Heylo Bassers! This is my first installment of my InterMagsView where I sit down and bribe really cool bass players with food and wine to talk to me about really cool stuff!
My first interview is with Mike Visceglia –
Native New Yorker, Mike Visceglia got his professional start touring with Welsh rocker John Cale (Velvet Underground). Mike has been the primary bassist for Suzanne Vega since 1985, and/or has performed with Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Avril Lavigne, Jonatha Brooke, Jorma Kaukonen, Phoebe Snow, Dar Williams, Bette Midler, among many others. He continues to be an active member of the New York music scene, current bass player for the Broadway hit show “Kinky Boots”, and a published author of “A View From the Side.” Mike is having a reading, performance event for “A View From the Side” this Sunday, April 26th at Cafe Vivaldi from Noon-2pm.
Mags: Alright – I’ve never interviewed anyone before so…
Viscegs: …and we’re in an Italian restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen…
Mags: I figured that we’d just hang out and do what we usually do, which is me just asking you a bunch of questions.
Mags: So…do you remember the first time that we met?
Viscegs: Um…you say that we met actually before I thought we met. I remember meeting you in the park. Is that right?
Viscegs: In Madison Square Park.
Mags: Yeah. I knew what you looked like because John Carey told me that I should I take a lesson, and go to your clinic, and that I should try to see you play. And then I looked you up on the internet, and I saw you at the park and I went up and introduced myself. I said, “Hey! Are you Mike Visceglia?! I’m Margaret!” And you were like, “Oh – you’re weird!”
Viscegs: I said, I said, “What kind of wine is that?”
Mags: Hahaha! Oh my god… Yeah, and then I went to your clinic, and it was probably the best clinic that I’ve ever been to.
Viscegs: I…I don’t remember it! Ha!
Mags: I don’t believe that! So, I remember taking lessons from John Carey and he would talk about how great of a player you are. And I said to John, “Well, maybe you should take a lesson from Mike?” He said something along the lines of, “If I was to take a lesson from Mike, I would want to ask him what his approach is to songwriting and writing bass parts to music.”
Mags: And I thought was like, a really great question, and I’ve never asked you that.
Viscegs: That is kind of like my meat-and-potatoes, anyway. So, if I’m known for anything, it would be that. I would guess.
Mags: Yeah. So…
Viscegs: You’re asking me that?
Mags: Yeah – I’m asking you that!
Viscegs: So, the first thing that you have to do, I believe, is look at the lyrics of the song so you can get the intent of what the composer/singer is going for, and that gives you kind of a way into whatever emotion is infused into the song. And then the second thing would be to listen to the melody as much as you can and try to come up with ideas that are both rhymically pertinent, but also complement the melody without stepping on it. You’ll notice when there are like, stubs in phrases or holes in the rhythm, or whatever, and if something in the arrangement is not making a statement, it gives you an opportunity to make some kind of statement based on the rhythm, harmony, melody, lyric – that kind of thing. So, that’s where I think, if you’re playing with a singer-songwriter, that should be your goal.
Mags: Yeah – trying to make the puzzle fit; the pieces of the puzzle.
Viscegs: The puzzle is um, your job is subservient to the song, though. The puzzle isn’t about you being the biggest piece.
Mags: Yeah, that’s why bass players have the smallest egos!
Viscegs: And the biggest…Oh, nevermind!
Mags: Hahaha! Awesome. So, alright. Let me see what else. I have a bunch of questions that I thought of on my way here. Speaking of bass lines, most people know you with your work with Suzanne Vega. Did you write the bass part to “Luka”?
Viscegs: MmmHmm…I did.
Mags: Do you want to talk about that creative process?
Viscegs: Well, that was an interesting recording because we were up in Cape Cod. Suzanne owned a house there. We all went up there for a bunch of days at a time. We just rehearsed parts, came up with parts…and for some reason when we got to the B Section of that song, when it went to the 6th minor chord, I came up with that little line, and it’s kind of a signature line. It sticks right out in the hole of the song, and it becomes..um, to me, a sort of a composition. People remember that bass line because it’s a melodic line. It kind of outlines the minor chord, but it ends on the 9 of the minor. It can hold up by itself, so it becomes kind of a pleasant compositional device. So, I’m proud of that, and people remember that. Even to this day I get compliments about that.
