Electronics wizard talks to FBPO about how he formed Michael Pope Design after decades of gigs with Chick Corea, David Sanborn, Mike Stern and Paul Shaffer
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
September 12, 2011
Mike Pope plays acoustic and electric bass, as well as piano. He is also a skilled sound engineer, electrical engineer, writer and arranger. Originally from Bowling Green, Ohio, Mike attended the University of North Texas, after which he migrated to New York City, where he was an active part of the music scene in the ’90s.
Throughout the course of his career, Mike has performed with Michael Brecker; Randy Brecker; Blood, Sweat & Tears; Chick Corea; Al DiMeola; the Gil Evans Orchestra; Larry Goldings; Teo Macero; the Manhattan Transfer; Lenny Pickett; David Sanborn; Paul Shaffer; Mike Stern; Jeff ’Tain Watts and many others.
Mike has released two solo CDs, Lay of the Land and Walk Your Dogma. Other recording credits include Joe Locke, Geoffrey Keezer, Chuck Loeb, Jason Miles, Bill Bruford and Steve Smith.
Mike has done extensive electronic design work for Fodera Guitars. Currently, he runs his own company, Michael Pope Design, which includes ultra high performance on-board and outboard bass pre-amplifiers.
FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing. I understand you grew up in a “seriously musical” household!
MP: My parents are both extraordinary musicians. They’re pianists. I guess you’d say they’re classical pianists, although my mom plays a lot of different stuff and knows a million standards. They both have staggering ears and world-class command of the piano. If the local radio station’s turntables were running a little fast, they’d hear about it!
Music was a central part of every day. It was just part of the language we spoke with each other. We had a beautiful piano in our living room, a 7′ 6″ German Steinway, Model C. My brothers and I all liked to play the piano, even though for Dave, my oldest brother, and me, it was not our first instrument. My other brother, Pete, continues to actually work on piano literature, though he has another career as well. For me, it’s another thing I do and for Dave. It’s a tool for writing and discovery, although he doesn’t really play gigs on it. I still spend a lot of time playing the piano. In fact, I just did a record with my brother Dave on drums and John Patitucci on bass. It was a lot of fun. It’ll be out in the fall sometime.
The level of musicianship my parents displayed on a daily basis was lost on me as a kid because they were so good at it and so soft-spoken about it that they were under my radar. But I now know that they are both formidable by any standards. Really, any standards.
FBPO: How did you end up as a bass player?
MP: I just didn’t know the right people! [Laughs] Seriously, though, as a kid I used to write little arrangements of songs I knew, like The Star Spangled Banner or Christmas carols or TV themes, and, for whatever reason, I used to always block the chords in my right hand with the melody on top and play a bass line, which was sometimes fairly complex and contrapuntal, with my left. So it became evident that I hear bass lines.
Later in life, when I was about 10 or 11, my brother Dave, who plays both drums and guitar really well, discovered Pat Metheny and introduced me to his music. We both loved it! He was transcribing Pat’s solos and told me to learn the bass parts so we could play together. So I did.
We were listening to the record Watercolors a lot. I remember the tune was called “Lakes.” I figured it out, with both of us playing acoustic nylon-string guitars, and we played it for fun. We played it for my folks and some friends one night. Apparently the harmonic stuff in that tune was kind of hard and I impressed them. I really didn’t know. I just played what I heard. So they got me a bass and some lessons. I learned the E and A strings, then I got my first gig!
FBPO: Who were your influences as a young, up-and-coming bassist?
MP: My first big influence, after my family, was probably my first teacher, Jeff Halsey, a fantastic bassist who started teaching at Bowling Green State University, in my home town, around the time I started studying bass with him. I used to check him out all the time and was always blown away. He started me off on the critical right foot as a bassist. No doubt things would have been much different had I not been lucky enough to have a great teacher like Jeff at that early age.
I was also listening to Jaco, Mark Egan, Geddy Lee, Ron Carter and Ray Brown at that time. There were some local guys I loved to hear too. Ray Parker and Marty Greenberg were two great bass players who were both around at that time and were big influences on me as a young bass player.
I was also heavily influenced by non-bassists. Some of the guys I grew up playing with in Toledo, Mark Kieswetter, Dan Faehnle, Bill Heid, Gene Parker, Jim Lee… all incredible musicians from whom I acquired an immeasurable wealth of knowledge about music. On the larger stage, Pat Metheny would be a huge one. Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, J.S. Bach… It’s a long list.
