Fretless Bass Guitar King Tony Franklin Talks VHF, Jaco, Almost Joining Pink Floyd, The Firm(INTERVIEW)

When you hear bass player Tony Franklin for the first time, it’s pretty mind-blowing. What he can do with those bass strings, the places he can take the listener, makes you wonder why bass players aren’t given more credit for making songs great. We already know that they are the foundation of any piece of music, along with the drummer. They are the steady ground on which a singer and guitar player can dance on top of. But have you really listened to what a bass can do?

Tony Franklin grew up playing in his parents’ band back in England. He knew music, how to play music, how to read music at an early age. But when he was handed a bass, it was like an epiphany. Then when he heard Jaco Pastorius, well, his world changed even more. Ever since then, Franklin has become one of the most important bass players in rock music, highly sought after for sessions and tours, because what he can add to someone’s material is beyond what they may have come up with on their own. He is the Sensai of the bass.

Franklin’s first big musical adventure came alongside two legends, Paul Rodgers and Jimmy Page, in The Firm. He had been working with Folk artist Roy Harper but The Firm would put him on the rock & roll map. This was Page’s first real band after the ending of Led Zeppelin and Rodgers was entering into a solo phase after leaving Bad Company. A young whippersnapper like Franklin became their perfect rhythmic centerpiece (along with drummer Chris Slade). Franklin was twenty-two years old. No pressure there, right? The Firm would release two solid albums in the mid-1980’s before they all moved on to other projects.

Franklin worked some more with Harper before settling in with John Sykes’ new band Blue Murder alongside drummer Carmine Appice in 1987. Right about this time, Franklin was asked to join Pink Floyd but the contract with Blue Murder had just been signed.  Since then, Franklin has appeared on so many albums, it’s hard to even count them all. Since leaving the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band a few years ago, Franklin has remained busy touring, recording, and conducting Master Classes and Fantasy Camps. 

Franklin’s most recent project is not exactly something new but it is new to most of us: VHF. The trio of Franklin, Joel Hoekstra, and Vinny Vinciguerra has just re-released a 7-song album titled Very High Frequency. Having never been officially released in the US, the songs have pretty much only been heard by diehard fans on the lookout for anything their favorite musicians have played on. But Golden Robot Records has now given new life to the recording and it is one heck of a ride.

All three of these gentlemen are gigantic innovators with their instruments and Very High Frequency showcases that from top to bottom. From the exoticness of “Whispers Of The Soul” to the surrealistic futuristic titillations of “Invisible Thread,” the compositions sonically swirl. It’s about time they get heard by a larger audience.

I recently spoke with the Fretless Monster Tony Franklin about the VHF album, being in the studio with legends, and taking the bass to new musical heights.  

You have a recording just coming out on June 25th with Joel and Vinny but there’s a story with this one. Can you fill us in on what’s going on?

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. This recording goes back to 2015 and it really was just an experiment to see if it would work. Vinny had the idea. He’s played with Beth Hart, he’s known through Rock Of Ages and all that. So he had this idea, him being the drummer, he said, “How would you feel about if I was to lay down some drum grooves and then you play whatever you want on the top of it and then we’ll send it off to Joel and then he can do whatever the heck he likes.” You know, everybody is doing things remotely these days but this was deliberately done this way so we had no influence over each other in the slightest.

It was one of those things that could have turned out very average or very badly but it actually surprised us how well it turned out. And that was actually the first time I worked with Joel and he and I have gone on to do many things together. I’ve played on both his solo albums and other things and rock camps together and all sorts. But the album was completed back then but it was never released in the US and didn’t get a proper release throughout the world. A video was made for it and it was, wow, this is so good! But we couldn’t find the right home for it. Then Golden Robot Records saw our vision and they were on board with it. Even though this music has been around a few years for us, it’s pretty much brand new for the rest of the world, including our individual and collective fans. It’s very exciting.

Did you do any more tweaking to it since 2015?

