Bass Player article

Murray Foster Interview

March 29, 1997

Met Cafe, Providence, RI

by Matt Laurence

[Ed. Notes are my occasionally relevant comments, post facto]

ML: Let's start with something obvious: Who are some of your influences? What do you listen to?

MF: My earliest influences, I think, when I was a young sapling of a bass player were... well, I guess McCartney would be sort of primordial for me, then John Taylor of Duran Duran was a big hero of mine; Colin Moulding from XTC. They [XTC] were huge on me, I think because of their melody. And I've always conceived of bass as an ongoing struggle to meld melody and rhythm. The bass serves two masters, I think, and I measure a bassist by how well they serve both those masters, being part of the rhythm section and being melodic at the same time. So those bass players were very important to me.

ML: It is sort of a fine line we have to walk, between melody and rhythm.

MF: Yeah, some bass players do one or the other really well. I would say most bass players serve rhythm really well, that's what they conceive of as a "bass player." But someone like McCartney almost sacrifices rhythm for melody, he's got so much melody in him as a musican. He's very rhythmic, he's a very groovy bass player. But there are times where you hear him just letting the band carry the rhythm, because he could do that - he was in a band that could do that - and he's just playing melodies, almost like a song within a song.

ML: There are a couple of points on "You Will Go To The Moon" where you do just that, like at the end of "Incredible Medicine Show," going up to the three and then walking down... it's a beautiful thing.

MF: Yeah, thanks. That one was a lot of fun.

ML: What inspired you to start playing the bass? I get the impression you play a variety of things, so why bass?

MF: Well, I started on guitar when I was 13...

ML: Oh, you're one of THOSE, huh? Frustrated guitar player, too many of them in the band?

MF: Exactly. Well, more or less. I started the same week as my brother on guitar, my older brother. We took lessons for about three years, and after three years he was better than I was, and so I decided I'd rather be the best bass player in my house than the second best guitarist. So I switched to bass, and it allowed us to form a band - you know, like a sort of "Van Foster" - around the household, which was handy because we used to jam all the time in our basement. And you know, I had more of a bass player personality, I wasn't as flashy as my brother was, and so bass suited me just fine. I was happy to just sit in the background and do my thing.

ML: How old were you at that point?

MF: 16 when I started to play bass. When Moxy Fruvous started, I'd been playing a lot up to that point, but since we were primarily a capella, I didn't play much bass at all - we were almost purely an a capella band. So it's only within the last two and a half to three years that I've picked it up again and really focused on it, but now almost every song has bass in it. And it's been a huge joy; it's so rewarding to be singing and playing bass on stage, to almost rediscover the instrument.

ML: How did you get involved with Fruvous? I know that three of you guys have been together for a long time, but fill me in.

MF: Yeah, it goes way back. I was in a band with two other guys in grade 8, which is almost 16 years ago... that's quite a length of time to think about in those terms! I've actually been in a band with Jian almost since that date, almost straight for 16 years, more than half of my life.

ML: Inconceivable! (spoken with faux-Sicilian accent)

MF: Yeah, it's pretty phenomenal. And we fiddled with different bands, on and off - we had one sort of funk-rock project for six years, that was the longest running one. But in terms of Fruvous, we all just sort of knew each other, and we liked each others' vibes musically, and we wanted to see where we could take it. We were drawn together by our musicality more than any need to play a certain instrument, but it turned out we not only had an a capella band, we also had a whole instrumental band as well. It was pretty fortunate.

ML: Jian used to play kit more?

MF: Yeah, he played kit a long time ago, like in the stage band in high school, but he let it go to a certain extent. When we started Fruvous we were doing a wedding combo where he was playing a kit much like he does now, you know, the stand-up kit...

ML: A wedding band phase of Fruvous, huh? I detected it in there somewhere.

MF: Yeah, yeah... well, when you can pull off that many Elvis Costello and Rolling Stones songs, there's a wedding band or a pub band in your past.

ML: Alright, I know this is probably a sore topic, but... the name? I know your history with question, too, so tread lightly.

MF: The name... hmmm, the name actually dates back to the German Philosophers. Mainly Heidegger, but a bit of Kant.

ML: You Kant be serious.

MF: That's right (laughs).

ML: No, go on, go on, you didn't hear that.

