With all the easiness of a tropical wind headed mainland, a relaxed Hutch Hutchinson prepares to depart Hawaii for Los Angeles for an upcoming week of rehearsals with Bonnie Raitt. From there it will be on to New York where the band will perform a series of televised appearances in support of Bonnie’s latest album Slipstream, including stops at David Letterman, Stephen Colbert, Ellen DeGeneres and Good Morning America. It’s the kind of high-profile itinerary that only the top tier of recording artists can generate, but this is the world Bonnie lives in. Hutch has spent most of the last three decades as her steadfast bassist, and it’s a position that is perhaps among the most coveted in rock. But it’s also a well-earned spot, for the bassist has been at the top end of the low end business for what seems like an eternity.
Raitt’s uncanny ability at finding the right material to perform appears to be rivaled only by her penchant for picking the right musicians to back her, although rest assured she is not the only one who has made the Hutchinson discovery. His pages-long discography contains an endless list of music royalty that includes names like Brian Wilson, Al Green, B.B. King, Elton John, Hank Williams Jr., Ringo Starr, Patti LaBelle, Roy Orbison, Boz Scaggs, Randy Newman, and on and on.
Our first of several phone calls finds Hutch in Maui. “When I’m not working, I come over here,” he explains, hearing my interest in his location. “I have a couple of little bands here. I play a lot with Willie Nelson and Mick Fleetwood, and Michael McDonald and Pat Simmons, the Doobies’ guitar player. We have a band and we’re all neighbors, so that’s sort of a fun little thing. And I play occasionally with some Hawaiian guys. I first came over here about forty years ago when I played in a band called Copperhead with John Cipollina, who was Quicksilver’s guitar player. I worked with him and Pete Sears and a bunch of guys. So I’ve had a long presence here for years.” And like the duality of the island he speaks of, Hutch’s laid back demeanor belies a volcanic groove with a bass in his hands; in playing mode his sound is a rumble-ready force that can move the earth. An intelligent and dedicated musical craftsman, he has spent a lifetime studying his instrument and its role. His attention to detail is obvious just by the sheer number of basses in his arsenal, which Hutch estimates to be close to eighty. “I believe in the right tool for the right job,” he says.
If you were to make a line drawing of James “Hutch” Hutchinson’s early musical travels it would probably look a bit like the beginnings of an Etch-A-Sketch drawing, as the young bassist criss-crossed the Western Hemisphere chasing his wide range of musical tastes and opportunities. Born and raised in Massachusetts in the 1950′s, his budding interest in music led to a keen ear for bluegrass, and he tried his hand at mandolin and guitar. At age twelve he was bit by the bass bug after seeing the iconic Wilson Pickett and his band, and was inspired to take up both the electric and upright bass in his high school years. Absorbing the local folk and blues scene of mid-sixties Boston– a unique and multicultural hub that also exposed him to numerous world music genres– Hutch furthered his development with classes at Berklee before heading west to San Francisco’s Bay Area, perhaps the premier folk and blues mecca at the time. In what would seem to be an amazingly positive spin on the phrase “dead on arrival”, Hutch quickly hooked up with members of the Grateful Dead family, including drummer Mickey Hart and engineer Dan Healy. He saw his career kick up several notches as he stayed busy with sessions at Mickey’s studio and local Bay Area gigs throughout the early seventies. Copperhead also found some modest success on the road during that time. “We opened for Steely Dan, the Allman Brothers, Zappa, Poco,” recalls Hutch, “and Weather Report opened for us. That was before Jaco was in the band, when Miroslav was their bass player.”
His musical journey soon headed to Central America, where a call for a session in Guatemala turned into an eighteen-month stay in the region. Hutchinson’s earlier exposure to Latin music paid off nicely as he dove deeper into the genre, while sponging up the varied ethnic music of Central America. The Latin background also helped lay the groundwork for a jazz-fusion project, which he eventually brought back to the States for a major jazz festival in Austin, Texas. It turned out to be an important career move for Hutch; in Austin he got a visit from Charles and Art Neville, who invited him to play with their group The Neville Brothers in New Orleans. Not one to pass up a golden opportunity, the bassist was soon Louisiana bound, and would spend the next five years injecting low frequencies into The Big Easy. Working with the Nevilles and a host of other prominent local musicians was not only a life-changing phase for Hutchinson but a lasting one; to this day the Neville Brothers remain a big part of his life. “They’re still sort of my family,” Hutch says. “I still work with Ivan Neville and those guys a lot. I love them dearly.”
