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Interview: Wanda Ortiz “Steph Harris” Talks Mahler to Maiden

By Caroline Paone

From left to right The Iron Maiden's drummer: Linda McDonald "Nikki McBURRain",  bassist Wanda Ortiz “Mostly, I have fun, but I feel very fortunate to be able to play in front of people who enjoy the music and what we’re doing that much. I’m so lucky.” That’s at the heart of why a musician joins a tribute band, so says Wanda Ortiz, aka “Steph” Harris of the The Iron Maidens. Holding down the groove for an all-female tribute band helps her deliver Maiden’s badassery from Los Angeles to Brazil.

Duplicating Steve Harris’s bass parts satisfies her preference for playing in a more lead-style. Wanda is an accomplished musician in her own right and the principal bassist for South Coast Symphony. She’ll tell you her favorite classical piece is Beethoven’s 9th and in the next breath talks about duplicating Maiden’s “Phantom of the Opera.” The laid back bassist switches from metal to classical with ease, and speaks of reproducing Harris’s signature stage moves with a chuckle.

Her bandmates include Kirsten “Bruce Chickinson” Rosenberg on vocals, Linda “Nikki McBURRain” McDonald on drums, Courtney “Adriana Smith” Cox and Nita ‘mega Murray’ Strauss on guitars. Whether performing for the U.S. military or eager fans in South America, they bring a high-energy stage show Maiden fans have come to expect.

On a recent break from touring, Wanda chatted with me about music, work and life. Meet Ms. Harris”

What is your musical background?
I started playing upright bass in school when I was nine years old. On the first day of music class, I was late so, except for a little double bass leaning by itself in the corner of the music room, all the school instruments had already been checked out to other students. I remember thinking that little bass looked so lonely, so I ended up with it. A couple years later, the school needed a bass player for their jazz band so I ended up playing both upright and electric bass for that as well. I really enjoyed playing the bass as a kid so I kept with it through high school and college, eventually earning a B.Mus degree from UCI and I still play to this day.

Who were your early hard rock/metal influences?
Steve Harris (Iron Maiden) and Geddy Lee (Rush).

IM_Main_2What do you find compelling about playing Steve Harris’s bass parts?
They are so much fun to play! Back in the early days, when I first started playing bass, I remember feeling jealous when other musicians got to play the fun parts while I got stuck holding down the beat with the “bread and butter” parts. I complained about that to a friend who ended up letting me borrow his Iron Maiden and Rush albums to try and make me feel better about being a bass player…it worked.

When you first started in this tribute band, how did you go about studying Harris’s bass parts. How did you approach his performance style?
Since I first started listening to Maiden, I tried to play those bass lines so this was really just building on something I had already done, but just needed to get down better. Watching videos helped a lot.

What do you feel is the most challenging Iron Maiden song to play?
“Phantom of the Opera” because there is a very exposed bass solo in it. It’s not really a very difficult part to play but, as a bass player, you don’t get a lot of chances for it to be “only you” so when that happens, there is a tendency to get a little too worked up before the “big moment” and that makes you more likely to make a mistake.

I can’t imagine being on stage in front of hoards of Iron Maiden fans and looking into the audience. Do you interact with the crowd a lot?
Oh yeah, well I have to do the Steve Harris moves. [Laughs] They’re so into it, of course. You know how Steve Harris mouths all the words? And then they’re (the audience) mouthing all the words, too. But, mostly, I like playing the music’the fact that you get to play in front of this crowd that is just so into it as much as you are, it’s just a huge bonus. I don’t think I would have very much fun doing this say if it was an AC/DC tribute. It’s a great band, but that music requires a little bit more of a bread-and-butter bass–very respectable, very good bass player, you know, but just not my cup of tea. Not something I would want to do all the time, every night. It’s definitely more fun playing these Iron Maiden bass lines.

I can see why you would prefer an Iron Maiden tribute over an AC/DC-style band. I’m sure there are challenges for both styles, but someone told me once, it takes a lot of patience to just keep playing one note.

Many people think it’s easy to ride one note when playing , but playing the same note repetitively and making it sound clean and even and steady — it’s actually a lot harder than you would think. It’s most evident in the recording studio when you hear your part played back for you; because then you can hear how uneven the same note can be. If you’re not careful, you may find that you need to re-record a single note phrase because you’ve played some notes shorter or softer than others. That happened to me a couple times while recording Iron Maiden’s “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” which had many parts in it that required the “one note ride.” So, yes, playing a single note does require a bit of patience if you want to get it just right.

Do you get a lot of fans approaching you after the shows?
The whole band does because we stick around in a special area after the shows to meet them.

What is one of your most memorable moments performing live with the Maidens or otherwise?
A few years back, the band was invited to share the bill with Steve Harris’s daughter Lauren at the Hard Rock in Mexico City. Steve Harris, of course, came to the show to support his daughter but stayed for our set, too. Bruce Dickinson was also there in the audience. It was nerve-wracking playing in front of members of the real Iron Maiden, but we managed to pull it off! Steve even came up to us after our set and told us that he liked the show! It doesn’t get much better than that!

