Interview: Joe Abrams (with Mayer Hawthorne)

Matt O’Donnell
Managing Editor

Joe Abrams is the bassist for The County, the band that backs up rapidly emerging R&B/Soul artist Mayer Hawthorne. “How Do You Do” is Mayer and the group’s second full length album, and it runs an incredible gamut of grooves. “How Do You Do” is available from Universal Republic on iTunes and wherever music is sold.

MO: Let’s just get started with you telling us how you grew up and came to music?

JA: Well, my name is Joseph Leon Abrams. I was born in Ann Arbor Michigan and raised there. I’ve known Mayer since high school. We’re all Ann Arbor cats, from the Detroit scene. My dad’s side of the family is very much into the church. My mom’s white and my dad’s black. So I grew up going to my cousin’s house with family on the weekend, going to church. That’s where I first started being involved with music, singing in choir and stuff like that.

Then by the time I was about 7 years old, I heard about Hendrix and got introduced to Band of Gypsys. That just blew my mind wide open with music. From there I just got into studying about live music and the hippie scene and rock and roll…Led Zeppelin. That’s what I was just attracted to through that Hendrix intro.

When I was growing up, though, my mom listened to The Gap Band, Teena Marie…..I always tell everyone I was raised on Teena Marie, Rick James, and The Gap Band. That’s my childhood, right there. I got all that funk stuff, with Funkadelic. Growing up in Michigan, you’d always hear Knee Deep and One Nation Under A Groove. By the time I got through middle school I was more into P-Funk and all of that.

Then I went full force into it. Jaco, Jamerson, Bootsy; Rodney “Skeet” Curtis is probably my favorite bass player from Funkadelic. He plays with Maceo (Parker) nowadays. I would probably say that he’s my most influential bass player. Once I started getting into those guys, it’s been a wrap ever since.

MO: It totally makes sense to me now that you have that Hendrix and Zeppelin admiration. You’re such a groove player, but the edge that you inherited from that side of the coin is so apparant.

So, how did you decide on the bass as your instrument of choice?

JA: I have a cousin who’s a professional drummer. He’s played with Usher and he’s the first call drummer for the Winans family, all that gospel music in Detroit. So, being that he was very involved in the church with my family and stuff, the first instrument I played and really took to was drums. Just because I was around that you know? As a kid, I had wanted to play saxophone, but I never got into that. When I had that whole Hendrix revelation thing around 7 or 8, by the time I was 12 or so, I just had to have a guitar.

When I got to high school, I just couldn’t really figure out that b-string tuned to the minor third instead of the fourth. I could also hear bass lines way easier. I could pick that out and play it better, so I just kind of naturally moved over to the bass. That just kind of stuck, and I really started to love it from there. I was really into it by the time I was a sophomore or junior. I’ve been going since then.

MO: What kind of gigging have you done leading up to your long association with Mayer Hawthorne?

JA: I played in a band that was pretty well known out of high school in Ann Arbor called Funktelligence. We won some Detroit music awards and got to open for some really heavy people back in the day. That band lasted for about 7 years, but I left after maybe 4 or 5. I was freelancing to some smaller projects after that, a great metal band out of Detroit with these brothers, one of them was named DC. He wrote all this great metal. It kind of reminded me of Living Colour and stuff like that, especially the singing. I did that for a year right after I left Funktelligence.

Then I went back to school, started teaching tennis in LA. I moved there from Michigan in 2005. I hadn’t played bass for about 4 years much and had a friend, Topher Mohr, move out there. I started gigging with him, we did an EP, and then maybe 18 months later Mayer got his record deal, so I was back playing some more. So, I had gotten my hands back up to the level, I was ready for it. I’ve just been going with Mayer ever since. That’s been about 3 years now.

MO: Very cool. How do you see how well the Mayer Hawthorne gig is going? It started out as a really cult thing, and the first time I heard of it was when you guys opened for John Mayer Trio’s New Year’s gig in 2009. I’ve been really enjoying it ever since then. It seemed so small of a thing at the time, and it looks from the outside like it’s growing exponentially now.

