Tony Garnier: The Song Whisperer

May 7, 2015

THE ACOUSTIC BASS IS ENJOYING A LARGER role in popular music than at any time since the birth of its younger brother, the bass guitar. The hybridization of such styles as bluegrass and swing into the mainstream, coupled with players of diverse backgrounds, have set the stage for a pop upright hero to one day rival the legends of the classical and jazz worlds. Except that the archetype already exists: Tony Garnier has been doling out deep end on his doghouse for chart-toppers since his early-’70s stint with Asleep At The Wheel. Most notably along the way, he has become a keen interpreter of song for Bob Dylan. Indeed, 38 bassists appeared on Dylan albums before Tony came onboard; in the 25 years since, no others have. Garnier has a gift for putting emotional weight into each note he plays, while seemingly drawing his bass lines from the same muse that inspired the songs he’s supporting—listen to Dylan’s “Cold Irons Bound” or Lucinda Williams’ “Lonely Girls.” A true root renaissance man, Tony is a walking textbook of bass history and methodology, whose passion extends beyond four strings. He’s also an amateur pugilist, an avid motorcyclist, and an aficionado of the culinary arts—his gumbo recipe appeared in the New York Times.

Tony Garnier was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on May 10, 1955, to a musical family. His mom taught piano and played organ in church, while his dad, a carpenter, sang in local opera and musicals, and his grandfather, trumpeter Papa Garnier, led the Camelia Brass Band in New Orleans and taught a young Louis Armstrong. Along with his seven siblings—including his brother, noted Creole fiddler D’Jalma—Tony was given music lessons early on, choosing clarinet at age eight. Two years later the family moved to Southern California, and Tony took up guitar, only to be coaxed by his brother to switch to a Gibson Kalamazoo KB bass guitar when he was 12. Soon after, his mother got him a plywood Epiphone upright, and his junior high school music teacher showed him how to hold a bow and read bass clef.

Eager to play, Garnier immersed himself in rock cover bands, jazz and Latin big bands, musical-theater pit bands, and bluegrass and jug bands, while gathering such disparate influences as Ray Brown, Israel Crosby, Rick Danko, James Jamerson, Bob Moore, and Roger Bush—the first person he saw slap on an upright. Moving to the Bay Area to attend U.C. Berkeley as a poly sci major, he was soon gigging so much that his grades lagged. He studied with Ron McClure, who turned him onto the Simandl method and got his fingering and technique together. After opening for Asleep At The Wheel with a bluegrass band, he bought and wore out the group’s debut album, only to find out a few months later that they needed a bassist. Although he was “a little weak on country shuffles” at his audition, the group decided to teach him on the tour bus, and he left school to pursue his musical dreams.

In 1974, Asleep relocated to Austin, Texas, where Garnier recorded four albums with the band and got to play with such local legends as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Ernest Tubb. But the lure of jazz remained strong, and when the band visited New York City, Tony would jam in jazz clubs and take lessons with the likes of Michael Moore, Dave Holland, Cecil McBee, and George Mraz. He laughs, “My mom, who was still in L.A., managed to get me a lesson with Ray Brown. He listened to me on Asleep records and said, ‘You sound good, but you need to understand changes a little better,’ so the whole lesson was him sitting at the piano showing me the bebop chord cycles and passing and altered chords Dizzy Gillespie had shown him when he hit the scene—a revelation for me.” In late 1978, Tony made the move to New York to concentrate on jazz, gigging with Willis Jackson and gaining valuable experience playing with Mary Lou Williams. His education in rock & roll would quickly follow when Bruce Springsteen’s bassist, Gary Tallent, recommended him to play rockabilly slap bass with Robert Gordon and guitarist Chris Spedding, opening a whole new set of doors and grooves.

In addition to multiple albums and shows with Gordon, Garnier joined John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards and Buster Poindexter’s Banshees Of Blue for live and vinyl stints. He recorded with Marshall Crenshaw and Tom Waits, and landed jingle and soundtrack work, as the electric bass became more prominent than ever in his workload. Regularly manning the bass chair at legendary venues The Lone Star and Tramps, he anchored everyone from Dr. John to Chuck Berry. “I asked Chuck how he liked to hear the bass. He preferred broken eighth-notes on the root, as opposed to a moving pattern of steady eighths.” He also subbed for T-Bone Wolk on Saturday Night Live for three years, where he met guitarist G.E. Smith and drummer Chris Parker, who were in Bob Dylan’s band. In 1989, Dylan bassist Kenny Aaronson had to take a medical leave. Garnier was flown to Europe to fill in for six weeks, ended up finishing out the year, and has remained ever since. When Smith departed two years later, Tony stepped into the bandleader role—“making sure the songs start and end where they’re supposed to.” His tenure with the Voice of a Generation is where we began our detailed discussion.

