Rob Harris Interview - Jamiroquai's Funk Maestro
Rob Harris has built up an enviable track record as a consummate professional pop and funk guitarist: an active session player and sideman and also band member of some of the pop world’s biggest names.
Rob is best known as the guitarist in arguably the world’s biggest funk band Jamiroquai; but has also worked on countless sessions with artists spanning the globe, including Kylie Minogue, Take That’s Mark Owen, Gary Numan, Beverly Knight and The Pasedena’s…
Rob’s playing experience is not just confined to the world of pop and funk; he is also the possessor of first-rate rock and blues chops and has played many a session and live performance with keyboard legend Don Airey (Ozzy Osbourne, Whitesnake, Gary Moore etc and currently with Deep Purple) alongside such players as Bernie Marsden and Uli Jon Roth. Coupled with an intimate playing knowledge of Jazz, Rob is the essence of versatility and professionalism.
alloutGUITAR talks with Rob on the eve of the release Jamiroquai’s Greatest Hits album being released, and with an exciting new project with the other band members of Jamiroquai – ‘Blip’ whose album is being finished as this interview goes out.
Rob commences with his guitar story…
The Early Years
I started playing when I was seven whilst I was living in the Middle East; I just picked up one of my Dad’s acoustic guitars that he had around the house. I don’t know exactly what drew me to the instrument – it was probably from something that I’d seen on TV – but right from day one I was completely enthralled with the thing. It sounds funny, but I knew pretty much from that moment that this was what I wanted to do! For the next few years the main thing I did was just muck around and pick up single string melodies by ear. I had been shown all the usual open chords – ans spent a lot of time working out riffs and melody lines from all around me. By purely using my ears to do this I gained not only a sort of instinctive knowledge of the fretboard, but really developed my ear as well.
When did you start lessons?
We moved back to England around 1983 and I started lessons with a great local teacher and player called Colin Medlock. Colin really took the time to make sure that I developed at the right rate; I remember in the first lesson he gave me a chromatic picking exercise for my technique and we looked at The Beatles – Let It Be. From the very first lesson he was trying to make sure that I was learning real music rather than spending ages on theory and technique exclusively. His view – which I share – is that it is very important to learn actual songs rather than just doing a bunch of licks and stuff; that way you feel that you have accomplished something – you’re actually making music rather than just noodling on a guitar.
What were your early influences?
My older brother and sister were listening to things like The Jacksons, David Bowie, a lot of The Police, Dire Straits – and I remember hearing and really liking George Benson; unlike a lot of guitarists I didn’t go straight to rock. So, a lot of my formative influences were a bit different maybe from most. One thing – and this probably explains a lot when you view my career – that made a big impression on me was when Colin told me he’d met a guy in London called Alan Murphy who was a big 80’s session guitarist. I remember thinking “Wow – a ‘session player’” – playing with lots of different acts as job – what a great occupation! Then I started listening out for the things that Alan had done – like Go West, Total Contrast and Kate Bush. This was good because it got me interested in all the spin off stuff from those bands; I also started to keep an eye out for certain players and listen to what they had done, as opposed to just particular bands.
When did you start gigging for ‘real’?
I had a little school band right from the beginning, but my first proper band was a local band who used to rehearse above a pub near where I lived. I was still pretty young, and the way I got this was my Dad was walking past and heard this band rehearsing and walked in and basically said that if they were looking for a guitar player he knew someone …me! I remember that he came and got me and I had to drop whatever it was that I was doing and grab a guitar and amp and go up there and play there and then…
Now, these guys were all in their twenties and pretty good players so it was a really good learning curve. I actually did my first ‘real’ gig with them when I was 14 years old at ‘The Burleigh Arms’ in Cambridge; stuff like Duran Duran – current chart material at the time – mixed up with a few originals.
What was your playing like at this point?
This being the early days, I was really still concentrating on the rhythmic aspects of the instrument – at that point I wasn’t too interested in the big lead breaks. I just concentrated on finding the pockets in the tracks that I could sit in. I had also picked up a lot of stuff from Colin, and he was a real pro funky rhythm player so that had obviously rubbed off on what I was doing.
Reading music notation is probably the most neglected of disciplines for the average guitarist; however, with Rob coming from the perspective of wanting to be a session guitarist from an early age – rather than the typical “wanna be a rock lead guitarist” aspirations of your typical aspiring axeman – I wonder if he focused in on this more than the average player?
Well, I can read – but very slowly! I had studied it from day one with Colin and particularly when I got it into my head that I wanted to become a session player I took a very keen interest. Nowadays if I have to read a line I can work it out – but I do struggle with it, so it takes a while! I found out from a very early age that my ears are good, which I have always relied on, so it’s been a lot easier if I simply ask someone how it goes – and I have always been very quick at replicating a part. If I hear something once, 9 times out of 10 I’ll have it straight off. This all comes back to those first few years before I had lessons or books or anything; playing everything by ear really built this ability.
When did you start to gig on a regular basis?
