Meet Wes Wehmiller (Warren’s New Bassist)
by Cyndi Glass
“I love playing Warren’s music. He’s a killer writer.”
If you were at Warren’s solo shows in March 1996, you saw something very rare – a young bassist who has such a good ear that he can improvise at will. Due to the demanding nature of Warren’s music, a bassist or drummer that auditions for his band must be able to play just about anything, no matter what key or time signature. Warren has several musicians who know his music well enough to come and play a show with him, and one of those talented guys is bassist Wes Wehmiller.
On the Thanks 2 Frank album, you can hear Pino Palladino on most of the more melodic songs and Nick Beggs on the hard rockers. In Warren’s previous solo shows, Nick Beggs had played bass and Chapman Stick. Warren booked himself into clubs in London whenever he had time, playing either his short or long set. The longer set consisted of the entire album Thanks 2 Frank, plus some Zappa tunes and Duran Duran’s Ordinary World, for which Warren has a long rock and roll instrumental arrangement. Nick had played Warren’s solo show at the Stone Pony in July 1994, but for his new United States shows, Warren decided to hire an American bassist, to cut costs on transporting musicians.
Wes was born on Sept. 12, 1971 and grew up near Philadelphia. He went to high school in Delaware, where his parents still live. After that came 3 years in Boston, at Berklee, where he met drummer Joe Travers (Warren’s drummer for his U.S. and some of his European shows). “He and I went to school together in Boston, at Berklee. We met in ’90, and we’ve been playing together for a while,” Wes says, adding that he moved to Los Angeles about a year after Joe did. “Ever since then we’ve been doing kind of odd stuff together. He started working with Warren on his solo project and did a couple of things in London, and that’s how he started working with Warren, and then he got me in there. Warren’s never really done, like, a tour. He’s just kind of done odd things here and there, and probably like a year before that (the HMV show) I first talked to Warren and we got introduced, so I got hopping on his tunes.” He met Warren in Los Angeles when Warren and Simon were there in April 1995 to do the House of Blues acoustic set, where Joe Travers provided percussion. “I broke my finger taking off my sock,” he says, laughing. “So I had to stop playing for twelve weeks. It was during that time that I met Warren, and we went out to dinner, and I showed up with a cast on my finger.”
After a day of rehearsal at the S.I.R. studios in New York, Wes’ first show with Warren was at the HMV Record Store in New York, March 26, 1996. Later that night, he played the show at Under Acme, also in New York. “I had such a good time, at the shows especially.” Amie and I were at both of these shows and Wes performed like a total pro, not just providing simple basslines but making the bass an integral part of the music, the way it had been written. “Oh, that was fun. I love playing Warren’s music,” Wes says. “It’s instrumental rock. There’s a lot of room to play, and Joe and I have a lot of fun doing that.” Joe comes in for a lot of compliments from Wes. “Joe plays the music so well. He just tackles it. Plus he and I go way back.”
At the Under Acme show at midnight that night, Warren played for almost 3 hours, and Wes held up strongly under the pressure of such a long set. “That was the best one of them all, because it was so long,” Wes says. “The one in L.A., it might have been like that, but…” The only break he got was when Warren played Crystal Ship alone on his guitar and had the audience sing it as he played. “I didn’t even know we were doing it at that point. I remember that. I didn’t even know what we were doing.”
The music that Warren asked Wes to learn was all of the songs on Thanks 2 Frank, plus Duran Duran’s Ordinary World and two Zappa songs, Transylvania Boogie and Chunga’s Revenge. Wes took what could have been some very daunting pieces of work in stride. When I asked him what the most difficult song to play was, he didn’t seem fazed by any of it. “There’s a song called Low Speed Chase, which is physically hard for me to play. It’s not hard to learn, but it’s physically hard because you’re doing something really fast, for a long time.” Wes got the chance to become intimately familiar with Warren’s music. “It’s pretty straightforward. Actually there was one tune, called Transylvania Boogie, which is a Zappa tune. When Frank did it, it was kind of like a free form thing, and what Warren wanted to do was learn it note for note, and so he had me and Joe play it like note for note. So I had to learn what that guy was doing, free form, note for note. You have to really learn it from beginning to end; there’s no pattern.”