Mags: Yes. It’s great. I also think during that time period when people were recording…and the mix – the bass isn’t buried. I mean, the bass is really out there – supportive and focusing on rhythm, melody, and harmony.
Mags: Whereas today, sometimes we listen to modern music, and the bass role is just kind of an underlining rumble.
Viscegs: I always try to find moments where I can kind of assert myself. And I think that is kind of my signature. And I hope that people who hire me, hire me because of those reasons. I try not to make the bass a pedestrian instrument. I try to come up with little ideas that the singer’s like “Oh! Well, Mike’s doing that…”
Mags: I agree. When I hear you play, or see you play, it always sticks in my mind how respectful you are to the singer and to the song.
Viscegs: That’s my role. I’m not a chops-y, solo-y kind of guy. So, I think that when you’re playing with a singer, the vocal and lyrics is all about the song, and you should never interfere with that. Or be pointing the finger saying “Hey! Me, me, me!” No. That’s not what you do. It’s really all about the vocalist, and the song, and the lyrics, and the phrasing, and the accompaniment.
Viscegs: You know what’s funny. You know who was a really big fan of “Luka”? Prince.
Mags: Oh wow!
Viscegs: Yeah. He even came to see us when we played in Minneapolis. He came specifically for that song. He just appeared, kind of on the side of the stage. When we played that song in the set, once he heard it, he left. He then wrote Suzanne a really nice letter about that song. He really liked it. It’s good that it resonated far and wide…
Mags: Well, yeah, it is a really powerful song. I remember when the video came out, and even as a young girl, I might not have understood what the song was essentially about, but it moved me. It was really powerful.
Viscegs: And to think that it was a hit song; it got to #3 in the country, it was Grammy nominated, and it was about child abuse.
Mags: I know…
Viscegs: I mean, that was then, but it goes to show you that you don’t have to have a silly song, as many of them are today, to be a hit song. If you just get the right – if you frame it the right way, which that song did.
Mags: Agreed. So, did you play on “99.9 Fahrenheit Degrees”? On that album?
Viscegs: I played only one, I think, one or two songs on that record…because at that point she had hired Mitchell Froom to come in. Not only did he become the producer, and the bandleader, he also ended up marrying her. So, he had very specific ideas on what he wanted to hear, and who he wanted to hear, and he brought in a lot of different musicians to play on that album.
Mags: You still kept on playing with her after that album?
Viscegs: Yeah. The reason for that was he had a bunch of gigs that were booked already, and there was no real band at that point. So, he volunteered his services to play keyboards, and he wanted to play with her live, and she decided she wanted to keep me around because it represented continuity for her. So, that’s why I kind of made the cut. Mitchell actually wound up convincing her to get rid of the other guys in the band that had played some on the “Luka” album, and some on the “Days of Open Hand” album.
Mags: Oh wow.
Viscegs: At that point the “Days of Open Hand” album, we really felt like a band. But Mitchell came in and he decided that I don’t really like this band, and I want to use different people. And uh, I was the only one that made the cut for that specific reason.
Mags: Yeah, I can see how that must have been difficult to see the band switch hands, and I loved the early stuff with Marc Shulman on guitar. But it’s really cool that you made the cut. For me as a fan, I loved the 99 album. That’s my favorite Suzanne album, and I have a clear memory of being a teenager and going to my girl friend’s house, and her older sister had that album…I knew “Luka” just casually because, ya know, it’s part of the American fabric of your life. But when that album came out it was just so cool. When an older friend tells you what’s cool, and you have to check out this, that really stays with you. Do you remember when you were growing up any artists that, ya know, maybe the older kids got you hip into? That you were like “Oh wow! That’s a great band! Thanks for letting me know!”
