John Legend, Kneebody bassist defies musical boundaries
By David Sands
December 30, 2015
Kaveh Rastegar walks between a lot of musical worlds.
Indie rock, R&B, jazz, hip-hop. You name it. The Grammy-nominated bassist certainly isn’t one to cloister himself away in any particular genre.
Rastegar might be most recognizable to pop fans for his work with R&B crooner John Legend and the famously incognito Australian songstress Sia; he plays bass with both of them, and serves as the latter’s music director.
His musical exploits hardly stop there, though. The 40-year-old is also a founding member Grammy-nominated jazz quintet Kneebody and the 70-piece hip-hop orchestra Dakah. Alongside guitarist Timothy Young and drummer Matt Chamberlain, he also brings down the bass for the Seattle-based rock and-roll power trio Thruster!
Artists he’s played upright or electric bass with include Jurassic 5, Laura Pausini, Beck, The Ditty Bops, Luciano Ligabue, The Calling, Sophie B. Hawkins, Colin Hay and the Antibalas Afro Beat Orchestra. As a composer, he’s brought his songwriting skills to bear for folks like Bruno Mars, Cee Lo Green, Kimbra, Meshell Ndegeocello and De La Soul.
FBPO’s Jon Liebman recently had the pleasure of speaking with the eclectic bassist about his upbringing, influences and fascinating ascendance in the music industry over the last few years.
Rastegar’s earliest years were spent in Montreal, Canada, where he was born. At the age of two, he relocated to the Denver area with his parents, who raised him in a decidedly bohemian musical environment.
“My parents kind of fell securely within that counter-cultural generation of the Sixties and Seventies with the politics and with the music,” he tells FBPO.
The sounds he heard during these early years came were quite diverse, including artists as varied as Stevie Wonder, Muddy Waters, Leon Russell, Jethro Tull and Peter Tosh. His parents split up when Rastegar was four.
Later, his mother started dating a musician named Mike Johnson, who is the founder of the avant-prog rock band Thinking Plague. When Kaveh was in elementary school, they were recording and releasing albums, as well as performing and opening for touring bands like Sonic Youth or Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
While Rastegar is now known for playing the bass, the saxophone was actually his first instrument. He picked the sax up at the urging of his jazz-loving father and learned how to wail on it in the public schools of Sheridan, CO. Around the age of 12, however, he started getting deep into American punk rock and that led him first to the acoustic guitar and then the bass.
Suddenly bass-heavy bands like Bad Brains, Black Flag and Suicidal Tendencies were on his radar. That and his already developed love of reggae helped push him bassward. Interestingly, he got into bass before he even owned one, playing the bass part to The Cure’s “Fascination Street” on an old acoustic guitar he had at the house until a string broke.
On his 13th birthday, his mother bought him a Fender Musicmaster bass from a classmate of his for $40. He took some rudimentary lessons from his stepdad, now separated from his mother, and taught himself the rest.
“I just kind of took off running,” he says. “just getting into every kind of bass player I could and just trying to learn stuff off the records.”
He remembers how polarized music scenes, especially punk, were when he was first getting started. Listening to The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Primus, however, did a lot to expand his musical horizons.
“I thought it was really cool as a young fan that someone like Flea would speak with equal reverence to Public Enemy and then the band Fear or Parliament or the Beatles,” he says.
“[And then] Primus came out,” he adds. “I loved Les Claypool. Those guys would talk about Larry Graham, and I just jumped into Graham Central Station. And, of course, I jumped into Sly and the Family Stone. I jumped into the Meters—George Porter—and then it really blossomed from there.”
For a while, Rastegar was part of a small circle of musician friends, but that dried up by his junior year in high school. Luckily, he happened to go to a local music concert in Denver one Saturday and saw a performance by a band called the Psychodelic Zombiez. The experience totally blew him away. A week later, he went to see Primus at a local venue and ended up introducing himself to the band’s singer, Mike Friesen. They eventually became good friends, and Friesen helped connect him to a band looking for a bassist.
