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Primal Scream bassist Simone Marie Butler knows better than most that it’s never too late to pick up a guitar or bass, or return to your six or four-string if it’s been gathering dust in the corner. She was 20 before she played bass for the very first time, but she was immediately hooked. Butler is now the bass player in a band for whom the instrument acts as a driving force, an anchor to their psych-rock wigouts, rock’n’roll bangers and electro-tinged grooves. She explains how she got into playing and why learning your favourite songs is the best route in.
When did you first start playing an instrument?
My dad was a musician and there were always musicians around the house and I’m of the generation where there was still vinyl around the house, so it was always part of my childhood. When I was young, there was the Chart Show and Top Of The Pops, so you could see the bands and I was obsessed with music videos. I just wanted to be involved in music somehow. I actually played classical music when I was at school, which isn’t rock’n’roll at all, but I played flute and piano and violin and went on to do that at school, but I loved rock’n’roll and Motown and The Clash, so I wanted to be in a band and I wanted to play. I guess it was always around me and I just knew I wanted to play music or be involved in music somehow.
What was it like the first time you played bass?
I didn’t get this with any other instrument, cos it looked weird and it felt awkward, the strings were a lot bigger than I thought they’d be, and I thought, ‘How is this gonna be melodic and tuneful?’ and I plugged it in, I remember plugging it in and started playing, or made a noise, and my whole body was vibrating. I felt the excitement, like all the vibrations going through my veins. It sounds so clichéd! I just remember feeling really excited on a physical level, thinking, “oh my God, this is something I can play for the rest of my life.” There’s something about the bass frequency that I find really exciting.
How old were you?
I was older, I was about 20. I went to school and did violin predominantly. I DJ’d after I left school and kind of through learning beat-matching, I just thought, ‘Well, bass is a bit like that.’
In terms of the fact that it’s you controlling the groove?
I wouldn’t say controlling, cos you’re only as good as the drummer. If you look at a great rhythm section like Sly And Robbie, they are holding the band down. It’s rhythm and melody at the same time, and that’s what appealed to me. You can get wild on the guitar and be unwielding and those are the best guitarists, people like Wayne Kramer or Prince, but the bass is a different discipline I think. But then you’ve got players like Victor Wooten or Jaco Pastorius who kind of break all those rules with four strings.
Who are the major bass players that you look up to?
Carol Kaye, Gail Ann Dorsey, Ida Nielsen who was Prince’s player towards the end, James Jamerson – you cannot get past him for me. He was one of the first people that I locked into. I went and bought the Motown book and then I listened to all of his isolated tracks later. When you listen to his isolated bass tracks, you think, ‘Wow’, and then you realise he’s doing it all with one finger.
How did you learn?
I taught myself. I had the official training when I was at school with violin and stuff cos you can’t really teach yourself violin. There are laws and rules. The thing about rock’n’roll is you can apply those laws and rules but you can also be self-taught and play how you feel. The Ramones are a great example of that kind of thing. I learnt by listening and playing and playing by ear. I played my favourite records, I played The Clash, I played The Cure, I played The Stranglers. One of my other favourite players is George Porter Jr. from The Meters and Andy Fraser from Free, those were the first basslines that I learnt. I started learning Free and I found it was quite a lot of octave work and the same with The Meters, if you slow it down it’s like a chromatic scale progression with different notes built in, so I could see where scales and modes and chords came in. I learnt from listening and playing my favourite records. Within an amount of time, you’ve got most of the songs on your favourite albums learnt and you can go and hang out with a bunch of friends and play your favourite records and your favourite songs.
What advice do you have for any players who might have lapsed or who are just starting out?
I’d say try and go back to practicing every day, even 10 minutes, rather than doing an hour a week. The consistency is what will help you improve rather than one massive burst of playing. Then 10 minutes will probably turn into an hour every day. Also, play what you like to listen to. If People think they’ve heard it all before and go back to the originals so to speak, but there’s so many great different-sounding bands out these days. If you like the sound of something, try and play that.
You’re in a band where the bass is such an integral part of the sound. What it’s like being onstage with Primal Scream?
It’s a really special energy. When I first joined, Barrie Cadogan, who was playing guitar then, said exactly the same thing. Then I experienced that. I knew the band and loved the band before, so you’re already familiar with the songs so it’s a really beautiful thing and I’m playing with really incredible musicians. Darren Mooney is such an amazing drummer, he’s made me a better bass player. Everyone onstage is connected. Then you have that connection with the audience. Being in a band that you love makes you want to be a better player. It’s amazing being onstage with the guys, I love them.