Kai's and Lows - Bass Talk With Kai Kurosawa
Having just completed a phenomenal live show in Osaka Japan, we caught up with a truly unique player and MTD Bass Player Kai Kurosawa, to pick his one-of-a-kind bass, his signature technique(s), and of course, MTD. It’s actually a disservice to call him a bassist, guitarist or even human! His sound and approach to playing a string instrument could be considered, by some, otherworldly. His mastery of string polyphony, rhythm and that which is most important to all bassists: groove is in a class of its own. When I first went to see Kai in Tokyo most of my time was spent behind the camera viewfinder which allowed me to experience Got MONK? on a completely different level than most: through one eye and two ears. I can only describe the experience as “it seemed as if I was watching a whole band perform yet I only needed to “focus” (pun intended) on two subjects. Read on, for the full interview!
You started playing at age 15 and now you play a 15-string bass/guitar. You, me, and Flea all played trumpet as kids. It seems many bass players start out playing wind or brass instruments. Why do you think that is?
I actually started on the piano. It was something my mom had me do, and it was one of the best things that I did as a kid. Even though I didn't enjoy it at the time, it gave me a great foundation. I don't remember when I started (‘cause it wasn't important to me), but I remember stopping at 12. I remember that because it was one of the first things my mom let me quit. I tried trumpet and trombone in between playing piano and bass, but it didn't really resonate with me.
What parts of your piano playing days contributed to your current bass playing and how has that shaped your style of playing, if at all?
It definitely makes sense to me that one person can play melody and accompaniment. That's probably the biggest mindset I took away from playing piano.
I don’t know many people who started playing music saying, “I want to play the bass guitar." We all sort of “figured it out” or fell into it somehow. Do you think there are more players today who are “born” bassists or who choose the bass first?
That's a great question and I would imagine that there are more "born" bassists now, since there are lots of great examples out there in the world of what a bass player can be.
I personally started because I was just looking for something new to play. Tried guitar but didn't enjoy it and tried playing bass parts on a guitar and for some reason, that was really fun for me. So after about 3 months of doing that, I got my first bass guitar, an Aria Pro 2. One more thing that pushed me in that direction is I had the same birthday as the bass player for one of my favorite bands at the time.
In talking with you, I learned that you are actually from Japan. Where from, specifically? Are there any things about that place that stand out to you from other places you’ve been? Also, when did you decide to come to the U.S.A? I’m thinking the “defining moment” or thoughts that inspired you to make the journey.
I'm from Gunma. My mother's side has a very specific last name to the area, which is Koitabashi. Sometimes I wish I had that last name because I was close to my grandmother, on that side of the family.
My dad's work brought the family to St. Louis in 1980, when I was only 1. We lived there for 3 years, and that basically is the reason why I live in the States. As a kid in Japan from 4-18years old, it was really hard for me to fit in. I wasn't very happy being culturally Japanese at the time, as I was used to being more individual than the other kids there. Plus my Japanese wasn't very good, so the first chance I had, I left.
Since 2007, I have had the chance to play in Japan and that has really let me enjoy Japan, and enjoy being Japanese. The countryside of Japan is lovely, there is a quiet in the air that just eases me. I've always wanted to live in the countryside of Japan, even as a kid and lived with my grandmother for a bit.
You mentioned that you used some of Bunny’s books when you were starting on bass. Can you tell us your approach to learning both in life and when picking up a 15-string instrument, for the first time?
After attending 5 week summer program in Berklee, I knew there was so much that I didn't know. So I tried to learn by books. I tried both English and Japanese written books. That's another thing my parents taught me well, is that books can teach you. I learned that so well that sometimes I didn't think the teacher was important. Don't get me wrong, I have had great teachers in my life, but those seem to be rare.
I picked up a 12-string first. Within 3 days of it, I thought to myself what have I done. I just knew I didn't have the skills to play it. I also knew I could probably overcome that and play, if I just stuck with it. Fast forward 17 years or so and I picked up the 15-string. Within 10 minutes I was like, “Oh s**t, I don't think I can play this.” It was a shock to me, since I expected it to be difficult to make the transition from 12 to 15, but not at that level. So I just gave it another 30minutes and my brain started to piece things together.
Describe your thumb technique.
