As you’re working on being a better bass player and look back on your influences, will you ever become better than them?
Over the weekend, I was checking out some old footage of Squarepusher. For those that have never heard the name, Squarepusher is an English jungle and drum and bass producer and widely regarded as among the more influential pioneers of the genres through out the 1990s and early 2000s. What made Squarepusher (or Tom Jenkinson) such a standout character was his use of live bass guitar in addition to his hardware equipment to make his beats and grooves.
I’ve watched a lot of Squarepusher videos and listened to – and own – just about all of his albums in one form or another and was even inspired to make a project similar to his, but this was the first time I found myself thinking that there was no way I’ll ever be as good as him.
In my mind, I was focused on technical ability and compositional ability. His ability to play and arrange musical ideas in such a way that the end result was something truly special and exciting.
It was a sobering realization and I found myself thinking about it all the next day.
Should You Strive to Be as Good as Your Heroes?
After mulling the question over, a just as sobering realization came to me:
You shouldn’t be as good as your heroes. You should be the best you and your idols should serve as markers.
When embarking on the search for our musical identity, we look to the people that inspire us most. Once those figures have been identified, the next step involves shaping the music to sound just like the influences’ music. Frustration sets in because the final product doesn’t sound like your model’s work and a period of acceptance occurs and the project continues to thrive and change. Change sets in and soon the project takes an identity of it’s own.
It’s a feeling I’ve encountered a lot through a good handful of musical projects in just over 10 years of playing bass and even now with my newest projects.
When I first started playing bass in high school, my very first band was with 4 good friends and we wanted to sound like Phish. Exactly like Phish. We jammed out our songs, we changed up our setlists show to show, we would morph and change feels during the same song and turn a samba number into a Stevie Wonder/Motown funk jam one night and turn that samba number into a reggae piece the next night. For high schoolers, we knew who we wanted to be and that mindset shaped our songwriting and lyric crafting. Goofy, playful and technically complex.
Unfortunately the band didn’t make it when we all broke off to college, but I remember the collective mindset that came into play as a band. I remember fighting myself questioning if this was something that Phish would do or if this sounded too much like Phish or if the audience would understand who we were trying to be.
As I joined other bands and projects the same ethos started the project and pigeonholed much of the songwriting. Another band sought to sound like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and another is making a formidable attempt to sound like the RX Bandits. A younger me would have embraced this and saw no problem in working to sound exactly like the bands that drove us together to make music in the first place. An older me sees things differently and thinks these influences should serve as stepping stones, compasses for the general direction to the sound of the band and nothing more. At best, when asked who does this band sound like, the reply will be our influences.
With my latest project and this realization, I feel comfortable crafting a new sound with live bass and electronic music.
I’m content with the fact I can’t slap as dexterously or tap with two hand as fluidly and elegantly as Jenkinson can because I know there are other musical strengths working for me to make this project it’s own unique entity. The beats themselves draw more from classical and movie score music rather than jittery glitch music, the bass serves as a rich counterpoint or a deep groove and has a place rather than the muddled place that even Squarepusher placed his own bass in under the moniker Squarepusher.
As a bass player, like many just starting out, I wanted to be like the people that inspired me and inspired so many others. I wanted the speed of Geddy Lee, the melodic touch of Chris Squire and the freedom of Jack Bruce, Phil Lesh and Mike Gordon. In a way I got all of them 10 years later, but they are not at all in the form of my influences.
Only Geddy Lee can play Geddy Lee and at this point in my playing, I don’t feel compelled to play like Geddy Lee or my influences. But I do feel like without them, I wouldn’t have my musical personality. I don’t think I would be the player I am today without them and accepting that other players were not meant to be copied verbatim. Rather, they’re meant to be studied and used as musical focal points to grow from and learn from.
Our Identities Are Shaped From Those Who Inspire Us
As musicians, our own musical identities develop out of those that influenced us, even if our short term goal is to sound exactly like them. It’s a point of maturation to realize that rather than working to sound like a copy of your heroes, you should work on sounding like yourself and embracing the development of your own unique musical identity.
Idols should be a stepping stone to your musical voice, not a mold to fill verbatim.
At the end of the day, if people wanted to listen to Squarepusher – they would go flip on Go Plastic! People will want to hear your voice once you have it.