Nathan East


Ace bassist Nathan East's studio is part of Panoply Pictures.

Photo: Copyright Gentry

Nathan East gazes out the window of his personal studio on the 22nd floor of the Universal Tower, a slate-gray monolith that dominates the landscape where the Cahuenga Pass opens into the San Fernando Valley. It's a stunning view, especially after dark, which is when East prefers to work here in his “workstation,” as he calls it, with the lights of North Hollywood and Burbank glittering off into the distance and a parade of red taillights snaking around to the west on the Ventura Freeway. For this A-list bass player, the view has a practical aspect: He lives 10 miles up the freeway in Tarzana, and he can tell at a glance what the traffic will be like on the drive home. Although he has a well-appointed studio in his house, East opts to handle certain projects in this high-tech aerie.

The 14×18 room where the renowned session musician, Fourplay member and longtime Eric Clapton sideman does his thing is part of the busy post-production house Panoply Pictures, run by East's partner, Dave Riggs. The two share a passion for high-speed prop planes and became friends when Riggs was renting East's state-of-the-art Lancair 4-P, a model of which sits on a stand next to one of the Dynaudio Acoustics Air Series powered monitors.

“We set a couple of world speed records in this plane,” East says with pride. Their friendship led to a growing interest on East's part in Riggs' field, and three years ago, the musician moved in and began picking up Panoply projects, primarily composing and performing the music for movie and DVD trailers (including The Bourne Identity, Red Dragon and Die Another Day), and updating the opening theme for the ABC soap opera General Hospital.

“I like to work,” says East, “so we made a deal that when Dave needs music, I'll be around for him. Clients come in, listen to the music and tell us what they want to change. The job is either creating music or coming up with a more exciting version of what they have already,” he says of the trailer projects. Riggs reciprocated by co-producing and editing East's instructional DVD, The Business of Bass.

Along with the TV and movie-trailer work, East uses the studio to do overdubs and fixes on recording projects, as well as for writing and demoing songs on guitar, bass and the brushed-aluminum Yamaha Motif keyboard that slides out from underneath his Sony DMX-R100 digital console and Mac G5. Lately, he's even been doing some tracking. “I use the Big Fish Audio drum loops they've been nice enough to send me,” East explains. “With Spectrasonics Stylus RMX and all these great sounds that are available, I can create some pretty good drum parts, so if I get a good keyboard player up here and I'm playing bass, there's a rhythm track right there with guitar overdub; I play a little guitar. I also learned Pro Tools, Logic and how to use the gear to get my ideas down. But like the saying goes, it ain't the toys, it's the noise. I just try to get as much spirit down on the hard drive as possible.”

In the past decade and a half, East's life has broken down into what he and his bandmates call “Fourplay years” and “non-Fourplay years”; for him, the latter have generally coincided with the “Clapton years,” which have kept him from home. With two young children, East hopes to spend more time in Southern California — another benefit of his diversification plan. “I've been beatin' up the road for the last 20 years,” he says, “and my kids would like daddy to be around a little more. I enjoy producing, so I'm taking my shot at it. Since I've put this place together, some good calls have come in. I consider this my new headquarters.”

He's presently working on a Billie Holiday tribute album intended to serve as a companion piece to a biography of the legendary singer, scheduled to be published by Random House in July, the 50th-anniversary edition of Lady Sings the Blues. He's spent the past three days at Castle Oaks in Calabasas, Calif., cutting vocals with Boz Scaggs, Shelby Lynne and Renee Olstead; Rickie Lee Jones will be next.

East estimates that he'll do 15 to 20 percent of his work in this room, with the rest broken up among the Fourplay album and tour, session work and record production, along with that solo album he's wanted to make for the past 20 years. The move into Panoply, followed by an investment in the company (he's now a minority partner), exemplifies the approach East is taking in response to seismic shifts in the business environment. “I'm trying to balance my career,” he explains. “I stay in open-architecture mode. Anybody who's survived in this business realizes that you have to come at it from a lot of angles. You either have to be on a great gig, selling a lot of records, writing, producing or performing. I'm very fortunate because all of those things combined is how I earn my living. My strategy has been to diversify, and I'm very happy that I did because now I'm not dependent on any one thing.”

Bud Scoppa is Mix's Los Angeles editor.