I mostly use my right hand thumb to play notes, these days. The thumb is part of the fingers to play chords or play bass notes. If I am playing a bass note it basically frees up my other fingers to strum and tap the 6string portion, which the right hand by default, does not play. When it is playing chords, it works the 4 string region to add some accompaniment.
I use to use my left hand for thumb position, like an upright or cello player, but these days it is used for distance control of me and the instrument. It kind of pushes Kūbo away to keep my arms and fingers moving at an optimal level.
You post videos on your Instagram of extremely complex tunes in the spirit of “Practice." What’s your practice regimen like, what are you working on getting better at, and what are some of your milestones? Think “Musical bucket list."
I just work on things I can't do. I work on that all the time, even to this day. Some people just keep doing the same thing, but I am just interested in a lot more for now. Classical pieces, Jazz pieces that almost seem impossible to do with my style of playing are what I tackle, for the most part. I used to not share these with people, but I am glad I am now because it has brought some welcome attention my way.
I'm constantly working on being able to hear and play 2 or 3 parts. I am working on being the best player and audience that I can be, while I am playing my instrument. I am also working on my reading. I read ok, depending on the type of chart/sheet and the day, but I have friends who can read anything and that just makes me want to read better.
Milestones— I feel like there have been many already.... I wanted to really just play many different styles.
Vinny Golia (Jazz legend) and Collide (industrial goth). I was touring with them, while I was doing my Masters.
Playing and recording "Sweet 17" for Hands' Onsemble, south Indian piece in 17/16. That needed a 2nd melody part and bass part. They couldn't find someone to play either part and I did them both at the same time. (Odd time signatures is a forte of mine)
Working with Shane Gibson and Thomas Lang. Although I left before the album, we were rehearsing regularly before Shane got the Korn gig.
Touring with ISAO, who is a monster player and has been playing for Baby Metal.
Recording some pretty difficult music for Thomas Lang's album.
Working with Daniel Rosenboom (trumpet) and playing the Monterey Jazz Festival with him. The most fun I had at a festival so far.
Full on production, playing Anime and J-pop tunes at Anime Expo with a large ensemble, singers, horns, strings, rhythm section, giant screen etc...
Getting a comment from people often, something along the lines of "Man, I don't like tapping/touch-style players and then I found you."
One of the biggest milestone for me is Kūbo.
I would like to share more what Keg (Keigo Takada) and I have created together over the years.
I enjoy playing solo, but what I really enjoy and where I feel like I really shine is in an ensemble, more of a contemporary Jazz meets rock/metal, with horizontal beats.
I would like to share the techniques I developed, like my OneHandBass, fretting, plucking strumming all in one hand. I believe someone with one arm or hand can enjoy playing a bass or guitar at a higher level. (Does that sound strange?)
Not at all, I think it is probably where things are going, seeing that no one can stand to be without a phone in hand for more than a few minutes.
What do you do in L.A., When you’re not hunting for fresh veggies or playing a 15-string bass?
I swim to stay healthy. I used to be a competitive swimmer and it's the one sport that seems to really just help me stay in shape, to play music.
I like cooking (and eating) and craft beer and red wine. Often enjoy watching a movie at night. I basically stay in, not much for going out.
What kind of rig do you use for practice and touring?
In L.A., I just use my Nordstrand Starlifter preamp direct to my amp. If I have a show that I use pedals, I will practice using them maybe one before the show.
For touring, I have a tiny amp I carry around in my gig bag for practice.
BTW, I used to not plug into an amp for practice. Even today, there are days where I just play unplugged.
If you had to name one piece of equipment (besides Kubo) that you couldn’t do without, what would it be and why? How did you come to this realization?
Oh man, that is a hard question. I mean without Kūbo, there is nothing. But it would be Nordstrand StarLifter preamp/di pedal. It just works really well with Kūbo and enhances the experience. I just plugged in and the sound just made sense to me. It's kind of cool too, since Kūbo has passive Nordstrand pickups in it.
Describe your writing /recording process. (Software, tools, pre-production, scheduling). How long does it normally take to complete a record?
Writing, for the most part I just remember life experiences and just play and see what comes out. This hasn't really changed, since I was 21 or so. I also sometimes write with a bit more of my brain to write a piece that I normally wouldn't. These are for the purposes of a live show, if I want something specific in the set to change things up.
