Photo: G. Dusenberry
Dan Africano recently moved to Colorado and has an ongoing career as a solid touring, gigging, electric bassist. We had the opportunity to meet Dan in Boston and learn a lot about his career.
Tell me about your touring recently with Van Gordon Martin and John Brown’s Body?
The tours in the fall with Van Gordon Martin and John Brown’s Body went really well. The John Brown’s Body tour will likely be the last for the foreseeable future for that band, but I can confidently say we went out with a bang. We had a really great sold-out show on New Year’s Eve at The House of Blues in Boston, which was a very fitting ending to John Brown Body’s tour life. Since then I’ve been in Denver and it’s been really nice to dig into the local music scene here. I’m starting new projects and meeting new people and getting out there and playing all kinds of styles of different music, rather than just hitting the road with one band.
You have your own band, Elephant Wrecking Ball. Can you share more about your music? And what does that name mean?
Elephant Wrecking Ball started in 2010 in Boston when my good friends Scott Flynn, Neal Evans and I were going to school at Berklee College of Music. It was actually Scott’s brainchild. He is a trombone player who wanted to start using guitar effects pedals on his trombone. He started writing compositions that revolved around the sounds he got from experimenting with different effects pedals. Over the past eight years, it’s been somewhat of a challenge to keep it consistent because all of us have been working on different projects and living in different places. It’s only been within the past few months that we all moved to Denver and put a lot of energy back into the band. We’ve been writing material, recording, releasing records, and playing shows for eight years. It’s been an interesting process because of our individual circumstances [with schedules].
As far as the name goes, we had just booked a gig in Boston and hadn’t really established ourselves as a band yet. We had been bouncing around several different names and Elephant Wrecking Ball seemed to fit best. We can’t take full credit for it though, as a friend of ours decided on the name for us when he introduced us at our first show. That name is very appropriate though because the sound of the band is very much represented by our name. The trombone sounds a lot like an elephant, especially with the array of effects that Scott uses, and Neal and I have been playing together as a rhythm section for about 11 years (in several different bands) and since day one we’ve clicked pretty significantly. We like to say that we hit like a wrecking ball because it’s a very heavy sound. There’s a lot of gravity to our playing and it hits real solid. So the name does represent the sound we produce.
How would you describe the music?
This is a really tough question because there are so many influences between dub, experimental music, funk, reggae, jazz, but basically what comes out are these slightly rigid song structures that allow for as much improvisation as we want. So it’s a range of extremes because the songs themselves are pretty much ‘set in stone,’ but within those boundaries, we can play around as much as possible. A lot of what makes that possible is the fact that we are a monophonic band–there is no choral instrument. That allows us the opportunity to play around with the space as much as we want, whether that means re-harmonizing a certain section or adding a certain type of effect. The result is a very organic style of music because we are afforded the liberty to improvise as much as we want to within the moment while staying within the bounds of the song structure. That leads to a lot of really cool moments where there is, what I would call, interactive improvisation. For instance, say I hear a certain space in the music and I’m thinking I might play a certain phrase to fill the space. Neal, the drummer, might pick up on that rhythm and play something different based off of that phrasing, and that in turn would sculpt Scott’s solo. It’s very much like a game of follow the leader, where anyone can be the leader at any moment in time. Plus, those two guys are two of my best friends and to get to do this with two people who are really close to me makes it super special.
Who writes the songs? Is it collaborative?
Every song is born out of a demo, which could be just a simple bass line, a melodic phrase, or a couple of chord progressions placed together, or even a demo of an entire composition. We’ll write these ideas individually and then come together and arrange it into a song together. It all falls into place when we rehearse and hash it out. We’ll write transitions and the entire arrangement comes together. It’s a collaborative effort born from individual’s ideas.
Why the bass? Who was your influence to pick up that particular guitar?
