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Following the Groove of God

by Aimee Herd or Christian Musician Magazine (Jan/Feb 2010 issue)


Christian Musician MagazineOne of the foremost bass players today, Norm Stockton stresses the importance of following God’s lead, even when you’re not sure where He’s directing you. It’s certainly paid off so far, in the blessing of family, his instructional DVDs which have helped so many, his two recordings as a solo artist, and in playing and touring with worship artist Lincoln Brewster. This past November at the Christian Musician Summit at Overlake, I was able to chat with Norm about some of his experiences, as well as glean a bit of his extensive musical knowledge. That conversation follows…

Aimee Herd: You're a bassist, songwriter and bass educator...give us a little background on how you got to this point.

Norm Stockton: I was born and raised in Japan, and I've been playing bass since I was 14. Both of my siblings – I’m the youngest of three – were prodigies; my brother was an amazing classical guitar player and my sister an equally amazing classical piano player when I was a little kid. AH: Were your parents musical at all?

NS: My mom played the koto a bit, although she played a lot more when she was a child. My dad wasn’t a musician, but they both really encouraged music lessons…I was just much more into playing with my GI Joe. (Laughing) I got pulled into piano lessons at one point, but I never had a passion for it.

It wasn't until I was about 13 or 14, when some of my friends were really into The Beatles (I'm not that old, it was more “Beatles revisited”). I remember listening one day and thinking, “Wow, that bass line is pretty cool.” So, I took a couple strings off of a nylon string guitar and figured out Paul McCartney's bass line for the song. Shortly after that, I went and bought a bass and I was completely hooked.

That was near the beginning of what I call my “spiritual coma.” I’d come to Christ prior to that while living in Hawaii, but fell away shortly after I moved back to Japan for high school. Music kind of became my “god”. If anyone had asked me if I believed John 3:16, I would have said, “absolutely”…but I wasn't living it. My life showed no evidence of a relationship with God for about 8 years.

Near the end of that time, my life came crashing down and I learned some life lessons the hard way. But through that process, the Lord drew me back and I've been walking with Him ever since. Once I came back to Christ, I was prepared to give up music altogether - but God had a different plan. I was in a home fellowship shortly after that, and the worship leader of the home group found out I played bass and encouraged me to bring it. I thought, “Well, this isn't really rock ‘n’ roll, but I'll try it.” (Laughs) I learned a boatload of worship songs and pretty soon I was on the worship team at church.

God’s got a sense of humor, I’m convinced. People will ask me what my “strategy” was—why did I get into teaching, or how did I go about becoming Lincoln Brewster's bass player? Really, there was NO strategy, it was just going along and walking through the doors that He was opening.

AH: I love it when God does that.

NS: Yeah. It's completely His leading. I was in that worship band for a long time at Horizon Christian Fellowship in San Diego (that's actually where I met my wonderful wife, Gina - she was a singer on the team). God was using that time in my life to teach me about worship…not only musically, but as a lifestyle – the whole idea of my life being an offering to Him. Through relationships that came from my years playing at Horizon, I was referred to Maranatha Music, and went on to teach in their worship conferences around North America for about 5 years.

Working with Maranatha really set up the whole teaching thing. I wasn't really seeking to be an educator at all, but through their Worship Leader Workshops, I was continually coming across the same type of player: intermediate level players with huge holes in their bag in terms of musical understanding. I started thinking that it would be great to be able to leave them with a resource to help them take their musicianship to the next level. That ended up becoming Volumes 1 and 2 of my DVD series [Grooving For Heaven]. Much to my surprise, and by God's grace—they ended up being really well received in both the worship and mainstream music resource worlds. There are now four DVDs in the series and I’ve sort of come to be known in the bass community as an educator guy. It was totally the Lord who set that up. It's been an enormous blessing to be able to invest in so many different players and ministries around the world. By the way, cool development regarding the DVDs: my good friend (and wonderful bassist) Todd Johnson introduced me a while back to the folks at Alfred Publishing, and they recently began distributing the entire Grooving for Heaven series. All four DVDs should be available on music store shelves in the near future.

