Tony Choy: "I’m a groove-oriented bass player – I love to stay in the pocket. I love the groove. We call it a kick drum with notes"

Tony Choy
(Image credit: Sadiel)

Heavy metal was a curious beast in the early '90s, made even weirder – and cooler – by musicians like Tony Choy, who first entered the public eye in 1991 with the album Unquestionable Presence from the experimental Florida band Atheist. 

Injecting mind-blowing jazz and funk grooves into Atheist’s complex sound, Choy continued to make waves with the Dutch band Pestilence and has since built a long list of solo and collaborative albums, producing gigs and sessions ever since. You think you’ve got a lot on your plate? Read on.  

How has 2021 been for you so far, Tony? 

“I’ve never been busier. I started my own TV show called Spotlight With Tony Choy, I created a ministry, and I have a podcast called Talkbox. Of course, I play bass guitar and produce other artists – I’ve got over 300 records under my belt now – but the big thing that’s taking up a lot of my time right now is a not-for-profit arts academy which I founded here in Florida, called the Dream Here Foundation. I’ve been working on it for about seven years.“

Where is it? 

“We’re based in a 20,000 square feet facility in Miami called Wavesound Labs. We have studios with Pro Tools, Logic and Ableton, because everybody records simultaneously, all at the same time. Every inch of the place has been made to record audio or video. 

“There’s a mastering lab with a three-time Grammy engineer on the staff. The main room is a concert hall with LEDs on the walls: It’s incredible. We’re aiming to open next spring. I also have a management firm based there, and a distribution company as well. It’s crazy busy, I know, but I’m fully putting the pedal to the metal while I can still do it.“

What will students gain from studying at your academy? 

“When a student leaves here, they’re going to be a firecracker, having worked with Grammy-winning producers and musicians. The school system is flawed: Kids go out of school knowing nothing. They get taught so much, and they burn their eyebrows trying to study, but when you ask them a fundamental question, they’re like, ‘Oh, they didn’t teach me that.’“

I also like arranging songs – actually making sense of what is happening. You can’t just throw 50 riffs into a song and figure that the job is done

What kind of fundamentals will they learn? 

“You’re going to learn how to copyright your song, you’re going to learn how to upload, you’re going to learn how to sign up to Sound Exchange so you can get your money, you’re gonna learn about a song-split agreement. If you want to make a decent career, you’ve got to have your I’s dotted and your T’s crossed. 

“This is a serious business. At the same time, it’s all about exploring creativity. It’s called Dream Time because at the end of the day, we’re all dreamers. Everything’s created twice, first in your mind, and then for real.“ 

You’re known for your fusion approach to bass. Do you still play on a wide range of projects? 

“I play bass on all my records, whether it’s pop, funk or metal. I did a bunch of metal records last year, including one with Mike Smith from Suffocation and one with Andy LaRocque from King Diamond, who is my hero. I also like arranging songs – actually making sense of what is happening. You can’t just throw 50 riffs into a song and figure that the job is done. With the craft comes the arrangement, especially with pop music and ballads.“

Are you still a technical bass player?

“I play way less technically than I used to. I’m a groove-oriented bass player – I love to stay in the pocket. I love the groove. We call it a kick drum with notes. There’s a time and place for everything. That’s what I’ve learned after 35 years of doing this stuff. My question to people when they call me to do their records is ‘What do you want? Do you want your stuff, or do you want Tony Choy?’ 

“I’ll do whatever you want, because I’ve made a career out of being a multi-genre, multi-demographic artist, whatever you want to call it, since day one. Fusing jazz with metal took people 20 years to understand.“

Fusing jazz with metal took people 20 years to understand

You’ve also simplified your bass gear. 

“Yes. I’ve still got my boutique basses, but all I usually need these days is a four-string. It’s great to have a lot of axes, but four strings is my comfort zone. Unless there’s a different sound that you’re looking for, I just stick to a Fender Jazz through an Epifani amp. 

“I have my Ibanez BTB if I need a five-string, and I still have my Zon as well, but that Fender has all the ingredients. I can sweep the volume knobs to create a fretless sound. It’s crazy– you would swear, if you close your eyes when I do that, that it’s a fretless bass.“

What are your objectives these days?

“I’m setting up a legacy. At the end of the day, it’s about contributing. Once I leave this earth, I want to know that I contributed something and that I leave something behind. There’s a famous saying: ‘Do not compete – create.’ I live by that, as well as the maxim ‘Seek progression, not perfection.’ You’re progressively moving towards your worthy ideal. Are you moving towards your ideal? Then you’re successful.“

  • You can keep up with Tony Choy on Instagram

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Joel McIver

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.