03 International Musician – Musician Of The Month March 1982
by on November 18, 2023 in Bass Career Whitesnake

Interview by Tommy Vance

You don’t just play the bass do you? I understand you have co-written Bernie Marsden’s new single.

NEIL MURRAY: Yes — I just came up with some words. I think you’re being over-flattering suggesting that I’ve done a lot of writing, because really I haven’t done that much. I’ve played in a lot of different styles of music, and I just came up with some words for that at pretty short notice.

In actual fact he changed them: it ends up that he gets in a car with these two boilers out in the desert, and they get him very drunk, and he wakes up the next morning to find that they’ve gone, his Les Paul has gone, his Porsche has gone – and there’s a message on the mirror saying

“Sorry Bernie, we prefer Ritchie Blackmore!” That was the last line of the song, but he wouldn’t have that!

It surprises me that you wrote the words to that. I would have thought you would have contributed more to the melody…

Not really. I think he just struck a blank spot on that particular tune, having all the other elements that he needed. If he came in with the song as it is, it might have been much more rough than it ended up, then I might say, how about this chord, or if we do this…’; and then other things, I won’t even say, I’ll just play them and things’ll fit around the way people play.

I mean, the way Simon Phillips plays on that track suggested a bass part for the middle section, and therefore that’s an extra tune; but I didn’t write it, it sort of appeared in my head.

Is there then a difference between ‘writing’ and ‘writing’ in the way that you describe it? Over the years you’ve done many Jazz things which were never written down on paper, but you contributed an enormous amount to them.

Well, if you say so. It’s often in peoples’ heads where they decide “Oh, I’ve got to sit down and write a song about such and such’, and they’ll have an immense block about it; but then they may be sitting down at a sound check or in a rehearsal room, just fooling around with a load of chords, not even thinking about the song, and they’ll come out with something really good – something much more spontaneous and much better. Then of course they’ll forget it the minute they’ve done it.

Is there a great difference between writing a melody line on a bass as opposed to another instrument?

Well, you see, if you’re talking about a melody line that’s going to be sung, then frankly any instrument sounds fairly naff compared with the human voice. So if you’re trying to produce a straight melody like, say, a straight Abba-type tune, you. could write it on a synth or a guitar, and it

would be just a series of notes. But seriously, if you listen to the melody of a lot of rock songs, there often isn’t much of a genuine melody: it’s more the way it’s phrased and the way the words are being sung, so if you actually played on the guitar the “tunes’ of some very popular songs, there wouldn’t actually be much tune to play!

That’s the difficulty: when guitarists try to think of a melody for a singer to sing, they may come up with something far too involved – when in fact the singer is just going to do something very easy in terms of guitar playing, two or three notes, it’s just the way he puts them across which will make the song.

Is it therefore easier to write the basis of a melody on a bass because you don’t play so many notes?

Yes, would say so, and a lot of knowledge is a bad thing as far as doing something that will communicate to a lot of people because so many guitarists especially, keyboard players, anybody, fall into the trap of using all their knowledge – what will turn people on is more usually something fairly simple but slightly original that sticks in the mind, and it doesn’t have to be difficult to play to be that. appreciate things that are difficult to play, but if that’s all there is to them then I don’t enjoy them all that much. Pure technique for its own sake doesn’t turn me on like it did say ten years ago.

A lot of young guitarists get really turned on by how fast you play, but in the end you’ve got to be playing something interesting as well.

So, the more mature you become, the less you strive for technical genius?

Well, in my case, yes, but on the other hand, the more mature I become the more take it for granted; so in fact what I don’t consider to be very fast now probably would have been fast to me ten years ago. If I continued in a linear progression I would have to end up playing another instrument, or playing Jazz all the time, which is something I don’t particularly want to do.

But it’s something you did do for a long time.