Viscegs: Um…you know, not so much. I was really an explorer. I went out and found all these eclectic things. I tried to be like the guy who was that guy who found all the oddities that were out there. I really got into the esoteric English bands, and the eccentric American bands. I was really into Captain Beefheart. A lot of the bands on the Bizarre Label – Frank Zappa. I was really into that. So, I can’t really remember anyone telling me about something that I didn’t know about, and that I was really grateful about hearing…because I kind of explored all that myself. That was my thing; to try to be different from anybody else. To find the stuff that was really cool. Not that stuff that was just around – that was just popular.
Viscegs: To find the oddities.
Mags: That’s cool. So, you were the guy!
Viscegs: I was the guy!
Mags: I know the story about when you first started playing the bass, and how your dad kind of put a band together and you were able to play in the garage, but regardless of you and your friends jamming in the garage…at what point in your life did you know that you wanted to be a bass player, or that you knew that you were always going to play the bass? Was there a pivotal moment?
Viscegs: Yeah. Two things. When I was about 11, maybe 12, my father had friended a bass player from Czechoslovakia who had emigrated from there. He actually had escaped from Communist Czechoslovakia. He was an upright bass player. He came to America, and he associated himself and started playing with a lot of very, very big jazz people. Like Herbie Mann, Sarah Vaughan, Chico Hamilton, and he was a very nice guy – he’s still around. He’s well into his 80’s now. He invited me and my father to a recording session that he was doing with Chico Hamilton in Manhattan. I remember that well, and he was playing bass. That was a pivotal moment that I knew that this was a cool lifestyle, that this is what I wanted to do. Also, I remember going to see a couple of concerts. One was at, what was then called Garden State Art Center, I was again young, at the amphitheater sitting on the lawn watching Herbie Mann and his band play. Herbie Mann, the jazz flutist, and I was like, “this is a world where I want to be.” There was also a series of concerts in Central Park when I was in high school called the Schaeffer Concerts, which had a combination of all kinds of eclectic and great acts. I remember just going on a summer’s night and watching some great rock shows like Jethro Tull, Jeff Beck, The Band, all these cool people. I was like, “this is it. This is it for me.” I kind of knew my whole life since I was twelve that I was going to be a bass player.
Mags: Oh wow. What point in your life did you realize that you could actually make a living out of this?
Viscegs: I haven’t realized that yet!
Mags: Ha! So, there must have been some moment where you went from struggling to being able to pay your bills.
Viscegs: Well, there were a lot of leaps of faith. You know, I remember in 1982-83-84, I was playing with Flo and Eddie who were also The Turtles. If you remember them – “Happy Together” and all of that. And I knew that that was the kind of thing that could go on forever, and actually, it still does.
Mags: Yeah, definitely.
Viscegs: They’re in their late sixties, early seventies – and still playing. But it was kind of a glass ceiling kind of thing, and I had heard of this hip-girl singer in Manhattan named Suzanne Vega. She was holding auditions and she just got signed by A&M Records. And so I went and auditioned and I got that. There were a lot of unknowns to that because she was brand new. But I kind of felt that I had to leave the security of the Flo and Eddie, and The Turtles thing to explore a bigger world. I made that leap of faith. Who knew? Suzanne Vega could have lasted 6 months and could have been over, but it lasted for me twenty-seven years.
Mags: That’s incredible.
Viscegs: I did twenty-seven years with her. Of course she’s still going, and I’ve kind of moved on to a different thing, but you just have to once in a while take those calculated risks based on intuition and desire, and see what happens.
Mags: When you stopped playing with Flo and Eddie and took the leap of faith with Suzanne, where were you living?
Viscegs: I was living at home.
Mags: Oh! You were?!
Viscegs: Wait – let me think about that. No, I wasn’t! I’m sorry. I was living on my own, I had a roommate, and I remember getting her first record. I was listening to it, and I was trying to think – “Should I do this? Should I do this? Should I do this?” This was 1985. And you know, my parents being the traditionalists, half-way traditionalists, they were like, “Stay with the safe thing, stay with the secure thing”. I was living with my friend, and we were listening to the music, and he really liked the music. I just felt at that point in time, it was the right thing to do.
