Pino Palladino Uncovers New Horizons In Pursuit of his Musical Spirit on 'Notes with Attachments'
Every time Pino Palladino has reinvented himself as a player the bass world has followed and the music he is supporting has prospered. Yet considering the trendsetting incarnations of his bass persona—melodic fretless wizard with Paul Young, Gary Numan, and Don Henley in the ’80s and ’90s; pocket redefining R&B groove genius on a flatwound-strung P-Bass with D’Angelo, Jill Scott, and the RH Factor in the 2000s; and more recently, rock super-sub with the Who, Eric Clapton, and Nine Inch Nails, and singer-songwriter’s best friend with Paul Simon and John Mayer—how could anyone venture a guess as to what Pino Palladino the artist might sound like? The answer has arrived, and as with his bass transformations, you would have never guessed anyway.
Notes with Attachments [Impulse!, 2021], which Palladino is calling a collaboration with guitarist-producer extraordinaire Blake Mills, is a revelation. Moving at a meditative pace, the eight-track instrumental album balances bold experimentation and cinema-level sonics with penetrating melodies and vanguard feels. Stylistic touchpoints include West African, Brazilian, Brian Wilson, Weather Report, Stravinsky, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, English folk, and of course, deep funk. Joining Palladino and Mills (both of whom man a wide array of exotic instruments) are fellow masters of find-the-right-notes-over-flash, including drummer Chris Dave; Sam Gendel on tenor and bass saxophones, Poly-Sax, and effects; Marcus Strickland on saxophone and bass clarinet, Jacques Schwarz Bart on saxophones; keyboardist Larry Goldings; and violinists Rob Moose and Andrew Bird.
For those tuned into the low end, Notes is not a bass feature album. Rather it’s rich in bass textures and themes from multiple sources—understandable from a man who has experienced five decades of music making from his vantage point on the bottom. Aware that a solo project was long wished for and much anticipated by his legion of fans, Pino was more than happy to indulge our many questions.
What led you to want to do a solo record?
It’s something that has been on my radar for a long time. It started back in the ’80s. I had a brief meeting with Muff Winwood [bassist for the Spencer Davis group and brother of Steve Winwood], who was then head of A&R at CBS. We talked about an instrumental album, but nothing materialized. I guess his idea was for me to cover classic tunes with fretless melodies, and at the time it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I’ve been fortunate to have stayed busy with touring and recording through my career, so I kept putting it off. Recently it just felt like the time was right, so I decided to start a record and, with the encouragement and support from so many musicians and artists that I admire, it’s finally come around.
How did you connect with Blake Mills and how did you arrive at calling the record a collaboration with him?
I first met Blake when he called me and Chris Dave to play on John Legend’s album, Darkness and Light [Columbia], in 2016, which he was producing. We had a great time making the record, and we hit it off. Not long after, we did a few small promo shows for John in New York. While there, I booked my friend [D’Angelo engineer) Ben Kane’s studio in Brooklyn for Marcus Strickland to play on what would become “Ekuté.” Then I called Blake and said, “Why don’t you come over and bring your guitar, we’re hanging out.” He showed up and plugged into the desk, and came up with some great ideas, like the crazy fuzz guitar that sounds like a baritone sax through a distortion pedal. That was the first time he heard my music. Later when we were both back in Los Angeles he called me up and asked if I’d opened up the track. I said I hadn’t and he invited me to his studio [Sound City Studios] and we started working on it. That was the starting point. From there on Blake started to produce the record, and even though the music was coming from my original ideas, a very short time into the project it dawned on me that he was bringing so much to the table that it should be a collaboration. We did most of the recording at Blake’s in 2018. I had committed to a John Mayer tour for most of 2019, and then the virus kicked in, so we didn’t get to finish and release the record until now.
What makes you guys click together?
I think it’s that, although we each have our own reference points in music, when we work together, we seem to hear things the same way with regard to rhythm and harmony. This is especially helpful when what you’re going for can sometimes be difficult to put into words. We’re both determined and ambitious, and we enjoy the experimental side of the recording process. I feel extremely fortunate to have had a producer like Blake, and to have had access to the facilities of a studio like Sound City.
Was it determined that this was going be an instrumental record?