By the age of 25 the world-traveled musician had assimilated a dazzling array of cultural influences, establishing himself as a versatile bassist fluent in a wide range of musical languages. It’s an asset that has certainly served him well in his career. “I’ve done work in Brazil, France, Germany, Scandinavia, and Australia,” says Hutch. “I’ve worked with artists from all over the world. I mean, when you look at my resume, it’s pretty diverse. I think it reflects my taste.” It’s an understatement, of course; when it comes to representing cultural genres, Hutch Hutchinson puts the bass in ambassador.
It was the Neville Brothers connection that would lead Hutchinson to Bonnie Raitt in 1982, by way of keyboardist Ian McLagan, best known at the time as the Rolling Stones keyboard player. Ian, who was also a member of Bonnie’s “Bump Band”, struck up a friendship with Hutch when the Nevilles opened several Stones shows, and would later introduce the bassist to Raitt. When Bonnie’s bass player quit her band just days before a tour was to begin, she hired Hutch, and his career with Bonnie was born. Now, almost thirty years later, their enduring relationship reflects not only a deep dedication of both to their craft, but clearly a mutual admiration and respect for each other as well. Of course it would be tough for anyone to not admire and respect Bonnie Raitt; she is a journeywoman who has chartered her course without compromise; a survivor who paid her dues and persevered, an artist who turned her giant talent into a triumphant career. The next chapter of that career writes itself this year with the brilliant Slipstream (released on her own label Redwing Records) and a major road tour with Hutch and the boys that will last through much of 2012. The album is classic Bonnie, and Hutch’s bass playing is in fine form throughout. The lead-off single, a reggae-infused reworking of the old Gerry Rafferty hit “Right Down The Line”, is the song the band is heavily promoting on their weeklong blitz in New York, and Hutch’s deep dubby bass on the tune seems to summon his inner Aston “Family Man” Barrett, the genius Jamaican bassist that Hutch considers among his biggest influences.
The new album, which I had not yet heard at the time of this interview, was at the top of a list of subjects I was eager to discuss. Our conversations continued by phone from his place in Los Angeles, and I eventually caught up with Hutch for a quick in person hello in Times Square, where the band’s GMA appearance was to be their final destination of a seven day stay in the city. It was a whirlwind of a week for them, but merely a precursor of bigger things to come. Yes folks, Bonnie Raitt is back and coming to a city near you, accompanied by– as always– the one and only James “Hutch” Hutchinson… the Groove King.
Let’s talk about Bonnie’s new album. How’s the new stuff sounding?
It’s fantastic, some of the best stuff we’ve ever done. We’re totally thrilled. She did a record called Green Light years ago, just before I joined the band, and this record has some of those aspects to it, which I think was her most rock and roll period. This is a great record, I’m really thrilled with it. It has our requisite parts reggae, it’s got a really beautiful soulful ballad, and some really raw blues. Some of the tags are long, we really jammed on this record. Bonnie didn’t have a record company breathing down her neck, and she just said, “Let it roll, man”. In a way this is sort of like our Exile On Main Street, in that we just said screw it, we’re gonna let these things play out. Screw all the edits and all of that, either you like it or you don’t. But I think there’s something for everybody; anybody who appreciates her will like something on this record.
Some tracks she produced herself, and some were produced by Joe Henry.
Yeah, and she did more tracks with Joe than the four she ended up using on the record. David Pilch plays bass on three of those four, and the other one is just a duet with her and the piano. The stuff Joe did is pretty much it’s what he does with everyone; it’s acoustic, and it has sort of a darker mood than some of the stuff we do, which is more funky and more of what we’ve traditionally done with her.
What’s it like for you to play in her band?
