Bassist Darryl Jones on Touring Life
with the Rolling Stones and Playing with Miles Davis
Ivor Levene October 11, 2018
It is 10:30 on a Tuesday morning, a morning which can best be described as a “proper” English morning. You must go to England to really experience a proper English morning, the sun shines brightly, but there is no oppressive heat. There’s a crisp breeze blowing, which is all the better because all the streets nearby are decked out in bunting, Union Jacks, and English flags. As far as the eye can see, there are decorations strung between building creating a sea of red, white and blue. Why all the flags? I’m here just a few days after the royal wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. I’m not here for the wedding, however. I’m here for that other omnipresent British export, The Rolling Stones, and I’ve been granted an interview with their bassist, Darryl Jones.
It’s the night after the first of six Stones shows in the U.K, and specifically it’s the night after the first show in London, which can only be described as somewhat of a “homecoming” for the Stones. It’s been some years since they toured the U.K. and in some cases, it’s been decades since they’ve played some of the cities on this 2018 tour, known as the No Filter tour. There’s a buzz in the air, and the local denizens are eagerly anticipating their hometown boys. It’s not just the fans who view this as a homecoming, as Darryl tells me, “It felt a little bit like the hometown boys done good, you know what I mean?” He continues, “Last night there was definitely something in the air. At one point I turned to Keith and said ‘Welcome home’. I said that to the whole band, actually.”
The venue they played at last night isn’t a venue that they’ve ever played at. It’s the former 2012 Olympic stadium known now as “Queen Elizabeth Stadium”, a shiny and massive structure holding over 80,000 friends and family. When you’re a Stones fan, you’re either one or the other, sometimes both. It’s not atypical for super-fans to travel more than ten thousand miles for these gigs, and I’m no different.
After leaving my accommodations in the center of London, I hail one of the ubiquitous black London taxis as to make the journey — and the experience — as British as possible. The cab glides effortlessly between all the Ubers, bicyclists, and pedestrians as only a London cabbie can do, as we make our way to the venerable Savoy Hotel on the river Thames. This is the hotel that the Beatles sang about in “Savoy Truffle,” this is legend and the interview hasn’t even started yet. This isn’t my first trip to The Savoy, however, as I was there the night before to pick up my tickets, which were held by the “ticket lady,” a position that has changed very few times over the decades, but is present whenever The Stones show up to play. I navigated the ermine and velvet hallways to find the VIP ticket office, which is in an unmarked room, past the various eateries and sitting areas.
The taxi pulls up to the gilded port-cochere of the hotel, where I am met by a lovely chap outfitted in top hat and tails, in grey of course. Posh is how you would best describe it. A short walk from the drop-off to the front desk, where I inform the concierge I’m there to meet with Darryl Jones. I’m asked to have a seat and after a few minutes, I’m approached and told “Mr. Jones will see you now, Sir. Take the lift up to the eighth floor.” And with that I am on my way.
If you haven’t been up front at a Stones show, you don’t fully grasp just how incredibly loud the group is, nor do you necessarily pick up on all the interplay between the band members. “We’re an incredibly loud band,” says Darryl. “Dave is our front of the house guy and at times I’ll tell my tech man to get on the walkie talkie and tell Dave to turn the bass down, he really does push the bass in the mix, he tells me all the time that if you can’t feel the drums and bass, it ain’t rock and roll.”
If you’ve been lucky enough to be front of house for a more intimate gig, as I was at the tiny Fonda Theater in Los Angeles in 2015, you fully know what I’m talking about. Darryl knew exactly what I was talking about as he stated, “Being in the front for that Fonda show must have really blown your hair back, we’re really loud in small places like that!” The loudness of the band must be felt to be truly appreciated. When I was present in 2015 at the band’s rehearsal space, it felt like I was standing inside the room with them cranked to 11. As Darryl explains, “I guess it just depends on the room too, because I don’t remember that being particularly loud. It’s just one of those things you know? Rock and Roll.”
One of the things that has always endeared the band to its fans is the occasional mistake or misstep. “Last night we were having issues with the wireless mics and guitars,” Darryl explains. “It’s gonna happen with any modern technology if you want to walk around the stage without a cable. They always check all this stuff before we go on, but sometimes there’s radio interference and things cut out, for some reason, something was interfering a little bit last night. I’ve been working with these guys for a while and I don’t remember the last time that happened, I don’t think I ever remember that happening with Keith’s guitar. The fans don’t seem to mind, and the band is acutely aware of that.”
