NO TREBLE: Bassist Redefined an Interview with The Mars Volta & Big Sir’s Juan Alderete
Juan Alderete is a man who stays busy. After getting his break with thrash metal outfit Racer X, Alderete now contributes the low-end to progressive rock giants The Mars Volta, whose new album Noctourniquet hit stores this week. The record marks the band’s sixth effort anchored by Aldererte, who joined their ranks in 2003.
The Mars Volta ‘Noctourniquet’
Additionally, Big Sir released its third album, Before Gardens After Gardens, in early February. The album was created after Alderete and collaborator Lisa Papineau were both diagnosed with serious illnesses: Alderete with polychythemia vera, and Papineau with Multiple Sclerosis. Three weeks before the album was released, Papineau was also diagnosed with cancer.
“I wake up and I thank God every day – and God meaning everybody’s God who looks down on me,” Alderete said. “I can’t believe how fortunate I am to wake up every day and feel good enough to go play music and do what I do.”
A veritable gear guru, Alderete is also launching a new website called PedalsAndEffects.com, in which he will give advice on building pedal boards, how different pedals sound, and how to get the best sounds possible out of your effects.
We phoned Alderete at his house the morning after Big Sir played a special in-store concert at Hollywood’s legendary Amoeba Records to get the latest from this exciting bass player.
Congratulations on the new Big Sir album, Before Gardens After Gardens. It’s a really incredible record.
JA: Thanks! It’s something that means so much to me. A lot of people know my band through Mars Volta, but when Lisa [Papineau] and I put this record out, we never thought that Mars Volta fans would get it. We thought we would put it out on Omar [Rodriguez-Lopez]’s label, and it would just sit there, but our other record is jumping in sales because people are finding the new one and liking it, so they check out the old one as well.
I’m not going to say we’re a band that’s in the black yet, but I anticipate we will be if we continue to promote it and do videos for it. Hopefully if we go on tour, we can continue to get that support to spread our word, and basically our word is that no matter what you’re going through, you’ve gotta keep that dream alive. If you’re at a day job and you really want to create something really beautiful in a graphic artist program or something, or you’re a photographer and you want to take the most beautiful picture you’ve ever seen… as long as you have that inspiration, it drives you.
I’ve seen what happens with Lisa, and how debilitated she gets. But when you see her and she has shows, or remix records to take care of, or our vinyl coming out on a really great label called Neurotic Yell. She’s got all this work on her plate, and it really, really keeps your mind off your illness and keeps your mind on what you’re to do on this Earth, which is create and be an artist.
What’s your writing process for Big Sir like?
The process really hasn’t changed from our first album. For the first song I wrote for the group, I was working with this guy Bruce Bouillet, who was the second guitarist in Racer X. He had this drum loop he showed me that [became] the “Nonstop Drummer” drum loop. As soon as I heard it, I said, “Can I record on that?” And he said, “Yea, go for it.” I grabbed my fretless and I wrote the entire song. He asked me how I did that, and I said, “I don’t know man, drum loops just give me entire songs sometimes.” I’ll hear a drum loop or a beat and just know what to do with it.
When it comes to “Regions”, nothing has changed. I created that drum loop that was part a [The Mars Volta Drummer] Deantoni Parks part, and part other drum loops I put with it. I went to work, and sure enough, “Regions” came out like within a second. I used to always have this mindset that I was writing for Lisa, so I would get it to a certain point and mail it to her to she what she’d think. If she liked it, I would continue to work on it. Well, I can’t always do that because sometimes she takes it into the computer, cuts it up, and makes an arrangement out of it, then I can’t mess with it anymore because she’s made it something else [laughs].
There’s basically three parts to that song: the main riff, the harmonic bass part where I’m doing the chord changes with harmonics, and there’s the single chord that I hit where she sings over it. I did all that right to the loop, then she cut it up and made the arrangement.
Between your earlier days in Racer X and now with Big Sir and Mars Volta, it seems like your style is constantly evolving.
