Cris Cohen: I wanted to start off by talking about your current gig. What was the most challenging aspect of immersing yourself in the Toto catalog?
John Pierce: The short answer: Learning the songs. That has been challenging. You're expected to have your stuff together. There is no messing around at a Toto rehearsal. That's thanks to our leader, Steve Lukather. He runs a tight ship. I've known the guy all my life and he's always been that way. If I make a little mistake or something, he'll turn around. He'll let me know that he knows.
So I am doing my homework. The toughest parts are the beginnings and the endings that are different than the records.
Cris Cohen: As we've talked about in the past, there is that special connection between the bass player and the drummer. What is the key to meshing with a new drummer?
John Pierce: That's a very good question. I've done it so many times because all those years in the studio, every day is a different drummer. I mean at this level, when guys are as good as Sput is for instance, meshing happens pretty fast. This guy's an extremely skilled musician.
The key is listening, listening to the drummer. What does he feel like? My job is really to do what it takes to get on his clock. And with Sput it was a piece of cake. He’s really an amazing drummer.
In this case with these guys that I'm surrounded by, I'm certainly in good hands. These guys make everyone else sound better.
Cris Cohen: In one of the interviews I did with Huey Lewis, he said he really liked it when you joined the band or, say, Stef Burns started doing the guitar duties. He said it brought a new feel and appreciation for these songs. He felt it was kind of a recharge in a way.
John Pierce: Yeah, you get like a different take on it, you know? If you've been with the same guys for years and years, sometimes it's good to just mess it up a little bit or change things. You get a different perspective, a different take on the songs. And Huey has always been a very accommodating cat.
Cris Cohen: This is going to go a little bit on the deep side, but the bass is such an under-the-radar instrument. The guitar just slices through everything. The drums pound. But you talk to professional musicians and they speak very passionately about the need for a really good bass line in a song. But the bass doesn't stand out like the other instruments do.
So I'm wondering if you can express… how does the bass, an under-the-radar instrument, influence a song or a performance?
John Pierce: Bass is one of those instruments where no one's really aware of it, but if you remove it, people will go, “What happened? Something just changed. What the hell? Somebody left the room or the bottom fell out of it.” That's literally what would happen. So I don't think people are zoned in on a bass part when they listen to the radio, but they feel it. It's more felt.
Whereas, like you say, the lead guitar player goes out there and does a solo, it's front and center. Bass is so much more subtle and in the background generally. We kind of stay in our little place.
They say the common bass player is more of a team player. And that's why I think a lot of bass players become producers. Because they are really always listening to everybody. It's not a solo instrument, at least in the type of work I do. I’m an accompanist.
But that's the best description. It's something that you won't notice until it's gone.
Cris Cohen: To me, it's one of those elements that makes a song three dimensional in the sense. For a while, I didn't have much of a stereo. But that was because life was normal and I was going to concerts regularly.
Then COVID shuts everything down and I get tired of streamed music, with its two-dimensional -- or even one-dimensional -- sounds. So I started building up my stereo again. And that's when I really heard specifically your parts, bass parts again. It's what seemed to me to make the music more three dimensional. It's not changing the overall essence of the song, but it's broadening it.
John Pierce: Well, what's interesting is that, with this technology we have, it's crazy because the sound has gone down the tubes. People are listening on their frigging phones. You can't hear a bass on the phone. It's like, “Don't play me that on that phone. I'm not going to hear it.” That's flat as a pancake. You're just getting these upper frequencies. All you're going to hear is the vocals, guitar, hi-hat, and snare.
No kick drum. No bass. You're missing out. If you're going from the sound of computer speakers or phone speakers to even a halfway decent stereo, it should be enlightening. So good for you getting your stereo together. It makes it more enjoyable to listen to music.
Cris Cohen: And then switching gears slightly, you're such a low-key guy. But you've been working constantly… in the studio, on the road, etc. And there's so much out there that tells you, “If you want to have a career, you've got to be big. You've got to be this massive self-promoter…” and all this kind of stuff. So for those of us introverted geeks out there who find comfort in the fact that a guy has been successful without being bombastic and over the top…
John Pierce: You don't even need hair.
