We’ve Got A File On You: Don Was

Miryam Ramos

We’ve Got A File On You: Don Was

Miryam Ramos

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

In late 2023, the legendary bassist Ron Carter sat in with Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros at Radio City Music Hall. During the appearance, he played through the bass rig of Don Was, the group’s regular bassist. The next day, Was listened to the multitrack of the show and heard a marked difference between his tone and Carter’s tone — and called the icon to ask why.

Carter was happy to explain what he saw and heard — and, for Was, it was a revelation. “He showed me one little thing to do with my fingers,” he explains via phone on a recent afternoon. “It’s a millimeter of difference in literal, earthly terms. But by making this change in my technique, it opened up a universe of possibilities. And he said, ‘If you practice this for a month, you see that not only are you playing differently, but everybody in your band is going to play differently.’ And he was right. It’s incredible.”

Was certainly wasn’t offended by the analysis and advice. At 72, the award-winning record producer and musician is still galvanized by new ideas, new challenges, new sounds, and new ways of working. His latest endeavor is Don Was & The Pan-Detroit Ensemble, a group of jazz musicians — including saxophonist Dave McMurray and Eminem collaborator/keyboardist Luis Resto — who is kicking off a tour May 21 in Minneapolis.

“That’s the fun of music,” Was says. “You never get to the place where you think you’ve got it all figured out. If you get there, you’re artistically dead. You got no pulse if you’re not trying to get to the next place. …There’s always another level to go to, even if after you’ve been doing for a while it becomes more nuanced. It doesn’t impact the scope of the adventure at all. It’s all about adventure, and sport of it and trying something new and pushing your own limits and limits of music. That’s a great thrill. I don’t know a greater thrill.”

Was’ resume as a producer and musician bears this out. He’s worked with practically every A-list musician of his generation — to name a few, Bob Dylan, Michael McDonald, Carly Simon, Ringo Starr, the Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, Bob Seger, Iggy Pop, and Brian Wilson. He co-founded Was (Not Was), which made some of the most colorful and eclectic dance music of the 1980s. Later, he won multiple Grammys (including Album Of The Year for producing Bonnie Raitt’s 1989 career revamp Nick Of Time), a BAFTA (Best Original Score for Backbeat), and an Emmy (Outstanding Music Direction for The Beatles: The Night That Changed America). Since 2012, he’s been the president of the venerable Blue Note Records — and he also hosts a weekly radio show in his hometown of Detroit.

Stereogum caught up with Was as he was prepping this show and getting into the mindset of The Pan-Detroit Ensemble’s first tour. “This band — it’s not good enough to be good,” he says. “It’s got to be great. We’ve got to achieve greatness. And we’ll have three days of rehearsal, and then we hit the road. [Laughs.] I’ve picked a whole bunch of songs and people are learning them now. I’m not worried about it. I’m making sure that my plan is up to snuff. I’m coming home and practicing. I’m playing every night for hours.”

Launching Don Was & The Pan-Detroit Ensemble (2024)

You’re about to be launching a tour in a couple of weeks. Have you guys started rehearsing?

DON WAS: We did some rehearsing last October, just to see if it was going to work. What happened was this jazz trumpeter named Terence Blanchard, who’s a very old friend of mine, curates a series for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. He approached me probably two years ago about doing this date in March. And I said, “Sure, sounds good,” but I didn’t have anything together and didn’t have a band together.

So last October, I went to Detroit and convened a group of people who I’ve known for a very long time. Some of these guys I’ve been playing with for 45 years. Everyone’s from Detroit. Everyone grew up in the same milieu, mainly listening to the that exotic blend that came with being a global industrial center after World War II, where people brought their cultures from all over the world to come and work in the auto factories.

We got together. Actually, I picked four songs that I played on my radio show, like two nights before. [Laughs.] I said, “Well, let’s try these.” From the first note, it was like we’d been playing together for a long time. In the first 20 minutes, I knew that it was not to be taken lightly, because that doesn’t happen. Or hardly ever happens. And this is nine people. So you get nine people in a copacetic state of mind, that’s highly unusual.

So we booked a tour around it — and now we’re booking a second tour, and we haven’t played a note live. [Laughs.] We just got booked at Monterey Jazz Festival for this year. I can’t believe we were able to book any dates at all. Everyone’s operating on faith. It’ll be a surprise to everybody, including the band. [Laughs.] That’s why I’m really looking forward to these [shows]. We’ll get better; the band will evolve. But we’ll never get back to the state of beginner’s mind.

No pressure, it’s all good!

WAS: You know, it’s all good. The pressure comes when you try to be something other than who you are. That was why my instinct was to go back to Detroit and get people of a like mind.

I don’t think it applies just to the music business, either. Your only prayer in life is to accentuate the thing that makes you different from everybody else. That’s your superpower. And to become the best version of you that you can be — that’s how you distinguish yourself. So I’m actually not nervous about the music.

What do you contributed to the fact that everything clicked right away? What was it about the musicians or the songs?

