Paul Rogers interview
by Philip Gibbs

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PG: Paul when did you first start playing?
PR: Well I started playing the bass guitar when I was about fourteen or so, although before that I did some messing around with an acoustic guitar. But I always knew that, for some reason, what I really wanted was a double bass. But of course they're expensive, and uncommon in places like Chester [Paul's home town]. I had no formal musical education, just the very basics of notation at school, but with that I was able to work things out for myself - after all it's not brain surgery. I believe music is very simple, and people make music out to be very complicated only because it makes them look good. I was also working things out by ear by listening to records. Then I played in a rock band with some older guys doing gigs in local pubs and clubs, and they showed me a few bass lines, etc.

PG: What music were you listening to at that time?
PR: My older brother would bring records into the house so I heard things like The Who, Jimi Hendrix ... and Cream I really liked at that time. And I'd also heard improvised music on the radio, people like John Stevens, Derek Bailey, etc., and that really turned me on to wanting to play. But I was told that you couldn't play improvised music unless you play jazz. That was the thinking in those days; some people maybe think that now. In fact, some people actually think you improvise because you can't play music! It amazes me how uneducated these people must be because we all know most people only play tunes because they can't improvise, and they play other people's music because they haven't got any of their own! Anyway, I left school shortly before my sixteenth birthday and as there were no options for going to college, etc., I apprenticed as a carpenter for a couple of years before moving to London around 1974.

PG: Because you wanted to make a career of music?
PR: Because I wanted to play music. You can't play music in small towns in Britain, it's just not allowed - there's nowhere to play. I think it's a crime against live art that this country doesn't have enough places to perform. It should be part of our cultural heritage as human beings. The people running the music business can make much more money if there are no musicians involved at all. They don't want artists or people with a brain who have got something to say. They just want to regurgitate what's already been sold, just change it slightly: 'Fast food, fast music'. I'm not saying that's wrong, just that there should be enough space for everyone. Anyway, at first I did a carpentry job for about six months, then I started to play. I went to auditions, advertised in Melody Maker, etc., and after about a year I was beginning to play with people like Mike Osbome, Ellon Dean, John Stevens, etc., and within four years I was working regularly with many of those musicians I still work with today.

PG: So by now you're playing full time?
PR: Yes. I was about 18 and had met some Australian musicians who had just arrived in Britain, and we got into this thing of practising eight hours a day every day, religiously, and this went on for about three years. It was like going to college, only better. I love to practise. I still practise now as much as I possibly can. I get up in the morning and I play, that's my job. The work ethic for me is everything. I don't believe in genius at all - somebody gets it right and that's about it. I did loads of depping ... worked with Stan Tracey which was great ... As a bass player there was always work if you have an open enough mind ... jazz, rock, blues, folk or classical ... whatever.

PG: Which bass players were you listening to at that time?
PR: I listened to as many bass players as I could. We are brainwashed into believing that only Americans can play music in terms of jazz, and when you're young you really do believe that, although it's not true. So I listened to the early stuff, players like Jimmy Blanton, Slam Stewart, Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown. I would go into a record shop and buy everything with a double bass on it, then take most of them back the next day because they were shit. But I think you have to go through that, unless you want to be brainwashed. Not to be told what's good, but finding out for yourself, and that means listening to every single record. Scott LaFaro was a hero, he made a great leap and there was Gary Peacock doing some great work. I also listened to things like Pablo Casals playing the Bach cello suites, Bartok and Stravinsky, etc. And of course, classical musicians are regarded as greater musicians - if you are a jazz musician, well who the fuck are you? I think that's wrong because there isn't a classical musician in the world who practises more than me.

My job isn't just to interpret someone else's music. I need to play as well as any classical musician, plus improvise and compose music, constantly make a good sound and continually be creative. I have too much inside me to just interpret. Playing composed music stops you from playing the real music. People have this idea that improvised music is about making funny sounds, breaking glass or whatever, which is pathetic. It's like saying 'Classical music - that's Beethoven isn't it?' or 'Jazz - that's Stan Getz or Kenny Ball isn't it?' Of course it isn't just one thing, there are millions of sounds and ideas. Unfortunately, there's no money in this business, so the criminals who run the live music scene have completely written us improvisers out of music history. In this country there is no decent funding from the government for improvised music. Most of the Arts Council's money goes to classical music and the upper classes who set it up want to keep the status quo for themselves. But it all has to change because if it doesn't, well, it will all go down the toilet. We need to educate people properly, we need to nurture originality and individuality, not applaud the imitative and mediocre! Things have steadily declined now to the point where great musicians have given up playing original music because there's no money or support - and what kind of society is that? Artists are important, they reflect their society.

