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Damian Erskine – Wunderkind

By Brent-Anthony Johnson

Damian Erskine has had a bass guitar in his able hands since the age of 6… and it sounds like it! Listening to him play is like hearing a dear friend discuss a well-understood subject – Damian speaks bass fluently! It is difficult to imagine the young Portland, Oregon-based player sounding any differently, even though he also studied with renowned bassists Reggie Hamilton, Kai Eckhardt, and Marc Johnson. Damian began his career in the Bay Area before relocating further north, and he continues to bring nothing short of greatness to the stage with the likes of Tony Furtado, Les McCann, Gino Vannelli, Kate Schutt, Ramsey Embick, and Toshi Onizuka. His recently released “Trios” is a fabulous outing that displays his abilities as leader, composer, and (most importantly) bassist.

BAJ: Hey man! Welcome to Bass Frontiers! You’ve been playing music your entire life. What are your earliest musical experiences and memories? Also, when and why did you move into the 6-string electric contrabass guitar?

Damien Erskine

DE: First, let me say what a pleasure and honor it is to do this interview! I’ve always loved Bass Frontiers Magazine. My grandfather bought me a bass when I was 6 years old and had me start right away on my scales and reading exercises. He forced me to be very diligent and attentive to detail and nuance while practicing – something I grew to appreciate! I also picked up the drums on my own at age 10. My uncle, Peter Erskine, being an obvious musical inspiration, lived in NYC at the time (I grew up in NJ) and my grandfather and I would often drive up to the city to watch Peter play with everyone. That scene was SO happening at the time. Jaco, Scofield, Bob Mintzer, The Brecker Brothers, John Abercrombie, Marc Johnson, Weather Report… He would sit me up at the bar with a Shirley Temple and I got to see them all. I got to spend a LOT of time at a club the Brecker Brothers owned called “7th Ave South.” Man, that place was happening! I wasn’t always old enough to really appreciate it, but it’s in there in the recesses of my mind. My grandfather was a Psychiatrist, but also played bass, and music was always his first love. I am endlessly grateful for him pushing, inspiring and turning me on to so much. I was also lucky enough to have gotten to hang with both Jaco and Marc Johnson and get little lessons and talk music. That was a very unique experience that I’m endlessly thankful for.

As far as the 6-string goes. I was going to Berklee College of Music and was bumming around a Guitar Center and started to noodle around on a Pedulla 6 they had there. I just fell in love with the range of possibilities it afforded me. I immediately called home to tell everyone about it and my grandfather ordered one for me as an early graduation present! I couldn’t believe it. That was in about ’94 and I sold my four-string and didn’t look back until last year or so. I now have a few Zons, one of which is a beautiful 4-string Joe built me for a Tony Furtado tour (Tony prefers that I play a 4 so I don’t interfere sonically with his dropped tuned slide guitars). That Zon 4-string may be the best bass I’ve ever owned and I really dug how it (again) changed my perspective and playing. I’m now an equal opportunity bassist (Ha!)… I enjoy playing both 4 and 6 depending on the gig, now. 5?s still confuse me a bit, though… I think it’s the asymmetry of it, actually. My most recent Zon is a stunning fretless 5-string that is a true joy to play, it just takes a little more concentration for me, especially when I solo. It’s been a long time since I had to think about what string I was on while on a gig!

BAJ: You have a wealth of experience in rock, jazz, and funk; have you found it difficult to remain “outside the box” as your approach covers such a wide musical landscape? It seems that various genre-oriented players would like to kidnap you into their world(s)! How do you stay flexible in that regard?

DE: I don’t know if it’s my strength or weakness as a player, but I can only really play my best when I’m playing what I feel in any situation. I love just about every style of music there is and listen to a broad range of things, so my only real consideration is whether or not I’m feeling the music and/or the band. If the music’s cool and the band is happening… I’ll be in heaven. It did take me quite some time to become mature enough and confident enough to not play inappropriately, however. Especially when it comes to playing with songwriters. It’s so easy to start playing with the harmony and playing all these melodic little runs and you listen back and realize you’ve been trampling all over the song. I’ve definitely come to appreciate a rock-solid part with very carefully considered moments of expression. I get very tuned in to every nuance of my bass line or groove and find that I can get as much or more satisfaction out of subtlety and nuance than impressing no-one but that other bass player in the back with a lightning fast lick every four bars. It’s amazing how you can change a line simply by altering how and when you deaden notes (if at all), how long they ring, what string you play a note on, or what part of what finger is plucking the note, etc… Subtle changes have a big effect and I really enjoy trying to discern what will work best for a song.

