We catch up with the veteran rocker to discuss his musical upbringing, his powerful tone, and his current playing in Red Dragon Cartel
Anthony Esposito has carved out quite a career for himself by being the go-to bassist for some of the most prodigious guitar heroes in hard rock and heavy metal. He landed his first professional gig at the age of 21 in 1989 with Lynch Mob, the partial namesake of ex-Dokken guitarist George Lynch. Esposito’s tone and musical temperament on the debut, Wicked Sensation (Elektra, 1990), provided Lynch with the perfect, rock solid foil to his guitar histrionics. Since then, Esposito has gone on to play with former Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley, Guns N’ Roses axe-man Richard Fortus (in Pisser, a monster New York rock and roll band that never landed a record deal for some odd reason) and now, Jake E. Lee, in the ex-Ozzy Osbourne axe-slinger’s Red Dragon Cartel (RDC).
But what makes Esposito so in-demand isn’t just his solid approach to bass. It’s also the fact that he’s a crafty songwriter and arranger and a well-respected producer/engineer, who owns and operates his own recording studio, Obscenic Arts, in Dillsburg, PA. These skills are invaluable to his collaborators, all of whom, particularly, Frehley and Lee, have relied upon Esposito, to help craft, arguably, the most relevant records of their “solo” careers.
RDC’s latest release, Patina, is a perfect example. It was recorded entirely at Obscenic Arts with Esposito at the engineering helm, beginning with the songwriting and pre-production process, through to tracking drums, bass, guitars and vocals. The only thing he didn’t do, was mix it, a task he handed off to esteemed engineer Max Norman, (Ozzy, Lynch Mob, etc.). “It took a year and a half to make Patina,” Esposito proclaims. “Nothing was quick. We took our time.” The result of that gestation period, and Esposito’s sonic craftsmanship, is a mesmerizing tapestry of riffs, hooks, grooves and tones that define the in-your-face, bad-ass attitude of tunes like “Speedbag,” “Havana,” “Bitter” and “Crooked Man.”
We caught up with Esposito as he was wrapping up the first leg of RDC’s North American tour in support of Patina. He was candid, and even a bit self-deprecating, about his musical upbringing, articulate about his gear choices and revelatory about his recording techniques.
How did you land the gig with Red Dragon Cartel?
My son Tyler is an audio engineer. He moved out to Las Vegas to assist Kevin Churko at his studio [The Hideout], where they cut the first Red Dragon Cartel record. That was when my son first met Jake, and they became friends. Some drama happened with the first bass player, so they got Greg Chaisson [Jake’s ex-Badlands bandmate] to fill in until they could solidify the position. Eventually, Jake asked my son, “Hey, would your dad be interested in doing this?” And, of course, I immediately said “Yes!”
How did you track your bass on Patina?
I love the Demeter Tube DI, so I went from there into an Avalon 737 Mercenary Edition Mic Pre. That was my direct line. For the amp I used a 1969 Linden, NJ, Ampeg SVT head with an old flat back birch cabinet from 1970 or ’71. It’s loaded with CTS speakers. I miked it with a Beyerdynamic M 88 TG, which is a killer kick drum mike. I threw a Sennheiser MD 421-II on the amp as well.
What about basses?
I have an early ‘90s 1957 re-issue Fender Precision that I used on most of the record. It blows away all of my vintage ones. You know when you get one that’s just magical? I’ve played every gig since then with this bass. It’s incredible. I used that for most of the record. On the fretless parts, I contacted Fender to send me a fretless Precision and they sent me one of those Tony Franklin Signature basses. I didn’t use the jazz bass pickup; I only used the p-bass pickup. I treated it like a p-bass even though there were other options.
How are you deploying the fretless? It isn’t overt.
There’s a lot of fretless on this album. I’ll do fretless in the verses and then when we get to the chorus or the middle eight section, I’ll go back to fretted to add a dynamic—add more brightness and attack, like under Jake’s solo and then, for the verse, go back to the fretless for the slides. He did a lot of that with Ozzy, when he was tracking with Bob Daisley. They did a lot of that fretless to fretted to add a dynamic.
Do you play exclusively with a pick?
It’s whatever the part calls for. It’s usually dictated by the guitar part. If he’s getting aggressive, I might need to play with a pick to cut through or if he’s going open tuning, the fingers will work. Anything that I can do with a pick, I can do with my fingers. But I can’t slap. I can’t slap worth shit [laughs]. I’m horrible at it. When we play live there’s this one funky part at the end of the set in the song “Feeder” where I’m doing chordal stuff on the 12and I use a really thin .073mm because I want to get a little Nile Rodgers play in the pick.
You rock career seems defined by playing with guitar heroes.
Ace, George Lynch, Jake E. Lee, Bumblefoot, Richard Fortus… I played with Jason Hook from Five Finger Death Punch. I’m basically providing a foundation for them to shine. But I always play song first. I’m a songwriter as well. With Jake, he pushes me to expand what I’m saying, rather than just nailing the bottom. He’s very musical and he wants me to be musical. We always discussed options, when we were making this record, on bass approaches.