No, no, it is as it was. It was so good, it just was not heard, so we just want to get it out there so people can hear it. I mean, I’ve put some links to some of the videos out there, and it’s, “Wow, this is great stuff! How come I haven’t heard this before?” There you go. It didn’t have the proper push before but now it does.

Tony, tell us how you really weaved this together. Did you do individual sections that once together you had to do some more maneuvering around?

No, we didn’t and that’s the wild thing about it. I mean, a lot of the structure and the format came down to me, to be honest. Vinny came up with some great ideas in the sections and they were a little bit unusual as far as their structure went. For instance, a couple of the songs have very long outros. There is one called “Suspended Animation,” one of my favorites, and it has this whole kind of almost Zeppelin but futuristic kind of vibe on the early part and then almost half of the song, the back half, is like this long descending section that, to me, I envisage like a spaceship or something descending into a black hole. It’s very visual, this stuff. 

So it’s very unusual but I put a lot of time into coming up with stuff that worked with the drums, with all the quirks and all the other kind of unusual arrangements, and it just worked, it really did. Then Joel just went to town on it. He did some vocal sections, not really singing as such but kind of like narration, some trippy kind of stuff. He went to town on it with all sorts of layered guitars and different things. It was so cool. We were very surprised, honestly, how it turned out because as I say, it was one of those things that could have been just dreadful (laughs). There was none of that and it turned out so well. We’ve played it together a couple of times and we did the videos and everything. But we’re excited to get out there at some point and play them because this is cutting edge stuff, different to anything that I’ve been part of; and I think Joel and Vinny too. It’s exciting to get it out there.

I was going to ask about the spoken words on there. So that was Joel’s idea to throw in that?

That was just Joel. We got the tracks back and there was all these guitars and then these narrations and vocal bits. It was like, wow, that’s cool. It’s like it was wide open, no guidelines or anything about what to do; just do your thing. So he really went to town on it and it set a great templet, cause we are getting ready to work on a second album and we want to capture that and expand it from there, add some vocal bits and I might put some English narration in there as well (laughs). It’s fun but yeah, he just took it upon himself and went for it.

“Invisible Thread,” that last section of it especially, gets really surrealistic.

Yeah, absolutely. I see it as being very hypnotic and haunting. Surrealistic, that works too. Definitely there’s a vibe that happens. They’ve all got something a little different. 

There are some beautiful, exotic Eastern sounds, like on “All Is Within” and “Whispers Of The Soul,” that are really beautiful. Who brought that flavor into the mix?

Well, it’s initially me. “All Is Within” is just percussion and the bass, so it comes from me. Vinny is laying down the tabla-conga kind of part so it sets the mood. “Whispers Of The Soul,” melodically on the top, that’s all Joel, although root-wise I kind of set the flavor for that with some of the foundational stuff. But Joel took it to a whole other level with the Eastern kind of flavor. That one, “Whispers Of The Soul,” I see it as having some Western flavors; you know, the old West, but like Eastern and Egyptian and almost Sci-Fi. It sounds like a soundtrack to me and that’s something else we’d like to see happen with this. But yeah, I personally think, especially the fretless bass, lends itself perfectly to the Eastern kind of flavor of the sitar and that kind of thing. So I generally put a little bit of that in there with the rock & roll. It gets interesting (laughs). But Joel is right on board with it and went with it so very cool.

Do you play sitar?

I owned a sitar for a little while but there is a difference between playing it and owning it. In India, they say the sitar is a lifetime study instrument. The fretless bass, to me, is a lifetime study as well with all the nuances. So I joke at my bass Master Classes, “The father just bought the son a sitar and said, ‘Alright, I just booked you a gig in forty years time. You should be ready by then.’” (laughs) So I have played it but at the same time I realize if I was really going to do it and do it right, I would have to put a lot of work into it and there are just other things, not more important but more priority of just making music, playing bass, writing songs and all the other stuff. So I let the instrument go because I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it justice.

