Chris Wyse of Owl
Chris Wyse may be most recognizable as the bassist for The Cult, but as the frontman and bassist for the band Owl is where Wyse’s raw talents are truly exposed. A gifted and innovative bassist Wyse formed Owl with his childhood friend drummer Dan Dinsmore and guitarist Jason Mezilis.
Not only does Wyse sing lead vocals and play bass in the band, he also wrote their debut self-titled album and produced it as well. Describing their sound as mystical and experimental the band definitely offers up a fresh unique sound to the world of rock; something that’s been missing for quite some time. Wyse does things with a stand up bass that have been virtually non-existent in rock music for the past decade and is able to create sounds that you would never imagine coming from a bass by the techniques he’s mastered and created. These stylized skills give the music a whole new layer of rich eclectic sounds that have even left some music reviewers unsure of what they’re listening to.
Tapping into the talents of songwriter Marti Fredrickson on a few songs and working in Matt Sorum’s studio, Wyse has definitely assembled the best of the best for this band. The results are a self-titled album that will lead you on a trippy little ride that tackles the senses and introduces you to the mysterious world of Owl.
Wyse took some time to talk to us about the band, the album, and how his passion for bass was born.
Interviewed by: Mary Ouellette | August 2009
So let’s start off with some basics, a lot of us are familiar with you as the bassist for The Cult, what was it that made you want to break away from that a bit and start your own band/write your own music?
Well I’ve always been on the search for putting together my own band, even before I became a member of The Cult. It was always a goal of mine. The way I write and play bass is a fairly stylized sound that I’ve got, utilizing the bass the way that I do, having semi-experimental musical passages. There’s simply no bands that do that and I’ve always wanted to do that kind of thing – I play with a bow and do leads and effects and we go off on fairly strange soundscape-y things so there’s really been no bands out that I could join that do what we do so instead of looking for it I created it.
So let me try to get the timeline right on this – you wrote the record on your own?
I wrote a few songs with Marti Fredrickson who writes with Aerosmith and tons of other people. I thought it would be cool to get an outside influence since I was writing on my own. There are three or four songs on the album that I co-wrote with Marti and he just kept seeing what I was doing and wanted to get together and work on a song so we worked on “Pusher” and then we did a couple more. We really liked what we were doing. They were demos so when the time came to record the record I really liked the songs and I put my own production twist on them.
So after you wrote the majority of the demos, that’s when you decided to join up with Jason and Dan to pull it all together for you?
Dan was in The Clay People and I had been working with different musicians. L.A. is a tricky town, a lot of guys are working like crazy and I’ve done it before but I’m not a fan of being in twenty bands at once, I don’t think it’s the healthiest thing. I’ve done it for a living and I’ve done some session work but I really wanted a more organic team that was involved in for the right reasons and that wanted to be in a band and not just join a project.
Dan had problems with The Clay People and I had problems with my line up at the time and we just kept talking on the phone (we’re long time friends) and I told him that I thought that the door was open and that we should get together. We had always talked about playing together. Dan is one of the most monstrous drummers on the planet. He hasn’t been fore-fronted yet but I think this is going to help people to realize what Dan is all about on the drums. I’ve played with amazing bands and drummers and Dan is one of the best. Touching the roots and realizing where we both came from and wanting to get back to that, and realizing how fiery we were as kids, we just wanted to revisit that. Jason had always been around in L.A. checking out the band and I sometimes expressed my difficulties to him and always respected him as a musician so it kind of all just fell into place. This is a more genuine line-up, which is what I always wanted.
When it’s one person that writes the majority of the music it has to be tough to find the right people to play it the way that you want it to be played and care about it as much as you do but it seems like you’ve accomplished that with these guys.
They were already on the same page and it wasn’t hard to explain my vision to them. Dan and I go way back. We worked together for several years and pushed each other really hard so basically it’s just an extension of all of the things that we’ve already done so he already got it right out of the gate. Jason had been to a ton of my shows already so it was an easy fit.
You produced the album as well, what made you want to take on that additional role because it seems like that might add some stress to the whole process?
