That 1 Guy
Mike Silverman is a man of many talents. Beginning his career as a classically-trained upright bassist, he has long since become an individual orchestra, performing a multitude of concise and elaborate sounds with two hands and two feet. Based in Berkeley, Silverman is a fixture on the live music circuit. Armed with the magic pipe (you have to see it to understand), That 1 Guy is undoubtedly one of the most unique and innovative musical acts around. Jambands.com had the pleasure with catching up with Silverman the day before his spring tour commenced to discuss all things That 1 Guy.
*Tell us a little bit about your musical background. Where did it all
My father was a professional jazz bass player in the 60's-70's. By the time
I was born; he had changed careers and put his upright bass in the closet.
When I was old enough to find it, he was about to plant ferns in it out in
the back yard as part of the landscaping (true story). I told him that I
wanted to play it. He was just happy to see it getting some use. He was
also my first teacher. I got into jazz and classical early on, at about 10
years old. Then rock, funk, punk, blues, etc. My dad always told me that
if I played bass, I'd always be in demand because "no one played bass, but
everyone needs a bass player". He was right. By the time I learned where a
few of the notes were, I was already in 5 bands, and it never really slowed
down for years. That is of course until I quit all my bands to play by
myself. Then I invented this other instrument out of steel pipes and don't
play bass anymore at all. Boy, that story has a strange ending. What was
the question again?
How did the idea come about to be a one man band?
It all started on a dare/joke. I was playing a gig with my 8 piece
band, the Fabulous Hedgehogs. It was a regular Tuesday night gig for us.
It was more or less "paid practice" every week. Only problem was that it
"paid" just $50 bucks. That doesn't split so well 8 ways. At the end of
the night, I half jokingly said to the bar owner, "Next week I'm showing up
with my bass and my drum machine alone and keeping the $50 bucks for
myself!". He called my bluff, "Sounds good. I'll put it in the paper.
What do you want to be called for the advert?" So I called his bluff, "That
1 Guy", I answered.
It happened that following Tuesday. I showed up to the club with my stuff,
not really knowing what the heck I was going to do for my "show". The bar
owner wasn't expecting a big crowd that evening, so he didn't bother hiring
a sound man or even using the stage. His idea was for me to set up on top
of the bar and I could plug my microphone into the jukebox so folks could
"hear" me. Not knowing what to play, I improvised "bad funk" for two hours.
It was pretty terrible, yet somehow my greatest musical accomplishment up to
that point. Plying solo like that really took guts and I was amazed that I
got through it. So the show went well enough and he asked me to continue
each Tuesday. I used this as a regular opportunity to try new ideas and try
and push things a little farther each week. It was a very lucky break cause
I'm the kind of person that needs deadlines to finish things. So the weekly
gig really forced me to develop. I kept adding things to the rig and
eventually invented an instrument that was a combination of all the crazy
ideas that I had been working on at those Tuesday night shows.
Had you been in groups before?
The Fabulous Hedgehogs was my main creative outlet before that1guy. I was
also a full time "bassist for hire" in the San Francisco Bay for many years.
I had developed this very percussive, drum-like approach to the upright
bass, banging on it with my hands and feet while plucking, bowing, and
slapping the strings. I was getting hired a lot as a "one-man-rhythm-section,"
backing horn players and vocalists etc. It was
this approach that gave me the idea to try and accompany myself. I had been
writing songs for a while with the hedgehogs, so I figured I'd put it all
together and see what I could come up with. The act evolved very slowly and
eventually took shape.
What went into the choice to quit all your bands and go the solo route?
