The Revivalist caught up with Mark Kelley, new bass player for the Roots, as he settles into his new gig and prepares for the release of undun, out in stores 12/6. Read below as he gives insight into the typical day of a Roots musician, some of his personal history, and his continuing role as an in-demand bassist and artistic creator.
What was your experience starting out at HSPVA? Did it influence the musician you are today?
It was a really good school just because of the amount of time we got every day to play. Most public high schools you would get maybe 45 minutes to an hour twice a week. We got about four hours a day to devote to music. So we got four hours a day when kids were getting two hours a week. There was also a lot of friendly competition. Everybody’s trying to get better, everybody’s playing. You’re young, you have a lot of time on your hands. You play all the time, so you can’t help but to focus. You are around a bunch of focused people.
What gigs helped you transition into a being professional musician?
My first gig I got was playing with [John] Scofield like right after I got out of college. From there it went on into a bunch of different things. I would do a bunch of spot dates with different people. I would do five dates with Mos [Def], I’d do stuff with Will Calhoun, I would do stuff with Bilal sometimes. Then I started playing with Meshell Ndegeocello. I met her maybe two years after I was in New York and I’ve played with her ever since.
Being a bass player herself, was she tough on you?
Absolutely not. It was a lot of fun and I learned a lot. I mean, sometimes we played at the same time. I would play different parts, she would play. We’d have two bass players on at one time. Every day was a new day. There was never really intent for anything, it just always ended up what it was. She would tell me certain ideas, like ideas that she was married to, and then outside of that she’d tell me to do whatever I wanted to.
How is your new gig with the Roots treating you?
It’s one of the best gigs I’ve ever done man. It’s a lot of fun. Everybody is cool; the gig is cool. We’re writing a lot; we’re playing a lot. I couldn’t ask for anything more. It’s exactly what I wanted.
It’s a very special opportunity to be playing on such a consistent basis and with so many guests on the Fallon Show. What have been some of your favorite experiences thus far?
Man, we backed Dave Stewart from Eurythmics recently. We played some of his new stuff and then we did a version of “Sweet Dreams” that was real cool. We’ve had so may people on the show it’s incredible. It’s always fun because either we have a sit-in guest, where they just sit-in with us throughout the show, or we have a featured artist. Sometimes they want the Roots to back them with their stuff. It’s a wide range of stuff. We did a song with Hunter Hayes. I guess he’s a new country-western kid who plays guitar and sings. It was fun. That’s the thing, there are so many different genres you have to cover playing the gig, but it’s fun. It keeps you going.
Were you involved with the creation of undun?
Yeah, I’m on two songs on the record.
How was the writing and recording process? Did you feel like you had creative freedom?
Absolutely. We would just start playing. We had a blueprint or something that we were trying to recreate or an idea that we were shooting for. Past that, everybody would just play. Everyone had their own idea, their own interpretation of what we were going for. We would just keep playing until we came up with something, and then we’d come up with a bridge or whatever and put it all together. Everybody had their own creative control over what they wanted to do with their own part.
What is your life like outside of playing music?
When I’m not playing music I’m a father; I have a son. Other than that I’m a family man outside of my gigs.
What’s a typical day like in the life of Mark Kelley?
My typical day is that I go to 30 Rock around 1pm. It depends though. If there is a guest artist that we have to back up, then we have to get there a little early to rehearse their tunes. But if it’s an easy day I’ll be there around 1pm. We rehearse any skits or anything a few times before Jimmy comes on. Then we’ll do a quick run through with Jimmy. Then we go back to the room and do these things called walk-overs. Walk-overs are the music we play for each guest when they’re walking over to the desk. Usually Ahmir will give a lot of the suggestions for that. He’ll find creative ways to have a song that relates to that person. It’s almost a game, like try to figure out why a song was played, why it is the walk-over. We also pick the sandwiches which is the music we play when we go out to commercial bumps and when we come back in from commercial bumps. Around 4pm we’re done and we have about an hour before the show to get ready and chill out. By around 5:15 or 5:30 we do a warm-up where we get the crowd ready. We’ll play a Roots tune and hype them up a little. Then we start rolling, do the show, and go home. That’s it.
What do you see as Questlove’s impact on the music scene today?
The dude is very knowledgeable. The dude knows a pile of music. I don’t know how he’s influencing everybody else, I can only speak on how he influences me. I’ve learned so much about where certain things come from. When he’s looking for a specific thing he’ll say more like so-and-so. Most of the time it’s someone I’ve never heard of or something that I’ve never checked out. That’s why I go to the shows he DJ’s at. He’s playing a ton of music and some of it you’re like, I know that from somewhere. It was used in some random hip-hop joint or something years back, but you didn’t know where it came from. He plays the original record it’s from. He’s a brilliant music mind. He’s taught me a ton about where a lot of the music comes from and little things like what makes each genre or what signifies a certain style. If I want to play an old-school joint maybe de-tuning my bass a little is the hip thing to capture the sound of that era. Like stuff that I would never think of. After we do it and I go back and listen, I mean, he’s right.
“@questlove killed Brooklyn bowl tonight…I’m living in my headphones for the next few hours to keep the party going…”
Quest was deejaying. He does this thing every Thursday night at Brooklyn Bowl. I went to just hang out. I’ve been at parties where Quest has deejayed before, but at this one he played a bunch of different stuff I had never heard before. After the night was over, I was looking for more stuff to get into. It was so late, there was nothing else happening, but the show was so great that I didn’t want to stop listening to music. I wanted to keep going. So I went home and literally put on my headphones and kept rocking.
What type of music do you typically spin in your headphones?
A lot of different stuff. Sometimes I’m listening to rock, heavy metal, hip-hop, old soul from the ‘70s and ’80s. It just really depends; every day is different. It depends on how I feel.
What’s your music platform of choice?
I use Pandora; I downloaded the app. I type in what I like and all of a sudden everything is right there. It brings up different versions and different artists that I’ve never even heard of. It’s all great shit.
If you had to name a few bass players or musicians who most influenced your style, who would that be?
This dude Chris Laughlin in Boston. He was definitely a big influence when I first moved there. Of course Meshell, that’s obvious. I’ve learned a ton from her over the years.
On the other side, Dilla’s bass lines changed my life. The bass lines that he made gave me a completely different perspective on creating bass lines and constructing bass lines over simple beats. That’s always a perspective that I try to come from whenever I’m creating. I’m always striving to come up with witty bass lines like those.
Interview by Eric Sandler