Percy Jones was born in Wales in 1947 and began his career in The Liverpool Scene in the late sixties. He came to attention in the seventies as a member of the Jazz Fusion group, Brand X and his recordings with Brian Eno on the Another Green World album. Since moving to NYC in the late seventies he has made several solo albums and formed his own band, Tunnels. He now has a new band, MJ12, playing a mixture of written compositions and improvisations. I spoke to him on the eve of his first recording with the band.
KH. You play regular free-improvised gigs these days with drummer, Steve Moses and others in NYC. This is a genre of music that often features pure noise improv, ie, not so much a convention of compatible tones but an abstract language of matching densities and textures combined with a rich culture of microtonality. What is it about this niche musical environment you enjoy and do you think your own musical approach thrives in this situation?
PJ. There wasn’t any deliberate move to play improvised music; it pretty much came about by circumstance. I had started playing with Steve Moses again; we had played together back in the early 80’s, but then went our separate ways. We didn’t have any material, we would just book a gig wherever we could and invite someone to sit in with us. We started playing fairly regularly for a while in a bar called 5th Estate in Brooklyn. There are loads of very good musicians in Brooklyn, so there was never a shortage of people to come down and play. We called the project “MoJo Working”, guys like Mike McGinnis or Oscar Noriega would come down and play, Frank Catalano came in a couple of times from Chicago. It varied from horn players, guitar players, a cellist, through to a Guy who played an amplified bicycle wheel.
As time went on the line up became more permanent. Vocalist, Aubrey Smith and Jack Warren on Theremin also did numerous gigs with us. Ultimately it became a pretty regular line up of Dave Phelps on guitar and Chris Bacas on saxophone. Chris had done 8 years on the road with Buddy Rich.
We also started to write more stuff and the music became more structured, but we still kept a lot of openings for improvisation because we didn’t want to lose that aspect of the music. We also decided to give it a name, MJ12.
I don’t have an ear for totally atonal, arhythmic music, so I don’t really have much appreciation for it. If there are brief passages in otherwise structured music then I’m fine with it, but I can’t sit through an hour of it nonstop and appreciate it. I’m not criticizing – it’s just something that doesn’t connect to me personally. MJ12 does have some content like this, but they are brief passages within the music, which is otherwise in time and has a harmonic centre.
KH. I’ve often seen you gravitate towards a rapid, ‘walking’ Jazz style when the pace picks up, but it’s your simultaneous use of ascending and falling chords, single notes and harmonics during these moments that are quite unique. These florid ornamentations emerge as if by magic as the walking line progresses. Can you tell me how you developed this and whether any direct influences inspired it? It obviously requires a refined technique but is it something you’ve consciously worked on… or is it more instinctive?
PJ. Sometimes it’s instinctive, other times it’s more worked out. A good worked out example would be the Brand X tune “Ghost of Mayfield Lodge“, there is a bass and percussion break where the bass is playing alternating regular notes and harmonics. The bass notes ascend, but the natural harmonics are all over the place. Sometimes I play all alternating regular notes, one line on the low C or E string and the other on the high G string. I often use the thumb on the low string so that I can reach some wide intervals. Sometimes the notes alternate to give a counterpoint effect, other times they are played together to give two note chords.
I have always liked Jazz, so I will occasionally go off into a “walking line”, then deviate into a brief passage with the two note aforementioned thing. MJ12 is not a jazz group, though it takes a lot of ideas from jazz. It’s always a blast to go from a heavy rock feel right into a straight-ahead walk, but you need a drummer who can do that seamlessly.
I can’t say the two-note thing came from any specific influence. I always especially loved Charles Mingus’s playing and writing, and have been inspired by a lot by upright bass players. I guess I took things from upright and electric bass and incorporated them into what I do.
KH. Could you point to a particular Mingus track you admire?
PJ. Well, there are a bunch of favourites from Mingus. But two that come to mind are “Haitian Fight Song” and “Fables of Faubus“.
It can be argued that he wasn’t technically the best bass player around, but I loved the spontaneity in his playing. His bands always sounded really edgy and unpredictable, one never knew where the music would go next. He always had excellent players in his bands also.
