For over 40 years, Graham Maby has shaped the Joe Jackson songbook from the ground up—a remarkable fingerboard feat when you consider the range of Jackson’s musical imagination.
It also places Maby in the rare company of such one-band, five-decade bassists as Verdine White, Rocco Prestia, Gary Tallent, Cliff Williams, and Tom Hamilton.
Despite such a low-end legacy, Maby is as low-key as it gets, a thoughtful conversationalist whose observations are as detailed and astute as his basslines. In Jackson’s 1999 autobiography, A Cure for Gravity [Anchor], the songwriter sums up Maby musically and personally, confessing to be in awe of his skills, including his fast, “extraordinary” ears, his tasteful, fluid style, his full, clear tone, and his “spot-on” rhythmic sense.
“There was nothing tentative about Graham’s playing,” Jackson remembers about his early playing. “Every note was played with conviction; every note sounded right. He was also as modest and unassuming as he was talented.”
Happily, this potent pair is back in tandem for the first time since 2008, for Jackson’s acclaimed double-album Fast Forward, and a corresponding world tour.
The globe-spanning disc was recorded in New York, New Orleans, Berlin, and Amsterdam, with Graham playing on the four Gotham tracks, joined by such heavyweights as drummer Brian Blade and guitarist Bill Frisell. On tour, Maby and his trusty Spector 5-string handle the bass role on all of the album songs included in the set list (including those cut on upright by Greg Cohen)—nary an issue for the versatile veteran.
Born in Gosport, England on September 1, 1952, Graham Maby rocked in his high chair in response to the music coming over BBC radio, according to his mum. When the Beatles’ “Love Me Do” hit the airwaves, Maby really took notice.
Not long after requesting an acoustic guitar for his 16th birthday, a guitar-playing friend encouraged him to buy an Eko bass that someone was selling for 15 quid.
Graham recalls, “It was like a lightning-bolt moment of awakening. I immediately locked myself away with it for a few months and learned the bass lines of Paul McCartney, Jack Bruce, John Paul Jones, and Roger Glover. I played with both a pick and fingers right from the start, as I had seen McCartney do.”
Maby became established in a few local bands, leading to a visit at home by a 19-year-old Joe Jackson, in 1974. Jackson invited Maby, who had recently bought a new Fender Jazz Bass, to join a band he had with vocalist Mark Andrews.
The quartet, Arms & Legs, was signed to Gilbert O’Sullivan’s label and cut three singles, but when they all bombed, the band was dropped nine months later. Certain that they had missed “their shot,” the band broke up, and Maby went back to his day job. But Jackson would return with a proposal that would change the pair’s musical path dramatically.
What was Joe Jackson’s pitch to you when he started his own band?
He said, I’ve got some new material and a concept for a four-piece band with me as the keyboardist and lead vocalist, and the bass will be the featured instrument; what do you think about that? And I said, Great, I’m in—although I did have some doubts about him as the singer. But he worked very hard to get his vocals together.
On top of being super-talented, Joe has always been ambitious and focused, with fully fleshed-out concepts. We recorded 12 demos, which was basically the Look Sharp album, and I remember listening to them at home and thinking, Damn, this is really good—we might have another shot! Joe took the demos up to London and got signed to A&M Records, and I got the call to join him to make the album, in the summer of 1978.
Musically, it was a very vibrant time; we were listening to people like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and Elvis Costello. Artists were writing and recording, and often the records would come out within two weeks, so there was an immediacy. And if you got radio play in the U.K. it was national, not regional, like in the States.
How was your prominent role determined?
Well, first, Joe was adamant that there would be no guitar solos; the guitar was strictly a rhythm instrument, which played to Gary Sanford’s strengths. And [drummer] Dave Houghton was the band’s secret weapon: understated but driving, with impeccable time and a deep pocket.
Therefore, it was natural for me to step forward, and back then I was young and exuberant and trying to fill up every inch of space! Joe was the key, though, because he’ll only edit you if he doesn’t like what you’re doing; otherwise he lets you run with it.
So his pushing the bass out front and center was carte blanche for me to take as many risks as I wanted, and I figured if he didn’t like it he’d let me know. That’s the way it has always been between us. Even with written bass lines, Joe’s approach is for me to make them my own.
