Tucson Portraits: Chris Pierce

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All photos by Niccole Radhe

by Bob Hanshaw

Contributing Writer

“I’m totally self-taught,” Chris Pierce explains. “Everything that I know about the instrument, everything that I know theoretically, I’ve either learned from a friend, from a jam, from a song.. or from some book that I got and I worked through myself… I [even] taught myself how to read [music].”

Pierce is one of Tucson’s preeminent bass players, and it’s fitting that his relationship to the instrument is so deeply personal. His style is melodic and unorthodox, and grooves harder than just about anybody. Yet he has a broad range, fitting snugly into genres as diverse as pop, Latin rock, reggae, folk, jazz fusion, and “improvisational… sludgy metal,” among others. Pierce is a current member of ensembles playing in all these genres: seven main projects, and many smaller projects and studio one-offs. In this town, he’s pretty much the guy to call.

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GROWING UP

“I was born in Long Beach, raised in Costa Mesa.” He was a Southern California kid until moving to Arizona in his late teens. “I got my first bass as a gift when I was like 7 or 8, but didn’t take it seriously at first.”  Pierce’s mother dated a lot of musicians as he was growing up. One in particular sparked his interest: “Marshall was a jazz musician… a drummer. Not professional, by any means, just a hobbyist… dabbled in a lot of different instruments and would have occasional jam sessions.” He continues, “I have many more memories of seeing [another man], Grant’s band, The Blast. [But] it was mainly listening to music with Marshall and hearing him play that made me want to play. I always gravitated toward the bass, so it just made sense.”

On the strength of that, Pierce joined a few bands in California when he was in middle school, then moved to Arizona. “[I] got here when I was like 16, 17, halfway through high school, [and] joined Ignorami… We were like hardcore Black Flag punk.” He wasn’t always the musical powerhouse that he is now: talking about Ignorami led to an anecdote about the band’s first gig, “at Zia Records, the old one [that was] over on Speedway and Pantano.” The culturally-parched northeast side, in other words. At the gig, Pierce accidentally stepped on his cable, pulling it out and creating a wall of feedback from his amp – which the guitarist thought was his fault, so he looked over to mess with his amp. And then Pierce caught an urgent glance from his girlfriend, realized what happened, plugged himself back in – and proceeded to start over from the beginning of the song, though the rest of the band had never actually stopped playing.

It’s safe to say that Pierce’s skills have come a long way since then. In fact, five years after he stepped on a cable on the northeast side, someone overhearing his playing gave him the opportunity of a lifetime – a call that most musicians only dream of. And he almost turned it down.

GETTING THE CALL

Pierce moved to Phoenix to live with his father in 2009. He was severely depressed – a condition he struggles with to this day, but which flared up particularly bad at the time. His new band, Before There Were Oceans, had just dissolved; he had broken up with his girlfriend; and “I sold all my bass stuff, I sold everything I had.”

But a man like Pierce can’t keep from playing forever. “My dad lived like two blocks down from a Guitar Center. So I started going to Guitar Center every day, after a couple weeks, to play.” And then the improbable happened:

“I was playing one day and this big black dude comes up behind me… [He] comes up and he’s like ‘Hey, man. You’re pretty good.’ I was like, ‘Thanks, man, I appreciate it.’ He was like ‘You want a gig?’ I was like ‘Nah, man, I don’t have any gear. I’m sorry.’ …He’s like ‘That’s all right, we’ll take care of that.”

“So I give him my number. (His name was JB.) And a couple days later… I get a call from this guy Dwayne. He said ‘I’m JB’s brother.’ He goes ‘I play with this band called Morgan Heritage. Do you want to go on a world tour?’ This was all on voicemail… I listen to the voicemail and I’m like dude, fuck you, that’s not true!”

And how could it possibly be true? But after a few more calls – which he blew off – and some visits by JB to his workplace (he had started working at the said Guitar Center by then), Pierce was eventually coerced into attending a rehearsal. “We were in a sketchy area of Phoenix, like around Dunbar… where the Meat Puppets are from, actually… and I’m tripping out about this situation.”

And then?

He toured around the world. Just like that. The rehearsal was for Mojo Morgan, a renowned reggae artist. Pierce toured with him for three years. The first show he played with Mojo was the UCLA Jazz-Reggae Fest in 2009, for an audience of 20,000 people. Later, he played the ParkPop Festival in the Netherlands, the largest free festival in Europe – for an audience of 275,000. He also went on Warped Tour, and played several other European festivals alongside the innumerable club gigs. “Through [touring with Mojo], I got to play with and meet a lot of other amazing people… playing with Kymani Marley, hanging out with Erykah Badu.”

