Heylo Bassers! Here is another installment of my InterMagsView where I sit down and bribe really cool bass players with food and wine to talk to me about really cool stuff!
Mags: When you sat down to write Four Strings, Phony Proof, and 300 45s what was your intention?
Sal: The book started with me just mulling over the idea for a while, but I was always on the road. I played in a band called Cracker for 8 years. I’d been thinking about it and thinking about it, but I never had the time. I really couldn’t start scribbling in hotel rooms because there was always something going on. When I wasn’t touring anymore I went to see Chazz Palminteri do A Bronx Tale, but not the Broadway show. He did a one-man show and I went to see it in Huntington, Long Island. I thought to myself, “Hmmm…I have some stories like that that I could weave into the music stuff.” Then I read Questlove’s book, which weaved records into the timeline of his stories. That gave me the loose idea of what I eventually did and the Chazz Palminteri show gave me the inspiration to write down all these stories about growing up. I also read Neil Young’s book that was out of sequence. I thought, “Okay, it’s going to be out of sequence, it’s going to include my music stuff, growing up in Little Italy, and my record fanaticism.”
Mags: It’s a great book. The forward by Lenny Kaye was wonderful.
Sal: I got a forward by Lenny and Dennis Diken, and Mary Weiss wrote a statement on the back. It was so nice.
Mags: To me it seemed like you wrote this book as a fan. And you are a fan and you’re a compulsive music collector. You’re so humble that you’re writing almost from the outside looking in, but you were in the “in”. You didn’t write this book from that perspective. You wrote it from being an outsider and I thought that was interesting.
Sal: Yeah, that is an interesting observation. I wanted to do that. I wanted to communicate that to the reader and I basically knew who my readers were going to be. I knew it was going to be a bunch of baby-boomers.
Mags: And bass players.
Sal: I’ve gotten the greatest response from bass players and other musicians.
Mags: Ok, we’ll start from the beginning of the book. The Tropicana Motel and Duke’s in L.A. That in itself is an example of you writing from the outside looking in, but me thinking that you were not on the outside. You were living at The Tropicana. That was the scene – you were in the scene. Have you seen the YouTube commercial of The Tropicana with Ron Mael?
Sal: What does he say in it? There are a few of them that are hilarious.
Mags: He was talking about the vending machines. He got an RC Cola first, went to another machine to buy toenail clippers and the machine broke.
Sal: Oh yeah. I saw that one!
Mags: I was thinking, “This guy is off his rocker!”
Sal: He’s hilarious.
Mags: Were Sparks trying to create art or were they like, “Let’s be weird and wacky and see what sticks”?
Sal: I think they wanted to be a hit act, but on their own terms. I don’t think they wanted to do anything to edit their eccentricities.
Mags: That’s very punk rock.
Sal: It’s kind of punk rock. It links to the British art school, DIY stuff, like the early Who, The Move, the Kinks, which they were really into. Their first record got passed by everyone except for Todd Rundgren. Todd heard it and basically remixed the demos for the record. When they got the shot to go to England, they went with it. They took it and that’s when they really hit the bullseye. They had hit records.
Mags: Their zaniness paid off.
Sal: They made their eccentricities, all their left-field stuff into a commercial venture. People don’t understand how big they were in England.
Mags: I don’t. They’re obscure now.
Sal: They’re obscure now, but they’ve managed to survive and have a career for forty-five years.
Mags: I knew some Sparks casually before I read the book. I listened to Big Beat after I did my Sal Maida research and I was like, “Man, this album is awesome!” I remember reading in your book that you said the drums and bass were mixed up front. I re-listened to the album and I thought, “Yeah, it is!” I didn’t notice that mix at first. I just thought it was a perfect sounding album that I really connected to. Then it hit me, “Of course I’m connecting to it, it’s all drum and bass!”
Sal: You noticed that, right?
Mags: After you wrote about it, I totally noticed.
Sal: It’s really loud. Crazy, right? When I heard it I was like “Woah!”
