“When I was a young bass player hoping to be a studio musician, this is what I thought sessions would be like.” So beams L.A. session ace Sean Hurley about his anchoring role on Paul Stanley’s eye-opening new record, Now and Then, featuring his 11-piece ensemble, Soul Station. The Kiss vocalist displays his considerable range as a vocalist and songwriter, balancing soul classics like “Let’s Stay Together,” “Ooo Baby, Baby,” and “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love” with his genre-savvy originals. Moreover, Stanley’s knowledge of the dominant role of the bass in R&B led him to lean on Hurley for hefty grooves, nuanced arrangements, and overall mojo. In-between working on the upcoming John Mayer record and his usual playing and writing projects, Sean shared his thoughts on being the album’s underlying alpha dog.
How did you connect with Paul?
I first met him while working on his solo album in 2006 [Live to Win, Universal], and he would occasionally call me out of the blue to say hi. He’s a very kind and loyal guy who keeps in contact with people he has worked with. In early 2015 he called me up for a benefit at his kids’ school in L.A. He had done the event previously, playing rock, and this particular year he wanted to do a classic soul/R&B set. Paul is a musicoligist who knows the classic R&B artists, writers, and session guys. Along with seeing Hendrix and Led Zeppelin growing up in New York, he saw Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and the Temptations. He wanted to be a Brill Building songwriter but his opening to stardom ended up being Kiss. We did the gig and we had so much fun we started to do it twice a year, when Kiss was on breaks. From there, Paul took it to the next level, naming our 11-piece band Soul Station, and booking gigs and writing tunes for a record that we could eventually sell on the road. We did two weeks in Japan, in 2018, recorded the album in 2019, and finished the overdubs and made a video in 2020.
How were the tracks recorded and what gear did you use?
We cut the rhythm section live, doing three songs per day over four or five days—the covers first and then the originals on a day each. Vocals, strings, and overdubs were done later. For all of the tracks, I played my 1961 Fender Precision Bass with LaBella Deep Talkin’ flatwounds, gauged .43-.104; they’ve been on the bass since I bought it in 2009. It’s an amazing instrument that my Fender signature bass is a copy of. I recorded it direct into my Noble DI and through a miked Ampeg B-15 at the studio.
How attuned to bass is Paul?
Very much so. Both he and our drummer, Eric Singer, who is also Kiss’s drummer, told me from the start that the bass is more important in this genre than even the drums. Eric, who grew up playing wedding and big band gigs with his dad in Ohio, plays more softly than usual in this setting. Both he and Paul empowered me to be a leader because of the role the bass plays in the music. So any time we were working on Paul’s original songs they would consult with me on the arrangement: Where are we going to play on the downbeat and where are we going to push it? What’s going to define this section? What feels right to you? Even in rehearsals everyone would say, “Turn up, you’re driving the band; we want to hear more bass than drums.” When you’re valued like that it’s such a boost, and it inspired me do my homework on the covers. The gig is a bass player’s heaven.
Let’s talk about your bass approach on the tracks, starting with the opener, the Spinners’ “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love,” originally played by Ron Baker at Philly International.
On the covers it varied between the more simple, compositional bass parts and the busier, improvised parts. “Could It Be” and the other Philly tunes, “You Are Everything” [the Stylistics] and “La La Means I Love You,” [the Delfonics], were basic enough to learn note for note, so that’s the challenge I took on. The same with “Just My Imagination” [the Temptations], which I later found out was played by Bob Babbitt. I listened to the original tracks and made my own charts. From there it was all about playing like you mean it. How intently can you play the part and convince everyone that there are no other options—that this is the perfect way to play this song.
Smokey Robinson’s “Ooo Baby Baby” is the first Jamerson line you tackle.
I had played that song in the ’90s but the brilliance of Smokey Robinson and James Jamerson had yet to fully impact me. Smokey’s songs are a bit more refined and arranged, so Jamerson is held somewhat in check, but on the other hand that refinement makes even the slightest variation stand out. Like Jamerson’s use of chromaticism in the bridge, between the D7sus and the Bm7. I wrote myself a note-for-note chart, and the only time I strayed from it was on some of the Vchord fills. Jamerson also plays with a swing on the track that no one else is doing; it has that funky, triplet, neo-soul vibe going on. Another key is Smokey’s use of a tonic major 7 in the chorus vocals. It adds a lushness that makes you want to drive home the root of the chord to support it. The other Jamerson songs we cut are Smokey’s “Tracks of My Tears,” which is in that same arranged bass line vein, and “Baby I Need Your Loving” [the Four Tops], which we did down a half-step. I wondered if Jamerson might be playing upright on that song. I don’t know his upright voice as well as his electric bass voice, but there’s a lot of air in his tone.
The Five Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child” starts with your killer bass fill.
