Sunday, January 3, 2010

Q&A: Bassist Mark Pirro of Polyphonic Spree!

I don't recall exactly when I met Mark, but it was many years ago, at a time when Dallas had a confluence of extremely talented and diverse musicians thrown together in a mixing pot called Deep Ellum. It was a special time, and all of us eventually moved on in various ways and grew into ourselves, I guess you could say. Though times are no longer as freewheeling and crazy as they were then, it's wonderful for me to see what everyone from that time accomplished and when I ran into Mark randomly recently, he agreed to do this interview via email. He's likely most well-known for playing bass in the successful rock/pop band Tripping Daisy and the very unique and artsy Polyphonic Spree. But there's alot more to him, and those of you who don't know are missing out! He invented a microphone that is now becoming commonly used called the Copperphone (which I had the pleasure of using on two of my albums, "Euthanize me" and "Sex") and he has lots going on! So read on and find out more about this special and talented artist! (photo by Allison V Smith)

Q: you've been in the music biz a looong time. How are things different now than they were when you were touring with Tripping Daisy?

Mark: Back in the 90's getting signed to a major label and having a shot in the
mainstream arena was a realistic goal, especially for bands with a 'less than mainstream' image/sound. Hundreds bands got that opportunity and dozens actually succeeded and are still around today. However, now the ideal of being on a major label and breaking into the mainstream is pretty much reserved for polished pop stars and hip hop artists. The fact is, the major label model is going away fast and the ones that are surviving can't afford to take many risks. That being said,
it is a great time to be in a band and putting out music, regardless of it's commercial value. The truth is with the internet, there are many more avenues now than there were before to get your music out there. The business may be more diffused because of that, but it now gives everyone a platform to be heard.

Q: how long had you been thinking about developing your own gear before inventing your own microphone? and how did the inspiration strike you?

Mark: I'm not sure if it really was a goal I was setting out to do...However, I have always been curious about how things worked and as a kid and I would take apart old radios, telephones, etc. I also seem to have one of those problem solving minds that won't turn off. I'm always thinking of different/better ways to do things. Having played music for so long with Tim Delaughter, I saw him struggle in getting a reliable method for his beloved, 'telephone vocal' effect. Back in 2002, I thought it would be cool if he just had a microphone dedicated for that purpose. So I started researching stuff on the net about audio electronics and microphones. After a few months of tinkering and experimenting, I finally had a working prototype. Alas, the Copperphone was born. After Tim started using it, I was getting a lot of requests from other people to make them one too and then it became clear that there was a market for such a product. From there it just has evolved into 'hmmm... I
wonder what other things I can make'.

Q: how popular has the Copperphone been?

Mark: Well in the world of audio gear geeks, I'd say it's pretty well known. Now more than ever, many people have their own home recording set ups and a lot of those people want to get their hands on interesting and charming things to play with in their studios. I suppose the Copperphone has that appeal. I also have a respectable list of producers, engineers and bands that are using it too.

Q: what inspired the physical appearance of the copperphone? It looks so classic and retro.

Mark: Well when I was prototyping it, I first was using PVC pipe because it was easy to work with and inexpensive. Part of the sound for the Copperphone comes from a phenomenon known as mechanical filtering. It's not that different from pressing a toilet paper tube up to your lips and talking into it. The tube changes the sound. So once I got the right length of tube figured out for the sound I was going for, I wanted something more presentable than PVC. So copper tubing was the next logical choice. With a bit of blood, sweat and tears, it polishes up quite nicely!

Q: do you collect old microphones? if so, how many do you have?

Mark: Actually, no I don't. I have a friend who is a vintage microphone dealer and he let's me borrow stuff from time to time when I'm in the middle of a recording project. His name is Rob Wrinkle and you can check out his stuff here:

Q: what do you think about microphone design and how it's changed over the years?

