Interview with Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Beck’s bassist

Welcome to the most-read page on this site; good to have you on board. The following interview was conducted by phone, while I was sitting in Dorset, UK, having a room dismantled around me. It appeared in Bassist magazine, around the release of Midnite Vultures. Mr Meldal-Johnsen was an attentive, patient and enthusiastic interviewee, fascinated by the technical aspects of bassing. It’s a shame there’s only so much you need to talk about for any one interview – someone should really do an in-depth talk with him, as he’s the kind of guy who gets to see the industry as it is. I’d be glad to, given the request.

With two major Beck releases on his CV and an ansaphone unable to cope with requests for his services, things are looking pretty good for Justin Meldal-Johnsen. The departure of most of the band upon completion of Beck’s ‘Midnite Vultures’ album means that Beck, Justin and keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr make up the core of the Beck project.

Meldal-Johnsen has been working with Beck since 1996 when the ‘Odelay’ album went on tour. The record marks the point at which Beck completes his jump from straight(ish) folk to hip hop and funk. Here we strike on the reason why music’s latest bravura boy wanted to secure himself a bassist.

“That’s a good question. I think really with ‘Odelay’ Beck wanted to pass on the responsibility so he could concentrate on the other stuff. He was really looking for an instigator for the live performances, someone who would just take his idea and go with it. He needed someone who comfortable with all the styles he was using. It was much the same with me and Roger on keyboards. He wanted to leave it to us and for us really to carry it off.”

“I’m a real fan of the way he plays bass anyway. He absolutely goes for it and does all these really unnatural bends that appeal to me. I mean he’s doing stuff on bass that I haven’t heard since these really bad ’60s Italian soundtracks.”

With such a multitude of styles – and that’s even before the hyper-everything ‘Midnite Vultures’ hits the road – you’re going to need a pretty sharp collection of instruments.

Justin says, “I’ve got six basses that I take out on tour with me. My very favourite is this 1967 Fender Coronado. I play that a lot. It’s got this weird hollow body and has a nice 1960s soundtracky flavour. It’s good live.”

“Then I’ve got this Guild Starfire, which is my favourite to play when I’m recording. There’s a couple of others – a 1964 Jazz bass and a 1962 Precision. I use those a lot. For some of the more folky songs I’ve got a Schecter 8-string Hellcat. It’s very resilient. With a lot of eight-strings you have to put all your energy in just to get a sound, but this one’s almost totally opposite to that. There’s not much playing to it, it’s very easy.”

“Beck likes me to use the basses to the way he operates. I’ve got a Roland G77 and he makes me use it a lot. It’s this really hideous looking ’80s thing, you know, with an arm across the top. It’s like you have to be strapped right into it. I didn’t record with it, but Beck likes it partly because he’s got one, and another guy in the band’s got one, so at one point there’s three of us playing them at the same time. I think you can see the effect he’s after.”

It seems then that the band is required to get into Beck’s singular groove. On a recent Top of the Popsappearance you could have caught Justin decked out like Sid Vicious, throwing himself around like a madman while picking out the intricacies of the single ‘Sexxlaws’. What was that all about?

“You know, that shirt was the exact same shirt that Sid Vicious was weraing when the Sex Pistols swore live on air on that TV show? Yes, we have this enormous box there in the middle of the dressing room, full of these really awful awful fantastic clothes, and Beck dishes them out every night. It’s like ‘You can be the punk rocker tonight’. I love that – I mean the night before I was a school custodian in a jumpsuit. These characters are great and they never last more than a night or two.”

“I feel really privileged to be working with Beck because, you know, you’re really not sure what he’s going to say or do next. I really get a sense of that, and we’ve been working together for three years.”

So what about effects? Beck’s set is so varied you’d imagine there to be quite a few…

“Oh yeah, God. I could just reel off a list. I’ve got this custom-made pedal board an old associate of mine made years ago. It’s starts off with Electro-Harmonix Bassballs, and goes into a Bass Synth. I’ve got a Japanese-made Guyatone Phaser and a Guyatone Analogue Delay.”

“An Australian friend of mine gace me an effect called Prunes and Custard which delivers a sort of controlled fuzz weirdness.”

“I’ve also got this Boss OD1 Overdrive and an HM2 Heavy Metal and I step on both of those if I want some really explosive feedback. There’s a Boss Octover and a Sansamp GT2 for a nice warm bass distortion.”

So what about the new stuff. ‘Sexxlaws’ has this really intricate and funky bassline – it was pretty strange seeing ‘Sid Vicious’ playing black ’70s funk on Top of the Pops.

“We like to call it Boogaloo rather than funk. It’s inspired by the ’60s British TV style, you know where you have this really over-active bassline like some guy’s popped a couple of pills and just really gone for it. There is a black ’70s element, but it’s not quite laid back enough. Oh there’s nothing laid back about ‘Sexxlaws’.”

What about the other stuff on ‘Midnite Vultures’? Are there any stand-out moments for you?

“Well, there’s ‘Mixed Bizness’ which is I suppose similar to ‘Sexxlaws’ in style. ‘Pressure Zone’ exploits that sort of angular Brit artrock thing. It’s got lots of noise explosions all done on bass, where we overlaid quite a few tracks.”

“I think my favourite moment is on ‘Milk & Honey’. The middle section of that is like the deepest sex disco ever rendered. I think it’s my best-played thing on the album. I tend to spaz it on stage a bit, and being the studio was a good exercise in toning it down.”

So what else is going on apart from the Beck material? Are there any other irons in the fire?

“Roger and I are going to France shortly to work with Air. I toured their ‘Moon Safari’ album, so we’re looking forward to that. I’ve worked with Mark Eitzel, and I’m about to start some new stuff with him. He’s fantastic – that really is where I’m at musically. What else? I’ve worked with Sasha, who are big on trance, and I’ve done a remix of Jamiroquai’s ‘Black Capricorn Day’. Stuff on the Mel C record, Moby… Oh, there’s been quite a lot lately.”

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