It’s a breeze, it’s effortless, always. It’s a very special thing we have. The core of the band since the mid-nineties has been Ricky Fataar on drums, myself, and George Marinelli on guitar, although we’ve had numerous keyboard players. But we’re really simpatico and know how to play with her– and we do play with her, you know? Bonnie’s tastes are really broad, really diverse, and we’re able to follow her from genre to genre, whether it’s reggae, African, Americana, or acoustic or electric blues… we have a band that’s able to follow. And playing live, Bonnie takes a lot of chances, we stretch things out quite a bit more than we do in the studio. She gives us a lot of freedom as musicians, which is one of the reasons why musicians love to play with her so much.
The one constant in the band is that we all have our individual styles, but we mesh really well. And Bonnie’s voice really floats above the different genres that we delve into. Since I’ve been with her in the early eighties, she’s explored world music, Celtic music, African music, and we’re able to do that stuff. It’s really authentic, it doesn’t sound like, you know, a bunch of people playing who aren’t of those places. I have a background in a lot of Afro-Caribbean and South American stuff, and Ricky is from South Africa and has a similar perspective on world music. And George too, I mean, George is a like a great Central African highlife type of guitar player.
Does Bonnie have any kind of routine when she’s working out her new material with you guys?
She’ll bring in songs and everybody pretty much has a say. It’s sort of like a benevolent monarchy, you know? It’s her final say, but we all have a lot of input into whatever goes on. She lets us be ourselves when we play, which I think any great artist will do. You need to appreciate the people you’re working with, and you need to appreciate their talents for what they are. I mean, I can’t play slide like her but she can’t play bass like me. [laughs]
When you’re coming up with your parts with Bonnie, or actually with anyone—and I know you probably don’t analyze this– but do you have any kind of process for coming up with the right line, the perfect bass line behind a vocalist?
Generally I’ll try to go with my instinct. Sometimes one questions their instinct, but over the years I’ve learned to go with it. When I was in my twenties and playing with the Neville Brothers, Art Neville was really big on getting me to play what I felt at that moment. I think sometimes we restrict ourselves as players. If you have the technical abilities and prowess, and you’re familiar with your instrument– which you should be– then I think it’s important to sort of let yourself flow with the music. And that’s what I try to do.
With guys I’ve played with a lot over the years, like with Ricky for instance, or Jim Keltner, we’re in sync to such an extent that we don’t even need to think about fills and stuff because generally we’ll hit them at the same time. We’ll hear the same thing in the music, and that will draw us in a certain direction and we’ll end up in the same place. And that’s always a beautiful thing. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, whenever that would happen– that sort of synchronicity– that was always the most beautiful thing to me. I remember saying to John Cipollina onstage once, “Wow man, did you hear that? We all just went to the same place!” And John looked at me—he was about ten years older than me– and he was like, “Yeah, and when it happens next time, don’t tell anyone.” Whether it’s in the band or the audience, those things should be unspoken, you know. But John and I were so close, and I needed to say something to someone. “Wow man, that blew my mind! I can’t believe we all did this at the same time, it was so beautiful!”
So I try to keep that in mind, even when I’m recording. There are little moments, and you’ve gotta sort of go with them. And after a while, I think, your instinct should be telling you that. Just go with it. That’s one of the greatest things about music, that communicative thing. It’s subconscious, and that’s one of the things I love about it so much. That happens a lot with Bonnie and our band, it happens all the time. We’ll be onstage, and she’ll turn around and give me the biggest smile, and it’s like, whoa!
Let’s talk about your equipment. What basses are you playing?
I’m primarily using Lakland basses, live and in the studio. I’ve got a bunch of Laklands, including a Decade that I love. In the studio I have a couple of studio trunks, I have a ‘63 L-Series P-Bass, a Lake Placid blue P-bass that you can see on YouTube in some Joe Cocker videos. I have a ’57 anodized pickguard Sunburst, I’ve got an L-Series Jazz Bass, a beautiful ’64 Sunburst P-bass with really fat LaBellas that I use on a lot of records. All the other strings I use are D’Addarios, I use the chrome flats and I use the 170’s. Some of the other basses I have are Hofners from ’61 and ’63, an old early P-Bass, an early Music Man, a Washburn first edition AB40 acoustic-electric, a Tobias signature 5, a Modulus Quantum 5, a Modulus Graphite which was designed by Geoff Gould, an old Framus…
Wow. How many basses would you say you own?
