It’s not often a musician can lay claim to changing the way their instrument is played, but Larry Graham is definitely one of those musicians.
His story is the stuff of legends – Graham played guitar in his mother’s band. He also sang and played the bass pedals of an organ to fill the bottom end. The organ broke, so he rented a bass to fill bass until it was fixed. Meanwhile, his mother changed their piano/bass/drums trio to just a bass and piano duo. To compensate for the lack of a drummer, Graham started thumping the strings to replicate a bass drum and plucking them to replicate the pop of the snare. Electric slap bass was born and would go on to shape an entire generation of musicians.
The legendary bassist has just released Raise Up, a 13-track album full of fresh compositions as well as Graham Central Station classics like “It Ain’t No Fun To Me” and “Now Do U Wanta Dance.” Besides an astounding lineup of GCS, the personnel is rounded out with guest appearances by Prince and Rafael Saadiq.
We reached out the Graham to get the low down on his new album, his creativity, and his advice for new bassists.
It’s been about 13 years since your last album. What prompted you to release Raise Up?
It’s been about that long since the last release, but of course I’ve always continued to write and create because that’s what I do [laughs]. That’s what I enjoy doing. I guess it’s like a lot of painters who paint a lot of pictures that folks will never get a chance to see, but that’s what they enjoy doing. I’m like that with writing and being creative. Over the years I’ve continued to write, and now I just put a collection of songs together that I felt went together to tell a complete story. It’s like a book with a good beginning, and good body, and a good ending.
So you waited to amass a bunch of songs then picked and chose the ones that went together?
Yes, I picked and chose songs that go together. I still have a lot more songs that some eventually people may hear, or maybe not. But this particular collection of songs I felt went together.
What drives you to keep creating and writing after so long?
I just think it’s a gift, you know? To be able to play or to write or sing… And some people have different gifts. It’s not that it requires a lot of effort as much as it is just taking the time out to do something you enjoy doing. I think that a lot of people are like that with cooking, too. They just always enjoy making some good food, so they do it because they love to do it. Music is kind of like that. I enjoy playing and creating – making new recipes and cooking up something new.
Tell us about the title track, “Raise Up.”
You know, everyone is going through something or dealing with something, whether it be personal or family, the world situation or work-related. Everybody is dealing with something. There are certain things that can raise you up and make you feel better. Some people will put on one of their favorite albums, and there’s a reason for that. People will go to music that will raise them up if they’re feeling a little down about something or a collection of things. The intent is for the music to make you feel better, which is the same intent when you come to a show. I tried to give the album a similar feel, as if you were coming to a show. My whole goal is for people to feel better than when they came.
You have some tour dates coming up. Do you prefer writing and recording over touring, or do you have a preference?
Oh, it doesn’t really matter. Some of this album was cut in the middle of touring. We cut quite a bit of stuff over in France, and that was in the midst of doing some European dates. So I don’t really have a preference.
What kind of recording techniques did you use?
For a lot of the stuff – like what we cut in France – I like to go in through an amp and get a really good amp sound and a good mic’ed amp sound, then also go direct. That way I can blend them the way I want to blend them. You know, some amps have their own sound and they can enhance and add if you mic it right, but also the direct is important. I do it like that and then blend them together.
So what gear do you use?
For some of the stuff I cut, I used Warwick amps when I was over in Europe with my Moon bass, which I designed about 29 years ago.
You use that for live and recording?
Yeah. Then, when I’m in the states touring, Warwick has had their amps at some of the shows, but then some of the shows have had other gear.
Why only some of the shows?
It’s just a matter of logistics, and it depends on how you’re traveling. If there are some dates where you have to fly, it makes sense not to have all that stuff on the airplane.
Do you still like touring or is it old hat to you?
The beauty of touring is especially when you get to go to places you haven’t been and experience the cultures. We played Turkey not that long ago and had a few days off there and got a chance to enjoy Istanbul. Then of course, we love to play. I love my band. They’re great folks, all out of Oakland, and they all get along real well, so that makes it fun on the road.
From watching videos online, it looks like it’s almost like a family feel.
Yeah, that’s exactly the feel that we have and want to keep. It’s what I come from. You know, I come from Sly and the Family Stone, and part of the reason it sounded the way it did is because we were like family. [We] treated each other like that and had that kind of closeness. Naturally, when I started Graham Central Station, that definitely was what I was after. All of my current band was raised up on my music, whether it be Graham Central Station or Sly and the Family Stone, so it’s almost like it’s the music they know the best. Because they all live so close together, they all get along like family as well. It’s a great thing. It doesn’t always turn out that way with bands, but we’re blessed to have it like that now.
I’m sure you get asked about inventing slap so much, you’ve been answering questions about it as long as you’ve been playing it. Do you ever get sick of people focusing more on your technique than your music?
No, I don’t ever get tired of that because I think that everybody – or most people in whatever work they’re in – would love to contribute something to their field – invent something or contribute something in some way. For me, it happened through my bass playing. I’m so blessed and grateful to really have contributed something to the world of music. I never mind talking about it, and I don’t take for granted that everybody already knows [laughs].
Everybody has heard you, and you’ve influenced so many people. Who influenced you growing up, and who influences you now?
My biggest influence as a musician growing up would be my mother. The reason I say that is because when I started working with her as a guitar player – this was before bass – I was playing guitar and she was on piano and we had a drummer. When I would solo, she would play bass lines with her other hand on the piano, and vice versa. When she would solo, I would play bass lines on the guitar. So I was being heavily influenced by her left hand. When I ended up on bass, it wasn’t a far stretch for me to play some of those same lines. I played guitar mostly with my fingers anyway, so when I would play bass lines I wasn’t thumping the string on the guitar, but I was playing with my thumb. When we lost the drummer and I switched to bass, it was just natural for me to play with my thumb anyway. That’s how I got into the thumping and plucking to make up for not having those drums. But the biggest influence musically in my ears for my bass lines would be my mother’s left hand.
So who are you listening to right now?
The latest bass player that I’ve been listening to is Esperanza Spalding. I really appreciate her bass playing. I’ve heard her mostly playing upright, and then of course I appreciate her as a vocalist as well. That’s the latest CD in my changer.
What advice would you have for young bassists starting out?
Now they have to their advantages a lot of tools that we didn’t have growing up. Even like when our first Sly and the Family Stone albums came out, a lot of folks didn’t even know what I was doing on the bass until they saw us on television or saw us playing live. There was very limited access to learning other techniques.
Now with the internet and other tools you can go out there and find whatever kind of music you’re looking for, and instructional videos of how to do it. Even the method of being able to learn a song with digital recorders as opposed to when I had to teach myself “Okie Dokie Stomp” on the guitar, it was a record. You’re trying not to scratch it and put [the needle] in the last place you left off… you know, it’s much more difficult. I would just say take advantage of all the learning tools that are there. Don’t take them for granted, but take advantage of them and use them. Do your homework and put in the work.
You’ve gotta put in the effort, because that’s what’s going to help you be more creative so you can create your own style of playing or bass lines or create your own music. We’ve kind of gotten away from that in the electronic age. A lot of people bring their kids to our shows to show them what live music played by live musicians is like. I think that’s a good thing.
Photos by Erich Francois