Featured Artist: Leland Sklar
Interview by Mike Dimin
–– Leland Sklar needs no introduction. For over 30 years, 2000 recordings and world tours with everyone from James Taylor to Phil Collins, Lee continues to be one of the most in demand session players and sideman in the industry. The consummate bass player, musician, and professional, Lee was gracious enough to share some insights into his role in creating some of the greatest music of our time.
Thanks for joining us, Lee. Can you start off by telling us a little bit about how you discovered EA?
I was at the NAMM Show about 10 years ago. I don’t recall time as well as I use to, but as long as that does not reflect in my playing, I am OK with it. It was in Anaheim, Ca. I was wandering around with Brian Bromberg and he said Mike Tobias asked him to come by and check out his basses. He had a room at one of the hotels, so we went over there. When we got to the room, it was full of guys “poppin” and a “slappin.” Mike has always built beautiful instruments, but the thing that I did not get was, “Where the hell is the sound coming from?” Over on the bed were two guys just sittin’ there. It turns out one was Larry Ullman and the other John Dong. I looked around and finally found these two little speakers on the floor and asked what they were. I was blown away with the sound emanating from these. We talked a bit, I took a card and Brian and I moved on to more of the NAMM schmooze fest! I could not stop thinking about the speakers and after a week called Larry and told him I was blown away with his product and it was all I left the show thinking about. He sent me two of the single 8 inch speakers to try. I had a Walter Woods amp, so I hooked it up to the 8’s and WOW!!! I had a gig at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium coming up, so I took that set-up. It was nice to bring a bass rig in a suitcase. When I set up and the sound guy came around to hook up a DI he complained that he could not find the bass rig. I had to take him over and show it to him. He stared in disbelief and said, “You have to be kidding?” I played a note and he stood there staring. It was great and filled the stage with just the right level. Since then, I am a total believer in the EA gear and am always curious about what those maniacs will come up with next. Not only are they pushing the envelope, but licking it and putting a stamp on it.
You have, for a long time, been one of the most in demand session bassists and sidemen in the industry. Your bass lines, while not flashy, are always very musical and contribute to the unique flavor of each song. When you get a new tune, how do you approach creating a bass line for it? What are the steps that you take?
The first thing I do is LISTEN to the song. The song usually dictates my response. I try to be as visceral as possible and not intellectualize it too much. My gut is usually my best friend. It also depends on whether or not it is a band tracking date or an overdub date. If it is with a band, then we also feed off of each other as far as construction, licks, additions, etc. If it is just me, overdubbing, then there are constraints that I have to work within that will change my performance. But, first and foremost, listen to the song and try to realize it before you play it. Also, when I am in the studio, I will use my old reliable bass to get sounds, but I listen to the song before I make a decision as to which bass to play on a specific track. 4string, 5string, fretless, Hofner, acoustic, etc. to me are all dictated by the song.
You have played with many different artists, in many different styles. Do you have certain approaches for each artist or do you approach each song individually regardless of the artist?
I tend to approach each song on an individual basis. If there is a specific hook to the artists style I will try to incorporate that into my performance, but once again, that is usually part of the writing and arranging.
You have played a lot of laid back singer/songwriter music over the years. Even though the songs are slow, the bass lines still have a tremendous groove. How do you keep the motion on some of those wonderful ballads?
I do not believe that groove, tension, drive, etc. are predicated on tempo. Some of the best things I have played on are excruciatingly slow. Fast can be very easy, slow deeply emotional. I tend to feel myself almost biologically in that kind of performance. I feel breathing, pulse and use my whole being to keep time and groove.
Your lines are very melodic and your ability to move into the upper registers of your bass and back down are seamless. How do you approach that?
I hate to say such a thing, because it sounds like B.S., but I do not think about much when I play. When I go up and down the neck, I do this as a gut response to the moment and not with much premeditation. My philosophy is, ‘If it feels right, do it!’ If it is not right, someone else can bring it up. When I am doing overdub dates, I usually will give the producer 2 or 3 or 4 performances of the song with different spins on each one and that allows them to find what they feel works best. The curse of pro-tools. But many times, I am in early in the process, and when they are doing guitars, strings, etc. they may wish to reconstruct the bass a little for I was not hearing the full track when doing my parts. That is the joy of a full tracking date. God, do I miss those days when that was the rule and not the exception.
You use a lot of glissandos to move to different ranges of the neck. Is there something about the sound of the slide that you particularly like?
It is not the sound that I like so much, but rather accommodating some hand injuries and sloppy fingering technique. I do love a good gliss though. It can be very expressive. I am not one of the more accurate players in the biz, so I have found my own way.
In many songs, you play one “signature lick”, a tasty, melodic line that really adds a great deal of interest to the song. A line that the listener pines to hear again, but rarely happens. Michael Rhodes calls this “signing the song”. Is this something that you consciously approach and if so, what are the thoughts behind it?
I do NOT consciously look for the hook line. It seems to find me. As I said earlier, I do not think a great deal about my parts. I just allow myself to live the song. I have almost never played a song the same way twice. Many times I have been called back to do a song again for they rewrote or rearranged it in some way and I don’t have a clue what I did and have to relearn it. On some takes, I will play a line and then on a later take it does not come back, for it does not feel right at that moment. It is all individual performance to me. What Michael said is a good way of describing it though. As George Lucas said, ‘Use the Force Luke!’
You always have a great tone. Your tone is very round and full yet still retains a lot of punch and attack.