After that first gig at Cambridge I started playing live regularly – normally at pubs or a few working mens clubs. I would literally do anything that I was asked to do – anything and everything I would say yes to. Purely for experience, I wanted to do as many varied gigs as possible; I knew that this was a quicker way to become as well-rounded as possible. That meant lots of parties and weddings etc – as you can imagine there were quite a few ‘interesting’ gigs along the way!
So would it be fair to say that by your mid teens you were fairly ‘gig hardened’ already?
Well, not in a Stevie Ray Vaughan sense! But, I suppose, compared to other 16 year olds I was consistently busy and I must have been averaging at least two gigs a week, every week.
Rob spent his teens in the UK town of St Neots, Cambridgeshire (about 50 miles north of London); I wonder what his contemporaries were into during this time – the mid to late 1980’s – and what the local music scene was like.
There were a few indie bands that most people around my age would have normally played in, but I never got involved with them. At that time I was already into Larry Carlton, Steve Lukather, Allan Holdsworth and John Scofield so the attraction of doing indie goth music wasn’t really there! Besides, I was so busy playing already that I wouldn’t have had the time even if I had the inclination. You have to remember that at this time my burning ambition was to get good enough to become a session guitarist. Harmonically I was also stretching out and by the end of my regular lessons with Colin – I had about 4 years of weekly lessons with him – we were looking at the Jazz standards and studying bebop a little. At this stage my practise routines would usually consist of getting a new album, something like the latest It Bites for example – i.e. something pretty challenging!
I would by ear work out how to play the whole album authentically – every riff, rhythmic pattern, melody line that was there from the start of the album to the finish. The only places where I would deviate would be the solos, and here I would do my own terrible version! I used to do this a lot, all the Level 42, U2 sort of stuff – big commercial bands who could really play. I think it is a great way of training yourself – it’s back to that ‘making music, not practising’ thing again.
In any music scene there are always a few ‘proper’ players. Did you start to mix a lot with the local ‘cool’ guitarist?
Yes, I suppose I did. Not necessarily in my own town, but in Cambridge we all mixed with each other; people like Booga, Dan Boughtwood (who was a little older than me) and others. We normally bumped into each other in music shops, at each others gigs and at jam sessions. Often we’d see each other play, like what we were each doing and have a sort of mutual respect that often turned into friendship.
When did you leave school and what did you do?
I left at 17 as I was about the youngest in the year (having a birthday in August)and my parents said that if I was serious about becoming a professional guitarist they would support me while I worked properly at this thing. So I left school essentially to go to work at home on my guitar playing – and I took it very seriously; at least 8 hours a day every day in addition to gigs and rehearsals and everything. I lasted for about a year doing this, and it was amazingly beneficial: just staying with the instrument that long physically sort of means that it becomes more a part of you. This total familiarity or connection with an instrument results in a lot more authority and ease in your playing – not necessarily in a note sense, but in your whole ‘touch’. I was also listening very intently to everything I did and analysing how to improve this or that: asking why I would approach something like this etc. At the same time I got my own band together with some of the best local musicians around my own age and we gigged a fair amount, doing current chart stuff from the more muso end of what was popular at that time. I was also doing the function band stuff, so it was a very intense and productive time.
The local big band, and young hopefuls of the Cambridge scene were a band called Camera Shy who did a mixture of originals and covers from artists like Stevie Wonder and Go West. Colin played with them and they were always the band that I aspired to be in as they were the best musos around – a fantastic bassist and drummer, very accomplished arrangements and everything. They called it a day with the original line up, and then re-formed and I was asked to take Colin’s place. We started rehearsing, but the next thing I knew was Rowan Robertson, another Cambridge guitarist, got the gig. Now this was disappointing at the time but was a good wake up call – I had never been fired before! But what it taught me was that there was something lacking in my playing: any kind of aggression – you know, a real ripping guitar style – which was basically what Rowan had that I didn’t. I realised that everything I was doing was like this perfectly executed pop session guitar, so I needed to get a bit of balls into my playing.
What was happening in your general life at this stage?
After about a year at home working on my playing I met my future wife and realised that I had better move on someway; I couldn’t stay at home doing this forever. Now, I didn’t have any useful vocational qualifications so had to get a job at the local factory – which I stuck for a couple of years. I quickly realised that though I needed to do this for general life stuff, I couldn’t envisage myself doing this forever – not that there was anything wrong working in a factory, but that personally I couldn’t do it. I realised that somehow I had to get back to playing all the time, so I decided to try teaching for a living – that was how I could have that 24/7 guitar existence again, and hopefully earn enough to pay the bills.
Rob was a highly regarded private guitar teacher during the early to mid 1990’s. I wonder how he went about setting up his business…
I did the usual, putting cards in shop windows and advertising in local music shops; but I also thought it made sense to drum up interest by taking the instrument to potential students by going around the local schools and demonstrating what I did. So I put together some backing tracks, had some flyers printed and got out there. Pretty soon I was teaching about 25 hours a week – and here I had a proper job that earned enough consistently to get on with life.
Did you enjoy teaching?
Most of the time it was pretty rewarding – I particularly liked it when you were teaching someone with potential, or who had a real desire to actually learn. Of course you always get kids who don’t really want to be there, but whose parents are pushing them…I normally would gently discourage this! One really good aspect of teaching is that a lot of students would bring in songs that they wanted to learn, so I would have to work out and transcribe a song there and then. You end up with a massive bank of songs – which helps personal development and pushes you into playing songs that may not to your taste, but from which you can usually learn something from. And again it was keeping my ears up to speed. Quite a few of those students have ended up doing guitar related things as careers – people like Dan Collins, Tony Rawson, Tim Sandiford – so that’s always nice to know.
Breaking Into The Session Scene
By Rob’s early 20’s he was fully established as one of the key local players for miles around.
Was there much of a local scene for sessions of any description?
Apart from doing stuff for friend’s and the occasional recording at local studios, I realised that if I was to break into session playing there was no option – I had to get down to London where I thought the real scene would be. I ended up playing for a guy I knew from Cambridge called Phil Watts, and his drummer was a Welsh woman called Gail Louise who had been over to LA and studied at PIT. She was living in London, and when the Phil Watts thing ended she and the bass player got a gig with a saxophonist called Anita Carmicheal. They recommended me for the gig, and suddenly I am playing all around North London! Playing in a new area: it was like “There’s this new guy on the scene called Rob Harris”, and you get your name about purely on merit. We did the odd gig at places like Ronnie Scott’s – well known, ‘proper’ venues. It was original music: funk and jazz tinged instrumentals with a few vocal numbers. From this I started to get seen by a lot more people and got lots of calls for function band gigs all over London. Of course, after petrol, parking and everything you would be lucky to walk away with any money, but it was playing in London. This sounds pretty bad, but I would literally take any gig that came along in town; if I got a call I would somehow make sure that I could do it.
Often it meant that at the last minute I would have to shuffle students around – and as teaching was still my bread and butter it was lucky that I had some understanding students! By playing anywhere and everywhere I got my name around – you’d meet the other musicians on a gig, swap phone numbers, and then they would recommend you, and vice versa. For example, through a drummer called Shane Meehan I must have got at least 8 or 9 jobs – so it really snowballs. You have to physically be out there playing; there really is no other way.
I remember I had this funny view that people wouldn’t take you seriously if they found out that you lived outside London, that there would be a stigma about people who didn’t live in Town. So I got a mobile phone and would only give out that number to maintain the illusion that I was some cat living in the big smoke! This kind of worked, but as time went on I realised that actually no one really cared where you lived as long as you were on time, your equipment worked and you could do the job!
What was your rig at this time?
I think was using my Boogie Mark III combo. Before then I had had a range of gear – my first gigging unit was one of the old Gallien Kruger little ‘toaster’ amps (ED NOTE: Alex Lifeson, Allan Holdsworth and others used to endorse these). For the first few months I hadn’t even worked out which button to turn the chorus off – I assumed it was meant to sound like that! (Actually, when I put that through another amp and cab it sounded pretty good.) Afterwards I got a rack, as this was when everyone seemed to be using them, so if you wanted to be taken seriously…better get one as well. I had a Boogie Studio preamp, stereo cabs and an Alesis Qudreverb GT – one of those with speaker simulation amp alongside the usual effects – and that rig sounded pretty great actually. But I got fed up with humping it around, so decided to go down the combo route with a couple of pedals and it really did the job. I always used a delay pedal, and a compressor – which I really do use a hell of a lot.
Around 1994/95 Rob started to make serious inroads to the world of being a bona fide ‘Professional Guitarist’.
At this point you must have been working out how to take your career to the next stage?
Yes, and I was still teaching at home a lot and going back and forth to London 2 or 3 times a week. After doing this for a while, I decided that I needed to get an agent and hopefully break into some of the bigger and better gigs and jobs going. I had heard of this guy called Simon Harrison; I’d gathered he was the guy with a lot of good contacts with serious bands – so I got his number and just called him up out of the blue and asked if I could be on his books. He said that I would have to send in a CV and everything – so then I had to do some creative writing here and put on anything that sounded remotely like it was a serious gig and sort of exaggerate my involvement! At that time I had done some recording and playing with Don Airey so I put all that in, and all the more recent live experience in town and everything. The thing is, of course, you realise afterwards that no one actually cares about any of that – they just want to know what you can play like. But you sort of had to do it to get your foot in the door… so I got some crappy photos done and sent this package down to him. I didn’t just wait for the phone to ring – I literally called him every week, even though a lot of times it was like “woh…..should I call him again?” But I would make myself call without fail – and eventually he had something for me.
I think the very first job that he sent me down to try for was The Pasedena’s. I went down to the audition at Nomis Studios – but didn’t actually get it the first time. They were looking for two guitar players, and you know this was my first experience of auditioning for a ‘serious act’. There was Julian Crampton on bass and Tony Mason on drums; I think that they had already found one of the guitarists, and this other American guy got the gig over me – maybe I was nervous or whatever. He ended up doing one or two gigs with them, but basically Julian said: “Why did you get this guy – you should have got Rob in”.
Now, this taught me a valuable lesson: that sometimes it’s not about what your playing is like – this guy looked cool, was an experienced American guy with all the long hair and everything, and in the audition had pulled it out of the bag. But, when it came down to the actual learning of the material and stuff like that he didn’t cut it, so I ended up getting the call.