When you first started playing bass, what was the hardest thing for you to get the hang of?

The bass was not difficult for me. It was kind of freaky, really. I was eleven years old and my parents played music, the whole family played music, so I was used to playing music all the time, playing gigs with them from five years old. I could read music and all that by the time I was seven. It was just a way of life, it was all around me. I didn’t think of it as practice, it was just with the family, which was wonderful. But one day I was, as an only child, I was bored when they were doing rehearsals and making a nuisance of myself. I wasn’t in on the rehearsals so my mum pulled out this bass guitar, which I don’t recall ever seeing before, and I was like, wow, where did this come from! Then it was like the instrument descended into my lap like the clouds parting and the angels singing and the light shining down and it descended (laughs). My mum showed me the name of the strings, where to put my fingers and I remember thinking, this is the instrument I’ve been waiting for. Everything came together on the bass and I was playing gigs on it three days later. 

Now the fretless bass was a different story. Once I knew I had to have a fretless bass after hearing Jaco Pastorius in the late seventies, I got one and it was like, oh, this is a whole different beast. So it was just the classic thing with the fretless bass, just nailing the tuning and not be intimidated by it, which is kind of a common thing for a fretless bass. The regular bass for me was pretty immediate and the mechanics of it are one thing but then it’s learning what to play and how to play for the music and the song and how to hold down a groove and when to play and when not to play. That’s the learning part. Playing the instrument itself is one thing but learning how to play music that’s right for the song, whatever that music may be, that’s an ongoing thing and I’m still learning that.

After you heard Jaco and you changed to the fretless, was it hard to readjust to it physically and mentally?

Well, you can probably picture on a regular bass, a regular guitar, it has the lines, the frets, so what you do is on a regular instrument you’re playing in-between the frets and the frets cut off the string to make the note. On the fretless bass, you have to take the place of the fret so you ARE playing ON the fret, or where the fret would have been. So it is a physical adjustment that you get very used to on the fretted bass; it gives you a lot more freedom of finger placement. You have a lot more wiggle room on the fretted bass. You don’t on the fretless bass. So just getting used to that is the key.

One thing I didn’t know is when you’re playing by yourself on the fretless bass, practicing at home, you think you’re doing pretty good. But when you take it out with other instruments with a band and you have a tuning reference to play against, then I had a rude awakening. I was like, wow, I’m not in tune as I thought I was. So it’s just getting used to that. I call it the fear of fretlessness (laughs). There is an adjustment. Mentally, it wasn’t so much but once it clicked, and it was a few years, I’ll be honest, but once it clicked it was like riding a bike – you never lose it and I play in tune now. But it does take time, absolutely. That’s why I actually created an instructional course through a company called TrueFire that gives exercises and all that but it also includes a lot of backing music for people to practice with so they have that reference to play against. It speeds up the process so much. But once I got that, then it stayed.

You’re obviously very prominent on the new record but where do you see yourself really expanding the bass, taking it to new heights, going further maybe than you’re used to doing?

That’s a great question. To be honest, we played shows before the first album was released and even by that point we were stretching the songs. It happens more as a band and it really depends how much the band is able to stretch. It’s not just me. I’m a part of it and I always love to push. I’m always trying to almost coax people to step outside of their comfort zone. I don’t know if that’s a good trait or not but I’m almost – what’s the word – trying to taunt them almost musically (laughs), because I love to push. But you have to feel out every situation. Some people, some bands, some players don’t like that; they like to keep it the same. 

I think you start off with whatever the solo section is and then you stretch it out and then you just jam. But it really depends because being onstage with a band is having a musical conversation with all the others. So a conversation involves saying something but also listening too. So you’re going to listen to how they respond – I’ll probably speak the first words so I’ll initiate them musically and see if they respond. That is always the fun part of music for me. 

