The Bill Mumy Interview

Bill’s white Tele is equipped with MJ-wound Custom Shop “Seymour’s ’53 Specials”.

There’s a lot of ways from which you may know of the name Bill Mumy. Perhaps from Babylon 5 if you’re a child of the 90s, or more likely from his iconic role as Will Robinson on Lost In Space if you’re older, or a fan of vintage sci-fi TV dramas. Or maybe from his voiceover work on cartoons like Ren & Stimpy or Batman: The Animated Series among others. Comic books? He’s written for both DC and Marvel (!). If you’re a parent, possibly from his children’s show Space Cases, or the children’s album “Kiss my Boo-Boo”. The guy gets around. But, if you didn’t happen upon the children’s album, what you may not know about him is that since childhood he’s been (and continues to be) an avid musician. He’s a singer, songwriter, and talented multi-instrumentalist. In addition to releasing several CDs as a solo artist, since 1978 he’s been one-half of the iconic group Barnes & Barnes, forever immortalized in the country’s collective psyche by their quirky hit song and film “Fish Heads”. The word “prolific” easily comes to mind. People spend their entire lives trying to do one memorable thing, but due to his incessant work ethic, Bill’s been involved in, and will be remembered for, multiple bits of classic Americana. He’s left his imprint …everywhere. If that weren’t enough, he’s also got an amazing gear collection; many pieces purchased in his youth when they were brand-new. Bill was just buying the instruments he thought were cool (and that he could convince his parents to let him buy). Fast forward -now they’re vintage collectibles, and he’s still got ‘em! Bill is also longtime friend of Seymour and MJ. Their friendship began back in the days of Bill’s band the Jenerators and continues today. He’s jammed with Seymour! I recently had a chance to chat with Bill about music, his upcoming CD, and his long relationship with Seymour (and) Duncan pickups.

Your interests are varied – Acting, music, TV, voice-over work, etc. To stay as busy as you do must take amazing focus. Has music been the common theme that grounds you in all your various pursuits (or is there some other secret)?

Bill playing at the Hollywood Bowl in costume, 1965.

I started acting when I was five years old, but I started playing guitar when I was ten. (slacker that I was!) And although I’ve never really thought it was difficult to work in multiple creative arenas simultaneously, music has always resonated with me on the deepest personal level more than anything else. There are several episodes of “Lost in Space” filmed back in the 60′s, with my character, “Will Robinson”, playing guitar. Making music is something I do every day regardless of a pay check. I enjoy acting and voice over work and writing scripts or comic books or whatever it is I may be doing at the time to pay the bills, but I’d be making music regardless of whether I made money from it or not. Thankfully, I do.

I noticed in a previous interview you mentioned your earliest influence was the Kingston Trio and folk music. Were you as taken by the British invasion and the evolution of music in the late 60s as most kids your age?  When did you first begin experimenting with electric guitar, and what was your first?

And so it began…

Yes, I started out as a real “folky”, and the Kingston Trio hit me like a ton of bricks when I was ten. I came into them a bit late, but it was like a religious experience for me. Their energy, harmony, storytelling… it made me want to learn how to play and to start writing songs. Dave Guard, Nick Reynolds, Bob Shane and later John Stewart… man, I loved the Kingston Trio. I was a total fanboy for that band. From there, I went to their influences… Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, the Weavers… then I got into Dylan… and quite quickly into the Byrds, the Lovin Spoonful… “folk rock” bands. Like everyone else, I watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan on Feb. 9th, 1964, and got massively influenced by them. But, I stayed a bit of a folk snob, lyrically anyway, for a few years. I wasn’t turbo impressed with “yeah yeah yeah” at the time although the sound of it blew me away… I had a record player in my dressing room on Lost in Space, and the cast members would bring in their personal records and I got turned on to a lot of cool stuff from that. Angela Cartwright, who played my sister “Penny” on the series is from Britain, and she was completely head over heels into the British Invasion, so I was exposed to and got into that stuff right off the bat. Great stuff.

