“If you had told the 16 year-old me she was going to be a featured player in a Fender ad, she would have immediately burst into tears!” smiles Este Haim, bassist and singer in Los Angeles sister trio Haim.
Since forming in 2007, the pop-rock group have signed to major record labels, wowed the crowds of both Glastonbury and South by Southwest and seen their debut album climb to the top the UK charts.
The three sisters – Este, Danielle and Alana – now stand as one of the biggest indie acts to emerge over the last decade. So the new collaboration with Fender to promote the American Professional II series will come as little surprise to their growing army of fans around the world...
“This new American Professional II P-Bass is definitely easy on the eyes,” continues Este, who is also promoting the group’s third full length Women In Music Pt. III, released earlier in June.
“My first Fender was actually an American Jazz Precision, a Fender JP made in 1989 and a fine piece of craftsmanship. It was my axe. But I liked how the Precision sounded more than the Jazz, so I kept it on that pickup.
As I got older, I knew I wanted a Precision bass and a '70s one particularly. I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford a pre-CBS one! When I found out the price of one, it was roughly the same as my college tuition. But I’d already become Precision-obsessed…
“I tried other basses and took a dip into the Hofner world when I got into Rick Danko and The Band. But I never really like playing with a pick, even a felt one, it’s just not my thing. So I stuck to what I loved… and that was the Precision because how easy it was to play, how the neck feels and how rich and deep the tone is.
“Most of my playing is in the left hand. The relationship between me and my Precision is very beautiful. We have a very simpatico relationship. It helps me achieve the tone and sound I’m after. I’ve pretty much been playing them my whole life, aside from short stints with Hofner and Music Man – which we don’t need to talk about. I left those behind like ex-boyfriends!”
Your main bass is a 1975 Precision which you’ve named ‘Blondie’. What’s the story behind the instrument?
“It’s a crazy story. I had been on the hunt for a '70s P-Bass for a long time. One cool thing about living in LA is that there’s never a shortage of people trying to get rid of or trade gear.
“I had been avidly looking on Craigslist, this was about 10 years ago so I was still in college. I didn’t have a lot of money but I was working in a coffee shop and had saved up $2300 for a '70s P-Bass. So it was probably not going to happen with that kind of budget but I had faith I might somehow get blessed with the opportunity…”
And it sounds like you were right to hold on!
“Yup! Lo and behold I was on Craigslist late at night after a study session around 1AM, and there was a listing for a '74 P for $2300. I felt like it was going to be a scam but emailed them anyway, signing off as Este Haim. This was before anything had happened with the band.
“I got an email right back from Blake Sennett and I’m the biggest Rilo Kiley fan. I was thinking, ‘No way is this the real Blake Sennett!’ but he said he lived close by and I was welcome to come try it out.
“He also mentioned that my sister was in his bandmate’s side project – which was true, at the time Danielle was in Jenny Lewis’ solo band. I had no one to freak out with so I was just looking at the walls wondering what to do. So I emailed back and agreed it was a crazy coincidence and would love to go to his house and try the bass out…”
Was it love at first sight?
“It was definitely love at first sight… she was beautiful. The headstock needed a little tweaking and the lacquer on the back of the neck was coming off, so I needed to get that fixed, but other than that, she was beautiful. She is beautiful.
“And he was so nice, he said, ‘Why don’t you take it for a week and if you like it, I know you’re good for it, you can come back and give me some dough!’
“I literally slept with it in my bed for a week, cuddling up to it. My dream was to have a bass exactly like that. He offered to change the strings because they were about 10 years old and I was like, ‘Don’t change the strings, they’re beautiful!’ I wanted that dead sound.”
What do you remember about your early years as a bass player?
“I grew up idolizing people like Tina Weymouth and Jaco [Pastorius]. I wish that when I first started playing I had encouraged myself more. I knew that I loved it but had no idea what it looked like as a career.
“As a kid, and especially as a female bass player, I knew I wanted it to be a part of my life, but I didn’t really know the end game. It wasn’t until I was in high school when I started taking it seriously.
