Indie-folk bassist shares thoughts on upright campfire jams, Elephant Revival, and bass service
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
December 14, 2020
For many years, Dango Rose was a traveling man, playing venues near and far with his trusty upright bass by his side. He spent more than a decade-and-a-half hitting the road with a variety of touring bands before co-founding the group Elephant Revival in 2006. The six-piece outfit made a name for itself pioneering the “Transcendental Folk” genre, a style of music that draws inspiration from a diverse blend of sources that includes Celtic fiddle tunes, bluegrass, and Indie rock. With Elephant Revival enjoying an interlude for the last few years, Rose has kept busy collaborating with like-minded artists and honing his songwriting and studio skills. The multi-instrumentalist released his latest single, “Life’s too Short” in November.
FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing. Do you come from a musical family?
Dango: Well, in my family down the line, there is music. My grandfather was a cantor for 45 years. I have dancers in the family on that line and other musicians. It wasn’t necessarily a musical family I grew up in. I started playing music when I was 13. Gravitated toward the bass.
FBPO: What did you gravitate from?
Dango: Well, I guess I gravitated to the bass from just playing around, fiddling around with different instruments that I would come across over time. But really no formal training up to that point.
FBPO: Electric bass or upright bass?
Dango: I went to electric first, but within two years I was playing upright. I ended up with an upright bass almost by accident and it sort of changed my life. I was living in Chicago, and a band moved in next door when I was 15. This is two years after playing electric.
FBPO: A whole band moved in next door?
Dango: Pretty much. The band was called Cornmeal, and they were a Chicago bluegrass, “jamgrass” band. And then my neighbor, Jay, was also a songwriter, and it just changed my perspective. At that point, I got into more of the acoustic realm and that’s when I got the upright bass, being able to see them in action as an up-and-coming band in Chicago. I started going to the Chicago Old Town School of Folk Music, studying there after school. I’d been playing two years with my friends in the basement. I gravitated toward bass because, well, first of all, everybody wanted to play guitar, and for me it was all about having a band. I just wanted the band. I’m, “Hey, man, I’ll play fucking bass, man!” And then I fell in love with it. Yeah.
FBPO: Did you have any bass heroes, any bass influences once you discovered the instrument?
Dango: Yeah. I mean at the beginning it was Victor Wooten, James Jamerson, Jaco. At that phase, I was in that jazz world and the progressive stuff when I was a teenager. And then, yeah, Donald “Duck” Dunn. And then over time it really evolved into really honing in and honoring the role of a bass player in ensembles. And I became so interested in traditional musics and acoustic music and songwriting and just more of the folk world. Then my direction shifted from trying to be super flashy and slap bass and playing “Teen Town” at 180 beats per minute. It went more into well, “How can I serve the song? How can I serve the ensemble?” And so it became an act of service. Bass playing ultimately became an act of service.
FBPO: Oh, am I loving this!
Dango: And the big moment in my life was down in New Orleans. Once I was 18, I left home and I pretty much was traveling the country with an upright bass in the back of my old Isuzu Trooper with my dog. Not a guitar and a dog, an upright bass and the dog, right? I was going back and forth from Southwest Virginia to Chicago, to Colorado, to Oregon. And then I met this friend of mine in Oregon. We were living next door to Mountain Girl. We were in this whole Ken Kesey, Grateful Dead-esque generation gap world in Eugene, Oregon. And that was cool. He was a total Cassady guy, like the one from On the Road, the sort of the traveler kind of guy, the vagabond. He ended up being our bus driver in the band. And so we went to New Orleans together. And we spent a good amount of time down on the streets in New Orleans around the time of JazzFest, playing music as a rhythm section or a street trio at times. We’d bring musicians in. And when I was in New Orleans during JazzFest, I met David Batiste, the patriarch of the Batiste family.
FBPO: That family’s got a lot of history in the music world.
Dango: Yeah, their family is amazing. They’re the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage family. And so, one day we’re playing on the street and David Batiste picks me up off the street corner and takes me to St. Augustine High School, which is an inner-city high school, and he puts me on stage with all these guys. All the guys from The Meters and just a bunch of amazing musicians.
FBPO: Was George Porter there?
Dango: George Porter may have been there. I don’t remember. I was just awestruck. I was 19 at the time.
FBPO: With your upright bass?
Dango: With my upright bass, that I had been traveling the country with. And that was a pinnacle moment. It made me be, “Oh, this is what I want to do with my life. This is what I’m going [to do].”
FBPO: Tell me about Elephant Revival. What inspired you to start that band?
Dango: That’s the band that pretty much spent the last 13 years together. We’re on hiatus now, but really, it was all about getting the tribe together. We met at different music festivals and locations around the country. I was doing a lot of traveling and meeting a lot of people and just listening for the sound and the musicians that I wanted to play with. I met everyone, either at a festival in Kansas, Colorado, California, Connecticut… all these different places. And we called together the tribe while living in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capital of the Cherokee Nation. We spent a summer camped out there, playing music around the fire on a place called Spring Creek.
FBPO: When I think of a campfire, I imagine guitars, singing, you know. You had your upright bass around a campfire?
Dango: I always have my upright bass.
FBPO: Just trying to visualize that. Okay, go ahead.
Dango: Yeah, yeah. It was always there. My girlfriend at the time was a bass player too. So, it was “House of Bass.”
FBPO: I love it!
