For Jamareo Artis, life has been one major milestone after another ever since he linked up with a young, unknown songwriter named Bruno Mars in 2010. Their fast friendship and shared love of funk and soul music quickly culminated in two albums—Doo-Wops & Hooligans  and Unorthodox Jukebox —that both hit #1 on the Billboard charts. It also led to his and Mars’ appearance on producer Mark Ronson’s smash hit, “Uptown Funk,” two Super Bowl halftime performances, and more awards and albums sold than most artists could ever dream of.
Receiving a bass for Christmas, at age nine, changed Artis’ life, as he left behind sports and video games to “just play bass all day.” He gigged his way through the churches and music venues of his native North Carolina, while studying music theory and immersing himself in the styles of Jaco Pastorius, James Jamerson, Pino Palladino, Marcus Miller, and Victor Wooten. As a result of his diligence, he won the bass chair on P. Diddy’s MTV Making His Band competition in 2009, at age 20. Next came a chance meeting outside an L.A. recording studio with the upstart Mars, who instantly recruited Artis to join his band.
In 2015, while facing the task of working on Mars’ upcoming album, the 26-year-old Artis felt the urge to express himself as a composer and bassist by creating material of his own, which culminated in an EP titled Liberation. Due to time constraints and shifting deadlines, he wasn’t quite satisfied with the results, so he immediately stepped back into the studio to record The Red BoomBox, his full-length album debut. The 11-track effort, which adapts material from Liberation and more, expertly weaves together retro and modern textures of funk, soul, R&B, and hip-hop, while grooving relentlessly from start to finish. Above all of his extraordinary accomplishments alongside Mars and the Hooligans, Artis ranks the album as his biggest achievement yet. And the word is just beginning to spread.
What inspired you to create The Red BoomBox?
I’ve been touring with Bruno for the past six years playing pop and doo-wop music, and sometimes playing within the same four walls can make you want to step out of them for a moment. I wrote some songs and made an EP a bit hastily, because we were trying to hit a release date, and I was less than happy with it. That made me work harder on the album to present my true vision for it. As musicians, we have the ability to affect people’s emotions through our playing. The average listener doesn’t understand the technical side of what we’re doing; they just know the music makes them feel a certain way. I wanted to make an album of music that made me happy and enabled people to feel where I’m coming from, which is a good place.
What were your goals on the bass side, and how did you come up with your parts?
I didn’t want to make an album that was all centered around bass. I just wanted to make music I liked, and if the bass stood out, so be it. I improvised all of the bass lines, and it wasn’t until we were mixing that I focused on what I played. Then I would either replace parts or overdub extra parts, as I felt they were needed. I didn’t want bass overkill, but it is a big part of my music.
Generally, I create my bass lines from a feeling or from certain sounds I hear. For example, a warm, synthy keyboard sound, like on “I Know the Feeling,” will make me play in a way I might not have thought of, otherwise.
You bring the funk on “Dr. Funkster.”
We had just come off working on “Uptown Funk,” and I wanted something with that kind of vibe on the record, so we did a jam in the studio, and my only instruction to the guys was to make it funky. We came up with a basic form and hit record. It started with drums, and then I came in, and we just went with the flow for the next 12 minutes. Then we edited it down. I began by using just my index finger, and the groove got locked in so I couldn’t stop, even though my finger started bleeding. My goal for the part was to not plan anything—just play what I felt and keep developing it by adding new ideas inspired by what the other guys were doing.
“Dream” is your tribute to Jaco. When did you first discover his music, and what impact did he have on you?
When I first started playing, my dad took me to Guitar Center for an instructional DVD, and the clerk recommended Jaco Pastorius: Modern Electric Bass and Victor Wooten: Live at Bass Day ’98. The Wooten tape was a little overwhelming for me at that point, but when I put on Jaco’s DVD, it was almost like a spiritual connection. It felt to me like when he played, everything in his head and heart came out through his music and his phrasing. I could hear what he was going through, without being aware of it at the time. I thought, “If I can’t make people feel like that when I play, then I don’t want to play bass.” So I studied his recordings and I had a period of trying to emulate him. I wouldn’t be the bassist I am without Jaco. His music opened my ears to better hear the music around me when I’m performing. And the way he played over the top of a song as almost a lead instrument, like he did with Joni Mitchell, changed my whole outlook on the role and capabilities of the bass.
