Kimberley Wheeler Talks With LTTL
She’s a well-known bass player for hire. A go-to person to be able to seamlessly blend in with anything bluegrass, folk or old-time. She is or was a member of a number of bands – Uncle Bill, Little Rabbit and Appalachian Heaven Stringband. Now she’s moving into the realm of solo artist.
LTTL covered MountainGrass festival a few days ago where she performed a number of times, in various guises including two sets as ‘Kimberley Wheeler’. The festival is organised by ABOTMA (the Australasian Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association) and she has just been installed as President.
It seems an ideal time to have a chat.
You’re originally from Geelong. Where you your love of music come from?
Oddly, I didn’t like music early on. My brother and I were forced to take music lessons and I hated that. As a kid, I didn’t really listen to a lot of music. People would give me music vouchers and they would expire and it wasn’t until I went to University that I started listening to music and very quickly took up the electric bass, got a pretty heavy bass rig and joined a heavy metal band.
That was the sort of music that you were attracted to at the time?
Yes. But I have mellowed out ever since.
What Was the Name of That Band?
It was called Box Monster which, if you are Tasmanian, you would know that it is the name of really cheap wine in a cask.
At some point you decided to gravitate to a more acoustic/folk scene
I did. I always had a love for double bass. I eventually came across one. The metal band had broken up and you start hanging out with other people and get exposed to different things.
So did you have formal bass lessons?
I did have a couple of lessons for both the electric and then the upright bass, getting some good techniques for the latter and I never went back to the electric style. Mostly I just learned by practice and fiddling around, just watching what other people do.
You play with or have played with many bands – Uncle Bill, Little Rabbit, The Appalachian Heaven Stringband and Le Blanc Cajun Band. Tell me first about the Cajun outfit.
There are two brothers Le Blanc who have a love of Cajun music, with an ancestral heritage that relates to the Cajuns. They were born in Australia but wanted to investigate the Cajun culture and the two of them combined with a fellow from New Zealand called Richard Klein who was originally from New Jersey. They started the band I don’t know how many years ago, a long time ago,
Are they still around?
Still around. Last August we all went to Borneo for the Rainforest World Music Festival.
It sounds an exotic location?
It was very exotic. As a music writer and someone who goes to music festivals, I’d highly recommend it. It’s by far the best organised festival I have ever been to, which was unexpected. It was in the middle of a rainforest, widely supported by the Malaysian Government with one of its key sponsors being Malaysian Airlines and they flew an audio team in from Ireland and England and combined with some of the local sponsors to support a huge festival with other 10,000 people including an enormous stage that you would expect to see at Byron Bay’s Bluesfest.
What’s its style of music? Pretty Eclectic?
It is pretty much world music there. Bands from The Maldives, performers from Africa, all over Asia, Poland, Slovakia, Canada. We were there playing American Music but there was no actual US representation. They really look after their guests. Malays are well known for their hospitality anyway and we were treated by like rock stars
With all your projects, I am guessing that your involvement has evolved over time and there has been no Master Plan. Which ones are still ongoing? Is there progress dependent on other band members, other circumstances?
There was no Grand Plan. I have just moved from band to band when someone has said “Hey I need a bass player or vocalist” or something like that and it is a bit about who you are connecting with at the time. Sometimes you all get along really well and it works out musically. Originally I operated as a supporting musician, playing bass and backing vocals. In the last few years there is Little Rabbit and as you know I have recently started my own solo project and that has been in activation for some months and has started doing a few gigs. I have had a lot of experience running a band, previously having taken on the bulk of management for Little Rabbit and Uncle Bill. It is also a different ball game being the sole front person for a band, it is a whole other thing.
It is a different thing and it all rests on you
That’s for sure.
So those sets that you played at MountainGrass last weekend, were they amongst the first that you have done with you up front?
I have done a few things – the Dorrigo Festival and a handful of small gigs around the place. The line-up you saw at MountainGrass, the bass player Quentin Fraser has played with Little Rabbit before so he’s done a few of the songs.
He plays bass while you play guitar
Why is that – just for a change of sound in the solo context?
Little Rabbit spontaneously combusted at some point and we had some commitments still to fulfil, so we got Quentin to play bass, guitar and Dobro. Kat Mear and I have since reformed Little Rabbit as the Little Rabbit Stringband. We have started writing new material and we have resolved to run it as a duo with guests for the time being. We recently did The Kelly Country Pick, just the two of us, and that was a bit thing for me as I was playing mainly guitar which is not my native format, but something that I will be focussing on more given my solo project. Singing while you are playing bass is restrictive. The multi-tasking that goes on when you are doing both… there aren’t as many singing bass players around.
