Bunnybass Interview with David King
we don't quite remember exactly how we started talking to David King. could be we stumbled upon his website and decided to e-mail him. or maybe he saw us first - we dunno. but at any rate, we're really glad we met him. jon and i had been hearing great things about the basses from this Portland, Oregon-based luthier, but it wasn't until last summer (i think) that we actually started corresponding a bit. since then we've gotten to know him a little through e-mail, and finally - i think it was last week - we realized that we had to ask him if he would be willing to do an interview with us. david was patient enough to let us ask him lots and lots of questions - so nice! we really enjoyed doing this interview, and we've just received such a good feeling from him, even from the very start. we hope you enjoy reading through this interview. ^_^
bunnybass: i'd like to start with a question regarding "place". amherst, massachussetts and portland, oregon - both relatively quiet places. they're certainly not mega-urban places like new york city, los angeles or tokyo. do you think living and working in places like these have affected the way you are and the way you work as a luthier?
David King: I'm sure they have, I don't think I ever could have made a go of bass building if I'd had to face the cost of living in places like NY, Boston or LA. In Amherst I lived at home and didn't even pay rent, I was well networked there as far as knowing all the cats in town and being able to slip into all the local clubs for free to show my wares to out of town players. It's hard to know what I might have accomplished in NYC. From a marketing perspective I think big city cats are pretty jaded at home but when they go to a small town on tour expecting nothing and a kid like me shows up with something no one has ever seen before it really makes an impression on them. Among Portland's great attributes were cheap rent and a stable climate. I have always lived at or below the poverty line and in Portland I could live quite comfortably this way. When I moved here 8 years ago the music scene was really opening up and it wasn't hard to get out and play live, now much has changed and if I didn't own a house here, I'd probably be moving to Kentucky or Kansas.
bunnybass: is david king the whole bass operation? i mean, it sounds like the only thing you don't do is grow your own wood! this runs totally against the grain of (do i dare say it?) "conventional wisdom" *wince*. the logic of capitalist efficiency demands that workers of all kinds be organized into some sort of production line - each doing a specialized task or claiming a certain expertise in something or other for the sake of speed and profit. you don't exactly work like this, huh?
David King: I have always been a generalist, I love making those odd connections between distant technologies and areas of expertise that have allowed humankind to make quantum leaps in technology. That's the way our brains are wired (or used to be) and to deny people that freedom and put them into little specialized boxes without windows goes against my grain. I have a really hard time delegating dumb little tasks to others because it is all part of the whole and therefore each little bit has the same importance to me.
Actually I rely on other people a lot. I don't know jack about electronics and I'm glad to pay the Bill Bartolinis of the world who have devoted their lives to that critical aspect of bass. The same goes for string makers - families who have been doing the same thing for 400 years. I just don't have time in my life to figure that shit out.
bunnybass: when i first read through the notes on your website, i was immediately interested in how much you refer to the relationships between economic forces and your work as a maker of bass guitars. in one of my favorite parts, you say:
"total time [for making a bass] about 100 hours over 3 weeks. Total cost: wood; $50- $100, metal; $50, electronics; $200, strings, screws, oil, etc; $25. I figure I can make $20 an hour if I don't screw up too much. If I add in wood shopping, travel, time messing with computers, time cleaning the shop and rebuilding machinery. Time harassing, threatening and cajoling suppliers and talking to earnest customers, I can figure about $6 an hour but it still beats picking strawberries..."
how do you keep doing this in a society that has declared the accumulation of huge amounts of material wealth as the measure of success?
