We sat down and had a chat with Craig Strain, whom you may remember from our article “Player Profile: Craig Strain – Bass Lessons Melbourne” about his band “Pickpocket” and the release of their new EP ‘Permutations’.
What was your inspiration and how did you go about getting the band “Pickpocket” formed?
Pickpocket has been around since 2010 about the time when I was first arrived in Melbourne. It was one of those things where I was new in town and so as kind of a good way to meet people, was to form a band. So the thought process went from ‘How am I going to go get a gig? To ‘Why not just put together my own band?’
So you pulled people into you rather than just going out to other people?
Exactly, I just went out and about and checked out a bunch of local bands where I would meet some of the guys after the show and I would mention that I’m starting a funk fusion band and do you want to be a part of it? Of course some people said yes and some said no, and from there these people would recommend others and I would call them up. It was back in the day when you would call people… ”Do you want to be part if this thing?” Then other guys I met through auditions for other bands and that was it, it was all about doing music that I really wanted to do with people I wanted to play it with.
In the early days around 2010 to 2012, it was just doing covers with one original. Then I went to Canada and spent a lot of my time doing some writing and when I later came back to live in Melbourne permanently, I really wanted to put the band back together but do more original stuff. So I got together with some of the same players and some new guys, expanded the horn section to a 3 piece and added in percussion as well.
When you first arrived in Melbourne, what was your experience as a new musician on the scene and trying to find work?
It was certainly hard but what I found was that the music scene in Melbourne was pretty friendly. People actually gave me chance. It all comes from, as I mentioned before, going out to gigs, meeting people, being introduced to other musicians and I’d just let them know that I’m a bass player looking for gigs. Then in the next month I might get an email or a phone call where they are looking for a bass player for an X gig, so the network just grew and expanded out. I was kind of lucky early on where I got a gig with some of the wedding/corporate bands just filling in for some guys, and that really helped. So going out and networking was the catalyst for the entry into the Melbourne music scene. This was all before Facebook and social media was really on the radar, so it was pretty old school to some extent.
Nobody is going to book you unless they know you exist so there has to be some degree of self-promotion but not too much. There is a fine line between, “Hey I’m here I’m a bass player, I can do this if you want me to” and just straight up pestering people. I was also on forums like MelBand and Gumtree with “Bass Player Looking for Gig” ads and going through the trial and error of auditions.
What can we expect from Pickpockets new EP? Is it a new direction? Is it similar to the old material? What’ the vibe?
What I’ve heard from people who have listened to the EP, is that they say that it is an evolution from the album “Sojourn”, which is cool because that is what I wanted to achieve . It’s not like a completely blank slate and start all over again, it was more like having gigged for 4 years with the band you kind of get to see what works, where the band’s strengths lie and what the audience respond to. I wanted to write some material that definitely played to the strengths of the band, so there is some stuff on this EP that is less composed, and the tracks tend to be a lot more simplified than on the album which was maybe a little more ‘progressive’ sounding. Having said that, on this EP there is an element of complexity where everyone had to be disciplined and play their parts, especially in such a large ensemble of 9 people. So there was more of a focus on the groove as opposed to harmonic changes and stuff. There are a few tracks that are more groove centric, like “The Hunter” which is Herbie Hancock inspired and a lot more open yet grounded, which came about doing some covers on our live gigs. There is certainly added inspirations from contemporary bands like “Hiatus Kaiyote” and the new school of jazz and soul. There’s some of that on the EP which is all based around harmonic rhythm, so using the timing of chord changes actually be a hook in itself. There was also an emphasis on tracks being synth driven rather than horn driven and some “Prince” inspired stuff as always.
Can you tell us about the recording process?
We recorded drums at a rehearsal room in Spotswood called Sound City. It was highly recommended by Matthias the drummer, who said ‘there’s a room out there that sounds great for drums’, so we hired that room during the day because you are less likely to have some loud bands rehearsing around the place. Between myself, Matthias and engineer Barney Loveland we had access to a nice selection of mics and preamps and we used Matty’s Behringer X32 as the interface. I think we tracked 5 songs in about 3 hours!
