As a schooled musician and somewhat of a perfectionist, Corey McCormick has relied on wood-shedding and his attention to detail to land big gigs in a number of genres. His mastery of preparation, however, was rendered useless when he took on his current gig with country/Americana rockers Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real—because they don’t practice or prepare at all. “I showed up without any recordings or charts of the songs, and I was ready to dig in and learn them, but it turns out they just don’t rehearse. I had to follow along watching Lukas’ hands and listening intently to learn the changes and parts during the shows. At first it was a shock, but now that I’ve been doing it for so long, its just second nature.”
Having adapted to learning songs on the fly, the long-time Chris Cornell bassist has embraced that method of playing, and it has led him to work with Lukas’ dad, Willie Nelson, and music icon Neil Young, who both subscribe to that “jump into the unknown” tactic. He’s even starring in two upcoming movies: one with Neil Young and Daryl Hannah (Paradox), and A Star Is Born featuring Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, and Dave Chappelle (where McCormick is Cooper’s bass player, who gets plenty of screen time). But currently he has his hands full with Lukas’ band, having released the album Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real and already completing 20 songs in the studio for the next one. Things move pretty quickly in the company that McCormick keeps, but at this point he’s ready for anything.
You get great muted picking and thumb-plucking tones on the Lukas Nelson record.
It’s a throwback style of music, so I have to play to that and sound authentic. I’ve always been the type of musician who tries to play to the song and not force my will onto something. But I still like to be creative so that it’s not just roots and 5ths the whole time.
How do you achieve that tone?
I use a lot of thumb, where I mute the strings with my hand and I get really aggressive with my attack—but since I’m muting, there’s a nice low-end tone that’s a little muffled. It works well stylistically with the music. I use a pick sometimes in the studio, but really, it’s all in the hands. A lot of my sound comes from playing upright bass and conditioning myself to get my tone from my fingers.
It must have been quite the shift taking on this gig after playing with Chris Cornell.
It was completely different, and it’s been a learning curve. The saving grace was that there is so much energy in this band, it’s almost like playing a rock gig. It’s more country/Americana now, but at first it was pretty wild. I had always played in power trios, so I was ready to fill out the space that was open. The hardest part to acclimate to was the lack of rehearsing this material. At first it was hard to get out of my own head and enjoy myself.
Does that make it difficult to play live?
The shows are very unpredictable, because I never know what Lukas is going to do—even within a song, because he might go to the chorus early, or when we’re not supposed to, just because he feels like it. It’s the same way with Neil Young, oddly enough. After the first few gigs with Neil, I was exhausted because I was spending so much energy watching him and catching his curve-balls. You definitely have to be on point at all times.
What have you learned from playing with Neil Young?
I’ve learned how important it is to put a vibe down on a record. He’s not concerned with perfection at all, and he actually prefers imperfection. When we go into the studio, we don’t even know the songs, and he just plays through them once and then we start playing and he records it, and that’s it. I’ll be sweating balls because I just played wrong notes from not knowing the song, but he likes it. He puts us all in one room—the guitar amps, the bass amp, keyboards, and everything, and he doesn’t use headphones, so we just have monitors pointed at us. I’ve learned through that experience to let go and let things be as they are and not worry that they’re not perfect.
Having played with Willie Nelson, you must have some great stories.
I’ll give you one. There’s a point in his show where he invites [Lukas’ band] onstage to sit in, and Lukas sings “Texas Flood,” which is a cool moment. The first time I ever sat in, his old bass player, Dan “Bee” Spears, rest his soul, hands me the bass and says, “Whatever you do, don’t listen to Willie.” And that completely threw me off and confused me—until we started playing, and I realized that Willie is in his own stratosphere. He’s usually two bars ahead of everyone at all times and strumming and singing to his own rhythm. It’s insane. Playing with him, you get a little vertigo, but somehow it works.
Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real [2017, Concord]
Bass Yamaha BB2024, Yamaha BB Custom Series, Guild Starfire II
Rig Aguilar 700 AG head, Aguilar DB 410 cabinet
Pedals Aguilar Filter Twin, Aguilar Fuzzistor, EHX Pog, EHX Holy Grail, Emma Electronic Discum-BOBulator, Noble Amps DI, Dunlop Crybaby Bass Wah
Strings DR Strings DDT-12 Roundwound