“As a bass player the first thing any producer always says to you is ‘that’s great, can you play less’!”
Perhaps best known for his work with post-Waters Pink Floyd (and David Gilmour) bass guitarist Guy Pratt has had a long and fascinating career, having worked with an enormous array of artists and superstars, from Madonna and Michael Jackson to Robert Palmer and Kirsty Maccoll. Most recently, he’s been touring with Nick Mason‘s Saucerful of Secrets, but with the pandemic situation scuppering current plans, he tells SDE about his new YouTube ‘Lockdown Licks’ series and chats about past exploits…
SuperDeluxeEdition: I’ve been enjoying your ‘Lockdown Licks’ videos. What would you have been doing if we weren’t in this lockdown situation at the moment?
Guy Pratt: Oh, thank you. I would be in rehearsal with Nick Mason and Saucerful of Secrets, as we were literally about to go on tour next week or the week after.
SDE: It must be a very unusual situation for you? I mean it obviously is for everyone, but having this sort of blank period where you can’t really work at all.
GP: The funny thing is that we musicians – well most people in the creative industry – are kind of perfectly primed for lots of time sitting at home with nothing to do! I know a lot of people are having real trouble adjusting, but for me, it’s just a more exaggerated version of normal life. I get a lot of stuff on social media from fans of the bands I’ve played in, always asking me about stuff I’ve played. Someone had suggested I do bass lessons, but I can’t because I don’t really know what I do! I don’t know really how I’d explain it to anyone else. So I thought, well, what I can do is show you the things I’ve done.
SDE: Your videos are mix of muso bits and chat about the artists. I think it’s a nice balance.
GP: Well having done a stand-up show for 12 years is quite good training for that. I think that’s what would I want to hear and I find that really deep techy stuff from musicians just puts me off them. I just think, Christ, you’re dull!
SDE: I think it would be interesting for us to go back to the beginning a little bit and talk about your career – why did you choose the bass, what attracted you to it?
GP [laughing]: I didn’t! Nothing attracted me to the bass. I wanted an electric guitar, as everyone else did. And my mum said, ‘oh, darling, why don’t you get a nice Spanish one?’ And the joke was, well, frankly a toaster would be nearer what I was after than a Spanish guitar… So I thought if I ask for a bass guitar they wouldn’t really know what it was. So I got lumbered with a bass, which was actually a very canny move because, of course, when I got back to school – because I got it at Christmas – so when I got back to school at the beginning of January there were a few people who’d got electric guitars, so if they wanted to be a band so they needed me. I started a band with my school friend Martin Glover, who went on to become Youth.
SDE: Are you all self-taught, then?
GP: Completely, yes. I can’t read music or anything. That used to be a badge of honour, but now I realise it’s just incredible laziness. I actually found doing these Lockdown Licks, I’ve had to go back and learn stuff I’ve done and remember it. I just thought, ‘Fuck, this would be so much easier if I could just read it’.
SDE: Over the years, I’ve always been interested in this because obviously in the classical world it’s essential that you can read music, but in the rock and pop…
GP: It is in all worlds, really. Although, having said that, as far as I’m aware, Pino Palladino doesn’t read music. Nor Jamie Cullum, I don’t think.
SDE: Have you ever had any embarrassing situations where you’re in to do a job and you’ve needed to understand something that you’re not necessarily au fait with, or has that never really happened?
GP: No, it’s never really happened. You can usually blag. I mean, I’m lucky I have a very good ear. I only have to hear something once and I can usually figure out what’s going on. Probably the nearest thing to that was when I used to perform with Jon Lord, to do his concerto for his orchestra. All I had to do was hear the bass parts, I could figure out the bass parts without reading them. But it was just the fact that it was so long, the tune. I had to literally be counting 78 bars before I came in, so I had to at least recognise the shape of what was happening on the score.
SDE: Was your ambition to be in a rock band as a teenager?
