Outbound with Stu Hamm

Stu Hamm talks with Peter Davyduck about bass, the groove, life, and his upcoming release "Outbound" in this exclusive interview for ActiveBass.com
Peter Davyduck: Stu, I'd like to start off by saying thanks for taking time out to rap with us here at ActiveBass. To start things off I was wondering if you wouldn't mind giving a brief history of your playing for those out there that may not be familiar with your work.

Stu Hamm: I started playing bass mainly to be in the high school jazz band where I was living in Indiana. Then, when I was about 15, I moved to Vermont at which point I started playing locally in clubs and in bands around there. When I was 18, I went to Berklee College of Music. There, I met a bunch of great players like Steve Smith and I met Steve Vai the second week I was in school there; also Randy Coven, Victor Bailey, Jeff Berlin was there,just tons of great musicians. And I kept in touch with Steve and I ended up moving out to California in 1981 to record the Flexable album with him and then through that association I signed a record deal with Relativity Records and thats when I first met Joe Satriani.

Subsequently, he played a track on Radio Free Albemuth, my first solo record. And now, this (Outbound) is my fourth solo record thats out now and Im still touring with Joe and working with Steve off and on and with some other trios. Ive also got my own line of basses out from Fender and thats what I do.

PD: What have you been up to lately and how have you found your career path alter (if at all) with the rise and fall of "grunge" in the 90's and now with the global dominance of "boy-bands" and "britney clones"?

Stu: Fortunately, my music is so far out of the mainstream, that that stuff doesnt bother me. I appeal to a very selective audience. But this year, let me step back a minute, Ive been really busy. I started working on my solo record in January. I took about 10 days off from that to do this fusion trio with Steve Smith and Frank Gambale and then went right back to recording my solo record which I started mastering the day before rehearsals started for Satrianis Engines of Creation Tour.

We did a 6-week tour of the States and we just got back from doing a month in Europe. Were headed down to South America; possibly a G3 tour in the Fall and between that Im just doing some clinics for Hartke and Fender. Im also going over to Amsterdam to do a show in Rotterdam in September and then back to Europe in October to do some stuff for the Bass Center in London. This has just been a super, super busy year for Stu Hamm. And like I said, Britney Spears and I arent really competing for the same audience for the record buying public.

PD: I guess a response to the current state of affairs with the music scene is your new soon-to-be-released solo album "Outbound". Is it a sort of re-insatement for you and to kick current music in the butt or is it just a matter of having a bunch of good tunes that need to be shared?

Stu: I think maybe a little bit of that. I definitely made the effort to make it be a little bit more current. Since I did the fusion record right before I did my solo record, I got my ya-yas off that way and I just wanted this to kind of represent my life; the fact that I now live in San Francisco, I have a new daughter. Obviously youre affected by your environment and all the "beats" I hear living in the city, it certainly affects what I play. I wanted this record to be different than if I had just hired a guitar player and a drummer to play the melodies like everything else Id done.

I worked with Chris and Greg from Youth Engine, a production house here in the city a funky little place down on Market. The vibe was good and we just went to try to capture the mood that we were all in and what we were hearing in the environment we lived in that time period which was March and April of the year 2000.

PD: After such groundbreaking albums like "Radio Free Albemuth" to "Kings of Sleep" how did you approach this new album? Everything from compositionally to marketability.

Stu: Compositionally, some of the songs I had been kicking around in my head, in my repertoire for a few years and just hadnt found the right forum for them. As I started bouncing off ideas from Chris and Greg at Youth Engine, the songs started to take lives of their own. So a lot of the songs just happened that way. I had a basic framework, but I left enough room for interpretation, improvisation and inspiration to arise in the studio while we were playing them.

As far as marketability, I cant really say thats how I write records, but you know, maybe I should. Maybe Ill do that next time; try to blatantly sell out and make a record that sells a whole lot of money but thats not really what I do. I just kind of write in the way that each song is about a specific event or book or emotion or something that I felt and thats just how the songs work.

PD: I noticed that you're signed to Favored Nations for "Outbound" so I checked out their web-site and saw that Steve Vai heads up the label and it sounds like there's a lot of support for the "virtuoso-instrumentalist" genre that is always seemingly in danger of extinction. How important was Steve and the label in getting "Outbound" out to the masses? and also in supporting players such as yourself?(and himself for that matter)

Stu: Of course, they have a wonderful staff working at the Favored Nations offices and Im sure they will do just wonderfully at getting it to the masses. But as for Steve and as far as creativity, Ive known him for a long time and were friends, but I cant say that really had anything to do with it. When I was shopping around for people to put this record out, they (Favored Nations) seemed the most inclined. He (Vai) understands the music for what it is and what it isnt. He seemed to be willing to just leave me alone and let me make the record that I wanted to make and trust me artistically and let me just be able to get it out knowing what it is. So it worked out great of all the options that I had, Favored Nations was certainly the best and everythings worked out fine so far.