BAJ: Can we delve into your right-hand technique before we move on? Also, talk to us about your strap/harness rig!

Damien Erskine

DE: It’s funny, I get asked about my right hand more than anything and I never really put any thought into it until somewhat recently. I unconsciously developed a handful of techniques that are somewhat unusual, I hear. They were all pretty much born out of the search for tone or finding a way to play something that almost came out of me finger style, but couldn’t quite get there. I think the first variation came about while exploring chords in college. I began using my thumb quite a bit. I then heard Victor Wooten and became fascinated with his rhythmic strumming… and NO, I can’t double-thumb at all. Just never worked for me. I didn’t quite feel it like that, but I dug the concept, so I started experimenting with imitating the drummer rhythmically by thumping on the strings over the pickup and using hammer-ons with the left hand while also imitating the guitarist with the chordal stuff, using my thumb for the bass notes of the chords.

I’ve never been satisfied with my tone and began to palm-mute more and more to fatten my sound. My only issue there was how handicapped I felt with my right hand attached to the bridge in that position and trying to play with my fingers at an extreme angle or just my thumb. So I began to use my pinky to mute the string I was playing on by the bridge. I also use it as my anchor (instead of my thumb) when I’m not muting. This allowed me to keep my hand in its normal position. Eventually, though, I needed to go beyond muting one string at a time, so I began to lay my pinky on the low string I might be using and bend it over at the first knuckle so the rest of my pinky muted 2 more strings! A lot of people I’ve showed it to say it is uncomfortable for them. It just came naturally to me and never felt weird for some reason. This hand position also seemed a perfect fit for using my thumb for more than chords, but incorporating it into my lines as well. This is when I became conscious of it and started inventing little exercises to increase my independence and dexterity between those 3 fingers (thumb, index and middle). I now frequently use my thumb and index as most people use their index and middle fingers. Using my middle to travel up the strings or play higher notes that might just pop out of the lower line. Does that all make sense?! I also started messing with more flamenco style rhythmic flourishes using all 3 fingers after playing with some wonderful flamenco guitarists here in Portland. Fun stuff!

As for the strap, I thought of that while on a long tour. We were playing 4 hours a night, 5 nights a week or so and I noticed my fingers getting a little numb around the 3rd set each night. This was due to the full weight of my 6-string being supported by my right shoulder and it all seemed to really dig into my neck. When I got home, I went to a leather shop and bought some clasps, scrap leather and rivets and went home to experiment. A few days later I finally got something that worked and that’s what I still use! I added a second leather strap that attaches behind my right shoulder blade, comes over my right shoulder and loops around the upper horn of my bass. It now pretty evenly distributed the weight of my bass across both shoulders. I can also switch the weight of the bass from shoulder to shoulder by shifting the bass a bit. In addition, upper register work has become easier as I can push my right arm back on the strap and it kind of shoots the bass more towards the center of my body. Pretty stoked with how it turned out! I get a ton of emails about it and Joe Zon has been working on a universal design that we may offer at some point.

BAJ: You have a great relationship with Zon and Aguilar. Let’s talk about your clinic schedule, instruction roster and the topics you cover therein…

DE: Meeting Joe Zon at the NAMM show in 2006 was the best thing that’s happened to me as far as my basses go and as far as official relationships with companies go. He is a world-class luthier and a world-class guy (as is everyone else at the shop).

Joe is still so excited to build people EXACTLY what they want. He is a master at discerning what it is you want to hear and then making that come to fruition. He is also an extremely supportive and sweet guy. Always willing to give time to the players of his basses whether they are known, endorsers, famous or weekend warriors. He really seems to treasure his relationship with the people who play his basses. I admire that a lot.

Actually, I switched from Aguilar to AccuGroove a little over a year ago. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the Aguilar gear and the company is fantastic to work with. But, I did a bass concert in SF with Michael Manring, Todd Johnson, Ray Riendeau and Jonni Lightfoot for Zon Guitars and fell in love with The AccuGroove Tri-115. I begged and pleaded but Aguilar wouldn’t let me endorse ONLY their power amps, so I had to switch my “official” affiliation to AccuGroove. I prefer AccuGroove’s cabs second to none! I will say that Aguilar’s DB-750 is (in my opinion) the best hybrid head out there today. That thing is amazing. It is heavy though, and these days I’m mostly using a Walter Woods hi-power on top of the AccuGroove. My other head now is an Alembic F1-X Tube Preamp with a QSC power amp. That one is also a GREAT recording rig. Pretty much everything sounds good through the AccuGroove’s! AccuGroove is also coming out with a head soon that I’m very excited to try out on some gigs. I played a Prototype at this year’s NAMM show and it sounded beautiful.

