From Music in Cincinnati

CSO Violinist Bates Crosses Over into Rock

Posted in: 2010
By Mary Ellyn Hutton
Feb 3, 2010 - 7:50:54 PM

Eric Bates
It’s time, you might say, for Eric R. Bates.
   That’s the title of the second song on his new album, “Eric R. Bates,” released in October.
   Bates, 37, is best known to local audiences as a first violinist in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.   As acting first assistant concertmaster, he sits third chair in the orchestra, occasionally moving up to concertmaster, as he did for the Cincinnati Pops “Remix” show January 31.
   He is also a budding rock star.
   Bates introduced his latest album, “Eric R. Bates,” at a show at York Street Café in October.  There will be an encore performance at York Street Café Friday evening (February 5) at 8 p.m. and he is nervous, he said.
album cover, "Eric R. Bates." Photo by Ixi Chen
“The second show is always the one.  ‘Oh, we’ve seen him already.’  It’s easy to get all of your friends to come out for your opening show.  I’ve been trying to reach out and get my music heard not just by friends.  If I have a really good turnout next Friday, I’ll know that I’m taking hold, that I really might have something."
   There is no charge for the show, but Bates is taking advantage of the opportunity to raise funds for earthquake relief in Haiti.  “It was going to be a free show anyway, but in light of the situation, I’ll put a couple of donation boxes out.  Then we’re going to take it to the Red Cross.”
   There was a big turnout for his CD release show in October, with over 150 people at York Street Cafe.  Bates was nervous then, too, but for a different reason.
   “I had never put myself out there as a front person.  I usually play an instrument, guitar, whatever.  I just had a ball.  Now I’m not afraid to do it.”
   Bates has been playing for people since early childhood in his native Ringgold, Louisiana, a small town in Bienville Parish near Shreveport (population 1,660 in 2000).  His mother, a piano teacher, started him on piano at 3.  At six, he began Suzuki violin lessons at the Centenary Suzuki School in Shreveport.  At eight, he made his debut with the Shreveport Centenary College Orchestra.
   He first came to Cincinnati as a student in the preparatory department at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, commuting from Louisiana every couple of months for a year.  He won a Starling Scholarship to study with Dorothy Delay and Kurt Sassmannshaus at CCM, where he earned his bachelor’s degree.  He joined the CSO in 1995.  Bates has been a soloist with the CSO, Shreveport Symphony, Kentucky Symphony, LeGrand (Oregon) Symphony, Starling Chamber Orchestra and is a member of the contemporary chamber ensemble concert:nova, now making waves in Cincinnati.
   Bates sang in church as a child – “a lot of solos and stuff like that” -- and has always been interested in popular music.  “I grew up listening to it, and I always kind of dabbled in it.  My dad plays guitar.  I picked it up occasionally, but I didn’t do anything with it.  I focused on the violin.”
   He had never ventured onto rock turf until he met another pair of classical musicians, Ted Nelson and Owen Lee.  Nelson, a CSO cellist, is a veteran rocker, having playing with bands since he was a kid.  Lee, who is CSO principal bassist, played in rock bands during his teens.
   “We started playing together, just for fun, and I got the bug.  I’ve always kind of dreamed of doing it, so I wrote a few songs to play with them.  From there, I started writing a lot.”
TOE, left to right: Eric Bates, Owen Lee and Ted Nelson. Photo by Ixi Chen.
In 2006, the CSO colleagues formed their own band, TOE (Ted, Owen, Eric), with Nelson on bass, Lee on drums, Bates on guitar. and Nelson and Bates on vocals.  They began playing in clubs around town (Mad Frog, Top Cats) and in April, 2008, performed on Linton Chamber Music's Friday night “801 Plum” series in council chambers at City Hall.  It was a mixed classical/rock affair, with Mozart, Albrechtsburger, Rossini, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak on the first half (played on classical instruments) and their own “stoner/shoegaze/sludge” set after intermission.  (See
