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February/March 2015

by Silke Hartung

Maree Thom: On Bass With Sugar Man

by Silke Hartung

Maree Thom: On Bass With Sugar Man

Her name may not be familiar, but Maree Thom spent much of last year touring with Rodriguez, the very famous American singer and songwriter whose extraordinary story was told in the moving, academy award winning documentary, Searching For Sugar Man. She played bass with the legendary Rodriquez on four consecutive tours that took in NZ, Europe, USA and Australia, the only musician to remain in the same role throughout the year. Returning to NZ in 2014 she has settled in Christchurch, a new city for her and is building her teaching practice, improving her drumming, guitar playing and singing, and practising on the double bass she will be playing in an upcoming season of Phantom of the Opera at the Isaac Theatre Royal in Christchurch. Silke Hartung posed the questions for NZM.

What were your first music and band experiences?

I grew up on the North Shore in Auckland and played in an accordion orchestra for a couple years from about age 12. I actually played the bass accordion most of the time, there is usually one in each orchestra, and I’ve often wondered if it was that experience that gave me a good grounding in understanding the role of the bass. Around 14 I formed a band with my friends at high school, playing jazz, funk and original compositions. We played gigs around the place and had heaps of fun.

Why did you first pick up the bass and what made you stick with it?

I saw Matt Penman playing the double bass with Tony Hopkins and Greg Tuohey at some stuffy school jazz competition when I was 14. After a day of mind numbing jazz standards those guys really put things in perspective for me about what was possible with their instruments.

I was a trumpet player at the time but I knew straight away that what I was seeing was the direction I wanted to head in. Matt was all over the bass like it was this soft malleable thing he could do whatever he wanted with. And he gave the bass a voice in the music that I’d not heard before. He had such a massive groove that I was completely mesmerised. I went to school the next day and signed up for bass lessons, initially on double bass but pretty soon I found the electric and realised that was my instrument.

I had lessons with Alberto Santarelli in high school and later I attempted to study at jazz school, but it didn’t work for me.

Who are some of the important people and bands you’ve worked with before?

There have been so many groups and musicians over the years that have a made a real difference to my musicianship, lots of little projects and many larger ones. Some of my longer standing involvements include: Neil Watson; Cameron Allen; Anthony Donaldson (Po Face, Village of Idiots, and The Flower Orphans); The Dodecahedrons with Jeff Henderson, Tom Callwood, Anthony Donaldson, Johnie Marks and John Bell; The Topp Twins; Don McGlashan & The Seven Sisters; The Joy Toys and Jonathan Besser.

I was lucky enough to find two musicians who kept me on my toes in my early 20s, Anthony Donaldson (drums) and Jeff Henderson (saxophones). Anthony woke me up to a whole lot of music I would never have known about and he allowed me to take my time and feel my way back into bass playing after a serious injury. This led me to figure out a way to play the bass that was useful to a group and also satisfying personally, and has become my own way of playing that’s sustainable for me. I am eternally grateful to Anthony for his gentle approach with me, allowing me to find my own unique expression on the bass while contributing to his projects over the years. I probably wouldn’t have a music career if it wasn’t for him.

 

Jeff Henderson was the first person to push me so hard intellectually that I would come home after a jam session exhausted. Playing with him made me realise a greater depth of musical communication was possible through my instrument and I remember thanking the universe that I’d stumbled upon him and the musical collective he led in Wellington know in those days as The Space – later Happy.

Chris O’Connor (drums) is another musician I’ve learned a lot from over the years, as well as Don McGlashan of course. Working with The Seven Sisters taught me about recording and what it’s like to develop a pop song into something really great.

Let’s cut to the moneyshot, Rodriguez! How did that series of tours come about?

We met on his first visit to NZ (2013) when The Seven Sisters (Don McGlashan’s band) were asked to back Rodriguez for a couple of shows here. The next year he asked me to join his European tour with guitarist Matthew Smith (Outrageous Cherry, Detroit) and Sebastian Beresford (Leftfield, Arkana) on drums, then the US tour with guitarist Ed Coonagh (The Resistors) as well as Beresford again, and later Australia with Kiwi guitarist Brett Adams (The Bads) and Australian drummer Pete Wilkins (Blue King Brown).