WAS: I’ll tell you a story. [Laughs.] The first time I met Stevie Wonder was in the ’90s. I was the music director on this TV show, and he was going to sing a song. It was about an hour and a half before the blocking of the stage, and we had no idea what song he was going to do or what key he was going to do it in.

So I had to go to his dressing room, and his brother Milton was guarding the door and wouldn’t let me in. I finally said, “I’ll be a minute and a half. Just let me ask him what song we’re doing.” He said, “Fine, but I’m getting you after minute and a half.” So I went in, started talking to Stevie, Milton came in a minute and a half into it. And he said, “Time to go.” And Stevie said, “No, no, let him stay. He sounds like home.” That’s the Midwestern, Detroit accent, and he liked the way I hit the consonants and made him feel comfortable and at ease. So we sat around talking for half an hour.

And it’s the same with music. They sound like home. We just fell into the thing. I can’t really explain it other than there is a thing about Detroit being a one-industry town, and that is that everybody is economically in the same boat. Some people fare better than others. But everyone is dependent upon the success or failure of the auto industry, or at least was back when I was young. And so there’s no point in putting on any airs. We all know who we are. I didn’t know a single person who ever rented a Mercedes to impress their friends because everyone knew who you were anyway. You get a very honest and unpretentious population.

And the music reflects that. To me, a guy like John Lee Hooker is the epitome of Detroit music. He’s about as raw as you can be without the music completely falling apart. [Laughs.] But it’s so soulful and it grooves so hard. And you can find that characteristic in all of the different tributaries in Detroit music, whether that’s Mitch Ryder and the MC5 and the Stooges, or whether it’s Donald Byrd and Alice Coltrane or Motown and Fortune Records. It’s regional, raw music. 

Growing Up In Detroit In The 1960s

What was it like growing up as a young musician in Detroit, with all that amazing music around you?

WAS: It’s fantastic. And I thought every place was like that. But I got out into the world, I realized that I grew up on some hallowed musical ground. And the music I got to see and the musicians I got to meet.

That’s helped me a lot. There was a point in the ’90s, where I think, almost consecutively, I worked with Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, the Stones, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson — like some of the greatest songwriters around. Leonard Cohen. And every time I sat down to write a song, I’d get about 12 seconds into it and I would think, “Well, what’s the fucking point of this? These guys are two blocks away. They should be writing the song.” [Laughs.] 

And after about five years, it hit me one day, I said, “Well, okay, you’ll never be as great as Willie Nelson. Not even close. But Willie Nelson didn’t grow up going to the Grande Ballroom to see the MC5 play. Willie Nelson didn’t grow up hanging outside behind the Drome Lounge to hear Coltrane wafting through the kitchen and be able to hear that music.” There are very few people who were making records who were in that milieu. So if I stay true to that…[take] Brian Wilson. I can’t be him. But he can’t be that. 

I can’t think of a better place to grow up than Detroit in that era.

What was it like seeing the MC5 in that era? I can’t even imagine experiencing that live.

WAS: No one’s really captured the sound of it. That’s the missing element. There’s a sound of, like, what I now understand is a shitty PA. [Laughs.] It was overwhelming. 

Man. You never heard anything like it. It was a monstrous sound. And that’s what doesn’t come through in the records, because the way people mic’d the bands and mic’d the room back then — especially in Detroit, where they had to make the first couple of records — it’s too clean.

It wasn’t clean. It was like this monstrous wave of sound. Coltrane talks about sheets of sound. That’s what it was like. It was like standing in front of a tsunami. It was a little terrifying and totally unfamiliar. It was disorienting. And it wasn’t just that we were on acid. [Laughs.] It was really like that even if you weren’t.

Is there one concert by them you saw that stands out in your mind?

WAS: Well, the one that stands out in my mind isn’t that the archetypal MC5 concert. I saw them open for the Dave Clark Five. They were still wearing matching suits and had Beatle haircuts then. And they were called the Motor City Five. I think when they said DC5 for Dave Clark Five, I think that’s when they went to MC5. But they were still great.

What they had going for him is that Detroit thing — that underneath the rock and roll, there was a very strong R&B groove. Even in the later MC5 records… Wayne Kramer was a really old friend of mine, and we played together a lot. I went out when he did that MC50 thing, and I played bass with him on some of the shows. And I wanted to get the bass parts right, so he gave me the multitracks. When you isolate them, you can see that the greatest influence on him was James Jamerson on the bass parts. There’s a real strong R&B pulse underneath the MC5 that gives it its zest. And same with the Stooges. The Stooges were a groove band.

Was (Not Was) Sessions For “Shake Your Head” With Ozzy Osbourne, Kim Basinger, And Madonna (1983)

Several years later, you formed Was (Not Was), which makes so much sense with Detroit’s strong R&B background. But at that time, there was so much of the early electro, techno and dance music coming up too in the city. Talk a little bit about that those early days. I think those early Was (Not Was) records don’t get as much attention as some of your later stuff.

