Up against the wall: Negrito was essentially out of the music business, growing and selling pot, when a desire to sooth his infant son with song and a push from his artists’ collective rekindled his career. Photo by Lyle Owerko
I’ve seen videos of you playing, and it seems like you strum with your thumb on chords, but when you play single-note runs, like bass riffs, you use your index finger and pluck up, like a bass player.
Yeah, it’s just so fucked up that I can’t even put into words how I do it. You gotta imagine that I have a hand like this: The wrist won’t move, the fingers move really lethargically, so it’s like someone cut open my hand and poured concrete in it. I call it “the Claw,” and I put the Claw on it and whatever it fuckin’ hits. I understand why they thought I would never be able to play because I can’t really move my fingers. And my thumb doesn’t move. I got about maybe three inches I can move on my thumb. God, if I tried to really do it, it would be depressing, so I’m like, “You know what? On piano and on guitar, I’m going to accept whatever my hand does.”
“A Cold November Street” has a short, screaming guitar interlude from Masa Kohama. Did you influence the direction of your musicians’ performances or did you trust the instincts of your band?
I’m very strange as a producer, because coming from the old original hip-hop sampling generation, what I love to do is I record everybody and then make up what I want to make up. So, I kind of make guitar solos. I’ll patch it together and take the best parts. It’s one of the great things about Pro Tools. I’m pretty verbal about what I want to hear. I’ll be humming and strumming and talking, and I kind of know exactly what I want. I’ve been playing with that guy for so long that he kind of knows me. It’s different for other projects, but for Fantastic Negrito I’m always about less, less, less, less. I want to get to that point in the shortest distance. I’m trying to isolate intensity. I kind of took to blues and all this black roots stuff, and what I loved was the simplicity and the rawness—to have impact with less.
“A Letter to Fear” starts of with an ominous vibe, vaguely reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused.”
I never thought of that. I love all of that English rock. If I hear great comparisons like that, I’m just happy to be in the same sentence. I remember meeting Robert Plant. He came to see me at a small place in England. Of course, I love Led Zeppelin and everything they listened to, like Skip James. I love it all, man. Anything that’s great, I try to soak up. When I wrote that song, I was on an airplane and I remember hearing about another fucking shooting, I think it was Texas. I was like, “I just won’t get used to this. I won’t let this be something normal.”
That song and “Dark Windows” have interesting chord movements that work so perfectly, yet go to unexpected places.
“Dark Windows” is a song I wrote about my relationship with Chris Cornell. I wanted to make peace with that. We had a very special relationship with a comfortable distance. We did three tours together. It’s just the power of music. That’s what we can go to in a tumultuous time where there’s so much divisiveness. This is what’s going to get us through it, man.
Are you primarily self-taught?
As a senior in high school I became interested in music and I’d sneak into UC Berkeley and pretend I was a student. They weren’t so conscious about security back then. I would sit there and listen to what people were playing—they were mostly scales. I didn’t know what it was, but I figured out that you could play Do–Re–Me–Fa–Sol–La–Ti–Do in every key, and I was like, “Wow.”
Was that all by ear or did you watch and mimic their fingerings?
It was all by ear. I didn’t know shit. I just wanted to play. Back then I loved all those early Prince records and I read about him, and it was like he just taught himself. So I was like, “Shit, I’m gonna teach myself.”
You played a lot of instruments on Please Don’t Be Dead.
Well, come on. I write on them but I don’t have anything like Prince had. I’m like utility guy: “I need these tools to paint this picture.” I just got one guitar that I really love playing. It feels different. It’s an Epiphone Hummingbird. There’s something about Epiphone. I mean, I love Gibson stuff, and I record and play with some of it, but the Epiphones just sound more street to me. The Epiphone electric hollowbodies are also really great. They’re good for a guy with 20 percent of his hand. You don’t have to work too hard. There’s one that’s mixed in really low, especially on “The Duffler.”
What basses did you use on the album?
Man, I used about five, six, seven bass guitars. I remember going for different tones and rounder stuff, and more edgy percussive stuff. I used that old Precision bass. I used that 4-string, violin, cheap Korean bass. What is that called? It’s a Rogue. I was like, “Oh, 79 bucks? I’ll take it.”
Gear snobs will usually look down on the cheaper stuff.
It just depends on what you’re trying to do, and I was like, “This is warm, I want this.” I played bass on one track—I used the Rogue on “Transgender Biscuits,” and Cornelius (Mims), who played bass, has a fancy, super 5-string that he uses and I was trying to dumb him down on this album. That’s why I had him play a really noisy P bass. I was using the James Jamerson setup on a lot of songs, where I was doing the round strings and we were using the foam. That setup was like the star on this record. It really had the warm, fat bottom.