BIT department head talks to FBPO about his work with CSN, the Zappas, Carole King and Chuck Berry, as well as his world-famous publications
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
December 21, 2009
Bass Institute Of Technology (BIT) department head Alexis Sklarevski is one of the busiest and most successful bassists on the scene today. He has worked with Crosby, Stills & Nash, Manhattan Transfer, Jackson Browne, Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa, Albert Lee, Carole King, Rita Coolidge, Johnny Rivers, Jamie Walters, Daniela Romo, Martha Reeves, and Chuck Berry. He has performed on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Late Show with David Letterman and has done numerous film, TV and jingle sessions.
Alexis is the author of the critically acclaimed instructional DVD, The Slap Bass Program, and also co-produced Fingerstyle Funk, the instructional DVD by legendary Tower Of Power bassist Francis Rocco Prestia. In addition to having written the “Bottom-Line Bass” column in Bass Player Magazine for seven years, Alexis is the author of Bass Playing Techniques: The Complete Guide and has done bass clinics throughout Japan and Europe. Currently, he continues recording and performing with many artists in the U.S. and around the world.
FBPO: Let’s start with your musical upbringing. How did you end up a bass player?
AS: I actually started out on piano when I was 5 or 6 years old and continued until I was 15 or so. I worked through a pretty decent repertoire of classical music and I could play some Beethoven, Bach, Chopin waltzes…that sort of stuff. The best thing was that I learned how to read music at the same time I learned to read words. I was probably as good a sight-reader at the age of 15 as I am now! The classical world is very intense, especially for someone who’s young. I would do these piano festivals and recitals and I just remember being so nervous.
At the same time, I was in school and all my friends were getting into rock and jazz by playing guitar and drums. Piano just wasn’t a “hip” instrument at the time. The reason I started playing bass was a combination of my normal personality (which was to NOT be the front person in any way) and hearing Paul McCartney and Leland Sklar. The Beatles and James Taylor…that was it for me. It still is in a lot of ways.
I never took any bass lessons, so I spent quite a bit of time practicing in the basement. A year or two later I met a couple of guitar players and we started jamming together and trying to learn tunes. From there we started playing real gigs and that finally led to me moving to Los Angeles, going to BIT and getting more and more serious about becoming a musician and trying to do it for a living. I’m sure it’s the same story as thousands of other young players.
FBPO: You’ve performed with some of the biggest names in music, including Crosby, Stills & Nash; Manhattan Transfer; Jackson Brown; Dweezil & Ahmet Zappa; Martha Reeves; Chuck Berry and so many others. You must have an good story or two you can share. Maybe an interesting “road” experience?
Playing Woodstock with Crosby, Stills & Nash in 1994 was kind of a big deal, getting up on the stage and seeing that sea of people. Fortunately, by that time we had been on tour for a while so I wasn’t all that nervous. I was much more intimidated doing The Tonight Show or David Letterman. That’s where millions of people are watching.
Jackson Browne wasn’t someone I ever played with as a part of his regular band. That came by way of me working with a band from Los Angeles called “Venice.” They were friends with Jackson and we would end up doing gigs with him because he was there as a solo artist and we would back him. I remember playing a gig up in Sedona and doing “Running On Empty” with him. Those first chords were just spine-tingling…wow…here I am doing this tune which, up until then, I had only listened to on the album.
I did a New Year’s gig in Vegas with Chuck Berry at the Rio Casino. How could I say no to that?! At one point I stood right beside him and duck-walked for about three steps…I made him laugh. He didn’t expect it.
A few years back, Ahmet and Dweezil had a TV show for which Leland Sklar was the musical director. He couldn’t make one of the tapings and called me to sub for him. The wardrobe lady brought out this long purple beard and gave it to me to wear, which everyone in the band thought was very funny. That’s what ended up going out on national television. Me playing Alice Cooper’s “Schools Out For Summer” with Dweezil Zappa, wearing a long purple beard! Of course there were lots of close-ups.
FBPO: Talk about the educational resources you’ve developed. The Slap Bass Program was long considered the best DVD on that style, by far. Actually, it was a mega-popular videotape even before the prevalence of DVDs!
I was very lucky that I worked with David Schaub who was the producer and real brains behind that particular project. I could have never done it on my own. David got my name from someone and we set out to make a real instructional video and not just an expensive business card. At that time there were a few books and videos out that covered slap technique but none that sort of broke everything down into manageable pieces and explained it. Apparently it succeeded because I still get asked questions about the DVD and the material that’s on it. People are still watching it and buying it. By the way, that was all filmed in a friend’s garage!