Well, Jazz-Rock. I never played walking bass, whatever you want to call it. I’ve never been tuned into purist Jazz, it was always Jazz-influenced stuff. My kind of thing was the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, and all those kind of people. If you want to approach it from a Jazz point of view, yes, there was an element of difficulty there, improvisation and all that; but there were also many interesting things going on there from a Rock angle as well: taking Rock a step further, whereas some Jazz purists would say they were bringing Jazz down to too low a level. You can only take that kind of thing so far, because there’s only so much ground in the middle which really appeals to both sets of people.

What happened to the Jazz Funk area of British music – National Health, Hatfield and the North – there were some very, very good bands?

Yes – those Jazz-influenced, slightly more progressive-influenced groups were very sort of ‘white’ – let’s put it like that – so you can leave the Funk side of it out. That was partly the problem for me in that I like a lot of Funk and that kind of music wasn’t supplying that for me. It would be very hard to find one kind of music that supplied everything for me – so you hunt for the compromise that suits you most at the time.

I mean, I bounced back from doing very complicated written stuff that was almost semi-Classical plus the Jazz influence, to going to really pretty simple stuff with Whitesnake. That’s what I was desperate to do because it had gone in too rarified a direction. think all those groups came out at a time when ‘Jazz-Rock’ was fashionable. Like Reggae became fashionable, it was fashionable to do long solos at one time, it was fashionable to do things in funny time signatures like The Soft Machine and all those people, and then it gets too strongly identified with the hippy era, and people start saying ‘no, that’s not what I want to listen to any more, I get bored with it’, and you find your audience contracting and contracting.

In this country a cult following like that isn’t really enough to keep bands going, In America, the cult following is proportionately greater, but even then nobody’s getting rich playing difficult music – anywhere in the world.

In this country now there are a lot of young bands playing Jazz Funk, but there is also, say, Morrissey Mullen – two guys who have been around in the field of Jazz for years who have now developed into, if you like, Jazz-Funk-stroke-Disco. In the USA a considerable number of the great Jazz players are now the best Jazz-Funk-Disco players…

Right, right… because, basically, that’s where the money is, and if you’re not going to be one of these Jazz players with a chip on your shoulders who think that the world owes them a living – because they’re so good, therefore they should be making a lot of money – if you decide you want to play to a lot of people, then you have to go half way towards playing what they actually want to hear.

I think, also, that if you’re playing something that you don’t really enjoy, the public’s eventually going to suss you out, or you’re going to get sick of leading a double life. There are so many pressures coming at you stopping you being successful anyway: hopefully Morrissey & Mullen listen to Coltrane or Ornette Coleman in private – the sort of music that the Jazz-Funk-Disco people certainly don’t want to hear! You can put a lot of quite complicated stuff over a good rhythm. Unfortunately a lot of Jazz people put down the rhythm side of it because they’re not tuned into it, especially white guys. Their appreciation of music is on a kind of intellectual rather than a physical level. They’re listening to the notes. It’s a very difficult thing to explain – but if you get to be reasonably good at your instrument, then it takes away a lot of your enjoyment of the music because you’re always ‘oh, what chords is he playing there’, or ‘I could do that there, yeah’ – you get to a stage where you’re always trying to do something more difficult, to stretch yourself a bit, and you eventually get to a point where you can decide that’s far enough for me.

You might just learn the Clash’s first album and say that’s far enough; you stay at that level. Or else you go on getting better, and depending on how much talent you’ve got and how much work you put in you may get to the stage of being a real creative leader in the world. Few people achieve that, settling for something that provides pleasure, that will make them money, and which allows some positive feedback from an audience – depending on how ambitious they are.

What was behind you joining Whitesnake: was it ambition, progression, money?

Well, it wasn’t money particularly. You couldn’t have been earning less money than I was with National Health, it’s true, but even now I’m not rich or anything like that, after four years with Whitesnake. It was mainly a musical reaction, but also a personal thing too. People always seem to forget that most bands are made up of individual characters – if you don’t fit in with somebody, then no matter how good the music is, it isn’t going to be enough.