Every band was great and really different. Rodriguez loves mixing it up and finding new areas to explore in the music. It was a real treat for me to play with such great guitarists after a few years of not playing a lot of rock. Each guy had his own style and put a different energy into the sound.

Matt Smith blew my head off every night with these incredible guitar solos that bent the hell out of Rodriguez’ music and for me just made the experience unforgettable. Each time the guy took a solo I’d be listening like crazy to catch everything, he is such a beautiful player and so ‘out’ musically.  I loved that band. Matthew lives in the same neighbourhood as Rodriguez in Detroit, they’ve been close for many years.

Ed Coonagh has been playing for Rodriguez alongside Sebastian Beresford for about 10 years. He has a really fantastic handle on these beautiful tunes and worked with me a bit to get the arrangements happening in the US.

Before Christmas last year we went out with the Australasian band and that was a whole lot of fun. Brett Adams is a force of nature I would say, he brought a warmth and an edge to Rodriguez’ music that I really appreciated. The guy is what I describe as a ‘gifted’ musician. He doesn’t just play a guitar solo, what I hear and feel is someone channeling music from another place. I had goosebumps all the time when he’d take solos and lead breaks on that tour. I was lucky to play with him and Pete, also a fantastic musician and extremely musical drummer, it was a special trio somehow.

Did you see Searching For Sugar Man before you knew this was going to happen?

No, but I saw it a day or two later and was suitably blown away.

Rodriguez likes to use a different band in each country he visits, but you got to stay in the band and travel along. Can you speculate why?

I got lucky is one way of putting it. Another is that I’m very good at what I do and I do a good job for him. He’s into women’s rights and was encouraging of me from the moment we met, so maybe it’s got something to do with being a female as well. There is no difference once the band starts playing though, we’re all in it together – it doesn’t mean anything that I’m female, you’re either holding your end up or you’re not. I’d like to think that I’ve stayed with him because we connect musically.

Can you share a story from one of the tours?

One day I woke up on the bus, headed to Poland, and the guys in the band were giving me real strange looks and shaking their heads as I made coffee… eventually the tour manager says, “Maree, you’re not gonna like this but… Rodriguez wants a keyboard player for the gigs in Poland. They’ve put an ad in the paper and you guys will be holding auditions when we get there.””

So we drive to the gig thinking we’re gonna have to hear a hundred keyboard players belting out To Whom It May Concern until our ears are bleeding. We turn up and one guy is there with an electric keyboard, another arrives half an hour later with a Hammond and Leslie. Neither of them know who they’re auditioning for as the ad had simply said, ‘Keyboard Player Wanted Fri, Sat, Sun’, and neither guy had ever heard of Rodriguez.

Turns out the man (Rodriguez) loved them both so much he couldn’t choose between them – so we had two additional band members for those gigs, playing to a packed audience, neither guy knowing the tunes let alone arrangements. And naturally, on gigs like those, the audience loved it! Go figure.

 

How would you describe your style of playing?

I’m a groove player, I lay down big fat grooves.

How do you promote yourself?

By playing every gig like my life depends on it. The session work I’ve done has come via word of mouth and that just means being around doing what you do, hopefully to a very high standard.

What music are you into personally?

Rock and improvised music. I don’t give much time to pop music, I’m still checking out and trying to catch up on 20th Century music. Occasionally I’ll hear something through a friend or my boyfriend that might be on the radio and I’ll check it out, but my interest is rarely held. I like bands and instrumental music, the more left of field the better. I write stuff on the bass and sing. I’m working on new material with a blues harp player, I think it’ll be fairly experimental, possibly involving field recordings from camping trips.

You recently relocated to Christchurch – how come?

It’s about a thousand times more beautiful and relaxed down here than Auckland. The people are absolutely lovely and I can go out walking and camping in the hills anytime I want. It’s just a better place for me to live. I don’t subscribe to the idea that it’s a ‘small pond’ and that’s a negative, if you wanna do something just make it happen!

www.mareethom.co.nz/