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Paolo Costa


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If you’re in Italy and you turn on the radio to listen to some Italian music, chances are that you’ll be probably listening to the throbbing rhythm lines of Paolo Costa, one of the most versatile bassists of the Italian musical scene. From pop hits to songwriters, from folk-rock to hip-hop, Paolo is always present and recognizable. Let’s take a look from the inside at the world of Italian session men. 

AA: Looking at the discography, on your web site, I saw that you’re one of the most sought after session men, here in Italy. Are you usually called to perform written parts or do you get asked a personal contribution, such as “this is the groove, let’s see what you can do”? 

PC: well… both; I noticed that in music there’s no fixed rule, because when you change producer, or singer, you also change the work method. Sometimes I come around and there’s a written part that’s got to be strictly followed, and therefore I have to work on my sound or eventually on my portamento, while some other times there’s a general starting idea and, depending on the how it develops, along with the drums, the whole stuff can change, and the bass is adapted on that; of course the bassist’s ideas are welcome, so it’s a mix of both the situations. I’m not a great first sight reader because I seldom find a written part to follow closely, let’s say it’s one time every fifty. 

AA: or maybe you find some rhythmic patterns. 

PC: well, usually I find chord symbols and a rhythmic subdivision, I seldom find every single note written out. Then there’s the time when there’s an arrangement, which is sort of a puzzle, where every single instrument has to fit with the others and a bass note can be an anchor for all the others; in that case a written part is necessary, but usually, I tell you that, there are no such great arranging ideas, here in Italy… 

AA: do I have to write that down? 

PC: yes, I mean, there’s no great creativity in general, then looking at every single case you find some very good arrangers, but bass and drums, and the rhythm section, in Italy, it’s not regarded like, say, in America, where it’s very important, for the role that it can have at the birth of a song.

In Italy, a country called “melody’s land”, the rhythm section is a bit sacrificed, within all the instrument’s economy, so it’s only a few years the you get to hear some rhythmically interesting things; apart from “cuore matto”, by the first Little Tony, the typical “boom, chack boom-boom, chack” subdivision is what you find the most. In America, then, or in other countries where a sort of afro, or funk, or blues culture is more deeply rooted, the whole bass and drum stuff changes completely. Bass and drums must be considered depending on where you live, it’s not a worldwide subject, for me. 

AA: the times you get a written part to be closely followed, even if not at 100%, can you put something of yourself in it, speaking of sound?  

PC: I’d say yes, you can hear the portamento, maybe both in the good and the bad side, but normally you can give something yours, depending on how you’re living the part. You must also consider the intent with which you are called! I mean, sometimes somebody calls you for your skills or because he knows you and he knows what you can do, so there’s a musical motivation behind; some other times you get called because somebody says “call him ‘cause he won’t give you any trouble”, and maybe they don’t even know who you are. They don’t know what to ask you or if they can let you do what you want. Maybe they know you’re reliable, that you follow the tempo and that’s plenty; there’s a part to be played and you only have to play it in time. On this subject Italy is… well, I’m talking about Italy and abroad because I noticed that each musician’s value changes depending on the country he is. 

AA: definitely… 

PC: That’s why I say “in Italy or abroad”, not because I have exaggerated admiration for foreign things, but because I saw that there are two entirely different approaches. If you’re in Italy and you get a call, they don’t even know exactly the genre to play, that after all it doesn’t even exist. In Italy there’s Italian music, where a piece reflects a little of English music and another reflects American music, and after all it’s a big melting cauldron between Italy and abroad. If you go, say, in America, you find a country bassist, like the former bass player from Toto, David Hungate, who’s a country specialist, in Nashville. He’s country bassist number one, he’s scary, he can play everything; but you call him to play country and not, let’s say, Nathan East, even if he’s also a top bassist. You call David because he’s the best in that particular music. Like you don’t call Victor Wooten to play long notes, but you call Tony Levin, instead; or Pino Palladino to play a couple of fretless lines and not Mark King, who’s a slap ace. That’s the categorization you get abroad; in Italy you get called because you’re good, you don’t waste time, you’re fast and you get the problems solved. Those are the evaluation criteria that you’re exposed to, and therefore your attitude changes. You have to be ready to play a bit of everything; there’s maybe a swing tune, then maybe a funk or blues tune, maybe an easy listening one, and so on. It’s difficult, here in Italy, to focus on something, so you don’t stay a week at home to practice on slapping, if you’re studying and living here. Because apart from the case where you have a group of your own, where you can decide your style and your sound, if you play bass for a living and you have to follow the producer’s desires – and I’m talking about slapping just to give an example – focusing on something in particular can be useless, because maybe you’ll use that style once every six years. It should be different, instead, we should have a closer consideration of the very personal attitudes, and maybe call a musician not only for the instrument he plays, but for the particular way he plays that instrument. 