Mark: Well after the fidelity aspect was mastered, the emphasis was put on the aesthetics. You really started to see it in the 50's and 60's. Microphones started to look more like spaceships than anything else. In the 70's and 80's it seemed the focus was on functionality and durability. Now we are in a whirlwind of sonics and design aspects. Some manufactures like Royer Labs are going back to the old ribbon mics, some like Audio Technica are cranking out low cost, no frills yet reliable condenser mics and some companies like Baltic Latvian Universal Electronics are paying homage to the classic high end Neumann stuff with amazing attention to appearance. Finally, you have companies like Shure and Schenhiser who are still producing the same designs that were made decades ago.

Q: what is your opinion on the best mics or mic brands for various applications? it seems everyone's got their opinions.

Mark: I look at microphones like camera lenses. There are various lenses; wide
angle, telephoto, fish eye, etc. and they all manipulate the image a certain way. Microphones are no different when it comes to sound...they basically filter or color the audio coming in. As far as what brands and types are best for what applications... well I'd say I'm still figuring that out. It seems it changes from project to project. One thing is for sure, if you want an old am radio/telephone sound, you gotta use a Placid Audio Copperphone!

Q: do you like using in-ear monitors or traditional floor models? why or why not?

Mark: I tried in ears, but being a bass player, it sorta took the power out of my sound... I just need to hear myself, the drums and Tim anyway, so I just have a floor wedge by my amp.

Q: what made you want to be a rock and roller?

Mark: My Dad and the Sex Pistols.

Q: what sort of bass and amp do you like using and why?

Mark: I really have experimented with this over the years... I first pieced together some old Peavey stuff. I used two of those amps and bi-amped them together. One for the lows and one for the highs. It was very durable and road worthy and I tell you it was the best sounding set up I ever had. But it had to be very loud to sound good and in small clubs and venues, I discovered that I was rarely in the PA. Then I went through the whole SVT phase... Great sounding stuff, but very big, heavy and cumbersome. Plus those amps are fragile with their tubes and elaborate circuitry.
When I started paying with The Polyphonic Spree we had so many people on stage, I needed something small yet powerful and most of all reliable. I started using this really simple solid state Fender with a single 15 inch speaker called a BXR 300.
Because space was usually tight on the stage I sometimes found myself standing on my amp. It made a great floor riser, but I couldn't hear it very well standing on it. I eventually took a piece 3/4 inch of MDF board and drilled a bunch of 1 inch holes in it and laid my amp on it's back and put the board over it. Then when I stood on it, I could really hear and feel my bass. Plus I had a personal riser at every gig!
But all in all, what I've come to realize is that if you are playing in places with a decent sound system, the PA is going to be the best bass amp you will ever have. It's powerful, loud and effecient. I still play through that little Fender and just run into a Sans Amp DI. I let my sound man and the PA do all the work.

Q: what are some of your favourite songs or artists and why?

Mark: I'm a sucker for some of those old classic rock songs. Baba O'Riley by the Who, Starship Trooper by Yes, A Day In The Life by the Beatles. I suppose all those songs have an epic nature and a classic spirit to them.

Q: what are your current musical and recording projects?

Mark: Well the Spree is getting ready to start another album here in a month or so, so I'll be busy with that. Recently Tim and I finished up a project called Wee See ( We have a visual artist/animator friend in NY who created a bunch of 2 to 3 min dvd video animations intended for infants. He needed an audio landscape put to it so he had Tim score it and I engineered and mixed it. However, it's not at all that typical obnoxious and vibrant stuff you come to think of regarding children's videos. Actually, it's all very simple yet creative use of basic shapes in black and white. With the music, it creates a very relaxing and almost hypnotyzing experience. I think it might have as strong appeal in the minimalist art scene as it does with the parent/baby demography. Currently out of our project studio, I am recording a trio of talented young guys from Allen, TX called 'Ode To Trees' ( I really like working with young bands because they always have a lot of enthusiasm and usually have a few
great songs that deserve to have 'a better than demo' style recording.

Q: whats next on the horizon for you?

Mark: I just got married last month and I am looking forward to starting a family. Both me and my wife have spent the better part of our lives being performers and living a renegade lifestyle. I think we are feeling that natural urge to settle down a bit. We just bought a house and I have a really nice shop space in the back where I can really focus on my audio project building endeavors. I've got a few new products out... You can see/hear them here: