Notes With Attachments
Interview with Pino Palladino and Blake Mills

1. Just Wrong

Pino Palladino: This tune came originally from something I’d worked on at my home in London, with Chris Dave, who had played a beat—in typical Chris Dave fashion, it was a really original, fresh approach to a beat. I worked up a chord sequence to the beat, a cyclical eight-bar loop—just an idea.

I presented this to Blake, and at the time Blake mentioned Brian Wilson, in terms of an arrangement, something along those lines. We stripped it down to the acoustic guitar part, which was a chord sequence, and just fleshed it out. The way we recorded that at Sound City was just with a click [track] and a bass.

Blake Mills: I remember you showing me those chords on guitar, but I can’t recall if I’d heard Chris’s drum-beat that was the spark for the whole idea at that point or not.

Pino: I do remember recording the bass with just a click, because I remember saying to you, “there’s nothing to keep in tune with.” It just went on from there, really. I didn’t have a melody at that point. Once the whole arrangement was fleshed out, with guitar and bass, I worked on a melody for it. Then Larry [Goldings] came in and played some mellotron.

Blake: Larry was going to play some pads [i.e., sustained, ambient chords—B.R.], and whatever else he was was hearing. You’d just come up with the melody and you sang it to him. He played it back and we flushed out all the harmony of the melody together, section by section. And then Sam [Gendel] came in, and outlined your initial melodic part. What Larry ended up playing on the Mellotron were old saxophone samples, more or less, so when Sam played the melody over the top of it, it combined the nostalgic, lo-fi Mellotron sound with a new element, with a little more expression in it. It made the whole thing sound like there was this big-band horn section in there. Then you heard a counter melody and started playing it in harmonics on fretless bass.

With a song like this, built in in layers, at various points along the road you look around and go: what is this? Where is the composition? Sometimes you end up drawing the blueprints of the house after it’s fully been built. More recently, you ended up figuring out a way of playing the bass-line and your harmonics at the same time, which now feel inseparable from the composition. That sort of thing would happen on almost all of these songs: we’d start building on them without understanding what they were.

Pino: That’s right. The melodies, especially, were in there, but we had to give them time, so we could hear them.

Blake: There’s this feeling of walking-through-walls that I get when I listen to the chord progression on [The Beach Boys’] “God Only Knows”—and I got that feeling, where you have a chord sequence that just keeps passing further and further through what you think its parameters are. It has that surreal quality, just from the chords, that made me think of Brian Wilson when you first played it for me, Pino.

Pino: I remember you saying that. And for me that was not a place I was coming from. But I was really pleased when you said that.

2. Soundwalk

Pino: That one originated quite a long time ago, while I was playing with D’Angelo on tour, in 2000. Myself and Jacques Schwartz-Bart, who was in Soultronics [D’Angelo’s supergroup backing band for the Voodoo tour—B.R.], we had traveled to Chicago and waited for the rest of the band in a huge snowstorm, so we ended up stuck in the Sutton House Hotel for about four days. During that period I went out and bought a digital recorder. [We made a recording], and Jacques, at a later date, put the horn arrangement together for it. That ended up being a demo, I had programmed a drum part that felt good but the drum sounds were naff. But it was always on my mind that it was a really cool arrangement, and that it would be good to work on it at some point.

Blake: You played it to me, and you explained that you were really keen on the horns, but the mini-disc that you recorded on was long-gone. You just had the two-track [recording]; with everything mixed together.

As it happens, a friend of mine, Dave Godowsky,  works for a company called Izotope—it’s a software company, and one of the things they specialize in is plug-ins for de-noising, whether it’s removing clicks or mouth noises in dialogue for films, or taking out the reverb from a sound—these guys are at the forefront of the black magic that goes on in audio processing. He brought by a demo of this software called Rebalance. It allows you to load in a song, with drums and bass and whatever else, and the program will—through a series of algorithms—determine what are drums and what are vocals and guitars. So you can go in and turn down the drums, or mute the guitars, or take the vocals out altogether. It’s insane. When he brought it by at first, it was terrifying; it made me realize that people can build stems from any piece of music ever made; one could entirely remove Paul McCartney from the outro of “Hey Jude.” So the timing for us couldn’t have been better: first thing we did was we put Pino’s two-track in, and started playing with the controls of this plug-in, and we extracted the horns.

Pino: I turned up at the studio when he was in the middle of giving you a demo. That’s when I thought, oh shit: maybe this could work for that track.

Blake: That was when you first mentioned the song at all?

Pino: Yes.

Blake: So that day resulted in the song. We took the horns from Pino’s recording—just the horns. And basically started over. We were able to get a cleaner extraction from that software than we ended up using, because we liked some of the artifacts that are left over when some element is not fully removed—organ or percussion, little things that would just pop through. They have a dry-digital sound to them that’s kind of interesting.