Recording with an ensemble, I just like to basically have a live show in the studio. There’ve been albums I’ve done with the audience in the booth as well. I usually only do a day in the studio, if it's an ensemble.
Recording solo, I’ve been doing this at home. For a solo album, I try to schedule a month from start to finish. Sometimes I write during this as well. I've been trying to do a solo album per year, for the past 4 years.
I'm a Logic guy, and I say it takes about a month to finish after recording, including time away to listen with fresh ears.
When I first heard you play, I felt as though there was an entire 4 piece band on stage. When I looked through my rangefinder to take your photo, my left eye (out of habit) was constantly scanning for a keyboardist and guitarist— but there was none! That’s how polyphonic your sound was. It was amazing. When did you first realize this was possible and what are you doing to nurture and develop your unique sound?
When Keg and I did our "GOT MONK? 2.0 - Live at JACK LION", we knew they had enough amps. I thought it could be overkill, but decided on using 4 amps. Keg and I set up facing each other and the 4 amps were behind me. The amps were in the order identical to the fretboard and how I always imagined them to be if I were mixing it. We played and were surprised at how good it sounded. Keg and I both agreed it was super clear, we could hear everything very well, and it made it easier to play together. I usually just use 1 amp and have my mixed sound come out of there, but when playing duo, I know the 4 amps actually makes a huge difference. I'm pretty easy going about the sound system, since I feel like I need to play well, no matter what.
I used to do a lot more programming with music and that has made me think more in layers, xyz, all of it. I think that mindset just comes out.
When did you first move beyond 4 strings and why?
I actually got my first 6-string 6 months into playing bass and it was fretless, too! Good thing I didn't know anything, other wise that wouldn't have happened. I think playing fretless for many years took the fear out of it for me. I played both my 4 string fretted and 6string fretless and in a way, basically play how I do now, except not as refined.
When did you cross the threshold of standard instruments and how did you come to find Michael Tobias Design and propose the concept of building Kūbo [a.k.a. The Aircraft Carrier]?
The first time I saw a picture of a Stick and Warr Guitar, I thought to myself, “I bet I can be good at that.” Again, because I didn't know anything, I just went for it. Even though I quit many things up until that point, I just didn't give up for some reason.
One day in January of 2009 (I think), I walked into the Amp Shop in L.A. (where I live), and saw Michael Tobias there. It was right after NAMM. I knew who he was but was going to just do what I came there for. Then the people at the Amp Shop said to Michael, “Come and meet this guy.” So Michael walked over to me and I played for him unplugged a little. Michael said kind encouraging words and that was that. Some people at the Amp Shop said to Michael that he should build me an instrument. Fast forward 2010 Bass Player Live in October. I met up with him and he said he would build me an instrument. Mid 2011 (I think), I stopped by Kingston and he drew up a sketch, picked woods, and made some phone calls to order parts. That's when I really knew it was going to happen. I told Michael I wanted 15 strings because there were a few things that I felt 12strings had a limit on, like chords in one hand and lower notes.
What was your involvement in the design of Kūbo? How did you first propose the idea to MTD? What was their initial reaction?
I basically just asked for a 6 (guitar ish)+5 (fretless bass) + 4 (guitar ish) string set up. Other than that, I really just left it up to MTD.
When I told Michael I wanted 15 strings, to my surprise, he said “Ok” right away. Initially, I asked for scalloped frets, since I was still developing my one hand fretting and strumming technique and thought that would help. It didn't happen at the end since I practiced and got used to it. Where the volume/control knobs ended up and not having a belly cut, flat radius on the fingerboard, those were my requests as well.
Your bass consists of many custom parts. Which parts are off-the-shelf and which are custom. How did you put all of this together?
I am not sure if there are many off-the-shelf parts on Kūbo. The La Bella Strings were also handmade by Eric Coco and parts of the bridge by Hipshot are also handmade. I believe the tuning pegs are a bit custom too, combining bass pegs and guitar knobs. The pickups are Nordstrand and based on the NDC pick up, with some custom touches to it. The Roland divided pickup is standard, we just didn't install the entire thing like the LED light.
Tell us a little about your setup! What kind of interface / plugins (if any) do you use, to record a 15 string bass? Tell us “what’s in your bag”!
