Regardless of where he is or whom he’s with, Pancho Tomaselli is always the biggest personality in any room he steps into. Whether it’s his lightning-fast wit, the abundant life lessons that he’s quick to impart, his hilarious tour stories, or the intense charisma he embodies when he sparks up a conversation, the 44-year-old has a swagger all his own. And when it comes time to step onstage, the Ecuadorian-born 4-stringer’s playing somehow overshadows his persona. That’s why legendary acts such as War, Tower Of Power, Rex Brown, Eric Burdon, Dos Lobos, Tricky, Nelly Furtado, and many others have enlisted his powerful playing for their music.
Tomaselli moved from Ecuador at age 20 to attend the Berklee College of Music, but not to study bass. Instead he graduated with a degree in Music Business and Management. From there he moved to Los Angeles, where he landed a high position with Virgin Records in its A&R department, which led him to work with Janet Jackson, the Rolling Stones, Lenny Kravitz, Ben Harper, and a slew of others before he got the itch to jump to the other side of the desk to pursue music once again. Several bands instantly recruited him before he got the call to join War, a bass chair he proudly held for 16 years. This eventually led to him stepping in for Rocco Prestia in Tower Of Power for a series of tours in 2013.
From there, Tomaselli decided to create his own music. That’s when he helped form the rock trio Philm, featuring drummer Dave Lombardo (Slayer) and guitarist Gerry Nestler. Now sans Lombardo, Philm is preparing to release its third album, Time Burner. The release will coincide with the debut album, Original Human Music, from his other outfit, Ultraphonix, a hard-hitting rock supergroup that features Corey Glover (Living Colour), George Lynch (Dokken), and drummer Chris Moore. When he’s not occupied with those bands, Tomaselli is keeping busy writing original music and scores with his old mates from Dig Infinity and putting the finishing touches on his new signature-series basses from G&L Guitars. “I’m always busy, because I’m willing to work harder than anyone else,” says Tomaselli. “Aside from that, I’m just a shredder bass player who never plays roots and 5ths and was blessed with chops and a good ear.”
How do you prepare for all of these big gigs that you land?
I’m the type of player who is called to come in and fix holes. When I got the War gig, I looked at what B.B. [Dickenson, founding bassist] wore to the shows, what he smoked before the gigs, where he was from, what he ate, what his amp settings were, what bass he was playing — I would go deep into the psychology of the gig. Anyone can play the notes; notes are just notes. But the true pros pay attention to the details and absorb all of the parts of the role. When I was playing for Rocco in Tower, I went to ESP and told them to set my action how Rocco had his on his basses. So they mailed me a P-Bass, and the action was set so damn high. That’s the only way you can play that many 16th-notes without being wobbly. It’s all in the high action. But that’s a detail that could’ve been overlooked if I hadn’t searched it out and replicated it authentically.
How did get the opportunity to play in Tower Of Power?
I got a message early one morning from [drummer/bandleader] Dave Garibaldi that said to call him immediately after I finished my huevos. So I did, and they told me Rocco was having some health issues. The first concert was that week and I had to decide immediately if I would take it. It was a no brainer. The craziest thing about that gig was that I had no rehearsals with them, and I had never played a note with the band before those tours. I don’t do covers in my personal practice, so I had never played any of that music whatsoever. The first time I ever played “What Is Hip” was onstage with Tower for a packed crowd. It was a wild experience. It was definitely the biggest challenge and the most daunting thing I’ve done in my career. It was like Rocco and Garibaldi and the whole world of funk was asking for my help, and I had to step up to the challenge.
Why did you study business instead of bass at Berklee?
I studied music business because it was the only way I could get funding for it. But that’s probably what made me so directed in my career. If I had studied bass at Berklee, I’d probably show up to all of these gigs with written charts, a 6-string bass, and I’d probably slap and tap all over the place. But instead I came into this business playing with street cats like War and Dos Lobos, where they just shut up and play. And they do it really damn well.
How did you go from being a major-label A&R person to playing in War?
My first gig back was playing cumbia music in a band called Sonora Dinamita, which was great because it was a familiar sound to me, so it was easy for me to get back into the swing of being a professional musician. Then I got the call from War. I really didn’t understand how iconic and how big War was when I joined them. Musically, they taught me how to play. Everything I know as a bass player I learned from that gig. And it wasn’t just funk — we’d play all types of music. I held that bass chair for 16 years and loved it.
What’s a specific lesson that you took away from that band?
One big thing that I learned from War is that a mistake is only a mistake if you make an obvious face and then you don’t repeat the mistake again. If you mess up and shrug or look at someone else, then everyone will know you messed up. Just keep your head down, play the same wrong note again and then laugh with the band about it later. You see, War is all ghetto players, so they know the little secrets of music.
What can we expect from the new albums coming out with Philm and Ultraphonix?
The Ultraphonix album was so great to make. We got together and wrote a bunch of songs, and it’s all super bass heavy. After I finished tracking, I called Juan Alderete [Mars Volta, Racer X] and told him that I jacked his moves on this stuff. With Philm we lost Dave Lombardo for this album, so Gerry Nestler and I wrote a new album, and now we’re going to release it and play some shows. It was a one-take album where we just went in and tracked quickly and put vocals on top of it, and I’m so excited for the world to hear it. It’s our best music yet.
What’s your best advice for working bassists?
More than ever, right now is the time to really be yourself and stay off the trends. Famous people are so damn famous now that if you do what they’re doing, you won’t make it. By the time you get noticed, everyone will be on to the next fad. Don’t chase all of that; just be yourself. I’ll always just be me. I play a 4-string bass with dead strings, and if you like it, call me — and if you don’t, I’ll find another gig. No biggie.
Philm, Time Burner [2018, philmofficial.com]; Ultraphonix, Original Human Music [2018, Edel Germany]
Bass G&L SB1 P-style, fretless Kiloton, JB 4-string, CLF L-1000, and LB100
Rig Form Factor BI1000 head, Form Factor 2B-10L and 1B15L cabinet
Pedals Line 6 Helix, Gogo Tuner
Strings D’Addario Medium Half Rounds (.050-.105)