Trevor Dunn is a bassist, composer, sideman, bandleader, writer, teacher and collage artist. Born in Northern California, he has been in Brooklyn since 2000, can be heard on over 150 recordings, and continues to work with metal bands, jazz trios and classical instrumentalists. Trevor was introduced to Audeze by our mutual friends Ron Saint Germain and David Breskin.
A compilation of chamber music called “Nocturnes” was released on Tzadik in 2019 and my rock band MadLove debuted a record in 2009. These two represent something personal from different sides of the track—completely different writing approaches, genres, goals, etc. I’m also quite happy with a recent duo with King Buzzo from the Melvins entitled “Gift of Sacrifice” which was a collaboration in terms of song-writing.
The majority of my work is as a sideman, for instance with Nels Cline, Kris Davis, John Zorn, Dan Weiss, Wendy Eisenberg, etc. The definition of “sideman” is variable, of course. Sometimes I’m hired to show up and get a specific job done, read through bass lines and forms, accompany or whatnot. Other times I am part of a project that features a soloist yet allows me a lot of room to improvise and make my own creative decisions, contributing to the bigger picture. On the majority of my own self-produced projects, I’m wedged in between a computer and a bass, keyboard and/or guitar, recording for indie film soundtracks or scribbling down notes and instructions for others to follow.
My parents had a great appreciation of music and there were always a lot of records around, not to mention ’70s entertainment television. My mom’s record collection (mostly purchased when she was in high school) remains inspirational and includes Nancy Wilson, Erroll Garner, Billie Holiday, Stan Getz, etc. I remember the Flip Wilson show, Carrol Burnett, Sony & Cher, etc. Tons of funky musical guests. My parents couldn’t invest in my first choice for an instrument (saxophone) so I started on my mom’s high school clarinet. Once my older brother started playing guitar and bringing home Kiss and Blondie records I decided to try bass, not even really knowing what it was exactly. My first private teachers got me into the usual starter kit for new bassists: Stanley Clarke, Jaco, Sly Stone. Within a couple months of lessons I was playing in two different rock bands with peers. In high school a great band teacher, Dan Horton, pushed me further into bebop and improvisation. In the meantime I was riding the crest of ’80s speed metal, hardcore, et. al. In college a bow and rosin were placed in my hand and I ended up with a Bachelors degree having studied the likes of Koussevitsky, Stravinsky, Persichetti, Crumb, etc.
My first bass teacher, Larry Weber, was a guitar player who essentially taught me Carol Kaye bass lines in blues progressions and would solo over my struggles to hold down the form and tempo. I think this was a very wise approach. Another teacher made me a cassette with highlights of important bass moments from various records. Side B was filled with drum machine beats at different tempos which was more fun to practice to than a metronome. Also important was the encouragement I received from my parents. My dad took me to my first two concerts: Kiss at the Cow Palace in 1979 and X at a small club in Arcata, CA called Mojos in 1980. He would also take me to restaurants where my teachers were playing in fusion bands. A few highly inspiring moments in the early days include seeing Michael Vatcher play a solo and Randy Porter improvise to a silent film, seeing Un Chien Andalou for the first time, listening to John Corigliano’s soundtrack to Altered States in the dark, reading Jerzy Kosinski, studying the music of Horace Tapscott for a week and playing it under his baton, improvising with The Art Ensemble of Chicago, seeing Fishbone, seeing The Melvins.
The flaws in the work are from flaws in personality and ability to communicate and there are too many to list. A general thing that comes to mind is hearing something that I’m not happy with but convincing myself it’s ok if it doesn’t bother anyone else. These moments always come back to haunt me and as I get older I try to be more assertive in these observations, while maintaining an open mind for others’ perspectives. There is a huge distinction in being a bandleader vs. a sideman and a composer vs. a player. I managed to end up with all of these hats to my own demise. The struggle lies in the mindset of the role, knowing when to step back, or step in, knowing when to be forthright and when to stay out of the way. Keeping the bigger scope of the project in mind —its flow, its point— is incredibly important and difficult. Essentially it is a matter of pausing, taking a look around, asking questions, deciphering what others need.
