Ask most people what they know about Phil Soussan, and chances are the reply will be something to the effect of “Oh yeah…he was the bass player for Ozzy.” Yes, Soussan was the bass player on The Ultimate Sin album, and he did write the hit song Shot In The Dark. However, there is far, far more in the resume of this talented musician than just that one line.
Just the names of the people Soussan has recorded and/or toured with reads like a rock encyclopedia: Jimmy Page, Billy Idol, Vince Neil, Steve Lukather, Gilby Clarke, John Waite, Edgar Winter…and the list goes on and on. He works on films, doing music editing and mixing. Oh, and by the way, in his spare time–what little he has of it–he also restores vintage motorcycles.
One of his latest projects is a solo album titled No Protection. It truly is a solo album, in that Soussan plays all the instruments and does all the vocals, with the exception of five tracks where he enlisted Gregg Bissonette to play drums (nice to have friends in high places!) The music is very different from what one would expect to hear from a man associated with hard rock and heavy metal. “I’ve always had leanings towards–I don’t want to use the word ‘pop’ or anything like that, but ‘commercial,'” says Soussan. “My influences, when it came to songwriting, are the usual suspects–The Beatles, David Bowie, bands like that. It’s always been like that. Shot In The Dark was a commercial-type song, and I think that’s why it became a hit for Ozzy. I had a great conversation with Mutt Lange, who I’ve known for a long time, and he has some very interesting philosophies on this. One of the things he says is that he would make tapes of songs that were all number one hits, and that’s all he would listen to. And he was convinced that if all you listen to is number one hits, that you start to think that way. Not like you’re trying to contrive anything, but you start to get these ideas of hooks, and if you have a hook it’s a good idea. If you have two hooks it’s a great idea, and if you have three hooks, well… it’s a hit. I love playing heavy music, I love playing classic rock, but when it comes to writing my solo stuff, I wanted to do something different, and I wanted to do something that I normally wouldn’t find myself doing.”
I love playing heavy music, I love playing classic rock, but when it comes to writing my solo stuff, I wanted to do something different…
One of the advantages of doing all the work yourself is that you don’t have to rely on other musicians to bring your project to fruition. One of the disadvantages of doing all the work yourself is…doing all the work yourself! Soussan laughs when asked about that. “Oh yeah, absolutely. I’m going to preface this by saying I don’t know if I ever want to do that again, but it was quite an experience, and the reason I did it is because I always wanted to do it. I heard McCartney’s first solo album, and he was playing all the instruments on it, and I thought ‘that’s a challenge,’ and I wanted to do it to see what it was like. I’ll tell you, it takes a long time, because every time you want to change something, you have to change four or five different parts, record them, see how they work, and you make a decision, and you invariably go back to the first version you made. I think you come out of that with a really good understanding of how to arrange things in your head, and that was priceless to me. So I think every musician should try it. It doesn’t matter what you play or what you don’t play, my advice is to try recording something on your own, completely. Don’t be afraid to reach out and develop an understanding of the other instruments, and how they relate to each other. I think it’s a wonderful exercise.”
Given that Soussan has made his mark in the music world as a bass player, one of the real surprises on the album is what a phenomenal guitar player he is. On two of the tracks, Big Love and Lighthouse Hill, he rips off solos that would put many a guitar player to shame. Reading his bio, one finds that Soussan actually started playing guitar as a youngster.
“I started playing guitar before I started playing bass, and it’s something I really enjoy doing. I don’t get a chance to do it much, so when I did my first solo album, Vibrate, I did these production demos, and I ended up playing a lot of guitar on them. Well, when it came time to getting all the guests to play, especially guys like Lukather, he was listening to the stuff, and I said ‘I want you to play on this and that,’ and he said ‘Why do you want me to play? What you’ve done is fine. Keep what you’ve got–it’s cool.’ And for me, listening to that stuff was like looking at photographs of yourself. You kind of cringe, but the very things that make you cringe, other people look at and say ‘well, that’s you.’ So when I listen to my guitar playing, I don’t think it’s that great, but other people seem to appreciate something about it. We ended up keeping a lot of that guitar, and when I went into this album, I felt a lot more confident. So there was this idea that I was going to pull a bunch of guitar amps out, pull out a bunch of guitars, experiment with different microphones, and I’m really going to work on some sounds. And that was fun.”
