Pino Palladino, pop's greatest bassist: 'I felt like a performing monkey!'

One of the world’s most celebrated bass players has worked with everyone from Adele to Elton John, the Who and D’Angelo. But the Welsh musician has hidden from the spotlight – until now

By his own admission, Pino Palladino is not a man much accustomed to giving interviews. “Very reticent,” he nods during a Zoom call, his accent speaking noticeably louder of his childhood in Cardiff than his current home in LA. “You know, there was a time when I was featured in all sorts of musicians’ magazines, and then I just thought to myself, ‘Move over, there’s people out there that actually need the publicity.’ Not to blow smoke up my own arse,” he adds hurriedly, “but really I just didn’t want to see or hear from myself.”

It’s a remark in keeping with the astonishing career of one of the most celebrated bass players in the world. It’s hard not to blanche when you consider the sheer number of records that have been sold featuring his work. He played on not one but two of the biggest selling albums of the 21st century: Adele’s 21 and Ed Sheeran’s Divide, as well as with Rod Stewart, Elton John, Bryan Ferry, Simon and Garfunkel and Keith Richards. They’re the biggest names in a startlingly diverse back catalogue of collaborations: Palladino’s playing is the thread that links Perfume Genius with Phil Collins, Harry Styles with Chris de Burgh, and Nine Inch Nails with De La Soul. Indeed, his versatility and omnipresence is a running joke within the music industry. When another fabled bass player, Pink Floyd’s Guy Pratt, got married, he opened his groom’s speech with the words: “I’m only here today because Pino couldn’t make it.”

For a musician who seems to have turned up everywhere over the last 40 years, Palladino has remained a remarkably anonymous figure outside of musicians’ circles. Indeed, he somehow contrived to spend 14 years as a member of the Who without really losing what he calls an “invisible stance”. He certainly stands out in photographs of the Soulquarians, the experimental collective assembled by D’Angelo for his legendary album Voodoo, the solitary lanky Welshman among a crowd of African-American musicians including Questlove and the late J Dilla – but you would still struggle to recognise him in the street.

Palladino in 1985.
Cardiff’s finest … Palladino in 1985. Photograph: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

This is presumably how Palladino likes it. He’s drily funny and self-deprecating – he says his default setting when working with a new artist is “do not fucking spoil it” – but doesn’t seem terribly frustrated by life in the background. Which makes it all the more surprising that he’s releasing an album on which he shares billing with Blake Mills: Notes With Attachments, a fascinating, head-turning collection of experimental instrumentals that sits somewhere between jazz, global music and ambient. He and Mills, who has produced for Fiona Apple and Laura Marling, met while working on a John Legend album. “We hit it off and the next thing you know, he’s saying to me ‘Have you thought about a solo album?’ Well, I’ve thought about it, obviously,” he laughs. “For 40 years I’ve thought about it, but I’ve never really had an idea how I could do it.”

Studded with guest appearances – from avant-garde saxophonist Sam Gendel and jazz drummer Chris Dave, among others – Notes With Attachments foregrounds the sound that made Palladino’s name: the none-more-80s sprrroing of the fretless bass put through a chorus pedal. He first used it while working with Gary Numan, but it was Paul Young’s 1983 hit Wherever I Lay My Hat that introduced it to a mass audience: pushed up in the mix, the bass effectively became a lead instrument. It was so striking that Palladino suddenly found himself playing with everyone from Go West and Don Henley to Tears for Fears: he turned up on Top of the Pops with alarming regularity, the musical equivalent of a hip item of designer clothing. “There was a lot of it around in those days,” he says of the sound. “I was so lucky – it resonated with people, captured their imagination and it took on a life of its own. It did get to the point where I was getting booked for sessions and feeling like a performing monkey: ‘Yeah, bring your fretless, make that funny sound and maybe we’ll get a hit out of it.’”

He also found himself becoming the sideman of choice for the rock aristocracy. “The first call I got like that was from David Gilmour. I could not believe it: am I going to the studio with this guy and pretend I actually belong there? I was nervous as fuck, but the drummer on the session was Jeff Porcaro [famed for playing with Toto and on Michael Jackson’s Thriller album], and he was really sweet: ‘Come on, man, chill out, have a smoke on this.’ So I did, and that seemed to work for me. I just had to keep that attitude through all of that period: phone calls from Elton John and Phil Collins – you have to keep that headspace that you belong, even if you think you’re going to be found out any minute.”

Palladino performing with the Who at the Desert Trip festival, California, 9 October 2016.
‘You’ll have to play louder!’ … performing with the Who at the 2016 Desert Trip festival in California. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

He says another phone call, this time from D’Angelo – who had heard his playing on a BB King album – changed his life. “My roots are in Motown, reggae, R&B. I didn’t get much of an opportunity to express that side of music and then I met the don – how lucky was that? D’Angelo – I’d mention him in the same breath as Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway and Sly Stone. When I was in the studio with D and Questlove, James Poyser, all those guys, I don’t even have to think about what I’m playing. It’s incredible, to be a Welsh guy, having no real connections to these guys other than music that we loved and played. From a personal satisfaction point of view, it was as good as it ever got, probably will get.