Mags: When Bryan Ferry called you up while you were living in L.A. and you jammed with him, what happened? You didn’t play on The Bride Stripped Bare.
Sal: I didn’t. He was in Hollywood and staying at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mansion all by himself. Jerry Hall had left to go to Italy, so I guess he was bored. Somehow he found my phone number; to this day, I still don’t know how. I’m in my flat in L.A. and I’m sharing it with a guitar player. I got the mattress on the floor – you know, the whole bit. I get this call, and I thought it’s my roommate pranking me. Then I realize that it’s really him and he’s saying, “Why don’t you come up. I’m staying in the Hollywood Hills…” I go up there and he’s in full-on tennis regalia.
Mags: I love that! Why wouldn’t he be? It’s like the Royal Tennenbaums.
Sal: Exactly! He’s got the white sweater wrapped around his shoulders, the white shorts…so, she’d been there and now she’s gone. Jerry left to go on a modeling assignment in Italy. Now I’m having a chat with Bryan, talking about stuff and we’re in the sitting room and we’re jamming and there’s blow all over the place. Then he says, “Want to go to the Whiskey tonight?” I said, “Sure”, ya know. I show up and it’s him and Timothy Leary and another guy, and me. We’re going to the Whiskey to see The Weirdos.
Mags: Did you drop LSD with Timothy Leary?
Sal: No, but I think he was well –
Mags: On his journey?
Sal: On his journey. I don’t think there was anybody at the Whiskey. I remember standing on the dance floor watching The Weirdos and saying to Timothy Leary, “What do you think?” He was like, “I love the energy!” I was thinking, “Wow…!” We’re hanging out at The Whiskey watching punk rock and then we go to The Rainbow Bar & Grill. You know that joint?
Mags: Yeah, Lemmy used to hang out there. That’s not Bryan Ferry’s scene.
Mags: That’s the L.A. rock ’n’ roll scene.
Sal: Yeah, L.A. rock ’n’ roll. It’s me, him, this journalist Henry Edwards, Timothy Leary and we’re sitting at the Rainbow Bar & Grill. You could tell that all the girls were just like “Okay…there’s Bryan Ferry – there’s Timothy Leary. What the hell’s going on over there?!”
Mags: You obviously wanted to play on The Bride Stripped Bare. I mean, who wouldn’t?
Sal: I didn’t know what Bryan was doing. He really didn’t say that he was looking for musicians. I don’t think he made that record for a while. I don’t know the timeline, but he obviously caught wind that Jerry went off with Mick Jagger. I don’t know if that triggered the record while he was in L.A. or if the record was in his head. I couldn’t figure that one out. He used Waddy Watchell, Andy Newmark…all those A-List kind of guys.
Mags: I read an interview with Bryan Ferry that I thought was really interesting. He said something like, “The bass is really hard and it’s really hard to find a good bass player.”
Sal: I read that! I felt like telling him, “You found about thirteen of them, so far!”
Mags: Yeah! They’re all really good! He did not name many people, but he named you. At that moment you were on his mind and in good company.
Sal: I’m so proud and happy that my name is associated with Roxy Music. They aren’t just a great band; that’s a given, but the coolest. What’s a band cooler than Roxy Music?
Mags: Why did Johnny Gustafson leave Roxy Music? He did Stranded.
Sal: Johnny did Stranded and he couldn’t do the tour because he started playing with Shawn Phillips. Shawn is a British folk, madrigal guitar player. That was when Paul Thompson came into the record store where I was working. It was a complete coincidence because I played with Paul two years ago for a session. When I saw Paul I was pretty direct. I asked, “Hey, you looking for a bass player?” That was when he said Johnny couldn’t do the tour and I got the audition. That was 1973.
Mags: Let’s talk about Yes. You used to play a Rickenbacker bass and you tried to emulate Chris Squire’s playing when you auditioned for Roxy. Phil Manzanera called you out at your first rehearsal for sounding like Chris. How did you find your own sound? I know at that moment you had to make a fast, quick adjustment…but what did you do over time to develop that Sal Maida thing? I mean, you couldn’t be Chris Squire.