PG: You mentioned just then about improvising as 'funny sounds' - what do you think about all that?
PR: Well, it's become a style, like be-bop or anything else. It has become a 'form'. The whole point for me is that 'free' improvisation means playing whatever you want. If it's in your head or it's a real part of you and you don't make a big deal about introducing particular 'strange' elements then it works and there's a natural progression of ideas. Some people are really scared of being melodic or playing in time - maybe it's because they can't, but that means nothing to me. If you want to play a chord sequence you should do it. I mean, how free can it be if you are deliberately avoiding things? Some free players will start out by saying, for example, we'll start with a duo or finish with this or that type of ending ... blah, blah, blah ... that's bollocks. That's not art, that's just control, and if someone wants to do that properly they should write a piece of music.

PG: Do you still listen out for bass players?
PR: My recent period of listening has been mainly concerned with Indian music, contemporary classical music and folk music. I like the Italian composer Scelsi very much. Tony Levin once talked about music as colours, that at any one time you may like certain colours as opposed to others, and I like that analogy.

PG: Does composition have validity for you as well as improvisation?
PR: Sure, it's a different way of getting somewhere. When you play music you're creating your art, and you're inviting an audience to participate in that. You're communicating something and that will mean something different to each individual, because we are all different. The audience is as much a part of the music as the musician. Their presence creates an energy, spirit or whatever. Therefore I'm not interested in making formulated music designed to do this or that. My 'formula' is to practise and study music as much as possible so that when I start to play I'm creating a composition out of the sounds I'm making, in that room with that audience. There comes a point for me when I am no longer a bass player, I'm just a musician contributing to the sound. In improvised music those conventional roles disappear - there are no roles or rules. I would also love to perform my 'composed' music if I could get a situation where I could have adequate rehearsal time. But you never get that, so I can't be bothered because the musical performance would never be good enough.

PG: What do you mean by 'getting somewhere'?
PR: I don't know, I'm still trying to get there - it's like a meditation, a spiritual growth, trying to understand - God or not God - the collective consciousness, or whatever it happens to be for each person. In a way I hope I never get there because then it will have finished! It's a continual search for me - to play the impossible!! And I hope that the music I play is for everyone, not just for an elite. Unfortunately, most people won't allow themselves to listen. They won't make the effort required because it's true that a greater amount of concentration is needed for this music than for many others.

PG: Do you think that in the course of, let's say, an hour-long improvisation there is the potential for a lot of uncreative music?
PR: No, not if you are improvising properly. When you're playing, you can't be thinking about what you are playing - that's too slow. You have to act on the musical elements at that particular time, and do it honestly without ego, playing for the good of the music rather than some self-indulgence. And each person has his own way of doing that; someone might play very little, someone else a lot. But even when silent you should still be in the music. If there are ten people on stage and there is a drum solo, there are ten people involved in the drum solo ... plus the audience. If someone starts talking or goes out of the room the musical dynamics change.

PG: So why is technique so important to you?
PR: Quite simply because I enjoy it! It gives you facility so that when you hear something in your head you can instantly and accurately play it. It can be a million notes or just one if that's what you feel is right. But technique gives you the experience and facility to use both. It's a tool, and some people feel a need to put more time into that than others - for me it's like meditation or yoga. I usually start with basic exercises, then maybe do some Bach cello or some clarinet studies, it depends on how I'm feeling on that day. When I was younger, I wanted to be able to play Coltrane solos on the bass, not with a low action but with a fucking great high action so it would be even harder. And I used to listen to Scott LaFaro solos on 45rpm and try to play that! It's all bullshit but you have to try these things in order to find out the limits. You can't expect to sit around having tea and biscuits all day and hope to progress. Though I'm not judging anyone else, that's just how it is for me. Now I am now using a completely new instrument and developing new things out of that.

