Amy Humphrey:
Clatter Incorporates 12-String Bass Thunder

Amy in her home studio

An interview with Mark Rowe

If you guessed that a 12-string bass might sound great in a two-piece band, you would be right! Amy Humphrey has included the 12 on several songs on the latest album of her band Clatter, a bass / drums alternative rock duo with her husband / drummer, Joe Hayes. Amy is a fingerstyle player which is unusual in the 12-string bass world, and she demonstrates a mastery of the instrument's full range of sonic possibilities. In addition to breaking new ground in her innovative use of multiple amps / bass effects, Amy's addition of the 12-string bass makes Clatter the biggest-sounding duo anywhere. Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Amy!


Which 12-string basses do you have? Do you have a preference?
I have three Waterstones; a TP-1 34" Black, a 34" Trans Green and a 32" White. Since the 34" and 32" sound so different in tone I don't have a preference over one or the other; they just fit in their own niche. I do play the 34" on more songs on the new CD, though; it just seemed to work better for those particular songs. I just got the green bass with two pickups (my black one has only one) but a hand injury has prevented me from trying it out yet. I'm looking forward to hearing how it compares to the other two!

The really neat thing about the 12-string is that it has opened up an entire new range of sonic possibilities for us. As a two-piece band we are always looking for ways that we can fill in some of the spaces, and a lot of time we'll do that with playing. But the nice thing about the 12-string is that it adds in some of the higher notes that we were sometimes missing when we were doing the 4-string songs. It adds just this rich, huge, full sound that I think is phenomenal. It's almost like adding in a guitar player. It added a whole lot having a 12-string as part of our arsenal, and added a whole lot to our new album and to some of our new songs. I think it's going to add a lot of fun to our live shows as well, it's a neat bass to look at and it sounds incredible.

The 32" scale bass has a different tone than the full scale, which has a really big, deep rich tone. The shorter scale actually has a little bit more like a guitar tone to me, it's a little more trebly, maybe a little thinner but not in a bad way. It's "reined in" a little bit more so it's perfect for trying to duplicate a guitar solo.

Have you made any changes to your playing style while using a 12-string versus a 4-string bass? Do you find a 12 tougher to play?
I didn't consciously make any changes in my playing style, although it's possible I play differently just by instinct. Sometimes it's a little more challenging to fret all those strings cleanly, especially lower down, but it just took some getting used to and a little more finger strength.

Many bassists have a tough time singing and playing simultaneously. You make it look easy. Is this something that came naturally or was there a lot of work involved?
For some reason I've never had trouble singing and playing. With the exception of a couple songs, I've been able to integrate the vocal line and bass part without much thought. I'm not sure how I lucked out with that! I wonder if I would have a more difficult time if I were to play and sing other people's music; with the exception of "Limelight" I've never really learned cover songs. It may be that I instinctively write parts I can play and sing simultaneously.

We share a love for Rickenbacker basses. What attracted you to the Rick? How important to your sound are the Ricks?
I started playing a Rickenbacker by default when I first started playing in college. I was going to start playing bass in a band, so I needed a bass; a guy I knew was trying to sell his Ric 4001 and needed the cash, so he sold it to me for $150. It was quite the serendipitous event for me as a bassist because the Ric felt great to play and I fell in love with the tone right away. I knew nothing about basses at the time so didn't realize until later what a great happenstance that was. And in fact, to this day I still don't know much about different bass companies because since I started off playing my favorite bass, I wasn't really motivated to look at any others!

I would imagine the Ric is pretty integral to our overall sound. Its bright, piano-like tone holds its own as a lead instrument and cuts through well whether it's running through my clean amp, my effected setup, or the guitar half stack. It's just the perfect fit for what we do. The addition of the 12s adds a nice tonal variety and I think compliments the Ric perfectly because the octaves provide a nice bridge between lows and highs, just as the Ric manages to sound both bassy and trebly at the same time (to me, anyway!).

Will you be using the 12 live? Will any of your previously released material be "transposed" to the 12 for live performances?
I'll definitely be playing the 12's live on all the songs I recorded with a 12-string, but I don't intend to take any songs away from the Ric. I often write songs around the sound of the instrument, and all the songs from the first CD are too inextricably linked to the Ric for me.

One of the songs on the new album "Monarch", the song called "Somewhere Inside", actually started out on the Rickenbacker 4-string. I had written it on the 4-string and we liked the sound of it, and it sounded good, but it just seemed to be lacking something. This was before I actually had the 12-string. We were messing around on it trying to maybe use with an octave up on the 4-string to give it a little more sound, to fill it out a little bit more to make it more interesting. Then when I got the 12-string, we thought, "Well, let's give that a try." You've got the octave up built into the 12-string, so that might actually fill the sound in without using pedals or anything else to augment the sound. It actually turned out sounding really great on the 12-string. Those people who say you can't play a 12-string fast or you can't pluck it or do anything like that, well actually, yeah you can. It just takes a little bit of practice and a little trial and error to see what works.

