Musicians : Jason Yates

 

JASON on keyboards.

Below you can find the interview of Jason conducted aprilr 28th 2004 in Los Angeles by Gavin Conaty (http://www.benharper.net) for the official site :

Q: When did you start playing music?
A: I was in the band in junior high school, and then in high school - Hollywood High - and then I changed over to Fairfax High School to finish, and I got the Herb Albert Scholarship.

Q: What's that?
A: It's like a grant; just some money to do some stuff with music.

Q: What instrument were you playing at the time?
A: I was playing piano in the jazz band. But I wasn't really a piano player. I just kinda...I faked it. I don't read music. I had a cool teacher who really pushed me - Mr. Nolton. He said "Fuck it kid. You don't need to know how to read music. Just act like it. I'll put it in front of you and just try to follow along." So he let me improvise.

Q: Have you since learned how to read music?
A: No, still faking it. [laughs]

Q: So all this has pretty much come naturally then?
A: Yeah, I've always just gravitated to playing. I always loved it. Being a part of it, like I said, I was always into the music because of the band. Like being in a room full of friends and just making something happen. It was like "magical" to me. You know I love that. That's what. And then I joined a group - a real band - I was like the youngest one in the band. My first real band, Momma Stud and I was playing keyboards when I was about 17. We started clubbing. We were doing clubs in L.A., doin' shows, Al's Bar and Raji's and The Gaslight, little clubs, and we'd play at least once a week. By the time I was in my senior year in high school I was gigging once a week, at least. When high school ended within a year I think we had a record deal. Ironically enough it was on Virgin [Records] also. We got the record deal in '89 or '90 and we made a record that came out in '90 or '91.

Q: Is it still in print?
A: I don't know if it's still out there or not.

Q: Would you still want people to hear it?
A: Mmm-hmmm.

Q: Is there anything that you'd want to keep on the shelves and not let anyone hear?
A: Not really. I'm not ashamed of anything that I've got to record. So much of the stuff I've recorded never came out. It's amazing how many things I've done that never saw the light of day for whatever reason. It's usually business reasons.

Q: After Momma Stud, what happened next?
A: I just kept playing. Jamming with a bunch of different people, different bands. I finally settled into playing with an old friend of mine, Devin Hupf. We started a band that was organ, guitar, drums and bass. It was very Meter-esqe...The Meters... Booker T & The MG's... We'd do instrumentals, and we'd also have songs. But for the most part we were the house band at the Mint. We were just proving ourselves as musicians. (We were still pretty young.) And just making people dance. Making funky music and having a good time. And it got a lot of attention from other musicians, mainly. Typical. But other guys would come up. We influenced a lot of people who didn't know about that music and who weren't into the Meters at that time. Younger people at least.

Q: What became of the band?
A: All the guys for the most part, except for Devon - who's still doing music - but he hasn't done anything substantial. He hasn't made any marks. But the drummer in that band joined the Wallflowers; the bass player joined Macy Gray and went on to make his first two records with her. I got hired by Natalie Merchant soon after that and did about a year and half to two years with her on tour and making music. That band ... we were hot! This is such an industry based town, as soon as they pick up on that they'll pick it apart. They'll pick all the best things out of it. We got plucked apart. We recorded stuff, but it never got put out. We did a HORDE tour, and John Popper used to sit in with us. We did some cool shit. We never got over that hump and got a chance to record a record.

Q: You and JP must have hit it off immediately with your shared love of The Meters.

A: I didn't really know JP back then. I had met Brad Cook - who did some of Ben's early recordings. He was supposed to do a Momma Stud recording at the Virgin Convent Studio where Ben made his first record. I recorded there a lot. But I didn't meet JP till years later. I think I got invited to a birthday party - it was his - I really didn't know him, but I knew of him.