David King: Yeah, the money part of it has always bugged me, I build basses because I love doing it and I can't stop myself. To me my relationship to the customer is more important than his or her money. I have to really respect them and vise versa. This is partly because building is something I must do alone, it is a completely isolating experience. At most I have contact with 10 or 12 customers a year and many of them I hardly get to know at all, but the rest become close friends for whom I'd do anything. I like getting invited to their weddings and hearing about their kids. No one gets rich off this business but I make up for it in other ways. I take a lot of time off to travel and I usually spend the entire summer in Vermont with my parents. I lead a very rich life compared to lots of people. I know this is because I've been isolated from the economic forces that drive so many. I come from a very bourgeous background, if I may use that term. I inhereted a simple lifestyle with a lot of "nice" things, like travelling, painting, reading and playing classical violin. Once you get used to the idea of pairing down the toys in your life, you can find time to really enjoy the good things like food and music which hardly cost anything.
bunnybass: in your autobiographical notes, you hint at some of the early difficulties you encountered while starting out. "I learned some marketing tricks along with a few hard lessons in dealing with musicians." what was that like?
David King: Well you just make rules and stick to them and people will respect you for it. I was always bending over backwards to accommodate people's financial situations but it just doesn't work that way. You are better off giving something away than trying to collect on it for years. It can ruin friendships and really hinder business. At the time I couldn't afford to lose any customers whether they had money or not - most of them didn't but at least they played my basses every day and still do. Marketing as we know it is a stunningly inefficient way of selling a product, but it's become so ingrained in our culture that we take all our cues from it, not only in what we buy but in our fundamental desires and aspirations, how we behave, and what we think. We are no longer free or able to recognize intrinsic value or worth of something on our own. Marketing has become a huge "validation" clearinghouse that passes judgement directly in proportion to what is paid up front. I remember the shock I experienced in 1990 when I heard from a certain "boutique" bass manufacturer in NY that he spent over $100,000 a year on advertising. This is more money than I have generated from 12 years of bass building. Granted he makes more basses in a week than I make in a year, but still, he has made his reputation in part from buying a piece of our minds. At that moment I decided that if I couldn't make my business run on word of mouth alone then my instruments weren't good enough. I have to admit that I'm always astounded when someone orders a new bass - sight unseen - from 10,000 miles away, simply because they saw a photo somewhere or read about it on TBL. What I initially came to discover is that your bass must look better, sound better, play better, feel better than anything that person has ever experienced before they will even pay attention. Once you have their attention, your bass better cost half of what the competition is selling theirs for or you won't have a chance at a sale. You have to fight through the years of ad campaigns from Ibanez, Warwick, Gibson, and Yamaha who have all in turn been fighting the years of domination by Fender. I was prey to all that growing up and watching Sting play a Fender and an Ibanez and assuming I would someday do the same...
bunnybass: can you tell us something about you and johnny morch? he's not well known in this country is he? i'm curious about your contact with him and how these early experiences with him may have influenced your approach to building basses.
David King: I was in music school in Denmark in 1986-87 and I kept hearing about this guy who was building "der verd's best basses." I had designed a bass and finally I commissioned him to build it. It was a very small, Steinberger-like travel bass and Johnny was polite but dubious at first, probably because it was so different from what he had built and I hadn't nailed down all the details for him. He invited me to come back near the end of the construction to show him exactly how the body was to take shape. I spent a couple of days with him, working in his shop and watching him work. His place is an old farmhouse way out in the rolling countryside and his shop is in the barn with big picture windows looking out over these extraordinary pastoral views. The smell of old machines and wood and lacquer was intoxicating and I just realized that that was what I wanted to do. Johnny and I were obviously kindred spirits and I think he was pleased at the time to have influenced my direction. We talk pretty regularly on the phone and I get back every few years for visits. That bass worked out really well and on my return to Amherst I got inspired to build a fretless version in my old Jr. High school shop. I copped a lot of Johnny's methods right from the start - the guy is brilliant and he'd been building basses for 20 years, had built over 1000 instruments by then. Since then we have diverged a bit and we probably both have more in common with Alembic than with each other. I think if Johnny were more confident about his English he'd be a major player here in the custom field. At the highest level he is known. In the early 80s Pastorious had a Mørch bass as did Michael Jackson's bassist and Stanley Clark. Part of it is that Johnny has plenty of business right in Denmark and that by the time he established his worldwide reputation, folks like Ken Smith and Pedulla were filling the void in this country.
bunnybass: i guess the "D" body shape is the one that i associate most with your name, but i know you have several others too. how do you go about designing the body shape and laying out the details? how do you think you've come to develp your aesthetic sensibilities?
