Derek Frank: Eleven Years Later

When the lockdown halted his work with Gwen Stefani and Shania Twain, Derek Frank hunkered down and recorded his triumphant first solo album in eleven years.

Derek Frank: Eleven Years Later

When the lockdown halted his work with Gwen Stefani and Shania Twain, Derek Frank hunkered down and recorded his triumphant first solo album in eleven years.

Photo by Myriam Santos

It’s February 12th, 2020 on the Las Vegas strip and the desert air, filled with cigarette smoke and mixed scents from buffets and all-night diners, travels upwards alongside the noise from the casinos and the crowds surrounding them. The strip is packed, as it always is, or at least now, as it always used to be. Above all of the chaos, Derek Frank relaxes on the top floor of the lounge of the Cosmopolitan, which is positioned across the strip from Zappos Theater, where he just performed with Gwen Stefani as part of her Vegas residency. We sit together in the packed bar sipping on whiskey, talking about his next two years in Vegas being fully booked between performing with Stefani and Shania Twain—two longtime gigs he’s been happily holding down. He explains how lucky he is as a musician to have such secure positions and a calendar booked full for years to come. Being not so far from his home in Los Angeles, he explains that he can head back on his off days to spend time with his wife. For Frank, life is very good. Fellow musicians, dancers, and members of Stefani’s entourage pop in and out of the lounge, excitedly embracing him and talking briefly about the great energy of the night’s show before heading off to their respective corners of the club. The mood is celebratory, and we sit until the late hours of the night discussing the latest bass gear that was just released at NAMM, which young players are coming in hot, and about how sometime soon, when he eventually gets a break, he’s going to finally work on his sophomore solo album. For Frank, and all of us, this now feels like a lifetime ago.

In the weeks to come, the Coronavirus rapidly hit the U.S., and like every musician on the planet, Frank started getting word that the concerts he had coming up were postponed, rescheduled, and eventually cancelled. By March, the Vegas strip was entirely shut down, leaving the casinos, bars, and buffets vacant, and the strip eerily quiet and dark, with no bright lights illuminating the night. The world was in shock, fear, and disbelief, and as musicians began realizing the implications of this global pandemic, panic kicked in. With everyone shut in their homes with no tours, shows, or recording sessions in sight, the forecast looked grim for even the most optimistic of players. But for the ever-resilient Derek, he realized what this time meant for him: it was finally the opportunity he needed to create his album. Quick to pivot, Frank finished song ideas he had written in hotel rooms and on tour busses for the last several years, and he found a rush of inspiration while many were at their breaking point. Soon he had the body of the record done, and thanks to his home studio and some remote and distanced recording from some of his friends, the project was completed way ahead of schedule.

Eleven Years Later doesn’t feel or sound like a quarantine album, and its positive nature and funky roots show nary a trace of the wild year it was written in. In fact, if anything, the album is more akin to the sounds of classic R&B, as soulful bass lines layer with grooving drums, topped off with horn sections and ripping guitars. The opening track, “Get ’Em!” sets the tone, as wah-drenched, strummed bass leaps off the track and takes listeners on a wild car chase through the funkadelic streets of the ’70s. “Irregardlessly” taps into some deep neo-soul vibes, while “Onward,” featuring guitar great Joe Bonamassa, scorches like an instrumental arena ballad. Each song presents its own vibe, from soul to southern rock to TV soundtracks. Yet what ultimately makes Eleven Years Later a resounding success is not the bass playing, songwriting, or production, it’s Frank’s ability to create a happy, inspiring, uplifting record—something the bass world and beyond will appreciate in such a turbulent time.

Frank performing with Gwen Stefani 

What was it like when the lockdown started and all of your shows began to get cancelled?

We were only two shows into a three-week Shania run when our production manager came into the dressing room to tell us we had been shut down. I gotta admit, I was pretty delusional at the time; I thought we’d only be shut down for a few weeks and back at it in time for our next scheduled run, which would have been in May. How wrong I was! I was planning to work on my second record, so I started writing a day or two after I got home from that Vegas run. Again, I thought we’d only be off for a few weeks, so I figured I’d better take advantage of that little break and get to work writing tunes. I’m not one to sit still, so if there was no possibility of live shows for a little while, I figured the time was right to finally start putting this solo album together.

What was the writing process like for this album?

At first I would just improvise some bass grooves and when something felt good, I’d get a drum groove going in Logic and build it from there. After writing a couple of tunes in that organic fashion, I started coming up with pre-conceived ideas of what I wanted each song to be. For example, I wanted one song to sound like the theme to a ’70s cop show, so I started coming up with grooves and melody lines in that vain until something stuck. After I finished that song I came up with an idea for the next one: a riff-rock jam at 86bpm, with the guitar doubling the bass; and that’s how it progressed. I found having a stylistic idea in mind before I started writing the song gave me a goal and helped me focus.

How different was this process in comparison to your last album over a decade ago?

