For the second bassist to be featured in Guitar Moderne, I can think of no one more fitting than Peter Freeman. But to call Freeman a bass player is like calling Rick Cox, with whom he has often worked, a guitarist—true as far is goes, but hardly the whole story. Like Cox, Freeman has been heavily involved in sound design for movies, and is as likely to be found programming drums, playing synthesizer, or manipulating electronics as plucking a four-stringed instrument.
His work producing the legendary Jon Hassell, alone, has earned him an esteemed place in the annals of electroacoustic music. I first spoke to Freeman for a piece on Hassell for the late EQ magazine. I am including the transcript of that first conversation with Freeman as a bonus.
What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?
I probably started similarly to a lot of young people: playing simple rock stuff I could quickly get a handle on. In my case it was The Who, Zeppelin, and so forth. Before I was even playing bass, I had become a fan of the then-current incarnation of Weather Report—arguably their most streamlined and powerful—because my school chum Miles Evans (son of Gil) had turned me on to them. When Heavy Weather and Mr. Gone came out, those records became deeply ingrained in my psyche. I saw them on tour in 1978, which totally blew my mind. Jaco was amazing and charismatic—a total rock star in the jazz world. As a result, I played constantly for about a year and a half, and developed real technique unconsciously. I also became aware of Jeff Berlin and Percy Jones, who, at the time, were influences, though I ultimately ended up stylistically in the polar opposite place.
When I’d been playing about three years, I realized all that athletic stuff wasn’t really of any use to me. I wasn’t really interested in being a traditional jazz (or “fusion”—whatever that means) musician. By that point I’d become a fan of Jon Hassell’s work, and it held a lot more interest for me than trying to pursue some kind of “playerly” musical situation that was more about virtuosity. Those other guys had explored it all at that point, and I knew I had to break out of that trap to develop my own voice. I consciously stopped listening to all that stuff and got deeply into some of the really interesting things that were happening in the UK around that time: Japan, Simple Minds, XTC, and others. I began to appreciate Sting’s minimalist, purely compositional approach as a bass player. I was about 18, and remember very clearly a total shift in my thinking, away from subjective “player” concerns and into the value of musical context, composition, and atmosphere above all else.
What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?
Jon Hassell’s work was the gateway into that, but that word “experimental” is a bit loaded. I really felt no connection to the more noisy, hardcore downtown experimental scene that was happening in NYC back then. I still don’t—it just seemed unsexy and too cerebral to me. Jon’s stuff was conceptually innovative, but aesthetically gorgeous and seductive, as well as being like nothing else I’d ever heard. I can’t hang with music where my only connection to it is on some purely intellectual level—I have to feel it or I just get bored instantly.
Whose music inspires you?
Everyone listed above inspired me, as well as Kraftwerk, Neu!, Scritti Politti, The Police, ’70s Bowie, King Crimson, The Blue Nile, Peter Gabriel up though the Security album, and Stockhausen. Arvo Part would also figure prominently in there. More recent stuff includes The Books, Dissolved, Integral, Pole, The Young Gods, and Meshuggah.
As a really young kid, I loved The Beatles, Elton John and a few others, but the things that really changed my musical life early on were mid- and late ’70s Weather Report, Joni Mitchell from Court & Spark onwards, Jon’s work, and ECM stuff. I discovered ECM in 1980. There was a record store on 8th street in New York City that had an ECM section in their jazz department; once I heard some of it, I bought everything in that bin. I have to credit my old friend Erik Sanko, of Skeleton Key, for introducing me to Eberhard Weber and Ralph Towner, which of course led to Jan Garbarek and the rest. Solstice, The Colours of Chloe and The Following Morning were really big for me, though there were a lot of others as well. Rainer Brüninghaus blew my mind—I loved his way of using synthesizers with piano, there’s never really been anything like it, and I love his piano playing. Continuum and Freigeweht barely left my Walkman during 1982-84. Also, around that time I discovered Steve Reich’s amazing Music for 18 Musicians and Tehillim.