I came to New York in 1969 as part of a tour and got to see him play at the Village Vanguard. The place was almost empty so we were all sat right up next to the band. I got to meet him too; he was very nice to me. He seemed rather flattered that a young Guy from the UK was so into his music. I was about 21 at the time.
KH. You’re inclined towards odd, stumbling, rhythms, often evident in the more minimal sections of your music. I can hear you fishing around on a root note, initiating triplets at the start and end of phrases, sliding around, popping and stretching harmonics. Rhythmically it can resemble something a hand-percussionist (a tabla player, for instance) might do. At it’s most extreme it’s like the sonic equivalent of cartoon creature bumbling along with an odd walk, occasional letting out birdcalls, or something. Do you accept there is a comic dimension to your playing?
PJ. I think music can have an animated quality to it. I look at a band or orchestra as a machine with all its various components. Sometimes it runs along in a smooth well oiled fashion, other times it breaks down and stumbles to a complete stop, I try and convey that on the bass. I guess you could define passages like this as avant garde, I’m OK with that because these excursions are usually brief.
There are times though when the band stumbles to a halt because of a big screw up, then you just have to hope that the Punters interpret this as avant garde as well.
KH. I sense an odd mixture of modesty and pride when you say you are ‘OK’ when these highly personal, outré passages are ‘brief’…as if they have crept out by accident. Your playing is full of textural contrasts: one second your are slurring chords then spraying an array of full-stop, staccato pips, puts and pops. A visual analogue might be punching holes through a Photoshop mask to blur or sharpen with a paint tool. These are novel ideas I associate with your style. They suggest premeditated thinking. Do you think your ability to juggle these contrasts – the mix of avant garde sensibilities and jazz conventions – are what people admire and recognise about your playing?
PJ. I can’t say whether my playing is that recognisable or not, it’s a subjective thing. Some people think it’s really unique, some think it sounds derivative of Jaco Pastorious. I can only say that I do make a big effort to do my own thing.
KH. It’s quite recognisable, in my opinion!
PJ. I listen to a wide range of music, so I guess I take ideas from all different genres. When I throw in the textural contrasts that you describe, it’s most often on the spur of the moment and not premeditated. A lot of what comes out mostly depends on what the other Guys are playing at that moment because I’m always trying to support what they are doing. But I do have a vocabulary of stuff that I can throw out, so the “language” is already there. But in saying that, sometimes I go to play something and screw up, with the result being not what I intended. Occasionally it turns out fortuitously as something quite musical, so that gets added to the vocabulary.
I like to keep the music somewhat spontaneous so that there are surprises. It keeps the material fresh and it’s more fun for the players. Also I think the Punters get off on that too.
KH. We’ve talked a bit about improvisation in the group context. I’d like to ask you about how you approach composition. A track like DMZ from the Brand X days is rendered in discreet sections and is highly arranged with areas allocated for soloing and riffs with legato tunes sitting atop. There are song-like choruses where the bass joins the other instruments playing melodies.
Do you begin with riffs on the bass or do you develop the chords first or do you try and link melodies across chord changes? If the tracks begin with bass ideas are they forged from solitary playing or are they generated from jams and rehearsals with the other musicians?
PJ. The starting point for a tune can vary from a bass line, or a melody or chord progression, on occasion it’s been a drum track or rhythmic idea. I don’t have a set way of approaching it, but more often than not something will kick off from noodling about on a keyboard. Usually a chord progression comes to light, though sometimes it will be a melody. I’ll record the melody or chord progression, then put a scratch bass and drum track to it. I then might go back and modify the chord progression or drum track. I tend to go back and forth between all the instruments several times until I’m happy with the way it sounds overall. I use midi a lot when writing because it really lends itself to editing.
Sometimes I will write a complete piece from start to finish by myself. Other times I will come up with just one section because I got stuck. I’ll show that to the band and one of the other Guys will come up with an idea for another section or two and we eventually end up with a coherent tune.
The first Brand X record was mostly a group effort in terms of composition. Some people contributed more than others to certain tunes but in the end we just split the writing credits four ways. On the later records the compositions became more individual. The compositions on the Tunnels records were also individual. With the new band MJ12 we’ve gone back to a mostly group composition effort.
KH. Do you write with a particular ensemble in mind or are the compositions transferrable across different musicians?
