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Interview: Mark Robertson

by Shane Vahle
Bass Frontier Contributor

Photo Credit: Joshua Black Wilkins
Mark Robertson has more than one iron in the fire. He’s a multifaceted Upright/Electric player who has spent the better part of the last decade touring and recording with The Legendary Shack Shakers as well as finding time to work from his Nashville-based studio producing albums and writing music that has been featured in television shows and commercials. As if that weren’t enough, he’s also playing with numerous independent Nashville artists he’s finishing up a soon to be released documentary on Slap-Bass.

Robertson’s main gig, The Legendary Shack Shakers, have been billed as everything from Rockabilly to Gothic-Country, Psychobilly and Alt. Country along with nearly every other conjunctive musical moniker available. Since the band’s formation in Paducah, KY in the mid 90’s, they have released six studio albums. While being led by Col. J.D. Wilkes (yes, he’s a bona fide KY Colonial) The Shack Shakers have earned their reputation by consistently delivering unrelenting, always entertaining and unpredictable live shows. The band is such an inexorable force that they have garnered acclaim from the likes of Stephen King and Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys). King listed the group’s “CB Song” as one of his top 5 favorite songs of all time. Biafra, who appeared on their 2006 release “Pandelirium”, has been quoted as saying that Wilkes is “the last great Rock and Roll frontman”.

Alongside Wilkes and his wife, Robertson rounds out a bluegrass/ragtime/roots combo known as The Dirt Daubers.

Armed with a new releases from both The Legendary Shack Shakers (“Agri-Dustrial”) and The Dirt Daubers (“Wake Up, Sinners”) Robertson shows no signs of slowing down.

I sat down with Mark recently and he filled me in on everything from Burning Condors to Blacksmith shops. Like I said, he’s multifaceted.

You’ve been in Nashville since ’99, what were some of your gigs prior to meeting J.D.? How did you run into him?

We met in about ’96. I saw him at a Rockabilly weekender in Indianapolis and I just thought he was unbelievable. I thought his band was really traditional, I didn’t think they were keeping up with him. I thought, if he had something that sounded like he looked…

We just started hanging out from there. I moved to Nashville for a publishing deal as a country writer. I was playing a lot for this Gospel artist named Rich Mullins. That was kind of my day job, it paid really well. Unfortunately, Rich died in ’97. But he gave me a pretty long career. I was playing in Rockabilly and Western Swing bands, Punk Rock bands. I had a little Cow-Punk band called This Train. We made three records and I was the primary writer and singer in that band. J.D. and I keep gravitating toward one another and then the time came where neither of us had a band, or somehow the interests lined up. That was, gosh, almost twelve years ago now.

You have a studio here in town (Stainless Sound), is most of the Shack Shakers material recorded there? Do you take on commercial sessions as well?

The last four records for The Shack Shakers were done there. I had another studio (Roswell) as well. (So) either at “Roswell” or “Stainless”. We did “Swampblood”, “Agri-Dustrial” and the Dirt Daubers new record (“Wake Up, Sinners”) at Stainless Sound. I just produced a band from London, about a month ago, called Burning Condors. They’re kind of this trashy, pop, garage band. Like blues meets brit-pop. It’s really peculiar and fun. One of my day jobs is (that) I write background music for T.V. shows and film. So, yeah, we try and keep it busy.

Since ’04 you’ve produced the Shack Shakers albums; it’s not uncommon to see a bassist assume the role of producer (a few well-known bassist/producers include: Don Was, Bernard Edwards & Marcus Miller). Do you think that bass players have any inherent qualities that lend themselves to that task?

I kind of do. I think the nature of our job is that it’s rarely, completely about us. We’re sort of facilitators, in a weird way. We stand between the chord instruments and the drums. I think it meets our personality that we enjoy what’s going on around us and being supportive of it. I think it matches a bass player’s personality to produce records, especially if you find people and music interesting. I love getting inside, even if it necessarily wouldn’t be what I listen to. I love getting inside of what makes them tick; why do they love this so much? If you’re that kind of a person, a naturally curious kind of person who likes to stand in the middle, like a bass player does, it makes perfect sense to me.

Does being on the other side of the board influence your perspective as a player?

Maybe, in a way. I’m probably not as picky about my bass playing when I’m producing because I have to worry about everything. But it also allows me to relax and hear how I fit into the scheme of things and not just be about bass. I’m just not a big fan of “lead” bass or “look at me” bass, it’s got to make everything else sound better or you’re not doing your job right. So, I guess in that sense, it helps keep me clear on what that is. And when I hear a great bass player that I’m producing, I’ll get some cool insights on how they read between the lines.

How has your rig developed over the years, i.e. live gear vs. studio set up?

