Bassist Derek Frank digs deep into the pocket on new solo album, Eleven Years Later

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Photo by Nancy Sauder Ruest

Derek Frank laughs when it’s pointed out that he has no problem taking orders from women, but the good-natured aside during an interview isn’t off the mark. As a studio and touring bassist, Frank’s resume—of a length and variety that can inspire both awe and envy—boasts a who’s who of artists, among them Air Supply, Daniel Powter, Brian Auger, Alan Parsons, Stevie Wonder, and a host of others. High on the list are Mindi Abair, Shakira, Victoria Justice, Aly and AJ, Gwen Stefani, and Shania Twain.

Pre-pandemic, when he wasn’t in Las Vegas for residencies with Stefani and Twain, or on the road, you could find Frank performing in Los Angeles with rock band The Dirty Diamond, and at the Lucky Strike in Hollywood as part of the monthly musicians collective Soundcheck Live, with his wife, Annette, among the background vocalists. This, like everything else in his life, came to an abrupt halt in March, when the country went into lockdown. It hasn’t been easy for any musician—creatively, financially, or emotionally, as Frank discusses in the following interview. But it also offered a window of opportunity to follow up his 2009 solo album, Let The Games Begin, with a new release, aptly titled Eleven Years Later.

Derek Frank grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and fell in love with music at an early age, intrigued and motivated by the bands he watched on MTV. He studied guitar and bass, and when his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, he dedicated his high school years to jazz groups and ensembles. After graduation, he attended the University of Miami’s jazz program and seasoned his bass chops playing on cruise ships, an annual summer gig that required being able to turn on a dime in a variety of genres.

After college came Boston, and later a trip to Los Angeles to visit his parents, who by that time had relocated to the West Coast. It didn’t take long for him to start landing gigs, and what was intended as a few months’ stay became home. He has been based in Los Angeles ever since. It’s not by chance that Derek Frank is a first-call musician. His reputation is that of a bassist par excellence and team player who is driven by an unflagging work ethic and open to take on and master any challenge.

In most recent releases, you can hear him on five tracks on the 25th Anniversary Diamond Edition of Twain’s The Woman In Me: “You Win My Love,” “No One Needs To Know,” “Any Man Of Mine,” “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under,” and “(If You’re Not In It For Love) I’m Outta Here,” all recorded live in Las Vegas in December 2019. Those are also his basslines on the Grammy-nominated soundtrack to Bill &Ted: Face The Music.

At the forefront, however, is Eleven Years Later, which showcases the many sides of Derek Frank, gathered in a collection of songs and styles. Rather than turn the spotlight on himself, he opted to bring in a group of musicians and make a record the old-fashioned way: live in the studio, with plenty of groove and a lot of pocket.

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Joining him are guitarist Joshua Ray Gooch from Shania Twain’s band, Ty Bailie, keyboard player for Katy Perry’s band, Randy Cooke, drummer for Colbie Caillat, Dave Stewart, Ringo Starr, and Kelly Clarkson, and a few special guests: Vegas-based horn section The Fat City Horns, Anchorman flute virtuoso Katisse Buckingham, former Tower of Power drummer Herman Matthews, and on one track, “Onward,” Jason Mowery on Dobro and Joe Bonamassa on guitar. The album was produced and mixed by Grammy Award winner Jim Scott, whose many credits include Tom Petty, Sting, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Santana, Foo Fighters, and the Rolling Stones.

Derek Frank spoke to Guitar Girl about his new album, his role as the bass player for Gwen Stefani and Shania Twain, and the slow but steady sea change in what was once a heavily misogynistic industry.

It’s been eleven years since your last album—obviously, hence the title. What took you so long?

I got busy playing with different artists. I was on the Dancing With The Stars tour when I wrote the previous album, then I went on tour with Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers, and then Victoria Justice, and then Shania. I was just busy and didn’t have time to do my own project. It was on the backburner. As time went on, I thought it had been so long and the desire started building up again. When COVID hit, that seemed like the perfect time.

