Ibanez: When did you start playing bass?
Percy: When I was about 15 years old, which would have been about 1962.
Ibanez: What sort of training did you have?
Percy: I actually didn't have any because I grew up in central Wales which was quite a rural area. And back then, not many people played electric bass anyway. And there were no teachers around then. So I really had no choice except to sort of teach myself. I mean, I took some music classes in school which was on the curriculum, but I was pretty poor. My music teachers told me I should take Russian (laughs). Yeah, so I'm pretty much self-taught.
Ibanez: What did you do to develop your skills on the instrument?
Percy: I used to listen to the radio. I'd buy records and play along with them. I joined a local group in the area, along with some guys I was in school with. And that was a learning process as well. So it sort of went along like that.
Ibanez: Who influenced you as you were learning to play?
Percy: Well very early on, when I was just starting, I used to go out to dances in the area. And that was the days of the sort of merseybeat thing. And there were a lot of 4-piece rock bands that would come in from Liverpool or Birmingham and play in Central Wales. So I used to go and watch and listen to these guys, and some of it used to rub off. I can't remember any of their names specifically, but they were probably my first influences.
Then I started listening to upright players, and overall I was getting more input listening to upright players than electric players¡¦even though I was learning to play electric fretted bass. And probably of all of them, Charles Mingus was the biggest influence. But you know, there were a lot of players I listened to and liked. And I think that my favorite electric bass player back then was a guy that played with Georgie Fame, and his name was Cliff Barton. He's not well known because he died at a young age, he was like 25 or something, but I think had he lived he would have made a much bigger name for himself. He was technically more advanced than most of the players of that time on electric.
Ibanez: When did you first start experimenting with the fretless bass, and what inspired that?
Percy: Because I listened to a lot of upright players, I sort of had it in my mind for quite awhile that it would be interesting to try a fretless bass because it was kind of a hybrid between an upright and an electric. And I guess the opportunity never came up until about 1974, when I had just gotten a publishing advance for I think ?200. And I bought a Melody Maker and in the adverts in the back, I saw that someone was selling a fretless Fender Precision for 200 quid. So I went up to North London to this guy's house and took a look at it, and it was in very good condition apart from some Guinness stains (laughs). I think he was Irish, this guy. And I bought it, not knowing if I would be able to master it or not. So I spent my whole publishing advance on this thing and took it home, started playing it, and I immediately knew it was going to be the right instrument¡¦even though I was having trouble with intonation and I realized it was going to take a minute to get used to it. But I could immediately see that there were things I could do on this that I couldn't do on a fretted bass, so I just got stuck in with it and played it every day. And I think it was just a few weeks later that we did the first Brand X record, which I used a fretless on. So I jumped in at the deep end.
Ibanez: Did you use a fretless on the whole album or just certain tracks?
Percy: I think on everything except one track.
Ibanez: Do you ever play fretted basses anymore?
Percy: No. I stopped back then, and never went back to a fretted bass after that. A couple of times I've tried to play one since, and I can't (laughs). I get fret noise, and I'm just not comfortable on it.
Ibanez: After so many years of playing and mastering bass, do you still practice on your own?
Percy: Yeah¡¦I mean, probably not as often as I should. But I try and practice, because the problem is if you don't play, you lose muscle tone and everything and your chops go out the window. So I do my best to just stay in shape. But you can't beat playing with other people. When you're playing with a band it's more challenging, you have to play harder, and it's more challenging than just sitting and playing by yourself. So usually if I'm playing alone, it's sort of an academic thing, and I'll practice lines that I've had difficulty with, work on my technique, and just use it as an opportunity to try and stay in reasonable shape. But I don't practice every day¡¦I probably should, but I don't. It's difficult sometimes, when you're busy with other stuff.
Ibanez: Your group Tunnels recently released a new record, Natural Selection. How does this record compare to the group's previous releases?