Eventually. The record seemed to decide its own destiny as we went along because at various points we discussed the possibility of having some spoken word poetry, or rapping, or vocals of some kind. But we kept working on the music and eventually we reached a point where it seemed that it truly should be an instrumental album. I thought it would be interesting and somewhat special to have an instrumental record that didn’t focus on virtuoso performances or a starring role by any one instrument. It’s simply all about the music. And with no lyrics or singing you can allow the music to just wash over you; it will take you wherever your imagination wants to go.
“Just Wrong” is the opening track and your first single.
That started with me and Chris jamming at my home studio in London. I’d been talking to Chris about the way you can play with rhythm and make it sound like you’re slowing down, even though it’s still in time. Like you can be playing in 4/4 and you and the drummer can phrase a lick around a triplet feel. So it might sound to the listener like you’re slowing down or going out of time completely but actually there is a pulse. Out of that conversation, Chris created this amazing groove and I started playing along. A few weeks later I revisited it and came up with the opening chord sequence, which kind of shifts key centers. I played it for Blake and he referenced Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds [Capitol, 1966], which I found surprising but I took it as a huge compliment. For me, that opened up other possibilities in terms of instrumentation and arrangement. With Blake, Chris, Larry Goldings, Sam Gendel, and Rob Moose bringing their unique musical voices to the arrangement, the tune really came to life.
A key ingredient here and on several other tracks is the way the horn players swing your melodies.
Yeah, there are three amazing saxophonists on this record. Sam Gendel, who I met through Blake and was not aware of before, is a brilliant multi-intrumentalist based in Los Angeles. Marcus Strickland is an amazing composer, improvisor, and solo artist based in New York. And Jacques [Schwarz-Bart] and I go back to the Soultronics wth D’Angelo. They’re all well-versed in the history of jazz, and their swing is equally informed by the way Duke Ellington’s sections phrased, but also the more modern, laid back phrasing by Roy Hargrove with D’Angelo. You can feel D throughout the record because he had such a big impact on me.
“Soundwalk” has a D’Angelo vibe.
Actually, that started as a demo while I was on tour with D and the Soultronics in 2000. Me and Jacques got to Chicago before the rest of the band and we were stranded there for three days due to snow, with the gig cancelling. I went to a little music store and bought a hard disk recorder to have something to work with, and I came up with this groove, playing my ’61 P-Bass and guitar to a drum machine. Jacques dug it, and at a later date overdubbed himself using that same Roy Hargrove-meets-Ellington horn section approach. When I revisited it with this album in mind, I didn’t like the sound of the drum machine, and all I had was an MP3 of it. One day I got to Blake’s studio and he had a friend showing him some new software that could take out parts of a recording by being clever with the frequencies. We put up the MP3 we were able to isolate Jacques’ horns. But occasionally we would hear residue from the original bass and guitar parts, which had a unique affect on the groove; they didn’t even sound like the same instruments because of way they were being processed. So we left some of that residue on there. I re-played the bass part and we built the song around that template.
The song introduces another record-wide color that involves the horns: Low reeds, like baritone and bass sax, and bass clarinet playing themes, and in this case doubling your bass line.
I’ve always loved that sound: bass doubed by baritone sax or bass clarinet or trombone, where you get that slight natural chorus between the two. Here we took some of Jacques’ horn lines to create a B section and the bass-and-horn riff at the end. For the re-played bass part, including the walking line before the riff and the riff itself, I used a ’60s Teisco bass that I got from my friend Ken, who has Doggie’s Guitars in Japan. It has cool, unusual pearl inlays on the fingerboard, the original flatwound strings, and a super-loud P-Bass-like neck pickup. I got hold of an old Guild pickup, so I asked Reuben Cox at Old Style Guitar Shop in Los Angeles to put it in the bridge position, to get more definition.
The aforementioned “Ekuté” is rooted in Afrobeat but stretches further.