With the orchestra, I had the opportunity to play the bass solo in Mahler’s 1st Symphony as well as the bass solo in Saint-Sa”ns” Carnival of the Animals (I got to be the elephant!). Double bass solos are pretty rare in symphonic performances and it’s hard not to get nervous because you are so very isolated, especially in a concert hall, but, at the same time, it’s a thrill! Both performances were with South Coast Symphony.

Have you ever had any personal ‘spinal Tap’ moments performing with The Iron Maidens?
There was one show where there was a bar table that was connected to and level with the stage. Our manager thought it would look cool if I ran out on it during the show, so I thought ‘sure, why not? Unfortunately, I didn’t notice that the table was slick due to spilt beer, so when I ran out there, I ended up slipping and falling. Oops!

Oh my! That’s classic, but did you get hurt?
No. I ended up falling right into this concert-goers lap.

I’m sure he loved that?!”
He was nice and he helped me back up onto the table and everything, but I felt like an idiot. It ended up being a bad idea because people were spilling their drinks and there was also condensation from the drinks, so it was slick. I did not look cool. [Laughs]

How was it playing the rest of the show? Overall, do you get nervous performing?
I was embarrassed, but you just play the rest of the show and try not to think about it. You know how you play great in your room and everything, then you’re out on stage and there’s all these people and it’s all new. If it’s new songs, I have to tell myself to stop thinking about it. Bass players don’t have as much practice as other musicians when it comes to being in the spotlight, because of that it’s always going to be more of a challenge for a bass player. We don’t have many big moments.

Any other musical influence/styles (early or recent) you want to talk about?
Well, I started on upright bass so I also have a background in classical music and jazz. Francois Rabbath and David Walter were a couple of my favorite upright bass players. I still play in orchestras to this day but don’t play much jazz anymore. It’s hard to find the time to do everything.

I read you took master classes while in college? What is that type of process like?
You bring your bass and you play in front of a bass instructor who then offers you advice on how to improve. The ones I remember the most were with David Walter and Francois Rabbath. David Walter was so kind and encouraging at a time when I was feeling very bad about my playing..sometimes a little encouragement is all you need. Francois got me to seriously think about finally getting an upright bass that would work better for me. I finally did and my playing improved as a result. Both bass players played marvelously and it was absolutely inspiring to see them perform.

Do you play with your fingers, pick or both? How did you feel you have come to the finger-style you possess?

I play with my fingers because I started on upright bass. When someone first handed me an electric bass, I was only 11 and there was no pick so I just used my fingers because that’s what I did on the upright. I came to the finger style I have now through just practicing and playing. Eventually if you do something long enough, you’re bound to get better. There are some songs that sound better with a pick. I’ve played with a pick before, but I don’t really use one. I can but I mostly play with my fingers. If stylistically the song needs it then I’ll go for it, but I’m kind of a minimalist.

How is it alternating from the metal (electric bass) to your work playing upright in an orchestra?
Well, I notice that it seems easier to play the electric after I’ve had a solid week of rehearsals on upright bass. It’s more of a workout for your right hand when you pluck on an upright bass than on an electric. You’ve got a higher action so there’s more tension so you’re working more with your right hand. There’s still higher tension on the left hand too. I actually think stand-up bass is a harder instrument than electric bass to play. They can both be easy or hard but just because of the size of it, it’s so massive and it’s definitely more of a workout. Upright you’re getting around it and it’s big, you gotta use your ears a lot more. Usually after playing upright bass for a while the electric bass seems easier, but I don’t want to offend any electric bass players.

Do you have a favorite bass pedal or other effect?
Well, I did kind of like using a bass boost every now and then but I don’t really use it anymore. Instead, the girls and I all try to watch our volume and play softer when someone else has a solo. It’s nice to keep things simple and travel with less.

What other music projects are you involved with outside of the Maiden’s?
As for side projects, when I’m not playing with the girls, I mostly play upright bass in chamber groups and orchestras in the Southern California area. I’m principal bassist for South Coast Symphony (www.southcoastsymphony.org) as well as a member of their board of directors. Part of our mission is to help keep music in the public schools so we put a lot of effort into that by providing free concerts for kids and fundraising. Over the summer, I’ll be playing with the Culver City Symphony as well as the Marina Del Rey Summer Symphony in addition to The Iron Maidens.

What keeps you going and continuing playing in a live band?
It’s fun! I do it because I enjoy it. It’s never too late to pick up something and pursue happiness and your dreams. That’s my outlook.

You can get information about upcoming tour dates and booking info at the band’s website www.theironmaidens.com.

Wand’s Gear:
G&L basses, Schroeder Superior Sound Cabs, BBE Sound B-Max T PreAmp, QSC PLX 3102 power amp, and rotosound strings.

Two double basses: one was made in Romania (She didn’t see any label for a maker on the inside of the instruments) and a 5-string that I had made in Hungary. Both those basses have Bel Canto (by Thomastik) strings on them. She uses a Bernd Dolling bow.

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