-Greg Olwell"I'm really inspired by the string bass," says Austin-based Mark Rubin."It's a difficult instrument. It's unwieldy and awkward and hard to believe you can make music with it-but that's part of the appeal. I have to be able to beat the fucker."
Bass Player Magazine, 8/99
Rubin practices his particular brand of tough love in the Bad Livers, a duo with banjo player/guitarist Danny Barnes that performs a three-alarm blend of American music. The Livers' latest release, Industry and Thrift [Sugar Hill], finds Rubin playing tuba in what may be the funkiest tuba/banjo duet ever,"Lumpy, Beanpole & Dirt." He then throws the listener curveballs on the bluegrass upright slap-fest "Brand New Hat" and an unlisted bonus track. ("Message To Meastro (for Buell N.)")
In his late teens, Rubin moved from tuba to electric bass and played in punk and reggae bands. After expanding his listening to rockabilly, old jazz, and blues, he acquired a taste for the powerful, percussive sound of upright slap bass. He then began "to hassle old men about it. A lot of the jazz guys would show me their version of it, which was so candy-ass it wasn't funny. It wasn't until I saw Jack Barton with Reverend Horton Heat that I could really see what was going on." Often-painful trial and error followed, until Mark learned to tape his right-hand fingers to protect them from the beating slap playing can inflict.
In addition to the ten genre-stretching albums he's made with the Bad Livers, Rubin has played on a wide range of recordings, including the Grammy- nominated Corazon de Piedra [Watermelon] from accordionist Santiago Jimenez Jr., and an eponymous outing by Mark's klezmer band, Rubinchik's Orkestyr.
A former gear nut, Mark
now uses simply "the right tool for the job." He swears he will never again
tour with a full-size acoustic upright ("a first- class pain in the ass
to haul around"), preferring instead a small hollowbody Eminence
Bass electric upright from G. Edward Lutherie, fitted with a David
Gage pickup and run straight into the board. When recording his no-name
acoustic upright, a Shure SM-57 dynamic mike-or any condenser mike-serves
him best. For the few songs that call for bass guitar, Rubin turns to his
Fender P-Bass* with La Bella Deep Talkin' Bass flatwounds, which he runs
into his Gallien-Krueger 400RB head and Bag End J1 2x10. Since the Bad
Livers tour so frequently, Rubin opts for the smallest professional tuba
Yamaha produces, the YBB-621, amplifying it with a clip-on sax mike.
Rubin and fellow Austin upright slapper Kevin Smith produced the instructionalvideo Slap Bass: The Ungentle Art [BP Recommends, January '96]. The tape covers single, double, and triple slaps in a variety of styles, as well as miking techniques, setup, and finger taping. It's available for $31, including shipping and handling, from Mark Rubin, Box 49227, Austin TX 78765.
Rubin's Recommended Riffs
Early Jazz & Blues
"After Walter Page's Blue Devils broke up in the late '20s, he joined a young Bill [Count] Basie in Bennie Moten's influential band. Dig Page's meaty attack in the intro to 'Lafayette.' His pummeling technique was said to wear out basses with frightening regularity.
"Long before he was revealed as one of the greatest American songwriters and became session leader at Chess Records, Willie Dixon was a hot swing slap bass man. His Big Three Trio's best sides have been reissued on Columbia/Legacy. Dig Dixon's tasteful, triplet-laden breaks in 'Big 3 Boogie.'
"Dixon's Chicago contemporary
Knowling was a first-call session man on many seminal blues sides,
including 'That's All Right Mama' with Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup.
Knowling often takes a melodic role, swooping in and out of
Bluegrass & Hillbilly
"Cedric Rainwater was said to have a great slap style, but I haven't found it recorded in any of his work with either Hank Williams or Bill Monroe. Some Opry bassists were known to hold a wire drum brush in their right hand, striking a pad attached to the top of the bass to get a snare-like sound.
"Shug Fisher's playing on Texas Stomp and Farr Bros. Stomp is about the best western swing or swing slap-bass playing you'll likely encounter."
Rock & Roll
"The Gypsy bassists
of Romania's Wallacian region pride themselves on their athletic prowess;
the best I've come across is Vlad Vadim of the Taraf De HaÔdouks.
Check out his incendiary solo in 'Turcesca (Turkish Dance)'-
"I'm continually inspired by the nameless bassists who back up 1930s Trinidadian calypso singers like Wilmouth Houdini and the Roaring Lion. Arhoolie and Rounder both have several great surveys of this music.
"No slap survey would
be complete without mentioning Bob Crosby's 'Big Noise from Winnetka,'
featuring Bob Haggart. Hackneyed? Maybe-but still impressive,