WAS: It doesn’t, and that’s what we really were. The rights [to the first album, 1981’s self-titled effort] finally reverted back to us and we just put up a good version on Spotify; it’s been mastered and it’s got a couple extra things. Talk about the guests on the album: Marcus Belgrave, who was the dean of Detroit jazz musicians and played with Charles Mingus and Ray Charles for years, and was a world-class talent who chose to stay in Detroit and teach really. He played trumpet on it. Wayne Kramer’s playing guitar on it. The guy who did all the percussion on the Funkadelic stuff is playing on it.

[Co-founder] David [Was]’s lyrics were also very influenced by beat poetry and in particular John Sinclair, who is a hero and then subsequently a friend of ours. It was putting all those sensibilities that we grew up with into a big stew. We were just cooking up a Detroit jambalaya of sound. That was our intention going in.

And I thought we achieved it especially on the first album. That’s we were. And then you start getting influenced by people who say, “You know, if you would just change this a little bit, you could really have a hit on your hands.” When you go in pursuit of that, your days are numbered. [Laughs.]

Ozzy Osbourne was on a song, 1983’s “Shake Your Head,” which I love. Is it true that Madonna tried out for that song?

WAS: What happened was none of our singers sounded good on it. And so we’re talking with the head of the record company, who was a big fan of Madonna. She hadn’t even put out a record yet; “Holiday” was about to come out. And he says, “She’s from Detroit. You keep the motif together.” So we recorded her, and she did fine. She was good. But it didn’t sound like our band anymore, so we took her off.

I was lamenting the fact that we didn’t have anybody to sing to our attorney, who we were meeting with. And he said, “Well, you know, Ozzy Osborne’s in town. I represent him. He’d be up for this.” [Laughs.] We took this little dance track over to Ozzy Osbourne, and he was just going through a period where he was eager to try something different. And so he ended up doing the vocal on it.

Maybe a decade later, we had Steve “Silk” Hurley out of Chicago do a remix. And Madonna and Ozzy were living on separate but parallel tracks on the multitrack. So we said, “Mix it as a duet with Madonna and Ozzy.” And you can hear it, actually; it’s on YouTube. I didn’t put it up, but someone did.

But Madonna wouldn’t consent at that point. Nor should she, because we’d taken her off. I was hanging out with Kim Basinger, who sings, and I said, “You want to sing a duet with Ozzy Osbourne?” And she did it. It never had a proper release in the US. But it was our biggest single in the rest of the world. And Kim made a video with us. It was just a quirky little moment. Kim was great.

Co-Producing The B-52s’ Cosmic Thing (1989) And Good Stuff (1992)

WAS: I produced the B-52s’ “Love Shack” and did a couple of albums with them. And we decided to do a benefit for Jerry Brown in New York City when he was running against Bill Clinton for the [presidential] nomination. Cindy [Wilson] had left the group. So I asked Kim [Basinger], who’s from Georgia, and she filled in, and Nile Rodgers playing guitar. And so we did a one night thing, but it was Kim Basinger as one of the lead singers of the B-52s with Nile on the guitar.

It was a powerful night. That week, Jerry Brown had gotten some momentum, and it appeared that he was no longer a fringe candidate and had a shot at getting the nomination, especially if he had won the New York primary. I saw him on C-SPAN, just giving a talk in someone’s house. And I dug what he was saying. So I called up someone on the campaign and said, “You need people to do some shows?” So we did one with Was (Not Was) in Ann Arbor, and then this one in New York.

And I can’t remember if the B-52s were already lined up to do something, but they didn’t have a complete band, or if I called them and asked if they do it. I don’t remember exactly how it happened. But you walked in that night, the whole presidential press corps was [focused on] Jerry Brown. I would say it’s the most heightened energy in a venue that I’ve ever experienced, when you combine the buzz of politics and rock and roll music.

When the B-52s were working on Cosmic Thing, that was such a rough time. Ricky Wilson had passed several years before, and they were trying to figure out what they were going to do next. What was the climate like working with them at that time?

WAS: For Cosmic Thing, I think we blocked out a week to cut half an album and Nile Rodgers did the other half. My half came first. You saw a tremendous transformation over the course of the week. Keith [Strickland] switched from being the drummer to being the guitar player. And they had been writing songs, but they hadn’t really tested themselves. So after a couple of days of cutting, their confidence was up tremendously.

But I think there was a question of whether they could go on, whether it would be too painful. And it was painful. It was very emotional. You can hear that in “Love Shack.” That break that Cindy does, “Tin roof, rusted!“—it was a stunning moment. I don’t know what the fuck that line means. [Laughs.] And it becomes the emotional linchpin of the song. It’s a cool line, but it’s not like you would attach all this gravitas to it.

If you were in the room, you would hear that she went from being a little too exuberant, singing the “Bang, bang, bang, on the door, baby!” We’re vamping with that. And she was manic; she was in a heightened emotional state. And then it breaks down to this thing, and you can hear she goes from that exuberance to tears. She started crying. It’s only a second or two, right? “Tin roof, rusted!

