NIKKA COSTA IS ONE OF THE FUNKIEST divas on the planet, and she’s got a band rivaling those of mentors Prince and Lenny Kravitz. Since 2001—the year after Costa’s breakthrough release Everybody’s Got Their Something—Shawn Davis has held onto Nikka’s bass chair with both hands, all while doing sessions for big shots Beck and Juanes on the side.
How did you develop such a wicked combination of groove and growl?
I was a devoted drummer and closet bass player until I saw Steel Pulse on Bob Marley Day in 1989. The bass was hypnotic, scary, and making me paranoid. It was so profound that I switched my focus. You can groove on drums, but you can set a mood on bass. James Brown’s repetitive bass lines are so hypnotic that they suck you in like some weird voodoo trance. James Brown and Black Sabbath are my two main influences.
That’s an unorthodox combination.
Geezer Butler is my man. I first got into Sabbath when I was a high school stoner. Butler’s tone was different from other heavy bassists, and the way he bent his strings was haunting. He’s got soul. After that I got into James Brown and Motown.
You play a lot of Jamerson-style, indexfinger-only lines, but once in a while you’ll rip some blazing two-finger passages.
I can cover a lot of lines flicking my index finger up and down. I listened to a lot of Jamerson while I was developing my style, but it didn’t click that he was using one finger until I saw footage of him way later—I just heard his tone. Playing with one finger came naturally. Steve Harris inspired me to develop my two-finger technique. I can get down on some rapid-fi re Iron Maiden-style lines, but we don’t play much up-tempo stuff with Nikka.
What aspect of your heavy rock background can you apply to Nikka’s material consistently?
My tone. I like it crunchy, and grinding. The title track from Can’tneverdidnothin’ is the best example. I keep my amplifier grungy and thick. For most of Pro*Whoa! I used a Sunn 200S through a 1969 Sunn 2x15 cabinet, with Rotosound flatwounds on my bass. It’s uncommon, but flatwounds sound great on an old Rick. It’s hard to pick out my bass tone on this album because there’s a lot of keyboard bass, as well. You can hear me best on “Nylons in a Rip.” I played very aggressively through a 4x10 Sunn cabinet to get that slightly overdriven tone, and I incorporated a lot of Geezer Butler-style string bending—especially on the chorus. I still love ’70s hard rock like Blue Cheer and Mountain, and modern-retro bands like Soundgarden, Lenny Kravitz, and the Black Crowes. Mars Volta is my current favorite. A natural-sounding heaviness is the common denominator.
HEAR HIM ON
Nikka Costa, Pro*Whoa! [Gofunkyourself, 2011]; Beck, The Information [Interscope, 2006]; Juanes, Un Dia Normal [Universal, 2002]
Bass 1976 Rickenbacker 4001, Fender Precision Bass
Rig Vintage Sunn 2001S or 201S through vintage Sunn 2x15 or Fender 4x12 cabinets
Effects Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synth