It was some thing that I knew had to be done in order for me to fully realize the fullest potential of what I thought my one man band could be. I had been working on these concepts for a while, however this project was always on the back burner. I was working way too much as a bass player to be able to put ant real time into the magic pipe and my song writing. There was this one year that I literally played over 400 gigs as a bass player. These included studio sessions for other people’s albums, TV. Commercials, movie soundtracks, video game soundtracks, weddings, bar mitzvahs, jazz clubs, rock clubs, punk clubs. Every thing imaginable. It was an amazing time, but I finished the year pretty burnt. Then it hit me, "What if I were to put as much time into my own music?" I was guessing it could be a lot better than it was. I was enjoying doing all this other stuff, but I knew I was going to have to get more serious about my own music in order to make it happen. I knew that the only way to make this transition was to go cold turkey and move out of town. I left San Francisco and moved to Los Angeles where nobody knew me as a bass player. It was a scary but very exciting time. I saved a little money cause I knew that I wouldn't be working for a while. I wanted to spend the time fine-tuning the magic pipe and recording my album. I rented this little recording studio right next to the LAX runway. When I’d take breaks from tracking, I’d watch the airplanes take off. I lived this way for about a year. By the end of the year, my head was clear and my album was done. I then started sending it out and attempting to book my first solo tour. I haven't looked back since.
*When you were playing in the group setting, did you get as much out of the
There is something amazing about playing with good musicians. I did enjoy it. When it was right, it was a blast. I did feel limited at times. It's easier for me to let go when I'm playing alone. I can take the music anywhere I want. It's so much more challenging trying to create all the music by myself, but way more rewarding in the end. Like building your own house.
*This is a very interesting concept. I've seen it and spoken with the
likes of Keller Williams and Xavier Rudd a number of times. How do you
differentiate yourself from those two, especially since the three of you are
all in the relatively same musical scene?*
All three of us are solo performers doing lots of things at once on stage.
That is the first thing folks must notice. But, I feel that most of the
similarities end there. I think both of them would agree with me on that
one. As I've come across more and more one-man-bands over the years, I've
noticed something unique to this art. We, as one-man-bands, are
stylistically driven by our individual strengths. The reality of being an
entire ensemble by yourself is very challenging. In order for us to make
good sounding music, we end up playing to our strengths, and then figuring
out creative ways to fill out the rest of the sound. I was originally a
double bassist/vocalist. So I have a pretty good handle on the rhythm
section stuff. My challenge was to create a bit more melody and stuff in
the middle, between the yelling and the boom. I'm still trying to figure
that out. I love low frequencies so I'm not complaining. I feel that my
approach is very much the opposite of Keller and Xavier. Those guys come
from more of a guitar and vocal world. I'm guessing that their challenges
were in how to create the rhythm section and low stuff. They have both
found very unique ways of filling out the sound and are now worlds apart
from each other.
We are all forced to look inward and draw on our own strengths just to make
this all come together musically. Being a one man band is hard work.
Because of this, we can never be too influenced by eacho ther. It's a very
pure art, so far…
*What instruments comprise your live show? Are there any particular
favorites or do they all mesh together?*I got me some instruments son! My main one is the magic pipe. It's made of
stainless steel pipes, orchestra strings, magnetic pickups, and trigger
sensors. It's all run through my self-designed routing matrix of sound
Bowed, plucked, strummed, and slapped. It's played with my hands, feet, and
teeth. All with maximum intensity. It's my own invention and it exists as a
continuum of the techniques I had developed on the upright bass. My
original goal was to play all the music on "the magic pipe". It was to be
my main tool. Along the way, I discovered that I was looking for a few more
sounds. Also, I had a few techniques that I wanted to explore. Techniques
that I found impossible on the Magic Pipe. This is where the Magic Boot and
Magic Saw enter the picture. The Saw plays in a range and timbre that I
can't get with the pipe. The Boot is very much an electric hand drum that I
like to play delicate finger and hand rhythms on. It's a very sensitive
mechanism that picks up very subtle things. Quite the opposite of the magic
pipe. I need to beat the hell out of that thing just to get any sound.
*What are some of your influences? I find this question particularly
important for a musician like yourself…*
So many important ones. Captain Beefheart, Rush, Zappa, Miles Davis,
Ornette Coleman, Mingus, Jaco, Bootsy, Mike Watt, the Minutemen, lots of
bass players, drummers, super heroes and freaks.
*How do you translate that multifaceted live show into the studio setting?
