Scottish-born bassist Mandy Clarke packs a serious punch. As a member of underground ska legends Bombskare, Clarke brings the heat via the classic sounds of a Fender bass, plugged into a scorching Orange amplifier. But that's not all. Clarke has also played with singer/songwriter/guitarist and fellow Scotland native KT Tunstall.
The duality between these two gigs is not lost on Clarke, but still, she capably straddles the line between Bombskare's ska-laden shade and Tunstall's roots/pop light. In both settings, although there are other outstanding players on stage alongside her, Clarke handily manages to stand out.
Putting genre and setting aside, the most significant hallmarks of Clarke's career has been her incendiary bass tone, her steadfast drive, and her year-over-year consistency. She's become not only one of the best bassists that Scotland has ever produced – a group that includes Alan Gorrie (Average White Band), Guy Berryman (Coldplay), Pete Agnew (Nazareth), Justin Currie (Del Amitri), Stuart Sutcliffe (the Beatles) and others – but is also one of the premier players on her instrument, period.
During a break from the action, Mandy Clarke spoke with Copper to talk about how she got started on bass, working with Bombskare and KT Tunstall, her gear choices, and more.
Andrew Daly: What first inspired you to pick up the bass?
Mandy Clarke: At first, like [for many] bass players, it was Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers). I remember hearing the track "Around the World" and thinking, "I want to do that!" Then I started listening to Primus 20 years later, [and am] still absolutely blown away by Les Claypool.
AD: Considering that guitarists get all the attention, why did you choose bass over guitar?
MC: I actually started out on guitar and played for maybe five years before I got into bass. I've never really thought about why I swapped instruments until lately: a lot of the bands I listened to were all-male lineups, asides from the Pixies, Smashing Pumpkins, and Sonic Youth. They all had female bass players, so maybe it was a subconscious decision. I'm not really sure, but I'm glad I made the change.
AD: Describe your initial approach, how you got there, and how you've expanded.
MC: I was pretty young when I started playing in bands. I played my first gig at 12 with my older brother at our local pub. I'm sure it was illegal, but I'm from a small town, so I don't think anyone really cared. That's where it all started. At 17, I went to work in a shop and met (to this day) the most incredible guitarist, Bruce Wallace (how's that for a Scottish name!).
We formed a band. His songwriting is nuts, and there's not much root note stuff happening [playing mostly the root notes of the chords to the songs], so it really pushed me to become a better player. It was pretty challenging stuff! From there, I went to college, then uni, to study music, and I guess I've just not stopped playing. It still blows my mind that I get to do this for a living.
AD: How do you straddle the line between sounding timeless and classic, and exploring off-the-beaten-path sounds?
MC: I think you just need to play whatever suits the music. If the song requires minimal bass, then that's what will happen; if it needs more, then do more.
AD: Tell me about how you ended up with Bombskare.
MC: Oh wow, OK, so Bombskare had been going for a loooong time before I joined. I think maybe they've been a band for 25-ish years. I was a massive fan of theirs. I remember being too shy to speak to them, which is obviously quite funny now; I got that gig because the drummer I was in a band with at the time used to dep bass for them.
So, then they needed bass and drums, so we both went to the gig. But a week before, I busted my hand pretty badly and only had the use of two fingers on my left hand, but I was determined to go ahead. Their bass player ended up with a back injury, so he depped his gigs out for a year or so, then decided to leave the band, so I've been with them ever since. I think it's been about eight years!
AD: Describe the importance of the bass within ska and punk music. Do you feel it plays a more significant role or even carries the song?
MC: I mean... I'm maybe biased, but I feel like bass and drums play a massive role. Our job is to hold it down; if the rhythm section is on form, then everyone is just going to have a better time, right?
AD: What's your secret to good punk/ska bass, and how does that change when playing with someone like KT Tunstall?
MC: I think, like above, just keep it steady, be super-confident with every part you're playing, and don't overplay. It's cool to have some wee moments, but overall, just lock in with the drummer, and you're sorted.
AD: KT is a far cry from Bombskare. Does that music speak to you in the same way? Where do you feel more at home?