FBPO: Tell me about your experience at University of North Texas.
MP: In retrospect, I didn’t realize how good I had it there. And I knew I had it good! I don’t think I had the typical North Texas experience, in that I never really had to climb up through the ranks there. I was very fortunate to be placed in the One O’clock Band, the highest band, my first semester there at age 19. And I stayed there for three years straight with the same drummer, whose name is Jim White. Jim is somewhere between Nashville, Tennesse, and Greeley, Colorado, now, kicking butt. At the time I just thought, “Cool. I’m in the One O’clock.” But apparently there were other bass players there who had been fighting their way up to that position and were expecting to get it when I just showed up out of nowhere. I was totally oblivious to this fact, however, and just accepted the position and did my thing. I think I came off as arrogant, but I was really just clueless.
Being the proverbial “top dog” there afforded me lots of opportunities. Playing with the best guys there, playing with all the guest artists who came through for clinics, playing with the faculty like Ed Soph, Dan Haerle, Fred Hamilton, Mike Steinel, Neil Slater, etc. I basically got everything they had to offer without really working for it beyond just showing up for classes and doing what came naturally. And I had sort of a “whatever” attitude at the time just because I was a kid and didn’t have much to worry about. I think some people didn’t like me for that. There were great musicians there who worked their butts off for much less. I understand that now.
It was a great education, though. The faculty has changed to a large degree, but the new guys are the best of the best. I’d still recommend it to just about anyone who wants to get a college education emphasizing jazz.
FBPO: How about New York City? Did you have anything lined up before you moved or did you decide to just go for it?
MP: No, nothing concrete. After UNT I moved to LA for a very brief time. I had gotten married while in college, but the marriage quickly failed. We had planned to go to LA and were committed to it by way of my wife having taken a job and found us a home there. By the time the move actually happened, things were finished with us and I didn’t want to stay. So I started making calls to folks I knew in NYC to get a feel for the wisdom of a move there. I called Mike Brecker, whom I’d met just a few months before. He encouraged me to come, which was enough in and of itself, though he didn’t make any concrete offers. That wasn’t the point of my call anyway.
I also called Marian McPartland. I’d met her when I was about 8 years old. My mother brought her to BGSU a couple times for a residency and one time I played my arrangement of “Suicide is Painless,” the theme from M*A*S*H. She was apparently impressed and played it as a little dedication at her concert the following night. Very sweet! Anyway, I called her and explained that I was thinking of moving to NYC because I was getting divorced. She said, “Divorced? But you just got married!” I said, “Yes, but we’re getting divorced.” In a slightly scratchy voice, with her very elegant British accent, she simply said, “I’ll bet your mother is pissed!” So off I went. And I’m glad I did.
FBPO: How did you go about picking up steam once you got there? What kind of gigs were you able to get?
MP: Just like moving anywhere else. I just spent time meeting people, playing with people, listening to people, writing music, playing my music out. I didn’t make a whole lot of money, of course. I ended up taking a gig doing MIDI karaoke programming. It sustained me until I got going on the club date scene, which, in New York, means weddings or society gigs. There were some great bands around and I got involved with a few of the very best ones over the course of a decade or so. It was still a wedding no matter how you sliced it, but the level of musicianship was as high as it gets, so it was still at least intermittently fun. All the while I was playing a variety of different kinds of gigs with all kinds of guys on electric and acoustic bass.
In the late ’90s, I started playing with Joe Locke, one of my very favorite musicians to collaborate with. I didn’t really start touring until the early 2000s. In 2003, I got the gig with Chick and the Elektric Band, which was a milestone. That opened lots of doors, of course. Since then, I’ve recorded and toured with a whole bunch of great musicians.
FBPO: How you get mixed up in the bass guitar electronics business?
MP: It was around 1995-96 when I was finishing recording my first record at Ned Mann’s studio. Ned just passed away not long ago after a long illness.
FBPO: Yes, I knew Ned from Detroit. His brother Dave is a great sax player, too. I had been trying to get an interview with Ned, largely to raise awareness about ALS. Toward the end, he said he just didn’t feel up to it. Next thing I knew, he was gone. He was a very talented bass player. [Ned’s website can be accessed here]
MP: Ned was a brilliant player. He was the one who introduced me – and recommended me – to Mike Stern. He will surely be missed.
Ned had a relationship with Fodera and told me I should check out their stuff. So I went there and got to know them. Long story short, I ultimately bought a bass. Along the way, I had been helping them with the implementation of their new Seymour Duncan dual coil pickups, which were the first pickups to ever really capture anything resembling a Fender sound in a 5- or 6-string bass.