That goes back to 2000, when I got to record with D’Angelo and Fela Kuti’s son Femi Kuti for a track on an aids charity record [“Water No Get Enemy” from Red Hot + Riot: The Music and Spirit of Fela Kuti, MCA, 2002]. It was such a wonderful, uplifting experience, with half of Femi’s band and half of D’s band, along with Nile Rodgers and Macy Grey. I remember leaving Electric Lady Studios afterward and thinking I’d love to play more music like that. Many years later, I had written a tune in my home studio that was inspired by Fela and Tony Allen, which started with the harmonized spanish guitar lines you hear on the track. Chris [Dave] came over and we played to that two-bar phrase, with me on my ’61 P-Bass and Chris on a small, Manu Katché kit. At a later date, Blake added guitars, Marcus added bass clarinet and sax, and Andrew Bird added violin.
The title track, “Notes with Attachments,” has an orchestral feeling.
That was an idea from Larry Goldings. He was recording with us and one day he came in and said, “I don’t know if you guys are looking for contributions, but I have a few ideas.” We listened to a selection of short, inprovised ideas and “Notes” was the one that jumped out to us. We got the music from Larry as MIDI info and we used some different synth sounds, and wrote to Larry’s idea, adding melodies on my fretless Music Man. Then Sam came in and played some of the melodic lines on sax with his unique approach. The lack of a tempo and all of the sustained notes give it the orchestral vibe. By the way, we didn’t have a title for the album until a few months ago. Blake, my wife Maz, and I were talking about an album title and she said, “Notes with attachements.” We loved it!
What’s the story behind “Djurkel?”
I’m not sure if the spelling is correct, but it’s the name of a one-string instrument I saw when I was lucky enough to go to West Africa in the ’90s. I wondered if it could be part of the history of one of my favorite sounds: the single-note funk guitar line. I was obessesed with the instrument but I’ve not managed to find one. So I had an idea to try to recreate the sound on an old Magnatone bass. My friend Andy Taub at Brooklyn Recording Studios had found one for me a few years back. I put a capo on it to get in the same range as the djurkel, and I made loop of two rhythmic parts and a melody part. I played it for Blake and we used the loop as the starting point for the song. As we were working on it, a melody came to me and I put it down with a guitar synth. That was the source for the song, along with me playing the djurkel melody on the Magnatone. For the bridge, Blake took a bass line idea that we had used on an earlier version and we had everyone play it in unison. At the end, Sam takes off, as Chris’s kit sets up a different feel going out.
Let’s get into “Chris Dave,” starting with the title and including your slapping later in the track.
That came from an old demo Chris and I did. I played it for Blake and we began working on it. At one point, I was on a conference call with Blake and Sam, and we realized we needed some titles for the songs. Referring to this track, I said, “That rhythm comes from the mind of Chris Dave,” which we liked but we ended up shortening it to just, “Chris Dave.” The slapping was Blake’s idea. He said, “Do you ever, like, slap the bass?” I said. “It’s been awhile, but let’s try it!” I was using the Teisco bass on the track, so I thought, I wonder what this bass sounds like slapped? It has the original flatwound strings on it, so the slap sound is pretty poor by today’s standards, but the twisted side of my personality liked that. It was a bit of a beast to play but we persevered.
Amid the key relationships you have a with a number of top drummers, what makes Chris stand out?
Chris is amazing; he thinks outside the box as a default. At any given time he’s able to come up with something highly creative and unique, whether it’s a drum beat or a musical line. He can instinctively tune into a track and define the feel effortlessly; and he always has great drum sounds. That’s the artistic side of his personality. As a drummer, when he hits that beat it’s no joke; it’s downright vindictive! And he has a ridiculous pocket. I feel totally at ease locking with him and I feel lucky to get to play with him.
“Man from Molise” is perhaps the most melodically developed track.
Yeah, that’s one of my favorite tunes on the record. It came from a piece I wrote in 2010 and later recorded in New York with some great international musicians. I was listening to a lot of Hermeto Pascoal and his bass player Itiberê Zwarg at the time, and I was inspired to try to write something with a Brazilian/Afro-Cuban vibe. The original has an uptempo feel in seven. I played it for Blake and he said, “It sounds great; how about we slow it down?” I thought he meant a few clicks but he meant half-speed, so I said, “Let’s try it.” I got the original stems from Ben Kane and me and Blake began to mess with it. The sound degradation at half-speed was extreme, but it was inspiring because of the way the lines were swinging at that tempo. The original tune was long, with bridges and transitions, and virtuoso performances, but at half speed it was way too long! So we cut it down to just two sections, put the melody on my Music Man fretless, and it grew from there. Blake played a tres part, Sam worked his horn and pedal magic. The bass part for the second section is inspired by Cachao. I wanted to find a repeated line that was in one key but that allowed us to have some different harmony on top of it. The title refers to my dad, who was from the Italian province of Molise.
