Big Bottoms: Amos Williams from TesseracT
With solo efforts, the likes of Victor Wooten, Stanley Clark, Billy Sheehan and now Evan Brewer broadened their abilities and, in so doing, the imaginations of their peers. But perhaps what’s most interesting is what comes afterwards; how the disciples of these celebrated talents put to use the new vocabulary of their respective instrument.
Amos Williams of top U.K. progressive metallers TesseracT is one such disciple. Amos deftly weaves influences from Wooten and Clark into the fabric of his band’s colossal aural tapestries. His unusual style incorporates licks and tricks from the masters, but he doesn’t do it to stand out or to show off. Slapping and popping in TesseracT creates strange landscapes and feelings that are altogether foreign in most heavy metal.
During our chat, Williams discussed his views on metal bass playing, how his funk and jazz influences worked their way so seamlessly into TesseracT, and how he’s put new techniques to use.
What’s your experience been like as a metal bass player? You’ve told me before that you played a lot of jazz and funk before TesseracT. There’s definitely a big difference in the way the bassist is perceived in those genres.
[laughs] Yeah, it’s pretty tough. I’ve been really lucky that I’ve always done loads of different things in tons of different genres, as well as different instruments. For me, it’s never been a case of “I’m supposed to do this or that,” even when it comes to actually playing bass.
I’m trained as an orchestral percussionist. When I was really young, right up until I was 14 or 15, I was basically a drummer. Doing that and playing loads of different styles when I started learning bass made me think it really doesn’t matter; even if I’m in a rock band, I’m not necessarily going to ignore what I’m supposed to be doing, but I’m probably not going to know what I’m supposed to be doing.
As most bass players say, I try to find that pocket, be it groove, be it metal, just wherever my imagination takes me. What’s quite cool is that in a band like TesseracT it works. I can imagine in other bands maybe it might not quite work. If you’re in an industrial metal band, it’s not going to help if you start dropping in Stanley Clark funk lines; it’s going to be silly. I’m really lucky. I kind of have that freedom. I suspect I don’t quite understand what it’s like for the majority of bass players out there.
You mentioned Stanley Clark, but in the context of TesseracT, it doesn’t sound like funk at all. You might use techniques popularized by Clark or Victor Wooten, but it sounds just right in your band.
That’s right. I use the affectations that a funk bass player might do, which is simple things like slides or popping between the kick and the snare drum hits, so there’s like a real jump going on, a real dynamic punch. I guess those things that you don’t really get so much in the metal world. The metal world, to me, has less syncopation, for example; creating an elastic tension that builds and builds and almost gets ready to snap just by maybe hanging onto a note a little longer. You get that in funk and jazz quite a lot, the bass player will almost dictate the weight of the tune. If he’s playing short, sharp notes, it’s going to have a more upbeat feel. If he’s holding onto the note longer than the rest of the band, he’s almost dragging the song down a little. That’s what I do in TesseracT; we use those little tricks to help dictate a vibe.
Yeah, it’s one of the interesting things about bass; the bass player has so much influence over the sound and feel of the band.
Sure. It’s interesting. Let’s take a metal band as an example, like The Faceless, they’re pretty mental. I imagine somebody like Evan Brewer could almost be the conductor of the band. It’s quite hard, though. As a bass player, do you decide to be aggressive and say, “Right, I’m going to take charge of this,” or do you sit back? I guess it depends if you’re inclined to fight with the guitarists and drummer.
Say a guitarist — it’s not so common nowadays — has a Mega Boogie 4×12 and you have to try and compete with that and the drummer. I understand why a lot of bass players don’t come to the front at all because it’s just too much of a fight. But then, in different genres, there’s a lot more space. There’s a lot more, not just dynamics in terms of loud or soft, but speed and tempo and depth and density of instrumentation going on.
Certainly, I think metal bass players have a harder time than most when it comes to trying to change the vibe of what’s going on around them. They’re felt more than they’re heard.
One of the things I find so cool about TesseracT is that there’s a ton of guitars and percussion in the mix, but still the bass has its spot.
Yeah, there’s a lot going on always. [The bass] is always on its own little shelf. A lot of people commented on the fact that the first album seemed quite bass-heavy. We simply felt that a lot of other metal at the time was quite bass-light. Simply sonically, not just what was being played, but there wasn’t much bottom end going on, or it was so compressed that the bottom end was left out. We left a lot of room for there to be sub and actual bass stuff going on.