So then there’s some chopping and stacking of the extracted horns, Sam playing sax on top of that that sounds like a chair being dragged across a floor, and I’m playing a couple layers of percussion inspired by the way the drums sound when they’re extracted… we just got inspired by this software and the way that it made things sound, and then had fun trying to recreate those sounds, naturally or acoustically, and that all turned the song into something else.

Pino: I had left Jacques with just a demo of drum machine with bass and guitar, and a couple of melodies within the guitar, and he came up with that brilliant arrangement.

Blake: We’ve been working on this record for 20 years! 

3. Ekuté

Pino: That started from an idea I had from an idea I had at home in my home studio in London, which Chris Dave had worked on. We’re both huge fans of Fela. It just came from a one-chord jam that I liked the feel of. The next thing we did on it was in New York, with Ben Kane, an engineer friend of mine who worked on some of D’Angelo’s stuff. We had Marcus Strickland come in, who had the idea for that multitracked bass-clarinet horn section.

Actually, it was when me and Blake were doing a gig to promote the John Legend record in New York that I invited Blake to the studio to add something to that tune. That was before we’d really talked about doing an album together. Then Blake added a fuzz-guitar thing, and came up with a break-down section, and that evolved into “Ekuté.”

Blake: That was the first time I’d ever heard any of your original music, Pino. It was eye-opening to work on something that receptive, which had so many different [directions] that it went in. It was kind of a revelation, to think of a song in those terms.

After we got talking about what a Pino Palladino  solo album might consist of, what kind of music would be on it, we got [a recording of] that session and opened it up at my home studio; we played with the arrangement of it, where it was [just] one beat, but we were trying to figure out all the different places that one beat or bass-line could take you, and what we could make from what had been already been recorded, just by doing things “in the box”—whether it was reorganizing the arrangement, or treating things sonically to sound like they were different performances. When we got into Sound City, then we started to add things that were more lifelike, and elements that would connect it to other songs on the record.

4. Notes With Attachments

Pino: My wife, Maz, had that title in her head. It connects with the artifactual nature of the album, the way it came together.

Blake: I like that it’s a reference to digital note-keeping, because a lot of the record did come from recordings you had saved over the course of 20 years. Our working on the record happened over the course of two or three years, with big gaps in between. For long periods of time, all of this music existed in a computer somewhere and had not been recorded live in a room yet. The only places where it had existed were on hard drives.

They’re appropriate terms for how this record happened, but also—if you think of “notes” as a musical term, and “attachments” as a sentimental one— there’s another meaning there. There’s a sentiment and story to all of these songs that, somewhere deep down, Pino knows, and I have my own fantasies and emotions that I attach to them when I listen.

Pino: For the track, it was Larry Goldings who played us a couple ideas he had, and said, if you guys are looking for contributions to the record, how about this? That one jumped out. It was really a sketch of what you hear now as the finished piece. Then we built it up from Larry’s original piece of music.

Blake: If I’m not mistaken, at that point the piece had the modulation in it, but I don’t think it really had an ending yet. We took the MIDI information from Larry’s keys, which is like a coded imprint of his performance, and you can then send that to other instruments like analogue synthesizers. I think we just started sending that performance to a bunch of different kinds of instruments we’d set up out on the floor.

This is getting tech-y, but we’d set up different instruments in different parts of the live room [in Sound City], which is a pretty good-size space, and we’d mic things up with stationary ambient mics, and feed different parts of the MIDI code, different voices of Larry’s keyboard performance, to different instruments or different synths. So it gives the impression that it’s being played by an ensemble, instead of a single keyboard. It’s a surprise, because sometimes a thing will misfire with MIDI: one instrument will interpret it a different way from the next.

5. Djurkel

Pino: That came from an idea I put down fairly recently, after we started to record, and I was trying to write more material for the record. It’s inspired by West African music. I was lucky enough to do a tour of some of the countries in West Africa in 1993, and the music really got into me—the deep desert blues, or whatever you want to call it, from Niger. It started off with three tracks of bass: I was trying to get the sound of an instrument I was obsessed with for a while, called a djurkel—a one-string African instrument. So I put a capo on my bass and just for fun was trying to get that sound. I put down three tracks of bass, left it for a while, and a bit later I used it as a loop and built it up from there.

Blake: That’s interesting. I was really transfixed by the sound of the African kora at a young age, and I started spending a lot of time trying to find ways to make that sound on my guitar—a harp-like [sound], getting notes to cascade over one another. That’s influenced a lot of the shapes that I gravitate toward on guitar now, and how I naturally play.

On this tune, I remember getting the three basses from Pino, and I didn’t know exactly what was going on. The parts are so close together; it’s like a little conversation. So we had to use that, but the sound wasn’t necessarily that of an acoustic instrument. I remember spending a little time trying to get them to sound like they were played on a djeli ngoni, which is similar to a djurkel. 

Then, from there, you found a really good-sounding calabash down at Motherland Music [in Inglewood, CA]—you played some percussion, and maybe we did a double=calabash pass together...

Pino: I think so. I remember putting a sort of bass-drum calabash part on, and you built it up from there.

