Short Bio: Born in Athens, AL and grew up playing in rock and roll bands, country bands, soul bands, and starting playing in nightclubs in nearby Huntsville, AL. Later started working in the studios of Muscle Shoals, AL eventually moving to Nashville, TN where I continue to live and work.
Gear: 1973 Jazz Bass, Warwick Streamer Stage II 5 string, Warwick Streamer Stage II 5 string fretless, Kramer Ferrington acoustic bass, Danelectro Longhorn bass, Neve Pre-Amp and EQ, Moe West Quest Bass pre-amp, Joe Mills Mor Me headphone mixer, Korg tuner, Bass Pod, T.C. Electronics Stereo Chorus/Flanger, Gallien-Krueger 200MB , Ampeg SVT-3 Pro with BXT210M Bass Monitor Cabinet, Warwick ProTube IV amp with 4 10 cabinet.
AGB: Hi Mike, reading over some of the information that is available on the web I can see that you have had a very interesting career and it does not look like you are going to stop any time soon. Now before I start on today let me jump back a little first. What really made you pick the bass guitar as your instrument?
Mike: I got a guitar for my birthday when I was twelve so I was originally a guitar player. Throughout high school and beyond I played guitar---sometimes rhythm, sometimes lead---in different bands around my home town. Sometimes, I wouldn't be in an active band but I'd hear about a gig so me and my friends would put a band together to cover the gig. Depending on who was available determined what I'd play. If there was a guitar player available that was better than me but no bass player available then I'd volunteer to play bass. When I was twenty, Johnny Conn, a friend of mine who was a great singer was contacted by a nightclub in nearby Huntsville, AL who needed a band for a week while the house band was on vacation. It was a 5 hour a night, 6 night gig and since the drummer we usually played with didn't sing and neither did I, Johnny wanted someone to help him out with the singing. We heard about a local nightclub musician that was currently between jobs that was a great singer and a great guitar player named Tubby Brawner. Johnny thought we ought to get him to play and sing with us if I would play bass and I quickly agreed. A couple of months later I get a call one day from Tubby asking me if I could come over to Huntsville and play that night at club called the Red Carpet. He said the regular bass player was sick. I went over and after playing a couple of sets, Tubby told me that the regular bass player wasn't really sick---he had been fired (or had quit---I can't remember) and the job was mine if I wanted it. I was pretty much blown away. I didn't think I was good enough to be a professional but if they thought I was then maybe if I worked real hard and did the best I could I could pull it off. After a few months went by, I realized that bass was my instrument. I was so much happier playing bass than I ever was playing guitar and ever since then I've considered myself a bass player.
AGB: Ok, now we know why you picked the bass guitar, what do you think was the driving force to keep playing? Obviously you did not know you would be where you are at now and were you ever ready to give it up and do something else?
Mike: Well, I've always been pretty much obsessed with music, even before I could play an instrument. Once I figured out I could make a living playing music then there was no stopping me. Almost everybody I knew hated their job and here I was making money doing something I loved. I did come close to quitting a time or two. After playing 6 nights a week for a few years in the nightclubs I really started to burn out. I got a job playing on the road with Hank Williams, Jr. and had fun doing that for a while but when that gig ran it's course I went back to the clubs. I was really starting to hate being in the clubs all the time, seeing the same drunks every night, playing the same songs all the time. When I was working with Hank Williams, Jr. I met a girl in California and I decided I was going to quit playing music , move to California, get married and get a day job because I had seemingly hit a brick wall with music and my future didn't look bright. Time passed, things happened, I didn't get married and I broke up with that girl. I came back to Alabama and put in an application at a GM plant where some of my high school buddies worked but never got called so with nothing better to do, I started playing in clubs again. I was still sort of sick of playing to all the drunks and I was determined to find a way out of the clubs. My friend Milton Sledge (who I was playing in clubs with and was burned out on the whole scene too) and I decided that we wanted to be studio musicians--- but we didn't know where to start. It wasn't long until Milton landed a club job with a musician who had access to a studio in the Muscle Shoals, AL area and asked Milton if he'd play drums in the studio on some songs he'd written. The next thing he asked Milton was if he knew a bass player. From that point our studio work increased as we met more and more people who would hire us to play on recordings. At first we still played in clubs while we were breaking into the studio scene but eventually we were able to stop depending on clubs for a living and Milton and I have been primarily studio musicians ever since.