MF: Fruvous sort of means, well it's the German word for anomie, which is like the breakdown of society. And Moxy is the Jewish word for guts, or chutzpah. And so if you take it together it sort of means "we will aggressively tear down the fabric of society," which is sort of a German philosophy.

ML: Whoa. And all this time I just thought it a refreshing German beverage.

MF: Well, it's that too... it's like Old Dutch, it's a potato chip and a floor cleaner.

ML: Back to reality. What role do you play in the band apart from being the bass player? This is probably more a question for me than anyone, I'm obviously interested how you guys break down all the tasks and whatnot.

MF: "Break down" are two good words to use! No, seriously, I guess my role is... well, man, wouldn't everyone in the band like to say they're the voice of reason? I guess I'm the George [Harrison] in the band, I'm the quiet one. But I think in terms of Fruvous, we really need a quiet one. We have some explosive personalities in the band...

ML: I get the feeling you didn't choose that word arbitrarily?

MF: Yeah. I think I kind of veil that to a certain extent. There's not much glory in that, but it's necessary. I guess that's my role in terms of personality. In terms of arranging, I'm sort of focused more on rhythm than anything - I'm sort of the "go to" guy for rhythms. Like if we're constructing a groove, for example, what does the tambourine do, what does the kick drum do, that type of thing. I seem to know how to do that, so it's one of my specialities, I guess.

ML: Do all your innate skills complement each other well?

MF: Very well, in fact. We definitely overlap, which is a huge bonus. Because of that, we don't let many tricks slip, but we're so self- conscious, so self-critical... we have four really keen minds analyzing it all the time. It's tough on the democracy to have that many strong opinions, tough to sometimes get things decided. But we definitely know when things aren't working. We may not always agree on what to do to make them work, but we know when to say "that really didn't work, let's try something else."

ML: You told me at one point that three of you guys lived together and that you'd get into these battles of wits, a contest of witty remarks and Oscar Wilde-like showdowns. It seems to a certain extent to be an integral part of what's going on up on stage. Was that sort of a proving ground for your stage banter?

MF: It just came naturally from us being together. We had found three other people who could be on that level, could operate on that rare level.

ML: It is rare, isn't it?

MF: Yeah, it's very rare. And we all shared that sense of humor and we all knew that it was a common thing to us, and so we just naturally gravitated to that space and those individuals. We've been in the band for over seven years now, and we used to fight for air time: in the van, in the car, whenever we were together, we'd just be talking over each other constantly. On stage, it was just like, "As soon as the other guy shuts up, I'm going to get my witty thing in;" there just wasn't enough air time to say all the witty things you wanted. But now, because we've been doing it for so long it's not so much a competition as it is a bonhommie, I suppose, just enjoying making the other guys laugh.

ML: That's a big step, isn't it? You also seem adept at not stepping on each others' toes if someone starts saying something.

MF: Yeah, we've BECOME good at that. It took us years because each of us wanted so much to be The Guy. It took a while for that to be worn down and to realize "Yes, we will do 3000 gigs in the next 6 to 8 years, we can afford to let other people talk."

ML: That's key to the energy that comes off stage, too: there's no front man, no "most important" member.

MF: Yeah, and I think we do interlock well in terms of that stage banter.

ML: The mix of relevant and completely bizarre commentary seems to come from the depths of left field. It's a level I love seeing smart people explore.

MF: It's completely inside, you know? There are so many inside things that we just take the liberty of translating some of them to the stage. And to our music as well. You know, when we started out we just created this world, this Fruvous world. And we decorated it and furnished it, put fantastical people and things in it. And now the band's history since then has just been a process of letting people in on it. It's like we know what the world is, now we just have to convey it to other people through songs.

ML: I don't know if you've noticed any changes from the trading of live tapes, but at shows I've been to, I've seen a lot of people who have certain tapes. A lot of the references that get solidified on those tapes, whether they're meant to be understood by the audience or not, become known and quoted. Have you noticed any changes from the budding tape trading scene?

MF: That's an interesting question. I think we've realized that at any given show, there will be a group of people who will understand our inside humor. Sometimes that's the entire audience, sometimes we let the entire audience in on something that had only been heard in the van prior to that night, which is great. To a certain extent it forces us to move on from older material. [Ed note: And as we know from this tour, it sometimes means bringing BACK older material! Give a cheer for "Fell In Love" and "Lazy Boy"] The Fruheads that travel with us are our conscience to a certain extent. We know we have to keep adding things to the set, can't fall back on the old banter as much. That's a positive force as well, it forces us to stay sharp. There's a danger in playing ONLY to the Fruheads, like only trying to appease the people who have seen 20 shows and not putting out a show for people who have never seen the band before.

