Big Bottoms: Colin Edwin of Porcupine Tree
In the music of Porcupine Tree, between the lofty conceptual aspirations of guitarist/vocalist/visionary Steven Wilson and the percussive trickery of drummer Gavin Harrison, sit the simple, hypnotic and sultry strains of bassist Colin Edwin. Colin’s bass playing is the glue that holds together some of the most moving and dynamic progressive rock albums of the past 15 years. His understated grooves ground otherwise vast soundscapes in lucid, pop principles.
Below, Colin talks about what’s really important to good bass playing, the best ways to practice, how improve your internal clock and how the upright bass has informed his rock and roll style.
I’m a huge fan of your playing, especially the way you groove. How did you develop those rhythmic chops?
There’s a technical question there. I’d say that aside from the obvious thing, which is to use a metronome, one thing is to develop the confidence of being able to play with a regular pulse where you’re not hearing all the beats that you might need to hear.
It’s very nice sometimes to sit and play along to a record or to sit and play along with a drumbeat, but sometimes [a drumbeat] is giving you a little too much information. If you can sit and play to a click that’s only going on the first beat of a bar, or on the second or fourth beat of the bar, what you’re having to do is fill in that information yourself. You’re having to work that internal clock a little bit more. That gives you a lot of confidence. When you get good at that kind of thing, it gives you confidence that you’re in the right place.
So when it comes to playing in a group situation, you’ve got your internal clock working, you know what I mean? That really helps.
I’m also very conscious of rhythmic things and I’m into very simple displacement exercises. For example, if you have an eighth note and two semi-quavers—two sixteenth notes—and you move that around on the bar. You start on beat one and you have [the click] start on the second sixteenth note in the bar and you move it along another sixteenth note and so one. Just a very simple thing, you can find that there’s a lot of depth in the rhythm; there’s a lot of different things you can do in that rhythmic pattern and it feels very different.
That’s given me a lot of ideas and inspiration. But it also helps with your own understanding.
You start with a very simple rhythm, “one and,” and the next part you’ve got “and two” and the next part will be “two and” and you move it around. Imagine what you’d do if you were using a sampler and had a drum beat playing and you chopped it up. You can chop it up in ways where it’s not starting in the obvious place. It’s a very good exercise. Doing that makes you very aware of space and also very aware of how little you need to do sometimes to be quite effective.
That’s probably not the sort of thing that everybody does. But I’ve always had a fascination with minimalism. A lot of people think it’s easy until they actually sit down and do it. Because you’re doing something unfamiliar, it’s tricky to play. It’s a really good exercise.
Certainly if someone is concentrating on making their hands stronger all the time, they’re less inclined to work on rhythm.
Rhythm is a big deal with the bass. Some people have the philosophy that the bass guitar is a bass drum with moveable pitch. If you think about it like that sometimes, you’ll be very effective. It’s interesting. I come at it from a completely different angle [from a lot of bass players who first played guitar]; I never played guitar until recently—I like playing noise guitar (laughs).
I had a long association with the double bass [aka upright bass]. Double bass is obviously physically bigger, so you need quite a lot more strength to play it. One of the things about it is that it has a very interesting tone. There’s a quality to it that you often don’t have to do as much as you would on a bass guitar. You learn a lot about the weight of a note; you learn that much of the time you can play one note to make something work, instead of having to play five.
I’ve always had a bit more double bass-thinking perhaps than somebody coming at it from a guitar angle. And the bass guitar is a weird thing; it’s in between the two, isn’t it? Some guys can play it like a guitar or [play] a six-string bass and play higher up on the neck and play different stuff, but the bass function can be fulfilled by using just the first five frets if you think about it.
Do you do anything specific to improve the way you feel in odd meter?
The great thing about odd time signatures is that there’s always an underlying pulse. Unless you’re doing something particularly tricky, most music has a subdivision going all the way through it. You know Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean,” right?
[The main riff] is a bar of 4/4 and a bar of 7/8, but you can still feel that first bar as being eight quavers. You have eight eighth notes and then you have seven eighth notes. So you have eighth notes going all the way through it. If you can feel it like that, it becomes less of a challenge to feel that the second bar is tricky. There’s always a resolution point in rhythmic things. If there isn’t, it’s probably just weird music. There’s always a point where it resolves and the musical phrase comes back on beat one, whether you’re playing in seven or nine or anything else.
You can actually learn to hear the subdivisions of anything much more accurately in the same way if you don’t have a click giving you every beat.
If you were sitting next to me, I’d write it out and it would make a bit more sense. In odd meter you want to feel every subdivision or you want to break it down into groups of two and three. If you can’t break it down into two, try in three.
Another thing that’s really helped me a few times when I really didn’t understand a part was to think about this Indian system called Takadimi. In syllables, you vocalize the subdivisions. I’m not formally trained in Indian music at all, but if they count three they say, “Tak a di.” So if you have six, it’s “Tak a di Tak a di.” Then you put “Tak a di mi” for four [subdivisions]. So if you’ve got seven, it’s “Tak a di Tak a di mi.” Immediately you’ve got something you can latch onto, rather than counting “one two three four five six seven,” which might feel a little stiff. This way, you’ve got something a little more musical to go on. That’s helped me out a lot of times.
