T.M. Stevens

January 27, 2003

Give me a little background on yourself.

I was born in the Bronx where they invented hip-hop by the way. As I was in the Boy Scouts, the Scoutmaster of one group that I was in, was into Wes Montgomery and playing guitar. He had no one to play with so at the end of the meeting, and this was the Boy Scouts in Harlem, he said "would you come by? I'll teach you guitar just to have someone to play with." I said "why not? I'm adventurous." I picked up the guitar and I was listening to the chords but for some funny reason, I focused on the bass notes. It just took my ear and so lo and behold, I didn't choose the bass. The bass chose me. I've been doing it ever since.

You've done a lot of session work with people like James Brown, Steve Vai, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, and Billy Squier. What was it like to work with so many different people from so many different musical backgrounds?

Well, it was very, very interesting. I think it's like learning vocabulary. The more words you know, the more things you can speak. It'll never hurt you. Those things gave me a valuable palette to draw from for myself just being able to play. Incidentally, when I went to play with all these people, I had no preconceptions. I just walked in there and was quite nervous of course. I had never played that stuff before and just gave it the good college try and that's how I did it.

How did you get into session work?

Someone actually gave me a real cheesy bass for like $10. I'm thankful for it but it wasn't doing the sound thing at all. I forget what the name of it was. Finally I scraped enough money working actually in an elder hospital. They called it old folks home then. Washing dishes believe it or not and I bought my first Fender bass which I still have. I started playing and working at it and just practicing and playing in the garage. Finally, I joined a band and was too young to play in nightclubs so I ended up playing in after hours clubs. After hours in the Bronx are those clubs that are illegally open when you're supposed to close. Like a club is supposed to close at two o'clock. They used to open these clubs and the people who worked in clubs used to go to them. The hookers used to go. Just everybody. I used to play in those places because they're illegal anyway. These so-called people of the street and bad people used to be the ones that gave me the confidence to go on and play. They called me "young blood" back then. "Man, you're getting good. Keep going." The guy would give me a $10 tip or something. We'd finish playing like four or five in the morning and I'd go home, shower up, and go to school. That's how I learned how to play. Then when I really got into it, I used to in Harlem to the various clubs like Small's Paradise and I would sit outside on a box and listen to the band play and when they took a break and came outside, pump them for information. "How did you do that? What was that? What was this?" They kind of got used to me. So I learned and came up. Now, sessions. I started playing clubs and then finally, by living in New York, someone introduced me to a producer and I went in to play and it sounded great. Of course it was a little raggedy because playing in the studio and playing live are two different things. Many players that play live, that don't play studio, tend to speed up a little bit which works live but not on a record. I quickly learned how to watch my time and using metronomes and I kind of got good at it so more and more people called me up and I was lucky with a few hits out there. A drummer named Norada Michael Walden and I co-wrote "I Shoulda Loved Ya". That was a huge hit. Then I went on to sing and play on James Brown's "Living In America" and the whole record. I never sung before and the background singers got caught in traffic. They got impatient and said "do you sing?" I said "I can't sing." "You're singing now." I sang "living in America..." They said "wow, this sound is unique. We love it." Then they had me sing on the rest of the record. I got a little bit more than half the record done and then someone called me to do The Pretenders' record, Get Close. I came in and knocked out half of the record in one day and she was like "this is amazing and it's funky and it's great. Yeah! Join the band." After some coaxing I joined the band. Went to London Air Studio to finish The Pretenders' album and then the producer, Dan Hartman is his name, said "I've got to have your voice for the rest of James' album because we love the sound." He flew all the way to London and went into another studio. Chrissie told us not to do any other records but how do you say no to James Brown? Could you do that? I couldn't. Hello! So what I did was, I'd say I'm tired and start yawning and stretching, go downstairs and get into a cab, and went into another studio to do the vocals to finish them up for Mr. Brown. So that's how that happened.

Is there anyone you haven't worked with yet that you'd really like to?

George Clinton. I would like to work with him. I've flirted around with the bands. A lot of their members play with me. Bernie Worrell, the keyboard player, played on almost all my albums. I'd love to get in there and funk with him for a while. Led Zeppelin. I would love that. Playing those songs. James Brown and Led Zeppelin were my two main influences coming up. Then Jimi Hendrix popped his head in. Sly came in. My tastes are very varied.

That was my next question. Who are some of your main influences?

I love Sevendust, Pantera. Let's just say that if you hear metal funk on my records, it's completely natural. I didn't try to be cool. Let me just mix this in and see how it comes out. It's something I grew up on. It's just two things in me that appeal to me so I listen to both things. I'd be blasting on Sunday morning Rammstein. I'm singing this thing walking around the house and people are looking at me like "are you okay?" I'll listen to that and then I'll turn around and listen to some P-Funk, some James Brown, some Marvin Gaye. I would have to say that I'm definitely bi-polar or bi-funktual or whatever you want to call it.