It was a pretty big undertaking. I was also traveling back and forth with The Cult and trying to book studio time, so it was a big undertaking but it was the right time. I’ve worked with some of the world’s greatest – Marti I’ve already mentioned and I worked with Bob Rock and Mike Clink, and the list goes on. I’ve worked in a studio since I was kid, it was almost instant, as soon as I was playing it seems like I was in the studio shortly after. I’m not terribly technical in the studio as far as running ProTools but I know what I want to hear and I know how to ask for it. After doing all of this stuff, I’ve been developed by producers and I was always just trying to get what was in my head out of them so Matt Sorum and I were out one night and he encouraged me and gave me a deal at his studio. That was a big seed planter because I had realized that the guys he had been working with were top notch and I could let them run the board and the computer and I could just produce. I’m very specific about what I want to hear so if I’m working with really great engineers I can get it out of them. I just thought that I don’t want to sit here and explain it, I know what I want. It wasn’t my first barbeque so to speak so I decided to produce it.
I noticed that there’s actually another guitar player who plays a lot on the album (Eric Bradley). Was there a specific reason that he didn’t become a permanent member of the band?
Eric and I were in Jerry Cantrell’s band together, that’s how we met. Eric’s been in and out of Owl and I’ve helped his band as well. We’ve basically just been close friends and always supported each other. Eric has a few different kinds of things that he brings to the table and I thought it would be great to have a well rounded team in the studio. When he came in he brought some things to the table that maybe Jason wasn’t doing at the time. At that point it was a record and Dan and I were committed but we didn’t know who the final guitar player was and it turned out to be Jason. The door is always open for Eric though, he’s not a full time member but he’s always invited. He may pop up at future shows and recordings. Some of it sounds good with two guitars but live I think people are really getting off on the trio vibe. My bass is sometimes distorted and overdriven so it works as a trio but in the studio I wanted to have a couple added layers and Eric was the guy.
Soundwise on this album you really through away the notion of traditional rock music and pushed a lot of boundaries. Was that the mindset going into the writing process or is that just how things fell into place once you started writing?
A little bit a both. You might have noticed that there’s a lot of strong choruses on the record. The end of Waves, the big drum and bass jam with the Middle Eastern kind of vocal over it, that was completely improvised, it was an accident. At the end of the song Dan and I kept going and then I put the vocals on it. The guitar is minimal, a lot of people don’t realize what they’re hearing. The beginning of the record is all drums and bass and there’s just one little dive bomb on the guitar but the rest is drums and bass. Dan and I came from an Alex and Eddie Van Halen mentality where you would take musical bits and just go off on them and that was part of the fun.
Do you improvise a lot live?
I wouldn’t say a ton but way more than the average band. We don’t mess with the songs to the point where people are questioning what song it is, that’s not terribly attractive to me. Hopefully we leave people wanting to come back to another show because it’s always something a little different and it’s super high energy. The last couple of shows we did in New York fans went crazy, it felt almost like life or death – like a train railing down on the tracks as hard and as fast as possible, as if it’s almost about to break but it doesn’t. The jams are like that too, sometimes I don’t even know I’m about to bust into something when I hear Dan go into a beat at the end of the song, which is part of the fun. On the flip side I think the songs are catchy as well and I know that people are sometimes seeing us for the first time and we see them singing the chorus half way through and that’s so cool. We want to relate, we don’t want to come off like the most complicated music and be over everyone’s head. It’s more of a metaphysical mystical thing that we go for. It’s not math. I’m very theoretical but when I’m playing with Owl I’m just letting the heart and soul fly.
You’ve said that “Owl provides a platform for us to share our musical vision” can you tell us a bit about your musical vision for the band?
I think that some of the things that I grew up with that matter to me were Floyd and Zeppelin and Sabbath. Iron Maiden was a big deal and I’d hear these pieces of music as a kid and I was blown away. They were completely magical/witchcrafty sounding things, going off in places that weren’t necessarily designed for radio and these bands were having massive success going there. We’ve lost that today so if anything I feel a little more driven to keep going. I’m not sure of any modern day bands taking any risks at all and the funny thing is that right now you can do whatever you want because the whole tower has been toppled and it’s an even playing field again.
No that’s true, there use to be bands that really stood out as innovators.
