A beginner bassist's foray into the unknown

Jo Bench (Bolt Thrower) – Collected interview snippets

In my previous post about Jo Bench, I spoke about a dearth of information regarding her bass background. Since then, I’ve scoured the internet to find relevant interviews and articles about her that have some of that info. Here’s what I found:

  1. Jo Bench interview by Chazz and Lork K Philipson for Global Domination (from Bolt Thrower website)
  2. Bolt Thrower Interview – Leviatan Metal Magazine
  3. Cvlt Nation Interviews Bolt Thrower
  4. Eternal Terror: Jo Bench (Bolt Thrower) – I’m self-taught (fantastic bass info!)
  5. Tartarean Desire: Bolt Thrower interview

A website from the Netherlands called Kmachine had the following snippet about Jo:

She plays bass on all albums but not on the demos. She was asked to join Bolt Thrower when her then long-time boyfriend Gavin Ward had switched from bass guitar to guitar. She is one of the few women playing in a ultra-heavy death metal band, besides bands as Delirium, Mystic Charm, Achrosticon (all three Dutch), Runemagick (Swedish). And she is at least one of the first. She is from Leamington Spa. Jo has been a vegetarian since 1984.

The following sections summarize snippets of information about Jo related to music, bass and social politics. At the end of each piece of information, I’ve included a number in parenthesis that denotes which of the five interviews/articles (listed above) that it was taken from.

jo-bench-8

MUSICIANSHIP

Jo states that she’s not a technical bassist. She relies on consistency and tightness, forming a strong rhythm section with the drummer and says that Bolt Thrower‘s music is very riff-based.

She doesn’t appear to have studied music theory heavily, but that’s something I’m inferring, not something that she’s outright said for herself. I haven’t seen her use any “musical” terms like chord, scale, harmony, or anything of the sort in her interviews.

Jo describes Bolt Thrower’s music as an evolving work-in-progress. Even after more than 2 decades of being a fan, I’m impressed that people with only a handful of months of experience on their instruments were able to shape a scene in the way that they did. One interviewer did make the distinction that prior to Cenotaph, their music had a strong punk feeling, and that after it, their sound became more metal. This highlights a turning point in complexity and instrumental skill for the band, even if Jo might not view it as such!

With regard to Bolt Thrower’s sound, I actually didn’t realize that they don’t employ blast beats in their drumming. I must have been caught up with the overall songwriting. Death has the same ethos. With Death, Chuck Schuldiner said that they didn’t want to sound like all of the other death metal bands that were peppering their music with blast beats in the 80s. For Bolt Thrower, its more because they didn’t like how the sound came across in a live setting, which I suppose sets them apart from their contemporaries in Napalm Death, who basically invented blast beats. So it looks like it was a creative/identity concern for Death and a question of functionality and pragmatism for Bolt Thrower.

[1] Global Domination: The music of The Bolts isn’t very technical or anything, how skilled a musician do you think you have to be to pull yer stuff off in a flawless manner?

Jo: I don’t think you have to be a skilled musician at all to play Bolt Thrower’s music, that’s the great thing about the band!! It’s all about the riffs….! (1)

[2] Global Domination: Isn’t it kinda funny that you had damn sloppy drums over the first albums and still managed to get the attention deserved? Were you guys ever aware of the sloppy-factor, or was it more like “Fuck it, let’s have some more tea, no one will ever notice the sloppiness anyways”? 

Jo: No, there was no tea involved! I just think we were trying to play stuff that we weren’t totally capable of playing!! Karl had only been singing for about a month, I’d only been playing bass for about 4 months, Gav had been playing guitar about 6 months, and Whale had only been playing double-bass drums for about a year before we recorded the album and it definitely shows. It was ‘every man for himself’ and if we ended the song at the same time, then that was a bonus! I make no apologies, and I’ve heard worse debut albums! One album reviewer called us a ‘drunk Slayer’, I think that says it all… (1)

[3] CR: Why don’t we talk a little about some previous works of Bolt Thrower? I have always been able (or dare) to divide into two Bolt Thrower sound, before the “Cenotaph” Ep, when I could hear a lot of punk influence in your music, and after that Ep, when you guys clean a little your sound to become more metal oriented; do you guys think that a band sound can by divided into stages just by listening to their records?