GP: Yes, absolutely. That’s all I wanted to do. But then I started getting hired by all the people from the generation of music that I fell in love with, and then I carried on doing that and it was too seductive and too easy. I ended up living in LA when I was still doing all the Madonna and Michael Jackson stuff and [working] with Robbie Robertson, and all those absolute top-flight LA session legends, and my imposter syndrome was through the roof: ‘What the fuck are you doing? This is not what you are meant to be doing.’ I loved what I was doing but it’s not what I’d ever planned on, it’s not what I wanted to do, and I really didn’t know quite why I was there.
SDE: And what would you say is the trait of a good session musician?
GP: It’s quite interesting because lots of people give you a whole list of what it takes to be a good session musician, and I don’t tick any of those boxes at all. But I do now. I mean, now I understand the importance, now I’m very punctual and I’ve learnt the stuff but I think a lot of the work I used to get was because I was so different, because I was very much a wild card.
For instance, when I worked with Pat [Leonard], who was the guy I worked with most in America, he insisted that I had to do a bass take on a track literally the first time they pressed play. I had to play something the first time I ever heard the song! Because his thing was that if I would do something, there would be something interesting that would come out of it, even if I was just trying to figure out the chords as I went. So being a session musician in the 80s, which was sort of the peak of the music business, was a slightly elevated position compared to what it is now, I think. A session musician used to be the guy in the pit at My Fair Lady and we’re kind of back to that, really. Because there just isn’t the money; I used to get paid tons of money. I don’t know if I’d be interested in doing that now.
SDE: I’m guessing that your ’employers’ would normally be producers and so on, rather than the artists themselves?
GP: It’s a funny thing because I have this incredibly long list of people I’ve worked with, but it doesn’t really mean anything. I’ve played on a duet with Tom Jones and Chrissie Hynde and now suddenly I’m in The Pretenders! I mean that was like three hours in a studio. Quite a few of the artists, I never met. Three months ago I bumped into Jimmy Somerville in a shop, who I’d never met before, and I went ‘oh, hi, I’m Guy, I played on a number of songs of yours’. And he had no idea.
SDE: Yes, that is quite weird. So when you go into the studio and the artist is there, are there kind of unwritten rules – like don’t try to be too pally and make friends with them?
GP: Well, I am. That’s always been my thing. I am. That’s where I always got it wrong, I have absolutely no demarcation between professional and personal. I always thought, whenever I was asked to go and play for someone, especially on tour, you’re being hired as a professional to perform your function to the best of your abilities, I thought I’d been asked to join a gang and so long as I kept it together for the show all bets were off. Some of my best, closest friends ever were the people I worked for or with.
SDE: You’re 50 percent of the rhythm section. So how important, or not, is it for you to know who the drummer is or to have played with the drummer before, to get any kind of groove going? Or is that irrelevant?
GP: That happens or it doesn’t. I mean, obviously I’ve got drummers who I like, and it helps… the personal thing really, really helps. Andy Newmark and Jed Lynch are two drummers who I just adore as human beings; I absolutely love them. And they happen to be, in my book, the best drummers in the world. And Nick Mason, he’s been a really good friend of mine since ’87. And yes, it definitely affects it, because if I’m pulling them up, it’s slightly more awkward to say, ‘could you not do that bass drum’ if you don’t [know them].
SDE: What about the gruelling kind of year-long world tours with Pink Floyd in particular? That’s obviously a big undertaking, being on the road, travelling the world, is that something you enjoy?
GP: I did. I haven’t done those for years. The only real touring I’ve done over the last years are like David Gilmour’s tours which are very short and quite sporadic. They’re very comfortable, but, to be honest, you don’t actually work enough. The ‘Saucer’ tours are my absolute favourite, even though they’re lacking all the luxury, it’s like 1974. It’s the first time Nick’s ever slept on a tour bus! These are properly gruelling tours, especially because we’re all older. We do, on average, five shows a week. And we’ll do four in a row, with travel every day, but with this band we actually don’t like nights off, nights off you [normally] go to dinner and get wasted and everything, [but] I don’t do that anymore. So it’s much nicer if you’re just doing a gig. And, frankly, we all like to be up in the morning because rather than spending the night in nightclubs we all want to be at the local art museum.