ML: I'm very familiar with trying to tread that line. I've noticed that you guys have improved immensely at keeping it different enough every show, just over the last three years or so.

MF: Yeah, it's become a mandate for us, for sure.

ML: What have you been reading lately?

MF: Lord Of The Rings, currently. I just picked that up again after six years, so I'm due. I started with The Hobbit, actually, and I'm working my way through.

ML: The whole Ring Cycle, if you will?

MF: Ha, the Ring cycle, yeah! I think I may read the Silmarillion as well, go start to finish.

ML: I've not read a single Tolkien book all the way through... I've started several and something always gets in the way. I've been chided mercilessly for this, as a musician.

MF: Yeah, it was such a formative set of books for me growing up, and I love to revisit it - it's really necesary for me to revisit it. I've also found that reading in the van, because its so distracting - there are five other men within five feet, and there's a mix tape kickin' out through the sound system - it's really impossible for me to get through anything really heavy, that requires my full concentration. So at least for the van, I have to find books that I can read very quickly, you know? But that are still interesting, not Danielle Steele. So it's tough to find those books that are simple yet interesting. I've learned to bring another book that's a little deeper than that...

ML: The hotel reading?

MF: The hotel reading, right! I have two gears, and the hotel reading has been the Diaries of Anais Nin. I'm just getting into volume 1 now, and it's pretty fantastic. By page 28 she's hanging out with Henry Miller and June and thinking about getting it on with June... it's at once high-brow and low-brow, which is great! It's like respectable smut. Who could ask for more than that, really?

ML: I'm going to get rid of these fluffy questions... right now, what are your top three favorite albums, if you can be so selective? I can't, so I have a hard time asking you to, but what the hell.

MF: Well, I haven't bought a CD in months and months, nothing has really turned my head around for a while. I like Cake a lot, I love Ben Folds Five still, I like the Beck stuff... Actually, my roommate, the guy I moved in with about three weeks ago, his name is Tory Casisse(sp?), a Toronto guy. He just got signed to MCA, and he's amazing. He made some demos about three weeks ago and I've been listening to those quite a bit. He's got a band, sort of a jazz/blues sort of feel, a really soulful voice, he's just amazing, I'm amazed that I live with this guy and I love his music. [Ed note: Tory is, in fact, a really kickin' musician with quite a remarkable voice - keep an eye out for him]

ML: You've got the mutual admiration society going there?

MF: Yeah, he's constantly listening to the new album of mine [You Will Go To The Moon], so we joke about just complimenting each other all the time.

ML: Have you guys thought about playing together?

MF: Well, I only met him about 6 months ago. He opened for Fruvous in Buffalo, and he was looking for a new place and so was I, so I don't really know him that well, actually. But I think it may happen, you know, at least the jamming in the living room thing.

ML: You've got to love that.

MF: Yeah, it's really cool. Well, it's sort of daunting, really - he's really good. Guitar player, singer, songwriter.

ML: I guess anyone named Troy has to be a guitar player... can you describe the direction in which Fruvous is moving?

MF: I think we're moving more towards... well, given this new album, the stuff that excites us is stuff like Michigan Militia, Sahara, that end of things... Raja, you know?

ML: The more introspective stuff?

MF: Well, a little denser and little more rhythmic... darker and rhythmic at the same time. I think the next album probably won't have the 60's pop thing, I think we're done with that phase.

ML: It's a nice little nod of the head to the roots, though.

MF: Yeah, we did it, we'd sort of flirted with it and now we've finally done it. But I think it'll be more... more Sahara/Raja, more rhythmic, spanning beyond three-minute pop songs. This one was very consciously three-minute pop songs, you know, and upbeat songs. We're ready now to do more expansive, orchestrated songs with fuller rhythms. I mean, my favorite song on the CD is Sahara, and I'd love to move in that direction. You have to sort of consciously write those songs, and Fruvous is never... well, because we all write individually, we rarely give ourselves a mandate as to an album, we just tend to show up with songs. But I think that may change as well, we may for this next album say "Let's all try to write in this genre," whatever that genre may be.

