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One for the road - Tal Wilkenfeld: “I really appreciate when musicians are experimental on stage and they leave their ego behind”

(Image credit: Kory Thibeault)

Top bassist Tal Wilkenfeld on the reviving qualities of tea and a ghastly experience at 35,000ft...

What was the first gig you played and how did it go?

“My first public gig to a real audience? The Allman Brothers. I sat in with them when I was 19 years old. A couple of the band members saw me playing in clubs in New York City, like jazz clubs. But, technically, my first gigs were playing to five or six people in little clubs when I moved to NYC [from Australia] at 18. I’d been playing bass for maybe a year and I was determined to study all the time by playing live - the best kind of study.”

Describe your current stage rig...

It’s all about the mix. Most of my soundcheck time is spent just trying to get a good mix

“In terms of basses, I have a 1969 P-Bass in Pelham Blue, that’s my main bass. Then I play a Harmony, I’ve no idea what year that is, and then I play a Sadowsky five-string with a high C. I have some guitars: an old Epiphone, an old Gibson and a baritone acoustic. There’s no make [on the baritone]; Jackson Browne put that instrument together, he kinda designed it.

“I have a couple of TC Electronic pedals, a delay and a reverb. I have an EBS OctaBass pedal that I guess I use a little bit... that’s really about it. I haven’t figured out what I’m playing through at the moment, amp-wise; there hasn’t been anything completely consistent. I was playing EBS stuff for a while and then I played Ampegs for a little while. I’m just sort of floating.”

What’s on your rider?

“Our rider usually has smoked salmon and avocados on it... It’s all healthy stuff. Apple cider vinegar, tea - I’m a big tea drinker. That’s about it. I generally try to make a smoothie backstage, too.”

What’s your tip for getting a good live sound?

“Have a good front of house engineer. That’s so much of it, y’know? It’s all about the mix. Most of my soundcheck time is spent just trying to get a good mix. My signal’s pretty direct: just plug the bass in and they feed it to the audience - the direct sound - so your live sound is more about the engineers you’re working with.”

What non-musical item couldn’t you do without on tour?

“Tea. I like English Breakfast, Earl Grey and green tea - those are the ones I go for in the daytime. And then at night time, I like chamomile, rooibos or peppermint. I probably have about six cups of tea a day... I’m Australian, so technically I guess we get it from you guys. My friends from England tease me, because I use almond milk in my English Breakfast tea instead of regular [cow’s] milk. They’re like, ‘That’s not tea, that’s not tea... ’ but I like it.”

What are the best venues you’ve played in and why?

“Hmm, that’s a tricky one. Okay, Montreux Jazz Festival: the main stage there, because Claude Nobs was so passionate about sound, so that was always really enjoyable.

“Sweetwater in San Francisco. Bob Weir has really dialled that place in. He also cares very much about sound and so that club is really fun to play in. Then, I suppose on the larger scale, I’ve played Madison Square Garden a few times, that was pretty epic. And The Royal Albert Hall was remarkable, too.”

Hell and back

What’s the worst journey you’ve had either to or from a gig?

“The worst journey to a gig? Jeez. Oh, I know what the worst journey was. The very first time that I was auditioning for Jeff Beck’s band, they were flying me from LA and I decided to go and get some barbecue chicken pizza before my flight took off. Then I got on the plane, [drummer] Vinnie Colaiuta was talking very intensely about politics or something and I remember saying to him, ‘Hey, Vinnie, I’m feeling a little sick,’ or something, and I remember him saying, ‘Oh, really? That’s a shame...’ and he went back into his political rant. 

“About two minutes later I held up a filled-up bag and I said, ‘There it is.’ I’d thrown up into this bag without him even noticing because he was raving on about politics. The 10-hour journey was me, sick, to the point that when we landed I almost fell down the stairs of the aeroplane onto my hands and knees. Then got straight into an ambulance, went to the hospital, got put on a drip and they ended up leaving me in the hospital overnight.

When we landed I almost fell down the stairs of the aeroplane onto my hands and knees. Then got straight into an ambulance

“I woke up the next morning feeling a little bit better, but still pretty horrible and [Jeff’s manager] said, ‘Okay, are you ready to go to Jeff’s?’ So we drove to Jeff’s house and it was a three- or four-hour drive and when I arrived I thought we were going to hang out, relax, chill. But as soon as we got there Jeff’s like, ‘You ready to play?’ So we went upstairs and rattled off his entire set in probably an hour and the chemistry between us was so amazing. But it was so funny that I was barely walking.”

What’s the closest you’ve come to a Spinal Tap moment on tour?

“I guess it was when Spinal Tap actually turned up for a rehearsal. A couple of the guys from that movie turned up and one of them brought Jeff a crazy guitar. I was told that one of the guys in the band was based on Jeff Beck, no? He’s quite friendly with those guys.”

What’s your best tip for getting the audience on your side?

“I don’t know that I could control that even if I wanted to, but when you’re passionate about what you do that must shine through and connect with people. My favourite way of connecting with an audience is telling some jokes or just back and forth banter with them and make it more casual. The songs on this album I’ve just made [Love Remains] are serious songs - they’re about heartbreak and loss and love - and so sometimes it’s just nice to break that seriousness for a second with the crowd.”

What’s your favourite live album?

“Any of The Grateful Dead’s catalogue. I love The Grateful Dead, absolutely love it. It takes me into another realm. I’ve performed with Bob Weir a couple of times - hopefully a lot more times in the future - and I really appreciate when musicians are experimental on stage and they leave their ego behind. They’re not trying to play to prove themselves, they’re just expressing themselves. When I hear that in a musician, that’s the most attractive quality. I think that comes with age and experience, but it’s also just your taste, y’know?”

Tal Wilkenfeld’s latest solo album, Love Remains, is out now on BMG Records.

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