By Dan Leach
By Dan Leach
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What Chris May sells does not exist...and people pay thousands for it.
As head of Overwater Basses, he is one of the finest creators of custom bass guitars in the world. When you pay the deposit, the guitar is simply a concept, an idea in your head that Chris must translate into an instrument that will not only fulfil your imagination, but maintain and enhance his company’s considerable reputation.
Overwater is a hallowed name. The man on the street may not have heard of it, but that is because a high percentage of clients are professionals. Many feature in London’s West End theatres and on live TV shows such asStrictly Come Dancing and X-Factor where sound engineers have been known to complain if a musician shows up without an Overwater.
“These are first call instruments for any working bass player”, says Nick Wells, editor of iBass Magazine. “The endorsee list for their custom instruments reads like a ‘Who's Who’ of UK session players.”
Drew Dempster, of UK retailer Great British Bass Lounge, confirms the reverence held for Overwater by professionals and non-professionals alike: “Chris May's reputation as 'Mr Bass UK' precedes him. Whilst an Overwater bass is not cheap, they still represent excellent value for money in comparison and, in my opinion, their products are world-class.”
The bass guitar is a mysterious and seductive object. On stage it will usually give way in importance to the lead guitar, and yet its smooth curves defy this secondary status, bringing to mind a high-end sports car crying out to be touched.
Indeed, far from being the forgotten man or woman, bass players like Jaco Pastorius and Bootsy Collins (who played on James Brown’s Get Up) have become famous in their own right. Some have literally stepped into the limelight to lead the band - Mark King (Level 42), Sting, and Roger Waters (Pink Floyd) being popular examples.
Although the bass might look like an electric guitar, technically, conceptually and even spiritually, it is far removed. This is because it is not derived from the guitar but from the double bass, itself descended from the violin family. It has a different number of strings (usually four, compared to six on a guitar), a different scale-length, requires different techniques, and plays a very different musical role.
There is something very satisfying about a bass tone - warm, fuzzy, powerful - it feels elemental. You might not always notice it when it is there, but you can immediately hear that it is gone. “Particularly in the rhythm section,” says Chris, “it’s what holds it together. It’s the glue, but it’s also the substructure.” While you might find a band without a drummer or guitarist, it is very rare to find one without a bassist.
The instrument is capable of great power but also emotional delicacy, as demonstrated by modern day players like Scott Devine, who have taken full advantage of the greater frequency range afforded by adding extra strings.
After decades of seeing this object held by idols like Paul McCartney, playing songs that connect intravenously to our emotions, the bass guitar has come to symbolise more than just the sound it makes. It is decoration, artistry, emotion, sex appeal, and status all rolled into one.
At the centre of it all is the special relationship the musician has with his instrument. “I had my bass guitar stolen last year that I’d had for over 20 years”, says Dean Albutt, one of the Overwater team. “You don’t realise until it’s gone how much you miss it."
How does the instrument generate such feeling? How are they made? What makes one bass guitar better than another? In this unique multimedia event, we give you privileged access to one of the finest luthiers in the world to uncover the bass guitar.
We reveal the secrets of custom-making basses and show you the instrument through the eyes of someone with 30 years of experience working with the biggest names in music.
For the bass player, 1935 was the year everything changed.
That was when American musician and inventor Paul Tutmarc developed the electric bass that was to be mass-produced 15 years later by Leo Fender. Compared with its predecessor, the double bass, the difference was huge.
It was smaller - which meant the musician could travel around more easily. It could be played horizontally, allowing the musician more manoeuvrability. And it also included ‘frets’, raised pieces of metal spaced along the neck that allowed the musician to play more accurately and with greater control.
But most importantly - it had more power.
The double bass had always been a quiet instrument, struggling to be heard over the rest of the band. Just like the acoustic guitar, it had to fight to compete with the big brass sections. It is remarkable when you consider today’s pop and dance music in which the bass so frequently dominates.
Without needing the large acoustic space of the double bass to generate the low frequencies, developments in the electric bass guitar focused on keeping it as light and evenly balanced as possible (imagine playing a two-hour gig with it slung around your neck) and on the number and position of the pickups, which transfer the movement of the strings to an electrical signal. More on that later.