But I have to say The Firm and Blue Murder, we would all be experimenting and stretching them to new places before the album was even released. That’s the stuff that I, and I wouldn’t say live for, but that to me keeps it fresh and exciting. How do you play the same song every night? Well, you always try to have a new conversation about the same subject every night, so that is exciting to me. I love that kind of stuff.

Where in the world have you played where you feel the bass gets the most respect?

I would have to say probably Japan. You know Jaco Pastorius made a huge impact over there. They love all instruments and they respect great players, period. But they do have a special place for the bass it seems. I remember in 1989 with Blue Murder doing the bass solos and they just love it and respect it so much. You know, I’m very fortunate. I try to play in a way that is captivating and interesting, put on a show rather than just holding down the gig. People seem to respond to that in most countries, honestly. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens with the US coming up but in general, probably if I had to name, it would be Japan and South America. They love their rock and they love the bass.

You were a hair away from joining Pink Floyd. What song of theirs would you have loved to have played live with them?

Yeah, I was asked to be in the band and couldn’t do it. That’s a long story unto itself. But I have always had a very soft spot for the whole of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” It’s just a simple bass part, but a lot of their stuff is not complicated but it’s about sitting in the pocket and keeping the groove and keeping it all very hypnotic. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” with that opening guitar chime and the way it builds and all that, that is still my favorite piece of music by Pink Floyd.

Which musician that you’ve worked with would you say had the most complicated compositions?

Probably Derek Sherinian. His music is very complex. The Planet X album we did together, that pushed me to a whole new level and I must be the only musician other than Derek who has appeared on all his solo albums; I think nine total now. His music always pushes me, takes me to the limits of my playing, because I’m not truly a Prog player. I’ve done a ton of Prog albums and I can do it but it’s a workout for me. It’s not my natural instinct, shall we say. But yeah, his music is very demanding. 

What was it like in the studio with The Firm?

For the first album, we had extended rehearsals, which that was really my audition as well. I wasn’t asked to initially be in the band. When we got to the studio, we were very well-rehearsed but every time we played, and I loved this about that band, it was like the first time. If it felt right then it was right. It was not, you play this and you play that. I was left to do whatever I wanted to do and I think if they didn’t like what I did, they would have let me know. But it was very much a flow. 

I laid down a lot of the keyboards so they were wide open to ideas. I played guitar on my own composition, “Dreaming,” on the second album. So it was whatever worked. I have huge respect for both Jimmy and Paul because here was me at 22, coming into that band and they just didn’t have any ego about, hey, we’re the seasoned legends here. There was none of that. It was like, we’re a band, and they gave me ultimate respect and ultimate freedom – everybody. If somebody had an idea and it was good, that’s all that mattered. I didn’t really fully grasp or appreciate or understand that fully at the time because it felt so normal and natural to me. At the time, it just flowed. But I stand back and look at it now and it’s, wow, that happened with those guys and me at that age! It was pretty special, to be honest.

Besides getting to play some gigs with Joel and Vinny later this year, what else do you have on your agenda?

I’ve been doing a lot of recording sessions so I will keep that going. The ink is still drying but I also signed a solo band deal of my own with Golden Robot so more details on that to follow. I’m very excited about that. I have a couple of rock & roll fantasy camps coming up: one in November down in Florida with Dave Mustaine, Richie Faulkner, Steve Morse, Nicko McBrain; and another one the following month in December which has Vernon Reid, Joe Perry, Tico Torres. So I’ve got those coming up. Just a whole bunch of things bubbling. Plus my own writing too. I write all the time so trying to get those recorded and put out into the world. I’ve got to do the memoir. I have a lot of stories to tell.

Is your music going to be very surreal as well?

It’s going to be song-focused but it’s going to be, shall we say, classic and modern. I want it to be cutting edge. I don’t want it to rest on old laurels and have a classic rock sound. That’s not me. I like to always be pushing.

 

Band portrait by Peter Sherman; live photo by Leslie Michele Derrough

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