This was the first kind of real name thing that I had ever got involved in, so it was pretty exciting – you know, a band who you’d heard on the radio and everything. Of course, by this time they were on a downswing, and most of the gigs were like soul weekends, so it was not a real big tour, more gigs here and there.
What was the financial deal here – weekly retainer, paid by the gig etc?
You were paid for each gig; I have never actually had a weekly retainer
What was the difference playing with The Pasedena’s compared to all your previous bands?
Well, the playing was to a really high standard of musicianship. I think the very first gig that I did with them was with Frank Tontoh, a drummer who had played with everyone: Mica Paris, Zuchero and George Michael to name a few. It was also a really big band with a horn section, a couple of keyboard players, an amazing bassist, two guitarists and four singers.
I remember they had two days of rehearsal before the first date and the drummer didn’t turn up – he was obviously doing some other gig – but they got it down perfectly. For me it was kind of varied, I had to learn a load of tunes without being given any indication of the arrangement of them, and for a lot of the numbers I didn’t even have a CD to learn from! So I had to turn up at rehearsals and just try and do it. And you just pick up stuff, you know? “What do you want it to sound like? Ok I‘ll try that” and “What part of this song do you want me to do, where do you want me to play?”
I had done my homework as much as possible and learnt all their hits, but of course you find that the arrangements would have developed into something completely different, with all the stops and lots of hits. The thing is, it was all very loose as well; There would be big sections where they would jam for ages and just go around the band letting everyone have a blow. It was a great experience, and taught me a lot – you know, keep your eyes open, watch, and really listen – because you never know what’s going to happen!
A Jobbing Guitarist
By the mid 1990’S Rob was a busy man, picking up as many gigs as possible, playing with various bands as well teaching and jamming when the situations arose.
How long did the Pasedena’s gig last for?
I think about a year, from around 1995. I was still totally set on doing the full on session thing – joining or starting a band never really appealed to me. I still had this almost romantic idea of being a session player – probably because all my favourite guitarists were session players, and all the stories about what it was like in the 70’s and 80’s, in London as well LA, with Lukather, Carlton, Landau etc. But, the industry had changed so much by the mid 90’s that the scene just didn’t exist anymore. There wasn’t as much work – or money – around as there had been. I mean, I took on as much as I work as I could get because that’s what you had to do to make your name. There was a lot of freebies, a lot of “Here’s £50” and loads of “Play on this, and if anything happens I’ll pay you and use you on the album”! So throughout this period I was still teaching, doing the shows with The Pasedena’s, as well as playing with Anita Carmichael.
Within months you’d scored arguably the first real ‘name gig’ – as electronic pop pioneer Gary Numan’s guitarist; how did this come about?
I knew a tour lighting guy from Cambridge called Andy Kiethgley who was also tour managing. Gary had been using a guitarist called Kipper – who eventually played keyboards and produced Sting – and when he left, Andy recommended me to Gary. It was really easy, all I had to do was drive over to Essex and meet Gary at his house, where we had a coffee and chatted for a couple of hours. He didn’t even want to hear me play; we talked things over and a week later I was rehearsing with him.
I imagine that this was very different to The Pasedena’s?
Totally, as you know the Pasedena’s was based around funk whereas Gary’s whole approach was far more about sounds and textures as opposed to specific guitar parts. He was very into a more power chord approach, and any solos that I got – and I think that there was only one proper one I got to do – were more about achieving a particular sonic effect rather than your stock rock licks. So, the playing was coming from a much darker place than I was accustomed to – and it was a good experience to approach the instrument from a purely aural perspective; I learnt a lot about using non-conventional sounds and textures as a tool, rather than perfectly executed generic funk or rock guitar parts that I had previously specialised in.
Did you get to record with Gary?
I recorded a couple of things with him, but this was a touring gig primarily. The tour was in 1996 and was 18 gigs in a row: playing 2-3000 seat venues like Leicester De Montford Hall and the Cambridge Corn Exchange. These were all packed with real die-hard Gary Numan fans – he has been very lucky to have amazingly loyal fans who have supported him for years. The whole thing was a great experience for me – I got to play Top Of The Pops for the first time, and as I have said, it taught me a very different outlook on playing. I was still totally into Scofield, Holdsworth, Hendrix – and Gary was so far removed from that that it did me a lot of good in broadening my whole outlook and approach to guitar playing. I still retain elements of what I learnt today – especially in sessions. Sometimes it’s good to be a little left of centre: to come at things from an unexpected angle, rather than simply doing the obvious thing – like using an e-bow, or hooking your guitar up to an unusual sound source and tackling the part that way.
What was the next step in your career?