MC: Absolutely! I loved playing with KT; her songwriting is incredible, and I was so grateful to play bass for her. I never expected anything like that to happen, and quite honestly, I was bricking it! We had a lot of fun. The whole band and crew were the most fun, kind people ever. I feel at home in any band where we gel on and off stage.
AD: How do you achieve your signature tone? Is there a tried-and-true method? Do you use effects?
MC: This is a funny question to me because I couldn't really explain to anyone what I do; I'll just muck around with the amp at soundcheck until I have a sound I like. I've had a lot of people come up to me after gigs and say my tone is amazing, and I'm like, "Is it? Niiice."
Obviously, if I'm playing with my own amp (an Orange AD200B plus an OBC410 cabinet with four 10-inch speakers), then it's always set the same. Those amps are so user-friendly, I love them, but often at festivals [and so on] it's a backline job, so you just need to faff till you're happy. I don't use a ton of effects; I use the Boss ODB3 [bass overdrive] pedal if I need a distorted sound. It's a classic.
Mandy Clarke. All images courtesy of Neil Jarvie/Orange Amps.
AD: What are your thoughts on the idea that bass tones should be pure, versus more distorted sounds, à la Geezer Butler?
MC: It really just depends on the music. I mean...if I were to blast a distortion pedal through a ska set, it would probably almost definitely sound quite silly, but like [Adam Devonshire of] Idles, if he didn't play with some overdrive, it just wouldn't sound the same.
AD: What bass guitars do you use?
MC: I have a Fender Deluxe Series Precision Bass; it's my main bass. I also have a Schecter Stiletto bass which is now the backup bass. It's a lot lighter, so if I'm playing a long gig, I'll take that instead. It's pretty messed up looking, though, but it's so great to play.
AD: Is there a type of instrument that suits you best, or one you dislike? Does the size and weight of the instrument come into play?
MC: I wouldn't say I'm a massive fan of short-scale basses. I think I'm so used to using my whole arm span (I'm 5'1") to play bass, [that] when it's shorter, it feels weird.
AD: If it matters at all, do you prefer vintage or new instruments?
MC: I'm not sure I really have a preference, although there's something really nice about vintage instruments. I don't have a vintage bass, though!
AD: What combination of amps are you using? I know you've been a longtime user of Orange.
MC: Yeah, I still use Orange. I have an endorsement with them; they're awesome! The tone from those amps is great; it's like vinyl. I have [an] Orange head and cab, and I also use a Hartke combo amp (my first amp!) that I've had for 20 years. It wouldn't pass a PAT [portable appliance testing] test.
Sometimes, I get electric shocks from the back of the amp where the plug has fallen out, so it doesn't leave the house. I should get that fixed... I mean, it still works great aside from that! I also use the Geddy Lee edition SansAmp [Model DI-2112 preamp]; it took a while to get used to leaving for a gig with a [unit] the size of a tuner, a total life changer for smaller gigs!
AD: How important are tube amps to you as opposed to digital rigs?
MC: I do like a tube amp. I think the sound you get from them is soooo nice. I don't think I've ever really used a digital rig.
AD: Do you agree with the idea that bassists are forgotten? What about the idea that the bass is easy?
MC: Nah, we're not forgotten, and bass isn't easy. If the bass was removed from your favorite bands, you'd notice! It takes years of practice to become a great bass player. Years and years, [and] locking in with the tempo is a major part of it. It can be very easy to muck up an "easy" bass line if you haven't spent years training your internal metronome.
AD: What sounds are you chasing, and how do you plan to catch them?
MC: If you mean, what music am I chasing, then I've started my own band. It's primarily riff-based and will feature a lot of songs in major keys, and [the band wearing] fun outfits. I've always played other people's music, so it's massively fun playing in a band where I've written the songs.
I have that keeping me busy, plus a lot of gigs over the summer with Altered Images, Glasvegas, Bombskare, Groove Culture, and then a big tour at the end of the year which at this point still feels too insane to say out loud. All these bands are completely different, so it's been really fun learning the material and playing a totally different style of bass for each gig.