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Don Schiff

Interviewed by Gary Hill

Interview with Don Schiff from 2017

MSJ:

If you weren't involved in music what do you think you'd be doing?

Good question - when I was16 thinking about what I might do for a living, I thought, "Hmmm I’m shy, I’d like something quiet, no one looking over my shoulder….. I’ve got it! I’ll be a mortician!" 

So…. my dad had a student whose father ran a mortuary, so I go over to the mortuary to check it out. This student's dad meets me there and takes me into the back room. It’s cold and sterile looking. He explains the draining process - the cutting, the draining of fluids. The dangers of cutting yourself and getting infected by their fluids that you're draining.  I’m still okay with it…

Then… we go to the far end of the room where there’s a slab with a sheet over it. We get up close, and he quickly pulls the sheet off …kind of like an "abracadabra" magic trick (or in this case "abra cadaver")...to then reveal a deceased and very dead person. Great shock value - however…. I’m figuring he’s just trying to test my nerves. I  hadn’t passed out. I’m still standing,… and still thinking "… it truly is quiet…. plus it’s kinda chilly, gonna be nice in the summer!"


ntroduce yourself and say, "hello." I’d love to see everyone.

And so that was one scenario I had cooked up in case I needed a back up plan to a music career. And, no I never pursued it any further, but funny enough months later I was asked to join a band that rehearsed in a mortuary that that kid's dad owned! Yep, and they played loud enough to raise the dead.

MSJ: Who would you see as your musical influences?
Well, my dad actually now that I think about it. He was a professional musician (jazz mostly), a music teacher and later a supervisor of the arts for a school district. My mother was a pianist and music teacher, my older brother a gifted jazz saxophone player. 

So you could say music was a second language in my family. You just grew up knowing stuff. Why in first grade, we had a music class and the teacher was showing us the notes on the treble clef. I remember thinking, “Doesn’t everyone know this already? My gosh, you can talk and feed yourself, surely you know the notes and what doe ray mi is all about." Heck I even knew that the “doe” was movable, meaning it was the root note of any key. So, long way of saying, my family was the first and greatest musical influence.

After that, around 14, I discovered the bass. Loved what it could do. I got such a thrill over the power it possessed. Not only where you constantly playing throughout a song but also controlled rhythm and the "feeling" of the chord. I’d joke and say, “Yea, it’s only a C chord until I play an A. Now it’s an Ami7. All thesame soloist notes work, yet the feel of the chord is different." Ah, love it to this day.

MSJ: What's the best thing that's ever been said about your music?
“Thank you, you made this world better.”  

The funniest thing every said was when a producer hired me to come in and replace the bass parts that were played to a drummer who had bad time. So the tempos fluctuated all over. Since the drums were going to stay (why… well because they were a band and the producer was hired to record “the band” so only so much could be replaced). Anyway I tugged and pulled my bass parts all around that drummer's tracks so hard until it actually felt like he had a cool groovin’ feel goin’ on. The producer, so happy now turns to me and says, “Wow you can polish a t**d!”

When I played in Las Vegas, I had a reputation that I could read fly "s**t." Which meant I could read complicated music easily. I never thought I was really that good, however one time during a show, a fly landed on my sheet music and took a t**d! I thought, “This is my chance!” So I read it. Of course that threw the timing off by an eighth note and wasn’t helpful to the orchestra, but…. it is now true, I can read fly s**t.

MSJ: What's ahead for you?

I started out being a professional bassist at 14. There was a great need for bassists in my area (Wilmington, Delaware). My dad said, "play this instrument and you’ll make money right away." So I played it right away.

I could barely read on it, but my dad would send me out on big band gigs where all you did was read charts.

So, I got good at it fast. I thought, "this is great," and to this day laugh at what I have had to learn to do to stay in the music business all these years, when all I started out thinking was… “I’ll play these four strings.”

So what’s ahead?… a lot of great adventures in music. What I thought was to be a life of playing bass has also turned in to being a life of a song writer (I have a gold album for a song I co-wrote “Cerebral Man” that Pat Benatar recorded). I have scored several films for both TV and movies, scored a successful Web series “The Guild” for several seasons and am currently doing a lot of musical scores for audio books and two new films that will come out this next year. And with all that, I must say, within me, still beats the heart of a bass player. When asked how do I play so many stringed instruments, I joke and say, “, I’m still just playing bass - just with a lot higher notes is all.”

MSJ: I know many artists hate to have their music pigeonholed or labeled, but how would you describe your music?
My music is so varied in styles, it’s easier to describe the notes I play as “words that I feel to you.”
MSJ: Are there musicians with whom you would like to play in the future?
Anyone great so that I can get inspired from.
MSJ: Do you think that illegal downloading or streaming of music is a help or hindrance to the careers of musicians?
Excellent question: just like the industrial revolution took so many jobs away, it also opened up new opportunities. That generation had adapted and educated themselves to survive in a new job market. For me at least, to still work in music. I had to learn to record - not on tape anymore - which we now take for granted - but through a computer, then learn constantly about new plug-ins, to then learn to be a better and better engineer to then run my own studio to record my tracks and send those files all over the world to other studios so that I can still be session player, as well as recording artist, write film scores and songs. All from thinking many years ago…. “I’ll just play these four strings.”

