Interview: David Pelletier – Cirque du Soleil bassist
David Pelletier is the bassist for the Circque du Soleil show “Mystere”. This interview took place around August, 2009. Interestingly, I went to Vegas in June of 2009 and my lovely wife and I went to see Mystere. From the tone and visual style of the bass, I knew that David was playing an F Bass. So I gave my card to the stage manager and asked him to have David contact me. He was gracious enough (and probably curious enough) to contact me, and agreed to this interview.
FretSpot: Performing nightly with CDS must be an interesting experience. How did you get that gig?
David Pelletier: I’ve actually been with the company for almost 10 years. I started in 1999 with the touring show Alegria. Being from Montreal, Canada, I had been in contact with fellow musicians who either left or returned from gigs with Cirque for years. At the time I didn’t think it was for me until I turned 30. Then I flashed that it could be a good career choice. I sent my resume and demo. About 9 months later I got a call from an old high school friend who was playing drums with Alegria. Their bassist was leaving the tour and he asked me if I was interested. The rest is history. So I did 4 years as bassist and then 4 years as bandleader and bassist on Alegria, touring the world, literally.
I eventually gave my resignation and left the show in March 2007. I took a sabbatical and did nothing for about 10 months. I really needed the break. Then I said what the hell, I’ll contact Cirque’s casting again and see what’s up. They had an opening at Mystère. I auditioned and got the gig. So here I am, since February 2008, just playing the bass and enjoying the desert.
FS: The music has moments where you are playing “songs”, and other moments where you are creating a mood. Who scores the music?
DP: Mystère has two composers: René Dupéré (40%) and Benoît Jutras (60%). From what I hear, Mystère’s creation was a bit chaotic and Dupéré was a bit overwhelmed so Jutras took over. He was the original bandleader too.
FS: How identical is it performed each performance, or are there artist liberties each time?
DP: While the pacing and general timing is the same every night, there are slight differences in almost every number. The music is modular and many sections can be shortened or stretched at will in order to follow artists. The bandleader gives the cues vocally. This keeps the show exciting and we have to be on our toes. And of course there are things that can go wrong so the bandleader then has to improvise an arrangement calling sections on the fly.
FS: How has the music and musicians evolved over the years?
DP: The actual music has not really evolved. Some acts were dumped and new ones added, therefore new songs, but the arrangements are pretty much the same with just the form changing as acts change. New musicians have brought their own twists on different parts but that’s about it. Interesting fact, two musicians are still there from creation, Marc Solis (woodwinds) and Bruce Rickerd (guitar). That’s 15 years and more than 7000 shows!
FS: Is any of the music pre-recorded?
DP: The music is live, with some loops going on at different times. The show now has a backup for musicians. They use Ableton Live to trigger a musician’s parts in case they are out sick. For example, when you saw the show, one of our singers was out so you were hearing her recorded tracks. We play the full show with a click track which facilitates triggering Ableton tracks. Of course Ableton is not as flexible as a fully live band and it happens that we have to stop it if the action on stage deviates a lot from what is considered “normal”. It is almost impossible to predict every possibility.
FS: What’s the turnover like with musicians at CDS? Average tenure?
DP: It is hard to give a number on the average tenure of a musician at Cirque. Turnover is fairly low. A job like Cirque is a rarity in the music scene. It is steady income that can last for years. This year Mystère has 478 shows at the calendar. Having a steady job makes it easy and fun to participate in other musical projects where the pay might not be interesting otherwise. Artists (this includes musicians) are on a one year contract, renewable each year. A good evaluation usually means a contract renewal. It is very expensive for the company to replace artists. So for example, as mentioned before, two musicians are on Mystère from the beginning (15 years), some for about 10 years, and the bassist I replaced had been there for 5 years and now moved on to Zed in Japan, another Cirque show.
FS: Any gig horror stories with CDS?
DP: Sure there are horror stories. It is a live show after all. It can range from technical errors, lighting failures, automation (lifts) not functioning, or even a major train wreck in the band. I have one particular anecdote: On Alegria, there was a show where we had no singer (they were both out sick). At the time we did not have a backup system. Management decided to dress an artist as the lead singer and we used a full band and vocal recording for the opening and finale songs on which the band would literally lip sync. Well about 30 seconds before the end of the song the recording stopped. Total silence. But the crowd usually went nuts at that point so their cheers covered it. We finished 30 seconds early that night.
FS: Have language or cultural differences made problems or humorous stories?
DP: I don’t recall any humorous stories regarding cultural differences, but they are omnipresent. On every show there is a large number of eastern Europeans, and then usually some Europeans, Scandinavians, Australians, Mongolians, Brazilians, etc. The common working language is English of course. I wouldn’t say there are problems per se, but people tend to group according to their origin or language.