Well, when I met Paul Gilbert, I wasn’t into heavy metal. I had a couple bands I liked, like Van Halen and AC/DC. I’ve never owned a Black Sabbath album. I’ve heard them all, but I’ve never owned one. I wasn’t into that stuff. When I met Paul, I was into really New Wave and then I was into some prog, but really I was into hip hop. I actually had a 1973 LTD, and it had this big, big trunk with big speakers. I would just bump low-end bass, and it was all early ’80s hip hop that I would play. I was always into hip hop.
So when I met Paul, it just happened that I had the facility to play really fast, and he was looking for a bassist that could play fast. He said, “You wanna make a record?”, so I said, “Sure, why not?”
I came to L.A. to make a career for myself, and here was a record, so I figured I should do it. So I did it and the next thing I knew, I spent the next four years playing heavy metal, even though I wasn’t really big into metal. At a certain point, it becomes all about necessity. So I spent from 1985 when I met Paul ’til probably 1992 playing heavy metal, and I wasn’t into it. My heart wasn’t into it.
The Scream was a band that Bruce Bouillet from Racer X put together. [It was] “Zeppelin-y”, but the image was really of that era, so it looked really cheesy. But we recorded with Eddie Kramer, and we were trying to make more of a retro-rock record in 1990 and 1991. So I was a little bit more familiar with that because it’s what I grew up on as a kid, but it still wasn’t what I wanted to do.
After all that fell apart, I said, “I hate all this. I’m going to redefine myself.” I wasn’t even then sure what I wanted to do, but then we did the second Scream album, which featured more drum loop stuff. There’s a lot of hip hop in there, there was a lot of rock in there. It was a lot of all over the place, and it was just this mish-mash of everything that me and Bruce were into. It didn’t quite work, so I had to refine myself even more. I had lost what I was into, and I wanted to find it again.
Then I joined Distortion Felix, which was a small indie band. Long story short, I realized this was the music I would have been playing had I never joined Racer X. It just developed from there. Then Big Sir started, and I got to do a band that went back to my love of ’80s New Wave. There’s a bass player named Mick Karn who was in a band called Dali’s Car. [That band] was our whole inspiration. It was a beautiful collaboration of a singer and a bass player.
So somewhere in the mid-90s, I met Lisa in another band called Pet. I was just finally doing music I thought I should have always been doing. I was never a metal guy, it was never my heart.
I have a dad who was very heavy-handed on me as far as making something of yourself. So it was a big, big thing for me to quit college to go to music school at the Musician’s Institute. So I was scared. I was like, “I can’t bum my dad out.” When Paul Gilbert said let’s do this record, I didn’t think it would affect me the rest of my career. I don’t look back at it negatively, I look at it all as a growing thing. I mean come on, I still get kids talking to me about Racer X. One thing I’m extremely proud about Racer X is that it was cutting edge. When Paul gave me the very first demo to learn, I thought “I can’t do this, I don’t even know what to think.” It didn’t even sound like metal to me. He was using all these weird voicings on the guitar, but I was up for the challenge. That’s what kept me in Racer X and kept me happy, is that we were always trying to outdo the previous record.
I was still in Distortion Felix and Big Sir when Manny, the guitar player from Distortion Felix met [Mars Volta singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala] at a bar and said, “You should take my bass player, if you guys are looking.” Omar went over there and said, “Why would you give up your bass player?”, and Manny said, “I think he would be perfect in your band. I think he’s exactly what you’re looking for.” So they called me up.
It was this situation where I thought it was a big audition, which is something I really hate to do, but it wasn’t really an audition for anybody else. I think Omar had already settled that I was gonna be it. I showed up and after my first day of auditions, I couldn’t tell what was going on and I said “Do you want me to take my gear?” Omar said, “No, we’re not seeing anyone else today.” So I started to think this wasn’t a big cattle call. I played okay on the second day, but not as good as the first day. I went up to Omar and asked “What do you think?” – not like I was apologizing for not playing as good, but like “do I have a shot at this?”
He said, “Yeah, you better get those bass lines down, because you’re playing with us on the show in two days.”
I said, “So I got the gig?”, and he said “Oh, I didn’t tell you? Yeah, you got the gig.” So I practiced really hard the third day. He called me up and told me how the band works, and I was down.
So it’s all about re-creation. Even in Mars Volta, I started out playing vintage-style bass, then on Bedlam in Goliath it got way out there, doing tons of crazy shit on the bass. Most of the new record now is flatwounds, and has little effects on it. I use flatwounds on a J-bass, and my main fretless has roundwounds.
