Being the bass player in Soulfly, one of the world’s most groove-oriented metal bands, would be enough of a job for most musicians, but for Mike Leon, that’s only half the story, as he also takes on bass duties in melodic death metal band The Absence. We chatted with Mike as he prepared to hit the road for yet another tour… something he does a lot of.
Mike, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. We know how busy you are!
I’m always happy to talk about my ESP basses!
Tell us what first got you into ESP.
I was watching videos of Metallica back in the day and saw Kirk playing his signature, the Ouija board one, and I was like, “What is that thing?!?” It was love at first sight!
What ESP basses are you playing now?
For the recent Cavalera Conspiracy tours, and I’ve been using a couple of the B-1004 Deluxe basses. I loved them so much for that project that I decided to bring them out for Soulfly as well. Those Nordstrand Big Splits pickups are no joke!
Is there a specific kind of tone you’re looking for in a bass?
I like it to sound like someone is slamming a steel chain onto hot concrete.
Damn, that really is specific!
I want that Rex Brown tone all the way!
You’re an EMG guy, correct?
Not officially. I have a few basses with EMGs, but lately I've been falling in love with all the Nordstrand products! That’s how I've been achieving that concrete tone.
Is feel and balance an important thing in choosing a bass?
It’s 100% a thing, absolutely! The more comfortable you are, the better you'll play! Ideally it should feel like it’s not even there. Your instrument should be an extension of yourself.
Tell us more about your experience playing the Multi-Scale bass.
Some people think it’s a gimmick, but it’s not. It’s got so many applications! Ergonomically, it flows with how your hand wants to move down the neck, taking any "uncomfortable" positions out of the equation. In addition to that, I love the fact that I can play with .050-.130 gauge string set on a four-string bass, and it always stays in tune and perfectly intonated! I mostly use it for the old Sepultura tunes in standard E or D tuning. My Multi-Scale is tuned to B-E-A-D, making it ultra versatile.
Like a lot of musicians, you have multiple gigs. Are there big differences for you playing in Soulfly and its various incarnations versus The Absence?
In a sense, yes, but it’s still the same me, though I approach each band differently to suit the needs of the music. When it comes to the basses I play and the tones I’m looking for, every single project is different, as well as the tuning. For Soulfly, we play in standard A tuning, and sometimes standard B. That changes my tone settings quite drastically.
I like to use a thicker, darker wood to get those deeper vibes, and to compliment that low tuning.
The Absence plays in standard C, so the gauges of the strings change. My tone in The Absence is a little more round. It's less aggressive, and more melodic, which helps to fit in with shrillness of dual guitar attack that we are known for! Regardless of the project though, my Darkglass arsenal is always present!
Is it difficult juggling responsibilities between multiple bands?
It can be difficult, of course, but it helps to know what you have lined up for the year with each project. It’s like connecting the dots. For instance, last year there were times where I'd fly home, shoot some music videos for The Absence, a week would go by, then it was time to fly out to tour with Nailbomb. Then another short break at home, then out with Cavalera or Soulfly. I just go where the riffs take me!
You’re on the road a lot.
Around 220+ shows a year!
Do you do anything special to take care of basses on the road?
Not really. My ENKI travel case is a fortress! We do detune the strings slightly when we fly, but that’s a pretty standard practice.
Have the basses been stable in terms of reliability and tuning?
Absolutely. The B series basses that I’m using have held their tuning better than any basses I’ve ever played in my life. I’ve totally got them dialed in now. They’re pretty much undetunable, haha!
How old were you when you started playing?
I started playing violin when I was seven for my school's orchestra, as well as singing in the children's choir. It was shortly after that time when I discovered Metallica, which was the catalyst that sparked my interest in heavier music.
Ah, Metallica strikes again. Did you go straight to bass?
No. I started guitar first, and I was playing with my fingers. My dad noticed my approach to guitar and suggested trying my hand (pun intended) at bass.
How old were you then?
I was 10 years old when I got my first bass.
Who are some of your favorite bass players of all time?
Cliff Burton! That was my first love of bass, him and Flea. Flea and Cliff are just masters of their craft to me. Of course there's Steve Harris, who blew my mind as a kid. Also, Tim Commerford from RATM, there’s nobody that throws down like TC! Then there are dudes like Justin Chancellor and Dave Ellefson, who rock using picks. They’re in a class of their own!
Do you still try and improve as a musician?
Constantly. I’m constantly trying to listen to different types of music. Maybe I’ll hear an EDM song and say, “That bass line is fat!” I’ll bastardize it and use it later. You can derive inspiration from any style or genre of music. Of course, I have a daily practice routine that I go through to stay sharp.
What keeps you practicing every day?
One cool thing is, I have a bass in every room in my house. I’ll be like, “I wanna learn this riff… right now!” So I'll grab whatever's near me and try out new stuff, maybe even a nylon classical if that’s what’s around. When I get an idea, I try to get said idea from my head onto my fretboard as quickly as possible. Don't wanna get stuck in a riff vortex!