Mojo Morgan’s project is now on hiatus, but Pierce told me that he may go on tour again with the band next year. We’ll see whether his run of unbelievable luck continues to hold.

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FACT: CHRIS PIERCE IS IN EVERYBODY’S BAND

If you live in Phoenix, like much of this blog’s readership, then it’s most likely you’ve seen Chris Pierce playing in Steff & The Articles, currently his highest-priority project, and certainly the one that makes it out to Phoenix most often. But if you live in Tucson and you catch a lot of local music, then you’ve probably seen Chris Pierce most times you’ve seen a local show.

Keli and the Big Dream; Carlos Arzate and the Kind Souls; Human Behavior; Mellow Bellow; The Units; Child Bride, with Kaia Mazza (née Chesney); and the Romo Tonight house band, Dirty P and the Thunderchiefs, can all call Pierce their own. In addition, he was a founding member of Faster Than Light, played with Logan Greene and the Bricks, and headed up Tucson’s legendary fusion group Black Jackalope Ensemble (those three have since called it quits.) And he’s in two new bands – Ghostal, a rock group that will debut opening for Sebadoh a month from now; and Jungle Milk, a live electronica band. He also mentioned at least two other groups that he’s been talking to about joining.

So that’s a grand total of 11 named projects in which he’s currently active, and who knows how many that have come and gone – but that still doesn’t count the various pickup groups that he’s prone to booking on a whim. For example, Pierce recently teamed up with Connor Gallaher on guitar and Peter Wilke on drums (Wilke is the owner of  Time Market on University Blvd.), “and we just improv’d for like 45 minutes. Everyone was into it.”

Improvisation is at the heart of what Pierce is doing. Even during our interview, he would periodically stop, saying “I just have to get this out, man,” and lay down loops on his pedalboard. It’s a way for him to keep his orchestration chops up: he treats the bass as an instrument of unlimited sonic potential, not bound to any one role, but filling all of them in turn. It comes through in his incredible versatility. He is at home in all the groups he plays with. His playing is never forced, never seems unnatural in any context, but flows smoothly and grooves hard – whether it’s his restrained and dignified upright bass lines in Human Behavior’s apocalyptic folk music, or his schizophrenic, fast and irregular melodies in Black Jackalope.

He struggles for words when attempting to describe his own style: “I’m always coming from more of a funky, melodic… there’s always some syncopation, I’m really big into rhythm and phrasing… but then I love simple, catchy, awesome melodies.” But words fail when anyone tries to describe any music, anyway. Better just to listen.

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THE MAN HAS GOT OPINIONS ON STUDIOS

“I get called for random sessions every once in a while,” Pierce says. Like Sedona band decker., for example, with whom he sat in recently. “They’re kind of this weird, almost R&B-folk thing… There’s a heavy folk vibe, but [singer Brandon Decker’s] voice is so soulful… You can tell he grew up on a lot of Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway and those old soul guys. You can tell he’s got that vibe.”

Unfortunately, he says, “There’s not a big session scene in Tucson right now.” Pierce would be a shoo-in for freelance session work, but he’s in so many bands that he is often in the studio working on one or the other of their albums anyway. So he is perhaps uniquely suited to comment on the studio situation in Tucson.

“I mean there’s Wavelab, of course, that’s the big one.. Calexico, you know, Neko Case, Amos Lee [recorded there]…  [and] Mattlind [Studios] is a really nice studio.” He’s been to Waterworks as well, and thinks highly of it. But his favorite is a new one in town.

“I’m really big into St. Cecilia, that’s the one I’m crazy about right now… [Steven Lee Tracy, the owner] is right there with you, he wants the product to be so awesome. He gets invested in it!” Pierce has recorded at St. Cecilia for the Human Behavior record, Kaia Mazza’s new record for Child Bride, and Black Jackalope Ensemble’s farewell album.

“The room is just so fresh… I feel like, with Wavelab, you kind of get a sound… That’s not a negative thing at all, like, Wavelab has a sound, Abbey Road has a sound, Electric Ladyland has a sound, that’s great, that’s amazing. But for a lot of stuff I do, I want it to have its own sound… It’s gonna retain, obviously, some of the qualities of the room… but some rooms are so identifiable.” Indeed, decker. was at Wavelab when Pierce worked on that project, “and it was righteous, it was great. It was exactly what he wanted.” But St. Cecilia, Pierce implied, will give the old boys a run for their money.

