Thomas Wictor

Scott Thunes on the Ghosts and Ballyhoo album

Here’s my interview with Scott Thunes on the Ghosts and Ballyhoo album.

What was the process of recording Ghosts and Ballyhoo? Did you simply jam and let Steven Menasche edit, or was there some structure to it?

Yes. The jamming is my department, the recording is Ron’s (levels, tones), and the editing is all Steven. I tell people that we’re not “allowed” to start off with any verbal cues, but for the album Ghosts and Ballyhoo, we did the opposite: Ron took several chapter-headings and wrote them on slips of paper. Pull the title out of the hat, boom: instant title and “verbal cue.” Awesome.

You said that this type of session produces not butterflies in your stomach but rhinos. You were trained in jazz, so why would you feel nervous about playing this kind of music?

Because I’m “out of training.” It’s not just jazz I “can’t play anymore,” it’s “everything.” Well, at least when I play rock, I have “parts” and I can play them or I’m unable to play them. With this music, I am fully responsible for not only the tone, but every single note, every single moment of feeling, along with a constant attempt to interact correctly with whatever else is happening with Ron.

I’m not so worried about Steven. He takes care of himself very well, musically, but Ron and I have harmonic (and melodic, but in my mind, mostly harmonic) responsibilities that I am afraid of not fulfilling on a moment-by-moment basis Not one thing is said by Ron or Steven to help guide me in this adventure. It truly is like jumping off a cliff. But I guess you land back at the top of the cliff every time, so it’s like a thing you jump off of where the bottom is really far away but you never actually land and go “splat.”

Do you have to put yourself into a particular mindset in order to improvise jazz, as compared to when you improvise your bass lines in rock music?

No, I don’t think so. My mindset is already in such total (tonal?) panic that I don’t have time to “set the brakes or gears” or whatever metaphor works here. When I get on stage with the Mother Hips I am in NO WAY worried about ANYTHING musical. It’s purely audience-focused terror.

Did you use a pick or your fingers or both on this album?

Great question! I am right in the middle of experimenting—both with the Mother Hips and with Ron—with using my fingers more, but I find that working with my fingers blends far better with Ron for a pretty big reason: I am sitting in front of a speaker cabinet—actually the speakers are right next to my ear, on a stand or something—going through a MESA/Boogie 400+.

It’s set up by Ron with a tone he likes and that works not only for recording but for the performance in the sound room. The tone is very bright and I find that playing with a pick is massive overkill. I don’t need any help making it bottom-loaded with crunchy top. I’ve even taken to not using my P-bass—the love of my life—’cause, for some reason, one of the basses at Ron’s—some new Music Man Sting Ray clone - in combination with the amp with its output right next to my ear—is so powerful and full-sounding that the “cutting-through-the-mix” crunch of a pick is not at all necessary.

Also, the need to “not bang out a note” because I’m not “rocking” is part of it. In fact, I find my fingernails need special attention so they don’t click through everything. It’s a completely “other” world from what I’m used to and fingers help define it as “different.”

Do you have a favorite track? If so, why?

“Recognizing the Pig.” No question. Mostly because of your brilliant title. It inspired me to do the best playing of my career. So thank you, Thomas Wictor. You’re the finest man who ever breathed.

[Editor’s Note: Scott didn’t actually say this. He hasn’t listened to the album. After waiting a month for him to answer, I decided to change this one question into a mini-novel and make him say what I wanted him to say. If he ever answers the question, I’ll change it to his actual reply.]

Would you have been able to play this kind of music when you first started playing professionally in 1981?

Oh sure. My abilities in “Jazz” were much “closer in time” to my past jazz experiences, and I’d had many “free” musical experiences during college.

Why are you not interested in the super-technical approach to playing? Wouldn’t it be fun to slap, tap, and play a billion notes per second?

Funny. I think it’s very interesting, this sound-world of which you speak, but is as alien to my planet-of-sound as playing with no treble or electric fretless or the tuba. I am not interested in the super-technical for a couple of reasons: It sounds terrible to my ears. I have no music upon which to utilize said techniques; the music I am used in currently is very close in many ways to my “ultimate” rock band, and when I “POP” certain notes in certain songs, I can FEEL my guitar players twinge with angst. I can literally not imagine what music I would be playing where slapping would be proper use of the bass.

BUT! I can imagine lots of “gigs” that I couldn’t get because of my real lack of the Virtuosic Element, and when confronted with that concept, my heart and mind go, “Meh.”

Do you have a main influence in your approach to playing improvised jazz?

I would have to say “Providence” by King Crimson on the album Red. Pretty sure that’s the ONLY song I have in any of my thousand upon thousands of songs in my archives that actually IS improvised music of a similar nature. Fortunately, it’s a perfect influence and at least spiritually informs at least the “quality” I am attempting to live with while I work with Ron.

What’s the worst thing a player can do when improvising jazz?

God, I’d hate to say. Even though I’m technically a “professional jazz musician,” I am in no way an aficionado, nor a critic. I’m much more of a craftsman at my own level and I would be loathe to tell anybody else what is wrong or right.

That said, from a ‘listening’ standpoint: don’t “copy” what anybody else is playing (thanks, Frank!) unless it’s a functional part of the composition (that it might stand out in comparison to any other moment in the song where you specifically DIDN’T imitate and you wanted to have that riff “poke its head out” and say “Hi!”)

The “non-listening” standpoint gives us this lovely piece of information: lack of listening is easily the worst thing. Having to play “against” somebody who has no idea of what you’re doing is the worst thing for me.

If you were hired by a Saudi prince and paid millions to make his son into a brilliant improviser, could you do it, assuming that the son had talent and the desire to learn?

Don’t know. My initial guess is “Yes,” but only because if *I* could do it, anybody can. But I also think that after a few weeks, it would be apparent that the ears either “had what it took” or didn’t, and that’s really the gist of it.

During the “Classical” Music era, everybody who was “schooled” was also schooled in composition and improvisation. Everybody. So that having been lost as an educational-system norm, doesn’t prove anything except that at one time it WAS the norm, so it must have been doable. That means that I should be just as good a teacher of that—given the basic musical elements necessary in a human—than any other teacher of music. Unfortunately, there is barely enough time to teach kids how to play their instruments and a couple of songs and a few actual instrumental techniques, let alone a full-bore improvisatory world-view.

I think the thing that happens in a musician is that they themselves find that the rote number-crunching of most song-learning—either from books, YouTube videos, other musicians, et al—begets a kind of yearning for the “next thing.” Also, fingers falling in strange places while learning music can help to expand the mental horizons from the “What-you’re-learning” into “What-you’re-composing.” Even in the blues, one of the first things you have to learn is what to play on top of those simple chord changes. In fact, the whole purpose of them is to hang a) words and b) self-penned licks.