Now plugged in, Rastegar dove into Denver’s vibrant music scene for a few years, performing around the city and in nearby Colorado ski towns. At one point, he was playing in around 10 bands of various styles, though he was barely eeking out enough money to afford living in a $300 apartment.
“I was kind of dumb enough to think that I had made it, and it’s that kind of mentality that has propelled me through the years,” he says. “Just as long as you’re safe and you have a roof over your head and you’re eating, you’re good, especially in those early years.”
Eventually, Rastegar decided to take his musical studies to the next level by going to college. First he attended University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, where he started learning upright bass for the first time. After two years, though, he transferred to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester NY, where his friend Shane Endsley—who now plays trumpet in Kneebody—was studying. Rastegar graduated from Eastman in 2000 and then relocated to the City of Angels with several future members of Kneebody.
The experimental electric jazz quartet came together in 2001 and has since released several albums and live recordings. The band was nominated in 2009 for a Grammy in the “Classical Crossover” category for 12 Songs of Charles Ives, an album they made with vocalist Theo Bleckmann. The group’s newest album, Kneedelus, a collaboration with L.A. beatmaker Alfred “Daedelus” Darlington, was released in November on the Brainfeeder label.
Asked about how he made the leap from relatively unknown musician to hot session player and songwriter, Rastegar says he started upping his game around seven years ago when his Kneebody bandmates Ben Wendel and Nate Wood both moved to New York.
“I remember second guessing myself,” Rastegar says, “Like s**t: ‘Am I supposed to move to New York too?'”
“I made the decision,” he continues, “catalyzed by that, to really invest in a lot of writing, to capitalize on relationships I have with writers or artists or A&R people from labels I’ve known since I’ve been here in L.A. and kind of push myself as a songwriter and co-writer. So that’s how that world started up.”
So what gear does the multi-faceted Rastegar use to make his music? His main electric bass is a 1964 Fender P-bass that he bought at Willies American Guitars in St. Paul, Minnesota. He also owns a black ‘75 P-bass, another 80’s P-bass, several old Gibsons, including an EB-2 and an EB-O, a Hofner bass and a couple of “weird” Italian basses. His upright is an 3/4-scale carved German bass that was imparted to him by Joe Lopez, the father of Josh Lopez, the guitarist of the Psychodelic Zombiez.
Kaveh relies on GHS Bass Boomer strings for his instruments.
“Those have been the strings that I’ve used since that first bass that my mom got for me,” he says. “I’ve tried lots of different strings, but that’s always been what I’ve gravitated towards, and they’re great.”
Aguilar is Rastegar’s preferred brand for amps. He became a fan of the company after using their gear during a 2007 tour of Australia with Colin Hay. “That was my introduction to Aguilar,” Rastegar tells FBPO. “I’ve always loved their amps.”
His upright bass pickup is a David Gage Realist. For effects, he uses Boss, Aguilar, Roland and Line 6 pedals.
Rastegar is in a pretty good place. In addition to his work with Sia and John Legend, he’s busy with a bunch of session work for movies, records and commercials.
At the moment, he’s looking forward to a U.S. tour with Kneebody and Daedelus in support of their latest album Kneedelus, as well as contributing songwriting and bass playing to De La Soul’s upcoming record which will be out in the spring of 2016. He’s also continuing to write and record with various artists.
Rastegar is appearing as a featured musician, playing bass in the Will Ferrell/Mark Wahlberg film Daddy’s Home. Recently he also acted with John Legend, alongside Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, in a film called La La Land that’s slated to be released next summer.
Perhaps the coolest project right now for Rastegar, though, is an upcoming album of his own making.
“It’s called Where Do You Take Me? I’ve written the songs. I do a lot of singing and playing guitar [and] I’m playing bass on everything,” he says. “That’s almost done, and I’m excited.”
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