Interview with Rocco Prestia – Bass Musician Magazine, February 2015 Issue…
His full name is Francis Rocco Prestia, but he is most often referred to simply as Rocco.
He is the driving force, along with Drummer David Garibaldi, of the funkiest and arguably the most soulful band in the land: Tower of Power. Rocco’s staccato 16th notes, ghost notes and muted left hand techniques are all the subjects of well documented legend. The man can lay down the finger funk. It’s a percolating, undulating, funkifized, mix of velvety smooth muted 16th notes, burping with ghost notes and stutters, all delivered via the sledgehammer of soul. And it’s all locked up tight with Tower of Power’s other phenom, drummer David Garibaldi.
Actually, every member of Tower of Power is a musical force in their own right.
They have been a band for over forty years now and are still going strong as ever. If you’re not too familiar with their song catalogue and you love funky soul, let me give you some suggestions. As I just mentioned, the band has been together for over forty years, so they have a healthy selection of tunes to choose from. Even though they have had a good deal of personnel changes through the years, they have managed to maintain a core of four original members. The stalwarts are Rocco on bass, drummer David Garibaldi, tenor saxophonist and band leader Emilio (Mimi) Castillo, and bari saxophonist Stephen “Doc” Krupka.
Okay, back to suggesting some tunes to hear. Here’s my main point, this band is so good, that their live albums are as tight and polished as most other bands studio production. I therefore suggest that any neophyte TOP listeners simply grab the collection: Tower of Power Live. It was recorded live at the Filmore in San Francisco and at the Fox in Stockton, CA. It has a few of my favorites: Soul Vaccination, What is Hip, and You’re Still a Young Man – all delivered with the energy that only comes from a live performance. Now, they have a lot more fantastic tunes on numerous CD’s, with stellar bass parts by Rocco – but this is just a sampler to get you in the groove!
I’ve read that you actually started out on guitar and that the decision was quickly made, by others, that you should fill the bass chair. Did you know what a bass guitar was at the time?
I did not. I had joined the band as a guitar player. I could play about three chords… and not very well.
Do you remember what guitar you had back then?
A Silvertone. I wish I still had it.
How long had you been playing guitar prior to the switch?
Oh gosh, you know – I was one of those guitar players whose mother would say, “It’s time to practice.” I wasn’t really serious about it. I was semi-serious… maybe. I was probably playing for three to four years.
I didn’t realize you had played guitar that long.
Well, I had joined the band (Tower of Power) when I was fourteen, so it couldn’t have been too much before then.
It’s incredible that you could be in one band since you were fourteen years old! And for it to be such an amazing band, that’s mind blowing.
We’ll we were pretty lucky.
Once the switch was made, how did you go about learning to play bass?
We use to have a guy that came in every week and he taught us tunes. We were doing stuff like the Stones and Paul Revere and the Raiders. He would show us all our parts. That’s basically how I learned. His name was Terry Saunder. When he stopped teaching the band, Mimi, (Emilio) he took over that role and guided everybody through the parts. He had the ear for it. He was able to pick the parts out from the records; the rest of us weren’t really in that space at that time. We didn’t pick up on it the way he did. It just gradually went from there, and as time went on, obviously I knew a little bit more about what I was doing (Laughs).
You’ve been quoted as listing James Jamerson and Bootsy Collins as influences. They are both excellent players, but what was it about their playing that attracted you?
It was Jamerson… it was Duck Dunn… Bootsy, because it was James Brown… it was the feel more than anything. It was a feel-good kind of thing, they were always there, and they were doing what the bass was supposed to be doing. It just felt good to me.
Any other early influences?
Oh gosh, there were so many… Chuck Rainey, Willie Weeks, Jerry Jemmot; there were a lot of cats, man. A lot of great players.
The players you’ve mentioned were all strong R & B players. Is that the kind of music you were listening to?
Oh yeah, absolutely. When we started out it was the Stones and that kind of stuff, but once we got into soul music it was all over then. We started adding horns and that was it (Laughs).
Do you listen to much music these day? If so, what do you gravitate towards?
I don’t really listen to that much music to be honest. If I do, I pull it from the early days. It was the best music that there was, I’m sorry.
I wouldn’t argue with that at all.
I mean, when you listen to soundtracks and commercials… everyone pulls from that era.
There are a lot of technically proficient and talented bass players but very few have developed a unique voice. Like Miles on trumpet, Bird on Sax, Hendrix on guitar. After just a couple of notes – it’s obvious to me when Rocco is playing the bass. What can you tell me about your voice?
Well, first off, it wasn’t something I thought about. It was something that developed. It was just the uniqueness with the band and where we were going with the songs. The combination of the people… we were all able to develop a voice. Playing with the same band for so long enabled that to happen. It wasn’t until we did a few albums that people started saying, “Hey that thing that you’re doing with Garibaldi (David Garibaldi – T.O.P. drummer) is pretty special.” I never gave it much thought until the late seventies because enough people kept commenting on it. Now I look back and say wow, I guess it is pretty special. As far as the voice, it was just the timing – being at the right place at the right time. And having the vehicle to be able to develop it.
You’ve got your staccato 16ths, your ghost notes, your left hand muting. Why does this approach work so well within T.O.P.?
Dave plays percussive as well. He also uses a lot of ghost notes and stuff. Dave and I only played together for about three months before we recorded. From day one, it clicked and it worked. No real rhyme or reason about it, it just worked.