JA: Yeah, it was weird. Since Mayer got hooked up with Stones Throw…Peanut Butter Wolf really loved the first few songs Mayer wrote and said “if you write more of this, I’ll put it out, no questions asked”. Mayer kind of went “Wow, let’s see what this can do.” So once he did that and the first album came out, there was already a built-in following. Stones Throw has really loyal followers to anything they put out, especially in Europe. Europe helped us to be able to tour and get a lot of gigs in during the early stages.

Tour by tour, it’s growing so much. The quality of what we’re bringing to it is better every time. If you’d have seen us 3 years ago, you’d have probably said “Ohhhhhhkay, it’s pretty interesting, but…” Everyone just puts so much work into it, especially Mayer. We’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of work. Of course, you’re naturally just going to get better if you do it a lot. The ideas just grow that way.

As far as the jump to the major label, we’re definitely starting to feel the radio presence and other promotions in the people coming out. So now, I’m just glad that we’ve had the 3 years to be where we are now. We’re going to continue to get better, but where we are now we can deliver a true quality show that I’m comfortable and excited about for the people that are going to come out. These shows can really catch word of mouth. it’s been cool to see us move from 250 to 400 to 600 seat room up to the 900 – 1200 we’re doing now.

MO: I feel like a lot of the music critics try really hard to lump Mayer in with other throwback Soul/R&B acts that are out there doing well right now. I see it that you’re all really different from that kind of thing, and it has some extra facets to it. How do you feel about it?

JA: It’s interesting because I’m putting myself into the mindset of where we’re going to play a show and we’re doing the thing, and it’s like “oh yeah, we’re doing some old school stuff here”, but then out of nowhere it feels like we’re playing something that’s pretty modern or in a different realm of that older atmosphere than just soul. We’ll get into some psychedelic stuff here and there. Sometimes I feel like it’s kind of really throwback and sometimes I can point to things where it’s not really.

I also have the foresight of knowing what Mayer’s working on, too. I’m around that all the time and we’re always trying to prepare for the future. So I can tell you that it’s about to go some completely different places where definitely not everyone’s going to be saying Motown shuffle beats.

Now, as a bass player, that’s incredibly fun to play with this as a lover of that music and get to gig shuffle beats, having it being cool. Most people never get to have that be their steady gig. I’m very thankful for that. That’s my heart and soul. We all love that.

MO: What kind of gear are you using out here?

JA: At NAMM this winter, I got hooked up with Fender. They’re in the process of getting me some basses to supplement the one I’m out with now. That’s going to be amazing. I’ll have this jazz bass with a tiger-looking wood look. that’ll have a white pickguard and black pickups. Rosewood neck… It’s on the way. The rep is working with me on that. Also, I’ll be switching over to the Bassman amp line soon. I’ve played nothing but Fender my whole life. I’ve always dreamed and melted at the idea of being hooked up with them. I feel very cool because of that.

MO: One last thing. What advice do you give to someone coming up and learning to play?

JA: The information I always give at this question is the kind of thing that I’d say to apply to anything in life. Whatever you love love love love love the most and think about the most, is what you should do with your life. As a kid, I just could not believe that someone could put their hands on a piece of wood with strings and make the sounds, put the emotion, and create….that was the most fascinating thing that anyone could ever do. I used to get in fights with kids in my neighborhood because I used to say Prince was way better than Michael Jackson because Prince could play all the instruments, sing, and dance. I was always impressed with live shows and playing. I’m VERY thankful, but I’m not surprised this is what I’m doing with my life, because I focused on it so hard.

Like going to bed, putting on a concert, and imagining it was me playing bass. I did that all though high school with headphones on so that it really felt like I was there. Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix Live At Winterland, P-Funk, Bootsy Live in Japan; I’d imagine it’s me playing with the band or playing and singing. And I just KNEW it was me. Just love love love love love what you do and put everything you have into it. If you do that, I don’t think you can miss. That’s what it is.

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