But it so jolted everybody in the room, the song fell apart. We came in wrong on the first take. And we probably did another 30 takes trying to get everything right. But we never got that enthusiasm back. So we ended up going back to that first take and punching everybody in after “Tin roof, rusted.” Which, if I was more experienced in 1989, I would have known to have done that anyway. We went with the first take because it had that incredible delivery on it.

It was an example of what an emotional thing the whole week had been. It was the last thing we cut. We weren’t even thinking of cutting it. It wasn’t even a song in consideration. It was like an 11-minute jam that we edited down in the studio to the correct length. There’s something about that, that when I hear that that sums up the whole bittersweet nature. They really missed Ricky, but they were also glad to be together and playing again.

That’s part of the reason why that record is so beloved. Because there’s these songs that are upbeat and quintessential B-52s songs, but something like “Deadbeat Club,” that Nile worked on, it’s heartbreaking. There’s so much emotion coursing through that. The album was a turning point for them.

WAS: It’s a good lesson in record making. I’ll tell you something — after Nile did his songs, the record company liked his mixes better. So they had Nile’s guy remix the stuff I did. And I was going for a specific thing, which was a little more in line with what Chris Blackwell had done as a producer on earlier records. It was a cleaner sound, and it wasn’t all compressed. It’s very organic sounding.

At first, I was upset about it. And then I realized when I listened to it, I said, “You know something, the spirit behind the stuff is so strong. You could mix it with an egg beater, and you could not crush the spirit behind this album.” I realized that’s the most important thing.

Working With Bonnie Raitt On Nick Of Time (1989)

WAS: [Was notes that he made Nick Of Time a month after Cosmic Thing]. You could hear the spirit [in Nick Of Time]. But at that point, I knew something about capturing spirit. And the main thing in Bonnie’s record was to never put an instrument on there that distracted from the spirit of the record. It’s a really sparse record, and it’s by design so that you could feel the power that was emanating from Bonnie.

Knowing when to take that approach makes all the different sometimes.

WAS: It’s the Sonny Rollins lesson: The notes that Sonny Rollins doesn’t play, the space that he leaves during a solo, is as important as his choice of notes.

When you were working on that record, did you sense that it was going to be as massive as it became?

WAS: Absolutely not. [Laughs.] I knew it was good. I knew that she sounded incredible. But I remember specifically the A&R man, Tim Devine, is really the guy who signed Bonnie to Capitol Records. He came to the studio and we played him some stuff. And he said to me, “You got a tuxedo?” I said, “What do you mean? No, of course I don’t have a tuxedo.” [He said] “Well, get one, because you’re going to the Grammys with this.”

And my first instinct was to like, choke him. [Laughs.] I was like, “Man, you like the record? Cool. Say you like the record. But don’t come around here with that Hollywood hyperbole.” But he was right. [Laughs.] And I’ve apologized many times. But I didn’t grab him by the shirt collar.

All we were trying to do was make something we’d be proud of 25 years later. That was really our goal. She and I both were so out of fashion at that moment in time, that being in the top 10 never occurred to us. All we wanted to do was make the money back so we could get to a next album, and make some music that would touch people. That’s really a good intention to make a record with. You make better choices. It’s actually a very good business plan.

As a guitarist, she’s superior. And then as an interpreter of songs she’s also amazing. What was it like being in the studio with her?

WAS: The person you see on stage — that’s who she is. The person you hear singing the songs is who she is. So just imagine being around someone like that. She’s wonderful. She’s a very dear friend. She’s got a heart of gold. And she’s honest and soulful. She’s the person you hear on record and on stage is who she is when we’re in the studio or out to dinner.

Was Nick Of Time done around the time when Was (Not Was)’s “Walk The Dinosaur” was also becoming a hit?

WAS: It was afterwards. I had met Bonnie a couple of years earlier, through Hal Willner. And we did a song for his Disney tribute album [Stay Awake: Various Interpretations Of Music From Vintage Disney Films] together; Was (Not Was) and Bonnie Raitt covered “Baby Mine” from Dumbo. And Bonnie and I hit it off really well. She had no record deal. I said, “Let’s just cut some stuff together and see what happens.” So we started cutting demos in my house.

Her managers took me out to lunch one day and said, “We want you to know that we appreciate what you’re doing. But we need to get her a record deal. And if one of the conditions is we’ve got to get a real producer…” [Laughs.]


WAS: I had no credits, you know? It was a little cold, but it wasn’t out of line to say that. They were actually being nice. They were saying, “If it comes down to it, you can do this volunteer work with her. But if we have to throw you under the bus, we’re going to in order to get her a record deal.” And then between that conversation, and when we actually started making Nick Of Time and she had a record deal, “Walk The Dinosaur” was a hit. And so then I became helpful. [Laughs.]

Wow! [Laughs.]

WAS: I think they thought, “He’ll make a dance record with Bonnie Raitt. And we’ll have a hit.” Nothing could have been further from the truth, but it definitely helped.

Was (Not Was)’s “Walk The Dinosaur” (1987)

This was a top 10 hit in the US. How else does having a hit like that change your life? I remember very vividly how ubiquitous that song was.

