Brent Rusinow is emerging as a top-notch talent of the bass lately. His groove helps define the rhythm section for the infectiously funky and soulful band behind Seattle artist, Allen Stone. Brent has been touring hard with Allen since late 2011, and their road has led to a coveted opening spot for Dave Matthews Band on DMB’s west coast swing this summer. Even more importantly, Brent is a dear friend. We came up together studying in the same cabal of bass students, and find ourselves in the enviable position of being full-time working bass players. I can tell you firsthand how much hard work and straightforward dedication has gone into Brent putting himself in the position he’s in today. You can find out more about his work with Allen Stone at Allen’s website. Brent also has solo records and online lessons that you can find at his own site.
How did you get into playing music, and more specifically, how did you find the bass (or, how did the bass find you?)
It took some time with a few different string instruments for me to find the bass. I studied classical violin intensively, starting at the age of 5, picked up guitar at 10 as an escape from the rigidity of classical music, and then started playing bass when I was 13 (the classic “two guitarists, no bass player” dilemma). My relationship with the bass remained at a simmer throughout high school until my freshman year of college when I crossed paths with D’Angelo’s Voodoo album, specifically Pino Palladino. I was hooked. To this day Pino remains one of my biggest musical heroes and guides on how to best serve the music I’m playing.
You had a long period of formal private musical instruction. What do you think that having that kind of mentoring does for you that other people might not get?
Although I had weekly private lessons on violin for years as a kid, I never really developed a strong practice routine then. This wasn’t a glaring issue until my relationship with the bass started to grow stronger and I realized that I had no idea how to get better. After spending my entire first year of college frustrated musically (“I want to be a great bassist, but I’m not getting any better!”), I asked a friend of mine (who was studying at Berklee College of Music) if he knew of any good recommendations for private bass teachers. His recommendation ended up leading me to Berklee professor Jim Stinnett, my longtime mentor and dear friend. During the 8 years that I’ve known Jim he’s helped me with everything from left-hand technique to Jazz walking lines to Fly Fishing (and everything in between), but the most important thing he has taught me is how to practice in a way that works for me. Some people are lucky enough to find this on their own without a teacher/mentor, but I personally needed someone who could show me how to work productively and then would hold me accountable. I wouldn’t be here doing what I’m doing if I hadn’t gotten that.
Talk for a bit about how you got involved with Allen Stone?
I actually opened up for Allen three different times with three different bands over the last couple of years; during that time we would run into each other at Seattle shows and we’d talk about our respective musical endeavors and visions-nothing too extensive, but enough that we connected over our mutual love of Soul music.
Even though my first gig with Allen wasn’t until June of 2011 and I didn’t commit fully until October of that year, Allen did contact me in early 2011 looking for recommendations for a guitarist and keyboard player that would help take his sound in a more soulful direction. Fortunately for me, my two recommendations (Guitarist Trevor Larkin and Keyboardist Mark Sampson) are still going strong. Although I didn’t plan it at the time, I feel pretty lucky that I get to play with some of my favorite musicians every night!
You’re the bandleader for Allen. What does that entail on the daily level, and how does it impact your situation as bass player on and off stage?
Overall, my extra workload is pretty minimal- I play with some of the best musicians I know and they come up with just as many (if not more) ideas than I do. Musically, things run very democratically- the best ideas are the ones that stick around. In addition to some basic administrative stuff I’m responsible for finding horn players in our major fall tour markets and for making sure they have something to play-I’ve actually been grinding away at horn charts for the last few weeks.
Every so often, you guys do a late night TV show and that seems to push the thing through the next large door, at least from the outside view. Can you talk about that and what it means for your progression?
The TV appearances have definitely made a big difference. When we made our national television debut on Conan last October, Allen’s record wasn’t even being sold physically, only digitally! That kind of exposure not only opened a lot of doors for Allen promotionally and booking-wise, but it also made us, individually, a lot more marketable as players in the industry. It becomes a lot easier to pitch your value to an instrument or amp manufacturer when you can send an email and attach a YouTube video of yourself playing on national television. With that said, each additional appearance hopefully does something to support and justify Allen’s, and subsequently our, presence in the limelight. That’s an awesome position to be in.
What’s your gear setup on the road?
For fall, I’m planning to tour with two basses: My Le Fay Singer 5-String and my Reverend Decision 4-String. I keep newer D’Addario Nickel XL’s on the Le Fay and have some 5-year-old La Bella flats on my Reverend (I pulled those off my ’65 Jazz Bass when I stopped taking it out on the road).
My pedal board set-up is pretty straightforward; I’m running an Aguilar Tone Hammer preamp as a means to balance output between my basses and dial in the Reverend a bit, then I’m running that to an Aguilar Octamizer, Filter Twin, and Agro. That all goes to my Aguilar DB751 and DB410 cabinet. Overall it’s a pretty basic rig that I’m extremely happy with and sounds like what’s up in my head.
A lot of your study (and your solo record) was focused around traditional jazz music. How do you apply that kind of rolodex to the music you’re on the road playing, if at all?
I was raised musically with the mindset that it’s important to master your instrument and not limit yourself to a specific style or approach. In the modern era, there are not enough gigs to be particularly picky and hence it really serves a young player to dig in to a broad range of styles and approaches. In my case, Jazz was a wonderful vessel for me to learn my instrument and become more comfortable using my bass as a communication device. Jazz also helped make me very aware of my timbre and articulations, something I’m constantly thinking about when I’m playing with Allen. There’s a very strong connection between chord professions and movement of Jazz and Soul music- having that background makes it a lot easier to “predict” where the music is going to go.
We sort of live in a period where the “throwback” label is put onto a lot of acts popping onto the scene now, whether deserved or otherwise. It’s definitely been brought up with Allen. Where do you see him fitting in or setting himself apart from that crowd?
Allen is very influenced by his heroes-Stevie Wonder, Donnie Hathaway, Prince, etc- but I see his musical approach being more of an interpretation inspired by the vision and the message of these classic artists rather than being a true “throwback”. It’s very much educated and informed by the classic Soul music sound of the ’60′s and ’70′s, but he accepts that he is from a different time and has a different vantage point. He really is setting himself apart by just being himself (the way he looks is not just for show) and by making the music that’s true to him. This also works well for us because he gives us a lot of musical freedom with his material. Instrumentally, we’re constantly trying approaches that don’t fall into the throwback Soul bucket of vocabulary.
Before your life got pretty Allen Stone-centric, you were working on a series of weekly jazz solo licks distributed through your website. What are your thoughts on that kind of modular education, for purchase or free (YouTube) and how do you see them fitting into the current and future models of musical education?
Online education is a huge opportunity right now, especially for musicians. It’s never been so easy to learn from anywhere in the world. As a touring musician this is especially exciting because you’re now able to create lessons during periods of downtime and offer this up for download while you’re busy on the road. It’s a great opportunity for additional income that also helps promote your personal brand.
What’s some advice that you’d give to someone who’s been playing bass for a little bit and might be looking to up their game to the next level?
Finding a teacher who can really hold you accountable to a strategic practice plan is so important. At the end of the day it’s a lot less about the magic and natural talent-it’s about wanting to do what it takes to improve.