While I was with Gary, I got a call from Brian Henry who played keys with The Pasedenas and was now working with a new signing to Warner Brothers, a half-Irish, half-African singer called Martin Okasili. He said that they were playing Esquires Club, in Bedford – which is a town near where I live – and to come over and check them out. I think that they were unhappy with whoever they had playing guitar at that point and wanted to see if I would be interested. I was blown away…the songs, the arrangements, the musicianship, the whole vibe – the band was on fire. But, I couldn’t do it because I was too busy with Gary so I had to decline. However, when I finished the Numan tour I phoned Brian……… to say that I was available now – and they were still interested so I went down to London to audition and started working with them, which was a fantastic musical experience. In particular I learnt a lot about arrangements. They were into getting a very slick and ‘big’ sound; at that time I had a Marshall set up with a Head, stereo effects rack with one stereo wet 4/12 and one dry 4/12. They particularly wanted that big sound, and I think that’s why I got the gig – because I could authentically get that big rock, as well as funk, sound. Now, we didn’t do a lot of shows, and it didn’t last that long – but it was such a great thing to do – working with great musicians and a great musical director. The dynamic aspect of the material was really pushed – as you know, if you are playing full-on all the time the audience doesn’t really feel that you’re playing full- on until you stop; so he would work on the arrangements so that you would all drop right down for the verse and build up again for choruses. It was a very American way of running a band and very slick.
This seemed a very promising outfit, what happened?
Well, it was the typical record company and management things; we did all the showcases and gigs and got a great reception everywhere, and from these Martin got a support tour with George Benson and Bryan Adams. Then they decided that they didn’t want to take the whole band out to do it, so they put him out solo artist with an acoustic guitar. This didn’t carry the music across, so eventually he just got dropped – and that was that. The band folded, but by this time my agent had got me the call to do the Mark Owen gig – I think he (the agent) used to just throw all the guitarists on his books at every gig out there!
With gigs sourced by an agent how did you generally get paid?
Well, the agent used to invoice the client on your behalf – which I always used to think was a bit dubious as when they got paid they would sit on your money for a while and say that they hadn’t got it yet whilst getting the interest in the bank…not specifically saying that that happened to me of course! But, that’s what an agent does.
With the Mark Owen gig I was actually rehearsing with Martin and the auditions were being held in the same rehearsal studio! It was like “I’ve just got to pop out for an hour…!” So I went and auditioned (in the next room!) and luckily I got the gig, and a few weeks later I was out on the road playing to thousands of Take That fans.
A Time to Take That
Take That (recently reformed to massive success) were a pop phenomenon in the early to mid 1990’s. After an acrimonious split with Robbie Williams (who has since become a superstar of course in his own right) each member pursued solo careers, largely to indifferent results. Rob hooked up with Mark Owen around the time of his first solo album.
Did you play on any of Mark’s first album?
No, that had already been recorded; this gig was for the tour. I replaced Paul Stacey, who had done the album – a great player (and keyboardist too!). So, I did the tour with Mark, and again it was a very different type of thing to what I had done before – he was going for more of an indie type of sound: less polished, more of an attitude energy type thing. The tour was great fun and I got to play in Europe again…in fact I have just realised that I have forgotten about Peter Andre! I did a Peter Andre tour which covered New Zealand – and again a learning curve. From a guitar perspective that was pure pop session guitar approach, so it wasn’t too demanding.
What sort of rates can a player command doing tours like these?
Well, it’s enough to be able to put your other sources of income (which for me was primarily teaching) on hold; but what you have to remember is that once a tour stops, that is it – you have to pick up your normal life again. You don’t get a retainer from whoever you are working with to keep you afloat when you are not recording or playing with them – or at least I have never had one! As a touring sideman you get paid for being on tour itself, rehearsing for it, and any other spin offs that may arise like TV appearances – and it is a pro rata weekly rate in my experience. The money can vary enormously – it can go to extremes; I have done stupidly well paid things for very little actual work, and really badly paid things for a lot of hard work. If you are in this just for money then you are in the wrong game; I am happy to do it all because it is what I do, and in the end everything tends to even out.
Back to Mark Owen – what happened after the tour?
When the tour ended it was time to start work on his second album, and this time I had input from the beginning. I wasn’t really involved with the actual song writing per se, but we all worked hard on the arrangements. Mark would have an idea about what he wanted, and could hammer out a few chords on a piano but the rest was really up to us. In the end we spent about three months on the album – but it never ever saw the light of day because the record company didn’t feel that the material was right. Mark went of to do his own thing, but I always kept in touch with him and about a year later after the band had folded Mark got in touch to ask if I fancied doing some writing with him. So, we worked on another album; both of us wrote together and I was involved from start to finish. But towards the end of that, the Jamiroquai thing came up…
Jamiroquai’s unique brand of acid jazz, classic soul, vintage rock and prime disco has ensured massive success since 1993’s debut release ‘Emergency On Planet Earth’. Officially the UK’s biggest musical export of the 90’s after Oasis and The Spice Girls it was early 2000 when Rob got that ‘once in a lifetime’, life-changing call that all us guitarists dream of…
I got the call for this audition through my agent again. I learnt all the stuff that Gavin Dodds and Simon Katz had played on their previous albums and I was really up for this one; it was really my sort of music and the chance to play at this level was a real opportunity. They were originally only looking for someone to do some live stuff. So I went down and did a couple of auditions. Out of all the bands in the funk genre they had managed the best to maintain success at a big level and I desperately wanted this one… so much so that I almost didn’t go for it as I would have been so put out if I didn’t get it! I thought long and hard about it and then went along for the audition which was at Jay’s studio in his house. I think about 30 players went it for it in total and luckily I got asked back for a second audition. Because I was working with Mark Owen I felt a sense of loyalty to that project – I wanted to see it through and get the album completed…but this was Jamiroquai – and for me it was a perfect match, really up my street. After that second audition I was driving home up the A1 and Jay phoned to say that I had got it…I remember I had to pull over – I was absolutely elated!