It wasn’t until 1971 that companies embraced the concept of making custom guitars on which Overwater now prides itself. Rick Turner co-founded the company, Alembic, which produced made-to-order bass guitars for musicians such as Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead) and Jack Casady (Jefferson Airplane). Along with another company, Tobias, and independent luthiers such as Carl Thompson, it would kick-off an era of innovation such as introducing graphite necks and adding a fifth and sometimes sixth string to the traditional four.
More radical changes were attempted in the 1980s. To make the bass guitar lighter, Ned Steinberger removed the headstock, (“the cricket bat look” says Chris), and the Guild Guitar Corporation added rubber strings to give the sound of a double bass. In the 2000s, some manufacturers even added digital modelling circuits to recreate tones from different models of bass guitars.
Developments are usually driven by the musicians themselves. “Every development that I’ve made since I first started doing this in the 1970s has been as a reaction to players,” says Chris. “So a player comes to me and says “I want this, but I can’t quite do it like that. I need it to go lower. I need it to be more even.” We then analyse and it’s a gradual process.”
Very often a new genre of music is formed by musicians reacting to the previous one, and so instrument development has followed that trend. Chris has come to understand how the pattern goes: “That’s why it keeps going back every so often. So you’ll get sophisticated prog rock, then you’ll get punks. Then that starts to get more sophisticated with the new wave thing and the new romantics and the synthesiser people and all the rest of it. And then you get grunge...particularly the creative people who are cross-generational.”
Birth of the C-Bass
When bassist Andrew Bognor was invited to tour with the synth-based Thompson Twins in the 1980s he realised that, since everything keyboard orientated is all in the key of C, as opposed to E or A like guitar bands, he needed something different.
He turned to Chris. “He said can you build me a bass that instead of tuning E A D G, it can do C F B flat E flat - which is four semitones lower. So after a lot of fiddling about and experimenting - we made it longer and had to have special strings made and all the rest of it - we made this thing.
"...and he got the sack for asking for more money, but the instrument was made!”
As a result, Chris began receiving requests from luminaries such as Pink Floyd for this new ‘C-Bass’. “[David] Gilmour himself phoned me up and said “can you build me a bass and how much?” which is quite rare for rock stars because they usually just stop at the “can you build me a bass” because they like things to be given to them if possible. And this whole low-tuning thing developed from that.”
Soon a whole host of high-level musicians wanted one, including Mick Feat, who worked with Mark Knopfler [Dire Straits], Guy Pratt, who played with Pink Floyd, and John Entwistle of the Who - a big influence on many bass players.
“We made about 40 of these things for all sorts of people and after about a year Mickey Feat came back to us and said “I want you to build us a five-string”, and that was the first five-string. So it’s this thing of being reactive. And we made the first five-string for Mick and its first outing was the Tina Turner album that Mark Knopfler produced.”
Having to follow the wiles of musicians can be troublesome for manufacturers. As Chris explains, the distorted signal enjoyed so much over the years by lead guitarists is actually a by-product of inferior technology. Players found that turning up valve amplifiers created a lovely thick sound.
For those early manufacturers, says Chris, like Jim Marshall and Leo Fender, “it was a pain in the arse”.
“They wanted to try to make their technology better so that it was clean. But once the guitar players had used the distortion, the next generation of guitar amplifiers went back and asked why does this distortion sound good and this distortion doesn’t sound good, and there were all these early transistor amps that they’d built distortion into that sounded like a bee in a jam jar.
"It didn’t have that dynamic that you would have with valve distortion and a certain speaker cone and all the rest of it.”
Making instruments is simply not like other manufacturing industries where there are steady incremental improvements as each new model is released: “Technology does move forward,” says Chris, “but it’s like the art has to catch up with the science. With this industry, because essentially it’s art, it’s creative, it’s not like that. The parameters are different.”
Over the years, Overwater bass guitars have featured alongside Madonna, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, and George Michael and on some of the most important records in history - from Live Aid to Tina Turner albums. Switch on your TV and there's a good chance you will hear an Overwater being played. But how did it get to this point?
It all began in a converted chicken house in Hampshire.
Chris’s family were farmers, but his own career aspirations were evidently of a different nature: “I made my first bass guitar when I was seventeen, because I wanted one for myself. It was one of those situations with three seventeen-year-old guitarists: you’re the worst guitarist so you’re going to be the bass player!
