Is there a longer-running, more symbiotic relationship between bassist and singer–songwriter than the 45-year teaming of Graham Maby with Joe Jackson? The pair first got together in 1974 to cut three singles in the quartet Arms & Legs, a misfire that led Jackson to come roaring back as a solo artist and eventually cut his punk-edged, debut smash, Look Sharp! [1979, A&M]. On the bottom, the Gosport, England-born Maby — who had a “lightning-bolt moment” when he bought an Eko bass at age 16 and immersed himself in the ostinatos of Paul McCartney, Jack Bruce, John Paul Jones, and Roger Glover — got a featured role, thanks to Jackson’s insistence that there would be no guitar solos in the band. Maby laughs, “I was young and exuberant, and trying to fill up every inch of space!” Jackson saw the bigger picture: a bassist with “extraordinary ears, a tasteful, fluid style, and a spot-on rhythmic sense,” who played “every note with conviction,” as he related in his 1999 autobiography, A Cure for Gravity [Anchor].
The partnership has endured many musical twists and turns brought on by Jackson’s broad range of musical influences and stunning creativity. The result is such classics sides as Jumpin’ Jive [1981, A&M], Night and Day [1982, A&M], Body and Soul [1984, A&M], and Rain [2008, Rykodisc]. Refocusing on songwriting after recent excursions through classical and jazz, Jackson issued a double album of song gems with 2015’s Fast Forward [Work Song]. Now he’s back with eight more exquisite, timely meditations on the modern condition on Fool [2019, Ear Music], vividly brought to life by his crack quartet with Maby, guitarist Teddy Kumpel, and drummer Doug Yowell. We checked in with Graham at his New York-area home just before the February launch of Jackson’s 40th anniversary tour to get the lowdown on the record’s creation.
I understand the road played a role in the record coming together.
That’s right. Joe had the idea to learn all of the new songs and play them on tour last summer, and then go right into the studio at the end of the tour and record them, like we used to do in the early days. We actually played three songs — “Fabulously Absolute,” “Dave,” and “Strange Land” — on tour in the summer of 2017. Last summer’s tour ended in Boise, Idaho, and Joe said, “There must be a good studio around here.” We found the Tonic Room and got it all done in a week because we were so familiar with the material. We cut live, with Joe on electric piano, and then he overdubbed his final vocals and acoustic piano back in New York. I don’t think we did more than three takes for any song, and a couple were first takes.
Joe always seems to write with his band in mind.
Yes, I think Joe is inspired by a concept. When he first hired Doug and Teddy three years ago for the tour in support of Fast Forward [2015, Work Song], and the band coalesced quickly, I could just see the cogs turning in his mind that he was going to write for this lineup. That’s what he does. He wrote Volume 4 [2003, Rykodisc] with me, [drummer] Dave Houghton, and [guitarist] Gary Sanford in mind, and when Gary left he started thinking of the trio format, with me and [drummer] Gary Burke; and then he wrote Rain [2008, Rykodisc] around the trio with me and Dave.
Learning songs usually starts with demos from Joe?
It does. Joe makes terrific demos with good synth bass sounds, synth guitar parts, and programmed drums that feel very natural. He really knows the ranges and capabilities of the instruments. I actually told him they were too good and that he should make them shittier, and he told me he’s going to work on that! What I try to do is move on from the demo quickly so that I can make the bass part my own and not be too influenced by what Joe played, aside from the portions that need to be played verbatim. Sometimes he’ll provide chord charts with a bit of notation, but I prefer to memorize the songs. As always with Joe, if he wants something specific, he’ll say so. Otherwise he gives me the freedom to interpret his parts, and I assume his silence means that what I’m playing is working for him.
“Big Black Cloud” is a dark opener.
That’s the darkest track for sure, where we all connect with our inner demon [laughs]. The bass line is pretty simple. My favorite part is in the outro, where the bass is exposed and the piano line comes in, and my bass note clashes with the harmony for a quick moment of dissonance. [Around 5:08, the bass plays an Eb as part of a Bb/Eb chord against E and F notes on the piano that are part of a C chord.]
“Fabulously Absolute” is a burner that brings to mind Joe’s punk-era days.