You mix a brew of funk, metal, rock, rap, reggae, and soul. How do you mix that so well?

I guess because it's natural. Coming into the record you'll say "okay, I want to come out with this monster hit." Well, that's always the biggest mistake because I think there's no such thing as a formula for a hit. You and I both know that otherwise we'd all have them. It's just that you catch the people's ear at the right time with the right thing to me. So rather than trying to cater to that, you just do what you feel and what you do the best and what you do naturally and honestly. If it happens to be there at the right time then you're in. Each morning I woke up with whatever mood I felt then. If I was banging some Sevendust on a Friday, then on Saturday I'm going to wake up and get heavy. If I'm listening to Zeppelin, that comes out. The first track on the album, "No Good W/out The Bad", I was listening to that and then I was listening to some early Shocktic. I used to play with Mahavishnu and those two things came together. Very natural the way I did that.

Shockazooloo is your fourth release. Tell us a little about the album and some of the tracks.

Shockazooloo is quite interesting. It's a mixture of many different cultures. Enter the funk and it's definitely a lethal dose of funk and a lethal dose of rock in this music. I would say that you would not necessarily play this in an elevator or in a supermarket while you're buying apples. But for sure, it'll make you shake that butt. That's what I do. That's what I wake up to do. To get your head bobbing but also to get that power of the guitars into you. From working with Steve Vai all the way through, I've been blessed that way. So I have an appreciation for the guitar as well. Some slamming heavy Marshall guitars. So there you go. Shockazoloo. Have you heard it?

Yes, I have. I have to say that my favorite song is "Spank".

"Spank"? I'm loving you already. I was being silly when I wrote that. That would work great in a titty bar, wouldn't it? It's quite interesting you say that because everyone has a different pick. Some people like "Maximum Respect". That's the one that has the reggae and the rock in it. Some people like "Shockazooloo" which is traditional African percussion and traditional African chants mixed with metal and funk. Many people here have never heard that combination, me included. I'm not going to sit here and tell you I'm some kind of a genius. I'm only going to tell you that one morning I woke up with playing African percussion and things and came up with a nasty lick. I started writing the song and then all of a sudden I came up with this nasty guitar on the top and that's what happened. It's heavy metal African funk and you like "Spank".

It goes with my warped sense of humor.

I love it. Good for you.

I bet you weren't expecting that.

No, I expected you to say something else. But then that just goes to show you we should never, never just generalize each other. It's like this morning I had to go get my car repaired. Somebody hit me in the back another night. I walked in there and the guys in the place were sitting down taking the order to fix the car and the girls were running all over the place talking about the Super Bowl. Is that a broken stereotype or what? The women. I think we should stop judging each other and just deal with each other on a face value.

I was very disappointed with the outcome of that.

Uh-oh. You a Raiders fan?

You've gotta love the Raiders. They blew it.

Do you play?

I enjoyed flag football in high school. That was a favorite.

Wrestling was mine. I was a good wrestler in college. That's something funny. I majored in something totally opposite than what I turned out. I was a medical lab tech major.

I studied that in college.

Welcome to the club. You had all the biochem and nomenclatures?

Oh yes.

Hello! Here was my biology professor. I was going "oh man, what am I going to do." Of course your mom and everybody is going to go "stay in school." Typical rap. Hs name is Professor Heller and he wrote a famous book, The Carbohydrate Addicts Diet. He said "I'm going to tell you what. I'd rather see you be a great musician and artist than to be a half-assed technician somewhere in a hospital where you just meagerly exist. You can take a leave of absence. If you get to a point where you feel it ain't working, come on back. If not, keep on going." Well, I kept on going and he's still one of my closest friends to this day. I talk to him every Christmas. When I'm real good he takes me to Disney. I swear to you I feel like a kid. He's still Professor Heller.

I was interested in some of the guys you worked with on the album. Al Pitrelli, Chris Caffrey, Will Calhoun. How did you all hook up?

You're talking to someone who's kind of in the same genre of music. There's a music building in New York near Port Authority. That's 42nd Street and 8th Avenue. This building is located on 38th Street. All it is, is a whole bunch of buildings with lofts in them where people rehearse and when I first moved in there, there was a young lady who was in a room two floors down and had to sleep in this place. It's really horrible because it's not really for sleeping and living. It's only for rehearsing and that was Madonna. A lot of people came out of this building. I was on the eighth floor. The room right next door to me was Living Colour. All of us on that particular floor were playing our brand of funk/rock/metal funk. We influenced each other and I got to know everyone and we kind of came up together. Will Calhoun has played on almost every one of my records. There's four to date under my name. Then there's a fifth one which is a tribute to Deep Purple, According To New York. The songs come on and they start out a little bit like them and they end up in reggae, funk, and everything else you can think of.