I wrote one song in January, started one in February, but I didn’t really get into it until I got home when the pandemic hit in March. I was in Vegas with Shania when we got shut down. I had a big South American run with Gwen in April that got cancelled, and a summer festival tour with Gwen, dates I was able to work in around runs with Shania. Of course, that didn’t happen.

Like most of us, I thought it would be a few weeks or so. We shut down in March, and April was a pretty mellow month. I thought I’d be back to work in May, because that was our next Vegas run — the first half of the month with Gwen and the second half with Shania. That gave me half of March and all of April, so I started writing songs. As things progressed and got worse and worse, it became open-ended. That’s when I started writing with a purpose and planning out what I was going to do. We recorded the album at the end of June and beginning of July.

In an interview with Bass Magazine, you remarked that there were days when you got up and worked and days when you could not get out of bed. Was that occasional, or were you dealing with clinical depression? If you’re comfortable discussing this, how did you work through it?

It wasn’t clinical, but the pandemic has given everybody an elevated level of anxiety and depression, especially musicians, because our industry fell apart with no end in sight. Most touring musicians haven’t worked since February or March, and we probably won’t until at least next spring or summer. That big change in our lives, in our livelihoods, gave everybody some level of anxiety and depression. Every musician I talk to has dealt with it.

The fact that our industry didn’t exist, there’s no work, of not being able to work on anything at times put me in a headspace where I couldn’t really do anything. My wife convinced me that it was OK — that if some days I wasn’t productive and I didn’t finish a song, or I didn’t finish recording something, it was OK to give myself time. That was good advice. I got to a point where I allowed myself to do that. When the anxiety was keeping me from being productive, I stopped beating myself up about it and just let it ride out, let the positive energy come back at some point, and that would be when I started writing again.

You describe Eleven Years Later as “eclectic instrumental groove music with Seventies undertones.” Explain.

It’s eclectic in that it has many different styles represented. I don’t consider myself just a rock player or funk player or R&B player. I consider myself a versatile player, and my musical styles and tastes and interests reflect that. The album has elements of soul, jazz, Southern rock, it’s all over the map genre-wise. It’s old school in that we used all vintage gear and we recorded through an analog console. We didn’t use a whole lot of digital stuff. We recorded live in a room together so it had that old-school vibe. I’m very influenced by ’70s music. To me, it was the best decade for music across all genres, and I wanted that element on my record.

I’m still old school with a lot of stuff. When I record at home, I record through tube DI’s and preamps. I have a 1965 Ampeg B15 amp that I mic all the time. I’m mostly a four-string player, and I prefer vintage instruments, so when I was finally going to do this album, I wanted to record and mix on an analog console.

It would have been easy to make a bass showcase album. What did or didn’t interest you about that?

I’m not a big bass chops guy. I like being a foundational bass player who occasionally steps out for solos, but I’ve never been into being a solo bass player or a lead bass player. It’s not what turns me on. When I listen to music, what turns me on most is a solid, fat groove with great tone and interesting parts. That’s always been the element to bass playing that has influenced me the most, and that’s the kind of record I wanted to make — a record that I would enjoy listening to and other people would as well. I think if you make a bass chops album, you’re limiting your audience to just bass players, and only a small fraction of bass players. I wanted my thing to be collaborative. I wanted to showcase all the musicians I had in the band, and I wanted my role to be mainly foundational because that’s how I like to play.

Is it easier to explore a variety of genres on an instrumental album, versus audience expectations that maybe want a singer to stay within the certain style they’re used to hearing from them?

I think so, because it obviously puts the focus on the instrument and not the voice. The voice is an instrument, but on an instrumental album, you have to create interest and have the instruments provide the melody and the main focus. Also, doing an instrumental solo album allowed me to write songs that involved all the genres that I like playing. That’s the joy of doing a solo album. When you have a lot of influences, you can represent them all and write songs that showcase those different elements.

You recorded in Jim Scott’s studio, Plyrz. Was your desire to work in analog part of what made him the right choice to produce and mix the album?

