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From his long-term gig as Eric Clapton's bass man to his cornerstone role in the super-group Fourplay—featuring Bob James, Harvey Mason, and Larry Carlton (Lee Ritenour in its earlier incarnations)—Nathan East has proven himself one of his generation's most versatile, powerful, and subtle masters of the bass. He's played and written with the likes of Elton John, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Quincy Jones, Barry White, Al Jarreau, Lionel Richie, and Phil Collins, to name just a few. East has developed his own signature series bass with Yamaha, and has won Most Valuable Player (Bass Category) in the International Rock awards. He also won Bassist of the Year three times in the National Smooth Jazz Awards. Musician's Friend spoke with East just after the completion of his latest album with Fourplay and prior to his departure for a European tour with Eric Clapton.
Musician's Friend: How old were you when you seriously picked up your first instrument, and what instrument did you start with?
Nathan East: When I was 14 I seriously picked up the bass. But three years prior to that I picked up the cello in junior high school and played that in the orchestra. That was great. Then I got into high school and I used to listen to the stage band practice and my ear would go to the bass. One of my brothers played guitar and one sang. We'd go to the folk masses way back in the '70s. When those started up I tagged along with them at a rehearsal and there was a bass just sitting on the altar. Nobody was playing it. I picked it up and joined in. It was almost like I knew how to play it without even knowing.
MF: You didn't have any real music education at that point.
NE: No, it was all feel.
MF: When you got into bass did you join any bands?
NE: Yeah, at that point I joined some local bands. I played in stage band in school and as many bands as I could get my hands on outside of school.
MF: Did you start playing the clubs?
NE: Yeah, there was a band called Power. We used to play in clubs and the whole circuit around San Diego—school dances, parties. We played a combination of everything, rock and roll, Santana, Kool and the Gang, Earth Wind and Fire, we did A to Z.
MF: Were you singing at that time?
NE: Singing, too. Not the lead, but on all those group tunes we all sang along.
MF: At what point did you get your first major gig?
NE: Our band opened up for Stax festival in San Diego. Barry White heard us and immediately hired us to go on tour with him. So when I was 16 and 17 I toured the country with Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra. We played the Apollo Theater, Madison Square Garden, and all around the country. A few years later I went into the studio with Barry White and recorded a lot of those records.
MF: So you're on a lot of Barry White albums.
NE: A lot of Barry White albums. But you wouldn't know it because he didn't put the names of the musicians on any of his records because he didn't want anybody to steal his sound.
MF: Every time I turn on the tube it seems like I see you with a different band. You play with a huge number of major acts.
NE: Yeah, that's a dream I had many years ago—to be the favorite bass player for many people. So in a way it came true and I've had a chance to. Even when I was in college John McLaughlin called me on the recommendation of Billy Cobham to go on tour with him and I opted to finish college. So I just missed that one. But after that I did get many calls. Kenny Loggins, who I toured with, Al Jarreau, who I toured with, Joe Sample, and then of course Phil Collins and Eric.
MF: I talked to Joe Satriani recently. He said you played with him a little, too.
NE: I played with Joe and we recorded a record together. He was good fun. We played a concert at the Guitar Legends Festival in Spain a few years ago. That was great to play with him and Steve Vai and a bunch of those guys.
MF: Eric Clapton is making a new album paying tribute to his long-time blues hero Robert Johnson. That's sounds pretty exciting. I was wondering how you prepared for that recording session.
NE: Actually I just paid attention to some Robert Johnson material. There's a CD that has all 29 of his songs. I have that. There was no sit-down preparation. I just kind of got in the spirit of the genre and of his genius.
MF: He was pretty much solo guitar.
NE: Pretty much solo guitar, so it's kind of like trying to figure out whether you're going to have bass or just do what he did or combinations of the two. Come up with a part as if you were going to play with him. The bass role is kind of interesting in a project like that.
MF: What was the creative process like once you got together with Eric?
NE: We listened again and then we'd just take the tunes out on the floor, say "OK, where do we go? Do we stick close to him? Do we do something different? Do we try to add our own voices and arrangements?" We pretty much would start with the way he did the song and see how that came out and then go from there.
MF: Did you, like, play it a handful of times and just let it evolve?
NE: Exactly. Just play it over till it starts to sound like we own it.
