Sebastian Steinberg: Force of Nature

From his playing in Soul Coughing to his soul-bearing work with Fiona Apple, Sebastian Steinberg proves why he’s a good man in a storm

Sebastian Steinberg: Force of Nature

From his playing in Soul Coughing to his soul-bearing work with Fiona Apple, Sebastian Steinberg proves why he’s a good man in a storm

“Bass is a function, not an instrument,” insists Sebastian Steinberg as he pauses to sip his tea before jumping back into his commentary on the limitless possibilities of frequency. His insights on his instrument and its role in music shift from master class to abstract within the same sentence, but every word he speaks is full of intention and the deep knowledge that he’s amassed throughout his 62 years. His statement about bass makes more sense as he elaborates that as a kid he primarily kept to himself and passed the time mimicking birds, nature, and the city noises of his hometown Boston, where his earliest inclinations were based solely on the sounds around him and not yet the instruments that create them. His point is solidified as he reflects, “I really wanted to be a train when I was a little kid, and bass was the closest I could get to that.”

There’s never a dull moment when talking with Steinberg, which is perfectly expected if you’ve ever heard his bass playing. His love of the avant-garde and his eagerness to utilize every resonance his instrument will produce — including those traditionally non-musical – has sculpted his distinct voice as a musician. Simply listening to his work on Fiona Apple’s Grammy award-winning 2020 opus Fetch the Bolt Cutters will give you a keen idea of Steinberg as both a bass player and a person. In taking on a deeply intimate role in the songwriting, production, and entire album-creation process, he’ll tell you it’s his finest and most personal work to date. “Listening back to the music I’ve created has made me realize that I’ve taken a really scenic route, and it’s nothing I would have imagined when I was young and impressionable. I’ve got to say, I’ve done a lot of weird shit. The stuff I’ve been a part of is mind-numbing and gratifying, but it’s all led up to Fetch the Bolt Cutters, which is the culmination of all of the meaningful bass playing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s the most important thing I’ve ever helped to create.”

(photo by Justin Mark Morrison)

The album’s origins are fitting of artists as open and unabashed as Apple and her bandmates and co-producers Steinberg, drummer Amy Aileen Wood, and multi-instrumentalist David Garza, who spent months at Apple’s Venice Beach home never once touching their instruments. Instead they spent that time banging on walls, chanting primitive cadences, shaking food containers, plucking rubber bands, and stomping around like little kids. While that might not seem like the most productive songwriting process for most musicians, the exercise brought the quartet closer and even sparked many ideas that made the record’s final cut. And once they did finally pick up their instruments to write, Steinberg played a significant role in sculpting the material, as his upright and electric playing on “Ladies,” “Heavy Balloon,” and “Cosmonauts” displays the profound chemistry that he shares with Apple, being her longest-tenured musical partner of almost two decades.

Steinberg’s notoriety as an A-list musician — and the praise of being “your favorite bass player’s favorite bass player” — was earned long before he ever linked up with Apple, as his years of living in New York harvested his role in Soul Coughing. Anchored by Steinberg’s upright playing, the experimental four-piece rose to fame in the ’90s by delving into alternative, hip-hop, electronic, and downtempo stylings and putting out three albums that were freakishly ahead of their time. After the band broke up in 2000, Steinberg found an abundance of work playing with Neil Diamond, Dixie Chicks, Jon Brion, Blake Mills, Vanessa Carlton, Jackson Browne, Phoebe Bridgers, John Legend, Marc Ribot, William Shatner, Sean Lennon, Iron & Wine, Calexico, k.d. lang, Neko Case, Watkins Family Hour, Lucinda Williams, Beth Orton, Fitz & the Tantrums, Suzanne Vega, Eddie Vedder, members of Radiohead and Wilco, and many others.

Even with his tremendous workload and constantly growing discography, Steinberg prefers to keep things simple nowadays, enjoying his life in Los Angeles and taking on the projects that excite him the most. He hangs out with Apple frequently and plays his upright every day, improvising and always searching for new paths to follow and new ways to generate unorthodox sounds. But now that tours and recording studios are resuming post-lockdown, his quiet days are over, as his phone frequently rings with new gigs and new sessions. Bass might really be a function — but as long as playing it is his function, he will always be in demand.