Yngwie Malmsteen contributed to that.

He's on it as well and he played as Yngwie but he also played funky. In fact, I'm in a Japanese band called Zero Three because that's the city code for Tokyo and two months ago we opened up for Yngwie. He and I just laughed our asses off about that. I like to take people and do stuff that they normally don't do. You get a fresher thing and so I had everybody from Richie Kotzen, Al Pitrelli again, Will Calhoun, Bernie Worrell from P-Funk, to name a few. Joe Lynn Turner who did sing with Deep Purple and I came up with this combination of reggae, funk, mixed with the Gap Band, mixed with heavy metal. It was a freaky thing but everybody loved it because they would normally not ask a guy like me to produce a record like that. That's what's good about crossing cultures because you never know what you'll come up with.

You starred in and composed the soundtrack for a film called Limousine Drive.

Yeah, that was a Japanese release of my first full-length feature. I'll never forget it. I went to lunch in the Village and I'm sitting at the table and this Japanese guy is sitting there. I came to meet him and he just stared at me. I said "not to be rude but what's on your mind?" Especially in the Village. "I have this part in a movie and I think you'd be great in it. It's called Limousine Drive" He was originally thinking of a friend of mine. I said "I'm in!" I'd never done a movie. I started acting in this movie and he said "you know, I really love your music and your records. Would you do the soundtrack for it?" I'd never done a soundtrack either so you know me. I give it the college try. Whatever. As the movie went on, we would do a scene and he would say "okay, imagine the music. What would go here?" He would make a little VHS tape of the scene we did. "Go home and make up something." Eventually I ended up waking up at 4:30 in the morning to go to the shoot. I'll never forget this. Shoot all day, you know how these things go. Come home at night beat to hell and I'd have to sit down and compose music. I'd work on that, take an hour nap, wake up at 4:30 in the morning and hit makeup. Eventually I finished the soundtrack and it's quite interesting. It's really different. It's more dance-oriented, youth-oriented because that's the kind of movie it was. I was a limousine driver because I used to be in a funk band and they said that funk was over. They keep saying that every year and it ain't. I had to drive this limousine. I was happy. I was supporting a wife and a kid and I picked up a kogyaru. That's sort of like a Japanese street girl but not professional. Not a prostitute. Just a girl that hangs out. It's those girls with the real dark makeup on their faces with blonde hair. They wear these school dress type things and they run around in Shibuya which is like Greenwich Village in Tokyo. One of these girls gets off the plane. She needs a limo and guess who got the job. From the minute she got in my car, the shit hit the fan. I end up losing my car. It got stolen. Got in trouble with the Chinese mob. It goes on and on and on. So that's what the movie is about. I played Malik, the limo driver. It's quite an interesting experience. I think I'm blessed because like you said, you noted that I've played with so many different kinds of people and weird things come my way. My grandmama always said "when a window closes, a door opens." You've just got to hit the window of chance but you can't be afraid to take it.

To me life is just one big adventure.

Most people are so afraid. They sit in their little cubbyholes and that's where they stay. You got to be open to change, to new experiences. That's why my records sound the way they do. I'm not perfect. I don't have it together but I just try to put on tape or in audio format what I've experienced. That might be a bit au natural for today's market because today the way they market product, it's got to be all of this or all of that or all of this. My view on it is why not some of this and some of this and some of that. That's where I am.

Not only do you write, perform, and produce material, but you're also into instrumental and cable design.

You did your homework. Basically what that is, is diversifying. People have asked me on my website, "what are you selling? What is that sound? It's great. I can't get that." So then it gave me the idea when a company approached me of what would you like to have in a guitar or in a cable or in a this or in a that. I would design it with them the way I'd like it. Then they would market it and that's how that happened. I didn't want to hear news radio while I'm trying to play bass because my cable is RF. Which makes common sense. They put some other things in it that it would never happen and then the kids can buy what I have. Now the trick is, what the kids buy in the shop is exactly what I'm using because you know as well as I, some artists will get the back room model and the ones the kids buy doesn't have all that stuff in it. I don't do it that way. Everything I have, they say "I can play everything off the wall." Just way it comes.

What kind of gear do you endorse and why?