My first influence was my Dad, who was a bass player, and I have two older brothers; one who played the guitar. I remember watching my older brother learn how to play the guitar when he was 12 years old, and I remember watching his hand try to cover all of the strings, and then strumming and making sure each one rung out. I thought it just looked incredibly difficult. I saw my Dad’s bass in the corner and asked him, “That instrument … you only have to play one note at a time right? And he said “yes.” So I asked him to teach me that because I thought it would be easier. Little did I know that the role of the bass in music is massive. It’s the glue that holds together the rhythmic and melodic aspects of any group and I quickly fell in love with it just because of that. It’s the anchor within the sonic spectrum of the band. As soon as I started to understand the bass, I ended up just loving its role from there. I was into punk rock as a kid and then grew into reggae as a teenager. Anything with energy I really loved. I’d watch Mike Dirnt from Green Day in the ’90s, and Flea from the (Red Hot) Chili Peppers, and then gravitated toward Family Man (Aston Barrett) and those beautiful melodic bass lines of the Wailers in the ’70s. I grew to love the power of the bass. Even with a gentle note, that sound and feeling just envelops your body and shakes you, even when you’re not plugged in. If you’re playing a bass, and it vibrates against your body and you can feel every note throughout your body. I wouldn’t say it’s an obsession, but it’s a feeling that is hard to replicate with anything else.
How did you initially learn to play?
I grew up just outside of Washington, DC, and went to a public school that had a really great music program where I started playing the trumpet. I was exposed to music early on and the band program at school really helped with that. I never really played the bass in a formal setting until I went to Berklee College of Music years later.
My early education, as far as the bass is concerned, was getting together with friends to play music. Going to a buddy’s house or having them come to mine and setting up and playing all of our favorite songs and writing some of our own. That was always the music education I got. My friends would all really get excited about a new album that came out from one of our favorite bands, and we would just learn everything off of it and play it all. Everything stemmed from listening to the albums and learning everything by ear and then playing together.
I was 24 when I began my formal education at Berklee. That’s where I was exposed to the serious side of music and learning about the technical aspects of music. It was the translation of what I had already known but didn’t know what was called. I had learned all of these things by ear for 14 years, and then I went to school and was taught theory from the ground up. By learning music theory at Berklee, I was able to communicate much better in terms of the music language and to build on top of the foundation I had already formed in my early years, all of which was truly exciting to learn. I absolutely loved going to Berklee.
What was your favorite class at Berklee?
My favorite classes were all of the performance classes. There were a lot of different bass labs that I took: Latin Jazz, Danny Mo’s Motown Bass Lab was awesome, I took a few slap bass labs as well, and a Bob Marley class, learning about his life as well as his music. These classes were all about being in a room full of bass players and taking turns playing and working on specific things and hear other people’s interpretation of it and all under the guidance of a teacher. Another great class was “jazz improvisation techniques” taught by Whit Brown. He grew up in Boston and has been gigging since he was a teenager. Having these people guide you through these learning exercises was such a great experience.
Has your bass playing changed over the years?
Absolutely! I’d say it has changed mostly in the past three years being on the road with John Brown’s Body. I think anyone who has ever played with that band will tell you it is an institution, like a school because when you’re in a band like that, you have no choice but to become so much more professional in your playing. Like any touring gig, you may play mostly the same songs every night. But the way you play them has to be at such a high level of consistency and energy, and everything has to be representative of what the music stands for. I had never been in a situation like that, where I felt the responsibility to portray the music at such a high level night after night. My playing has been elevated a lot specifically in the past 3 years because of playing with JBB. Also, I often feel like it’s a good idea to take a break from playing every once in a while. In any creative endeavor, if you reach a certain place, you can feel like you plateau for a while. You need to step away for a little time before you can actually grow in a different direction. And that’s happened several times throughout my career as a musician.
Which basses do you play now?
The main three basses that I switch between are all Fenders that are all strung with LaBella Flatwounds. I have two Fender Precisions, one from 2008 that’s one of the best feeling and sounding basses I’ve ever touched. I actually got it across the street from Berklee with no intention of buying a bass that day. It was like how a pet chooses its owner. I played it and didn’t put it down for over an hour and basically couldn’t put it down. I had to take it home. That’s my main bass. I also have a ‘74 Fender Precision that I like to play that has a little bit more bite. So I take that one out on funk or fusion gigs, and then a Jazz Bass that I have tuned to B-E-A-D (no high G string) that I play with John Brown’s Body and Elephant Wrecking Ball. I love the feeling of four string basses but sometimes I need that low B.
Can you share any tips you’ve learned along the way?