This was one of the most desired gigs that had come up on the UK scene for years and you must have been up against some incredibly stiff competition. Any ideas why you in particular got the gig?
For the life of me I don’t know why I got it and the other guys didn’t…I think what Jay liked with my approach was that obviously I could play all the songs but was putting a little bit of Jazz in there, and when he wanted to rock out I had that side of things covered as well. Jay wanted to harden the band up a bit; so getting someone in who could handle all the funky stuff as well as the rock really convincingly was why I got it. By the time I got the Jamiroquai gig I was playing guitar full time, and had completely finished with teaching; I just wasn’t around enough for it to be fair to the students, so I had recommended other players locally to take them on. In addition to working for Jamiroquai I was also doing a lot of sessions for people like Beverly Knight, Kylie Minogue and various music producers.
Did you know exactly what this job would entail?
Initially I was under the impression that I was in the band as a touring guitarist, and straight away I was up rehearsing for a Radio One Live recording at Covent Garden. That was my baptism of fire, straight in at the deep end doing a live recording to millions – and it was great! After a few months it got to the point where Jamiroquai were due to start work on the next album and it was all very casual – “Why don’t you come up to the house and nail a few tunes”. I went up, and I think it was something like the second session we did where we stayed up all night and wrote 3 or 4 pretty complete tunes together in that one session, which was “Wow!”
Was there a specific way that you were approaching the songwriting process?
We would sit in the control room with an engineer running a couple of ADAT’s, and we‘d get a drum machine going, loop some cool grooves and literally jam along for hours. We had a lot of fun mucking around with riffs, vocal phrases, chordal sequences…it was very much “try this riff” or “these chords/riffs/licks work well” – throwing everything into the mix and seeing what happened. As I’ve said, it really worked well, and I ended up with 6 or 7 tracks on what became the ‘Funk Odyssey’ album. For this album Jay wanted to very much get away from the live drums and band recording together and instead create it in a computer, so a load of those song writing sessions and jams ended up on the finished record. When I joined I thought it might only be for a few gigs but I ended up writing and getting quite heavily involved in the making of a new Jamiroquai album – so that was great! And for the last six years my absolute main priority – work wise – has been Jamiroquai.
When did the album come out?
It was released in Europe and the UK in August 2001 and did really well. In the States it was released on September 11th – we were actually playing in New York the night before…
Worldwide the album went from strength to strength, and we toured around Europe several times, also taking in Japan and Australia twice in a year. In total I think it’s the second biggest seller of them all to date.
Halfway through the ‘Funk Odyssey’ tour the main keyboard player – Toby Smith, who had worked with Jay since day one – left the band. It wasn’t acrimonious or anything – just that he’d done something like 10 years constantly on the road and wanted to spend more time with his family, so it was time to go. We got in a new keyboard player, who was a guy that I’d worked with before named Matt Johnson, and we carried on for almost another year touring.
During this period we started work on what would be the next Jamiroquai album. It took around a year and a half to do and we were going to go much more for live performances this time. Matt, myself and Jay spent a lot of time writing this one and we wrote all over the shop: Portugal, England, Scotland, Spain, Costa Rica. When we started to put the album together we got in Mike Spencer – again someone that I had worked with before – and he is a real pro-tools genius. He is able to take stock live performances and really give them a sheen. We also did a lot of the actual recording over in America, in both New York and LA. In LA we worked with Benjamin Wright who had worked with everyone – Michael Jackson, Earth Wind & Fire, OutKast, Justin Timberlake – and is a fabulous string arranger.
Is it very different working in the US and what was the thinking behind working over there this time?
Well, we wanted a different perspective on it, but also to work with Benjamin; he’d worked loads with Quincy Jones, and on stuff like Michael Jacksons ‘Off The Wall’ so we went to LA specifically to work with him.
What is different is that their whole culture seems to encourage and support musicians far more than the UK, and that, along with the fact that there are so many more people working in the music industry, can’t help but raise the standards – I mean, speaking as a guitarist, there are so may top flight players over there…
How did Dynamite fare?
It didn’t do a huge amount…I mean by general standards it was fine, but not on the same scale as A Funk Oddyssey.
Which are Jamiroquai’s strongest markets?
Japana and all of Europe…the smallest market for us is actually the States (where we have quite a big underground following, so we play the 2-3000 seat places) but everywhere else it’s in the 8-14,000 region. I mean we played Portugal recently in front of 80,000! I love playing South America, Russia’s a great experience and also Australia. Even though we are smallest in America, whenever we are over there I love it – we toured there for about 4 weeks last year. I’ve been over there a few times over the years now; when I was really young it was a great dream of mine to go and tour the States, so to actually do it is always a great feeling.