We recorded the drums to the demo tracks I had made for each song and I also played bass along with Matty to get a bit more of a vibe happening but I ended up re-recording all those bass tracks anyways. So this EP is a bit different as it was all done to click tracks whereas “Sojourn” was done all live in a room. I wanted this EP to be a bit more of a studio vibe, plus I couldn’t afford to do another full studio album, so we decided to do it ourselves and see what happens.
I then went away for about 6 weeks and when I came back we did the rest of the recording at my home. We did a weekend with Andrew Boyle on keys, a couple of weekends with the guitarists Jason and Neil and a session for the percussion played by the awesome Phil Binotto, all the while I’m mixing as I go, getting the tracks to a certain standard.
Halfway through the process I stupidly decided to upgrade Logic to Logic X, but then I couldn’t access all my old plug ins due the fact that they were 32bit or they just weren’t compatible with the new version of Logic. So decided to subscribe to Steven Slate Audio plug-Ins for $12.00 a month for their ‘everything bundle’. Originally, I was using WAVES and there was stuff I just couldn’t get unless I had the Waves packages, then literally about a month after the Slate Audio subscription the WAVES Platinum Bundle went on Sale. So I bought that and got all my old plug-ins back as well as the SSL Bundle which is amazing, I used the SSL G Channel on a ton of the drum tracks. I had previously purchased the Vulfpeck Vulf Compressor plug-in from Goodhertz when i was mixing “Sojourn” and that’s always on the drum bus, so I eventually got all my old plug-ins back and started mixing.
We did go back into the studio to re-record drums for one track with a slightly different kit as we weren’t happy with the way the groove was sitting on the original recording. This came about because after having played the track live for a while it sort of started to evolve and we are now much happier with the end result.
We followed that up by booking ColourSound Recording Studio in Altona for one day to do the horns, while some solos and stuff were done at home. I’m very excited about a couple of guest solos on this EP, In particular we got Nils Landgren the Swedish trombone player on the track “SLAM”, as I have been a fan of his for a long time. It’s funny how it all came about using Nils as it was actually through Instagram! I posted a Pickpocket video up ages ago and the bass player from the Nils Landgren Funk Unit commented that there was some funky stuff happening in Melbourne, so we got connected and became friends. After recording the track “SLAM” I wasn’t too sure about what to do with the solo section and then thought it would be amazing the have Nils Landgren do a trombone solo! So I messaged the bass player (Magnum Coltrane Price) and asked if he thought Nils would be interested in doing a trombone solo on a track which I sent him and he played it to Nils. A couple of weeks later he sent me a picture of him and Nils listening to it with a “Thumps Up” and I thought this might actually happen! Sure to his word a couple a weeks later he sent me this crazy trombone solo.
We’ve also got keyboard player Tom O’Grady playing a ripping Rhodes solo on one track. I met Tom at the Caloundra music festival when he was performing with UK acid jazz legends “Incognito” and he also has his own band called “Resolution 88” who are an awesome 70’s, Herbie Hancock “HeadHunters” kind of thing. The track “The Hunter” was screaming for a Rhodes solo so he fit the bit perfectly.
The EP then took months of mixing and I’m not sure if it’s because I am not very good ha-ha, but most likely it was because I am pretty fussy. I guess as it is my own thing I’m very attached to it, so I’d do a mix, listen to it in my car driving to gigs or whatever and I would then go back and tweak it a bit. So it was a process of mixing, bouncing, listening, and tweaking but then I had to draw a line, so I booked the launch some 3 months ago and that was the impetus to get the EP finished.
It will be getting mastered in the next week or so by Barney Loveland who has been a great sounding board for me. Similar to when I was working on “Sojourn”, which Barney also mastered, I would go over to his place, have a few beers and listen to the mixes and he would then make some suggestions with regards to adjusting reverbs or stuff like that. It’s great to have that feedback on your mix from the Mastering Engineer before you send it to them. Barney has a great ear for detail and I trust his judgements as he really understands the music, plus he’s a bass player so I know the bottom is going to sound great 😉 Everyone seems happy with the mixes now but it can be a challenge when you have 9 different voices so I try to look at it from the “Big Picture” and I’m happy with the way it has come out.