The whole band was trying to figure that out because on the original track it’s sort of a guitar fill that transitions to a bass fill. Paul sang what he thought the lick was and I liked it better than what I had, so I adapted it. This was a track that was on the opposite end of the more basic, compositional bass lines. It’s busy and more improvised. You have the one, and then the connective licks that happen before you hit the next one are up to you to create—sort of like playing through the changes on a jazz tune. So every take I played was a little bit different. What I didn’t know until later is that the bassist is Keni Burke, who was a member of the Five Stairsteps family band, who played on the track with Bernard Purdie, Richard Tee, and other New York session cats. Between his killer bass part and the family’s vocals there’s an energetic, looser feel that wasn’t as prevalent on other songs from the era. We all tried to cop that spirit of spontaniety and youthful, wide-eyed excitement.
Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” is a quirky track with a quirky bass line by Leroy Hodges.
That was the song I had the most history with. I had played it in 2000 with Robin Thicke, and as his MD I learned not only the bass line but also the guitar part and voicings. A decade later when I was on tour with John Mayer in Memphis, Leroy’s brother, Charles Hodges, who played organ on the track, jammed on it with us, and later gave us a private tour of the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum. It’s such a one-off song, there’s no other like it, between the chord movement, the essential counterlines, and the various sections. I love quirky tunes like that; it almost makes them easier to remember. Of course the main bass quirk is Leroy playing an F# against the Dm9 chord in the second half of the verses, which I stayed faithful to, after discussing it with the band.
Let’s talk about Paul’s five originals; he certainly knows how to write in the genre.
A great composer can create for an era or for a theme, and that’s what Paul can do. Like on “I Do,” where each verse isn’t exactly the same, and he has the cool little bar of 2/4; or “Loreli,” where the verse is in G but the chorus shifts to B—both right in that classic R&B style. For me the fun was being able to create parts from scratch, in a Motown/Philly vein, which I love to play. Also, having the right instrument with the right tone definitely helps the part fall out more easily. In most cases Paul would show us the song on acoustic guitar and we would create and arrange from there. For his songs I took a bit more refined approached, to focus on the arrangement. But there were times—like on “I, Oh I” and “Whenever You’re Ready (I’m Here)”—where Paul would say to me, “You can be busier and take more liberties.” That’s what makes Paul a great leader, he inspires you by making you feel heard and celebrated.
How did the pandemic affect your 2020, and how have you been faring in 2021?
Like everyone else, I was processing it and adjusting in real time. Right before, I’d been very busy, with sessions, a little touring with Squeeze, and some local gigs, so I was happy to have what I thought would be a short pause. Fortunately I have a home setup and the remote sessions began coming in as the lockdown dragged on. The shining light for me was I’d recorded a few songs with John Mayer right before the shutdown, but with him not being able to tour with Dead & Company, he ended up writing enough additional songs to fill an album. So I spent July and August at Henson Studios with [drummer] Aaron Sterling doing John’s next record. It should be out sometime in 2021, we just filmed a video for one of the songs. Other than that, I’ve been writing and doing a mix of live and remote sessions—I did my first remote film date for the soundtrack of the animated movie, Flora and Ulysses; my daughter read the book so she was excited. I also played on “You,” a pop tune by Marshmello, Benny Blanco, and Vance Joy. Like all musicians, I’m hopeful the vaccines will allow sessions and live gigs to gradually increase, as we head to a new normal. –BM
Basses: ’61 Fender Precision with flatwounds, Fender Custom Shop Sean Hurley Signature ‘61 Precision, ’66 Precision, ’59 Precision, ’69 Fender Jazz Bass, ’74 Gibson Les Paul Signature, Lakland 5594 5-string, ’55 Kay K162 Pro Bass, ’66 Fender Mustang, ’66 Guild Starfire; 100 year old Czech 3/4 acoustic bass (with Thomastick Spirocore strings, Underwood pickup, and German-style bow)
Strings: LaBella RX N4D Nickel Roundwounds .045-.105, LaBella Deep Talkin’ Flatwounds 760FL .043-.104 (Dunlop Prime Tone picks, .73mm)
Amps: 1976 Ampeg SVT head (with ’74 SVT as backup), Diamond Blue Ampeg SVT810 cabinet, 1966 Ampeg B-15, 1972 Ampeg B-15, Divided By Thirteen 1x12 cabinet
Recording: Noble Bass DI, EBS ValveDrive, Darkglass Vintage Microtubes; B-15 miked with an Electro-Voice RE20 or Soyuz 017
Vertical Horizon, Everything You Want (BMG/RCA 1999); Robin Thicke, The Evolution of Robin Thicke [Interscope, 2006], Beautiful World [Interscope, 2003]; Alicia Keys, As I Am [J-Records, 2007]; Annie Lennox, Songs of Mass Destruction [Sony, 2007]; Ringo Starr, Liverpool 8[Capitol/EMI, 2008]; Melissa Etheridge, Fearless Love [Island, 2010]; John Mayer, Born and Raised [Columbia, 2012], Paradise Valley [Columbia, 2013]; Michael Bublé, Nobody But Me[Reprise, 2016]; Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker [Columbia, 2016]; Gwen Stefani, You Make It Feel Like Christmas [Interscope, 2017]; Lady Antebellum, Heart Break [Capitol, 2017]; Jason Mraz, Know. [Atlantic, 2018]; Morrissey, California Son [BMG, 2019]; Paul Stanley, Now and Then [UMe, 2021]
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