What can you share about the new Bruno Mars album?
We’ve been working on it for about a year, trying different ideas and experimenting. I don’t know what’s going to be included in the final version, but it’s going to have a new sound, and so far the material is very groove-oriented. It’ll be out sometime this year, and then we’ll hit the road again.
What has your role been?
Bruno will call me up and play some piano over the phone to see what I think of his ideas, and he’ll ask where he should go from there. Or I’ll go into the studio and he’ll have basic parts that he wants me to jam out on and do my thing. Most challenging is when he has me start a song out of nowhere, in any key with any groove or vibe. He’ll say to me, “Hey Jam, I need ‘Billie Jean.’” That’s a lot of pressure, you know? You don’t just come up with “Billie Jean” off the top of your head. All you can do is play what you’re feeling in that moment and hope it works. But Bruno knows how to make a hit, so if the part works for him, I know I’m in good hands.
How has your playing changed since linking up with Bruno?
When I first joined up with him, I played a lot of extra notes to cover the gaps of the music. I knew that was a bad habit from when I first started playing bass, so I pulled my playing back and buckled it down. Then, once I started playing less, Bruno came up to me and asked, “Where’s Jam at?” So now I’m finding a balance of the two approaches and playing the right amount. You figure out what’s truly important, and that’s being in a well-rounded band. It’s all about filling in your piece of the puzzle and making sure it all fits perfectly together. Ultimately, it’s not how many notes you’re playing; it’s the quality of the notes you’re playing that matter.
What lies ahead?
I’m going to continue to develop and hone my writing skills, although I’m not sure if I’ll do another solo album at this point. I enjoy collaborating, and I’ve gotten calls from various producers and artists like will.i.am, Elie Goulding, and Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts. I also love touring with Bruno’s band. At the Grammys a few years back, Brian Wilson told us we have a special sound and to be sure to stay together. Down the road, when I get tired of touring, I think it would be cool to have a house-band gig on a TV talk show. I’m wide open.
Jamareo Artis’ basses dart all around the sonic core of The Red BoomBox, supplying finger-funk grooves, lead and counter-melodies, chordal splashes, and overdubbed sheets of sound—made all the more ear-grabbing by his impressive command of phrasing in all corners of the pocket. Example 1 contains the main groove of “Fun,” which Artis played on his Fender Geddy Lee Jazz Bass, using a pick (as he did on Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven”). “I realized I needed an uptempo track on the album, and I was listening to Earth, Wind & Fire and Rick James at the time, so I came up with this bass line and built the song from there.” Example 2 shows Artis’ arpeggio-like bass line on “The Feeling,” at 0:23. He used his Geddy Lee J with the E string tuned down to Eb, and he plucked with his thumb and fingers “à la Pino Palladino.” “This was an extension of the previous track [“I Know the Feeling”], for which we kept the record button on.” Example 3 picks up the constantly developing bass line of “Dr. Funkster” at 0:09, played on Artis’ Fender Custom Shop Dimension Deluxe 4-string. “I just used the tip of my index finger back and forth, like a pick, and tucked the rest of my fingers under my thumb.” Finally, Ex. 4 captures Artis on his fretless custom Warwick Streamer soloing on his Jaco-tribute track, “Dream,” at 0:19. After some pentatonic exploration in bars 1 and 2, he channels a Pastorian-type descending phrase in the last two measures. “I had just seen the Jaco documentary [Passion Pictures], so he was on my mind. When I really like a player, I put myself in their mindset and imagine what they might have played.”
Jam Artis, The Red BoomBox [2016, JamArt Music]
Bass Fender American Elite Series Jazz and Precision Basses, Fender Geddy Lee Jazz Bass, Fender Dimension Deluxe, fretless Warwick Streamer
Rig Tech 21 SansAmp Bass Driver DI
Pedals Moog Moogerfooger Low Pass Filter, EBS OctaBass, EBS DPhaser, EBS Wah/Tone Filter
Strings DR Strings Hi-Beams (.045–.105)