Angus Thomas, extraordinary bassist and musician from Chicago, welcomes me in his appartment. It’s one of the coldest days this winter so far, and Angus has just returned from Miami a couple of days ago. He is working on a music video for one of his projects, a balaika and various other instruments are piled in his living room.
It is the same day Angus‘ friend (and former bass-student) Darryl Jones (whom we interviewed one week ago, click) is playing Vienna’s Porgy & Bess, a concert where the three of us will later meet again. „Angus Bangus“, so his nickname, is a great storyteller – looking at his biography that’s not really surprising. To sum up his musical background in one sentence is impossible, but one could start with dropping names like Miles Davis, John Mayall or Albert King. Rock, Blues, Jazz, Funk: he’s done it all and he still does. Being a professional musician since the age of 15, one can still strongly feel Angus‘ enthusiasm when talking about music, particularly about „grooving“ and „locking“. He explains those concepts airdrumming, singing, with his whole body. Growing up in Chicago in the 1950s, music has saved him from a lot of trouble, Angus tells me. His enthusiam for music seems unwaning. After we say goodbye, he smiles and says ‚Maybe see you tonight at the concert. Stay out of trouble‘.
A conversation with Angus Thomas.
Angus, thank you for taking the time.Let’s go back to the beginnings. You were born in Chicago.
Yes, I was born in Chicago 1955. I grew on the Southside, in Englewood – the murder capital of Chicago. I lived there until I was about eleven. After that I moved down South to a safer neighbourhood. That’s where I started playing bass.
Did Chicago influence you musically?
Absolutely. It was a way to get out of gangs. To get away from the tough stuff that was going on. I didn’t start playing music until I was about 15 years old, and at that time there was a lot of gangs, a lot of shootings. Actually playing an instrument was cool, the gangs would see you and say ‚oh, he’s cool, he’s a musician‘. That was before they realized that if they’d rob you they can take an instrument and buy some drugs.
Did you start with the bass?
As a kid I was studying trumpet. I took that for a couple of semesters, then dropped it and got more into athletics for a while. After some more being wild, I decided that I wanted to get an instrument. I got one for Christmas: I asked for a guitar, they gave me a bass. (laughs). Thank goodness. My old man just forgot what I showed him that I wanted, and he came up with a bass. I showed him a blue guitar with three pick-ups, a Del Ray, a Japanese guitar. He showed up with a single pickup blue bass. I picked it up immediately. Soon I was sixteen and playing in clubs. It saved my life.
As soon as I started playing bass, we did a talent show. „Platinum Clouds“ was the name of the band. The bass and two guitars was plugged into the same amplifier (laughs). And we rocked the house. That was in grammar school, and that started the whole thing. As I came into highschool, I started playing with some older cats, some really old cats. They told me „Angus, do it this way, play it that way“. I learnt their music by ear, a little bit later I also learnt how to read music. It was luck and desire. And I found out it was a quick way to make money, I quickly earnt a lot by playing bass.
So you turned into a pro very early.
Yes, with 15. I was going all those clubs. Black soul clubs at that time, and a bunch of blues clubs. Small taverns on the Westside, people with guns and knives, drinking… I don’t know how my parents let me go to see all this stuff, but they did (laughs). They knew I wasn’t getting in trouble, so they were happy.
Were your parents musicians themselves?
No. My mother loved to sing, my father loved to sing, but none of them were musicians. My father he’d put three songs together into one song. He’d sing some Beatles stuff, then he’d slide into something else, putting the high lows in the middle of it and comes out singing Neil Young, all in one melody. They loved music.
Did you take any lessons or were you an autodidact?
I took one lesson with a guy at Lyon & Healy, that’s a famous music store chain in America that makes pianos. I took one basslesson with him, that was it. I listened to the radio a lot, at that time Tyrone Davis, Sly was on the radio, so I was like ‚oh, I’ve got to play Thank You‘. So I learnt it by ear.
But later on you went to universities?
Absolutely. I learnt how to read in highschool. I was doing football and music, then I quit football for music, and when the football season came around I was like ‚man, I got to play football‘ (laughs). So I went back to playing football. Actually I got to college with a football scholarship, and by that time I realized that those cats really were serious about football, wanting to become professional football players. I just wanted to get out of the wild neighbourhood and go to college. Once I got to college I honed in my skills in sight reading, and I got a scholarship for the next semester in music.
The Berklee School of Music?
No, I went to the Eastern Illinois University first of all. There I got a scholarship for Berkley for the summer, and there I met those French guys who hooked me up for an audition for the Versaille Conservatory. I got a scholarship there. Before I was 19 I had gone through College, the football thing, and there I was at Versailles Conservatory. I had no idea what Europe was about. I thought the cheese stank too much, the milk was too heavy and I couldn’t believe I had to get bread every morning. After about half a semester I went back to Eastern, started bands there, and just did the college thing, playing in different bands. I worked my entire life in music, I did other things but it always come back to music.
