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East: How did you hook up with Billy Gibbons for “Get Out of My Life Woman?”
Lee: Billy is such a personable guy. I had my engineer coming over to work on something else for the album, and the phone rang and I heard, “It’s Gibbons. I’m in town.” The funny thing is that morning I woke up with that song in my head, and I was singing it to my wife. When the phone rang I was still thinking about the song and I said, “Billy, what are you doing tonight? You want to come over and sing this song?” He said, “I got a terrible cold. So we better record it before it goes away.” [Laughs]. I know a lot of divas, and I’m not used to singers saying those words. So I called up Shawn Pelton and asked him to put down a groove for us to play over. I sang him a quick beat and asked for a little loop. He says, “I’m going into a yoga class right now, but I’ll have it for you in two hours.” He not only remembered the tempo, but also the beat. I had to chop it up a little bit because I wrote this three-bar section at the end for cats to blow on, because I already had it in mind to ask Allen Toussaint to play on it. It worked out really nice. In fact, Shawn, being the great musician that he is, heard what we’d done and wanted to replace the drum track. He did a new track, but it wasn’t nearly as groovy as the first thing he did, so we kept the chopped-up version and stuck in a few new fills. When you’re following a drummer, he’s leading the groove, but when he’s following the groove, it just doesn’t have the same meat or impetus. He’s no long driving the bus.
East: Did you use an amp on your record or just a DI?
Lee: It depends on the session. I've never been a huge fan of using an amp in the studio. I almost didn’t really care what kind of amp was hanging around the studio. There’s a song called “Papounet’s Ride,” which is a chop-buster of a tune that I still can’t play yet. It’s like a handful of notes and harmonics—a little “bass invention” kind of thing. And in order to get those harmonics and the notes out in one pass, I had to find a way to bring out everything. I used a miniature version of an Ampeg SVT that I use in my studio for practicing and testing basses and stuff, because when you put all the knobs at noon it has a pretty honest sound.
East: I actually prefer just the direct sound and basically the shortest signal path. One cable to the DI. I have this great Radial Firefly DI, and it’s fantastic. The reason I got it is because it has two inputs, and you can adjust the volume for each, so I had the upright on one and the electric on the other. It’s a full tube DI, and I absolutely love the way it sounds. I had to go direct, and if it ain’t broke, let’s keep going. Normally, I choose not to use an amp just to get the sound right.
East: At one point I was really fiddly about DIs, and I always had to lug some big DI around. But it’s not the toys—it’s the noise.
Lee: There was an album by Donald Fagen a couple of years ago called Morph the Cat. The first thing you heard was Freddie Washington’s bass playing really out in the open, and it was just the most delicious bass sound. I said, “That’s the shit right there!” I asked Elliot Scheiner, the engineer on the record, “Man, can you tell me how you got that bass sound?” He just said, “Tape,” and then he kind of walked away. I said, “Aw, come back here!” But that’s all I could get out of him, and I think I know what he meant, you know? In his mind, that was the answer. So there’s still room for the digital world to catch up on certain aspects of what makes a good bass sound. Ever heard of a thing called Graham Central Station?
East: [Laughs]. That was the first one! My phone was blasting off the hook when that came out. I think Larry Graham and Jaco were the two guys that messed up bass players the most.
Lee: Quite possibly, yes. I was also fascinated by Chuck Rainey, and still am.
East: Me too.
Lee: Chuck Rainey, on a Precision bass, of course. Sometimes you have to add the drummer to the mix—especially if it’s Bernard Purdie. There was a thing that happened with him that I tried to emulate, and still do. It’s just a matter of your forefinger and middle finger. Either one, actually—he’s almost a one-finger guy. Rubbing across the string really lightly allows the bass to sing in a beautiful way. And when the finger comes back to get ready to play the next note, it stops the note that’s ringing and gives it a really cool percussive sound, almost like a stone bouncing across water. It’s just such a beautiful sound when it gets recorded on tape. I go through contortions trying to get that happening with my big two fingers pounding the hell out of the bass. I think I do a good impression, but it takes me a lot more work to get there. He was effortless. Pure genius.
East: It’s amazing.
Lee: Man, there are so many great bass tones. I just love when you can hear the wood. It’s funny—with basses it’s all about that piece of wood and that electronic circuit.
East: And the spirit of the guy who’s holding it! For years you go into a studio and just plug into whatever they have, and it still sounds like you.
Lee: It still sounds like a bass, right?
Nathan and guitarist Chuck Loeb combine contrapuntal phrases with a playful groove on Fourplay's "Bali Run" from the 2011 Java Jazz Festival.