ML: How do you go about writing songs? Do people come individually with songs and then you arrange them together, or do you collaborate?

MF: Basically the first thing, someone will come with a song... we usually have "song day" where everyone plays three songs, or something like that. And then of those three we'll choose one we want to work on, our favorite of those three. Or maybe two, sometimes... never three. And then we'll say "We like this song, but..." maybe the second verse is weak lyrically, or maybe the entire verse lyrcially, or the bridge is weak musically, or maybe we should shorten it, or extend this part. At that point the collaborative process really kicks in, to the point where anyone in the band can write a lyric, or a bridge. But in terms of the gist of a song, usually it's a single person.

ML: One framework that everyone then fleshes out.

MF: Exactly. But on this album there are at least three or four songs that have lyrical co-writes, and a couple with musical co-writes, after that initial bring-in of the song. Someone would come in and say "Here's a song, but I can't get these lyrics together, who wants to try their hand at writing them?" And we know each others' writing styles well enough to write in that guy's style, or at least finish his song for him.

ML: There are a number of songs where there's no real "lead," but there are plenty where there is. Does the person singing the lead tend to be the person who spearheaded the song?

MF: Definitely, almost exclusively. There are maybe four or five songs in our entire canon that aren't that way, and then with the songs where we share leads, where we switch off, it's generally a co-written song. But yeah, you can almost always tell who wrote the song by who's lead on it.

ML: How many songs do you guys have now in the Fruvertoire?

MF: You mean that we've ever written, even the little ones that may never get heard again?

ML: Everything. The little ones, the stuff that's fallen by the wayside, you name it.

MF: Well, we wrote about 25 or 30 satirical songs for the CBC in our first year and a half. Like Ballad of Cedric Fruvous, Author's Song, Gulf War Song, the Kids Song, a lot of the b album, basically. We wrote at least 25, some of which will never be heard again. And then I guess we have the three albums, with 12 or 15 per album, so that's about 36 more. And then we have a bunch that have been introduced to the band and worked out but never finalized. So I think as a collective we probably have about 75 tunes.

ML: How about covers? How many do you have that you could whip out at any moment? You know, not including "Banjo, King of the instruments" jam and such.

MF: Right, the "name dropping" stuff. In a pinch, we could probably do 12. Some would be a little rusty, but we could probably do 12. We perform probably 8.

ML: Now, how do you count that? For example, you have Dancing Queen with four or five teases in the middle.

MF: Yeah...that would be one. One unit. One unit of cover material..

ML: Do you have any personal goals as a musician? With Fruvous, without Fruvous, you know, essential Murray-ness. Is there something you're striving for in the big Murray picture?

MF: Hmm... I guess I should have one ready, shouldn't I?

ML: No, no, it's only something I've started to explore in the last month and a half, so I can't fault you.

MF: I want to write good songs, I guess.

ML: That sounds like one of those baseball answers: "So how'd you pull it off today?" "Well, they threw the ball and we hit the ball, and with a little help from The Big Ump Upstairs..."

MF: "We played good defense in the ball club...." Yeah, I think songwriting is my, well, my further country, my next frontier. I'm very new to it, and I'm in a band with three guys who do it quite well, and it's a daunting process. For me, as the least experienced songwriter, it's a tough position, because I haven't been able to learn in obscurity. I mean I only started writing about three years ago, and I've had to sort of jump in to writing for major label albums, I couldn't just fiddle around in my bedroom for years and get it right. Sort of like growing up in the public eye as a songwriter.

ML: You've got a good support group for it.

MF: Yeah, they're great, they're really great. I guess lyrically is where I want to grow. I want to write lyrics I'm not embarrased of you know?

ML: Oh, believe me, I know.

MF: Maybe they're not be GOOD, but they're not BAD, and you never cringe from the start to the finish of that lyric. So if I can do that consistently, that'd be great. I'm still searching for a tone, a lyrical tone that I'm comfortable with. I think I sort of drew from Elvis Costello, Paul Simon, Tom Waits...

ML: I thought the concept of "Bittersweet" kind of summed it up so far... that's one of yours, right?

MF: Yeah.

ML: That seems to be a tone you're taking, a sort of overall paradigm.

MF: Yeah, for sure... that was like a Paul Simon thing I was on. But it's still swirling around, it hasn't coalesced into the Murray Vibe yet. And actually I've stopped writing lyrics for the last year or so, so when I let things settle, when I go to it, it will have coalesced.