PD: How is your take ,specifically, on bass today? From the new advances in amps/instruments to the new players?

Stu: Well, theres certainly a crop of great players like Victor Wooten, Oteil Burbridge , Reggie McBride, John Pattituci, guys that have been around a while, and also guys like Flea and Les Claypool. There seems to be good spirit for people that are playing the bass. As far as gear, the companies are always coming out with great new stuff.

Of course, the best new gear lately has been the Stu Hamm Urge 2 Fender Bass.plug, plug, plug. I see a lot of stuff getting smaller. Im not so much into the digital and gear end side of things. I prefer to concentrate just on the playing. But theres this Pandora PX3 Bass box and that actually is great because it has a metronome and grooves you can jam to and you can play along to your cds and cancel out the bass line. So thats been a nice unit to carry around. People keep reinventing the same stuff and you could spend as much money on as much gear as you wanted.

PD: With the path that you helped to forge a decade and more ago, do you think it's become any easier for bassists to be seen as a valid solo voice today?

Stu: I think maybe so and Im not the only one blazing the trail, theres a lot of guys around doing it. But before us there were people blazing the trail from Charles Mengis to Alphonso Johnson to what Stanley and Jaco did, kind of open the books. And now you see a lot of the virtuosity in other elements too like what Flea and Les Claypool do.

Thats certainly not in a jazz fusion environment, but they get to play and the bass is a featured, prominent thingso thats good.

PD: The other side of the coin as well is, how is it for you to be seen by producers/employers as a guy who can "lay down a groove" as well as being a soloist? Or, does that even factor in to getting hired for various gigs?

Stu: Well, it certainly is a catch 22. When I was living in LA, I auditioned for like every band in the world and didnt get the gig. I auditioned for Cher, and Oingo Boingo and Jean-Luc Ponte, and I guess the turning point for me was when I auditioned for "Weird" Al Yankovic and it was the opening slot on the Monkees Reunion tour and I didnt get that gig. So at that point, I decided that Id create this alter ego of Stu Hamm, because my names really Stuart, the bass playing guy.

I decided to just go along that route and concentrate more on the stuff I had been writing. Plus, living in LA, I didnt get time to go to the right AA meetings to schmooze the right people to try to get studio gigs. But it is a catch 22 where one of the pluses is that I think Im a really versatile player.

Like the set were playing with Satriani allows me to play some melodic stuff, some hard driving stuff, some improv, some fretless. But I cant tell you how many times Ive done auditions where I show up and I just play normally and it goes great, but then the people will get a wind of who I am and they think, "hed be bored; he wouldnt want to play a regular blues gig or he wants too much money or hes too busy" So I dont really work as much as youd think I would or as much as Id like to so thats the catch 22 of it.

PD: Now lets get a little existential....where does Stu Hamm go when he plays his music? (besides the venue at which said gig is happening) What is it that drives you after all these years to keep playing and reaching for that next note?

Stu: Ummm, my financial situation! No really, I love to play the bass. I just try to get inside the song.

Every song has a different feel and a different emotion that Im trying to convey. I feel blessed. Like on the Satriani gig, they leave the stage and Im up there for 10 minutes and I just play whatever I want. A solo of unaccompanied bass and people scream and love it and yell my name and you just cant beat that.

So, I always feel that Im progressing not only just technically on the bass, but also as a well-rounded musician Im always learning about the writing and recording processes ..learning how to record better sounding records. So theres still always something to inspire me and to push me forward.

I read an interview with Robert Fripp and he said if you ever think youre too good to practice or progress, then youre delusional and you should just give it up and try something else. So theres still a whole lot more for me to try and create and progress on.

PD: And finally, what is it that you attribute the ongoing longevity of your career to?

Stu: I wish I had a snappy answer for that. I just kept plugging at it. I kept diversifying the kind of gigs I play and the people I play with and the music I write. And always trying to find a market and the fact that this is what I do so I have to keep doing what I do!

PD: Thanks again Stu for your time and patience. All the best with taking the new millenium by storm!