What is some of the other gear you used in your studio during the recording and mixing of the EP?
The interface I use is the Focusrite Saffire Pro 26, and I recorded all the bass at home with several different basses. I used an F bass VF5, a Custom J Bass called ‘The Funkmeister’ and the first ever bass I owned: an 80’s Ibanez Musician which is the bass I actually used on the track “SLAM”. I had tried all different kinds of basses, a Jazz and a P Bass etc; but they just didn’t sound right with the track until I picked up the Ibanez and it just sat in the mix with that 80’s slap tone. I also borrowed a friend’s 70’s Fender Jazz Bass for the track “The Hunter” because it’s the sound of that era and it fitted perfectly with that track
Perhaps the biggest thing for me for when I recording bass was the Demeter Tube Pre amp, an earlier 80’s model and it just adds this massive 3D sound to the bass. That was then fed into a Golden Age Project Pre which is kind of like a 1073 AMS Neve clone and I’ve also got their EQ and Compressor as well, so that was my bass recording chain.
I use Focal Monitors, and as I mentioned before a whole bunch of WAVES Plug-ins, Slate Audio Plug-ins and lot of stock LOGIC plug-ins as well. Often at times I would just bring up the channel EQ and if I hear something that needs a little cut or boost I would just dial it up. A couple of the WAVES plug-ins I did use a lot was the Renaissance Axx which is like a dBX 160 compressor, I’d stick it on guitar and it would just sit there perfectly, and all of the WAVES SSL stuff is also great.
For recording the horns we used a whole bunch of ribbon and dynamic microphones like the Sennheiser 421’s, some Royer Labs and AEA mics but in particular I borrowed a Royer 122 which is a phantom powered ribbon mic (which is very unusual), and that thing sounded unreal, huge.
Our keyboard player plays a real Fender Rhodes piano and that is one of the easiest things to record. All I did was plug it into the Demeter Tube Pre Amp, with a bit of reverb and it was good to go. There was also some Moog action, some NORD stuff and of course some VST synth plug-ins which were used a lot of the time to layer with a synth lead line or pad to layer two different sounds to make it sound a little more unique. To do this I recorded Midi with all of the keyboard stuff which allowed me to do the blend of let’s say a “darker sound reverb textured” sound with a ”cleaner” sound to give it a bit more character.
With the recording of the guitars, I placed the amps outside of my home studio at the top of the stairs with a Shure SM57 on it and I also split the signal through a DI box. So a lot of the guitar tones are a blend of the amp plus some amp modelling, using either the WAVES GTR or SLATE AUDIO Scuffham amps.. The guitar amps used were a Supro and a Fender Twin, so of course I had to make sure there was no one else at home as the guys would love to turn them up to get the right tone. It was a bit of a challenge recording the guitars at home and as I didn’t want to take the risk with not capturing the right amp tones, so as a security measure that’s why I split the signal. This allowed me the safety net in case there might have been a bit too much gain, or not enough reverb etc. so it was useful to have the dry split signal through the amp modelling and blend the two together.
When and where will you be launching the EP?
Any advice and tips you would like to give to bassists who want to move onto the next level and out of the garage or bedroom and onto a “Live Stage’ or into Recording” with a band?
Practice, Practice and more Practice. But it depends on what your goals are, whether you want to be a working professional or just want to jam with some friends on the weekend. Everyone has different levels of success, or what they would deem as success. But, I think being open minded is good. Record yourself a lot, as it is so easy to record yourself these days and being critical of your playing, and that way you will hear yourself the way that everybody else hears you. Learn repertoire, get a good teacher, and get your technique solid so that 20 years down the line you don’t end up with bad habits and ending up playing bass with a lot of discomfort in your left hand. I get a lot of students through Bass Lessons Melbourne who come along and we end up spending so long just trying to rectify their engrained bad technique. Also, just get out there and meet people and if you can’t find a band to join start your own if possible.