Interview - Mike Downes

Mike Downes

What are some important musical and other lessons you've learned that you can pass on to aspiring bassists?

Music is infinite, so I've learned to embrace the endlessness. If you build a shoe rack, you gather the materials, put in the work and then proudly look at the finished product when it's done. Becoming a better musician is not like that - it is never a tangible finished product. The beauty of this is that it teaches you to enjoy and live in the process rather than focusing solely on the end result.

On a related note: whatever stage you're at, focus on what you can say with what you have in this moment. Don't rely on "having it all together" at some vague future date. Some musicians manage to say a lot with very little, and some have a lot together but nothing meaningful to say.

I've learned that you need a clear idea of your motives behind playing music. This will carry you through the inevitable rough periods. What got you into playing music in the first place? What do you want to say through music? How would you like to affect people and the world around you? How can you contribute? How can you bring the most to every musical situation you play in? What can you do in these situations to allow the music to rise to the highest level possible? I'm probably a total geek (my wife would say "probably??"), but I ask myself these questions. The answers guide what I do on a daily basis.

The importance of learning to listen can't be overstated. To me, listening is the gateway to connecting with other musicians, to absorbing new ideas and to becoming a more discerning musician. The greatest musical experiences of my life have happened when I and the other musicians were in a state of receptivity and deep listening. In the best moments I have my radar out and I'm just listening to the overall group sound, like I'm not even playing. This is something any bassist can develop - listen to the music as a whole while you're playing and ask "what would be the best thing the bassist could play here?" Then, play that. 

What are three of your favourite recordings that you consider essential for any bassist to check out?

Portrait in Jazz - Bill Evans, Scott Lafaro and Paul Motian - this group had something very special. It's incredibly musical and the interplay is magical.

We Get Requests - Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen - sound, time feel, pitch, dynamics, melody, foundation, counter lines - Ray has it all happening, and the bass is recorded beautifully.

Glenn Gould - JS Bach: The Two & Three Part Inventions - like Portrait in Jazz, I'm fascinated by the interaction between the top voice(s) and the lower bass voice. Bach's left-hand melodies are functional and beautifully melodic all at once.

Can you share some practice ideas? What should aspiring bassists focus on? What worked/works for you? I realize this is a very broad question that varies with individuals' needs, but I'm looking for some general ideas, and in particular what worked for you.

It's better to not practice than to practice without focus.

I use visualization a lot. You can practice just as efficiently without the instrument as with it.

I mentioned earlier about listening like a passive observer. Here's something you can try to do while practicing: Imagine that you are outside of yourself (sitting in a chair 10 feet away for example) listening to yourself practicing. As the observer, you listen and offer constructive criticism based on what you hear. I find that I can be much more discerning and I hear everything clearer when I detach myself from the physical experience of playing.

I try to think long-term. Our society is all about short-term thinking and gratification, and that will not serve you well as a musician. If you develop a long-term vision of who and what you want to be as a musician, then everything you practice will relate to that overarching vision.

Do you have any advice for overcoming difficulties or obstacles?

I come at it from a bunch of angles and visualize myself solving the issue. Sometimes it just takes time to move things from the conscious to the unconscious mind. Remember that a river might get dammed up for a while, but it will eventually keep going.

Do you have any advice for players just beginning their careers? What worked for you?

I see two major components to a career in music. One is the artistic side and the other is the business side. Many musicians (including me) have difficulty reconciling these two sides. You have to take care of and feed both sides. You should strive to constantly become a better musician. At the same time, you need to take care of business. That means being professional in every sense: being prepared for whatever music you'll be playing, being easy to work with, being cool to hang out with, being trustworthy, etc.

Do you have any gear advice (specific pickups, strings, amps, etc. and what to look for)?

You should develop a strong aural image of what sound you want to produce and then buy gear that makes it easy to produce that sound. Michel Donato once borrowed my plywood bass (which I had as a student) for a concert and he made it sound like his expensive Italian bass. That's when I realized that your sound is in your head and hands. Having said that, some basses make it very difficult to produce the sound you want. You should look for a bass that makes it easy. Also, if you play every day on a beautiful bass, you'll begin to carry that sound around with you.

Bass geek alert for this next paragraph: As for what I use - my main acoustic bass is a French Mirecourte bass circa 1860. I use Pirastro Olive gut strings for the D and G and Thomastik Spirocores or D'Addario Zyex strings for the A and extension C, a Fishman Full Circle pickup and a carbon fiber endpin that is on an angle. My main electric bass is a Yamaha TRB 5-string. I have two heads - a GKMB500 and an old Walter Woods, and a Bergantino 1 x 12 cabinet. I've been on an ongoing journey to get the most acoustic sound I can get when amplified.

What's coming up for you and how can we follow you (website, social media, etc,)?

If you're reading this you are on my website.... You can also connect with me on:

Twitter @mikedownesmusic

Facebook Mike Downes

YouTube channel Mike Downes

Please don't follow me on the street. You'll freak me out. As for stuff coming up, I'm getting ready to record another trio/quartet album and I'm excited about the new music. I'm also looking forward to playing on and co-producing an upcoming recording with Yvette Tollar featuring the music of Joni Mitchell, arranging music for a new recording with Billy Newton-Davis, doing a recording with Molly Johnson and a lot of other great projects.

Any other thoughts to pass along?

Playing music as a career is an incredible privilege and I am grateful for that. I also believe music is a healing power and that we need to bring that into the world.