As a tip, try your best to develop your own style before you delve too deeply into anyone else’s. That’s not to say don’t listen to your influences or don’t learn from a teacher you admire. But it is important to have your own voice through the instrument regardless of who influences you or who is teaching you. For instance, when I went to Berklee I was self-taught for 14 years before I went into any formal learning environment with the bass guitar. I think that was very crucial in retaining my own style. As far as my own style goes, my early days as a teenager with way too much energy has influenced me to be an active player when I’m allowed to be, but most importantly, a reactive player. Listening is probably the most important thing you can do as a musician, especially a bass player, and then playing for the music. And, if there is a space to fill and you feel like filling it, having the facility with your instrument to be able to say what it is you want to say. But, there are plenty of moments where it’s not appropriate where it’s best to keep it simple and to really just hold down the groove. Being a versatile player I think is how I’d describe my own style and being able to play what best serves the music.
How did you find Bergantino Audio Systems gear?
I was recording with an old band of mine called “Cashed Fools” at a studio in Syracuse called More Sound Studios. The studio is owned by Jocko Randall, who used to be the FOH engineer for John Brown’s Body. He was on the road for many years with the band and he had one of the Bergantino 215s at the studio. I had come in with my own rig and I loved my sound and had every intention of using my rig for the session. Jocko told me, “Just try the Bergantino and tell me what you think.” It took only one take and I went into the control room and listened, and was blown away. It was like there is no way those are 15s, that’s the tightest sounding, biggest, fullest, clearest sounding bass cab I’ve ever heard. So that was my introduction.
Then I met Nate Edgar who was playing bass for JBB at the time and he was playing through one of those 215s on stage at the time and a few years later that turned into two of those. Then I found a deal on a Berg 112 on TalkBass, and since then all but one of my bass cabs have been Bergantino. It’s like night and day with those cabs compared to anything else for some reason they have represented my playing in the clearest and most transparent way possible. I have had several 12s over the years and recently with John Brown’s Body I had the pair of NV215s and that’s an irreplaceable sound on stage. Once you get used to that you can’t really do anything else, even if you show up to a festival with a backline rig, like any 810 is not going to hold a candle to the four 15’s behind you with a big crest power amp.
How have you been liking your new Bergantino B|AMP?
I found the customization of the EQ to be very helpful. I took the forte on tour in the fall and it was a great sounding amp, but the thing I really like about the B|AMP is that you can go in and select the frequencies that you are boosting and cutting on the EQ. I know that a lot of bass players are not like me in that they will just want a plug and play amp, but I really like the customizable aspect of the amp. For example, I was on stage the other night doing a sound check and I heard something weird in the upper mids and all it took was a couple of pushes of a button and a slight knob twist to change the center frequency from 1.2kHz to 900Hz. If I can fix the sound for me on that stage in that moment of time and if I’m able to have that sort of customization I think it’s a game changer for those that are willing to take the investment into understanding how the amp works and how to make it work for you. The overdrive is something I have kept on since I discovered it. The drive has a range between 1-15 I think and I’ve set it at 10, which is kind of high but with the blend knob if I want a clean tone I just turn the blend all the way off and then if I want a little bit of warm tube gain I push it up to maybe 20% or 25% and it doesn’t really overdrive the signal like you would think an overdrive pedal would do, it just adds this really nice warm tube sound that I find really nice and useful when appropriate. It fills out the sound really nice.
What are your must-haves when you travel or go on tour? The things you could never leave home without?
The things I could not leave home without would be good headphones, and my phone as a way to download a dozen albums, most of which I’ve never heard before just to dive into some new music. Also, definitely a good attitude is important to have which is not anything material but if you are going to be spending time with people on the road every day, all day, it’s pretty important to be in a good headspace.
You just moved to Colorado. Where is your favorite place to go so far?
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. You hike up to the top of the dunes, which are basically a giant sandbox full of 750-foot tall dunes out in the middle of nowhere right up next to some steep mountains in the Southern part of Colorado, and it’s some of the quietest you’ll ever experience. And it’s also spectacular landscape, which is nothing short of magical. Secondly, I love to ski, so anywhere where I am in the trees with nobody around and the snow is falling and it’s dampening all the sound… it’s wilderness, and I love the wilderness.
Any parting thoughts or words of wisdom for the readers?
For those that support me in my way of life, I owe many thanks. I know I am really lucky to be able to do what I do and it would not be possible at all without their support to live out my dream.