By Jim Schutze
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By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Ryan Hamilton doesn't see what the big deal is.
He and his musical partner Jencey Hirunrusme have performed as Smile Smile for more than five years, splitting the band duties between the two of them, an acoustic guitar and a keyboard.
When they recently decided to expand their sound for live performances, they stopped short of making Smile Smile a full band in the traditional sense, which might include a full rhythm section, and maybe an extra guitar. Instead, they added only drums, leaving the rest of the heavy lifting to Hirunrusme's keyboards and programmed elements.
And the band wouldn't have it any other way. To them, leaving out instruments is just another decision a band can make concerning their sound.
These days, more and more bands are deciding to forgo the traditional band lineup. And, more often than not, the odd man out is the bassist. The trend stretches out much wider and deeper than the obvious reference point, The White Stripes. Other bands, such as The Kills, Times New Viking, Sleigh Bells and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, all opt for a bass-less setup.
And Smile Smile is hardly alone in choosing to go bass-less in North Texas. Other bass-free area bands include RTB2, a thundering, bluesy act, and Leg Sweeper, a punky, poppy blast of fun. While both bands share similar instrumentation with only guitar, drums and vocals, they also share similar backgrounds leading to their lineup decisions.
More than adhering to some modern musical trend or attention-grabbing bit, both bands cite deep-rooted friendship and personal chemistry as reasons for leaving the bass behind. As earlier bands and collaborations fell apart, their personal and musical connections remained. Each duo—Ryan Thomas Becker and Grady Sandlin in RTB2 and Justin Gomez and Taylor Stolly in Leg Sweeper—arrived at the conclusion that they were actually weakened when additional musicians were added to the mix. The need to work in an additional layer of sound, or collaborative mind, was simply unnecessary.
"I wasn't thinking instrumentation," Becker says. "I wasn't thinking drums. I was thinking Grady."
Of course, for some bands it's just a matter of convenience. Dallas' Orange Peel Sunshine, for example, jettisoned the bass after finishing up their latest album. But the move proved challenging: Since their earliest days, the band featured a traditional lineup of two guitars, a bass and drums—but not all of the instruments received equal billing. The band's two guitarists, Josh Campbell and Nick Forte, tend to write material quickly, arranging the basic song structure and drum parts together. This usually left the bass parts to come later, almost as an afterthought. After musical differences led to their most recent bassist's departure, Campbell says his band "started thinking that if that was how we were treating the bass in this band, maybe it wasn't necessary moving forward."
Stop and think about that for a moment—that the bass isn't necessary. Imagine what would happen if a conductor stripped the bass section from an orchestra, or if a jazz pianist played with only her right hand in the upper register of the piano. Hell, imagine The Beatles without McCartney or Led Zeppelin without John Paul Jones. The end product would be thin, anemic and, certainly, lacking.
And yet, save for a few exceptions, most of these bands who are dumping the bass guitar aren't missing anything.
It seems that the poor little bass guitar is expendable because, well, it is. Smile Smile's Ryan Hamilton thinks so. Orange Peel Sunshine's Josh Campbell thinks so.
Oddly enough, Midlake bassist Paul Alexander thinks so too. A product of the renowned University of North Texas music program, Alexander's bass work has served as the backbone for his band's renowned albums. But even he says that the answer isn't in instrumentation, but rather in the music itself.
All right, that sounds obvious: Bad music is bad music. Or, to hear Becker tell it: "Some bands just have shitty songs. It doesn't matter if there's a bass there or not."
But bass is often covered in other ways, making the impact less dramatic. Alexander cites buzzing Baltimore act Beach House as an example of a band creating a lush tapestry of sound in pop music without a traditional approach to bass through the use of keyboards. In his opinion, the music is so strong and arresting on its own merits that one hardly notices that there's something different about the bass at all.
"The instrumentation and arrangement exist," he says, "to put the song in its best light at the given moment."
But while bass can be nonessential in the right context, it can't be dismissed as unnecessary. It's both a melodic instrument and a rhythmic instrument, filling the gap between guitar and drums. It reinforces the kick and either establishes or plays off of the chord. It can add movement and feeling to the song, or be restrained and build a mood.
That's why, according to Dave Hinson, a classically trained professional bassist and educator from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the decision of a band to go without a bass is such an important one. Not only, he says, can the music be robbed of such an important element, but if the songs aren't there, then a band risks being dismissed as mere gimmickry.
Sometimes, the decision is based on the music. Other times it's based on who's available. But it should never be based on getting attention or thinking, "Well, the White Stripes did it and they got rich!" Hinson says that, at that point, "you're not really making musical judgments; you're making other judgments about what you want your band to be or not be."
Hinson himself has played guitar in a duo, and he found the lack of bass to be beneficial to the music, rather than detrimental. He found that it intensified the groove, leaving only the kick drum to provide the pocket and clarifying what and where to play. Likewise, as the guitarist, he had to ensure that his playing covered any space that might be left by the absence of the bass guitar. By playing in a band without a bass, he says, he was forced to actually become a better player—because, he says, his awareness of his role in an ensemble was heightened, like a blind man who finds his other senses becoming more acute.
Perhaps there really is a value to this.
Only time will tell, however, if there's enough value to make this anything other than another phase or bit.
Hinson suggests the verdict lies in the subjective ear of the listener, ultimately.
"It's like pornography," he says. "You know it when you see it."