(photo by Justin Mark Morrison)

Fetch the Bolt Cutters came out unexpectedly in the middle of the pandemic year. How did it feel to release the album during such a wild time?

Such a simple little question with such a complicated answer. It felt true in a way that none of us could possibly predict. The last song we finished was “On I Go,” and immediately afterward, Fiona and I worked out the order of the songs and listened to it in that sequence before we left the studio for the last time. David and Amy left and I was standing with Fiona in the garden, and we laughed uncontrollably and we hugged. She looked at me with that look she has, and she said, “Well, some people are going to really love this album … and some other people. . . .” But to us we knew what we had. This album was the destination of a very long, winding, and colorful journey. We had no idea that the world we would end up releasing it into would be as it was. Nobody expected that.

Luckily you started this album long before the pandemic hit. What were the origins of this process?

One of the best, most illuminating, and empowering parts of the band was that for the first few months, we went to Fiona’s house and I wasn’t the bass player, Amy wasn’t the drummer, David wasn’t the guitar player, and Fiona wasn’t the singer. We were four kids, and we would walk around playing seedpods and plastic food containers with rubber bands on them, really just any objects we found around her house. We made sounds almost like birds, and we would chant. By the time we took to our instruments, we were on a much more intimate level and a much more subconscious level of communicating and playing together. This album was something so deeply internalized and personal in a way that no other album I’ve ever been involved with has been, and that includes Soul Coughing. It went from the deepest depths of my interior out to the entire world.

Did any songs formulate while you were playing around like kids?

Some ideas did. “On I Go” was one of the very first things we came up with, and it came from Fiona just walking around. Because I know Fiona so well, I could tell from the vocal cadence that it was one of her ideas she got from her walks. I can now tell when she’s pissed off, how fast she’s walking, and what she’s thinking when she brings us ideas. She’s this lightning bolt with a genius of assemblage, and she finds a way to create unique objects out of everyday forms. Some of these songs came from us marching around and chanting. We were just playing her house and anything we could bang on.

Obviously, this process was different from anything you’d done before.

It was like nothing any of us had done. It really came down to our bonds with each other. It’s exciting watching Fiona grow from a genius loner girl with a piano and no band, to having bands assembled for records and tours, to her now having a band that she assembled herself that she truly feels at home in. And so much of it came from her spending so much time at [L.A. nightclub] Largo, where she could be herself and not the public persona of Fiona Apple. It made her remember what she loved most about music. That place is one of the few remaining special places for music that acts almost like fertilizer, in that so much grows from there. Fiona could make mistakes onstage and play stuff that nobody had ever heard and work stuff out in the moment. The fun, elastic, and surprising part of music came back to her, and that’s something that she is just brilliant at. The previous album, The Idler Wheel [2012], also reflected that.

Steinberg and Apple recording in her home (photos by Amy Aileen Wood)

How did you track your basses for this record?

It depended on the song. For the stuff we did at Sonic Ranch, I used a Fender Bassman amp, and we’d play really quietly. I was set up next to the piano with Fiona, and we would just dive into the songs. We actually tracked a lot of bass at Fiona’s house. We would set up a mic on my bass, and Fiona engineered it all. We tried to keep things as simple as possible and enjoy the freedom of approaching everything in that way.

Do you have a favorite song in particular from the album?

I am delighted to say no. The thing I love about playing Fiona’s music is that there’s no sag in the set. Every moment is complete and utter presence. It’s one of those things that make her a unique artist. Every millisecond she’s alive, and so is her music.

The opening track “I Want You to Love Me” has a lot of bass movement.

That is one of the oldest songs on the record. That one felt natural for me to play what I do. I approached it as I would chamber music, and I tried to find the weight and the gestures to what Fiona was doing. She’s coming from a really personal cadence, and I found my moments in that and really tried to play nothing but those moments.

