The Real Rocker: interview with BARRY SPARKS

I started to know about and recognise Barry Spark's bass playing thanks to Cosmoquad, a power rock fusion trio who is still closed to both hard rock and fusion fan's hearts; I was used to consume a massive dose of fusion bass at that time, that's how I found Cosmoquad. I was immediately struck by Barry Spark's sound; he simultaneously proved to be virtuous and balanced. I felt, it was clear, that Barry was capable of extraordinary technique even though without flaunting his own evident skills. He never risked leading to a sort of "circus" performance: with too much tapping or slap, as well as with too many solos. Barry was able to introduce himself with a fierce and a powerful sound, without getting caught up in those usual traps which are typical of bass heroes. So I started searching for any records in which Barry took on the role of bass, since then. I found him with Yngwie J. Malmsteen, the great Michale Schenker. I read his name in John West's solos albums, later I saw him with Dokken and together with the mythical Ted Nugent.... then I got, with such difficulty with the italian distribution, his own solo albums: the fully acoustic one, "Glimmer of hope", and the definitely rock record, "Can't look back".
Barry is one of the top rock bass players out there, which is not surprising. That's because he can unite the emphatic groove, which is ideal for boosting such tough and complex tracks, and the bass player's awareness. It is him who fills and accomodates the structure, who holds it up and, if you like, encourages it.
I wanted to interview Barry for a long time. It has been a courtship that I started with shy e-mails some years ago, and now, here we are, with an interview that confirms Barry Spark's spirit of rock, as well as his own eclecticism, kindness and his willingness as person. His opinions about the world of rock and also the disintegration of the "true and real" music (that is to say "listening it on a physical medium"), show that in this artist you can find the soul of rocker together with uncommon intellectual honesty and consistency, which are qualities really difficult to find in the musical scene nowadays.

LDP: First of all, Barry, how did you start? When and why did you choice electric bass?

BS: When i was about 8 or 9 years old, I was a Kiss fan like everyone was in the late 70's! I would air guitar with my brother while playing Kiss records! I loved Ace Frehley the most. Around 1979 I bought an electric guitar out of a Sears catalog for about 50 bucks!
(that was a lot of money, I saved for forever!) My brother also started playing as well. A year or two later my brother wanted to form a band with his friend from school. I didn't really want to be left out, so I decided to play bass. I remember thinking well, Geddy Lee from Rush makes the bass pretty interesting so I will try this too! I instantly loved it and practiced for hours and hours everyday, playing along with records.. like Rush “2112”, Iron Maiden "Killers"... Tygers of Pan tang "Spellbound" was another favorite to jam to.

LDP: Who were your main reference bass players?

BS: My heroes were (still are!) mainly Geddy Lee (Rush), John Entwistle (The Who), Steve Harris (Iron Maiden), Chris Squire (Yes) but I also loved bands like Aerosmith, UFO, Scorpions, Black Sabbath (loved Geezer), Van Halen. Also Fran Sheehan from Boston played great too. All the great rock bands from that time (I still love these players today!). Also I remember my guitar teacher telling me to buy Jeff Beck "Wired" and The Dixie Dregs "Dregs of the Earth" also Stanley Clarke "School Days". These albums blew me away!
It still doesn't really get better than that stuff. Stanley Clarke is unreal! Untouchable for that super fast finger picking! Oh yes... Percy Jones from Brand X is awesome too. Of course Billy Sheehan showed us all a thing or two as well!

LDP: You are a musician who's gifted with extraordinary technique, so you are capable of playing whatever you want. You have already proved that on several occasions, joining with musicians like Yngwie Malmsteen, Dokken, Michael Schenker, Tony MacAlpine, Ted Nugent, Uli Jon Roth.... How can you always find your own state of mind in such exciting situations, so easly? Which are the experiences that you'd rather remember?

