Longtime Jethro Tull bassist on Mark King, Ian Anderson, and playing appropriately
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
March 15, 2021
Photo by David Levine
British multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Noyce made his first career breakthrough in 1993, playing studio bass for the U.K. pop group Take That. He followed that up in a big way two years later, joining Jethro Tull as bassist, a position he held until 2007. A student of many genres, Noyce originally passed his entrance exam to the Royal Academy of Music in London playing classical percussion, but later decided to concentrate his studies on bass guitar, with an emphasis on jazz and commercial music. Beyond his work with Jethro Tull, he’s also played in the bands of Gary Moore, Sixto Rodriguez, Mylène Farmer and Archive, and has appeared on the soundtracks of films like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Yesterday. He received an ARAM (Associate of the Royal Academy of Music) award in 2018 for his “notable contribution to music.”
FBPO: Your father was a choirmaster and assistant organist in a cathedral. Was that your initial exposure to music?
Noyce: Yeah, very much so. My father’s job came with a house by the cathedral in Litchfield, so my playground was the cathedral the cathedral grounds. My father being the choirmaster and the organist there, it was my environment. There was lots of choral music, orchestral music, lots of organ, lots of Bach, lots of things. In actual fact, I realized much later how important being around harmony was for me. I feel being able to make music and understand harmony is directly associated with that. So, that was my environment and it was wonderful. It was very cosseted, very enclosed. Dad literally walked over the road to go to work. It was me and my mom and my sister. Yeah, it was lots of music, but the thing that really caught my attention was the record player.
FBPO: Tell me about that.
Noyce: Mum and dad had this portable record player, and a slightly random selection of discs. The things that really left a mark on me were the Beatles’ White Album, which is quite an interesting and heavy-duty choice, actually. There was the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, Simon & Garfunkel, the Jackson 5, some Cat Stevens and a few other things. I was really taken with this wonderful machine. It had valves in it!
FBPO: Did they call it a Hi-Fi?
Noyce: Well, it was definitely low-fi, actually. [Laughs] It was monaural. It was a fantastic toy for me. I was confronted by a kind of emotion in music. I recall listening to the Beatles, hearing something that John Lennon was singing. It was very emotional for me. And being a 4-year-old kid, I was very curious about what that actually meant. So those were my first connections into that world.
FBPO: You were pretty serious with drums and percussion for a long time. What attracted you to the bass?
Noyce: I think it was more practical. Drums has always been the thing that I’ve loved first. I always wanted to play the drums. Later on, when I was in my teens, I started having lessons, but it wasn’t practical for me to have a kit at mum and dad’s house because their house is a 17th Century cottage just outside of London. I mean, it wouldn’t have fallen down, because it’s been standing for 400 years, but it definitely wasn’t soundproof so it wasn’t practical for me to have a kit there. I used the drum kit at school. In the meantime, I started playing the guitar. I had a Spanish guitar.
FBPO: About how old were you at this point?
Noyce: I was probably about 12. I picked up the guitar and I just was focusing on the bottom four strings, playing like a bass guitar, so at that point it was, yeah, I kind of ended up going that way really.
FBPO: Why do you suppose you gravitated to the lower four strings?
Noyce: I don’t know. I think it was partly rhythmical. Bass playing is … I mean, there’s a very strong, rhythmic element to it. I found that very appealing. For me, it was more appealing than strumming and playing chords and playing solos. I’d say it’s to do with the rhythm and the sonority of it. Even though on the guitar it was an octave above, there was something. It did something kind of visceral, I think. The function of holding something down and the way that the bass notes can sort of color things, that was interesting.
FBPO: Did you start listening to music differently after that, picking out the bass parts?
Noyce: All the time, yeah. One of dad’s things, he still does it now in fact, when we went to the church or to a cathedral and we looked at the organ, he’d always talk about the really, really big, low stops, the 36-foot, whatever they are. The organ is the absolute emperor of all instruments. I think dad was always kind of funny. He loved the bass and he loved things being really, really loud. So I guess there’s a chance that that sort of seeped into me in some way, the resonance of it. It really took me. It really grabbed me. At a similar time, I discovered synthesizers and drum machines. So it was kind of all there. It was kind of the complete package.
