Shedding, more shedding, and still more shedding throughout high school. Then I went to college at CSUN and through some friends I met there I learned about and went to see a band called PaperBag, playing on UCLA's quad. They were doing something incredible to me. I could barely understand what was going on, but they seemed so serious and earnest and committed to their music that I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I approached them.
It turned out that their second guitarist, an amazing musician and later friend by the name of Ken Rosser (they had had no bass player since their inception a couple of years earlier) wanted to leave Paperbag in order to pursue jazz music, and so I was able to audition as his replacement in the band.
The other three guys in the band were amazing people. Mark Segal, who played hundreds of styles of music with conventional drums, hand drums, ethnic percussion, all manner of toys and junk, spouted poetry, and did all the excellent artwork for the albums and gig flyers throughout PBs career. There was his younger brother Greg Eric Segal, who was a lead guitarist with all sorts of effects that could get millions of tortured, screaming, ethereal and otherworldly guitar sounds unlike anyone I had ever heard. Finally there was Kenny Ryman, a most unconventional musician for his time, because though he occasionally played keyboards he also manipulated tape loops in real-time, used turntables and vinyl as instruments (you have to remember this was 1985
WAY before hip-hop began and DJ culture started using turntables as instruments) and tweaked everything through various delays and whatnot, and acted as the bands recording engineer early on. Theyd all been in other bands before, played music forever already, and were veteran performers.
We hit it off so well both musically and personally that after just a few jams I was in. A bit later I will explain why what PB did was really not jamming at all, and this is key to why I was so entranced with their concepts and mission.
PB was recording EVERYTHING they played and it turns out that our first release together, the cassette-only "VIctimless Crime" is culled from jams done in those first few weeks after I had joined the band.
As for my own contributions to that band, I will leave it to others to comment. I will just say that what I was always trying to accomplish was to at least play something interesting enough that if you listened to nothing else in the track but the bass you could still find something musical and meaningful in it. My philosophy was that bass should be melodic as well as foundational, grooving but nuanced, emotional and powerful and driving all at the same time. I'm proud to say that I think I did that at least 50% of the time.
Of course, I was there and part of the development of our Theory of Improvisation and the methods that came out of that. Thats documented elsewhere and I highly recommend looking into that if you are interested in the meat and potatoes of how we did what we did.
I should say something about my feelings on Improvisation as well. Up until my actual experiences with PB I had only had exposure and experience of jamming, the things where all the guys in a band trade solos over known chord changes, known melodic motifs, known rhythms. It was mostly all worked out ahead of time, all you made up personally was the few bars of your own solo. And this was back when solos were still done in rock music, unlike nowadays.
The only place you find soloists where they make it up on the spot is in jazz, but even in that idiom there are somewhat strict parameters within which you can work. When a musician gets kind of free and freaky within the songs context the jazz cats call it taking it outside meaning playing beyond the conventional constraints of the average solo, like introducing exotic chords, melody notes not found in the songs key, poly-rhythmic accents and syncopations.
If you are not a musician maybe a lot of my take on this stuff sounds like a mess to you, and maybe it is, so Ill explain it another way. If music is a form of non-verbal communication, where I am trying to communicate some idea or vibe to you the audience member using only my musical instrument, then soloing on that instrument in the context of a pre-written and rehearsed tune is basically riffing on established themes, however non-verbalyou are not really saying anything unexpected or unsafe. Im probably saying things that have been said before, with only the slight twist and uniqueness afforded by my individual way of playing.
On the other hand, if you are ALSO making up the context, melody, rhythms, etc., on the spot, then you may create a truly extemporaneous, spontaneous generation of pure improvisation, in other words, it might be something totally new and unexpected, and maybe it is something NO ONE HAS EVER SAID BEFORE. Original, novel, and unique are words we use to describe this when it happens. Interestingly, this kind of playing tends to reflect more of ones subconscious influences, because you dont have the luxury of thinking about it too much before you must speak.
In polite conversation, we want to think before we speak or we might say something dumb or offensive, but since this is music and not speech, we may instead tap into something more primal and less intellectualized, more honestly expressive of our pre-verbal feelings and emotions. In music, its ok to be thoughtless in the sense of not pre-meditated. You can sometimes be amazing and profound in ways pre-meditation would restrict severely.
It bears mentioning that the better you play your instrument in terms of knowing how to get what is in your head and heart at any given moment to come out through your hands, the more expressively one can play.
Then, you must also acknowledge (to whatever degree your nature allows) that TOTAL FREEDOM in music is both most exhilarating and most scary. You have no safety net of known chord progressions, known rhythms to fall back on.
You have no ability to predict or prepare for what is coming at you from your band matesyou can only react to it in the moment it is happening. You must trust yourself. Cliché that it is, with great power comes great responsibility: an effective improviser in really not and should never be a musical anarchistit isnt that there are no rules, its that the rules come and go as fast as the notes do. You have to be uncommonly sensitive to everything around you, the playing, your gear, band members, audience vibe, trending vibe of the notes just heard, your own feelings and reactions to what you are experiencing etc. You try to predict and shape where the music is going as you are instantly reacting to where it actually does go. Its a heavy challenge for even the most seasoned musician. We had all sorts of people tell us theyd be TERRIFIED to death to try doing what we did. We also had all sorts of people beg us to let them sit in and play with us, so they could see if they could rise to the challenge.
Its scary and its glorious. Thats because theres no safety net. You are blindfolded with a paintbrush in your hand and a canvas before you, and your goal is to make Art. Sometimes, almost as if by random chance, you do, except the only thing keeping it from being totally random is the musician BEING THERE. We in PB did this, more often than not, and thats something I am very proud of. Sometimes we didnt make Art, just noise, and we rightly regarded these pieces as failures. We called it the turkey factorthe fact that not all improvisations will qualify as artistic. Its a job hazard, and we worked really hard to keep the turkey factor to a low percentage of our pieces. Thats why we rehearsed, developed a theory and methodology, and did endless philosophizing about improvisation. We were always trying to eliminate the turkey factor.
That first rehearsal with the PB guys, I was infected and wholly taken over by the mad viral meme of this idea. I was as converted as if Id been body-snatched by aliens. When it works, and you make ART, there is no better feeling. None.
I got TOTALLY nuts into the Bag thing. We were experimentalists in a mad scientist, wizard alchemist way. Having no boundaries other than our own musical limitations and of course, cash flow, we were into so many ways of making and offering up sounds and musical ideas, such as the use of effects processing. I started collecting effects to use with the bass. I built my first of what was to be three (now four) generations of pedal boards. We all played various instruments and tried to get unique sounds. I remember a guy coming up to me as I was setting up for a bag show and he was marveling at all my pedals. He said "Wow, I have never seen a guitarist with that many effects pedals."
To which I replied, "Um, I'm the bass player. The guitarist is over there." The dude's eyes bugged out and his jaw dropped. I guess he never saw a bass player with more than a chorus or fuzz.