BAJ: “Trios” is a fantastic premier release, man! Congratulations! How did the project come together? Also, let’s discuss your approach to composing and arranging tunes! I loved your version of “Footprints” by the way!

DE: I’m so glad you liked it! Really, I had wanted to do my own disc for quite some time but had never felt satisfied with my own writing. I have “side-man’s disease” (HA!)… I spend ALL of my time playing other peoples music and have only recently begun to think about writing my own material to better tap into “my thing.” My process is in its infancy stages, so I basically lock some grooves into my Boss Loopstation and either experiment with melodies with my instrument or with my voice. I think the real key to a successful album is the people involved and the same goes with a song. The simplest of ideas can really come together in unexpected and exciting ways with the right guys next to you on stage. The “Trios” album is all other people’s music. I just wanted to play songs I dig with guys I like playing with on that one.

BAJ: A lot of players tend to avoid ostinato bass lines, I have noticed. Do you find that to be true? If so, why do you think that is so? You play a few noteworthy lines on the disc that are ostinato based! It felt like a cool “secret weapon” as you built your solos off the environment created by your line. Your thoughts on this subject?

Damien Erskine

DE: I don’t know if it’s conscious or not, but I do think ostinato lines to possibly be an under-utilized tool. If it’s a bass line, I can get very meditative when I’m really locking into a line and letting that speak for itself for a while before moving on. In regards to soloing, I find it a useful way to breathe and let my ears take an extra few seconds to consider the possibilities. I was actually surprised you picked up on that! I often feel that I still play too much and too fast, so it was nice to hear that the other stuff is coming through as well! I’ve always been my worst critic… Keeps me forward moving, I think.

BAJ: You have worked hard on your facility on the instrument. What technical aspects of your playing are you currently working on? What are a couple technical ideas that could help our readers?

DE: Not to instill any bad habits in any of your readers, but a lot of my technical facility came from having bad practice habits in my 20?s. I did the majority of my shedding in front of the TV, often not wanting to interfere with the dialogue, so I would mute all of my notes and fiddle with drum rudiments with my right hand (also with hammer-ons in the left hand). I’d also try and invent different combinations of fingerings and play steady 16ths, etc… I think I built a ton of muscle memory that way.

Lately, I’m very intentional about challenging myself. I constantly try and think of something I haven’t considered or done in regards to technique or harmony and then invent my own exercises to very acutely focus on that specific thing. The real key to improving and practicing is to make sure you’re challenging yourself in some way. If you’re not making mistakes and at the edge of your capacity, then you’re not really practicing in my opinion. You may be exercising your fingers and building muscle memory, but you’re not really shedding.

I’m also very aware of keeping things musical when I practice. Even if I’m shedding scales, I’ll try and make them groove or be interesting in some way. I have a horrible attention span if I’m not really into what I’m shedding, so I need to keep it interesting. For example, with purely technical exercises, I may shed the right hand pattern (or whatever it is) for a few minutes, but then I’ll try and write a line that really utilizes that concept and really try and internalize the pocket and make music out of it. I find a lot of folks don’t practice making music when they’re at home and then find themselves wondering why things just don’t feel or sound quite right when they play with a band. You have to practice being musical to be musical just as much as you have to practice plucking with more than one finger to do it well.

BAJ: Your process and approach throughout “Trios” is really refreshing! You groove so tough through places where walking was expected (for instance). It’s not irreverence I hear and I wanted to note that! Tell us about your soloing concept…

DE: Again, I just feel better when I’m playing what I hear. I’m honestly not even quite sure that I consider myself a “jazz musician” in the traditional sense. That’s because when I’m playing really straight ahead stuff, I never feel 100% because I can only hear an upright with very traditional forms of jazz. I’m playing an electric bass, wrong sound for my ears. I might be the only one thinking that, but music is about how it sounds in the end and if it doesn’t sound right to me, it just doesn’t. That said, I take EVERY jazz gig I can get of any sort, because I get much joy out of sweating on a gig and really working on ideas and sounds as I do being in my element and feeling like I can do no wrong. Whenever I feel I did something poorly, I remember that thing and work on it. Always trying to play in situations just a step beyond where you are is never a bad thing… eventually, you realize that they are no longer beyond you anymore!

As far as soloing… Man, it’s my record! Ain’t no one gonna tell me how to solo on my record (laughing now). Honestly, though, when I solo I do my best to let my mind relax and let me ears tell me where to go. I’m still not as nearly “non-thinking” as I’d like to be when I play, but I really try and just take everything I know, forget about it and let my subconscious control the show when I solo. It’s much harder for me with the material on this album, because I wanted to play to the strength of the band as a whole and not be selfish with the material and only serve myself. That meant playing more of a Latin-jazz vibe and not just pocket stuff. That also forced me to stretch in directions not entirely of my own. I like that!