When did you first play upright with Bob, and how do you decide between upright or electric on his songs?

About a year into my tenure, G.E. Smith and Bob were doing three or four acoustic duo songs in the middle of the show; I asked if I could add upright, and it grew from there. I’d say it’s about 50/50 now, or maybe a bit more electric. In addition to my single-cutaway Warwick Star Bass—which is one of my favorite electric basses I’ve ever played with Bob—I’ve been playing some Fender VI “tictac” bass. I use a medium pick, usually muting the strings with my palm, and it really cuts in a big room. Generally, I make a decision and if Bob wants something else, he’ll say so. With the songs I’ve recorded since I’ve been in the band, I basically stay the same way on tour, although I cut “Thunder on the Mountain” [2006, Modern Times] on upright, and live, it seems to work better on electric.

How would you describe the bass role in Bob’s band?

Simplicity works best. Complicated bass lines can be distracting. You don’t want to disrupt the song; you want to help it along. What I’m all about is trying to add some movement in between the vocal or the verses, but not sound like I’m just filling. I’m looking to provide subtle forward motion, as opposed to playing a fixed, steady groove—like Bob Moore on country songs [plays a root–5 pattern in two with an eighth-note push on beat three in the second measure, and then plays a walkup to the next chord]. As with my instrument choice, I’ll come up with my own bass lines, or versions of bass lines from Bob’s earlier songs, and if he wants it different he’ll let me know.

What inspires you when creating parts?

The lyrics and the vocal, as well as what the rest of the band is playing. You have to learn the lyrics to the songs. That will tell you what and how to play, and it makes your job easier because you have a connection; you’re not just playing notes and chords. I’ve always told new guys in the band, “You’re not playing guitar—you’re playing a song.” I know what the songs are about, and that gives me an emotional attachment when I’m coming up with the bass lines. And of course there’s Bob’s interpretation to draw from.

He seems to vary his renditions quite a bit.

Absolutely; the songs are different every night because he never sings them the same way, so we’re not playing them the same way. If he’s phrasing a little differently on a song like “A Simple Twist of Fate,” the bass line I played the night before might not work. He may bunch up some words or draw them out, and it goes beyond that; sometimes he’ll change the chords. Or he’ll sing a different melody for a few nights, or change the lyrics—like on “Tangled Up in Blue,” the lyrics in the show are different from the recorded version. Dynamics are also key, because he may sing a verse at a lower volume. Ultimately, it’s a conversation between everyone onstage. All I have to do is listen and react. It’s actually a lot easier than having to play the same bass lines every night, and it’s much more creative and fun.

What would you say you’ve learned from Bob, playing-wise?

The concepts I’ve learned from him are like what you might learn from Duke Ellington or Miles Davis—ideas that you can use with other artists throughout your career. For example, in Bob’s book Chronicles: Volume One [2004, Simon & Schuster], he speaks about music in terms of numbers and how three and five are interesting choices. Maybe he’ll write a song with three verses and a bridge, or create a melodic line in groupings of five, and the same can apply for bass lines. If I’m stuck, I may apply that, or something like what Rick Danko did on “Chest Fever” [1968, Music from Big Pink], by The Band [plays Danko’s part, which alternates three and four eighth-note phrases].

What was the concept for Dylan’s latest album, Shadows in the Night?

I don’t know anyone who knows as many songs as Bob does—including from the earliest times of man. He wanted to do some of these older standards; I don’t think it was supposed to be a Sinatra tribute, but Frank’s versions of the songs helped guide us. The ballads and torch songs seemed to be a good choice, as opposed to doing an album of Sinatra swing tunes. From there, we needed to make the songs work with our five-piece band [lead guitarist Charlie Sexton, rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball, pedal lap steel/multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron, and drummer George Receli], in lieu of big orchestral arrangements. If you listen to Frank Sinatra with the Red Norvo Quintet: Live in Australia, 1959 [Blue Note] or Sinatra & Sextet: Live in Paris: 1962 [Reprise], you’ll hear that it can be done. We just had to get together and hone our parts, and that’s how we recorded: live in the studio with no overdubs.

What was your bass approach?

I did a lot more bowing than I’ve ever done on record, plus some two-feel pizzicato. With so many long notes to play, I tried to maintain an even sound and smooth shifts in bow directions. I was fortunate to have both of my uprights on the album: one with gut strings for a deep pizzicato sound, and the other with bowing strings. They both sound fantastic because the engineer, Al Schmidt, is one of the all-time greats.

