Just two years after the release of his album Eargoggle Fodder, Sean Fairchild, better known as his stage moniker Combinator, has returned with a new EP that expands on his unique prog-meets-industrial-meets-EDM sound. As a producer, songwriter, composer, and vocalist, Fairchild keeps bass at the core of everything he does, as is proven with the seven tracks on this EP that each feature tapping, slapping, lightning-fast riffs, and all of the tonal range that his MTD 6-strings provide him. Masterly produced with an intensely hi-fi sound, re//combinator explodes through your headphones illuminating every panned note, industrial beat, ethereal sweep, and vocoder-coated vocal on an album that takes you on an emotive ride. From the adept tapping and slapping of album openers “Guest In Your Own” and “Things that Should” to the mellower vibes of “Hide and Seek,” “Respira,” and “Cartoon Character Child,” Fairchild laces arcs and elaborate themes into his bigger picture, which is as serene as it is intense.
Combinator didn’t initially start as a solo journey for the Seattle, Washington-based bassist, as his 2016 debut release, allsound, featured a trio incarnation with guitarist Greg Pascale and drummer Isaac Chirino. Adapting to the 2020 pandemic lockdown, Fairchild continued writing material of his own and decided to take on all sonic duties when it came to Combinator. Thankfully, with his pedigree in drum programming mixed with his innovation in using effects and MIDI on his bass to sound like other instruments, he was able to fill out the spectrum of sound and control every element. re//combinator truly gives the listener an intimate look into the mind of Combinator, but we took it a step further to pick his brain on the rest of the details.
This is a complex album with a lot of intense bass parts on it. What was the writing process like?
I see the bass as my primary controller, as my conduit into the world of music. I’ve worked for many years at the implementation and improvement of real time, polyphonic bass to MIDI processing, and I’m a huge fan of effects and compelling sounds in general. Almost everything you hear on the album that’s not clearly vocals or programming—and even a little bit of the drum programming —was originally produced by one of my basses. That includes everything that sounds like a guitar, synth, bass, some of the sub hits, vocoder, and more. So to answer the question more directly, it almost always starts with the bass for me, if the lyrical melody didn’t come first.
What were the biggest differences in approach to writing this album from Eargoggle Fodder?
They were, for the most part, pretty similar, actually. This EP was even more of a purely solo effort, in terms of writing and production, though. I was greatly aided on production choices by my friend and co-producer—even though he doesn’t fully accept that title—Chris Wadsworth. My old bandmate and best friend, Isaac Chirino appears on one heritage track, as he did on the last one [“Through the Fog”]. One of my collaborators, Godcloud is back on one track. Mostly I think my production knowledge and techniques were a little sharper this time around.
How would you say you’ve most evolved in the span of the two albums?
These two last albums have been essentially solo albums, following two previous releases in a band format. In a band, you of course have to compromise and a middle path develops from everyone’s collective preferences. But I’ve realized in some ways I’m making kind of a return to interests and styles from my youth, before I decided to become a professional sideman and teacher. I think that coincides with the by and large cessation of those practices for me and my return to artistic pursuit. Original, progressive music was all I was interested in before college and I always led or had been in original bands before turning hired gun. And in those earlier days, I was hugely inspired by and involved with various forms of progressive rock, electronic music, lots of alternative rock, and Nine Inch Nail-like industrial vibes. I think I’ve somewhat come full circle in a musical way, as well as personally, in other ways.
Your tone is super hi-fi on these songs. How did you track this material?
I go direct almost exclusively. I’m an audio nut and fairly well-informed tech geek, and I’m in the camp that believes there are plugins capable of producing tones indistinguishable from live-recorded scenarios when used in the right way. I tracked a lot through my Line 6 Helix in path before my MOTU interface, but that’s more out of habit than anything else. Most of the effects that you hear actually come from the Helix Native plugin, Positive Grid’s Bias FX 2, Jam Origin’s Midi Guitar 2 and Midi Bass, and a whole bunch of native Ableton Live effects. I play MTD basses with Bartolini pickups, which naturally have a pretty wide spectrum and hi-fi sound. I found I needed a different timbre and more aggressive character on the track “Things That Should Be,” so I used an EMG DCX and JAX in one of my MTD 5-strings on that.
How would you describe your ideal bass tone and how do you strive to achieve it?
That’s a very good question because I’m constantly thinking about it! It’s also a moving target. Most recently, I’m thinking about it as super-rich harmonically, present, full spectrum, not brash in the high mids or upper highs, but also thick and aggressive. Not shy, but not to be ignored. I’m getting a lot of that from the MM style pickup configuration on the MTD Kingston Super 5 I recently picked up.
We definitely hear some Squarepusher influence in your writing. How big of an inspiration was he?
Oh, is it that obvious?! Just kidding, he’s a massive influence on me and my work. I’ve been a huge fan of what he does for the past 15 years or so, and in particular I find his bass-involved music and live setup innovations highly inspiring. He is pretty much a singular entity in the world: a live performing, virtuoso bass player and drummer, and a brilliant electronic musician and DJ. Anything I’ve figured out with respect to MIDI implementation, integration of DAW and sequencing software to live, acoustic, and electro-acoustic performances, he had practically written the book on years earlier. I’ve definitely borrowed heavily from how he goes about what he does, and it’s entirely meant as an homage. I’m quite grateful to be coming after him, not having to completely reinvent this wheel. I know he’s not big on collaboration, but I’d love to meet and work with him some day. Or sit across a pub table from him. That might even be better.
