Craig Strain: “Fusion music is alive and well in the 21st century”

The Jazz-Funk scene is really having a moment in Melbourne and if you don’t believe me, then you have to believe Craig Strain. The Scottish bass player has been calling Melbourne his home for the past few years and his band, Pickpocket is one of the scene’s staples, winning audiences with their infectious grooves. This is their story.

What is the Pickpocket backstory?

Pickpocket originated during my first tenure in Australia, back in 2010, when I was here for 18 months on a working holiday visa. As a new musician in town, I knew it was really important to network and meet other musicians, so I was auditioning for lots of things on Gumtree, as well as going out to see local gigs and introducing myself to the band members. During these adventures, I met a bunch of players whose style I really enjoyed and I asked if they would be interested in joining a band playing jazz/funk style covers and maybe some originals. The original lineup consisted of Sam Leskovec on drums, Pete Newmarch and Neil Boland on guitar, Alex Howroyd and Sam Ayers on sax and myself. We recorded an EP – with one original and four covers – called Stolen Grooves at Coloursound Studios in Altona. We played some gigs around town and I got a taste for what the Melbourne scene was like and what it takes to be a band leader.

In 2012, my partner and I moved to Vancouver, Canada where she undertook undergraduate studies and I decided to really focus on writing original music with a view to putting together a similar band to what I had in Melbourne. This proved to be much more difficult than I thought, as Vancouver has a much smaller population and music scene so finding niche players was tricky.

We happily returned to Melbourne in 2014 and I was determined to revive Pickpocket and record an album of purely original music. After a few personnel changes, we arrived at the current lineup of Matthias Edwards (drums), Neil Boland and Jason Liacos (guitar), Andrew Boyle (keys), Miles Izzo (trumpet), Alex Howroyd (sax/trumpet), Brett Evans (sax) and later on, Phil Binotto came onboard on percussion duties.

Writing for such a large ensemble is something I have never done before, but the compositions that I was coming up with seemed to lend themselves to being more layered and orchestrated than your typical four or five piece fusion/jazz band.

After a year of rehearsals and gigging, we entered the studio in November of 2015 and recorded what would become Sojourn over three days in St Charles Studios in Northcote. 80 per cent of the album was cut live, as a band playing in the room over that weekend, with some extra overdubs and solos added after the fact. I then undertook a lengthy mixing period of about six months – I’m a sonic perfectionist! – before finally launching the album at a sold out Gasometer Hotel on 25 September 2016. That night was such a special gig for the band and something I never forget; looking out to see so many friends and fellow musicians packed into a hot, sweaty room to support Pickpocket really meant a lot; I feel like thats when the band kind of got accepted into the Melbourne music scene.

What has your personal trajectory in music been like?

I grew up in a musical household with my mum singing and playing piano, my dad playing banjo and my older brother playing guitar! I was always drawn to music and would often spend hours exploring my parents’ vinyl collection or my brother’s drawers of rock and metal tapes. I started taking piano lessons when I was 8 years old, but I was always more interested in writing my own music than learning the Beethoven or Haydn pieces my music teacher was giving me.

In the mid-90s, when I was around 14, I started to really get into two things: heavy metal and the bass guitar. My brother, Robin, had this ’80s headless bass on loan from a friend and I managed to sneak a play of it when he was out one day and it just connected with me straight away. It felt much less ‘fiddley’ than the electric guitar and the Metallica riffs sounded much better than they did on the piano, so I was sold.

It wasn’t until a few years later, when my music teacher at school gave me a Weather Report tape that I started to get more into the jazz and fusion side of things, through checking out bassists that I would read about in Bass Player magazine – this is pretty much pre-internet – and I began taking my bass playing a little more seriously.

I got accepted to study a BA in Applied Music at the University of Strathclyde and this was really where I began to grow by being exposed to all different kinds of music and musicians as well as audio technology, composition and jazz improvisation.

So I’d say my compositional and playing approach is as much influenced by Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius, The Elektrik Band and Weather Report as it is by Pantera and Megadeth!

Later on, I became a convert to the church of Prince and continue to be inspired and amazed by the raw musicality, honesty and pioneering approach to music that he had which is evident in a few Pickpocket tracks such as Purple Reign from Sojourn and Slam from Permutations.

How are things different between Sojourn and Permutations?

For our second release I wanted to create something that was a clear evolution from the album but still retained the attention to detail and compositional focused approach to the music that I feel are hallmarks of the band’s style. Unlike Sojourn, which features some tracks that I’d been working on for up to 10 years, all the material on Permutations was written since arriving in Australian in 2014 and as such, I think it more accurately reflects my broad musical palette as well as an acknowledgement of the type of music I feel is suited to a large ensemble like Pickpocket and the strengths of the players within.

