Every month or two we like to check in with our pal Nathan East, a man who has played bass with an astounding who's-who of popular music over the last 35 years. We've talked about his recent triumphs, like Daft Punk's "Get Lucky," and some of his early work, such as Kenny Loggins' "Footloose." This time we're diving into what began with a brief introduction and turned into one of the most important relationships of his career: his long-standing role in Eric Clapton's band. From playing on his blockbuster MTV Unplugged record to decades of touring, it's a musical partnership that continues into 2015, as Clapton and East will be headed to the Royal Albert Hall in May, along with further upcoming shows.
Also worth noting is that Yamaha has produced a documentary about East called For the Record, which you can stream below, that features many of the musicians he's recorded with over the years, including Clapton, Loggins and Phil Collins, as well as the creation of his debut solo album, which is up for a Grammy this year. We talked to East about his Grammy nomination, his decades with Clapton, and working with Babyface on Clapton's mega-hit "Change the World."
AllMusic: Before we dive into your experiences with Eric Clapton, congratulations on the Grammy nomination.
Nathan East: I can’t even tell you, when the nominations came out on December 5, I couldn't believe it, it was a surreal moment. There’s not much of a higher honor than to be nominated for your own project, something you worked so hard on. Needless to say, the nomination alone absolutely made my year.
AllMusic: Are you going to attend or are you on the road?
East: I’m definitely going to go, I made sure not to take any gigs around then. There’s a chance I may even play at the pre-telecast, but that’s in the works. It’s such a big night, and remembering how last year started, with a chance to get to play there with Stevie Wonder and Daft Punk and Pharrell and Nile Rodgers, it really is music’s biggest night, so we’re all very excited about it.
AllMusic: When we left off last time, you'd met Eric Clapton immediately after coming offstage from your performance with Kenny Loggins at Live Aid. How did that friendship evolve?
East: Eric was standing on the side of the stage and approached me right away as I got off and was very complimentary and basically said, “Hey, you want to hang out?” That began a very long friendship and brotherhood, and I got the call to do his next album. I've recorded with him since 1983, Behind the Sun was the first album. Then the album August, which we recorded around 1985, came out in ’86, that Phil Collins and Tom Dowd produced. For that album, the band was Phil, Greg Phillinganes, myself and Eric, and we were in the studio having so much fun that Eric’s manager immediately came back and said, “Would you guys like to do some dates as a band?” That started the Royal Albert Hall, six nights, then 12, 18, 24 nights, which was recorded as an album. The hits continued to keep coming. When we got together to do Unplugged, that was a big thing, it sold 26 million albums, which is unheard of. We've toured throughout the years and made many albums together.
AllMusic: At this point you'd been doing both studio sessions and live work, were you starting to consider yourself more of a band member than a studio guy?
East: I've worn so many different hats, I've never sat down and labeled anything I've done, I've stayed in the now, wherever the moment took me, there was never a plan. If I’m in the studio, I’m in the studio. That’s how Fourplay [East's jazz band] was formed, we were in the studio and Bob James said, “The chemistry here is great, would you guys like to form a band?” He was an A&R guy at Warner Bros. so he could get us a deal, and so it’s just like that, you’re in the studio making a record and the next thing you know, you’re a band. And as a band, you’re touring and recording. I never really stopped to figure out whether I was a studio guy or a band touring guy, but I know I have lots of hours logged doing both.
AllMusic: Has your relationship with Clapton always been solely based on music or are there other facets?
East: Primarily, it was musical, but the biggest thing that was going on was there was a lot of laughing, and it was just fun. There didn't seem to be much baggage of any sort, just four guys in a room, almost like children, playing and having so much fun playing, and it just translated to whatever else we were doing, whether it was playing foosball in the studio or table tennis or telling jokes, it’s a very good brotherhood that, as time went on, felt more and more like a family.
AllMusic: Let's talk about "Change the World." This came after Clapton did the Unplugged album, which was a massive success. Was there a conscious idea to continue in that vein, that people expected that sort of thing from him now?
East: The thing about Eric is he just moves forward, if there’s success, he doesn't look at that and say, “Let me see if I can duplicate this,” he’s always been one of the greatest artists who doesn't focus on anything else except being in the moment, it’s not like he’s saying, “Oh, this is successful, let me try that again." So for “Change the World,” I wasn't even sure on the session, because I was working with Babyface, that was when Babyface was producing so many different people, like Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan, Elton John, everybody blew his phone up and wanted him to produce them. I was in his stable of musicians, and we’d go in and often times you wouldn't know who the record was for, you were just recording a new song. So one day we were in the studio with Babyface, and there’s this bluesy song, and I particularly liked it from the first note I heard of it, and I said, “Who’s this for?” and he said, “For Eric Clapton,” and I said, “Oh, really?” That’s what I love about Eric, if he likes somebody, he’ll reach out and collaborate. So he’d called Kenny Edmonds and asked him to produce the song, so that’s where we put the bass part on. We were at the Record Plant in L.A. when we recorded that.
AllMusic: How is playing acoustic bass different than electric for you?
