Ex-Conan house bassist talks on the evolution of late night shows, his father Jymie’s legacy, and what’s next
June 21, 2021
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
Mike Merritt might be most recognizable for playing bass in the house bands of several incarnations of Conan O’Brien’s late night talk show. But that’s just scratching the surface of his multifaceted career. Over the years, the Philly native has rocked out with Chuck Berry, Chubby Checker, and Bruce Springsteen; toured and recorded blues with Johnny Copeland and Son Seals; and supported singers like Keely Smith, Joan Osborne and Phoebe Snow. He’s also been a member of Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramblers Band and the Howlin’ Wolf All-Star Tribute Band. Merritt currently plays with Rock Candy Funk Party and The Paul Tillotson Love Trio. His father, the late Jymie Merritt, was a veteran sideman for a variety of well-known jazz, blues and rock artists, as well as the leader of his own jazz ensemble, the Forerunners.
FBPO: I remember bumping into you at NAMM a few years ago, and you told me you had some things to say about the state of late night TV. Want to start there?
MM: It’s been interesting what has happened. The function of the shows themselves and the music within the shows has definitely changed over the last several years. Especially the last political cycle, where we saw a lot of the shows move away from being a variety comedy-type of format to more political content. Conan somewhat deliberately avoided jumping on that bandwagon. He would address things that happened in a day’s news in the monologue involving the former president, but then he would go on to doing his usual sketch comedy things that weren’t necessarily politically related. The biggest development, separate from the politics, was that Conan went down to a half-hour show in 2018, and the music was no longer a part of his show.
FBPO: I remember it well.
MM: That was a big change because we had been doing that show for 25 years as the house band, and then they did a format change. They were very gracious about it, and they were very kind to us in so many ways. I still have a lot of respect for Conan and his operation. He’s evolving within the format, since he’s the longest serving host of this type of show, and he’s changing and anticipating where things are going. Once he’s done with his half show with TBS, he’s going to be going to HBO Max and doing a one-hour weekly variety show, starting sometime at the end of this year, early next year. As to whether music is part of that thing, I do not know.
FBPO: Now that life seems to be coming back to a sort of “new normal,” how do you think the TV show gigs with the bands will be affected, long-term?
MM: You know, it’s interesting. The function of what the bands would do within those shows has changed over the years. The shows themselves, their function has changed. Before social media, before 24-hour news cycles, not even going all the way back to Johnny Carson, even David Letterman in his heyday of the 1980s, you got a sense that you were getting something right when it was happening, even though it was taped. But nowadays, we have so much access to everything at our fingertips that we know everything now. So, the function of the monologue and the function of that comedy is changed because we’re not getting the reveal from them. We already know what it is, so they have to jump on other things to keep themselves relevant.
FBPO: How about the role of the music, specifically?
MM: The music in the shows, what’s happened is the trend – and I saw it happening when we were working – was that the networks and production companies, et cetera, are very reluctant to… the use of third-party music has become a source of tension because of what it does to the budget of the shows. When you’re playing third-party music, you have to pay for the publishing, and you have to pay for the use of that material on air. That’s a big issue with a lot of these shows. You see a lot more shows using generic things that are written specifically for the bands to play that are not third-party things. That’s a big trend. You’re less likely to see a comedy sketch about stump the band. We used to spoof it on Conan and do soundalikes of songs that were real. We had a comedy sketch where we did like that, but that’s less likely a type of thing you’re going to see on the shows going out. The relevance factor is big for artists that are breaking new material or promoting something. I mean, they still serve that function well when an artist is dropping a new song or whatever, so that’s still part of the mix. What the house band does separately from that, that has definitely evolved from my time on TV.
FBPO: I was so sorry to hear that we lost your dad last year, Jymie Merritt. He was a true bass legend, a true music legend. How would you like him to be remembered?