WAS: You become less of a pariah. That was a big deal. People would at least take your phone call. I don’t like playing the song. [Laughs.] And it’s just me.

What happened was it became a hit in England first [in 1987], and we didn’t expect it to be. So we were over there doing something, maybe making a video or something, and we got Top Of The Pops. But in order to do it, to renew our work permit, we had to leave the country for the week.

They booked a lip-sync tour of discos for us. I wouldn’t even plug my bass in. Some nights, we swapped instruments; I was the drummer. It didn’t matter because we were just lip syncing to the record at clubs where people didn’t want to see the artists lip syncing. They wanted to dance and meet girls. We faced a more or less hostile audience doing this humiliating thing.

One night, they sent us to a club in — I think it was in Oslo. The club billed it as a live show. So we got up there and lip-synced five songs. When we walked offstage, one of the customers grabbed David [Was] by the neck [and asked], “Why did you try to fool the people?” That’s all I can associate with that record. The success of it does not overcome that feeling. [Laughs.]

The other downside of that was that the record companies then expect you to do it again. And I don’t know how we did that song. That was a quirky thing that happened once. And how do you follow up that song? So it began a downward spiral of trying to chase a hit, and not knowing how to do it and getting further and further from who you are. And I think it ruined the band. We cut some decent songs afterwards, a couple of good ones. But it was damaging. It stopped us from chasing the original vision, which I think would have taken us further.

It’s a big lesson I learned. It stood me in good stead in producing other artists and in being the president of a record company, which is work with people you love, and help them be the best versions of themselves, and trust them to do that, and help an artist chase a vision. Don’t try to make them something that they’re not.

You know, when we did Nick Of Time someone at the record company tried to have us come back and do a Motown cover, because they didn’t hear any singles on it. I don’t know where the logic came from, but they thought that that would be the thing. And if we both weren’t on the road, when they called like that, and it was physically impossible to do it, we might have done it, and it would have ruined the record. It’s a wild thing like that. Just be yourself. [Laughs.] Be the best version of you. And that’s been all I’ve tried to do as a record producer — and as a record company president. 

Co-Producing Willie Nelson’s Across The Borderline (1993)

When you’re looking back at everything you’ve done production-wise, are there any records that you wish had gotten more attention?

WAS: The one record that I think doesn’t is one of my favorites. It’s one of the few that I play for my own personal enjoyment. That’s Across The Borderline by Willie Nelson. He was coming out of this period where he was fodder for late night comedy for because of his exploits with the IRS. People had stopped taking him seriously. And he’s one of the most formidable artists to ever approach a microphone.

The point of this album was, “Alright, let’s turn the page and pick some songs that have some real gravitas to them, and remind people of why he’s one of the greatest artists ever.” I loved those sessions. He’s really spontaneous. He’ll get it in the first take or two. And his phrasing is the best I’ve ever encountered. Him and Frank Sinatra.

If you try to sing along with Frank Sinatra while you’re driving in the car, and you try to pull the phrasing back to match with Frank, you’ll still be ahead of him. [Laughs.] And Willie, it’s the same thing. He pulls the phrasing back so far, that sometimes it connects to the next line, and he does it all in one breath. It’s different every single time. And it’ll throw you if you’re not on your game, and engaged in the song as a musician accompanying him.

But I love [Across The Borderline]. I thought he sang brilliantly on it, and he tackled some very difficult music. “American Tune” by Paul Simon is not something that you should take lightly, if you approach recording that. That’s a complex, beautiful song, very highly sophisticated chord changes, and Willie navigated it on the guitar beautifully. And vocally, phrasing-wise, he infused it with so much meaning. Actually, I think it meant something completely different coming from Willie Nelson that it meant coming from Paul.

But every one of those songs I thought was great. It’s starting to get some attention. But it might be my favorite record that I ever worked on.

And he dueted with Sinead O’Connor on “Don’t Give Up” — who was also, at that time, persona non grata because of Saturday Night Live.

WAS: We went to New York to play that Bob Dylan tribute show. That’s where she got booed off the stage. And Willie saw that, and we called her the next day. She came in.

No kidding!

WAS: It was a direct result of that. Originally, we heard Dolly Parton singing that part. It’s a Peter Gabriel song, “Don’t Give Up.” And when Kate Bush came in on it — I remember the first time I heard it. It just tore me up. She’s like an angel.

[We were thinking] “Who’s got that kind of power?” Dolly would have been perfect, but we couldn’t get her. So we were mystified as to what to do, because we were cutting parts of the record in New York that week. And then Sinead — perfect. She had even done the song with Peter Gabriel, so she knew it.

It was one take. The vocals were all live.

Since she’s passed, I’ve gone back and listened to a lot of her records. What a beautiful singer and performer and artistic soul.

WAS: It was quite a session. Singing that song that day helped her. It was a crazy moment when she got booed off the stage at Madison Square Garden. I was standing right there. [Kris] Kristofferson went out to help her. He was like a de facto emcee for part of the show, so he walked out and he grabbed her and he whispered in her ear: “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” And he walked off stage and then she broke down and started crying. It was intense.