There’s so little of it now that I can’t even come up with an example. There are good bands out there…Radiohead, but they’re not really new. I could refer to them, they take chances. Some of the heavier bands like Mastodon and Lamb of God – but they’re on the metal side of things. I’d like to be genre free. I’d like to skip right over metal and go to hardcore and then head over to punk. It’s definitely about energy. I don’t think we’re a metal band but some of the metal bands are the most progressive right now. They’re not worried about competing with Britney Spears shaved pussy, it’s just back to the music. I think anyone that’s worried about their pop rating sensibilities to make it in the business is making a huge mistake because I’m not sure that’s going to matter so much anymore. There’s always going to be pop candy, even back in the 60s and 70s we had pop goofiness. Our core has been broken and I’d like to be a part of bringing back some real heavy duty music again. It would be great to see excitability come back over music.
I saw that you had a string of live dates recently in NY, are you planning to expand on those dates? I’m sure you’re scheduling and touring with The Cult dictates that a bit?
We’ve been developing an entourage of bands similar to us, bands that have a member who is in another well known band and has their own band on the side. I won’t start naming any names but I’ve got a group back in LA and NY and I was thinking of putting together our own little tour to show that there’s still a scene and musicians who care about making great music. So far it’s been well-received so you should see us doing a more proper tour next year.
I saw a guest blog you wrote on Headbangers Blog about saving the arts and the sad case of how very little kids know about music these days just due to not ever being exposed to it in school or through their parents – can you tell us how you got your start on the bass or with music in general?
My family is from Ireland and there’s always been a strong musical base around the house. My dad was always singing or listening to traditional Celtic music which is very fiery. Even now there’s a strong musical vibe in my family. I thought I wanted to play drums when I was a kid, I was obsessed with Peter Criss and I’d slam things around trying to simulate his drum solos. I had a bunch of friends who were playing drums and guitar and they said they needed a bassist but I really wasn’t interested. But then my two guitar player buddies played me “Number of the Beast” from Iron Maiden and it was just the fantasy element mixed with Steve Harris on the bass and his fieriness, fronting a band playing bass like that. I was completely blown away and I listened to it from a bass players perspective and decided that it was what I wanted to do. I sat down and learned every Iron Maiden song on bass and begged my parents for a bass. I just thought he was very innovative and gutsy and I thought, hey, why not..it’s attractive to be slightly under-doggy.
So then how did that lead you to the upright bass?
I just got so extreme with the bass guitar. I was getting into Stanley Gordon and Billy Sheehan and Eddie Van Halen was a huge influence on me even though he’s not a bassist. Anybody who’s kind of innovative, I remember falling in love with Bobby McPheren, everyone remembers “Don’t Worry Be Happy” but that was just a novelty to him, he was brilliant. He has piece of music that will make you cry, just seriously beautiful stuff. I was just attracted to anything that was innovative or cutting edge. I got into the mystical and mysterious side of things. When Eddie Van Halen first started becoming more popular people would constantly question whether his playing was tricks on tape or him actually playing. The only frontier left for me as a diehard bassist was to pick up the upright bass and I really pushed that along. I tried to work out everything I had worked out on the bass guitar. I’m not sure anyone really owns the upright bass, it’s a beast. I don’t know if people realize, they are sometimes surprised when they see it live, like in Pusher, the sound effects in the middle are the me playing the bass with a bow. A lot of times people think it’s the guitar. I’ve even read reviews of us where they are completely going off about the guitar playing and it’s actually the bass. People have also called me a cellist, people that make a living writing. I think that’s what drove me to do the blog. I’m not here to point a finger but I’d like to bring the consciousness back. Elvis Presley had an upright bassist before the bass guitar was even created yet everyone refers to the bass guitar as the “normal” bass, it’s only fifty some odd years old. There’s only four instruments in the strings family – the upright bass, the cello, the violin, and the viola and kids don’t even know that. I’m just a little taken back by that stuff.
There seem to be a lot of rich layers in a lot of the songs, is there any concern about pulling those off live?
There’s really nothing missing live. A lot of the stuff I pull off on the bass with delays and wah wahs tends to sound very full. It may sound like more is going on than just one instrument. In a trio we’re all forced to max out our abilities and it may be a bit more raw.
So I read that the name of the band actually came from a nickname you picked up in high school, can you tell us about that?
It’s really simple, my last name is Wyse and even though it’s spelled with a Y it’s pronounced Wise and they use to ask me if I was the Wise Owl or if they didn’t like me maybe the Not So Wise Owl. I particularly remember pulling Wise potato chips out of my KISS lunch box and they’d ask me if I was the Wise Owl because the logo was an owl…and if you think about it..Owl is a way cooler nickname than potato chips.
For more on Owl visit their MySpace page