What has been the highlight of your career to date?
I know that I can’t cite a single moment but having a 20-year association with the Rolling Stones is pretty amazing.
I read somewhere that you saw them as a young boy
Yeah, I saw them in ’64. I saw them with Brian Jones three times. I saw them whenever they came to Detroit. I basically bought every Stones album that came out and bought tickets to every tour until I started working with them, at which point I got free albums.
How did it feel working with them after idealising them as a teenager?
It’s a trip, man. It’s great, you know, and to this day there are at least one or two times during a session when I’ll go “oh my God, look who’s in the room here.” We did part of ‘Voodoo Lounge’ in my house and I just couldn’t believe that the Rolling Stones were all hanging out at my house. They are great. Fantastic guys. I’ve worked with a bunch of my heroes – including Bob Dylan. All I ever wanted to do was be Bob Dylan’s bass player and I got to do that in 1989. All these people are all greater than I expected them to be. They are wonderful people and have been really good friends. Trusted friends. And they’ve all been really generous and kind to me. There’s no artist that I’ve worked with that I say, fuck, I never want to see that motherfuckers again! (laughs raucously).
How would you define your style as a producer?
Well, everyone’s got their own thing and mine is not to be an auteur producer. What I like doing is working with really great artists who have a vision – they have something in mind – and they need someone to help them realise that vision. I love getting inside their head and helping them do what they want to do. It’s not my record. If I want to make a record I can make a record any time I want to. So I can be an artist – I’ve been an artist – and I would never try to make Bob Dylan sound like Was Not Was. (Laughs). I don’t think that’s providing a service!
(Was Not Was – Don Was on far left)
What’s your favourite memory of your days as a member of Was Not Was?
Oh, man, there’s so many. I just loved travelling around on a bus with those guys. You know, even then… You know David (Weiss) and I have been friends since we were twelve but Sweet Pea (Atkinson) and Harry, I’ve known them since 1974. That’s forty years. So even then in the ’90s we’d been friends for twenty years and just riding around on a bus. Everyone had their own particular vices and we’d just sit around and shoot the shit and had great times. The gigs were always fun. But just hanging with the guys in the band was my fondest memory.
Do you miss that sense of camaraderie?
I do, I really do.
Do you find that you spend more time behind a desk now?
I’ve just produced a new Neil Diamond record (‘Melody Road’) and I produced a new Johnny Hallyday record (‘Rester Vivant’) this year, so not really…
How do you juggle your studio work with your Blue Note duties?
To tell you the truth, I get more done being out of the office for Blue Note than in the studio. Everyone understands now that I’m going to have to take breaks and go in the other room and return phone calls and everyone’s cool with that. And you actually get more done than going into the office where it’s easier to get distracted and things come up that are not essential to the mission (laughs heartily).
Are you producing the new Wayne Shorter album that will be coming out soon on Blue Note?
No, Wayne doesn’t need a producer. I’m the de facto A&R guy. But I produced this new Jason Moran album with Michelle Ndegeocello (‘All Rise – A Joyful Elegy For Fats Waller’) and I produced Bobby Hutcherson with David Sanborn, Joey DeFrancesco and Billy Hart on a record that just came out (‘Enjoy The View’) and I’m going to do Lionel Loueke’s album in December. If I think I’ve got a sense of what needs to be done I’ll do it but some of these guys are just way beyond what I offer (laughs). I’d like to go with this but I don’t think I should be in any kind of leadership capacity.
Well, thanks very much for talking to me.
It was a pleasure to talk to you, man.
Your career’s had an interesting trajectory, hasn’t it?
Yeah. To be honest with you I thought I was done four or five years ago. But I’ve caught another wave. It’s been fun. This is a great period.
A NEW BLUE NOTE 5-CD ANTHOLOGY, ‘UNCOMPROMISING EXPRESSION’ – CELEBRATING 75 YEARS OF BLUE NOTE – IS OUT NOW.