Many children choose their first instrument based on looks and reputation alone, especially by the time they make it to high school. At that age, your hobbies start to define who you are, who you spend your time with. They affect how you feel about school dances, pep rallies, and extra curriculars.
Early on, Ole Kirkeng was presented with a choice of instruments, and it turned out to be an important one.
“When I was 15 years old I was over at my friend’s house, and I noticed he had a bass standing in the corner of his living room. He played six-string guitar himself, but he showed me the basics of the instrument, and we instantly started jamming. I loved the feeling of connecting with other people through music. As a bass player you are responsible for creating a good foundation, and to hold down the groove for the rest of the band.”
And that first bass ended up being a gateway drug to the world of music for Ole. Initially it was just about playing, just the experience of jamming with friends and gaining chops on the instrument, mimicking famous grooves and slowly learning the illustrious history of the bass guitar, a history that has been widely overshadowed by that of its six-string cousin.
It turns out that bassists make up some of the most impressive musicians of the 20th-century. There’s jazz legend Charles Mingus for one, whose upright bass style has had a lasting effect in genres far beyond jazz. Then there’s British rock staple John Entwistle of The Who, a man who flat-out ignored convention by playing as loud as (or louder than) the rest of the band combined.
Among the land of the living, we have Thundercat, who has become arguably the most well-known bassist in America today, with his unbelievable runs that he drizzles over some of the all-time funkiest grooves of our times.
Bass playing is about more than flash. Put simply, bass is the glue, helping every other instrument jive.
The same goes for Ole’s personal heroes: their skill and commitment to the music allows them to play any number of different genres. (By the way, if you’ve been looking for some fresh tunes, every one of the guys Ole mentions below is a fantastic place to start.)
“I think most of my favorite bassists are capable of playing a lot of genres. The first jazz concert I went to was the Ron Carter Trio, and he really inspired me to start playing jazz. James Jameson and Donald “Duck” Dunn, two very prolific motown/soul-bassists, have had a profound influence on my bass tone and groove.”
Ole started out playing along to the music of these artists, that is, until his talent was recognized by a bona fide legend.
Susan Rogers was one of the most important sound engineers of the 1980s, a decade renowned for major shifts in the methods of studio music production. She worked with David Byrne of the Talking Heads, the Barenaked Ladies, and Prince himself, with whom she shaped the classic album ‘Purple Rain.’ Rogers discovered Ole while he was still a student, and she quickly helped him to hone his playing abilities while also offering sage advice along the way.
“I would bring songs to her all the time, and she would give her thoughts and critique. Her work ethic is at an extremely high level, and it’s something I try to replicate in my own work. She encouraged me to write every single day, and to incorporate real storytelling into the songs.”
And sadly, that exact sentiment is often missing from contemporary music in any genre: using the music to offer something more to the listener than just surface-level impact. Some call it soul, some call it the X Factor, but it’s easy to tell when it’s present in the music and when it’s not.
This penchant for storytelling has led Ole to focus more and more on the purest form of performance: live shows, which this year includes touring with Courtney Marie Andrews, a singer-songwriter phenom who has collaborated with the likes of Jimmy Eat World and Damien Jurado.
For Ole, these shows are a thrill each and every time, especially since he’s playing with other extremely talented musicians like himself.
“My favorite part of live performance is to connect with the band and the audience. The feeling of all of us being there together, and sharing a moment of music is truly special. In the bands I play in we usually have sections that has room for improvisation. This makes each individual show unique. I love responding to what the drummer comes up with during these sections. Playing with a good drummer live is always such a joy.”
When he’s not touring, Ole plays as a session musician at Figure 8 studios in New York, New York, which has hosted a long list of incredible artists, including Big Thief, Rubblebucket, Mirah, and Pussy Riot. For gigs like these, he has a specific go-to bass, one that hearkens back to the golden age of the instrument. It serves as a constant reminder of those who have come before.
“My favorite bass is my 1960’s Fender Jazz bass. I love the tone and feel of a vintage four-string bass. Usually, on my favorite records, I’ve discovered that the bass player most likely played a Fender bass, so that is just the sound I gravitate towards when it comes to bass playing.”
It’s hard to say what lies ahead for Ole Kirkeng, mostly because there are countless options. As any producer can tell you, there will always be a strong demand for musicians who have mastered their instrument.
And if you, dear reader, have felt the pull as well, if you are enticed by the lure of joining a musical tradition that places utmost importance on proficiency and soul, then Ole has some advice for you.
“I think one of the best things you can do is to move to a city with a big music scene, or to attend a school with a good music program. After moving to New York I met a lot of musicians and started to play a lot more shows, just because there are so many more venues to play in New York. Some advice I received when I was younger was to learn 100 songs, play 100 shows, and write 100 of your own songs.”
Of course, these days, Ole is working toward 1,000 of each instead.
by Giorgio Chang