My first electric guitar was a Rickenbacker 360 six string. I got it brand new in 1968. I still have it and it’s still in very nice shape. After Lost in Space ended in ’68, I went back into public school in the 9th grade, and that was a very weird experience for me. I’d been gone from public school for four years, and suddenly I found myself surrounded with people that either wanted to be my friend, or flirt with me or something like that simply because I was on TV, or wanted to kick my ass simply because I was on TV. It was not an easy transition at all, but I formed a rock band a few months into it… “Energy” was the name of the band, and one of the members, Robert Haimer, went on to become my partner in Barnes & Barnes, making “Fish Heads” and 9 albums and videos… but anyway, once I was in a band, and we started playing school dances and events on the quad, etc… and people saw that I could really play… things got much better. Music really saved my ass back then. My first amp was a Standell with 4 X 10s, tremolo and reverb. Wish I still that one. I loaned it to a neighbor here in Laurel Canyon back in the early 90′s and never saw it again.

If you would, please share with the readers the story you told me about how the Bill Mumy Signature pickup came about, back in the days of the Jenerators, when you challenged Seymour to make a Filtertron-type pickup for your Les Pauls?

Bill’s goldtop Les Paul is equipped with his signature “Mumy” set.

Seymour does indeed make a “Bill Mumy” signature pickup! Back in the late ’80′s, when I was first endorsed by Gibson, my band at the time, the Jenerators, was gigging constantly and I was playing Les Pauls… but in the studio, I was mostly using vintage Gretsches… so Seymour and I got to talking at a guitar show in Santa Monica, and I asked him if he could make me a set of humbucking pu’s to fit into a Les Paul with a Gretschy FilterTron sound. He considered that quite a challenge and a few months later… voila! The prototype Mumy pickup arrived at my door! I still have those signature pickups in two of my Les Paul’s… GREAT sound… loses none of the power or depth of a good humbucker, but it’s got “twang” and character and clarity that are so great. Especially for rhythm playing. I’ve turned a few pals on to those pickups over the years and every one absolutely loves them. They’re a custom shop special order pickup… well worth it! I have those signature Mumy pickups in my old ’74 tobacco burst, “Old Smokey”, that I’ve had since ’74, and in my Goldtop with a Bigsby. Seymour has been the most generous, kind, supportive, talented, nicest guy ever. I love him. And MJ too. What a sweetie!

You mentioned those aren’t the only pickups Seymour and MJ have made for you either, can you tell us a bit about the other pickups you’ve dreamed up with them in the Custom Shop over the years?

Oh man… there’s so many! My son Seth and I had a wonderful time at the factory several years back with Seymour and MJ… we wound some pickups ourselves… (with a lot of guidance from MJ!) Both Seth and I favor Telecasters, and I have several Teles with Duncan pickups… The one I’ve been playing the most lately is a double bound orange relic body that Bill Crook made for me about ten years ago… with a Fender maple neck. It’s got a Duncan ’59 humbucker in the neck and an Antiquity in the bridge. With a Bigsby. I also have a white tele relic that Seymour set me up with a pair of “his personal ’53 pickups”, (whatever they are) that sound truly amazing and I used that on the new album a lot… it gets just on the edge of microphonic, but never quite squealing…tons of character and clarity and bite in that set of pickups… and I have another tele with a set of basic antiquity’s… One of my Paul’s has a set of Seth Lovers in it, that’s got a Bigsby on it and sounds crazy good. I used to have a set of Phat Cats in that guitar, I went to the factory and Seymour and I jammed quite a lot that day…I think it was video’d… but I recently swapped those for the Seth Lovers cuz I have a lot of P-90s in other guitars… Seymour made me an awesome P-90 that’s in a single cut TV Les Paul Jr. I used all over my last two albums… I have a fairly recent Gretsch Round Up with a pair of DeArmond’s Seymour made for me that sound SO much better than the factory ones it came with! I used that on the new album a bit… Seymour also made me a set of aged chrome filtertrons for my ’58 Gretsch duo jet that are just killer. I used that recently in the studio… Acoustically, I have one of the Mama Bears in my Taylor 12 string. There’s several more…They made my son a set of pickups for his sunburst tele as a gift when we visited the factory for the first time many years ago. Sounds awesome. They all do.

Could you please give a rundown of your favorite pieces in your arsenal, both your “go-to” recording and live instruments? Some examples which you’ve got Duncan pickups in, what models and why?

Well, I’ve got quite a lot of vintage guitars that are stock that I do record with often… But many of my instruments with Duncan pickups are used both in the studio and live. I don’t take the really old vintage pieces to gigs anymore, because I find I worry about them when I’m onstage and I worry about them when I’m not onstage and that takes me “out of the songs” or out of the pre-gig and after gig relaxing, and thanks to Seymour and MJ, I can get the tones I really want out of instruments that play and look great, but are replaceable in a worse case scenario. I’ve had vintage gear stolen from gigs, and I’ve had vintage guitars broken at gigs… (oh the pain). I learned the hard way. Years ago, until the late 80′s really, it was hard to get good “new” guitars… now, it’s fairly easy, a bit of pickup tweaking, maybe a switch or two and you’re good to go.

