Jill Cunniff: Live Licks and Loops
by Bill Leigh
“WE’RE tearin’ up the road in a big blue bus,” laughs Jill Cunniff, bassist and lead singer of Luscious Jackson. And indeed they are-for months, the four native New Yorkers have been pleasing audiences around the country with their unique, laid-back mixture of punk, funk, and loop-heavy hip-hop grooves. These days, Cunniff and her cohorts have plenty to laugh and smile about: the quartet’s second full-length album, Fever In Fever Out [Grand Royal/Capitol], has made a respectable showing on Billboard’s top-albums chart, and the CD’s hypnotic single “Naked Eye” has become a staple of modern-rock radio. To top it off, after months of nonstop headlining in medium-size venues, the group has signed on with one of the summer’s biggest tours-they’re opening for Live.
Rocking out arenas is a long way from the group’s modest beginnings, when Cunniff and guitarist/vocalist Gabby Glaser first started making basement tapes in the West Village with long-time collaborator Tony Mangurian. Those recordings evolved into the group’s 1992 EP, In Search of Manny [Grand Royal/Capitol]. “We started out with loops, but augmenting them with bass just seemed natural,” explains Jill. Near the end of the Manny sessions, Cunniff and Glaser were joined by keyboardist Vivian Trimble and their old friend Kate Schellenbach-who was the first drummer for the Beastie Boys in that band’s early punk days-and the Luscious Jackson sound began to come together. Having grown up with the Beasties at a time when funk-enriched New York punk began to give way to the loops and beats of hip-hop, the foursome took on the punk ethic as well as the sample-rich grooves of early-’90s rap-and by partially modeling themselves after an early-’80s funky-punk outfit called ESG, they developed the characteristically New York vibe of Luscious Jackson.
“I actually played bass by default because no one else could do it,” Cunniff remembers. “That’s the punk way, I guess.” Since her teenage years, when she and a friend cheered each other on while teaching themselves to play guitar, Jill had tried playing in a bunch of bands-but Luscious Jackson was the only one that worked. “I always played bass just to experiment, but I really learned how with this band. And I ended up absolutely loving it. I write a lot on guitar, but playing bass is an integral part of my songwriting. I won’t play a song for anyone until I’ve got the bass part down. For me, bass is part of the whole presentation of the song; I wouldn’t want to give a tune to someone else to write a bass line for.”
Now that the 31-year-old U.C. Berkeley graduate has been recording and performing for years with a band that mixes live music with looped grooves, has it affected her playing style? “We’re experimenting with a combination of live music and samples. We’ve never had a totally sampled record; there’s always playing on there. And since I’ve played to a lot of loops, I’ve developed a loopy kind of style. Sometimes we loop the bass, too-but on the new album it’s all live. Even if the drums were looped, I played my bass straight through.” On the current tour, Luscious Jackson has added a deejay and a percussionist to help replicate that perfect hypnotic groove onstage. But Cunniff feels years of touring have really helped them to come together as a band. “Something happened in the last couple of years; suddenly I’m locked with Kate,” she says. “And it’s just from playing live. I learned what ‘in the pocket’ means. I didn’t really think about that stuff at first; I just dove in.”
Cunniff’s list of bass influences includes such players as James Jamerson, Paul McCartney, Doug Wimbish, and Tessa of the Slits-all players who use the instrument melodically and don’t shy away from the upper registers. “I try to write lines that play off the song structure instead of just playing the roots,” says Jill. “I approach bass as a totally musical instrument that does more than just lock in the groove. It should lock in, but it can also create a melody.”
To carry those melodies, Jill prefers a tone with warmth and bottom and not too much attack. “I’m able to get a really good sound with my Fernandes LEB-J4 through my Ampeg gear. It’s really smooth and kind of … trippy. It floats.” Her SVT Classic head powers a pair of Ampeg cabinets-an SVT410 and an SVT15E-which she sets up to avoid blocking sight-lines on the group’s crowded stage.
Despite being happy with her sound, Jill feels she hasn’t quite found the perfect bass for her. “I used to play my Fender Mustang, which is small and has a short scale, all the time. Then I thought, I need to be much cooler and get a regular-size bass. After all, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth plays a big bass, and she looks great,” she laughs. “I ended up getting the Fernandes; it’s a really lightweight, Jazz-style instrument. But recently I started getting this tingly feeling in my right fingers. I started freaking out-I’m getting tendinitis! So now I want to work with a luthier who can build a custom bass that’s like a bicycle-suited to the size of the person. I think basses are made mostly for men, and most women who play bass play men’s basses. That’s cool-I’m just curious to see if I can design one that fits me right.” Any luthiers who want to take up the challenge can contact Jill through Metropolitan Entertainment, 2 Penn Plaza, 26th Floor, New York, NY 10121.
Within the band’s lush mix, Cunniff’s warm bass tones stand out prominently-and that’s in line with her philosophy of bass. “I don’t see it as a blending instrument,” she says. “In rock, the guitars form the foundation of the song, and the bass often just blends. But in funk and reggae, the bass might be the real center. You hear the bass more; it takes its own place. That’s what I draw from.”
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