Larry Graham: Style and Substance
Larry Graham was still a teenager when he first took to the road as a working musician, performing with his mother. Initially a guitarist, serendipity led him to the bass where he has become one of the most influential musicians on the instrument. He first gained acclaim through his role in Sly and the Family Stone, and then went on to lead his own group, Graham Central Station. This past fall he released his first studio album with GCS in fourteen years. Raise Up includes guest appearances by Raphael Saadiq and Graham’s neighbor and longtime collaborator Prince. In the following conversation he talks about his latest efforts and looks back to his earliest years on the road.
You grew up in Texas. How long have you been living in Minnesota?
I’ve been here about fourteen years.
You’ve been there for over a decade, so you clearly enjoy it out there?
You know for what we do, it’s amazingly centrally located. [laughs] So we can get to the East Coast, West Coast or down south really easy.
Although as I look at your tour schedule, it seems like a lot of what you’re doing is not even on this continent these days. Why don’t we start there. I mean can you talk about your reception in Europe, in Japan and what it’s like sort of playing to those audiences versus here? Are there appreciable differences?
It’s all good, it’s all positive. We just did twelve shows over in Japan, and it’s interesting because a lot of the people, you see ‘em during the show singing your music along with you; they know all the words. And then you’ll meet some of the same people after the show and they can barely speak English [laughs] but they know your songs.
There are a number of great jazz musicians and blues players who thrive overseas but don’t get the support that they deserve in their home country. Would you say that applies in your case and do you have any thoughts on that?
I’ve heard that before and I’ve seen there are some artists that may get more recognition in Europe or Japan. For us, fortunately, the reception has been great, here too. But yeah, in the last couple of years we’ve been exposed to more parts of the world than before. We’ve been to places that I’ve never been before like Istanbul, Turkey. I mean, I never thought I’d be doing a concert there.
What sort of setting were you playing in and what was that experience like?
It was I think the 17th annual International Jazz Festival, and so they had venues, you know, all over the place with different bands, and the reception was incredible. I didn’t even know they knew my music there. [laughs] We also played a couple of months back in Batumi, Georgia, which is right next to Russia. I didn’t know they knew my music there as well [laughs]. So we’ve been going to some pretty surprising places, but it’s all been good. And then again, when we play here, you know, Annapolis or Oakland or New York or Philadelphia it’s been great.
You have a new album that came out in the fall and it had been a while since a studio album of yours had been released. I’m curious as to what was the precipitating factor that led you to say, “Now’s the time, let’s go in and record”?
Well, a number of things. I love my band, they’re all from Oakland as well, and I have a nice collection of songs I wanted to record with them. I wanted to do a large portion of the album live in the studio, not like a live recording on stage, but playing live in the studio. So I had the right band, the right combination of people together with the record label and distributors, so all the pieces came together at the right time. The also had the right collection of songs, because I’d been writing over the last fourteen years. So everything just fell into place at the right time.
Was there one of those new songs that was the one that finally inspired you to go in?
Well, no, actually, all of the songs that I did, I handpicked them for this album. I have a lot more tunes, but these all fit together for this particular project. So there’s not one that sparked anything although they were all recorded under different circumstances. Like the songs we did with Prince, we recorded all those over at Paisley Park, and then the song I did with Raphael Saadiq, I recorded in Los Angeles, and then a lot of the other material we recorded in Europe, which was pretty cool because we were at the height of touring. So you’re in high gear and sort of go in and capture that live sound like on “Throw-N-Down The Funk” and “It Ain’t No Fun to Me” and “It’s Alright” and others, to go in and capture that live that was great for me to be able to do that. So collectively all of it was inspirational to me.
I wanted it to be live as opposed to a lot of overdubbing and stuff, so it was a blessing to find this great studio in France. And we had an off period of a few weeks at the end of one of our tours and we were able to book the studio and the timing was great. But I did want to record it live, whether it be in France or whether it be here in the States or anywhere, my intent was to capture it live. That’s the feel that I wanted because that’s what I’ve done in the past with Sly & The Family Stone records we did a lot of live recording up until [ There’s A Riot Goin’ On ] and so I wanted that feel. A lot of my Graham Central Station records were recorded live as well.
Can you talk about that experience? Was there anything particular to being in France that impacted on the sessions?
No, I don’t think so. I mean their equipment was great, the environment was wonderful. Let me see… maybe because I think we were a little more isolated where we were, it was way out in the country, so we were pretty much there in the element the whole time that we were recording. We were pretty much just living together, all of us, and so that was a good thing, we never had to leave the element. Not necessarily because it was France, but the circumstances were that we were all together as one big family the whole time, so that was great.
You mention family and clearly family is obviously important to you, your wife plays on your album, your daughter plays on the album, and you dedicate this album to your mom. When you first started playing live when you were a teenager, you performed in your mother’s band…
We worked together from the time I was 15 until I joined Sly & The Family Stone actually which was around 21. So yeah, my mother was a big influence on me.
She was a piano player, was that her main instrument?
Piano and vocals.
How would you characterize the sound of the band when you were performing with her?
It was just my mother on piano and me on guitar at first and then drums, so a three-piece band, a trio. The Dell Graham Trio. And then later when I switched over to bass, it was just me and my mother and the drummer, and then my mother decided to just make it a duo- just bass and piano. So that’s when I really created my style trying to compensate for not having the drums, I would thump the strings with my thumb and pluck it with my fingers to make up for not having the percussions in the background. So she was a big, big influence on me.