For fans of Progressive Rock, Jazz Fusion, Experimental Rock and Ambient Music, Percy Jones is a familiar and well respected name. Collaborating with some of the most important artists over the past 30 years, he has taken a direct hand in redefining the role of bass guitar in modern music. With his fretless Wal and Ibanez basses, Jones appears regularly in the line-ups of rock’s most creative and influential acts like Soft Machine, The Liverpool Scene , Brand X, David Sylvian, Brian Eno, Steve Hackett, Paranoise, Suzanne Vega, Richard Barbieri and Fovea Hex, to name but a few.
Perhaps known best for his distinctive and almost poetic style of playing, Jones fearlessly takes his bass to places where few players have gone before. Animating his music with rhythmic hammerings, rolling strings and sliding harmonics, Percy Jones creates adventures in sound that have come to be regarded as the defining elements in many of the groundbreaking recordings of the late 70’s and 80’s. My first exposure to Percy’s playing was on the album,”Before & After Science” by Brian Eno. Although he had previously appeared on “Another Green World”, I was not fully aware of this master’s full creative range and influence. Listening now with a more critical ear, it is very clear that Jones’s playing is the central driving force behind much of that music. Wherever he appears, there is an unmistakable energy signature that’s left behind. This is the mark of all truly great players.
We had an opportunity to talk with Percy about his remarkable and distinguished career and of course his most recent project, MJ12 which was formed with long time friend Steven Moses on Drums, Dave Phelps on Guitar& Chris Bacas on Saxophones. The Quartet will be releasing their first album this month along with some special appearances and it promises to be nothing less than remarkable. But then again, with Percy Jones in the mix this will come as no surprise!
May you be inspired!
TM: Hi Percy, thanks for taking time today to talk to us, it’s a real pleasure!
PJ: Well, thanks for inviting me.
TM: So the exciting news here is that there’s a new MJ12 album coming out this month!
PJ: Yes, it’s our first actually.
TM: This album was born and raised on the NYC music scene?
PJ: That’s right; Ive actually known the drummer Steven Moses for quite a long time. Since the 80’s. Back then we were in a band together called, “Noise R-Us” for a while and then we were in a trio together and then we went our separate ways for something like 20 years. I ended up doing some solo gis and we put “Tunnels” together. He was off doing “Alice Donut” and we got back together about 3 or 4 years ago and we were doing improv gigs. The two of us would get together and we’d book some gigs, usually in Brooklyn. We would invite guests to come and sit in. You know, there are so many good players in Brooklyn there was never any shortage people to invite. We did several of these sorts of improv gigs in a variety of DIY places and dive bars and so on (laughs). After a while, I suggested to him, you know, that we should try to write some stuff and make it a little more composition to it. So we gradually started writing bits and pieces, but still keeping a lot of the improv going. Then, at the same time, we settled more on a more permanent line-up. Dave Phelps and Chris Bacas both sat in with us previously and we like their playing, so we ended up with the lineup we have now. Which is 4 of us.
TM: The cuts on the album feature yourself, Dave Phelps, Chris Bacas & Steve Moses but some of the music evolved from improve sessions with other players who are no longer with the ensemble?
PJ: Yeah, that would be fair to say.
TM: The word “improve” can sometimes be a generic catch-all phrase to describe the very intimate dynamics melding of talent. What does it mean to you?
PJ: You’re right, it is used very generically. You could have improve where the music is completely free, a rhythmic, a tonal and with no rules. It can go anywhere. And then you can have another category of improve where its more structured. Theres time and a tone center. That’s probably the 2 extremes of improve. I agree with what your saying though, it’s a loose term.
TM: Were there challenges in taking improvised live music into a structured and costly studio environment?
PJ: Theres definitely a spontaneous thing, you know where you’re going into an area you’ve never been before -like going into the unknown? Theres different ways of doing that some, more extreme than others. You can take that loose form music and record a performance like that, if your lucky! (laughs). You probably know that you can also go into a studio and have a bad day and nothing comes out of it, or if it’s a good day, you make magic.
TM: When you inject production values into the music, is there sense of loss for the spontaneity in the creative process?
PJ: Could be, but not in our case. We would go in and record with no effects being used, you know its pretty much like were paying live, except its being recorded. At the end in the mix down, you can do certain things, you know, production stuff that can enhance the performance. Whether it was structured or improvised.
TM: What is special about this release for you?
PJ: Well, one aspect would be that I haven’t done one (album) in a while. I did 2 solo albums back in the 80’s, that’s over 20 years ago. Tunnels put out 5 cd’s, I left Tunnels several years ago and a lot of time went by. I hadn’t done anything in terms of recordings. I thought, I really had better get off the pot and do something!
