Billy idol bassist talks of his current gig, past work with Tom Petty and playing (upside-down) lefty bass!
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
July 2, 2018
Born in Hollywood, California, Stephen McGrath spent most of his earliest years in Japan. He began playing bass in 1972, heavily influenced by Paul McCartney, James Jamerson and John Paul Jones. In addition to his proficiency as a bass player, Stephen is a highly regarded music engineer, having worked with the likes of Tom Petty, Babyface and several other music luminaries. For over 20 years, McGrath has been performing and touring with rock icon Billy Idol.
FBPO: How would you describe your initial exposure to music? Was it in Japan, or was it in California?
SM: I think it was in Japan. I remember seeing musical things – I don’t know if they were music shows or whatever – live. And then I think, somewhere along the line, I saw Elvis Presley, and then the Beatles, and I thought, “Shoot, I wanna do that!” So at 6 years old, 7 years old, somewhere around in there, I had decided that that was gonna be my job. My mom wanted me to become a doctor or a lawyer, all the typical things, right? Actually, I went and studied engineering, but it was so clear to me. I know some kids can’t figure it out. At 6 years old, I knew that I was gonna be a musician. It was like the decision was already made.
FBPO: How did you gravitate to the bass?
SM: I got a guitar when I was about 6 or 7, so that was like the first instrument. And then I had a drum set, but it wasn’t until I was a teenager – I think I was around 13, 14 – that I was playing with other guys, and I picked up the bass because, you know, no one else was doing it. I think it was kind of like a necessity. And I think it helped that I played both guitar and drums, ‘cause then when I started playing bass, I “got” it.
FBPO: Did you have any bass influences or bass heroes?
SM: Oh yeah! I really listened to a lot of Beatles. As far as the musical influences, I’m more of a song guy, as opposed to being a bass player who does a lot of licks and chops and a billion notes per minute kinda thing. I approach the bass from a song point of view. “How does this support the melody?” So, Paul McCartney was a huge influence, both in style and application. I play bass left handed, and I sing high harmonies, so I really fell into his gig! As years went by, I started getting really into Led Zeppelin. Between those two bands – there’s been a lot of great bass players out there, great bands and all that – but I think those two guys, Paul McCartney early on, and even like James Jamerson, that kind of cool, Motown groove that he had. So as far as influences, I would say early on it was Paul McCartney, always loved Jamerson and then of course, once Zeppelin kinda broke, I really, like, literally, learned every one of their songs, wore the records out, bought their publishing manuscripts, so I could see exactly what the notes were, what the lines were.
FBPO: You never mentioned John Paul Jones’ name. I just want to emphasize that’s who you’re talking about. (Laughs)
SM: John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, yes! (Laughs)
FBPO: How do you string your bass? Do you string it like a lefty or a righty?
SM: I string it upside down. I think in the beginning I was borrowing basses. I had a guitar, but even the guitar was a right-handed guitar, but I just kept playing it that way. And then eventually I had a couple of basses made. I bought a Hofner-style kind of a bass, again, a la Paul McCartney, and I just kept playing that way. And now, I can play the other way, actually. I played in a country band where I played a left-handed bass, strung left-handed, but I find it difficult to sing when it’s strung that way. When I play it upside down, it just falls together very easily.
FBPO: I’ve interviewed a number of lefty bass players. Scott Reeder from Kyuss, Jimmy Haslip from the Yellowjackets…
SM: I know Jimmy. Jimmy and I met many, many years ago.
FBPO: Well you have a lot in common because you both play a “righty” bass upside down!
SM: I’ve played his bass and he’s played my bass. Jimmy’s a good dude, and quite a great musician.
FBPO: Jason Christopher is another. He’s played with Corey Taylor and Stone Sour, Ministry, Sebastian Bach… He plays guitar one way and bass the other way. When he was younger, his friends wouldn’t let him restring their guitars, which I can understand, but when he learned bass, his mom got him a lefty bass, so he plays bass like a lefty, but he plays guitar…
SM: Upside down.
SM: That’s a good story!
FBPO: Getting back to you, did you speak much English when you first came to the U.S?
SM: No, English was my second language. I did struggle when I was a kid, but my mom had us in summer school and I really worked at it. When I was in high school, there was a basement learning center that I would go to and work on vocabulary. I literally had to spend the time to really learn English and how to write. I took composition courses. I worked at it so much, it actually became a good thing. I worked on my diction and phonetics, so when I sing, I really “get” it.
FBPO: How did you get started on your career?
SM: I pretty much kept playing, but by the time I was in my senior year, between 11th and 12th grade, I was playing so much that I was actually going out on the road and playing bars, as a minor. Not just backyard parties, but bars. And I just kept doing it and kept doing it and kinda hung in there. And I started singing – I think that’s another aspect – and I studied singing as well, which is really how I got my gig with Billy, I think, because I sing and I play bass. I would hang out with him when I first met him and we were singing all the time. It was kind of like an easy fit.