“Ladies” has a great groove. How did that come about?

That was a preexisting idea she had in a different form — she had the melody, but she just couldn’t write around it. She asked me to write new music for it. I wrote the actual parts out at Sonic Ranch, and it all happened really quickly. I kind of played it on the spot, but now to my ear it’s a really chatty bass line, for the simple fact that I’m trying to outline chords, because it’s all bass and drums. The first take ended up being the take we used. I hated it at first, but I love it now. I’ve co-written and ghost-written stuff over the years, but I’ve never been involved in a process that went easier than that song. That was the first song we finished on the album, and the version you hear is the original rough mix. Every time I hear it, it’s so lovely that I forget I co-wrote it. And her vocals on it are just remarkable. Are you kidding me?

Does Fiona give a lot of input on bass, or does she leave it up to you?

The only thing resembling a request or instruction was when she wrote the song “Newspaper” and presented it to me. It has a terrific drum groove, and I put in my two cents about her vocals and the harmonies. I wasn’t even going to play over it, because there was already bass all over the drums, but then she wrote me my favorite text of all time, which was, “How do you feel about slap bass?” The first thing I thought of was Michael Henderson playing with Miles Davis in Japan. And as a side note, Michael Henderson, holy shit. He is just a monster. Chris Wood once told me he could tell that Henderson was an influence on my playing, and that was about the biggest compliment I’ve ever received. Anyway, I ended up channeling him on that song during the outro. Fiona’s judgment is impeccable; we all trust her entirely. But as far as bass goes, she always lets me run free with whatever I hear as suitable for her songs.

Apple and Steinberg (photo by John Bernstein)

You get name-checked in the song “Shemeika” when Fiona sings, “Sebastian says I’m a good man in a storm.” What’s the story behind that?

Fiona and I were playing a show with the Watkins Family Hour at the Largo a while back when Michael Nesmith [the Monkees] became charmed with us and invited all of us down to Marfa, Texas, to attend an art festival. So we went down there and checked into a groovy hotel, and we’re enjoying ourselves a nice meal, when we decided to go see the Marfa lights in the middle of nowhere. It’s an old-school stoner spot where apparently these lights suddenly appear out of nowhere and they look like UFOs. Sure enough, they do. We were coming back from that journey and we had smoked some weed, but not in the car. I’m in the back with an apple, which we smoked out of, when all of a sudden we get pulled over by the West Texas law. They’re giving David a sobriety test; I’m trying to hide the apple, and out comes Fiona in a beautiful prairie dress to try to defuse the situation. They’re telling me they’re getting the K9 unit over because I smell like good weed, and Fiona turns to me and whispers, “He hates you — give me the weed right now.” I handed the bag to her, quickly ate as much of the apple as I could, and then I got pulled out of the car, not gently, and they started searching me while Fiona was charming them. The K9 unit pulled up and the drug dog just wanted to say hi to Fiona, who was sitting in the grass at this point. They eventually gave up and had to walk away and leave us be. We reassembled in the car and were all pretty shaken up and I turned to Fiona and told her that she’s a good man in a storm. And that’s the story.

Apple, Steinberg, Wood, and Garza (photo by Zelda Hallman)

What was it like working with Amy Aileen Wood as a rhythm section?

It’s a dream. She’s such a unique force of nature behind the kit. Amy fixates on the same things that I do: She navigates via vocals and knows how to really support the song as a whole. That’s such a relief for me. Amy is no bullshit, yet she’s a completely humble force. It blows my mind how great she is. Every time I listen to the album, I just freak out about what she does. Every fill she plays is so tasteful and has never been done before, even though they have a nice familiarity about them.

You really dig in and get a lot of growling, rattling string resonation that you somehow make musical. It shows up a lot throughout Bolt Cutters.