I use Ampeg amps because they have a lot of bottom to them. Now you're talking to a Jamaican-American Cherokee Indian here. Interesting combo. The Jamaican-African half of me obviously loves bass. I love solid, deep, heavy bass. The Indian side of me loves that snap because I play with my thumb a lot. I needed that high end and I found that in the Ampeg amps. Especially the new ones. On those early hits, your disco and stuff, those are mostly what's known as the B-15. It was a small amp in every studio and it just got this sound and it's actually on a lot of Mo-Town records. Then they made the SVT which is you rock amp. The thing about the SVT, a had a lot of presence but it wasn't as clear because you didn't need a real clear tone in rock. Today's players are playing a combination of that and snap and some funk too. They've come up with an amp called the 4Pro that I use. It's got that bottom end but when I snap, you hear it like glass and so that's why I use them. I use a Cort bass called a TM FunkMachine. Self-explanatory. That bass has a lot of bottom but also when you take the active circuit out, it has a Fenderish tone to it for those that don't want that over the top stuff. It comes with an auto wah. That's built into the bass for kids who can't afford to buy a stomp box and it seems to be real popular. Very clean sound. I have that on a four-string, five-string, and I have that on a double-neck which you got to come see me play. The bottom neck is four and the top neck is an eight-string which is the E, the A, the B, and the G is double. It almost sounds like a keyboard, guitar, everything mixed in with a bass. Beautiful sounding. I use Klotz cables from Germany because of what I told you. It's very high quality and I don't get radio stations on stage. In the studio I mix my stuff with AKG microphones on the drums and bass and everything and I get the killer sound so I use all this. Finally, my strings are Dean Markley. I use the Dean Markley blue steel to get that snap and that booty. I call it booty, I don't call it bottom. There's the technical wherewithal.

How did the tour in Japan and France go?

Japan was amazing. I'd always toured with the famous guys and we had an amazing time when Will Calhoun came out. One time I had Will Calhoun, Al Pitrelli, Vinnie Moore. The next time I had Will Calhoun, Al Pitrelli, mixed with Richie Kotzen from Poison. All the times I had Bernie Worrell on keyboards. He was the one on all those early P-Funk songs, the genius keyboard player. He has blessed every one of my records and a lot of my tours. We had one hell of a magical time. The last time I toured Japan was last November. I took a completely brand new band that nobody ever heard of. Just to calm down the media circus, I wanted them to come and listen to my music and not to be where the who is and the what is and the why is and drinking champagne and not really paying attention to the quality and quantity of what we're doing. Just the whole hype. So I took a completely strange band and we had a great time. Everyone just loved it in Japan because they're a little bit more I would say conservative over there than they are here. They'll stand and look at you and you'll think "oh God, I'm sucking." Then all of a sudden at the end of a solo, you can hear a pin drop while you're doing it which is uncomfortable, then at the end of the thing they'll be like "AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!" Woah, okay you liked it. We went over and just had a good time. Finally I'm coming home. I would say that's an honor to me. Because you come four albums later and you finally come home. I call it the Hendrix Syndrome where he had to go to England to be "whoa, look at this English guy." "No man, from Seattle." Hello! That's where I am.

Any other thoughts or comments?

People judge people on mundane things that I think aren't fair. To the point where, as someone once told me "man, his music is off the hook." I look wild. "You look wild. How do we sell this to white kids in a mall in Middle America?" I said "how about just selling it?" Who cares what the person looks like. We shouldn't judge people on "are you wearing brown shoes today? Do you come from Michigan at 10:00?" We judge people on such stupid things. I would say to your readers, as much as I'm into Pantera and James Brown at the same time, don't watch color. Listen to it. Stop judging people so much and just listen to what they're doing. Because there's some beautiful things coming out of a lot of people that we won't take notice because we're looking too much. Just listen.

Some folks have an awful lot of ugliness in their hearts that they should free themselves of.

I think we're all yin and yang. Like you said, there's ugliness but there's beauty there too. See both. It's what makes the world go round. That's all I got to say on that. Just put the record on and shake your behind and stop worrying about what's what and who's who. If you like the collard greens, eat them. That's the way we see it over here. I'm looking forward to seeing everybody out there on tour and getting the record. It's heavy enough, some of it. I'm happy, Miss Rock Goddess, that you like "Spank".

I like "Spank"!

That's the funkiest track on the whole record. Stevie Salas' playing on that track. He had a band called Color Code and he's an Apache. He also does metal funk. He's like a bookend brother of mine only he plays guitar. He plays a lot like Hendrix. I live down next to Bruce Springsteen. The drummer on that track is Max Weinberg, his drummer. That's what I mean. Put somebody in something that they normally don't do and you'll get something fresh. That's Max Weinberg from Bruce playing on "Spank".

T.M. Stevens