MF: Was that the whole band, or just you and Eric?
NE: Pretty much with the whole band. But it depends on the particular song. Sometimes it was more scaled down. It might just be guitar and bass or two guitars and bass.
MF: And when that was happening did you have the whole band there?
NE: It varied. Sometimes the whole band. We did the record in England, so everybody was flown in. And you were around so it just depended who was called upon at the moment.
MF: Once you got the core tracks down did you wait until quite a bit later to bring in the backups and the fill?
NE: Yeah, pretty much.
MF: You've been touring with Eric for over 15 years.
NE: Yeah, it's actually going on 20 now.
MF: How did you first meet him?
NE: We met up in a couple of different circumstances. The first time meeting him was when I was in England with Phil Collins recording Philip Bailey's record. Phil was working on a record for Eric at that time called Behind the Sun. So we went by and met him there. Then I was reintroduced to him when I played on that record. We also met up at LiveAid when I was playing with Kenny Loggins. Eric came over and said, "Oh, man, sounds great! Let's hang out." We hung out, and it was really great. He approached me and wanted to hook up.
MF: Is there any memory that really stands out above the others from all the years with Eric Clapton?
NE: There are many, many, many great ones. Obviously, the tour with George Harrison was one of those special, magical ones. Most of the music throughout those years was just a joy to make. The tragic one was the helicopter experience with Stevie Ray Vaughan, having flown with that pilot and done two or three rides on that particular helicopter. That's one you don't forget too soon. We played that night with Stevie Ray and Robert Cray. I'll never forget that night.
A lot of times you look up and here's another legend coming to the stage to join. We played at the Albert Hall for the queen. Been around Japan a handful of times, and around the world several times.
MF: You mentioned Stevie Ray. What was the effect of Stevie Ray and Clapton together?
NE: The effect was two guys playing their hearts out.
MF: Did they drive each other?
NE: Oh yeah. There was a lot of eye contact, a lot of back and forth, inspiration, dialog, conversation.
MF: That must have been amazing playing with George Harrison on his last tour.
NE: Yeah, that was the last tour. He was like family after that. We really were close. I spoke to his wife the other day. It was his birthday a couple of days ago. She was in India playing
The Concert for George for about 30,000 people there. We had been to his house. My folks had met him and been to his house in England. He was one of the most gracious, kind, and great human beings you'd ever want to meet. He was a Beatle [laughs]. He's an icon.
MF: He was a really great songwriter, which wasn't recognized for a long time.
NE: Yeah, you realize his contribution when you're on tour with him and you hear all these great tunes in a row.
MF: How did your band, Fourplay, come into being?
NE: We founded the band back in '90 in the studio while working with Bob James. He basically said, "Since we're having so much fun, wouldn't this be a fun band?!" So we all agreed and took it to the next level.
MF: What's the creative process like with Fourplay?
NE: It's a very interesting creative process. It's keeps changing and evolving. We really enjoy playing with each other.
MF: Writing songs, do you all come in with ideas or do you just let it happen in the studio?
NE: A little bit of both. Even on this project, the first day Bob was fooling around with an idea and we jumped in there and said, "Hey, what's that?" Then he wrote a song right on the spot. Or we come in with an idea, a germ, and we all work on it. It's never the same. It's completely creative and interesting and imaginative.
MF: That's because of the level of the musicianship, right? Everybody in the band is a monster in their own right.
NE: [Laughs] There's a little bit of experience between the four guys.
MF: In most of the other bands you play with, you're working in a supportive role as a side man. How is it different playing with Fourplay, in which you're in a much more central and driving position?
NE: Fourplay is a very creative outlet for me because I do get to step up to the front and be a little bit of a spokesperson, a little bit of a voice for the group. It's really different because I really get to express my own voice. But one of the great things about playing with Eric is, for example, in the tour of Japan we did a song called "Can't Find My Way Home,"—a Blind Faith song—and he asked me to sing it. So I actually got a whole song to sing in the show. I'm very grateful for all the wonderful musical opportunities I've been given.
MF: You have an incredibly demanding schedule. How do you maintain such a positive attitude? In all the times I've talked to you, you're always upbeat.