Q: Then how did you meet Ben?
A: When the record deal ended with Virgin, I was invited by some people from Virgin to come see Ben play. Actually Jed who owned the Mint also invited me. He knew that me and him would connect musically. You know when you meet somebody and they go "man you'd love this cat," like you gotta meet him? That was the kind of feeling it was.
So I went down and saw Ben and I was blown away. I really loved it. It was cool 'cause I knew Leon from playing at clubs...shows. I'd known Leon for a few years. It's like I had some familiar faces. John McKnight I also knew from playing around.
It's a small community for musicians. Everybody says L.A. doesn't have a scene, but there really is a rich history of musicians in L.A. I mean ever since, who knows, since the city began. It's always been a place where you find your players at. Whether Nat King Cole, or whoever was in town, they knew they could pull together an orchestra if they had to in L.A. Kinda like New York...if you go to New York. L.A. is more conducive - it seems like - for bands...for players. You can do it cheaper and you can have a place to play and not disturb anybody. There are clubs and garages that you can practice in. So it's always had that rich history of musicians and players. So when I went into the Mint that day, I knew Rock [Deadrick] from him playing with Tracy [Chapman] and I knew Leon, and I jammed with John McKnight a lot. The only one I didn't know was Ben. I think I even pulled Leon aside and said, "Hey Leon introduce me to Ben!" So he introduced me to Ben and I was blown away. I knew what he had. I recognized it just like everybody else did. And he was good; he was the sweetheart that he is. He was just cool and very receptive and had a good head on his shoulders. I connected with him. I knew instinctively that we would cross paths, but I just didn't know when. And that was like 10 years ago...

Q: Are you looking forward to getting back into the studio?
A: Oh yeah. The Blind Boys [of Alabama] stuff that we recorded has been the most fun I've ever had in the studio. Ben was amazing in orchestrating everybody's dynamic and personality and really getting the best out of all of us.

Q: Did you play on all the tracks?
A: Not all the ones. I think there's a few on the record that are a capella. And there's one that's just Ben playing guitar. But other than those two I think I played on everything.

Q: What do you remember about the first time you played with the Blind Boys in Paris?
A: We didn't rehearse with them or anything. They just said they wanted to play the song, and what key do you want to play it in. All our instruments were up on stage, and they were about to go on and start their set. We gathered up the band and went into the dressing room and listened to them sing it ["I Shall Not Walk Alone"]. And they had changed the time signature from 4/4 to 3/4. It was a lot slower. We had to hold on a chord that we normally didn't hold onto. It changed the whole structure. It's essentially a different song, the way they did it. They did it more like the way they do it on the record. I didn't hear the record though so I didn't know what to expect! So I personally was nervous. I didn't get to sit down at the keyboard and try to come up with something.

Q: Is it hard to make the game-time change...that last minute change...especially for a whole time signature?
A: It was just a little nerve-racking, personally. But we stepped up; we crept up into that thing. And we did it that night and I remember we did it and it sounded cool. My instinct was like, all right we got through it. I think some of the other guys in the band felt the same way. Then the next day we listened to the recording of it and it brought tears to our eyes. We didn't know that magic would happen. It was cool and unexpected. I'm really proud of that live recording. I was really pushing to try to get that on the new record, but then the new record was so good in its own right. The new record is like a snapshot of what we did in those six days. It really is a testament of all of us coming together collectively and putting out high energy and a lot of soul. It's beautiful. I can't wait to get my copy. I'm pissed I don't have a copy now!

Q: Do you think you can take that energy back into the studio and create a straight-up BHIC record?
A: Well to me this was a BHIC record because the Blind Boys kinda came in and did their thing after. But it is a Ben Harper and the Blind Boys record. It's a Ben Harper record, in that he was really the one who orchestrated the whole thing and made it happen and even gave them direction. I mean, they definitely had an influence and an impact on what we were doing, the material that Ben chose. But to me it was an explosion of us being on the road so long. It was a continuation of all our work we had put in. We just erupted! We couldn't wait to get in and record and document some of the things we had been doing live. So to me, I totally look forward to doing that again. I feel like we have that chemistry between me, Ben, Marc, Juan, Leon and Oliver. We'll go in with that same philosophy and make some more music. I think the Blind Boys record started off as a concept of gospel record and by the time we were done with it, it didn't deserve a category. It had blossomed and bloomed into something we had no idea that it would turn into. And that was the beauty of it. And that was the snapshot and the tape was rolling at that time. I mean, that kind of shit happens a lot, and never gets documented. We were lucky enough to have it documented.

