Reggie: Nerve Bundle is playing for two nights at The Baked Potato in the beginning of December. It's becoming a very special Christmas Season annual event. Talk to us about Nerve Bundle.
Jeff Babko: "I’m pretty sure it began with a kernel of an idea when Luke and Jorgen Carlsson were hanging out. Toss Panos and I had played a regular gig at the Potato for over 10 years so we had a groove going… and Jorgen and Toss had toured together. I had obviously done lots with Luke, arranging and playing on the “Santamental” record after subbing for Paich on the “Livefields” Toto tour in 2000, and we’d been collaborating on random things since. So it all mashed together, and after some auditioning inappropriate names, Luke chose “Nerve Bundle” for this little combo. It’s a Baked Potato stretch fest but the emphasis is on the rock energy versus over jazziness. Somehow it’s become a Christmas thing, primarily, I think, because we’re all in town at that time for the most part. Jorgen’s touring with Govt Mule and Luke with Toto make them tough to pin down."
Reggie: You guys seem to have a ton of fun with Nerve Bundle. I've done a few of the entire hangs from sound check until the end of the night at almost 2am. It's non stop jokes and laughter from the minute someone walks in the door. I know it's work but you couldn't tell from all the fun you guys are having.
Jeff: "Well I disagree; it’s hardly “work”. It is fun. That’s another great element of doing it during the holiday season; it’s such a festive time of year anyway. And we’re all friends that just don’t get to hang out often enough. So whether we’re bullshitting verbally or musically, it’s a bunch of laughs."
Reggie: Everyone in Nerve Bundle plays The Baked Potato with various other groups. Toshi Yanagi and Jimmy Earl from the Jimmy Kimmel Show and Michael Landau Jimmy Johnson and yourself from the James Taylor Band play there too. Describe The Baked Potato for our readers especially the non Angelenos.
Jeff: "It’s an unassuming hole in the wall. But let me tell you, and you know this, the walls that contain that hole are sacred. So much inspired music has been created in that little place. I first went there with my father at age 14 to see Don Randi’s band, and then I’d save up all my money from either chores or working at Magic Mountain or the local pizza place for the $15 weekend cover charge and my two Coca Colas. I saw supergroups with Landau, JR, Stubenhaus and Joe Sample, or “Dog Cheese” or Los Lobotomys or “Karizma” or whoever. I knew it was where the real session guys went at night to get loose and work their stuff out. It was the stuff of Los Angeles music legend. And great music is still being made there. Musicians still stretching and working it out. It’s a miracle and a blessing that the place still stands, and stands FOR all of these great things. Thanks to Justin and Don Randi for keeping the building and the spirit alive."
Reggie: When you play The Baked Potato the fans including fellow musicians are right on top of you. You never know who could be sitting a few feet away from you. Anyone from Jeff Beck to Joe Bonamassa could there. Are you conscious or aware of who's there to check you guys out?
Jeff: "If Jeff Beck were there I’d have an accident in me trousers. That guy transcends the guitar; he makes his instrument sing. I played once orchestral cues on a synthesizer sitting in the pit with the violins on a Jeff Beck gig at the Nokia just to be onstage even near him. And his soundcheck performance was mind blowing that day. Anyway, yeah, usually the real local musicians are hiding out in that back corner by the bar. Pretty much always. It was a trip when I first started playing there because it really was where all the local greats hang. But then it became home to me, and now having my fellow musicians there brings a feeling of family and camaraderie. I will admit I’ve tried to convince my keyboard playing colleagues in attendance just to take over the gig so I didn’t have to smear my musical BS in front of them, but everyone in that room generally respects everyone else. It really is kind of a sacred, yet no judgement place to play and hang."
Reggie: It's been awhile since I've interviewed you. You're still going strong with The Jimmy Kimmel Show and James Taylor.Could you update us or refresh us on those two killer gigs.
Jeff: "Yeah, man; can you believe it? 14 years with Kimmel now. It was touch and go those first few seasons; we really didn’t know what we were doing. Flailing and figuring it out. But now we’ve hit a cool and comfortable stride and Jimmy’s just great. He works so hard and it such a genuine, wonderful man. Before Kimmel, our house band, which is now called “Cleto & The Cletones”, was just a cover band made of friends playing at Cafe Cordiale in Sherman Oaks. We played twice a month and I drank far too many vodka/tonics and the laughs flowed as freely as the music. So this band has been intact for a very long time. It’s another situation which feels very familial. We’re not sure how much longer Jimmy will want to go; the guy works so freaking hard. But we’re enjoying the ride, and I’m very grateful. I get to score comedy pieces both live and recorded, which is a fun challenge, and we’ve had a lot of great musicians sit in with the band. My favorite might have been Todd Rundgren; he’s one of my heroes. Also Maceo Parker was amazing. The band never grooved like that before or since; that guy has a supernatural ability to make musicians put things in the deepest pocket. And right now I’m working on the Emmys, which Kimmel is hosting, so I’m working from two angles, which is interesting. But he takes things so seriously and is so committed to this job."