I related to everything about those ECM records; it was so clearly European in its orientation. This was important for me, because I felt zero connection to the more obviously blues-based or bebop-era jazz where it was about I-VI-II-V or II-V-I, with traditional structures, solos and so forth. There’s no denying its historical importance, I just felt no connection to it. Also, the traditional jazz record-making approach of basically documenting guys playing in a room, with as little adornment as possible, just strikes me as the least interesting thing you can do in a recording studio at this point in time, especially given how much else can now be done terms of creating atmosphere and finding new musical possibilities. I feel total kinship with the Eno concept of “studio as instrument,” so I loved the atmospheric, timeless and spacious aspect of the ECM aesthetic—Manfred is, without question, a heavyweight in the pantheon of modern record producers.
How did you get better at your current style?
Let me answer a slightly different question if I may, which is how it happened that I have any discernible style whatsoever. As I mentioned, I was steeped in the more athletic bass players and realized I had to make a clean break with that. Right around then, MIDI had been invented and cheap polysynths were starting to appear. I was listening to a few artists doing interesting stuff with synths and treatments: Japan and Brian Eno in particular. I felt really drawn into that world; it was the total antithesis of the whole “athletic musician” thing, just really about sound-creation, sound-manipulation, and developing an aesthetic in those arenas—I totally immersed myself in it. That launched me into computers, sequencing, sampling and developing my own aesthetic with sound. The fingers-on-strings minutiae of bass playing really stopped being the focus.
After years of working with electronic instruments, when I finally started to think about the bass again, it was informed by my experiences as a synthesist. Since I’ve always been very sound and processing oriented, I got deeply into radical software/hardware-based processing and made that my religion, as opposed to pure synthesis.
The other key component was getting heavily into dub, both from the originators (King Tubby, et al) and the people who were influenced by them, but in the electronic world: like The Orb, who did some great stuff in the ’90s. I already had a good sort of “techno-dub” sound I’d found on the Wal basses back in about 1984: a kind of filtered, deep sound but with a sharp attack and very little midrange. I went a lot more in that direction with my bass approach.
Lately, I’ve finally managed to merge that aspect with the processing side in a pretty fluid way, after developing some methods for quickly making radical transitions between a deep, unprocessed bass sound and a totally contrasting, midrangey, heavily-treated thing. That seems like the ultimate destination for me as far as being able to do both almost at once, short of growing two more arms.
Peter Freeman with Seal in 1994
What are you trying convey with your music?
I try to evoke other-worldliness and “otherness” wherever possible. Trying to somehow hint at or evoke a glimpse of another reality, that’s probably the best way I can crystallize it. The word “hallucinatory” is probably relevant as well.
Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?
Live and studio setups are, by necessity pretty different for me, I’m sorry to say. I feel most at home in the studio in terms of having anything and everything I need at my fingertips, but it’s just not practical (or in my case, advisable) to try to duplicate my studio rig in performance. At home, it’s Pro Tools 10 on HD3 with five interfaces, so that all my outboard gear stays connected and available at all times without a patch bay. As far as vintage stuff, there are four Neve 1081s, a UA-175 and some other vintage compressors like the Gates Sta-Level, GE BA-5s, Compexes, a Raytheon RL-10, and an Altec 438c. The rest of it is digital stuff: AMS DMX and RMX, Eventide H8000, TC System 6000, Lexicon 480L, PCM 81s and 91s, and a TC 2290. There’s also a rack of drawers containing vintage Electro-Harmonix and Mu-Tron pedals, a Dynacord Echocord, a Hammond spring reverb/tube amp and a MicMix Dynaflanger. Those are all connected to a Sound Sculpture Switchblade, which is normalled as a stereo pair to and from Pro Tools. There’s also a Synclavier PSMT that I use basically as a ridiculously great-sounding sampler module, and for its polyphonic-aftertouch expressive capabilities.
I also have a Music Valve Electronics DI, which is incredible, and some LittleLabs stuff: Two Peppers and a VOG. I finally got a great SSL X-Logic channel that they discontinued for some reason.
