Elvis Costello & The Imposters’ bassist Davey Farragher talks about his long standing role in the band and what it’s like working with a music legend
The remarkable, 42-year career of Elvis Costello has basically been split between two bands, the Attractions and the Imposters, with the latter uniformly regarded as the more versatile quartet. That speaks volumes about the foundational skills of Davey Faragher, the lone personnel change in the four-decade association between Costello, keyboardist Steve Nieve, and drummer Pete Thomas — no relation to Attractions bass great Bruce Thomas. Since joining the band in 2002, Faragher’s role has grown to include singing and vocal-arrangement duties, in addition to putting his own stamp on Attractions bass lines, and creating sympathetic ostinatos to fit the wide range of styles that flow from Costello’s pen.
Look Now, Faragher’s sixth studio recording with Costello, is inarguably his step-out moment on the fretboard with the Imposters. The 16-track double-disc finds Costello backlighting his bittersweet, sophisticated song gems with classic R&B and soul grooves, unleashing Faragher in a key countervoice role. And “sing” he does, filling holes with suitably syncopated, melodic responses, rich vintage bass tones, and a lyrical connectivity that drives the songs forward — whether pumping up the pocket from first position or peeking out from the upper register. Self-effacing despite over 200 recordings in his Los Angeles home base, Faragher is also blessed with an acerbic wit. He admits, “Sometimes I feel like I’m still trying to crack the scene at 62!” Regarding a 2010 session, he laughs, “I was called in by a major producer for a collaboration between two major artists, and afterward he said to me, ‘Welcome to the team!’ And I thought, ‘I’m in!’ And then I never heard from him again!”
Davey Faragher was born the sixth of eight children in Long Beach, California, on August 18, 1957. His family moved inland to nearby Redlands a few years later. With his older brothers all in bands, it was quite the musical household, and Faragher found his way to the stacks of rock & roll 45s at home. “My first love is doo-wop,” he states. “If you strip me down to my essence, you’ll find a doo-wop singer. Everything you need to know about basic harmony is in there, and if you zoom out a little to Little Richard and Chuck Berry, you’ve got a strong groove foundation, as well.” Faragher tried drums and guitar and took some piano lessons, but the one constant was singing harmony in school and on the street. When he was 14, his older brother closest in age started a band and needed a bass player. “I didn’t really know what the bass was, but as soon as I keyed into it, I took to it like wildfire and got good fairly quickly because of my musical background.” Another brother gave him a Guild Starfire, and the guitarist in the band showed him some moves. The group played mostly Stax covers at school dances, making Duck Dunn Faragher’s first key influence, with the fretboard magic of James Jamerson and Chuck Rainey to follow.
Eventually, all of the brothers’ bands consolidated into one band, dubbed the Faragher Brothers, and the pursuit of a record deal ensued. Davey laughs, “We looked like the Allman Brothers, sounded like the Spinners, and no one could pronounce our name. We did four records on two labels, the first of which was classic blue-eyed soul. We came close to breaking out a few times, but in retrospect, we were stubborn. For our second record, we were working with [famed producer and record executive] Richard Perry, and he wanted to have Ray Parker Jr. produce us, and we didn’t go for it! We didn’t make great decisions.” He continues, “In 1979 the Sex Pistols and the U.K. punk scene hit, and I was very affected by it. It created a rift between the younger and older brothers in the band, so we broke up.” Davey and his brother Tommy next joined a group called The Troops, with quitarist Calib Quaye and drummer Roger Pope, from Elton John’s band. The unit came up short, beginning a stretch where Faragher bounced from one project to the next, while starting to crack the session scene. This included touring with David Crosby, touring and recording with John Hiatt, and joining Cracker. Unfortunately, when the band finally had an MTV hit with “Low,” co-written by Faragher, he was already on his way out. But perseverance and word of mouth would pay off when a bespectacled Londoner came calling.
How did you land the gig with Elvis in 2002?
I was touring with Vonda Shepard, as well as doing the TV show Ally McBeal with her. She started seeing the producer Mitchell Froom, and he thought it would be a good idea to bring in Pete Thomas on drums. Pete and I hit it off right away, even forming a local cover band that we still have, called Jackshit. Meanwhile, he began whispering in Elvis’ ear about me. Finally, Elvis booked a solo show at Festival Hall in London, and there was going to be a big reveal at the end, rocking out with the full band, which hadn’t played together in a while. We were in Europe with Vonda, so I got the call to play bass for the show. I made sure I ’shedded and learned all of the songs and bass parts. We rehearsed for a day or two, and Elvis liked how the show went. Two weeks later, we were recording When I Was Cruel in Ireland.
What was it like replacing Bruce Thomas?