On those first three albums, your sound stood out, too.
After unwisely selling my ’74 Fender Jazz Bass, I had just bought a 1977 Ibanez Silver Series Jazz Bass copy when we started the demos for Look Sharp.
I had discovered the Rotosound black-nylon tape-wound strings I’d seen McCartney and John Entwistle use, and I loved how they sounded and felt when played with a pick on that bass, with the treble cranked on my Fender Bassman 135. That became my tone through I’m the Man. Then I switched to a P-Bass with roundwounds for Beat Crazy.
What can you share about your precision and endurance on all of the fast-tempo songs on those records?
Ha! It was the fearless strength and single-mindedness of youth, plus the fact that Dave was so effortless to play with.
One reason I used a pick was I was faster with it; I’ve never been a fast finger player. Certain phrases called for up- and downstrokes, but I mostly used downstrokes, and I made the mistake of telling Joe the parts sounded better that way— because then he began taunting me, saying, “I’m watching you!” But in truth, both musically and technically in that period, I didn’t really know what I was doing.
In fact, during the hiatus after Beat Crazy, I got a call from a major singer/songwriter’s manager asking me to come immediately to L.A. from the U.K. to audition. Back then I didn’t even know how to write a chord chart, nor did I have the discipline to sit and learn the songs in short order. What I did have was a good, quick ear. It wasn’t enough, though, to get me the gig.
Joe’s fourth album, Jumpin’ Jive, was certainly a move out of your comfort zone.
That project was triggered by Dave’s leaving the band. Joe was into the music of Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan, so he called our old drummer friend, Larry Tolfree, who was a Buddy Rich and big-band fanatic, and hired three horns and a keyboardist.
I knew very little about that music, but Joe insisted I play, rather than calling in an upright bassist. By coincidence, I had borrowed a friend’s ’52 P-Bass, which I played in rehearsals, and it sounded just right. I ended up using it for the album and tour.
In preparation, I listened to a lot of walking bass on records in the genre, and I thought I adequately faked my way through. I was enjoying learning and feeling like I could keep up with actual schooled musicians onstage for the first time, so I didn’t miss my “lead” role at all.
That was followed by Night and Day and Body and Soul, for which you would be confronted with everything from salsa to slapping, as well as Joe’s active left hand.
Joe has certainly been a big part of my bass education. For Night and Day, he had been clubbing in New York, listening to Latin music. He added a percussionist to the band and for the first time gave us song demos.
Before recording in New York, he also sent us tutorial cassettes, with Latin greats like Mongo Santamaria explaining 2:3 and 3:2 clave. I remember practicing some bass lines and thinking, I’m never going to be able to do this, because the bass never falls on the downbeat!
Once again, Joe believed in me when he could have hired a top Latin bassist, locally. I used my ’79 P-Bass on the album and I also played fretless on a track that didn’t make the final cut.
For “You Can’t Get What You Want,” on Body and Soul, Joe wanted me to slap. It was certainly not one of my strengths, but I think the track came out fine, and it was fun to play live. I mainly used a Steinberger on the album and the tour. With regard to Joe’s left hand, he’s a composer and arranger, so he’s always had a clear concept of how all the ingredients fit together. He has never stepped on me, like keyboardists can sometimes do. In the bass register, he’s either going to play in unison or stay out of your way.
Let’s talk about your relocation to New York and the artists you began working with.
In 1985 I moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, and I started working with Marshall Crenshaw, whom I had met when he opened for Joe. I immediately went on tour with him, which began with us going to L.A. to play the band in the high school reunion scene in Peggy Sue Got Married. Marshall was another big part of my musical education, hipping me to old country music and Americana music via these amazing mix tapes he’d have on tour.
Through a studio in Hoboken called Water Music, I met folks like Chris Stamey, the Silos, and Freedy Johnston, and that led to my recording and touring with Freedy and with They Might Be Giants. [Bassist] Jack Daley recommended me to Natalie Merchant in 1997, which led to several albums and tours, and was thoroughly enjoyable.
And through my dear pal, Patti Smith bassist Tony Shanahan, I got to tour and record with Ian Hunter in 2005. In all of those cases, I was pretty much left to my own devices, playing-wise.