“I had made a couple of guitars at school as woodwork projects but they were unplayable and so my dad said “I think we’d better get some plans” - my dad being quite practical about these things. And I think we got a set of plans throughPractical Electronicsor something. It was very simple..but it worked and I actually went and played it!”
A sideline in guitar repairs at college progressed into his own repair shop near Durham while studying social sciences at Durham University. Andy Preston had his own established repair service in the north of England and, after Chris sub-contracted some work from him, they decided go into partnership in 1978 with premises in Newcastle and a cellar in Denmark St - a creative hub of London full of publishing houses and recording studios.
It was there, doing repairs for session musicians and the likes of Status Quo and Chrissie Hynde, that he found his practical grounding. He says: “I was just fixing stuff on the hoof - 'I’ve got a session this afternoon can you sort this out' - and that was the sort of thing.”
Although largely self-taught, Chris did have a mentor of sorts in the form of none other than Tony Zemaitis. Zemaitis became famous for making high-end specialist guitars for the biggest names in music, including the Stones and Eric Clapton. His signature metal shield and pearl inlay designs came to be instantly recognisable the world over.
“I used to go round and he’d say 'Oh, you’ve just missed George Harrison!'
“Tony taught me some practical lessons. He would say 'you’ll never make any real money out of it' and 'you won’t go on holiday' and 'your wife will leave you'. And all of these things happened but it just took me 30 years to realise it!
“But it also made me feel that it’s doable - that was what I learnt from Tony, that you could earn a living doing it.”
Being around people like Tony and the session musicians in the heart of London’s West End gave Chris an understanding of what was required at the highest level and, perhaps more importantly, a feeling of belonging to that world.
Along with repairs, Chris and Andy had begun selling second-hand guitars. Then one day Andy said to a customer “Chris can make you one of those!” One of his earliest customers would be Les McKeown of the Bay City Rollers.
“Then a Flying V for the Tygers of Pan Tang and another Flying V for the guy who was about to be in Def Leppard - and that was all during Chris and Andy’s period,” says Chris.
Was he nervous about making his first guitars?
“No, I was 27. You’re not nervous when you’re 27. You think you can conquer the world. But endless amounts of time and effort. A lot of midnight oil. Then you think you know everything. It’s only later you realise you don’t.”
Were there any disasters?
“Oh yeah, of course, you have disasters, lots of disasters! I mean there were times I had to redo things. It’s a gradual learning curve - little steps. But you make mistakes, you know. I’ve had to say that’s firewood. I’ve had to give customers their money back, but the important thing is you learn from it and move on.”
The Birth of Overwater
These early models were called Chris and Andy’s Customs (about 30% were guitars and 70% basses). It only became Overwater later when the business was doing so well it needed more space to fulfil the mounting orderlist. That was when Chris moved proceedings from Newcastle to a town called Alston in Cumbria.
“Foolishly, in hindsight, I went and signed a five-year lease on this factory unit in the middle of nowhere, in the highest market town in England, where it started snowing in September and went on till June! It was just before the worst winter in living memory since 1946! And we had 18ft snow drifts.”
They decided they had to sell through other shops so they couldn’t call it ‘Chris and Andy’s’ anymore and so re-named it after a place near the factory called Overwater near Alston (and not, as often assumed, Overwater lake in the Lake District).
“We just needed a name so we called it the Overwater Guitar Company and it is quite a good name...nowhere near any water - apart from a little river! And that’s how it started.”
After three years, Chris decided he did not want to be involved with the shops and the repair side anymore and so they split the business. Andy would keep the Denmark St operation and Chris kept Overwater, continuing as partners in Newcastle for another two years before selling it.
In 1983, Chris managed to escape the Alston lease and moved to a place called Haltwhistle [Northumberland] in a little factory unit where Overwater would stay until 1995 before moving to their present home in Carlisle.
So what are the key lessons Chris took from his years honing the art?
“What I learnt more than anything about doing this stuff was: one - sail in your own canoe, working out what works for you, not trying to be someone else, which is something that’s very easy to do; second - you can only work things out one at a time. If you are too radical then you don’t know what you’ve done.
“If you use different materials, and different construction techniques and different electronics, you don’t know what’s affecting what. Whereas if you make one change at a time, or solve one problem at a time then you learn from that and you do another one."