Sal: I couldn’t be under the spell anymore because I’m in a major band with Roxy Music. I had to find my own sound and be myself. I made the quick adjustment on the fly and then evolved it as I went on. I kept tweaking it on the road. I had plenty of time. We toured England and Europe and America.
Mags: Today do you continue with that tweaking?
Sal: No, I know exactly the way I want to sound.
Mags: When you’re on a club date gig, do you know how to adjust specifically to the equipment? Like, “Oh, I’m plugging into a Fender I need to do this, or now I’m playing out of an Ampeg, I need to do that?”
Sal: People always tell me, “This club has this, and that club has that…” I really don’t care. I know exactly how I want to sound and I’ll just turn the knobs until I get it. Sometimes it’ll take 5 minutes, sometimes it’ll take 10 minutes, and then boink! I’ll hear it. There I am. That’s how I want to sound.
Mags: Someone told me that it’s really special when you’re witnessing a player make a connection and finding their sound. I think about that.
Sal: Yeah, that’s so true.
Mags: I’ve seen recent live footage of Roxy and the intro to Virginia Plain is done by the guitar, but that’s a bass part. When you were on the road with Roxy, did you do that bass part?
Sal: I did, but anytime I’ve seen Roxy myself, Phil does it. The bass doesn’t do it. The record is Rik Kenton, the 2nd bass player.
Mags: What bass effect is that?
Sal: Fuzzbox. They had it laying around. It was part of their arsenal and I assume that’s what Rik used on the record.
Mags: I always thought that was a keyboard bit.
Sal: Nah, I’m pretty sure Rik came up with that, but I never got the full-on details. I’m assuming he did it live and subsequent guys did it live. I went to see it in 2001 with Zev (Katz) and Phil did it.
Mags: Do you play with a pick all the time?
Sal: Yeah, I do.
Mags: Why do you prefer to play with a pick?
Sal: Just being a big fan of McCartney, Chris Squire, Bill Wyman…the people that I was listening to their records and learning from always used a pick. No one knows that I play with a pick, it’s the most bizarre thing. People always ask me, “You don’t play with a pick, right?” Yeah, I do. My tone is warm and I guess my hands are so big that they don’t see it.
Mags: An overall theme in your book is that you kept yourself open to the universe. It seemed to me that a lot of your successes have been due to being open to meeting new people and saying yes to different experiences. The section about hanging out at The Speakeasy in London and the openness towards people is something that is so simple in everyday life.
Sal: Yeah, that’s a big part of the book.
Mags: You were open to everything except for one thing…
Sal: What? Uh oh – I don’t remember…
Mags: When Simon Kirke offered you the gig for Bad Company and you said no.
Sal: Ah! Yeah…
Mags: Do you regret that? I mean, come-on; perspective is like –
Sal: No, I think they got the right guy and I don’t think I would have fit. That was Mick Ralphs. He’s the guy who offered me to come in and play. He was putting it together.
Mags: Do you ever see Simon Kirke in town?
Sal: Yes, I did play with him on one occasion.
Mags: Let’s go back and talk about you experiencing Max’s Kansas City. What was your intention as a bass player during that time? Were you like, “Let’s connect art as music,” or were you like, “Let’s just play some fucking music!”?
Sal: I was in England from ’73, so I missed most of the Dolls and the birth of what became CBGB. When I came back I joined Milk ’N’ Cookies and we went straight back to England. We did that record without ever playing a gig.
Mags: Yes! You got signed right away.
Sal: It’s not like we did a bunch of gigs at CB’s and Max’s and then got the deal. We got the deal without ever playing a gig! The manager from Sparks put us together. We went straight to England. Did the record and came back and started playing those clubs. I was coming into the scene when it was almost fully developed.
Mags: You were a big fan of the Spencer Davis Group. When you met Muff Winwood, who produced Milk ‘N’ Cookies, were you a little overwhelmed, or at that point you had already met so many famous people that it didn’t matter to you?