BS: Well, I have been very honored to have been given the oppurtunity to play with so many great guitarists and bands. I think with each different project I don't really change my mindset or anything, I just try to play what is best for the song. Of course if I can add a cool lick or a cool part, I try to do it!
Sometimes, yes, less is more, but I have always also had the attitude to "go for it' a bit and let the magic happen. Again, it's not something I really think about. I just think my influences run deep! So my Geddy, or Entwistle impersonation (which hopefully by now sounds like my own twist on it) is always there.
For example.. when I played for Ted Nugent, it was a three piece and his music is real "old school rock' n' roll" so it was real open, especially live, so I had plenty of room to really play, for this reason I really had a great time with Ted. It was a bit like "Cream" and also Ted liked it that way, so that encouraged me too!

LDP: You have recorded two solo albums, very different from each other, also various and peculiar, and in both of them you didn't push your virtuosity, even tough you could just do it, instead of preferring the musical composition and the amalgam. Do you think you could record an ultra technical solo album, anytime soon? Have you planned any other foray as alone artist?

BS: That's a good question. Well, in the past, on at least these two albums you are talking about, the first one actually had no bass at all! Strangely that was an entirely acoustic album.
And that came about for several reasons, one being, I wasn't set up to really record a proper full blown album (you need to think that this was way back in 1998 or so, and the digital recording wasn't so easy to come by as it is now. So that was done on ADAT machines. Anyhow I knew I could at least make a good sounding acoustic album this way and I still think that album sounds pretty good. For the next one, it was more of an attempt to make a "pop rock-ish" sort of thing. So funnily enough. Sometimes when I write songs which is usually done on an acoustic guitar, well, on that album, I didn't really notice until much later. But I think the bass was probably done rather quickly, although the bass playing is fine, maybe more simple is all, which sometimes is better if the song calls for it.
Also my mindset might have been on the guitar perhaps, where as, if I come into a studio to play on someone elses album, I am using my "I am a bass player" brain and probably hoping to shine on the the bass a bit! Anyhow my point is that I may have just played a bit more simple because I was thinking about the guitar parts and just not trying to "show off" so much as a bass player.
My latest album is a band called "Riot On Mars" with the amazing vocalist Michael Vescera! But it's mainly a duo of just him and I.. I play all of the instruments and it's a real "old school" rock album! My favorite style of music. Sort of Rainbow, Rush, Thin Lizzy, Zeppelin sounding to my ears.
It is being mastered now and I am very happy with how its coming out! On this album, when it came time to record bass, I approached it the same as if I would play on a Ted Nugent album or something, so I really wanted the bass to stand out.
I really wanted to have the bass been a very important part of the song... plus tone wise.... I really went "over the cliff" I went for a more "Geddy" or Entwistle" tone using a seperate track for distortion, which I blended with my clean signal (same thing I do live, whenever possible) anyhow the bass on this album really stands out I think and I allowed myself to "play" quite a bit! It's not all out shredding so much because, I mean, the songs still need to have the right bass part. But I took a different approach and I wanted the bass to really say something. I think it has some of my best playing ever on this album!

LDP: In the late 1980s/in the early 1990s, electric bass could find a new dimension in the landscape of hard rock and metal music, thanks to musicians like Stu Hamm, Billy Sheean, yourself, Randy Coven and a few other people. You are part of this "race" of extraordinary bassists without any awe of guitarists. Do you think that the emancipation of electric bass in the hard rock is still in progress?