You almost can’t imagine something like that happening today. It’s such a different climate — just in terms of, you would never treat an artist like that on the stage. Of course, now it would go viral immediately, and it would be a huge thing, much different.

WAS: I’d like to see John Mayer walk out on Taylor Swift’s stage and see what happens. [Laughs.]

Producing Garth Brooks In…The Life Of Chris Gaines aka Greatest Hits (1999)

The Chris Gaines record that Garth Brooks did is turning 25 later this year. What was making that like?

WAS: He was producing a movie for Paramount with Babyface, where he was going to play a rock ‘n’ roll singer. And he was worried that people were not going to accept him as the character. They would see Garth in there, no matter what he did, so he wanted to acclimate the audience to the character, a year or a year-and-a-half in advance of the movie. He wanted to record the character’s greatest hits, and put that out in advance of the film. So Chris Gaines was the character.

It’s a great fucking idea. But… [Laughs.] The movie never got made. [Garth] liked the music so much that he decided to release the album anyway. But without the context, it was baffling to people — particularly because that character was such a departure from the Garth that everybody loved.

You know, if you’re going to play a stadium, if you’re going to draw that many people, people are coming because they identify with you. And if he’s putting out an album, saying, “Well, this is who I am,” it’s, therefore, “This is who you are.” [Laughs.] Maybe you listen to that record, look at those pictures and think, “Well, this is actually not who I am.” And it confuses people.

It became this weird anomaly. I think his singing’s incredible. It’s unparalleled that a country singer could do what was essentially a contemporary R&B song and sing it that authentically. It’s unprecedented. George Jones couldn’t do that. Merle Haggard couldn’t do that. My mind was blown when he cut his first vocal, which was “Lost In You.” I didn’t believe it was him. I was looking at him; I saw him do it. [Laughs.] I couldn’t believe my eyes.

I also couldn’t believe his presence — I call it being audiogenic. A fashion model who’s photogenic jumps off the page in a magazine and pulls your eye to the ad. Someone who’s audiogenic jumps out of the speakers. And I learned this with Garth. The speakers you see on the back of the recording console [are] like the 50-yard line in a football game. And I will tell you the most people don’t cross the 50-yard line. They don’t jump out of the box and get in front of you.

He jumped out so far that it sounded like he was behind me — through me and over me. I’ve never been in the studio with a singer who had that much charisma. At that moment, I understood why he was such a big star. Because he leaps out of the speakers. Mick Jagger leaps out of the speakers. You have to suppress him. Listen to “Tumbling Dice”: The vocal is so low, and yet you can’t hold him back, the charisma is so strong. Aretha Franklin had that. When I heard her in the studio, it’s like, “Holy cow.” It made me cry when I heard Aretha sing. Bonnie’s got that. They can’t teach you that at music school. And it’s not something you can cultivate. It’s a gift that people have.

Serving As President Of Blue Note Records (2012-present)

Because you have had so many music experiences, I was going to ask how that played into your role running Blue Note.

WAS: Our A&R policy is we sign artists we trust and believe in, and we let them pursue their vision. We’ll help them if they ask for help. But we never will have a conversation where we say, “If you would just do something like this, we can get you on all these different playlists.”

As far as I can tell, everything that I’ve seen over the last 45 years, it comes out about the same. [Laughs.] I’ve seen people completely rework albums — you know, trash albums, start over three or four times, and the record company starts bringing in all the big songwriters and big producers for the day, and you don’t even hear the artist in there anymore; you hear someone chasing the radio. And sometimes it works. But it works just as often to let people be themselves. In the long run, it’s much better for ’em. So that’s what we do at Blue Note, and it’s working.

The label has such a storied history. What are you most proud of and gratified by in terms of what you’ve been able to release?

WAS: When I first got the gig, I had to figure out why the music had remained at that point. We’re in our 85th anniversary year now — and it was like the 72nd year or something like that. So I went back to what they did in 1939.

The founders of the company wrote a nice lefty manifesto [that] laid out their philosophy, which was to pursue authentic forms of music, and to give uncompromising artistic freedom to the artists. I thought, “All right, you have to stay true to that. That’s important.” I do read the manifesto and I do have a picture of the two founders of the company up on the wall in the office as a reminder every day.

At the time I got the gig, I knew the catalog and I knew the music. But I did notice that there was a pattern of them only signing artists who had mastered the fundamentals of what had come before and then taking that knowledge to create something brand new that no one had ever done before. That applies to Thelonious Monk in 1948, and Art Blakey and Horace Silver in the ’50s and Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and Ornette Coleman in the ’60s. And it applied to Robert Glasper when I started working there, too, in 2011. That’s something we also tried.

We don’t want it to be a museum of bygone eras of jazz. We want the artists to take what came before and push the threshold of the thing. I’m really proud of the younger artists that we’ve signed like guys like Joel Ross and Immanuel Wilkins and Melissa Aldana and Julian Lage, and DOMi and JD Beck. Each one of them has their own approach, but they’re all doing something that in a nuanced way you’ve never heard before. I’m proud of the way they stretch things.