How natural is it for you to sing while playing? Especially on these difficult songs.
Super natural. I’ve been a singer almost as long as I’ve been a bassist, and there’s a lot of emotional expression I feel I can only do via the voice as a vehicle, and vice versa. It can be pretty difficult to sing and play proggy, odd meter stuff at the same time, but I always tell my students this; if you practice anything slowly enough, it’s virtually all attainable. The playing goes on autopilot while I sing. Although I have to admit, for one of the videos for this album, I did actually have to learn how to sing and play the song in real time simultaneously—because I had written it asynchronously and hadn’t ever performed it before!
You use a lot of different playing techniques on this. How do you decide which to apply where?
I use a lot of double thumbing and what I call quad thumping—or pent and hex thumping—incorporating two to three finger plucks in a grouping. That’s because I’ve never been a super speedy pizzicato player. I’m fast enough, I suppose, but I’ve always felt restrained a bit by my facility there. So if something’s really fast, that’s one choice. It’s more of a natural substitution. I also like applying flamenco guitar right-hand techniques to bass, mostly because I think it sounds cool and allows for more continuous, pad like sounds, as is the case with rolled rasgueados on chords. I tap things when I want the percussive sound or the intervals are too far apart to play any other way.
What was it like programming the intricate beats on this album?
I’m a huge drum and bass fan. But aside from that I love busy, energetic drums, like Mars Volta had with Jon Theodore. I like to take acoustic drums and pan them hard left or right, and take electronic ones with complementary timbres and pan to the other side, keeping bass drum pitches high, like they are in drum and bass, and putting a sub bass element in the center. And I love to glitch out percussion with beat repeat effects and others. This time, as a new to me experiment, I did more chopping up of programmed parts and loading the samples into Ableton’s sampler. Then I automated its output with a MIDI arpeggiator, which picked samples completely at random. I’d let that run for maybe a minute while recording the output, then find the bits I thought were the coolest and make a clip out of those. Kind of a nice way to sort of work with somebody else, alone. I ended up with some great patterns I just wouldn’t have thought of on my own.
Which is the most difficult song for you to play?
“Things That Should Be.” It’s just a bear, with the 7/8 time signature at a high tempo, vocals over it, a dense arrangement that sometimes obscures the timing, and playing 32nd-note quad slapped groups in the verse. I really stuck it to myself with that one. But I wrote the parts separately, and that’s how I almost always do it. It then becomes a challenge to me, that I have to rise to meet to pull it off live and do justice to the composition. I often have to spend a fair amount of time practicing my songs.
You primarily use 6-strings basses. What made you decide to start using the extended ranges of bass?
I’ve just come to rely on all those strings to play the things I’ve written. But originally, I made the jump back in 2008 with an Ibanez “test” bass I bought to see if I’d like the extra string, and I found that I loved having it. But, I couldn’t give up the low B. There was the clear validation. It did take me more than ten years of playing to get to a point where I was even interested in trying the 6-string, though. Over time, the vast majority of the parts I’ve written require either a ton of quick shifting on a 5-string that I frankly don’t want to do, or the physical necessity of a 6-string tuned in fourths. I actually have to adapt things to 5-string now, and there’s some stuff I can’t physically play on it. I don’t own any 4-strings.
Who are your greatest bass influences?
In no particular order, Les Claypool, Squarepusher, Victor Wooten, Flea, and Stanley Clarke. I’m sure I’ve left out five others that I’ll kick myself for later. But I love the way guys like Thundercat, Ryan Martinie, Trip Walmsley, and a host of others play, even if they’re not direct influences. And when I was first starting out at age 13, it was people like Jeff Ament, Duff McKagan, Bakithi Kumalo, and John Entwistle. I had John’s Hot Licks VHS tape and I liked how he played with distortion and said that bass players shouldn’t be afraid of treble.
Why bass? How does the instrument and its role in music resonate with you?
It just sticks to me. It’s physical, I love the register, I love the sounds that it makes, and now, after something like 29 years of playing, it’s my specialty. We’re bonded. I didn’t come to the bass because of a traditional role; I was a saxophonist who had a bass put in his hands. I started playing with a pick, and a tiny belt-clipped, battery-powered Marshall amp with a distortion channel. I appreciate the role it has traditionally played, and I do love to play that role often, but generally when I play the bass it’s just my voice and an extension of my personality as an outgoing composer, bandleader, and for lack of a better term, frontman. My bass playing is just me, via strings.
Are you going to get out and start playing these songs live at any point?
Yes!! The first in a series of shows is happening in Seattle at Aurora Borealis, on September 16th. It’ll be an album release party and sort of an unveiling, coming out affair, with more dates to follow in the fall. If you’re in the area, don’t miss it! –BM
Hear Him On: Combinator, re//combinator 
Basses MTD Nightfall 635-24, 635-24, 535-24, Kingston Super 5 (all with Bartolini pickups )
RIG Ableton Live, Akai MIDI controllers, MOTU interfaces, Tsunami Cables, Genzler Amplification, Shure instrument and IEM wireless systems, GRUV Gear products
EFFECTS Line 6 Helix and Helix Native plugin (about 20 proprietary and modeled effects in either), Ableton plugins, vocoder
STRINGS GHS Super Steels custom gauges (.030-.040-.050-.078-.098-.125)
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