AA: that’s right; speaking of sound, I saw on your website that you put images of some old-fashioned effect pedals, on the links buttons; are those some of yours, or do you put them only because they looked cool? 

PC: these are actually my pedals… some of my pedals; I discovered, thanks to a fortuitous meeting with David Rhodes (Peter Gabriel’s guitarist), who came in Italy on tour with Franco Battiato – in ‘97, I think – that he uses a very rudimental setup; an old fender guitar with tape on the pickup selector to avoid switching on the other pickup, and he had some amazing sounds! Truly creative and innovative, he really was a supporter of those situations, he really needed just two notes to achieve a whole crazy world of sounds, and he used old analog pedals! Many of them! 

AA: like what’s Doug Wimbish doing on bass, even if he has a more modern sound. He has an awesome signal chain! 

PC: exactly, rather than plugging on a digital multi-effect processor, that maybe has twenty simultaneous effects but the overall sound is still different. I mean, digital processors, especially on bass – I don’t know whether this is psychological – they seem to level the sound, to somewhat misrepresent it. It gets cold. While if you plug in to a analog phaser you get quite a different result. I started using pedals live, I seldom use them in the studio or, better, I almost never use them. 

AA: you go direct. 

PC: either direct or with a preamplifier, along with a compressor, usually a dbx; or maybe I skip that, if there’s a really good compressor in the studio, in which case I use that one. I generally use the preamp to achieve some micro-corrections in my sound, even if I always go very easy on that. If I have to radically change my sound I prefer to switch to another bass. 

AA: Is yours a very diverse arsenal, or are your instruments quite similar? 

PC: no, I have a very varied arsenal, my main points are a modified 5 strings Yamaha Attitude, which works well on almost every situation and gave me very few problems in the studio, then I have a fretless Yamaha BB5000, that I use when the situation calls for a fretless sound. Other than those I have a fretless 4 strings Music Man Sting Ray, with obviously a completely different sound.

Then, since the sound changes depending on whether the neck is made of maple or rosewood, I also have a 5 strings Sadowsky and a 5 strings Frudua, both with a maple neck, and each of those basses have different characteristics, but talking about them… I dunno, speaking about sound is strange, because sound is something you have to hear! 

AA: sure, but instead of sound let’s talk about your instrument’s range, because I noticed that compared to some years ago, when if you didn’t have a six strings you were nobody, now almost everybody is settling on five strings, with a few exceptions. 

PC: yes, I’ve never been a six-stringer and I never owned  a six string bass in all my life, even though I had up to seventeen basses, at home; I never got curious about that, because I don’t like the kind of sound that the high string produces. I feel it’s beginning to step out of the bass guitar’s range, and it makes me head towards the guitar, rather than bass. I’ve chosen and I love the bass for its low frequencies so if I make that choice and afterwards I play on very high frequencies… it doesn’t match my taste, but it’s a very personal matter, though. Then I think that such a wide neck alters the technique a bit too much. 

AA: so you think that those 7 strings basses that are coming out nowadays are really way too much? 

PC: I’m not saying that they don’t work, and I respect those who choose to use them; not me, though. And I won’t call them “basses” but I’d rather call them “baritone harps”. For me bass is four strings, while the 5 strings is a somewhat “Bass 1.1”, a third millennium version. With all this going lower and lower, and with all those keyboard player that work in the pre-production, there’s no low-E limit, when you play on keys! The low D is nice, the low C is nice, and sometimes I found some low B flat and even some A, on the demo’s synth bass tracks. Then it becomes difficult to get used again on not having that low D or low C, because those notes have an emotional impact that the same note an octave higher can’t give you!

Looking at things in that perspective, the five strings is OK, in fact I use both the four and the five. 

AA: and what about acoustic basses and double basses? Are those instruments part of your palette? 

