Seasoned bass vet recounts career highlights, from the David Lee Roth days to the current gig with Elton John (and a whole lot in between!)
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
December 16, 2013
Matt Bissonette is a bassist and producer, originally from Detroit, Michigan. He has performed and/or recorded with a wide variety of musical acts, including everyone from the Kingston Trio and the Ink Spots to Gino Vanelli, Sheena Easton, Christopher Cross, Brian Wilson, Jeff Lorber, Boz Scaggs, the Captain & Tennille, Don Henley, Ringo Starr, Lita Ford, Steve Perry, Joe Satriani, Rick Springfield and many others.
Matt is perhaps best known for his role as bassist in David Lee Roth’s band, along with his brother, rock drummer Gregg Bissonette. Matt has also done session work in L.A. for TV and film and has released several solo albums. Currently, he is the bassist for rock and pop icon Elton John.
FBPO: How would you describe your musical upbringing?
MB: I was brought up in Detroit with my dad Bud, who played drums, my mom Phyllis, who played vibes, my brother Gregg, another drummer, and my sister Kathy, who was a singer. I dabbled in the basement with a tennis racquet for a guitar while listening to Kansas, Yes, The Beatles, Chicago and just about everybody I could listen to.
Gregg had already been playing for a few years. One day, my mom and dad told me to get the groceries out of the car and there was an Aria bass in the trunk! Gregg and I jammed on “Smoke On The Water” for five hours that day. We would just jam on songs over and over, just bass and drums.
My dad got me a wedding gig with his band about a month later at Roma Hall in Detroit. I had no idea what to play. He said, “Just play whatever you feel and get me a beer whenever I point to you!” So he bought me a tux and I was playing every Friday and Saturday with my dad and an accordion player named Harry, who had the patience of Job!
Gregg and I had a band called Grand Circus Park in Detroit. We’d play Chicago songs and whatever was on the radio. I started playing in the high school jazz bands and stage band on bass and trombone and my mom forced me to read. She was very smart!
I went to North Texas (State University) in 1979 and dove into jazz and classical pretty hard. I realized I couldn’t compete with a lot of the “heavies” on upright, but I did the best I could. I still love playing acoustic bass but I leave the heavy lifting to the big boys. After three years at North Texas, I got called to go out with Maynard (Ferguson) and have pretty much been on the road since I was 19.
FBPO: What attracted you to the bass?
MB: I just loved the sound of the bass from the very beginning. It kind of fits my personality because I don’t like to jump in the spotlight too much. I like being a supporter of players, but when called upon, I can step out and hold my own. I love recording and putting a bass part on last because it seems to hold the whole thing together.
FBPO: Who were your influences as a young, up-and-coming student of bass?
MB: I was a big fan of all types of different bass players. I loved Peter Cetera and Paul McCartney for the way they played pop songs. I loved guys like Jeff Berlin and Jaco for all the cool stuff they did. Chris Squire and Geddy Lee would kill me with their tones, too.
When I got into upright, I loved Eddie Gomez, Ray Brown and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. It all seemed the same to me: Great players that would hold the band together, but when their time would come to solo, they would blow you away!
FBPO: I remember you were a great upright player, too. Do you still pick one up from time to time?
MB: Well, thanks! Are you sure that was me? I could hang, but soon realized that legit upright bass was too difficult. I could make a bass squeak with the best of them, but there’s no gold in dem hills! I still play local jazz gigs on upright in LA and still get called for sessions for TV or commercial stuff, but I always put in my disclaimer: “Why don’t you call so and so?!”
FBPO: At what point did your career begin to take off?
MB: I think college kind of got the wheels rolling. Everybody there was so talented that I knew right away I needed to improve, so I practiced eight hours a day and started getting really serious about it. I was around guys like Gary Willis and Steve Bailey and all these monsters, so I knew the real world was gonna be tough.
After Maynard’s gig, I moved to LA. I knew that was the place for me if I was to continue playing and making a living doing it. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
FBPO: I can recall seeing you and Gregg playing with Maynard Ferguson in the early ‘80s – you broke a string on stage! That must have been a fun gig.