Software-wise: I still mourn the loss of the old Logic TDM version, since that was my favorite way to compose. These days I use Cubase, Logic Pro X, and Ableton Live but none of them are as satisfying without the Pro Tools hardware/outboard gear access that I had with Logic TDM. Plug-ins are usually GRM Tools, Waves SSL, Sound Toys, and one or two other things here and there. I also play around a bit with certain soft synths, as I’ve found some lately that actually sound good and aren’t horrible from a UI point of view. U-he Zebra and Xfer Records’ Serum, in particular. I also love MOTU’s MachFive—a great instrument.
For basses, it’s been Wals since about 1983. I dabble with other things now and then, but nothing sticks. The other exception is that I recently got a Bruce Johnson / X-Strange AMB-2, which is a clone of one of the old Ampeg basses from the 60s [see above]. He really improved significantly on the old design, and it’s got insane amounts of bottom end. I have two guitars, a 2004 Fender 50th Anniversary Strat and a 1991 reissue of a Gibson 1961 Les Paul SG. The Strat is amazing because it’s bright and clear, with the S1 switching circuit that provides a whole other bunch of tonal possibilities. I’m not a vintage kind of instrument guy at all, really, though I do have a ’65 Fender Precision that I got as a kind of experiment and really don’t use enough. It’ll likely get sold very soon.
[More about Freeman’s gear below]
Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?
Recording, hands down. You get to experiment and develop things until they’re really right, at least most of the time. And the results are around forever. Live can be great with the right people and situation, but I rarely have truly enjoyable live performance experiences; there are too many variables and it is too hard to make it sound like what I want to hear. Hopefully this will change!
How have you built up an audience for your music?
I haven’t yet! That’s the hope for my project with Rick Cox and Knox Chandler; it’s a unique situation with two of the most exciting and innovative electric/electronic guitarists around, and I think it will intrigue people—we’ll see.
With whom would you like to collaborate and why?
Well, it would be fun to do something else with Manfred Eicher at some point. The final result of the record I did with him and Jon was good, but the situation was pretty difficult for various reasons having nothing to do with Manfred. At one point after that, he asked me to work on a record he was making with Ambrose Field and John Potter, but the timing and logistics didn’t work out. In the end though, that actually turned out to be one of my favorite records, Being Dufay.
Another one would be Eno—we’ve never worked together, though we know each other a little and have hung out a few times over the years. As it happens, he blew me away the first time we met. The first thing he said to me was “I think your bass playing is fantastic!,” which was one of those times that you just kind of grin, blush and don’t say much of anything. He’s been involved in so many records that were big influences on me and a lot of other people, it’s remarkable; it’d be fun to work on something together. Beyond that, Thomas Newman is someone I’ve admired for a long time as a composer. I met him through Rick Cox years ago, and actually did work on some bits for him with Rick for Finding Nemo, long ago. He also played piano on Rick’s album Fade, which I co-produced and mixed, but I’ve never played on any of his scores, and would love to.
Can’t think of anyone else, other than Stewart Copeland – Probably my favorite drummer of all time.
What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?
The current thing is this album with Rick, which is stuff that we started a long time ago that is now finally getting developed and finished, with the great contributions of Knox Chandler. These two guys are my favorite experimental/processed guitarists, and I had wanted to introduce them for a long time. I finally did, in Berlin a couple of years ago, and of course they hit it off immediately. The results they produce are very different, but strangely they have a lot of similarities in approach, as well as some influences in common. It’s a dream to be able to weave their respective contributions into something cohesive, which is what I’m trying to do with this record. As far as who’s putting it out and so forth, that’s to be determined at this point, but there are some good possibilities in the offing.
