Rob Wasserman- Steering a Course to Space Island

Rob Wasserman knows his bottom. The extraordinary artist has become one of the most versatile and accomplished practitioners of the electric stand-up bass, and continues to be one of the most in-demand session men in the pop/rock world having recorded with such top names as Stephane Grapelli, Rickie Lee Jones, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Dan Hicks and David Grisman.

Wasserman has probably become best known to the public as a member of Lou Reeds back-up band, and through his continuing collaborations with the Grateful Deads' Bob Weir. But his life as a player began on a much different career trajectory. As a student training at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Wasserman was planning on working in a professional classical orchestra. But he began to develop an idiosyncratic approach to his acoustic double-bass, becoming increasingly fascinated with the sonics and textures the instrument was capable of when played incorrectly.

I had these crusty old teachers that wanted to see things done a certain way, and I drove them crazy, he recalls. I held my bow wrong and really sawed at the strings. I started coming up with my own approach to tonality, using an almost Indian sitar feel in moving from note to note. Basically everything that was interesting to me was going to make me not a very successful orchestral player.

Instead, Wasserman continued to experiment, moved almost exclusively to electric stand-up, and starting picking up session gigs. In 1983 he showcased his unique chops with a solo bass album fittingly entitled Solo. Since then, there's been no lack of work, and Wasserman has recorded and toured with an amazingly wide range of artists. Hes also continued writing his own music: a Duets album in 1988 paired his bass with vocalists such as Bobby McFerrin and Aaron Neville, and 1994s Trios matched him with striking pairs of artists (Jerry Garcia/Edie Brickell, Neil Young/Bob Weir, Elvis Costello/Marc Ribot). And in 1996, Wasserman collaborated with esteemed modern choreographer Mark Morris to create the acclaimed Dances to American Music.

Currently, Wasserman is for the first time leading his own band, in support of a new album, Space Island. Throughout, Wasserman gets a boggling variety of sounds out of his axe of choice -- a Ned Steinberger-designed six-string electric stand-up. Backed by ex-Janes Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins, P-Funk percussionist Carl Butch Small, and programmer Tommy D, Wassermans multi-tracked bass parts range from sub-sonic gut rumbles to honey-sweet faux-violin lines, and his judicious use of distortion pedals and vocoders further extends the musics sweep.

On the road, the touring band is doing without Perkins and has added multi-instrumentalist Ross Rice. In a Hollywood rehearsal studio, two days before his first gig, Wasserman took a break while the rest of his band was doing last minute gear-shopping and talked about his music past and present. You've made a lot of different kinds of music with many different personalities from Stephane Grapelli to Elvis Costello. What's the key to being a great session player and sideman?

Rob Wasserman: You have to be flexible. You have to be adaptable or it doesn't work. You have to be willing to get into other peoples ideas and enjoy them. I've had a lot of fun doing my own record, but I'd say that, looking back, I've had a lot of fun doing most of what I've done. It's damn hard work if you're not enjoying yourself. Has it ever been daunting to work alongside some of the pop legends who have hired you people like Lou Reed or Van Morrison?

Wasserman: It's always a little nerve-wracking the first day in a studio with someone you're just meeting. But it comes down to getting the work done -- to making good music. Van Morrison didn't really say much of anything when I played with him. And I was really nervous -- especially because he asked me to play bass guitar. I dont really play bass guitar -- stand-up is my instrument. But I played bass guitar for Van, with a smile. With Lou Reed I showed up for the New York album sessions really tired because I'd flown all day the day before. I went into the studio and sat there waiting to do bass parts and he had me start on them at the end of the day when I'd been sitting around for 10 hours. I started playing, but I was totally frazzled. I couldnt do anything. But Lou understood and was very cool about it, and I came in the next day and everything was great. If everyone has a professional attitude about getting the work done, the work will get done. But there are a lot of apprehensive moments when you don't know how somebody likes to approach their music. It's something you have to learn fast. Is there any particular approach you take in bringing somebody elses music to life?

Wasserman: When I'm working with a really great lyricist, like Lou or Rickie Lee Jones I make sure and really watch out for the words. You have to bring them out and not get in the way of them. That's highly important to them and to me. It's a big restriction, but its also an enjoyable challenge. You need to know when to play and when not to play. At the very least, you dont want to screw up great lyrics, and at best, you help make them even more meaningful. You've had an enduring musical partnership with Bob Weir. You guys must get along on a personal as well as musical level.

Wasserman: Yeah, that always feels easy. We started playing as a duo, and then we put together Ratdog, our rock band. At least I think its a rock band -- maybe it goes in some other category now. We've got our first record coming out which were pretty excited about. But were always just trying to have fun. That's the main principle behind Ratdog, so its like a musical vacation for everybody in the band. When it starts getting too serious, it ruins it. You've released solo records before, but on your new album, Space Island, you're acting as band leader for the first time. Whats it like to go from sideman to frontman?

Wasserman: It's a lot less responsibility when youre just playing in somebody elses band. When its your own thing, the anxiety level is way up there. We're getting ready to tour, and I'm just realizing how much I'll be the focus of this when we perform. It's always been in my nature to step out when I've been given the chance to play a bass solo, but I'm not a natural frontman. Usually I can stand in back and let Bob or Lou do the talking. Now I'm going to have to come up with some decent banter. I think theres a real different feel to the playing too. Working in Lou Reeds bands for eight years, we always had parts that were pretty rigid, and yet that forced you to be creative within those parts. In this band the people around me have parts that are designed to give me a tremendous amount of freedom. It's a little strange sometimes because on most of the tunes I'm not playing bass lines -- I'm playing the melody on top of what everybody else is playing. That's the kind of thing that would get me dirty looks if it wasnt my band. How did you approach the songwriting on Space Island?

Wasserman: Half the album started with [producer] Dave Aron making a drum loop that I could react to and make up a melody. And then he and I would collaborate as we built up the tune. The other half of the album I had melodies that I wanted to work on and Dave made up the grooves to fit them. Half the record is jamming to the drums, half is fitting drums to the jam. You turn in your debut vocal performance on the record. Was that a stretch?

Wasserman: Definitely. We have this sort of rap tune called Hillbilly Hip Hop. I'd given Tommy Dee Daugherty, the band programmer/DJ, all these parts of mine on DAT so that he could make up some samples. He took a bunch of these and put them together in this continuous groove. I decided to come up with some slightly twisted lyrics for it, and all of a sudden we had this song. We really liked it but we didnt think it was going to be on the record it was more for kicks. The very last night of mixing the album I decided to have a go at recording it. I was so embarrassed to do the vocals that I made everyone but the engineer leave the studio. But everybody liked the end result enough that it made the record. You seem to really enjoy mixing things up. Is there any method to how you pick the projects you get involved with? Or is it just a matter of sitting by the phone and waiting for it to ring?

Wasserman: Well, I met Nora Guthrie, Woodys daughter, at a Robert Johnson tribute at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She started talking to me about an idea she had about setting some of her dads personal writings to music, and I thought it was a great idea, and now thats going to be my next project -- composing music that will accompany people like Michael Franti and Ani Di Franco and Lou Reed doing vocal performances of Woodys writings. And that came to be because I went to that particular show and had a great conversation with the right person. That's sort of usually how the next project happens. It just happens. Of course I'm always doing something with Bob Weir, and now I'll be worrying a lot about my own band. And, yeah, Im always checking my phone messages. Thanks for taking the time Rob!

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