Jo Bench: I guess so. Some bands are probably easier to divide in stages than others. But you’re probably right, on the first 2 albums we were still finding our sound and learning our instruments, so they probably are a bit punkier. But when we got to Warmaster I think we kind of ‘settled in’ to our sound. We had more of an idea where we wanted to go with it and we continued more along that path, just perfecting our sound a little more with each album. (2)

[4] CN: Your sound is very much it’s own and has influenced so many bands. Was it a very conscious thing to play something different from when you started rather than thrash or grind?

Jo: We’ve never consciously thought about our music style at all. When we started we just wanted to make extreme music, but we just weren’t very good musicians so the result was this unidentifiable noise. I don’t think our music has changed that much over the years, we’ve just got better at it that’s all. It’s just been a natural progression. I guess the main change was that we lost the blast beats, but that’s just ‘cos we didn’t think it came across well live and we wanted the music to be more ‘controlled’. I still don’t think we fit in any category comfortably, it’s easier to say “we’re just Bolt Thrower”. (3)

[5] CN: How many songs do you have normally when going into the studio? Do you drop many, or do you go in knowing what will be the first track, the last track etc?

Jo: A lot of songs get dropped before we enter the studio, so we usually go in to record the 9 or 10 songs that will actually be on the album. But the writing process goes on well into the actual recording as we’re constantly changing and tweaking them, so the songs are only properly finished when the mix starts.

We usually have a rough idea of the song order, like opener, ending, etc. but that also is only 100% decided when the songs have all been recorded. (3)

[6] ET: Do you have any formal music training?

Jo: No, I’m self taught. Hence the poor technique! (4)

[7] ET: Any tips for developing and maintaining technique and musical creativity?

Jo: I just think you should just play to your strengths. I know that I’m never gonna be Flea, so I just concentrate on the style I play and make the most of that. Bolt Thrower is a riff band, the music doesn’t lend itself to having some crazy bass stuff going on, we’re really not that type of band. I just try to be as consistent as I can be, and make sure that the rhythm section is tight and heavy. (4)

[8] ET: How do you prepare for a gig?

Jo: The same as everyone else I guess. I just make sure I’m well rehearsed. And try to stay healthy. There’s no ritual I go through before a gig, but I must admit, for quite a few years I used to be so scared that I’d throw up before the shows. Luckily I don’t do that anymore, I guess you kinda get used to it after 20 years.. (4) 

BASS 

Here’s where it gets most interesting for me – when Jo talks bass. Prior to joining them, she taught herself to play by taking apart Bolt Thrower songs on bass! That must have given her some ear-training. What’s curious is that even afterward, she couldn’t take apart Discharge songs.

Her musical influences include mainly proto-metal, like Venom and Black Sabbath, and hardcore punk bands like Discharge, who are famous for originating the d-beat drum pattern, which has been used extensively in punk since. I know a lot of people in the old death metal/grind scene from England were into anarcho punk, crust punk and, later, early Floridian death metal, which was a direct influence on British death and grind (Mudrian’s Choosing Death has a fantastic recounting of the history).

Its also interesting to me to see that she thinks of herself as a “fraud” as a bassist. From working with my wife on her thesis about women in extreme metal, I’ve learned that there’s an “inauthenticity syndrome” that women wrestle with when achieving success, and when navigating traditionally male-centric spaces, like extreme metal. It seems like, even at the upper echelons, women aren’t immune.

As far as actually playing, Jo’s a pick-player! She also plays 4-string, so she’s pretty traditional, but then, 4 strings were good enough for Jaco! I believe that Geezer Butler from Black Sabbath is also a pick-player, and so is Cronos from Venom – they’re also not into extended-range basses.

[1] Global Domination: Speaking of… how did you get your start as a bassist? Were you originally a guitar player who switched to bass like so many others, or were you always a bass player? Who do you think are the best bass players out there now, in metal that is? 