I once saw a New York Times interview with Neil Young from maybe 20 years ago that I think about constantly, where he was asked about his guitar playing. He said, “With the guitar there’s a wall that exists, and on one side of the wall is scales, modes, tunings, chords, and whatnot, but on the other side of the wall is where the whales and thunder and trains are. That’s where I try to get to with my guitar playing.” When I read that, I realized that’s where I started as a musician, and as a person for that matter. I started as someone who didn’t have social skills or a social life or any kind of musical training, but I had a relationship with sound, and I wanted to be a train. In having that, I don’t have a sense of a barrier between what is proper; I just look for what the song is asking me to do. As long as everybody is down with it, it works. So any strange sounds you hear or reverberations are just me playing what I’m hearing, whether it’s musically correct or not.

Soul Coughing, 1995

How does it feel to reflect back on your days in Soul Coughing?

That’s a whole interview in itself, but I’ll give you a summary. That was during a time in New York City when bands weren’t really a part of the downtown thing. Coming from a place like Boston, which was a band town, there wasn’t a lot of that going on in New York at the time. I was having a great time playing bass with everyone, and I did a lot of stuff at the old Knitting Factory [nightclub]. I kept my bass amp there for years because of how much I was playing there with different people. As the legend goes, Mike [Doughty, vocals/guitar] was the door guy, and I knew Yuval [Gabay, drums] slightly, and Doughty eventually called us all together because he thought we were making the most interesting music of people he knew. We were not an immediate match at all. When I think of that band, I think of it like making soup: You take four really strong individual elements, throw them in some water, and it’s going to take a while for them to simmer and mix together. Where we ended up was an extraordinary place, because we came up playing the music that all of the hip-hop samples came from. We were from the pre-sampler era, and we could play that stuff without playing fills every eight bars. It was one of those situations where we were very experienced [but] totally naïve. Each one of us was so hard-headed, but something was happening, and none of us quite knew what it was. We were the band that couldn’t rehearse, and we never did. It wasn’t until we got onstage that things clicked and worked. I’m really proud of what we did, and I’m really happy that we broke up when we did. I think we did it at a high level every minute that we possibly could have, and I’m glad we haven’t tried to get back together since.

You’ve played with an amazing range of high-profile artists. What makes you such a sought-after bass player?

Beats the hell outta me, man. Maybe my sparkling laugh, the twinkle in my eye, or my cooking. Honestly, it’s hard to say. All of the relationships are personal. I don’t typically do big mainstream things, because I’m a personality player. I think it’s mainly because I’m willing to do the stuff that you wouldn’t ask a proper upright player to do. Over time it became a voice, I guess, and some people seem to like it. And perhaps over the years I’ve learned what not to play.

How do you approach upright differently than electric?

I tend to think of them as overlapping more than being particularly different, although they have different voices. Electric was always around, and once I got done playing through Aerosmith records I had the rudiments, but electric to me was never very compelling to play by itself. Upright is more fun for me to play on its own. The more I play it, the more it talks back to me. Electric is such a co-dependent instrument, and I’m not one to be sitting around playing [Jaco Pastorius’] “Portrait of Tracy” all day. With upright I never know what kind of adventure I’m going to get into. It’s really all about understanding which voice will fit the music from each particular instrument. Upright expresses one end, and electric covers the other end. But as I said before, bass is a function, not an instrument.

Steinberg’s 1973 Fender Precision, 1962 Hofner, and Yamaha BB5000

You play a Yamaha BB5000. What is it that you love about that bass?

It just gets the hell out of the way. I started out an avid P-Bass guy, because John Entwistle was my first bass hero, and I saw pictures of him playing that bass and I got one. Then I yanked the frets off it when Jaco showed up, of course. Eventually I started playing with a guy who wrote a lot of nutty tunes, and I would drop my E string down to D or even C. Five-string basses started coming out at that point, but they were all Ken Smiths that were nine feet wide and sounded like harpsichords. I saw a picture in the back of a magazine of Nathan East playing a Yamaha, and something about the scale of the neck made me say, “that one.” I went to a music store in Boston and got a black one. It was so wonderfully and frustratingly neutral. Then after enough beer spills, train rides, and leaning it up against the monitors, it began to get a voice that I could recognize. I have a fancy-pants old Hofner that I used with Neil Diamond and a few other artists, but most of the stuff I do I can naturally do on the Yamaha.