FS: If someone wanted to get involved with playing for one of the big Vegas shows, what would be the prerequisite knowledge before auditioning? How should they go about finding out about openings, etc?
DP: Cirque has improved dramatically their casting/auditioning procedure. There’s a link for casting on www.cirquedusoleil.com where you get all the info about openings and all. The “big Vegas shows” as you say are not the only shows Cirque is producing. There are many touring shows as well. If one desires to join Cirque, I wouldn’t limit myself to the Vegas shows. These shows are for sure the ones with the less amount of turnovers. Positions are very limited. Touring is great as well. There are less shows per year, but then you have no or very little expenses, it about evens out. As for prerequisite, Cirque is looking for musicians with musical education, reading and improvising skills and a capacity to adapt on the fly to changing cues and arrangements. Casting has kits for every position, and it is required to produce a video of yourself playing live along with the audition kit.
FS: Why did you first start playing bass? What inspired you to learn this instrument?
DP: Hmm… good question. We had an old beat up classical guitar at home when I was a child. Nobody played it, so I still wonder what it was doing there. Anyways, as my interest for music grew, I picked it up and the first parts that naturally came to me were the bass parts as I was trying to learn songs. So I was playing bass on the guitar. I also wanted to play drums but we were living in an apartment and drums were out of the question. I was into classic and progressive rock at the time. Some early influences range from Deep Purple, Rush, Yes, Led Zeppelin, etc.
FS: What was your first bass, and what were the circumstances in getting it (birthday, christmas, etc)?
DP: My first bass and amp was a kit made by Sears. Ultra cheap but very helpful. I just asked my mom if I could get that kit from a friend’s brother who was selling it, for $100 if I remember correctly. She knew I was serious about music so she agreed. She was always supportive of me and my music. My second bass was an Aria Pro II, through neck. I played that bass for several years.
FS: What were your first musical experiences? First band?
DP: My first band was in high school back in Montréal in the early 80’s. I was enrolled in the music classes and formed a band with a guitar player and a drummer. The musicianship was surprisingly good. These two guys are still playing. We also had a singer. We were playing Led Zep, Ozzy, Black Sabbath and Hendrix among others.
FS: What was your first professional gig that made you feel like you had “made it”?
DP: That gig would be working for a legendary singer in Québec named Robert Charlebois. I was hired on his 1996 album called “Le Chanteur Masqué” to write all the horn arrangements and I also performed bass on 2 songs. I was good friends with the producer, having recorded at his studio with my metal band at the time. It was a great experience.
FS: What is your musical training? Did you study music at a University, or is your education all wood-shedding and on the job training?
DP: I did 3 years at the St-Laurent college in Montréal and then went on to study jazz composition at Berklee College of Music for 3 semesters in 1991-1992. My passion at the time was big band arranging. I devoted a lot of hours to that as opposed to bass training. Before college, I didn’t read music. I got in I guess because of my skills on the bass but had to take a special class before school started to catch up on music theory and ear training. So in a way I consider myself self-trained to a point.
FS: Can you read musical notation? Is it used in the show? If not, what format do they use?
DP: Of course now I can read and write music very well. As far as the show is concerned, it is not really used per se, but it really helps when you’re integrating a show. Once you know the songs, you don’t need charts anymore. So I would not say it is mandatory at Cirque, but strongly appreciated let’s say. For example, the previous accordion player in Alegria did not read music. When she went to another show, Cortéo, I heard that the bandleader was freaking out because she did not read. She eventually caught up with the songs, but reading strongly accelerates the integration process. I believe that reading skills are part of the requirements on the new Cirque casting site. But I suppose that if you’re really good at your instrument and have special skills or sound, especially for ethnic type instruments, they would still consider you.
FS: Being a bass player in Las Vegas, did you know Adrian Garcia?
DP: No I did not know Adrian Garcia. I googled him though. Sorry to see he has passed away. Thanks for introducing me to him. I will check out his legacy.
FS: What basses do you own? Which basses get the most use in your current gig?
DP: I own 5 basses at the moment. Two Warmoth Jazzbass 4 stings (one fretted and one fretless) a Carvin Bunny Brunel model 4 strings, a Lakland 55-94 5 strings and a “F Bass” BNF5 fretless. In the show I use the Lakland and the “F” equally, about 50/50.
FS: What other equipment do you own that you use regularly (amps, preamps, effects, strings, etc)?