PC: yes, I have many acoustic instruments, the problem is that when you work for someone else…

I have my own project, the Biba Band, which is personal and I run it myself, and I use either the 4 strings – since there’s also Faso [another Italian top-bassist] who uses the 6 strings, and to avoid to clash on that low string frequencies I use a bass that lacks it – or an electric double bass; I have a 5 strings NS Steinberger that I mainly use it for its sound. I’m not really a double-bassist, but that particular instrument lets an electric bassist have a particular sound without breaking his fingers for the infamous touch needed on a real double bass. Then, as I said before, when you work for someone else you’ve got to be ready for “unplugged” or other strange situations; so I have an acoustic 4 strings and a couple of acoustic 5 strings. Last year I went on an acoustic tour with Claudio Baglioni and I never used a fretted electric bass, I used an acoustic Epiphone 5 strings, a fretless electric and the Steinberger. I like that instrument, you have to use it in the proper context, of course, when you can project your sound, because if you use an acoustic bass along with a double pedal drum kit, it gets a bit messy. The acoustic bass lacks the “wickedness”, the personality or, better, the sheer sonic power to cut through a full-frequency situation. 

AA: speaking of “wickedness” and listening to some songs in which you played on, you are quite famous for your push, for your very forward groove; do you have a particular technique, to be always very definite, or it’s only cleanliness of touch? 

PC: I don’t know, I’ve always studied looking forward to what I like, so when I listen to a convincing bassist… I like bass because it’s an accompanying instrument, and in comping you can find those who can be heard and those who can not; so rather than acrobatics I always followed those accompanying bassist, noticing the little tricks they use, especially those that with a few things can support a whole harmonic and melodic structure. 

AA: a name for all? 

PC: well, the ones I mentioned before; the really good pop bassist are Tony Levin and Nathan East, Pino Palladino is phenomenal, and also Anthony Jackson, that can be really acrobatic whenever he wants, when he’s comping he’s really enjoyable, he can really comp with just three notes. In the old Chaka Khan records he comes out with some grooves, with Steve Ferrone, that with really four little things here and there have a tremendous groove. Studying those things I noticed that while on acrobatics is important the scale you choose or maybe to exceed or to surprise, in comping a pause is more important than a note, and sometimes the groove comes, more than from a note, from silence itself, and not from an eighty-notes scale. I noticed that inserting little pauses here and there you can comp with more groove. Sometimes giving up is essential. 

AA: Or maybe it’s better an ostinato (for example I downloaded the bass chart of “extraterrestre” from your web site), rather than when you hear a bass line that is impossible to follow because it’s too varied, from a bar to the next one. 

PC: yes, then it depends, because in music everything and nothing can work at the same time, I mean, there are no fixed rules and it depends on what you’re doing. The bass line from “extraterrestre” is an example a little apart, because it’s a pedal; the whole stuff is mono-chordal and especially for bass, the less chords there are, the better you groove. In “extraterrestre” there’s an ostinato built on very few notes of a single chord and it’s easier to do such things in those situations. If you had the same tune with eighteen changes you couldn’t get such wickedness, on the bass line, that comes from the repetitiveness. The secret of “extraterrestre” lies on the ghost notes, that push the actual ones. The ghost notes are crucial for the groove; if you play a downbeat, and then you play the same downbeat with a ghost note before, it seems more convincing. 

AA: looking at your music links I saw one for the Beatles site. 

PC: that’s right, when I was a child I was really a Beatle-maniac, even before I started playing. Then I noticed that Paul McCartney (even if he wasn’t a virtuoso), being a great composer and being the bassist for himself, he never got a single bass line wrong, for the melody he was composing. It’s been a great school, because he was also one who liked to make the bass sing, now and then, and he made it sing under his own singing, with his voice, so it’s really a lesson on how not to fuck yourself up, or on how to create an interesting bass line against an interesting melody. 

AA: and he’s also recognizable for the so-called “songs within a song” – just think of  “with a little help from my friends” or “penny lane”, that feature bass lines that stand up by themselves – and also for the bass “hooks”, that are bass lines that are immediately recognizable, such as “come together”. Did you ever happen to come up with a bass hook, on a particular tune, after which the phone begun to ring much more often? 

