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Photo by Dan Locke/Frank White Photo Agency
Who are your benchmarks?
Allen: The first one that comes to mind is Peter Buck from R.E.M. He’s just a real team player, he doesn’t need to stick out or be the star of the show. That’s where I come from—I just want to play for the song, to be part of a team. I want my playing to be really musical. It doesn’t need to be all about technical prowess, except, of course, in certain styles where it’s called for. And I really like Johnny Marr from the Smiths. He’s got such an intricate style that jumps all over the place. I might not play a lot like him, but he’s definitely inspired my melodies.
This might sound random, but I’m a huge fan of Cyndi Lauper … I love bands like Modest Mouse and Built to Spill. In the mid-’90s I started listing to a lot of groups that came from the Northwest. Growing up in Southern California, there’s a really different music climate. I had a friend who moved up to Seattle for a semester, and when she came back she brought all of these tapes, so I started listening to those bands. It was a breath of fresh air to hear these musicians who always played things a little weirdly. Plus, some of those melodies really struck a chord with me.
Campbell: My biggest influences are Duck Dunn, the house guy for Stax Records, and John Entwistle of The Who. Each had this certain sound. Years ago, they didn’t have such fancy equipment. They had to use guitar amps, which for solo bass just sounded so horrible. But they sounded good by adding frequencies from cymbals and guitars and having just enough of the bass to poke through. I took that as a lesson, so when I go in the studio I start with a gnarly tone, often using flatwounds with a pick and maybe even a mute, and then I sculpt the sound from there.
Getting back to Entwistle, I love his sustain and dirt—those little bass runs on “My Generation” are just so awesome. I should mention James Jamerson, and also on the Motown side, Michael Henderson, who did a lot with Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. He recorded “Let’s Get It On,” which is one of my all-time favorite grooves. On the rock side of things there’s Peter Hook, as I mentioned before, and Duff McKagan. On the contemporary side of things there’s John Stirratt from Wilco and the homie from My Morning Jacket, Two-Tone Tommy [Tom Blankenship]. All great players with such great ideas.
Here the Neon Trees out themselves as Beliebers in an unplugged cover of a topical pop song.
Have you had to modify your playing for Neon Trees?
Campbell: I’ve always loved the warmth of the fingers, but I’ve learned that the attack that comes from a pick blends really well with synth. Another thing I’ve learned from this setting is that it’s not always about when the note starts but when it ends, how long you’ll hold it. I’ll sometimes let a note linger just a little longer than I would have in the past. That can be where the funk is at—even if it’s not really a funky song.
Allen: For the longest time, I played not in a full band but just with a drummer, and I really had to almost overplay to fill out the songs. Now in Neon Trees, I’ve learned to keep myself in check, and am always simplifying things to make sure I don’t step on the vocals or any of the other parts. Come to think of it, that’s an important thing for any style!
Can you let us in on your compositional processes?
Campbell: It comes from all different directions. Sometimes Tyler makes these computer demos, and he’s always very careful to leave room for the rest of us. He might come up with a bass line on the computer or keyboard, but it’s up to the group to get jamming on the demos and make the parts our own. I’ll take the demos into my bass cave and live with them a little, feel them out before I come up with the parts that best suit the songs.
Allen: Over the years it’s changed a lot. When Tyler and I first got together, I would write all of the guitar parts, and he would take them and come up with melodies and add a little keyboard before the whole band would get together and finish the song. Now Tyler works with our producer, Tim [Pagnotta], and brings the demos to us with the basic structures and parts in place. We can tweak some of the parts and add what we feel is best. Before we go into the studio, we rehearse and get tight on all of the songs. We also wrote a few from scratch in the studio this time. It’s nice we can still do that—all write together. You never know what will happen, we all have such different influences.