Artist Spotlight: Snow Owl - Bass Player, Virtuoso, Musical Genius
I’m thinking how to start the intro for this article on an amazing artist, after reading my notes it’s becoming clear that one word doesn’t quite fit-all.
There’s ‘virtuoso’ (a person highly skilled in music) or ‘musical genius’ (an exceptional intellectual with creative powers and natural abilities within musical creations) and ‘erudition’ (the quality of having and showing great knowledge within learning and the ability to teach).
Let’s leave it at that then, as they all narrate in fine detail to the extraordinary talents of Colombian born Juan García-Herreos, master of the electric Contrabass guitar. Juan does indeed have it all backed up with numerous prestigious musical awards, including the first electric bassist to receive a nomination for the highest recognition by all major bass and music publications for work with the Contrabass bass guitar.
“When I heard about my award I was on stage with Randy Newman, we were doing a sound check. I said to the rest of the band that I needed five minutes, and I ran round and round the concert house, it was really funny,” laughs Juan.
“I was the first electric bass player to receive that nomination so it was an honour, not even the great Jaco Pastorius had received it. All the people who have known me over the years, how hard I work and how dedicated I am, all decided to recognise and acknowledge me. I don’t have a publicist or record label behind me so I’ve done everything through hard work. So in a way, it was a big step for the industry itself to even nominate a musician without any industry backing. I would say to any musician, work hard because people are watching.”
As a Colombian Indian, Juan’s real name is Snow Owl which he has used to create a non profitable organisation in Austria, where he resides, to reach out to people through the power of music and education.
“Snow Owl is my Totem Spirit,” explains Juan, “And it seemed the perfect name for this movement when the President of Austria asked me to be an ambassador for the integration. We have concerts in regions where you wouldn’t expect to hear my style of music and invite people from different nationalities to take part. We stir up the dialogue so people get to know each another and not be afraid of each other. It’s not just music, during 2016 we are organising a huge soccer match and a meet and greet, where people can mingle and talk culture and cook food from their own countries. This is done on a large scale in some of the isolated regions, if mountains are always all around you, this will always be your point of view in life, so Snow Owl is a way of taking something alternative to them. It’s very important work and it’s my way of saying thank you for the privilege for the life that I have.
I left Columbia when I was nine years old and moved to New York with my family. I always knew in my heart that I would be a musician and since then I’ve been totally self taught, although back then, music just didn’t seem to be that important to the schools I went to.
I wanted to play piano but my first instrument was the flute, this was really all that was available in my school in New York, so I taught myself piano along the way. When my family moved down to Florida, my brother decided to learn drums and said every drummer needs a bass player. I wanted to play keyboard with him as I thought bass was far too boring but he kinda forced me into it.
I was around 15 at the time and had no money for lessons or for a bass instrument but the local high school teacher recognised how hungry I was to learn, so she gave me the keys to the band room so I could sneak in and practice. Sometimes I would creep in at 1 or 3am in the morning and practice and stay there until school time came around again. I had to rehearse in the dark because if the police or security guards found me, I’d have been arrested, but that’s just how it is in Florida.
I knew my only hope of getting out of Florida and work as a musician was to earn a scholarship or win a competition. I had to work twice as hard as other students as I didn’t have a dedicated music teacher. Just this person who let me have the keys to the music room but I was so sad when she became a victim of the school’s budget cuts and went away half the day to another school to teach music theory.
She knew that I had come along way and let me teach what I already knew about music theory to the other kids. She would give me the lesson plan and I would learn it and teach it to the high school kids the next day, whilst learning myself as we went along. I loved the process of learning and teaching, it was a life changing experience. All the hard work paid off when I was 17; I won a scholarship to the Berkley College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.
Believe it or not, I only stayed there for about 9 months. My teacher said to me that if I have the discipline, the love and the desire, I didn’t need the college. I should go to New York and get out there and play. So I did, and by the time I was 21, I was touring with top international acts, it was crazy, it all happen so fast.
I was touring with some of the big names I grew up listening to as a youngster. I remember that I was considered to be good enough to rehearse on Mondays in New York with Tito Puente’s Big Band, this was a school for Latin jazz where the band members rehearsed once a week, as Tito Puente had 50 years of song arrangements, and they never knew which one he was going to call. So it was full -on rehearsing from books by all he Latin masters.