FBPO: What about the bass players? Who were your influences?
Noyce: Well, the main guy that really caught my ear and eye was Mark King from Level 42. He was leading a group, he was singing, they were writing really good songs and they could all play. And the bass was very, very upfront, you know? Certainly at that point when I was really aware of what the bass guitar was and what it meant, he was the guy. He’d been a drummer as well.
FBPO: I’ve always felt that Mark’s approach to rock bass is rather unusual because he does so much slapping. Was it his slapping that got your attention, or was it his dazzling technique? Or the fact that he was playing rock?
Noyce: I think it was two things. It was the slap thing. He was dazzling, actually, at doing that thing. It was very glamorous. I think there’s something about slap bass that people really respond to it. It’s very percussive. It has a very immediate and very rhythmic sound. And that was part of what grabbed my ears. But the other thing was that the songs were very melodic. I guess I was very much a fan of pop music at that moment. I mean, these were, in many ways, the kind of glory days of popular music. So that was my world.
FBPO: How about the other players who got your attention? Were they more on the funk side, like, say, Marcus Miller, or more on the rock side, like Geddy Lee? Or maybe somewhere in between?
Noyce: Things definitely were falling down on the funk, soul, more the jazzy side of things. The rock side came much later for me. I think at that time Pino Palladino was about as well and I became a big fan of him. He was obviously very prominent and he’s a really, really amazing player, as you know. So it tended to be more kind of poppy things. Then jazz came along. I went to see a film called Bird, which is about Charlie Parker.
FBPO: Sure. Clint Eastwood produced that.
Noyce: Absolutely! That was a pivotal moment for me. There was sort of an emotional investment in the film, and the character of Charlie Parker left an enormous impression on me. The fact that he’d done so much and was so brilliant and died so young really made a big impression. So then I discovered jazz. That was quite nice because I’d been studying classical music as well. The language of classical music was obviously very strong, and I was able to articulate it in a way which was more meaningful to me using the jazz language.
FBPO: How did it feel stepping in for Dave Pegg in Jethro Tull?
Noyce: Well, that was a big move, a big shift musically. I’d finished studying and I was a session musician and doing things.
FBPO: You’re never finished studying!
Noyce: Well, no, exactly. [Laughs] I just changed. Suddenly, I had to pay for my own study. It was pretty daunting being in a rock group like that. I tried not to dwell on it, and I kind of focused on the music. I was aware of the legacy of the people whose shoes I was filling, that’s for sure. I didn’t know the band really. It was pretty frightening. It was a baptism by fire. Doing shows with Tull, people would actually shout out, “Where’s Dave?” which was really sort of … I really had to hold my nerve. But it was great for me. It was good for the band as well because I was young and new energy, but it was very stimulating. I was able to play at a high level. It was interesting. It was very stimulating learning about all this new music. Dave is an amazing player.
FBPO: What’s Ian Anderson like to work with?
Noyce: He’s disciplined, he’s strict. The level of musicianship that he demands, the commitment is absolutely… it was really great because it was serious. I was able to play at the limits of what I could do, and that was really good for me. And being so young, I learned an awful lot doing it.
FBPO: You did a lot of work with Gary Moore. That must have been a great experience too.
Noyce: Yeah. That was another unexpected call, if you like, but Gary was amazing. He was a genius. There was some overlap with the Jethro Tull history as well. I think in fact Gary was a fan of the band back in the early ‘70s and he had been to see the band in Belfast when he was probably 15 or 16. I think Gary employed me partly because of my playing with Tull, because at that time he was revisiting his Celtic rock roots, so he wanted somebody that could play and understood a bit more about that music. Gary was a force of nature, an extraordinary musician. It was an amazing experience to play with him.
FBPO: What’s keeping you busy these days?
Noyce: Well, I do a bit of a session work. I’m involved in film soundtracks as a player. I’m primarily working with Daniel Pemberton, who has scored for … the most recent film is The Trial of the Chicago Seven.
FBPO: What else are you doing during this worldwide pandemic?
Noyce: Well, lots of cooking. I am practicing. I’m also writing and recording at home as many other people are, but I have produced for other artists, so I’m producing my own record at the minute.