Cris Cohen: Yeah. Which is why I've been getting rid of mine over time.
John Pierce: I think that will help. I wish I hadn't lost my hair when I was 18.
Cris Cohen: Well, you probably didn't get carded, though.
John Pierce: Yeah, that's true.
Cris Cohen: So I was curious, what advice do you have for other musicians who are low key, who don't want to be in-your-face promoters, but also want to stay busy and in demand?
John Pierce: If you have enough passion about the music, if that's what you love to do, I think that that will take you much further than any kind of… you don't need to be loud. Do your talking with your playing, would be my advice. Just being yourself is always good advice for nearly anything.
Cris Cohen: You've worked with a very diverse collection of artists. Everyone from Mick Jagger to Celine Dion to Jewel. What's your key to being so adaptable to different styles?
John Pierce: Repetition. Training. Listening. And just actually doing it. I mean, sometimes you go to the studio and you almost have no choice, but you find a way, even if it's not something that you necessarily feel that comfortable with. Always have an open mind about things. Don't categorize yourself like “I'm a rock bass player” or “I'm a jazz bass player.” If you're interested in doing studio work, playing on a variety of stuff, you really need to have all of these tools. And you only get them from doing it. I mean, going to music school didn't hurt, that's for sure. Even if it wasn't the full four years of school, it was enough to immerse myself in the bass.
Cris Cohen: You went to Berklee in Boston. Was there a gig or a session that stands out in your mind from there?
John Pierce: When I went to Berklee, in the dormitory where all first-year students lived, in the basement of the building were what they called “ensemble rooms.”
You had, say, 10 rooms and each one was full. There's like a jam session going on in each room. Like so many things in life, it was very cliquey. And then the competition at Berklee. I think there were at the time maybe 200 bass players. It was very competitive. And there were only two or three cool jam sessions. That competition made it scary, but man did it pay off for me. The competition was part of the education. That was the toughest it's ever been for me. I had some teachers and some experiences that scared the hell out of me.
I remember I got in the big band, which was a big deal at Berklee. I was not really a jazz musician. I was just learning it. Well, I get sort of thrust into this deal. And at the end of the first day, the conductor said, “John, your time is out to lunch.” I forget precisely what he suggested, but said, listen to (these recordings). “And if you don't have it together, you can't be in this band.”
So I was horrified. I was devastated and I just listened. And then the next time I showed up, I had miraculously better time. There were little moments, the wake-up calls. “You got a ways to go, pal. You got stuff to learn.”
Cris Cohen: And then last time we talked, you mentioned how at the time, you were trying to write a song pretty much every day. Are you still keeping up with that?
John Pierce: Not as much, only because I'm learning these new songs. But there's an hour of every day where I do something that's just for me, just me writing my own silly little songs.
Cris Cohen: And what's usually the jumping-off point for an idea? Is it a bass line? Is it a lyric? Is it...
John Pierce: For me, it's usually... It's either a bass part, a bass line, or a beat. Rarely do I get a melodic thing going first. It's generally -- being a rhythm section guy -- it's a groove. It's a vibe.
Cris Cohen: Has all of that songwriting work influenced your bass playing in any way?
John Pierce: That's a really good question. I would say no. Probably not. It's probably sort of a separate entity almost. I mean, my compositional work... I almost look at it still as more of a hobby. Whereas with bass, that's how I make a living. But on the side, I like to dive into this little music hobby. And occasionally I've gotten lucky with the hobby. But has it influenced? I think they're very connected, the way I play bass, the way I write music. There must be similarities to it.
That's a good question, though, Cris.
Cris Cohen: Throwing your mind into a different area, it's like, "Oh, well this kind of changes how I think about this."