ML: Sort of a background processing thing?

MF: Right!

ML: Amazing how that works, isn't it? And it does work... forget about it for a while and come back and it's all there, plus some stuff you never realized you knew.

MF: Like leaving your computer on overnight or something.

ML: Exactly - put the book under your pillow and all the knowledge seeps up into your head through the night. Let's see... this doesn't have to be in the article if you don't want, but I'd like to know if you have an inkling about the discrepancy between your responses in Canada and America and why Canada sort of... well, not exactly turned against, but turned AWAY from Fruvous to a certain extent.

MF: Well, I think there are several factors. One is that the vehicle by which we became famous in Canada was television, and television is a very disposable medium. One point that our manager makes is that since videos have in in the 80s, we no longer have those supergroups. Not supergroups, but those groups that last for ten years and write those classic albums, like the Beatles, the Pink Floyds, the Led Zeppelins. Bands are selected for our consumption based on their image, and it's so ingrained now, 17 years later, that bands have started to write music based on their image. And once that happens you're not going to get great albums, you know? It's just not going to happen.

ML: That's one of the things that, well, pets my peeve the most, the industry today and the reliance on video.

MF: Oh, yeah. "Video Killed The Radio Star," you know? It's completely prophetic. And so we have this medium, television, you know? And "every generation throws a hero up the pop charts." What band lasts more than a couple of albums these days? With the speed that you can become famous now and the money that you can make in that short time, who'd want to stick with it? There are these bands that gear themselves around an image, they make the big video hit and the album, they make a couple million bucks and then they're out of it. They didn't have anything to say anyway.

ML: They're not musicians, they're people writing disposable pop hits.

MF: Right, they're video stars. So that was the medium we became famous through in Canada, and we were passed off just like every other disposable hero. The other reason, I think, is that we were Canadians in Canada. And Canada has a distrust of its own, a pretty major one.

ML: Really? In all facets?

MF: I think so. I see it in almost every country except America, because America is big enough so that, for example, if you're a New Yorker someone from L.A. seems almost like they're from a different country. They're not... of you, they're not from your 'hood, right?

ML: Hey, they speak a different language, to a certain extent.

MF: Exactly, you know? You see it in Britain all the time, and in Canada, where the communities are so small that the response of everyone else is like, "Oh, they're not so good, they're just from next door. They couldn't be that good, they're just Canadians." And in England it's like Depeche Mode or the Housemartins, they're reviled, they're not taken seriously because it's like "Oh, that's just that funny group from Swindon." Even XTC - I just see them ridiculed in the British press, because they're just the boys next door geting famous, they'll always be the boys next door on some level... "They could never be that good." So that's why Canadian bands have to come to the States to become famous. Because then Canada goes "Hey, we had a pretty good thing going on here... they ARE that good!" It has to be validated by America. It's kind of true of Britain a bit, too, but it's sort of big enough to accomodate a lot of different things going on.

ML: If you guys need validation, go to Belgium... they love Canadians in Belgium. Apparently a couple of key Canadian regiments were instrumental in aiding Belgium during World War II.

MF: That's right... a big love affair over there.

ML: Have you played Belgium?

MF: No, never have.

ML: Well, you'll be welcomed with open arms, I imagine.

MF: Yeah. Maybe a procession of tanks with the guys to take us through the city!

ML: That'd be quite an entrance for your first show anywhere. Hmm, I guess before we wrap this up, is there any idea that you think is important, anything that you'd like to get out there?

MF: Hmm. Whoa, sort of my legacy for bass players everywhere?

ML: No pressure...

MF: I guess it would be that I encourage the return of melody to bass playing. As music sort of moves back to the melodic, I think the role of the bass can start to be redefined. There's starting to be some return from the noise-based stuff of the late 80s and 90s, and bass has become a more popular instrument. More high-profile, too, with people like Flea and Les Claypool and Victor Wooten doing their things. I hope that that continues. The primary role of the bass is maintaining rhythm and root, but it can do a whole lot more... McCartney was doing it in the early 60s, so there's no excuse not to take it further.

ML: Well, you'd better get yourself back in the club, young man. Thanks a lot.

MF: Of course, no one is going to see this, right?

ML: No, no, never. It'll be our little secret.

[Ed. note - it was ok'd with Murray to post this before doing so.]

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