FBPO: Ah! Your first solo release?
Noyce: Yeah. It is, actually.
FBPO: When will it be available?
Noyce: Probably in the fall.
FBPO: Do you have a title for it?
Noyce: Leaven. So that’s taken up a lot of time. There isn’t much else going on. I’m enjoying being static for a while, to be honest, because life had been very, very busy the last few years.
FBPO: You mentioned practicing. What are you practicing?
Noyce: Always the fundamentals, actually. Time. I think time is really, really important. Also scales, different sorts of patterns to keep my fingers working. Harmonic things as well. I occasionally will pick up a book of the Bach cello suites and have a little go, as you do, which I love.
FBPO: What do you think is important for somebody to know who wants to learn bass?
Noyce: I would say just be comfortable. Find an instrument that feels comfortable to you. Start with the things you really love and take it from there. Follow your own path. I think that’s really important. Some people are more interested in using a plectrum, some people are more interested in playing funk. Also, keep your eyes and ears open and don’t be afraid to dabble in other things, because here’s the thing: The bass guitar is a relatively new instrument, but the concept of the bass line, you can go back 500 years easily, and maybe a little bit more, and discover what the role of bass is. So it’s not like a kind of new thing. But I would say, yeah, just get comfortable with things, really. Do a little bit every day.
FBPO: Tell me about your gear.
Noyce: The longest association I’ve had has been with SWR, so as far as amplifiers are concerned, those are the things I take out with me on the road. Instrument-wise, I have a 1960 Fender precision bass, which has become my instrument of choice, just an amazing instrument. I bought it about 15 years ago. I picked it up and it was light and it was immediately just kind of, “Okay, this is something else.” It almost sort of played me. It was one of those sensations. The Fender custom shop made me a clone, so actually I have two instruments that are similar but different.
My first decent bass was a Yamaha bass, which I still use and is an amazing instrument, the BB1100. And the other thing that I’ve been using recently, which is really, really, really good, is a Yamaha BBP34, which is their version of a vintage Fender kind of a thing. It’s a wonderfully built instrument and the pickups on it are really, really good. When I go out on tour, I carry a 5-string Yamaha. I’ve got my Precision and also a Hofner bass.
FBPO: The Beatle bass!
Noyce: Yeah, absolutely!
FBPO: What about effects?
Noyce: I do have a board. It’s mainly centered around overdrive distortion. I also have a SansAmp on there.
FBPO: I was going to ask you about that! I knew you were a big fan of Tech 21.
Noyce: Man, I’ll tell you what, that stuff’s amazing. The Classic, the SansAmp Classic, is a really amazing sounding little pedal. I also have the PSA, rack mounted version. They’re just really, really amazing. The SansAmp has been used more as an amp simulator, so it [has] more of that kind of texture. I’m just a fan. They do some amazing things!
FBPO: They do.
Noyce: You can’t really go wrong with anything they do.
FBPO: What kind of strings do you play?
Noyce: I’ve been a D’Addario endorsee for about 20 years now. I use half rounds on my Precision basses, which are somewhere between a tapewound and a full roundwound. I like really classic bass tones. I’m a big fan of ‘50s and ‘60s things, generally speaking. I like the way they sound. I don’t like things to be too dominant. I think it’s just a question of it being the correct thing. If you need something that is a fully roundwound sound, then that’s fine. It’s a question of being appropriate. That’s the word I’m looking for.
FBPO: That’s a very big deal, what you just said. That it needs to be appropriate! What does the music need? What does the song need and how can I contribute appropriately? I absolutely love that!
Noyce: Always! Absolutely. And that’s always the thing for me, diving deep with a piece of music, understanding where it’s coming from sonically, but also from other perspectives as well. But the most important thing is to serve the music always.
FBPO: What would you be if you were not a bass player?
Noyce: A carpenter, somebody working with wood. I love being outside. I love nature. I think wood is magical. I think it’s extraordinary what you can do with it. I’m amazed at people that can carve things, that can [make] furniture. I think it’s really, really amazing.
See Jon’s blog, with key takeaways from this interview here.