I wrote my first album, Let The Games Begin…, while I was on a Dancing With the Stars tour back in 2009. The whole album was basically written on my laptop in dressing rooms in-between soundchecks and shows. This album was written entirely at my home studio in L.A., with no gigs on the horizon whatsoever.

Photo by Myriam Santos

What were the most difficult aspect of creating this album during the lockdown?

Probably trying to be creative while the world around us seemed to be crumbling, and my mental state was constantly fluctuating. The anxiety of having our entire industry shut down with no end in sight was a tough thing to deal with, and still is. Some days I was able to put all the negativity aside and focus, and other days I couldn’t even get out of bed. I tried to set goals and deadlines for myself, but I wasn’t always able to meet them. It took awhile for me to come to a place of acceptance that some days would be better than others, and for me to learn to forgive myself when I was having a non-productive day.

What was the studio process like?

I started by calling engineer/producer Jim Scott to ask if he’d be interested in recording and producing the album at his studio, PLYRZ. I did a record there awhile back as a session player, and I dug Jim’s vibe, process, and studio. Jim has produced, recorded, and/or mixed some of my favorite albums by artists such as Sting, Tom Petty, Tedeschi Trucks Band, and many others. Luckily, Jim was onboard, so now I had a studio and producer booked. I then put together my dream team of guitarist Joshua Ray Gooch, keyboardist Ty Bailie, and drummer Randy Cooke. I sent them my rough demos of the songs, we did four rehearsals (with masks on, of course), and then we went into PLYRZ to record. I wanted to do this album old school, with the band playing in the same room and creating together. Jim’s studio was the perfect environment for this kind of record. We all could see each other while playing, but be socially distant enough to feel comfortable given the current conditions. We got the basic tracks cut in four days, dedicating one day per player for overdubs, and we were basically done. I took rough mixes of three songs out to Las Vegas to record the Vegas-based horn section, “The Fat City Horns.” I sent roughs of three other songs to a few players who had to track remotely from Nashville and New York, and then we mixed. Jim mixed the whole album in a few days on an all-analog console; nothing in the box, as they say. I sat there watching and listening as Jim worked his magic. It’s pretty awe-inspiring to watch a master such as Jim do his thing.

What was your main goal or concept behind this album?

From the get-go, I knew I wanted this to be an instrumental groove album, representing all the different styles that I like playing and listening to. Also, I wanted it to be old school and vintage sounding. I wanted an overall ’70s vibe without it being a caricature.

How did you track your bass and capture your sound?

For the entire album I used my trusty Noble tube preamp/DI for the direct signal, Jim’s ’70s Ampeg B-15S for the amp signal, and then I blended the two pretty much 50/50. The amp had an older Shure SM7 mic on it and both the DI and mic went through Neve 1081 mic pres and 2254A compressors. We honestly didn’t do a whole lot of experimenting or tweaking. This is the signal chain Jim had set up when I plugged in and it sounded great to me, so we stuck with it. I wanted to keep things simple. Again, old-school and vintage!

Which basses did you use?

I played my 1963 Fender Precision with LaBella Low Tension Flats on most of the record—sometimes with a Nordy Mute; my LaBella Olinto P-Bass with RX Stainless Rounds on a few songs; my Celinder J-Update on the bonus track, “All Day Sucker,” and my 1976 Fender Precision for the wah-wah parts on “Get ‘Em!”

Speaking of which, that’s some funky playing on “Get ‘Em!” How did that song come about?

Over the past year or so, I’ve been watching a lot of ’70s TV shows, such as Wonder Woman, CHiPS, The Six Million Dollar Man, Starsky and Hutch, and The Love Boat. The music from those shows is terrific! I knew I needed to incorporate that vibe into at least one song on the album, so I got to work writing a tune that would fit that genre. You can’t have a ’70s cop show tune without wah-wah guitar, but I decided I wanted to do those parts myself on bass. I love emulating guitar with that up-down thumb technique and a wah-wah pedal. It’s so fun! Once the rhythm section tracks were done, I sent a rough to Nathan Tanouye, arranger for the Fat City Horns. He got the vibe right away, and he absolutely knocked it out of the park with his horn arrangement. Then I called my friends Carlos Lopez and Katisse Buckingham to remotely overdub some percussion and flute respectively, and we had it all in the can. Fun fact: Katisse played the flute part for Will Ferrell in that iconic scene from the movie Anchorman.

“Irregardlessly” grooves hard throughout it. Did you come up with the bass line first?

Yeah, this one definitely started with the bass line. I was going for a modern, yet organic hip-hop vibe. One of my ideas for the song was to have a guest rapper on it, but then I got Josh and Ty in to co-write, and it took on a new life as an instrumental.

“George Likes the Bananas” has an almost Jaco or Rocco feel to it. What inspired that song?