Blues guitarplayers played a big role in your life, Albert King, John Mayall, Johnny Winter.
Yes, but I only did a Jam session with Johnny Winter, I was playing with John Mayall at that time. Johnny came and jammed with us, that was a long and wild experience, but I’d rather not go into that. Believe it or not: when I started out it was Soul music, then came rock – Hendrix was slammin‘ at that time, I was deep into Hendrix. But there weren’t that many cats around making money with making Hendrix music, and Rock didn’t have that many black people in the audience. I ended up playing in Funk bands, then classical music – that’s how I got the scholar ship to Versailles. The scholarship to Berkley was about playing jazz. Music has been good to me.
You’ve done much every genre.
I wouldn’t say every genre, but as you can see with the instruments around, I play a lot of different stuff with a lot of different cats. I got five or six different projects on the table right now, Jazz, World music, I got this political thing that’s coming out, Art Rats, that’s the video I am working on right now. I still play in a full-time band, with Fankhauser.
Fankhauser is based in Switzerland, so you probably have to travel a lot between Austria and Switzerland?
Yeah, I’ve got a place in Switzerland too.
How come you moved to Vienna?
I came here years ago touring with John Mayall, 1978/79, something like that. I was in Chicago, and one of my students was working for Christian Brandauer, Klaus Maria Brandauer’s son. He couldn’t make the gig, so I made the gig. After I did the gig, Christian called me and said ‚man, we have to get to Europe‘. He talked me into coming over here. I had a ball, discovered Schnaps in the mountains (laughs). I was lost in the Schnaps world a little bit, but I had a great time. He turned me on to Austria. Then I did the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Alexander Goebel and stuff. I went back to the States and got that phone call from the Institute of Music, saying ‚Are you over here?‘. I said ‚No, I’m back in Chicago‘, and they said ‚Ok, but we need you to get over here, we got a job for you‘. So I went back, taught at the American Institute of music – and built that whole Angus Bangus land, Austria, Switzerland, America. Do you go back the US frequently? No. I just came back from Fort Lauderdale, where I did that „Bluese Cruise“. I get there three times a year, usually never longer than a week, for doing a project or meeting my folks. Fankhauser keeps me really busy. I go back and forth, you know, the immigration thing.
That’s quite tricky with immigration for a musician, isn’t it.
Yeah, really tricky. You can only spend a certain amount of time in any country. I’m trying to find places to go (laughs). It’s a working musician’s life, I don’t complain at all. I came here and stayed for six, seven years – then went back and got my degree in „Performance of Commercial music“. Then again spent some years there, then moved back to Chicago. I did the music for the King of Queens Television show, and then I moved back. I also worked for Darryl for a little bit, handling his business, as he was on a two year-tour with the Stones – so I did his business and played in some bands.
Do you still do a lot of film music?
Not that much. I’m on the road most of the time. Once I got involved with Fankhauser that became pretty much a fulltime job, and that’s great! It’s not often you are in a band where you like the people and the people like you, you get paid, the audience loves it. That together, that’s not always the case.
You have a degree in „Performance of Popular music“, tell us a bit about that.
I was in school for music business, and I found it boring. I found a professor who showed me how to write my own degree with all the stuff that makes it a state qualified degree. I never did one degree in a formal setting, I always had the teachers to come to the clubs. I did my degree in „Performance of commercial music“, and they all came to the clubs. Drinking, smoking (laughs). The teachers had fun, so that was good.
Your whole musical thing is general reflective of your personality. When I meet young musicians I especially try to teach them: learn your craft, but don’t forget how to live. Don’t be a nerd, be a cat that’s really… a cat. People you like to hang out with… ‚Yeah, come over here, young Helmut! You’re cool, I like to talk to you about something‘. That makes all the difference in the world. I learnt that from the old jazz cats, they really could tell who’s cool and who’s not. But somebody not that cool could still learn how to get cool, but they were so talented.
You were Darryl Jones‘ first bassteacher. Is it true that he came to you, telling you ‚I want to learn guitar‘, to which you replied ‚Guitar or bass‘, and he asked ‚Well, what do you play‘?.
Absolutely. It’s great when students excel so well. There’s no sense in teaching somebody when he doesn’t become better than you. It’s great when they do something and you go ‚Damn! That’s my guy!‘ (laughs). I like that, I got a bunch of students that have done extremely well. Most of the cats that took lessons from me are still musicians, and that’s great. A lot of people who go to music school get discouraged, because they are not that many great gigs out there. I mean, they’re out there, but they’re hard to get. Or they play Schlager… (laughs). Man, I like Schlager. I couldn’t understand it at first, but then you’re out on the road with your small bus, and a Schlager-Bus passes with their picture all over the bus, and I’m like ‚Alright, that’s what’s happening‘. I didn’t get it at first, but then realized that it’s something that makes people happy.