SDE: That camaraderie does come through with Saucerful of Secrets, I think.
GP: It’s totally that. For me, it’s probably the most musically focused tour I’ve ever done, I mean, it really is all about the show. Because if you’re staying in a DoubleTree by Hilton as opposed to a Four Seasons, there’s not so much to be gained from hanging around the hotel.
SDE: Going right back, you were in Icehouse for a period, weren’t you? And you supported David Bowie on his Serious Moonlight tour. Tell me a little bit about that. Were you hanging out with Bowie?
GP: I did, I got taken out by him and the band one night in Rotterdam, in what apparently became quite a famous night out among Bowie circles. It was like Day of the Locusts, there was this mad scene in this nightclub where everyone literally just went mad, people grabbing him, someone got him by the throat. And eventually he just had to leave. I actually stayed on and had a great time with Carlos Alomar and Tony [Thompson]. Carlos came out with this great line about how going out with David is fine, you’ve just got to let him leave.
SDE: But you never ended up playing on any Bowie albums, did you?
GP: No I didn’t. The nearest I came to that was when, funnily enough, I was doing Robbie Robertson’s album, Storyville. With Stephen Hague producing in 1989. I took a couple of days off because I was just knackered as I’d come straight from a Floyd tour. I went off out and when I came back, Stephen said to me one day Bowie had just walked into the control room and said: ‘Hey, listen, you’ve got a band here, I just need to cut something over the next couple of days’. And Stephen said: ‘No, sorry, we’re really busy’. What?! But I was there for his penultimate ever live performance, when he came and sang with David Gilmour at the Albert Hall.
SDE: Yes, that must have been pretty special.
GP: It was amazing. He was incredible. And what was most incredible about that was it was known that he was a big Floyd fan, but when he did ‘Arnold Layne’ he knew that song inside, outside, upside down. It was amazing, like he’d had that song ready to go forever.
SDE: Tell me about The Smiths, because that’s another interesting story. You never went on tour with them but you were actually preparing to?
GP: Andy Rourke had just been busted for drugs and they thought he might not be able to get a visa, and so me and Johnny Marr were in the middle of this kind of mad, whizzbang bromance at the time, running around town playing on records together – because we were working with Bryan Ferry, that’s how I met him – and he introduced me to Kirsty McColl, and it was just this fantastic time. So when they thought that maybe Andy wouldn’t be able to get a visa for the American tour, I just went and rehearsed with them for a week, but I don’t think Morrissey was ever really seeing it. Then Andy got his visa anyway. But Johnny very kindly flew me and my girlfriend out to LA for her 21st birthday to see them there, so that was nice. He’s one of the greatest people who’s ever walked the earth, I could never stop singing Johnny Marr’s praises.
SDE: That’s interesting because I know those Kirsty McColl albums you played on. That makes sense now, the Johnny Marr connection.
GP: Yes, and that’s how David Gilmour ended up on them – through me.
SDE: You mentioned Pat Leonard. I know you played on the Madonna record [Like A Prayer], is that one of the occasions where she was there while you were doing it?
GP: Yes she was always there.
SDE: What was she like? Because I’ve read Nile Rogers’ autobiography, and he said he had to tell her off because she was being very curt and semi-insulting to some people in the studio…
GP: No, no, she was amazing. She came in and she had all these big, top guys [with her] and she had everyone heads bowed, yes ma’am, no ma’am, within 30 seconds. And I think I said, I can’t remember exactly, but something really cheeky to her, early on, and I was in, it was great! So if you stood up to her then she was great; yes, she was fairly snappy but absolutely fucking brilliant, it must be said. The one I always remember is when we did ‘Oh, Father’, and the take ran three times, we literally just ran through it once, she sang it in the control room, sang a guide vocal, then pointed out everything she thought everyone was doing wrong, and she was right! And we ran it again, and that was it, it went down, and that guide vocal is the vocal that’s on the record.
SDE: And Like a Prayer is a great record of hers to be on because that’s probably her best album, I think.