PJ. I definitely do write with the musicians in mind. Certain tunes/sections will work with specific instruments but will sound totally lame otherwise. I think everything I’ve written for a group has had open-ended sections where soloing or improvisation can happen. It keeps the stuff fresh for the players and I think the Punters pick up on that sense of “danger” when that is going on. I try to have a mix of memorable melodies, etc, along with “danger sections” I can’t sight read notation, so I rely mostly on memory, but the Guys in MJ12 are all schooled musicians who read. Dave Phelps and Chris Bacas both studied at North State univ in Texas, Steve Moses went to Berklee.
KH. Presumably you exchange files or hand out chord charts?
PJ. I usually make a demo and give everybody an mp3 and chord chart. If they want notation I’ll have the computer knock it out from midi.
KH. How would you say your compositional methods, interests and objectives have changed over the years tracing a line from Brand X, Tunnels and your current project?
It’s hard to say how or if my style has changed over the years. I do make an effort to move along and try new things. On gigs we usually play “Nuclear Burn“, which was a favourite back in the day, but everything else is new. I would go totally nuts just playing old material and nothing new.
KH. There’s been a subtle but significant evolution in your choice of instrument over the years; from the warm thump of a Precision, to the rich, compressed midrange of the Wal to your present day choice of piezo-pickup equipped Ibanez basses. Your modern sound is full of acoustic nuances (particularly in the upper frequencies) and these are especially noticeable when the musical bandwidth is not so dominated by other instruments in the band setting. Not many bassists use piezo pickups for some reason. What interests you about this hybrid electric/acoustic sound? Could you compare it to your previous electric sound and talk about the advantages and disadvantages?
PJ. As I said earlier I have always had a soft spot for the upright bass even though I can barely play one. The piezos pick up everything going on with the bass, from the strings to the body. You hear the “thump” from the body as the string is hit and you hear all the overtones coming out of the wood as opposed to mostly just the string. Surprisingly, I have no problems with acoustic feedback and the pickups are extremely quiet. You don’t get any pickup of switching noise from stage lights like you do with magnetic pickups. It does make playing a little more challenging. With magnetic pickups the note is there immediately when you hit the string, even if you are playing lightly. With the piezos you have to dig in a little more to get the note to “speak”, so it’s a bit more work. The good thing is that the response is very dynamic; you get out what you put in. Piezo’s are not popular with electric bass. For me it was just a case of wanting to explore another sound and see what was possible.
KH. You’ve been involved in improving Piezo technology at Ibanez, haven’t you?
PJ. Around ’96 Ibanez gave me a 5 string fretless that had both magnetic and piezo pickups with a pan pot to blend the two together. I used it on the last Brand X album, Manifest Destiny. It had an interesting sound and it got me interested in piezos again. I had grown a little tired of the sound I had at that point and felt like trying something different. Ibanez then gave me a bass called an Ergodyne, which had a plastic body. I had no use for the magnetic pickup so i took it off the bass and just used the piezo. It was a poor sounding bass but I could hear some potential from the piezo approach. I asked Ibanez if they would make a wooden version with a dense Mahogany body with only a piezo, no magnetic. This was an improvement, due to the better body material, and I used it for some time. It proved that a piezo only approach could work.
About 5 years ago Tak at Ibanez built two new 5 string basses for me, one with a bolt on neck, the other a straight through job. Both had identical Fishman piezo pickups and preamps. These were a big improvement over their predecessors. The mechanical construction was way better and the preamp was improved. The main problem was that the preamp clipped when lower notes were hit hard. I put a scope directly on the piezo outputs and was amazed to see the output voltage hitting 12 volts peak to peak. A preamp running on a 9-volt battery can’t possibly reproduce that. One solution was to use two 9-volt batteries in series to get 18 volts, but there was not enough room for a second battery. So I built a charge pump to double the battery voltage. The board is small enough to sit underneath the preamp board.
KH. Have you always been fascinated with electronics?