He continues, “It’s really interesting, I get the feeling that the real fans want to see that, they want to see something real and they love the mistakes. If there’s a faux-pas, they seem to really dig it. There’s definitely an element of chaos to what the band does, I always thought that when I first started playing with them,” says Darryl. “I’d be at a wedding for a musician, and the band playing is really a great band, but when they start playing a Rolling Stones song, I would think to myself, “Something’s not right,” and then I’d realize that there’s a little bit of irreverence to what the Stones do. We don’t mind if our “slip” is showing a bit, and the fans seem to really appreciate it. We’re going to let that be a part of our music, I think I learned that from Miles Davis.
“I would do a take in the studio with Miles and at the end of the take, I would ask to fix a mistake, to go back and redo it, and Miles would say “No, no, no, no,” so I really dig that about the Stones, I think there’s a little bit of irreverence there.
There is something there that is perched capriciously on the abyss. It’s like anything could happen, and you can’t have the excitement part of music if you don’t have a little bit of the chance of it falling apart. You know what I mean?
There’s also something to be said for guys who know the music so well, I dig that. I think that’s one of the dangerous parts of the Stones. I don’t know if you read the review in Rolling Stone, but he talked about the Stones show being interesting because he says the audience has a feeling like anything could happen at any moment, and he was saying that part of the fun is when you see one of those things happening, it’s like everybody gets excited. You can see the band gets excited and the audience gets excited, like oh shit, something just — you know, and I think that’s a great thing. It’s really wonderful. That’s one of the reasons I really like playing with the Stones.”
When I asked him who is leading who, and how the band holds it all together, he states, “I started out with the band thinking that the job of the bass player is to just hold it down with the drummer, but over the years I’ve learned to just listen to everybody through my in-ear monitors. I’ve got Ronnie (Wood) over hear, I’ve got Keith (Richards) in this ear a little bit in addition to being close to his rig. I want to hear everyone, background vocalist, keyboards, etc. I do not want to look back twenty years from now when someone asks me what it was like playing with Ronnie Wood and have to say I couldn’t really hear him. I’m good at listening. I’m a better listener than I am a musician I think, or it helps me to be a good musician because that’s part of the whole scripture.”
If you have ever played a guitar or bass, you know how much of a physical toll it can take on a person’s back. When I asked him how he dealt with the rigors of playing for upwards of two hours, he responded, “Playing with the Rolling Stones is a dream come true for anybody, and people ask me that from time to time, but really, it’s a dream come true.”
Playing with the Stones surely would be a dream come true for any musician, but Darryl got his professional start playing with the legendary Miles Davis at nineteen, and you would have to have an “A-game” for that! Legend has it that he was incredibly demanding. When I asked Darryl about his time with the jazz legend, he recounted, “There is definitely a certain thing that you’ve got to know to play with someone like that.” He continues, “I was playing around town with his nephew, a guy named Vince Willer. Miles was there that night when we played in LA. Miles would call his sister and say, ‘Put the phone down, let me hear what Vince is doing with the band.’ He would give Vince tips and stuff. At some point Miles decided that he was gonna change the bass, and he asked Vince, ‘Do you know anybody in Chicago I should hear?’ I think I was the third call, but I was the first one to pick up the phone. He first called the bass player from the band Pleasure. He didn’t answer the phone. Next, he called Felton Crews, who was the bass player on The Man with the Horn. He did not answer the phone. And then he called me and I answered the phone.
I flew to New York the next day and played for him. It was interesting because the audition with Miles and the audition with the Stones were kind of pinnacles for me, yet both were very informal. It was not like ‘the crunch is on,’ Miles was making fun of me and joking around and stuff. I went in and played along with a board tape that came out of the past gigs. Miles says, ‘You don’t have to play what the guy’s playing, just play along what you would play.’ So, I did that for a little while and he said, ‘Why don’t you play a B-flat blues real slow?’ I started and he stopped me and he said, ‘I mean real slow.’ I started and he stopped me again and said, ‘Real slow.’ So, I played these blues for two or three minutes, not a long time, but long enough for him to figure out whether I could really keep my place playing in the form that’s long like that, which is actually their thing, a kind of test.”
I at once wondered how someone at nineteen could acquire the chops to play with someone like Miles Davis. What must someone have absorbed at such an early age to be able to play such complex and demanding music? Darryl recounted, “I grew up in a household where my mom listened to funk music and James Brown. Sly Stone was on the radio at the time that I started playing. My dad was listening to early Miles and a lot of jazz stuff. In high school, I was playing acoustic bass with the high school orchestra, and some of the upperclassmen. One of the guys at Edmund Charles Matthews asked me, ‘Man, can you walk?’ and I said, “A little bit.”