How has your electric bass playing informed your upright approach, and vice versa?

Starting out on both instruments simultaneously, I always tried to play on upright whatever I played on the electric—which included Tower Of Power tunes, because Rocco Prestia was one of my heroes when I lived in the Bay Area. Mainly, it’s been about trying to play R&B on the upright. That was unheard of when I was coming up, save for James Jamerson on tracks like the Supremes’ “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone” [1967, Motown]. Now a lot more players do it, like James Genus and Christian McBride. I got to do it recently with Iron & Wine on a song called “The Desert Babbler” [2013, Ghost on Ghost]; they wanted a Marvin Gaye/“What’s Going On” vibe, and it worked out well. As for the electric, in a way I view it as a separate instrument; I use all four left-hand fingers, and I keep the action high so I can dig in, due to constantly switching with the upright. Given the choice, I tend toward upright, although it’s certainly more physically demanding to play.

How have you dealt with those demands?

I was having back issues about a dozen years ago, and [bassist] Greg Cohen gave me some great advice: He said to keep shifting my weight around while playing. From my earliest lessons with Ron McClure to studying with Stuart Sankey, I had always been taught to keep my left leg forward and lean the bass on it, while putting most of your weight on your right leg. But if you stand on one leg for 40 years, eventually your back is going to go. Gary Peacock has also spoken about this; he says if you feel tension anywhere when you play, you need to address it. Ludwig Streicher is one of my favorite classical players, and I tried his method, where the bass is braced by the bottom of your left foot, but it tore up my ankle after a while.

Another challenge is playing upright at high volume on big stages.

I had always played in loud bands, but I didn’t know about bi-amping until I joined Bob’s band and got a subwoofer from our monitor guy. Not only could I hear myself, I could feel the bass. That led me to some bi-amped systems with a parametric EQ. I would set my crossover around 120Hz, turn up loud, and start rolling off the frequencies that were feeding back. It can also help to use a piece of foam between the tailpiece and the top, for dampening. Having a lot of power and a solid-state preamp is important, both of which I get from my Hellborg system; live, a tube preamp colors the sound too much. The other key is how you play. You have to dig in with both hands and be firm, especially with the left hand, which is how you get notes to project. And you can’t let open strings ring; you have to be muting them at all times. Musically, it requires that you play simpler parts and shorter notes, and not worry about finesse notes, like ghosted pickups. But for me, it’s worth the effort.

You’ve played with a wide range of drummers in your career. Can you share some thoughts?

The upright bass carries the time a little more in swing and jazz, but with rock and R&B, the drums are much more important. I hadn’t played much electric bass until I got to New York, and when I got thrown in with drummers like Steve Ferrone, Chris Parker, and the late Richard Crooks and Yogi Horton, I realized I needed to spend more time on it and listen to the drums differently. It was a little intimidating at first, but it makes your job easier and becomes a pleasure when you play with great drummers. The first world-class drummer I recorded with was Jim Keltner, on a Roy Clark album with Gatemouth Brown. I’ve gotten to play with Steve Gadd, Steve Jordan, Anton Fig, and Shawn Pelton in New York, but I left Texas before I could play with the great drummers there. Our drummer, George [Receli], is as solid as they come, and he has that New Orleans side, which is a whole world unto itself. Basically, playing with a drummer starts with either matching the kick drum or playing off it. I like to look at the drummer and watch his foot. From there, it’s about choosing to lock in tight or to create a push/pull rhythmic tension, where you’re not in perfect time with the drums.

What’s on your horizon?

I’ll be touring with Bob in 2015, and when I’m not on the road I’d like to do some jazz and other gigs. I recently played with the Ebony Hillbillies and a reggae group with Vernon Reid, David Hinds, and other members of Steel Pulse—both on upright, which was fun. I’m a big fan of world music. I did an international festival in Aarhus, Denmark a couple years ago that Greg [Cohen] turned me on to, and it was amazing. I was paired with a pianist from Argentina and a local Danish guitarist, and we backed three singers per night for three nights. That meant learning 75 songs pretty much on the spot, and interpreting the music without understanding most of the lyrics. It was a great challenge, and I hope to do it again this year.

The scene has changed so much over the course of your career. What advice would you offer to young bass players?

The downside is the freelance and recording scenes have taken a big hit, but on the other hand, bass—especially the acoustic bass—seems to be bigger than ever. I highly recommend learning both electric and acoustic bass. On acoustic, that means learning how to bow, which is the only way to truly get your intonation together. I’d also advise getting a home studio and start writing and singing. Whatever it takes—just don’t sacrifice your ideals. It’s very challenging now in the music business, but music is a big part of people’s lives all over the world, and the need for good musicians will always be there. If my two kids want to become musicians, I won’t discourage them if I see they have the passion for it. If that describes you, keep practicing and expanding your musical horizons.