PJ. I actually started messing around with pickups a long time ago. In the late 60’s and early 70’s. Back then I was using a big, extra long scale, semi acoustic Gretsch bass. At the time I was working a day job for a consulting engineer who specialized in vibration problems from demolition work and explosives etc, so I had access to different kinds of accelerometers and preamps. I attached a piezo accelerometer to the bass along with a home brew preamp, so that I could augment the magnetic pickup with it. Eventually the bass had several holes in it where I had tried different spots to attach the pickup. I also filed down the frets under the G string to try and get a hybrid fretted/fretless sound. It wasn’t totally successful but I learned a lot from messing around.
In ’74 I bought a Fender Precision fretless and pretty much stopped playing the Gretsch. The first thing I did to the Fender was to build a simple unity gain opamp in to lower the output impedance. This avoided the loss of high-end response caused by cable capacitance. Back in those days almost all basses were passive. In ’77 I switched to playing Wal basses which were excellent instruments, very well built with integrated preamps with a lot of on-board EQ. I played Wal basses for many years, both 4 and 5 string versions, and had a lot of success with them.
KH. Your current bass in an Ibanez Grooveline – is that correct? Could you comment on the ergonomics/design and balance?
PJ. Yes, I believe it’s called a Grooveline. Tak at Ibanez made two of them, a straight through neck and a bolt on. I set a bass up to have a slightly upward curve on the neck so that I can have a high enough action to avoid sounding like I’m typing. I haven’t done much with the straight through version because even with no tension on the truss rod I can’t get a sufficiently upward curve. It’s a good bass, very much an improvement over the earlier Ergodynes that I used. It could use more mass on the headstock and maybe a thicker/stiffer neck to avoid a little bit of “flabbiness” in the mid range response. As mentioned earlier I clamped some inertial mass on the headstock, which helps a bit in this respect.
The design/balance is fine and the electronics are good except for a clipping issue that as I mentioned was solved with a charge pump. The pots on the parametric eq are linear, I think. Logarithmic would be a better choice. I mostly have the EQ on the bass flat, and also flat on the amp. The bass sounds pretty accurate like this. I might sometimes dial in a bit of mid range lift with the parametric if the room calls for it.
KH. This question isn’t often asked of well-known musicians but it can be refreshing and reassuring for readers.What do you think are the weaker areas of your playing – your flaws – or the aspects of your playing you have to work on? What personal clichés are you trying to avoid? We’ve all got them…
PJ. I’m never happy with my playing; I think it’s a never-ending process of trying to improve on one’s technique.
I think the biggest issue I have had that still isn’t totally resolved is damping. When I switched from 4 to 5 string bass it became obvious after a while that I had to figure out a different damping technique. A lot of bass players have the thumb floating so they can drop the thumb or palm down to damp strings as necessary. That doesn’t work for me because I have to have the thumb anchored so that I can get enough “pull” when hitting a note. It can be in one of two positions, next to the C string or the E string, but I have to be able to hop from one position to another in the middle of a line. If it’s a fast ascending line it is rather tricky to do. I experimented with different thumb rests and techniques and I’m feeling that I’m close to something that works, but it’s not perfect.
Intonation is always something that has to be worked on. Playing regularly always seems to help with that. A related topic is ear training, hearing a line from somebody and being able to play it or something related to it on the bass.
I have some weakness when alternating between the pinky and the adjacent finger on the left hand; I have to do some exercises to firm that up.
Certain tempos are tricky, especially when playing a lot of 1/16th notes. A line can be easier at a faster tempo than a slower one; the result is to trip up at certain tempos. I have often wondered the reason for this. I remember having a discussion about it with Big Jim Sullivan; it’s something he had noticed too. Maybe it’s related to the time it takes nerve impulses to travel from the brain the hands. I’m just guessing, I would love to know.
Keeping up strength in the hands is always an issue, so you can play without getting fatigued, and have good coordination between left and right hands. It doesn’t get any easier as you get older
I have issues with all of the above, some days are worse than others. So I’m constantly trying to improve.
I have always used harmonics a lot; though have always tried to use them in interesting, musical ways. It all got to the point where I thought I was overdoing it, so I’ve become a lot more conscious of where I use them these days. I can’t think of anything else specifically where I thought I was being repetitive, but I do try and keep an awareness going to avoid excessive repetition.
KH. Are you familiar with strict Gary Willis/Matt Garrison right-hand technique of plucking the strings as lightly as possible with four fingers to purposely avoid fatigue? Willis in particular seems to have supreme control over his instrument using this method. I personally doubt if it works for people who naturally want to clobber the hell out of the bass though…!