Anyway, I did some freelance writing in the years to come and in 2003, at the Christian Musician Summit, Bruce Adolph asked me, Will Denton and Lincoln Brewster to do sort of a “worship jam” there. It was basically unscripted – “live without a net”! It was really fun. Lincoln and I had just met that afternoon and I frantically scribbled down a handful of the jam ideas we threw together. The audience was entirely made up of worship musicians so they totally got it. It was a jam session, but it was a worship time, too - everyone was recognizing that it was a vertical statement. So that's how I met Lincoln, and at the end of 2006, his bass player left town to pursue an opportunity in Nashville. Lincoln asked me to come on board and I've been working with him ever since.

AH: You mentioned the “holes” in people's musical knowledge regarding bass playing. Can you speak to that a little—what are some of the most frequent gaps that you've run across?

NS: The old joke—how do you quiet down a loud guitar player? Put music in front of him—goes for lots of bass players as well. It's because most of us bass players would not describe our earliest musical development as learning from [written] music, being taught music and technique in a systematic way like our keyboard-playing colleagues. Most of us have been completely self-taught. That's really good for certain things: it develops your ear, your ability to improvise, and real world survival skills…

AH: And, a lot of that really can't be taught.

NS: Exactly, it's beneficial in a lot of ways. But, what it ends up usually doing is leaving big holes in terms of music theory, fingerboard familiarity and knowledge of music on a broader scale. Consequently, the fingerboard for a lot of bass players is like a mine field. A player will sound very tentative playing that way, unsure if the next note could blow up under him. Basic diatonic harmony is really not that hard to learn and is invaluable knowledge for any musician. Once the lights go on, players will say, “Oh... THAT’S why I always go with that note pattern, now I understand that based upon the key, this scale applies here...” and so on. It helps people to understand but also to take it to the next level. It informs their playing, their arranging, and their composing—basically the whole thing.

AH: What do you do for the person who finds even the name, “diatonic harmony,” to be too daunting a task, and they keep falling back into the improv and by-ear playing?

NS: In my clinics, I let their ears guide the way. I play an example where I get their ears tuned into the key I'm playing in; I play a chord within that key, and then I play a scale over that chord that’s consistent with that key. Then I clear their sonic palate, and change to a different key. I play that same chord from the earlier key, but now in the context of the new key. Their ears will naturally pick up on the fact that, based upon the new key, the corresponding scale over that chord has changed. Again, the good news is that it's really not that hard to learn.

AH: On a side note, I've got to ask you, what is it about fretless bass? I love the sound. Do the frets being gone make that much difference?

NS: Yes, the absence of frets results in the plucked string resonating between your finger and the fingerboard, as opposed to a metal fret. It ends up having an entirely different tone.

AH: Love it! Just wanted to know. Is it much more difficult to play?

NS: It definitely requires more attention to intonation; the difference between in-tune and painfully-out-of-tune is a tiny roll of the finger! I play fretless, but don't do a lot of it anymore because I play so much with Lincoln, and his music isn't really geared toward that. I played it a lot on my first album, Pondering the Sushi, but just one fretless lick on the new album! There were some amazing cameos from people who are phenomenal fretless players, though, including Michael Manring and Etienne Mbappe.

AH: Speaking of your new album, Tea in the Typhoon is now out, and it's your second recording?

NS: Yes, Pondering the Sushi, my solo debut, came out in 2001. I’m grateful that it was really well-received. But by mid-2002, people were asking me “When's the next album coming out?” I was still recovering from the first one! (Laughs)

Tea in the Typhoon has been a lot of work, but it's also been a hugely gratifying and humbling experience. Two years ago, I started transcribing, cataloging and compiling hundreds of audio clips with melodies, grooves and harmonic ideas that I had recorded over the years on a little handheld tape recorder (and later, a Boss Micro BR digital recorder – what a cool unit that is). It was a long process and kept me busy through innumerable flights, airport layovers and hotel rooms, but those ideas eventually became the songs on the new project.