Although I consider myself to really be a funk guy at heart, when people ask what I consider myself musically, I think it really may be something like “One who plays well with others in unfamiliar situations” (laughing again). But really, I’ve spent my entire musical life playing other people’s music, often with no or little rehearsal. I’ve begun to pride myself on my ability to cut it in most any situation. I think I also play better when I’m on my toes.

I recently had a gig with Jeff Lorber here in Portland. The sound-check was the rehearsal (hadn’t even met him before that). I did my homework as best as I could in the weeks preceding the gig, but everything is always different when you’re playing with a band instead of a CD! But man, that’s when I’m in my prime! I LOVE that feeling. Sweat was pouring off of me and my head was buried in the charts or desperately seeking cues during a solo or something. But man, the show was killing and I could barely sleep for two days because I was SO high from the magic that happens when it really counts and it’s up to you to bring it. I had a similar experience with Les McCann here in town. There is nothing better than that feeling! That’s why I like playing with people who can really challenge me in some way.

BAJ: In addition to the disc, you also have a book titled The Erskine Bass Perspective. What’s in the book, man?

DE: I was receiving a ton of emails for a while from people asking an array of questions regarding soloing and technique. It had gotten to the point that I had a few of the explanations or approaches save in text files and would copy and paste some of the lengthier concepts because I just didn’t have time to write that much! I was on the road with Tony Furtado a spending a LOT of time driving during the day and I decided to start organizing those thoughts in the back of the van one day on my laptop. I immediately thought, “you’ve got the time, just make a book for your students and anyone else who wants it.” That’s essentially what I did. I got very into it and I decided not to entirely re-invent the wheel, but I wanted to also start at the beginning of my discovery process and lead people through to where I am now in my understanding. I spend a little time explaining everything starting from the C Major scale up through reading, walking lines, arpeggios, chord shapes, modes of all scale derivations, things I’ve thought to do with the information and end the book with 6 transcriptions. There are 2 of Rich Brown (one of my favorite bassists living in Toronto), 2 of Kai Eckhardt (another of my faves, and also a past teacher and all around wonderful person) and 2 of my own solos from the CD. THAT was also an interesting experience I encourage people to undertake. Transcribe your OWN solos from a live show or recording of some type. I learned a lot about my playing doing that.

BAJ: How were you approached to present at the National Guitar Workshop, the San Francisco Bass Weekend, and the Berklee Guitar Week? How do you present when you’re called to clinic?

Damien Erskine

DE: The SF Weekend and a clinic at MoJo’s Music Academy were the only real clinics I did in which I was specifically sought out. The National Guitar Workshop (NGW) hired me for a week long session on a recommendation while in a pinch for a bass teacher and that worked out very well and I’ve since taught at various campuses on the West Coast depending on my schedule. The Berklee thing was really just more of being the house rhythm session for a weeklong guitar class. The guitar instructor hit me up to do that one. That was fun, and there were some great players in that group! I really enjoy the clinic setting. I always learn something while doing them. I don’t preconceive much, I want to see where the audience is and let them dictate where we go. I do always have a cheat sheet with me with outlines of ideas, concepts and ways I can explain or demonstrate those things. I also bring my Loop Station and, as I’m not a “solo bassist”, I may just strike up some funky little groove and then talk about ways to approach soloing over it and then have fun playing with ideas with the group. I may also play to some versions of tunes from my CD mixed without the bass track.

BAJ: Talk about your management and those necessary things to have to together to land gigs?

DE: WHOO… I wish I had real management. I’ve found 2 things that serve me well… Word-of-mouth and the Internet. Word-of-mouth is best come upon by always being professional, prepared for your gigs, early or on time and consistently being an asset to whatever musical situation you’re given (and having the right gear for the situation). I’ve been experimenting with the usefulness of the Internet as a tool for musicians and have found it indispensable. MySpace, but just not a page… leave people comments (everybody) and check out their music or page, be real and personable. Don’t be over-cheesy or schmoozy, just form relationships with people. Getting your music and videos in as many places as possible so people will come across it. iTunes, YouTube, MySpace, FaceBook, all of the digital download sites, etc. I’ve turned it into a part of my job to maintain those sites and my web presence. I also am an extreme geek and love the computer anyway, so it’s not much of a stretch. I’ve gotten a solid amount of Recording work in town, out of town, over the Internet (recorded an entire album for a great guitarist in Madrid via email, PayPal, and Yousendit). I’ve also gotten gig offers, clinic offers, etc… A good web site is the best digital business card there is. It can contain video, audio, bio, downloadable press, etc… If you’re stuff is solid and people have access to you, you can work and receive work from places you’d never expect.

