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Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series
Hailing from Toronto, Canada, guitarist/composer Jamie Bonk has graciously agreed to become a contributing editor to NewAgeReporter.com. Jamie will be conducting a series of interviews entitled Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series. We look forward to his contributions for they are both insightful and offer a unique artist-to-artist perspective over the typical interview. We hope you enjoy them.
Other Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series:
A Conversation With Montana Skies, Oct. 2005
A Conversation with Jeff Pearce, Aug. 2005
A Converation With Mark Dunn, Aug. 2005
<<-later interviews | earlier interviews->>   <<- all interviews ->>
Jamie Bonk
A Conversation With Michael Manring
April 2006
Some artists have an approach to music that is completely their own and has a "rightness" about it. It's just that sense of overriding quality that has helped bassist Michael Manring connect with both listeners and musicians. In fact, with over two hundred recordings in his discography and countless tours, it would probably be easier to name the musicians that bassist Michael Manring hasn't recorded or toured with. But, for the sake of clarity, here's a taste of some of the artists Michael has played with: Will Ackerman, Suzanne Ciani, Peppino D'Agostino, Michael Hedges, Rob Eberhard Young, Henry Kalser, Sadhappy, Attention Deficit (Alex Skolnlck and Tim Alexander), Douglas Spotted Eagle, David Cullen, Ken Bonfield, McGill/Manring/Stevens, Don Ross, and The Demania Trio (with Alex DeGrassi and Chris Garcia).

A student of the late bass legend Jaco Pastorius, Michael has received many awards and nominations over the years including: two gold records, Grammy and Bammie nominations, a Berklee School of Music Distinguished Alumni Award and numerous Bass Player Magazine Reader's Poll awards including 1994 Bassist of the Year.

If you'd like to learn about Michael and his music, please visit Manthing.com (Hey Michael, love the URL!)

Michael Manring
(Photo - Bryan Aaker)
"The bass, to me, is a sound of my place and time and it allows me to search for a native voice that's relevant to the experience of life as it is now." - Michael Manring
Jamie: In addition to your own solo albums, you've played and/or recorded with an extraordinary number of stylistically diverse artists. I'm going to come clean and admit I haven't heard all of the albums in your discography, but on the records that I have heard what strikes me is the clarity of your voice. How do you deal with the challenge of retaining your own musical identity when performing or recording with so many different artists and in so many different musical contexts?
Michael: Thanks, Jamie. Well, the discography is well up over two hundred now, so I'm sure I haven't heard all those recordings either! I realized several years ago that no matter I do, I'm always going to sound like me, so I figured why fight it? I gave up trying to be much of a chameleon and instead try to fit in in a way that supports the vision of the artist I'm working with while retaining my own identity.
Jamie: I would imagine that simultaneously serving the music and being true to your own voice is somewhat of a moving target. Different projects will require different approaches from a musical and technical standpoint. It can be hard to sound like yourself! From an artistic, technical and gear perspective, how does your approach change from your own solo records to playing with groups such as Attention Deficit and McGill/Manring/Stevens?
Michael: "Moving target" is a good way to put it! I find what works best for me is to avoid having any hard and fast rules, and instead to take each project at its own merits. I like to spend some time just listening to the music before I play a note to get a feel for what the artist is saying, then I try to find a way I can fit into that message. Actually, I find the similarities between genres more compelling than the differences, and the goal is always the same -- to create sounds that are moving, effective, engaging and expressive. Differences between genres usually have more to do with idioms -- dynamic and timbral choices for instance -- and those things are relatively easy to deal with compared to the larger challenge of expressing yourself through music. In my solo projects it's a little different because I'm starting from scratch, but the goal is still to act in service of the music. There are times when I just can't find a place for myself in the music and I have to turn down a project, but for the most part, I just love all kinds of music and it's a joy to experience its different aspects. "...I find the similarities between genres more compelling than the differences..."

- Michael Manring
Jamie: I think your love of all kinds of music comes out clearly in your playing. Regardless of the genre in which you're performing, your lines make musical sense to me. Which segues nicely into my next question...

Clearly an instrument has a role in how an artist expresses him or herself, but I've always felt that the best musicians are not solely defined by their instrument of choice. I'm sure Yo Yo Ma would be brilliant no matter what instrument he chose to play! That said, a certain instrument, such as the fretless bass in your case, can offer both distinct possibilities and distinct challenges. How does playing the bass inspire you and how does it frustrate you?
Michael: Thanks so much, Jamie. To tell you the truth, I'm rarely frustrated by the bass. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I think of it as an extremely expressive instrument, full of exciting possibilities and actually, I kind of like its limitations. In any artistic endeavor, it's the limitations that allow for a point-of-view, a style and a specific voice. Artists of all kinds search for a good balance of possibility and limitation, because without the limitations their work would become meaningless and bland. Imagine if you had an instrument that could make every possible sound -- you'd never really get a sense of place or perspective from that instrument in the way a certain kind of accordion music makes us think of Parisian Cafes or harpsichord reminds us of 18th Century parlors. The bass, to me, is a sound of my place and time and it allows me to search for a native voice that's relevant to the experience of life as it is now. These are unique times, to say the least, and I feel the need for this kind of native voice in order to try to make music that's vital and significant. "In any artistic endeavor, it's the limitations that allow for a point-of-view, a style and a specific voice."