“It took people 10 years, 20, to really get the first album we made, Voodoo, but I absolutely knew it was unique and really special – I was probably more aware of it than the rest of them, because I’d been working for a long time. I knew this kind of thing didn’t come around very often.”

The Soulquarians went on to record with Erykah Badu, Mos Def and Talib Kweli; the influence of their loose approach can be heard on Kendrick Lamar’s epochal 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly. They had just wrapped up a session with Common when Palladino learned that the Who’s bassist, John Entwistle, had died – and that the band had declined to cancel their forthcoming tour and wanted Palladino to replace him … on stage at the Hollywood Bowl, in two days.

“I flew to LA, thinking, what are you doing? You don’t even know many Who songs. Pete Townshend was waiting for me at the hotel, with a big stack of CDs. ‘You don’t know much of the catalogue? Fair enough. You’re going to know it tonight, then, aren’t you?’ At the first rehearsal, Pete comes over and says: ‘You’re going to have to play louder’ – because I’m used to being the sympathetic musician, who fills in, doesn’t make a racket. That’s the one instruction you keep getting when you work with the Who: ‘Fucking turn it up, we can’t hear you!’”

Palladino says he’s “not exactly crazy about touring any more” – he stopped playing live with the Who in 2016 – but is considering doing some gigs around Notes With Attachments, pandemic permitting. Until then, there are still sessions to attend to in LA, with Covid tests in the car park for anyone taking part. “Film and music studios are considered essential to the economy here – you’ve got to love that, right?” he laughs. “Mind you,” he says, “that’s better than Britain telling you if you’re a musician or an artist you might have to look for a new job.”


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The 100 greatest UK No 1s: 100-1
Look back on our complete countdown of the greatest UK No 1s, from the Beatles to Baby D, and So Solid Crew to Suzi Quatro

Ben Beaumont-Thomas, Alexis Petridis and Laura Snapes

05, Jun, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
Madonna, Motown and Mongolian metal: the music to listen out for in 2020
The queen of pop gets intimate, Taylor Swift feels the sunshine and Stormzy takes on the world … plus, classical celebrations begin for Beethoven’s 250th

Alexis Petridis and Andrew Clements

01, Jan, 2020 @11:00 AM

Article image
‘It speaks straight from the heart’: Bryan Ferry, Adele and Engelbert Humperdinck on Bob Dylan’s Make You Feel My Love
As the ballad appears on the latest Bootleg Sessions box set, some of the many artists who have covered it explain why it tugs their heartstrings

Annie Zaleski

31, Jan, 2023 @4:00 PM

Article image
UK’s top 10 singles of 2022 were all by British artists
A clean sweep led by Harry Styles was an ‘astonishing’ high note for the music industry – but the domination of older songs reflected the impact of streaming

Laura Snapes

04, Jan, 2023 @12:01 AM

Article image
Brit awards 2023: Wet Leg and Harry Styles lead male-dominated nominations
In the second year of non-gendered categories, the five nominees for artist of the year are entirely male

Laura Snapes

12, Jan, 2023 @4:30 PM

Article image
Go easy on me: why pop has got so predictable
Adele, Ed Sheeran, Abba, Lana Del Rey and Drake all found success in 2021 by delivering more of the same – a result of how our chaotic lives, on and offline, are informing our taste

Alexis Petridis

16, Dec, 2021 @5:05 PM

Article image
The Royal Albert Hall at 150: 'It's the Holy Grail for musicians'
It’s hosted opera greats, suffragette rallies, Hitchcock films, sports events, sci-fi conventions – and, of course, the Proms and countless rock gigs. Artists from Led Zeppelin to Abba recall their moments on the hallowed stage

Interviews by Michael Segalov

29, Mar, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Rod Stewart: ‘I got Elton a fridge for Christmas. He got me a Rembrandt’
Answering Guardian readers’ questions, the singer discusses his epic railway modelling, his admiration of the Sex Pistols and the secrets of his hair regime

As told to Dave Simpson

18, Nov, 2021 @1:00 PM

Article image
David Fincher and Trent Reznor on Mank: 'People were like: Huh. This is very niche'
The director and the rock star composer have now collaborated on four films and discuss their work on the overwhelming Oscar favourite, plus why Bird Box made no sense and whether Fight Club could come to Broadway

Ryan Gilbey

25, Mar, 2021 @4:00 PM

Article image
Pop's performing pensioners

Today's stars now rock right past the retirement age. How do they do it? And shouldn't some of them stop, writes Dave Simpson

Dave Simpson

08, Nov, 2009 @12:05 AM