Cassius Lambert (b.1996) is a Swedish/Ethiopian bass player and composer based in Malmö. His work is often centred around the electric bass, frequently pushing the boundaries of what an electric bass can do and the contexts in which it can be used. His bass playing can, for instance, be heard in his project BITOI (Bass Is The Original Instrument), where he combines his bass playing with a 3-piece choir, and in Cassius Lambert Solo, a project where everything is composed and performed on electric bass without loops or overdubs.
You have a new release out with your band BITOI, which stands for “Bass is the original instrument”. BITOI explores the limits and possibilities of the voice and the electric bass. Can you talk about the band and the new release?
BITOI is a band consisting of a small choir (Lise Kroner, Anja Tietze Lahrmann and Alexandra Shabo) and me on electric bass. It was originally a commissioned piece for Intonal that evolved into a band.
As said, BITOI stands for Bass Is The Original Instrument (a statement that is not true). But I think it encapsulates the focus of this band quite well.
The focus for BITOI is in interweaving the voice and electric bass. And that is mostly because of the differences between them. The voice has always been a part of us and is an instrument that exists everywhere, which makes it the most diverse, used and investigated instrument we have. The electric bass, on the other hand, is an instrument that is very young and is often put in the same context, no matter the genre. My goal and ambition with this project is to merge these two very different entities into one bigger monolith, mixing up the perspectives and roles of what these instruments can and cannot do.
And this goal is something that pushes us to use our instruments in ways that we haven’t done before. A lot through extended techniques and electronics.
We just put out our debut EP -O-, an EP consisting of four songs.
The next time you can catch us live is at Le Guess Who? in Utrecht on the 12th of November.
BITOI’s lyrics are based on the phonetic pronunciation of bird sounds. What fascinated you about bird sounds, and what inspiration did you borrow from them?
With BITOI, it was the first time I composed for vocals. Before that, I had mainly been working with instrumental music.
Going into the composition process, I knew that I wanted to use phonetics somehow. Often when I listen to music that uses words, the sound of a word is usually more impactful for me than the meaning of it. So I was looking for a system where I could generate words that sounded good and consistent, but did not necessarily mean anything. And I found it early on in the process, in a book that my grandfather gave me called “Alla europas fåglar i färg” (All European Birds in Colour), which is a book that classifies different kinds of birds. One of the Authors (Lars Svensson) has, as a classification tool, written out how the bird sounds using the Latin alphabet. And I found that there were many golden words from a phonetic perspective. So I ended up using this for the choir.
It was a choice that gave me the freedom to choose words from a solely phonetic perspective, without them needing to mean anything.
You also utilised software called Vocaloid during the composition process. How important was it for your work?
I think it has a big impact on how the music sounds.. As already mentioned, prior to working with BITOI I had never worked with vocals. And not being a vocalist myself, I also didn’t know too much about the limits of this instrument.
So when composing, I used this vocal synthesiser software called Vocaloid, one of the interesting features of which is its lack of limitations. You can programme stuff that would be impossible for any human to accomplish. It can do 8-octave skips within a millisecond, and sing faster than any human etc etc.
Because I 1) had never worked with vocals before. 2) do not sing myself, I had a very poor idea of what the limitations of the voice might be. So when I composed for the choir, I could do it very limitlessly (and cluelessly) with the help of Vocaloid.
So much so that when I presented some of the music for the choir, they thought (but kept their thoughts to themselves, thankfully) “this will never work”. But with small tweaks and a lot of rehearsals, the original ideas worked. So in short, Vocaloid and my lack of knowledge really helped us to push our boundaries.
Your work in general is centred around the electric bass. Why the electric bass, and what led you to this instrument?
The things that led me to the electric bass were boredom and luck. I grew up in the Swedish countryside in a very small village called Abbekås where most of our activities revolved around playing football and digging holes. (Now when I think about it this hole-digging activity was a weird one, but it was what we did) But during a football game I broke my leg quite badly, so I couldn’t be a good football player or hole digger. And during that time my father gave me his old electric bass (he played when he was young).
Thankfully, there were three other kids in Abbekås that started to play music during this period, and we started a band. So very quickly I also got a context.
So, initially I had no intention of becoming a musician, but thanks to my fracture I got onto the music path.
How do you work with this instrument in practice? Do you deconstruct it or rather use it as a base for further experimentation?
For me, limitations are my main tool for progress and experimentation. I find it’s really a gateway to forcing your work into other realms. So, for example, in my project “Cassius Lambert Solo ” the limitations are: 1) To compose and perform 45 minutes of music on the electric bass. 2) Not to use any loops or overdubs. Prior to this project, I had only played in ensemble situations. So even though it was two limitations that seemed easy, it totally changed how I treated the electric bass. I had to somewhat redefine most of the elements of my bass playing – sound, timbre, dynamics, phrasing, time, rhythm, harmony etc etc.
It also forced me to explore different types of extended techniques, preparation on the electric bass and more extensive use of the pedalboard, a process of exploration that also made me realise what a gold mine the electric bass is. It is an instrument that has an extremely wide range of sounds, timbres and emotional expressions, and also an instrument that can take on many roles if you let it.
And with BITOI it created another set of limitations and things to relate to. How do I best implement a bass in a choir situation? Such things make me rediscover and relearn aspects of the bass.
I also want to share my latest discovery, which is the quarter-tone electric bass. Earlier this year I got a new neck for my bass, a neck that allows me to play quarter-notes. This opened up so much for me, both monophonically and, maybe even more, polyphonically. It’s as if you suddenly had a new colour to paint with.
In short, you can say that I use limitations for experimentation. And the experimentation gives me a bigger array of tools that I can use in practice. So when I ask myself, what can the bass do? The answer was very different five years ago. And hopefully the answer will stay in a state of constant change.
Can you talk about your background and creative journey?
I was born and raised in Abbekås, located on the south coast of Sweden. And I started playing around the age of ten. And as I already mentioned, me and three other people started a band. That was maybe the best school for me as I suddenly had a context in which I had to learn about composition (we only played original music), band dynamics, playing live, etc etc. And for the first five years, I didn’t have a teacher, which is something I think also impacted me a lot. It really gave me time to investigate the instrument, find my love for it. And find my own angle on the electric bass.
When I started High school, I got my first teacher, and I also got a completely new context. I started to become interested in improvisation and jazz music, and also more experimental music.
After high-school, I went to the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen (RMC), and I felt a pivotal change in something there. It is an institution that is not genre-based, and those who get accepted are those that they think have some kind of unique voice, which means that no two people are doing the same thing. So at RMC I got introduced to a lot of fantastic musicians and music. And it was also here that I started creating some solo-bass compositions.
I also started to play and tour in a lot of different bands and contexts, from jazz, to doom rock, folk music, pop, and everything in between. A very sponge-like, formative period.
Since university, I have been freelancing as a bass player and composer, playing in different bands, doing my own projects, composing music for different stuff.
Interview by Lucia Udvardyova