Andy Pask on session work – tips and advice

Andy has a long and successful career as a session musician. His album credits include Freddie Mercury, Sharleen Spiteri, Jimmy Sommerville, Madonna, The Pet Shop Boys, Shirley Bassey, 5-Star, Gloria Gaynor, Cliff Richard, China Crisis, Tom Jones, Bananarama, Steve Marriot, Ronan Keating, Hue & Cry, Nana Mouskouri, Debbie Harry, Michael Ball, Elaine Paige, Tracie Bennet and New London Chorale, and has toured extensively across the globe with many artists. Andy has also worked on countless albums for the Spanish and South American markets and also recorded many albums as a member of the rhythm section for all the main London Orchestras.

His feature film work includes Narnia: the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Robin Hood, How to Train Your Dragon, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Leap Year, Nine, 3 Twilight films, Shanghai Noon, Last Orders, Spy Kids, The Guru, Calendar Girls, Gosford Park, The Recruit, Little Shop of Horrors, Hugo, The Hobbit, Seven Psychopaths and the Full Monty. He has worked on projects in Poland with Zbigniew Preisner and at the Ghent film festival with the famed Hans Zimmer.

For television Andy was resident bass player on the chat shows Wogan and Barrymore, has supplied the bass for all the Stars in their Eyes shows and recorded the tracks for Pop Idol and Pop Stars – the Rivals. Other TV work includes: The Rock Gospel Show, Ruby Wax, Surprise Surprise, Brian Conley, Miss World, the Children in Need house band, various Royal Variety show house bands, Des OConnor tonight, Songs of Praise, The Paul Daniels show, Night Fever, and the Generation Game. As a composer, Andy has written many works, including the theme to the long running police series, The Bill.

His resident theatre work has included Evita, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, Ghost, Hair and he is currently playing for The Bodyguard.

Before his career as a session musician took off, Andy was a chorister in the choir of New College, Oxford and studied Cello and Double Bass at the Royal Academy of Music in London. After leaving college, he went on to chart success with the song Einsein a go-go and extensive touring as a founder member of the group Landscape.

Here Andy talks to us about how he started in session work, what you need to be a successful session musician and hanging out with Freddie Mercury at Abbey Road… 

How did you get in to session work and where did you start?

I studied cello and double bass at the Royal Academy of Music for three years but what I actually did was spend most of my time out and about playing my first love, bass guitar, with as many bands and people as possible. Mostly unpaid, I worked with Rehearsal big bands, the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, Cabaret gigs, pop gigs, project jazz groups, function bands, theatre, pub gigs….you get the picture: anything I could find. I didn’t aim for session work, in fact I didn’t really know where I was going, I just wanted to play as much as possible. Along the way some of the bands and artists I was working with would do the odd BBC broadcast or TV and then I would occasionally get a call from people I didn’t know to do a session with them and then fixers I didn’t know would start ringing up. It was a slow process of word of mouth. And all the time I was still doing ‘art’ projects and countless gigs (again, mostly for next to nothing): people get to hear about you and you start being recommended by players you’ve worked with for sessions, just as you are doing the same thing for them. It often amazes me how many musicians, writers and arrangers I still work with now that I met during my first few years.

Youve worked with some amazing names. What did you think being a session musician would be like when you were starting out, and have your expectations been met?

I didn’t really know what it would be like but I was very attracted to the idea of doing album projects, which was a much bigger deal artistically for session musicians in the pop world of the seventies and eighties than it tends to be now. As well as freelancing in all sorts of areas, I was also in a signed band for about 6 years, so I was doing albums with them as an artist which got me into the studio for many hours and taught me a lot. As for my expectations at the time, I didn’t really have any. I was just pleased to be playing and getting paid for it. My career has been wonderful and the best thing about it is the variety of work I have enjoyed and that variety has massively increased since I started playing double bass again 12 years ago. A whole new musical world has opened up to me. Alongside the studio, I have also done a lot of live work which I love. I have been to many countries all over the world doing concerts.

Based on your experience, what are the most important qualities you need to be a session musician?

Obviously you need the kind of musical abilities that would apply in any area of music making.

Specifically to session work: the knowledge and ability to come up with a huge variety of sounds and the equipment with which to do it. If I am going to a project and I might need to be flexible sonically, there are four bass guitars I take that cover pretty much any sound I might be asked for or that I think might be best for the track. I also take a double bass if that is required. I have my own DI box but prefer recording with an amp as well if it’s possible and I have a bag full of effects pedals. I always use my own headphones. The headphones mostly used in studios are useless for bass which means you are working in the dark and if you have to set up different sounds without hearing anything in the control room, which happens a lot, it’s very hard. In fact, a lot of the time, in TV for example, you won’t be able to hear back what you’re doing at all. You have to trust to experience that you’re sending the right sound. And very often, in a session with a lot of miked orchestral players you will be asked to turn your amp off which means your instrument is completely silent to you but loud in the control room.

Very, very good sight reading.

A wide knowledge of as many musical styles as possible. The ideal, which almost nobody achieves, is to be able to play a great many styles but make each one sound as if it is the only one you have played all your life.