Jo: Not the most exciting story, but Gav was originally on bass and he just decided he wanted to move onto guitar. They tried out a few bassists, which didn’t work out, so I asked if I could try out, so they said yes and agreed to let me join on a ‘2 month trial’. I worked my ass off learning the songs and was ready to gig in a week. I think it went ok, cos I’m still here. I’m sure there are amazing metal bassists out there, but I’m still a fan of the same bassists I liked when I started: Cronos from Venom, Rainy from Discharge, and Geezer Butler from Sabbath. (1) 

[2] ET: When did you start playing bass? Who/what inspired you to pick up the bass?

Jo: Well, it was way back in 1986, basically I just used to pick up Gav’s bass now and again and work out some of the Bolt Thrower riffs, just messing around. So when Gav decided to move onto guitar and they were talking about whom to get on bass I put myself forward as I knew I could at least play some of the stuff. So, I wasn’t really inspired to play bass, it was just an opportunity that came up that I grabbed.. (4) 

[3] ET: What kind of role do you think the bass should have in a band; Primus, AC/DC, or a bit of both?

Jo: I think it really depends on the band and the style of music. The Primus and AC/DC bass style works perfectly in both bands, but swapping the styles over probably wouldn’t. (4)

[4] ET: What would you say characterizes your bass playing, technically and musically?

Jo: To be perfectly honest I feel a bit like a fraud being in this interview, because my bass playing is as basic as it comes. I am not a technical bass player, I mainly just follow the guitar, ‘heavy-ing’ it up, so to speak. I think anyone can play the bass lines I play, but I’ve never professed to be the greatest bass player around, and it’s not something I particularly aspire to be either.

I play with a pick and my sound is heavy and distorted. I’m good enough for Bolt Thrower and that’s about it.. (4)

[5] ET: Tips on how to give a bass riff that extra cool sound or groove?

Jo: To me it’s more about the actual sound of the bass than the playing technique and it took a long time for me to get a sound that I was 100% happy with, and it finally happened when I recorded the last album. But to play tight is also very important to me, so I just make sure I practise as much as I can, then the groove comes pretty naturally. (4)

[6] ET: How many strings on the bass, and why?

Jo: 4. That’s more than enough!! (4) 

[7] ET: Pick or fingers? Why?

Jo: Pick. It’s just the way I’ve always played, and to me it sounds better for the style of music we play. (4)

[8] ET: Any tips for aspiring bass players?

Jo: Do as I say, not as I do. (4) 

[9] ET: Mention three bass players within metal that has a style you like, and what you like about them.

Jo: Blacky – Voivod. A difficult style of music to fit into, but Blacky does it so well with an amazing sound and crazy bass lines and intros.

Cronos – Venom. Another great sound, plays kind of bass solos throughout the songs. Fills out the 3 piece perfectly.

Geezer Butler – Do I need to say more? (4)

[10] ET: If you were to choose three bass players (not necessarily within metal) who’s inspired you, who would that be? Tell a little on how they’ve inspired you.

Jo: Rainy – Discharge.

Jean-Jacques Burnel – Stranglers.

Can only think of two. But they both have amazing bass tones, i’d like either of them myself. Very early on I would work out the Stranglers bass lines, still great to play along to. But I can’t even work out the Discharge stuff, i’m just not that good. Very different styles, but both really great bass players. (4)

[11] ET: Which bass player would you like to see in this series?

Jo: Rainy from Discharge, I don’t think people know how amazing he is, and I think that’s a damn shame.. (4) 

jo-bench-12

GEAR

As far as I know, Jo’s always played BC Rich. When it comes to visual aesthetics, they’re the most metal basses in wide-use. I’m not particularly a gear-head though, so I’m stopping here.

[1] Global Domination: What about equipment? Bolt Thrower albums have a pretty distinctive guitar and bass sound, what does your recording setup look like? Do you use anything different for live situations? 

Jo: We use exactly the same gear for recording and live, both guitars use Marshall 9010 power amps with Boss GX700 effects units, Marshall 4×12 cabs. I used to use a Marshall 800 series guitar amp and overdrive it, but now I use a Peavey T-Max bass head and Laney 2×15 cabs. (1) 

[2] ET: Is the right musical gear important for you? What kind of gear do you use?