I think somewhere between 60 and 80.
What are the upright basses you use?
I have an old Czech bass, a Kay upright, an Ampeg Baby Bass, an Azola Baby Bass… I use an NS Design Omni 34″ scale with Bonnie, we call it an “upright on a stick”.
How about your amps and effects?
I’m a big Ampeg guy. I’m standing now in my bedroom and I can see two B-12’s and three B-15’s, so that says something about my fixation with Ampeg. [laughs] With Bonnie live I had used two Ampeg custom made 8×8 cabinets with two rack mount tube SVT’s, and also had a couple of 2 x 10’s on top of the 8 x 8’s. However, I did a major revamp of my rig this week. I’m running an SVT-3 Pro head and preamp into two 2×10 cabs and then into an SVT-2 Pro slaved to power the two 8×8 cabs.
For effects I had been using a Line 6 preamp, the bass POD, but for now I’m using my original TC chorus pedal, and a Source Audio Chorus / Flanger. I’m also using my Ampeg octave divider, which they made for a moment, so if I want something more on the low end I’ll use that as well. I also use a volume pedal and a Cry Baby Bass Wah.
Let me ask you about the U-Bass from, the ukulele company.
Yeah, I love the U-Bass.
Normally I would be skeptical that a 21-inch scale bass could be all that useful, but obviously I’m wrong considering the players who are endorsing it.
And I’ve used it a lot, I had one of the first ones. You know, it’s funny, a lot of people in Hawaii for years had brought me modified ukuleles that they had tried to basically turn into bass, with the same type of fat strings, which is really what gives it its depth and sound. They call these strings pahoehoe strings, it’s a type of rope lava on the Big Island that you’ll see coming out of the volcanos, into the water. And the strings are big, fat and round like a rope lava would be, like the pahoehoe.
My girlfriend used to work in a music store in Hawaii, and they were a big dealer for ukuleles. And Mike Upton, who owns Kala, is a bassist who helped develop this idea, and I’d known Rick Carlson of Kala from when he worked for SWR. The U-Bass is awesome. I just did a record with George and Ricky from Bonnie’s band, and I used it on one of the demos. It’s so good that when we overdubbed on the demo, I couldn’t replicate that bass sound with anything else. It almost sounds like a fat upright, or an early Bill Wyman Stones-y sound, it’s a really cool sound. And so it works in the studio. Some producers, when I’ve pulled it out, have been a little reluctant to even try it. But it’s a matter of taste, and some people will be like “wow, that sounds awesome, let’s use that on the track.” You know what Don Was said? When I first showed him the U-Bass he picked it up and started playing it acoustically, and he said, “Oh my god this sounds like James Jamerson, and it’s not even plugged in.” So some people think it’s a little Jamerson-like, some people think it’s a little Hofner-y, and other people think it sounds like an upright. I think with the fretless acoustic one, you can get a really nice, sort of dull thuddy upright sound. And it’s the most portable instrument ever. I bring one on the road, I use it with Bonnie on a few songs, a few blues songs. And it’s also great because I can bring it on the bus, and if we’re doing demos I’ve got a bass there, you know?
Speaking of Don Was, who produced Bonnie’s Grammy winning albums, he’s someone who you’ve worked with quite a bit, including an album he produced for Ringo Starr. I’m familiar with that album because I wrote one of the tunes on it.
You did? Which song?
It’s called “What Goes Around”.
Wow, that’s awesome, what a great song! That’s the one with the really long tag, right? He called that tune his rock opera. I love that tune.
Thanks! So I’m wondering, what was it like for you doing those sessions with Ringo?
Well, Ringo is such a great guy. The sessions were great, and I really liked that record. I had such a good time making it, and I loved working with him. He said to me at the end of the sessions, “It would be great to have you go on the road, do you have any hits? I have an ‘All Starr’ band, and everybody needs to sing one of their hits.” I said Ringo, I’m a sideman, a studio guy. I guess I could go out and sing “Something To Talk About” or something, but that wouldn’t really work. (laughs)
While we’re on the subject of drummers, you recently played with the Dead’s Bill Kreutzmann in his band BK4. I feel like I’ve been listening to Kreutzmann my whole life, but never heard him with any bass player other than Phil Lesh. What is it like for you to play with him?