Crucially, the key to Chris’s development seems to be his willingness to learn. “Finding out from other people how it affects them, it’s constant feedback. It’s also people who can feed creativity, but also feed curiosity that will make you start to think why or how.”
So how does a bass guitar actually work and what makes a £2000 guitar better than one costing £200?
Just like the electric guitar, the electric bass works by the movement of the strings being detected by ‘pickups’ - devices underneath the strings that send an electrical message to the amplifier. Traditionally these are magnetic - the strings disturb a magnetic field generated by the pickup, the magnitude of which is captured and converted into an electrical signal.
Other types include the optical pickup which uses light to sense the movement of the strings and the piezo pickup, which registers the vibrations in the strings through the disturbance of crystals.
Piezo pickups have a different sound and are generally quieter - they don’t suffer from magnetic interference and are often used on orchestral string instruments such as the violin.
“A piezo pickup,” says Chris, “is very reflective of the wood so it sounds like an acoustic instrument. A magnetic pickup engenders some tonality in itself. You can nearly always tell the difference by hearing it.”
Overwater basses generally use magnetic and even design their own: “Our pickups are no different fundamentally from the basic pattern, we just refined our own little versions of them. A lot of that is about purity of sound - I’m a great believer in a hi-fi, flat response. I don’t like things that are heavily voiced.
"I’d rather the voice was that of the player and maybe the instrument, and that they’re technically quieter because we work with a lot of studio and pit players and I’ve put a lot of effort into the noise reduction, flat response elements of it without making them sound too clinical.”
If you pluck the guitar at different points it will have a different tonality, so the pickups are positioned according to the area of string that you want to detect: too close to the bridge, the sound will be too “hard” and too far away means it will be “woolly’.
The purpose of the iconic shape of the electric guitar is ergonomics as well as beauty. Yes it could be made with a square block of wood, but it would be heavy and dig in to the player as well as restricting the arm.
A good guitar is an extension of the player: it should fit nicely to the body and be perfectly balanced that it hangs from the neck in an ideal playing position.
The weight depends on the wood and, according to Chris, different types will give a different type of sound - for example, mahogany will sound different to maple because the grain structure, the density and the weight all transmit sound differently. Chris is looking for natural even decay - so that the note swells and dies in a natural way - as well as being pleasant. The tricky part is balancing tonal requirements with the size and weight requirements.
“If an instrument is a bit heavier, it tends to sound more solid, because of the resonance at the low end", says Chris. "The farther you go down, the more that becomes critical. If you want to make a super-lightweight instrument you will lose some low-end punch. It’s one of those compromises that you have to balance.
"It’s also about mass - a bigger body you can use a lighter material, but there’s more of it. If you make a small body then you need to have a denser material in order to compensate. So all of these things come in to play.”
A Question of 'Feel'
There has been some conjecture in the guitar world about how much the body of an electric guitar really affects the sound. If the sound is produced by the movement of the strings, then surely it doesn’t matter what the body is made of.
“No,” says Chris, “the big thing that a lot of people get wrong with electric instruments is they think it’s down to the pickups and the electronics. It’s not.
"The fundamental tone comes from the instrument. It’s not just the wood, it’s the metal in the machine heads. It’s the bridge. It’s every part of that instrument. A brass bridge as opposed to an aluminium bridge - both are good, but one will weigh more than the other and will subtly affect the sound.”
Dr Andrew Elliott, research fellow at the University of Salford’s Acoustics Research Centre, says that science is not conclusive on the question.
“One issue," he says, "is that two measured sounds can appear to be almost identical when presented graphically, but differences may still be perceptible. Perception is individual and difficult to measure.
“From the point of view of someone in a crowd watching a band, the choice of wood is probably not going to make a noticeable difference. To the guitarist though it does seem to matter and whether that be due to visuals, feel, balance, quality of workmanship, haptic feedback [the feel], etc, is something of an unknown I believe.”
There is an x-factor at work here. Dr Elliott, a guitarist himself, says that two guitars constructed the same, from the same materials, can feel very different to a musician. Chris confirms that a guitar is a very personal thing. What feels right to one person won’t feel right to another. Whether or not the body can be heard in the sound, the musician can feel the vibrations through his hands and this is unquantifiable.