AGB: Personally, I'm glad you continued to play bass. I'm sure that there are many people that feel the same way I do. Is there any advice you would give someone that is just starting out or even if they have been playing for a few years on being a successful bass player? (To explain: successful does not mean they are recording with a national act, just being good at what they do. Local band, church band, etc).
Mike: Well, to be successful at anything I think you have to have a good work ethic. You've got to not only be talented, but you've got to be dependable, prepared, a team player, a hard worker, etc. Actually, all that stuff combines to make what you call your talent---it's not just chops. If you're the kind of guy who's always late or self-centered and lazy then your days are numbered. People will only put up with that for so long--I don't care how talented you are. If you want to be successful then you've got to get all your ducks in a row and be the best you can be at everything you're doing and then you might get lucky. By the way, the definition of luck that I subscribe to is "when talent meet opportunity".
AGB: I know you gave me a list of the gear that you use, would you tell me how you selected what you are using and what the advantages you gain from it.
Mike: I'll talk primarily about the gear I use in the studio. I got a new Fender Jazz bass in 1973 (the same one I have now) because there was a guy in a nightclub in Huntsville, Billy Casteel, that played a Jazz and I loved the way it sounded and I loved the way it played. For many years, a Fender bass was pretty much the standard and you had to play either a Precision or a Jazz---almost all other brands sounded boomy. My first bass was a Precision but after playing the Jazz I had to get one. A lot of people love Precisions but to me it's no contest. The Jazz is the better bass, hands down. The Jazz was my #1 bass for many years until I got my Warwick Streamer Stage II. As much as I loved my Jazz bass, it has some faults and the Warwick did not have those faults. I got an endorsement with Warwick and so went to a store and checked out a bunch of Warwicks before deciding which one I wanted. The Streamer Stage II was my favorite playing and sound-wise. To tell the truth, I only half-way expected that it would work out good in the studio because it's been my experience that not every bass that sounds good in the store sounds good in the studio. But... I was about to be surprised. After I received the Warwick and played it a short while it became my #1 and has been now for about 14 years. It always cuts through when I'm recording, it plays great and is a 5 string with a great B string and has no dead spots. As far as pre-amps go, I love my Neve. Before people starting carrying racks to sessions I used to always love recording in studios that had Neve consoles because my bass always sounded the best there. I used to wish I could carry that sound around with me to other studios. Time passed and people starting parting out old consoles and you could buy pre-amps and eqs and put them in a rack and carry them from studio to studio. There's something about Neve gear that colors the sound in a cool way. It's a tube-like warmth that's pleasing to the ear. You can add a lot of bottom to it and it always cuts through without being boomy.
AGB: I know that you are a producer and studio musician however do you like to play live and maybe tour?
Mike: Yes, I love to play live and I enjoy going out on the road. It's so much fun to play with some great musicians in front of a lot of people. It's a totally different thing from the studio which I also love but for different reasons. Plus, it's cool to just get out of Nashville sometimes and hang out with friends when I'm doing gigs on the road. I love to travel and sometimes I get to take my wife and we make a mini-vacation out of it like when I went to Norway to do some gigs this past summer.
AGB: To get into more about you Mike, I understand that you worked on all of Garth Brook's studio albums except the Chris Gains album. How does it feel to know that you played on so many albums that have sold millions of copies?
Mike: It's a good feeling. I remember the first time I heard myself on the radio and it was really an exciting experience. It's still a good feeling every time I hear myself. I truly feel blessed to have had the opportunity to play on so many sessions and to have a good many of them sell a lot is the icing on the cake. It is truly an honor to be part of the team that has worked with Garth. Garth Brooks is a wonderful human being and I proud to call him my friend.