Wes recognizes that Warren’s music is designed mainly for guitar, but says that it is written in such a way that the bassist has a lot to go on. “You know the two guys that play on the record, Pino Palladino and Nick Beggs – it sounds to me like Warren just wrote his parts and left a lot of room for the guys to do that. Usually when Joe and I play the music, we’re, like, imitating what they’re doing, and kind of adding a little edge to it.” He says that Pino Palladino is an idol of his. I asked him about some of the songs and what they were like to play, particularly Warren’s version of Ordinary World. “That’s pretty neat,” he said. “I do a lot of playing on that. I have a tape of us doing it at Tower Records, and it’s crazy. He does a verse and a prechorus and then a chorus, and then he solos on the chorus for like three hours. But he let me do a melody part.” He talked a little bit about the new songs too, and some of the songs on the album. I brought up Galactic Ballerina, which is one of my personal favorites, and he agreed, saying “when I first heard that song I thought it was going to be the hardest to learn of all of them, but aside from the time changes, it’s actually one form that keeps repeating itself. When I sat down with it the first time I learned it really fast. Of course that doesn’t mean I don’t like it – I think it’s a great tune. When you can’t hear the form or the pattern it just sounds like one long thing, but it was actually really simple.” He lists as his favorites Indian Time Zones, Hey Zawinul and Galactic Ballerina.
The most impressive thing I saw about Wes was that during one of the performances Warren began Chunga’s Revenge. It sounded wrong, and Warren stopped the band, asking what key Wes was playing in. He said that he was playing in D. “No, man, I play it in C,” Warren said, and he looked down at the floor at his set list, preparing to skip the song and go on to the next. Wes then said “No, I can do it in C,” and Warren asked him if he was sure, and he said yes. If you have ever played bass, especially a bass line of this caliber, you know that is not exactly a walk in the park, to take a song you have just learned and transpose it into another key. That takes years of playing, to develop an unerring ear for intervals and sound, almost to play it by feel. Not to mention that it was his first show with Warren, in front of a packed room, in New York City, with record company people and fans who had come from all over the country. He played it flawlessly. “Oh, we hadn’t even played it yet,” Wes says, laughing, meaning that they hadn’t even played it in rehearsal the day before, so Warren, Joe and Wes had never even played the song together before. “That was really surprising to hear it in a different key,” he says. “But that’s actually a really straightforward tune.”
In Los Angeles, Wes played at Tower Records, and later the ill-fated show at the Velvet Room.
“It’s a good thing you didn’t go to L.A….did you hear what happened there?” he asked, obviously referring to the Velvet Room. He has also had the opportunity to go to London and play with Warren at the show where Warren opened for Joe Satriani (with Steve Alexander on drums). “I was actually subbing for the guy who normally plays.” (Nick Beggs). Wes says he likes playing for Warren’s fans. “I love playing his music, and I like playing live, which I haven’t been doing very much of the past few years. If you think about Warren’s music, it’s like, guitar. Usually when you go to a show like that, you see the type of fans that are at a Satriani show or something like that, and it totally wasn’t that. It was a lot of teenage girls, which is really unusual for that type of music, but it’s not unusual for Duran Duran.”
Warren hasn’t played very many shows since then, but he had hoped to play some during 1997, if Duran Duran had released Medazzaland and toured. He had planned to play solo shows on his nights off, in small clubs with his own band. Unfortunately, since Duran Duran didn’t release the album or tour, this didn’t happen. We hope that if Warren ever gets to do solo shows in the U.S. again, he will hire Wes to play. But Wes is keeping busy. He’s been in a few bands in Los Angeles, “really freelancing, working with Ahmet Zappa a little bit, and another band called Sound Assembly, which is kind of an acid jazz rap band.” He has also done some music for television commercial work for Honda and ” a couple of little bumps for CNN.” He has also done some recording. “I’ve been recording for Cree Summers, she was on that show A Different World.” Wes also hopes that Warren will record another rock album. “I was asking him if he was going to record another album. I’d love it if he did; I’d love to be a part of that.”