I also learnt a lot about touring and equipment from Ruben Rodriguez the most recorded Latin jazz bass player in the world. He took me under his wing and I would drive to concerts with him and help set up his equipment, I learnt so much from Ruben.
Whilst I taught for many years in Universities and here in the Graz Jazz Institute in Austria, I knew all the time that there was an artist inside of me. I had to stop and think, am I a teacher or an artist? My teaching became systematic and so did my playing, nothing was spontaneous, I was just playing safe. I thought it can’t just end here; I had this urge to get out and play. So I thought although it might be a harder way, I decided to dedicate myself to being an artist and it’s certainly paid off.
My number one bass guitar is an Andreas Neubauer Contrabass, built from an original design by Carl Thompson. I was first introduced to this model when I saw Anthony Jackson play one in the Michel Camilla trio when I was about 17 and living in Boston, USA. The Contrabass was designed to sonically cover every note of the orchestral bass clef, the entire bass range up to the high E from the cello within one bass instrument. A Contrabass can do that and the only model that will fit comfortably within an orchestra. I have been working for five years now with the Royal Symphony Orchestra based here in Vienna and it’s the finest attention to detail in the construction of this bass that makes it possible.”
It’s quite apparent that Juan is not afraid of a little sawdust, as he takes up the story.
“I’ve been working with Andreas Neubauer for a long time, he is one of the world’s finest luthiers and I’m so excited as we are about to have the world launch of my Signature 10th Anniversary Contrabass in London in March 2016. We spent many hours experimenting in his workshop on how we could improve on what already is a unique concept of bass guitar, ways in which the sound of the wood enhances the slap of the string and how the wood itself transmits energy, tone and sustain to the pickups. We went crazy with so many ideas which not only included a piezo pickup system down near the bridge but also one installed within the headstock with wires trailing down through the truss rod cavity. If you rest your head on the headstock of an instrument when its being played you will know what I mean, you can hear the whole sonic equation including all the overtones and frequencies that are shining at you from the bridge.
Andreas developed a ramp system which I think is ground breaking, where all the electronics including the piezo system, passive or active humbuckers or single coil switching are all operating from one battery that lasts up to 9 months.”
One of the key points within the construction of any solid bodied instrument is that the bass should sound good acoustically.
“This is where I feel Andreas and myself have surpassed, unplugged this bass has superb sustain and acoustic properties.
The strings are so important and as the scale length is quite long, I wouldn’t use any other make than Thomastik Infeld strings. It was in fact Peter Infeld who discovered me; he helped me so much so I have a lot to thank him for. He also allowed me test and develop the company’s new line of bass strings designed for the 6 string guitar. So anyone out there playing these strings are using my design.”
As if we were in any doubt, Juan is also hands-on when it comes to bass technology, he agrees,
“I think all bass players have to be tech savvy because of the frequencies we play. Bass is unidirectional and the common ear just doesn’t know what’s going on. They just hear this big bass monster that’s locked in with the rhythm section and usually competing with the bass drum. You have to immediately tell the sound technician to put the bass in front of the bass drum and then start clearing up the signals; the clearer they are the better the people feel. If you get out of a tour bus after 10 hours and you walk straight on stage for the sound check, you really need to know how to fix your sound. If you don’t know your instrument or your equalisation in the professional world, it’s not only ‘time is money’... it’s also your nerves.
Every room we walk in has different acoustic properties. What we hear at home or in the headphones will always vary depending on the acoustic environment. Through experience I can walk around an empty concert hall before a gig and more or less work out what changes we’ll need in the mix. Luckily, thanks to technology, we have these amazing sound scanners on phones which tell me - tonight I’ve got to cut the 500 frequency and maybe push the highs a bit more, or just use the Piezo.
My Contrabass sounds so natural that I’m sending the signal direct to the PA via the amazing Basswitch IQ DI built by Ruppert Musical Instruments in Luxembourg. I can tap into every parameter, enhance the piezo or use the boost facilities; it offers me so much freedom and control of every musical situation.
