Miles Mosley talks God, grooves and gigging with the West Coast Get Down

On “Young Lion,” the first track from his debut album Uprising, Miles Mosley announces himself to the world with a kind of sage swagger that many rappers can only hope to embody. “Thank God for me / Ain’t nothing been funky since ’73,” Mosley intones over a foot-stomping, hollering track of Sly Stone-like gospel funk. “They don’t make brothers like me / A brand new heavy on the retro scene / And on four strings baby, I’m the king.” A statement of such bravado usually invites some pretty strong criticism and skepticism; but the way he slings it makes you wonder if he really is that good.

Mosley has been one of the integral members of the L.A.-based jazz collective known as the West Coast Get Down since its beginning a few years ago. He had devoted much of his earlier career to session work, study and side projects. He is a prolific composer for film, TV and video games, and his work has been featured in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises and The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, and the video game Saints Row IV. But in 2015, he and the other members of the Get Down found themselves in the international music spotlight thanks to The Epic, saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s three-disc, three-hour, spiritual, symphonic jazz odyssey.
 

 The Epic was recorded during the month-long, marathon sessions that served as a recording platform for many members of the L.A. jazz collective. Mosley came away with the songs that would become Uprising, his formal recording debut as a bandleader, which features other Get Down members like Washington, pianist Cameron Graves, keyboardist Brandon Coleman, trombonist Ryan Porter and drummer Tony Austin.

Across the LP’s 11 tracks, Mosley reveals his own trials of inspiration, passion, and perseverance, using a universal lens; he throws in a dash of the Good News, too. Under his words of aspiring wisdom, Mosley’s overdriven upright bass leads the Get Down through tightly choreographed exchanges of soothing, Al Green soul and ferocious, flaming-hot funk.

Now, five months after Uprising’s release, Mosley is bringing the revolution on the road, touring with a condensed lineup of the West Coast Get Down: Tony Austin on drums, Ryan Porter on trombone, Cameron Graves on keys and Howard Wiley, an honorary West Coast Get Downer from the Bay Area, on tenor sax.  In the spirit of the Get Down’s shared support system, Graves — whose own bandleader debut, the dazzling post-bop album Planetary Prince, was released this year — will also step up to lead the group for a couple numbers.

Mosley and the West Coast Get Down play at the Songbyrd Music House in Adams Morgan on Saturday. I recently had the chance to talk to Mosley over the phone about Uprising, growing up in a multicultural and multi-religious musical environment, his upcoming show in D.C., and his increasingly famous bass that even Stanley Clarke is enamored with.

CapitalBop: When I talked to Stanley Clarke back in September, I mentioned you, and he was so excited to talk about you and that blue bass of yours. So I wanted to start off by asking: What is up with that bass?

Miles Mosley: [Laughs] Well, what’s funny is, the way that it catches the light in different situations makes it come across as blue, but it’s actually piano black! It’s the same bright, glossy piano black like you would put on a Steinway. It’s made by a company called Blast Cult, which is based out of Orange County. There’s this genus over there named Jason Burns who devoted himself originally to making rockabilly basses, but I found him and we started discussing tempering the bass for a different type of playing style and dexterity and bow work. What’s great about it is that I can play at really loud, high volumes without any feedback or anything.

CB:Looking at the bass, the messages you write on it, your whole presentation on stage, says a lot about you and how you want to present yourself to the world. Have you always found music to be the best way to present yourself to the world? If so, when did you realize it?

MM: I think music is the proper way for me to represent myself. I love writing and I’m a fan of many other art forms but music is definitely something that is so ingrained in my soul, and so particular to who and what I am, that I don’t know of any other form of expression that would completely embrace the different expressions I feel I can reach the world with.

You know I think I fell in love with music when I started playing bass. I think everybody is always surrounded by music, because that’s the world we live in, but when I found bass at the age of 13 in junior high, that’s when I really fell in love with the power and impact of different instruments in different roles.

And the bass has a really special impact because people hear music from the ground up. They hear harmony and everything from what the bass is doing first, and then it builds on top of there. So the ability to change and modify a feeling of a song just by changing one note in the bass is a very powerful place to exist. And I think that’s when I fell in love with music: when I realized how malleable it is.