Mags: What neighborhood was this?
Viscegs: Jackson Heights, Queens
Mags: Oh wow! No, I love that. Talking to people that have lived in New York for so long, and to hear where they were in their life, and what neighborhood they lived in…you can just paint that picture a little bit.
Viscegs: Oh sure – borough boy. I was born in Manhattan, but at that point I lived in Queens.
Mags: Well, a lot of great rock’n rollers came out of Queens. The Ramones…
Viscegs: Johnny Thunders, Simon and Garfunkel, Marcus Miller, Omar Hakim…
Mags: Marcus Miller is from Queens?
Mags: Oh wow!
Viscegs: And of course Run DMC!
Mags: Of course!
Mags: You mention your experiences, which lead you to being a professional bass player were triggered through jazz, but you made a career out of backing singer-songwriters. Were you ever a jazz performer in the early days? If so, was it difficult crossing over to a different genre with Flo and Eddie?
Viscegs: I made a decision early on that I wanted to be in a rock band more than I wanted to learn jazz. So I took what I learned about jazz and brought it with me to the rock band world. When several attempts at ‘Rock World Domination’ only yielded a modicum of success I gravitated toward the singer songwriter world, prompted by my opportunity to play with Suzanne Vega.
Mags: And it has worked out pretty well! Alright – so there are so many things that we can talk about. Your career, in my eyes, is pretty idyllic.
Viscegs: The grass is always greener!
Mags: No, you’ve done a lot of wonderful things. Can you recall your most emotional moment playing the bass?
Viscegs: Yeah, that’s easy. When “Luka” became a hit song at #3. I really felt like I had made a contribution. It was Grammy nominated, and I went to the Grammy’s.
Mags: You went to the Grammy’s? I didn’t know that!
Viscegs: I went to the Grammy’s!
Mags: Oh wow!
Viscegs: We didn’t win, but it was great to be a part of that whole thing, because we almost won! That was when I felt like I had fulfilled a lot of what I set out to do. That was really, kind of “it”.
Mags: Yeah. That’s awesome. You know what I really love about you is that you never stop learning.
Viscegs: No, no…
Mags: No, you never do. Tell me a little bit about what it was like going from backing up singers, you’ve backed up many singers other than Suzanne…
Viscegs: Oh yeah, lots.
Mags: Going from backing up a singer-songwriter, or being in a rock band, to playing on Broadway. That’s a big, big jump.
Viscegs: The biggest part of it is, is that it’s very, very structured, and it’s very, very predictable. And that is something in my entire career that I have not had very much of. When you’re out in the singer-songwriter, rock’n roll, pop, world, there is very little predictability about it. Everything is kind of fluid, everything can change at a moment’s notice. Your days are only partly structured, and you always have to be flexible. You might have to wake up at 3:00 in the morning because your flight is cancelled, or something’s changed, and you have to travel by train for five hours – and then get on a plane, and go do the gig.
Mags: The glamour!
Viscegs: Yeah! A lot of people don’t realize that. Now, in this world on Broadway, is extremely structured, and it’s the first time in my life – ever – that I’m going to the same place every day to go and play. I’m kind of liking that. I’m liking sleeping in my own bed at night, and getting out at predictable hours, and also getting paid for every minute that you’re in the theatre. It’s a union job, and it’s a cool thing for that. It’s not the most creative job in the world. You’re doing the same thing over-and-over again, but the one thing that I have to say is the quality of the musicianship, and the quality of the performance is very high. There’s a very little window of mistakes, and not kind of hitting your mark every night. We all kind of stay within our very small window, and the bar is very high. That’s very gratifying in of itself.
Mags: That’s great. So, you’re doing the show right now…
Viscegs: It’s “Kinky Boots”, by the way…
Mags: Oh! I’ll put that in – Ha! What else do you have going on?