Q: Is that why Jimi recorded everything he did, to capture those moments?
A: Oh yeah, 'cause they're magical. I always say producers and people in the music industry think that they can put together an "A" list of players and think they're going to come up with this great album. And time and time again they realize that's not what it's about. It's about chemistry and what happens naturally. And the reason why people are there and the reason why they're doing what they're doing is like what Ben says at the top of the Hollywood Bowl show - "Music is what will show the truth."

Q: Do you think you can translate some of those songs onto the stage in Europe?

A: Oh yeah, that's gonna be some shit. We did all those songs essentially live. We set up in a room, we talked about an arrangement, we played it roughly once down, and then we hit record and played it again. There are minimal overdubs on that album. And if there are any overdubs, it's maybe an extra guitar here, etc. Even some of the leads were done live...Marc did a couple of leads live. And then there was, how do say...there was a mumble. Ben kinda mumbles through some of the words, and it was just so soulful we all voted to keep it. So essentially everybody had some mumbling on that record. We didn't go back and make everything perfect. It's not polished. And I think we realized that a lot of the essence and cool nuances of the group are those little things like tension and being kinda rough around the edges. That's how we are. That's how we are as a band. That's how we are as people. So it translates well. I'm really proud of this record. If I don't make another record with Ben, I'll just be proud of this one.

Q: Did Ben play you guys any of the tapes from years past with early versions of songs like "Church House Steps"?

A: I saw him pull out his tape deck just to reference for himself. But he wasn't really doing it for us as much. He'd hit it, listen to it, then talk to Oliver or talk to Rock. But aside from that they were just references for him. The cool thing is that he let it go and let us fuck around and find ourselves in it. If someone was moving the song in a certain direction, everybody would just pick up on it and follow that cat.

Q: Is there any tension?
A: Man there's always tension. You get tense, you release. The thing is - it's amazing working on this project because everybody in here can make a record. Everybody in here for the most part is a songwriter or a practicing songwriter. Everybody's got a ton of ideas. Marc Ford's got ideas; I've got ideas; Ben's got ideas. It could have the potential of too many chefs in the kitchen. But amazingly enough we were all on the same page to where when one cat would go one way and we knew where he was going we would back it up. And if it was a bad idea it would get shot down. And I think we're all adult enough and mature enough to be able to say, "All right." I know I had a couple bad days where every idea I had was not a good idea and they called me on it. But then when I had my good ideas they still listened to them and they didn't get shot down and they got filtered through and saw the light of day. Again I credit Ben on being open enough to let that kind of dialogue occur in the studio.

Q: Who would you say are some of your main influences?
A: Definitely growing up as a kid, just musicians. I always had a lot of love and respect for the players, whether they were known or not. There's something about musicians that I've always been attracted to. But there was Neil Young as a kid. I was fortunate enough to grow up around the music scene. My step-father was a manger. Since I was maybe a year and half to two years old, I've kind grown up backstage and watching people perform. Watching Joni Mitchell; watching Neil Young; the whole California rock...

Q: A lot of that comes out on your solo record, "Angeleno."

A: Yeah, it's definitely got that kind of feel. I have a lot of different music in me, style-wise. It just depends on the mood I'm in.

Q: Has working with Ben made you a bigger fan of reggae?

A: No I've always been a big reggae fan. Momma Stud even had a track on the album that I put the reggae feel on. I've always felt that groove.

Q: Working with Toots & The Maytals must have been a dream come true?

A: Oh yeah. I had thought that was the highlight of my year until we did that Blind Boys stuff.

Q: It's such a shame how really underrated Toots is.
A: I was just playing that track last night for a friend. He is underrated, but the cats that know, "know". And that's all the matters, really.

Q: All right. We took a couple questions from the fans and the first one is this: How do you get that sweet mellotron sound in "She's Only Happy In The Sun"?
A: I've got a really good sampler. Some cat sampled real Mellotrons, note for note, and I just triggered the samples. So it's actually a Mellotron. It's a Chamberlain and Mellotron. It's as close as I can get without having to drag out an old Mellotron and beat it up on the road. Yeah I love that shit. I'm actually doing a recording tonight with those samples. I've got it all set up at this guy's studio. Those are the shit man. It's the original sampler. Each note came from a vocal group - a boy's choir, or a violin. Each note was taped and so when you hit the key it triggers that tape to play. It's cool because I'm not into making it sound like a string, or a synthesizer, but there's something about those sounds that are still organic. And it's not trying to be a flute, as much as you're playing a sample. You're taking something and creating something new with it, like a DJ would do. A DJ might sample an old drum beat but then he'd do something new with it. So it's not even an old drum beat anymore. It's just sound being manipulated.