CB:And beyond what you were just saying, when someone’s in a big concert venue or a club with a good subwoofer, you feel the bass first before anything.

MM: Absolutely! And being able to take certain actions to manipulate that subwoofer in different ways and step on a pedal that kind of accentuates it more, I think when it comes to feeling music you really feel it from the bass position physically, first. And that’s probably the most visceral attachment to music we have.

CB:I find it funny that in this group of friends you play with, the West Coast Get Down, you have not just one but two singing bass players, you and Thundercat, which is so rare! This led me to want to know, for you, which came first: bass or singing?

MM: Bass was first. I didn’t start singing until I was 20, 23, something like that, and I started playing bass at 13. So definitely, I’m a bass player first who got into music through the pursuit of being an upright bass player.

CB:So how did you start singing? Was there something you could express with your voice that you couldn’t on bass?

MM: In college, I was working with an arts therapy program that was created by my now-managers Barbara [Sealy] and Bob [Brodhead] and the idea of it was to allow kids to express themselves in a therapeutic manner. These were at-risk kids who had been kicked out of a lot of schools or had troubles at home. So instead of just sitting them down in front of a therapist to ask them what was wrong with them, they would put them with playwrights and songwriters and they would creatively express themselves and then they could use that information to diagnose ways they could talk about their troubles and help them out. I was a songwriter for those kids and I would go and discuss ideas with them and write lyrics and then at the end of the class I would perform the song for their peers, which would require me to sing. So I began writing three or four songs a week and singing them and saw so clearly that the power of words and melody really touched people — in a way that music can as well, but it’s not as direct an impact.

I thought, “Gosh, the easiest way to get people to listen to me solo would be to just start singing!” Because then they’ll come for the song and stay for the solo. It all kind of developed from there.

And so I kind of began that investigation and really enjoyed the act of singing and took some lessons and found my own voice. I’m still learning, but I enjoy it; I enjoy jumping on stage and singing words that people sing back to you and touching people through the power of lyrics. I’ve been writing lyrics way before I started singing.

CB: And it’s another way of bringing the bass up front with you.

MM: Exactly! When I first started, I thought, “Gosh, the easiest way to get people to listen to me solo would be to just start singing!” Because then they’ll come for the song and stay for the solo. It all kind of developed from there.

CB: Talking about bringing the bass up front, and again the great connector between us, you’ve had the chance to work with and learn from innovative, ensemble leading bassists like Stanley Clarke and Ray Brown and John Clayton. What advice did they have for you?

MM: I walked away with something special from each one; and all the lessons are different. With John Clayton, his whole thing was that you had to understand the bass from the nut to the bridge and every, single note had to be under your fingers. You had to know where every single note was. And he put a lot of attention and focus on bow work. That completionist theory was what I got the most from John Clayton.

From Ray Brown, he was all about comprehending the songs and the music that you play from all levels, understanding them from a chord structure, knowing how to play them on a piano, knowing how to play them in all different keys.…

With Stanley, being able to spend time talking to him and discussing music, he imparted the importance of having a complete career: one that was just you as a bass player with other people, one that was not just you as a bass player or an artist making records, that there was film and television and there are multiple platforms you can have a career in and it’s important to keep them all up and running at the same time.

And with Abraham Laboriel, for instance, he taught me how to practice scales and think of everything musically all the time…

CB: Something that’s notable about your debut as a leader with Uprising is that the West Coast Get Down is this group that is known as a jazz group, but is here playing a lot of kind of ’70s retro soul and funk. What went into the writing of Uprising?

MM: Well, for me, the song is king, and I think a good song is a good song is a good song. I think how it is produced, that’s a decision for later; the first thing you have to worry about is just chords, melody and words. And you can take a Bob Marley album and produce it like an EDM record if you wanted to but it’s a great song. You could take “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles and turn it into heavy metal Meshuggah track if you wanted to: it doesn’t matter, it would still be a good song. So I never think about genre while I’m writing a song, I just think about melody and chords.

So I was writing as I write, and there started to be a through-line and theme I saw developing in which there are common, everyday emotions we as humans feel and have to struggle with and get through, and there’s a power to music to help you feel that you can identify with someone, can help you feel empowered, to give you the ability to dust your knees off and go at it again, or whatever. So I started to see that I was enjoying tackling these tricky, common human emotions and that they could actually be put together in a body of work that was exalting and gave people a comfortable place to park their concerns.

