Thomas Drayton – "Growing up Groovy"

Thomas Drayton

How many people do you know can say this?

“My dad used to play bass and guitar for Motown.”

And follow it up with this –

“He wrote for Motown as well. He wrote the song Life of the Party for The Jackson 5, Love Hangover for Diana Ross and the Supremes and then some stuff for Lenny Williams. That was my childhood – just listening to all of that stuff and really taking it in. I don’t know, I guess I got more exposure than most people (laughs) to that stuff!”

The list would be undoubtedly short; if it exists at all! But for Thomas Drayton, that was life.

Hailing from Portland, Oregon; Drayton began playing the bass when his family uprooted to L.A. Before long, he graduated from playing in the after school group at his church in West Covina to playing the main services. From there, Drayton has rarely sat still.

For the past year, Thomas has been touring incessantly with Childish Gambino, the dynamic alter ego of actor Donald Glover. We recently caught up with Thomas as Childish Gambino played a packed Summer Stage in Central Park, NYC.


So… you were absorbing some good stuff growing up!

(Laughs) Yeah man, it was inevitable! My parents are both musically inclined – my Mom was a singer and dancer, so that just created this artistic, very musically inclined environment while I was growing up.

My dad always had instruments lying around and most of the stuff that I ended up listening to was from The Jackson 5. And listening to that, there was always that strong, prominent bass line courtesy of James Jamerson and all of the cats who played on those records.  You hear that stuff and it sticks with you! Even though, I had not decided to actually play an instrument at that time.

What brought you to the bass?

Thomas Drayton’s touring rig

Thomas Drayton Gear

Get Down On It!

"I use all of the Aguilar pedals onstage except for the Filter Twin.

I’m using two AG 500’s with two GS 410’s and two GS 112’s.

One head is controlling the 410’s and the other is powering the 112’s. The bass signal goes through all four cabinets while the synth goes through two. It is simple but complicated at the same time! I love it!"

What really did it was when I moved from Oregon to California, I didn’t have any friends! I was the new kid in school and it was hard to develop friends so music was one of my only friends. It started as a way for me to occupy my time and actually have some fun and it turned into this passion – this love. It just naturally happened – the bass seemed “right” to me. 

And who were some of your influences?

The Jacksons Destiny and Triumph albums have some of the most killin’ basslines!
I would say of course James Jamerson and Louis Johnson because that man can slap like it’s nobody’s business (laughs) and comes up with some of the greatest lines too! Right now, what I’m listening to is the Stevie Wonder album, For Once in my Life. That, Innervisions and Talking Book – those have some great, great songs on them!

As far as what I’m listening to now for bass players… Ethan Farmer man (laughs)! I’m trying to steal as many basslines as possible from him! That’s my boy! Ethan and Thundercat both have solos albums that are phenomenal! They really take their own approach to the bass and it causes you to open your mind a little more.

And who are some of the artists that you have played with?

I’ve had the pleasure to play for a number of artists that I never thought I’d be able to play for. Van Hunt - as far as his approach to music – is my hero! The way that he writes is genius and his basslines are amazing! I had the opportunity to play for Faith Evans and Colbie Caillat. I got to play double bass with Gorillaz at Coachella in 2010.  Childish Gambino is my main gig right now.

I like to do gigs that challenge me in a creative way. With some artists you are playing to tracks and in that you think, “Well, I can stick to what this is or I can make it… me”. And that’s something that I’ve found to be extremely important. I don’t want to sit here and just play the lines – if you want me to, I can but if you want me to be creative and develop the live show a little more; I need to throw myself into it. You should be able to throw yourself into any musical situation – no matter what genre it is. Just take it and make it a part of you - put yourself into the music.

What is something invaluable that you have learned from working with these artists?

Developing you own sound is one of the most important things I’ve learned over the years. Pino Palladino has his own sound - you can tell it’s him right away! Derrick Hodge from The Robert Glasper Experiment has his own thing. These musicians have created a sound for themselves that is desirable, that makes people say, “I want this person playing on my album.” That is why they stay so busy – they have developed something that is unique to them! They found something that is different about them and embraced it. And people want that.

How do you approach the music for Childish Gambino?

With Hip-Hop, it is still very limiting sometime where I’m playing the same four chords the whole song, so how do you do something different? In my opinion, when you come to a live show, nobody wants to hear the album verbatim. You don’t want to hear exactly how the album sounds – and this all depends on what your musical director is telling you to do but for this situation, the first couple of shows were very much, “this is how the album is”. As we continued to do more shows, and listening to the album over and over and over and over, you start to figure out, “what can I do here? How can I make this more interesting? How can I make this feel more like me without making it feel less like the song?”

That’s kind of the way that I approach it, “how can I make the song more interesting”. And as far as the people who come to appreciate the music as well as the lyrics, how can I do something different here? How can I grab their attention, without distracting? It’s finding the balance between being yourself and creative and overplaying and taking away from all that stuff. You want to draw a little bit of attention but just enough that catches people for a moment as opposed to embellishing the entire song. Nobody wants to hear that!

Click here for more about Thomas

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