Peter Freeman transcript from the EQ interview about the Jon Hassell record, Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street [Gear info may have changed since then, but it reflects Freeman’s working rigs at the time]
On the last record (Maarifa Street) the pieces were more structured, so I broke them up into Ableton Live “scenes,” and would trigger them with a footswitch while playing bass. I got fed up after a while because it was too stressful dealing technical issues. I was worrying whether hard disks were going to function and related software stuff. I don’t mind dealing with it at home, but it makes for a very unmusical experience on stage. Also, I don’t think it is much fun to watch, so I phased out a lot of that stuff. It is not as if I am now a straight-ahead bass player; I do a lot of processing, and things which have nothing to do with the bass function.
I have two divergent approaches to the bass. I started processing sounds, when I was fifteen, before I could really play: patching Electro-Harmonix effects into each other and seeing what weird sounds could be made. On one hand is the heavy deep bass stuff, which I really like, and will aways do that; I love the visceral effect of it. On the other hand is textural, landscape-y stuff that sometimes sounds like it might be keyboard, samples, guitars, or some amorphous, otherworldly thing.
In the studio it is much more involved because I am able to bring the computer into the mix. I could do it live, with the laptop, but don’t—I have this voodoo about using laptops for processing in a live situation, because of latency issues, and I don’t like the sound of a lot of interfaces. I have an RME Fireface 800 and it is a great device in terms of convenience, but in terms of sound quality the A/Ds on it sound awful.
When I’m working at home doing the kind of involved processing that I like to play around with, things quite often end up in the final mix. I have an HD 3 rig with a lot of DSP and a bunch of outboard gear like Lexicons and Eventides. All of these things are normalled into my Pro Tools rig. It is an elaborate system of five interfaces, and everything is connected at all times so I can create these really big networks or chains of processing and everything is coming back to these nice converters in the HD rig. I think the current generation of HD sounds really good. I also have a whole switching network of vintage Electro-Harmonix, Mu-Tron, and other pedals connected in a matrix that can be brought into the equation. I have two other computers that run plug-ins and everything is light-piped into each other.
Live, I simplify it a lot: it is the Eventide H8000, because of what can be done with just that. It is immensely powerful. I turned Jon Hassell on to the Rupert-Neve-designed Amek preamp, now out of production—that sounds incredibly good. We rent one Yamaha 01V96VCM mixing board, and I rent a channel strip, usually the SSL XLogic channel, which is an amazing piece of gear. I go into the SSL and then out into a channel of the Yamaha at line level; the Yamaha is lightpiped to the H8000. I have aux 1 and 2 from the mixer going to Machine A and Machine B of the H8000. The H8000 has two independent processors in it; each processor is so powerful you can do very elaborate things on each side, totally independently. Even though the Eventide has incredible routing cababilities internally, I usually don’t use them.
When we play live, I just have Machine A and B coming back on two stereo aux returns I store scenes on the mixer that are controlled by a device (Rocktron All Access, or Novation Remote Zero SL) that sends MIDI patch changes to the Eventide and the mixer. Sometimes the dry signal and the processing of A and B are equal, sometimes it is more processed signal. Sometimes Machine A is sent only to Machine B and not to the final output.
Jon and I store scenes in the Yamaha Studio Manager program that we keep in our computers, then we load them into the rented mixers. We send feeds to samplers Jan Bang and JA “Dino” Deane, and to front of house. The shows usually get recorded to an Alesis Hard Disk recorder, sometimes we rent ProTools rigs, we use whatever; it all ends up as .wav files anyway so I don’t really care.
The dry bass signal always gets its own channel on the recorder, in case I want to process things differently or fix stuff. Same with the trumpet. The effects have their own channel as well, so I have the option of using the effects from the concert, adding or subtracting them, or not using them at all.