As a touring band we dip in and out of the tours – we don’t schedule them to run continuously; if you are a young band, being on the road for 3 years or something is part of it all! I mean, we still have that real desire to get out there and play – the ‘Funk Odyssey’ tour was about 18 months in total – but the way we schedule it is 6 weeks on, have a month off, then dip in again for another few weeks. It works very well for us doing it this way.
When I am home it’s not like a holiday or anything, as I’m always keeping busy doing other musical things as well. I think that it’s important to keep other fires going; Jamiroquai is very fulfilling for me, but we all play outside of the band as well – apart from anything else you can take what you’ve learnt and put it back into the band.
With the advent of new technology – particularly the internet – there are seemingly a lot more options available to the professional guitarist to practise his craft…
I agree; for me also it’s been great because when I‘ve been on the road I‘ve still been able to do sessions for people who trust me enough to send me a track with a general description of what to play and let me do it from whatever hotel room I may be in.
Do you take a portable studio set up then?
I have got a laptop set up that means I can be in a hotel in Germany or Russia and play the part, E-mail the files back and it will end up on an album. It’s not the ideal way to do a session of course, but it’s another way to keep things working.
When we were in Australia, Matt, Nick and I wrote a few pieces and we decided to take it further and start work on a side project. This started out as a relaxed, just for fun, thing and gradually developed to a full album – we have 13 tracks done now with guest vocalists; no huge names, but people that we have all come across and liked. We all wanted to do something without any constraints that a Jamiroquai record may be perceived to sound like. I mean, with us being who we are of course there is going to be a funk element in there, but there is also some more sort of early Bill Withers type stuff in there, a Led Zeppelin revamp – you know, it’s purely our own self-indulgent musical ramblings! We are nearly done now, and are all working at our home studios in the downtime from Jamiroquai. Matt has a very similar studio to me and we work on parts individually and then send files back and forth to each other so that we can collaborate that way. As we talked about earlier, we will put this out completely under the radar; one day there will be a site up where you can get it. We will do a MySpace page where you can hear it and if people want to buy it then that’s cool, but there’s not going to be any fanfare about this. This is really for our own enjoyment and as a creative and musical outlet. Our main focus is Jamiroquai, and we are entering a new phase with that as well; with the forthcoming Greatest Hits album this will be the end of Jay’s contract with Sony, so there will be some changes afoot. We’ve got some new tunes in the pipeline, but are not quite sure what will happen next – so we are entering a period of change which I think is good. One thing I do know is that we won’t stop!
Technique and Advice
As you would expect from a guitarist with Jamiroquai, Rob Harris is the possessor of some mightily funky chops and – as exhibited by the amount of names in the pop world who have called upon his services – plainly has a great ability to cut it in the modern commercial music arena. Perhaps what is lesser known is that Rob is also a formidable soloist. I start by asking if Rob has any specific areas in his playing that he is especially working on?
Nowadays, learning for me is really through actual playing and song writing – I got to the stage a few years ago when I realised that I was never going to be someone like Scott Henderson or anyone like that. I realised that as much as I loved ‘virtuoso’ type playing, I love ‘songs’ more. Being lucky enough to have such a great outlet as Jamiroquai and some of my other projects, means that I focus totally on song writing – and I play to that end now.
It is always great to be able to whip out some great licks, but I think that ‘songs’ are more permanent. These will be around for the rest of your life and long after and I decided that I would rather create songs that are memorable and pleasurable for the everyday person to listen to than go the ‘virtuoso muso’ routel; playing very clever stuff that tends to only really be appreciated by other musicians is too narrow a focus for me.
So, now I maintain my playing to a level where I can play all the things that I hear in my head – and if I can’t do something that a particular song might require, then I can always woodshed that. I still do all the normal exercises to keep my chops sharp, but I also still work out new songs and things that I like regularly.
One thing that I have noticed is that after years of playing really big gigs your approach changes – things that work in a club or a small theatre don’t necessarily translate to 50,000 people. It’s hard to describe, but if you take Prince for example: when you see him on stage taking a solo, you really know that he’s playing – not because of the notes but through the conviction and intensity in the way he plays. It’s the same with John Frusicante: you sort of know ‘something’ is happening here – there’s a kind of attitude and intensity that these guys put out that I have found myself moving towards in my own approach.
Speaking of soloists have your tastes changed at all since the 80’s?
Not really, I am still into all the Steely Dan type players – Larry Carlton and everyone – as well as Steve Lukather and Scott Henderson and the rest, but it has a time and a place. I wouldn’t feel right doing all that stuff (I would love to be able to pull it off!) in the musical environment that I am in, and where I am musically now. It’s because I have noticed that when you play large venues and go for it a lot of that clever/jazzy/technical stuff gets kind of lost with the hugeness of the gig.
