This article previously appeared on Harmony Central—your information source for making better music
Harmony Central Artist Interview: Matt Armstrong of Murder By Death
By Ara Ajizian
I’ve found that many of the interviews I’ve had the pleasure of doing tend to be very structured. A strict schedule is adhered to in order to accommodate the artist’s schedule, and as a result there tend to be canned responses. I wanted to break down those walls and give the interviewee time to consider their answers carefully and not feel the pressure of an off-the-cuff response. We’re not after any kind of “gotcha” moment here at Harmony Central anyway.
To kick things off, I hit up my friend and bassist extraordinaire Matt Armstrong of the band Murder By Death. MBD holds that rare distinction of being an opening band that completely won me over, as my introduction to them was at a Clutch show (if you’ve seen Clutch live, you know that you can’t exactly suck and share the bill with them). I was immediately captivated by every aspect of the band, from the songwriting to the instrumentation and musicianship of every member.
As a fellow bass player, I’ve always admired Matt’s approach to his craft, in particular his tasteful use of effects. Sharing the lower end with MBD cellist Sarah Balliet also introduces curve balls that most rock bassists never encounter, yet he adeptly finds his place within each song, crafting basslines that are memorable, melodic and driving.
Harmony Central: How long were you playing bass before you started experimenting with effects?
Matt Armstrong: It wasn't very long. I originally wanted to be a guitar player but I ended up getting a bass for my 13th birthday. I couldn't find anybody to play with at the time so I started messing with pedals and doing my own thing. I had recently gotten into The Cure and The Jesus And Mary Chain, so I started gravitating towards modulation/delay effects and distortions pretty quickly. A little later on I discovered Radiohead and Smashing Pumpkins and decided that I needed a Whammy pedal. Tom Morello probably had something to do with that too, now that I think about it.
HC: What are your essential requirements when it comes to effects?
MA: I think I could get by with some sort of overdrive/distortion, a pitch shifter, and a delay. I like having more options, but for me those three types of effects are pretty key.
HC: Describe the tone you base everything on...in other words, the sound you want when you're plugged straight into an amp.
MA: For a bare-bones tone I like things to be pretty clean. I like it to be full but with some midrange grind so it pops out in the mix. Thick but articulate.
HC: Are there any pieces of gear in your rig you'd never swap out?
MA: I don't know if there's a piece of gear that I would absolutely never swap out. I have a wandering eye for gear and change things around fairly often.
HC: Give me three to five pieces of gear that have you really excited as of late, and a little bit about why for each.
MA: Lately I've been really excited about my amp set-up. The cabinet is a custom Olde Crow 4x12. That speaker configuration just works really well for me. It handles the various tunings and levels of dirt that I throw at it and I can hear it better onstage than an 8x10 (which I used for years and years). I just got the 1000-watt Orange Terror Bass and I absolutely love it. It's so simple and powerful. It weighs almost nothing and to my ear it sounds as good as good as some hernia-inducing, all-tube beast. Pedal-wise I'm really digging the Fuzzrocious distortions/fuzzes and the Electro-Harmonix POG2. The Fuzzrocious stuff is very bass-friendly. The POG is a really versatile pedal and I love that it has the ability to store different presets.
HC: You've been touring with Murder By Death for over 10 years. What are five essential things any musician needs on the road, gear or otherwise?
MA: The first two things anyone on tour needs are a sense of humor and as easy-going a disposition as possible. Sure, everyone goes crazy and has bad days from time to time, but if you can't appreciate how absurd tour can be and choose your battles wisely you are royally screwed. I would also highly recommend a van fix-it kit: multi-tool, jack, jumper cables, etc. It's amazing how good you get at changing tires on tour. Beyond that, I'd say everyone on tour needs something to pass the time during drives, whether that's headphones, books, a laptop to watch movies, whatever. Last but not least, Sharpies and gaffer tape. No one in the history of tour has ever complained about having a surplus of Sharpies and gaffer tape.
HC: Murder By Death has had its fair share of vans breaking down--what's up with that?
MA: It keeps you honest. Having a van crap out on you on the road tells you where your priorities lie. Do you give up when something goes wrong or do you find a way to push on? The problem-solving aspect of van trouble can actually be quite satisfying, and the bonding that happens as a result of overcoming an obstacle like that is a special thing.
HC: What's the fundamental job of the bass player in a rock and roll band, in your opinion?
MA: The universally accepted answer to that question is something along the lines of "be the glue/foundation of the song." There's a lot of truth in that but I think that's an over-simplification. To me, the role of a bass player is the same as the role of any other musician in the band, and that is to do what's right for the song.
It may be something simple, or it could be something more complex. Sometimes it may be to do nothing at all. I think that can be applied across the board.
HC: You just played the Stanley Hotel in what looked to be three incredible shows. Any other such venues where you'd like to do something similar?
MA: We're always looking to do strange and interesting things like that. No specific venues come to mind at the moment. We love to travel and play cool and interesting places wherever we are.
HC: Sounds like the band will be playing fewer shows this year. How do you plan to spend the downtime?
MA: Some of the downtime will be spent getting some much-needed relaxation. We're also going to start writing new music soon.
HC: The bass and cello share a lot of sonic ground. How does that affect your approach when crafting a bass part?
MA: It depends on the song, but I think the main thing is not to overload the low end. A lot of it has to do with who has a cool idea first. If I come up with a low bass part that works the cello will usually do something in a higher register and vice-versa. If a really low cello part is working out well that frees me up to play a higher part and/or play with effects. Sometimes I do parts that sound more like keys or a weird mandolin or something because the low end is covered.
HC: Lots of great people I've met over the years, including my wife, are from Indiana. What is it about Indiana that creates this phenomenon?
MA: I really don't know, actually. I grew up in Texas and came to Indiana for college in 1998. I don't know what makes Indiana people so awesome, but I know that I felt very welcome when I first came out to see the school. There are similarities to the southern hospitality I grew up with, but there's definitely a uniqueness to Indiana's vibe. Maybe it's all the corn and basketball. Whatever it is, I'll take it!
For more about Matt and Murder By Death, check out www.murderbydeath.com, buy their records and of course go see them live!
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