Session bass supremo Justin Meldal-Johnsen talks playing with Nine Inch Nails and Beck, and reveals his studio secrets

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BASS WEEK: “One week I was in the studio with Dr Dre, the next week I was in the studio doing dream pop stuff,” begins bassist/producer extraordinaire Justin Meldal-Johnsen. “Not many guys get that kind of access… I’m pretty lucky!”

Luck may have played a part in his career, though having worked with Beck, Nine Inch Nails, Air, Gnarls Barkley, The Mars Volta, Tori Amos, Dixie Chicks, Macy Gray - and that’s not even half of it - you can’t help thinking JMJ is probably one of the greatest session bass players in music history.

And then there’s his work as a producer, having been in the control for records by Garbage, Paramore, Jimmy Eat World, The Raveonettes, M83, Wolf Alice - often lending more than his critical ear by co-writing and performing on these legendary recordings…

People might look at my CV and think, ‘I guess he’s cool but he’s also kinda all over the place!’ Frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way…

“I divide my time playing and producing, constantly multi-tasking,” he continues. “I guess in more recent years, I’ve spent a bit more of my time in the studio as a producer. My session playing career has become more minimal - I do it on a case-by-case basis, while before I used to go and do whatever.

“Now, I have to prioritise my time, which is a strange luxury to have, I’m not used to it… I’m used to hustling like anybody.

“I guess around eight years ago, during my time in Nine Inch Nails, I started thinking about taking my experience and skills to the other side of the glass as a producer. It happened by force of will - I sorta jumped into it!”

Forcing himself into such differing musical environments has become the bassist’s forte. While most session players find their niche and hone in on its specifics, Justin is the kind of player that’s primed and ready to be dropped into any situation, and perhaps that’s one of the secrets to his long, illustrious career. It’s almost as if his USP is simply not having one…

“I’m a natural chameleon,” he laughs.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a vain person or the kinda guy that sees myself as a renaissance man - someone who, out of ego, has to be involved in all sorts of styles, approaches and hats.

“It’s more of an osmosis thing, where I feel this weird musical vibe in me… it’s a hard thing to explain. I just land in places! I don’t find a lot of comfort in sticking with something, which may work to my detriment.

“People might look at my CV and think, ‘I guess he’s cool but he’s also kinda all over the place!’ Frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way…”

In session

But how did he become so in-demand? The answer is a lot simpler than you might think…

“Early on in my career, when I was only a musician, I was in this band called Medicine. We were a bit like LA’s answer to My Bloody Valentine - signed to Creation in the UK and Rick Rubin’s American label at home. Everything was noisy and caustic but there was also beautiful melodies and harmonised vocals.

“It was cool… we toured, made no money but had a good time before the band imploded. During that time, I quit a job and somehow fell into this idea of playing in recording sessions.

I don’t want to say it was just luck, but I found myself in a lot of different circumstances

“In LA, you either get into the session scene by extraordinary skills and mind-blowing talent or simply by being there. I honestly don’t think I started out as the former; I was just around!

“I don’t want to say it was just luck, but I found myself in a lot of different circumstances. I did some hip-hop stuff, then pop, then film and TV, met a guy called Tyler Bates, who is one of the biggest composers in the world right now, and ended up doing all his films.

“When you’ve been around long enough, people find comfort in your presence. It really is a thing, like this social osmosis, which led to me always doing varied shit.”

One of the biggest breaks came from playing with alternative hip-hop star Beck, whose second album Odelay would become one of the best-selling records of 1996 and later be considered one of the most definitive albums of its decade. Justin would remain a fundamental part of Beck’s recording and touring line-up until May last year…

“By the time I was playing with Beck in ’95/’96, I learned his whole raison d'être was being musically liberated and having a lot of range,” he notes.

“Which I did! There were the funky moments in the set, then blues, funk, country, hip-hop… all of that is part of the Beck world. I had to apply my chameleonic discipline to that gig for 20 years. Which, in turn, informs all the other stuff…

“People started thinking, ‘Oh, Justin could do that’ and it’s the same with producing. ‘Justin would be good for producing pop songs with Tegan and Sara or The Raveonettes or School Of Seven Bells!’”

A different sort of big break came in 2008, when Justin was invited by Trent Reznor to be part of NIN’s touring line-up - headlining the biggest stages the world had to offer.

The bassist/producer fondly recalls what it was like being in close proximity to Trent and long-serving guitarist/right-hand man Robin Finck…

“Robin’s one of the finest musicians on the planet and is literally capable of anything. We’re good friends and our families hang out… he just floors me with his incredible passion and delivery and all that beautiful sound design. In my eyes, he’s the best guitarist on the planet.

“Trent has the uncanny ability of finding the finest musicians on the planet, period. People that can convey the passion, intensity and ethos of NIN on stage. He knows how to find people that do that and also be flexible enough to play the intimate stuff from The Fragile and Ghosts. Trent requires that… you need a really deep musicality and be able to play with passion and fire. Robin is the embodiment of that.”

Top (hired) gun

All these experiences have amassed some unrivalled insight into the world of session playing. Frankly, it would be downright rude to have such a seasoned musician talking to MusicRadar and not ask for some tips on how to become a better hired gun…

“The biggest pitfall is when you cross a line and show frustration at what you’re being asked to do,” offers Justin.

“That happens when you’ve done one too many sessions with that artist! You hesitate or roll your eyes or sigh… if there’s a moment like that, it’s a real dark hole of jadedness you can get into.

“There have been moments I’ve felt like doing that, because you might not be playing the best music or whatever, but I chose to hold it together and was better for it.

When I’m in session mode, I’m there to serve you. I am a blank canvas that’s there exclusively for you in that moment

“When I’m in session mode, I’m there to serve you. I am a blank canvas that’s there exclusively for you in that moment. My sole responsibility is to assimilate all the wishes in your musical mind. The moment a session guy forgets that goal is the moment they are losing it and probably not in the right place…”

“The other pitfall I’ve seen is when people start getting carried away with gear and thinking that the latest, greatest modern thing would be perfect for whatever record they are working on. I’ve seen it happen time and time again.

“In fact, I did a session recently where the drummer and guitarist were members of a legendary band, who shall remain nameless, and were called because of what they’d done in the past. One dude shows up with a Line 6 POD rack and a MIDI pickup on a really modern guitar and the producer was like, ‘I don’t want that shit! I want the stuff you used back in the ’80s.’  

“There’s nothing wrong with progressing and trying new things, but when you’ve been called into a session or inhabiting a role - it’s good to put into context why they called you, why you’re there.

“You’re not necessarily there to innovate - it depends, sometimes you are - but you’re not there to show off your new flashy gear… you’re there to be a badass in reference to something you did prior. It’s important not to lose sight of that.”