PJ. I’m somewhat familiar with the way they play and I know Matt personally, they are both great players.
Personally I like to play fairly hard at times because I like the variation of timbre and dynamics that you get going between a light and hard attack. Therefore I have to have the thumb anchored. But I have nothing against the other styles out there, that’s what makes the bass world go around.
KH. As a teenager I saw you perform with Brand X at The Venue in London, 1980 and was astonished; I’d never seen anyone play like that, in fact it was the first time I’d ever seen anyone play a fretless bass and I had absolutely no idea what techniques you were using to create the sound. There seemed no way of finding out either – there were no bass teachers in my local town and the bass players I knew couldn’t help either. Months later, quite by chance, I read a small description of how to bend a harmonic on a fretless bass in a copy of International Musician magazine. Tiny clues were all you had back then and you were required to hunt high and low for them.
Nowadays every young bass player has instant access to an immense amount of information on any technique, no matter how obscure, with dozens of online tutorials and Youtube videos available at the click of a mouse. They can take their pick from a vast postmodern shopping cart and start off with Marcus Miller for breakfast, Flea for lunch and maybe try a bit of Percy Jones for supper. And why not select the Percy Jones DBX compressor preset on the Zoom B3 module for good measure?
What are your feelings about the Information Age? Has it heralded an age of more versatile bass players? Do you think learning in this way is all positive or are there downsides to it?
PJ. The technical standard of electric bass playing now is way higher than it was when I was coming up. Back in the 60’s and 70’s there was a handful of Guys out there, Stanley, Jaco and a few others. Now there seems to be hundreds of bass players with a very high standard of playing, but I think only some of them are particularly original.
The music scene is now vastly different to what it was 30 years ago. The Guys I play with view the Grammys like looking into another Universe. It seems littered with entrepreneurs who sing and sell sneakers or whatever as a sideline. A lot of the singing leaves much to be desired as does the song writing, and of course there is the inevitable floor show that goes along with this stuff. There is next to no attention given to a musician playing an instrument. So now as a result you have this sort of subculture of players who play in bars and DIY joints. The good thing is that it’s a very creative edgy scene, for example Brooklyn, NY is full of good, creative players.
The tech revolution has resulted in a lot more people being able to record because of ProTools and affordable hardware. But the downside of this is that some of these people don’t have the skills to be able to record and mix like a person who came up through a studio, starting as a Tea Boy/Gofer and working his way up to becoming an engineer/producer. So the market is littered with mediocre sounding records making it harder for the good quality music to shine through and be noticed. The mp3 format is convenient but doesn’t sound too great. Then you have this now popular approach of putting loads of compression on a mix to make the band sound “big”. The end result is a grainy sound and ear fatigue. The tech revolution has bought a lot of good things to us but I have to admit that I do miss the days of vinyl.
The music scene today seems to have a parallel with the economy and its problem with inequality. You have the 1% making tons of dosh, and the other 99% playing in a dive bar somewhere for the bucket. Downloading is the icing on the cake that makes it so much harder for real musicians to keep doing their craft.
KH. I can sense you shrivel with embarrassment when I pose questions like this but do you accept you’ve been an influential bass player? I can hear your influence in several prominent players – famously, that other great stylist, the late Mick Karn. It could be said Karn’s style resembled a condensed, abbreviated version of your own; less ornamental, less detailed perhaps, but differing with the use of more extreme slides, violent vibrato and lopsided funkiness. I wonder if he had seen you play at that London gig at The Venue in 1980? Did you ever meet him?
PJ. I met Mick Karn briefly in a club in Tokyo in the early 80’s. I didn’t get to know him, I knew his band mates Richard Barbieri and Steve Jansen better because I worked with them in Ippu Do. I seem to remember Richard telling me that he listened to me a lot and they used to go see Brand X at the Marquee club when we played there in the mid 70’s. They gave me a cassette of the Japan recording “Tin Drum“. I was really impressed with it – a very original band I thought.
I really liked Mick Karn’s playing. I had heard that he liked my playing, but I think he made something original out of whatever influence I gave him. He seemed to have a natural ear for 1/4 step intervals which I really liked, maybe because he apparently grew up in Cyprus and was exposed to Middle Eastern and North African music?