DP: I use two preamps on stage since I have two separate lines for my fretted and fretless basses. I switch between the two with an A/B switch. For the Lakland I use a Demeter HBP-1 H Series Tube Bass Preamplifier. This thing is amazing and will bring to life any piece of wood with strings on it. For the “F”, I have a Eden Traveler head, using only the preamp section. It’s warm and punchy, dirty. I love it.
There’s one thing that’s really hard to adjust to on Mystère. It’s the fact that they don’t allow any speakers on stage. Therefore I do not have any cabinets on stage. I use Sensaphonics in-ear monitors and a “butt shaker” bolted to the floor under me. Thank god for that shaker! So it’s really hard to come up with a bass sound that way I find. For example, with the “F” bass, the only way I could get satisfied was to push all the way up the high and mid pots, along with the treble pot. The bass pot is half way up. I compensate with some EQ on the Traveler. I think it sounds pretty damn good this way though.
I only use an effect one time in the show, a delay/flanger type thing coming from an old Alesis Quadraverb that belongs to the company. It’s for a specific song which has the same kind of fx as in “One of These Days” by Pink Floyd. I would like to explore effects more though. In some songs I have to play with a pick these loud, long notes and a slight distortion/room reverb might be interesting. I’m thinking John Wetton on UK Live. Sounds like he’s playing very loud in a cavern.
As for strings, on the fretted I use Elixir extra long scale, .045-.105 with a .130 low B. On the “F” I use their own strings with their weird custom gauge. I believe it’s .043-.128. I’ve tried others by I always come back to them. I change them about once a month on both basses.
FS: Any opinions on equipment in general? Brand preferences, opinions on the use of effects, etc?
DP: I’m not an equipment maniac. I actually care very little about it. It’s all about feel and sound, no matter what you use really. I’ve seen bassists with top gear and shitty sound. What’s important is having your ideal sound embedded in your head and try to reproduce it. If you have no vision, the gear is not gonna fix it for you.
FS: How did you become aware of F Bass? And why did you start using the BNF5?
DP: F Bass is a Canadian company and we became aware of it very early on. It was used by a Quebec fusion band called UZEB with bassist Alain Caron and guitarist Michel Cusson (F made guitars as well at the time). These guys were huge in Quebec and getting there internationally.
When I got the gig with Mystère, it became clear to me that I had to get 5 strings basses. On Alegria, I was fine with my Warmoth’s and Hipshot D-Tuner’s. So I wanted to have them before leaving Montréal to go to Las Vegas, just so I could practice with them and arrive ready. I had the hardest time shopping for 5 strings basses in Montréal, believe or not. I chose the Lakland for a fretted bass. But then can you believe that the BNF5 was the only 5 string fretless in Montréal! That was in January 2008. At first I didn’t think it was for me. I thought it was overpriced, above my budget. But then it became clear to me that I wouldn’t find another 5 string fretless in time. I decided to buy it. I got a fairly good deal because the headstock was chipped a bit. Well I’m glad I did because I love it now. I especially love the neck. It’s thin with a flat radius. I might consider getting one as a fretted. We’ll see.
I also love the 34.5 scale. The strings are well balanced and the B string has tremendous sustain and growl on the low notes. In the show there are long sustains on low D, Eb and C and the bass just rocks. I am also amazed at how stable the neck is. It’s rock solid. I also like the pickups and preamp of course. I get a really unique sound out of them. The overall craftsmanship of the bass is just gorgeous. It’s a piece of art. The weight is well distributed and the bass is surprisingly light compared to other basses I’ve owned. It’s a very comfortable instrument.
FS: What kind of things are you working on in your current personal practice regimen?
DP: Well, sorry to disappoint you but I do not actually have a practice regimen. We do 10 shows a week, 478 shows a year so I spend a lot of time playing the bass. That would be different of course if I didn’t have this job. Cirque is a unique job for musicians. I haven’t heard of any company offering that many shows. It’s almost surreal. On my spare time, I rather focus on writing or producing demos for friends. I use Logic Studio on the Mac OS X platform. I’m quite fluent with this setup. I’ve been using Logic since version 5 on Mac OS 9. I like to incorporate real bass on various projects, so that’s as far as my practice regiment goes. I also play a bit of guitar and own a Fender strat “Highway One”. I play a bit of keyboards as well.
FS: Any other topics that you’d like to address, or that you think bass players would find interesting?
DP: I think any bassist (or musician in general) should focus on versatility. My background is very diverse. I come from rock (progressive, hard, metal) but I also loved jazz in all its forms, and even country. In the mid 90’s I was leading a progressive metal band which I’m still really proud of to this day. At the same time I was playing regularly in a jazz big band. This versatility came in handy with Cirque, where musical styles vary a lot. I feel right at home with Mystère. I find the overall score to be quite progressive.