FBPO: You’ve had that gig for quite a while.
SM: Over twenty years now.
FBPO: What led up to you getting that gig?
SM: It was kind of like one thing after another, playing gigs. The other thing is, what I got into was recording. So at 19, I went to USC and there was a class there at the Bing Theatre, where they taught an engineering course for sound. It was recording techniques, a little bit of electronics, a little bit of this and that, but it all tied to the recording process. So while I was playing music, I also got into recording. That’s a whole other aspect of my career, where I’ve worked with some really big people, namely Tom Petty. I spent a lot of time with Tom.
FBPO: In what capacity?
SM: As an engineer. I built his studio at home. I recorded with him, just the two of us. I also built the band rehearsal room, with recording gear. And I did that for years, for about eleven years. Eventually, I had to kind of like make a call on that because I was touring with Billy and I was recording with Tom.
FBPO: This was long after Howie Epstein, right?
SM: This is before Epstein and after Epstein.
FBPO: Not during Epstein?
SM: Well, when I was recording with Tom in the beginning, it was just the two of us. After about three years, and shortly after Howie passed away, we built the band room, the band rehearsal room, which is out in the (San Fernando) Valley here. We just started with in-ear monitors, PA, and I brought recording rigs in – I think we were using digital tape at the time – and then ProTools. So I kind of put all that in there. I was there. I saw the whole thing kinda go down with Howie. It was so sad.
FBPO: Which records did you work on with Tom?
SM: The first one that got put out was Last DJ. There was one called Highway Companion and another one called Mojo. Some of the stuff I did with Tom became Tom Petty, his solo effort, and some of the stuff I did with Tom and the Heartbreakers were the band records. Some of the stuff was done at Tom’s and some of the recordings were done at the rehearsal room. We would record stuff and go over it. There was this whole process. I can’t tell you without going through the records exactly what I worked on, but certainly that Last DJ, with just the two of us, mostly, doing all the demo work, and then he would come in and have other musicians on it, including the Heartbreakers.
FBPO: So this would have been starting in the late ‘90s, or after that?
SM: I think around 2000 till about, probably 2011 or ’12, somewhere in there. Another person I work with was Babyface, Kenny Edmonds. He had me do stuff not only on his record, but other people. Again, this was mostly demos, but I’m in a $10 million studio, doing demos! (Laughs). Both these guys, Tom and Kenny, are producers. They are not just songwriters and all that; they are the complete package. So I’ve really learned a lot from those guys in terms of production and doing records and songwriting and all that. That’s like the other half of what I do. I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years, working on their records. When I worked with Tom, it was also with Jeff Lynne. They would co-write and Jeff would co-produce. Those were the Tom records, as opposed to the Heartbreaker records. And the Heartbreaker records were done with either George Drakoulias or with Rick Rubin, who were executive producing.
FBPO: Did you play bass for any of those productions?
SM: You know what, I did play bass on some stuff with Tom, but you’ll never hear it anywhere ‘cause it all got replaced. But if he’s working on a song and he’s trying to figure out what key to do it in, what tempo, what groove, sometimes he would play guitar and sing and I would play bass and sit at the control board, while running two-inch tape. You know what I mean? And we’d try different versions, different keys, and he goes, “Let’s do that,” and then we would start over again and he would get, like, a guitar track and he’d sing. Most of the time, that’s how the songs were written. The songs were all produced around the vocal and guitar tracks.
FBPO: So doing all those things eventually led to your current gig with Billy?
SM: I think so. I had a studio, and how I met Billy, was through a friend named John Diaz. He introduced us. And he came to my studio and looked around and said, “Hey, I got someone who might be able to use your help.” And it was Billy Idol. And I went up to his home studio and worked on his rig. He hadn’t recorded in a while, (so) some of the stuff needed servicing, but eventually, we ended up just kinda fuckin’ off (Laughs). You know, we got on our bikes and we’d go riding around. So we did that for a year, just cruising, riding all over the place, which was great therapy for me. I had a good friend pass away and I met Billy a short time after that. And then I went on the road with Billy, as an engineer. I was advancing the tours, with the management, and also, I was doing monitors and I was singing backup harmonies sidestage, while mixing. How about that?! (Laughs).
SM: And that went on for a little bit, maybe for like half a year, and then he called me up and said, “Hey, I’m gonna do Storytellers. Would you want to play bass?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’d love to!” He goes, “I know you can play bass,” ‘cause we had hung out. That’s how that whole thing got established.
FBPO: So, this would have been about what year?
SM: I think 2000?
