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Don Was on ‘The Last Waltz 40′ Tour and the Next Rolling Stones Album: Exclusive Interview

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Jesse Grant, Getty Images

Don Was is a busy guy. For most people, producing the next Rolling Stones album would be enough work. But Was is currently helming the boards for half a dozen other albums and touring as the bassist for the star-studded 40th anniversary tour of the Band’s The Last Waltz. He’s also running Blue Note Records — the legendary jazz label that has expanded to releasing albums by Van Morrison, Al Green, Annie Lennox and Elvis Costello. As he hit the road, the producer who founded the funk-rock band Was (Not Was) in the late ’70s took time to chat with Ultimate Classic Rock about the Stones, the Band and Michael McDonald’s voice.

You have helped make every Stones album since 1994’s Voodoo Lounge, so you know the band takes its time. I won’t ask you about when it will be done, but can you talk about the energy in the sessions?  
The energy is f—ing great. And they are stoked about the response to Blue and Lonesome.

I can imagine. It’s a pretty bad-ass record.
Well, it’s them being them. It’s an affirmation of the band being itself. And I think that is having an impact on the sessions, which is great. But I will tell you we’re a ways off yet until we’re done.

So you’re working with the Stones, but have you been practicing your bass too? Are your chops up to speed to play a big tour?
I play all the time. And rehearsing is like a return to my roots to have me in a bedroom playing along to a recording. It is what I did when I was kid.

How did you and Warren Haynes, who is one of three frontmen in the Last Waltz band along with Michael McDonald and country star Jamey Johnson, become so close?
I’m not even sure. I had met him a couple times years ago. But the first time we really hung out was at the White House when President Obama did a blues show from there. I went with Mick Jagger, and I ended up spending some good time with Warren. Then we ended up putting out the last Gov’t Mule record on Blue Note. I also produced a couple of track on the next Gov’t Mule album that they’re working on and we’ve done a lot of live stuff in the past couple years.

The whole tour started with a one-off event in New Orleans last year. What about that wanted to make you take this on the road?
Actually, I can tell you the exact moment I knew I wanted to tour. I knew it was cool having these three legendary guys fronting the band. Michael, Warren and Jamie, all of whom are incredible in their own way, and in ways you wouldn’t associate the other guys with. I knew in the rehearsals that things we sounding good. Every time Michael McDonald opened his mouth, he blew everybody away. He was so great and vibe was so cool. But it was the response from the audience that was inordinately enthusiastic. It was way more than I expected. About five or six songs in, I looked out at people’s faces and I realized that they loved these songs. In addition to us playing well, they loved the songs.

So the love comes from the tunes … and maybe that you can’t see music from The Last Waltz anywhere but on your tour?
Right. If you like Beatles songs, [Paul] McCartney is out there giving you three hours of them, perfect versions. If you like Bob Dylan, he’s out there playing them. If you like the Rolling Stones, they do an amazing three-hour show. But nobody is out there playing songs that the Band made popular. And they are songs that are deeply etched into the zeitgeist. So it was like, “Wow, man, people love hearing these songs as much as we love playing them.” It was a let down after the two nights in New Orleans. Now we knew the songs and we wanted to keep going.

And it’s a lot of work for just a couple nights, a lot of work to do it two nights and then it’s over.  
Well, it’s not really like work. Lifting heavy boxes is work. It’s a challenge, but it’s not work. But it was more that this tour came from the love of the songs. I don’t know how else to say it, they are delicious songs.

Do you have an important history with The Last Waltz? Do you remember the first time you saw Martin Scorsese’s documentary of the concert?  
Oh, I do. My first wife was, like, fully pregnant. The low end in the theater started something moving and she went into labor an hour later.

So I guess you do remember it.
I remember it very distinctly. But I remember going to see the Band in the early days in Michigan, and I was with them from the first album, Music From Big Pink. That record really spoke to me. As a bass player, Rick [Danko] really spoke to me. I didn’t realize it at the time but I think he had a profound influence on how I play. He’s funky, he’s kind of R&B in a rock ‘n’ roll context. He was influenced by James Jamerson and Duck Dunn.

You can hear that. He really played in the pocket.
That’s one of the think that made the Band distinctive, those grooves between him and [drummer] Levon [Helm].

You have these three guys out front with so much talent. But then back with you you have jazz keyboardist John Medeski and Dirty Dozen Brass Band drummer Terence Higgins. The so-called lesser guys in this band are monsters.
It’s really fun to play with these guys. I didn’t know Terrence, I knew off him, so we didn’t meet until the rehearsals in New Orleans. He’s so easy to play with. It was like we’d been playing together for 10 years after 10 minutes. You can just ride in his pocket all night. And Medeski, not only is he a Blue Note artist but I met him maybe 17 years ago when I produced an Iggy Pop album called Avenue B, and we had Medeski, Martin and Wood play on it, and I became such a fan of what he could do. So it’s a really treat, a real pleasure to work with all of them. I’d play with these guys for the rest of my life if I could.

You have to wear a lot of hats in your career. Do you ever feel too busy?
True, I am busy, but I’m used to it. I’m still in the studio a lot. Many of them are Blue Note artists, but many are just artists I’ve been working with for years like the Stones. I picked something up from reading about Frank Sinatra. There was a time when he was doing nights in Las Vegas and during the day he would fly back to L.A. to film movies and record songs. Three things at once, any one of which would be an excuse for not doing anything else. He said, “Wherever you are, be 100 percent there.” I thought, “F— yeah.” Just be in the now.

Other than the Stones, who are working with?
There are bunch of records I’m in the middle of right now. I’m almost done with Gregg Allman, a new album he’s making in Muscle Shoals. I’m producing tracks for Niall Horan from One Direction. Then, to cover the spectrum, I’m working with drummer Louis Hayes for Blue Note, a legendary guy who played with Horcace Silver, Cannonball Adderly and Dexter Gordon.

Do you ever want to slow down producing and play live more?
Oh, I get a chance to play. I recently played at Warren’s Christmas jam. Bob Weir asked me to play with him. Because of some logistics, I ended up playing string bass on some Grateful Dead songs. Branford Marsalis came out and we did this “Eyes of the World,” and that elevated me to some whole other level.

That’s is such a great song to jam on, you can really get lost in it.
It was. It was really something to me. It was kind of cool that it turned out I was playing string bass because I didn’t have the specter of Phil [Lesh] hanging over me. You push a song to different places when you are playing a different instrument. I’m always looking for a good musical buzz.

Masterpieces: The Very Best Albums From More Than 100 Classic Rock Acts

Next: How 'The Last Waltz' Almost Didn't Happen

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