BAJ: Congratulations on the Kate Schutt disc and the new Gino Vanelli release! How were those sessions and did you walk away with anything novel from those sessions?

DE: Both of those sessions were wonderful! It was a real treat to work with Gino Vannelli. I was familiar with his pop-hits, but I had no idea just exactly how deep his talent and abilities went. That dude is deep! He’s also got incredible ears and an attention to detail I had yet to encounter. I learned a lot just watching him do his thing! Also playing drums on the Gino album is Reinhardt Melz (the guy on my CD) and that’s my boy! I always love playing with Reinhardt. Dude is amazing and makes everything feel right musically.

The Kate Schutt session was just a joy. I just did a second session with her (the first being for Koko Bonaparte. Kate wrote the music and assembled the musicians). Teri-Lynne Carrington was the drummer on both sessions and she is a force. Very good hang, too. Orrin Evans (Mingus Big Band) played piano on this most recent outing and he is just wonderful. It’s always a treat to work with such great players. Kate is also a joy to work with and writes beautiful music, too. We’ll be touring this September in Canada and the NE and I’m very much looking forward to that!

BAJ: What’s next on your agenda for gigs and sessions?

DE: Well, a handful of interesting things. We’re working out scheduling with everyone to go to LA and finish shooting a DVD for Gospelchops.com with Andrew Gouche and a bunch of amazing bassists from the gospel, R&B & Hip-Hop scene. Bunch of great cats! I’m also participating in a film project to capture musicians from all over the world to perform pieces of music by Hermeto Pascoal. He had written a song a day for a full year, and a book has been published with all of the music (original scores, too!). So the idea is to have a sort of DVD companion with all 365 pieces performed. Very interesting. I just booked a session with Prema Lucas (great songwriter from the UK) in NYC, which will feature Amit Chanjee (Zawinul Syndicate guitarist), Louis Perdomo (Amazing Venezuelan pianist in NY), Peter Erskine on drums and myself. THAT sounds like it’ll be a blast. Very excited about that one. I have a few short tours with Tony Furtado on the books. A month long tour with Kate Schutt later this summer (mostly in Canada and the NE). It sounds as though I may be doing some touring with Gino Vannelli as well after the release of the album we just finished. Those are the things that pop into my mind… I may be forgetting something (so check the website! Shameless plug, I know). I also have a few maybe’s that should be fun as well. I may be subbing for a few gigs with BrownMan (great trumpet player from NYC and Toronto) in Trinidad and Tobago and I’ve also been asked if I was available for a clinic with a drummer in Malaysia, but none of those are confirmed at all as of yet.

BAJ: When can we expect the next disc from you as a leader?

DE: I’ve been really itching to do another disc. I’ve been leaning very heavily on the funk and pocket playing I enjoy so much lately, and I really feel that I need to capture that side of my playing. I shed a lot with Reinhardt Melz (ridiculous drummer here in Portland) and he’s come up with some complete arrangements of standards that are just a blast to play. All focusing around a clave and in odd-time signatures (and chocked full o’ Booty)… Seriously funky stuff. I’ve been struggling a bit to find the perfect combination for the recording but once I suss out the 3rd guy, I think it’ll have to be a go. Reinhardt and I lock into some stuff that just goes to another place and I just need to find a 3rd guy who can really go there with us in every way. I would definitely expect it within a year or so.

BAJ: I’ve gotta ask… where’s the instructional DVD?!?

DE: In the works!! My book was picked up by Alfred Publishing (stoked on that) and they’d like to film a full instructional DVD to go along with it. We’ve worked out a lot of the details; it just comes down to Alfred’s timeline and process. They are a wonderful publisher and I really look forward to working with them on it. I want to focus heavily on performance on the DVD and give a lot of examples of the “what’s & how’s” musically instead of just a camera on me while I run exercises. I really want it to be cool, otherwise why bother, really. I’m hoping it’ll be something that people want to watch for both the educational aspects of it as well as the great band and moments it’ll hopefully contain.

BAJ: Man, it’s been great talking with you! You’re a dear friend and I thank you for your time. Is there anything you’d like to cover that we’ve missed?

DE: I’m sure I’ll think of something immediately after this comes to print – always do! But, right now, I just want to thank both you and Bass Frontiers for bringing so much to the bass community. It’s my absolute pleasure to do this.

I also want to know when we’re going to do some recording together B.A.J?! You know it must happen!

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