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Photo by Erich Francois
“When I hear other bass players playing like me,” says Larry Graham—the funk god who invented and popularized the electric-bass slapping-and-popping technique with Sly and the Family Stone in the late 1960s—“I just think, ‘There’s another one of my children!’”
That’s a lot of kids. The technique— heard in megahits such as “I Want to Take You Higher” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”—won Graham a page in music history and went on to become a cornerstone technique for players from Stanley Clarke to Bootsy Collins, Marcus Miller, Les Claypool, Flea, Doug Wimbish, and Victor Wooten, each of whom has spawned his own fanatical following, thus exponentially increasing Graham’s influence. Indeed, although Graham prefers to call the technique “thumpin’ and pluckin’,” it’s no overstatement to say that his playing has impacted the world of electric bass with the same force and universality that Jimi Hendrix’s did for the electric guitar.
Graham has been leading his own Graham Central Station band for nearly four decades now, and his first album in more than a decade, Raise Up, proves the legend hasn’t slowed down a bit. With newly recorded versions of GCS classics like “It’s Alright” and “Now Do U Wanta Dance,” as well as fresh new tracks like “Throw-N-Down the Funk,” Raise Up both frames the breadth of Graham’s legacy and demonstrates his band’s potent live sound. In addition, the album features cool cameos by players such as Raphael Saadiq and Prince—who plays drums, keyboards and backing vocals on the title track, and lays down liquid lead-guitar tracks on “Shoulda Coulda Woulda.” Throughout, GCS churns out funk fire and finesse, with Graham dialing up fuzzy, phased tones in spots, and longtime guitarist William Rabb and blazing new drummer Brian Braziel turning in dazzling performances on a furiously funky cover of the Stevie Wonder classic “Higher Ground.”
“I’m very fortunate,” says Graham. “All of our players were raised on my music, and at the same time they’re very open to progression. So they can play the old stuff as close to the originals as possible, but when it’s time for where we’re going next, they’re all right there.”
We recently spoke to Graham, 66, about his pioneering playing and the influence he’s had on the world of bass guitar. Like many veterans who’ve been at it their whole lives, he’s at the point where gear and tone settings are secondary or even tertiary to feel and vibe. He prefers to let his recent music speak for itself, but he was more than happy to talk about the cataclysmic funk that one inspired player with fantastically attuned hands and ears can deliver.
You get a really full-throated
tone on the new album. How
do you capture your sound in
I close-mic the amps in the studio—because I want that amp sound—but I still record direct, as well, because I want the cleanness and the power and the punch from the direct sound. Once I record them, I blend the two by ear to make it sound the way I want it. It’s different, live: I don’t mic the amps onstage, although I do send a direct signal out of the back of two of the amps to the mixing board.
What were you trying to
accomplish with Raise Up?
I intended it to be a complete piece, like a book, with a great beginning, a body of content in the middle, and a great conclusion. The idea was to create a complete journey. That’s why I wanted to include some of the early GCS stuff, as well as the current stuff. It’s also why I wanted to include Prince—because of this close connection between him and me—and also Raphael Saadiq, being out of Oakland, and Stevie Wonder, being such a close friend and having done so many things together. I think it really says what I’m all about. If you were to pick up a book and read about me, that’s what it would sound like!
Can you tell us a bit about
your songwriting process?
A lot of it’s just singing the parts into a tape recorder before I even get a chance to sit down with the instrument. Sure, if I’m at an instrument—say, a guitar—I’ll play the chords, like I did when I wrote “Ole Smokey,” which is a guitar-type tune. Songs like “Today” or “Just Be My Lady” or “Hold You Close” are things I wrote on the piano. A song like “Hair” is obviously built around the bass, so it was written on the bass. “Got to Go Through It to Get to It” is built around a pretty intricate drum beat, so in that case the beat came first. I’ve been blessed to have learned quite a few instruments, and though I’m not a master of those instruments—no one’s going to ask me to be the drummer in their band—I can lay down the parts I hear in my head, and many times I’ll even keep those parts in the final recordings. If I record something at home that works great and I can’t seem to duplicate it, I’ll keep that, too. I played guitar before the bass, and I played the drums before that—so, I’m not locked into any one method of songwriting. However [the song] comes, I’m going to move forward from that.
Over all these years, you’ve
steadfastly stuck to calling
your revolutionary technique
“thumpin’ and pluckin’.” Let’s
talk about why you like to
make that distinction.
Well, it really is thumpin’ and pluckin’! You can give it another name, but it’s still thumpin’ and pluckin.’ When you hit the string with the side of your thumb, you’re thumpin’ it more than slapping it, and when you’re poppin’ that G string, like I do on “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” you’re really pluckin’ it. Y’know, for people who aren’t musicians, I can understand why they don’t understand that—and they can call it anything they want, as long as they’re referring to the same technique. I’m sure that in the future, some new names will get added—I’ve heard “pop bass,” and “chopper bass,” which is what some people call it in Japan. There’s a whole list of names, depending on where you live, but when you see and hear it, it’s all the same thing.
Larry Graham lays down the funk with Sly and the Family Stone at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. Photo by Jason Laure (Frank White Photo Agency)
Has the style you developed
way back in the ’60s changed
much over the years?
My technique is fundamentally the same as it was back in the late ’60s, because my heart hasn’t changed—and when I play, I play from the heart. Of course, you grow in your understanding of harmony, your grasp of different feels, and you benefit from exposure to other people’s music. I mean, since I came up with this style, we’ve all lived through so many different genres and styles, and the way that I play the bass has now spread throughout all genres of music. So, my style is basically the same, but everything I’ve experienced as a person, as a listener, and as a player all comes out in my playing now.