Don Was on Brian Wilson’s New LP, the Rolling Stones’ ‘Sticky Fingers’ and the Sinatra Album that Almost [Ahem] Was

By Brian Ives 

Earlier this month, we spoke to producer/bassist/Was (Not Was) mastermind/Blue Note Records president Don Was about his work on former Beach Boy Brian Wilson‘s latest solo album, No Pier Pressure (see: Brian Wilson Talks Lana Del Rey, His Biopic and New Album No Pier Pressure).

But with Was, there’s always a lot to talk about, so the conversation veered from Wilson’s record to the upcoming reissue of the Rolling Stones‘ classic Sticky Fingers, to the Frank Sinatra album he wanted to produce and beyond.

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Radio.com: You’ve produced albums for lots of artists in the past, including Brian Wilson. But for this Wilson project, you were hired solely as the bass player, right? 

Don Was: I was definitely called in just to be the bass player, which was definitely the highest compliment. Usually I’m the only one who hires me to play! It was a real thrill to have asked to play by Brian.

Since you were there in that role, and not as the producer, was it hard to hold your tongue at times during the session? 

Yeah! I’ll tell you something. I’m used being the person, like the dad. Everyone looks to you, even if you don’t have the answer. You’re supposed to adjudicate the proceedings and come up with the answer. But you can’t do that on someone else’s session. It would be really bad form. It’s really annoying to the producer to have the bass player trying to do that. I’ve got to bite my tongue all the time when I do sessions as a bass player. It’s not so much that I disagree [with whoever is producing], it’s just that I’m more used to having to fill this role. I will tell you that Brian is a commanding presence in the room, so it’s really an honor and a pleasure to yield the role.

Of course, Brian was the bass player in the Beach Boys. Is it intimidating to be his bass player? 

It is uber intimidating. If you look at the other people who he has yielded bass playing duties to, like Carol Kaye, it’s a distinguished cast of really masterful bass players. He said to me, “I like the way you play, because you don’t play like a session player. You sound like a guy in a band.” What he was actually saying was, “You don’t have great technique” [laughs]. But I appreciate what he was saying. I liked that. because I’m making records all the time, and I’ve worked with a lot of great bass players as a producer. So, I know what my limitations are more than anybody. So Brian actually took my limitations and made a positive out of it. Which (a) made me feel good and (b) took a lot of the heat off me and (c) was actually great stage direction. Like, “Don’t try to play like Nathan East. Don’t try to play like Carole Kaye. Play like you’re in a band.”

That’s interesting,  because I asked him what his greatest skill was, and he said “producing.” 

That was a great thing for him to say. Rather than saying to me, “Don’t play so many fifth notes,” he said, “Your strength is that you play like a guy in a band.” Having produced a bunch of bands, I know exactly what he’s talking about. The thing about a band is, it’s not super-tight. That’s the charm of a band. And if you isolate any of the individual parts, you might roll your eyes. But when you get them all balanced just right, and everyone is pushing and pulling, it just becomes…wider and bigger. And that mess has personality to it, and that’s better than hiring a bunch of perfect guys. Better than having a drum machine so that the beats land perfectly. That’s why the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the Foo Fighters have all this character, all this personality. That’s the beauty of a band.

Speaking of the Stones, they just announced that they’re reissuing [1971’s] Sticky Fingers. I know you work on all of their reissues. Anything you can tell me about working on this one? 

Unlike the other two that we worked on, [1972’s] Exile on Main Street and [1978’s] Some Girls, the actual outtake stockpile for Sticky Fingers is pretty much depleted. The stuff that didn’t go on Sticky Fingers went on Exile on Main Street. And the stuff that might have been left over from that ended up on [1981’s] Tattoo You. And a couple of songs that maybe didn’t make it on to Tattoo You, we worked on and finished for the [2010] Exile reissue. There’s a lot of over bleed—no pun intended—between [1969’s] Let It Bleed, [1968’s] Beggars BanquetSticky Fingers and Exile, but particularly Sticky Fingers and Exile. There just wasn’t enough stuff that no one had heard before.

The thing that will make this one different is the alternate takes, like “Brown Sugar” with Eric Clapton and the acoustic “Wild Horses.” But they’re all just different versions of songs. The bonus disc is rounded out with some live performances. It’s a little different from Exile and Some Girls in that we didn’t go back and try to finish anything.

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