In this exclusive Spins on Music interview, folk/rock/blues bassist Dominic John Davis talks about touring with Jack White and playing the Grammys … and the story behind that really shiny bass he played on stage Sunday night.
When Jack White decided in 2011 to assemble his Third Man House Band to promote Wanda Jackson’s “The Party Ain’t Over” album and later for his much-talked-about “Blunderbuss” tour, he called on an old Michigan pal to join him.
Well-known in the state’s folk and roots music circles for his work with Steppin’ In It and others, Lansing’s Dominic John Davis (aka Dominic Suchyta) jumped right in on bass and eventually even moved into a guest house on White’s Nashville property with his wife, singer-songwriter Rachael Davis.
And when White performed during Sunday’s internationally televised Grammy Awards show, Davis was right there with him embracing “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to support an innovative musician and lifelong friend described by Davis as “a special artist” with a strong work ethic.
That special artist became a little more special on Sunday during the 55th annual Grammy Awards show at Los Angeles’ Staples Center: Although White didn’t win a Grammy for his first solo album despite three nominations, he earned rave reviews after tearing it up impressively on stage by performing two songs, the reserved “Love Interruption” with his all-female band and the raucous “Freedom at 21” with Davis and an all-guy outfit.
THAT SHINY BASS
Davis literally shined during the performance, playing a silvery standup bass.
“We aren’t sure what the bass is made of,” he told me after the show. “Possibly aluminum, or stainless steel. It was made in the 1930’s by ALCOA to be played on cruise ships. The salt water and humidity does a number on wooden instruments. Because it isn’t made of wood, it amplifies nicely.”
Davis and White — who first made a splash musically as part of The White Stripes — are childhood buddies who grew up together in Southwest Detroit.
“My family wasn’t very musically inclined, so I was always over at his house playing and recording,” Davis recalled “We were just trying figure things out and get something going. Over the last six years or so he has asked me to play on a number of releases for his label, Third Man Records. I played on a few things before helping with Wanda Jackson’s ‘The Party Ain’t Over’ and that was the first I had toured with him.”
Surprises at Sunday’s Grammys: Mumford & Sons topping The Black Keys for album of the year, Gotye topping everybody for record of the year, and Grand Rapids’ Marvin Sapp coming up empty-handed in gospel. Read Sapp’s reaction at Spins on Music and get the full winners’ list at the Grammy site.
Davis, who plays standup and electric bass, says playing with White again was an easy adjustment musically, but challenging in a live setting.
“Everything Jack does is deeply rooted in blues and folk music so I felt right at home. However, there was an adjustment to how he operates on stage,” he conceded, noting White doesn’t use set lists and “there’s a lot spontaneity at play. He could stop a song to play another, or sing the bridge of a song three times or lead guitar songs from the piano.”
Indeed, the Blunderbuss tour featured another twist that got the national media’s attention: separate male and female bands that White would choose to accompany him for each night’s performances.
FRONTING TWO DIFFERENT BANDS
“When Jack called and asked if I would be a part of this, he put his intent out front. He had so much musical freedom with The White Stripes, because they were a duo that had played together for so long, and he wanted to have that much freedom with a band,” Davis explained. “For him, having two bands was the path to get there. I think that says a lot. Sometime the reasons why we do things are more important than what is being accomplished. That’s true in life, but even more so with art.”
Davis said the tour’s band members knew around noon of show night whether they’d be performing “and we did do some mixing and matching. There were times where we both played or times when we were on stage and he would happen to call one of the ladies up with us. I wouldn’t say it was daunting, but there is an aspect of not playing each night that you need to get used to. You don’t fall into that groove that you usually get into after a week on the road. … That was the reason we were doing this in the first place.”
It’s part of what makes White tick – that pushing-the-envelope, don’t-get-too-comfortable quality that earned him three Grammy nominations for his “Blunderbuss” album. “As a bandmate, I wouldn’t rather be on stage with anyone. He’s always on a mission out there. The moment he feels a lull, he’s changing it up,” Davis said.
TRYING TO GRASP A MOMENT IN TIME
“Jack truly is a special artist. His work ethic is exhausting, but he does it for all of the right reasons,” he added. “Working in the studio with him you really get the feel that we’re trying to grasp a moment in time. There’s an urgency about him when we’re recording that is great to tap into. There are times where it feels like we’ve got it now, let’s get it on tape before it leaves us. … Jack doesn’t like to plan things too far ahead and is currently working on a new record, but we’ve got no solid plans for the year.”
For Davis, with degrees from Michigan State University in studio art and art history and whose first group was the garage rock band The F**k Ups, the appearance on the Grammys is just part of what’s shaping up to be a hectic 2013.
“I recently tracked with mandolin virtuoso Sierra Hull and Rachael is making a new record. I’m heading back to Michigan next month to record with Ann Arbor folk singer Chris Buhalis. That’s one record that I’m excited about. I’ve been a longtime fan and a new record from him is long overdue,” he said.
MAKING LASTING GRAMMY MEMORIES
But on Sunday in Los Angeles, it was all about making White’s performance one of the highlights of a star-studded Grammy show.
“Playing the Grammys is a once in a lifetime opportunity which isn’t lost on me, but at the end of the day, we’ve got a job to do, and that’s more important than anything,” he insisted.
“Being a bassist, my job is to be there for who’s in front of me. Whether I’m playing with Jack, my wife, Rachael, Jeff Daniels or anyone else, my job is to not let them down. Sometimes that means I can’t really enjoy it while it’s happening, but I can certainly look back on things and enjoy it.”
And that he did, he told me immediately after the Grammys.
“I think it’s too early to know exactly how I’ll look back on the performance, but it felt good while it was happening,” he said. “That group of folks traveled the world all year together and it felt good to share the stage with all of them again.”
Copyright 2013, Spins on Music