Ethan Farmer: Out of the Safety Zone with Lionel Richie

“The #1 question I get from other bass players is, ‘How do you get away with playing so much?’” says Ethan Farmer.
By Jude Gold ,

“The #1 question I get from other bass players is, ‘How do you get away with playing so much?’” says Ethan Farmer. “They want to know how I can play so many notes and fills, and move around and dance as much as I do, without crowding the song—or getting fired!”

The question’s answer is simple but long—a lifetime long: “You have to find your own voice.” Farmer developed his voice on the bass working with everyone from his family’s gospel quartet, the Amazing Farmer Singers (with whom he played as a youth growing up in Chicago), to such headliners as Aretha Franklin, Janet Jackson, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Christina Aguilera, Patti LaBelle, Justin Timberlake, New Kids On The Block, Macy Gray, Kirk Franklin, and his current boss, Lionel Richie.

“I didn’t really start finding my voice until I was about 27 or so,” says Farmer, who recently released his first full solo album, Farmer’s Vineyard. “At 39, now people hire me to be me. They want me to be part of their musical conversation. They’re not hiring Ethan Farmer the bassist, they’re hiring Ethan Farmer the brand.”

You are a very physical, energetic performer, and you seem very comfortable onstage.

When I hit the stage, my whole demeanor is to play the stuff that makes the artist’s head bop, which is why you see me moving so much when I’m playing. I know that if I’m feeling it, other people will feel it, too. After all, if I’m not convinced of the groove, how am I going convince anyone else? But I wasn’t always this way. I was scared as shit until I was about 16. I’d hide behind my aunties or my uncles onstage. I traveled with our group a lot, but I never wanted anybody to see me play. And up to that point, I had only played quartet music, where my job on each song was to sit in the pocket and groove for ten minutes or more. I hadn’t even heard choir bands yet, let alone Chick Corea or anything like that.

Soon, though, I realized I had spent plenty of time learning how to imitate, and it was time to find out what my personality was. When you’re willing to try new things, in hopes of figuring out what you can bring to the table that’s your own, that’s when you start to find your voice—that’s when you can start playing stuff that’s unique, yet still fits the song you’re playing. But good gigs have become harder and harder to find, so a lot of performers nowadays are afraid to step out of their safety zones—which I can understand. No one wants to risk losing a good gig.

How did you first find the courage to step out of your safety zone?

There was this other quartet guy from Chicago named Larry Skinner, and I learned a ton watching him. He played bass with the Mighty Majestics, who were the best quartet around—except for the Farmer Singers, of course [laughs]—and he was playing some sick shit. I had been sticking to the book, so to speak, and when I saw him, it was like he added a whole chapter I never knew was there. Everything he played was so clever, I’d be like, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

And certain gigs will help you find your own voice, too. For example, I remember being on a Europe tour with Melvin Taylor that was so long, we started pulling pranks on each other just to keep things interesting. One night, the other guys got me good—they left the stage during a bass solo, and it soon seemed like they’d never come back. By the third minute up there alone, I was running out of things to play, and was drenched in sweat. When they finally returned, at least eight minutes had gone by. I tried to get out of the lights for a second to wipe my face and regain my composure, and I fell off the back of the stage! You learn a lot from a night like that.

Where did you track Farmer’s Vineyard?

Aside from the live drums and horns on some songs, I recorded everything at home direct into Pro Tools using an Apogee Duet interface. On most of the tunes, like “Kung Fu” and “12,” there is a lead bass and a foundation bass. I typically throw some cool plug-ins on the lead part and just start twisting knobs until the part cuts through nicely.

What was your goal with your signature Bass Mods EF4 bass?

I wanted to give people an instrument that has a really clear sound—so players can establish their personalities on them—but also has more power than a vintage bass, because sometimes when you’re playing passive basses, engineers ask you for more output. The active Bartolini buffer solves that. I mostly play 4-string, but we also made an EF5 model, because I didn’t want to leave the 5-stringers out.

What have you learned sharing the stage with the great Lionel Richie?

Lionel is the whole package—he writes hit songs and plays saxophone and piano, so he knows music. You can’t fool him. He knows if you’re playing a bad note and just trying to skate over it. But that also means he can give you good parts to play. What is also amazing about Lionel is how he can connect with any audience, even one that isn’t very familiar with his music. He always finds a way to put smiles on people’s faces. That’s the goal—adapt to the crowd and bring them in.

INFO

LISTEN

Solo, Farmer’s Vineyard [2015, Ropeadope]; Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics [2014, RCA]; Christina Aguilera, Back to Basics: Live and Down Under [2008, RCA]

EQUIP

Basses Bass Mods Ethan Farmer Signature Model EF4 and EF5 4- and 5-strings, plus “20 or so” Fender Jazz Basses built between ’69 and ’78
Pickups, etc. Bartolini Bright Tones pickups, Bartolini ADGB/918-2 dual buffer, Bass Mods 2-band preamp, Hipshot Ultralite tuners
Rig TC Electronic heads and cabinets, Shure wireless systems
Effects MXR Bass Octave Deluxe, Bass Envelope Filter; various TC Electronic pedals
Strings Dunlop Super Bright Nickel Wound (.045–.105)
Accessories EF Ethan Farmer-series leather straps