   The group still performs together when they can and plan to do an album.  On CSO tours, TOE is likely to drop in at a local club and play house instruments.  They did this in Tokyo on the CSO’s tour of Japan in November and also in Beijing during the Pops’ visit to the Olympic Games in 2008.  “The joke now is we don’t play the U.S.  We only play Asia.”
   Bates’ first solo, singer/songwriter venture was with drummer Rusty Burge (of The Percussion Group at CCM) and bassist Greg Hansen in 2007.  They made an album called “Fillmore’s Therapy” which earned a glowing review in Big Takeover Magazine:  “This Cincinnati trio conjures up nostalgia for 1980s post punk favorites.  ‘Let Me Know’ begins with precise percussion and haunting vocals as front man Eric Bates croons, ‘I’m lost in the shadow of you,’ sounding like Echo & the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch incarnate.”
   Bates performs with Hansen, drummer Josh Owings and guitarist Rick Fields on “Eric R. Bates.”  The CD was produced by Steve Rittmeyer, who gave it a “very natural, kind of organic sound,” said Bates.  Joining them at York Street Café Friday will be CSO keyboardist Julie Spangler.
   Songwriting comes intuitively for Bates, who has written and recorded about 20 songs, with an equal number “on my laptop, wherever.”  There are nine songs on “Eric R. Bates,” including an instrumental called “Professor Moriarty” that is “kind of an homage” to Depeche Mode, one of Bates all-time favorite bands.
   “On all their (Depeche Mode's) albums, there’s always one or two kind of strange, ambient tracks.  We just picked up some things that were lying around the studio – drums,  Greg is playing the ukulele and I’m playing the accordion -- and that’s what came out.”
   Vocally, Bates has been influenced most, he said, by Morrissey of The Smiths.  “That’s just kind of where my voice tends to go, that kind of tone.”  As for song writing, “gosh, any and everything.  I like alternative rock music. I love southern gospel music. I like old country music, like Johnny Cash, and I love Depeche Mode and the Smiths.”  Newer bands that Bates really likes include Editors and Spoon.  “Those influences come out a lot.”
   When he writes a song, “the music comes first, then I try and fit words in," said Bates.  "Sometimes the melody gives way to a little bit of a story, but sometimes the song has no meaning whatsoever.  I just like the way the words sound.  I’ve had people say, ‘Wow, this makes a lot of sense.’  I’m like curious.  ‘What does it mean?’  I think that’s the way songs should be.  They speak to everyone in a different way.  I’m not a huge fan of people trying to be very obvious -- ‘OK, this is what it’s about.’  It kind of takes the mystery and the art out of it.”
   Putting the melody first can create a problem, he said.  “I have to be careful sometimes that I don’t get too inventive musically.  Sometimes I have to take a step back and say, ‘All right, I’m just going to do three chords.’  For me, it’s a big challenge to write a song that only has a couple of chords in it.  Still, I try to push myself to the point where I have to take a step back and kind of chip it down a bit.”
   Is it hard to go from classical music to rock?   “Not at all for me,” said Bates, who in addition to the CSO, is an active chamber musician and solo artist.  He played all three Brahms sonatas for violin and piano with faculty artist Sandra Rivers at CCM in January.  They did the complete Beethoven sonatas with Rivers -- all ten scattered throughout the season – several  years ago at CCM.
   “I just like to play,” said Bates.  “Playing rock music is a lot more similar (to classical) than people would think, especially when you’re playing with really great musicians.  There’s the same joy.
   "When I first started playing, with Ted and Owen, it felt so much like playing trios.  It’s a completely different music, a completely different motivation, but you still play that way.”
   Doors open at York Street Café at 8 p.m. Friday.  “One of my great friends, the band called Pike, is going to open for me” said Bates.  His show starts “at 8:30 sharp and will go on till around 9:30.”  Copies of his new CD will be available for sale.
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