I had done one record a while back at Jim’s studio as a session player and I loved it. I describe his studio as a playground because he has so many analog synths and cool, quirky instruments. It’s very much an old-school studio. In working there as a session player I loved the vibe and the process that he had, and when it was time to do my own record, I thought that would be the best place. I was shopping around for a studio and a producer and trying to see who the best fit would be, and Jim was at the top of my list because of all that. I asked him if he would be interested in producing it, and luckily he said yes.

We worked out the details and I couldn’t have been happier. It was pretty quick. We cut all the basic tracks in four days, and then four more days of one day of overdubs for each instrument. Then I took the roughs to Vegas and recorded The Fat City Horns in one day. We cut three songs. That was it. A couple of people recorded remotely. Jason Mowery tracked some Dobro in Nashville on the song “Onward,” and Joe Bonamassa played the guitar solo on that track at his studio in New York and sent it in.

Were you hesitant about gathering the musicians to record in person, given the current circumstances?

I believe all the people that I choose to work with are responsible, believe in science and they’re careful. Everybody had been quarantining, so I knew that they had been obeying the rules and taking precautions. Before we got in the room at my studio for rehearsals, I made sure everyone was comfortable. We wore masks, I put hand sanitizer everywhere, there was no touching, no handshaking, and of course don’t come if you feel sick.

We did four rehearsals at my studio, and once we got to Plyrz, we did the same thing. We stayed masked, sanitized often, and everybody was responsible. We unmasked when we were in the live room playing together, because it’s a little uncomfortable otherwise, but as soon as we went into the control room, we masked up. Everybody was very cautious.

It was amazing. When we first got together for rehearsals, no one had played with other humans in months, and it was a big sense of relief. Everyone was smiling. It felt so good. We take it for granted when we get to do it all the time, and it’s so weird to not be able to do it. For that reason, I think it was good timing to make the record, because everyone was so hungry to play and interact with other musicians.

This was obviously a very different rig from what you use with Gwen and Shania. You’ve discussed this in other interviews, but could you give us a rundown of the main pieces of gear on this album?

I knew I wanted to use my 1963 Fender Precision and my LaBella Olinto Precision. Those were my two main basses for this album, and those are basses that I don’t take out on the road. They’re great recording basses that stay in my studio, and since the music I wrote and recorded had that old-school flavor, they were perfect for that.

My ’63 Precision is my “desert island bass.” I got it about ten years ago, and it’s the bass I always pick up when I’m writing tunes or coming up with grooves. A few of my biggest influences are James Jamerson, Pino Paladino, and Rocco Prestia, and out of all the basses in my collection, this one embodies the tone of those players the most. It’s a tried and true sound that we’ve heard on thousands of recordings — and it’s so simple. A passive bass with one pickup and flatwound strings. Leo Fender got it right so early on!

The La Bella Olinto is a boutique reproduction of a ’60s Precision, made by master luthier Mas Hino, in Brooklyn. I keep roundwound strings on it most of the time, and it’s a tonal beast. It just sounds so even and full; it’s one of the best P-basses I’ve ever played. He made it for me in 2015, when I was on Shania’s Rock This Country tour, and it became one of the main basses I used on that tour. I say these are both “recording basses” because I don’t take them on the road anymore. They’re such special instruments, and I’d be distraught if anything were to happen to them. Sometimes when traveling, your instruments can get beat up, stolen, wacked out due to changes in climate, etc. I keep these two at home, and have put together an arsenal of road basses, which are also great, but a little more replaceable if they happened to get damaged or go missing.

The Gwen and Shania gigs both require a different sound than what I used on my record. Most of their recordings were done in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and stylistically, there were different instruments being used at the time. So what I use with them is slightly more modern. That gear is in storage and is brought to us when we play, so I didn’t have access to those instruments, even if I had wanted to use them.

All of your gigs are different from the music you created on this album. Did any of them, in any way, influence this project?

I don’t think so, honestly. I love playing many different kinds of music, and I’m passionate about a lot of different styles, so whatever I’m playing, I’m giving it my all and trying to be as authentic as possible. Because I enjoy listening to so many kinds of music, I enjoy doing all these different projects.