BS: Well, first off, I thank you for including me with such good company! Again, for me it's always just been a simple goal of "playing the best I can" and "best" meaning if I can "strut my stuff” I do! If i need to play something simple, well , I do that too.
As for if the bass is continuing to evolve? I certainly hope so! To be honest, a lot of what is happening today is sort of discouraging young players, not putting in the time to practice as much as I did 20 years ago (and still do!). Today people want "instant satisfaction" and with all the amazing technology (which is wonderful) but it also stops people from really having to play so well (you can always fix it now and it's easy to do so). I don't want to sound so negative. It's just that "times have changed" and I sometimes can't help but look back at Zeppelin, Deep Purple or listen to Rush or my old Yes albums or anything from those "good ol days" days! (does it get better than that?) maybe not? It seems now. Don't people even have the attention span to listen to a whole album? It's all about people's I-phones!
I am a vinyl record collecting freak, so that keeps my love of Rock alive. But of course there are many great players today too and I hope the bass continues to evolve!
But as along as music is "mere background music" on people's I phones...sadly... well, maybe the golden years of music as we know it, are gone. For example, considering those great classic albums as Pink Floyd's “Dark side of the moon”... If they were released today, how many people would even listen to the whole thing? Maybe "money" would be a hit but that's it! It wouldn't have a chance, people are facebooking and playing video games instead of "listening" to good music!
"Listening" to music used to actually be something people did!
When Van Halen first came out, everyone (I mean everyone, not just guitar players) was listening to Eddie Van Halen and saying...wow! That guy can play guitar! It was exciting for the whole world. Now a lot of the really good euro metal bands are playing really good but it's mostly only other guitarists listening.
I remember in the 80's, going to a rock concert was the best and most exciting thing for people to do. Now even the most popular bands can't really play the arenas like they did back then, because people are just not as "into" it as they were. It's nice to be able to play huge stadiums in Japan with B'z nowadays because it just won't happen in most other places in the world. The Japanese fans still love to see live music.
One more point is that when I was growing up (now I am sounding old! hahaha) well, when I was growing up, music was so so very important to me (still is) but I don't see that it is the same to young people now. I could be wrong, but albums like Rainbow's “Rising". these to me, changed the world! This was very important stuff. And it meant a lot to me. I knew each member of every band I liked, most of younger people don't pay much attention to who the drummer is or bass player (well I could be wrong but it seems this way to me) Again it seems music is less important when you get it for free and when it isn't an actual "product" you can feel in your hands, if it's just an mp3, you can't even see.... well, it doesn't seem as important as a full length "album" did back in the good ol' golden years of Rock! Jimmy Page was so mysterious, it made him a Rock God! Nowadays... Well you just can check Katy Perry or whoever, and you can read on twitter what they ate for lunch, so much for the mysterious Rock Gods! Led Zeppelin was larger than life, because you didn't get to know every detail. You only had the Music! But all the negativity aside, I do try to always think positive and hope things get better. So people......please.....keep on Rockin' on! And keep "real" music alive!

LDP: I'd like to know something about your relationship with fretless and what kind of technical skills do you prefer on bass, as you master all of them...

BS: Fretless! Well, that is a tough bass to master isn't it! As for my fretless playing...hmm... I feel I have a long way to go on that!
I play it from time to time but I would never say I am a fretless player so much! Tony Franklin is amazing, as well as Marco Mendoza.
I am much more comfortable on a fretted bass, but I do love fretless and when I feel brave enough I try to play it too!
Mainly I am a finger player and very proudly I do play with all four fingers, even my pinky, I am not sure if I have ever seen anyone else play this way.
I am most comfortable playing fingerstyle. Rock bass is really my thing. Geddy, Geezer, John Paul Jones, I do my "take" on this style the best.
From time to time though, if needed, a pick works well for some rock stuff. I love Chris Squire! But if I don't need to do it. For me, fingerstyle is the way to go.

LDP: Your work on bass in two records of John West is really amazing. Long ago I read an interview with Steve DiGiorgio, who said that in "Mind's Journey" you taught everyone a glorious lesson (and it's true!). You received a great demonstration of esteem by a lot of people. Are there any peculiar musicians, whom you particularly appreciate?