I’m proud that even [artists like] Charles Lloyd — [he’s] 86 years old and he made the best record he ever made in his life. And he’s made some pretty great albums in his lifetime. But he’s pushing himself as much as the young guys are.

And being signed to a label with younger people pushing themselves is inspirational too. It’s like, “Wait, I need to make sure I step up my game.”

WAS: I’ve never really discussed it with him, but I’m gonna ask him about that. That’s a good point. I never thought about that. 

It’s our 85th anniversary. We decided it’s not the kind of anniversary you go crazy about, but we want to take note of it. And we doubled down on music. We figured, “We don’t need special events or anything like that. Let’s just put out a lot of music.” So we’re putting out 70 albums this year — 50 of them are catalog albums, but another 20 are new frontline albums from everyone from Norah Jones to — there’s a posthumous Wayne Shorter album coming later in the year. It’s a lot, and there’s seven people who work at the company, so we have our hands full.

It’s almost like a scrappy startup.

WAS: That’s how we run it. We’re part of the biggest conglomerate in the world, but we treat it like it’s an independent company and like we’re an island. But the beauty is that when we need some muscle, we can get it.

Producing And Recording With Bob Dylan (Multiple Albums)

You played bass on some new recordings he did of classic songs. How did you get into the mindset to do something like that? On paper, that’s extremely daunting.

WAS: Well, on paper, it was my ultimate bucket list. By the time I was 14, I wanted to play bass in Bob’s band from the mid-’60s on. And I wanted to play those songs with them.

I played on his records, and I played live with him a few times. But to stand there three feet away — we’re gathered around one microphone, or two microphones, like a bluegrass band. There’s no drums and we balanced ourselves. To be that close — there were no headphones, you just hear him singing and playing, it was exhilarating.

But at the same time, I understood that there was a responsibility. He didn’t hire me to be a voyeur. I was there to add something to it. I couldn’t revel in the moment very long. I had to make sure that I was inside songs, playing ’em right, and giving him what he needed. When you’re actually doing it, you’re not thinking about, “Wow, this is cool.” [Laughs.] At that moment, you’re probably messing up your bass part.

That makes sense. You have to have a little bit of separation, so you’re not like the 14-year-old being like, “Holy shit. I’m playing these Bob Dylan songs with him.”

WAS: You may get a moment of that, but you shouldn’t have it while you’re playing. You gotta be the song. You gotta live the song.

There’s a vitality to Dylan’s recent tour. It’s like, “I need to see this. This is something that’s vital for me to see.”

WAS: He’s been so strong. I listen to his shows on YouTube; some of them have [been] recorded. And if you really listen closely, he’s not throwing away a single syllable. He’s not walking through anything.

Since COVID, he’s figured out something about how to keep his vocals on top of the mix and to have the band support the vocals. It’s made for a better show, I think. You can hear it. He’s thoroughly engaged in the songs every night in the storytelling. And he’s looking for new ways to phrase a line. And you can see him you can go out on an adventurous phrasing. Maybe it won’t work, but he’s trying something different.

Playing Bass With Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros (2018-Present)

WAS: [Continues from Dylan conversation] I see that with Weir all the time. That’s the whole point of the Wolf Bros. [Bobby’s] been telling the same stories for 60 years. He wants to tell them with vigor and freshness, and beginner’s mind every night. So part of the thing is to stay out of the way of his phrasing, give him the freedom to interpret the songs. And he does them absolutely differently every single night.

Being able to do that — you have to have so much confidence, but also just such a curiosity and hunger to be creating like that.

WAS: That was one of the allures of taking the gig with Bobby. It was irresistible, and not just because the songs are so much fun to play. They roll off your fingers; they’re so beautifully written. But it’s the fearlessness that the Dead brought into their shows, night after night, not being afraid to go so far with something that it’ll fall apart. We have two or three train wrecks every show, and the audience doesn’t care, because they understand where it’s coming from. They understand that it’s from the effort made by trying to give them a unique experience every night.

In fact, I see the same people in the front row at every single show we play. They come to the shows night after night after night. And it’s incumbent upon us to give him a different experience every night. But that requires a lot of courage and, yes, fearlessness. I wanted to learn about that fearlessness. I wanted to know how they did that. And I wanted to not only apply it to playing music — I want to apply it to every aspect of my life.

Working with John Mayer, Including Co-Producing Sob Rock (2021)

The whole marketing around Sob Rock I thought was hysterical. I think he’s so funny.

WAS: It was 100% him. He designed all of that stuff. John’s incredible. I’ve never seen anyone with so many ideas — and great ideas. When I’m producing them, it’s not incumbent upon me to have ideas. My job is to edit. He’s got too many ideas. So it’s like, “Which guitar part do you like better? 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, or 10.”

That’s a good problem to have.

WAS: It’s fun to make records with artists who have vision. And he can see through to the packaging when he’s writing the song. I’ve never seen anyone with such a thorough sense of how the music should be presented. He’s more like a little brother, I would say to me. I’ve spent probably years of my life in the studio with him, because none of these records get made quickly.