This product works so well that I bypass amplifiers on stage, when I turn up to a gig I just ask the sound guy to put an XLR into the Basswitch and that’s it, it’s done, they always freak out how good it sounds. All I need is to route the signal back to my cabinets for onstage monitoring.
It’s important for all musicians to be happy with their sound on stage and in the studio; it breeds confidence within the performance and indeed, the writing skills. As soon as you have the sound in your head you are going to compose better, nothing will limit your imagination.
I’ve experimented with all speaker sizes for my stage rig but when you have a six string bass loaded with a B string you really need a 15in. I’m using cabinets loaded with a single DNA 15in which has a thunderous low end, whilst the onboard tweeter horn is so efficient, there’s no need for a 10in to bring out the highs.
Whilst I was influenced by Latin Jazz, it was never one style. You see, it’s always been clear to me that music is energy. You shouldn’t just put these forms of energy in drawers of categories. My only Latin jazz link is that I’m from Columbia. My music has it all; if you listen you’ll hear there are elements of electronic, rock or just pure acoustic jazz. The history of it all has to be respected, and then you have to learn it, then forget it all and question it, then say right, this is my own interpretation, this is my time now.
As I mentioned, music is a powerful energy. If you go back in time, you see that all the Indian ceremonies, asking for rain for a harvest and the crops, these were the first jam sessions that were full of energy. It’s the same where maybe there’s a room full of people from different cultures who can’t speak the same language but they all play instruments and exchange energies, they are harvesting a different purpose. There’s a beauty of not knowing someone but being able to communicate through music, there’s nothing more beautiful in the world.”
There is a lot happening in the UK at the moment encouraging youngsters to learn instruments at school, Juan’s thoughts are two-fold,
“Yes, there’s a lot of chatter about this right now, especially in England and also Europe. I have a different perspective on this, you see, in Columbia we don’t have any of this, but when you come to Europe you see a music school in every town where the kids have access to all kinds of instruments. There’s certainly a lot being done to make sure an instrument gets in to the hands of a child. But the biggest issue we have to tackle is how society is brainwashing kids with fear that they should not be musicians.
You see how the world’s finances have collapsed and how jobs are not one hundred percent secure and whereas before, all these people in their 9 to 5 jobs would preach to me on how could I live as a musician, as it’s all so insecure. These people are now freaking out as they are in the same boat. The entrepreneur solo artists are winning right now because they don’t have the attachment to this business model where, if one thing fails everything fails. If children are taught independence and freedom from fear, their music is going to get brave.
It’s about bravery, if you hear Jimmy Page’s solo in Achilles Last Stand, now that’s having the nerve to perform. I could name thousands of solos regardless of the style of music, and why are we still talking about them, it was the bravery, the courageousness of these artists. That’s why I think they are teaching kids more fear than freedom.”
Juan’s diary for 2016 is almost full promoting the Contrabass tours and two album launches.
“I have two CD productions that are being launched during 2016; one is a trilogy of 3 CD’s featuring the Blue Road, the Yellow Road and the Red Road. Each colour represents the different spiritual path that a spirit takes here in the physical world as part of the Native American beliefs. The second is a double CD which features myself on Contrabass and Roberto Quintero on percussion, where we recorded music for the 7 Chakras in 444 tuning especially for meditation. This is very spiritual, it’s all vibrations and overtones, and quite emotional.
So yes, a lot of travelling beckons. Which leads me into the Fusion gig bags. I have such a joy right now that I have finally found a bag that can fulfil my needs. I first saw them on YouTube, the company’s love and passion for the product shone through. They all believe in it, there’s such a family atmosphere about this company that just works. They sent me a test bag to trial, and I immediately said these are the bags I want to work with. I have put up several YouTube videos talking about them in detail, including the one about the single electric guitar bag. This is the easiest bag to check in at any airline, compact and lightweight, and yet there’s no compromise on the protection of the instrument, it really is snug and safe inside. My manager said one day that I should count the hits I’ve had on YouTube, I was amazed that there’s now over 4million hits, can you believe that?”
There’s no doubt in my mind, the professional musician can’t travel without a bag like this. I used to carry 3 gig bags as I have so much equipment but now thanks to all the pockets and the Fusion Fuse-On System, it all goes into one Fusion gig bag.
For more info on Juan García-Herreos