East: First of all, the acoustic instrument really lends itself to a more organic approach to the music, you have a sound that inspires you to play just a little different, and the nature of it being an acoustic instrument and not electric just literally changes the sonic component of what you’re hearing, so it’s just another way to present a song, and the spirit of it is completely different from the electric version. That’s probably the biggest difference. If I’m playing an upright bass, it’s going to be a different style than if I’m playing the acoustic bass or the electric or the four, five or six-string bass, they’re all going to give a different color to the music, and depending what you’re looking for, it determines which one you pick up.
AllMusic: How did the relationship with Babyface begin?
East: He called me to record with Aretha Franklin, that was one of the first projects I worked with him on that he was producing, and he liked my playing, and from there he asked me to play on Waiting to Exhale, I did that whole album and we had such a good time in the studio that we just became a family, we started working on everything together. We did the Babyface Unplugged, and Clapton joined in on that, Stevie Wonder was on that, which would have been after “Change the World,” because we played it on MTV Unplugged as well. The nineties was another very fertile period for good music, lots of great music going on, and I was in the studio a lot with Kenny during those years.
AllMusic: What else did you work on in your time with Babyface?
East: There were a couple of Boyz II Men and Toni Braxton songs. Everybody was at his door, waiting for him to produce. There were some very big songs, like the song “Waiting to Exhale” with Whitney Houston was a big record, and Kenny and I wrote some material for Fourplay, we wrote a song called “Let’s Make Love” that made it on to one of the Fourplay albums. Being in the studio with him all the time, you learn so much, and he’s the greatest guy. We've got hours and hours logged in the studio.
AllMusic: You told us before that you were surprised that "Change the World" became such a big hit. Why was that?
East: I was surprised because it’s almost basically like a blues form, so when you think of blues, you don’t think, “This is going to be Song of the Year,” which is a credit to the song and the songwriters and the chemistry of Babyface and Eric Clapton, and Babyface added his stamp, the Midas Touch, and Eric’s great voice and playing on there, it really was a winning combination.
AllMusic: It wasn't the template of a standard hit of the time, but it still got huge. When did you notice it getting popular?
East: Shortly after, you’re riding down the street and there it is on the radio, then it’s on two stations at once, three stations at once. It’s the radio version of going viral, prior to the big YouTube revolution, they’d spin the heck out of these songs on the radio, and it was always fun to hear, it’s nice to hear a song you've played on, and it was mixed great, mixed by the same engineer who mixed “Get Lucky,” by the way, Mick Guzauski, who is one of my favorite engineers of all time, he really understands what to do with the bass and the way he marries the rhythm section to the vocals.
AllMusic: How does that song work in the live setting for you now?
East: It felt great to play, lots of people responded to it very positively. It always has a good response, a very feel-good song. That is what I find very magical about the spirit of music in general, is it doesn't have to fall into any specific beat or groove, it’s just that whenever the right combination of notes and musicians and the energy, whatever that is, when it gets put together like that, it just resonates with people and gets inside of their hearts. To this day, I wish I knew what the formula was, but the only thing I feel like is it’s based on honesty and passion.
When we go to play, there’s always something that we’ll add, we may make the intro longer and jam on the intro before we get into the song. So we do something to the form, and we like to keep ourselves amused and interested and having fun, so that’s where these arrangements come into play. With Eric, there’s such a huge catalog of songs that get put into the rotation, and I’m such a fan of all the music, whatever the setlist is, it’s all fun to play. Sometimes I’m a little disappointed if there’s some songs that we don’t get to play, because it’s all so much fun.
AllMusic: Can you detect Eric's mood based on the setlist he chooses?
East: It’s all so much fun, I see the setlist sometimes and it looks like it could be the history of rock and roll, you see “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Layla,” “Wonderful Tonight,” “Bell Bottom Blues,” every one of those songs is a gem, they’re all fun to play, they’re all different. The last tour we did, we played a lot of great blues songs, so sometimes that mood comes out, sometimes the rock and roll mood comes out, the R&B mood, sometimes it gets a little jazzy. One of the things I really appreciate about Eric as an artist is that he’s free, he doesn't pigeonhole himself, it’s always an open architecture mentality whenever he’s doing anything.
AllMusic: When you play in Fourplay or solo, you usually dress in sharp suits. The wardrobe onstage at Clapton shows is significantly more relaxed than that, is there a dress code in place so you don't show him up?
East: There’s never really been a mandate or any discussion about it, some bands say, “Wear black,” but with Eric, and back in the day, we used to all wear Versace suits or Armani suits, and we had endorsements with Armani, where we’d go into the Armani shop and pick out anything we wanted to wear. That was maybe in the mid-eighties, where we stayed in suits onstage. In recent days, Eric’s been pretty casual, and I love it, because you don’t have to show up in sequins, you show up with your guitar and make great music, and you can just have jeans and a t-shirt.
AllMusic: I guess once you have an album called Old Sock, the writing's on the wall as far as clothing goes.
East: Exactly. That’s what I love about Eric, he doesn't limit himself to anything. It’s been fun to use him, he’s been very much a role model to me for a lot of reasons.