Photo: Jennifer Anne Alexander
All of us at Epiphone are pleased to introduce you to John Billings, a Nashville cat who has quietly established himself as a bona fide success story in a city that has broken a lot of dreams in two. John is currently on tour with the reformed Monkees--Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, and Micky Dolenz--holding down the rhythm section with an Epiphone Jack Casady Signature bass and recreating some of the greatest pop standards of the last 40 years. Prior to the Monkees tour, Billings has been a regular in and around Nashville at sessions and live shows with friends like the Wooten Brothers and the late great Donna Summer. Not every musician in Music City can put such a range of artists on their resume. Epiphone spoke with John during his tour with the Monkees.
Congratulations on joining The Monkees tour. Tell us the story of how a Music City bassist got the attention of Micky, Peter, and Michael?
Six years back, I started working with a guitarist named Wayne Avers locally around Nashville. Wayne had been in the Monkees circle for nearly 20 years and had, at that time, run Micky Dolenz's band. The bass chair opened and Wayne brought me into the fold. After (original member) Davy Jones died, the Monkees began using Micky's band and I found myself as one of the new guys in that organization. It's been wonderful learning those songs and deeper cuts the fans have always wanted to hear.
The Monkees have been at this for a long time but there are some out there who don't realize what great musicians they've become. What's it like to work with them?
I can't say enough good things. It's been great hanging and playing with all three and yeah, they absolutely know how to play their music. They are all accomplished at their chair and Peter announced to the audience just last night, "Micky Dolenz, one of the top 20 vocalists in pop music." Look at the company that puts him in! Mike is an iconic writer and performer and every night these guys show everyone in that audience they're the real deal. They're a band and we just supplement that sound. This tour is the most fun any of them have had in years.
I know that some of the Monkees' early recordings were done with the help of the Wrecking Crew. Do The Monkees and the band feel some pressure to try to re-create that sound on stage?
I don't think the double tracking and the density of those recordings is as important as nailing the parts. We all treat this as though we're recreating the old albums, so the parts are paramount. Wayne nails the old guitar parts and tones, so it really lends itself to sounding like the old recordings. That alone makes me want to chase that old bass tone and get as close as I can to the old parts. The tour producer, Andrew Sandoval, has old multi tracks and will customize mixes for all of us.
I'll have him put bass on one side or mixed hot in a trimmed down mix so I can clearly hear what's going on. It's amazing to hear those old tracks! That also brought me to playing full time with a pick with these guys. That was the hardest part for me because I'd only occasionally play with a pick and then, only rock style parts-- eighth notes and repetitive notes. This show is about playing integral parts and lines, not at all what I was able to do with a pick. I couldn't physically play a scale with a pick very fast. So that itself has been a journey. But with darker flats, picked with a palm mute--that's the sound.
You've been traveling with the Epiphone Jack Casady Bass on tour with Micky. For bassists who know its reputation but might not be familiar with the sound, what kind of flexibility does the Jack Casady bass give you on tour?
I LOVE this bass! Admittedly, I've been chasing one for years, so this tour was the perfect place and excuse to get one in my hands. The thing that I've found most useful for this gig is that it's getting me closer to that tick tack bass sound. I left the round wounds on instead of changing them out too flats, so I get a great pick attack tone with a clear bottom. Also, being a hollow body and not a short scale neck has helped me transition between my other basses much easier. It's a solid bass too, has traveled great.
What's the story of how you discovered bass and decided that it was going to be your favorite instrument?
I had my grandfather's guitar to play with when I was younger, then fell in love with the cello by the 5th grade. Somewhere in there I decided I wanted to be Gene Simmons, LOL! I got my first bass on my 14th birthday and since I was already playing cello and reading bass clef, I got through the Mel Bay books pretty quick. I started jamming with local bands and haven't stopped since.
How did you find the Epiphone Jack Casady Signature Bass?
Photo: Aviva Maloney
My first impression was how solid it was compared to other hollow body basses. The neck felt great and I didn't feel that ramp up time like you do when you pick up a bass for the first time. The tone was surprising as well: punchy and fat with a great mid range response. I really enjoy putting some dirt on it before hitting the amp on a few songs. Another interesting thing is you can slap on this bass. Most hollow body basses are tough for me to slap on, this one's great on some Larry Graham lines!
Music City has a long history of deep pocket-style bassists--Bob Moore, Henry Strzelecki, Roy Husky (Sr. and Jr.). How did you get to Nashville and what kind of challenges did you have breaking in to clubs and studio work.