NE: [Laughs] I love my life. I don't really have room for the negativity to enter. I don't allow it, like so many people do. When I see that, it makes me even more conscious about staying up. 'Cause one of these days we get to be out of here. I really appreciate what I've got. I'm thankful for the opportunities, and for my family. I would say that I have a charmed life and if I had to come back it would definitely be as me again [laughs].
MF: That's great. Not many people feel that way.
NE: I feel very blessed and I figure if you get something you've got to give it back out. It's like a circle. But I think the world is full of both—It's like the positive and the negative ends of the battery.
MF: It must be a real balancing act with your tight schedule and your family and your business. How does that work for you? Is it hard?
NE: It's like spinning plates [laughs]. Each one of them get 150% of enthusiasm. You just have to really prioritize your time. You give what you can to each situation when you're with them. And family moved right up into my favorite spot to be in. So now it's kind of balancing. I guess I could retire but I think I'm still needed out here for a little bit [laughs].
I absolutely adore my family. I'm almost in denial about leaving tomorrow because it's just so hard. It's even hard when I'm in town just to go across town to the studio cause I say goodbye in the morning and they're in bed when I come home at all hours of the night. Everybody's in bed. But the good news is that we do have a great life and you've got to make hay while the sun is shining, like they say. But I'm so fortunate to have these opportunities in front of me. I'm charmed.
MF: But you have them because you wanted them real bad and then you made them happen.
NE: Yeah, desire is the first seed that gets planted. But you have to have a little luck in there, too. Then obviously some skill and work ethic and vision. You put all those together.
MF: Can you name three or four of your favorite songs that you've written or that Fourplay has performed and tell us why they're your favorites?
NE: One of the first things that I came up with, with my brother Marcel, was "101 Eastbound" on the very first record. That just turned out to be a fun song to play. It had a lot of high energy and featured everybody. And we've just recorded a couple more for the new record. I just love the contribution that this band makes to any music. When you're a song writer and you bring a song and the guys that are playing it are Bob James, Larry Carlton, and Harvey Mason, it's kind of hard to lose [laughs].
MF: You do have a new Fourplay recording. Is it titled?
NE: It's not titled yet. But we're just wrapping up all the bits and pieces. We have about 10 pieces of music just about ready to go. We're looking at June or July for release. [The album has since been titled Journey. Check www.fourplayjazz.com for the release date.] By this time next week the record will be done.
MF: What's the plan for touring and supporting it?
NE: We've got some dates booked. It's yet to be announced, but there is an impending Fourplay tour.
MF: How did your Business of Bass DVD project get started?
NE: A lot of people had asked for lessons, and I get asked to do clinics. So I thought this could be a way to answer with a video all the questions that I get asked in clinics and on the street. Then I thought it would make it more interesting if we asked not only me but top producers and artists what they think the role of a bass should be. We had some really great contributions and participation from people like Clapton and Phil Collins and Quincy Jones, David Foster, Babyface, and a lot of the people that I've worked with that I respect. It's not just for bass players. It's for musicians. But since I'm connected to the bass we made it a focal point. We just signed the contract, so this thing should be on the street any minute, now.
MF: It always takes longer than you expect.
NE: For some reason it always takes longer and especially when you want to do it right.
MF: We've been really excited about it from the beginning. There's so much wisdom and so much inspiration in it. How do you see it as a tool for musicians?
NE: I see it as a guide. Hopefully I'm representing what young musicians often want to do. People are always asking, "How do I get into the business? I want to do what you do." So hopefully this will be a model for students and young musicians that want to get into the business. You get to see what the real guys do. We take them in the studio and do a session. We take them on the road. It's a little guidance and coaching while they're trying to come up through the ranks. When I was 14, I would love to have been able to pick the brains of my favorite musicians and producers. We try to explain that there's a lot involved. It doesn't work to just be some guy in the bedroom that has more chops than anybody else. There's a lot of guys with chops that will be great at the NAMM show. But in a real working situation it's a different story.
MF: So you're headed off with Eric tomorrow. How long are you going to be in England?
NE: Three weeks in London to rehearse and our first date's in Barcelona. Then it's all around Europe and we'll finish up at the Albert Hall in London. Then we'll have a U.S. tour in the summer.
MF: I sure appreciate you taking the time to do this with us, Nathan. We wish you the best on your tour over there.
NE: It was my pleasure, you look after yourself.