The songs on your Blinded in Booneville DVD are reminiscent of the early songs from Rush. How big of an influence is Geddy Lee on your playing? You recorded a version of Rush's song "Limelight" for your new album. Out of all the great Rush tunes, why did you choose that particular song?
There are a lot of bassists who influenced how I perceived the role of bass in music, or whose bass lines I really loved to listen to, but I started listening to Rush in college just as I was actually learning to play the bass, so I think my actual playing style was probably more influenced by Geddy than by anyone else. I don't hear it myself because I'm too close to my own playing, but I've had people tell me frequently that they can detect a Geddy influence. Definitely an honor!

There's something about "Limelight" that just made it the perfect choice. It isn't their most flashy song, but it has a certain tenderness and appeal that I think speaks to a lot of people. I just can't believe no one has covered it before now! It's one of the few Rush songs, especially from the earlier era, that has a more traditional song structure and less of an epic quality. And it really lent itself to hybridizing the bass and guitar parts because Geddy and Alex are playing similar parts; usually they play completely different but complimentary parts, which I wouldn't have been able to pull off by myself. I really love the melody line, too, and thought it would be a fun one to sing. It's a little high for me, though!

Where do you get your songwriting ideas? Do you write the music or lyrics first? How much does Joe chip in to the songwriting process?
The songwriting process really varies. There's no set way we go about writing; sometimes it will start with a bass line, a drum beat, lyrics, a mood, the sound of a certain bass effect… there's just no rhyme or reason to it. I'd say Joe and I share about 50/50 when it comes to writing both the music and lyrics. It's really a true partnership. And it's great, because we feel comfortable enough with each other that we can say whether or not a certain part or lyric is working for us without having to worry about stepping on toes or hurting feelings. It's nice to have such an open arrangement and not feel stifled.

When you were in the studio, how did you record the 12? Any tips for getting a great bass tone, either live or in the studio?
In the studio, Chris (Rowe, engineer and co-producer) had a variety of signals from which to choose. There were lines direct from the bass, direct from the heads, and various mics in front of the different speaker cabinets. Having so many different sources enabled him to blend together a variety of sounds to get the tone he and I wanted, which also would vary from song to song. In addition to my usual amps and cabs, we rented an Orange half-stack to introduce a completely different tone. I think it worked nicely in some of the songs.

My technique for dialing in the tone I want in general is very unscientific: I just turn knobs (or Joe turns them while I play) until we get a sound we like. I write down the settings and those knobs stay in place forever. I'm not a tweaker; I don't have a lot of patience for trying new gadgets or altering my tone. To me, the tone is already exactly the way I would want it to sound, so there's no point messing with it. I would rather spend my time writing music or practicing songs. There are a lot of people who derive a great deal of satisfaction from being on the Quest For The Perfect Tone, always trying new basses, amps, effects, and so on, tinkering with settings, modding their basses, discussing their findings on forums, etc. I think it's great that they enjoy doing that, but it's just not what draws me to music or playing bass. I guess I'd rather just take what I have and see what I can make it do, use it as a conduit, and enjoy what comes out.

Will Clatter be touring any time soon? Any good road stories you'd care to share?
The touring thing is really up in the air right now. My favorite part of being a musician is playing live, but it can also be my least favorite part when things aren't going well. When we're connecting with the audience and everyone is having a good time, there's just no substituting that feeling. But when we drive 8 hours, haul in 800 pounds of gear by ourselves and set it up in a frenzy, play to the sound engineer and a bartender, then tear it all down in a frenzy and pack it back out again, the disappointment really starts to wear us down.

The first tour we ever did when we were a four-piece we actually made money; the next tour we did when we had a guitar player we broke even; and on the last tour with just the two of us we drove over 50,000 miles and only played to a handful of people and lost a ton of money. We promoted all the tours the same way and worked like dogs to get the word out, but the climate for live music isn't very favorable right now whether you're an indie band like us or a giant megastar. I don't even mind losing money as long as we're able to play to people who enjoy our music, but it's hard to entice people away from home. And I'm just as guilty as the next person; we've been so tied up with caring for our sick kitties these past couple of years that we seldom are able to go see bands.