Absolutely, Jaco and [the late] Rocco [Prestia] are all over this album. I’ve been stealing from both of them since I started playing. A year ago I was doing a gig with my friend Tomasina, and the next day one of her fans posted a video of a bass solo I did over the Jimi Hendrix tune, “Fire.” It was an unplanned, impromptu moment in the show, but it made me realize what a fun tempo and drum groove that is to play over. I found a similar drum loop in Logic, improvised a bass line, and then got to writing a melody over it. I decided I liked some of the stuff I played in the video from that gig, so I built a melody out of those lines. As for the title… my fellow Seinfeld fans will know where I got that.

How did you dial in your slap tone on “All Day Sucker”?

I actually recorded that one in 2014, but decided to add it to the album as a bonus track. That’s my Celinder J-Update with a fresh set of roundwounds recorded direct through an Avalon U5 and a Distressor. I got that bass back in 2002 while I was on tour in Europe with Brian Auger and it’s awesome. I don’t bust it out that often these days, but whenever I do, I’m reminded of what a great instrument it is.

What was it like working with Joe Bonamassa on “Onward”?

Joe is the best. I’m a huge fan. We’ve played together a couple times in casual settings and I thought it’d be fun to find a place for him on the record. I texted him and asked if he’d be down to play a solo as a guest artist, and luckily he was into it. He was in New York at the time, so I sent him a rough mix of the song and he overdubbed his solo at a studio there. Absolutely killer.

You use a lot of different techniques on this record. How do you decide which method to use for each track?

It all comes down to which technique sounds the best for that particular part. For some parts, it sounds best with fingers and others with a pick. Some parts sound best to me palm-muted, others with a thumb. It’s never about how much easier it is to play a specific part with one technique instead of another, it’s all about which technique works best for the song.

How have you matured as a bass player and songwriter in the eleven-year span between your albums?

These days, I’m more focused on tone, parts, and feel than I am notes and chops. Out of the eleven songs on this record, only three have bass solos. I wanted to highlight my groove, sound, and parts rather than my soloing chops. As for songwriting, I’ve had the good fortune of playing and recording with so many great songwriters over the past eleven years. I think some of those experiences have rubbed off on me a bit and led me to improve my own writing.

What music or which bass players have been inspiring you lately?

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve gone down several rabbit holes of checking out bass players to whom I may not have given that much attention over the years. I started with a Jeff Berlin phase. I love the stuff he did with Bruford in the late ’70s. That led to me checking out Mick Karn with Japan, and digging into some of the great fretless work Pino Palladino did in the ’80s with Gary Numan, Paul Young, Don Henley, and Pete Townshend. He’s one of my all-time favorites and he’s always inspiring.

What’s your favorite piece of gear you’ve gotten throughout the lockdown?

About a week after I got back from our cancelled Vegas run, I received a custom Sandberg VM4 that I had setup in a B-E-A-D tuning. It’s so rad. I ordered it for the Shania gig specifically, and I’m bummed that I’ve had it for seven months and I haven’t had a chance to put it to work yet. I also recently got the new Music Man Stingray Short Scale bass, which is a total blast to play. They sent me one to do some demo videos and I just couldn’t bring myself to give it back. And of course, let’s not forget about the mint green double-neck Steinberger knock-off that I impulsively bought on Reverb one night while I was bored during the early phases of lockdown!

Photo by Myriam Santos

How do you feel this lockdown will change the landscape of music for years to come?

Looking through rose-colored glasses, I’m hoping this lockdown makes people realize how much they’ve missed live music, and that it leads to a resurgence in concert and gig attendance. Unfortunately, I don’t foresee any change happening regarding the monetization of recorded music, so live performance is pretty much all we’ve got. Let’s stay positive and hope that all our gigs are packed for years to come, following the pandemic.

What’s your advice for musicians moving forward in the Covid era?

Keep creating! The world needs joy, inspiration, and distraction now more than ever, and what better way to provide that than through music? –BM


Basses: With Gwen: 2 Fano JM4’s (one maple and one rosewood), Music Man Sterling 5. With Shania: Moollon P-Classic with a J-neck (tuned D-G-C-F), Fender Nate Mendel Signature Precision with Nordstrand Pickup, Custom Sandberg VM4 (tuned B-E-A-D), Sandberg Forty Eight (tuned Bb-Eb-Ab-Db), Martin BCPA4 Acoustic, Dave Smith Instruments Mopho SE synth. On “Eleven Years Later”: 1963 & 1976 Fender Precisions, LaBella Olinto P-Bass, Celinder J-Update.

Strings: LaBella Low Tension Flats & RX Stainless Steel Rounds

Rig: with both Gwen and Shania: Kemper Profiler and Radial JDI. All others: Aguilar DB750 and AG700 with DB410 and SL112 cabinets.

Pedals: Dunlop/MXR Phase 95, Vintage Bass Octave, Bass Envelope Filter, Mini Crybaby Bass Wah, & Volume X Mini. Darkglass Vintage Microtubes, Moollon Bass Drive, Digitech Dirty Robot, Origin Effects Cali 76 compressor.

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Jon D'Auria   By: Jon D'Auria

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