Non-traditional bassist boldly goes solo
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
March 29, 2021
Mike Hall knows all about playing the support role in a band. For years he played bass with the New Jersey-based indie rock band Running Late. As a member of that project, he toured the East Coast of the United States, sharing the stage with bands like Blondie, the Plain White T’s, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, MGMT, Creedence Clearwater Revisited, Gin Blossoms and Third Eye Blind. More recently, he’s struck out on his own as a solo bass artist, producing innovative music that’s led to him being featured in numerous bass publications. Hall just released his debut solo EP, The Next Step, this January. It features compellingly original bass covers of classic songs by artists including Guns N’ Roses and Michael Jackson.
FBPO: It looks like you’re now focusing almost exclusively on the solo, chording style of bass playing, rather than the traditional role of a bass player. Is that about right?
MH: Yeah, it is. I love both aspects of playing bass, either as rhythm or as lead. When I made the decision to market myself as a solo musician, I was giving it a lot of thought, like, how can I talk through the noise, so to speak, and get myself out there and then showcase my creative and my mechanical aptitude on the instrument. After listening to people like Victor Wooten, and a variety of other incredibly talented bassists that have been able to showcase how dynamic the instrument is as a lead instrument, I decided why not try to instill that into my own playing.
FBPO: You cover a pretty broad array of musical styles.
MH: My taste in music is quite eclectic. I’ve been covering songs ranging from Guns N’ Roses, to Andrew Lloyd Webber, to Billie Eilish. I thought it would be really cool if I could attempt to make these songs my own, in formats that have a more traditional bass cover, with a backing track that people can recognize. Then I can try to go between playing bass as a rhythm instrument and going into a lead role, versus making a strictly solo arrangement with nothing but myself playing. That’s what I’ve been focusing on recently, because it’s the most well-received.
FBPO: Who were your early bass influences?
MH: Four people really stand out to me. Cliff Burton, when I was listening to a ton of early Metallica, and I was seeing like, “Oh my God, look at this guy who’s playing the bass as a lead guitar almost!” And I thought, “Those roles and those sounds, they’re exclusively owned by a guitar player.” And Cliff was like, “No they’re not. I can do that too. And I do it extremely well.”
Victor Wooten, as I said, I’ve been listening to for a long time, when he was touring with his family band all the way through performing with Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, opening for Dave Matthews. I’ve just been very fanatic about him. Larry Graham, Sly & the Family Stone, since funk it’s one of my most favorite genres of music, which shouldn’t be a huge surprise as a bass player. And then finally Flea. The Chili Peppers is probably [one of] my all-time favorite bands just because of how versatile they are, but also consistent in terms of the songwriting and also the depth of each arrangement that they do. Flea, he’s something else because he came from very aggressive punk rock roots, and then shifted gears completely, almost. And it was like, “Hey, let’s be a part of a funk band, and then let’s use those skills and those roots and become more palatable for the mainstream.”
FBPO: All very innovative players.
MH: Overall, all four of those bass players, what they have in common to me is that they’ve flipped conventional thinking on its head about how the bass is viewed and what people can do with the instruments. They have different musical backgrounds, but they were all extremely creative. And I took that as inspiration towards not only playing the bass more traditionally in my project, Running Late, that I was with from 2009 to about the beginning of last year. I’ve always kept those ideals and that inspiration in me with creating bass parts, and now creating solo arrangements. How can I push the limits of this instrument where it makes sense, it doesn’t feel forced, and I can create something that’s my own?
FBPO: Was there a part of it that you that felt like it might be a risky career move, making solo bass your primary identity as a bass player?
MH: That’s a really interesting question. I’ve wanted to try to have something like this, what I’ve developed as a solo brand, for a long time. I believe what you just said, but it’s risky being in a traditional band setting too. That has its own bevy of risks and issues. But the upside to that is you are a role player. You’re not necessarily super involved with the songwriting and what everyone else is doing; you’re just trying to complement, to add value, as a musician should. And when you’re trying to incorporate these flashier techniques like tapping and tap harmonics, you’re trying to find different avenues, which, to me, are cool. There are a few big icons in solo bass playing that people can look up online, but there aren’t many, and I think just because it’s risky. It’s not an instrument that one would necessarily think would be very successful being performed solo without the accompaniments of other musicians.
