Alana, you mentioned playing upright and bass in more traditional contexts. But what about the more technical parts of your sound?
Alana Rocklin has been playing bass since age 8. Her tonal recipe includes Lakland basses, built-in MIDI systems,
and Aguilar pedals. Photo courtesy of STS9
Rocklin:It happened over a long, long time. In, Sub-ID, one of the things Brad and I were developing was MIDI bass—to really delve into how I could make my bass a MIDI controller instead of playing a synth bass with a keyboard. We started that in the early 2000s. So that particular side of what I do in STS9 has been developing since then.
I’ve played Lakland basses since 1999, and that’s a huge part of my sound. My main Lakland bass is modded with a new system called FretTrax. It has MIDI triggers in all the frets. I’ve had several incarnations of MIDI basses.
Did you use that to play all the synth bass as well as standard bass?
Rocklin: Some of the synth bass on the album is me, some of it is Fipps on an old [Yamaha] CS-60 keyboard. But live, I need to cover some of those synth bass sounds. There are times when Fipps is playing CS and I’m playing synth bass as well.
With music that’s so focused on groove and timing, is MIDI latency an issue on the bass?
Rocklin: With FretTrax, there’s no latency; you actually have the opposite problem. When the string hits the fret, it triggers. So, there are a whole bunch of settings with millisecond delays so that the note triggers when you hit it with your right hand. But it’s much easier to deal with delaying the note by a few milliseconds that having to deal with the latency problem. Also, on a standard MIDI system, thicker strings increase latency. With this, the low B string will trigger just as fast as the G string. Victor Wooten turned me on to it. He had the first one, I believe. Not very many of us have them.
Hunter, are you also using MIDI?
Brown: All our keyboardist’s synths are synced with my rig, so I can send him MIDI information that goes through the synths. We can do all kinds of crazy stuff like that. I can send him just timing info but also MIDI notes that can go through his rig. I can start a sequence or trigger a MIDI clip, but it’s coming from his synths. I use an external controller. I’ve tried some of the guitar trigger stuff, but I’m not there at the moment. I like my guitar being my guitar, and the MIDI being itself.
What kinds of amps are you using?
Brown: Both in the studio and live, I’m basically using a Fender Twin Reverb that’s built within a Dual Showman head. My buddy Jerry Carillo was my guitar tech for a while. He has a shop in New Jersey, and helped put them together. We took an old Dual Showman and put the guts of a Twin in there. I wanted it to sound like a boutique Twin. I’ve also got a Fuchs 100-watt. So those were the main amps, as well as another old Fender Twin that I have. I’ve got a Fractal Axe-Fx II but I don’t use it for recording; I use it to write and record demos, then redo the parts with my rig.
Rocklin: I’ve been an Aguilar endorser for years and used their stuff pre-STS9. I also like to use a lot of different instruments. I sometimes like to use my upright and fretless. I’m using a 2x12 cabinet right now—which is kinda crazy but it works great. I’m triggering an Access Virus TI Snow [synth]. Before [the signal] hits the Virus, I go through a JHS Colour Box [preamp]. For the album, I used the bass direct into the Colour Box. My pedalboard is nothing crazy: it has a volume pedal and just about every pedal Aguilar makes. I love them, especially the Octamizer octave pedal. But I’m not a big pedal person, to be honest, and that’s kinda why I put all my eggs in the MIDI basket.
How hard is it to reproduce all those sounds onstage?
Brown: We’ve been doing this for so long and yet that part of it actually gets harder [laughs]! I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because we have a better sense of what we want. I just used to go for it with whatever we had. There’s an epic quality about that, too, but working on this album and the songs we’ve written together, we wanted it to sound a certain way. We spent a lot of time with our gear, technically trying to figure out the best way to stay true to the process and the instruments we used on the album.
Still, to be able to recreate the sound night after night, you have to let go of some of the aspirations for perfection. I find myself having to do a lot of toe-tapping on my board or do slight adjustments to get back to where I want to be. So, I’ve set the board up with a basic five to 10 sounds and then I tweak those sounds as I’m going. But I enjoy it. I know players who have people change their setting for them offstage—and I understand that—but it’s fun for me to have everything right there at my feet, to access, dial it in, and constantly be working on my sound while we’re playing.
Hunter, your funky rhythm parts have a feel that I think a lot of players find difficult to master. Any advice for nailing that groove?
Brown: Funk guitar is deceptively easy. You can learn the riffs really quickly. But to get the feel and that timing, it just takes passion and love for that music. Growing up on James Brown, hearing Jimmy Nolen and those guys, it’s just ingrained in you. In the first jams I played with friends, that’s what I was trying to do, to get that feel. I really didn’t care about what I was playing, but rhythmically, I could get that pop, that feel. It’s about playing it over and over and being in love with it. You’re not gonna fool people who really love funk music. It’s gotta have all that life experience within the rhythm. It’s not a technique so much as it is a lifestyle.
One thing that comes across on the album is a sense of dynamics within the grooves: Not every hit has the same intensity. Is that conscious? Are you just feeling it? Is that something you had to work on?
Brown: I think it’s all three. You’ve got to really let go of everything you’re thinking about and just sink into the music and into the groove as hard and as completely as you can, and just give over to that. Give your body over to the groove, as funny as that sounds [laughs]. To let that happen while listening—to be more aware of what the other musicians are doing instead of what you’re doing. And that can be the hardest thing. Sometimes it’s easier to just say, “I’m gonna attack! I’m gonna learn this inside and out and I’m just gonna execute it.” There’s a lot of safety in that, but to really play this music and do what we’re trying to do, you have to let go of some of that stuff. We might do that at home, but when we get to the stage, when we get together, we try to let go of all of that and let the music take over.
How did you master all this technology?
Brown: I’ve always been obsessed with learning. I’ve always devoured all the magazines—I’m a huge fan of Premier Guitar. Since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to know how people were doing it, why they were doing it. So, I just took that on myself. If I find something I’m interested in, I devour it until it becomes part of me. I do a lot of studying online, and watch videos, do online courses for guitar and gear. It’s just something I’m hungry for. I feel like I’m always trying to play catch-up to my peers and my friends.
There aren’t a ton of solos on the album in the traditional sense, but ones that are there seem to flow through the grooves very naturally. How do you approach them?
Rocklin: The band’s approach isn’t so much to think as soloists, but to write new melodies as we’re going. That suits me well, because even when I’m playing straight-ahead jazz and soloing in that context, I don’t want to sound like a bass player; I always try to think like a horn player. So, while the groove is No. 1, I go less for the rhythmic solo than the melody. That comes from playing standards. Whenever I learned the bass part, I always learn the melody and let it inform what I’m saying as I go through the choruses of a solo.
Brown: I try to avoid solos as much as possible [laughs]. It’s something I love so much, but something I don’t have a lot of confidence in. I improvise my solos and think of every song as a blank piece of paper. On the album, I spent a lot of time working on them after everybody left the studio. I lock the door and turn my amps up, just go for it and try to break some new ground without being embarrassed in front of my friends [laughs]. It’s tough, because it’s got to come from this natural place. I want it to feel a certain way, and when I try to press for the solos I hear in my head, I’m not there. I’m constantly trying to figure out how to navigate that thing.
Sound Tribe Sector 9 plays “Light Years” from The Universe Inside during a New Year’s Eve show in Denver. Hear Hunter Brown and Alana Rocklin lay down melodic and synthesized rhythm and bass around the 1:52 mark.