Swans is an experimental ‘no wave’ band from New York. The band has been around since the 1980s with a constantly changing lineup of musicians and percussionists all under the leadership of frontman Michael Gira performing music that saddles somewhere between an metal concert dramatically slowed down to a warped and distorted Tom Waits concert. Swans is known for, well, experimental music and pushing the barrier between performance art and what many of us would consider ‘music’. To many, Swans is more of an experience just as it is a listening experience. The band builds their songs off intricate even confusing or perplexing repetitions and patterns underneath howling, cryptic lyrics.
Just take a listen for yourself:
Now, you’re probably wondering where could I be going with this article?
A sludgy experiemental band from New York – so what? What does this have to do with bass guitar and what’s in it for me to keep reading?
Well, here’s the point of the article: amidst the sludge and hypnotism of Swans’s music, bassist Chris Pravdica seems to have found a way to be the dominant force in a band where there doesn’t seem to be a single dominant force.
Observing Pravdica’s playing all through the night at Toads Place, I kept wondering to myself why was I so engulfed in his playing? What made it so infectious and arguably some of the best bass playing I’ve heard in a long while – live or off an album?
So this article is an analysis of Pravdica’s bass playing. This article looks to answer those questions and pass the morals to you the reader in hopes that you might take them along and create sticky, infectious grooves in your own musical projects.
1. Cutting Though the Mix Like No Other
Pravdica was loud. Really loud at this concert. And without a doubt was cutting through the mix in a way that the Middle Eastern drums, dual drummers and percussionist and three guitars were. My attention was drawn to him instantly and stayed there.
Admist thick walls of morphing sounds driven by distorted guitars and thunderous drums and percussion, Chris Pravdica seemed to cut through the mix with nothing more than a Precision bass, a pick, a distortion pedal and an Ampeg head and cabinet on top of some 4×4 cabinets. That was it.
The bigger takeaway was that though his signal for the entire duration of the show was fuzzed out like the guitars and slide guitar and he was playing many of the same strummed chords as the guitars, Pravdica stood out – which is rather uncommon at a metal concert of a music style that is generally considered heavier. Typically, heavy music tends to be very guitar driven with the bass only meant to be felt at best. The bass is meant to play in unison with the guitars but you’re really supposed to hear the intricate guitar work on top of the foundational bass playing.
This concert seemed to take this notion and turn it around.
Gira being the frontman and presumed head of the band’s mixing and live performances seemed to understand the importance of the bass in acting as more than just foundation but also as lead and equal to the guitar’s parts.
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The takeaway: mix matters. Now, this might not be much of a revelation, but it’s instances like this where when the bass is mixed more to be a strong, foundational lead rather than an overt lead like what Jaco or Stanley might be considered, the listening experience transforms entirely and the musical experience along with it. It’s like seeing the concrete floor beneath the house and understanding that without it, there is no band and, additionally, no house.
2. Simple, Simple Grooves
There’s something to be said for simple grooves.
While it’s easy to get swept up in the flashy, speedy, dexterous bass work of jazz figures like Jaco, Stanley Clarke, Richard Bona and many other bassists’ bassists, it’s all too easy to forget how simple grooves are just as important to bass playing.
Although considerably less ‘impressive’ to the lay listener, all musicians can agree that
Simplicity was a hallmark of the night – both for the entire band and Pravdica’s bass playing.
One thing that absolutely blew me away about the performance was that the band could change from avant-garde mesh of sound into a groovy, stomp of a song at the drop of the hat.
Here’s a standout example from the concert: the live version of the song, “A Little God in My Hands” (I apologize for the vertical camera):
Technically speaking, the core of the song is built off of Pravdica’s 3 note bass line staying in complete lock step with the drums with guitars providing minimal musical support at best and making a big appearance periodically. Musically speaking, it’s undeniable that the song grooves. Hard.
Again – with just 3 notes.
What’s even more interesting about this bass line is that, again, it never gets lost in the mix. The listener can hear the pump and grind of the bass line throughout the entire length of the song – live and studio.
Here’s the studio version of the song off their newest album, To Be Kind, the album that the band was in touring in support of:
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The takeaway: simpler is often better when it comes to bass lines. While this is just one example, the Swans discography (which I strongly encourage you the reader to check out for a real musical experience) is riddled with examples like ‘Little God in My Hands’: songs built off of simple grooves that drive the core of the song relentlessly. Don’t get bogged down with finding the flashiest way to work through a given chord progression. Sometimes all a song needs is just a 3 note loop that’s sole purpose is to get the listener’s head moving to your music.
3. Application of Texture, Feel and ‘Non-Textbook’ Musical Concepts
Musical concepts that are more sensory driven like feel and texture are not things that can be taught in a book. They can only be felt and come with years of practice and a good ear.
At the Swans concert, texture and dynamics were huge players in Pravdica’s bass playing and with the rest of the band. The band grew and shrunk musically together. They would pick gently together and slam on their instruments together. Pravdica’s left hand would move gingerly from note to note during the quiet parts of songs and hammer down note to note.
What value did this bring to the music?
When these musical concepts were applied in conjunction with the points mentioned above, Pravdica became the unsung star of the show.
Swans is certainly a niche band that many have not heard of. Their music is arguably an acquired taste, they’re an elusive touring machine and their shows can be deterring to outsiders for the simple fact that going into one unprepared can leave you deaf and disoriented.
Amidst all of that, if great, groovy bass playing can exist here, it can exist anywhere and this analysis is an homage to a diamond-in-the-ruff of a band and a certain kind of bass playing. The kind of bass playing that you really need to dig deep to find and appreciate.