This Installment of Bassic Connections features one of my favorite people that I’ve had the pleasure to actually meet after years of social media interactions… Mr. Stewart McKinsey! A very humble and gifted explorer of the low end, known for pushing the range of the bass guitar with his 10 string Conklin and fretless explorations, Stewart tends to separate the purists from the more open minded. Stewart rarely plays out these days opting for time at his peaceful mountain side home, but I’m gonna keep my fingers crossed that I can get him out to Lo-Hio one of these days!
JL: What was it that led you to music initially?
SM: Music was actually not a choice for me. I was alone a lot as a kid and my mom had an acoustic guitar. I was told not to take it from its case, so when no one was around I’d play it on the floor. In its case.
At that time we had music in schools and my teachers really encouraged me, so I ended up singing as well as playing violin, recorder, trombone, piano, hand percussion and eventually I found bass on my own.
I think what really interested me about music, and maybe even what sold me on it, was when my voice changed. As a little human I sang soprano. After puberty I sang bass.
JL: Do you think it was a conscious decision once you found your way to the bass? And do you still sing or play any of the above mentioned instruments?
SM: It was my first conscious decision regarding me and music, as opposed to just riding the wave and seeing where it took me. The first was choosing bass. It was the first instrument that I connected emotionally with something musical.
I call myself a bassist and if you hear me sing or play anything else you’ll know why.
JL: Cool. Now, from what I understand, you’ve moved around quite a bit… Just curious about your thoughts on how your environment shapes or affects your playing?
SM: I think it depends, at least in my case, is how immersed in the scene I am. For many of the places I’ve lived the scenes were small so my musical identity was pretty much what I brought with me. But when I ended up in places like New Orleans where music pervaded everything, I could let go of my ego and just dive in.
Pretty sure there’s always gonna be New Orleans in what I do from here on out.
JL: It’s pretty infectious… I think it’s probably even had some effect on folks outside of the scene… You seem fond of the outdoors, do you think nature has influenced your music or life… And how?
SM: I’ve been really fortunate in that I’ve lived and toured pretty extensively, at least here in the States. I still hope to spend more time out of the country. But in the travels I’ve enjoyed so far, I’ve been in the natural world a lot. I’m not really a camper or a hiker, but as a writer I value stillness. I like to let the scene and everything in it just sort of wash over me, let my thoughts dissipate.
As unfortunately cliché as this is going to read, nature inspires me to let things happen in both my playing and my songwriting/composition more organically. I had aspirations of being a monster when I was younger. Always wanted chops. As I sit in nature I recall that I’m me. And I’m not a chops player.
I simplify more and more in an effort to get to the emotional heart of what I do. If I can say it with one note or none, that’s where I’ll go.
JL: Your playing has always been very relaxed and patient… You seem to understand space better than the average guy… Which requires a ton of confidence in this YouTube chops driven world… You’re known for your 10 string, and I know you’ve gotten a lot of negative e-mails and comments because of the instrument you chose… How has the impacted your music and choices? I also, personally know a bunch of people that think those people are idiots and really look up to you, myself included… Why do you think the erb is so polarizing?
SM: Relaxed and patient? Wow! Thanks, man! I love that!
I think a lot of the experience of being alive is anticipating. Life involves a lot of waiting. It’s never been a conscious part of what I do. I just hear it that way. I think maybe it’s due in part to the wildly eclectic music my parents listened to when I was a box – jazz, pop, Indian music, vocal stuff… you name it.
This is also a part of why I kept extending my range. In composing, range and a wide variety of timbres offer more choices. Sometimes higher voicings in a chordal section will allow me to play the melody in an unusual range. Sub low pedal tones almost imply more than they state, which also frees me up in terms of what I can do.
But the big upside, no pun intended, is that I am always challenged and being lazy is not an option. As I’m a really lazy musician, I like something that kicks my butt every time I pick it up. It challenges me and forces me to not think traditionally, to approach things from a very different place. Playing vertically or horizontally is different on an instrument like this.
It is humbling that anyone would look up to me, particularly on your level as a musician, so thank you! I don’t know that I merit it in any way but… dang!!