Engineering this ‘feel’ is part of the reason the price of an Overwater guitar begins at £2000. Not only is time spent choosing the best materials, but the musician’s size, finger length and playing style are all taken into account. If you are tall you might need a bigger guitar. If you have an aggressive playing style, where you vigorously pluck the strings, the strings can be raised, and if you have longer fingers they might be spaced further apart.
Putting all this together takes years of experience and, says Chris, a little bit of black magic, because measurements are just the beginning. “It’s about understanding the balance between one end and the other, the curve and the neck, the tension of the strings, and what the player is going to do.
"If he’s going to hit it really hard, and play all at one end, you set it up very differently to someone who has a very light touch and who is going to play all over the place. It’s about giving the musician a voice. That’s what you’re doing.”
What people might not understand is that, alongside the construction of a physical object, Chris is also building the intangible connection between player and instrument. “A professional musician could go and buy a £200 bass guitar from a guitar shop and they could go and earn a living from that and most people wouldn’t know the difference between that and an instrument that maybe cost them several thousand. But they know the difference.
"It’s about comfort, it’s about a relationship with the instrument, and it’s about drawing the best out of them.”
The six-week process of making a custom Overwater bass naturally begins with the client. They fill out a detailed two-page questionnaire about their playing style and their requirements which, on occasion, have been known to exceed reality.
"There are classic musicians; doesn’t matter what instrument they play, they will always sound like them because it’s in their fingers and their approach to the instrument", says Chris May. "So, just by having the same equipment and same instrument as that person isn’t going to make you sound like them.
“My proviso is always we’ll do whatever you like as long as we think it’s sensible, or it will do what you want it to do. Because there’s no point doing something for somebody that won’t work for them and all they’ll end up doing is being dissatisfied. I’d rather send somebody away than do something that I really don’t think is gonna work.”
Chris also has to make an assessment of the skill level of the player. Egos do have to be managed sometimes, but after 30 years of making guitars for the top names in music, Chris has built up a body of knowledge that even the biggest egos do not ignore.
“We have to gently steer people, and there has to be a certain amount of arrogance in this, but people don’t necessarily understand what suits them best, in the same way that they don’t understand what clothes suit them best. Things that will and won’t work. So it’s about finding your sound.”
Presumably that requires some delicacy?
“As time goes on, I get slightly less delicate!” he laughs. “I think it’s about, dare I say, authority, if you see what I mean, in that way. I talk a lot, but I also listen. I’ve had a huge amount of feedback over the years and I’ve got good ears.”
Creating an Overwater
From these discussions the design specifications are nailed down and parts chosen, beginning with the wood, of which at least three varieties are chosen.
The neck is usually of maple and the fingerboard either rosewood or ebony because of their strength and endurance. A lighter, more open-grain timber like ash or mahogany is chosen for the body because, says Chris, they will absorb some of the harsh higher frequencies and “soften and even-out the tonality of the instrument.”
After being dried and seasoned the timber is laminated, cut, and glued together. A truss-rod and reinforcing bars are inserted into slots grouted into the neck to counteract the tension of the strings.
A mixture of machine and hand cuts the wood into the shape of a guitar, including the cavities for the electrics, slots in the wood for the frets and holes for the tuning machine heads. Then there is the final hand-carving, hand-shaping and dressing.
After being pressed or hammered in, the frets are trimmed and shaped so that they’re absolutely level for the strings to pass over. Then the whole thing is sanded by machine and hand. “This is the last chance to get it right,” says Chris. “You have to have your eye on the ball when you’re doing it because you can easily change the shape.”
The finishing process alone can take several weeks. A lacquer is applied to enhance the grain and protect the wood and, if required, it is then painted. It must sit in the cold cupboard and then the hot cupboard where it cures and is finally polished or wire-woolled to provide a sheen.
The advantage of the big factories is they can afford to separate the locations of woodwork and finishing. Chris says: “We have more problems because we do everything in the same building. There’s more dust in the atmosphere. With the natural wood finishes a little bit of dust doesn’t show, but if you’ve got a light paint job any tiny little speck of anything in it has to be removed because it will show. We spend quite a long time with those finishes and the fancier the finish will cost you because it takes longer.”
Next, the electrical components are mounted into the cavity and it’s all wired-up. The neck is bolted onto the body, the machine-heads are added, and the fingerboard is cleaned.
