Stuart Zender is best known for recording three albums’ worth of sweetly funky lines in Jamiroquai, the band led by Jason ‘Jay’ Kay and propelled to stardom by the singer’s unearthly songwriting and tabloid-friendly antics. After playing on the Emergency On Planet Earth, Return Of The Space Cowboy and Travelling Without Moving albums (the last of which sold over 11 million copies), Zender quit the band, replaced by Nick Fyffe and later by Paul Turner. He became an in-demand session bassist, performing with All Saints, Gorillaz, Stevie Wonder and others. Later, he worked with sometime Amy Winehouse co-writer Mark Ronson and founded a record label, White Buffalo.
You were known for playing Fenders back in the Jamiroquai days.
I have a 1963 Precision and I haven’t changed the strings on it for about six years. Yes, like James Jamerson, but I don’t think he had the option to change his strings.
Which bassists inspired you?
I got inspired by listening to Weather Report, and then later on a friend of mine introduced me to the Ozric Tentacles. Ed Wynne’s late brother Roly was a good friend of mine and inspired me to pick up the bass – he was an amazing bass player and I was in awe of him. My first instrument was the drums, actually. I spoke to Larry Graham about this once: he started out as a drummer too, and we come from the same approach, which is where you make ghost notes and bass-drum patterns on the bass when the drummer isn’t doing certain things. For me, the groove and the rhythm is absolutely essential.
The groove is everything in funk, of course.
Oh yes. I’ve done things like fall asleep on the floor and still play bass. I did it with Mark in soundcheck once – we were playing the song ‘Just’ and I was sitting on the floor, fast asleep, still playing. People were looking at me and saying, ‘Is he snoring?’ It’s a very complicated bass-line, too.
How do you write your bass parts?
To be honest with you, I don’t think about it – I just do it. Most of the stuff is an accident, it just works out. In Jamiroquai, Jay would come up with some bass-line ideas, and I’d further it from there. He’s the most amazing songwriter and performer.
I always loved the squelchy bass tone you had on the Jamiroquai song ‘Revolution 1993’. How did you get it?
On ‘Revolution 1993’ I used a five-string Warwick Streamer, and really subtly underneath it I played a MiniMoog. The bass went into a DI, and the cabinet was miked up too. Live, I used to trigger the Minimoog with a Boss ME8B effects processor. That song was just jammed. Jamming was an important part of it – I mean, the name is ‘Jam’-iroquai, right?
What did you do before Jamiroquai?
I was in a crap punk band before that. It was made up out of a bunch of NME journalists and we were managed by James Brown, who went on to launch Loaded magazine. I was 16 when I started taking it seriously and practising, and then I was 17 or 18 when I did the first Jamiroquai. We have a bunch of musicians in our family – my cousins are the MacNamara brothers in Embrace.
Do you practise much?
I never practise. I hear something in my head and if I think about hard enough, hopefully I can play it. It’s not about being flash for me, it’s about songwriting. I get really uncomfortable when I’m asked to do masterclasses, although I do try to give something back to the people who have supported me.
Is there any part of your playing which you’d like to improve?
I can do some good things – tapping and all that stuff – but there are players, Marcus Miller and whoever, who are much better than me. I can do pretty quick runs going down from the top string to the bottom, but my runs upwards aren’t very good, so I’m going to practise those. I don’t use a metronome – the human feel and the groove is really important for me.
What was playing bass on a Stevie Wonder session like?
Working with Stevie Wonder was one of the most amazing things that’s ever happened to me. I was floating on air, I couldn’t believe it. I’d just left Jamiroquai, I was feeling really crap and I felt like the whole world was against me, and I felt like this angel stepped up to me and touched my head.
How did it come about?
I did a track with Omar on one of his albums and he called me up one day and said, ‘Do you want to come down to the studio and work with Stevie?’ I said, ‘Stevie who?’, and he said ‘Stevie Wonder’… It was when he was over here collecting an Ivor Novello Lifetime’s Achievement award. I’ve never been starstruck before, but when we went over to his hotel to meet him I was speechless.
Was Stevie there while you tracked the bass part?
I had to play in front of him. He had the whole track mapped out in MIDI. We were sitting listening to this track that he wanted us to play on, and he didn’t have his glasses on. He was staring at me. I swear to God, I thought he could see me, because he can feel everything in the room – he knows exactly where everything and everyone is. So we thought, ‘We should get out of here, we might be overstaying our welcome’ and said ‘We have to go, Stevie, because we’re going to a party’. And he said, ‘Oh, you’re not going to leave Stevie Wonder alone in a hotel room, are you?’ He wanted to come with us, and said to give him half an hour. Then we found out that the party was actually over, so when he called us we had to tell him that it was off. He said, ‘Okay, I’ll hook up with you guys in the week’. We looked at each other and said, ‘We’ve just blown out Stevie Wonder!’