Interview with Dave Swift from Jools Holland Rythm & Blues Orchestra


Dave Swift of Jools Holland Rythm & Blues Orchestra


One of the most viewed and loved music shows on TV worldwide these days must be ’Later….with  Jools Holland’ on BBC2. As the bass player for the show,  EBS Artist Dave Swift have had the unique opportunity to play with almost every famous artist in contemporary popular music.
You have been playing for Jools since 1991, what are the most memorable moments from all these years backing up the worlds biggest stars in music? 

There have been many memorable moments, but here are a few that stand out.

In 1993, Jools was interviewing the remaining members of The Beatles for their Anthology. Jools had already spoken to Paul and Ringo, and George Harrison then suggested that his interview should be conducted at Portmeirion, a resort village in Wales, where the legendary 1960’s cult TV show “The Prisoner” was filmed. It was  also George’s  50th Birthday and he suggested the whole band come along and we all have  a big party.

All over the weekend we celebrated with George, had breakfast, lunch and dinner together, and had jam sessions. George  sat in with us and played Ukulele into the wee small hours. Since then I’ve played with Ringo Starr and Sir Paul McCartney, so i’m very proud to have played with three out of the four Beatles. In fact, i’ve also played with Billy Preston, and he’s often referred to as “The Fifth Beatle!” 

I had the opportunity to play with three of my all time favorite artists on Jools’ TV show, the first was Chaka Khan. Next came George Benson who played “On Broadway” then another time Al Jarreau who did a song from his album at the time called “Last Night” performed  with just myself on bass, Jools on piano and a percussionist. Playing with these three artists in particular was an incredible experience. This was the music I grew up listening to and playing with them was a dream come true.

On another occasion we were the house band at the G8 conference in Birmingham in 1998 and we played with Simply Red vocalist Mick Hucknall, and girl band All Saints. In the audience were world leaders including Tony & Cherie Blair, Jacques Chirac and Bill & Hilary Clinton, all of whom we got to meet and spend time with after the show. We were also the House Band in the Millennium Dome on Millennium night playing to Her Majesty The Queen

Most recently i played on Jools’ TV show “Later…… with Jools Holland”  with Smokey Robinson, and we were joined by Eric Clapton on Guitar. A wonderful experience.

…and what about all these behind the scenes stories, that has never been broadcasted? Any good stories to share?

Too many to mention, and more importantly, too many that i shouldn’t mention! If you read Jools’ Autobiography “Bare Faced Lies & Boogie- Woogie Boasts” you’ll find an amusing anecdote or two in there!

What is the story behind how you got the gig with Jools Holland?

I had left my home town of Wolverhampton and moved to London at the end of 1988. I really wanted to be a jazz musician and I thought the best place to be to achieve this was London.

At that time I was mostly playing Double Bass, and I was playing as much jazz as I could. I soon met up with a sax player called Phil Veacock who was already working with pianist Jools Holland who had recently left the hugely successful British pop band Squeeze to form his own band.

The great bassist Pino Palladino had been playing Bass Guitar with Jools,  but one day I was told by Phil that Jools was looking for another bassist, but one who played Double Bass as well as Bass Guitar, and he suggested I go and audition for the gig so I turned up at Jools’ recording studio and met Jools and the guitarist in the band. We jammed and chatted for an hour or so, and then Jools said “Great playing, but I can’t give you an answer yet as I still have some other bass players to see”  I remember thinking at the time “that sounds like a brush off to me!” But then he and the guitarist went outside for a few minutes while I packed my bass away, and when they came back in Jools said “look, you’ve got the job, we’d better get you some tapes of the songs so you can start learning them”  To this day I’ve no idea what was said between them, but whatever it was, it all worked out just fine!

You play both double bass and electric bass with Jools, do you use different setups when amplifying an acoustic instrument compared to an electrical instrument?