Blake: It’s just two guys with a profound respect for music that comes from that part of the world, who are inspired by it, and aren’t able to play it verbatim—we’re not making a naturalistic interpretation of West African music. It’s referential to things we love about it alongside stuff that is not from that tradition.

6. Chris Dave

Pino: That makes me smile, straightaway, because I think of Chris and his approach to drumming.

That tune started as an idea that me and Chris had worked on at my home in London, in 2015, something like that? It’s such a great drum part—a loop bass-line, to which I later came up with some chords to impose on it. Then Sam Gendel, with his unique approach, found a way of playing the chords on sax, using his pedals.

Blake: Each song had its own journey: some of the earliest stuff we worked on was more of just a bass-line, or a beat from Chris. It might have been a pattern that repeated, and developing it into an arrangement was really about “how many mics were used to record these drums at your house? O.K., let’s try to build section A using just one of those mics—and then turn them all on for section B?” Just experimenting with whatever options we had to work with. That was how some of the earlier pieces started.

Some others, like “Man From Molise,” Pino would play [a recording] for me where he was playing the melody on the bass; there was an A section, a B section and a C section, and it was a full composition with harmony and chord changes. Maybe it didn’t exist in [its final] recorded form yet, but in compositional form it was fully fleshed out. So those recordings we started more from scratch, from the ground up. [And sometimes the horn arrangements] would take on the role of a melody that was previously played by the bass, or would be responding to a bass melody.

7. Man From Molise

Pino: I’m trying to think where to start on that one. It started off with a piece I was writing that was inspired by [the Brazilian composer and multi-instrumentalist] Hermeto Pascoal —a complete tune that I presented to Blake, in a style that was not what you hear on the record now. When I played it to Blake, he said, “how about we slow that down?” I said, O.K., sounds cool; let’s slow it down. So he slowed it down to half-speed.

Blake: It takes a lot longer to listen to something playing at half-speed! So we just listened. Where there Cuban musicians on that original recording?

Pino: Yeah, some incredible musicians in New York, Axel Tosca [Laugart]on piano, Jhair Sala on percussion, Itai Kris on flute and actually Joe Locke played vibes and marimba on it—it was a completed arrangement. But within a style that wouldn’t necessarily have fit on this record.

Blake: It was incredible. Their playing was hard to believe, actually, it was so good. But when we were listening to it in half-time, what came through to me was the shape of the melody: how angular it felt. These big intervals, that the melody spans, came across more at the ultra-slow tempo. It also had this kind of lopsidedness. Every musician has sort of a rhythmic identity, a fingerprint. But one of the most immediate things about Pino’s musicianship is that his rhythmic identity is so strong, so unique. When the track was slowed down, it was like putting a microscope up to his feel. It puts a much wider frame around what’s being played and what isn’t.

Pino: What you hear now has none of the original music in it. We took everything that was there out, and built it up in its new arrangement. You played tres [the guitar-like Cuban instrument—B.R.] on it—I’m not sure you’d ever played tres before.

Blake: The tres is close enough to a guitar tuning that I was just barely able to navigate the twists and turns of this song. But the sound of the slowed-down recording influenced our playing style too. It gave everything a sluggishness, a kind of drunken sloshiness. There’s percussion on it, it gets into Harry Partch-Tom Waits territory a little. To hear that on Afro-Cuban music in 7/8 was something I was really excited by. And again, that impetus was there to use something digitally manipulated as an inspiration for what sounds to create acoustically.

Pino: It definitely had an influence on us hearing that stuff slowed down, how it syncopates and swings, in a way that we couldn’t possibly come up with. So we were copying it, in a way, and it came to feel very natural.

8. Off the Cuff

Pino: It’s originally from my place in London—that’s in 7/8, too. Chris and me were just jamming on some stuff at home, and I think we didn’t use the drum-kit, we just used the percussion and the basic bass-line from the original idea. Blake and I re-harmonized it, and Blake played a baritone guitar—he brought that harmonic sense to it; it didn’t sound like that before. Then Sam Gendel came in and totally freaked it out with the otherworldly saxophone stuff that he’s doing. That’s quite a dark piece.

Blake: I still don’t have a firm harmonic grasp on how a lot of this music really works. We played these songs for the first time the other day, and even after six or seven times through, I was making just some progress, barely able to hang, and I still can’t tell what’s happening musically at some points. I couldn’t write a complete chord-chart out for most of this stuff. Sometimes I know what I’m playing, and I know part of what you’re playing, but the way everything is adding up and stacking on top of each other creates something pretty far removed from any individual element in the music. It’s a mystery as to what part of a chord I’m even contributing.

Pino: It’s a combination of all the different things, isn’t it? The root note, the extension of the chord, and then Sam’s contribution on top of it. It’s really interesting. I don’t know what it is either.

For more information, please contact Krista Williams, Colin Lodewick or Carla Sacks
212.741.1000 at Sacks & Co.