King’s X represents everything that is possible with a band which has a singing-bassist singer. A compact though complete Rock Band! It was with great interest that I was able to interview Singing Bassist Doug Pinnick, on December 7.
Singing Bassist: Tell us about your musical beginnings.
Doug Pinnick: I first started out just singing as a kid. Relatives, family, cousins, aunts and uncles had a lot of music in their homes, so I was always listening. I didn’t have much music where I lived. My great-grandmother raised me, and she didn’t believe in rock music….because she was Christian, so the music that I got to listen to was outside of the house. But as I was going to school the teachers found out that I could sing, so they put me in choir and band, so the first thing that I started playing was Saxophone. The teachers taught me how to sing harmonies as I was about the only kid who could sing harmonies for some reason. I think that introduced me to the technical side of music. I don’t read music very well but I can read it, I know what a C is, D is, Staff is, what whole-notes are, stuff like that. I was in choir all through grade-school, high-school and college.
SB: When did you pick up a guitar?
DP: I picked up bass when I was 23, and I used to pick up the guitars from all my guitar-playing friends, they’d loan me their guitars, I’d switch the strings around (SB: Doug is left-handed) and play them for a month or two, write songs on them, and then give them back. I bought a guitar probably ten years later, probably around 1980. I continued to write music with my guitar. That’s how I learned guitar, I never actually practiced, I just started writing songs on it.
SB: Interesting, bass before guitar. Who are your favorite singing bassists?
DP: I would say Chris Squire from Yes, he wasn’t the lead singer, he sang background harmonies. Another guy was Glenn Hughes who sang and played bass at the same time, and well.
SB: I read in your online biography that you started off in a band playing covers. Which covers were most difficult to play and sing simultaneously?
DP: In the first few bands I started out in I only sang. When I turned 23 and started playing bass it was a couple years later before I got into a band and started to play and sing. People wouldn’t let me play bass because I wasn’t good enough at the time, but as I got better I started to do that. But honestly, when I first started my band as a bass player, I did nothing but original music. For about 8 years, we had a little band and didn’t really go anywhere. But then, when I joined up with King’s X, in about 1980, we started doing cover music. I think, I had no problem with playing and singing, except for one song:
One Thing Leads to Another by The Fixx.
I could not play and sing that song to save my life. I tried and tried. I don’t know why, I just had a mental block. Its a very difficult bass-line and so the counter-points with bass and voice were very complicated, way more complicated then I could then do. I think, nowadays I’ve written even more complicated things and sung even more complicated things over top of it, but then I just couldn’t do it.
SB: When you record, do you ever play and sing and the same time?
DP: No. I should because I think I have more abandonment when I’m singing and playing. I don’t think as much, and I can actually sing what I am really feeling. But in the studio I like to separate the two so that I can focus on each of them.
SB: Do you always play bass-guitar with a pick?
DP: Yes I do. I started out playing with my fingers, and when I first heard Yes in 1971, I was very interested in that pick-sound that Chris Squire had. But I loved Jamie Jamerson and Chuck Rainy, the old soul bass-players, and so I tried to play like them. Later on, when I really got into Yes, I got into Chris Squire’s bass-playing, and I’ve been playing with a pick ever since.
SB: Which elements of the band or sounds do you like to have in your monitors?
DP: I have everything in my monitors, it is sort of like a recording studio in my in-ears, literally. I have 16 tracks/channels. I have vocals, Jerry’s vocal on the left, Ty’s on the right, mine is in the middle. Bass is in the middle. Guitar is anywhere I want to put it, left or right, sometimes I put it in stereo because he has two microphones. But he doesn’t play in stereo unless he is playing with effects, so the separation is sort of in the middle for me. Drums are arrayed across my head. Kick and snare are in the middle, hi-hat is on my left, and the toms go across my head, same with the cymbals.
SB: Did you evolve to this setup or does your monitoring setup change from album to album?
DP: No, its pretty much set, I’ve been using in-ears for about five years now, and I’m fairly stuck on them. Before, I used to use monitor speakers, and I had to have guitar, all vocals and kick and snare really loud in the side-fills and fronts, because I had 3000 Watts of bass going at the time, so I needed everything really loud. But when I started using in-ears I turned everything down, which made our sound-man really happy.
SB: In which ways have drummers influenced your bass-playing?
DP: I don’t think any drummers have really influenced my bass-playing. I never payed attention to drums a lot until way later in my life. I played with drums but I never gave them any thought. Because, I think it is just a common thing for me, it was drums and bass, growing up with soul music, that was all that I remembered. So I just played with the drums and had fun with them.
….Buddy Miles was one of my favorite drummers because he played real simple four on the floor stuff, which I really liked when I first started playing bass.
SB: Why do you continue to play bass when you could have recruited a bassist years back?
DP: Every band in which I ever played bass made me sing. Because they said, “You’re the only one that can sing, Doug!”. And so I go, “Ok, I’ll do it!”, though I never planned to be a singer, I just wanted to be a bass-player. But singing is my strength, so I’ve kind of given in to it.
SB: After recording a new song (two individual tracks) then you presumably have to learn to play and sing the new song. Is it more like learning a new instrument every time or do you have similarities which you can take from other songs which you perform?
DP: At this point in my life after playing bass for over thirty years, its not even a thought, I just play my bass and sing. I could talk to you and play my bass and not miss a beat. At so many years of doing, its not even a problem anymore.
SB: Do you improvise while playing the bass, like introduce the band while playing the bass guitar?
DP: There is a song called “Over my Head” where I do a long rap like a preacher. It lasts probably five minutes or longer, and the whole time I am playing the bass-line to “Over My Head”. Sometimes if I really get into the sermon then I forget what I’m playing, my hands just do what they are supposed to do.
SB: Do you have any techniques which helped you practice to play tight bass-lines while singing freely flowing vocals?
DP: Yeah, listening to Yes! The biggest thing which changed my life was their song “Roundabout”. In the middle of “Roundabout” there is a bridge, where the band plays a riff which is really interesting, and its a bit complicated. And they do these harmonies. And I thought it was awesome, and I would sit in my room for hours. And I worked it out and I got it down. That was the beginning of singing and playing bass for, that gave me the coordination.
Doug Pinnick: It took a while, mathematically, I had to remember what syllable went with which beat. It took me a little while to get used to it. But after that its not a thought any more.
SB: King’s X performs lush vocal arrangements as a trio. Does King’s X occasionally rehearse a capella?
DP: No never. Whichever background vocals are made up by me or by Ty are then, in the studio, prepared by Ty and Jerry together. When it comes time to record their parts, they record them separately. When it comes time to perform live, they learn their parts individually in order to perform them with the instruments.
SB: Do you record at home sometimes?
DP: I record all my demos at home, as well as my first three solo-records I recorded at home too. I have a full-blown home studio. I have a drum-room which I built in my garage, and a separate room with all my recording equipment in it. I have also brought people in to record.
SB: And finally, any general recommendations for musicians who want to play bass and sing?
DP: Practice makes perfect. I know that a lot of people say that they can’t sing and play bass, but you can learn anything if you just sit down and try, don’t give up. It will be difficult at first. You will feel like you can’t do it. But if you keep trying, the next thing you know, it will be second nature.