At first there were people in the audience shouting, “Bruce!” And I still deal with that on occasion. It’s understandable — the Attractions were an iconic band that made amazing records, and Bruce is a great bassist. I pay total respect to his well-crafted parts on those records; I just play them with my own spin. In learning them, Bruce has become an influence, in a way. When you get inside someone’s playing like that, you start to recognize patterns they use and even references they’re going for. It’s like, “Yup, I listened to that same Beatles record!” If I had to describe my style, I’d say I’m 60% R&B and 40% rock & roll. Bruce would be 70% rock & roll and 30% R&B, because he still charges ahead in that rock way. I have more of a laid-back R&B concept, but with an understanding of the rock attitude.
How do you come up with your parts for Elvis, and how much freedom do you have?
Elvis is great in the studio; he’s super-creative, which is inspiring, and he let’s you do your thing. He pretty much leaves the bass line up to me, aside from a written line or riff that’s key to the song. But if he’s just showing us the chords to a tune on guitar or piano, I’m free to create my own part. As a singer, I’m acutely aware of the vocal line, and supporting it is first and foremost; from there, it’s about playing off it or around it. At this point in my career, it’s instinctual. I sort of have my go-to places, so when I hear the song it will remind of some other song or groove and trigger what kind of bass line to play.
Look Now sounds a little different from a typical Elvis & the Imposters record, with R&B-flavored songs and additional instrumentation.
That’s what I thought when I heard the songs — it sounded like classic R&B to me. Elvis gave us the songs as guitar or piano demos, as he always does, but the producer, Sebastián Krys, had us sketch out our parts and make demos. That’s because things tend to go down rather quickly when the Imposters are in the studio, and the feeling Sebastián and Elvis had for this record was for it to be a little more thought out and arranged. That forced a discipline on a us that we don’t usually have, and it definitely paid off. I’m sure we’ll go back to bashing out another record, because there’s something cool about that method, too — capturing the moment and the spontaneity.
What songs and bassists came to mind as you worked your way through Look Now?
James Jamerson and Chuck Rainey, for sure; they should be in the credits instead of me, because I’m just trying to copy them! “Under Lime” is basically a psychedelic Motown tune. For “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter” I was thinking [the Four Tops’] “Bernadette.” “Suspect My Tears” is [Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell’s] “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” both rhythmically and as my inspiration to use a pedal tone on the second verse. “Mr. and Mrs. Hush” is mostly Chuck Rainey, with some “Shotgun” [by Junior Walker & the All Stars] in there. “Why Won’t Heaven Help Me” is sort of Latin meets Steely Dan, with me using Chuck Rainey’s cuica-drum-like slides, among other moves.
You had a chance to study with Chuck.
When I was in my 20s, I took four or five lessons with him. I was so taken with his playing that just to be in a room with him was overwhelming. He was very nice and very committed to teaching. He had mimeographed sheets of his most famous bass lines and licks put in exercise form, and I recognized them all from his recordings. He’d play something and I’d try to match his phrasing. It was amazing, and I probably grew five years as a player within that little span.
What basses did you use on Look Now?
Mostly my ’58 P-Bass, and a few others. When I started to get steady work on the L.A. session scene, I went for quirky basses, like my 1963 Hofner Club Bass, my 1963 Gibson Les Paul Jr. Bass, and my Danocaster P-Bass, all of which I used on the album. I recorded the basses both direct, through my vintage Tonecraft 363 Tube/DI, and via a miked Ampeg B-15. On tour I’ve been using a bass that I’m absolutely smitten with — a 2011 Mike DeTemple P-55 that looks like a Fender Telecaster Bass. It has two pickups, a single-coil and a humbucker. Mike is a legendary L.A. luthier who mainly builds custom guitars, but he’s built about a dozen basses, as well. I didn’t want to take my ’58 P-Bass out on the road, so I went over to Mike’s to try out his bass. I had my son with me, who is a terrific young jazz and fusion drummer, and he said to me, “I’ve never heard you play like that!” The instrument has inspired me and made me fall in love with playing all over again.
Let’s discuss your technique, including how you incorporate your plucking-hand fingernails.
I pluck with my two fingers alternating, and I use my fingernails to get a little click after the pads of my fingers pluck the string, which adds a point to the notes. I have my fingernails hardened with polish regularly at a salon. Fairly recently I’ve started plucking with my thumb, if I want a fatter, more staccato sound, but I don’t mute with my palm. Most of my muting happens in my left hand, deadening the strings. I’ve never taken to playing with a pick, and I can slap but I don’t do it much. I’m a lefty playing right-handed, so I was never going to be a “thunder thumbs” type of slapper.
How would you describe your hookup with Pete Thomas?
There’s a tension in our playing that’s interesting. Usually, the bass player is the one who sits on the back end of the beat, with the drummer leaning forward. With Pete, I’m more on the front end pushing, and he’s leaning back, which creates this sweet spot in the middle. We both know each other’s style so well that we can sort of do our own thing while creating a nice pocket.
You got to work with the late Allen Toussaint on Elvis’ album The River in Reverse.