Sal: Muff was such a disarming kind of a guy. He was so down to earth. It almost like, “Was this guy really in the Spencer Davis Group?!!”
Mags: That band was so awesome.
Sal: Yeah! It was killer. I used to play Muff’s bass lines in the studio to warm up! Keep on Running, I’m a Man – all that great stuff. He was cool. He had no airs at all.
Mags: What was the effect that you used for the intro of Little Lost and Innocent?
Sal: That is bass and keyboard doubled. When we play live I just do it. Recently, we played Ready Steady and the effect on the recording is a Mu-Tron. That’s what Bootsy Collins uses to get that wah-wah sound. When we did that Milk ‘N’ Cookies record I turned to Muff and said “I want to use a Mu-Tron. Bootsy uses it in funk, why can’t a rock guy use it?” Muff was arguing about the role of the bass, etc. – and I said, “Bullshit!” I had a little bit of a tug with him on a couple of things. He sort of relented, but at the end of the record he said to me, “You were right with all of that stuff, it sounds great.” We hadn’t done Ready Steady since we recorded it, so at our most recent Milk ’N’ Cookies gig I got a fuzzbox to do the Mu-Tron part and it sounded great.
Mags: I had only heard of Robert Calvert and I listened to Lucky Leif and the Longships to prepare for this interview and it’s beautiful.
Sal: Someone came up to me recently and said that they bought that album and they felt like it was the follow up to Here Come the Warm Jets.
Mags: That makes sense considering the timing of those albums. You worked with Brian Eno on this album and that was after Roxy Music. You guys probably had a lot to talk about.
Sal: I got the gig from Rhett Davies who was the engineer on the Milk ’N’ Cookies record. I was warming up for the session to a Soft Machine lick from their second record. Rhett was like, “Whoa! I love that record, too!” He was digging on that and he said, “You know, I’m doing another record across the way with Eno as a producer, why don’t you come and play on it?” I came in, met Brian briefly and I played on Lucky Leif and the Longships. The other bass player on that record was Brian Turrington on bass. Brian (Turrington) played with Eno & The Winkies before Eno had a collapsed lung and got really sick. The Winkies were the touring band. That Robert Calvert record had all the Hawkwind guys, too.
Mags: Yes! I read that and I can see that. Hawkwind was really beautiful. For Lemmy to go from Hawkwind to Motorhead is night and day.
Sal: Yeah, that’s pretty crazy.
Mags: You’re only the second person that I’ve ever met who saw the Beatles at Shea Stadium. The first person said that he couldn’t hear anything, but you wrote in your book that you could hear the concert.
Sal: The first time they played you couldn’t hear anything.
Mags: The second time you wrote there were 10,000 seats left. Why was that?
Sal: That’s a good question, I have no idea. It’s not like they weren’t any less popular. If Shea Stadium held 50,000 people there were only 40,000 there. I don’t know why. That part doesn’t make sense because they were massive. You could hear them. It was pretty great to see them. The kings of the universe with their striped suits and Casino guitars and Hofner bass. It was like seeing royalty. It was stunning. There they are playing. They’re 24 years old and they played for a half an hour. Now Paul is 70 and he plays for 3 hours!
Mags: I read the book – and read about your teen-angst, and being rebellious in Little Italy, and trying to bust out of the neighborhood. I listened to the 300 45s YouTube playlist and I know from the book that you’re an Anglophile. Having this insight and watching your recent live YouTube videos, I’m now connecting all of these dots to you as a player and a person. After all of this, I feel like I have a good understanding of who you are. What I love is how your bass playing is very honest and very you. You played this way in the 70s and I see that you continue to play this way today.
Sal: Thanks Mags. I’d like to think that I’m carrying on the tradition of the guys that influenced me, like McCartney, Chris Hillman, Ken Forssi, Pete Quaife and Chris Squire. They say “play what you know” and my 60’s and 70’s roots are never far behind!
See you on the low end!