I left L.A. in 1995 and connected with a group of Virginia buddies that had all gravitated to Nashville. They got me up and running around town quickly, introducing me to more locals, and helping me to meet the right people. Without them reaching out on my behalf, I would've had a very different story today. I started working with old friends like The Wooten Brothers and Friends on Wednesday nights and that also put me on other folks' radar in town. I think the challenges I face, and still face, is that the guys who where at the top of the heap then are still the guys there today. Moving up is a tricky thing here. I think the thing I've taken away from that is to not fight an uphill battle on someone else's hill. Find your own space and concentrate your efforts there. For me that often times means not playing country music. It's been an interesting ride!
You played with Donna Summer for many years. Most musicians contend that there really are no lines between R&B, classic pop, and classic country. Do you think that's true--can you adapt pretty quickly going from one to the other?
I was with Donna Summer from April of 1995 until she passed. What a woman, what a singer! I've been fortunate to have played in a diverse collection of artists. I think that most professional players can adapt to different styles, but only a handful can legitimately pull off playing different styles in the manner they need to be played in... to own it.
I grew up listening to pop, rock, soul and R&B, so it's not difficult for me to move between them. I love music and I love playing music. Music isn't a genre, music is communication. I feel that when you live in a genre, you're not able to see the bigger musical picture. You have a difficult time communicating outside of that genre. But if you're open to all types of music, you're able to navigate a professional musical life so much easier. You reach such a larger audience.
Is there an artist or situation that you've worked with in the past that has proven to be particularly helpful now that you're on tour with The Monkees?
The Monkees was a different situation for me. Wayne Avers, the musical director, gave us a fundamental direction: "go back to the records." I've never encountered that with other artists, at least not to the degree that was being asked of us. The one thing that did help was that I had just done a similar study of Joe Osborne's bass work with the Carpenters. A tribute group was put together by Mark and Michelle Brett called, "We've Only Just Begun: Carpenters Remembered."
I was then reading Joe's playing note for note--again with a pick. I was able to contact Joe and get some tips on getting closer to that sound. So that mindset was still fresh when The Monkees tour was being put together in October of 2012. Thanks to the tour producer, Andrew Sandoval, I was able to hear tracks and stems from the original masters, which put me even further along. It's also one of the first gigs I've ever worked where the bass is so key to the songs. The bass parts from that era are often lines and figures that make up a huge part of the song. It's nice to matter more musically than I have in the past.
Photo: Jennifer Anne Alexander
During that era, bass lines were mixed way up front. Plus one could hear the tone of the amp. Yes, it was an entirely different era of playing and mixing. The bass played a pivotal role in contrast to today. Don't misunderstand, I love modern music and playing, but when my kids ask me to play a current song on bass, they can't for anything recognize what I'm playing! It serves more of a frequency and harmonic role than a melodic role that it did years ago. Maybe that will change one day and bass players can play the role they played through the '60s and '70s. I sure hope so.
What are your plans after the tour?
I'm moving my recording studio to a new location, hopefully in the area I live now, East Nashville. There's a great energy there and country music isn't all that comes out. There's a cool independent scene there. Also, back to work engineering, music production as well as location sound for TV. Hopefully, I'll also fall into a fun gig locally in town before I hit the road.
Besides practice, practice, practice, what advice do you have for young bassists who dig what you're doing and want to try their hand at being a professional?
Listen to everything! Old, new, emerging--all of it. Get to where you can quickly pick up a song and play along.
Also use all the time you have available to you to get to know the key players, the scenes, what instruments and amp rigs people are using, and what clubs are getting traffic. When you go out, make a list of common songs you're hearing. These are the "standards" you'll be expected to know when you hit the stage. Be an expert on all facets of live playing.
If you sit in, be prepared to play anything that's on the set list. Nothing impresses a band than a sit-in saying, "I'll play whatever you guys feel like playing." Brad Henderson and I used to go hear the Tower Of Power rhythm section play a cover gig on Monday nights in the valley. Eventually later in the evening it became a sit-in situation. We snuck in recorders and learned most all of their set and how they reinterpreted old covers. So when the time came for us to sit in, we could play just about anything they wanted to play. We'd shed the recordings we made there the rest of the week until the next Monday night. Now playing Rocco's bass, that's a whole different story...
Lastly, be flexible. Life isn't a straight line, it's like an EKG readout. Playing music with other people is like a social situation, everyone needs to get along. If you start traveling with a band or artist, flexibility will keep you sane and liked. Roll with the changes.