GP: It is her best album, yes. I think that’s when she became a grown up.
SDE: And the other record which you mention in one of your Lockdown Lick videos is Toy Matinee.
GP: Yes, that’s probably still my favourite project ever. I didn’t explain it properly when I said it’s the nearest to being my Velvet Underground album, in that it only sold 300 copies but everyone who heard it started a band. I get more kudos from American musicians for being on that than anything, even Pink Floyd. It’s a real muso bible in America.
SDE: How long did that project or album take?
GP: It was a heavenly three months, that’s the stuff I really like to do, because when you do sessions you come in and you just have to come up with something there and then, and the amount of times in the car, on your way home, you go ‘oh, fuck, I could have done [this or that]’. That’s why Toy Matinee is certainly the most intricate and ‘worked-out’ bass playing I’ve ever done. It was when Like a Prayer had just come out and Pat [Leonard] was the absolute golden boy of Warner Bros, and they were just throwing money at him. And he had this dream studio, I was living up in the Hollywood Hills just up the road from Cielo Drive. I mean it literally was Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I went back to do the 1989 Floyd tour and they finished the album, and then there was… I don’t know, Kevin [Gilbert] fell out with Pat, and they put some sort of band together to go on tour, which I wasn’t involved in, and then it all kind of fizzled out, which is a shame.
SDE: It’s an amazing-sounding record, the production doesn’t sound in any way dated, it just has a sort of classic feel to it.
GP: I know. It’s funny because the band I was getting everyone to listen to was The Dukes of Stratosphear, that XTC offshoot. At that time people weren’t quite into referencing psychedelia in a way that they got to in the 1990s. In the 90s, it became de rigueur for all drummers to sort of do Ringo, whereas in the 80s everything was being about Flashdance, so Brian MacLeod, who’s such an amazing drummer, was really ahead of the curve on that. But in high-end hi-fi shops in America, that’s still the album they play you to sell you a stereo.
SDE: Steven Wilson remixed that Dukes of Stratosphear record in 5.1, and so I’ve been listening to it recently in surround sound.
GP: Oh, wow. He’s a fascinating character, isn’t he, Steven Wilson?
SDE: Indeed. He’s always remixing classic albums. I don’t know how he finds the time.
GP: This is another fantastic thing about the Saucers, because of course Nick’s been in this mega world for years, and so suddenly has been reintroduced into the world of prog, playing at prog festivals and being nominated for prog awards, and realising there’s this whole new prog world, which is very different, isn’t it? I mean it’s kind of it’s very much an art rock form as well, isn’t it? And it’s brilliant, I love it, it’s fascinating. And learning about all these characters like Steven Wilson…
SDE: The reason I mentioned the 5.1 mix is because there’s a 5.1 mix of the Toy Matinee album as well? Did you know that?
GP: No I didn’t.
SDE: It came out on a DVD-A in 2002-ish, so I’m going to try and track that down. The interesting thing around that period is how the whole thing morphed into the infamous ‘Tuesday night music club’.
GP: I went to a few of those Tuesday nights, but I don’t think the bass player liked me very much. It did feel a bit territorial, I must say.
SDE: I have to ask you about Robert Palmer, because you mentioned him on your Lockdown Licks. I’m very interested in the fact that you played on Riptide, even though I think it was only on one song in the end?
GP: Yes, I played on about five or six songs but only one of them made the album [first single ‘Discipline of Love’]. I was fucking just terrified the whole time I was there. I was so out of my depth.
SDE: How old would you have been then?
GP: I was 22. Bernard Edwards had asked… I’d been snuck out to play on the Power Station because I co-wrote one of the songs and apparently John Taylor couldn’t get the bass line quite right, so I literally had to go to New York just to put a guide bass down. And I met Bernard, it was terrifying. So when it came to doing Riptide, Bernard was like, ‘no, forget your guys, we’re using my New York boys, Jeff Bova and Eddie Martinez and Tony Thompson’. But then he said, ‘hey, that English kid of yours, I like him, get him in’. I thought, what? So I got flown out to Nassau, and I was just terrified. A lot of the other musicians didn’t make me feel particularly welcome, so I was very on edge the whole time.