John Pierce: It does. What's actually really interesting is, when I write a song, my approach to the bass… I don't really spend too much time with it, oddly enough. It's like, "Oh yeah, the bass. I'll just throw that in." Because for me, that's the easy part.
Cris Cohen: And do you try and come up with parts for every instrument?
John Pierce: I do. Most of what I write probably is done on the piano. But a few years back, I started studying drums. Did I tell you that?
Cris Cohen: No.
John Pierce: Yeah. I started about five years ago. Started taking drum lessons, like bebop, like real jazz. And that's had more of an influence on my bass playing than anything.
I'm not a very good guitar player and I use that to sort of... If I want to dumb something down or write something that might be more accessible, I will write on guitar, because my limitations sort of help me in a way.
Because with the bass, sometimes maybe I can get a little too muso. People might not get it. It might be too adult, too whatever. Then give me a guitar and I sound younger. Yeah, I definitely use different instruments to write different styles of music.
Cris Cohen: Recently you wrote “While We're Young,” which was on Huey Lewis & The News' “Weather.” And Huey talked about how much he loved it. Johnny Colla talked about how much he loved the different vibe that came as a result of that. And did you write the horn parts for that song?
John Pierce: I did. But Johnny certainly fixed what was not legit, shall we say. I mean, the horn parts were definitely part of what created the whole thing. I think it's an important hook part of the song. And again, Johnny did fix what was wrong about it. I'm not a horn player and we just play with these things on a keyboard. But then you don't always realize that “No, no, no. A horn player can’t do that.” People use synthesized bass sometimes on their demo that they want me to play on and will say, "Play this part." If you can't, it's like, "No, it's physically impossible to do that on a bass guitar." So you live and learn.
Cris Cohen: Although, I wonder, in those instances, if it's physically impossible, maybe it may not sound as great as the writer thinks it sounds.
John Pierce: Oh, you mean like maybe it's not so important a part?
Cris Cohen: Yeah, or, when I hear that, I think really busy over-playing kind of thing.
John Pierce: Well, I mean, there's been plenty of instances where someone's presented me with a part like that. And you can't just go, "That's shit, I'm not going to play it."
You have to give it an attempt and at least show people why, perhaps. And in a perfect world, you have an alternative, like, "What about...” or “I got an idea. Try this." And then hopefully the reaction is, "Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, I like that. That's better." It's not always the case. Sometimes you get, "No, I like what I did. Go back to what's exactly on the demo." And then that's just it. "Okay." Hired gun.
Cris Cohen: Also, it seems like it would be kind of like writing. Oftentimes, first drafts have way too much thrown in. And then in the editing process, you're like, "All right. Take this out and tighten everything up." And then it's like, "Oh, okay, that's much better."
John Pierce: Editing. Turns out it's everything, isn't it? For some reason, I think during this pandemic, we've all watched a few movies or TV shows. All of a sudden, I notice cameras and shots much more, but more than anything, the editing aspect. Like I was telling you, you don't know the bass until it leaves. The same thing is true… we watch films and so much goes by that you don't notice. Because they're doing such a good job presenting the film, they don't want you to be thinking of edits for Christ's sake, right?
But when it's done well, it's just so effective and such an important part of filmmaking, telling a story, anything. And same in music, editing is... Sometimes it's about the stuff you get rid of. And one thing I don't like is clutter, especially in music. There's plenty of it out there. I like to hear separation between instruments. I don't like a lot of ambiance and reverb. I like stuff right in your face that you can hear really clearly. And if I hear spaces, it's not just a big, compressed wad of sound, which is what you get on the radio most of the time.
Cris Cohen: Yeah. I remember a friend of mine went to one of these multi-act shows where it was an emphasis on guitar. All these bands had really big guitarists. He said, " I left somewhere in the midst of the second act."
I'm like, "Why?"
And he said, "Well, by then I'd heard every single note you could possibly play."
John Pierce: It's true. And that's why I think that, the more I've studied the drums, the more I realize that, as a bass player, I can actually do less. As you get older, you figure these things out. It's more about what you don't play.