Dino and Jan are sampling anyone who is doing anything including each other. It gets pretty labyrinthine pretty fast. They both get feeds from everyone else and each other. Jan and Dino represent different sides of the same coin. They are both live sampling affcianados, but Dino is a pioneer. He is one of the first people to have ever done it. He goes all the way back to the early Eighties. He was doing it with Jon on Electro-Harmonix Instant Replays. They would bring cassette players to the gigs and play the sound into the Instant Replay before the show. Dino now works with a computer and software rather than a hardware sampler like Jan, and it gives him a different set of possibilities. He doesn’t really do rhythmic chopping of things and playing them on the pads the way that Jan does. He is dealing with longer pieces of audio, and because of the software he doesn’t have the limitations that Jan does. But Jan likes working within the limitations of his hardware rig. He is grabbing things, truncating them, and instantly playing them back as if he were playing a drum machine. You could say that he is more of the rhyhmic guy and Dino is more of the textural guy. But they can switch roles. Jan will sample bass parts and take individual notes and phrases and make new parts out of them on the fly, which leaves me the freedom to go into textural mode.
The title track of the record has drum samples that are played live in the studio by Jamie Muhoberac, a very talented keyboard player. Dino fades that in and out. The other piece, “Abu Gil,” has a percussion loop I spent quite a bit of time on. It has a frame drum loop Pete Lockett sent to us, but the rest of it is my own frame drum work and these clay bongos, and shakers I played. It is not a short loop, it is a long piece with variations; it is mixed like something would be done for a record. Everything is EQed and processed in an interesting way and 3-D sounding, so it doesn’t just sound like a two-bar loop. I created it, so is effortless to play with. It is triggered by Dino. There are no high-hat loops or high-hat parts on on this record at all.
On Mariifa Street I was playing glass bottles, programmed high-hats and shakers, and all sorts of stuff, there was a lot more computer rhythmic programming. This time there was no programming, it was just performances that were manipulated and edited. We would composite the parts from different people, on the same piece, from different concerts. Even with things not rigidly timed, we could find latitude to work with the part. It was much more of a patchwork quilt, or mosaic situation.
On the new record the main element was adding Kheir Eddine M’Kachiche’s violin into tunes where he wasn’t actually present in the live situations we used. Conversely, we added a concert take of his to a studio created piece. In some cases it actually sounds like Jon and “Kem,” as we call him, were playing off of each other. It didn’t really go down that way, but through careful choices and sensitive mixing you can create that impression. As long as it works musically, and has the right emotional arc to it, we don’t care where things come from.
You can get some really great moments in a concert that might not happen in a studio situation. Woven into a very carefully constructed piece of studio work, it adds a wild card element. Also, Kem lives in Algeria and we don’t have access to him all the time. Sometimes you don’t necessarily want someone all the way through the track—you just want a hint of something. You can treat everything like an element. One thing with this record was juxtaposing things that had not occurred at the same time to create unforeseen, unpredictable combinations.
There are a couple of very short interstitial pieces that are the result of combining concert performances by a single musician with an element created in the studio for a different composition, to create a totally new result. Everything is an element; everything can be manipulated. On one of the interstitial things there is some stuff that sounds unidentifiable and electronic. It is actually me playing guitar through an elaborate processing chain in the studio combined with a naked violin performance from Norway, with Jon playing something on top of that—suddenly you have a hybrid with its own kind of magic.
We don’t make any distinctions between concert or studio in terms of the appropriateness of something, it just based on what it sounds like and whether we think it is cool.
The original first sessions where done with Manfred Eicher in France [at Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines]. We didn’t use a lot of that because we always end up adding and subtracting and changing. There were a couple of sessions at those recordings where Jamie would play drums on the keyboard, I would play the bass, and we would sketch out something. The session would be recorded directly into Pro Tools with everybody on their own channel. Every instrument was individually recorded on its own track, so there is there is this big dense blob of stuff.
Later, we would realize we wanted to adjust the tempo, sometimes radically, even though everyone had built something else on top of this. There was one case where we completely re-performed the rhythm track because we thought it would work better and it magically did, even at a totally different tempo.
I was really adamant about things having a hypnotic quality, which meant things being really in time and really consistent. I like the aesthetic of that.
The way that Manfred usually works with people is the classic ECM approach of two days recording/one day mixing, and that just isn’t how we operate; our method is a lot more process-oriented. I like time to consider things, try things, process things, edit as opposed to capturing a live event and mixing it. We did get some great moments during those sessions and those ended up on the CD, but they simply became elements along with everything else.