FBPO: Tell me something about Billy Idol that most people don’t know.
SM: I think people would be surprised at just how intelligent he is. He’s very well read. When we were touring on the buses, we’d go through periods where we’d toss books back and forth, like the history of Europe, or the JFK assassination or culture stuff. We’d go through books. We would go through series of things. Very educational. I’d just see him reading all the time, constantly. So he’s very well read. I think people think he’s just like this wild, you know, the “bad boy of rock & roll” image that they put on those VH1 specials, whatever, but he’s very smart, very intelligent. I think he uses more of his brains than most people.
FBPO: Let’s talk a little bit about your gear. You and I first met at the Warwick booth at a NAMM show.
SM: I had gotten a Warwick bass I guess about 5 years ago, and it was so well made! It’s such good quality.
FBPO: Which model do you play?
SM: I have a Streamer II. I have, actually, a few of them right now. I’m gonna get a few more, but Streamer II, both 4- and 5-strings, active electronics, 18 volts. Most people don’t do that; they run like a 9-volt active. I’m running 18. I get a little more headroom. It’s good for what I do. I did do an exclusive deal with them. There’s no reason not to. I still have a lot of old basses, but they’re a lot more worn out and they don’t sound nearly as good. The harmonic richness of it, the sound, the quality of it. Their construction is incredible.
FBPO: What about the rest of year gear: strings, amps, effects…?
SM: Strings, I’m using GHS. I use stainless alloy roundwound. Very bright strings. As far as amps, I’m using primarily a DI kind of a setup. I use a Radial active DI and I have a SansAmp in there.
FBPO: Ah, Tech 21.
SM: Yes! And it’s a dual input, so I have clean, active kind of a DI sound being mixed with the little crunch boxes. I’ve had so many boxes over the years and it varies, depending on what songs we’re doing. But primarily, I’ve got a rack-mounted Tech 21 box, which is like an SVT modeling thing. I use Ampeg SVT II amps primarily, however, I use Aguilar and GMT amps too.
FBPO: What’s keeping you busy these days?
SM: You know what, all I do is this gig now. I go surfing; I’m over here in Venice Beach, and I have a ’63 step van that I’m rebuilding, so this year, since January, I’ve been diggin’ in to the motor and tranny and wiring and, you know, all that kind of stuff. I’m kind of like a closet mechanic.
FBPO: Do you know Robert Trujillo, from Metallica?
SM: Oh, I know him really well. I mean I consider him like a little brother. I didn’t mention this early on, but I was a licensed contractor for many years. I built houses and food plants, I contracted at Catalina Island camps – I mean this is like a whole other world. And Rob worked for me, as a kid, when he was 15, 16 years old. This was long before the rock & roll. When he started playing bass, I lent him my gear. He even used my cars! I had a few different cars. He was a little kid, and he’s come far.
FBPO: I thought of him when you mentioned Venice Beach and surfing. He wrote the foreword to one of my bass books, Play Like Jaco Pastorius.
SM: Oh yeah! I was there that night, when he did the Jaco film. As a matter of fact, Billy and Steve Stevens went up on stage that night and played with him.
FBPO: That must have been special.
SM: It really was.
FBPO: What about the future? You’ve got quite a varied background and you’re obviously good at a lot of things. Is there anything you’ve always wanted to do but just haven’t gotten around to yet?
SM: Thanks! No. There’s always new adventures, but as far as music, I like the gig. I really enjoy it. And working with Billy is a pleasure. And Steve, for that matter, and the guys in the band. Our road manager said, “Hey, you know what’s really cool about this thing is it feels like a family on the road.” People who work with us stay for many years.
I didn’t mention that I actually have a cover band that I work with here in Los Angeles. I call it Dawgtown Posse, and there are a lot of guys. A lot of the local musicians, but guys who tour, like myself. I recently had a birthday party and I had the drummer from the Dead Kennedys and (players from) Puddle of Mud and Candlestick and a few other bands. And then I had the singer from the Bonzo Bash and another singer that does tribute acts. And a lot of guitar players. Robert Sarzo, who played with Hurricane and Queensrÿche.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
SM: I don’t know. I’ve done the contracting thing. I’ve done that for a long time. I kind of like getting into restoring cars. And I’ve done this my whole life, in addition to motorcycles. How I met Billy early on and how we kind of like formed our friendship was we rode motorcycles, the Harleys, with high-performance motors. We would ride all over. I mean literally all over the continent. Our first run was to the Redwoods in Northern California. Then we did a Four Corners run and went through all those states. We’ve ridden to the Badlands, up in South Dakota, national parks, all over the place. I’ve been diggin’ in to the motor transmission and wiring, you know, all that kind of restoration stuff. I’m a closet mechanic.
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