Then, when it was time to produce it, that’s where the West Coast Get Down and Tony Austin and Barbara Sealy as co-producers come into it. I knew I wanted to make a very raw and visceral record, I didn’t want to have a lot of studio tricks. I wanted to use Tony’s talent with mic placement and just getting a great sound to let it be what it is. And I was listening to the Solomon Burke record Don’t Give Up On Me attempts that time. So I was really enchanted how close everything was mic’ed, and listening to Mendelsohn string quartets and just how you can hear the characters of the wood and the brass.

So I wanted to make an album that was discussing raw emotions that sounded raw and emotional. That’s what we set out to do and I think we did a pretty good job of that.

CB: It was, if I can put this forward, about making music about feeling that people could feel with their bodies not just their minds or their souls.

MM: Precisely, yeah! And when everybody is first impacted by listening to the song, it comes first from the groove. Tony and I were really experimenting with the concept of “no stock grooves,” meaning not doing what’s the most obvious thing first, but trying to push yourself to think it a step further creatively, and think of maybe something outside of the norm. So yes, that’s actually a really great way to put it: to make music that people can feel lyrically in their hearts and feel physically in their bodies as well.

CB: The groove I hear — and this could just be me — on “Abraham” is the groove of a lot of old spirituals like “Down in the River to Pray,” and think I heard stuff like James Brown licks on other tracks. Were those references intentional, or did they come about as more unconscious expression?

MM: Subconsciously there’s always gospel music in my mind, particularly old Baptist quartet kind of stuff. I grew up half the time in Los Angeles, going to a Synagogue because my mother is Jewish, and then in the summers I would drive with my father across the country to Alabama, where he’s from, and I’d go to a Baptist church and experience all of that music. The melodies at the heart of the Baptist church is something that has always stuck with me and made me feel good inside. So although there’s rarely any direct reference, it’s always bubbling under the surface somewhere.

With “Abraham,” you know, actually, I landed on that in the middle of a solo and I knew I wanted to write a song that started off, “You can call me Abraham.” Because I think that’s a really gangster thing to say to somebody. I was in the middle of a solo — I think we were playing “Voodoo Child” or something — and just halfway through my solo I just landed on this line and I kept looping it and then the horns fell in and then I knew, “Oh, you know what? This is ‘Abraham.’” It arrived.

And the thing is, all of the music I make just kind of arrives for me. I don’t try to force something mentally or craft it from a mental standpoint. I try to make sure that I stay open as an artist and respect the muse and come at it from a really organic place. So songs coming to me in the middle of a solo is not an uncommon experience…

CB: I won’t lie, I find it fascinating that a guy who lives in L.A. all his life would include a song on his first big album called “L.A. Won’t Bring You Down.” Was that a pick-me-up? Written for someone else?

MM: Yeah, that was a pick-me-up, for sure. Being born and raised in this city, I see a lot of people come here, there’s a lot of transplants and influx to this town that are chasing after some pretty big dreams, and there’s a lot of dangling carrots in Los Angeles. And some people get what they came looking for right away and for some people it takes a while. I could see the fatigue wearing on people around me, and for myself too. The West Coast Get Down story, it took a while for us to get to this point, and I’m sure we all felt like we might have been able to get here sooner.

But there’s another level to this, which is that my manager, Barbara Sealy, has done so much for us, and she’s not from L.A. She’s a Brit by way of Barbados. So when we were co-writing this song I was thinking about how interesting it is that a bunch of guys born in L.A. benefitted from someone not from the city. L.A. is full of people who moved here to fulfill their dreams; in our case, someone moved here to help us follow ours. It’s just a love letter to all the underdogs in the city, and we were really able to capture the charming kind of hug that you need to get sometimes from people just to keep on going.

I started to see that I was enjoying tackling these tricky, common human emotions and that they could actually be put together in a body of work that was exalting and gave people a comfortable place to park their concerns.

CB: I wanted to come back to the church. I think some of us who hear Kamasi’s record, Cameron’s record, or your record hear these spiritual overtones. The Epic is underscored by these notes of Coltrane-Pharoah Sanders spiritual jazz. ‘Planetary Prince’ is born out of a deep spiritual/religious place. And throughout your record there seems to be a deep spiritual sense. Is that wrong? Do you feel a certain spirituality to your music?