Viscegs: I ventured out into doing some other things rather than just playing. So, in the last year I wrote two books that were part of an associate degree, accredited curriculum, for M.I. (Musician’s Institute) in Los Angeles for bass performance. That’s what they are using right now, and I helped start that curriculum. I also have been working on-and-off for years on a book called “A View From the Side,” which is a compilation of short stories and interviews with superstar bass players like Marcus Miller, Will Lee, Leland Sklar, Tony Levin, Jeff Berlin, Duck Dunn, Neil Stubenhaus, and many others. That just came out a couple of days ago! I’m having a book release event reading/performance on Sunday April 26th, 2015, and that’s an exciting thing.
Mags: At Café Vivaldi?
Viscegs: Yes, at Café Vivaldi at Noon. I’m always looking for other outlets to do some cool things.
*(Note – Café Vivaldi is located on 32 Jones Street)
Mags: I read, and I have the 1st edition of “A View From the Side,” and I love that book. Did you know every person that contributed their stories before you put the book together, or were there some people that you reached out to without knowing them, and then developed a friendship afterwards?
Viscegs: I did know several of the bass players; I didn’t know all of them. At that point in time I was working with a web designer/marketer named Eric Sczcerbinski and he was the one that reached out to some of the people that I didn’t know. He got them interested in doing interviews with me, which I did. I wouldn’t say that some of those people, like Neil Stubenhaus or Colin Moulding from XTC, are friends of mine. I would say that we’re friendly-ish. They know who I am, and they were very happy to contribute. So it was a combination of elements that made this happen.
Mags: Yeah – I love the book. Were there any excerpts that people gave you that you were really surprised about? That kind of impressed you, or made an impression? Like, “Oh wow! I had no idea – that’s so cool!”
Viscegs: My interview with Leland Sklar, which is actually called “A Conversation with Leland Sklar” because it went on for a long, long time because he really likes to talk, which is great! He told me a story about him and James Taylor.
Mags: Uh, huh…
Viscegs: Which was very surprising to me because he had been the bass player for James Taylor since the very beginning when James Taylor was playing just small clubs in L.A., the Troubadour, and what-not. Lee played with James through “Fire and Rain” and some of the big hit songs for more than fifteen years. Lee told me that he and James were very close, and playing with James was a priority. One day Lee got called to play with Phil Collins to play on a record and do a tour, which was going to be about a year-long commitment. So, Lee called James Taylor up and he said that this had occurred and he wanted to defer to James to see if he would be okay with it…or if James was going to be busy that he would pass on the Phil Collins thing. James Taylor gave Lee his blessing and James was like, no – that’s cool, we’re not going to be that busy, so you might as well do the Phil Collins thing. So, Lee signed a contract and he went out and did the record, and started the Phil Collins tour. Then a few months into the tour he got a call from James Taylor, saying “Hey! Leland, what are you doing?” And Lee’s like “We spoke about this – I’m doing this Phil Collins tour…” and James is like “I’m thinking of doing this, that, and the other thing, and are you available?” And Lee goes, “Well, I’m not available. I told you about this, and I signed a contract.” And James Taylor asked, “Can you get out of it?” And Lee says “No, I can’t get out of it! I need to be respectful of it, and you said it was okay to do, so I did it.” James Taylor said “okay” and he hung up the phone, and Leland Sklar never heard from him again. He was replaced. He never got a phone call, he never got notification that he was being replaced, and that went on for many, many years. I think the only time Lee heard from James, and they had a reconciliation, was when Carol King and James Taylor did The Troubadour Tour.
Mags: But that was like in 2012?
*(Note – It was actually 2010).
Viscegs: Yeah – that was recent history…and Lee Sklar was hired to be the bass player, and I think that that was the first time Lee had heard from James in all that time. That was a big surprise.
Mags: Yes, that’s a fascinating story.
Viscegs: That’s a great story. It’s also in my book.
Mags: Well, I’m looking forward to picking up edition #2.
Viscegs: Edition #2 has some extra text, some updates, and it also has a lot of photographs of the bass players and a couple of other things that were not in the initial edition. This book was published through an actual publisher, and it will be available on Amazon, in Guitar Center…
Mags: Guitar Center? Oh wow!
Viscegs: …in Barnes and Noble and various places around the world.