"The James Taylor gig is still surreal. I had to turn down a spring leg of this year’s tour because of Kimmel duties and also a regular weekend touring commitment I have with comedians Steve Martin and Martin Short. We’ve been working with that act a lot more regularly now, and I’ve become very involved, so it’s harder to sub out. But I’m doing a bunch with James and a very small “chamber” ensemble this fall doing private events. Obviously, when it’s with the full band, just playing with Gadd every night is the most delightful kick in the pants. And I grew up listening to James Taylor, and when I first saw the gig at the Miami Arena live in 1991, with Landau and Carlos Vega and Grolnick, I was just blown away. I went to see that version of the band a number of times; it epitomized the sound and precision of world class support musicianship for me. And just listening to James play the guitar and sing these songs he’s sung a trillion times, and deliver them with complete conviction every time, as if he’s just written them, is unbelievably inspiring."
Reggie: You had a very cool project with former Toto drummer and Steve Lukather musical partner Simon Phillips "Vantage Point". Could you tell us about that.
Jeff: "Doves Of Fire? Yeah what was that?! I think Luke and Simon were on the road and decided they wanted to “fuze out” and play Mahavishnu stuff. I’d been playing a lot with Simon at the time, a lot of fusion type music, and I was the natural choice. And Melvin Davis played the 18 string bass. It was recorded live in Japan, but the tapes will sadly probably never materialize. I was honored to be in that little quartet; we took no prisoners. Somehow playing all that odd time music and really trying to nail these complicated lines, we were still laughing and having fun. That was a long time ago..."
Reggie: You have a current project that includes onetime Toto drummer Keith Carlock "Band of Other Brothers". I just met Keith in Nashville at the Toto gig. He is a monster player. Could you tell us about that project.
Jeff: "The cat’s out of the bag! Yeah that’s going to come out next month. It was an idea that stemmed from Jeff Coffin, the sax player in the Dave Matthews Band, and I wanting to get together with Keith in Nashville. Keith and Jeff Coffin both live there. Jeff and I had already done a trio record with drums, last time with Vinnie Colaiuta, and I didn’t really want to do another trio thing where I was doing the heavy lifting playing bass and all that. So I had been listening to a lot of Pat Martino and reading his autobiography, which is deep. I realized Will Lee had played bass on Pat’s 70’s record “Starbright”, so I decided to ask if he’d be down to fly to Nashville. He immediately said yes. We were social media buddies and had hung a little bit, both at Letterman and when he’s in LA or I’m in New York, but we hadn’t really played together. Then I thought, ok with the Pat Martino vibe floating around, why not add my friend Nir Felder, who is a monster jazz and all around guitar player based in New York. The guy is phenomenal. It all just came together. And then I spoke to my friend Niko Bolas, the legendary engineer, who by the way, is the cover model for the Toto “Farenheit” record, which not a lot of people know! Anyway Niko used to live in Nashville for a short time, and I asked for studio recommendations, and he just barked back, “Blackbird, and I’m flying down to record it!” So that was all done. Niko had engineered the last trio record I did with Coffin. It all came together amazingly. Coffin, myself and Nir all brought in some tunes and we cut them. Great chemistry, great energy. I’m really happy with it. We’re hoping to get out and play live; Dave Matthews is taking a year off so it’s a real possibility."
Reggie: Tell us about the Martin Short/Steve Martin gig.
Jeff: "What can I say? These guys. I’ve been with Marty for 17 years now, so that’s a known entity for me. We really connect and I know how to follow him; we have a real comic and musical shorthand. When Steve was introduced into the mix a few years ago, we all had to feel out what that new chemistry was, and I have to say it came together pretty easily and quickly. Steve is very complex and there are no accidents in this show; he is the consummate writer and preparer. He works so hard on everything, including this traveling live show. After a few performances with just Steve, Marty and myself, Steve brought along the Steep Canyon Rangers, his bluegrass band from Asheville, NC to be a part of the show. That really glued the whole thing together. They are great guys and extraordinary musicians. It’s a real traveling revue now; we’ve got a really good thing going. I’m very proud of that show and my little contribution to it. Spending time with Steve is fascinating. Brilliant man."
