SingingBassist.com and Amy Humphrey of Clatter met thanks to her comment on a previous article! Â Amy is the bass-playing singer in Clatter, a rock DUO from Lone Elm, Missouri, USA.
Clear your agenda this afternoon and grab a tea. Â Put in your ear-buds, tell your boss that you are busy and check out the phenomenal Clatter!
SingingBassist.com: Who are your favorite singing bassists?
Amy Humphrey: My first favorite singing bassist was Mark King, when I was a teenager. Next was Geddy Lee, who is probably my biggest influence. I also appreciate Les Claypool, Doug â€œdUg” Pinnick, and most recently, Troy Sanders from Mastodon.
SB: Did you know of other bass-playing vocalist-drum duos when starting? Â
Amy: I donâ€™t think we knew of any rock duos of any kind when we decided to try being a two-piece! Definitely not bass and drums. Not that they didnâ€™t exist, but we had never heard of anyone doing it before.
SB: What was your most efficient and helpful home recording setup?
Amy: The last album we did, â€œGarden of Whatever,â€ was the first album we recorded at home. The other two we recorded and mixed in Nashville, and while they were great experiences, we decided that home recording technology had advanced to such a point that we felt comfortable recording the latest album ourselves. We also learned a lot about recording during our Nashville sessions â€“ things like microphone placement and how to get good sounds â€“ so we wanted to see if we could apply that knowledge on our own. Joe was really the microphone guru and did a lot of research into which microphones would be best for certain applications, while I had a great deal of experience using Logic and doing editing and so on, so we made a good team.
We are fortunate to live in a rural area, so we donâ€™t need to worry about sound dampening, whether it be from the inside, like the volume of the instruments, or external noises, like traffic or neighbors. We converted our dilapidated chicken house into a music studio years ago, and during the renovation we made sure to include spaces that could be used for isolation. Since I use two and sometimes three amplifiers at a time, it was great to be able to put them in their own rooms to avoid any bleed.
We originally thought we would record the bass and drum parts at the same time for maximum efficiency, but then we realized that we could get away with buying fewer mics if we recorded one person at a time. That also gave each of us the freedom to start and stop if we didnâ€™t play something the way we wanted. And since it was just the two of us, one of us really needed to be at the computer to watch levels and make sure everything was operating smoothly.
The downside to living far from town and doing this by ourselves was that we had a multitude of equipment issues which necessitated postponing the recording on several occasions until we were able to replace faulty gear or get something repaired. This was frustrating, especially when weâ€™re all ready to go and excited to record and everything comes to a grinding halt. Thatâ€™s why it was very important for us to be well-rehearsed before the recording even began, so that when everything was operational and running smoothly we could get good performances quickly with a minimum number of takes. Joe especially was able to get his drum tracks recorded on the first or second take, which was amazing, given the complexity of his parts.
Another pitfall of home recording is that it can be difficult to get away from day-to-day responsibilities and focus solely on the music, like you can when you go out of town to record, but the plus side is that you have complete control over the finished product. Thereâ€™s also a more relaxed vibe recording at home, which can be nice if you feel more uninhibited without studio staff around, but can work against you if you need motivation to finish by a certain time or want that intensity that an outsider can sometimes provoke. There are definitely pros and cons to both ways of recording, and ultimately itâ€™s up to the musicians to make the most of their opportunities wherever they record. This can be easier said than done!
SB: How many songs have you written and performed as a singing bassist?
Amy: Clatter recorded three official albums as a two-piece, for a total of 34 songs. We also made a five-song demo when we were first starting out, and I made a home recording some years ago of mellower songs that I recorded with my acoustic bass guitar. And there are a variety of songs Iâ€™ve written that were never recorded or performed!
SB: Which song was the most difficult to write?
Amy: I canâ€™t think of a song that was difficult to write, bass-wise. Most of the time the bass lines just sort of spontaneously pop out. Sometimes I will have the bass and vocal parts written and I will drive Joe crazy trying to come up with just the right drum part. But he always does, and when it comes together, itâ€™s always worth all that hard work!
SB: Which was the most difficult to learn to perform?
Amy: Since I usually write the bass and vocal lines myself, I think I probably subconsciously write parts that are easy to perform simultaneously. The verse of â€œHouse of Troubleâ€ became difficult because I got out of practice singing the vocal rhythm against the rhythm of the bass line, and suddenly my brain didnâ€™t want to make that work anymore. It was a weird mental block! But after practicing it a while I got the hang of it again.
SB: Your interest in Geddy Lee is shared by many of our readers. He mentioned that each new song seems impossible until it suddenly no longer is. You also just mentioned momentarily unlearning and relearning your own piece, which is fascinating too. What proportion of your preparation for new material was, working and writing alone, rehearsing in the duo without an audience, and live performance?