Instead, you have to kind of play ‘bigger’; you have to make the actual sound generated really ‘big’ and when you try it doing lots of technical stuff, and a lot of the detail, can get lost. In a small club environment it’s great to really blow, and you can get away with the ‘nutter’ stuff – really hip jazz lines and fast technique stuff because the detail can be heard, the atmosphere is more intimate, and everyone can see and hear what you are doing really well. But for the large scale shows you can be hundreds of feet away and the whole bigness of everything means that I play with a really different mentality and approach. You need to project the intensity of the moment rather than just concentrate on the notes. Mike Landau is fabulous at projecting this, as was Stevie Ray Vaughan – there is a real sense of “Wow, this guy’s really rippin’ it up” without actually playing too much – a real gutsiness of playing. I get quite a bit of flack from the Forums on the Jamiroquai website for trying to do this – I think a lot of them want it to be 1993 again – but as a unit we have become harder edged.
When playing with Jay you have to really watch him as he will call for solos sometimes at quite unexpected moments; it really keeps you on your toes! I’ll go and tear it up a bit, but really I am playing off the drums and bass and grooving with them, trying to be creative with the music rather than “Here are my hottest licks”.
What advice would you give to a player seeking to make a career in the session world?
When you are just starting out you need as much experience as you can get: play as many gigs and put yourself in as many musical situations as possible. Don’t close your mind off to different styles of music; even if on the surface you don’t particularly like a certain style, you might find that when you take that style and put it with another genre you come up with something completely fresh. I remember I did this track called ‘Gold’ for Beverly Knight, and it was a very kind of Crusaders ballad and I heard this sort of vibraphone part in my head that I thought would be great, so I tried to mimic a vibraphone on the guitar using a lot of arpeggiations going on in the background and it turned it into a very fresh thing, rather than doing a typical guitar type part. When you are in the studio doing a session for someone, sometimes they want something a little left of center – Jay in particular really gets off on this. When we were doing ‘Feels Just Like It Should’ I did a whole pass using the Line 6 Filter Pedal, just playing random notes in there but shaping them with the filter pedal as I played. I would play a note, hold it by manipulating the filter pedal and you would end up with what almost sounded like ‘off the wall’ keyboard sounds. These sort of random happy acts of inspiration can often make a track as well, because you are coming to it from a completely different angle. It’s a good idea to get all your regular guitar parts down, and then to go outside of it and you would be surprised how many times you can get some great moments.
If you had to recommend a few seminal guitarists or artists who springs to mind?
I would have to say The Beatles – throughout their whole career for the songs, and their arrangements, and for always pushing the boundaries. And true icons like, for example, Elvis: everyone knows what Elvis sounds like and there must be a reason for that – why he touched so many people all over the world. Look at Frank Sinatra: if you listen to his singing, it’s perfection, absolute perfection – and again the arrangements, the harmony, the melodic content. That’s what these three share – something that touches everyone. It’s the same with Brian Wilson and The Beachboys. Guitar Players? For me, if it had to be only two or three, it’s easy: Larry Carlton, Eddie Van Halen and Jimi Hendrix.
What guitars are you using currently?
My main guitar is an old crappy little Japanese Squier Strat with Kinman pickups, and I also have a ’62 Relic Strat with Fender Custom shop pick ups that I love as well; they’re my main guitars at the moment. I‘ve also got a Gibson 335 snd I’ve been using my MusicMan Silhouettes for a number of years – I use them a lot in the studio nowadays: I love those guitars. If I want something a bit more organic in the studio then I use my strat; I’ve got a thinline Tele – the one with the ‘f hole’ things – I play that all the time as well. Acoustic-wise, I have a couple of Taylors – although often if we are recording acoustics in the studio I’ll hire in something like an old Gibson or Martin.
I find that with acoustic guitars you might get the greatest sounding acoustic guitar but it has to fit the particular song that you are recording. What I have started doing is recording the part with every acoustic guitar that I have at my disposal – I’ll do a pass with all these instruments and then go away and come back and do a blind fold test to see which one actually sounded best for the track. Often it may be the shittiest sounding one in real life, but for some reason it just works best sonically within a particular track.
What amps and effects?
I was an endorsee for Hughes & Kettner for a while – I love the Tri-amps, they’re great – but after using the H&K stuff I decided on a more organic sound. I was using a Marshall Re-Issue Valve Head for the dirty stuff, in combination with a Fender Twin for the clean. I was using an Ibanez Tube Screamer and a Sansamp with the Marshall to really filthy it up. I’ve always used compressor pedals particularly on the funky clean stuff. At the moment I’m using two Mesa Boogie Lonestar Specials, the 30 watt amps.
I’ve actually just put a new pedal board together based around a ‘GigRig’, which is a true bypass pedal switcher. It has totally transformed my tone in that when I switch on a pedal I’m not always going through a chain of 5 other boxes that nakes my tone is weak at the end.
Here are the pedals that I use: Dunlop CryBaby and Boss Twah for wah wah’s, and I really like Keeley stuff and use a Keeley Compressor, Keeley Tube Screamer, and Keeley Rat; also an MXR Phase 90, an Arion Chorus, a Roger Mayer Voodoo Vibe and finally a Trex Replica Delay.
And to conclude, what strings and picks?
I mainly use Jim Dunlop Jazz III’s, the little red one. But when I am doing a session I will have a collection of different picks: thin ones, serrated edge ones – a whole range basically – anything that will do the job. I use Ernie Ball 10-46’s for my electrics, and I think 12’s for my acoustics.