That’s ever-changing. Playing upright in a super-loud band like The Shack Shakers; it’s a moving target. I have a much deader acoustic bass now so that I can get it louder through an amp. A great acoustic bass wouldn’t get loud through an amp. For almost a year now I’ve switched over to running much more high-end amps than I used to. I’m running Genz-Benz stuff. It really helps to have great gear, especially for upright. It’s not about having 12 tubes in the thing. That’s not the friend of an Upright. That’s good for a P-Bass. For Upright, your needs are just so different. And with the studio, converters get better every five years, or you might rethink software or you might prefer 2″- 16 (track) over 2″- 24 track. But, sometimes I think that’s just a natural curiosity of a musical person.

Bass is made with Red Cedar veneer. Note the "Outhouse" style F-Holes.
You’ve acquired a pretty unique Upright Bass recently. Can you talk a little about that, who built that for you?

A guy named Jason Burns in California. He’s built the last four or five of my basses, my Uprights. The last one is one of the very last (of the) King Double Basses. He’s recently started a new company called Blast Cult. I’ll be getting a new Blast Cult any day now actually. They’re made to be as acoustic and pure as possible but to still be loud through an amplifier, and rugged for the road. These actually have truss rods. They tend to have two sound posts instead of one. They’re beefier and a little more solid for playing Rock and Roll music. He’s the only game in town as far as I’m concerned, who’s really taken upright bass into the modern world for Rock musicians and people playing through amplifiers at high volume. He’s the most innovative bass builder in the world.

The Shack Shakers use some interesting sound effects on their recordings, as a producer how much of that do you create and what’s that process?

We usually do all of that before the band shows up, in most cases. Our main rule is that we don’t use sound effects libraries. We don’t get them off the internet. We make every sound ourselves. That might be J.D. with a cassette deck in an alley at three in the morning; it might be me on location. (For) the last record I took a mobile recording rig out to the middle of Nowhere, KY and just recorded a Blacksmith’s shop. We just turned on machines and banged on walls and hit things with pipes all day. Sometimes with the song in mind, sometimes we create a new song around those sounds, or those sounds make for good atmosphere. We’re big on sound effects but we make them all ourselves.

When you’re not on the road with the Shack Shakers or Dirt Daubers what keeps you busy in town?

Well, my commercial writing, producing records. Trying to take care of my house, like a normal approximation of an adult. Then, I have some really cool, fun gigs I do when I’m in town. I have a little, side Punk band that I play in. I play for a great country artist named Derek Hoke. I play for an awesome, kind of-like, Gothic, Alt. Country artist named Joshua Black Wilkins. I also produce his records and play bass for him whenever I can. And (I also play for) a really great Old-School Country artist named Mark Collie. So, I try and keep pretty busy.

Any tips or recommendations for Upright players looking to develop their sound?

I guess it depends on the sound they’re looking to develop. Upright is a real moving target. You think you’ve got it perfect in your guest bedroom, but then you really have to play it in fifteen different clubs and start seeing what the common issues are. If you’re into slap-style, like what I play, then you’d want to look into gut strings. If you’re playing metal strings you’ll get a better, sweeter, more traditional sound. You got to, kind of, break out the nerd books and get into EQ and phase relationships. I think it pays off to be a little more scientific with how those frequencies work with one another and all that. I think that really pays off for a bass player. The main thing is, play with as many different people as possible and you can see where your middle ground is. The difference between me playing with Derek Hoke and The Shack Shakers is vast. I use the same rig it’s just a matter of learning how to, (in advance preferably) so you’re not wasting someone’s time, to learn what all of the anomalies are.

What are your goals as a player/producer in the future?

Just to keep becoming a better listener and that applies to both. It makes you a great bass player to learn how to listen. Same goes for being a producer, really hearing where other people are coming from. It’s more important to understand than to be understood. That’s the role of a bass player in a nutshell, and a producer for that matter. I want to become a better listener, a better person. Make more with less, don’t over-think things. That’s where great music comes from, when you get that feeling of lightning in a bottle. So, I’m still trying to trap the lightning in a bottle.

Can you tell us about the Documentary that you’re filming? When will it be out?

It’s called “Slap Happy” and it’s just about Slap-Style Upright Bass. We’re not tied into any style (genre). We have Psychobilly guys; Vic Victor from the Koffin Kats, Kim Nekroman, Jimbo Wallace from (Rev.) Horton Heat and some more, kind of modern guys. We have some real Old-School guys, some Gypsy musicians. I’ve got two amazing players from Serbia that I managed to hook up with in my travels. Three great French bass players came out of nowhere. And of course the Austin (TX) scene which is so important; Chicago, Southern California, Nashville obviously. It’s just about all things from Gypsy players and blues players, country players, Psychobilly players. It’s just all things slap-bass. It was supposed to be out by now but I just can’t seem to stop filming. There’s always somebody new to grab and some new angle. I’ve been working on it for almost a year. I think (it will be out in) six months at the most.

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