So we're really thinking hard about how to approach supporting this new CD with live shows. We'd love to go wherever anyone would have us and even just play for small crowds, but we need to plan well. Also, we're often handicapped by the amount of gear we have and by our unusual sound, so we're looking into hiring a sound engineer to travel with us. Many a time we've shown up to a club and the sound person would look completely freaked out when we started bringing in all our equipment; in spite of us sending stage plots and describing our setup, they would invariably have it in their heads that because we're a two-piece band we're going to have the gear of the White Stripes. Then when I tell them I'm playing bass through a guitar amplifier they look like their heads might explode. I can't blame them – our setup IS very unusual – but it would be nice to be able to eliminate the confusion and to be sure we sound our best out front. So it's up to us to come up with new, innovative ways of putting together shows and encouraging people to attend.

Finally, we're very concerned about the impact we have on the environment. In an era when climate change is a very real concern, we don't want to be contributing to the emissions that are causing global warming. To that end we traded in our 15-passenger van for a Toyota Highlander Hybrid and trailer, but now we're looking into other options that might be even more efficient. Another idea would be to film shows live for webcast which would eliminate the need for anyone to drive. We're exploring as many different ideas and avenues as possible.

What is the typical audience reaction to Clatter? And to you specifically?
Audience reaction is pretty funny. There will be those people at a show who already know who we are, so they're just hanging out enjoying the music (especially the bassists, who tend to gather in a semi-circle in front of me!! Haha!). Then there are those who know nothing about us; they'll be sitting at the bar chatting, or playing pool in the next room, then when we start playing they'll migrate in and stare at us, transfixed. After the show they'll come up and exclaim about how they just couldn't believe there were only two people making all that sound. They'd say that they kept looking around for the rest of the band. That's always the best compliment, because one of our biggest goals has always been to make such a full sound that no one would miss the other traditional instrumentalists. We've also had a lot of people tell us that our live show surpasses our recorded efforts. I think this is true for many bands; it's hard to capture the energy of a live event on tape.

Is video technology important to your live performances?
We only used the video wall for our "Blinded in Boonville" DVD concert, which turned out really well, I think. Almost all of the footage we used for it was filmed by Joe, and it added a lot of color and movement to the backdrop. Most of the venues we play aren't equipped for such a setup, although we have talked about implementing something similar on a smaller scale to add some interest to the live experience.

How relevant do you think myspace.com is to your musical career? Do you see any differences between the amount of interest generated on myspace versus your band website?
It's hard to tell at this point. MySpace is still in its relative infancy, so everyone is still trying to figure out how best to make it work to their advantage. There are so many bands on MySpace that it's easy to get lost in the crowd. It's certainly nice to hook up with bands and musicians and be able to check out other people's music easily, and it could be that the real value in MySpace will be the ability to let people know about shows when / if we go on tour. But for now, it seems like we're able to connect with people much more easily on internet forums and through our web site. It will be interesting to see how it all develops, though!

Any advice for new players / bands just starting out?
This is a tough business. Be prepared to work really, really hard and don't let setbacks knock you down. Use the creativity you have as a musician and apply it to the business side of music; there are no rules for being successful, and don't listen to people who tell you there are. It's the bands who think and market themselves creatively who have more of a shot of standing out from the gazillions of other bands out there. But ultimately, you have to love doing it. That's the only thing that makes it all worthwhile.

The same goes for playing. I just don't believe there are rules for writing and playing music. There are guidelines and there's theory, but those are just tools to help you develop what you hear inside your head. If you want to play your bass in an unconventional way or through an unconventional rig, do it!! Don't listen to the naysayers. And remember to be supportive of your fellow musicians and THEIR quirky ideas, no matter how wacky they sound!

How well are the folks around your rural Missouri home dealing with your hair color? By the way, I've seen photos of you with "normal" hair color - your current color suits you!
Haha! Thanks! Joe tells me I get a lot of stares whenever we go anywhere, but I'm so oblivious I never notice. In fact, most of the time I forget that fuscia isn't my natural color because it's looked like this for so long. Usually the only time anyone ever says anything is when a little girl gets all excited and has to come up to me and tell me my hair is pink, or ask why it's pink, or is it a wig, etc. Their parents often get all embarrassed as if I'd be offended, like I might not know my hair was pink or I couldn't help looking like a freak or something. I love the honesty of little kids!

The funniest was when we were in New York City and people on organized tour buses were taking pictures out the window. We were laughing about how they were going to be back home in, say, rural Missouri showing off their pictures of all the crazy people they saw in the Big City and someone would say, "Oh, those aren't New Yorkers, that's just Amy and Joe! They live down the street..."

Finally, if you could live in any other time period, when would that be, and why?
Can I choose a made-up future? If so, I would live in Gene Roddenberry's idea of the future, as in "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Enough of a utopia to be complacent but with sufficient trials and struggles as not to be boring. Other than that, I would love to see the Earth in pre-Industrial times, just to get a glimpse of what it once looked like in its natural state.

Thanks Amy!

Be sure to check out the Clatter website!


        

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published February 1, 2007