I mostly write in the analogue format using various acoustic instruments, pencil and paper. A lot of my writing is done on a Gibson Les Paul that I’ve had since the ‘80s. But I also use Logic not only for recording but as a writing tool —testing out orchestrations, arrangements, etc. When it comes to recording upright bass I gravitate towards a Shure KSM-44, an Avalon mic-pre/compressor and an Avalon DI. When working on film music, or anything I might be recording solely at home, I use Logic to write/arrange/orchestrate as I go, as if molding an ensemble with my bare hands. In this way, bar by bar, I can hear almost immediate results towards my goal. I’m a big fan of Magic Writer graphite pencils from Pacific Music Papers, white erasers and my transparent ruler adorned with parasites that I purchased at the Meguro Parasite Museum in Toyko.
Every moment is an opportunity to learn no matter how frustrating, demotivating or embarrassing. I think it’s always vital to remember why you got into music in the first place. The pure joy, confusion and fever that it caused and why you needed so badly to get a piece of that. It’s easy in a world controlled by economics to be beaten into submission so it’s good to remember that some of art’s greatest accomplishments have come out of mistakes, handicaps, limitations, heightened emotions, drunkenness, madness, despair—pushing the boundaries of what is considered normal or acceptable. Do what you need to do to learn your instrument. Dive in deep to technique and theory. But don’t let the formalities control you. There are many axioms and you can use what you want from any of them to make your own. Improvise and play without thinking. Attempt to surprise yourself. Use technique to control the instrument so you can express yourself in whatever fucked up way you want to.
I can’t remember not having a pair of headphones. I always jump back and forth between cans and speakers. I test things out on different brands and environments as much as I can. Of course, as someone who is a bit of a night owl, headphones allow me to work as late as I want and remotely as well.
Humans need flat surfaces and 90º angles in order to put stuff on and organize our chaos. The natural world doesn’t see much of that —neatness, consistency, ideal math. I think it’s important to keep that in mind. Imagine trying to have breakfast in a tree. You probably know as much about automobiles as you do the inside of your own body. Keep the oil changed, don’t burn the engine up.
I started my own DIY label called Riverworm Records, because I could find no appropriate home for my duo release with Sannety, called SpermChurch. The idea of a ‘label’ is nearly defunct as marketing is essentially all DIY, that is, unless you are a heavyweight influencer, corporation or actual rock star. This is mom and pop at its most niche-within-niche. I know I’m absolutely insane for branding myself mid-pandemic in a world where art is nearly expected to be free for the consumer but the will to have this music heard is part of what drives me. I’ve never expected everyone to like everything. That goes against common sense. That’s why everyone has boundaries. Having total control of a very personal release is the core motivation, and the feeling that, at this ripe old age, my own branding is as relevant as any grass fed mammal.
I’m not gonna lie. There is a negative side to these LCD-Xs. They lure me into listening to records all day instead of getting work done. I have yet to mix anything on them but two things happened when I first put my new pair on. First of all, I stayed up way too late, bouncing back and forth between vinyl records, CDs, then over to my digital station to check WAVS, mp3s, classical playlists —whatever I could frantically think of wanting to hear next. I jumped from Miles’ Seven Steps To Heaven on vinyl to Ligeti’s Atmospheres on CD to Method Man on an iPod to WAVs of my recently mastered SpermChurch album. I was hearing new things in all of these —depth, detail, warmth. The other thing that happened, as the night went on and I gradually increased the volume, I kept imagining that I was keeping my housemate awake with all the loud music as if I forgot I was even wearing headphones. In fact, it often feels like the musicians are right there in the room. These cans sound that real to me. Totally three-dimensional and with no aural fatigue. I’m looking forward to recording new music with these far into the future.