So, I started playing with those guys, and they really kind of introduced me to playing jazz. They were all listening to the electric Miles stuff, and we were organizing jams, so all of the stuff that I was gonna get called on to do with Miles, I kind of had a little bit of training in that, either from listening to jazz and playing a little bit of jazz in high school, being aware of the funk stuff, because that’s what Miles’ gig was like at that time. You had to have an ability to kind of find grooves and stuff like that, but you also had to know a little bit about playing through changes, just basic changes, not anything like what Miles was doing earlier. So, looking back, I guess I was well-prepared to play with Miles from what I had been doing.
Quite an amazing journey for someone who was only nineteen at the time. Darryl recounts, “I was twenty-one, although it said I was nineteen in the book. I said, “Miles, you know I was twenty-one when I joined you. Why’d you write that I was nineteen in the book?” He replied, ‘I was trying to give you a couple of extra years.’ He was funny. People don’t realize about Miles, Miles had an incredible sense of humor.”
After working with Miles Davis, Jones moved onward and upward through the music scene, playing with renowned artists such as Madonna, Sting, Herbie Hancock, and Peter Gabriel, before landing his current gig with the Stones in 1994. Stepping into the shoes of someone like Bill Wyman can be a very daunting task, as there are many fans who just cannot reconcile the replacement of a band member. As for the Rolling Stones themselves, they have no such hang-ups. On the contrary, they want that sense of individualism and creativity from anyone that they play with. As Darryl explained to me when I asked if he has to deal with those comparisons to Bill Wyman, he responded, “No, not that much, man. And to be honest, I’m told that there are sites and places where people may be a little bit more critical of what I’m playing and say, ‘That’s not what Wyman played!’ but I don’t really encounter that kind of stuff. I’m not a review reader.
“Somebody sent me a review to the first show in Dublin that Rolling Stone reviewed, and it is literally because my friend, Roach, is Brazilian, what she wrote I didn’t understand, and I was, like, what is she talking about? And then this review opens up and I read the first few paragraphs and thought, ‘Well, it’s a nice review, but that is the first time I’ve actually read a review in a long time. I just feel like if you start reading stuff about yourself and it gets in your head a little bit, and I don’t think it’s necessarily the best thing if it’s good or it’s bad. I think that I just want to stay clear of that. I feel like if the guys I’m playing with, if they’re happy with what I’m doing, then that’s the most important thing. It’s not that I don’t respect reviewers. I think some of these guys really do listen pretty well and are able to convey what they saw in words. But I just choose to stay away from it.
“In terms of playing a song exactly like Wyman played it, not that much, man. There are very few cases where I could actually play what Bill Wyman played. He plays very … I don’t know if it’s orthodox or unorthodox as far as rock and roll basses, but it’s very different than what I would naturally play. But in some cases, parts of the bassline are part of the song and they have to be played. Once, on this particular tune, I just decided ‘I’m gonna play what he played on this and see what happens,’ and Mick was like, ‘so what were you playing there?’ He says, ‘You don’t have to play that. You can play something else, whatever you want to play.’ Generally speaking, that’s been the case where they don’t require me to play exactly as it was recorded.”
It has been sung countless times by Mick Jagger that “It’s only rock and roll,” and not to take anything away from the band, but the music isn’t that complex, and doesn’t seem like much of a stretch for someone who has played with Miles Davis. Pick up a bass sometime and try to follow what Miles was doing, and you’ll just end up scratching your head, but pick up a bass and follow the Rolling Stones and you’ll find most of their catalog is quite easy to play. How does someone who is essentially far more advanced than the band he plays in manage to find a challenge? This year, Jones played with another group by the name of Black Stone Raiders, a kind of fusion jazz supergroup.
As Darryl explains it, “To be honest, one of the reasons why being a musician was such an attractive thing to me is because I realized that musicians don’t do the same thing every day. If I’ve been playing music that is technically more demanding or requires different head space, I love coming back to rock and roll. It’s so much fun. And the same thing is true the other way. I really — I enjoy doing different things. I’m only a snob so far as good music is concerned. I don’t really look at one kind of music and say, ‘Well that’s not as good as that kind of music.’ I dig it all.
For instance, when you say something is country music now, it’s kind of a misnomer because it can be many different things, calling it all ‘Country,’ that’s so broad. I played on this guy’s record and he’s a kind of country artist. Young guy, but man, I so enjoyed it. I really, really enjoyed it when I listened back, it sounded like how it’s supposed to sound. I really enjoy that and I love playing jazz and blues but I want to get better than that. I’m trying to learn how to play some blues on the guitar.”
