Sleep’s Al Cisneros: “For my lifespan, I’ll be playing Rickenbackers. When I hear the sound of Rush’s Permanent Waves, there’s nothing else like that’”

Al Cisneros
(Image credit: Tim Bugbee)

Sinai Dub Box (2012-2022) is the perfect collectible artefact, a box set of seven 7” vinyl singles that is limited to 1000 copies and is therefore both scarce and expensive to buy, although fortunately digital alternatives exist. 

Fans of Al Cisneros, bassist and vocalist with the cult stoner/doom metal band Sleep and founder of the experimental duo OM, will line up to purchase the box set. Somehow, its weight and exclusivity, coupled with the sidewalk-shaking low-end of the immense music it contains, aligns perfectly with the ethos of Cisneros’ mission. 

“There’s a few new songs on this box set, and the rest are ones that I put out myself over the past decade. I decided to remaster all of those and put them into one place, because it’s time to move forward with the next chapter,” says Cisneros. 

With a decade of monstrous bass guitar tones contained in these seven slices of vinyl, does he feel that his sound has changed over the years? 

“To an extent,” he agrees. “The early songs were recorded on a Rickenbacker 4004, and I love those bass tones. It’s just direct: it’s not even through an amp, it’s just direct into the board with a little bit of compression. And then the most recent song is High Concentrate, which I recorded with a Ricky 4003S5, again straight into the board, although I’ll also use Ampeg and Orange if I need an amp. 

“I think that bass sounds a little bit better than the 4004, but it’s not a large difference. As I’m sure you can tell, I EQ the hell out of it, to get some overwhelming sub frequency.” 

The box set also represents 10 years of Cisneros learning to engineer his music, he tells us. What are the challenges there? 

“Well, there’s been times I’ve got a test pressing back from the vinyl factory, and the stylus doesn’t even want to stay in the groove, because there’s so much low end. It’s resonating the vents in the building and everything!” he laughs. “That doesn’t sound good, so it’s been a learning process for me about bass frequencies and their relationship to the drums, so that they can both speak without eclipsing one another. 

“There’s a couple of records in the box which I would definitely remix if I was recording them today. You have to turn the bass down on the hi-fi to hear it properly, because it just sounds like a truck outside.”

A lifelong Rickenbacker player, Cisneros has been seen with a variety of Rickys worldwide since he first came to prominence in 1992 with Sleep’s much-acclaimed second album, Sleep’s Holy Mountain. “For my lifespan, I’ll be playing Rickenbackers,” he says, prompting us to ask what it is that he loves about these ever-popular, always-divisive basses. 

“I also like the sound of a Fender Jazz,” he tells us, “but for me, when I hear the sound of the Rickenbackers on Rush’s Permanent Waves, and Geddy Lee’s tone on Free Will and Jacob’s Ladder, there’s nothing else like that. I see bass makers trying to improve and re-improve what they do, but for me, I think that at a certain point, it’s more important to pause and ask, ‘Are we really making this bass better than it was before?’” 

Does he acquire new Rickenbackers as time passes, or has he got his collection down? “I’ve got it down now,” he says. “They recently built me a 4420, which is a four-string 4003AC on top and the five-string version on the bottom. It’s incredible. It means I don’t have to switch basses on stage between songs. Depending on the way that we compose the set, that can be really cool.” 

We recently interviewed Les Claypool of Primus, a fellow Geddy Lee fan, who bewailed the weight of his Rickenbacker 4080, which has a bass at the top and a guitar on the bottom.

“My 4420 is really heavy,” agrees Cisneros. “I played it on tour a couple of months back, and I assumed I could get through a whole set with it, but now I understand why Geddy only used it on the song Xanadu! You pretty much have to get physical therapy to play that instrument.”

When Rickenbacker first introduced five-strings to their classic 4000 bass series a few years ago, the new instruments divided Ricky fans, partly because the pickups looked out of place, but also because the idea of a low B string on such a resolutely vintage design felt a touch blasphemous. Which way does Cisneros go on this crucial matter? 

“I love their five-strings,” he says, “and since about 2010, I’ve been using them more and more. You can only tune down a four-string so far, and I don’t believe that those drop-tuning devices really do anything. I think they’re just a way to sell more strings. Also, if you want to keep the tonality of the instrument, as well as the action that you’re used to playing on the fifth string, you need a proper five-string bass.”

He adds: “I only use a five for a few songs here and there: On the new OM album, which we’re about to start mixing, it’s on a couple of longer pieces. I have one from the Nineties that they made on the first run, and the 4003S5 that they introduced with the wider fretboard. I think I prefer the more recent model. 

“Anyway, they both sound good. You know, Rickenbacker really put spirit into their builds. You can go there and see it. It’s not a soulless, mechanized assembly line. It’s individual people putting care into it. It’s really something else.”

This brings us to the thematic content of the music on the box set. Whether with Sleep, OM or solo, Cisneros’ songs and lyrics have always reflected an interest in otherworldly dimensions and how to get there, assisted by a keen interest in psychedelic experimentation: see Sleep’s classic Dopesmoker album from 2003. I’m interested to know how playing bass, especially with the numbingly heavy dub style that Cisneros plays so effortlessly, fits in with all this. 

“Well, it’s a cliché, but you get out of the way,” he says. “You just let be, and if there’s a bass and a drum groove happening, that’s what the universe is doing with you. Just be, just let it go. It’s hard to explain.”

Do we bass players have a shortcut to that mindset because of what we do? “Definitely. My mind goes back to the writings of [medieval Japanese philosopher] Miyamoto Musashi, and his Book Of Five Rings, and these types of things. That’s the OG flow state, right? Let your heart go into the amplifier. If it’s not coming from there, it’s generally going to be more noise than music. Take your music seriously, but keep a sense of humor, too.”

I’m not religious in a conventional sense, but I have a daily practice based on meditation and internal quiet. That’s the starting point for my daily life for me

Cisneros’ method is to clear his mind and allow his bass parts to come to him, he says. 

“I’m not religious in a conventional sense, but I have a daily practice based on meditation and internal quiet. That’s the starting point for my daily life for me. I do some yoga, too. Not hatha yoga, but yoga proper from the teachings of [ancient Indian sage] Patanjali, which is basically mindfulness. Technically, it’s mindlessness – you want less mind and more heart. All of those things are the Rush albums of my daily life. You know what I mean?”

He continues: “Bass grooves are all out there in the universe. When we’re quiet, on our best days, we sense them. I don’t think we build or create them – I think they’re there already. They were there way before us, and they’ll be there way after. We have this calibration in our body with our heart and our breathing. Those are both timing mechanisms, and I think they hone in on the universe. 

“If you’re quiet enough, and this ties into the daily practice I mentioned, sometimes – due to something beyond you – you will be lucky enough to hear a groove. It appears, and you recognize it, and you’re like, ‘Holy shit. There it is!’ You hear it, and feel it. You can document it and recreate it on your instrument, and hopefully it will make people feel happy when they hear it. I think that’s the secret.” 

We’ll take that. Plug in your bass, switch off your mind – and listen. 

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Joel McIver was the Editor of Bass Player magazine from 2018 to 2022, having spent six years before that editing Bass Guitar magazine. A journalist with 25 years' experience in the music field, he's also the author of 35 books, a couple of bestsellers among them. He regularly appears on podcasts, radio and TV.