MM: I’d like him to be remembered as someone who was always searching and always moving forward. Jymie was a musician’s musician. He was a bass player’s bass player. He, in later years, thought of himself not just as a bass player, but as a complete musician, as a composer and an innovator, somebody who was always pushing the envelope. He liked to engage the musicians and engage the audience, to lift everyone up to a different level. His music was very challenging, for the musicians and also challenging for the listeners. He was very serious about that and his own personal music. Unfortunately, he was unable to record and release an album of his own music during his own lifetime. I think I’d like to see him remembered as somebody who was always striving to move forward as a creative force, as a composer, as someone who can inspire musicians to push themselves forward and, in turn, inspire listeners to be ready to face the unknown when it comes to what musicians are doing in front of you.
FBPO: You talked about music that’s challenging for the player, which I can understand, but challenging for the listener? Should a listener have to burn a lot of calories when hearing music?
MM: Well, you make an interesting point there, but if you think about pure jazz in terms of jazz players who would push the envelope, be the state of the art on their instrument, it was always a challenge. If you listen to Coltrane in his later period, that music is somewhat challenging to the average jazz listener. There are a lot of jazz listeners that may not favor that period of his musical expression.
FBPO: It’s not for everybody.
MM: Exactly. But those things always filter down through the different musics that are there and what was considered kind of out there is considered mainstream. I’ll give you an example. The animated movie, Soul that was released last year. There’s one scene in that movie where a character flashes an album. The album is Drums Unlimited by Max Roach, and my father played on that record. It featured one of his compositions called “Nommo,” and it was written in 7/4. The album was released in 1966, and at that time for musicians to play in 7/4 time was somewhat challenging. Now, it’s not as challenging. So, that’s an example of something where it was pushing the envelope a little bit, but all these years later, it’s very common to play in odd time signatures. I thought that was really cool that in the mainstream Pixar animated movie, there’s a reference to Drums Unlimited by Max Roach, a record that my dad played on. That was really very cool to see.
FBPO: I also remember you telling me about your dad’s friends that would just stop by the house, guys like John Coltrane! Has that finally sunk in after all these years what a big deal that was?
MM: Yes, it has, and when I mention it to people, they’re like, “Wow!” But I was very, very young and didn’t grasp what was going on. Only years later when I was a teenager and I was hanging out with my dad, and I would meet other musicians that were his colleagues and contemporaries, people like Freddie Hubbard, and so on. This is before I was even a musician, and I kind of knew who these people were, and they just had the most positive things to say about him and his playing and his musicianship. I got to meet Lee Morgan and all the guys, Billy Harper, all those people. Then I started realizing who these people are. But when I was a little kid, I had no idea. I had absolutely no idea that it was Bobby Timmons stopping by the house that day. No idea.
FBPO: What is keeping you busy these days? Are you still doing Rock Candy Funk Party?
MM: Rock Candy Funk Party is an on-again, off-again situation. We never were in a situation where we could actually go out and do tour dates. We basically have done four albums, one live album and three studio albums, and we sort of do this every other year or so. We do a long run of dates, the Baked Potato in LA. The last one we did was in the end of 2019 right before they shut down, which was ironically, I think one of the best times we ever played together as a group. But everybody has various things that they’re doing. Joe Bonamassa is touring with his own blues rock outfit. That keeps him busy. Our keyboard player, Renato Neto, lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil. We’re trying to get everybody’s calendars to sync up. That’s a major accomplishment, just getting all of us to be on the same page where we’re available all at the same time. Nothing on the calendar as far as Rock Candy goes, but I just did a very interesting gig in Nashville a couple of weeks ago. The Grand Ole Opry was doing a tribute for Billy Gibbons and inducting him into the Grand Ole Opry Hall of Fame. I was asked to be in the house band on that particular gig. It was a tribute, so there were a lot of guest stars, a lot of country and blues artists like Jimmie Vaughan, Lucinda Williams, Larkin Poe, Travis Tritt, Brad Paisley, Eric Church… This thing was taped for broadcast on AXS TV. They’re going to air it this summer. That was sort of a comeback thing because everyone on stage and crew had been vaccinated and they had a 50% capacity in the house. Playing in front of 2,500 people with this great ensemble tribute to Billy Gibbons, that was just a wonderful experience. We all felt like, “Hey, we’re starting to come back. Things are coming back!”