“Off the Cuff” has an interesting meter and what sound like bass chords, with a false harmonics line midway through.
Once again, that started with me and Chris trying ideas out in my London home studio. At that point we were about to do a gig at Ronnie Scott’s as Pino & Friends, and this was one of the tunes we came up with to play. Chris said, “I’m gonna put down this drum beat, just play along.” The meter is bascially 4 and 3, or 8 and 6 if you’re in double time. As for the bass chords, I’m only playing a bass line with occasional tenths, on my pink ’63 P-Bass, but Blake is playing baritone guitar, so it has that low-end chordal sound. I came up with the false harmonics melody later, while listening to the track. I sent it to Blake and asked if he could add it in, which he did, but he kind of chopped it up in a cool way.
What plans do you have for the record going forward, with touring not fully back in the picture?
Like most performers in these times of Covid, we’re all trying to figure that out. We’ve been releasing YouTube performances of the songs at Blake’s studio, and you can hear how the music has already developed and grown. In terms of content to go along with the record, Blake introduced me to a brilliant artist and cinematographer named Justin Daashuur Hopkins; he’s doing some visualizations for the songs that are simply amazing! As for shows, I’m not sure I see us on a bus slogging around, but spot dates or festivals would be cool. Thinking big, I imagine me, Blake, and Sam in an orchestral setting. It would be awesome to have the music realized on that scale. For now, I’m very happy with how the record turned out. The whole process has been a beautiful ride. Even though it took me a long time, it was worth the wait.
What else do you have going on?
Well, I’m always working on my own music, and I’ve been doing remote sessions from home. I recently played on a tune for [Snarky Puppy keyboardist] Bobby Sparks, and I had fun with it! We’re lucky technology has enabled us to do remote sessions, but I miss the interaction; it can be difficult to work on your own. The scariest part is the delete button. I’m looking at it right now. Like a lot of musicians, I’m hard on myself. What I need is someone here with me to be able to say, “You’ve got it down, you only messed up one bit. Why don’t we just fix it?” But on my own that delete button is screaming at me, it’s flashing, and I go, Bang!, and the take is gone! Of course, you can keep all of your takes, but then you can have too many options. It can be difficult to judge a performance without some kind of interaction or feedback. That said, working from home and being able to try out ideas on a song without the studio clock ticking away is a luxury that I appreciate.
With Pino Palladino shying away from major interviews over the past eight years—“I’ve gotten enough publicity; I just wanted to move out of the way because there are some great young players out there.”—we thought we’d ask about some key and recent projects during that time. We began with a deep dive into his Nine Inch Nails experience:
How did your Nine Inch Nails stint come together?
Trent Reznor sent me an email out of the blue in 2012, introducing himself and asking if I’d be open to some sort of collaboration. I was in the middle of D’Angelo’s comeback tour, so we arranged to chat when I got back. I went to the Village Studios in West Los Angeles and spent the day with Trent and his creative partner Atticus Russ, and we hit it off straightaway. Basically, they wanted me to bring my vibe to the record they were working on, Hesitation Marks [Universal, 2013]. They mentioned being fans of D’s album, Voodoo [Virgin, 2000]. So I came in with my ’61 P-Bass and I played on four songs, doing maybe two takes on each. They said they’d be in touch. Awhile after, I was in Italy recording with an Italian artist and my manager called to say Trent needed to know pretty quickly if I’d consider going on tour with them, as they were already rehearsing. Similar to my experience with the Who, I didn’t know all of their music, but I enjoyed working with Trent, and I agreed to do the tour. Two days later I flew to Los Angeles to join rehearsals.
What was that like?
Well, what I didn’t realize was how much music there was to learn in a short period of time. The band, which was incredible, had been rehearsing for months and they had it down. So it was about me fitting in, which was very challenging given the time frame. I was staying up till 5AM shedding tunes, and waking up at 9AM to get to rehearsal. Trent would ask, “Pino, do you need to do that song again? And I’d look around at the band and think, I can’t put them through this again!