So, I was getting a bit cheesed off with some of the personalities in National Health, because they were slightly in that ‘purist’ vein. The philosophy goes something like this: The people we like are playing difficult music. We think they’re great, and they get a lot of respect, and manage to earn a living. So, we therefore play music like that and we should get all the success and credit that they get.’ They couldn’t see that you have to do a bit more than that – you know, develop something that people actually wanted to go and see. To entertain people wasn’t really the prime motive – it was just to play music – and usually you find that however good the music is, there should be an element of entertainment.

I go and see bands all the time, and I must admit, having seen so many I get bored to tears unless it’s a really good act like say Kate Bush or The Tubes. That’ll keep me interested, but there are so few variations on what you can do: even if you spend a lot of money you’re still limited by what’s portable. You’re not doing a West End Theatre show – you’ve got to cart it round the country.

To turn now to instrumentation, when the Fender first appeared it was quite a simple instrument. Nowadays, bass guitar synthesizers have developed the instrument to an amazing degree. Has that put a greater demand on the players’ capabilities?

Not really, because there are still so many bands around that just want the standard role of the bass player anyway; I don’t think the standard is particularly high in most club bands. You don’t have to be that good to get started. I think I chose the right instrument in as much as it’s probably the easiest instrument to learn if you’ve got an ear for low notes. Some people haven’t; they can’t pick it up – but it’s only got four strings, and you’re only playing one note at a time; both hands are involved in producing one note, so you don’t have to do two things at once.

Is physical power important to a bass player?

Well, yes. I do hit the bass very hard on stage which is a source of some annoyance. I always get extremely painful blisters the first few gigs of a tour, and there doesn’t seem to be any way around it, unless you’ve been playing a lot between tours. Whitesnake like to take two or three months off at a time. For certain kinds or music it is important to be reasonably strong. I must admit, one note played with real conviction is better than ten weedy and thin sounding ones…but that goes for a guitar player or drummer as well.

Can you cover for others’ mistakes on stage?

Well, I’m not in a position to do that – I’m very spoiled in that I’m always playing with very good musicians. The standard of the drummers that I’ve played with is just phenomenal. It’s only on the very odd occasions when I might get up and jam with somebody in a club that I realise that I have it so easy because I can always rely on my normal drummers so much – whether it’s lan Paice, Simon Phillips, Cozy Powell or whoever – I don’t have to worry about them speeding up, or playing a fill too fast and coming out of it at the wrong time. What I worry about is just slotting in perfectly with what they’re doing – in Rock music the drums are the key to it all.

If wanted to be in a situation where l was showing off as a bass player, i wouldn’t play with a drummer who is as powerful as most of the people I’ve played with because there always has to be one guy supporting the other, and if I needed someone to support me, I’d want someone who really kept it down a bit more. I’d rather play with a drummer who is more exciting because that’s more stimulating for me, so therefore I like it the way it is.

You really do, as you have indicated, have to have a good relationship with the drummer.

Yes – I kind of take it for granted, in that I don’t think about it. I don’t think,

‘oh, he’s going to do a triplet here, or a flam-paradiddle there’ — it’s just sort of unconscious really. I can feel when what we’re playing isn’t meshing together well, but even then you’ve got to take into account what’s going on on top. If the guitars and drums are playing very straight, then sometimes it needs me to do something slightly opposed to that, so it doesn’t become so metronomic as to be really boring – but it’s very hard to put into words because there are about a million patterns you could play to all our tunes, and they’d all work, but it’s a question of finding the one that happens to suit you – and everybody’s got their own clichés, so I guess I play a few of the same patterns quite a few times, but I try and make them a little more interesting than just booming away on the root note

Is it that difficult to turn your talent from a fretted to a fretless bass?

Not that difficult in that the notes are all in the same place. The difficulty really comes in having to look at the neck of the bass all the time because you have to be right on top of where the fret is; you can’t be any further forward or back from there because it’s going to be out of tune.