That record came out of doing some benefit shows for victims of Katrina. It was amazing to work with Allen. We learned a number of his songs and a whole lot about various New Orleans grooves. He was such a stately fellow, dressed to the nines, and with a great demeanor. He had this interesting way as co-producer. You’d come into the booth for the playback after a take, and he’d say, in his deep, resonant voice, “What do you think about what you’re playing in the bridge?” And you’d want to run and hide! But he was very complimentary to me throughout the project, which meant the world to me.
You recorded Fine, Fine Line with Andy Fraser and then spent a year in his band.
I learned a lot from him. He was the lead singer, so I played bass, but the way he wrote was the same way he played bass: big arena riffs, with dramatic use of space. The best lesson I ever got in taking a breath and leaving holes in the music was from Andy. He was the king of hitting the note and then letting off in a way that would suck the air out of the room. The way he let off the note was so accented that it had a major effect, and then the space afterward would be as important as the note. I definitely picked up some of that.
Your use of fuzz bass on records with Buddy Guy and Sheryl Crow caught the ear of bassists.
I’m really not an effects guy; I have a pedalboard on tour with Elvis, but I rarely use it. The main fuzz-bass project I did was Buddy’s record Sweet Tea. My buddy Dennis Herring was producing, and he sent me a Captain Beefheart track that had fuzz bass on it. Much of the record is a trio with me, Buddy, and Pete [Thomas], so Dennis wanted to go for a Cream–Led Zeppelin kind of sound. I played my ’63 Gibson Les Paul Jr., and I have this ’70s Electro-Harmonix Hot Tubes overdrive pedal, so that’s what I used. Before that record, I had brought and used it on several of Sheryl’s tunes on her self-titled album [“A Change Would Do You Good” and “Sweet Rosalyn” from Sheryl Crow], and she liked it so much that I ended up getting credited for “fuzz bass.”
Who are some of your favorite contemporary bassists?
I love Pino [Palladino]; he’s incredible. Marcus Miller, Lee Sklar, Will Lee, Anthony Jackson, Bob Glaub, who’s a friend. Through my son, I hear some of the newer players, and they all sound amazing. I was into Stanley [Clarke] and Jaco [Pastorius] when they came out, but vocal music always pulled me back in. Right now I’m working my way through John Patitucci’s 60 Melodic Etudes for Acoustic and Electric Bass [2005, Carl Fischer], and it’s kicking my butt!
What’s the concept of Jackshit, your L.A. band with Pete Thomas and guitarist Val McCallum?
The original concept in 2000 was just to have fun playing cover songs. We had all come up around the pressure of creating and playing originals, so it was a welcome change of pace to play covers and mash-ups from across the musical spectrum. We’ve developed a whole shtick around it — we’re characters from a fictitious town and we wear country & western outfits. It’s humorous, the repertoire is picked for comedic value, but we take the music very seriously. We do a long piece called the “Ugly and Slouchy Medley” that we keep adding to. It starts with the title tune, a country song with a two-feel, and we wind our way through tunes like “Green-Eyed Lady” [Sugarloaf], “Spinning Wheel” [Blood, Sweat & Tears], “Pinball Wizard” [the Who], “Jesus Is Just Alright” [Doobie Brothers], “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” [How the Grinch Stole Christmas], and “Scatterbrain” [Jeff Beck]. Val is in Jackson Browne’s band, so we try to play locally when we’re all off the road. We’ve done three albums on our own, and we want to do another.
As someone who has had quite a versatile career, what advice can you offer young bassists?
After all these years in the music business, I have very simple advice: Just say, “Yes!” If someone asks you to do something, say yes, and keep saying yes until your fingers fall off. Every time I’ve said no, I’ve seen the project jump from one opportunity to another, and thought, “Crap, why didn’t I do that?” Two words: Say yes!
Basses 1958 Fender Precision, 2011 DeTemple P-55, 1963 Gibson Les Paul Jr., 1963 Hofner Club Bass, 1955 Fender Precision, Danocaster P-Bass, Dan Armstrong wood-body bass with movable pickup
Strings “I don’t endorse anyone, and there are mostly old strings on my basses: Pyramids on the Hofner, D’Addario roundwounds on my ’58 P-Bass, and La Bella flatwounds on my ’55 P-Bass.”
Rigs Ampeg SVT-VR head with SVT-810E cabinet, Tonecraft 363 Tube DI, 1964 Ampeg B-15 for recording
Elvis Costello, Look Now [2019, Concord], The River in Reverse [2006, Verve Forecast], When I Was Cruel [2002, Island]; Jenny Lewis, Acid Tongue [2008, Warner Bros.]; Buddy Guy, Sweet Tea [2001, Silvertone]; Sheryl Crow, Sheryl Crow, [1996, A&M]; John Hiatt, Walk On [1995, Capitol]; Andy Fraser, Fine, Fine Line [1984, Island]; Cracker, Kerosene Hat [1993, Virgin]
Check out the website of Jackshit, Davey’s side project with Pete Thomas HERE