Is it difficult to capture the essence of That 1 Guy when no one can see the
tremendous dexterity of what you do?*
It is a challenge. I do feel that I am very much a live act and that is the
most important part of what I do. I love playing to an audience,
improvising, and feeling the energy. In the studio I pretty much set up and
play live by myself. Not as much fun. I recorded my first album all by my
self (_Songs In The Key of Beotch_). Since then, my music has gotten a lot
more complex and I was finding it very difficult to be the engineer and
musician. On my most recent release (_The Moon Is Disgusting_), I went into a
real studio with a real engineer (Karl Derfler). He is so amazing. I just
set up and played. We really captured the energy better this time. I feel
that I'm getting closer.
*What are your thoughts of playing in a band? Is it possible to sustain
everything you do in a band setting?*
I like playing with other folks. It has to be the right folks. The deeper I
get into my instrument, the harder it is to fit into a band without
completely destroying the vibe. The Magic Pipe is a pretty big presence and
takes up a lot of space, both sonically and physically. I've had some
amazing musical experiences with the right folks. I try and keep an open
*I've seen you opening for a number of well-known acts of late. Do bands
approach you or do you do the approaching?*
Some of the bigger names like the simplicity of having a "one-man-band"
open. They usually ask me. I'm kind of a wuss.
*What are the biggest challenges to being a one man band? Both the obvious
and not so obvious…*
Traveling is a lot of work. Especially with as much gear as I use. Not to mention that the magic pipe looks like a weapon of mass destruction. The airport and customs officials hate me. Also, it takes a lot of discipline and concentration to inspire yourself out of a rut. With other band members, this is much more balanced. If you are having a bad day, the others can pull you out of your rut. On the flip side, you can no longer blame anyone for your problems either. You have to assume all responsibility for what is good and bad. It's very humbling. Alone, you have come up with ways to dig deep and pull out the magic. I'm learning to dig the challenge.
*Has being a part of the thriving San Francisco music scene helped spawn your
career? Could you have come to as much recognition if you were living in
I am very much a product of the scene in SF. Growing up there and seeing amazing music at such a young age was key. Knowing that I was allowed to make freaky music and be a freak. That's something that they don't teach you in school. Then later, becoming part of the scene myself. That was amazing. Looking back, I feel pretty lucky to have been a part of that, especially back in the early nineties. There was so much amazing music and so many creative musicians, you couldn't help but be inspired. It's a big city but the scene was small enough that we all could work eight gigs a week. There were not too many other upright bass players that could play all the different styles. so I was lucky to find myself in demand and surrounded by great musicians. I was just a kid and I was never a very competitive person. Being a big fish in a small pond was the perfect type of environment for me to grow and learn in. Any bigger, like New York or L.A., and I would have felt lost and perhaps not had the chance to develop Any smaller, like Wichita, Kansas, and there may not have been the opportunities to get out and develop. But that's just my experience.
How much of your music is free improvisation?
I improvise a lot. I try and leave a lot of room to create things on the spot. I also enjoy playing the songs as arrangements, I like structure, but I keep it all open for anything to happen. This one of my favorite aspects to playing alone, I can make up the rules as I go.
*I asked you earlier about opening and sharing bills with other groups. Who
are some of your favorites? What have been some of favorite shared stage
moments? Do you normally sit in with those you share the bills with?*
One of my favorite parts about being such a weirdo musician, is that I don't really fit anywhere so I kind of fit everywhere. When I first started touring, I was opening for all types: hip hop, jazz, blues, metal, folk, and everything in between. I played country western bars, punk rock squats, polka festivals, I love to mix it up. I don't always sit in with the others It really depends on the act. Me and Buckethead have been playing together most nights on this current tour. There is a lot of chemistry between him and I. He's one of my favorite musicians out there and I really love improvising with him. Other than that, I have not been jamming with too many others right now. Like I said, it doesn't always work and I never like to force it.. But I'm always open to try it if they are. A big lesson that I learned early on was to always jump at every opportunity to play. You never know what might happen. Just don't get mad if the magic pipe starts belching smoke during the power ballad.
What are your plans for 2008? What kind of craziness do you have up your sleeve?
Lots of shows in new and interesting places. New sounds and vibes. Good
times for all!