What’s the whole vibe of the new album? What can fans expect?
Well, it’s hard for me to speak on it because it was so long ago. We recorded a lot of it three or four years ago, so it’s hard for me to remember everything. It’s not like I have a lot of time in the studio. Omar just sits me down and wants to get it over with. This one more than ever.
With Frances The Mute, we spent a ton of time doing bass. Same thing with Amputechture. Then Octahedron was kind of weird. It started getting to the point where he didn’t want to spend a lot of time on it, he just wanted to blast through it. The last record was just like, “Let’s get this thing done.” It wasn’t a lot of fun, but my stuff on there was fun because I got to do more of what I do on the bass instead of taking complete directive. He would show me the basic skeleton, and then I would make it my own. But, a lot of the songs that I had to overdub at the end, he was just like “play it note for note.”
He told me he said in a recent Guitar World interview that he remembers when we did bass how bummed out I was just because he was already in a different head space. He wasn’t happy about the album taking that long. He was just kind of burned out on it. It’s hard to work on something you created three years ago and then go back to it again. So he just wasn’t in a good head space to do it. At one point I even asked him, “Can you just leave me in the studio with the engineer and I’ll cut it all, then you just okay it? Because the energy is just so dark.”
It was hard for me to feel good while cutting it because of him sitting there not wanting to be there. Omar is a guy who is working on things that are way beyond anything that we’re doing now. He’s just an artist like that. He gets bored easily and has to constantly be on the verge of creating something new for himself.
I know you’ve got tons, but can you give us a rundown of your gear?
Juan Alderete with his Fender JazzWell, I’ll go over what I had for the most recent tour with Soundgarden. I’ll start with this: I have the greatest company on the entire Earth called Ampeg USA behind me, and I don’t say that like I’m trying to pimp them. I say that because they’re unbelievable in the kind of support that they offer me. I can’t thank them enough.
So when we travel, we used to fly with our gear everywhere in the early days of Mars Volta, and we spent a ton of money doing it. We were always on the verge… if we had to cancel a show, we would not make money on that tour because you’re always riding that line of red and black. Now we don’t [have to] do that. We have the gear available to us in Europe or Australia or Japan, and Ampeg makes that happen. A lot of times, it’s whatever the rental company has. That was last year’s touring, so when I’m playing Sonisphere, if you see it on YouTube or whatever, that’s gear that Ampeg got there for me and that’s the first time I saw it. It’s always an SVT, hopefully it’s an SVT VR.
On the Soundgarden tour when I actually got to choose my gear, Ampeg sent me these PF-500 heads that are like small little flip-top looking heads. They’re all solid-state, then they sent me these cabinets. I had two 1×15” cabinets and two 2×10” cabinets, so it was a 15” and a 2×10” on top of that, then another 15” and a 2×10” on top of that and then two of the PF-500 heads. That’s what I used for the Soundgarden tour. It’s new stuff and it looks cool.
We’re not as loud anymore. Omar plays out of a combo amp, but when I first joined the band he played out of two giant Orange guitar rigs, and his decibel level would always be around 130 or 140. Back then, I had to have two SVTs running with two SVT cabinets, and I lost a lot of my hearing. I don’t recommend it at all; I have really bad ringing in my ears from it. You know, if you do two or three hour sets blasting that loud, you’re going to do damage to your hearing. No one can come out of that without hearing damage. Now we’re not as loud so I can do something like I’m doing.
Pedal boards had to get shrunken down, too. Omar uses the [Line 6 M9 multi-effects pedal] so he has a lot of pedals with him in that. When I was on tour I used it as well, but I had a little bit more trouble getting the sounds that I wanted. It has a lot of really great stock sounds, but I use a lot of weird stuff that that thing just doesn’t have. Like I use the [DOD] Meat Box – there’s no way anyone is going to recreate it. If they did, they’d make tons of money.
I had an A/DA Flanger on my pedal board. No flanger sounds like that, and no mod is ever going to sound like that. And so I had stuff that I knew essentially would sound good in a mod, but then I had the M9 for covering my vibrato pedal, the phaser pedal, and delay… it’s great for all the stuff like that.