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THE TUCSON SCENE: GOOD BUDDIES

“I love it. I absolutely love it,” Pierce says. And you would have to really love the scene, if you’re a musician who toured with the likes of Mojo Morgan and you’ve chosen to live in a place like Tucson.

“For me, it’s the most familial of scenes that I’ve encountered… I feel like, in California, you don’t walk down the street and see somebody that you know and love every single day. There’s too many people, it’s too big. New York, same thing. Austin has a bit of that [familial atmosphere], but also has that big-city vibe… I just love the camaraderie, the familial atmosphere.” Pierce lives only seconds away from Fourth Avenue, a hub for musical activity in Tucson – although the focus is starting to shift slightly, to Downtown and especially to Congress Street. Nevertheless, he’s in an area where it’s impossible to walk down the street without seeing at least a handful of the other big players in Tucson. The music community generally chooses to live where the music is.

Pierce has not missed the new game in town. “I love the creativity, everybody’s so creative… I really love this new, I don’t know what you call it… ‘indie-psych[edelic]’ scene that’s happening right now? Like garage-y psych music. I’m super into that, I think it’s righteous… Jeff Lounsbury, Connor [Gallaher], [are] big in that scene, you know, making it happen. I love that. Those are good buddies of mine.”

Everybody is a good buddy of Chris Pierce. Most people just don’t know it yet.

Pierce continues, “I think [the new indie-psyche sound] is great, mainly just because I was kind of over the desert rock thing. Not over it in the sense that it was bad music, because it wasn’t, it’s great! I just felt like, for a while there, everybody was doing that. Everybody was doing the desert rock thing. I was just kind of like, yeah, I get it, it’s cool. But let’s shake some shit up!”

“I think that’s the reason why I play with so many different bands, or that I have this desire to play with… so many different people. [It’s] because – not because I’m somebody who craves change, because I’m actually a huge creature of habit… but the reason I love it is because I’m so into so many different styles of music, and I want to experience all those.”

I asked Pierce to name some of the bands to watch in town, and he couldn’t help but name most of his own projects. It makes sense: he hears of someone doing great things, and he wants to be involved with it. But since he offered up nobody but his own bands and the usual suspects (Prom Body, Brian Lopez, Gabriel Sullivan), there’s no reason to list them all again here.

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CODA: GROOVE INFLUENCES

The depth and breadth of Pierce’s musical library is something to witness. He is a voracious listener to everything from Sarah Bareilles to the Grateful Dead, but he draws particular inspiration from “music [descended from] the African diaspora – jazz, blues, reggae, et cetera.”

Some favorites in his collection include African tribal field recordings, talking-drum music, and – on the other hand – players like Fela Kuti and Orlando Julius. He raves about “bands like Mark Giuliana’s BEAT Music, Jojo Mayer’s Nerve, all the stuff coming out of the Nublu Collective. Lots of amazing groups. Antibalas, an amazing Afrobeat group.”

“It’s such a huge part of who I am as a musician and greatly influences how I experience music,” he says. And how he plays: “People have commented about that, on my bass playing, how deep of a pocket I have, how much bounce there is. I want that natural, rolling groove.”

“You know what I think it is? …When I was a kid, I was around that culture a lot. And then the music that has come from… African-Americans, incredible. The groove, those African rhythms. I’ve always identified more with African rhythms than I did with like Latin rhythms or anything like that.”

His adult life and experiences extended that trajectory. “And then I played reggae for 3 years, you know what I’m saying, so I was spending time in Jamaica with Rastafarians, going to sound system parties, just hearing them blast dub and dancehall, watching people knifing on the dance floor, seeing this whole culture… I don’t know, maybe it just got in me. I’ve always identified with that sound more.”

Pierce is a Tucson treasure. He is fanatically devoted to mastering his instrument, to settling deeper and deeper into a groove. And he shares his skills with just about everyone who wants them – many ensembles in many genres. It’s a very conscious choice. “I’m constantly searching for ways to improve what I’m doing, because I want to be as versatile as possible,” he says. “As a bass player, that’s what I want to be. I want to be able to play with anybody.”

Look for this guy on the cover of Bass Player one day. He’s going to do it.

Steff and the Articles
“Two Cities”

Listen to:
The Black Jackalope Ensemble

“Live Takes 2012”

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Bob Hanshaw 01Bob Hanshaw is a writer and musician based in Tucson. He plays bass for Sun Bones. You can follow #TucsonPortraits on Facebook here

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