Jo: Yes and no. I haven’t got a signature series bass and I don’t have any fancy sponsorship, so everything I use I’ve literally gone out and bought from a music shop. My bass is just a NJ series BC Rich Ironbird. My cabs are 2×15 Laneys, and my amp is a Peavey T-Max. The pedal is an Ibanez Phat Hed. Nothing state of the art, but together it makes a killer sound, so that’s all that matters to me. (4)  

MUSIC 

When it comes to musical tastes, Jo’s something of a purist. She’s into old-school thrash and hardcore, doesn’t enjoy nu-metal, and doesn’t like it when bands change their style dramatically and then backtrack later if their experiments fail. I think that tendency comes across in Bolt Thrower’s playing, as well. They really do own their style of death, or as its been called, “war metal,” and if there have been any changes to the style, its been in small increments. We don’t see dramatic jumps like with Ulver or Tiamat. She also doesn’t keep up with a lot of new bands, which is a common behavioral conception of people as they get older. (I am now curious about her opinion of Voivod’s work from 1997-2013. She enjoys their music, they’re fairly “spacey” and experimental, and their sound has evolved over 30 years.)

[1] Global Domination: Looking back, who was that one person or band for you that influenced you enough to make you decide to become a professional musician? Please don’t say Slayer, everyone says fucken Slayer. 

Jo: Slayer. Ha. No, the band that influenced me most was probably Sacrilege from the UK, a killer but really underrated band, they were totally ahead of their time. Musician-wise, amongst other memorable moments, I remember being totally blown away by Dark Angel ‘Darkness Descends’ and decided I wanted to be a drummer! Obviously due to the fact I couldn’t play drums for shit, that was never going to happen… Then I saw a video of Venom on their ‘Seven Dates of Hell’ tour and then I wanted to be Cronos..I already had the boots, so I was nearly there… ha,ha… (1) 

[2] Global Domination: You guys have been a huge influence for a lot of bands, there’s no denying that. Are there any newer death metal bands you think carries your legacy onward? It would be nice to hear what kind of metal bands makes you tick. What do you think of all these new ‘old-school tribute’ bands like Bloodbath, Chaosbreed and God Among Insects? 

Jo: It’s obviously very flattering to be part of a band that has influenced a lot of newer bands. I haven’t heard the bands you mentioned, so I can’t really comment on them. To be honest, I don’t listen to a lot of the newer metal bands, I think a lot of it is lacking originality, I’ve heard a lot of it before, and done better, so I tend to listen to the same stuff I did 20 years ago – early VoiVod, Sabbath, Candlemass, Trouble, Sacrilege (UK), as well as punk like Discharge, Amebix, Antisect, etc. That stuff still sounds as good now as it did when it was recorded. And ‘New old-school’? is that possible? (1)

[3] CR: What is your opinion on the Nu metal scene (Slipknot, Linking Park, Korn) should they be consider metal and play along side bands like Bolt Thrower or Iron Maiden?

Jo Bench: It’s not my kind of music, and we don’t really have a lot in common with them. There are worse styles of music, but it’s just not for me. (2)

[4] CN: You have roots in the diy punk/hardcore scene with Gavin playing with The Varukers on a tour. Would you still have an interest in the underground diy punk scene, or have you caught any of the gigs by the reformed Discharge, Amebix or Antisect? what type of music / influence do you have these days, be it books, movies or music?

Jo: We all met when we were punks, when me and Gav were sharing a house with The Varukers. My taste in music hasn’t changed that much since those days, and the last gigs I went to were UK Subs, Discharge, The Specials & The Damned! It’s always a gamble to see these reunion bands though, I’ve been very disappointed but also pleasantly surprised, so I’m still a bit sceptical about it. I didn’t know that Antisect had reformed, never got to see them live back in the day as they didn’t turn up the night I went to see them, so they do owe me!

To be honest I don’t follow the newer scene that much, sometime someone will say ‘check these out’ and I’m sure I’m missing out on a lot of cool bands, but I think in my head I’m still that 15 year old punk girl listening to the same old records in my bedroom! (3)

[5] TD: Good or bad, there are bands that change constantly like Paradise Lost for example and there are bands that never change like for instance Benediction. Bolt Thrower is one of those bands who kept original and true to their musical choice for more then a decade, even though the band has suffered a few line up changes. How did this happen?