But like the Sovtek Fuzz will always be on my pedal board until I find a fuzz pedal that I prefer more. My compressor pedal is the same thing, nobody makes a compressor pedal that sounds as good as that. Dunlop Bass Wah, always gonna have that. Maybe an Electro-Harmonix Bass Microsynth. That’s pretty much it, but we played mostly the new record so it’s mostly flatwounds and direct bass [laughs].
As far as basses, for that whole tour I used my 1964 Fender Jazz and my fretless PJ which is either a ’70 or a ’71. I’ve said in the past it’s a ’71, but I got weird about it, so I looked up the serial numbers again and it could be either a ’70 or a ’71. Every time I look at ’71s or more, they tend to always be alder and I’m pretty damn sure that this is an ash body, because it weighs a ton. I don’t remember alder ever getting this heavy, and it’s just got that ash low end. I used that on the tour and on the record.
The only thing I’m using now that I’ll probably tour with… Japan still makes 32˝ ’62 reissue Jazz basses. So they’re 32˝ instead of 34˝ scale. It really helps me.
As I’m getting older, I’m not able to do the stuff that I used to do say, 15 or 20 years ago. I switch to a 32˝ and there it is again. A lot of it is that my left hand just isn’t as fast. I’m 48, and so I’m not going to shred [Racer X’s] “Scarified” on a 34˝ as cleanly as I used to as when I was 21 [laughs].
Someone sent me a YouTube clip of Racer X from the Oakland Omni show we did, and you can really hear my bass on it. I’ll watch it, and I say, “I literally can’t play that fast anymore.” It just happens over time. I mean, I’ve done a lot of damage, too. I’ve broken my wrist riding my fixed gear bike, I busted my left shoulder up… A bass on your shoulder that’s been busted up slows your hands down because the nerves from your hand go through your shoulder.
My left hand isn’t as fast and my right wrist isn’t as fast, so I have to make compromises. The 32˝ sounds as good as any 34˝ Fender Jazz I’ve ever owned. The quality of a Fender from Japan is awesome, so I don’t really see it as a compromise at all.
Now the other thing I was going to say, and this is for nerds for sure, is that the 32˝ has a different fundamental sound. The bass player that used to be in The Roots, Owen Biddle, talked about this in his interview. When I read it, I said “Yes! Exactly.” I’ve believed that for the last four or five years when I started really getting back into short-scales. The fundamental low end is completely different than a longer scale bass, because what happens on a 34˝ or a 35˝ is that the string is super taut. You can almost think of it like a piano’s low note. It’s got that John Entwistle, real metallic almost sound.
But when you go to a 32˝, the string starts wavering more, and so when you hit it it’s almost like an upright. It covers so much more low-end frequency. When you throw flatwounds on it, it’s upright-sounding. So that’s why I think when you hear the new Mars Volta record, that low end is just in its own world. You know, Steve Harris played flatwounds. Geezer Butler played flatwounds. And there’s a reason why they do it: it doesn’t go into the guitar realm. It sits in its own world, and I swear every sound man in the world will go, “Oh, flatwounds? Awesome!” And you’ll make that PA system every time.
When I’d have a more metallic sound during the [Bedlam in Goliath] days, the only reason I went to that was because the drummer was so fast and overplaying all the time that the only way I could cut is if I was real sharp. You wouldn’t have ever heard any of the fast stuff I did on Bedlam had I not made it more metallic and sharp. With this record, Deantoni plays with a lot more space so I can use flats. I always wanted to, but flats on a 34˝ make the strings even more taut, so say goodbye to more of your speed, you know what I mean? Or more to your stamina. Really it’s more stamina because I don’t play a lot of fast stuff in Mars Volta, but the stamina, man. That Steve Harris gauge… man, that dude must have the strongest hands in the world. I played his gauge, and on a P-bass, it was brutal! I don’t have the strength for that. I think for this tour I’ll take out the ’62 reissue Jazz Bass from Japan, and I’ll take out my fretless.
You mentioned you have some pain in playing. Do you have a good warmup routine?