Steinberg, Jon Brion, James Gadson and Adam Sandler in “Funny People” (2009)

What was it like being featured in the movie “Funny People”?

That all came about from Jon Brion. He’s always calling me up to tell me to come play on different stuff, like a Kanye West track or with some obscure artist. One time he called and asked if I was interested in being a bass player in a film with him and drummer James Gadson, and I said of course I did. I’m a huge fan of James’ and didn’t ask any more questions. I later learned that we would be playing with Adam Sandler in the movie. It sounds weird, but this is Hollywood, man; there’s all types of crazy shit that you walk into. I had never met Gadson before, so the four of us first met at a studio in Santa Monica and played through like six potential songs for the movie. I wasn’t really freaked out to play with Sandler, I just wanted to meet James Gadson and play with him. I arrived and we were the first two people there, and we hung out for like an hour and a half, and it was so good. Then Jon showed up and told us to start playing. We did a bass-and-drums thing, and it was amazing. We did that and Sandler showed up, and he was totally easy to work with and he can play and sing, so it worked. Then they scheduled the shoot in Culver City, and the fun part was being on an actual film set. We played the tunes, did a couple of takes, and that was that. I can always tell when they replay that on TV networks, because when I go to Whole Foods people will recognize me and wonder where they know me from. It’s the only time I get recognized in public. I guess it’s a bass player thing.

How and when did you first start playing bass?

The first notice I ever took of bass was the chorus of the song “I’m a Loser” by the Beatles. It’s a walking part, and I didn’t know what was making that sound at the time, but I knew it was what I wanted to do. I loved the Beatles and I loved Fats Waller, and then when I heard “Sparks” by the Who, with that open E that John Entwistle is demolishing, I knew that bass is what I wanted to do. I convinced my mom to get me a Ralston electric bass, and it sounded great. I had it for two years before I had an amp, but that thing was all I cared about. I used to put the headstock against my bedroom wall to hear it reverberate, and I’d play along with records. It helped give me a physical sense of the instrument in a really interesting way. And it sounded big holding it against the wall because, I guess, I was playing a house.

(photo by Justin Mark Morrison)

Why does bass resonate so deeply with you?

My old answer would have been that it’s the best seat in the house, or I’m the liaison between the rhythm and the melody, or something like that. But really, the truth is that bass is the closest thing to a chaplain in a musical situation. It’s a role where I get to be intimately involved with all aspects of the music and all of the players without ever having to be intrusive. And if I am intrusive, I’m doing something wrong. I also get a unique relationship with each of the other musicians, thanks to the fact that there’s genuinely only one bassist in a band.

Even being self-taught, it seems like you have a firm knowledge of theory and jazz.

I had a realization the other day that the walking bass line is the all-access pass to music for the curious. From chords to harmony, it’s a great way to learn about courage and how elastic music can be. With conviction, you can play anything. There’s a great quote that I have lifted so many times on gigs that Pops Foster said, which is, “Hell, I’d play any old go-to-hell note so long as it swings.” I know exactly what he means. When you’re really in it, you start to see that the only reason a particular note won’t work is because people are scared to play it. Sun Ra is my ultimate musical hero — I’ve learned so much from him — and I read an interview where a bassoonist recounts that Sun Ra had told him, “Play all of the things you don’t know. You’ll be surprised by what you don’t know. There’s infinity in what you don’t know. Do you know how many notes there are between Cand D? If you deal with those tones, you can play nature, and nature doesn’t know notes. That’s why religions have bells, because they have transient tones. You’re not a musician, you’re a tone scientist.” That’s always how I’ve felt my whole life. BM

Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters [2020]

Steinberg’s 1952 Arnold upright


Bass 1952 Arnold upright bass, Yamaha BB5000, 1973 Fender Precision with 1964 neck, 1962 Hofner Deluxe Beatle Bass

Rig Gallien-Krueger 1001RB head, 1×15 cabinet

Jon D'Auria   By: Jon D'Auria

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