JOHN MAYER’S CONTINUED THROAT PROBLEMS have prevented him from touring in support of his most recent CD, Born and Raised, a well-written ode to Southern California singer–songwriter rock of the early ’70s. Whatever effect this lack of promotion will have on the life of the disc’s 11 songs, for bassists it’s a collection most worthy of checking out thanks to Sean Hurley’s modern take on a classic, minimalist form. The much-in-demand L.A. session bassist has remained busy without Mayer’s road dates to factor in. We recently talked to him on his way to shoot a music video, to gain insight on his role in making the album.
Was there a stated concept for the CD from the start?
I guess it was more felt than spoken. The record started in New York City, with John alone at Electric Lady Studios creating demos; then the rest of us came in. By that point he had written “Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey,” “A Face to Call Home,” “Age of Worry,” “Speak for Me,” and the title track— songs that were more acoustic-driven and subdued. So we kind of saw the direction without anyone being too explicit. We did talk about making the record sound in the vein of early Neil Young albums like AftertheGold Rush and Harvest.
How did that translate bass-wise for you?
I immediately thought P-Bass and B-15, and after referencing the Neil Young albums and some Bob Dylan from that era, I realized the bass decay needed to be short. At first, I was using thumb and palm mute, but I quickly switched to putting foam under the bridges of all four basses I played. I hadn’t done much of that in the past; it really changes the tone as compared to muting with my palm. Also, it’s a lot of fun to have that sound and be able to play normal fingerstyle.
What was your approach to your parts?
Reactionary, mostly. It was almost like showing up at a rehearsal and going through the songs. We started playing them to see what was working, and it was easy to fall in place. We’d do three or four takes of each song, distilling things as we went. Most of the songs were cut live; on a couple, [drummer] Aaron Sterling and I just played to John’s existing vocal and guitar demo. When Don Was came on as producer, we recut “Queen of California,” but they ended up going back and using our original version.
The organic nature of the sessions comes through on “A Face to Call Home,” where you get busier as the track goes on.
It’s almost like a through-composed bass line, where we’re just playing and reacting to each other. “Something Like Olivia,” which is the lone track with Jim Keltner on drums, was born out of us jamming in-between takes of “Born and Raised.”
The bass line with the most defined subhook is probably “Queen of California.”
That’s generally how I try to play, where I’m always looking for a McCartney-esque melodic line. Even though the song has a bit of an Allman Brothers vibe, I’m still channeling Paul. There are three distinct guitar parts; the main one, where John is playing a C chord and bouncing off the G, A, and Bb, is what I created my part to. I just played my adapted version of [the Beatles’] “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and it really worked in the tune and became its own thing [laughs]. Unlike most of the other songs, where I followed the chord changes, here it was trying to match a riff —I sort of have to play a riff beneath the riff , which is pretty cool.
“Shadow Days” and “If I Ever Get Around to Living” also find you in McCartney mode.
As the album moved along over a period of months, John would occasionally encourage me to step out more and “take a moment.” So by the time we were cutting “Shadow Days” I was definitely playing a little busier than I would have if I were doing a record with someone over a few days—unless specifically requested. “If I Ever Get Around to Living” was the very last song we did. By that point, my confidence was high and I was being encouraged to play out. Also, John was playing acoustic guitar, and when he does that there’s more room for the bass to fill up the space. I jumped into the little melody on the re-intro and John liked it. We were all in our comfort zone; you can hear us go from a mild swung feel to a straight feel. That just happened while we were having fun playing around with the groove. We had played the riff so many times that suddenly it starts to become something else, and everyone follows.
What else have you been up to?
In July I recorded for an Italian artist named Elisa, in Italy, and I also recorded with John [Mayer] in Montana. I just played on a few songs for Josh Groban and for a great new artist named Kate Earl. And I also co-wrote the Pitbull/Chris Brown hit “International Love.” Recently, I opened my own studio in North Hollywood with drummer Victor Indrizzo, whom I met while doing Alanis Morissette’s new CD. We’ve been recording basics for Colbie Callait’s Christmas CD there. I’ve also been doing a steady amount of remote recording from there; people send me tracks, and I add my bass and e-mail them back. I’ve been very fortunate.
John Mayer, Born and Raised [Columbia, 2012]; Alanis Morissette, Havocand Bright Lights [Columbia, 2012]
Basses ’60 Fender Precision Bass; ’66 Guild Starfire, ’66 Fender Precision Bass; 55 Kay K162 Pro Bass
Strings La Bella Deep Talkin’ Flatwounds (.043–.104), La Bella Slappers (.045–.105) on the ’66 P-Bass
Rig 1966 Ampeg B-15
Studio signal chain Direct via Eclair Engineering Evil Twin Tube DI into Neve board; B-15 mic’d with an Electro-Voice RE20