- Michael Manring
Jamie: I think a great example of your point-of-view and your search for a native voice is "Helios" from Solioquy. Could you describe how you developed this piece -- compositionally and from a performance perspective? And secondly, how the heck did you do the panning? : )
Michael: Thanks again, Jamie! "Helios" is an interesting choice as it's grown out of a desire I've had over the last several years to try to develop a new approach to funk. As I've learned more about various kinds of music in the world, I've come to the realization that we in the Occident are sadly behind many of the world's cultures in the realm of rhythm. We're good with harmony here, particularly with modulating harmony, but lots of places, especially India, are way, way beyond us rhythmically. I enjoy learning about rhythmic approaches of other cultures, but I've wanted to avoid just imitating them and hoped I could start to develop some kind of a native rhythm that might allow me to feel that I could begin to catch up a bit with the real masters. In working through this idea I realized that funk presents some very cool opportunities to do this. I've listened to and loved funk my whole life (the first LP I ever bought was Sly and the Family Stone's Greatest Hits!), so I feel it's really part of where I'm coming from. Of course, you can't be a bass player without at least a basic understanding of funk, and it's definitely been one of my passions as a player. These days I've been experimenting with merging some of the funk concepts I've grown up with, with some of the ideas I've learned about rhythm from other cultures. This is very much a work in progress, and I hope I'm not stepping on anyone's toes (it's definitely not traditional!), but it is an example of how I'm trying to come up with a native sound and approach that takes into account all the experiences of life in these times.

As for the panning, the bass I play "Helios" on, the Zon Hyperbass, has a quadraphonic pickup with a separate output for each string. This allows me to process the sound of the strings separately, including panning. It's a wonderful feature that I really have a blast with, and anyone interested in learning more about it can check out the extended liner notes in the enhanced portion of Soliloquy.
Jamie: When you're learning about, or drawing from, different musical styles, do you have a set process? Do you, for instance, transcribe various lines/parts or is the influence more subtle?
Michael: I tend to be more interested in processes than the specific notes someone's playing or singing. It's relatively easy to copy a musician's phrases, to just mimic the notes. The challenge I aspire to is to try to understand where the musical thinking is coming from -- what kind of artistic perspective, and ultimately worldview, leads to a particular application of melody, harmony, rhythm or timbre. A lot of this has to do with psychoacoustics, a fascinating field of study that I'm always trying to learn more about. I like to study the music (and anything else, for that matter!) that I love, so I can get a feel for how it came to be. Then it's a matter of deciding what of that zeitgeist I can, or should, apply to my own world. "I tend to be more interested in processes than the specific notes someone's playing or singing."

- Michael Manring
Jamie: Your career, to this point, seems to have been almost evenly split between recording and live music. In between playing on over two hundred records, you've had, and still have, a pretty heavy touring schedule. You've put more than a few miles on your boots! How does playing live affect your studio performances?
Michael: One of the cool things about being a musician these days is that there is this dual world of performing and recording. These two ways of working tend to be mental opposites, with recording being all about refinement and patience, and performance being all about spontaneity and spur-of-the-moment energy. I love both avenues for creating music and I think moving between the two helps me to learn and grow. After I've been in the studio for awhile I'm just itching to get out and play for a live audience, and after a long tour nothing sounds quite as nice as sitting in one place really focusing on musical detail.
Jamie: That's really the best of both worlds! In these artist-to-artist conversations, I try to ask each artist their views on the business side of the music industry. In your opinion, what state is the industry in right now? Where do you think we'll be in five years?
Michael: The business certainly is in an interesting place these days, isn't it? I think the old big record company model is pretty much obsolete. I suppose there will always be room for a handful of big pop acts, but for the most part, I think the nature of the business is shifting dramatically and I'm amazed the big companies haven't done more to adapt to those changes. I know they're suffering from some serious losses in revenues, but I very much believe there are wonderful opportunities out there for folks who have vision, enthusiasm and the ability to think in a new way.

I'd love to see more people working on new methods of marketing recorded music, perhaps less tied to the album/CD system. I think live performance is becoming more important and I'd love to see new approaches there, too, perhaps more closely linked to the sale of recorded music. It's kind of sad that bars are still the place most new music gets heard, and it's a bit odd too, considering such a large percentage of the listening public is under drinking age.

In Europe, there is a significant amount of government money available for cultural events and it really does seem to go a long way in getting people involved in culture there. I'm not sure we're getting our money's worth from the public funds spent on the arts in the US.

I think the business is becoming less streamlined and more about variety and catering to a range of tastes. In my opinion this is a great thing, because it means there can be more people out there making many different kinds of music. The amount of money one major pop star earned in the past could support hundreds and hundreds of smaller, more efficient acts and I think we'd all benefit from that diversity and choice.

I would think that companies who are able to exploit the opportunities presented by internet and satellite radio, downloading, new digital promotional avenues, etc. and tie those together with live performance, all in a way that represents a particular social group or lifestyle, could do very well. My hope is that the music business will start to become less about "business" (i.e., making lots and lots of money) and more about creativity and sharing the joy of music. Overall, I'm really quite optimistic in spite of the fact that the business is facing some real challenges.
"The amount of money one major pop star earned in the past could support hundreds and hundreds of smaller, more efficient acts and I think we'd all benefit from that diversity and choice."

- Michael Manring
Jamie: That's a great attitude! You make a fantastic point about tying together digital distribution and live music. I agree with you that the companies that get that going, in a solid, consistent manner will do amazingly well.

So what's up next for you? Any tours or recordings that you'd like to mention?
Michael: I've got quite a lot of projects going these days. I tour off-and-on year 'round throughout the world, both solo and with a number of different musicians. Anyone who's interested in catching a show can check out the calendar at www.manthing.com or, better yet, sign up for my e-mail newsletter. I promise I won't send you any spam!

I've been involved in lots of fun recording projects lately too, but I suppose my most recent solo recording, Soliloquy, is the one to mention. Folks can go to CD Baby to hear samples, buy it and even write a review if they like.
Jamie: Michael, as a long time admirer of your playing, it's been so much fun for me getting a chance to talk with you! Best of luck in the future and please stay in touch!
 
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