TM: In recent years you have been appearing around the city in various venues. NYC has always been a nurturing environment for musicians and artists. After so many years, is there still a sense of “working the scene” for you?
PJ: The good thing about the NY area is that there are so many musicians and so much diversity. There are people from all over the world and all with different musical backgrounds. There used to be so many more venues to play at; CBGB’s was going strong. Noise-R-Us played there frequently. The Bottom Line was another, Brand X played there. There always seemed to be someplace to get a gig. But now, it’s not like that. I think because the rents are so high, it’s very difficult to keep a venue going nowadays.
TM: that’s true, in the 70’s and 80’s there were so many more venues just busting with new music.
PJ: yeah, and the music itself has become much more conservative too. Maybe the lack of venues has contributed to that decline. I’m just guessing there.
TM: Do you feel that commercially there is still a viable market for experimental music?
PJ: There is, but I just think the industry has shrunk. The music may still be out there but it doesn’t get enough exposure. So if people don’t know about it they can’t go and check it out.
TM: Some of your compositions sound elemental in their approach. For example, your album Cape Catastrophe (which is brilliant!) makes music sound almost like a force of nature. It rhythmic and pulses, it’s unpredictable, and it’s an exhilarating experience for the listener. When you’re creating in a solo environment, does the music ever take you to unexpected places?
PJ: Well thank you. Oh yeah! In some ways, it’s like growing a plant. It seems to take a life of it’s own and sometimes you feel like you’re not even in control. It’s growing and developing and you’re sort of just observing and lending a hand to help take it a bit further. It’s a hard thing to describe.
TM: I know, it’s like what happens in the mystery wee creative hours, usually around 3 AM in your headphones, when you think you’re composing but you’re really just on auto pilot.
PJ: Yes! (Laughs).
TM: There are some fine examples of bass innovators who took their instruments to new places by using them in ways that fall “outside of the box”. Did you set out to blaze new trails with the bass in order to stand out or was it a natural progression in your own learning?
PJ: I think for me it was a natural progression. A good example is discovering to just pull the low string over the edge of the finger board. It’s very a tonal, but it’s also very expressive. It adds a real animated quality to the sound. Things like that can really add to the music. If you use it tastefully. Or sliding harmonics can be very musical if done appropriately.
TM: Recently, I saw some videos on YOU Tube with you demonstrating the bass techniques your describing here. I saw the string rolling, it almost sounds like a sitar.
PJ: Yes. I think you are talking about Bass Explorations. Theres an unfortunate story there, too. The drummer got sick the day we were shooting. The camera crew was all set up and we had no drummer. So we had to go find a drummer and rehearse all the material. Sorry I’m digressing.,(laughs)
TM: It’s always the drummer, right?
PJ: (Laughs). We got it done, but it would have been better with the original drummer.
TM: I think its still comes off well though. I think people view these videos to see you you. And they are so interesting, especially for someone who’s followed your music over the years and heard your playing on recordings.
PJ: Yeah, from that point of view I guess you’re right.
TM: For working musicians, has the emphasis moved from establishing recordings and album sales to performance and more flexible or functional applications for music?
PJ: It seems to have moved away from the live spontaneous approach to more of a recorded, produced product . When I look at some of the pop stuff, its very polished and well recorded and produced. There’s something about that that doesn’t quite connect with me. I like seeing the music live, fresh and original with unexpected musical things happening. Where they do something that takes you totally by surprise it’s great. And if the players are good that’s a plus!
TM: That’s the hallmark of jazz, right?
PJ: Oh yeah. Its not predictable, you don’t know what chord is coming next. So many cliches now. There is still great stuff out there, but It can’t rise above the noise. It gets buried. Another thing is that there are just so many bands out there! A lot of “guitar bands”. I remember at one point, it seemed like every one was taking up guitar! (laughs). One in every apartment. then with the evolution of Pro Tools people would make their own records. So there’s all this stuff out there. Unfortunately, a lot of it is not original, you know, the same old. I think listeners even get bored with it. It’s the same old stuff. I don’t know if that makes sense.
TM: Yes, it does. I know, and it seems that some of that “product” as you say, just holds on forever. I was in the store this morning and they were playing Hamilton, Joe, Frank & Reynolds. You know, like it was just released last week! But other great stuff that manages to resurface, no one hears about. For instance Christian Vander and Magma just went out again on tour.
PJ: Yes, I heard about that! That’s one of my favorite bands! It’s unbelievable.
TM: You’ve worked with a lot of people across many genres. Did you ever get the sense that you were working with someone or on something that was very different and unique? Like a music game changer?
PJ: Brian Eno comes to mind.
TM: What were your impressions of Brian Eno as a composer and a producer?