Adding the strings marks the final rite of passage. “More often than not it’s me that strings it up and kind of births it, if you like”, says Chris. “And it is a bit like that. You put the strings on for the first time and you know as soon as you tune it up. You start to get a feel for what the instrument’s going to be like and you really do. It comes to life. You put the strings on and it comes to life.
“Even before you’ve plugged it in, you start to hear and feel what that instrument’s going to be like. And then I’ll adjust it and plug it in and start to play with it for an hour or two and then it sits for two or three days and let everything settle down and then I’ll go back to it usually in the morning when I’ve got natural light.
"I’ll look over the whole instrument. I’ll play it again. I’ll check all the adjustments and make sure everything’s right.”
Of course, things don’t always run to plan. “Have I got things wrong? Yes - lots and lots of times. I would say to anybody it’s not that you don’t make any mistakes that is the issue. The issue is knowing how to get out of it.
"When you’re in a hole, stop digging. Know what you can do. Things go wrong. Sometimes you have to abandon it and say “That’s a f**k up. That is now firewood”. Other times you know what to do in order to solve the problem. But that’s the same in any trade.”
And what of the future of the bass guitar? Is this object truly cemented in our music culture, locked in a symbiotic relationship with us? Will there always be a place for the bass guitar?
“Yes” says Chris May, “because I think there already have been electronic replacements. Synthesisers and computer-generated music have been available for quite a long time. You can have synth basses and all sorts of alternatives. There are always different ways of achieving things.
“If you think back to marching bands, they always used tubas for the bass because it was an easier instrument to use in that environment. As digital music, sampled music, synthesisers become easier to use as technology becomes more sophisticated, then obviously that is always an option.
"But there will always be a place for instruments in the same way as we’ve had double basses and cellos and violins pretty much as they are for the last two or three hundred years.”
As for the next developments in bass guitar manufacturing, it appears that the future lies as much in the past as anywhere else. The fondness for nostalgia inherent in the music industry means that 60-year-old designs like the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul, are still the most popular.
Life in Music
And after 30 years of making guitars what has been Chris’s favourite part of it?
“Being able to be an equal with musicians that I would never technically be able to be an equal with. Working with people I respect hugely, getting to be in situations, meeting people, just being part of the business.
“When I was a kid I wanted to be in the music business because I wanted to be in the music business you know. But I’ve spent most of my life being in and around the music business doing things that you don’t necessarily realise at the time were anything special you know. I was in the studio when they recorded the first Band Aid single. I mean, nobody knew at the time it was going to turn into Live Aid and be this huge global thing.”
All musicians have a special relationship with their instrument. On a basic level it is enjoyable to play, but more than that, it connects them to their musical idols and the emotion of their favourite songs. It engenders the confidence of being skilled at something and the pride to be able to play for friends.
It is the ultimate social catalyst, joining together fellow enthusiasts and creating lifelong bonds. In that object is the potential for life-changing stardom, as well as impressing the girl or boy next-door. Binding all of this together is its slightly mystical, enigmatic nature. Two instruments might look identical, but only one “feels” right and the idea that that instrument was made specifically for you attaches a sense of fate to it.
Look at it in those terms and Chris May’s role becomes almost shamanistic. His talent is to build an object that taps directly into that combination of touch, sound, possibility, emotion, confidence and skill.
“What it’s about,” says Chris, “is making an instrument for someone that changes their life in some way, or it makes them feel more creative, or they form a bond with that instrument. It’s making an instrument that works and it goes to somebody that appreciates it. That’s the high spot.”
Kirsty, a member of the Overwater team, remembers a customer based in New York. “He wanted a particular bass with a maple finish on it and he was really hyped up about what he was gonna get. The guys here, as it was coming together, were saying: “Oh this is just gonna be so nice!” When he opened the case, before even testing it out, he texted Chris saying: “This is amazing! It’s exactly what I wanted!””
Chris adds: “You get something like that, you send it halfway round the world and they open that case and they go: “Wow!””
Macho Zapp would like to thank:
The Overwater team: Kirsty, Martin, Laurence, and Dean
Mark Johnson at Slowmo Limited
Dr Andrew Elliott
Nick Wells at iBass Magazine
Drew Dempster at The Great British Bass Lounge