Fattening the bottom line

Erik Kleven

Photo By Larry Dalton

Some people prefer the limelight. Others would rather hang back and play a supporting role. Similarly, some people listen to a piece of music and hear a vocal part or a guitar riff, where others hear a beat or the insistent pulsing of a bass line. Erik Kleven is a longtime fixture on the local music scene, a bass player and private instructor who has made an indelible mark as a member of numerous area groups. He’s the guy you call when you need something nice laying low in the cut.

Bass players, even though you carry the band, you’re kind of anonymous.

Yeah. But some of us choose it that way.

Do you like it like that?

I really do because there are some aspects where you don’t want to be the complete center of attention, but you want to do something. And that’s kind of like a safer way than being the guy out in front. So it fits with certain personality types.

At the end of the night, is the bass player the guy who’s waiting around to get the money while the rest of the band has gone off partying?

Well, I’ve done that. Some kinds of gigs are set up that way, but I don’t wait around if it seems like it’s going to be a long time. That just seems like, duh. But usually the bandleaders I’ve worked for are together enough, one could say; they understand the deal.

Who have you played with over the years?

David Houston, David Lynch, Henry Robinette, Anton Barbeau, the Wooden Nickel Jass Band—that was a Dixie band I played in for a while. Music Circus, Lisa Phenix, Charlie Peacock, Her Six Daughters—I’m just trying to think of groups I’ve played with, John Tchicai, Jessica Williams …

You’ve played jazz, blues, rock and country?

And pop and classical; I used to play in the Air Force band—y’know, that’s how I got out of Vietnam [laughs]. I didn’t have to go to ‘Nam because I could play tuba.

What kind—the sousaphone?

When we marched, I had to carry that tuba that masquerades as clothing. Concert gigs, I played concert tuba, the upright.

So you’ve been into everything on the low end, whether it’s standup bass, electric bass, tuba. How did you get attracted to the bottom end of music?

When I was in junior high school, I wanted to play French horn so bad, ‘cause I loved the sound of French horn, and [I could get] nothing but awful noises. It was kind of like a beginning violinist—for three or four years, it really sucks. It hurts people. And so I figured, this is a failure. I suck. And then I tried clarinet, and that made even less sense to me. And at the time, the rest of beginning band was playing a German waltz thing, and I realized, OK, there’s the melody, but there’s no bass part. I’ll play the tuba! There was definitely something missing—in a German waltz, when you don’t have anybody going “oom,” and everybody else is going “pah-pah.” And it worked! And at that time, there was no conscious awareness of the way it appears in a presentation—like the tuba player’s always in the back, and the trumpet player’s up front getting the spotlight. I didn’t think of it like that; it was more like, oh, this part isn’t happening. Maybe I can do it.

When you picked up the guitar-based version of the bass, what players were you attracted to?

In particular, it was Motown stuff that made me want to play bass.

James Jamerson?

Yeah. Those soul things. I dunno, I got it, maybe. It made perfect sense to me what he did, and it thrilled me. Of course, we didn’t know their names; I didn’t know their names until we were way older. I could even tell you the tune that turned me on so much: "Reach Out (I’ll Be There)" by the Four Tops. It was the little one-measure bass break that happens two or three times in the tune. And I’d sit there and wait for that part when the song came on the radio. And I’d get, like, chills—goose bumps! ‘Cause it took it to this place. And then, playing at school, there was an awareness of the other aspects of playing, like the jazz band stuff. I started playing stringed bass instruments—when I was a senior in high school, somebody assumed that since I played tuba that I could play stringed bass, too. And so I said, yeah, and I borrowed a bass from a friend’s dad, and I bought a little method book for stringed bass, and I started working. And in a couple months, I was gigging.