Bass School“Bass – It completely changed my life”
When Stuart Matthewman, aka “Cottonbelly,” makes music, you don’t just feel it. In an interview in his New York studio, the Brit talks about how his fascination with low tones converted him from punk to reggae – and how he uses psychoacoustics to inspire his listeners.
Stuart Matthewman hit the international music scene in 1984, when Sade Adu, the most successful British artist of all time, made her debut album Diamond Life. Since then, he has worked with Sade and her band as (co-)producer, songwriter, saxophonist and guitarist. Matthewman also performs under the pseudonym Cottonbelly. His latest work, Twin Danger, which he produced, is soon to be released. In addition, Matthewman composes film soundtracks. The Englishman has been living in New York since the mid-80s. We visited him in his small recording studio on the 6th floor of a large office building right in the middle of Manhattan.
110 Mthat’s how many albums Stuart Matthewman has sold with the band Sade alone. Other successes for the producer and multi-instrumentalist include soundtracks to films such as “The Astronaut Farmer” and “Indecent Proposal.” As “Cottonbelly,” Matthewman plays jazz and reggae. Whatever the genre, the power of deep tones fascinates him – as does music’s ability to make people laugh.
Matthewman: Welcome to my studio. We’re on 29th Street in Manhattan. Sometimes, you can hear the sirens of police cars and ambulances. It adds to the vibe of New York City. Apart from my studio, there are only offices in this building: management companies and lawyers. I try to keep quiet during the day and ratch it up at night. So far, nobody’s complained. But my music’s good, right? So why would anyone complain? (Laughs)
Schnell: You’re a Brit - why did you move to New York?
I grew up in Hull, a small town in northern England. In 1980, I moved to London. I didn’t have any money and moved from squat to squat. Back then, I was so broke that I was actually stealing food. Luckily during my first year in London, I met Sade and the rest of the band. After we got a record deal, we were on the road all the time and were often in New York. I fell in love with the city and stayed on. Everything I need is right here in New York.
The transformation from struggling musician to selling millions of records as part of Sade’s band went pretty quick.
It was luck and determination. The most important thing as a musician, or as an artist in general, is to not have a backup plan. You have to know what you want. You cannot have a second job or you will never follow through.
By now, you’ve worked with Sade for almost 30 years.
We take off for ten years here and there to do other stuff. (laughs). We wouldn’t have lasted 30 years together if we didn’t have room to do our own thing.
What other projects are you currently involved in?
I write music for movies. Scoring films has a very different dynamic from writing songs because you’re writing for specific scenes to help the audience understand them. My alter ego, Cottonbelly, dubs music, and produces and remixes for other artists like Janet Jackson and Gregory Isaacs. My latest project is called Twin Danger. A jazz project (don’t be scared, it’s good!) with an amazing singer from New York named Vannessa Bley. We’ve got something very cool going on. That will be happening soon.
Do you use Sennheiser microphones for your productions?
For recording the tom-toms on this drum kit here in the back, I generally use the Sennheiser MD 421. It sounds warm and round. For my Saxophone, I use a Sennheiser clip-on microphone – both live and in the studio. Also, I have two Neumann KM 184s. They are amazing for drum recordings – as overheads on the hi-hat – and they are great for recording the acoustic guitar. I use them all the time.
Do you record your music in this small studio?
I do. Since it’s so small, I usually use headphones to mix the music. I don’t trust the sound of this room, but I trust the sound of the Sennheiser HD 640. They’re great! You hear a lot of low end and they’re not too bright. You need a very natural sound for mixing and the HD 640s have a very accurate bass and high end. Also, I love to walk through the madness of New York or ride on the subway with headphones on.
Does Sade record her vocals in this studio?
No, but she also uses Sennheiser equipment. For her vocals in the studio, she uses the Neumann U 87 Ai. When we play live, everything is Sennheiser: all the microphones and radio packs – everything. Since we don’t have any monitors on stage, we use in-ear-headphones from Sennheiser. The bass player also needs to physically feel the low end of his playing. He has a little thing that clips underneath the stage and vibrates the floor so that he actually feels the bass.
Is the bass particularly important for Sade’s music?
Our records are very deep. We use a very low bass. Almost no sub-bass, but sounds that can actually be heard and – if you have a nice sound system – feel. For live performances, we add sub-bass sounds; for instance, for sound effects at the beginning of the show, when you can hear explosions and stuff. We put 16 subwoofers on each side of the stage so that the audience can physically feel the low tones. When Paul [Paul Spencer Denman] plays his bass live, the subwoofers provide a much bigger sound live than what we use for recordings. For us, it’s essential to have a very separate, clean, low-end bass sound.
That reminds me of the low frequencies used in movies.
Ultra-low frequencies are used in movies all the time to evoke certain emotions. The big dramatic low bass sounds: “Ta ta taaa…” to arouse fear. Psychoacoustics are able to manipulate the audience. Not just sound, but the music they hear also affects the audience. I have always been interested in how to make an audience laugh or cry. Ever since I was a little kid. You can do that with music. I am fascinated by film scores that are able to impact how the audience feels about a certain character.
In pop, low bass is usually used for positive effects. What drew you to these “feel-good low frequencies”?
When I was 18 or 19, I played in a punk rock band in the north of England. One night, we supported the reggae group Steel Pulse. I managed to get on stage when they were playing and sat behind the drummer. He had two massive subwoofers on either side of him. All we could hear were his drums and the bass, which must have been well under 15 Hz. It was an incredible feeling - one that completely changed my life.
The title of Sade’s album Lover’s Rock is also a reference to a ’70s reggae genre of the same name.
You’re right. Living in London at that time, you heard reggae everywhere. When I was a kid, we went to clubs that played reggae all the time. Often, the rooms were filled just with bass speakers and tweeters. The sound was amazing. It was physically impossible to stand still. The bass was so powerful that you felt sick if you stood still. You just had to dance. The bass took you to another place completely – physically and mentally.
Is there anyone else in Sade that likes reggae that much?
We all like very different kinds of music. Sade really likes hip-hop; Andrew Hale, the keyboardist, likes esoteric dance music. Paul still loves punk and I’m into film music. But, we all love reggae. Reggae is simple; it is stripped down. The music is about getting the soul across instead of musicians who are showing off. You do not listen to a reggae song to be impressed by an amazing guitar solo. What the guitarist does is simple and it sounds RIGHT with the song. That is exactly what we’re about. Sounding right as a band and not showing off as musicians.
The photographer and filmmaker John Kroemer and Vanina Feldsztein have lived in New York for almost twenty years. Shootings, like the one they did with the Sennheiser musician Stuart Matthewman, are something like the perfect workday. The producer of the music group Sade was “cool, nice and accessible” – and his neighborhood full of surprises: Before the shoot, Kroemer photographed possible locations to take the portraits. On Bleecker Street in NoHo, he snapped a picture of an old man sitting in front of his loft. It wasn't until later that they realized that this man was none other than Robert Frank - the father of modern documentary photography.