David King: Many of a bass guitar's important aspects were conclusively worked out by Leo Fender from the very beginning. The scale length, the pick up positions, where the bass sits on the knee and how it "rides" on the strap are pretty much givens. I plot those points out on paper and erase all the lines in between them. You have an enormous amount of creative freedom that way. I believe we all get most of our aesthetic sensibility from looking at nature - a plant or a bird or our own bodies are perfect expressions of pure utility. The concept for the "D" bass had been rattling around in my head for a year before I put pencil to paper and scratched it out. Since then the shape has evolved in all sorts of subtle ways, mostly by accident and I occasionally pull out those original plans and am always struck by the force of the original. So I go backwards too.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder - some guy will see my bass and won't sleep until he owns one. I see basses all the time that rub me the wrong way yet obviously folks are crazy about them too. If there were a single aesthetic "unified theory" then we wouldn't have the rich diversity out there. Basically I'm driven by utility where utility is beauty, it's hard to go wrong from there.
bunnybass: this is probably a(nother) terrible question: when you're designing a bass, how much control do you have in determining the final voice it'll have? do you know what the bass will sound like before you build it?
David King: Actually an excellent question. I know that the E string will sound like every other E string I've ever heard, same with the A, D, and G. Furthermore I know that if Marcus Miller picks it up it will sound exactly like any other bass Marcus Miller might pick up. That's not what I'm trying to control, I just want everything to fit together perfectly and from that I know the bass will sound good no matter who's playing it. People get all hot and bothered about what woods to use or where to put the pickups and they're inevitably missing the point because once they pick up the bass they are going to find their sound regardless. What people have told me is that my basses seem to have a very rich, condensed sound that has a very complex harmonic content. It takes a lot of power to amplify but it has a way of pervading and saturating any mix. I'm not sure this is always a good thing but what I've discovered is that it is much easier to take out the stuff you don't want from a sound than it is to add stuff that's missing from the sound.
It always works back to what came first, the chicken or the egg. In this case Leo Fender built a certain bass 50 years ago that had a certain sound and by some miracle it is exactly the sound we're all looking for. I mean - HOW DID HE KNOW??? To this day I can't listen to a recording and be sure of which bass made it, each instrument has such an amazing range that to my ears they all overlap somewhere.
bunnybass: correct me if i'm wrong, but in the past few years there seems to be a sort of movement towards building more bolt-on basses by the "custom" luthiers. what do you think are some of the reasons for this, and what's your personal take on the differences between bolt-on, neck-through, and set-in designs?
David King: Why bolt-ons? Well that's easy: Leo Fender. Leo did it because it was cheaper to make a bass in two pieces than in one and I suppose that still holds true today. After twenty years of glorifying Alembics with neck-through necks and then Steinbergers, the Industry had to find something new to capture the consumer's mind with, to sell more basses. Everyone will tell you that a bolt-on has more punch, that swamp ash is punchy, that single pickup basses are better. Well yes, you might gain a little punch but you're probably going to loose sustain and pick up a few dead spots. What goes around comes around and you just watch, in 5 or 10 years, headless basses will make a big comeback and every manufacturer will come out with one and they will all be claiming that headless is the answer to every player's dreams because it's so comfortable and the sound is so even and once everybody's bought into that idea then out comes the neck-through with the giant headstock and no upper horn that sustains for months but puts the first three frets completely out of reach. Okay, to be serious for a second, I do both bolt-on and neck-through and I really don't hear it - they can both sound punchy and they both sustain. Maybe I'm just deaf so I'm not going to be the one to say the Emperor is nekkid, I could be wrong...
bunnybass: in addition to building basses, you're also a bass player. how do you evaluate your finished instruments? what are you listening for?