Q: Do you find yourself always buying new instruments?
A: Nah, I don't go out and splurge a ton of money on instruments. But I did just buy a new banjo a couple months ago. I've bought clarinets and flutes, and spent time trying to learn and play them. I still feel like I haven't found my instrument necessarily. I still feel like there's something out there that's really gonna be my voice and compliment my abilities. I'm a percussion player also. I've played congas for ten years, and I play guitar for as long as I've played keyboards...twenty something years. Yeah I love instruments. The reason why I don't go out and continuously buy instruments is because I feel like I have to learn the ones I've got.

Q: What about your setup now? What's your typical rig?
A: For being on the road, and doing shows night after night after night, I'm a believer in the Nord Electro Keyboard. It's just a very user friendly keyboard. I'm not into the complicated technology. I just want to get out something and just play it. I don't want to have to tweak it out. I'm not trying to discover new realms, like Star Trek [laughs]. So my setup essentially is just Hammond B3, Clavinet, and a Wurlitzer. If I can have a piano, then I'll use a piano.

Q: You've got three here, and two or three there, what's the deal?

A: I have the Hammond and then I have the Clavinet sitting on top of that. I have the electric piano to the left of me and then on top of that is the [Nord] Lead 3 which gives me the mellotron sounds and a couple synthesizer sounds that I don't really use with Ben. When I first got with the band, there were so many sounds on the "Diamonds" record that I had to try to come up with all those. I probably had six keyboards around me in rehearsals. I had one doing the Mellotron and Chamberlain stuff; I had one that was just solely for piano; I had the Wurlitzer; I had a Juno 106 on top of that. I said I don't want all these keyboards around me - I don't want to look like the guy from Yes. I'm not into having a wall of keyboards surrounding me. So I really tried to simplify the setup and streamline it. I would even like fewer keyboards on stage, to be honest.

Q: Did you get a chance to work with Greg Kurstin?
A: No I had to do it all by ear. But I did get a chance to meet Greg. There were some sounds that he had on "Bring The Funk" that he's dialed up on his Juno. I didn't know what those were and I wasn't about to sit up and home and figure those out. So I just went directly to the source. I wanted to meet him anyway.

Q: What kind of feedback do you get from the fans now that there's a full time keyboard in the band?

A: They seem to really be into it. Ben's always had a couple tracks on every album that have kind of featured keyboards, whether it be Tyrone [Downie] or somebody else. I mean, in some of his music and some of his songs it's obvious that there're some keyboards in there. There's a need for keyboards. They're very keyboard oriented. "Show Me A Little Shame", "By My Side"... I'm a fan too. I love the keyboard work on there. I think the fans dig it. I think it frees up the band and it's gonna free the band up more the more they get used to playing... I mean, essentially they were a three-piece. Keyboards can kind of act like glue and free up Juan, and free up Ben from having to be so melodic. There's not as much need for them to drive the melody. They can sit into a different groove. If you listen to any three-piece band whether it be Hendrix or Cream or Rush, they're playing all those notes because they've got to fill in so much space. Now that they've got me I can give them some space so they don't have to fill up all that. And that's one of the things that we've been learning on this tour is how to do that. 'Cause in the studio it's different. Whatever they did in the studio is different than what you do live. You know, it's kind of a different philosophy. And I'm not Greg. I'm a different player than Greg is. So we all had to kind of adjust and figure out where we fit into the equation, within each song...within each part to make it fit like a puzzle.

Q: What's your most memorable moment as an Innocent Criminal?

A: Oh man I've got a whole year and a half of memorable moments. I think we all have, but I personally have had a great time on this tour. It's been really healthy and wholesome and giving. As much as I put in I got tenfold back. I've been friends with Oliver and Leon. And I made new friends...I made Juan...I made Ben as a friend...and Marc. I feel like I've made some good new friends and friends that I respect and who do what I love to do also. Not to mention the guys in the crew, and then people who I meet on the road; fans who just really appreciate the work that we're doing. It just felt good. It was rewarding. Yeah it's been an amazing year. I can't pick out one incident from that.