Percy: I think it's the 5th CD that Tunnels put out. The first one was I think all my compositions, because that was in the early stages of the band. And subsequently, there were more compositions by Marc Wagnon. So it changed somewhat. And then for this last record, I suggested to Marc that we should try and do something that's more sonically interesting. So he got more involved in sampling and synthesis and so on, so I think it has a different sound than its predecessor.
Ibanez: Are there any other projects that are you currently involved with?
Percy: Yeah, there is one other one which is a little bit whacky called Simple Harmonic Motion. I'm doing a record with guitarist Dann Glenn and drummer Walter Garces. And we're doing it remotely¡¦I'm in New York, Dan is in St. Louis, and Walter is in L.A. The guy who's mixing it is in Chicago. We're sending tracks around and putting our parts on them, so we're not actually playing together. It could be a complete flop but I thought, well, it could be interesting, so I decided to get into it. We finished one track, which sounds rather good¡¦so maybe something will come out of it. But it's early days, so we'll see how it comes out. It could be good, you never know.
Ibanez: Do you have a preference between playing live versus in the studio?
Percy: Well, I think there are interesting aspects of both, but they're quite different. I like playing live because it's very spontaneous and it's kind of exciting when something spontaneously good happens in the music and the audience picks up on that, and you've got this to and fro between the band and the audience. And if it's a good gig, it's kind of exciting and I enjoy that. And actually, I would much rather play in a smaller place than say a huge room. I mean, I've never had any desire to do Madison Square Garden or anything from a musical point of view. So the live thing, it's like a one-off thing, it's something that happens on one night and that's the end of it, and then the next night could be completely different. You get these sort of magical moments that are very spontaneous, so I like that aspect of live playing. The thing I don't care for about it is sometimes there's a lot of traveling which is tiring. And I'm not getting any younger, so it tends to get more tiring as time goes along.
But then studio work, it's a whole different vibe because it gets a little bit more academic in that it's less spontaneous. I mean, you could have good takes and bad takes, so there's sort of spontaneity about that, but you're thinking more in terms of it being a recording which, once it's finished and pressed, is going to stay the same, you know, that's it. But people might be listening to it for years to come, if you're lucky. They're two quite different approaches, so to answer your questions, I enjoy aspects of both, but they're just two different situations.
Ibanez: You have an extremely vast and diverse body of recorded work. Can you name some records that you feel best represent your playing, or that you are particularly proud of?
Percy: Ummm, that's difficult to answer¡¦quite a few people have asked me the same question. I mean, there are certain tunes on various records that I like¡¦you know, tunes that are spread across several different records. But of the Brand X stuff, I've got fond memories of the very first one, because the way that came together was a bunch of guys still finding their place and getting to know each other. So it's very much a group effort. The compositions are by the group rather than individuals, so everybody's very much trying to work together to come up with something that's interesting. And I thought it did come out to be an interesting record, and it had a spontaneity about it.
I also like Masques, which is another Brand X record. That was more worked out and prepared, but I felt that we caught a certain atmosphere with that record. You know, it's got a certain vibe which really comes across on the record. So I'm happy with that. And then there was Do They Hurt?, which was a later Brand X record, where the band was becoming more split up. And we were running into problems because we were being told our music wasn't accessible enough, so I kind of rebelled against this and just tended to write stuff that was even more inaccessible (laughs)¡¦so there was a sort of rebelliousness which I think comes out on the record. So there's good stuff about that. But there are certain aspects of all of them that I like.
And then, I feel good about the stuff I did with Brian Eno. And this is going back to the mid-70's¡¦like Another Green World. I thought that Eno really got onto something interesting there¡¦that style, that direction, I thought was very interesting. And I was sort of sorry he didn't take it further, because I think he could have gone a little further with that and developed it more, but he didn't. He did Before and After Science, which was kind of similar, and then it stopped, and he went off and did something else. But I enjoyed working with him immensely. I also enjoyed working with the Paranoise guys, which is more recent, sort of through the 80's. And some of the Tunnels stuff I like.
