Michael Thurber goes behind the scenes

Bassist Michael ThurberMichael Thurber goes behind the scenes

Stephen Colbert bassist talks late night, theatre

By David Sands
December 9, 2015

If you’re a fan of late-night talk shows, chances are you’ve heard Michael Thurber doing his thing. The talented multi-instrumentalist plays bass for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in a band led by pianist Jon Batiste. It’s a challenging job that has him and his bandmates adding musical punch to Colbert’s punchlines in a variety of musical styles.

Playing in a late show house band sounds like a handful for anyone, but it’s just one of many music-related endeavors for Thurber, who studied at both Juilliard and the Interlochen Arts Academy. He’s also a co-founder of CDZA (also known as Collective Cadenza), an NYC-based music collective that makes quirky medley-style YouTube videos dealing with musical history, pop culture and other themes.

Launched in 2012, CDZA pulled in more than 26 million views and 290,000 YouTube channel subscribers in its first two years. The collective also put together a digital ad campaign for AT&T and performed at the first-ever YouTube Music Awards, an event that also featured Lady Gaga, Arcade Fire, Eminem and MIA.

Beyond this, the eclectic Thurber is also a composer. His credits include writing theatrical scores for the U.K.-based Royal Shakespeare Company and NYC’s Public Theater and creating a musical for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Conference. Earlier this year, NPR’s From The Top also broadcast a classical concerto he wrote based on the story of The Three Musketeers.

FBPO’s Jon Liebman last spoke with Thurber back in 2014 in an interview that had him sharing stories about his musical upbringing and his efforts with CDZA.

This time around, the two of them got together to talk about Michael’s experiences on Colbert’s show, including the gear he uses, and his theatrical and orchestral works.

So what’s it like playing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert? Well for starters, Thurber is geeked about working with the famous funny man.

“He’s amazing, man,” he tells FBPO. “Stephen Colbert is an incredible human being. He is just as smart, energetic, curious and sparkling as he seems on camera, in-person.”

“He’s really making an effort—successfully—to put a lot of smart stuff on TV,” he adds. “A lot of culturally relevant things, a lot of important conversations are had on that show, but in the context of a really fun entertaining environment.”

The bassist also has high praise for bandleader Jon Batiste, whom he knows from his Juilliard days. “I don’t know how Jon would feel about this, but I would say he’s the next in the lineage of Wynton Marsalis,” he says, referring to their shared New Orleans jazz roots. “Jon is a very important musician in our time,” he continues. “He is constantly striving to take this extensive knowledge and love of the jazz tradition and put it in a… more mainstream setting that can reach more people.”

When it comes to playing The Late Show, Thurber’s instrument of choice is NS Design‘s Radius bass guitar. He relies on two five-string fretted Radiuses, a charcoal and a white wood model, and a charcoal five-string fretless.

“With a gig like this, you’re playing hours on your bass every single day in a pretty intense musical environment,” he says, “you’ve got to play a lot of different types of music and get a lot of different types of sounds on it, so it’s got to be reliable. It can’t be breaking down or anything. And the NS basses live up to the challenge.”

As for strings, he prefers D’Addario, and has even taken to stringing his charcoal Radius basses with their black nylon strings. “It looks really cool. The dark charcoal and the black nylon strings, combined with the headless neck…we call it Sleepy Hollow” Thurber says. “The only thing is that the theater that we shoot in is 55 degrees, so some strings hold intonation better than others in the cold temperature.”

For amps, Thurber goes with Aguilar. He uses the Tonehammer 350 with a 4X10 cabinet.

Aside from his late night stuff, Thurber also loves composing music. He wrote the score for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2013 production of Antony and Cleopatra, which played in London and Miami and was later picked up by the Public Theater in NYC. That same year, his musical, Goddess, a jazz-influenced tale about a West African music deity, was accepted into The Eugene O’Neill Musical Theater Conference. Thurber collaborated on that project with director Saheem Ali and book writer/lyricist Mkhululi Mabija, providing original music and lyrics.

More recently, he’s written music for The Public Theater’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit productions of Pericles: Prince of Tyre and Macbeth. This year, Thurber also debuted a classical concerto he wrote based on the story of The Three Musketeers. The piece was performed in March by the The Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra and aired live on a broadcast of NPR’s From The Top. The four-piece concerto featured Kris Bowers on piano, Charles Yang on Violin, Mark Dover on clarinet and Thurber himself on upright bass. Four of the concert’s movement’s highlight specific musicians.

“Each of the soloists musically depicts a different musketeer,” he tells FBPO. “They’re all incredibly diverse people, incredibly talented and special musicians, so each movement sonically caters to what their strengths are and what kind of music they play best.”

He plans to follow that work up with a new concerto written for violinist Tessa Lark, who won the prestigious Naumburg International Violin Award in 2012. “She is a classical virtuoso, but she’s also an amazing fiddle player,” he says. “So the concerto is going to try and showcase the amazing fiddle music that she grew up playing.”

Also in the works is a one-man musical that will go up Off Broadway in the fall of 2016. In addition to writing the lyrics and music, Thurber will perform the show himself. “The coolest thing about this show is that it’s one person,” he says. “I’m going to be using Ableton Live to loop…. I’m going to have my bass guitars. I’m going to have my upright bass. I’m going to have electric guitar. I’m going to have acoustic piano and a Rhodes and drums and percussion. I’ll have everything set up on the stage with lights and everything.”

In addition to being incredibly ambitious, the show is a dream-come-true for Thurber. “I can’t wait,” he says. “It’s always been a goal of mine to have a show go up in New York City, so it’s really beautiful!”

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