Having that space allowed me to say, “Right, well I’m going to sit in the darker end of the spectrum.” But obviously there’s a lot of rhythmic stuff going on, so I had to find a little space up in the top too. It’s simply the joy of working with someone like Acle [Kahney, guitars] as well. Myself and he are engineers. When working on tracks, we’re able to think like a mixing engineer as well: “Are we going to be able to carve this tiny little space for the bass to actually be heard?” It’s not always easy; we’re fighting all the time. It’s one of those things that’s exciting, to have a bit of a clash going on.
We’re quite lucky in that Acle is a really groovy guitar player. He’s got the same sort of chops as a bass player. It’s quite cool that I’m, more often than not, adding a depth to the groove that Acle might be playing, so we can get that unison going on.
It’s interesting that you said a lot of people commented on One being a bass-heavy record. You make so many different sounds with your bass, I often wonder if the lay-person recognizes it as bass. Some of your slap stuff sounds like an electronic drum pad or maybe a synth sound.
It’s kind of on purpose. It don’t know whether it’s an influence or something that I heard when I was younger and thought, “Oh, that’s really cool!” Bass players like Les Claypool are really confusing; they’re contradictory figures. They seem to be really on top of their game, but at the same time not seeming to give a fuck about what they’re doing. So it can be quite clattery.
Also, Victor Wooten, this most amazing bass player, almost seems like, “Oh, so what? I don’t care if something goes wrong.” The sounds that he makes from doing that and the sounds that Les Claypool makes from doing that are such loose, clattery sounds. I thought, “Okay, that sounds a little bit like me when I’ve been playing drums, playing ghost notes.” It’s a really nice way to fill out a pattern on the bass.
There’s one track on One called “April” where most of the time, myself and Jay, the drummer, are ghosting at exactly the same time. It adds real, sort of unusual tension because we’re popping in and out of exact unison with each other. It creates this tension, building up, and it’s possibly going to break, possibly fall down. We like to try different things.
I always love playing with harmonics as well, but not necessarily harmonics that are very clear. Like dirty, low harmonics on the bottom strings, like on the second or fifth frets. Just seeing what happens. Also, instead of doing the traditional slap with the right hand, where you slap through the string, I quite like tapping the string with my thumb. It almost sounds like it’s really compressed; it’s an odd sound. You lose a lot of the bass, but you get this really sharp high-mid sound that just cuts through the whole mix. That’s something that I think came from really bad technique as a kid. I’ve stuck with doing that as well as the other version. To me it seems that the bass has got so many different options that people don’t use.
Funny enough, I used to be a bit of a pick hater, just because I could never get a cool sound out of it. On the new album that we’re doing, I would say that more than half of it uses plectrum, since all of the sudden I’m starting to understand [how to use it] a little bit more. I’ve got a feeling that, pretty much every single album that we do, I’m going to use all the different sounds possible without really using effects much. I’m not really into effects.
It’s also hard foster a good pick technique and finger technique at the same time.
Certainly if you’re doing them all in the same song. With what we’re doing, some parts need the plectrum while other parts definitely need the bigger, fatter finger sound. Your body gets into playing one thing and if you switch in-between the two, it’s a hard thing for me. I try to spend time before we go on, warming up with both, starting really slow and then getting really quick with the plectrum and then going back with your fingers and doing the same. It doesn’t always work, man. Sometimes you’re in the zone and switching between just doesn’t work. I agree; it is hard to be a jack of all trades.
I like that you weren’t prejudiced against one thing or the other. I’ve heard people say, “Oh, I’m bummed because this dude uses a pick and not his fingers.” I’m like, “Have you ever heard Yes or Tool? Are you going to tell Chris Squire or Justin Chancellor not to use a pick?”
Exactly! Tool are massive influences. When I was a kid, I found myself going, “Hang on, these guys use a plectrum; perhaps there’s nothing wrong with it.” If you want to be one type of person, cool. But maybe I’ve got a short attention span and I have to do lots of different things all the time. I have to vary it up a bit. It’s always good to try and explore every option and all the tools that you have.