BS: Well first off, I want to thank Steve for such nice words! At the time I don't think we really thought very many people were paying much attention to those albums.
John West is a great singer and we knew it was good stuff, so it's nice to hear maybe some people actually were listening. Again, as for the bass, I was just trying to do the best job I could do. I do think I was playing well at that particular time (hopefully I am better now!) but as for chops, I remember being in top form! Which I always try to be in that. Practice for me is very important as the bass is a very demanding instrument.
As for people I admire, the list is long. All the people I have ever worked with, I feel are great and I have played with many of my heroes. Michael Schenker is still probably my fave lead guitarist ever. As for bassists, some I mentioned already but I will make a list again here. I love Geddy Lee, Chris Squire, John Paul Jones, Roger Glover, Stanley Clarke, Steve Harris, Paul McCartney, Bob Daisley played some great stuff too, Percy Jones, Tom Hamilton from Aerosmith. Jaco of course!
Even guys like Pete Sears form Jefferson Starship was a cool player, most guys I like were not so much soloist guys (some are). Most are great "Rock" players, I always wanted to be a great "Rock" bassist.
Of course I love and appreciate jazz and other forms of music. But my main love is Rock N Roll: Deep Purple, Zeppelin, The Who, Rush, The Beatles.
These guys were all larger than life Rock N Roll Gods!
Another guy I admire very much is Steve Morse. He is a great player and I also used to read his guitar magazine columns every month. He always had great wisdom!

LDP: What kind of gear do you play at the moment?

BS: My main basses are my new signature basses made by ESP. My brother Kevin had designed these for me first. A white one you can see me playing in lots of pictures.
This is now made by ESP. When I first toured with UFO back in 2003, I was playing a Thunderbird bass in honor of Pete Way.
Dokken guitarist Jon Levin came to a gig in New York, I remember him saying, "wow that bass looks cool on you! I said, it may look cool, but it sounds terrible! Hahaa so anyhow Jon and I were going to have a small company in Wales make us some custom instruments. That kinda fell thru, so I asked my brother to give it a try.
And he made me a great bass! He came up with the shape, sort of Thunderbird like, but a bit smaller and different woods, maple and alder. Anyhow these basses I love and I like having my own "Thing" they are truly unique and they Rock!
As for amps, in Japan with B'z I have some real cool custom speakers made by a Japan company called F.A.T.
As for amp heads, usually ampegs, a classic or pro 4 works well but mostly, because I like how reliable they are and how they all always sound the same, a GK Rb 800 is an easy choice.
My strings are S.I.T and my pickups are Seymour Duncan.

LDP: Why don't you talk about your next plans? Are there any records that are coming out? How is your collaboration with B'z progressing?

BS: As I mention before my new band is called "Riot on Mars" look for it soon!
As for B'z, I love playing for them. They are great people, they play great, the music is great, basically it's a real cool thing! B'z have a new album coming out in Feb, I believe, and a huge Japan tour will be form March thru to July, so I am very much looking forward to doing all of that soon!

LDP: Let's close with a question focused on your taste in music. If you might list on instinct some records you love, what titles would you mention to me?

BS: Ok. Some of my fave albums in no particular order.. But these albums are sort of "part of my life" very important music to me. The soundtrack of my life stuff!

Rush (anything of course) but maybe Rush 2112, Hemispheres, Caress of Steel;
Yes: Close to the edge, Fragile, Relayer. Tormato, Going for the one, Drama;
Stanley Clarke: School Days;
Jeff Beck: Wired;
Kiss: Destroyer, Rock n Roll Over;
Aerosmith: Rocks! Toys in the attic, Draw the line;
UFO: Obsession, Lights Out;
Michael Schenker Group: first album, second album and Assault Attack;
Scorpions: Taken by Force, Lovedrive;
AC/DC: Back in Black;
Led Zeppelin: (anything) but tops for me is...Led Zep 4, Led Zep 2;
Dixie Dregs: Dregs of the earth, Unsung heroes.

Well there are many more, but on a desert island maybe I could survive with even just these!

Thank you for the great questions!

©Luca De Pasquale in collaborazione con Manuela Avino

Thanks: Barry and Alessandra Sparks, Manuela Avino

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