PC: unfortunately I can’t remember that, right now, but a tune that gave me satisfaction is exactly the one you mentioned before, “extraterrestre”; in those times a lot of people stopped me and asked me “was it you who played bass on “extraterrestre”?”. I felt a little ashamed, because I didn’t feel I made such a big thing, since I more or less picked up the original bass line that poor Stefano Cerri, whom I remember with affection, cut. [Stefano Cerri was a jazz  and session bassist – he played also with Yes’s Jon Anderson - who passed away last year] I only rendered it a little more personal, I kinda lived it up again, but the basic idea is not mine. It’s true that the end result is quite different from the original, but it’s the sum of many little things. That particular bass part gave me satisfaction, but on that record - “la forza dell’amore” by Eugenio Finardi, in which is featured the English drummer Gavin Harrison, who later worked many years with Claudio Baglioni - there’s a special alchemy, between bass and drums. I recommend it to everybody, because there are a lot of ideas, for an Italian album. Mostly because the drummer was British and he could afford not to have “Italian ideas”. Furthermore, it was one of the first times around, for him; not the very first since he has already been working with Alice, even if only live. It was his first recording session, here in Italy, and he really wanted to show off and we did many interesting things. I don’t want to hype myself but that’s a record I like to listen back to, even after ten years, since it was cut in ’91. 

AA: yes, I usually get to listen back to my recordings only after a long time, since shortly after I cut a tune I don’t even want to hear it. 

PC: there are very few things I worked on that I like to listen to, I can count them on a single hand. 

AA: to wrap it all up… any suggestions to the readers? 

PC: a suggestion I give is to pay attention to pauses, other than the notes; then another one is to try to understand what modal system is. I meet a lot of bassists and I notice that many of them tend to play a bit at random, I mean, they study something that they’ve been told it’s got to be studied, and one of these is the modal system – bass players know what I’m talking about – and then many of them set it apart like, I dunno, the Divine Comedy that you study in high school. And they practically do not use it at all, playing mostly by ear or only using a single scale. What you just studied, instead, should be applied, or at least you should try to. That’s a suggestion I often give because I saw it’s a very common problem. 

AA: you should know, for instance, whether a minor seventh chord requires a Dorian or an Aeolian scale… 

PC: that’s right, and also the difference between a second and a sixth degree; they’re both minor scales, but even if many people studied such things and know they’re called Dorian mode, Aeolian mode and so on, if you ask them “minor… but what’s the sixth note you’re playing?” they answer “I don’t know… why?”. And then you understand they did not realized that all these things have got to be put together. 

AA: and they collapse under pentatonic scales. 

PC: then the biggest advice I give is to play together as much as possible; I mean it’s no use for a drummer, for example, to spend hours and hours in a practice room if after that he’s not appreciated for his playing in an ensemble. It all depends on what you have to do and the attitude you have, especially for an instrument like the drums, which is the foundation of  a multi-instrumental set, and you can’t understand what to do all by yourself. An advice I give, not only if you’re playing for a living, but also if you’re doing it as a hobby, is that you never have to take the simple pleasure of playing together away from the musician.

It’s also a way to grow, because if you’re playing with a guy that’s better than you, you automatically get better too, whether you want it or not. That’s a thing you’d have to pursue, even if it may sound cynical. 

AA: yes, it’s the very same problem I had, and still have, in studying jazz, because an already quite good musician doesn’t even want you around, if you’re a beginner. 

PC: yes, but you can do that also little by little, I mean, I do not necessarily have to play with Pat Metheny, I can also play with the pupil of his pupil’s pupil, who’s surely better than, say, the son of the baker man on my block. So, step by step, by playing with somebody that’s even just a little better than you, you somewhat level up to him, unless you have that “I’m playing only for myself” kind of mood.

Another last advice is to consider, especially on a kinda easy genre, like pop music, not strictly what you do – like a particular fill or phrase – but how you do it. Sometimes it’s more important the way you approach a phrase, even if a note you’re playing is not so cool, rather than a theoretically wonderful note played in an insincere or unconvincing way. You have to pay attention to the way you’re doing something, rather than what you have to do. It doesn’t mean that one thing’s excluding the other! It’s like in speaking, because – and I usually give the example of the actors – if Vittorio Gassman [one of the greatest Italian actors of the past] comes and says something in his “Gassman style”, you’re amazed even if he says something like “I broke my shopping bag”; while if Alvaro Vitali [a B-movie Italian actor] recites an excerpt from the Divine Comedy it still has not the same impact of “I broke my shopping bag” told by Vittorio Gassman. That’s the example that, switched to bass, should make you see that sometimes two notes played in a certain way, have more weight than a patched-up scale, stole from something you heard once, but not of your own at all. 


You can check out Paolo’s vast discography and massive instrumentation at:

A very special thank to Franca Cristofoli for her kind help in making this interview possible.

Alessandro Arcuri


Read this article in Italian




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