How Does It Feel?

TONY GARNIER’S PERPETUAL study of multiple styles of music, coupled with his long career backing pioneering artists from Austin to Gotham, have considerably sharpened his groove sense. Example 1 recalls Garnier’s upright-slapped solo pickup and basic groove on Asleep At The Wheel’s “My Baby Thinks She’s a Train” [1977, The Wheel]. He pulls the pitched notes with his index finger and slaps the ghosted notes with his open palm against the strings, while muting with his left hand. Tony offers, “A good way to avoid blisters is to use one-inch cloth medical tape. It sounds more like skin than electrical tape, which sounds clicky.” Example 2 echoes Garnier’s most famous Bob Dylan bass line, on “Cold Irons Bound” [1997, Time Out of Mind]. “I was listening to a lot of Family Man Barrett with Bob Marley at the time, and it came out in this line.” Dig how Tony—on his ’72 Rickenbacker 4001—lays back on the half-timeimplying line against the swinging, double-time groove.

Example 3 summons Garnier’s verse ostinato on Buster Poindexter’s cover of “Hot, Hot, Hot” [1987, Buster Poindexter]. “I adapted the part from the bass line on the original version of the song, by Arrow. I played my Spector 4-string and used hard plucking. The key is to stay on top and drive the song.” Finally, Ex. 4 shows the typical verse groove on Iron & Wine’s “Singers and the Endless Song” [2013, Ghost on Ghost], for which Tony teamed with drummer Brian Blade and plucked his ’66 Rickenbacker 4005. Regarding the cool, turned-around feel, Garnier says, “We got a demo with basic bass and drum parts, and we were asked to make it funky and busy. I was inspired by and reacted to Brian’s incredible playing.”

INFO

LISTEN

With Bob Dylan [all on Columbia] Shadows in the Night [2015]; Tempest [2012]; Christmas in the Heart [2009]; Together Through Life [2009]; Modern Times [2006]; Love and Theft [2001]; Time Out of Mind [1997].
With others Asleep At The Wheel, Texas Gold and Collision Course [1975 and 1978, Capitol]; Robert Gordon, Bad Boy [1980, One Way]; Roy Clark, Makin’ Music [1979, One Way]; Marshall Crenshaw, Marshall Crenshaw [1982, Warner Bros.]; Tom Waits, Rain Dogs [1985, Island]; Buster Poindexter, Buster Poindexter [1987, RCA]; John Lurie, Down by Law [1988, Intuition]; Paul Simon, Songs from The Capeman [1997, Warner Bros.]; Manhattan Transfer, Swing [1997, Atlantic]; Brian Setzer, The Dirty Boogie [1998, Interscope]; Peter Wolf, Sleepless [2002, Epic]; Lucinda Williams, Essence [2002, Lost Highway]; The Dixie Hummingbirds, Diamond Jubilation [2003, Rounder]; Buddy Guy, Blues Singer [2003, Jive]; Daniel Lanois, Here Is What It Is [2008, Fontana]; Jeff Golub, Blues for You [2009, Koch]; Iron & Wine, Ghost on Ghost [2013, Nonesuch].

EQUIP

Acoustic basses 2006 Paul Davies e bass with Pirastro Eudoxa Silver/Gut strings; circa-1860 French e Jacquet bass with Pirastro Passione strings; Rodney Mohr German-style bow; Gage Realist LifeLine pickup
Electric basses Warwick Star Bass II SC (single cutaway), Infinity 5-string; ’65 Fender Bass VI; ’59 Hofner 500/5 President Bass; ’72 Rickenbacker 4001; Lakland Decade; fretless Ampeg AMUB-1
Strings DR Strings Legend Flat Wounds, La Bella custom flatwounds (on Fender VI)
Amps Warwick Hellborg Preamp, Mono 250, Mono 500, Hellborg Hi Cab, Hellborg Big Cab
Other Headway EDB-1 preamp/DI, Art Pro Channel mic preamp/compressor/EQ Model 215 (both for upright); Aguilar Tone Hammer preamp/DI (for bowing); Lehle ABC Switcher (for electric, upright pizzicato, upright bowing) and AB Switcher (for electric and Fender VI)
Recording Paired Telefunken V76 mic preamp rigged by Marquette Audio Labs; Neumann M 49 mic (for upright); miked ’65 Ampeg B-15 (for electrics)

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