OK – so you didn’t hear someone on the radio doing this – you just started playing in this style and it worked and so you developed it more?
It wasn’t something that we thought about, it just evolved. I came from an R & B background, the Duck Dunn, Jamerson feel… and when David came in he was all over the map. He had so many ideas and this was a vehicle for him to express them. So he was way over the top and I came in with the laid back thing. When it came together, what came out was what you hear now.
When you’re handed a new tune, how do you approach developing the bassline?
The writer usually has an idea, what kind of ballpark they want it in. So that helps, and once that’s established we just start playing around with it. Dave will start playing something or the guitar player or the keyboards. Everybody just starts tinkering with it until something comes up that feels good.
Along those same lines, how is it that you play so much crazy shit that totally works in the context of the tune – and it doesn’t detract or conflict with the other parts?
(Laughs) My philosophy has always been that you get away with whatever you can. Just don’t step on anybody’s toes and stay out of the way. And that’s just always been my approach, because we have so much going on: the horns, the vocals, the solos – this, that, and the other. You really have to be careful. You want to do your job, that’s the bottom line. You’re the bass player; make sure you cover that part. Anything else is just what you might be able to get away with and not get in the way.
In watching you play, in my opinion, you are the ultimate ensemble player. Is this the philosophy that you apply to achieve this.
Well…. (Laughs)…it’s not like a power trio. You’ve got so much stuff going on and you really have got to be aware of it. But, you want to do your job, and I emphasize that because a lot of bass players have a tendency to get happy and they overplay. It detracts from the tune, it distracts. It’s unfortunate, because they’re great players, you can see it, but they just haven’t got the maturity yet to settle down and pick their moments.
I’m curious about how you hear bass inside your head. Let’s say you hear some other tune on the radio, do you ever imagine how you would play a bassline to that same song?
Sometimes. it’s like… why did he go there? Or …I would have went there. So yeah, sometimes, but not in a critical assessment. Everybody’s got their thing to offer and that’s what makes it happen and nine times out of ten they all work. There is no right way (Laughs).
Along these lines – the voicing and eq of your bass lines seemed sculpted to bring a nice big bottom and just enough punch for definition without getting in the way of other players. Any tips on how you achieve your tone? Are there any specific frequencies that you cut or boost?
Usually my bass is pretty much full bore, I might back off a little here and there, with very little midrange. I just don’t like the sound of it, the texture of it. My amp is the same: a lot of bass and treble, I try and stay away from that middle zone. I might have a little bit because sometimes it’s needed. But for the most part I stay away from that. I like it to sound like a bass. I see a lot of great players and I wonder what the fuck are they hearing, because that tone just ain’t working. I’m talking about really great players that I’ve seen over the years, without naming names. It kind of baffles me. Why don’t you want to sound like a bass? To me, it’s the round bottom and that’s what it’s supposed to sound like. When you listen to old Motown records and the Memphis stuff, that’s what you hear – that big fat, round bottom. To me, that’s what you are trying to achieve on stage.
When playing live – what do you want in your monitors?
Everything besides drums and guitar, because they are both right next to me. I always tell my guy, “Make it sound like a record” (Laughs).
How loud do you like your own stage volume?
I just want to hear the bass and feel like it’s tucked in. I don’t like it overbearing. Most of the time people are telling me to turn up, and it really drives me nuts because it becomes too much for me and my feel and my touch. I like enough to be heard and not be annoying.
Do you have a pre-concert routine before you go on stage?
I go onstage and tune up and play scales up and down the neck. I pace a little bit. That’s about it.
I want to respect your privacy, but I know all your fans want to know how you’re doing healthwise these days. You’ve been very upfront about your health challenges, which can’t be any easy thing. Is there anything you would like to share with your fans about your health issues and your thoughts on health in general?
By the time this comes out, my surgery will have already happened. What’s today, Tuesday?
I’m going in for surgery on Friday. It’s been a long road and I’m glad we’re at the end. Other than that, I’m actually doing very well.
So, are you feeling pretty good these days?
Yeah, I feel fine. It’s more about my energy, I get fatigued very easily. Other than that, I’m good.
That’s really good to hear. Can you talk a little about the gear you are using these days?
I’ve developed a bass with ESP and it’s been out for about a year, it’s been selling pretty well and I’m happy about that. (Note: This is ESP’s RB series bass. It has Aguilar J and P pickups, Aguilar OBP-2 preamps and spalted and maple finishes in 4, 5, and 6 string models).
I’m using MJC bass strings; they are a new company that everyone should keep an eye out for. It’s Mike Connolly, it’s his company – he used to be with Dean Markley. Good company, good guy.
T.O.P. has achieved some huge milestones lately. What’s in the future for the band?
We’re working on a new album now. We’ve actually put together enough songs for two albums. Hopefully it will be released after the first of the year, sometime.
Have you been working in the studio on this?
The rhythm section has already been done. They’re in the process of layering it now. So, yeah it’s getting more towards the end, we’re happy about that.
How about you. Any plans for any solo albums or other projects outside of T.O.P.?
Once we get done with this surgery, I would really like to begin concentrating on doing another one. We’ll start doing a lot of clinics as well. We’ll kinda see where it all goes; it should be a lot better by then.
Is then anything else that you would like to add to this interview?
(Laughs) Just my signature statement: Keep your Dreams Alive.