What’s your approach to coming up with bass parts in general?
What I listen to the most is the melody—the movement of the melody, so I’m playing something that’s in sync with it rhythmically as well as harmonically. That’s where I start.
My favorite bassists— creative servers of the song like McCartney, Jamerson, Dee Murray, and Colin Moulding—all do that; they bounce off the melody. I find my ear is always drawn to that on records, when the bassist is following the little details of what the singer or the lead instrument is doing.
How does that relate to playing with the drummer?
Obviously, locking with the kick or playing off it is essential, but to me, if you listen to the classic rhythm sections, it sounds like they’re not overthinking it; they’re feeling it. Duck Dunn isn’t simply trying to lock in—he’s playing how he feels as part of the section. Listening to the whole band and trusting your instincts is most important.
The second half of your career with Joe included a reunion of the original band.
Yes, Joe had gotten a bit miffed at me when my commitment to Marshall prevented me from doing his Big World album, but we made up and I returned for Blaze of Glory, in 1989, which was when I got the Spector NS-5 that’s still my go-to bass.
We did the live Summer in the City album as a trio with Gary Burke on drums, and from that, Joe decided to resurrect the original band for Volume 4. I thought he came up with great songs, and we all were able to tap back into the early energy we had, as we did on the successive tours and live album, Afterlife. Then Joe returned to the trio format with just Dave [Houghton] and me for Rain, in 2008.
What can you offer about your four songs on Fast Forward, with drummer Brian Blade?
Brian is incredible! I knew of him from Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album [1997, Columbia], and more recently I got to see him with Wayne Shorter at a jazz festival in Rotterdam.
For me, the most fun of the four tracks was Joe’s cover of Television’s “See No Evil,” which he, Brian, and I worked up and cut live together; Brian is dancing on that take. On tour we’ve been doing about half the album, so I get to make some great bass lines recorded by Greg Cohen, Robert Mercurio, and Aram Kersbergen my own.
Where to from here?
Well, after not playing much over the past few years for various reasons, being back with Joe for his amazing new project has been a blessing; I get to do what I’m good at, in a role I’m used to, for new audiences.
We have a superb band with [guitarist] Teddy Kumpel and [drummer] Doug Yowell, and we’re continuing to tour in 2016. I’ve also been fortunate to play steadily with Jersey legend Bobby Bandiera. There are some recording projects in the pipeline with Bobby and with singer/songwriter Ari Hest.
Other than that, I’ve begun to write my memoir, and I’m enjoying my son Pierce’s band, Silent Tides. Central for me after all these years is to keep applying the valuable lessons I’ve learned about balancing life and music. Because there is life beyond music.
Basses ’88 Spector NS-5, ’97 Spector NS-5, ’66 Fender Jazz Bass, ’74 Fender Mustang Bass, Mark Hatcher acoustic bass guitar
Strings Dean Markley 2639 Super Rounds (.045, .065, .080, .105, .128); Rotosound RS88LD Tru Bass Black Nylon (.065, .075, .100, .115)
Amps Wayne Jones Audio WJBP Stereo Valve Bass Guitar Preamp, two WJ1x10 Stereo/Mono Bass Cabinets
Effects Electro-Harmonix Big Muff π Distortion
Other Herco Flex .75 picks, Future Sonics in-ears, Spectraflex Braided Cables, Snark tuner
Graham Maby’s 10 tenets Of bass
- Be prepared: Do your homework, show up on time with the right gear, in working order.
- Don’t be an a-hole: All the chops in the world don’t matter if nobody wants to be around you.
- Listen: You are there to serve the song.
- Don’t get too attached to your part: It may seem like a stroke of genius to you, but if the artist or producer doesn’t like it, it’s out.
- Be humble: In this business there’s always something or someone waiting around the corner to take you down a peg or two.
- Play less!: Unless you are James Jamerson.
- Be inspiring!: First, second, or third takes really are the best. Nail it! And don’t worry if you screw up.
- Be open to suggestion: Non-bass players often come up with a great idea for a bass line, even if it seems weird at first.
- Play to your strengths: I’ll never be able to do what Victor Wooten does. Why try?
- Have some freakin’ fun with it!