Long way of saying, “Stay positive, progress in what you love to do. The world will always change. Within that change is where the opportunities exist.”

MSJ: In a related question, how do you feel about fans recording shows and trading them or posting them online?
That’s all part of the new way. It’s a much faster way to get known for what you do, your style, your music. It is easier to be famous. I play and write music for myself and others to appreciate it as much as I loved writing it. So I’m glad when I see it out there in the cyber world. The down side is… "how do I get compensated for music I write/record so you can make a living at it?" I don’t have that total answer yet.

With schools cutting music and arts, with it being challenging to make a living in music, whose gonna want to play the clarinets, violins etc?  Sure we can play samples of those instruments, and I’m not knocking that either as that has it’s place in music, too… but my ears also hunger for the sound of fingers and breath on actual instruments. There is a soul to that, a passion that samples don’t have. Samples just sound great. They just don’t move me like a passionate musician playing can. Both have a place. Yet… without the respect for a person dedicating their life to an art, a passion… then there won’t be people willing to financially support it.   

MSJ: If you were a superhero, what music person would be your arch nemesis and why?
Any music business entity whose job it is to try take all the publishing royalties from artists/musicians. And the "why" is personal experience. I had a song that was going to be at the front of a major movie. The movie company had their "entity" call me and say, “Look I’ve never heard of you, so we’re going to take 100% of the publishing of your song and your going to get to have your song at the front of the movie. I said, “You know a lot better than to call me personally about this, you’re just attempting to intimidate. You already have my administrative publisher's number, now go make that call, what you’re trying to do is not going to happen.” I know he knew better than to call me direct, and I hope over time he got his soul back realizing what a dark job he had. I wish everyone well over time who is being less of the person they know that they could be. We’ve all been "less than" at times, and so strive to be the better person than we are.
MSJ: If you were to put together your ultimate band (a band you'd like to hear or catch live), who would be in it and why?
Hmmm I don’t know, my first reaction to possibly meeting famous people you admire is "don’t." I’ve worked for a few who had "wonderful fans," and it leaves you thinking, “Wow if you only knew what this person's really like!”  That said, I’ll go with "they’d be wonderful," and say, Paul McCartney, Jeff Beck, George Duke, Al Green, Yo Yo Ma. Why? Because I believe them when they play. They say something. It would also be a great group to make a new unique sound and style with.
MSJ: If you were in charge of assembling a music festival and wanted it to be the ultimate one from your point of view who would be playing?
Any great symphony to open then Tower of Power and then they play together!

That’s just off the top of my head. I really don’t listen to much music. I hear enough in my head and don’t like to confuse it. I’m confused enough.

MSJ: What was the last CD you bought and/or what have you been listening to lately?
Not much of a CD collector...I have been listening to music lately for studying “Why does it sound that way”. Most recently, what reverbs do I need to get that “Orchestra on the stage” sound? What makes those great recorded records sound the way they do? How it sounds is so interesting to me. Like old jazz recordings have that jazz feel. Then when you take all the modern technology and record the same song, it just sounds like a good recording but doesn’t "feel" like that jazz recording sound.
MSJ: Have you read any good books lately?
One of my dear friends is Pat Duncan. He wrote Mr. Hollands Opus. He has a lot of nice screenplays that I would read. He has a new book out, Dracula vs Hitler. I haven’t finished it yet, but it opens with a bang. Check it out.
MSJ: Do you remember the first concert you attended?
Procol Harum in Philadelphia around 1972.
MSJ: Have you come across any new gear recently that you love?
I’m always designing a new live rig. This new one includes plugging my Sticks (NS/Stick or Chapman Stick) into the Apollo twin, then into the Mac laptop, thereby using all the recording plug-ins I record with. I then midi (my Sticks are midi-ed) into the Komplete software accessing all the deluxe keyboards from there. I then go direct out into the house system. 

Now the NAMM show is coming up in January, and I’ve been asked to play for a company that has the same idea I have but uses the best of every component and software - a mere $8,000.00 piece of gear. I’ll just be playing through it. (laughter) I’ll need another gold album to buy it.

MSJ: Do you have a musical “guilty pleasure?”
(laughter) I’ve listened to Kenny G and liked it….
MSJ: What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?
I did get lost trying to get the stage when playing in Lake Tahoe. Huge hotel showroom, as I wandered through the halls, ended up going through the kitchens and somehow ended up in the wings of the stage….a true, “Spinal Tap moment." That’s also my anxiety dream, I dream I’m going to the gig and forget my bass, or don’t have my tuxedo on etc,… It’s an upgrade from the high school anxiety dream of not remembering my locker number or going to school in your underwear yet no one notices - funny stuff.
MSJ: If you could sit down to dinner with any three people, living or dead, for food and conversation, with whom would you be dining?
Jesus, to get the direct story, A Neanderthal just to see and experience that existence. My dad.
MSJ: What would be on the menu?
Hmmmmm Vegetarian...I wouldn’t want to offend anyone.
MSJ: Are there any closing thoughts you would like to get out there?
Thank you, so much for letting me share my thoughts, stories and experiences. I wish you (and all who are reading along) a most happy life. Should we find ourselves at someplace at the same time, please come up and introduce yourself and say, "hello." I’d love to see everyone.

 

MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2018  Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.
 
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