Mags: You can send me a link, and I’ll let everyone know where to pick it up.
*(Note – This is the part of the interview where Mike said that the lady sitting next to us is Patti Smith. We gave each other a series of “Oh MY GOD! Is it her? It can’t be? Oh MY GOD – It’s her!” Then the lady turned around and it was not her, and we laughed uncontrollably that we were both so star-struck at the possibility of Patti Smith eating spaghetti next to us at Don Gionvanni’s on 44th and 9th.)
Viscegs: Just kidding!
Mags: That’s fucking hysterical!
Mags: Alright, a couple more questions. I call you my mentor, and you’ve been such a great friend to me – you know, you’re not just a great bass teacher, but you’re like – you know, a girl friend!
Viscegs: I’m a girl friend!
Mags: Yeah, you’re a girl friend! I call you up, and not only do you advise me with bass playing, but also in life. Have there been any teachers that have affected you in ways that you have affected me in my journey?
Viscegs: My father was the biggest teacher because he always set an example about giving, giving himself to other people. I have no qualms about giving my time, and my experience, and whatever I can to help other people. I also had a music teacher who was an amazing, amazing person. He wasn’t a bass player. He was a pianist and a guitar player who was self-taught and was a genius. He was also a political activist. He taught philosophy and economics at the New School and at the Henry George School of Social Science, and he never even graduated high school. He did all of this on his own. Our lessons would go as long as four or five hours. They would go from music to philosophy to economics to politics and back and forth. I would just sit there and take notes. He developed a profound influence on my thinking and my actions.
Mags: What was his name?
Viscegs: Bob Bianco.
Mags: Is he alive?
Viscegs: No, no…he’s not alive anymore. He passed away a longtime ago. He was a really, really interesting and brilliant guy. One of the few geniuses that I’ve really met in my life. He also taught Mike Brecker, Eddie Palmieri, and a number of other great musicians.
Mags: Do you remember any specific lesson that Bob taught you?
Viscegs: The most important thing Bob Bianco taught me was that most of what I was taught in school was wrong and always have a healthy distrust of government.
Mags: That’s awesome. Wow. I can say that you pretty much taught me the same.
Mags: Okay, you’re on a desert island, you only can bring one bass and one amplifier. That’s, assuming there is electricity. Any bass and any amplifier in the history of bass and amplification. Go!
Viscegs: Well, I have to say that even though I own an original ’62 Jazz Bass, I have been playing my Lakland Joe Osborn Jazz Bass for so long now that it’s become a real, real friend to me. I feel so comfortable and it’s a part of me. I’m a really big fan of Aguilar right now – Aguilar electronics. It would have to be some combination of their bass heads and their cabinets.
Mags: Like a db 750?
Viscegs: No, probably a tone hammer 500, with a twelve inch cabinet, or two twelves, or a four-ten cabinet. One of those. That would probably be it.
Mags: Cool! Alright – another desert island type of question…You can play in any band. They need a bass player – either contemporary or past – in the history of modern music. Anyone. Any band, any songwriter – any singer. Anyone, and you can use your desert island rig!
Viscegs: Oh boy! That’s a tough question. I would always have to go back and say The Beatles.
Mags: Ah…right? God – I was just listening to them last night, and their arm of their influence –
Mags: It’s timeless.
Viscegs: It’s timeless. The music and the songs and their vocals and their lyrics move me and they will continue to do that until I die.
Mags: Any particular Beatles era, or just in general – you’ll take it all?
Viscegs: Well, they only had a nine year –
Mags: Yeah, but it could be their early R&B days –
Viscegs: Maybe not the very, very early years, but I would say the late middle period – anything from Sgt. Pepper’s, Magical Mystery Tour, Rubber Soul…
Mags: Yeah, yeah, sure.
Viscegs: That’s it. It doesn’t get any better than that!
Mags: Awesome! Thanks for having dinner with me and a glass of wine.
Viscegs: A glass of wine? The bottle’s empty!
Viscegs: Thank you! It’s always a pleasure!
See you on the low end!