Dango: It was cool. Then in 2006, I had all my connections in Colorado because I had lived here already, and already played in different bands here. I started touring professionally in 2002, so in 2005, 2006, it was, “Okay, it’s time to call the band together.” We moved back to Colorado and started playing, and it coalesced really well. One of those groups where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
FBPO: Is there a particular mission or a message behind the group? It seems to be about more than just the music.
Dango: Yeah, there’s always something more. There’s an intention, whether it’s for healing or for bringing people together. That’s the power of music, that it can bring people together and it can create a liminal space for people to see and understand and be able to travel within themselves, to find more meaning in their lives. That’s what it’s always been about. It’s always been about being able to bring people together for good. And then at our concerts, people would be inspired to discover more and follow their purpose or their dreams. Ultimately, that’s healing for the planet.
FBPO: How are you occupying your time these days, during the pandemic?
Dango: I got into the studio, so I started producing. I’m working with other artists doing a lot of producing work and development. I call it artist empowerment. It’s not traditional artist development; it’s more empowering people to find patterns and routines that work for them as creatives and to be able to support and harness that in the individual. And then also songwriting collaborations.
FBPO: You do all this remotely?
Dango: Some of it’s remote, and a lot of it’s in the studio. I’m not taking on people more than one-on-one or one-on-two, just to keep numbers down for all the reasons that we’re all doing everything that we’re doing. But yeah, at one point, I started an online program for this artist empowerment work.
FBPO: What’s it called?
Dango: It’s literally called the Artist Empowerment Program.
FBPO: That works!
Dango: Yeah. We went on hiatus in May of 2018, so it’s been two-and-a-half years. And then this year, since COVID hit, I really got into the engineering side, which I was lacking on. Even in production, I’d have other people help me out on the technical side. This year, I’ve been really focusing on the engineering side so that I can really be a one-man show. I’m also releasing music and recording music. It’s really evolved over the years from when I first picked up that electric bass, in the basement or the garage or whatever.
FBPO: So bass is still your primary instrument? I see banjos, I see a guitar…
Dango: Yeah. When I pick up a bass, it’s like riding a bike at this point, after playing for 25 years or so, and playing over 1,500 shows on tour for over a decade. It just feels so grounding. It’s so good. And it just comes so… I don’t know. It’s interesting.
FBPO: Tell me about your gear.
Dango: I’ve got an Ampeg 4×10, a David Eden head. I’ve also got an SWR Super Redhead. I’ve got some cool compressors, some cool reverbs. I keep it really pure for the upright. I don’t do much to it. I pretty much just go through a solid state Neve preamp into the Eden head into the 4×10 or the SWR. And I take the signal from the direct box and just run a little bit of EQ. I could EQ the arco a little bit. And then I also push more mids and high mids than a lot of players so that it can cut through a mix. Because I’m always thinking about the overall mix, and sometimes there’s too much thunder on the low end, depending on what elements you’re working with. And then I’ve got some Grace preamps in the studio and all that.
FBPO: Tell me about your basses.
Dango: I’ve got an NS Design, a CR four-string upright. It’s got both the bridge pickup and the electromagnetic pickups. That became my touring instrument I think in 2013 or ’14.
FBPO: I love those!
Dango: They’re amazing. And they cut. They cut through. That’s originally why I went from the upright to different travel uprights to the NS Design, because I could get it so perfectly precisely intonated and EQ’d exactly how I want it to cut through our specific mix.
FBPO: Everybody says that! You mentioned arco. Do you use the bow with the NS?
Dango: Oh, I do, Yeah.
FBPO: What kind of strings do you play?
Dango: We’re sponsored by D’Addario, so, for the most part, I just had a plethora of the D’Addario strings.
FBPO: Do you still play electric bass very much?
Dango: Yeah. I have a five-string electric. My friend David Enke, down in Southern Colorado, makes it custom. It’s at the studio right now. Both those basses are at the studio. It’s an incredibly beautiful bass. It’s amazing.
FBPO: You can’t assume any more, but when I hear “five-string,” I would guess that it’s a low B, although some people prefer the high C. What’s your fifth string?
Dango: It’s the low B. And I love that bass in the studio because of that low string. It doesn’t matter what kind of song or what kind of music it is, but just those long whole notes. It’s that sonic kind of feel.
What advice can you impart to somebody who wants to learn to play bass? What do you think is important for them to know?
Dango: I guess I’m a traditionalist in the sense where bass is an instrument of service in a lot of ways, especially in more of a song-oriented world. And the rhythm aspect. There’s so much precision in how to hold out one note, or the length of a note and being able to really get precise with that. With right-hand technique and left-hand muting technique. That muting technique also becomes a rhythmic springboard for nuance, to be really sensitive to the intricacies of the space in between notes, making sure that you’re able to listen and to act with precision.
FBPO: Sometimes you don’t want any space between notes, and sometimes you do.
Dango: Yeah. The space between notes is just as important as the notes.
FBPO: What about the future? What else would you like to do that you haven’t already accomplished?
Dango: I’m stoked to be in the studio, to be working with artists and getting more in the production world. That feels great. And then also releasing EPs and singles and all that. I’m also looking forward to finding that right fit again, whether it’s Elephant Revival coming back or a different group. If the right situation arises, I would absolutely get back out on the road as a bass player. I did it for 20 years, and the last two-and-a-half years has just been taking the seat in the production chair.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
Dango: Oh, straight up, I mean, I already am, I’m a writer. I worked for different magazines and newspapers at times and also write plays and movies or scripts, so that’s natural. But at the end of the day, music informs pretty much every aspect of my life.
See Jon’s blog, with key takeaways from this interview here.