AGB: You've also worked with several other artists over the years, do you have any interesting stories you would share with us. (Looking for fun not bad things is: great take except the tape ran out, everyone was out of key etc. These are poor examples however we're not going for the National Enquire stories)
Mike: The funniest thing I ever heard in a studio was one day when I was working with George Jones. We had ran the song a few times and the producer says, "George, I believe the musicians are ready to record it---are you ready?" George replied, "I've been ready since '56!" That cracked me up because if anybody's been "ready" since '56 it's George Jones.
AGB: The music business has changed over the past 10 years, how do you think that this has affected the industry over all?
Mike: In the 90s we were enjoying the biggest boom ever in country music when Congress changed the law concerning the ownership of radio stations and everything went downhill. Now we have large corporations that own hundreds of radio stations and are very selective with what they play on those stations. These corporations seem to want to play it safe with their play lists in order to not run listeners off and this makes for boring radio which in itself will run off a number of listeners. Some of these large corporations also own ticket companies and promote concerts. They sometimes put pressure on artists to do shows for free with the implication that this will make it easier for the artist to get played on the radio. Because of the changing of the radio ownership law, and other related or maybe not related factors, the country music business was wounded and has been trying to re-invent itself ever since. In some cases, it has been successful but overall we never got back to where we were in the 90s.
AGB: Do you have any projects that you are working on that you can share with us?
Mike: I really excited about a girl I produced. Her name is Scarlett Seither (pronounced "Sighter"). She's twenty years old and she's from Germany. I think she's got what it takes to be a big artist. She's a great singer and writer. She speaks fluent English, almost without an accent at all and when she sings it is totally without an accent. When you hear her sing you think she's from Georgia, Arkansas, or some other Southern state. I'm hoping we'll get her on a major label because the public needs to hear her.
AGB: Let's make this last question more of an open ended question, please feel free to give us a little insight on Mike Chapman.
Mike: It's been brought to my attention that not everyone understands the difference between a studio musician and a live musician. Sometimes people ask me "Why doesn't (insert any country singers' name here)'s band play on his records?" Almost all professional musicians are good live musicians but playing in the studio requires an additional set of skills. To be a good studio musician you have to learn how to do a few things that you just don't worry about much when you're playing live.
If you make a mistake playing live, it goes out through the speakers into the air and is never heard again. If you make a mistake while recording (and if you don't fix it) it's there forever to be heard again and again. While you can fix mistakes while recording, you find that you have to work at being a better musician and cutting down on the number of times that you make mistakes. Time is money and time spent making mistakes and fixing them cost money so the better studio musicians figure out their weaknesses and get stronger in the needed areas. Also, playing live many times the amp behind you is aimed at your legs and you don't hear things like fret noise and string buzz. When you're in the studio and have the speakers strapped to your ears (headphones) there's no missing hearing those unneeded noises and you have to work to eliminate those from your playing so the recordings will sound better.
Being a studio musician usually means you have to be very versatile and able to play many different styles of music well. For example, someone that is a great musician in some country singer's live band may not need to know how to play anything but country but if you're working in the studios you'll be expected to play any style. When songwriters hire musicians to play on their demos they may be recording a song that will be pitched to George Jones followed by a song that going to be pitched to Celine Dion followed by a song that going to be pitched to Aerosmith. You have to be able to play all well.
Working in the studio you must be creative. While all live pro musicians are good at copying a part from a record, not all are good at creating something original. Believe it or not, you can learn to be creative. You just have to open your mind to the possibilities of different ways of playing a song. So, becoming a studio musician means taking a live musician and having that live musician learn some new skills.
Above all, to be a successful studio musician you've got to be a nice guy. It doesn't matter how good you are---if you sometimes act like a jerk then you're not gong to make it. Playing gigs live you may go for a quite a while being a jerk and maybe just change jobs every now and then managing to work for new people who hadn't heard about you. Doing sessions, if you're the kind of guy who says something that puts a chill over the whole room and makes everyone uncomfortable then the word travels fast in that tight knit community and your phone will quit ringing. When there's thousands of dollars riding on a session no one wants to take a chance on someone who might have a bad attitude. For every great studio musician there are ten guys lined up behind him who can do the job and be nice at the same time.
ABOUT Mike Severs
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