Musically, it's related to Pondering the Sushi, but it has a different thing going as well. I've really become a fan of some of the West African stuff that I've been listening to. So, there are West African influences in the midst of the jazz/funk stuff that I'd been doing before. It's fun and challenging music to play. The beautiful thing about being an “indie” guy like me is that I don't have to fit a radio format. It's a niche, but there is a demographic of people who will buy my stuff, and I think they want to hear me stretch, as opposed to doing something safe or overtly commercial. I do always try to make my music relatable to non-musicians, though. I was telling someone recently that the biggest compliment for me is when a bass player’s wife comes up to me and tells me she really liked the album, too! When that happens, I know that I’ve somehow managed to successfully make music. (Laughs)

Shortly before Typhoon tracking sessions began, I thought, “I have some friends in the music industry who would sound amazing on this stuff…and they can always say no, but I should at LEAST ask them if they might be interested in playing on the project.” I was blown away that they all said yes! Some of the incredible cameos were John Patitucci, his wife, Sachi (a world class cello player), Michael Manring, Lincoln [Brewster] played a solo, phenomenal West African bass player Etienne Mbappe, Rob Mullins, Tony Guerrero and Greg Bissonette. The core players on the project (drummer David Owens, keyboardist Rob Rinderer, trumpet player Larry Williams, woodwind player Keith Felch and guitarist Kevin Rogers) are all scary, world-class musicians in their own right…but working with some of my heroes - sitting in a small recording studio in New York, with John Patitucci bowing an upright bass while I sat in the producer chair— was a surreal experience. I was amazed that everybody—to a person—was completely gracious and committed to the music. Last night [at CMS 2009], my band (The Norm Stockton Group) was flown up and we played those songs live for the first time ever for a room full of enthusiastic music-lovers. What a blast!

AH: There's always something musically great happening in those late night jam sessions at CMS. Was there a particular song on Typhoon that stands out from the rest for you, either in its writing process or production?

NS: The one that comes to mind right away is a U2 song, Sunday Bloody Sunday; I've loved that song for years. We did a complete rearrangement of it. It's now kind of a pensive ballad, with muted trumpet and John Patitucci played upright bass. Then later [in the song], this drum groove kicks in and I solo on my 7-string. It was a lot of fun to do. Last night, we played it but I didn't announce the title. It was fun to see people—maybe about a third of the way into the song—say, “Hey, this is that U2 song!”

It's fun to rearrange songs that way. I think of it as 'different lighting on a familiar sculpture.' It's the same great composition, but perhaps there are now aspects of it that you didn’t notice before. On Pondering the Sushi, a similar treatment was given to an instrumental version of Roxanne by The Police.

There are a lot of tunes on the Typhoon project that are very special for me, though…primarily due to the fact that although there is a fair amount of monstrous playing throughout, I feel like we were able to capture the right emotional statement for each song. That’s testimony to the huge musicality of the players who contributed – I’m a big fan of each and every one of them.

AH: Norm, as you've done the DVDs and taught these workshops, can you share about a time when you've received feedback from someone, or have just seen God move in a powerful way through them that really touched you?

NS: I don't want this to come off in the wrong way at all... but I get that all the time, and it's completely humbling—blows my mind every time. I’ve received countless emails over the years from folks who’ve been encouraged from the DVDs, were about to give up but are now excited and motivated to pursue excellence, or from people who’ve been really impacted by my music. Very humbling stuff. It’s so clearly God. I’m so grateful to be used by Him in this way.