As for the actual recording process, again, Soussan has a very pure approach to it. “I found after doing this in the studio that what works best is that most of my songs never make it to the studio unless I can perform them entirely on an acoustic instrument–a guitar, or piano, whatever they happened to be written on. I want the song to come first. It’s the ‘Bruce Springsteen going into the record company with a guitar and getting a deal’ kind of thing. I think that when you cannot perform a song live, then you really shouldn’t record it! To me, the recording is a medium where you can take a live performance, and deliver it to somebody. Having said that, what I’ll do is find the correct meter for the song, and I will do a demo performance with vocals, acoustic guitar or piano on a track. And that becomes my roadmap. On top of that, I’ll play drums to it, and once I do the drums, I will add bass, and start layering guitars, and building on top of that. Eventually, the guide track goes, a lead vocal is put on, background vocals, any additional bits and pieces, and then it’s mixed. So that’s really the work flow.”
The conversation eventually turns away from the nuts and bolts of creating an album to more philosophical stuff, such as the music industry, and even the ebb and flow of life itself.
In the non-so-distant past, the only way for a musician to get heard would be to get a deal with a record label. If a band didn’t get signed, they were pretty much dead in the water. The advent of the internet has truly been revolutionary for musicians. Between websites, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, iTunes, and a host of other outlets, there are now almost unlimited opportunities to get one’s music heard. However, Soussan sees a downside to this. “Because of the nature of the internet, there is so much stuff out there that it’s tough to sift through it all. One great thing about the music industry before the internet was the filtering system. Whether you liked record labels or you didn’t like them, the fact is, they would tell people ‘This is just not good enough. You need to go back and work on it more.’ We still have fantastic music out there, but you have to go through a lot to find it. And the second part is that everyone’s so into making their own music and films and photographs that everyone’s on output and no one’s on input anymore. Nobody’s listening. You send things to people, and they don’t listen to it because they’re so busy creating themselves.”
Soussan knows a thing or two about keeping busy and being creative himself. “If I stop, I get into trouble. I’m the kind of person who loves working on stuff. Every single day, I’m doing things–and they’re diverse things. I love to take on stuff, I live by the adage ‘It’s better to regret the things you did do, rather than the things you didn’t do.’ I’m at a loss to understand people who just sit around and say they’re bored. I just don’t get it. So many times I meet people and I ask what they’re doing and they say ‘uh..nothing….just hanging around.’ To me, if I’m not doing something, I’ll find something to do. I love to learn to do things.” Soussan laughs, “If I’m not doing something, I feel guilty. ”
One of the perks of being a rock star is that you get to do some really, really cool things. Like being on the staff at the Rock & Roll Fantasy Camp, which, for the current session, included a party at the Playboy Mansion. In typical fashion, Soussan is humble when asked about that. “They’re always fun, and what makes it fun is the work that gets done. There’s the counselors–that’s what we’re called–we’re established musicians or rock stars, whatever you want to call us, and we do the coaching of the bands. And the campers, they’re all subdivided into individual groups through an audition process. We want them to experience everything there is about the music industry. Once they go through the audition process, you get your band, and you have to work with them on a very intense level for about five days. Nine o’clock in the morning to eleven o’clock at night. You rehearse, practice and learn songs, attend master classes, every night there are open jams, and it culminates in them performing a concert with the featured artist. It’s amazing, because every time I do these camps, I walk away learning far more than they learn from me, that’s for sure. The work is similar to production. As a producer, you go into a studio and get a bunch of individuals and coach them on how they can play together so it results in a great band experience. But the periphery is always fun, too. It’s always great to go to the Playboy Mansion, it’s always fun to work with people like Paul Stanley, Steve Vai, and Steven Tyler.”
Now, think about someone of Soussan’s stature and experience. Think about all the famous and talented musicians he’s worked with over the years. That makes his statement “I walk away learning far more than they learn from me, that’s for sure” even more remarkable because he’s talking about amateur musicians–the guys you might see playing in a cover band at the local dive bar on a Friday night. But, spend an hour talking to Soussan, and you realize maybe his statement isn’t so remarkable after all. What is remarkable is just how down-to-earth, humble, and truly appreciative of life he really is.