I had demonstrated some electronic savvy, so they asked me if I could make an active circuit for them. I hadn’t a clue, but I knew I had the resources to get it figured out, so I proceeded. A few months later, the first Mike Pope Preamp went into a Fodera bass. It was well received. Shortly after that, Fodera started using my stuff exclusively. The Fodera circuit has evolved a ton over the years and is now an extremely high performance preamp, at least when you consider the fact that it still runs off of standard batteries and offers hundreds of hours of use before needing a battery change.
Along the way, I began making little custom circuits here and there for people. As I went along, I figured out what works and what doesn’t, what I like and what I don’t like. I’ve also figured out what kinds of things work for different musical applications. Granted, a lot of it comes from my perspective, but that perspective is relatively broad. I’ve finally just put together the FlexCore preamp, which is a platform that can be very easily melded into a wide variety of applications for a really reasonable price and can be installed by the end user with a little time and patience and very little actual electronic skill.
In addition, when I got the call to go out on the road with the Manhattan Transfer, I was told by their production manager that I need to be able to do quick swaps between electric and acoustic bass. Prior to me, they’d been carrying two completely separate rigs, one for electric and one for acoustic. I decided to build a two-channel preamp to use with my Walter Woods as a power amp. That was the first MPP-2, basically. I did a couple more versions, including a single channel, almost “large stomp box” version that I used with DiMeola to cut travel costs. I ultimately made it into a real product, with a real chassis and a “look” and all that. It’s been pretty well received, although, in this economy, I’m not exactly selling tons of $2,000 bass preamps. The people who like it would pay the money if they had it. But not many people do right now. It’s a tough time.
FBPO: What’s keeping you busy these days?
MP: The business takes its fair share of time, but I’ve really been changing my focus lately. I’m spending more time writing and recording and playing. I just did my new record, with Joe Locke, Seamus Blake, Geoffrey Keezer and Mauricio Zottarelli, which I’ll release in the fall. It’s a nominally “acoustic” record, although I play some electric on it too. A little like The Lay of the Land except there’s not as much straight-ahead material on it. The music is a little less “pigeon-hole-able,” to manufacture a word. The tracking is done. I have some mix work to do and it’ll be finished. I’m excited about that.
I love music. I like running a business and designing circuits. I’ve told myself I can do anything I set my mind to and I’ve proven that to be true, for the most part. Now I’ve realized I need to stop setting my mind to things and do what makes me happy. The business will continue. I’m proud of what I’ve done there and it offers an element of stability that, now more than ever, is good to have.
Over the last year or two I’ve tried to change the structure of the company so that my role is more administrative, with much less time involved in keeping it running. This way I can continue to serve customers effectively and still have time to do what I want to do. For the record, I have everything manufactured in the US. I’ve been fighting the offshore thing tooth and nail and will continue to do so, as long as US manufacturing companies don’t start charging unreasonable prices, which they currently do not.
FBPO: What lies ahead for you and your career? What else would you like to do that you haven’t accomplished yet?
MP: I have a goal to start putting out a record or two every year. This current one is acoustic leaning. I’ll do another that will be much more electric leaning soon. I already have some of the material recorded for it. I want to spend more time creating music with other people, with the incredible musicians I’ve been fortunate enough to connect with. One thing that spending several years not being very proactive about my solo career has done is fill me up with lots of creative ideas and they’re currently flowing freely. Maybe I’m a little more mature and I don’t filter my ideas as much because I just don’t give a crap who likes it anymore. One thing I now know is that if I write music for other people, there’s no way of knowing who will actually like it. If I write what is me, anyone who can appreciate genuine inspired music will appreciate it. For me, if it’s not genuine, don’t bother. If it’s written with the intent to impress, it usually doesn’t.
I would like to have the opportunity to play with Herbie Hancock. I’d like to play with Chick again, too. I’d like to make another record on piano. I’d like to learn to actually play the acoustic bass the way it was intended. I’d like to play a solo I like all of! [Laughs!]
There’s a whole bunch of stuff. But mainly, I want to create music that sounds like something a grown-up would create. I’d like to make some kind of contribution to the history of jazz.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player/musician/engineer?
MP: God knows. And so far, he’s not talking!
Seriously, probably something else engineering- or creativity-related. Like an architect. My mind has always been at once creative and analytical, so I imagine that would have played into my life no matter what career path I took.