Canadian bassist Murray Foster is very enthusiastic about the state of the bass today, and with good reason. His band, Moxy Fruvous, is already enjoying international success, allowing Foster to bring his multi-faceted bass philosophies to the public ear. "I'm very excited by the return of melody to bass playing. As music moves back to the melodic, the role of the bass can start to be redefined. There's starting to be a return from the recent noise- based stuff, and bass has become a more popular instrument, with people like Les Claypool and Victor Wooten. The bass can maintain 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."
Taking it further seems to be the mandate for Fruvous. Glam-folk, musical stand-up satire, multi- ethnic gonzomusicology... defying easy classification, Fruvous relies heavily on styles that most self-declared genre-hopping bands barely touch. Socio-political commentary, a cappella epics, extreme instrument swapping, and refreshingly intelligent stage banter all mix with remarkable ease and great humor. With four front men, four able songwriters, and four powerful singing voices, Fruvous presents one of the most positive and entertaining presences in music today. Their unique sound and strong audience-inclusive skills are expanding their American fanbase at a rate that would drive most bands apoplectic with envy.
The Fru-Four started over 8 years ago, busking in the streets of Toronto. After being commissioned to do several satiric pieces for the CBC, they raised their swords in the air and vowed to push the boundaries of art or die in the attempt. This pledge is evident across all four of their albums and in the strong on-stage interaction that is so vital to their vibrant and unpredictable live shows.
While musical duties in the band are generally flexible, Foster keeps primary reign over the lower end of the Fruvous sound spectrum. "I started on guitar when I was 13... yes, I'm another damned guitar immigrant. My brother and I took lessons for about three years, and he was just better than I was. So I decided I'd rather be the best bass player in my house than the second best guitarist. This let us form our own band, a sort of 'Van Foster.' I loved the instrument, and I had more of a bass player personality - not as flashy as my brother, I was happy to just sit in the background and do my thing."
Foster still does his thing, but he rarely just sits in the background. His sound reveals a holistic view of the instrument. "I've always conceived of bass as an ongoing struggle to meld melody and rhythm," says Foster. "It serves two masters, and I measure bassists by how well they serve both. Many players do one or the other really well. Most do rhythm really well; that's what they conceive of as bass. But someone like McCartney almost sacrifices rhythm for melody - he's so melodic as a musician. He's very rhythmic too, he's a very groovy bass player. But there are times where you hear him just let the band carry the rhythm - they were capable of that - and he just plays a melody, almost a song within a song."
His appreciation for melodic but rhythmic basslines was formed early, and runs deep. "A formative bass album for me was XTC's English Settlement. It's brilliant, and it kind of conditioned my tastes toward the quirky and intelligent pop to which I've been prone ever since. It was the first time I'd heard a bass do more than just hold down the low end. The basslines were complete pieces in themselves, with balance and counterpoint and melody. A bassline should be an act of composition, with all the soul-searching and sensitivity that goes into writing a song."
The Mur-man also provides an equal share of vocal work across the Fruvous repertoire. While he often performs the bass parts in a cappella numbers, he sings leads and harmonies with equal ease. Often heUll take on several vocal roles within a single song, all the while keeping the instrumental groove solid on bass.
His staple instruments are a 1972 Fender P modified with a Roy Smith bridge and EMG bridge pick-up, and a 1986 Spector NS-10. "The Fender was the first bass that I really connected with; I know it inside and out, how to get exactly the tones I want from it. It was my first love, my first intimate relationship with a bass guitar. I still enjoy playing it, but I've become unsatisfied with the tone. I've been using the Spector for the last few shows, and have been loving the sound, but overplaying because I'm used to my Fender. I've been straddling the Fender- vs-modern-bass fence for the last few weeks. I find I have more control over the notes on a Fender because it's harder to play: with the Spector I get the note by lightly touching the string, whereas with the Fender I get a range of tones depending on how deeply I dig in." Tone is something he takes quite seriously: even when simply clapping to a Fruvous beat, he uses a horizontal, cupped palm-to-palm technique rather than the usual vertical fingers-to- palm method. "It's not quite as loud, but it gives much better bass response," he says in defense of the unusual looking style.
Since Fruvous' stage sound tends towards the quieter end of things, Foster doesn't need stacks of 4x10s to compete with solipsistic guitar wanking. "I've just purchased a Nemesis 210 combo amp, which seems great for touring - very light, fairly transparent tone and loud enough for our sound." Preferring to rely on his fingers for tonal variations, he only recently began using a Big Muff distortion box for a couple of songs. "I would characterize the tone of that box as pure evil. It's nasty and wonderful."
As for his personal evolution, Foster sees Fruvous as the perfect venue for any creative growth he could desire. "I think songwriting is 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, so it's a daunting process. I only started writing about three years ago, and I've had to grow up in the public eye as a songwriter; I couldn't just fiddle around in my bedroom for years. I just want to write lyrics I'm not embarrassed of. Maybe they're not GREAT, but they're not BAD, and you never cringe from the start to the finish of a lyric. If I can do that consistently, I'll be happy."