Reggie: You have played on some great records. I'm going to name just a few of them and if you could give me a few words on each one that would be great.
James Taylor: Covers
Jeff: "First and, so far, only time recording properly with Gadd, so there’s that. My main concern was not to rush and be all on top of his shit, and I’m not sure I succeeded. But so much fun. Always lovely to record at James’ barn in the Berkshires, and this was no exception. I’m very proud to have made it onto a James Taylor record. It means a lot to me."
Sheryl Crow: 100 Miles From Memphis
Jeff: "This was a very special recording and project. It was an attempt to go more “soul” for her, and some of my closest friends and respected musicians were involved. Doyle Bramhall III called me to be a part of it, and I love Doyle and it’s the first time he’s really reached out to collaborate on something. I formed a lasting bond with the co-producer, Justin Stanley, and we still do a lot together. I now arrange all the strings for his wife Nikka Costa; we’ve got a record coming out that Bob Clearmountain is finishing up. Anyway, one of my best friends in the world, Victor Indrizzo played drums on Sheryl’s record, as did The Dap Kings’ drummer Homer Steinweiss. Also the unsung silent musical beast, Chris Bruce. Not many people on the planet I know are more musical than he is. And then after we wrapped recording, which included a week at New York’s Electric Lady, the whole band agreed to do some tour support for it. This was unreal. We were really bonded. We were out for the summer and much of the fall in 2010. I loved Sheryl; she was such a lovely person and such a dedicated musician with so many levels and avenues of talent. I wish I saw her more often now and I treasure that time we all had making music together. Also I can’t leave out the superhero Tommy Sims on bass. I couldn’t get enough of his bass in my ears on the road; I just kept having the monitor engineer turn him up. Everything he played was magic."
Nathan East: Nathan East
Jeff: "I was honored Nathan had me get really involved in his first solo project. Paich actually brought us together initially in 2005 for a George Lucas celebration in SF. We immediately connected. Nate is such a studio icon and such a solid rock; watching him work closely and collaborating with him on that record was a special learning experience. And sadly, it was basically the last record Ricky Lawson ever played on. We spent so much time together for months. I loved that man; he was a special spirit. Whenever I recall making that Nathan record, Ricky’s memory looms large."
Don Henley: Cass County
Jeff: "They call this “Don’s Nashville record”, but we cut the tracks at Don’s house in Malibu!! Gregg Bissonette brought me in for that one. It was really cool being in the room with three legendary drummers, Don, Gregg, and co-writer/producer Stan Lynch from the Heartbreakers! And I was at the piano in some dark dining room, and everyone else was in different rooms of the house. I remember first hearing Don’s voice from down the hall singing live into my headphones and I literally got chills. There’s that voice! I ended up playing harmonium on the record; I’d found that harmonium at some close-out sale at an Indian furniture warehouse in Panorama City."
Colin Hay: Next Year People
Jeff: "I’ve worked a lot with Colin over the last 15 years or so. I’ve had the honor on playing on most of his recent studio records. He’s a prolific songwriter and such a great hang. He makes me arguably the best cup of coffee in a 30 mile radius, and we begin working. He always makes me laugh and we have a great musical connection. I really love Colin. I hope we get to make music for another 15 years; he’s been an incredible and lasting friend and collaborator."
Tim McGraw: Set This Circus Down
Jeff: "Wow, that one was a long time ago! I’d just gotten off the road with Robben Ford; we’d done a date in Bend, Oregon, and I drove back to Portland at like 3am and got the first flight back to LA so I could make that session, which was at the now defunct Sony recording studios in Santa Monica. I had actually interned in that building when I was in college! Anyway because of all that crazy travel and driving and no sleep, I remember running into Rite Aid on my way to the studio and loading up on Kleenex and Day Quil; I was a mess. Tim was so personable and fun to work with. Landau had put that tracking band together, with Mike Elizondo and Pete Thomas. Great couple days tracking. No one feels like Pete Thomas on the drums. I drove him home after the second day; Pete didn’t drive, and we had a great hang talking about the whole history of The Attractions."
Avenged Sevenfold: Hail to the King
(Reggie: How was this connection made?)