I'm half Japanese, and some of the stereotypes of the Japanese culture are true. One of them is that we tend to be a people who look at the facts, weigh the options, look very logically at circumstances and then pursue a prudent course of action. So, it's very contrary to walk by faith and follow God’s leading – particularly in those times when it doesn’t seem to make logical sense. Not that I never use logic anymore (Laughs), but I’ve found that His plans and creativity regarding my life aren’t necessarily constrained by logic. Had I always pursued the “logical” thing over the years, I would likely have missed out on much of the incredibly cool stuff He had planned.

AH: Typhoon just came out—are you going to tour this album at all?

NS: That’s a good question. When I took my band to Japan back in 2005, I promised myself about halfway through that I would never, ever do that again unless I could afford to bring out a road manager/tour manager! I was the band leader, road manager, recreation director, interpreter—it was just brutal. By God’s grace, I actually came home from that trip with my sanity and even a little money left over after paying all of the expenses. God provides! If He opens the door, I would love to do some concerts with my band, but extensive touring where I’m gone from my family for weeks at a time doesn’t really appeal to me. For me, working with Lincoln generally has been great in that regard, because he’s not only a family guy, but also a worship pastor and committed to being at his church a certain number of weekends a year. So, there's usually a built-in governor on how many dates we're out.

Over the past few years, it did get a little gnarly between working on [Lincoln’s] Today Is The Day CD and my Typhoon project, because many of the breaks in the road schedule were filled with long days in the recording studio. My family is fabulously understanding and supportive, but I feel like my kids are at a stage in life where I especially want and need to be engaged and present for them. I am definitely seeking God’s direction to maintain balance in my life and keep my priorities straight.

AH: As an instructor/musician/worship leader, I know you must have some definite preferences in gear. Can you run down your list?

NS: Sure. I have a longstanding relationship with a bass builder named Michael Tobias. He had a company called Tobias that he sold to Gibson back in the early ‘90’s. He began building a new line of basses under the name of MTD (Michael Tobias Design) in 1994. I think they’re incredible instruments. I acquired an MTD 535 5-string in 1997, and it's been my main bass ever since —I absolutely love it. It has a tulipwood/myrtle burl body with a wenge neck/fingerboard and 18-volt Bartolini electronics. It’s a really responsive, versatile bass. I can play things on that bass that I can't play on other basses. It's been really cool working with Michael over the years, and we've become good friends. He's a legendary guy in the bass world, known globally as one of the top luthiers.

Shortly after I started working with Lincoln, we were tracking a version of Salvation Is Here. I did a couple passes with Linc’s $400 jazz bass and it really sat in the mix better for that particular song. So, I got in touch with Michael and asked him if there was any possibility of doing something more along those lines. My MTD 535 has a big sonic footprint, which works great for what I did last night, but when you have a lot of layered guitars, big drums, vocals and keys, the bass tends to work best when occupying a narrower portion of the frequency range. Michael built me his version of a jazz bass—that's the orange bass that I always play with Lincoln now. That bass, an MTD J5, is a prototype and has since become a production model called the MTD Saratoga. It's basically like a jazz style instrument, but has the playability of a Michael Tobias instrument.

Anyway, those are my two main basses, but I have a handful of other basses for session work and/or my solo stuff, including several other MTDs, a ‘65 Fender P-Bass, a ‘63 Hofner 500/1 “Beatlebass”, etc.

Amp-wise, I've been playing Gallien-Krueger (GK) since 2004. I'm a huge fan of their gear. Their Neo line of cabinets is amazing, and a great value as well. I usually play through a 1001RB head and any combination of Neo 212, 115 and/or 112 cabs. The MTD and the GK complement each other really well, too. And they're both companies that have been really supportive of what I do. I also use and love MTD strings, Sibelius notation software and Digidesign Pro Tools HD.

Find out more about Norm Stockton, his instruction DVDs, and to order his CDs, log onto: www.NormStockton.com


Christian Musician Magazine Interview - January / February 2010 Issue
This page reproduced by the kind permission of Christian Musician Magazine.


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