With an improvisational instrument such as mine, a sixth sense of when to play exactly what is written or when to embellish (and hopefully improve) what is there. The ideal is to bring something to the music which the producer, artist or arranger may not have thought of which enhances what is written. If they don’t like it, they will soon let you know but that sixth sense will tell you where to pitch it, and will hopefully only give rise to complements.

A heavy dose of creativity. Often you will be just working with a chord chart – so it’s up to you to invent the right part.

A very good sense of time. Whether you’re asked to play on an orchestral film score or a reggae song, 95% of the time it will be recorded with a click track. And ironically, you need a better sense of time to work with clicks than without.

Play as many instruments in your grouping as possible. I cover fretted, fretless and acoustic bass guitars, orchestral and jazz double bass. If you decide to specialize on only tenor sax for example, you won’t work much in this world. You ideally need all the saxes, clarinet and flute.

Keep up with new musical styles and genres, it’s important to be up to date and playing new stuff is half the fun.

Session etiquette: don’t be late, you waste everybody’s time (and money) by turning up late and you won’t get many chances.

By the very nature of this world, from time to time you will be playing music you’re not into – art is very personal after all. Even if you hate the music don’t complain about it to anyone, nobody wants to work with someone who moans – there are enough other issues to deal with and it’s rude: to the artist, this is their baby, they are into the music by definition. Concentrate on doing your best and you’ll soon find you are getting something out of the session as well.

There will be long, hard, difficult days – get used to it, everyone is in the same situation and never forget how many people would like to be making a living doing what you do. Don’t come over big time. No-one’s impressed and you’re likely to do more harm than good. Be modest and respectful to other players – you are hopefully forging long term relationships.

What would you suggest those who want to break into session work do to build up their CV?   

I can think of very few players who make a career from just doing sessions. Most people do a mix of things including live work, teaching, touring, writing, arranging and more. The session business can’t support as many full time players as it used to and most players want to do as many different things as possible anyway. This not only makes their lives more interesting, it also informs what they do in the studio. Session playing should be where you bring all your accumulated musical knowledge to a recording project, not seen as an end in itself, and that knowledge should be acquired in as many ways as possible.

When you started out, where did you go for advice, information or support when you needed it?

I didn’t really, I kind of worked things out for myself and there’s always a lot of chat among players about the business side of things and how to deal with problems. We naturally pool our knowledge and because we all go from project to project working with different groups of people, there is a big pool of information and experience to dip into – a real life forum I suppose. There were some very helpful older players who would help out with the odd comment from time to time when I was young and nervous, and it was a thrill to gradually, one by one, work with famous session players I had admired for many years. I had to pinch myself occasionally when I heard these players in my headphones for the first time.

Can you tell us something about building relationships with producers and those who employ you as a session musician? How important is that relationship, and where do you start creating it?

This is very important. And it goes a lot deeper than just getting the music right. You have to be as helpful to everyone as you can: musically, socially and with the business side.  And that goes for everyone. The producer may love you but if the musicians don’t you’ve got a problem. It starts on your first session and just keeps going. You want to lift problems from the people you work with, not add to them. A producer will notice this.

Tell us about the best/worst sessions you have done. 

I generally don’t think in these terms but a couple do spring to mind.

I remember starting two days of ‘lift music’ sessions when I was very young and being so depressed about the prospect I just couldn’t imagine myself getting to the end of the two days. I hadn’t worked out at that stage about finding positive aspects of the work to focus on and getting something out of it for myself.

Freddie Mercury. The best. He didn’t record very much outside Queen but he did a track called ‘In my Defense’ on the Time project which I played on. The musicians were in a corner of Abbey Road 1, which is huge, with just myself, Mike Moran on piano and Graham Jarvis on drums laying the basic track. We ran through it and then played it to him when he arrived. He then spent an hour reworking the arrangement with just Mike and it gradually got closer and closer to something Queen might have done. One of the guys in his entourage told me that he likes a lot of slides on the bass – very useful information. We laid the track and then he did his vocal. I thought I’m hanging around for this. I’ve never seen such energy as he created the vocal performance. He would go for outrageous stuff and if it didn’t quite come off they would roll the tape back and go again. After about an hour he had created this wonderful performance and was stripped to the waste with the exertion. I’ll never forget it.

Every session musician will have a different interpretation of their role, what is yours?

My role as a bass player is to support and enhance as much as possible everything else. You want to help make the music sound as special and meaningful as possible and I will leave no musical stone unturned to try to achieve this. If the music isn’t feeling right, I just keep trying to work out why and do something about it if I can. Mostly I think I succeed, sometimes not, but I do my very best.

The MU hosts networking and seminar events all year around. You can find out more about events on the MU’s website, where you can also find details of the Session Section. The Session Section deals with the special interests of MU members working as session musicians and is a benefit of MU membership

If you are a professional musician and have been asked to work for free at all, check out Work Not Play, the MU’s fair pay for musicians campaign.

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The Team,
Music Supported Here

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