Also, could you outline your recording vs. live amp rig if any? Are you using any effects pedals, what are your amps of choice?

Well, in the studio I change things up more than I do at gigs. I tend to record two amps at once a lot in the studio. I have a nice little studio at my home, and everything’s permanently mic’d and ready to go all the time… drums, etc… My “main” studio amps are a 1960 Fender Super Amp, a 1961 Gibson Explorer Amp, A mid 90′s Vox AC-15 that I love and have gigged with a lot, a Fender Princeton Reverb, A Fender Blues Junior, and believe it or not, a cheapo cheapo Vox Pathfinder R that I really like! I’ve got several of those, and I give ‘em away to friends and you’d be surprised… they’re on a lot of records… I don’t know why, but I get a real good sound out of those little cheesy Vox’s. For the last 8 or 9 years, my main gigging amp has been a Fender custom Vibrolux Reverb. 2X10′s like the Super, but a nice reverb sound… I’ve had a couple of ‘em. I’m using a blonde one from ’95 I think now…that with a Tele gets me close to that “Pops Staples” sound, with the tremelo and reverb, which I love so much. The older I get, the more I feel that’s the tone I’m most often after. I have some great vintage pedals I bought when they were new, but I don’t use them much. I have a couple of Menatone pedals I like a lot, a Red Snapper that I’ve had about 12 years now and my son Seth got me a Menatone “Shut Up and Drive” pedal for Christmas that I used on several tracks of the new album… Seymour gave me one of the first Pickup Booster pedals, and I used that with the Jenerators for a few years onstage… I had a hard time changing the battery, though! But, I’m not much of a pedal guy. If Barnes and Barnes record, then I’m much more adventurous pedal-wise, but we don’t do that very often!

I’ve seen some or the impressive vintage pieces you post on your Facebook fan page. Are any of them bone stock collector’s pieces, or for the most part are they workhorses?

Lots of my guitars are bone stock great old guitars… ’57 Gretsch 6120, ’60 Gretsch Country Gent, ’65 Gretsch 6120, ”67 Country Gent, ’57 Les Paul Jr, many many more… those are all super clean and all stock… lots of great acoustics… ’48 Gibson Southern Jumbo, ’63 Hummingbird, ’65 B25, ’68 Martin D 28 I bought brand new, ’70 Martin D 45… ’46 Epiphone Triumph… there’s a lot more…and plenty of ‘em are vintage and stock but “players” that are true relics from being used hard. Man, let me just say, I love guitars! I don’t own ANY that I don’t play and I do my very best to give ‘em all a good home! I have about 65. Some are really collectible and some aren’t, but they all have something to say. And thanks to Seymour I’ve also written and recorded with cheapo cheapo guitars sometimes that songs just jumped out of… It’s a funny thing. I don’t claim to understand it. But I love discovering it.

What made you decide to record a children’s album? Did writing and playing for your own kids create its own monster? Apart from simplifying the lyrics and themes, is the musical approach any different? Do you plan to do more children’s music?

Ha! That was a labor of love. First of all, I wrote 105 songs for a Disney TV series called “Adventures in Wonderland” back in the early 90′s. I got an Emmy nomination for that. Mark Mothersbaugh was the musical director, and we were pals from the early 80′s when Devo was totally happening and Barnes and Barnes were somewhat happening. He called me and asked me to join his little brigade of songwriters for that series based on the Alice in Wonderland characters. I LOVED that gig. Especially because my own son, Seth, was a toddler back then. So, not only was I writing songs for classic Lewis Carrol characters, like Alice, the Mad Hatter, etc… but I was working on a cool Disney series that my son loved watching. I was definitely in the “groove” of writing kids stuff, although I never “dumbed it down”, and one day while driving to my parents house for a visit, they lived about an hour from me, we were listening to Barney and it was driving me nuts… I said to my wife, Eileen: “Man, I could make a better kids album than this!” and she quickly said, “PLEASE DO!” So, I made the “Kiss My Boo Boo” album… that was back in ’93 o4 ’94. Eileen teaches pre-school today and ALL her kids love those songs! They sing ‘em all the time. I go down to the school she teaches at, and these magnificent 3 and 4 year old humans know the words to my songs and they sing ‘em with me. That’s so much fun! Anyway, that album’s long out of print, though. But I’m constantly burning copies for Eileen to give to her kids at school. Also, Barnes and Barnes made two kids albums for Rhino back in the 90′s, “Yogi Bear and Friends: This Land is Your Land” (getting back to my folk roots) and “The Dinosaur Album”. It’s a little different writing for little kids, you want to keep it sonically uncluttered, but it’s not really that different as long as it’s real and heartfelt. Ya know? I enjoyed making those projects. Especially “Adventures in Wonderland” that made me get my home studio in good shape, too.