Jeff: "Speaking of Mike Elizondo, whom I’ve known since high school, that was the connection. Mike has gone from being an incredible bass player, which he’s been since we met almost 30 years ago, to a world class producer and A&R person. Mike produced Avenged and brought me in to his studio to play piano on that record."
Larry Carlton: Fire Wire
Jeff: "Larry is another connection that is very special to me. His guitar playing, when I was young, was the bridge to a guy that wanted to learn pop/rock songs off the radio to want to discover jazz. His version of “All Blues”, live at the Baked Potato, funnily enough, was a perfect hybrid of the playing I understood from contemporary music, with jazz lingo and material. So when the late great Csaba Petocz brought me into play on Fire Wire, with Matt Chamberlain, I was so excited. I had done a few little odds and ends with Matt, but making a whole record with him was a trip. He’s a special musician. And Larry means the world to me as a musician and that was our first collaboration together. The memory of that record makes me think of Csaba though, who produced it. Csaba was an incredible person and I love him dearly, and miss him. No spirit like that guy’s, and he struggled with illness for far too long. But he really believed in me as a musician and turned me onto so many projects, as well as connecting me with Joe Chiccarrelli. I miss Csaba, his hearty laugh, his incredible tones, and his generosity of spirit."
Steve Lukather & Friends: Santamental
Jeff: "That record means a lot to me. I was sitting having coffee, it’s one of those moments I remember vividly, when Luke called me and said, “Man these crazy motherfuckers want me— ME— to make a fucking Christmas record! Can you believe that? Wanna do it with me?” So we were off to the races, going to Baxter Northup music in Sherman Oaks to buy Christmas music books and lead sheets and brainstorming on material. Lukey really let me run with this one. I remember driving around Coldwater Canyon having an over-the-bar line idea for “Greensleeves”. It’s before you could sing things into the phone as a voice memo; I don’t know how I remembered it! Also I remember sitting at a cafe in Ottawa when I had this cool idea for “Angels We Have Heard On High”. In my head it was more of a Peter Gabriel loopy thing, but it became more of an Earth Wind & Fire thing on the record. That’s one of my favorite tracks; I love the way it turned out. Anyway, Luke supported all of my wacky ideas and committed to them. Gregg brought all of his Christmas lawn ornaments from storage. And there’s a pretty famous story about Luke celebrating with me one night at a local watering hole, Mexicali, and “over serving” me their signature Margatini drinks. Let’s just say I woke up in my car the next morning at about 8 having wisely pulled over before trying to drive home, and having the strong smell of vomit, thankfully my own, in my passenger seat. Incidentally, we had a 10am horn session and I hadn’t finished the arrangement yet! Everyone seems to remember that date. I did finish the arrangement, by the way, and played trombone on it. And also, I have a different car now, so don’t worry about that smell."
Smokey Robinson: Smokey Robinson & Friends
Jeff: "Randy Jackson produced that record. Incidentally, I mentioned earlier I had interned at Sony in the early 90’s. It was for his department; he was the head of A&R. I actually answered his phone from time to time that summer. I may or may not have taken Barry Manilow’s home number from his Rolodex and used it in some pranks on friends. But cut to 20 years later, Randy’s great; he often calls me for random projects. On that Smokey record, one tracking date at Henson was with Jim Keltner, which was unbelievable. Then I got called to do lots of “sweetening” from my own studio, TudorTones. It was cool being on a Smokey Robinson record, I have to say."
Steve Lukather: Everchanging Times
Jeff: "We did that at Steakhouse in North Hollywood where we cut “Santamental”. I remember being frustrated because at that time the Kimmel show was taking more of my day-to-day and I had unpredictable hours, which cut into the time I really wanted to spend making a Steve Lukather record properly! But man those live tracking dates were deep. Abe Jr. and Lee Sklar! Forget about it. And the tune Luke and I co-wrote, “Too Many Zeros”, kind of got lost in the shuffle in the rock and roll history books, I think, but I’m really proud of that song. I really dig the way it turned out."
Joe Cocker: Hard Knocks
Jeff: "I think I played trombone and put the horn section together for that record. No keyboards, at least from me, I don’t think. Trombone has been a hilarious afterthought that doesn’t go away in my life. And in actuality, that’s kind of been cool. Matt Serletic was producing Joe at that time, for those last few records. The funny thing is that when I went to University of Miami, Matt was a respected trombone player at school, and he’d often call me to play keyboards on his demos, at 4am when you could get free studio time. Cut to 20 years later, this wonderful production coordinator Shari Sutcliffe calls me to play trombone and put a horn section together for Matt. I thought, “What an odd turn of events this is! I used to play keys for his trombone demos; now I’m playing trombone for his records?” Odd how life turns out sometimes. But I love putting horn sections together and playing and blending in a section."