The acoustic Double Bass is notoriously difficult to amplify at high volumes, and the Jools gig is very loud on stage. I started off using my Double Bass on gigs but eventually gave up due to the problems with feedback. On stage now I play an Electric Upright Bass (EUB) which is a solid bodied skeletal instrument. It plays and feels similar to a Double Bass, and sounds like a cross between a Double Bass and a fretless Bass Guitar. It’s somewhat of a compromise  because these type of instruments will never sound as good as a real acoustic one, but they are easy to amplify and travel with and they don’t feed back. So I use one of these and a bass guitar going through the same EBS rig, a TD 650 head and one or two ProLine 4 x 10 cabinets.

I only tend to use my Double Bass in more quiet, controlled environments, such as Jools’ recording studio, or at BBC Television Centre. Here I will use the same EBS rig with just one cabinet as I don’t really need that much volume. Mainly because if I’m using my Double Bass on the TV show, it’s usually just Jools, myself and the artist in an acoustic setting.

What are the keys to success with amplifying an acoustic instrument?

I’m still trying to find out!  Firstly, you are going to have much more success if you are playing any kind of acoustic bass in a quieter, more intimate situation, as soon as you need lots of volume, you are going to run into trouble. If we’re talking about Double Bass, a good quality pickup will help. I use a Fishman Full Circle pickup, and for me it’s the best I’ve found as far as reproduction of sound goes, and it’s more feedback resistant than most pickups I’ve tried. I also use their Pro-EQ Platinum Bass preamp which has a Phase switch to help eliminate unwanted feedback. I’ve recently started to use a DPA microphone on my bass to get more of the true sound of the instrument, but again, this is only good for quiet settings and recording.

You have been using EBS amps and effects for quite a while, what is your impression from that?

The fact that I’ve been using EBS products for so long now really speaks for itself. The whole EBS range is reliable, extremely versatile, sounds great, and let’s be honest, looks great too!

Any special favourite from the EBS products you are using?

It’s difficult to pick a favorite product because everything is so good! However, I’ve recently started using a MICROBASS II on stage because I need to switch between my EUB and Bass Guitar during the gig, often quite quickly, and the MICROBASS II makes this so simple without any fuss. I really couldn’t be without this unit.

Being the bass player in a show like must call for wide range of musical skills and abilities to adopt a lot of different styles. How do you prepare yourself to be able to deliver at such high level night after night under these conditions?

In many ways I was prepared for this way before I got the Jools gig because I was a former session bassist. I’d already spent years playing every style and genre of music imaginable, and reading both written musical notation and chord symbols. Even when I’m not working with Jools, I’m always listening to as much music as I can, and I transcribe a great deal of music including bass lines and solos. I have to make sure that Ispend equal time working on my Double Bass and Bass Guitar technique. In my position you can’t ever favor one over the other.

When I get the call to play on Jools TV or Radio shows, the next thing that happens is I get sent a CD of the music. I will then listen to the CD many times, then I will meticulously transcribe the original bass part note for note. The next step is to play the transcription along with the recording many times. Eventually I will discard the written music and play along by ear.

Some bass players don’t bother transcribing at all and just learn the part by ear, but I enjoy the transcription process. It allows me to focus in on the intricate details of the original part (mistakes & all!)

It keeps my ears fresh and my reading skills in good shape. Also, I now have thousands of transcriptions filed away that I’ve done over the years with some amazing performers as a keepsake of those memorable occasions. The main thing is, with a job like this, you have to do your homework thoroughly. You can’t just turn up to a TV recording with Smokey Robinson and Eric Clapton, and all you’ve done is listen to the songs you are due to play that night once or twice in the car on the way to the studio (unless of course you like living dangerously, want to be fired or the songs are so outrageously simple that even an untrained chimpanzee could play them!). I suggest doing what your parents told you all those years ago…DO YOUR HOMEWORK!

When listening to the show it seems like the band always bring something new to the music that presents the guest artists in a new way. When you back up the stars on the show, who is in charge of the arrangements – is it Jools or the artist, or a little bit of booth, and can you as a band member contribute to the process in some way?