There’s a lot more concentration involved – it’s more a question of the sound. Fretless doesn’t really work in most Rock ‘n’ Roll bands because it just doesn’t have the necessary attack to the note which you get from two bits of metal colliding, so I don’t really play it that much any more. On the one hand it gives you something that a fretted bass doesn’t. If you’re after a very singing, warm tone, it’s very hard to get that out of a fretted bass.

Maybe you can play less, because it sounds so much nicer. And finding a nice bass sound is one of the hardest things in the world.

Let’s talk about the instruments: what is your favourite bass?

Well, it’s difficult, because I’ve never really found one. I keep on up-dating things every year or so. Going back to your mention of the Fender bass – 1 just couldn’t play one, now, not the first ones. It would drive me nuts because it just doesn’t have what I need, in terms of producing a sound which will work with Whitesnake. It’s difficult to explain without getting too complicated. My two basic instruments at the moment are a B.C.Rich which the manufacturers have moved two pickups on, and an Aria, also with two pickups.

The main thing about my sound at the moment is that I have each pickup going into a separate channel on the mixing board, either in the studio or in a live situation, so they can be balanced up separately. If I had them in mono, instead of in stereo, they would interact together, producing a sound I don’t particularly like, making it too kind of clanky. You don’t get the two sounds of the two pickups, rather you get the sound of two pickups together, if you understand what mean and therefore I take them separately.

What’s your amplification set-up?

I’ve got a fairly good stage set-up that I’m reasonably happy with at the moment. It’s basically one very clean amplifier, and one rather more raunchy. The clean one is actually a synthesiser amp made by Moog, and it’s very complicated with loads of channels, and parametrics and graphics and compressors, and all that, and the other is a Sunn which tends to distort quite easily – and that goes with an Acoustic cabinet with four 15″ speakers.

Basically I balance them up to get a combination of dirt and cleanliness! It’s preferable, I suppose, to have a clean sound so that everything’s distinct. I could never plug into a Marshall amp just as they are straight from the factory because they distort too easily: I feel they’re for people who either play very lightly, or for people who need distortion like Jack Bruce back in the Cream days; it suited him, but it doesn’t suit Whitesnake. I don’t want that sound through the PA, or on record either, but do need a little bit of dirt to make it sound good to me, to give it an edge on stage, and the Sunn gives me that.

Can you play the double bass?

I could. It’s like having a fretless bass that doesn’t have any markings on, that has a slightly longer scale, has a very thick neck and thick strings. Basically I would find it rather unpleasant to play because I have no desire to play it, and no experience of playing it. I mean I’ve mucked about on them very occasionally, but I don’t own one, and I have no real wish to be any good at it. I approach the bass guitar much more like a guitar which is played like a drummer would play it.

I don’t play it like I would a double bass. I suppose a fretless gets closer to it, but l never really learned anything from double bass players, but that’s partly because wasn’t listening to that kind of music.

Is there any other instrument that you would like to master?

Oh, loads. I tinker about on guitar and keyboards, and I’d like to be really good on both of those, but I’ve no desire to be a sax player or anything like that. I used to play trombone and drums at school, but I wasn’t any good at either of those. It would be nice to be good on drums, but as far as having a practical use for it, I’d like to have a lot of time and the incentive to play the keyboards well, because I’m very interested in synthesisers as a technology. I love all the new sounds that are coming out, if they’re exciting and different. love computers and all of that. I’m quite a technology fan, so there are a lot of things that come out like effects which I can’t use with Whitesnake that I read about and know about, but don’t have the context in which to use them.

Do you foresee the day when you’ll accrue enough money to lay off from an internationally commercial and successful band and go back to a band like National Health on tuppence a week?

Well, yes. It would be nice to get into something where it didn’t matter if there was any money coming in. But on the other hand, I’m not sure I would ever want to be in a situation – unless it was something I controlled myself – which wasn’t successful, or wasn’t going to be successful. It would be nice for me to play in the pubs, but it wouldn’t be enough for me in terms of fulfilling my ambitions.

Maybe I’ll change in five years time, married in Surbiton, and playing the bass in wine bars! But there’s still something inside me that says I’d like to play successfully whatever the kind of music.

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