I felt that the one thing that was lacking was an old-school funk or eclectic instrumental thing, because the styles I play on my record are very different from what I do with Shania or Gwen or The Dirty Diamond. Doing my own album allowed me to fill in that gap. With having that, now all the things I’m doing, I’m representing all the styles I like playing and listening to. I’m very fortunate that I get to do all those things, because it fulfills my soul to do so.

What is the role of the bass in gigs like Shania and Gwen, where you’re playing and interpreting another musician’s original parts?

I actually enjoy that. I enjoy learning another bass player’s parts because I feel like it makes me a better player. If there’s a bass player I didn’t really study so much, like Tony Kanal from No Doubt, or some of the guys who played on Shania’s records, then for me to have the opportunity to study them, learn what they did, and learn their approach just makes me a better bass player. So I always like to incorporate as many different influences into my playing as I can. I love the opportunity to dig into and study another bass player’s style.

Derek Frank with Shania Twain in 2019

With both of those gigs, I was given album recordings and live recordings, because sometimes the arrangements change. But I always start with the record. I learn the parts from the record, learn that approach, and then I like to work on the live recordings and see what they did, if there were any liberties taken. Then I combine the two into my own style and make it my own, but still honoring the parts that were played before I got into it.

Derek Frank with Gwen Stefani

How would you describe your own style in both gigs?

It may just be some nuances I like to do. It may be how I slide into a note or down from a note, or how I might approach the instrument, my touch. There are certain things, certain -isms, that I have to my playing. Every musician has them, and it’s hard for us to get away from that. Whenever a musician plays, their style is going to come through, even if they’re playing a part that someone else created. That musician is always going to have their personality in it. I may be playing Tony Kanal’s parts, for example, but they’re my approaches in how I slide in or out of a note or touch the instrument.

Both Gwen and Shania are songwriters, and in addition, Shania plays guitar—something people often forget, as they think of her mostly as a vocalist. Does that add another element to the gig in terms of how she communicates with the band? How are Shania and Gwen different as far as executing the shows?

Absolutely. Shania is very hands-on with her whole production. With the Vegas shows, she’s the creative director, which doesn’t happen often. Usually with a tour or show of that size, of that level, the artist hires a creative director and they work together, but Shania did it all on her own. She’s very involved with the music, the visual aspects, and the choreography.

Also the fact that she wrote or co-wrote all these songs is impressive, and obviously, she’s very attached to them because they’re hers. So she is particular, but I like to honor the fact that these are her creations and this is all her vision, so I always defer to her for advice on how to approach things. A lot of times I will play what I think is best, and if she doesn’t say anything, great, we stick with that. Or she may want to change something slightly, or want something more like the record, and I’ll approach it that way. The same thing goes when we do our acoustic set. We were trying to figure out which instrument to play, and I brought a few things to try out. I tried an acoustic bass and she liked it, so we stuck with that.

Gwen is laidback. She created her music, it’s great stuff, and even with my first rehearsal with Gwen, she looked at me and said, “If I don’t say anything to you, you’re doing great and keep doing that.” I said, “OK.” To this day she has never said anything to me regarding my playing, so I figured, “Cool. I’m just going to do what I do, and if she wants me to change something, she will tell me.” She’s very much a professional and she knows what she wants, but I think she trusts her musicians and her musical director, and so it’s been really easy working with her.

I’m going to briefly put you in the hot seat, since this is Guitar Girl. There remain some men who are “not going to let a woman tell me what to do.” They don’t want a woman as a boss, they won’t vote for a woman, and some won’t get onstage with a woman unless she’s a background vocalist or maybe a band member. Maybe. Were you ever that guy? Do you still encounter that guy?

I have never been that guy, and if you look at my career, you can pretty much ascertain that I’m not that guy, because most of the artists I’ve played with are women. I’ve built a career out of working primarily with female artists.

Fortunately, I think the number of people with that attitude has been shrinking, especially in the pop world, and that’s a good thing. I don’t encounter it that often, and I would choose not to work with people with that mentality. I see us all as equal, as artists. It’s not about gender, it’s not about race, we’re all artists, and we’re all just trying to make good music. It does still exist a little bit, and I have talked to women who have encountered it, but luckily it’s disappearing.