Neil Young: Story Tone
Jeff: "There’s one of my proudest recording accomplishments for sure. Neil singing live with full orchestra. And me on Wurlitzer, which I noticed they mixed really hot! It was so surreal. Another example of getting actual chills listening to his voice in the headphones. Stopped me in my tracks. Literal chills. And they used all the live tracking vocals, so what you hear on that record is cut live with a full orchestra. Pretty bad ass, I have to say, that Neil did that. Michael Bearden, who co-arranges the Emmys, and Niko Bolas got me on that record, and I’m forever grateful."
Cecilia Noel: A Gozar
Jeff: "I was in Cecilia’s band throughout the late 90’s and early 2000’s. But right when I got out of college and moved back to LA, Cecilia and the Wild Clams was THE band to see. All stars top to bottom, and so high energy. I’d go Mondays to see her at the Potato, and Thursdays to the West End in Santa Monica. Pretty much every week I’d be there. And at that point she’d split from her husband Tris Imboden, who I love, but every drummer in town would do that gig. Weckl, Sheila E., Simon, Jonathan Moffett… just every high profile drummer in town. I was so excited when she asked me to play with her, and we played together for a long time. I still do the gig if and when I can. She means a lot to me; she believed in me and put me in this loud, dysfunctional musical family that I loved and love dearly. Playing all that salsa shit I’d only heard in Miami when I lived there, because all the Cuban guys were doing the gigs on piano, was a blast. And honestly Cecilia’s band really became the band that is now the Cletones; we all played in her band together. That gig was always super high energy. We played at least once or twice weekly. We were really going for it. When Lenny Castro started playing with the band, it all really locked and grounded and gave it that extra sense of muscle."
Robben Ford: Keep on Running
Jeff: "I started playing with Robben in ’99. We played for a long time together, on-and-off. He’s another guy I was a big fan of. His playing on “Inside Story” and the first “Yellowjackets” record, along with the LA Express “Tom Cat” were jazz/rock guitar playing studies and masterpieces for me. His lines and vocabulary are super hip and harmonically incredible, yet he has that deep rooted blues background to draw from. I heard him play some absolutely incredible things live when we were touring. I’m glad I got to represent all that playing we did live in little recorded snippets on a couple of his records. It’s nice to have things minted, in a way, in recorded fashion."
Jeff Babko: Broject
Jeff: "This record represents my union with Toss Panos. Toss is an incredible human being and a monster drummer, one of a kind. I often think of him as a hybrid of Elvin Jones, Alex Van Halen, and maybe Bonham but filtered through a Greek upbringing. We were hanging a lot when we made this record. For the first batch of recordings, I’d flown out David Fiuczynski from New York to play his crazy guitar style. Toss and I had really just met but I called him to make this record, and it had this incredible powerful energy to it. Toss and I became very close, very quickly. We did most of the rest of the record as just jams, often Toss and myself only, to this weird direct digital disk recorder he had. Bob Bradshaw, who was hanging at Toss’ a lot too, would often be the engineer. Then I edited takes and spliced things together and sometimes added other guys and made a record out of it. The song “Yours” is one of my favorites. When I was on the road with James Taylor in 2003, my first tour with him, Landau offered to play on the record and mix it. His solo on “Yours” is one of my favorite moments I’ve been remotely involved with creating."
Jeff Babko: Misfits of Science
Jeff: "My first little record! It was mastered so freaking low, which saddens me. It’s so quiet. I didn’t know anything about anything. I was writing pretty well though, and had a vision. We cut direct to 2-track digital at David Benoit’s studio in Torrance. I didn’t know how daunting that was at the time; I didn’t know any better. We had a little working quartet and I added the extraordinary LA jazz guitar legend Larry Koonse for recording. He’s something else, and plays so great on that record. I really didn’t know what I was doing making records or producing or anything! But we did it, and I’m proud of that, and like I said, proud of the writing and what we accomplished. It’s really not bad! And it’s “Misfits of SILENCE”- not “Science”! Misfits of Science was this piece of shit 80’s TV show with Courteney Cox about alien high school kids or something. That’s why the dorky play on words. Hey, I was 22!"