As to the polarizing, I think it’s got more to do with the aesthetic than anything else. It doesn’t look like a bass. The players who choose them, the ones that you hear about anyway, are trying things that are different from traditional bass. The sounds generated are wildly different, too.
At the same time, there are a lot of things that are funny. I posted a video explaining why I play the beast and of all the harsh comments it gets, an enormous portion are from people who obviously didn’t watch more than a few seconds of the video as their issues are addressed specifically in the vid. Also the instrument has almost an octave range BELOW a standard 5 string so there’s actually more bass in this bass!!
JL: I’m always inspired by players like yourself that can wait… And, I think at some point, people stop identifying with their instruments so much and just focus on being musicians… But still people get caught up on the instrument itself… A lot. Where do you think music is headed and do you think it’s healthy at the moment?
SM: Man, thank you! My ego is inflating like a dirigible!
Music is like language and like society in that it’s organic. It changes. Not a static entity. While I see a lot that’s homogenous and less than spectacular to my ears and taste, there is always something and someone reactionary who’s inspired to rise up against the status quo. As long as there are those who aren’t complacent and don’t want their art to be product, I think we’re okay.
There is a monstrous wave of players who are all technique and no feel. They can play incredibly and with mind-blowing facility but a lot of what they do isn’t particularly memorable. I see this as players in development. We all have to develop technique and create a vocabulary. The process is circular in a way because it brings you back to yourself. Your influences shape you but to really be an artist you need to move past them and start figuring out who you are and what you want to say.
This was kind of the genesis of the solo bass scene. Great players who didn’t necessarily get the chance to put their music out in bands or recording projects started finding venues and creating events, eventually coalescing into something. Where we were anomalies once upon a time, it’s great to see that a lot of individuals — you most definitely included in that — are making music from the heart and soul.
So while I see a mainstream that’s not inspiring to me personally, the players on the fringe (who are inspiring people they don’t even know about!) are part of a groundswell.
To me that’s not just reassuring, it’s great!
JL: I think we’re on the same page here… There’s a ton of potential, as well as a ton of cool stuff being put out independently, and it’s more available than ever before. What have you been spinning lately?
SM: For me it’s about that heart in the music. It’s not about the chops or the flawless execution so much as being able to feel what’s in those notes beside sound.
Jaco’s “Word of Mouth” album is perennial. Rarely a week I don’t listen to that, and “Invitation” to a lesser degree. I’m a monster fan of Bill Connors, too. His “Swimming with a Hole in My Body” was just a revelation for me. Yves Carbonne and Steuart Liebig are both about getting to something deep and pure, and doing it with the most unreal tone on earth (for my taste). Michael Hedges is in pretty heavy rotation, too.
Other than that, I listen to a lot of old funk and blues.
JL: Those are some killer albums! I know you said you like to write, and if memory serves me right, in addition to your column in Bass Guitar Magazine, you write fiction… How often do you make time for that and how did you get your start?
SM: There’s a really long answer for that, but I’ll spare you. I started writing seriously in 5th grade so I must have been 10 or 11. Normally I just write when the inspiration hits but I injured myself last August and could’ play bass so I have been writing a lot more since then.
I got my start when my 5th and 6th grade teachers encouraged my creative writing. My mom’s a writer, though, so I’m pretty sure that’s where it came from. She used to challenge me when I was a li’l guy to learn new words every week and her dictionary is still one of the most magical books I know. She bought me the latest version of it when I turned 30 and it remains one of the few possessions I’m emotionally attached to. Although Mom would wince at the grammar in that last sentence, ending with a preposition and all. Ha ha ha!
JL: I’m from Ohio… That’s what we do…Your mom sounds likes really cool lady!
SM: My mom rocks. I’ve had the incredible honor of becoming friends with her. I am very lucky.
JL: Last question… Any advice or words of wisdom for someone wanting to explore the world of the extended range bass?
SM: It’s an absolutely blank canvas. Electric bass has been around less than a hundred hears and extended range bass is barely decades old. Explore your voice. Forget about the rules. If you want to use it to play bass, do it. If you want to explore melodies or see what it (and you) are capable of polyphonically, go for it. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you what you should do when you’re making art or seeking your voice.
Well, unless it’s something that’s going to hurt you physically. Don’t do that.