You’ve brought up a very interesting point. The way this band works is quite unusual and unorthodox compared to others. To begin with, only myself and the horn players read written musical notation, Jools and the rest of the rhythm section do not, so when we back an artist on the TV, there are no existing arrangements, we all have to start from scratch.

When we do Jools’ regular “Later” show on each week, it’s usually only the rhythm section that is needed, and more  often than not, only  Jools and myself plus the artist. However, when we do the New Years Eve show “Hootenanny” the full band is always involved. What happens then is, the horn players take it upon themselves to be the arrangers for that show, and they are given a CD each. They then go off and do full arrangements for everyone APART  from the rhythm section. With the rhythm section we just get a CD each and we do our own thing as far as learning the songs go. The rhythm section end up playing pretty much what is on the original recording, but the horn playing arrangers often have to come up with arrangements out of thin air, especially if the songs we are performing had no horns on in the first place. We’ve been doing this for so long now, and Jools trusts everyone, and we all do our bit to make it come together.

Personally, I pride myself on playing the bass parts as close to the original as possible because this is generally what the artist wants. Another reason why I tend to stick closely the original bass part is, often the bass lines are more specific than anything else in the songs, but I will elaborate and improvise if need be. 

One last thing on the subject. Back in 1995 we were the house band on a TV show hosted by Chris Evans called “Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush” It was a live TV show and each week we had to play two songs with a guest artist. We had some amazing guests on that show including Roger Daltry, Barry White, Cher, Ray Davies, Belinda Carlisle, Lemmy, Kylie and many more….. Now, up until that point, I’d only ever played Double Bass with Jools, but it was clear to me that because of the music we needed to play with these artists, that I also needed to bring out my Bass Guitar. Jools wasn’t keen on the idea initially, and insisted that I continue to just play Double Bass. When I asked him why, he made a very good point that has always stayed with me to this day. He said, “I don’t want us to be just another generic TV House Band, I want us to have our own personality, our own identity, and you playing the Double Bass is part of that”  It was a good point, and I knew where he was coming from. I stuck with it for a while, but some of those bass lines eventually just had to be played on Bass Guitar, as they were unsuitable and almost unplayable on Double Bass alone, so we had to compromise a little.

What are your  best advice to aspiring musicians trying to make their way in the music business as session musicians?

I always dread this question! Ha!  It’s so difficult to answer, especially for someone of my age. Here’s why.  I’m now in 2009,  45 years old, I turned pro when I was 17 or 18 and without getting too profound, the world, and especially the music industry were very different  compared to now. If I gave any advice based on my own experiences, it would probably totally irrelevant now. 

All you can really do is to be the best musician you can possibly be. The bar has been raised so high now and much more is expected of musicians than ever before. You also have  get out there and work with as many people as possible, take on any gig or session that comes along, it may not be great initially, but you never know what it might lead to. It’s all about networking now, but it’s still important to have good people skills too. 

Playing on all these TV and Radio shows with Jools must keep you busy enough, but are you involved in any other musical projects as well?

You’ve hit the nail on the head!  The Jools gig is the closest thing to having a “day job” in the music industry, and it is difficult getting involved with other projects, especially if they involve lengthy touring.

My loyalty is with Jools and he has to come first, but I still enjoy doing the occasional jazz gig, and I play Chapman Stick of all things in a band called “Jonnyland” with some close friends of mine. It’s a combination of Drum & Bass and Ambient Techno Groove. (so i’m told!) We do gigs when and if we feel like it, and I really  enjoy it as it’s so different from anything i do with Jools. Of course, if anyone wants to hire me for a gig or a session, I’m happy to do it, but I always have to fit it around the Rhythm & Blues Orchestra. 

However, I recently recorded one track on Double Bass with Tom Jones, and the session was at the famous “Real World Studios” owned by Peter Gabriel.
I’ve worked with Tom Jones on many occasions through my association with Jools, but this is the first time i’d worked with him independently. Hopefully, it will be some more sessions with him in the near future, if it will fit my schedule with Jools.

Ok, thank you Dave and keep up the good work!

More about Dave Swift can be found here:

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