Robert Kearns: The Epiphone Interview

There's a real art to playing great rock and roll bass and Robert Kearns is one of those artists--a rare bird in these times when rock and roll can sometimes be hard to find. But anyone who thinks that rock and roll—the loud, driving, passionate sound that used to rule the airwaves—is fading away, should go see bassist Kearns in action with Sheyrl Crow on his ever-present Jack Casady Bass.  As a member of Crow’s band, Kearns and guitarist Audley Freed, his longtime friend and former bandmate from Cry of Love, form the core of one of the most musically dynamic groups working today. Kearns also worked with Lynyrd Skynyrd for three years and Epiphone and Gibson basses have been part of his sound the whole way. spoke with Mr. Kearns in East Nashville and we couldn’t have asked for a kinder or more spirited music fan as one of our artists. And we’re sure Mr. Casady himself would agree. 

How did you get to the Jack Casady Bass?
The first Epiphone bass I ever owned was given to me back in the 90s. My buddy Audley Freed and I had this band Cry of Love that we formed in North Carolina. There was an Epi rep back then who came and gave me a Rivoli Bass. They had reissued those and I loved it and kept it for the longest time. I don’t remember how I parted ways with it. I must have needed some money (laughs). But that was the first bass I ever owned that was a hollowbody and I loved the sound. So, I’ve always gravitated towards those type of basses ever since.  When the Jack Casady came out at that time I went for it. For my money and for my ear, I think the Jack Casady is one of the best sounding production basses out there. I just love it. Other basses don’t have the bottom end.
Do you use the 3-step frequency control?
I normally keep it on the most robust sound (laughs) but if I only have one bass and I’m playing a softer song, I’ll switch to the “50” setting for a lower dynamic sound.  I don’t have to change my attack. When we get back to rocking, I’ll crank it back up.
You described yourself as not a typical bassist.  What makes you say that?
For an everyday workhorse bass I’ve always gravitated more toward Epiphone and Gibson basses. Even with Cry For Love, I played with a Les Paul Recording bass.
Why Epiphone and Gibson instead of Fender?
To my ear, those basses have more bottom end, more oomph.  P-style bases and Jazz basses have more of a mid-ridge tone. But when we wanted a full rock sound…for instance, in Cry of Love, we used to play loud!  I had two SVT heads and two cabinets but dropped it into one cabinet.  Once you get a Jack Casady or Les Paul Bass cranked up into one of those, it’s over (laughs)! There’s nothing that’s going to compete with that sound.
Robert Kearns: The Epiphone InterviewHow did you start playing bass?
I grew up in Conover, North Carolina. I actually started out playing guitar and the funny thing is, I’m left handed but where I grew up, you didn’t see that many guitars and certainly not a left-handed guitar. So my Dad brought me a Silvertone guitar and I started playing when I was a young kid and took lessons every once in a while.  I had a band in high school that eventually broke up and at the last place that we played, there was a guy who had a sound system there. And he had a band and they were looking for a bass player. I had never played bass but I was working at the music store and borrowed a bass so I could learn these songs. And I realized at that point I could hear bass parts. And immediately thought this is the instrument that I should be playing. It just felt natural. I could pick out bass parts a lot easier than I could guitar parts.  So fast-forward, I got in a regional band called Sidewinder. And that’s how I met Audley Freed in 1987. But as soon as he got in the band we decided “man, we have to leave this band and form our own!”  That’s one of the first conversations we had.
So we started Cry for Love and I went though a number of amps and basses.  We played loud, there wasn’t a lot of subtitles in our music (laughs). There was a pawn shop in Raleigh that had an SVT rig for sale. I think it was $300 for the head and cabinet. So I bought it. And then, I was back visiting my parents in Hickory and I found a Les Paul Recording Bass for something like $300 but the guy wouldn’t even let me touch it. So I went to the bank and pulled out the money and came back and said: “Can I try it now?”  I actually called Audley about it and he was at a music store and he said “get it.” And that was my main bass for years.  Jack Casady played something similar but a hollowbody version.
When you finally settled on bass, who were you listening to?
I took a couple of lessons in Raleigh but it wasn’t until I was turned on to James Jamerson instructional book that I really took off for me. When I first bought it, it came with two cassettes. There are still bass lines on that program that are amazing to me.  So I actually started trying to learn those lines and from there I went to Duck Dunn. He had an instructional book called What Duck Done, and I listened to a lot of that stuff. Of course, I always loved Leon Wilkeson’s playing from Skynyrd.  And I learned those lines note for note. Even “Sweet Home Alabama” is more complicated than you would think.
And you played with them, right?
I did. For about three years. It was a great gig. Those guys are all sweet. I didn’t realize Carl Radle from Derek and the Dominoes—I love his playing.  Years later, I got turned on to Willie Weeks. So I’m along those lines, I somehow forged my kind of style.
How did you get to Nashville?
I moved here in 2005 but prior to living here I was in Austin, Texas and playing with a couple of groups down there. I kept getting calls from a country artist that I had never heard of named Chris Cagle. It turns out Chris was a huge Cry of Love fan. He knew every song, every word. Every time he called, he kept upping the money (laughs). Finally the third time he called, I happened to be off and my friend Seamus who was running sound said with him said “come up here and go out on the road. If you don’t like it you can always go back.” And that was it. I came up, we rehearsed it, and so I was with Chris for two years and ended up staying up here and buying a house.  I never went back to Texas!
In Sheryl Crow’s band, do the two of you collaborate on bass lines?
What I’ve always done is to learn a part as close as I can to the record and then if I feel something a little bit different, I’ll go from there. But Sheryl can play so many instruments and she’s got an incredible ear.  She knows exactly what everyone is playing. She hears it. But at the same time, she’s never putting any restrictions on us.
What have you been listening to?
Recently I’ve been checking out Willie Weeks—whatever I can find on You Tube. I really feel a kinship to how he approaches the bass.
Does the Jack Casady Bass translate well if for instance you’re learning a bass part that was originally made on a different bass like a P-Bass or Jazz Bass?  
It always sounds better to me on a Jack Casady bass. I’m serious about that (laughs). It’s just got more of a thicker, lower-end tone. Anything you play with that tone is going to sound better. It’s always been like that for me. No matter what other bass I go to, the Jack Casady sounds better. If we had had what Epiphone has to offer today back when I was a kid—affordable, with a great tone. Man, it would have been so much easier. I think the kids have it easier today!