The only other DVD I’ve been involved with is Fingerstyle Funk, with Rocco Prestia from Tower Of Power. I got David involved in that because I knew he would do a great job. That was really me creating a project where I would get to work with a long-time hero of mine. Obviously, Rocco and I will never be in a band together, so what’s left? It was a lot of work to try to explain what he does, since music for him isn’t a technical thing at all. That’s the cool part about it…he just plays and that band became the perfect vehicle for him. I just saw Tower at the 2009 “Bass Day” here in LA and they were fantastic. Loved it. Rocco and David Garibaldi (TOP drummer) are one of the most interesting and creative rhythm sections ever. Once again, Rocco’s DVD was filmed entirely in a garage only this time it was my garage!
There are still a few people I would do something like that with if they wanted to: Leland Sklar, Tony Levin, maybe Marcus Miller, Anthony Jackson.
FBPO: Tell me about the bass program at the Musicians Institute. What can a student expect to get out of the training there?
The single most important thing someone can learn by going to school is how to continue teaching themselves for the rest of their lives. For a lot of students it’s the first time they’ve tried to discipline themselves to practice a lot and work on things in an organized way.
Of course the bass program covers all the fundamental music subjects like technique, harmony, theory, reading etc. but also lots of exposure to styles and concepts of playing the bass in many different settings. We have performance classes in latin, funk, rock, country, metal, fusion, jazz, R&B, reggae etc…you name it.
FBPO: What kind of bass faculty do you have?
All the bass instructors at MI are working, professional musicians who do a lot of very cool stuff with a great range of artists. They do sessions, gigs, tours…whatever. Several of them are also very accomplished arrangers, composers and recording engineers. These people are real working bassists in a town that’s well known for having high caliber players everywhere you look.
FBPO: What kind of aspirations do most of your incoming bass students have? Are they realistic?
The number one goal I hear all the time from incoming students is to be a “studio musician.” Whether or not that’s realistic, who am I to say? I have a feeling that a lot of bass students don’t really know what that term means or what the demands are on musicians who are actual session players.
There’s always a possibility for success but the technology available to create and record music has changed so much I know there’s not nearly the volume of work there once was for live players. At this point you can have a finished tune or complete CD and never use a single musician for anything.
The great thing about modern technology is that now anyone can make an album in their bedroom. The downside is lots of people who really have no business doing something like that…are.
FBPO: How do you help your students find that balance between cultivating their musical artistry on the one hand, while preparing them to make an actual living in the music industry on the other?
Well, that’s the eternal struggle for everyone who has any artistic sensibility at all. For me it was all about seriously studying music and trying to play all the time. There were and will be many times when I may not be playing music I love but…that’s the gig. I’m there to work. Sometimes it’s very creative and sometimes it’s me being a craftsman of sorts.
I love working on tunes and coming up with parts but there have been many times when whatever I came up with was changed and molded and I ended up playing something totally different than when we started. You have to be open to that. I never take it personally if my “music artistry” is morphed!
FBPO: Even though you have a gig at MI, I bet you still manage to get out and do some performing and/or recording. Am I right?
Absolutely! I have never stopped playing out and doing gigs, sessions and whatever else comes along. Working at MI is only part of my musical life, as it should be. By playing and working as a musician you bring a much more realistic and believable perspective to teaching. I also think it validates you as an educator since students will listen when they know you have professional experience. That’s what they aspire to do and you’re already doing it. I like being an educated bassist but I don’t ever want to be considered an “academic”. At least not when it comes to music. It’s too much of an interactive art form and for me it’s only fun when I’m performing in one way or another and getting some reaction from people.
FBPO: You’ve already accomplished so much in your career, yet you’re still pretty young. What would you still like to achieve that you haven’t done?
Young?!?! Okay…I’ll let that go! Thanks.
I would love to go out on tour again, preferably with someone I really like. I’m involved in recording projects here in LA as much as I can be. Those are usually with writers and players I’ve worked with for a long time. I like a good tune. A good singer.
I’d like to play more piano. Learn more of the software I have on my computer. There’s always something.
FBPO: What kinds of things do you like to do that are not necessarily musically oriented?
Other than music, I like to spend time riding my mountain bike and hiking. I started doing that about 15 years ago so I’m not great but pretty good. I started taking a few trips that I’ve always wanted to make because when you’re touring you never really get a chance to see things the way you’d like to. It’s not a vacation. At least not the ones I’ve done!