David King: This is the challenge. A bass' sound is so ephemeral and subjective that I have a tough time remembering one bass to the next, let alone saying that one sounds better. There are obvious things to look for like dead spots and uneven sustain. With all the mids and highs cut out and the bass boosted; is there a strong fundamental that sounds tight and focused with even decay?. This low end is what people are going to perceive in a band situation. I listen for a punchy "kick drum" attack as well as expressive notes that swell. Set up and strings can contribute more dynamic range for ever more volume the harder you play. I also really like a sort of vocal quality in the upper range, a sound I hear on some old recordings that is epitomized by the bass solo on Steve Miller's The Joker - it's a tone that excites me and is probably the reason I got into bass in the first place. I'm still not sure how these factors are intertwined, some balance is struck every time. It's an aesthetic where one person's "dog" is just as likely to be another's favorite.
bunnybass: by the way, what kinds of music do you enjoy playing?
David King: Funny you should ask, I like playing music that I've never heard before, new songs that have just been written when I don't even know the chord progression. It gives me this freedom to listen and play at the same instant and it's as if my brain is bypassed. My ears connect to my fingers and I don't have to play roots and fifths anymore. I play notes I never hear myself playing when I know a song. I seem to come up with these instantaneous counter-melodies that fit but that aren't something I'd be capable of playing later or even remembering. I feel like the music is being beamed in from outside or something and I find the process exhilarating. For straight up playing, I guess I still love reggae and modern ska, anything with a busy bass line that carries the melody. It's really tough to find drummers and guitarists who know this stuff - it's terribly boring for them too so I rarely get to play it. Most of what I play has been folksy white-boy funk, the stuff that singer /songwriters can't seem to get away from. Of course the challenge is to make it sound like something new and different but I'm not that good, I keep falling back into clichés. The real problem is that I get bored quickly and never bother to really learn the songs, I keep making the same mistakes and eventually people start looking for a "real" bassist.
bunnybass: the bass is still a relatively young instrument, isn't it? someone just reminded me the other day that next year is gonna be the fender bass's 50th birthday. how do you imagine your relationship to the electric bass changing in the coming years?
David King: It probably took the violin design about 100 years to stabilize and it hasn't changed at all since then. The 100 years of flux took place in a world without telephones or airplanes or factories or even the internet, just thousands of individual makers all spread out across 10 countries in Europe. All of them speaking different languages and all of them probably thinking that they were on the right track. My bet is that standardization really came about with the large workshops at Mirecourt and Mittenwalt. Since then we've had endless generations of copyists. Mr. Fender got a head start by having the biggest factory right from the start and we've all been towing the line since then. My relationship to the electric bass started with complete frustration at an enormously awkward and cumbersome instrument that screamed out to be redesigned - I didn't even wait to learn how to play it. I kept the workable bits and tossed the rest. About 70 people so far have taken me seriously enough to buy the result and face possible ridicule. I don't really know how my relationship will change, I suppose I might get tired of amplified music and try to redesign the upright instead. I know I will always buck the trends though even that is getting trendy.
bunnybass: can you give us a little hint as to what you'll be doing next?
David King: Well believe it or not, I've just been commissioned to build my first (and the worlds?) headless eight string (a four string with octaves). After that I might finally get around to an electric upright or even an electric guitar... Meanwhile I'm trying to organize a little website to promote all of us one-man operations, sort of a clearing house of information about custom bass design and as a way of raising the bar for all of us who are too small to have a voice but often have new ideas. I guess it's a marketing strategy but it'll be nearly free to join and might help us all get a better share of that (Fender) pie.
bunnybass: mmm, pie. sounds good. i want to thank you david - it's been a genuine pleasure to chat with you. if anybody wants to get in touch with you, should we just send them to your website?
David King: Or they can reach me directly at david"at"kingbass.com too. Jon and Mimi, I want to thank you... I've really enjoyed it and I'm coming to realize what an amazing little busy bunny brand you've made here, pure love. So thanks for that too.