My recording setup up is as simple as I can. Direct lines and mic the amp. For solo that is a total of 2 tracks, with a drummer or more that is at least 6 tracks, sometimes 7, if I am using the GK or not.
For live shows I prefer to use 4 amps when playing with a drummer and 1 amp when performing solo.
one amp for bass, the 5 string fretless La Bella black nylon strings region. Usually I just go through the Starlifter preamp by Nordstrand Audio.
one amp for the 6 string region, that acts as lead and chords. I use distortion or overdrive, delay, chorus, and reverb.
one amp for 4 string region, that often functions as chords and sometimes plays lines in combination with the 6string. a natural warm compressor (mb2 by Miura Guitars) and reverb is what I use. Both reverb on the 6string and 4string regions are by Neunaber Audio Effects.
the 6 string region has a divided pickup (Roland GK) on it as well. That goes to the vb-99 and that gets its own amp as well, which totals as the 4 amps.
For solo performances, I just use Kūbo in mono mode, have all the strings go directly into the Starlifter preamp, and that's all I need. I can also use the Neunaber reverb, when I feel like it. Those 2 pedals work great for me for my solo sets.
Finally, can you tell us some closing notes about your trip to Europe, as well as what changed in Kūbo?
Visiting Europe is always a great experience for me. I teach a week long seminar for Chapman Stick players and people whose default playing is tapping. I really enjoy teaching but it just takes too much out for me, so I don't do it regularly. We were in a small town named Suxy in Belgium, where they didn't have a cell phone tower. I prefer the country side over a city, so that just really is a perfect place for me to be.
As for what changed in Kūbo, I think we talked about switching the stacked volume/tone to a volume.
It is so nice to be back playing Kūbo. First hour I was missing strings, and thought oh shxx, but it came back quickly and wow, it is just the only instrument for me. Although it is good that I had a chance to step away for a bit, as well. Sometimes that can be a good refresher. I am thrilled to play Kūbo and feel in a sense, responsibility to really bring it to life. I feel like my eyes have been open because of Kūbo and I will continue to evolve and bring music with it.
What are your upcoming plans?
I’ve been invited to play at Stick Night on August 3rd, in Los Angeles CA. The Chapman Stick is celebrating 50 years and I am part of their concert. It’s an honor for me to be invited.
I am also playing Solo Bass Night in L.A. on November 14th. That's super cool too, since I get comments like "that's not a bass.” Which by the way, doesn't bother me much, but it is nice to know there are people who just appreciate the instrument and what I do with it, at many different events.
I am working on my 4th solo record right now, should be finished by mid September. No big plans for traveling as of now, L.A. gigging and studio work.
I’m Pleased to announce my return to Japan, in October as well! (Dates and venue subject to change but mostly finalized.) Excited to work with Keg, to get some new videos for our duo "GOT MONK?" as well.
10.12.2019 TBA - Hakuba, Japan
10.13.2019 Bb - Hamamatsu, Japan
10.16.2019 Han9 Ferry - Seto-sea, Japan
10.17.2019 Rizin - Saga, Japan
10.18.2019 BuRaRi - Hakata, Japan
10.19.2019 Michyard Cafe - Usa, Japan
10.20.2019 TBA - Kokura, Japan
10.21.2019 Han9 Ferry - Seto-sea, Japan
10.22.2019 ESP Osaka - Osaka, Japan
10.24.2019 Lion Theater - Japan
10.24.2019 ESP Nagoya - Nagoya, Japan
10.25.2019 Placebo - Osaka, Japan
10.26.2019 Private Concert / Seminar - Tokyo, Japan
10.26.2019 Boozy Muse - Tokyo, Japan
10.27.2019 Crazy Horse Saloon - Aomori, Japan
10.29.2019 TBA - Annaka, Japan
10.30.2019 TBD - Mishima, Japan
10.31.2019 GM? rec session - Hyogo, Japan
11.01.2019 Jack Lion - Osaka, Japan
11.02.2019 Safurna - Nagoya, Japan
11.03.2019 Yume Studio - Maebashi, Japan
Thank you for taking the time to compile such an extensive interview! I’m sure no matter how many strings we may play, everyone will walk away a better bass player because of your insight and input.