MM: I think Uprising is definitely grappling with some of the places that God and the greater powers and greater views and all that stuff comes from, and how it champions you from the inside. I think it’s something I’ve always recognized as a powerful place to write from because — like you said — it’s not necessarily about being dogmatic, but my spirituality is something that I have been refining and compartmentalizing since I was a very little boy. The first book my mom ever gave me to read was the Tibetan Book of the Dead. My mom being Jewish, my father being Baptist, I’ve seen the similarities of all of this, and recognize that the Gospel, the all-knowing Gospel, is the same tenets really no matter what religion you go to. And they’re inside all of us. Even if you deem yourself to be an atheist, that’s still a choice and still a decision and recognition you’ve made on spirituality.…

CB: Do you feel that in the other records you’ve worked on with the West Coast Get Down? Do other members feel it?

MM: I think we all, just by the nature of how we play and what we discuss and how we’ve grown up playing together, we recognize that this music doesn’t come from our brains: that it comes from something above.…

CB: I wanted to touch more on that aspect of sharing in the West Coast Get Down. In an interview you did along with Tony Austin for Revive you talked about the recording sessions that produced all these projects. It seemed pretty regimented, but was there a bleed-over in the music, sonic and spiritual ideas between all the different members’ recording projects? Does each project have traces of the other in them?

MM: Absolutely! I think that’s what made it such an effective use of resources because you were working on multiple albums throughout the day, and not just one album a day. If Brandon [Coleman] had an idea from a drum sound for one of his songs and I heard it I was like, “Ooohhhh, that’d be the perfect sound for my song that I wasn’t even planning on doing today. But since that drum kit is up, I want to do this song and use that drum sound.”

Or if I pulled up a really cool delay with this guitar amp and there was just this spaciness to it that Kamasi heard and was like “I really like that, I want to use it on the intro to this song,” we could reference things that we were doing on other people’s records. So I think that if he’s using them it’s really nice but we were also able to inspire each other to take risks and do things bigger and put on a choir and strings and really kind of push each other and be competitive as brothers and supportive as brothers, make the best records possible and get the most out of these sessions — which were really well-organized sessions. It was all about creating a safe space to create music and then taking the shackles off and just going for it.

CB: And that seems to be a big part of your approach to the bass. You mentioned “Voodoo Child” earlier and I found some of your early performances on YouTube that include you playing stuff like “Voodoo Child” or “Purple Haze” on bass while singing. That kind of Hendrix-ian sense of pushing your instrument way beyond the normal limits, is that your goal as a bassist? Or is it more about finding the best ways to execute how you are writing and thinking?

MM: Well they’ve kind of bled into the same thing at this point. Initially I was trying to manipulate the sound of the bass so that the band didn’t have to be quiet when I soloed. Solving that problem allowed me to open up this new tapestry of sound that I could experiment with and begin working so closely with that it became what I hear as the sound of bass. And I have always felt that there was space for the upright bass to grow and that it hadn’t benefitted as much from technological advances as much as other instruments had. So for me, it was very natural to start with common modifications like pedals and different amps choices and different sonic spaces. I was also lucky to have someone like Tony Austin around, who’s a great sounding board, and who can come up with interesting ideas.

I want to revolutionize the upright bass. When I started this process, there were no “How To” videos, there was nobody doing it. There was no reference point. I just kind of had to stand on an island by myself and believe there was something special to that instrument, tempered and modified in different ways. So now the two things meet in that I am choosing my sounds as the best expression of what I’m hearing musically while trying to push myself physically, and the instrument sonically to the limits.

CB: Is that your uprising?

MM: That is my uprising. logo

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About Jackson Sinnenberg

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Jackson is an Associate Producer for the POTUS Channel on SiriusXM . His work has appeared in the Washington City Paper, on NPR Music, NPR global culture blog Goats & Soda, in On Tap Magazine, The Rotation, and the blog of Smithsonian Folkways Records. He previously covered the city’s music scene for WGTB, Georgetown University’s radio station, where he was a show host, writer, and columnist until his graduation. He graduated from Georgetown with a bachelor’s degree in American Musical Culture.

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