PG: Please tell us about the instrument, you've had it custom built?
PR: Yes, I was having my bass repaired by this guy in Nimes [France, where Paul has been resident since 1992] and we started talking about designs. I thought it would be great to have a small bass for air travel. Also I'd always had this idea about having a six-string bass with sympathetic strings. So we talked about it and then he built it! It's a fantastic instrument and I'm still finding out what it can do - it's the direction I've been going in anyway - from four strings to five and now six. He's now going to build me another one with better wood.

PG: You have recorded with this new bass instrument?
PR: Yes, a couple of things - Moksha on the DLE label [Paul Dunmall's own CD-R label] and I'm working on a solo bass recording to add to the previous solo recordings I've done on the 5-string bass [Heron Moon on Rare Music, and Listen on Emanem].

PG: The solo playing you've done for many years on and off, how does that differ from ensemble playing for you?
PR: Well it's like going for a walk on your own or with four people - you're still going to the same place but the experience of it is different. For me the listening is going on all the time even if I'm playing solo. At times I'm probably hearing one thing and what's actually coming out is another, the imagination is such a powerful thing. Of course I enjoy different playing situations so long as the musicians allow me to be me, and don't make me think that I have to be thinking about them while we're playing - I enjoy situations where I can just be me.

PG: Seeing you play, its almost like you are in a trance sometimes. Is it a spiritual journey for you?
PR: For me music is a spiritual communication. That's it. We are creating something - an energy - and communicating that to the audience, and I like to think of it as a spiritual thing ... it might not be that for everyone. Ultimately it is for each individual to find out for himself or herself. And with improvised music it can be whatever you want it to be, you just give into the music. Having that feeling of total freedom, of being able to do whatever you want whenever, then you can't go wrong.

PG: You now live in France, how is the business side of things there, is there more work?
PR: I think that if it weren't for Europe jazz wouldn't be the way it is. The American jazz musicians make their money over here at the various festivals. But then I'm not a jazz musician, I'm an improvisor too busy practising to be hustling, though you have to do that as well. I lived in the States for a while in the late eighties, but you would have to be there a long time to be accepted and there wasn't that much work to be had anyway. I would still like to live in Britain but being a musician there is not a respectable trade whereas in Europe it is, and at least it's possible to make a living.

PG: Are you interested in electronic/computer music at all?
PR: I would never rule it out, but at the moment I have enough to do with the acoustic instrument and I don't see that changing for a long time. But it's all valid, and as such should all be given equal opportunities and treatment. Improvised music would have a higher profile if they could forget about money and put it on the radio or TV. Then more people would listen to it.

PG: You have been a part of the band Mujician for some 14 years now. Is that band special to you?
PR: What's special is that we all know we can play exactly the way we want to play within it - we never talk about the music, which some people find hard to believe. We work when we can - we would love to work all the time but it's not possible. The music constantly changes - we have loads of private recordings and they're all roaring. Part of the beauty of Mujician for me is that people often think a lot of the music must be composed but it's not, and that just shows that improvised music can sound that way.

PG: Out of all the albums you have recorded are there any...
PR: No!

PG: ... where you feel more satisfied with what you have done than others?
PR: No ... All of them! Because what you are going for is what you are doing. What I'm looking for is the process, and so going through the process is it.

PG: Alright! Are there times when the process has been more successful than others?
PR: I really don't know about that. There are records I will listen to over and over and enjoy certain things about. But then you move on, the music changes for me from week to week. I've been happy with the recent recordings of Moksha and my new solo bass CD Listen.

PG: Anything else you would like to add?
PR: It's a shame that we live in a world where so much art exists and yet so much of it is never seen or heard. Creativity is all around us and perhaps more people would be able to get so much from this art if they were exposed to it. You have to be inquisitive and find the keys to get in to the art, through playing or whatever. Be honest with yourself and don't tolerate bullshit. Because that's when it all goes wrong as an artist, when the ego comes in and it's me, me, me! Forget that and just get on with it.

Philip Gibbs (September 2002)

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