Well, George Porter from the Meters is doing that band now. But Bill’s an interesting guy, you know, he’s a good guy and he’s fun to play with. You have to have a good time with him, that’s the main thing. And you never know where it’s gonna go, you can’t count on the same groove happening two nights in a row. With a lot of drummers, they’ll get an idea for a tune and they’ll stay with it. With Bill, the moment means everything. I think with a lot of jam band guys you just have to sort of go with the flow, in that you have to be in the moment, you have to play in the moment. You can’t pre-conceptualize anything. And you have to play a lot, which for me is something I’ve learned about because I try to be understated. Bill told me whatever you do, don’t stop playing. You know, even between the songs they like to fool around. So it’s a different way of playing for me, because a lot of the stuff I do is mostly groove-oriented. I’m lucky to play on a lot of different types of stuff, and even within a groove I feel a bass player should be at liberty to interact with the melody and other stuff that’s going on, but it’s just conceptually completely different from the way I’m used to working. But I think it’s an interesting concept.
If you go to Kreutzmann’s website, there’s a little music section and you can hear BK4. It’s Bill, myself, Scott Murawski and a woman named Tara Nevins, who’s from a great band called Donna the Buffalo. There are four songs from a live show we did for the Sirius radio Grateful Dead channel. We played a few Dead songs, and I think one of the guitarist’s songs. But I had the flu at the time, I felt horrible, and so I thought the show was horrible. And you know what? When I listened to it later it sounded so awesome. I even played it for our drummer Ricky Fataar, who is a real groove guy, a “groove gazelle”, as Bonnie calls him, and he said, “Wow, this sounds great, this stuff is amazing!”.
What do you think Bonnie would say are the qualities that you bring to her music?
Oooh… I’d say ask her. [laughs] I mean, I’m still around after 28 years so there must be something. Let me see…I don’t really know, that’s sort of a tough question Rick.
Ok, let’s say you were giving advice to another bass player, and telling them what to bring to somebody’s tunes.
Well, you know what? Bonnie calls me her “musical ranger”, because something I’ve always encouraged people to do– like when I do clinics and stuff– is to not be closed-minded about different forms of music. It’s easier now with the Internet, because you can go online and listen to Brazilian music, you can listen to African or Polynesian, or whatever, you can listen to these different forms. But back when I was starting out, and even up into the 80’s, you really had to look hard for different types of music.
That’s why Boston and New York, both places with a large diverse international population, were so great for young musicians. You could easily find music from different places and different genres there. If there was something I didn’t like, I would try to listen to it more to see why other people did. And I’m not talking about pop, you know, pop is everywhere. It’s omnipresent and it always has been, on the radio. I’m talking about roots forms of music. And that’s one of the things that I bring to the table, I think. I’m pretty knowledgeable about a lot of forms of roots music, whether it’s American blues or Afro-Cuban stuff, or South African or West African or Scandinavian or Polynesian or whatever. Or Brazilian, which I love, or Peruvian, Afro-Peruvian forms, American folk music… I mean, they’re all folk music. Everything is folk music in a way.
You bring authenticity to the music.
You know, years ago I did an interview and we were discussing this. I had mentioned that in one week I did three sessions, and they were with the Chieftans with Ziggy Marley, Garth Brooks and B.B. King.
You don’t get much more diverse than that.
Yeah, and I thought, gee this is awesome. In one week I’ve got pure Guinesss-drinking Irishmen who are old friends, I’ve got Ziggy and his posse with their spliff, I’ve got Garth, who is like as Oakie as you can get, and B.B. King, you know? So I think I’m able to go and sort of be accepted in these little communities. I mean, that’s what we do as sidemen and as session musicians. You never know what you’re going to get called upon to do, or who you’re gonna get called upon to work with. And it’s important to be diverse and accepting and tolerant even, in a cultural way.