Talking with John Stirratt

Chris P. Dekker interviews John Stirratt of Wilco

John Interview 1

John Stirratt

“With a Höfner you pick it up and a bass line almost writes itself.”

After the release of the album Wilco Schmilco, Chicago band Wilco toured in Europe and the US will follow. Höfner went to one of two gigs in TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht, The Netherlands to talk with bass player John Stirratt. Ampeg Fliptops, flatwound strings and of course that distinctive Höfner sound were all on the agenda. John's a profound user of new and vintage Höfner Club Basses, but it was the 500/1 violin bass that first drew his attention.

'Paul McCartney was my introduction to Höfner basses. I was beginning with bass, and I was not that savvy about brands, but then I saw a picture of Paul. There was something about the sound and looks and the violin bass being such a distinctive bass. I remember seeing it, listening to it and it was ironically the unusual shape that made it stand out. “Is that even a bass? Is it solid body?” Well, it got me into Beatles bass lines!'

'Around the same time, I got to appreciate different basses and how they work in a track. A friend of mine had a Höfner Club Bass, with the neck detached and being in an open case it was gathering dust in a garage for a long time. It was really dusty and I didn't even bother to dust it off I just brought it to luthier Bob Egan of Bob's Guitar Service. Bob was in Wilco in the nineties, by the way. Bob put the neck on, cleaned it and it was beautiful! It played very well and suddenly I was a Höfner player. I've always been a pick player so I was gravitating into such basses, the range, the scale. It was easy to play. I remember Jeff (Tweedy, ed.) in early sessions saying; “You should play that all the time, you should not be playing the Fender bass!” Because of a certain lack of resonance, you have to keep on playing that bass and it gives you a certain sound.' 

Interesting colour

And that's the trusty old sunburst Club you still play?

John interview 2

'Yes, it is the same bass I play tonight. I also have some reissues. I just got a great new one from Höfner, a green one. I asked for an interesting colour, something different. I couldn’t get it ready in time for this tour, I couldn't include it in the batch of instruments that went to Europe. I did set it up and it sounds great. I use the vintage one now, but I will certainly use the new one on the next tour." 

Did you ever try roundwounds on your Club?

'I never use rounds on a Höfner, always Pyramid flats. I tried rounds on another Höfner for a while, but it sounded a bit strange.'

If you play a 500/1 Violin Bass, a lot of people will immediately mention McCartney...

With a Club they'll mention Tina Weymouth, maybe? In the last couple of years, I have seen a lot of young, new bands playing the Violin Bass, Tame Impala and Last Shadow Puppets, to name a couple so I guess the Macca connection disappears a bit?

'Absolutely! Tame Impala is a great band and a great example of the specific Höfner sound. It's so up front in the mix, and it's so obviously a Höfner. Iconic.' 

The Höfner speaks loud

Live and in the studio you use different basses, how do you choose which bass to use?

'Certain songs need a certain bass line. With a Höfner you pick it up and it almost writes itself, like on our song Handshake Drug. As I said earlier you have to keep moving along on the Club. But it isn't right for every song. I think it's a thing you hear, an idea which you pursue. And of course, it's always the third bass you grab, ha ha! We have this lucky situation we have our own studio, The Loft, in Chicago. Jeff has a big guitar and bass collection, so we grab some and shoot them out. I use Fender Precisions, some Jazz Basses and I have a Lakland Jazz which works good. It's small sounding, but round and defined. For The Whole Love I used a big, hollow Gibson Les Paul Signature Bass. Brad Jones of my other band The Autumn Defense has one, but I borrowed one from our keyboard player and guitarist Pat Sansone. I now have one myself.' 

Live you use a Schroeder tube-head with an Ampeg 4x10”. Do you use different settings for the Höfners and Fenders?

'I use no tone change at all, just volume. The Höfner speaks loud, it's a loud bass. So I just go back and forth the P, J and Club, depending on the song and whether I play with a pick or not.' 

And what do you use in the studio, amp-wise?

'Jeff bought the same Schroeder as my live rig, with an Ampeg 6x10”. It's great to have it. We mostly start with the Schroeder. It's very neutral, transparent and it really evokes the bass you are playing. It beats in a nice way. We also have some Ampeg B-15 Fliptops and I have a B-12 with a really wonderful sound. One of my favourite bass sounds is a Fender Mustang Bass with flatwounds, through that B-12. I also record direct, with different pre amps.' 

What strikes me in your bass lines is that you always seem to find space, even with Wilco, which has three guitar players and a keyboard player, or two guitars and two keys.

'I could certainly take some space with the older material, when we were a four-piece band briefly, like on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Sky Blue Sky was more basic. On certain songs you feel like taking the lead or making a melodic statement and you hope the players around you have the ears and empathy to accent it. On a song like I Might, off The Whole Love, the fuzzy bass took a lot of space. The guys are peppering the sound for your ears. The guys are incredible musicians and able to play around something that's stepping up. With Schmilco I did some overdubbing, but I prefer being in the moment. The ensembled kind of stuff.'

 Sky Blue Sky

Jeff, who's a bass player too, played quite some bass on Wilco Schmilco, didn't he?

'Jeff is super creative at the moment and totally in the zone after his solo recordings. He had recorded some amazing bass sounds and that was hard to chase. It was hard to beat his recordings, but I did some overdubbing. I play bass on 96% of the Wilco songs and I'm confident enough to not chase something. It's not that I have to play something, so it has my name on it. This album was recorded differenlyt than many other Wilco albums, but I'm sure we'll come together and ensemble an album together in some weeks. Sky Blue Sky was a bit forgotten at the time, but it comes back to us, because it's a favorite record of lots of people. That was a sitting in a circle kinda record. I like getting out records more often, like they did in the old days, and not every four years as a big statement.' 

Which basses do we hear on Schmilco? I'm sure I heard the Höfner.

'yes, and we used a black '72 Precision a lot. Jeff has it since high school. It's magic, poignant. It's pretty light, it has a BadAss bridge, and it has a manageable A-neck, which is a little thinner for that era. My '70s J has the same neck, but less mojo. Maybe I've got to play it more. Instruments really start to sound better if they get played.'

I listened to your live session on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic, before watching it and I sometimes thought I heard the Höfner while it was a P or J. When the Höfner really came in, after some songs, I definitely knew it.

'That's funny. For our previous album Star Wars I used round wounds for the first time in a  long time. I thought it was great, wow, I was way more audible. But for Schmilco we just needed flats. In that session we tried to get more of an acoustic sound. Drummer Glenn Kotche was on the floor, we used more acoustic guitars and some tiny Champ amps. I used really blunt Pyramid flats and the B-15 amps, which don't have a modern sound. So that's why it all sounded a bit more vintage. With the Schroeder amp, my set up is a nice combination between modern and vintage. In the end it's also about the player. I made terrible records on tape and great ones on ProTools. So much is in your hands and ears. There are no rules for anything, Keep your mind and your ears open!'

John Interview 3 

About John's vintage Club

Nick Wass is marketing manager of Höfner and co-author of Höfner – The Complete Violin Bass Story. We asked him about John's Club:

'This bass has a grey rectangular sticker with 'SERIAL No. 29014' on it. That means it's a bass sold through the old US distributor William Gratz in 1965. The Club hit the market in 1965, however just a few Club basses were sold in 1964, but the serial number on this one is 1965. The hardware is typical for that year too.

Watch Wilco’s session on Morning Becomes Eclectic