Ibanez: Switching gears a bit, how long have you been playing Ibanez?
Percy: I guess 5 or 6 years¡¦no, no, sorry it's longer than that. Actually, it's more like 8 or 9 years. Time flies. We did the last Brand X record in 1997, and I used an Ibanez on that¡¦the first Ibanez that they gave me.
Ibanez: What model was that?
Percy: It was a Sound Gear. That was the first bass they gave me. Then they gave me an Ergodyne.
Ibanez: Is that what you are playing these days?
Percy: Well, it's a variation on an Ergodyne, because I gave them a bunch of suggestions for what I thought would be improvements on the Ergodyne. And one suggestion was to use a dense wooden body instead of a plastic body¡¦which is what they did. And I suggested a thicker, stiffer neck, and a few other things. So that's what I've got now, and it's a big, big improvement over the Ergodyne¡¦in terms of stability and tone and everything.
Ibanez: What are some of the features that you like most about your custom bass?
Percy: Well, one thing that's interesting about it is that it only has Piezo pickups¡¦there's no magnetic pickup on it. I've gotten into Piezo's because they've got a very wide dynamic range, so it makes the bass very, very sensitive to how hard you play. You get a lot of dynamics just out of your hands. And depending on where you pick, it can have sort of an upright-type sound, which I like. So you can get a wide variation in tone depending on how you play it. There are things I like to do, like pulling the bottom or top string off the fingerboard to make it sound sitar-ish¡¦the Piezo's really bring that out, because a lot of that is vibration in the body. The Piezo pickups are also very quiet, so you don't get stage-like noise. My bass is very dynamic sounding. And the new one is very stable. It barely changes with the weather, so the humidity or temperature can change and the neck doesn't move very much. It's quite light, and it's comfortable.
I always liked the Ergodyne body, even the plastic one¡¦the shape of it is very comfortable. And there was an addition of a string tree to stop the section of string between the nut and the machine head from singing¡¦cause one trouble was, if you played a really hard, open string, you'd hear these overtones that were not related to the fundamental. And it turned out to be those sections of the string up on the machine head singing away. So the string tree just damps those out. There's a nice fingerboard, too. It's got a nice taper. And they use the same spacing as a 4-string, which I like, because some 5-string basses narrow the spacing down, so you've got 5 strings in the space of the normal 4. And for me, it makes it difficult to play because you don't have enough room to bring your finger up to enough velocity to hit the string. So I like the way that they keep the 4-string spacing. It's a nice looking bass, too. It's got a nice aesthetic about it, just to look at.
Ibanez: You've had a long, successful career, have played with a host of legendary musicians, and continue to play and create music to this day. Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians on how to develop and sustain a career in this tough industry?
Percy: One thing I'd advise someone is to be very aware of the business of music. And I say that because when I was younger, I was kind of na?ve about that and I would trust a lot of people and just sign contracts and just trust people to do what they were supposed to do. And I found out that doesn't happen often. So that would be one piece of advice, to tell younger guys to keep your eyes open and don't sign anything until you know exactly what it says. But in saying that, I think the younger guys coming up are more business savvy than my generation, so that's a good thing.
And then in terms of playing, keep striving to come up with something different. And if someone tells you you're wasting your time, just believe in yourself and keep doing it as much as you can. Just keep at it. And that's another thing, today there's more product out there than there's ever been, since the sort of digital revolution. So I think it's harder for young guys because they've got more competition¡¦you know, there's more noise out there to get through. There's just vast quantity of product out there, and a lot of it is, frankly, really poor quality music. And the danger is that the good stuff out there is gonna get buried by all this crappy stuff. So that makes it harder for the younger bands, because they have to shine through all of that. But I guess the advice is just keep at it, and don't give up¡¦and watch out for the sharks (laughs). And stay healthy, you know.