MB: Man, you have a great memory! I have a good memory, but it’s short! Maynard’s gig was the best. He would tell us stories of crazy stuff in the “old days” and he taught me the lesson that no matter how many people are in the crowd, you play because you love it. He was the real deal. Every time I get lazy playing, I knock myself in the head and remember his words, as he would push us. We were really just kids, but it made us grow up about ten years.
FBPO: Playing with David Lee Roth must have really catapulted your career. You’ve got to have at least one good story from that part of your life!
MB: I have a lot of good stories but I can’t tell any of them! Actually, playing with Dave was awesome. He’s another professional “give it all you got” kind of guy. It was tough replacing Billy (Sheehan). It was impossible to replace him, or Stu Hamm for that matter, with Satriani. I just learned what I could do and didn’t try to imitate those guys because they were so darn good. It was my first “major” tour and I was still pretty young, so it was like being in a well-paid circus. I’m glad my brother was there.
FBPO: Tell me about the Elton John gig.
MB: Elton is probably the hardest-working guy I have ever met. When we have days off, he’s out doing solo gigs or charity work or whatever else he does. Nobody can keep up with him. He hits the piano harder than anyone I’ve ever heard. The wild thing is he is so young at heart. He actually looks at me on stage for a reaction like, “Did you hear that! Did you hear what I just did?” That freaks me out because he has played these songs so many times, yet he finds joy every night in what he’s playing. Great guy!
FBPO: Are you pretty much confined to replicating Dee Murray’s bass lines, or do you have some flexibility to come up with your own parts?
MB: Elton told me on the second night to play whatever I want. He wants you to bring whatever you have, playing-wise, to the party. Obviously, Dee Murray’s bass parts are the best and perfect for the song. But Dee and Nigel (Olsson) would jam like crazy in the old days and that’s what Elton wants to do now. Bob Birch played amazing stuff in the band, another impossible replacement for me to try to fill. But I listened to the live gigs he played and I tried to cop what he did, which wasn’t easy, cause he jammed! I think Elton could tell that I was really trying to fit in when Bob passed away and, out of respect for Bob, I wanted to honor him with as close as I could get to his parts. After a while, Elton just said do your thing and he’s been very cool about it.
FBPO: Who comes out to Elton’s shows? Is it the old timers who remember his music when it was first popular or are you seeing a lot of young people who may not have even been born yet in the days of Honky Chateau and Yellow Brick Road?
MB: I’m seeing everybody at these shows! Older, younger – it’s crazy! It’s definitely been the most “star-studded” gig I’ve ever done, especially in Las Vegas. But, for the most part, everybody knows the songs and are serious fans of Elton from way back. He just did a TV show with Lady Gaga and he’s is constantly staying young and very aware of the musical temperature.
FBPO: What kind of equipment are you using these days?
MB: I am using Music Man 5 Sting Ray basses and MarkBass amps on the road and at home. I have a Lakland P bass and Lakland fretless 5-string, Bossa basses and a Hofner and Epiphone McCartney-esque Beatle bass. I also have an old P bass with round wounds and some older Ampeg stuff.
FBPO: How about the future? What else would you like to do that you haven’t already accomplished?
MB: I am blessed with this gig. I’m not thinking about much more than touring and writing and producing at home. I’m trying to spend as much time with my wife and son as possible. All this touring is great and I appreciate it, but I miss my family a lot.
As far as anything missing, I don’t have any regrets. I had my own band, the Mustard Seeds, for ten years, so I have an appreciation for all the bands that write their own songs and tour. It is exhausting and hard, but I’m glad I did it. I guess if I could do more, it would be on the writing and singing side of things.
FBPO: Is there talk of you and Gregg working together again any time soon?
MB: Gregg and I just finished his 3rd solo CD, Warning Will Robinson, which just came out November 26th. We had a blast doing it because it was painless and easy. He would come over to my studio and just jam on the songs I wrote, come back a week later and do it again. It was really fun and I’m very proud of it. I would love to go on the road together again someday because he is also my best friend and I love spending time together.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
MB: That is a good question. I have no idea. Maybe anything from a pastor to a construction worker! I’m so blessed to be playing music and making a living at it. It really is the epitome of “pick something you like so you don’t call it work.” It really isn’t work; it’s a huge blessing and I’ll never take it for granted.