When he would come up with a lick and we would jam in a room, my first question would be, “Jake, what are your hearing underneath? Are you hearing walking? Are you hearing any movement? Are you hearing driving? Do you want me to play behind? Do you want me to play ahead? What’s the tension and the vibe of the part that you want to exhibit here?” And then we would go from that approach and build and expound upon that.
You owned Schoolhouse Studio NYC for fifteen years in Chelsea. Did that experience factor into making Patina?
I recorded everybody—Joan Jett, the Misfits, the Ramones, Green Day at Schoolhouse. The last record we did there was Ace’s Anomaly (Bronx Born Records, 2009). And then I moved the studio to a horse ranch in Pennsylvania. We [RDC] got back from Japan in 2015 and everybody came to the ranch and we set up in a room and just started jamming. Jake was presenting all of his ideas and the songs started to formulate musically. We would just jam out the parts and try to get what Jake had in his head down onto a boom box. Eventually drums went down over two weeks, we did bass in a day and a half and then guitars and vocals.
Tell me about what you refer to as the “wheel” or “holy grail” of bass tone.
When I first joined Lynch Mob as a 21-year old kid, I called every bass amp manufacturer under the sun. SWR, Trace Elliot, Eden… All those boutique amps sound really, really good on their own and Ampegs don’t really sound very good on their own, but when you play them in rehearsal, or in the context of a band, they just magically fill the frequencies that you want to hear. Ampeg sounds amazing in the context of what you’re going to use it for. A lot of people that go into Guitar Center, they’ll A/B these amps and go, “Whoa, this sounds incredible,” and then you play it with a guitar player, and keyboards, and they don’t move the air and they don’t fill those frequencies that the Ampeg just magically gets. You don’t know, until you get into a rehearsal room or onstage, how it’s going to interact with the other instrumentation.
How did you learn to play bass?
I grew up in New York City. And when you go into public school, like intermediary, 6, 7and 8grade, that’s when they start offering electives, which are either music, drama or art. I couldn’t draw, and I didn’t want to act, so I was like, “Ok, I’m going to go into music,” and the choices were brass, woodwinds or strings. I wanted to play saxophone, but I had braces, and the teacher said, “You can’t play sax with braces, you’ll rip your lips up. You have to play a stringed instrument.” I was a 6grade boy at this time. The last thing I wanted to do was play violin and get ridiculed [laughs]. So, I was like, “Give me the biggest instrument you’ve got.” The first time I ever bowed an upright bass, it was an experience. You just feel this cannon, massive instrument right up against your body. You can feel the resonance and the power, and I just fell in love with that frequency and the warmth and moving air. I was attracted to bass from the first time I touched one.
Did you play any upright on Patina?
We did a bonus track for Japan—a version of “Havana.” My friend Mike Morrison, a great guitarist in Dillsburg where I live, he’s got a full-on Celtic band, where he plays mandolin and there’s bag pipes and frame drums and stuff like that. And so, we had them guest on the track. Jake played acoustic and I played upright. We doubled my upright with some cellos. There’s a violin and viola section playing the melodies. It could be the soundtrack for Braveheartor something [laughs].
What about electric bass guitar? When did you first pick that up?
I didn’t get a bass guitar until probably the eighth grade. It was a Japanese p-bass copy where the action was like five inches off the fretboard and my fingers were bleeding—one of those things. I started on upright and I didn’t play hard rock or heavy metal music until I joined Lynch Mob in 1989. Before that, I was into punk rock, but I played jazz, if that makes any sense [laughs]? In New York there were amazing bands like the Lounge Lizards. New York was the epitome of jazz perfection. You could just walk down the street—Jazz 55 on Christopher Street, or the Blue Note, with amazing music emanating from these bars onto the sidewalk.
Besides school did you ever take formal, private lessons?
I studied with Jerry Jemmott. I used to do his laundry when I was in high school as a way to pay for my lessons. I’d take the Staten Island Ferry and the train all the way uptown to his apartment and clean his house and he would teach me. He introduced me to Jaco. I took a couple of lessons from Jaco as well.
I read or heard somewhere that you don’t play covers or like to play in cover bands. Is that true?
I never really played in cover bands. I don’t consider playing Kiss songs with Ace Frehley being in a cover band. I can understand musicians wanting to play live, but to me it’s a waste, because there are so many talented musicians that have a voice, and instead of writing their own songs and finding their own voices, and saying what they have to say, that’s pertinent to them, they’ll play cover songs. I feel the skill and artistry of being a musician, and expressing one’s own feelings, is a dying breed. A lot of these tribute bands and cover bands are prevalent now, and they do get paid a lot of money, so I understand picking up some extra bread on the weekend by playing covers, but to me it’s the same as being in a wedding band. When I started out, I had a desire to express what I do, not play somebody else’s song. -BM
Basses 1957 Fender Precision Re-Issue, Fender Tony Franklin Signature Fretless
Amps 1969 Ampeg SVT
Cabs Ampeg 8X10
Strings DR High Beam (.055 – .110)
Picks Dunlop Tortex Standard 1.14mm (purple)
HEAR HIM ON
Patina, Red Dragon Cartel (Frontiers Music Srl, 2019)
For Red Dragon Cartel tour dates, videos and more, please visit Anthony online @ http://www.reddragoncartel.com/