FBPO: Tell me about your gear.
MM: Well, as far as basses go, I’ll tell you what I did … I pulled out a Nash P bass that I got several years ago, and I used it on this Billy Gibbons gig. I’m just getting back into that sound. I’ve been a Jazz bass guy for so many years. It’s clean, sort of like New York studio vibe. You think of guys like Marcus Miller and Will Lee, and the clean studio playing, the Jazz bass sound, the active electronic kind of thing. That was my template for a lot of years. Now I pulled out a PJ bass and the P bass. I’m kind of getting into that sound and dirtying up the sound a little bit when I’m doing my blues and the rootsy kind of things. That’s shifting onto that kind of instrument. The Nash P bass is getting a lot of use these days. I’m still an Aguilar guy. I’ve been working with those folks for over 20 years. The DB 751 is the Cadillac of bass amps, and with their SL 410x, that combination, I could use it on any gig anywhere, and it’s just fine. It’s giving me exactly what I need.
FBPO: What kind of strings do you play?
MM: D’Addario’s, I’m using their NYXLs, 45 to 105s. I use their flatwounds, the D’Addario flatwounds, nickel wounds, on the P bass. My P bass sound, it’s got to be flatwounds or nothing. Roundwounds and the P bass just don’t cut it. My dad had one of those first-generation P basses from like 1951 or ’52.
FBPO: What advice can you impart to somebody who wants to learn to play bass?
MM: I think the most important thing is to never lose touch with what inspired you to get involved with playing music, wherever the inspiration was. If it was a particular song or a particular genre or a particular player, or a certain record, the way somebody’s bass sounded on a record… If that’s what makes your hair stand up, go after that, pursue whatever that is because the inspiration will pull you forward. I read, you had an interview with someone recently who talked about playing something you don’t know, just make noise with the instrument or whatever.
FBPO: Alex Lofoco.
MM: I get where he’s coming from, but my take on that is find what inspired you. The first time you heard some song or play or whatever that made you thought, “I want to do that. I want to play that bass line. I want to play a song. I want to play that song.” Whatever that is, follow that, follow that inspiration because that can pull you through whatever difficulty you might have in physically learning a part. It could be a very difficult part, or it could be very simple part, but when you have trouble interpreting it, never lose sight of what inspired you in the first place. That’s the most valuable thing. For me, that’s always been the case. When I heard Cream, Wheels of Fire, the live album, and I heard this power trio and the way Jack Bruce played bass. I never heard anybody playing bass like that before, and that was the big inspiration to me. I’m always trying to figure out what he’s doing, and copying his riffs, and that inspiration. It drove me to do more than just copy what he was doing, but to explore things on the bass and figure out things on my own and push myself forward. That would be my word of advice, inspiration.
FBPO: What else would you like to do that you haven’t already accomplished?
MM: Well, musically speaking, I feel indebted to what my dad has left me in terms of legacy and his own music, and a lot of his music that’s been unrecorded. I’d like to tackle his music in the future and continue what he called his Forerunners concept, put my own imprint on it, and delve forward with that. Combined with that, explore some of my own ideas as a bass player and as a musician and my own ideas, incorporate a lot of different styles, mostly blues and soul and rock and things that really inspired me, and to pursue writing some original material that reflects how I’ve been dealing with those different genres. As a freelancer, you have all these different things floating around all these influences and things, and you just try to mash them all together and come up with some cohesive, original music. That’s kind of what I want to do.
See Jon’s blog, with key takeaways from this interview here.