SDE: Robert Palmer came across as someone who’s very serious about his music…
GP: So serious, and so… he just knew so much about it and he was so Yorkshire about it, you know, an incredible worker. I will always miss Robert, and I could never, ever repay the debt, that leg up he gave me was amazing. We were friends until the end, I used to go out and stay in Lugano [Robert’s home in Switzerland]. He’d fly me out to play, and if they ever had a TV show to do in England, he’d always get me to come and mime. Or play, in fact. But yes, he used to do things like, for instance, if he was writing a bossa nova, he would write the lyrics phonetically but he would use words. He would write it in English but he would use words that sounded Portuguese, so the lyrics weren’t necessarily what he wanted to say but they sounded Portuguese. Amazing.
SDE: He was a great. I saw him at the Albert Hall when he did his Ridin’ High orchestral concert…
GP: Oh, that was dreadful.
SDE: You didn’t like that?
GP: Well, it was meant to be the Royal Philharmonic and it ended up being the BBC Radio Orchestra and the orchestra, I think, wasn’t quite up to it. But live he was amazing, he just worked so hard. There would be like six songs before he even said good evening.
SDE: The other songs that you worked for Riptide, can you remember what they were or where they ended up?
GP: No, not those ones, but I’m on about four of his albums. I co-wrote a song, a minor American hit called ‘You’re Amazing’. I spent a month in Milan working on Don’t Explain.
SDE: There’s a great track, ‘Aeroplane’ on that album, it ended up on both Ridin’ High and Don’t Explain, he obviously loved that song.
GP: And I think I played on two versions of that. But this was a classic Robert Palmer thing because he was such a fucking heavy drinker and everyone would get completely hammered, but he woke up the next day and he was fine. More to the point, he remembered everything he had said, and he remembered everything you had said. After some bender with him at the St James’ Club in London, apparently he just said: ‘do you play the double bass’ and I said yes, of course I play double bass, I’ve got an electric double bass. And then three days later I get a call from fucking Switzerland, saying, ‘hey, listen, Guy, we need you to come out and play on this song with your electric double bass that you said you can play’. And I thought, what? I have this old famous Triumph bass, but it’s basically furniture. I bought it after my first Australian tour, and I never really learnt to play it. More to the point, I had to fucking get a flight case built for it and then fly… I did get away with it, just about. But I think that might have been ‘Aeroplane’, because I think I played on both versions of it.
SDE: Don’t Explain is such a weird record, all his records are very diverse. You’ve got the kind of almost heavy metal tracks, and then it goes off in all sorts of weird directions.
GP: Yes. There’s one song where I came up with a fill I was really proud of. It was one of those things where I just played something, and I went, ‘oh, sorry, is that all right, Robert?’ He went, ‘oh, that’s great, man. That’s a thing, people are going to be copying that’.
SDE: What was great about that record is that he had some good hits off it, the UB40 one and the Marvin Gaye cover.
GP: Well Teo Macero was producing it, right? Who was fantastic at all the jazzier stuff but I think was at a bit of a loss on the metal tunes. One of the things as a bass player is the first thing any producer always says to you is, ‘yes, that’s great, can you play less’. Whereas Robert, he’s the only person I ever knew who would go, ‘oh, no, can you play more’. Which is brilliant psychology because you’ve got nothing to prove. The other way round you’re always trying to get away with something. Anyway, the bass is kind of me trying to do a James Jamerson [American bass player who played on most of the Motown hits]. Yes, it’s got chords and everything, it’s all over the place. I’m on ‘History’, too, that was one of his things he used to do, which I love, where nothing is what you think it is. There’ll be a guitar part or a vocal part which is actually three different parts all recorded in a different rhythm, and then together it sounds like one thing but it isn’t. I really like the bass on that, and also ‘Happiness’, I play half the bass on that. I think Frank [Blair] plays on the verses and I play on the chorus.