The recording process for this EP was much more ’21st century’ than before – partly due to budget, partly as an aesthetic choice – and was recorded in different stages and locations over a period of around a year. The drums were tracked in a local rehearsal studio practice room; bass, guitar and keyboards were all done at my home studio; percussion was recorded at a friend’s studio and we returned to Colour Sound Studios in Altona to track the horns. I wanted to have more control over each instrument’s role, from both a sonic and performance perspective, so by layering the tracks in an overdubbing way I was able to sit down with each member and really hone each take to try and fight the song as best as possible. There’s a lot more synth action on Permutations as well as some subtle but integral dual guitar action that would have been difficult to try and nail in a live studio scenario.

How was working with Nils Landgren and Tom O’ Grady?

The idea of having some guest players on the EP only really came to me later in the process. Due to the step-by-step nature of the way we were recording, each track had a gap where the solo would be and as such it gave me time to muse over what instrument/member would suit what solo etc; I met Tom O’ Grady in 2016, when I went to the Caloundra Festival and he was performing with UK Acid jazz legends Incognito. I got to chat with him after a show and he told me about his own ensemble, Resolution 88, which I promptly checked out. I loved the band and was impressed by Tom’s writing and playing style, which was very much from the Herbie school of jazz.

‘The Hunter’ is my ode to Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters and so an electric piano solo was always going to be a strong contender for the solo spot on that track. I decided to ask Tom if he would be up for playing on it and he agreed straight away, although due to touring commitments it took a few months before he was able to get around to recording anything – needless to say his solo is fantastic and really ties the track together.

‘Slam’ features Swedish funk trombone master Nils Landgren, whom I’ve been listening to since my uni days. The story of how ‘Redhorn’ appears on an independent release from a small, Australian jazz/fusion band is quite remarkable and a good example of how social networking really is changing the musical landscape. About a year or so ago, Landgren’s bass player, Magnum Coltrane Price, commented on a clip we posted on the Pickpocket Instagram account and so I messaged him and we kinda kept in touch. Upon listening to the completed bed track for ‘Slam’, I kept hearing a funky trombone solo and so decided to ask Magnum if he thought Nils would be willing to consider laying something down it. As it happened, Magnum was in the process of recording his own solo album and had a session booked in with Nils the following week, so he asked me to send him the track and he’d let Nils hear it and report back. The following week, I got a thumbs up from him and said he would get Nils to track it at the end of his session if they had time, which thankfully they did and I was very excited to receive the file a few days later. Nils’ solo fits the vibe of the track perfectly and I’m honoured to have someone of his caliber playing on the EP.
If you could invite anyone – no restrictions whatsoever – to join Pickpocket, who would that be?

I’d love to actually take a backseat and have someone like Michael League from Snarky Puppy or Victor Wooten take my place and see how the vibe of the band changes and how they interpret the music.

Who are your heroes?

I’m not sure I have any bona fide musical heroes, but there are definitely artists and players that have shaped my approach to the instrument and how I think about composing and orchestrating for a band like Pickpocket. Bass players like Marcus Miller, Stanley Clarke, Victor Wooten and Larry Graham really inspired me when I was digging deeper into the instrument by showing me what was possible at the extremes of the instrument as well as how bass could be a melodic, front-focused instrument. Prince was probably the single biggest influence all round: musicianship, production, songwriting, band leader, he did it all with style and passion.

What is your main aspiration?

My main aspiration is to keep making and playing music that I enjoy and would want to listen to. I think people connect with music that is honest, regardless of the genre, and so I really try and focus on that when I’m writing and composing. I always think if it feels good, regardless of how complex or simple it may be, then it’s something worth developing and hopefully other people will be able to connect with it in a similar way. Often times I get comments from people saying they enjoy how accessible yet deep our music is and I believe that’s due to a few different factors. The first is that I put a strong emphasis on two things in the band: melody and groove, with melody being king. I think people are tired of the clichd approach some jazz musicians have towards performing a song, where it feels like the melody is just something to get through in order to get to the good bit, i.e. the solos, and so the context of those solos is often lost on the listener. I like to think of Pickpocket’s repertoire being groove based music with a strong emphasis on melodic development, interesting harmonic and rhythmic interaction and just enough improvisation to keep things fresh and interesting for both the musicians and the audience.

Ideally I would love to see the band be rewarded with some higher profile festival gigs like the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, Brunswick Music Festival and even some interstate or international performances would be a fantastic opportunity to grow our fan base and spread the word that fusion music is alive and well in the 21st century, albeit with less notes, mullets and high waisted pants.

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