“Do you have champagne?” Hagar Ben Ari asks the bartender in the CBS Studio green room. The bartender looks at us both, and with a slow smile emerging from one corner of his mouth, he raises his eyebrows and replies, “Hagar, we always have champagne!” Life as the bass player in the house band of a major-network late night talk show seems to be as glamorous as you would hope. I look past a display of multiple Emmy Awards toward platters of gourmet nibbles for the green room’s influx of A-list actors and musical guests. Makeup artists are on call with every shade of lipstick — including the one to match Hagar’s new, pink sunglasses — and of course, there’s the well-stocked bar.
Hagar has earned her cushy post in the house band of The Late Late Show With James Corden, working for many years as a professional musician in her native Israel before touring internationally and eventually immigrating to America. A home environment full of music due to her guitar-teaching father led Ben Ari into playing instruments from a young age. She recalls, “I would watch my dad’s students and think they were like rock stars; I would think, I wanna be a rock star!” She began on classical guitar, but switched to bass at age 14 when she needed to play an electric instrument to audition for a place in the jazz department at the Thelma Yelin School — think Israel’s answer to New York City’s LaGuardia High School of Music & Performing Arts, made famous in Fame. Hagar found herself playing all of Tel Aviv’s best venues by the time she was 16, and by 19 she was touring internationally with the artist Noa. Her hunger to progress further led her to move from Tel Aviv to New York City, where she continued to provide her solid, funk-inspired bass lines for artists such as Daniel Merriweather, Pimps Of Joytime, Cyril Neville, Salif Keita, and Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings.
Further opportunity knocked when she was put in touch with Reggie Watts, who was looking for musicians to join him on his new gig: bandleader for The Late Late Show. In true music-industry nature, it meant she had only four days to relocate to the opposite coast and settle into her new job and home in Los Angeles. As far as late-night bands go, this one operates in a place fairly left of center. Reggie Watts is an eccentric musician, beatboxer, and comedian. His explanation of their bizarre band name, Karen, might give you a sense of his spirit: “I had an idea of starting a metal band named Karen, and envisioned the name in giant flame letters onstage, and just thought it would be funny.”
His comedic leanings mean that for the quintet — rounded out by keyboardist Steve Scalfatti, guitarist Tim Young, and drummer Guillermo Brown — no work day is boring, no idea is too “out there,” and no vocoder is left untouched. I sat down with Hagar at the 703rd taping of the show to learn more about her journey.
What made you decide to move to New York City from Israel?
I decided I had to be somewhere where there’s a music scene—somewhere I could have big dreams. It was between the United States and London. I had never toured with Noa in the UK, but we had done some shows for Quincy Jones and even the Pope, so I knew that could help me get my artist visa in America. I decided on New York.
Did you like New York immediately?
Oh, yeah! It was really hard—maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m very close to my mum, so that was difficult. Plus all the little things like not having a cell phone, or a bank account. Finding an apartment was brutal; I’d sleep on all my friends couches until I wasn’t welcome any more. Even so, I feel like New York is the place that embraces you when you need it. Immediately, it was mind blowing; there was so much great music and so many amazing people. There was this one venue in Brooklyn called Black Betty where everybody played: TV on the Radio and Rev. Vince Anderson would often be there. If you were the band for the night, you played for three hours. Very quickly I had two residencies with two different bands there. I would play all night until it was time for us to go get breakfast. I think I got a lot better in a way that I couldn’t have in Israel being surrounded by the musicians in New York. It was inspiring. That’s where some of the musicians who played with Sharon Jones saw me play. I think that’s the best method for moving forward with your career. Rather than giving people your business card, you should find your comfort zone; play something that’s natural for you, and let people experience it. Once you do something that’s “you,” people can hear it and see you shine.
What was it like working with the late Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings?
Just incredible. I miss her so much. She was a special person. That being said, she wasn’t necessarily “easy" to work with right away. The band didn’t rehearse before a show, so I had to prepare for the gig by learning the music very well; not only a bunch of songs but also the transitions in and out of them too. So at first, I’m killing it, and she loved me right away. Once we were touring more I realized she had certain expectations. If anything was off or it’s not what she was used to, she was unhappy. Sharon was very intuitive; she felt groove the right way. When I wasn’t doing it exactly the way she wanted, there was this moment of, “Oh shit.”
What would she say needed to be done differently?
She would say, “This needs to bounce.” She would stomp her foot on stage. You would see her dancing and then look at us, and then look to her foot, as if to say, “Follow that.” We had to play for two hours straight, not letting the groove go on auto pilot for even an instant. It had to make people move for every second of the show. It was a great experience! She came around to truly loving me and I felt like I earned my place in that band.
How did you become a member of “Karen”?
A few people had passed my contact info onto Reggie when they heard he was looking for a bass player. I had heard James Corden got a talk show, and Reggie was going to be the bandleader, and I thought it was a really strong combination.
There are a number of late night talk show bands in America, what do you think you gus do differently?
All the music we play is original and we change it up all the time. The walk-on music for guests is usually us jamming. Reggie’s original idea for the band was to improvise the entire show, but it didn’t work out because there was too much noise from the band discussing things during taping. Reggie definitely wants the music to always feel fresh.
