Bass Player Magazine Interview

Mark  Epstein

Bass player with Johnny Winter

By Baker Rorick

It’s kind of a full-circle thing,” says Mark Epstein of playing with blues-guitar legend Johnny Winter. “One of the first records that really turned me on was ‘Roadwork’ by Edgar Winter’s White Trash, with Johnny doing ‘Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo’ – it blew my mind. Being connected to that tradition firsthand means a lot, and the trio situation puts a lot of responsibility on me – Johnny can go way out on a limb and I have to hold it together. I love that.”

The experienced New York sideman’s abilities are well showcased on Johnny Winter Live in NYC ’97 [Pointblank]. Although Epstein gets a brief solo on the opening instrumental, Freddie King’s classic ‘Hideaway,’ he laughs, “I’m basically a groove slut. I just want to make it feel good that’s what gets me off.” Playing with Johnny, who does two-week tours every six weeks or so, provides Mark with the benefits of recognition and a steady, big-name gig while allowing plenty of time for other endeavors. “We’ve played every House of Blues in the U.S. I feel like we’re the house band and recently we did two nights at San Francisco’s Fillmore. That was a thrill; it’s such a historic room.”

Raised in Connecticut, Epstein started on electric bass at age 13 – a Teisco Del Ray, which he later sold for a jar of quarters. In the late ’70s he moved to New York, and a few years later he joined guitarist Larry Mitchell’s trio, with whom he made two records. Projects with Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, a record and tour with Wishbone Ash, and sideman work with Taj Mahal and Dr. John supplemented New York sessions, blues-club dates, and teaching. To expand his horizons Mark took up acoustic upright, manning the doghouse with jazz heavies Joe Beck and Dr. Lonny Smith. Epstein’s constant networking and gigs with a drummer who played with Johnny Winter led to a jam with the long, tall Texan. Mark jammed with Winter once a month for a couple months, and by the third or fourth time, “Johnny was happy with me.”

Epstein’s strengths? “Flexible support and a lot of enthusiasm. Johnny can stop on a dime or take a sudden left turn; it’s very improvisational. He’s a monster at going out on the edge and playing his ass off, and I just stay inside the idiom and try to keep it interesting. I love the clarity of a trio, and I’ve learned to appreciate space and identify the core of a part; the idea versus the ornamentation.”

On the Winter gig Epstein plays a Sadowsky Vintage-model 5-string with two single-coil J pickups. “Johnny tunes down a whole-step, so I need that low D. I don’t like changing basses onstage, so I just stick to the Sadowsky. It covers everything I need; it sounds aggressive, but it also has that warm, woody thing going on – like a Fender on steroids.” Mark’s amps are a pair of Hartke 7000 heads and a pair of Hartke 4.5 cabs. “I don’t stack’em; I like them on the floor where they couple to the stage. I’d just as soon feel it on the back of my legs than hear it pounding the side of my head, anyway. I use the amps practically flat – no EQ, compression, or effects.”

Mark strings his Sadowsky with LaBella Hard Rockin’ Steels, .045, .065, .085, .105, .128. He also owns three Fenders: a ’73 Precision he bought as a kid, a ’64 Jazz, and a ’57 Precision. “That’s my baby-it’s really special. The Sadowsky is the only bass I’ve been playing with roundwounds lately. My Precisions have LaBella flatwounds; I’ve been so into that sound, especially on little gigs around town. I use a 2xlO cabinet and fill up a room like crazy with this thick, rich low end. Flatwounds make little amps sound huge; no way they would sound like that with rounds. A Precision with flats – it’s like going back in time.”

Unfortunately, Mark doesn’t get to play ‘Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo’ with Winter. “He’s not doing his rock stuff these days; he’s just concentrating on blues. But everybody else wants to play it with me!”