By Dutch Godshalk
More than a year ago, in the belly of Daft Punk’s recording studio — which one assumes is dark and neon-streaked; something like a laser tag arena — the enigmatic electro-pop duo took a break during recording 2013’s Billboard colossus “Random Access Memories,” ditched their iconic robot helmets and posed for some photos with session musicians.
That’s when Nathan East felt the call of social media.
“We were taking pictures in the studio, and I almost accidentally posted one on Facebook,” the bass player and music industry veteran recalled, laughing. The photo never made it to his wall, though; the band stepped in. “They stopped me! ‘Don’t! Nobody knows what we look like!’”
East, whose funky, thumping bass line in the megahit “Get Lucky” was one of the most-heard sounds of 2013, said it was a privilege working with Daft Punk.
“I was honored that I ended up on their list of people to call to bring that music alive. They went to great lengths to recreate that [late-1970s] sound, and I was very happy to be on the receiving end of that call.”
More than that, though, East got a glimpse of one of the most reclusive musical pairings in the industry. The Daft Punk guys have, for the most part, remained incognito over the years, always donning their sleek, otherworldly helmets in the public eye, looking more like a couple of space welders than a pair of French 40-somethings.
When not wearing their future suits, however, “they’re just like you or me,” East said. “On the whole they’re fun guys, but when we’re in the studio, they have very high standards.” And “Get Lucky,” he said, is a perfect example of those high standards gradually and patiently producing pure gold.
“A lot of the music for ‘Get Lucky’ was recorded before we [as a rhythm section] knew what would go on top of it,” he said. About nine months after he laid down the bass for the song, “[Daft Punk] called and said they put Nile [Rodgers] and Pharrell [Williams] on it, and I came by the studio, and when they played it, it was just so funky that I thought, ‘I have to have another shot at the bass line,’ to see if we could upgrade it and make it match what those guys did.” All in, he said, that one song took more than a year to get right.
As one can see, East is a guy who can tell a lot of insider stories.
Having worked with Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Phil Collins and Michael McDonald, the versatile bass player has had a role in some of the biggest hits of the last 40 years. He shared a Grammy with Kenny Loggins for the song “Footloose,” shared another Grammy with Eric Clapton for the song “Change the World” and joined Clapton once more when the album “Unplugged” won Album of the Year in 1993.
The diamond certification and critical acclaim of “Unplugged” was a shock to East “because [the album] took maybe two-and-a-half hours to record, and we didn’t spend much more than 10 grand on the production and everything else,” he said. “Usually when you think of big, epic, iconic records, you think of spending millions of dollars, and it takes months and months of time; but for ‘Unplugged,’ we literally rehearsed for about a week — and, for me, the impact it had was a testimony to the music.”
Clapton and East “hit it off from day one,” East said; the two have been working together, in the studio or on the road, off and on, since the early ’80s.
“There’s been a mutual respect and now it’s a brotherhood that’s lasted over the years — you just become like family at that point.”
And last year that working relationship took a new turn when East had the opportunity to invite Clapton to perform on his own record, the eponymous “Nathan East,” released in March.
Making his first solo album — which also features performances by Sara Bareilles and Michael McDonald — was something East has waited a long, long time to do.
“This album is something that’s been on my mind, an endeavor that I’ve wanted to achieve, for at least 20 years,” he said. “I’ve been so busy with so many tours and albums and side bands for so many other people that this feels like the very first time that I’ve been able to take the time out to do it.”
One of those side bands keeping him busy is Fourplay, a smooth jazz Traveling Wilburys, comprising some of the busiest, most sought after jazz musicians in the states; not to mention it’s a band that tops the jazz charts pretty every much time it releases a record — something that’s happened about every two years since ’91.
“We’ve had a lot of fun,” East said of Fourplay, “and that was our mission statement. We’re all busy doing other things, with other bands, and as producers, songwriters and artists, so when we got together with this band, we said, ‘In addition to our careers this is an opportunity to have fun, to try to do what we want to do,’ and we were surprised when it took off.”
To put it in East’s words, Fourplay offers a musical amalgam: “What I do is I approach all music kind of like a hybrid, where if I’m playing jazz, sometimes I’m putting a little rock-and-roll or funk in it. I don’t really segregate music into genres; I just segregate it into good music and bad music.”
Well, based on how well their albums sell and how often they’re nominated for awards, you can probably place Fourplay’s music in the “good” column. But they’re still waiting on some laurels of success; even though the band’s “been up for almost a dozen Grammys,” they’ve yet to nab the trophy.
“It’s nice to be nominated,” East said, “but it’s better to win.”
He would know.
Follow Dutch Godshalk on Twitter @DutchGodshalk.
IF YOU GO
Fourplay will perform
at the Keswick Theatre,
291 N. Keswick Ave., Glenside,
on June 25. Doors: 8 p.m.
Tickets: $29.50, $36.50 and $46.50.
For more information, visit