“I also wanted to meet boys, and I loved boys in bands, so how do you meet boys in bands? Either you are the girlfriend of the boy in the band – at the time I had bad acne, braces and greasy hair which meant the boys didn’t like me in that way – or you are in the band with the boys.
“So I started hanging out with boys in bands and playing in bands. That was my sly way to get in there [laughs].
“I also met a lot of really dope female musicians too. There was a girl in my arts high school who was a sick bass player. There were only two bass players per grade so that was really dope and she was so fucking good.
“On my travels, I’ve met so many amazing female musicians - we are a tight-knit crew and support each other ‘til the cows come home. Don’t get me wrong, I love the boys in the bands, but I really love my girls in the bands!”
The track 3am from your latest album, Women In Music Pt. III, has really interesting synth tones…
“I’m not the biggest pedal enthusiast per se. But 3am I used a wah pedal on my bass… it’s one of my proudest moments on the album, along with Gasoline. I’m really proud of those bass lines and they’re so fun to play. The fun thing about Ariel [Rechtshaid, producer] is that he likes a clean take of me just playing and then we’ll fuck around a bit with the amp and tone knobs.
“He likes to tinker around a lot and I trust him enough to let him do that… I wouldn’t let most people! He’s the producer so we like to collaborate. Most of it was just me with no bells and whistles. Like I said, most of it is just my left hand.”
Another Try has a reggae kind of feel in places…
“I grew up listening to Sublime so doing a song like that was so much fun for me. I still listen to 40oz. to Freedom at least once a week. I was lucky enough to have parents who didn’t really understand what a Parental Advisory sticker was. I wouldn’t listen to it on the family stereo, but always on my Walkman! I remember learning Badfish and thinking it was so cool.”
What’s your approach to finding the right basslines?
“Finding the right part is such a trial-and-error situation. I envy bass players who hear a song and then go, ‘This is it – be be boop be ba!’ I have to sit and work shop. It really depends on the song, which is why I like to be the last part of the song to record. I want to hear what everyone else is doing so I’m not stepping on their parts.
“I think it’s funkier to concentrate on the notes you’re not playing, rather than the notes that you are. I’ve always been a fan of bass players who use space really intelligently. I like to hear the song once all the other elements are in place. You have to ask yourself, 'What would amplify this part of the song? Is bass even needed in this part of the song?'
“Even the funkiest person of all time, Prince, would think like that. When Doves Cry has no bass. He took it out because it didn’t need it. And it’s still such a funky fuckin’ song. That space to breathe is so important. Air is so important.
“Don’t get me wrong - on The Wire I’m playing a bunch of sixteenth notes over a shuffle, because that was what I felt it needed.”
Summer Girl has this one line that carries the song, with a slide that’s similar to Walk On The Wild Side in feel…
“It makes my job easier! I can’t take credit for that though, Danielle came up with that bassline. We were on a flight and she had plucked it out by the time we had landed – she has GarageBand on her phone. I thought it was very cool and a great foundation but we needed to turn it into an actual song.
“We brought it to [producer] Rostam Batmanglij and talked about how we were big Lou Reed/Velvet Underground fans so thought we’d just lean into that and play stand-up bass.
“I hadn’t done that since college, in literally a decade, but figured let’s run with it. You say jump and I say how high. And that slide is so fun to play. I had to dial it back and really remember the technique for stand-up.”
What are your warm-ups before hitting the stage?
“To get in the zone – and this is going to sound so ridiculous – I always play Spain by Chick Corea. Maybe that one is not for beginners [laughs] but I really feel it helps warm up my hands because it’s so fast. If I can do that, I can also do the slower stuff too and my hands won’t get tired.
“Sometimes I play Donna Lee by Jaco. And sometimes I do Birdland by Weather Report. I’m a fusion jazz head… I grew up playing Mahavishnu Orchestra and stuff like that. When I met other girls who have picked up the bass, after telling them how cool that is and that they have to keep going, I always say listen to the radio and use your ear to pluck out the lines.
“It’s all about taking the time to figure it out. You need to sit down and wood shed. Don’t take the easy way out and search the Internet, actually listen to it. That’s how I learned anyway...”
For more information on the American Professional II Precision Bass, head to Fender.com.