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PETER VANAGS » PERSONAL » 

Music

"Eclectic Upright Bass"

I've been playing upright acoustic (double) bass since junior high school. I started out playing in orchestras and jazz bands and worked at mastering classical and jazz bass through my college years.

Finally in my late twenties I started getting into performing other styles of music on the old upright: bluegrass, folk, folk-rock and alt-rock. And these days, I'm happiest playing in groups that combine lots of influences and play a wide variety of music.

Before I moved to San Diego, I lived in Crested Butte, Colorado. Alex Johnstone, Aaron McCloskey and I had a "new acoustic" trio there called a.k.a laser bunny. I also played off-and-on with talented pianist David J. Rothman as a jazz duo called Martians Go Home. And I recorded/produced songs and played some bass for Jason Valcourt when he lived in the Butte. And waaay back when, I was in the infamous Crested Butte bluegrass band Trainwreck, now long gone.

The Kyle Van Band

My most recent project here in San Diego has been the Kyle Van Band. The songs are an eclectic mix of original tunes, in styles ranging from 80's new wave to alt-country to zydeco. I liked the versatility of playing my electric upright with this group: being able to rock out or chill out, pluck the strings or play with a bow as the songs dictated.

Perhaps we were a little too eclectic to bring the crowds out in droves: more of a musician's band than a music fan's band. You can't make a living on free drinks and the tip jar. (Though it's fun to try!) Sigh. Fickle SoCal music fans. Anyway, the band's reconfigured now, moving on ... I wish them all the best.

Below are a few recordings of KVB from the past couple of years. Like every song on this page, I recorded, mixed and produced all the tracks myself.Now there's some variety.

a.k.a. laser bunny

a.k.a laser bunny is a New Acoustic string band that originally formed in Crested Butte Colorado in 2004. This group is made up of myself, Alex Johnstone (of Spring Creek Bluegrass Band) and Aaron McCloskey (of Steve Smith's Hard Road). We've also performed and recorded with many of our friends as special guests, such as C-Bob Elliott from Spring Creek Bluegrass Band and the young and inimitable Nate Lee.

The band performs a diverse range of instrumental acoustic songs, from Gypsy jazz to Irish fiddle tunes to '70s elevator funk. We sound kind of like Phillips Grier and Flinner, or David Grisman on mescaline. More than half of what we play is original music, and the rest is barely recognizeable from the original after we do the "bunny treatment" on it.

Since I'm in Solana Beach and the other guys are in Colorado, we don't get to play together more than once or twice a year, but we sure have a lot fun when we manage to meet up. Last time that happened, we recorded the "gimlet sessions", nine ginger-gin-basil-and-lime soaked tracks of mad genius. Or perhaps just madness.

Here are some choice "bunny tracks" recorded at various times from 2004-2008:You can find out more about the band more and listen to more music at the a.k.a. laser bunny web site.

What is New Acoustic Music?

Best I can describe it, it's music played with traditional stringed instruments that doesn't fit any traditional genres like jazz, folk, bluegrass, etc. It's easier and more fun to listen to than explain, so here are a couple more examples, performed by me and my friends from Spring Creek Bluegrass Band.
  • On The Road, an intense and wacky little tune in 5/4 time.
  • Red Haired Bhagwan, a psychedelic Ravi Shankar twist on a traditional fiddle tune called Red Haired Boy.

Why Upright Bass?

I learned to play upright bass because I was the biggest 'cello student in my junior high school orchestra, and they needed someone tall to switch to playing bass. Lucky for me, because I would have ended up a mediocre cellist at best. From the first week, I knew the bass was way more my style.

I have never been able to groove on a normal electric bass, even after years of trying. The sideways-and-fretted thing just doesn't work for me, so I play everything on one of my two upright basses: either my NS electric upright, or the big old 1959 Kay hunk o' wood that I've owned since junior high.

The hunk 'o wood I've played forever, but the electric upright bass is a pretty recent discovery for me. After years of struggling, I finally decided to give up pretending to play normal electric bass. The fretted, sideways thing just wasn't working for me: despite lots of practice, I never felt I knew my way around it properly, or could really lock into a good groove with other musicians.

Literally the same day I put the old bass in a box and shipped it off to its new owner, I stumbled upon a deal on a Ned Steinberger NS-CR4M upright electric bass at Guitar Center. Some poor fool had special-ordered it from them and then backed out of the deal. The sales guy needed to move the thing, and they let me have it for a criminally low price.

The New Stick

What a revelation this stick has been! It has the same scale length as my Kay upright, has tight and low action, a great feel and awesome tone. It can sound like everything from a fretless Fender Jazz to an acoustic upright. I don't remember when I've had as much fun playing bass.

I can play cranking surf rock, 80's pop and big band swing all on the same bass, just messing with the pickup and tone controls. There's no on-stage feedback problems like I have playing at high volume on my acoustic. And the thing sounds better played with a bow than my acoustic bass does. (I have scratchy jazz strings on the Kay that sound terrible bowed.)

I recorded a little snippet of a song called Office Funk using the new bass, it's just me fooling around with the NS and GarageBand for 15 minutes to see how funky I could get it to sound. That's also me overdubbing the really high legato notes on the NS.

Peter Vanags • 2340 Cambridge Ave • Cardiff by the Sea, CA 92007 • (970) 209-5788