Amy: Each Clatter song is a little different in its incubation, but overall the songs somehow seem to write themselves. I know that sounds strange, and perhaps the exact opposite of what Geddy was talking about, but the way we usually write is very spontaneous. Maybe Joe or I will have an idea for a bass line, vocal melody, or rhythm and suddenly the rest of the song just flows out of that. Typically the whole song comes together very quickly and we donâ€™t belabor a lot of details or second guess what we originally came up with.
This means I donâ€™t tend to write above my playing ability, so itâ€™s not as if I come up with really difficult bass lines in my mind then have to practice for weeks to play them. That said, I do try to make sure my hands are in good shape when Iâ€™m writing so that if I do imagine a certain bass part, Iâ€™m able to implement it the way I hear it.
Regarding how much time I spend writing and preparing in various settings, that really varies depending on the song. There are a few songs I wrote by myself on my acoustic bass guitar, and some that Joe came up with on his own, but more often we will write songs together. I think we feed off of each otherâ€™s ideas and enjoy having that instant feedback when we come up with a part. Thereâ€™s a certain excitement that comes from the birth of a new song, and itâ€™s more fun when you have someone to share it with. Of course, there have been a few times when a song just wonâ€™t come together without a lot of effort and time and patience, but that is the exception rather than the norm.
Once weâ€™ve finished writing the song, we will practice it together to get the mechanical parts down so that by the time we play live we are no longer thinking about the physical aspect of playing, but rather the performance itself: conveying the meaning and emotion of the song while connecting with the audience. We use technology to help us with that â€“ we play to a metronome live and I have a piano reference in my in-ear monitor â€“ and that helps keep us from getting distracted by things like poor monitor mixes or strange stage setups. By the time we get on stage, we want to be able to play the songs effortlessly (or with the illusion that itâ€™s effortless!) because we feel like thatâ€™s what the audience deserves.
SB: Your piano reference sounds like a 3rd instrument, but only for the band’s ears. Â Could you describe the equipment and required setup for it?
Amy: As Joe and I were experimenting with the concept of a two-piece band, we originally tried incorporating keyboard parts into the songs that we could sequence and play along to, something to help fill out the music sonically. In order to make this work live, we had to play along to a metronome, which was great for me because I tend to be a bit of a stickler about maintaining the proper tempo. Obviously, we had to set up a click track that wasnâ€™t audible to the audience, so we invested in in-ear monitors and had the metronome running through those. A wonderful side benefit to that was that I could also sequence a piano reference part that only I could hear that would help cue me to my vocal pitch, because I was having trouble discerning the proper singing pitch hearing only the bass.
The idea of playing along to keyboard parts live turned out to be a terrible one and we quickly abandoned that plan, but we had grown to love playing to an in-ear metronome and I really found it essential to have the piano reference, too, especially for those shows where the stage monitors were poor or non-existent. Thatâ€™s when it occurred to us that by playing to a click we could do things like fly in prerecorded vocal harmonies or other cool sounds that could be sent to the front of house. We wanted to keep the sequenced and prerecorded material to a minimum, though, because we decided it would be more fun to rise to the challenge of filling out the sound with whatever we could play ourselves live rather than bring in lots of prerecorded layers. But the harmonies were the one thing we couldnâ€™t recreate ourselves (Joe doesnâ€™t sing), and since they are such an integral part of the songs we thought it would add to the live experience by having them present.
We did a lot of research and experimentation trying to find the best setup to meet our needs, and initially went with an Akai MPC 4000 sampler. Basically we just made samples of the background vocal tracks from the first album and loaded them into the sampler. The unit was clumsy and cumbersome but did what we wanted it to do and got us through many shows.
Later we were able to switch to a laptop-based setup, and after trying a variety of software we went with Digital Performer. That program allowed us to set up songs that contained a click and whatever backing tracks we wanted, then arrange the songs into a setlist so that once one song finished the next was queued up and ready to go. It was easy to add fun sounds or what we called â€œear candyâ€ in case we wanted to spice things up, like adding a sound clip from a movie to the beginning of a song or something.
What was really interesting, though, was the audienceâ€™s reaction to hearing backup vocals when there was only one person singing. Time and again people would come up to us after a show and ask how we were able to make harmonies happen. So I think it turned out to be a neat addition to our live show and a fun way to incorporate technology into our setup. And, of course, by keeping us on tempo and me on pitch it definitely made our performance better!
SB: Did you ever record singing and playing simultaneously?
Amy: Not for our albums. We did film a live DVD, so of course that was simultaneous!
SB: Do you write all your songs on the bass or if not, on which other instruments?
Amy: I am strictly a bass player. Although I can vaguely play the piano, having had lessons as a child, I really only have interest in writing and playing music on and for the bass.
