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?
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
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
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
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
PG: Does composition
have validity for you as well as improvisation?
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
PG: So why is technique
so important to you?
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
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
PG: You have been
a part of the band Mujician for some 14 years now. Is that band special
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...
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
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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