SDE: ‘Happiness’ is a great song. I mean, the whole album is really good. I’ll have to give that another listen, since we’ve talked about it so much!
GP: You should read my book, I think you’d enjoy it [My Bass and Other Animals]. We’ve got loads about this. It’s funny too.
SDE: I will do and I’m sure it is! Now I can’t let you go without talking a little bit about Michael Jackson and ‘Earth Song’.
GP: A few people pointed out when I put it up [as a ‘Lockdown Lick’] that we’re a bit in Gary Glitter territory now… but the story is that I never met him but the last time I was in the studio he was there. He was hiding behind a desk with this big Samoan bodyguard, who was supposedly an engineer, and he was relaying instructions from him and liked to just pretend he wasn’t there.
SDE: So you never actually had anything approaching a normal conversation.
GP: No, never actually saw him.
SDE: So what’s next, then, on your ‘lockdown’ list? What have you got in the pipeline?
GP: Well, I’ve just recorded one – and I’m being led by my audience – some of them are things I just feel I have to get out of the way. I get lots of people asking for Pink Floyd stuff, and a lot of it is pointless, you know, people asking me to showcase ‘One of These Days’, but mate, it’s one note with a delay. Most Pink Floyd songs just involve me playing the same thing over and over again, for a very long time, while the guitar solo is happening so I can’t really see the point in doing that. I’ve just done the solo section from ‘One Slip’, because people seem to really like that. Also, you know that David edited a lot of my bass out on The Later Years box set. He took my bass solo out from both ‘Venice’ and ‘Delicate Sound of Thunder’.
SDE: That’s a bit naughty, isn’t it?
GP: It’s really naughty, yes. He just said he thought it was a bit 80s. And, well, yes it is, and I did sort of cringe about that stuff. But it seems a bit weird, if you’re doing a box set which is meant to be an absolute, complete record of what happened then it should at least be what happened! So anyway, I might do the bass solo for ‘Money’. But yes, I’ve done the bass solo bits from ‘One Slip’, which I really didn’t want to do because it’s actually just me embellishing a Tony [Levin] thing. And I’ve done ‘Wearing the Inside Out’, which is the one Pink Floyd song which actually comes from a musical idea of mine, so that’s on the next one. And then I am going to be doing Toy Matinee; I get a lot of Americans asking me to do Toy Matinee. No one in England has a clue what it is, you know, so…
SDE: But people like to be turned on to good stuff like that. It was reissued ages ago but I don’t know if anyone would think about putting it out again…
GP: It’d take me ages to learn it again! I’d probably do ‘Last Plane Out’, ‘Queen of Misery’, and ‘[The Ballad of] Jenny Ledge’, I think.
SDE: That would be fantastic, I’ll really look forward to that.
GP: The funny thing is, that’s also my favourite quote ever from Bill Bottrell, when we were doing ‘Jenny Ledge’ and we got to the end of it, then there was one particular bit I came up with, and and Bill hit stop and went, ‘as if a bass player would play that..’, which was obviously meant to be a compliment. And I just thought, yes, well, hey, you know, that’s how I roll. And the funny thing is, I went back and had a listen, a play along the other day trying to relearn it, and I suddenly thought, fucking hell, he’s right, what was I thinking?
SDE: You said earlier on how the industry has changed; the budgets aren’t there and the world has sort of changed quite a lot as far as recorded music is concerned. Do you have any ambitions left to work with certain artists, or to do certain things, or do you just go with the flow these days?
GP: Yes I have. The two Peters, always. I’d love to do something with Peter Gabriel, and Pete Townshend. I did actually get asked to go and do a day in the studio with The Who last year, and I was in Thailand, obviously! Which is exactly what happened 32 years ago when David Gilmour asked me to go and play with him and Kate Bush. But that was just a couple of months before I got the Floyd gig, so maybe me missing a gig by being in Thailand is a portent that I will get to work [with The Who]. Because I really, really would like to just do something with Pete Townsend before I die.
Thanks to Guy Pratt who was talking to Paul Sinclair for SDE. Watch the latest of Guy’s ‘Lockdown Licks’ below