Jo: We grew up watching a lot of the bands we were into change into something completely different, and that really disappointed us. We always vowed we would never change our music style and although we are sometimes criticised for this, it is something we really believe in. If you want to hear Bolt Thrower you can put on any one of our albums and hear Bolt Thrower. If you want to hear another style of music, put another band’s album on. With new members we make it clear that there is going to be no ‘trademark’ from them personally, and that it is really important we keep the music sounding the same, and so far it has worked out well. We don’t have any respect for bands who ‘try something different’ to sell more records and when it doesn’t work out, they go back to their ‘roots’, it’s a total compromise, and something we will never do. (5) 

WOMANHOOD 

Answers to questions about her experience as a woman in death metal confirms something I’ve heard about Jo for a long time: she carries herself as a musician first and woman second. She doesn’t see a need to distinguish between male and female musicians, as far as ability, creativity and output, and, from what I know, many of her fans hold her in esteem for this.

There are probably people who would like her to speak about her experiences from a female perspective more, but she genuinely doesn’t seem to take gender into account when viewing her position and legacy in the scene. This is, hopefully, a stance taken by the other members of Bolt Thrower as well. I’d like to believe that they value her based on her creativity and skill and don’t take gender into account. As she’s essentially a founding member, and I’ve not come across any records of resentment or difficulties surrounding her and the rest of the band, I think its likely the case.

[1] Global Domination: Looking forward to the advance then, hoho… I’m sure everyone who interviews you asks something like “is it any tougher being a woman in the heavy music scene”, so I’ll flip it around here. What are the advantages of being a woman in the heavy music scene? 

Jo: There haven’t been many advantages being a women in the heavy music scene for me, I get no special treatment from the other band members, the assholes still make me carry the gear! I’ve noticed in the scene nowadays some bands seem to use their ‘hot’ female member to distract you from their crappy music, so I guess it looks like it does have some advantages… (1)

[2] CR: Jo-Anne Bench you have been a big pillar for the band, and have drowned a lot of attention by the media, being one of the first women to be part of a metal band. Did you had to work harder than the other members of the band to be recognize as a colleague?

Jo Bench: I don’t think I have to work harder than any of the other members, we all work pretty hard, so just as hard is enough. The important thing is to remember that I’m the bassist first, and being female is secondary when it comes to the band. We’ve never promoted the fact I was female, I’ve never done solo photo sessions, or any kind of self-promotion and I think I have gained more respect because of it. I’ve been in the band for 18 years now, so it’s kind of old news… (2)

[3] CR: What do you think of this new era of front women on bands and all the promotion made to make them look better than they are, do you think that could work in Bolt Thrower (after all Jo you are an attractive girl)

Jo Bench: I’m too old for that shit! Haha… Seriously though, that’s something I hate about a lot of these new bands, when the main focus is on the girl in the band. The media love it, it sells magazines, but it makes it harder for the female musicians who don’t want to promote themselves that way. A band is a band to me, no member is more important than another, whether they’re male or female. We don’t need that kind of promotion, our music is far more important than our image. (2)

[4] TD: Being you a female playing in an extreme band, how would you describe the death metal and the heavy scene in general environment around you? I mean in our days we even have bands where all the members are woman, but when you first started you were an exception…

Jo: I’ve never experienced any negative reactions in the scene. I really love the music and I work really hard, and have done for nearly 15 years, and I think people respect that. We’ve never used the fact I’m female to sell more records, it’s never been a gimmick. It’s really good to see more and more women getting involved in the scene – as long as they don’t compromise themselves and they are in it for the right reasons (the music!), then I’m all for it. I have seen a few females in bands who seem to have done more photo sessions than gigs, and I don’t have a lot of respect for them! (5)

Here are some links for fans of Jo and Bolt Thrower:

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One response

  1. Reblogged this on ontheshelves and commented:
    An inspiring woman and a great blog post about her.

    September 27, 2016 at 11:14 am

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