My very first column for GuitarWorld.com profiled the great Willie Joe and his Unitar.
Willie Joe was a wild bluesman from the Fifties who played an electrified diddley bow on some great singles for Specialty Records. His recordings would eventually inspire the late Mark Sandman to create a two-string slide bass and form the jazz-grunge band, Morphine.
The rumble of slide-across-bass strings is kept alive by an Austin-based duo, Alien Knife Fight, featuring frontwoman Monique Ortiz on two-string slide bass.
But unlike Morphine or Willie Joe, Ortiz approaches slide bass with a punk rock ethos, creating distorted, grinding music that is refreshingly new yet pure American rock and roll.
Ortiz is just plain badass.
Alien Knife Fight just released an EP, Some Girls, and are touring across America with Scott H. Biram and Jesse Dayton. I had the chance to ask Ortiz about her sound, her axes and her music.
Alien Knife Fight's music is almost completely without genre; it's huge, snarling and uniquely your own. Yet you're only two strings, a voice and drums. How do you get such a big sound?
The key to sounding big is to let the space work for you. It doesn’t matter what style of music you play. The more you fill the space, the smaller and flatter the song sounds—in my opinion, anyway. I think that’s a good way to know where you’re at as a musician: If you’re focused on nailing that solo or impressing people with your technical prowess instead of doing what’s best for the song, you have a lot more learning to do. The best musicians are those who know when NOT to play.
The other thing I do when we perform live is that I bi-amp, and often tri-amp; splitting my signal like I do when I record: Totally dry signal through one amp, effect signal through another, looper through another. Three separate rigs, bass amps and guitar amps, all dialed up very differently from each other.
What is a two-string slide bass?
You answered your own question: It’s a bass with two strings that you play with a slide. If you want to get really technical, Mark Sandman wasn’t the first to do it. In fact, you don’t have to dig too deep to find one- or two-string instruments dating back as far as ancient Egypt. And, of course, plenty of early blues was played on instruments missing strings. I guess people just didn’t notice until Mark brought it into the rock world.
Contrary to popular belief, my setup is vastly different from Mark Sandman’s. There are plenty of Sandman imitators out there. After his death, I made it a mission to take the instrument in a different direction altogether. Flatwounds and P-bass pickups will give you that slinky, muted, somewhat deadened sound. I’ve played Mark’s [main two-string slide bass] and was astonished by how dead it sounded compared to my first long-scale slide bass. That’s not my cup of tea at all.
As far as my slide basses go, I buy up any old Japanese basses I can find that have multi-laminate necks and are under $200. You can pretty much make a slide bass or diddly of out of any junky piece of wood, and put electronics of your choosing in it. A multi-laminate neck is way more stable (my slide basses rarely go out of tune).
As far as slides go, I used exclusively Glassbender slides. Shameless self-promotion here: When Mike and I aren’t working on music, we do glasswork. Mike makes custom slides to fit. So all my slides are made to a specific length, taper and thickness to fit my finger and give me a specific tone. On rare occasions I’ll use a brass slide.
Nothing out of the ordinary going on with tunings. I have basses set up in low D, F#, A. I have detuners on some and have them calibrated so I can drop down two whole steps if necessary.
Photo: Monique Ortiz
How is slide bass like (or unlike) the fretless bass you've played in other projects?
I approach them as two completely different instruments. Pitch is tricky on both. I practice to a Sruthi box pretty much daily.
Mark Sandman played a two-string slide bass in Morphine, but he had a very low, thuddy sound. Your bass tone is more distorted with higher end, having more in common with Motorhead than Morphine. Do you use effects or special amps?
Yes. Much of my gear consists of “sleepers”: they look stock or cheap and crappy from the outside, but are modified to scream. I'm a big fan of Wren & Cuff’s Elephant Skin, a stomp box that Troy Sanders of Mastodon helped design. If I could only have one stomp box in my arsenal, that would be the one.
However, when we were in the studio with Chico Jones and producer Mark Deutrom (ex-Melvins bassist), Mark had me running through his old Roger Mayer Voodoo Bass that he used during Melvins heyday. I definitely plan on adding one of those to my personal collection soon. As far as amps go, I run my dry signal through a late-Sixties SVT. My other signals I’ll run through modified Orange amps, Fender Twins, Deluxe Reverbs among other things.
You've also worked with other projects. What music can we look forward to from Monique Ortiz in the next year?
My main focus is Alien Knife Fight, but I also play with ex-Melvins bassist Mark Deutrom in Bellringer, a vastly different project altogether. Mark is mainly a guitarist. I play a standard jazz bass in that band. It’s heavy, loud, sometimes a bit prog-rock, a bit post rock, with elements of desert rock and doom. I also sing in that project. I’ll be doing quite a bit of touring with both bands. Since Mike and I have a home studio we’re pretty much always writing and recording.
There’s never a shortage of material to work on. I do intend to put out another solo record next year.
Alien Knife Fight is on tour now. The full schedule can be found right here.
Shane Speal is "King of the Cigar Box Guitar" and the creator of the modern cigar box guitar movement. Hear the music, see the instruments and read about his Cigar Box Guitar Museum at ShaneSpeal.com. Speal's latest album, Holler! is on C. B. Gitty Records.