Yeah, I sure do. After the Frances tour in 2005, I remember I got home and had to get back to domestic life, so I was folding clothes. I was like, “Man, why does this hurt my hands so much? I think I’d better go see somebody.” So I went and I saw a hand specialist. She had me do all these different tests, and every test showed that I had tendonitis in my left hand. Back then, I had an unhealthy lifestyle. And [it was] also because I played a 14 pound P-bass. I don’t own it anymore, but that bass just crushed me. I just wasn’t healthy.
Long story short, they showed me all these great exercises. First of all, you’ve gotta be hydrated. Number two, you’ve gotta warm up before you play. You have to get your cardio up, you’ve got to get your heart rate up, so run upstairs, do push ups, sit ups, whatever. Do stuff that gets your heart rate up, and then when you walk onstage, your blood is already flowing. It’ll keep your body in tune. Your nervous system will be fired up.
Then for stretching, you can do yoga stretching. It’s hard to say over the phone what I do, but a lot of it is just being very conscious of not overextending. You can find a lot of it online, but just make sure you’re not overextending. I’m very hyper-mobile, which is why I can play fast, but I can easily injure myself. I think it’s just always good to stay healthy and stay aware of your body and listen to it. Otherwise, it’s just going to lead to injury.
What’s your approach to fretless melody?
Well, I think the worst thing is to hear fretless players with bad intonation. Don’t get me wrong, I believe there’s really great bass players out there who are playing fretless, but I hear them and I think, “Man, I don’t understand why their intonation is so squirrelly.” I think that number one you’ve gotta work on your intonation. I think there’s a lot of guys that think that it’s just close enough. Upright is a lot harder to have perfected intonation, but I just think that everyone should have the ability to stay in tune when you need to. A lot of that comes just from checking [the note] with open strings, or maybe practicing it with a tuner. You could play a melody, then end on a note and look at the tuner to see if your intonation is there. But really, I think the easiest way is to always check it with other instruments that don’t waver in pitch.
As far as melody, I don’t know. The fretless with me… well I just always got down with it. If I sat down with it right now, I’d probably hit one note and the next thing you know I’d have something. It’s just a more expressive instrument. I think a lot of it comes from listening to classical music when I was in college. Not that I don’t listen to it anymore, I just don’t listen to it as much. But you know, you listen to it and hear what cellos and big basses do, and you want to say “I want to sound like that.”
I think that having a good understanding of harmony and theory always helps, too. I’m not going to lie, I’m not a good one for playing jazz or playing all the chord changes. I’m not good at that, and it’s not my thing. It’s not because of lack of discipline, it’s lack of desire when I was starting out. I could go back and learn it, but I’ve just gotten busy. When I was at Musician’s Institute, I just wanted to shred to keep up with Paul so I would just practice most of my time playing fast. I think if people can really devote their time to playing the changes, that will help them become more melodic.
You’ve got so many pedals and effects. Do you get inspiration from the pedals, or do you just use the pedals to realize your inspiration?
Juan Alderete Pedals and Effects
I think it goes both ways. When I hear something I’m working on and I go, “Oh, that would be tight if it sounded like this.” Or right now, there’s this song that Cedric has on his playlist called “System” by Terri Lynn. I heard that song and I said, “Man, I’m gonna use that bass sound!” [laughs] It’s a synth, but I’m gonna get that sound on my bass, and even a little bit more gnarly sounding. I got inspired by that.
Or if I get a new pedal and I start playing it I’ll get inspired. The latest pedal that I got was this DeArmond phaser. They only made it for a year. It’s the most pointed, sweep-y phaser and it’s just insane. I’m gonna use it a ton on whatever I record next. Sometimes, like the vibrato pedal Omar used a lot on guitar, so we decided we’ll try it on bass. We tried it, and I went, “I gotta go get one.” I use that vibrato pedal so much. “Regions” on the new Big Sir record – that’s fretless with vibrato pedal. It’s better than chorusing to me. Jaco used to use chorusing, but chorusing sounds so dated to me when I put it up to a vibrato pedal.
