2003 - Australian Musician

Australian Musician - Bass Edition

Date: 2003
Author: James O'Toole
Featuring: Scott Owen



The Living End are one of Australia’s most successful alternative acts, with a string of successful singles and tours propelling them to the international stage. Scott Owen plays double bass, an instrument rarely seen in popular music and his driving slap is an integral part of the band’s sound. James O’Toole spoke to Scott Owen a few weeks before the release of Modern Artillery, The Living End’s new album.

O'Toole: How and why did you start playing bass?

Owen: I started playing piano first when I was in high school, but I didn’t really take it that far because it was a bit of a chore. I started listening to mum and dad’s Bill Haley and Jerry Lee Lewis records and when I met Chris at high school he was already pretty heavily into the old 50s rock ‘n roll stuff. He was already playing guitar, learning country and rockabilly so I learned some 12 bar blues on piano but I soon realised that was never going to work.

O'Toole: So you started on upright bass without playing electric bass at all?

Owen: I didn’t get an electric bass until a couple of years ago and I very rarely sit down with it. I just don’t feel that comfortable with it, I don’t have the experience and it seems like a waste of time as I’d much rather be playing an upright.

O'Toole: Who were the bass players that initially influenced your playing style?

Owen: First was Lee Rocker from The Stray Cats. That introduced me to Rockabilly in the first place, we wanted to start a band like The Stray Cats that played 50s music but with a bit more energy and attitude. He was my first idol as a bass player and that made me look back and look at all the big bands from the 50s. The bass player from Bill Haley and the Comets was also a big influence on me. After we went a bit stale on the traditional 50s thing we found out about a lot of 80s rockabilly bands and psychobilly bands, who combined punk with really fast slap bass playing, so that was the next thing to try and conquer.

O'Toole: Being self taught how did you initially approach learning to play?

Owen: Chris taught me a lot about notes and I already had a musical ear from piano. I could pick keys and knew about certain scales and stuff. When we first started playing rockabilly music nine out of ten songs were based on twelve bar blues, and nine out of the ten twelve bar blues were in A. It was pretty easy to play without having to think too much about the notes so I could concentrate on getting the feel right, getting the swing thing down.
The more I practiced the more I learned and understood.

O'Toole: What kind of bass are you playing and what’s your live setup like?

Owen: I don’t generally go for really expensive prestige basses. A good bass is all about the wood, the shape and its acoustic value. For recording it needs to be a good bass so I can record acoustically in the studio. The bass I use live has steel strings and I have magnetic pick ups so that means the acoustic value doesn’t matter at all, so then I generally go and buy a bass that is not going to fall apart from being on the road for months and months on end. I found these rockabilly guys in Japan who make these really good pickups I haven’t seen anywhere else. I have EMGs on one and Seymour Duncan on another plus they have made this system that attaches to the end of your fingerboard so that the pickups follow the curve of the strings over the bridge. They have a little preamp built in as well. So I use two sets of pickups, the magnetic plus this little piezoelectric pickup that goes up underneath the back of the fingerboard where the neck joins the body. I run them separately so the EMG or Seymour Duncans pick up the note and the piezo pickup captures the sound of your hand and the strings slapping against the fingerboard to capture the percussive sound. I’m getting a company called King in America to build me a bass from the ground up. They have a luthier and an electronics and pickup guy and they’ve designed this EMG pickup system where they actually screw the pickups into the bottom of the fingerboard so it’s all nice and tidy. They also do some funky paint jobs as well.
I run an Ampeg SVT Four Pro, which is a couple of years old. It’s a combination valve and solid state amp. I have a couple of Ampeg 8 x 10 cabinets which I run from one amp then another SVT Four Pro which is dedicated to the piezo pickup. I also have 2 x 10 cabinets on top of the 8 x 10s, so the main bass sound comes from the 8 x 10s and the percussive slap sound comes from the 2 x 10s.

O'Toole: Was it a major adjustment to play with your new drummer Andy after playing with Travis for so many years?

Owen: No, I didn’t really have to make many adjustments at all. He’s a very competent drummer, probably a little bit more so than Travis. Travis would improvise a lot and never play the same fill twice, whereas Andy is more of a rock solid, machine-like drummer. He was the first drummer we auditioned and as soon as we jumped in a rehearsal room with him it just felt right.

O'Toole: Would you agree that bass is a very underrated instrument? It does have a lot of power to accent and enhance guitar parts while also locking in with the drums.

Owen: Yeah, it is but it has to be done in a team player kind of way. I admire Paul McCartney for that, some of his songs are three note bass lines, but in some of them he’s all over the shop but I think he does it all in a tasteful way. He gives the song what it needs, nothing more, nothing less. I also really admire AC/DC, it’s typical root note bass playing but it’s enough for those songs.

O'Toole: What would you say are the most important qualities for a bass player?

Owen: Groove, having an inner metronome but a human one not a mechanical one. Imagination. The most fun thing about being a bass player is hearing the way two chords are put together and figuring out how to move from one chord to the next.

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