Yeah, I wore Lederhosen a little bit, in Liechtenstein. But I saw those peoples and was like ‚Naaaah. Can’t let anyone see those pictures in Chicago. I’ll lose my ghetto license (laugh).
Tell us a bit about your time with Miles Davis. You joined his band in 1985.
Yeah, I was in his band for a while. I was playing in a band called ‚Combo Audio‘, and Miles called me. It was about the time Marcus Miller was leaving. I always wanted to play with Miles Davis. When I was in Pete Cosey’s class,we had to write down who we would like to play with in our lifetime, and I wrote down Miles. When I later joined his band, I met Pete Cosey and he told me that he still has that piece of paper. Other cats were telling me ‚Oh, Miles Davis is over, he doesn’t play Jazz no more, blahblah‘. Miles had moved on and didn’t want to do the same stuff he played twenty years ago. But Pete said, ‚oh no, that’s cool!‘. As I said, I was in „Combo Audio“, and I asked my management, and they told me ‚No, it’s not possible‘. It didn’t work out, and Darryl got the gig. You know, Miles loved Darryl, he was that young bassplayer, and a bad ass mother… after Darryl was leaving, luckily Miles called me back. At that time I was in Chicago, helping out in a studio, I was in bands, but nothing was really happening. And I said „Yes!“, dropped everything and got on the plane, did a rehearsal with the band. Miles came to the rehearsal the next day, played, did a solo, Miles came over, gave me five – and I was in the band. I was with Miles for about seven months, toured, twelve dates in America and a European tour. Actually I also played in Vienna with Miles, the Stadthalle in 1985, Berlin too. At the end of that tour, that was it. That was my dream, I didn’t hear anything from Miles. Miles had moved on. I was like ‚Wow. My dream came and went, that quick‘. Miles had hired another bassplayer, I was out of the loop. I didn’t mind, but at the beginning I was like ‚Wow, I’m out of the loop, and nobody told me‘.
(laughs). Yeah, a little bit of fuck, and of course that actually affected me in certain ways. But in reality right after that started looking for gigs. I was playing with Albert King. I was working with my old man, and I was at hotel when I got told that ‚Albert is auditioning for bassplayers out there. ‚Albert who?‘ ‚Albert King!‘. „Okay, Pops. I gotta go home and got my bass“. I got there, waited in line, auditioned. Not that I knew all of the songs, but I had a groove in my pocket. I played some straiht blues, and Albert said ‚Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow, we’re leaving tomorrow. Bring your amplifier‘. And there we are, off to the East Coast with Albert King. I didn’t know how deep Albert King was at that particular time. You know, I’ve been more into Rock, Jazz, Funk and there I am in this blues thing. I was with John Mayall before that, but it wasn’t the same thing. With John Mayall it was almost like being in a rockband, compared to driving around in a Suburban with this Blues legend. And then they say „You know Albert don’t pay no rent“. ‚What does that mean?‘ ‚It means that he doesn’t pay for the hotel. We get together and buy a room for ourselves‘. This was all new to me, basically I was spoiled. You get all these decent gigs, and then you move into that other circle where you share rooms.
One more question about Miles, what was it like to play with him?
What was it like to play with Miles? It was a dream come true. The only cats I could say ‚If I could ever play with someone‘ that was Jimi Hendrix, who had already died, and Miles Davis. Everyone else was cool, but Miles was coolest. The passion that drove me into music was Miles and Hendrix. What did I learn from him? That’s almost without words. You learn certain things about yourself, and you’ll take those to your grave with you. The good, the bad and the ugly.
Any other projects you are working on?
In my lifetime I had a lot of students that were great players, had a lot of technical ability – but did not know how to groove. I want to start something that teachers people how to really groove, connect. Cause drummers can be quite busy, and bass-players like to be soloists. No: let’s lay down a super foundation for everybody. Let’s sing through the instrument. Let’s relax: that’s what a groove does. I’m working on something like that.
So one of the most important lessons for a bassplayer is to build a strong foundation with the drummer.
Always. Your drummer is your friend. The drummer and the bassplayer is a marriage, a connection that’s so deep. Just like a pianist and a vocalist, when they get their thing locked up, that’s pure beauty. The drummer and the bassplayer can make everyone in the room so cool, so relaxed – or so hyper. But give ‚em the groove, Jazz, Rock, Funk. It’s a give and take, a beautiful dance. You don’t even know you hear it, but you go „damn“. Yeah, it’s the thing that makes everybody go „damn“. I love to solo, but not all the time. I know how to important it is to support the other instruments. You are not fighting each other, you are playing on one level, having fun together. It’s called „locking“. It’s the foundation for just about any record that has a bassplayer on it, that give and take, that beauty of breath.
Thank you to Angus Thomas for the conversation.
photo: Tosho Yakkatokuo