PJ: He was very different and interesting, We’d go in and work with him and you had no idea what you would be working on. There’s was never any rehearsal or chord charts or anything like that. He would go in and give you a very vague idea of what he wanted. And he would just let you go for it. He’d play some stuff for us and say, I like what your doing there, just do a bit more of that sort of stuff. He’d give you some direction like that. It could be a bit vague. He was a pretty fascinating guy to work with. He wasn’t really a player himself and he would be the first to admit that, but he definitely had an ear for stuff. He’d get the guys the guys to play and he’d give everybody some direction, but at the same time leave enough freedom for us to express ourselves musically in a natural and relaxed sort of way. You didn’t feel like you were being controlled, like, I’d better not play that because he wont like it, etc. Very relaxed with just a hint of direction here and there.
TM: For a musician like you that must be a dream come true?
PJ: yeah. He would take the recordings away and mix them on his own and remix and make records. I remember when he mailed me a copy of another green world, I thought wow, this is really nice stuff. I had no idea it was going to turn out like that!
TM: Those Eno albums still play well. I was listening to Before and After Science just the other day in my car. And after hearing what you’ve said here, I can really see now how the individual players are very expressive and unrestrained.
PJ: Right, he knew how to get the best out of the players. Sometime the producer want something very specific, exact notes to play, etc. like once some guy told me to slide up a certain way, and I thought oh man! Once I used string buzz and I was told to get my bass fixed. (laughs)
TM: Do you see a long future with MJ12? -And by the way what a great name for a band, given what it implies.
PJ: I’m glad you think so. Noise-R-Us was a good name too, but Toys-R-Us threatened to sue. So it was changed. MJ12 was really about MoJo+1 or 2 (extra players). When we became a quartet we kept it, we felt like it could work. On the other side theres a mystery around The Majestic 12, also known as MJ12 who were military leaders covering up alien information. There’s a mystery side to our music too, even the band doesn’t always know how its going to play out.
TM: How do you hope people in the future will remember your music?
PJ: I really don’t know. I have no idea. I mean, Ive always tried to do interesting stuff. Even as a teenager. I’ll keep doing that. I’m not getting any younger, so I’ll do this for as long as I can. I’m hoping to leave behind some stuff that’s not like everything else.
TM: Our readers seem to really enjoy questions that reveal insights. What things outside of music do you really enjoy and find enriching?
PJ: I’ve been an amateur radio enthusiast for years. Since I was 12 or 13. I learned Morse code and I have a station here so I can talk to people all over the world. An extension of that, is that I have a big interest in how radio waves propagate over long distances. The physics of the ionosphere. I have an interest in the weather, atmospheric electricity, thunderstorms and so on. So those are a couple of big interests that have been with me for a long time. I grew up on a farm in rural Wales. One day, the farm house was struck by the lightening. Scared the shit out of everybody! It was so loud and my mother got a really bad electrical shock. That’s actually what got me interested in thunder storms. Jump stated my interest you can say. (laughs)
TM: You’ve applied self made electronics to your instruments in the past.
PJ: I went to school and studied electronics for 2 years. At the same time, I also started playing. I should have been spending more time studying. But I learned a lot and it was quite valuable. So yeah, I applied it to music. In the 70’s especially, I built a lot of my own effects. I haven’t done that in a while. But I started using some Eventide stuff, it does a lot of things like re-modulation and flanging, but I’m thinking of going back to building some analog stuff. Following up on things I did back in the 70’s. People still say to me that they liked the effects I used back then. I’ll just take it further this time.
TM: Digital effects are great and very accessible, but there is a strong sense of wanting to return to those great analog effects of the past. I recently saw a DEVO reunion concert on Netflix, they had those good old Electro-Harmonix boxes taped to the guitars and it was just thrilling.
PJ: A lot of those early effects were very noisy and inhibited the dynamic range, but now they could be built even better with the new technology that’s available. Things change. In the 70’s, we had circus caravans to carry equipment, now I can throw my amp in the trunk of a cab. I don’t have a car and don’t drive, so I need something lift-able. I came across a company Euphonic Audio in New Jersey and they make a compact amp with a 10″ speaker combo with a transmission line cabinet. It’s very loud for it’s size! You couldn’t get anything like that back then.
TM: Is there anything you’d like to share with our readers and fans?
PJ: I recently got together with players from the first Brand X band and it sounded pretty good, so we may do a few gigs in October. My website will post these as they come out. It’s a work in progress, but it looks like a go. New York gigs may happen. But getting gigs in NY these days is like pulling teeth.
TM: you can throw Phill Collins name around a little.
Percy it’s been such a pleasure talking to you today. I’ve been a fan for so many years and we wish you all the best of luck with new album and the upcoming gigs.
PJ: It’s been great, thanks so much for having me.
For more information about Percy including Gig information, please visit his site: