“FOR ME IT’S ALWAYS BEEN ABOUT VERSATILITY,” says Mike Merritt. “To be a side musician, you need to study a lot of different styles of music and grooves and attitudes.” Mastery of such a skillset is what has allowed Merritt to thrive in his 20-year run as the bassist in late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien’s house bands. Originally conceived as the Max Weinberg 7 when they debuted in 1993 on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, the band has since morphed into Jimmy Vivino & the Basic Cable Band for Conan, which airs nightly on TBS.
The Conan gig is just one of many outlets for a player who prides himself on versatility. His most recent collaboration, Rock Candy Funk Party—with guitar phenom Joe Bonamassa and drummer extraordinaire Tal Bergman—is another prime example of his ability to embody the spirit and attitude of just about any musical style. The Funk Party’s recent release, We Want Groove, features some of the most deft funk this side of the ’70s. Merritt’s bootyshaking bass lines are understated for the most part, but when he does take a moment to stretch out, as he does on “Animal Work” or “Root Down and Get It,” the restraint he exudes on the rest of the CD becomes all the more sublime.
What does fluency mean to you as a musician?
To be a fluent musician requires you to step out of your comfort zone and embrace styles you might not have paid attention to as a listener. I make the analogy to a character actor who plays different roles. Maybe he’s doing a Shakespearean part or a gangster part that’s outside his true creatively aspirations, but in order to be versatile enough for steady work, he has to embrace different roles. I’m always putting myself in new environments and being stimulated and challenged. It adds to what you bring to the table.
Did you imagine your tone to be so earthysounding when you started recording We Want Groove?
This is one of the few recordings I’ve been part of where the sound of the bass that you hear is almost identical to how I heard it in my head. It’s very uncomplicated. The timbre and tone is just a clean, naked sound. I basically went direct. I love where the bass sits in the mix; it’s very present.
Were your solos in “Animal Work” and “Root Down and Get It” preconceived?
I’m always first and foremost connected to the groove and the song. I always ask myself, What can I do to make the song be the best that it can be? Then if I get a chance to play a solo, that’s the icing on the cake. When we did the Jimmy Smith cover “Root Down and Get It,” we talked about how to start it. Everyone looked at me and said, “Mike, you start it.” I tried to find a way to quote the motif of the song, and I came up with that little lick.
What kind of influence did your dad, Jymie Merritt, have on you?
As a little kid, I knew he was a bass player and he had the big upright. He was part of the post-war hard bop tradition in jazz during the late ’50s and early ’60s and made his greatest splash playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Years later, as a teenager, I saw he had a Fender Jazz Bass, and I was like, “Wow, you have one of these?” By then I was listening to the Beatles and Hendrix and Sly Stone and all these bands with electric bassists. He got me initiated and got me up on my feet with it. All these years later, I turned it into something, hopefully.
Rock Candy Funk Party, We Want Groove [J&R Adventures, 2013]
Basses Fender American Vintage ’62 Jazz Bass, Mike Lull Modern 4V, Mike Lull P-4, 1935 Kurt Moenning ¾-size upright
Rig Aguilar DB 680 preamp, Aguilar AG 500 and DB 750 heads, Aguilar GS 410, GS 210, and GS 112 cabinets
Strings Dean Markley Blue Steel (.045–.105), Dean Markley flatwounds (.050–.105)
Effects EBS Octabass, EBS BassIQ Triple Envelope Filter, Danelectro Cool Cat DC-1 Chorus, Whirlwind Selector A/B Box, Boss DD-3 Digital Delay, SIB Electronics Varidrive overdrive
Accessories Jodi Head guitar straps, Planet Waves cables, Hipshot Bass Xtenders, David Gage Realist Acoustic Transducer