Yeah, Gavin gets pretty tricky back there.
Yeah! Well, he does a lot of this rhythmic collusion thing. You’re so used to hearing the snare drum on beat two and beat four; you’re so used to that because it’s in almost every kind of music you hear. But when you start to move that snare drum, displace it, it’s very hard not to hear those beats as two and four, and of course they may not be. He’s very good about that kind of thing. It’s one of his specialties.
There’s always the underlying pulse going on. He will sometimes phrase things in an unusual way or he will do fills that maybe catch you out if you’re not paying attention. It’s possible to turn the time around if you do those kinds of things, so you make people feel as if the beat is somewhere other than where it is. He gives you an insight into how much depth there is in straight 4/4 time that you don’t even realize is there.
The bass lines to songs like “Halo” and “Strip the Soul” are particularly interesting to me because there’s like two or three separate bass lines through the whole song. How do you guys have the audacity to do that? How were those songs built?
Well, “Strip the Soul” came out of a demo idea I had in 6/8. The main part of the song, where the verses are, that part is quite hypnotic to me. I quite like that kind of thing where you have a hypnotic, repetitive pattern. Everything was built around that idea really.
“Halo” came out of a group jam. There’s not loads of different sections to it. I think the trick is that hopefully we’ve managed to put it together in a way that’s still interesting. (Laughs) There’s not a lot of variation in it, though I can improvise around that part quite a bit. There are a lot of possibilities.
With “Strip the Soul,” I have to play it a bit more straight or it begins to lose its power.
That’s the interesting thing about the bass, you can do less and it actually holds things together really well. I think that if I’ve got a part that’s right, I don’t need to change it. I can think of a really obvious example in a band like The Police. That’s more reggae, but if you listen to those record, you’re not going to think, “Oh, I wish the bass player was doing more.” There isn’t anything missing from the part. It doesn’t sound like he’s just doing the first thing that came into his head; it’s a really well thought out part that fits with everything else.
If I feel like I’ve done a most successful job, that’s the way I think about it. If you can imagine that piece of music with nothing else going on, then that’s the way to play.
Are you going to tour with Jon Durant to support the Burnt Belief album you two did together?
We’re having an ongoing discussion to see if we can do it. The obvious problem is that I’m in the U.K. and Jon is in America. It could happen, though. There’s another project that we’re involved in that might see Jon coming to Europe this year. I’m hoping we’ll get the opportunity to do it live. I think it will work very well. We’re thinking about expanding it to a trio. The idea would be myself and Jon and a drummer. It’s a difficult thing to organize. The recording was kind of easy in a way because of the Internet making things possible. Getting together and playing live, a lot of things have to fall into place. We really want it to happen.
The lines from “Prism” and “Semazen” on the album really jumped out at me. How did you put those tracks together remotely?
The way those two tracks started was more with me, but the album was very collaborative. A couple of the tunes Jon had a bit more developed and a couple of the other things were more where I had something developed and he played with me.
“Prism” was more how most of the album was done. I do this audio-slicing technique with a lot of my bass lines. I feed a note through an audio-slicer and it can do a lot of things. You can change the length of the note or the attack of the slice. What you can then do with that is feed it through some dub effects or delays and you get some very interesting textures.
Jon sent me some of his ambient guitar improvisations and I basically did all these treatments. You often end up with certain notes popping out that you didn’t hear in the original texture. I would take that as a starting point and build everything up from there. A few times I would have a rough structure and then put a bass line down and do some programming, then send it to Jon. What ended up happening was Jon was so enthusiastic that he would send stuff back right away. So I had to work a lot faster because I was sort of inspiring him. Once we started work, it was really very simple. Everything flowed together very quickly.
What are your plans later this year? Will Porcupine Tree do something involving the whole band at some point?
Porcupine Tree doesn’t have a time table at the moment, but I’m going to be working with another band called Metallic Taste of Blood, who I did an album with last year. We’ve just confirmed our first gig in Poland in May. That’s probably the first thing that I’m going to be involved in.
Metallic Taste of Blood is myself, a talented guitarist called Eraldo Bernocchi, a drummer called Balazs Pandi and a keyboard player from the USA, Jamie Saft, who plays with John Zorn and those guys.
We all come from different backgrounds, but we put an album out last year, which has been well-received. We’ve been working with an agent, trying to build a tour around that. That’s my priority at the moment.
It’s difficult to categorize. There’s heavy stuff, heavy riffs, dub and jazz stuff. It’s all instrumental and we’ve really managed to create our own sound.
Anything else you want people to know?
Well, if anyone is interested in my equipment, or anything with me at all, I have a blog—I don’t have a website, I’m not that together—but I have a BlogSpot. They can find out what I’m up to, what I’m listening to, and that’s colin.edwin.blogspot.com. You can even leave me a voice message, so go ahead and confess.