Bassist Jack Lawrence boogies down while frontman Alison Mosshart has a blast. Photo by Lindsey Best

Jack Lawrence on His Quest for New Bass Tonalities

“When we were recording Dodge and Burn, I was trying to learn to work more with feedback in the studio,” explains Dead Weather bassist Jack Lawrence. “I was experimenting with using hollowbody basses and getting closer to the amps. Getting up there and pulling back, getting up there and pulling back—like, bobbing back and forth, trying to get the right spacing between the pickups and the speakers.”

Lawrence jokes that this approach “probably looked silly from the control booth”—but the results sound thorny and authoritative—all fuzz, fury, and, at times, even funk. The charter member of the Dead Weather and Raconteurs explains that he’s been on a quest for different tones over the past few years, and that’s reflected in the gut-punch of his performance on Dodge and Burn’s dozen tracks.

“I usually use flatwound strings,” he says. “I’m allergic to nickel, which means I can’t use nickel-plated roundwounds. With flatwounds you get a little dumpier sound. But I wanted a little more aggressive sound in general this time—a sound you could get with roundwounds. So in the studio I cranked the treble up and used smaller speakers and cabinets. The [ProCo] Rat pedal was also key for me getting that roundwound sound with flatwounds—like on ‘I Feel Love (Every Million Miles).’ The Jesus Lizard were my favorite band growing up, and I use a Rat because David William Sims used one in that band.”

Lawrence affirms Dead Weather guitarist Dean Fertita’s observation that their playing’s intertwined tonalities are a big component of the band’s sound—which is why they focus on each other onstage and in the studio with an intensity usually reserved for bassist-drummer relationships.

There’s a lot of guitar in the drum mikes, so if we like a take we can’t really punch in too much. That’s why this record has a lot of feel to it and everything’s not perfect.”

“When I use my Electro-Harmonix Bass MicroSynth pedal, Dean and I have to work together as a unit instead of the traditional drums locking in with the bass and the guitar playing melodies on top,” Lawrence explains. “That pedal has got a big sound with a sub-octave and square waves. If Dean and I aren’t locked in, those frequencies can eat up the guitar. But if it is balanced, it sounds really amazing.”

The MicroSynth provides the body of the howling Rottweiler tone on “I Feel Love,” as well as “Mile Markers,” but Lawrence also used good old-fashioned amp overdrive, turning an Ampeg combo and an original 1965 Fender Bassman wide open. “The Ampeg has reverb and tremolo,” he relates. “ I didn’t use the tremolo in the studio, but a hint of reverb was nice. And on ‘Cop and Go,’ that’s just using an old hollowbody bass and the Fender Bassman cranking. I didn’t use a fuzz pedal on the record—that’s all just speakers blowing up!”

Lawrence also used a pick more often on Dodge and Burn, and it’s especially prominent in the propulsive bottom of “I Feel Love (Every Million Miles).” “I don’t use a pick that much in the Dead Weather, because not many of our songs have called for it. I like the picky-ness of somebody like [session legend] Carol Kaye, but it’s hard to play in any kind of funk style that way. ‘Three Dollar Hat’ is a good example of me going for a funkier thing. But even if I use my fingers, the pick will be in my hand to switch off mid-song sometimes.

“The tone I get out of the bass amp is also going to guide me,” he adds. “If I turn on a pedal, I’m going to play a different riff than if I was just playing right into the amp. But whatever I do, it’s mostly decided on the spot when we record at Jack’s place. We’re all playing together in one room, and sometimes Alison is the only one not in the room with us—her vocals are usually recorded through an amp in a small booth—so everything bleeds together. There’s a lot of guitar in the drum mikes, so if we like a take we can’t really punch in too much. That’s why this record has a lot of feel to it and everything’s not perfect.”