In Search Of Tone: Tanya Byrne & Joe Rawlings Of Bismuth

Bismuth was new to me and learning that this duo was a bass drum combo got me intrigued. I always find it interesting that so much heaviness and sound can come from two people. I quickly became of fan of their style and Tanya Byrne was very kind to go into great detail about how she achieves these tones.

Tanya Byrne / Bismuth - Photo by Lee Edwards
Tanya Byrne / Bismuth – Photo by Lee Edwards

Tanya also went the extra mile and reached out to Joe Rawlings for our first ever look into the world of drumming. Joe offers some fantastic information to conclude what is already an outstanding interview from Tanya. Thank you both!

You guys create some really heavy music and an epic wall of sound. When I realized it was just two of you I had to look at that again. Starting with amps, what are you currently using and do you have different amps for recording and live?

Depending on my mood I tend to use three or four amps in my live set-up; a Matamp GT200 with a Behringer 810 (to annoy the amp snobs) for bass frequencies, an Orange TH200 and a Marshall 412 and Orange 412 with v30s for high frequencies, and an Acoustic 370 with either an 810 or 215 for even more bass. In addition, I run an amp called a Philamp Black Hole Generator, which my friend Phil Roberts built for me. It is based on a Sunn Model T design but has a little more mid. I run that with a Barefaced 215 and eq that for mostly mid frequencies. 

For recording I tend to use the same amps, but also include a Sunn Model T with some Matamp 412s for extra silliness and grit. I’d love to tour with one, but they are famously unreliable. Definitely more suited as studio amps! For recording, I tend to use different cabs – an Ampeg 810 with the GT200, and some silly combination of Chris Fielding’s Matamp cabs for everything else. This includes a 415 cab!! In the end, I think we had 39 tracks of bass on The Slow Dying Of The Great Barrier Reef – haha.

Tanya Byrne / Bismuth - Amp Rig
Tanya Byrne / Bismuth – Amp Rig

I don’t know much about the bass guitar. I’ve never played one but definitely want to soon. The song Welchmerz has such an awesome fuzzy tone. Do you have a variety of effects pedals to get that tone?

Thank you! I have a slight pedal addiction for sure. There are different effects chains for each amp, and I firstly split my signal using an isolated splitter built for me by Ned Clayton of Hex Amps. Moose Electronics are fab and most of my fuzz pedals are built by him. I stack these depending on the tone I’m after for the particular amp. Eight pedals on my board are some fuzz or other, which might seem like a lot, but there is a method to it. Some boost bass frequencies, others are set to push mid or high feedback sounds.

As well as this, I use the gain channel on the TH200. This trick is only to use certain fuzzes at certain times, having everything on all the time should only be reserved for extra heavy times. For the TH200 I also use an EHX Pog and reverbs and delays. This is the only amp I use delay and reverb effects on, to maintain the separation of frequencies and tones. I tend to stack these too, so there is an Empress delay going into a Boss DD3, and then this goes into a Mr. Black Eterna Gold and a Chase Bliss Dark World.

Last but not least are the bass guitars. What are you using and do you have a preference in pickups on the bass?

I use a Kramer 350B with the stock pickups it was made with. I never get super adventurous with pickups. The thing that drew me to the Kramer was the aluminium neck. It has sustain for days. Hopefully one day I will track down a Kramer DMZ 2000 or I will find a good deal on a Nude or Electrical Guitar Company bass. My backup bass in a Fender Jazz bass from the ’90s and again, it has stock pickups. It’s such a versatile instrument.

Tanya Byrne / Bismuth - Bass & Pedalboard
Tanya Byrne / Bismuth – Bass & Pedalboard

Do you have a bass guitar, amp or pedal that you have had for a long time and will never part with?

Probably my Fender Jazz bass and Kramer. These instruments are special to me and see them as an extension of myself. The Jazz has been with me since my Maybeshewill days. The 350B is a guitar I searched for 7 years before finally getting hold of one.  The Philamp and Matamp will also always be with me. My friend who built the Philamp died recently, but this way a little bit of him will still be able to go on tour.

I’m sorry to hear that but it’s nice, like you said, a little part of him is always with you. There is endless amounts of music out there and only a handful of notes and chords. How do you create unique sounding riffs and songs?

Joe, our drummer really helps in making our sound what it is. There is something about his playing that inspires me to always strive to try new things within Bismuth. A bandmate that inspires you to strive for improvement, and who gels well with the way you play is rare, so I’m really lucky. He’ll suggest new timings for riffs which can really change how a song sounds. His playing style gives space for reverb or other weird effects and this interplay is the basis of our sound.

When I play guitar, one day I will think wow that sounded perfect and the next day play the same song but think that sounded so bad I don’t know why I’m even playing guitar – haha. What do you do for inspiration if you’re having an off day?

On those days I’ll pick up another instrument, like my keyboard. Suddenly my brain is thinking about how to improve a riff I thought was the worst thing ever. Sometimes a step back is all that is needed. You can’t force something to come out if your mind is occupied with confidence-destroying ideas. Most musicians are their own worst critics. Ultimately, I think that’s a good thing, as it helps you improve (so long as you aren’t TOO hard on yourself).

Bismuth 'The Slow Dying Of The Great Barrier Reef'
Bismuth ‘The Slow Dying Of The Great Barrier Reef’

Do you have any practice routines or warm-ups that you do on a daily basis?

I’m really really bad at practicing by myself. I’ll pick up my bass to work out riffs that are floating around in my brain, but I don’t have a structured routine (which will be a big surprise for those that know me well!). When I was first learning bass and guitar, I would work on scales every day. This was a good foundation and I should do more of this- haha!

Do you have a song or even part of a song you’re particularly proud of?

The way that Great Barrier Reef rises and falls in dynamics is something we worked hard on, and we are both really happy with how it turned out on the recording. Finding the correct combination of amps and pedals to achieve this was a fun journey. I’m on a tone and layer exploration at the moment, as we’re practicing our new album to get it ready for recording later this year.

Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer my questions. I really appreciate it! Is there anything else you would like to add?

It was a pleasure! I asked Joe his thoughts too as his playing is such an intrinsic part of our sound, and he loves talking about his drums.

Now over to Joe to explain his drum set up…

I play a Mapex Saturn kit with a 24″ kick drum (big sound, hard to get upstairs); Black Panther brass snare for the pure attack; all Paiste Rude cymbals as they cut through really nicely, not to mention sound great and can take a walloping; Iron Cobra kick pedal for sheer hardiness and power.

Bismuth - Amp Rig & Drums
Tanya & Joe / Bismuth – Amp Rig & Drums

Set-up wise, pretty standard 1-up 1-down. I sit pretty low down and like to keep everything relatively close as my playing style is quite literally ‘hit as hard as possible, all the time.’

I’m quite fond of the build-up section in the title track from Great Barrier Reef starting at about 18:30 peaking about 3mins later. I really like the atmosphere the section sets, performing the build-up itself, and I’m particularly chuffed with the conclusion of the section (super-heavy).

I’m a big fan of the little ‘moments’ that we have, the full-on dialled-in interplay between drums & guitar – to me they are quintessential Bismuth.

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