Bill and band rock Universal CityWalk Los Angeles CA.

Also, I saw you’ve jammed with Seymour! Tell us about it, and how much fun was it?

Well, we’ve played together at my house and also at the Factory in Santa Barbara. What can I say? Seymour’s a master. And he’s such a generous, mellow cat… I hope we can do it again soon! He’s got an amazing ear. DUH! I remember he had to leave the room for awhile, and I was testing out the new Phat Cats in my Les Paul and I plugged into his Fender Super Reverb amp… It had a lot of reverb on it, and I dialed it back just a little bit cuz I was listening for clarity or something, and when he came back, he INSTANTLY knew the reverb was a little bit diminished. Seymour could just play guitar and make a great living, I’m sure.

You have a new CD “Illuminations” coming out on GRA soon. What was the writing/recording process for that, and what can listeners expect from the new material?

I’ve just finished up the first video for that, and the second one is underway… the label wants to have a couple videos in the can before releasing it, as I’m not on the road. GRA’s been very supportive of my music and it’s a nice home for me. Let’s face it, the business has changed a lot in the last decade. I’m not Justin Timberlake. I’m happy to have a home that wants me to follow my muse. And that’s exactly what I do. I don’t say, “I need to write a new album’s worth of songs”, I just wait until the muse strikes and they come… Luckily, that seems to happen to me in batches of about 20 songs that have been waking me up to get written every year or two. On the other hand, if you hire me to write you a theme song or if you ask me to collaborate on a tune, I can do that as a craftsman and feel good about it. But the songs I release on my solo albums are the ones that insist on being written. I’ve learned over the years never to ignore inspiration when it comes to me. I respect that gift immensely. And as I said, “normally” I’ll get a few new songs out of nowhere and they’ll just keep coming for about three or four months… I record them all… demos… sometimes those demos turn out to be masters that get “sweetened” a bit…sometimes they get revisited… and then the muse seems to cruise on to somewhere else for 9 months or whatever… and I just enjoy that feeling of a song about to come through me more than just about anything else ever.

I do try to decide upon a “palette” of instruments when I’m in that mode that leads to an album… a handful of guitars that make up that specific project.

What else is upcoming on the horizon, musical or otherwise?

Well, “Illuminations” should be released around June… it’s been two years since my last cd… I have a comic book I’ve written coming out April 17th, “The Curse of the Mumy”, on Bluewater Comics… it’s a melding of reality and sci fi, and I’m sure fans of Lost in Space, the Twilight Zone, Babylon 5, and Barnes and Barnes will dig it… I’ve written 8 issues of that so far and the first two are all finished and they look really cool… I just did a few new animated shows, I really enjoy voice over work and have been very prolific and lucky in that arena…I played a robot on “Rescue Bots” which is a little like coming full circle for me… I’m finishing up a fantasy novel I co-wrote with Angela Cartwright that I hope will get released sometime this year… Barnes and Barnes have been talking about recording a new album, I hope that happens… but don’t hold your breath, folks… I have two healthy, great kids in college, my son starts Law school in August… My wife Eileen and I have been married going on 27 years, and that’s a good thing. She puts up with living in a house that’s decorated in “guitars”! And I’ve been rehearsing to go on the road this summer and I hope that works out. Other than that… just listening to good music and strumming away here at home.

 

*Bill’s signature Semour Duncan “Mumy” pickups are available via Special Order from the Custom Shop.

Jay Hale

About Jay Hale

Jay Hale is a guitarist and guitar-builder located in Los Angeles who has also occasionally moonlighted as a guitar tech for bands like Quiet Riot.
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  • itstwueitstwue

    To go from child star to (somewhat) well-adjusted adult, without meltdowns, wardrobe malfunctions or “reality show” backwash — and with a wife and kids to boot! Bravo, Bill! Keep doin’ your thing, bro.