work with?
With Deltron, I listen to what’s on the record and then eventually, live, I find where I can use a bit more effects. With Dr. Octagon, I’m adding in tons of effects because I played a ton of effects on the record. It’s my gig now because [Dan the] Automator trusts me and he knows me now. When I get called to do the rap shit, they don’t call me because they want me to sound like a studio dude. They call me because they know I’m going to give them some weird angle. Those are the kinds of situations, like with Frank Ocean, I can get as wild as I want. But that’s what they ask for. On a gig you’re usually helping out.
What’s the takeaway from understanding that you’re “helping out”?
The most important thing about this situation is understanding that the artists are insecure in a lot of ways, so you’ve got to make them feel comfortable and earn their trust … and then you can do your thing. -BM
Basses Warwick Streamer Stage I, Warwick Idolmaker, Fender ’70s Precision,
Fender Custom Shop “OG Raider” Precision
Pickups Nordstrand NP4
Amps Ampeg SVT 4-PRO
Cabs Ampeg SVT-810E
Strings Ernie Ball Slinky round-wounds and flatwounds, and La Bella tapewounds (all .045–.105)
Accessories Hipshot Xtenders
Picks Dunlop Tortex 2.0mm & .73mm
Effects Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor, EarthQuaker Bit Commander Analog Synth, EarthQuaker Devices Grand Orbiter V3 Phaser, EarthQuaker Devices Hummingbird Tremolo, Meris Enzo Multi-Voice Synthesizer, Mesa Boogie Throttle Box, MXR Bass Chorus Deluxe M83, Red Panda Tensor Time Warp, Source Audio Nemesis delay, Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 Plus