No discussion of recent Rolling Stones activity is without a mention of the new album they are working on, which has been in the works for over a year. He advised me, “There’s been some work done on the new album, but I think they’re just gonna require a little bit more. I haven’t heard anything more about when that’s gonna happen, but yeah, you know, I think they should finish, there’s some good stuff there.”
The last album from the Rolling Stones, Blue and Lonesome, was a surprise hit for the band, taking them by surprise, and garnering both fan and critical acclaim, picking up a Grammy for Best Blues Album. I suggest to Jones that many fans actually want the band to shelve the new album and put together a follow-up to Blue and Lonesome, to which he replied, “That’s a great idea, I hadn’t thought about that. I do remember hearing that the fans had wanted the band to do an album like that since before I joined the group, so that album was long overdue.”
Even to the casual fan, the friction within the Rolling Stones and the fight for both creative and financial control is obvious. Some fans think it is “Mick’s band,” while others pour that thought into Keith Richards. Jones asserts, “I’ve heard people say, ‘It’s Mick’s band,’ but I wouldn’t say that, nor would I say that in front of anybody else. It is very much a group dynamic.”
Speaking of “the dynamic,” there are very distinct moments in certain songs where different band members signal song changes to the rest of the band. It can be done with the nod of a head, turning to face someone, subtle little movements that are best viewed from the front of the stage. One such visual cue is in the song “Midnight Rambler” where Keith Richards will turn to face Charlie Watts to signal that it’s time for the rhythm and pace of the song to change. When I observed this number at a recent show in London, the entire band turned around to face Charlie, and I wondered if some new dynamic had developed, but Jones assured me that one hadn’t as he told me, “It didn’t signal anything particularly different. It’s just that if something changes, we want to be on the case, basically we’re all just paying attention and taking in the moment.
“What’s fun about ‘Rambler’ is that that tune is scripted in that we make that change when such-and-such happens or we do that when Mick does this, we do that or when Keith does this, we do that. But that’s what’s really fun about the tune. It’s like one of the unscripted tunes. There’s just these kind of two or three little things that we all know are gonna happen, but in-between that, anything could happen, which is really great, it’s a great vehicle for this band because these guys, you know, it’s a rock and roll band!”
Legend has it that during the recording of some of their earlier albums, Bill Wyman would lay down his bass tracks during the day, and then Keith Richards, being unhappy with Wyman’s bass work, would come in to the studio at night and overdub all the bass parts. When I asked Jones whether there was any truth to this rumor, he replied,” They’re all playing bass now. Mick played bass on something on A Bigger Bang, I think. They all play bass on stuff.
“I’ll come in and they’ll say, ‘We need you to play on four tracks or five tracks and oh, hey, check out the one that I played bass on.’ I think the way Keith and Ronnie play the guitar is kind of based on the bass, or based on the root. You know what I mean? Obviously, they are playing harmony and stuff, but there is something about both of them that I call them bass players. I think that we should look up the track that Mick plays bass on and take a listen to it. They’ve been playing with the band long enough to know what to play and make it work. I don’t think there’s any problem with that. I think that’s great.”
As has been the case for many years, no Rolling Stones concert is without the setlist whiners, people who complain that certain songs should have been played, while other songs oft-played should be removed from the setlist. I have read tons of these complaints on fan forums and I wanted to know what the perspective is from inside the band. How do the Rolling Stones themselves feel about the setlist, the “warhorse” songs, and the online complainers? Darryl explained it thusly, “I was talking to somebody about that the last few days. Sometimes we’ll have guys who come and say, ‘Man, I want to hear hit after hit. I want to hear big songs,’ and then you talk to the next person and he says, ‘I want to hear obscure stuff that you’ve never played before,’ but I’ve never really thought about it. I just thought there were simply different kinds of fans, but you’re saying the real serious super fans definitely want to hear more obscure stuff?”
With that, our conversation turned to every day topics such as the current state of the musical instrument market, photography, and how the band recognizes a lot of the same faces at the front of the stage for every gig. The conversation being over, I thanked him for his time and headed back through the gilded doorways of the hotel, to be whisked back to my hotel, to wait for the next night’s Rolling Stones concert.
One last thing: The Rolling Stones are purported to be in the planning stages for a continuation of the No Filter tour in early 2019. This leg of the tour will be taking place in the USA, the cities have not been announced yet. You heard it here first!