FBPO: Still, it must have taken some courage on your part.
MH: To me, that’s something that I was always cognizant of, but I was up for that challenge to try to at least have the comfort of knowing other people have already done that before me. So, it’s not like it was completely reinventing the wheel. But to know that I have something to add in that space of being a solo musician, of being a solo bassist, trying to reinterpret songs that are not like fingerstyle guitar covers, that are not like piano covers that have a distinct sound and the timbre of the notes that come through a bass guitar because that’s something people would really enjoy. And that gives me a lot of fulfillment. And hopefully as I continue to be as vigilant as I am with upping my game in terms of getting better as a musician and becoming more ambitious with my song choices, with other covers or maybe down the line, like true, true originals, that will lead to more opportunities where I can flourish as a musician.
FBPO: Tell me about your gear.
MH: Currently I have three bass guitars. One is a Schecter Stargazer, which is decked out with piccolo bass strings, which is kind of confusing for a lot of people because they think I’m either using octave pedals with normal bass strings or I’m a frustrated guitar player. But I really like piccolo strings. They are from D’Addario. They give such a unique sound that’s very melodic and somber. To me, they’re very important for showcasing a lot of these more beautiful arrangements, soft arrangements. I also have an Ibanez acoustic bass guitar, which I switch out between piccolo bass strings and traditional bass strings, and my Ernie Ball StingRay, which I use almost exclusively for rock and funk type music. Most recently, I agreed to an endorsement deal by Skjold Design Guitars. Pete Skjold is one of the last few luthiers around that isn’t being absorbed by Gibson, or one of these bigger guitar companies. He really liked my versatility, and my range, my playing, and thought that I would be a really good fit for his brand to showcase his 4-, 5-, and 6-string model guitars. We agreed to work with one another and I’m currently waiting for his guitars to come on through. Once they come on through, I’ll essentially be playing his guitars exclusively. I’ll be receiving my first collection of them relatively soon.
FBPO: What’s keeping you busy these days?
MH: As a musician, I am involved with some sit-ins with a few other people. Also, I’m a part of a cover project that goes by the name of Governor Radio, that involves a couple of my older band members, my brother being one of them, and Noah Giglio, who was the singer and guitar player for my previous project Running Late. I’m also a freelance marketer, and I have been aiding other artists, or really anyone in the music industry, educating them on how to provide what I like to call real value. I do that with my own freelance marketing services and consultation, and I’m able to provide them with a lot of different tools.
FBPO: You’ve developed a non-traditional approach to the bass. What advice do you have for someone who wants to learn bass?
MH: Just listen to good music. Open yourself towards listening to a variety of different genres and what the bass player is doing in that particular genre or with that particular band. I have always been sort of that kid, trying to be creative and just trying to be silly and think outside the box with how to express myself musically. I’m not trying to think of the rules and the time signatures that are happening in each and every song, but what is it in a song that’s making you feel good? What about a song is making you dance? And if someone wants to go towards more traditional lines of education through music schools, or lessons, through a tutor, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but I feel for me that once you start introducing a lot of these more traditional constraints of education like, “No, you must learn the bass through playing these scales in this way. In this form. In this fashion,” you take a lot away from what made the music very palatable and fun. I would probably tell anyone who wants to become a bass player to maybe not think too much. Just have fun with it.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
MH: I would probably be a lawyer. Maybe a football player as well. I was doing some pretty cool things in high school and I had a D1 scholarship lined up for Yukon, Penn State and Rutgers, which unfortunately I lost because I blew my ACL, MCL and meniscus my senior year.
See Jon’s blog, with key takeaways from this interview here.
Mike’s solo EP, The Next Step, is available here.