SB: Do you have any recommendations for bass-playing singer-songwriters?
Amy: Enjoy what you do! Do it because itâ€™s something you love and a way to express yourself, your ideas, your feelings, your experiences. Sure, many of us donâ€™t just love practicing repetitively to achieve a motor skill or memorize a part, so practice because you enjoy the sounds youâ€™re making and the abilities youâ€™re creating, or because you know the end result will be so gratifying. If learning music theory or a certain playing style makes you want to pull your hair out and you feel like you don’t need it to accomplish what you want to do musically, then donâ€™t sweat it! There are no rules in musical creativity, and many musicians (including myself) have been discouraged by the thought that they needed to know theory inside and out before they would be considered a â€œrealâ€ musician.
Conversely, if you struggle to play by ear, or you really want to understand the music theory behind songwriting, or maybe you need to have that knowledge and vocabulary to communicate musical ideas with other bandmates, then by all means delve into that aspect of music. The concept I try to impart to aspiring musicians/songwriters of any age or experience is there is no One Right Way to play music; do whatever works for you to express your musical ideas. That goes for having an unconventional band setup, too; just because there arenâ€™t many singing bassists in the world, that doesnâ€™t mean it canâ€™t work! In fact, as far as Iâ€™m concerned, unconventional bands are often the most interesting to listen to.
SB: Your tip to enjoy one’s principal activity is very wise: Â Which aspects of your work were most gratifying and rewarding? What are the most appealing aspects to being a bass-playing singer in a rock band?
Amy: Performing, performing, performing. It was my very favorite thing to do, and the best part about being a singer/bassist in a rock band. Even though I did enjoy writing music, and in fact found it to be cathartic to the point of life saving at times, I donâ€™t think I would have done it if there wasnâ€™t the potential to perform the music live at some point. Thereâ€™s just no substitute for sharing that energy with an audience. Unfortunately, thereâ€™s a flip side to that: if playing to an audience is the pinnacle of fulfillment for me as a musician, playing to an empty house or not being able to book shows at all is very discouraging, and that is what eventually led to my decision to stop playing.
Tying in with the performance aspect, the most gratifying work I did in Clatter was with schoolchildren. There is a certain unbridled joy that children exude which is life-affirming, and it was such an honor to have opportunities to speak to children about creating music. We would do workshops for the kids where we described our unusual setup and played them songs to illustrate it, but more importantly talked about how there are no rules when it comes to expressing oneself creatively.
It also has been very important to me to be a positive role model for girls. I welcome any chance I get to impress upon young women the fact that every voice matters, regardless of appearance or background or sex appeal. Gender stereotypes still prevail and it saddens me to think that a young girl might not pursue a dream â€“ musical or otherwise â€“ just because sheâ€™s told itâ€™s something females canâ€™t do, or can only do if done in a way that exploits her sexuality. I have taught bass at a couple of Girls Rock! camps and have marveled at how well the students thrive in an environment of acceptance and encouragement. If only all kids had access to such camps!
And finally, I have made so many friends around the world through music that I am constantly humbled and grateful for the opportunities Iâ€™ve had to connect with so many wonderful people. Even when weâ€™ve been on vacation weâ€™ve had the chance to meet and hang out with fans and fellow musicians whom we never would have known had it not been for musicâ€¦and the internet! The lasting friendships we have developed through Clatter and the positive influence we have (hopefully) had on children and other musicians are indeed the most gratifying and rewarding aspects of our work and, for me, the most appealing part of being a singer and bassist in a rock band.
SB: Have you considered performing live-streaming, online concerts? Â Could that be as invigorating? Â
Amy: We actually thought a lot about doing online concerts and discussed a wide variety of options, such as turning one of our barns into a stage setup with permanent cameras and stage lighting so we could just walk in and start recording or streaming. And weâ€™ve enjoyed doing instructional videos in the past and have gotten a lot of great feedback, so we did consider continuing on in that vein. But ultimately, this type of setup lacks that personal connection that I so enjoy when I play live. Thereâ€™s just something about the energy or vibe of being in the same room with the audience that I find really invigorating. I probably play at a higher level, too, because thereâ€™s sort of an accountability that you have to play your best when you are looking straight at the people who are listening to you, rather than trying to imagine an audience out there on their computers.
That said, the friendships Iâ€™ve made online with people I may never meet in real life are incredibly rewarding, and the day may come when I feel compelled to play music again and do something like a web cast. Itâ€™s entirely possible that, with time and a fresh perspective, the enjoyment of singing and playing bass will return and so will the desire to share our creations with the world, in whatever format is the most logical. To quote from a song Iâ€™m singing in â€œMary Poppinsâ€ right now, â€œAnything can happen if you let it.â€ Maybe thereâ€™s some truth to that!