So it goes both ways. Sometimes the song tells me “Yo, throw this on me” and then I’ll figure out how to configure something. Then sometimes I’ll hear a pedal and say, “I know what I’m using this on.” Because they’re so expensive you have to go to good stores that have boutique pedals. Any of the Boss stuff you can look up on YouTube and you’ll hear what it sounds like. Any of the boutique ones, you gotta go in there and check them out. I think a lot of boutique pedal stores will be popping up in the future. It’s like fixed gear bicycle culture. They have these stores that are coffee houses/bike stores and nerds go in there and drink coffee and talk about bike parts. Well, imagine that same concept with pedals. Drinking espresso and talking about pedals… you could nerd out for hours! [laughs]
Who is your favorite bass player out there right now?
Jonathan Hischke, without a doubt. He was in Broken Bells, and he was in Hella when we toured with System of a Down. He’s in Dot Hacker right now, which has Josh Klinghoffer from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. When their new record comes out, he’s just going to be gigantic in the bass world because the sounds he does on that record [are amazing]. It’s one of those things where he brought the record over and played it, then I said, “Oh shit, how did you get to make a record like this?” It’s not an easy feat to convince your band to let you go crazy on a record.
His story was that first of all, you have to be in a band with your biggest fans. When he told me that, I literally had a tear come to my eye. I mean, Big Sir is that and I can do whatever I want, but I have to make sure I build this foundation for my singer Lisa. I’ve been in the Mars Volta for how long now, and I’m not saying they’re not my biggest fans. They do, of course, love my playing and respect my musicianship, but it’s not my band and they would never let me do that. On Frances, I kind of got to do some stuff, but I’ve never really gotten to do what I want to because it’s Omar’s thing. He has a vision, and I would never ever step on that.
It was just emotional for me because I would love for that to happen someday, where everyone turns to me and says “Go crazy.” To have that situation where you have three other dudes in your band but they’re all encouraging you to break new ground and go crazy, I would love to have that. I had that somewhat in Vato Negro, because Matt the drummer would always be like, “Dude, that’s awesome. Let’s do that.” He was always very positive and encouraging of me. I miss that, because that’s what makes great innovation happen.
Hischke’s record is mind-boggling. On one track he did four bass tracks. There are bass sounds like you’ve never ever heard. Since Josh is in a band with Flea, Flea heard it and flipped out. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter. I’m just his biggest fan. He’s such a musical dude. He’s the reason why I play the Meat Box, he’s the reason why I play the Multiplay Digitech pedal, he’s the reason why I have that DeArmond phaser. He has pedals that I use, too. I mean it goes back and forth. When he and I met we were like brothers.
Any tips on bass players trying to find their sound through pedals?
You know, there’s a lot of bass players getting into pedals right now, and they just buy all these pedals. I’m like, “Did you ever think that just because it’s a low-pass filter, it may not sound good with bass? I played that pedal, and it sucked!” You’ve gotta find the right low-pass filter, not just the most expensive one, or the one that you see a lot of people using. It’s not that easy. You’ve gotta find the one that sounds best with your bass.
I think that the Sovtek Fuzz sounds best with a P-bass. It doesn’t sound with a J-bass, just a P-bass. But, you’ve really gotta get into it. You can’t just buy pedals and think they’re gonna blanket everything you do, because they’re not.
That vibrato pedal sounds unbelievable when you do the Jaco tone. When you use it on a P-pickup, it sounds too muddled for me. I’m not saying I know everything, but I do believe that I’ve seen these dudes’ pedals, and you’ve got to think full spectrum. I’m doing this website right now called PedalsAndEffects.com, and all this is going to be in there. I just want to help dudes with this. It’s not easy.
I’ve been playing with pedals since the early ’90s. I was always looking for something to make my bass sound like an 808. I used to use a Sadowsky preamp, but I used to use that to get into that low frequency to get that big boomy 808 sound. It didn’t always work, and never made the PA and stuff, so it’s constant trial and error.
Imagine if you have a dude who has been trying to do stuff for 20 years, I’m going to have some ideas that are going to save you some time. I know some people will disagree with me, but I’m taking the traditional passive P-bass and J-basses and I’m going to give you that approach, because that’s the most used approach to bass playing. I guess now a lot a guys are using active pickups, but I’m just not a fan of distorting active pickups. I have yet to this day heard a distortion that sounded good with active pickups. When you distort active pickups, that high end is the most annoying thing. It’s not pleasant, and I don’t think most guys think of it.
Interview for No Treble by Kevin Johnson