How does that work? Do you have grooves or jams that you’ve rehearsed ahead of time?
Most of them are rehearsed before the show. We have hundreds, maybe thousands, of different commercial “bumpers” written. While James is talking to the writers during rehearsal it gives us a chance to discuss which ones we are going to do. If Reggie has a bumper idea during the day, he’ll beatbox and sing it, and text it to us a voice memo. We’ll interpret it as closely as we can and rehearse it before the show. Sometimes Reggie isn’t in the rehearsal though, so the first time we are playing it all together is live on air. If we have mistakes, it just gives it a live feel—it rarely sounds like a trainwreck. Sometimes during the taping Reggie will come up with a new bumper idea and whisper it to us while James is talking, or during a commercial. He’ll sing it into the mic so only we can hear it in our in-ears, and we just have to figure it out on the spot.
How often do you get together to write music for the show?
We get together before the rehearsals. When we’re in a writing phase, we’re usually writing one or two commercial bumpers every day. We might choose to do a bumper in a certain genre or if one of us has an idea outside of rehearsals, we text a voice memo of it to each other.
You guys seem to have so much freedom as a band.
That was Reggie’s whole concept from day one, “This is a band and I want to hear everything you guys want to play.” He’s the nicest person I’ve ever met.
What do you love about working with your fellow band mates? Had any of you worked together before?
We hadn’t worked together before; Reggie engineered the band and chose us all for different reasons. We have spent so much time together—one of us can make a small sound and we just burst out laughing. They’re so easy to get along with and they’re very talented. My favorite kind of musicians don’t feel the need to overplay and prove how good they are at every opportunity. These guys typify that sense of taste and musicality.
Have you had any favorite guests on the show?
Lady Gaga — she came to do a Carpool Karaoke segment and asked the producers that morning if she could also come in to play with the band. It was a lot of fun. She was so nice but she knows what she likes and has a plan. And she’s so good on camera—it inspired me to be less camera shy! Playing with Queen was another a highlight; they came on the show without their bassist, so I got to play. We’ve had so many great guests, all these people I grew up listening to like Boys II Men, Alanis Morissette, and Cyndi Lauper.
Is there anything that happens behind the scenes that you enjoy?
Getting to hang out with the guests. Sometimes they stay in their dressing rooms but often they come out and chat and I have to pinch myself and remember this is my job! I’m hanging out talking to Paul Rudd or Matt Damon; you wouldn’t know they’re famous.
What different projects do you envision working on over the next few years?
From what I’m told, The Late Late Show will run at least through season seven. We’re on season five right now, so that will keep me busy over the next two years. I’ve been wanting to put a band together to perform some music I’ve been writing. I love teaching, too. One of my dreams is to start a school or program with some friends for women wanting to break into the music industry. For six months I was a music teacher at an amazing all-girls school. When I started, there were no bass players, but when I left there were five girls playing.
That just shows you how important it is to have a role model!
When I discovered Meshell Ndegeocello she became huge role model for me. I love her music, not because she’s a woman but because of the way she plays. She has always been a very strong bandleader who does her music her way. She’s incredible.
You’ll occasionally switch basses from show to show.
I just love different bass sounds, but the key is having that strong fundamental tone; that’s what holds it all together for us. There are aspects I love about each bass. My Elrick 4-string is gorgeous; it’s super light and has the smoothest tone—it’s active but with a passive feeling. I’ll use my Elrick 5-string when I need a more modern R&B sound and range. My ’77 Fender Jazz Bass that was my dad’s is very resonant and tempered. My Guild StarFire is great for pick playing and palm muting; it has a warm, round, semi-hollow tone. And my Fano has all the elements of rougher sounding basses like a Firebird or a Rickenbacker, but with a very even feel and a punchy sound. -BM
Basses Elrick Expat Series New Jazz Standard 4-string; Elrick Gold Series 5-string; ’77 Fender Precision with DiMarzio pickups and Badass bridge; ’69 Harmony; Rust Guitars J-Series Bass; ’67 Fender Coronado Bass I; ’65 Epiphone Newport Bass; ’65 Burns bass; ’74 Gibson Ripper; 2018 Fano bass; Guild Starfire
Strings D’Addario XL Half Rounds (ENR71 Regular Light Gauge)
Rig Aguilar Tone Hammer 700 with SL 112 and SL 212 cabinets
Effects Boss OC-2 Octave, Electro-Harmonix Micro Q-Tron envelope filter, Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synth, MXR La Machine CSP203 fuzz, Red Witch Zeus Bass Fuzz Suboctave Pedal, Eventide Space Reverb Pedal
Other Monique Bass Pre Amp/DI/EQ; Sensaphonics in-ear monitors
Elysian Fields, For House Cats and Sea Fans [elysianfields.bandcamp.com, 2014]; Salif Keita, Talé [2012, Emarcy]; The Pimps Of Joytime, Janxta Funk! [2012, Wonderwheel], Funk Fixes and Remixes [2009, Wonderwheel]; Cyril Neville, Brand New Blues [2009, M.C. Records]