Your role seemed to evolve as the tour went on.
Trent oversees all aspects of the show, from the music and sound to the staging and lighting, and he’s always looking for ways to improve it. During soundchecks we would work on some of the songs and he began to encourage me to experiment. One day he said to me, “Your old buddy is coming to open for us.” I asked him who and he said, “Gary Numan.” I didn’t know Trent was big Gary fan. Gary did some shows with us and Trent invited him onstage in our set, and he asked me what Gary song I wanted to play. We discussed it and we chose “We Take Mystery to Bed,” a fretless track from Gary’s album, I, Assassin [Beggars Banquet, 1982].
So that was a major night for me, having my career come full circle with Gary, who started me off on my fretless path.
From that show on, Trent had some ideas for other songs. He’d say, “You know that approach you took with Gary? How about bringing that to our songs?” And “Sanctified” became the realization of that.
To be honest, I think some of the hardcore Nails fans were not ready for that tour. There were a lot of, “What is Trent doing?” comments. The funniest one aimed at me was, “I didn’t realize I was going to watch Jeff Goldblum play with NIN!”
I was going to be in New York City, so I told Ahmir [Questlove] and he said, “Really? We need you to come down.” We recorded in the Roots’ small Tonight Show hang room up at NBC. It was Elvis, Ahmir, myself, James Poyser, and Ray Angry. We recorded the tunes over a few days, whenever the room was free, incuding a track with both Elvis and myself on bass.
Blake [Mills] was hired as producer, with the idea of moving slightly away from a standard John Legend R&B album, and he called me and Chris Dave to play on some tracks. It was a very interesting project because there was a lot of room for experimentation. I was using different effects and going for a synth approach on some of the songs. I remember at one point I had a pedal where I would play one note and it would trigger eighth-notes. John was masterful, singing everything in one take. It was Blake’s idea to feature my fretless bass on “Surefire.”
He’s a badass bass player himself, which keeps me on my game.
That came through my daughter, Fabiana, who is a singer-songwriter. Someone reached out to her and said that Benny Blanco, the hugely successful pop producer, was looking for my number. When I got back to him and Ed they were on the QE2 working on the songs, while sailing back to the UK. Benny said, “We’ll be in England in a week and we’d love you to come in and play on a few of these songs.” I went up to Ed’s place, stayed in a little country hotel, and did one day of recording. They said, “You know what you’re doing,” and they left me and the engineer and came back periodically to listen. Cool vibes and it was easy to fit into the songs.
We spent a good bit of time at EastWest Studios in Hollywood learning John’s songs and getting them to a place where he was happy and the music felt good. It’s always very comfortable working with John and Steve Jordan, we have a lot of history now. John crafts his songs to such a degree that you know he’s already thought through a lot of the possibilities. He hears everything, he’s such a great musician. My goal is always to service those great songs as best as I can.
That was through keyboardist/producer Jeff Bhasker, here in Los Angeles. I had done a record with Jeff for Angelique Kidjo [Remain In Light, Kravenworks, 2018]; a great project, West African-flavored covers of Talking Heads tunes. During those sessions Jeff told me he wrote a tune with Katy for her record, and he thought I could add something to it. I listened to it, loved the song, and we cut it.
My manager called to say there was a Canadian artist called Bahamas who wanted me to play on his record. I got a link to the songs and they sounded great, so I signed on. Two months later I turned up at Sunset Sound for the session with a few basses, met Bahamas and his producer, Robbie Lackritz, and I asked if they had a band. They said, “No, but we have a drummer.” I looked into the room and there was James Gadson setting up, and I broke out in a huge smile. Playing with the Maestro is just incredible! We recorded the rhythm tracks as a trio, with Bahamas either singing and playing guitar, or just singing—some tracks with no click. I like the way that record turned out.
That was a fun album of Dylan covers, produced by my rhythm mate Steve Jordan. It was amazing working with someone like Bettye, who has seen and done it all. She told stories about being at Motown, where she was the one who had to go and get James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin from out back to come in and record. She said to me, “Pino, I like playing with you ’cause I know you got my back.”
