With the Smiths, Rourke became adept at creating independent yet supportive melodies, all the while championing the band’s provocative rhythms. From the aggressive pulse and articulated shuffle of the Smiths’ first single, “Hand in Glove,” to the more ephemeral, chorused rumble and snap of the anthemic “How Soon Is Now,” Rourke’s bass playing was a cornerstone of the band’s sound. Since the breakup, Rourke has stayed busy with a range of remarkable artists, including the Pretenders, Killing Joke, Sinéad O’Connor, Smiths singer Morrissey, former Stone Roses guitarist Aziz Ibrahim, and folksinger Billy Bragg. He maintains an ongoing collaboration with Badly Drawn Boy, and he even performs regularly as a DJ in the U.S. and Europe.
Though Rourke is currently working on a book of his experiences with the Smiths, he’s always looking at what lies ahead. In late January he put together Manchester vs. Cancer, an all-star charity concert featuring the Charlatans UK, Badly Drawn Boy, and New Order’s Peter Hook—and he performed alongside Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr.
How did you originally approach creating the melodic bass lines of the Smiths?
It helps that Johnny and I had played together since we were kids, so I had a good understanding of where he was coming from on the guitar. With the bass I tried to do a tune within a tune. I wouldn’t be happy with a bass line unless you could hum it. I wanted it to stand up on its own. A lot of it just happened, really. When Johnny started playing, I would just join in.
Was it the same with drummer Mike Joyce?
Mike came from a purely punk background, and I came from a funk background. The two shouldn’t really match, and initially they didn’t. The first few rehearsals I said, “Mike, the bass drum should go with the bass, or vice versa.” Luckily it all started to gel. That was the luxury we had with the Smiths—everything just clicked.
Were some Smiths songs originally written on bass?
“Barbarism Begins at Home” was just a bass riff. “The Queen Is Dead” as well.
Did you experiment with many bass line variations?
Not as much as you’d think. Looking back, I would have liked to have experimented a bit more. Once something sits well I tend to stick with it. I envy bass players who play something different every verse.
Who are some bass players that inspired you?
The first album I learned to play bass to was David Bowie’s Low [with Bowie and George Murray on bass, 1977]. The one guy who really impressed me early on was Mick Karn from Japan. His playing was amazing. Also Stanley Clarke.
Did listening to Stanley Clarke encourage you to incorporated elements of funk into your bass playing?
Yeah—when I first started picking up the bass I wanted to put it through its paces and see where I could take it.
Did hearing Karn tempt you to play fretless?
The first bass I learned on was a fretless bass—an S.D. Curlee.
Any fretless work with the Smiths?
I played cello on a couple of things, and that’s fretless [laughs].
What music projects are you working on now?
At the moment I am in a band called Doghouse with a guy named Jackson Scott, who’s like a punk-flamenco guitarist. I’m very excited about it.
Do you still play with a pick?
It’s weird how that’s turned out. I play with my fingers now 80 percent of the time. And I tend to play less now. But the way I played with the Smiths suited the music perfectly because we were all kind of angst-ridden.
Any advice for bassists?
Try to keep a sense of melody, stick with the bass drum, and don’t be afraid to experiment.