Once we relocate to his workshop he visibly relaxes for the camera as he adds the finishing touches to one of his beloved electric bass guitars. As one of the finest luthiers on the planet, he is in his element. Once he gets a newly finished creation in his hands he “births” it, almost as if it were a new born baby.
That morning I had driven up the wet and windy M6 to Carlisle and arrived to a warm welcome at Overwater HQ. Binbags full of wood shavings by the door testified to the work going on inside and, soon after, a video session in the machine room saw me covered in sawdust. Upstairs conditions were more hospitable as this is where the finishing is done – fret marks added, sanding, polishing, and electrics are inserted.
There I met another member of the team, Dean, who has managed to turn his hobby (playing bass) into a job (making basses):
“For me it was just an instrument to carry my music. Now I understand and appreciate what goes into them - a very complex and long system really. And also it’s nice to be able to do a job properly. Here it’s more a case of do it right than get it out the door, which is nice. Being a production engineer all my life you’re always up against deadlines.
“Product is more important than a number”, he adds. “And with such small numbers things can be done right which is quite a revelation in this day and age.”
On being shown the attic I have the feeling I am in a bygone fairground funhouse, with every room offering a new experience, but maybe that is just the paint fumes talking…since this is where the lacquer and paint is added (and where the swinging guitar footage of Deep Overwater was taken). Guitars can be left untreated, but wood is extremely sensitive to climate, so it is not advisable.
Overwater is one of the many unsung heroes of British manufacturing – quietly making a world-class product from its unpretentious Carlisle base and exporting all over the world.
“It’s changed over the years”, says Chris. “It’s got more [overseas] in the last two or three years with the internet. We’ve always had a little bit going to the States, usually east coast and west coast. New York more than anywhere, because it’s like London. Not much in the middle.
“We’ve always sold a certain amount in northern Europe - Germany and Scandinavia and Belgium and Holland - we’ve always sold a certain amount of stuff into those places. What started to happen, which is different, I’ve got the first ever order from mainland China the other day. Normally people are buying things from China. We’ve sold instruments into Korea, Malaysia, and Singapore.”
Making a custom bass for someone demands an intimate understanding of the style, skill and tastes of the musician. What if they can’t speak English? How do they explain their requirements?
“I have done some negotiations by Google translate! But generally people speak English”, says Chris. “And in those sort of places, you’re either dealing with people who are business people who like nice instruments, or you’re dealing with people who are musicians.”
Chris is, as I find out, one of the characters of the industry. Described by Drew Dempster of Great British Bass Lounge as ‘Mr Bass UK’, he is brimming with entertaining stories like the time he got chatting to David Gilmour [Pink Floyd] without realising who it was, his unofficial mentoring by the great Tony Zemaitis, and how he was witness to the recording of the original Live Aid single.
From starting out making repairs for the likes of Chrissie Hynde (“sort of early Pretenders days”) on London’s Denmark St, through stints in Newcastle, Haltwhistle (Northumbria) and Alston (Cumbria), Chris has coaxed Overwater into now becoming the ‘go-to’ instrument for the West End’s host of professional musicians:
“There was a guy called John Cooper, one of the younger guys, who phoned up and ordered a bass, and I knew who he was", says Chris.
"I jokingly said “We must nearly have a full set with you lot now”. He replied: “Well you know why? You go and do a dep [stand in] in the West End and you haven’t got an Overwater bass, you get moaned at by the engineer!”
“That’s because they know what they’re gonna get. They get a really good sound straight into the desk. They’re not gonna get a load of noise and they’re not gonna get any problems.
“And that’s what we do - we solve problems.”