You mentioned the Venue in London. I remember that gig well because Goodsall and myself were served with subpoenas from Island records, just minutes before we played!
KH. What do you think of the internal world of ‘bass culture’ and bass shows: you know – Victor Wooten and Steve Bailey Jazz-jamming up there on the bandstand, bass workshops, product endorsements, etc. Do you attend these shows? Do you have any interest in them and do you ever get invited to perform at them?
PJ. I generally don’t get invited to these events. I’m OK with that because I don’t enjoy them very much. I did go to one here in Manhattan several years ago when I was invited by DR strings. I played for a few minutes but the din was so loud that I couldn’t do anything subtle. There were about 20 other bass players in the vicinity and at least 75% of them were slapping. If you can imagine that kind of ambiance!
I do endorse a few companies, Ibanez, Eventide, EA amps and DR strings. It really helps because you get the gear with a 50% cut, Ibanez is no cost and DR give me strings for free whenever I need them. I’m not a high profile player, so I don’t figure much in their advertising.
I don’t do bass workshops – well, I did do one in Japan many years ago – but that was an exception. I’m not a formally educated player; I actually studied electronic engineering back in the day, not music. I’m an autodidact, I don’t have a deep theoretical knowledge of music, and so I’m not comfortable in a workshop situation. I either “hear” the music or I don’t, if I hear and feel it I can usually figure out how to play it. I thought a major triad was a Chinese gang, so I still have a ways to go.
KH. The ‘talented amateur’ versus the versatile, technically proficient and musically knowledgeable professional has proved a heated (and often tedious) talking point over recent years. I raise this issue in relation to your comments about not having a ‘deep theoretical musical knowledge’. Bill Bruford suggested in his recent autobiography, for instance, that the British champion a romantic and unrealistic notion of amateurism at the expense of formal learning. He cites bassist, Jeff Berlin as a good example of the studious type who also has his own voice. What are your thoughts?
PJ. I have to respectfully disagree with this opinion. It seems too black and white to me. I do agree that it’s a really good thing to study music and I recommend it. To be able to sight-read and to have a solid grasp of music theory enables you to work in situations where some people (like me) can’t function. But does it necessarily make a great player? I don’t think so because there are some players out there who are extremely musically literate, but don’t have a voice of their own. On the other hand you have some great and original players who have had no formal music training. Buddy Rich comes to mind, he didn’t read and I believe he developed his skills by watching and listening to his elders, and playing a lot.
There has been a lot of debate about this topic on social media of late. I try to keep out of it and just get on with my music.
KH. Would you care to comment on your age and it’s effects? Does the bass feel heavier every year? Do the musical decisions seem weightier also? How ambitious are you? Are you weighed down by musical expectations?
PJ. I hit 67 last December, but I try not to think about it. I can’t drive and don’t have a car so I shlepp around New York mostly on the subway carting my bass. I must say, as the years go by, it does seem to get heavier, especially on those hot August days.
I have a bit of arthritis in my hands, which doesn’t help, but if I play regularly and spend a bit more time warming up I seem to be able to function OK. I guess I’ll keep at it as long as I can get my hands to do what my brain is telling them to do. But then when your brain gives up I guess you are pretty much f***ed.
Music decisions have become more difficult, and one reason being that the creative music scene is in such a poor shape. I’m going into the studio on Saturday with MJ12 to record. These days you have no record label and no support, so you have to fund it yourself, so you have a lot of financial stuff to think about as well as the music. Then when the record is finished you wonder how long it will take to appear as a free download somewhere. So yes, there are definitely more decisions that you have to make.
I feel ambitious in the sense that I still have ideas that I want to pull off, so I still want to put out records and do gigs here and there. Brand X was a big business lesson in that we made no royalties, it’s all recouped by the management to pay off a debt that has never been accounted for. (ie “You owe us a quarter of a million but we can’t tell you what it was spent on”). It was great musically but I wouldn’t go there again from a business point of view.
KH. Many thanks for the interview, Percy.
PJ. My pleasure, Kev.
MJ12’s record comes out in May 2016 on Gonzo Multimedia.
©Kev Hopper 2015