Yeah, I decided to use a pick because it has that throwback sound, except for the unison riff in the bridge [see music sidebar, page XX], which I found easier to play with my fingers. The original demo was a half-step up, which meant the bridge was in Ab instead of G. Joe asked how it was to play, and I said it would be much easier a half-step down. He thought about it and said it would be easier to sing, as well, so he brought it down. The guy who really would have nailed the bridge is Joe Dart. I’m a big fan of his playing.
“Dave” has a classic Joe sound and tasty step-outs from you.
He was on the fence about that song, but we all liked it. The key is the tempo. It has to be almost lethargic to make the song work, so we ended up cutting to a click track. There were spaces in the transitions where it felt natural to step out, which I did more of as the track went on, and especially in the outro.
“Strange Land” is a compelling ballad, both lyrically and harmonically.
It’s a classic song about alienation. The bass line is Joe’s; the octave-jumping made me think of Colin Greenwood’s bass line on “Nude,” from Radiohead’s In Rainbows [2007, XL]. I love that whole album, and I think Colin is a great bass player. Joe actually changed the bass line because he wanted me to sustain the lower notes in the octaves, which he didn’t do on the demo.
“Friend Better” channels Steely Dan overall and Paul McCartney on the bottom.
It definitely has a Steely Dan vibe, and in the chorus I had the freedom to fill. The thought of McCartney playing melodically up high was certainly in my mind. I hadn’t planned anything, but I figured we were in the studio, so if I messed up I could go back and fix it. That was the advantage of having played the songs on tour; some ideas had formed.
“Fool” has a lot of different influences and a bass solo.
That was the most challenging song. Joe loves all of those styles — salsa, horas, Middle Eastern music. Fortunately I’m more comfortable playing tumbaos now then when Joe first unleashed that music on me for Night and Day. As for the solo [see music sidebar], there was quite a good one on the demo, but Joe told me to play whatever I wanted. I figured out how long it needed to be, and I composed it in my mind beforehand. I’m not the kind of player who can just wing it; I think I had my “written” solo down in two takes. My favorite part of the track is the outro groove, where Joe got the idea to have me double the cuíca drum part, and I decided to double the melody for the final six notes.
“32 Kisses” features an interesting feel and your second bass solo.
Joe played that solo on the demo, and he wanted it as is, so it’s more of a written part or melody. I enjoyed interpreting it on bass. The feel comes from the piano chords anticipating the downbeats by an eighth-note. I played the root on both the “and” of four and on the downbeat, which can give it a bit of a turned-around feel until your ear locks in on where the one is. Joe’s original bridge was in 4/4, and he re-wrote it in 3/4; I played the first half up an octave for dramatic effect.
“Alchemy” has an elegant, cocktail-lounge vibe, with your cha-cha-style groove.
I love that song. The demo had an upright bass sample, so I muted my strings with my palm and plucked with my thumb, to capture that sound. I thought about putting foam under the bridge, which I’ve done, but I felt more in control of the notes using just my hands. The cha-cha feel was on the demo, and it was tempting to fill the holes, but I tried to stay true to the style until the outro — there, I stretched out a little with syncopation and some passing notes. It’s one of my favorite parts of our show because I don’t have any background vocals to sing, so I can lean back on my stool and focus on the part.
You’ll be touring extensively in 2019 for Joe’s 40th Anniversary Tour.
It’s the longest one we’ve done in years, and many of the shows are already sold out. We rehearsed a lot of songs from Joe’s career, including some I haven’t played in quite a while, but I can’t give any titles away. It’s going to be fun for us and for the audiences.
Joe Jackson, Fool [2019, Ear Music]
Basses ’88 Spector NS-5, 2019 Spector NS-5, ’66 Fender Jazz Bass, ’90s Lakland Joe Osborn, Mark Hatcher custom acoustic bass guitar, 2017 Hofner Beatle Bass
Strings D’Addario XL Coated Nickel EXP170-5 (.045, .065, .080, .100, .130); Rotosound RS88LD Tru Bass Black Nylon (.065, .075, .100, .115)
Amps Wayne Jones Audio WJBP Stereo Valve Bass Guitar Preamp, two WJ1x10 Stereo/Mono Bass Cabinets
Effects Electro-Harmonix Big Muff π Distortion
Other Herco Flex .75 picks, Future Sonics in-ears, Spectraflex Braided Cables, Snark tuner
Recording Fool I played my ’88 Spector NS-5, recorded both direct and through my mic’d Wayne Jones stage rig.”