Do you have some words of wisdom for women who may encounter “that guy” when they audition for a gig or session?

Don’t put up with it, even for a second. There’s no reason to put up with it, because these days there are way more forward-thinking progressive musicians who see us all as equal than there are sexist or misogynistic musicians, so there’s no reason for any woman to put up with that mentality. If you encounter it, move on and work with other people, because the number of people who are not sexist or misogynistic is way greater than those that are. There are plenty of great musicians and artists to work with, and plenty of good people out there, and I don’t think any of us need to put up with any kind of sexism or racism or anything like that.

With everything on hold in the music industry, what is keeping you busy? Some artists are choosing to perform socially distanced shows, and of course many are doing live streams.

There’s really no live music happening for a while. We still have our Vegas residencies in place, and apparently, all the shows that have been cancelled will be rescheduled, but we just don’t know when. It depends on the virus, the vaccine and when we can get it, and when large groups of people can gather again.

Gwen and Shania don’t do small shows. We do shows with 3000 people minimum, so we have to wait until 3000 people can gather in the same room. I’m looking at our calendars for Vegas, because with Shania we have our dates laid out for us until the end of 2021, so I can see each run as we approach it.

We can’t guess anything because we’re still very much in a pandemic, so I think it’s going to be a while before those shows take place. We haven’t talked about doing any Livestream shows or drive-in shows. Shania is doing some television appearances in Switzerland and she has local musicians to join her for that. Gwen has been busy with The Voice and some other things, so we haven’t heard about any shows other than Vegas.

In the meantime, I’m doing some remote recording, some video shoots with various artists here and there, and promoting my album while waiting for things to come back. Sam Babayan, the lead singer and songwriter for Dirty Diamond, has been writing, so we’re going to do some recording at some point, but right now there’s not a lot happening with that band. So I’m focused on my solo project. I’m not doing any Livestream gigs because I’m not fully into it. I definitely want to do gigs with my band when we can play clubs again, hopefully in 2021. Until then, I’m putting video content out there and getting in the studio, but I’m not going to do any actual shows until I can do them in a club around Los Angeles. We’ll see what the future holds.

Because I really enjoyed the process of making this album this year, I definitely want to keep writing and recording my own music. I’m going to let this album marinate for a while and get into people’s ears, and next year I’ll record some more. I’ve got ideas about what I want my next two albums to be stylistically, but for now, I’m just going to try to promote this album and maybe build a little more of a fan base before I record more music.

Derek Frank gear:

Eleven Years Later

Basses: 1963 Fender Precision, La Bella Olinto Precision, 1976 Fender Precision, Celinder J-Update 4

Amp: Jim Scott’s 1970’s Ampeg B-15S

DI: Noble tube preamp/DI

Pedals: Digitech Dirty Robot, MXR Phase 95, MXR Vintage Bass Octave, MXR Bass Envelope Filter, Darkglass Vintage Microtubes, Dunlop Bass Crybaby Wah

Strings: La Bella Low Tension Flats and RX Stainless Steel Rounds

Picks: In Tune Guitar Picks

Cables: Klotz Cables

Other pieces of the signal chain: Shure SM 7 Mic on the amp, Neve 1081 mic preamp with a Neve 2254a compressor.

Gwen Stefani:

Two Fano JM4 basses with rosewood and maple fingerboards,

Music Man Sterling 5

LaBella RX Stainless Steel strings

Two Kemper Profilers in a rack offstage as amp and effects.

Shania Twain:

Moollon P-Bass with a J-neck tuned DGCF

Fender Nate Mendel Signature Precision with a Nordstrand NP4 pickup Custom Sandberg VM4 with Aguilar pickups tuned BEAD

Sandberg Forty-Eight tuned BbEbAbDb

LaBella RX Stainless Steel strings

Martin BCPA4 acoustic

Dave Smith Instruments Mopho SE synth

Kemper Profiler

Website: www.derekfrank.com

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/derekfrank/videos

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/derekfrankbass/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/derekfrankbass/

 

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