Is it more difficult to vocally project when you have this big instrument you have to manage, to move on stage and lean toward what is often a single mike?
That’s a further complication with the bluegrass style for singing bass players. Some bands have that mike roving thing down pat, but it can be a challenge to be heard vocally when it is not.
Let’s talk about your singing. I’ve heard your vocals on record and seen you live a few times. Last Sunday when I caught your performance I really thought you were taking your singing to another level?
Thank you very much. I’m loving singing more. I’m pleased that you noticed the difference on Sunday because I thought that was my weakest gig. I had nine gigs over the weekend. That was my second last one and I was exhausted. But I’ve been enjoying my music so much more, I’m doing more singing. I just can’t get enough of the music.
And your songs are quite different – some are dark, humorous – not the usual love songs? Tell me about how the process you follow to develop a song. What’s the first thing that starts you off?
There’s not one usual first thing. Sometimes I might have a lyric or just hum something or even a chord sequence. Most things come from the guitar. When you’re sitting around home on the couch, that’s probably what you are doing. Sometimes when you’re on another instrument there are different voices or even limitations that you get other ideas. I profess to play the bass and sing and play some guitar. But at home I might have other instruments that are sitting around. Sometimes it’s fun to hop on the banjo and the mandola and see what comes
For live performances as a solo artist, are you going to have a regular band, perhaps John Gray on banjo and another bass player?
The process will be John riding shotgun and that works really well. Realistically, I envisage doing an album soon after Christmas that we’ll record and I’ll lay down some bass and mandolin and I may get a few other people in to do some things and maybe use some other instruments. But at the moment the focus is to get a body of work together, then worry about getting other band members.
When you say you have to get a body of work – 11 or 12 tracks for the album?
There is a body of work that you can draw upon when doing shows. There may be things that you don’t record and then there’s the list that you might put down in plastic (a CD) and digitally. There are songs that you might play live that you would never record. Live you often need more diversity of songs, depending on the moment.
Are you doing both at the moment – trying to get the solo career with a live band and the recorded material at much the same time.
That’s quite complex I would have thought
It can be. With all the different bands I’ve been with over the years there are a whole variety of songs I sing. I know a lot of songs and sometimes it’s hard to remember what you know…trying to create lists and see what works or what’s relevant for the project is the thing.
Do you have a timeframe in terms of the album?
Sometime after Christmas. Depending on some other projects including a Little Rabbit EP which would establish us beyond the last album in 2015. That release I feel never really got the promotion it deserved for various reasons.
How do you manage to juggle all these projects – you must be pretty busy?
I am busy. Often I feel overcommitted. Probably about eighteen months ago, I reduced my musical commitments because sometimes it’s too difficult to keep up. Bass players do get around more than some other players. I have to learn to say no more often. There are not enough of us. It is easy if you are familiar with the genre just to jump in and play with other people. Most things in the bluegrass or old-time realm I can get up to speed very quickly, particularly with many traditional songs.
Congratulations on your appointment as President of ABOTMA* Tell me a little about the organisation and your plans for it
I just feel that maybe it’s time to put something extra back into music. I’ve been on the ABOTMA Committee for three years and lately I’ve been doing the website coordination. It’s been around as long as MountainGrass. When the previous national bluegrass festival decided to close its doors, a group of people, got together and nutted a plan out to start a festival and, in the same breath, they created ABOTMA, which is a not-for-profit organisation, around five years ago. The previous festival had been going for twenty-three years at the same location – Harrietville.
Up to this point, ABOTMA’s efforts have encompassed running the festival which is a big job. The festival has grown over the four years and we are at a point now where we are looking to separate the festival from ABOTMA from an organisational point of view. ABOTMA is still the financial and legal entity for MountainGrass and there are mandates set initially for ABOTMA to represent the players and do other things. We are starting to bring those into play for members such as advantages on Virgin domestic flights where members can get extra luggage allocated so they take their instruments on board and get instrument insurance discounts.
Our first project that is independent of the festival relates to the Women in String Bands compilation CD. We want to do more things. I’m also working on trying to get a youth scholarship up and running with discussions taking place about how that would be funded.
What is the strategic importance of Harrietville as the festival location?
Harrietville is roughly half way between Melbourne and Sydney and it’s beautiful. A tourist town which punches above its weight in terms of available accommodation which makes it really suited to having a festival. I love the small town festivals like Yackandandah. It’s not too spread out and you can avoid establishing a festival ground where you need fences and security. It’s the biggest event in the town each year but it still doesn’t seem busy.
Kimberley thanks for your time and good luck with your many ventures
My pleasure Rob.