That makes sense if he has that many ideas.

WAS: Plus, making a record becomes a lifestyle. With Sob Rock, the initial plan was, “Let’s just go in there. I got these songs and let’s just knock out the thing in three weeks.” It was during COVID and everyone was sick of being stuck in the house. We went to Henson Studios, and we basically cordoned the thing off. We had our own chef, no visitors. People wore masks if they weren’t in the control room, and it was still in the early stages.

We had so much fun, we just kept doing it. So it turned into [counts time] about seven months. But it gave us something to do at a time when people were just sitting around watching TV. And so that became our lifestyle.

His Weekly Radio Show “The Don Was Motor City Playlist” (2021-present)

WAS: When I was in high school in 1968, there was a station called WDET, which is the NPR station in Detroit. And there’s a guy named Bud Spangler, who was a jazz drummer and had a late-night show on that station on the weekends. That was the only place where you could hear Sun Ra or the more outside Coltrane stuff, or Albert Ayler. When I was in high school, I said, “Someday I’m going to have that show.”

A little over three years ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who’s a DJ on station. I said, “Man, I’d quit everything I’m doing, I’d resign from Blue Note, if I could just have that old Bud Spangler slot.” She said, “Well, you don’t have to quit. You can do it if you want.” [Laughs.] We’ve been doing it three years now. And wherever I am in the world, I got this thing that plugs into the board, basically. We do the show live. It’s so much fun, but it’s work to do it properly. So I’ll spend the day working on it.

It’s very true, because you want to have the right mix. And you want to make sure you’re setting the right tone. It’s absolutely an art.

WAS: It’s very much like playing live. And unlike some other kinds of radio where people are listening just in the car — [maybe they’re going to] 7-11 to get some cigarettes, and that’s how long they’d listen to you for — people stay with the show, according to the data. [Laughs.] I tried to construct it like you would a live show. I go through the same thing personally. It starts out a little nervous — adrenalized, maybe. And then after 15 minutes, you settle into a groove and you feel the connection to the listeners. It’s great. Live radio is a beautiful thing.

Working With The Rolling Stones (Including Producing “Live By The Sword” On 2023’s Hackney Diamonds)

I really liked Hackney Diamonds. You know, the Stones don’t have to make records — and they don’t have to make records that are pushing themselves. But they’re still driven to perform and record. They still have that urgency. What is it like working with them in the studio?

WAS: They’re the best band I ever heard in my life, and fantastic guys. It’s like having some really cool big brothers. [Laughs.] They were great to me always.

There were times when Darryl Jones wasn’t around, and I got to play with them at rehearsals. There’s a musical conversation going on in that band that until I really got to play with them, I wasn’t fully aware of what’s going on. People make so much out of the personal tensions, not just in that band, in every band. It’s built in that you’re going to have some clashes. But when they play it completely evaporates, and it’s a jocular, relaxed, really fun undertaking. That’s part of the spirit of that music. It’s the invisible part.

Charlie [Watts] would play something on the hi-hat that would make Keith [Richards] play a figure and that figure would make Mick [Jagger] phrase something a little bit differently. They’re like a jazz band, and they never play the songs the same way twice. If you watch Keith, he’ll voice the chords and different frets from night to night. He’s on an adventure every night. He’s not looking to play these things by rote, or to do karaoke versions of the records. He’s looking for nuanced ways to elevate the thing and infuse it with even more feeling.

And he’s cognizant of the fact that he’s addressing an audience, and he wants them to feel it, too. He wants them to feel the same as he’s doing. It’s not just about entertaining people; it’s about making them feel something. Going to a Stones show is like going to church. It’s pretty wild. Every night, you get maybe 70,000 people who have some commonality. We’re meant to be socialized creatures, but our culture keeps pushing us into our cars and being isolated. And that’s one of the rare opportunities to commune.

There’s something about those songs; they’re just impressionistic and poetic enough. Like “Gimme Shelter.” Until I worked with them, I didn’t really know what they intended the song to be about. But all 70,000 people in the stadium have their own version of what that means. Everybody needs some shelter from something, and everyone’s coming in with their own neuroses and crazy life situations, and finding comfort in that song.

I get choked up sometimes at a Stones show, because I see the impact it’s having on people and how good it makes them feel and how it helps them understand some of the mysteries of their life. Life is so uncertain. It’s not easy being human. And they bring us some comfort. That’s what all of the best music does. Their mission is far greater than to just go out there and entertain you.

05/21 – Minneapolis, MN @ Dakota
05/22 – Evanston, IL @ SPACE
05/24 – Detroit, MI @ Orchestra Hall
05/25 – Cincinnati, OH @ Memorial Hall
05/26 – Cumberland, MD @ Delfest
05/28 – Red Bank, NJ @ The Vogel at Count Basie Center
05/30 – Washington, DC @ The Hamilton Live
05/31 – New York, NY @ City Winery
06/02 – Ardmore, PA @ Ardmore Music Hall

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