Keith reached out to me, I think John [Mayer] had given him my number, and he said “I’d love for you to come down to Nashville to play on some of these songs.” It was first-class all the way, with Matt Chamberlain on drums and Dan Huff producing some of it. Keith is so great at what he does, and once again it was a case of the artist not wanting me to reinvent the wheel. It’s all about hearing and playing the music, and adding something to it—giving it a human feel.
Don Was called me up and said, “We’re going to do a cover album of Bill Withers songs with José at Capitol Studios.” Now how are you gonna turn that down? That was my first time playing with Nate Smith, who is a fantastic drummer. It was a bit tricky for me because I’m such a big Bill Withers fan and I knew the original recordings. I thought, there’s no way I could improve on these, so I pretty much just tried to cop those original, perfectly-composed and played bass lines by Melvin Dunlap. The project was about José putting his stamp on the music rather than the musicians trying to do updated versions of what are timeless, classic tracks.
We cut that at The Village Studios in West Los Angeles. Robbie reached out and invited me to the studio, along with Chris Dave. Robbie is legend and his ears and instincts in the studio are incredible. It was a lot of fun working with him and Chris together.
That came out of the blue, his manager called my manager. I was in London at the time and I went to the studio to meet Rex and his producer/engineer Ben Baptie, and record a song for the album. In 2020, Rex approached me to do a three-song video with him, as a duo. I like some of the classic moves in his songwriting, so I said, “Let’s do it.” I try to keep my ears open to new songwriters. It was a fun day recording the video live, with just the two of us and a drum machine.
Bass With Attachments
Pino Palladino’s basses are the key to the mystery and melodicism of Notes with Attachments, providing deep grooves, memorable themes, and a wash of less discernable sonic colors, all in service of the music. Palladino played his flatwound-strung ’61 and ’63 Fender Precision Basses, his famed fretless ’79 Music Man StingRay, and vintage ’60s Magnatone and Teisco basses, all recorded direct through a copy of a Telefunken V71 preamp at his London home studio, and various ways at Blake Mills’ Sound City Studios in Los Angeles. His ever-present Boss OC-2 Octave was his lone effects pedal, save some of Mills’ device magic.
Ex. 1 shows the opening bass line of “Just Wrong” at :19. Pino played what’s credited as a “semi-acoustic bass,” using both finger plucks and palm mute with thumb and index plucks. He slyly offers, “I could tell everyone what bass I used but then I’d have to kill them all.” He continues, “Over the years I haven’t liked to hear myself with that kind of tone; with all the exposed finger noise—but it’s honest.” The track also has some natural harmonics melodies played on his fretless Music Man.
Ex. 2 contains the main bass grove of the Afrobeat-induced “Ekuté,” first heard at 1:03. Pino played his ’61 Precision, using both finger plucks and palm mute with thumb and index plucks. Of his love of Afrobeat, he notes, “It’s that same thing you hear when you listen to James Brown’s bands: Everybody plays their role for the greater good. Some of my favorite parts of Afrobeat and James Brown songs are in-between verses, where it’s just the rhythm section, and the lock is so tight and nasty. Whatever magic is going on there is more than the sum of its parts.”
Ex. 3 has the opening melody of “Djurkel” at :12, for which Pino finger plucked his Magnatone bass with a capo at the 11th fret, to capture the sound of the song title’s West African one-string instrument. The notation is shown for standard bass in the same range as the track, and it’s written in a double-time meter (as opposed to the track’s half-time feel).
Ex. 4a shows the opening fretless melody of “Man from Molise” at :26, for which Pino mainly used finger plucks. Because the melodic line flows so well, the alternating 4/4 and 3/4 meters are barely noticeable. A more musical approach is to think of it as two four-bar phrases (measures 1-3 and 5-8) and a two-bar phrase (measures 9 and 10 plus the 8th-note pickup to 9).
Ex. 4b contains the B section, Cachao-inspired, bass line from “Molise” at 1:37, which Pino played using both finger plucks and palm mute with (mostly) thumb plucks. Listen for the wide range of different harmonies the rest of the band plays against the C-based ostinato, both on the record and the YouTube studio performance.