It is a stylistic thing I guess. On most of my instruments, I tend to use my tone controls all the way up and then roll a little of the neck pickup down, just for a little extra clarity. As with most players, I feel the tone is in the hands and not the bass. You find the sweet spots on the bass that best work for THAT SONG. I tend to move all over the neck and pickups to find what sounds best for the song and then accommodate it with finger technique. I do love a full, rich tone that creates a bed for the rest of the track to lay on, hopefully not sleep on.
You once told me that you would not like getting into the record industry today. From your perspective, as a bass player, how has the recording industry changed?
The biggest problem, from my perspective, with the industry is that it is such a big business now that decisions are made by lawyers and accountants as to who gets signed, sealed and delivered. The idea of artist development is a thing of the past. Very few artists will get a chance to do a second record if the first one does not do huge business. It is sad for most artists need time to find their voice. It usually does not happen from the get go. Many will be left by the wayside when they should have had another chance. And as a musician, I feel so proud and fortunate that I was here for the heyday of the recording musician. When I first started we were doing 4 sessions a day 6 days a week or more. There was so much being recorded. It was a time that I found thrilling and relish every moment of it. Also, having not done drugs or alcohol, I remember it ALL!
How have you been able to change with the new direction that the recording industry has taken?
I do not feel that I have changed. I guess that I have been enough of a chameleon that I flow with the times, without changing a lot of what I do. I listen to what is going on and do not distance myself from trends just because they are new and I…you know what I mean. Just be involved and a part of it. Don’t turn into an old fart!
You seem to really miss those days when the whole band tracked together. From your perspective as the bass player, how does the new “pro-tools curse” affect the music?
As for ProTools. My first inclination was the ‘old’ analog vs. digital argument. I have since given up on this one since so many of the studios I go to use mint Studer 24 track machines as doorstops. And the quality of engineers that can work with digital has gotten so much better. The real issue now is that there is a 50/50 point with it. For all the ease that it brings it also has allowed a lot of people into the business that in an analog world, would never be an artist. With pitch, time, key, etc. correction, it becomes, well, like seeing a believable T-Rex in a movie. Many times a producer will say, ‘That chorus was great. We’ll just paste it in to the other chorus spots!’ I always argue that each chorus should not be exactly the same, and that the song needs to develop and grow. It is a tough sell, because for to them, it is quicker to do it their way. After I leave, they might just go and paste it anyway, but that is their prerogative, but at least I left doing my best. Also, with ProTools, the cost of a home studio has gone down so much that many people have them, so they are more inclined to record one musician at a time. They don’t have the room at home and it is easier to work with one guy at a time when you do not have an overall concept of what you are doing. This effects end product, but as we distance ourselves from the old technology, this becomes the standard. PROGRESS! But the ease of working with/ saving performances and crafting material is very easy with ProTools so there is a plus side. You just have to line all things up and put them in their proper perspective as to the end result. Let’s just go out and kick some ass and have as much fun as we can. My God, we are playing music. It just does not get better than that.You once told me that of any band, you would have liked to play with Led Zeppelin. That seems a bit incongruous with what you are known for. What is it about Led Zeppelin’s music that attracts you?
It was funny, but ’till I met James Taylor and started working with him, I had no interest in folk music. I loved the Beatles, Cream, Hendrix, The Fudge, Moby Grape and so many of the rock bands of that era. That was what I always played in bands. James changed my life. He brought a totally new spin to the world of music and I am so proud of what we created together. It is like when we formed the Section, everyone thought we would be like the Eagles or something, yet we were a rock-fusion band. And then when I recorded Spectrum with Billy Cobham. I have always tried to visit all areas of the musical experience. As with my new group, Barefoot Servants. This is more of what I am about than most else of what I am known for. But, who would not want to be in Zeppelin?
You’ve spent a great deal of your life on the road. What is you most memorable (funny/poignant/irreverent) event of your life on the road?
Everyday on the road has fun and adventure. There have been so many moments that I relish. As guys always say, ‘You should write a book!’ That is the joy of the road. Totally unpredictable and insane. So many unique characters and adventures. ‘Spinal Tap’ is not far off…
Tell us a bit about your local Southern California Bar Band. It intrigues me that you would want to play local clubs after playing to tens of thousands on a major tour with Lyle Lovett or Phil Collins.
As for Barefoot Servants, it is comprised of Jon Butcher on guitar and vocals, Ben Schultz on guitars of all kinds, Neal Wilkinson on drums and myself. We did an album back in ’93 and it was wonderful. But, as most of this goes, it ran its course and we went our separate ways. We reconvened two years ago on an unrelated project and found the fires were still there. Ben had a home studio and we decided to go it again. Ben engineered and mixed the CD. He kicks ass as a many hatted hydra. Neal and I have been working with a French artist, Veronique Sanson, for the past 12 years so I was very happy to be doing a band with him. He is a MONSTER! I am very proud of the CD titled Barefoot Servants 2. Check out our website…. www.barefootservants.net. Good gear section in the gallery. I don’t know where this will ultimately lead, but I am happy as hell with the outcome and so far the response has been wonderful.
I know you own a lot of EA gear, what is your current live setup?
The gear I am using with Lyle Lovett, Phil Collins and Barefoot Servants is the iAmp800, 1X12, 2X10 set-up. Amazing!
Lee, tell us about your gear.
When on tour with both Lyle Lovett and Phil Collins I have been using my iAmp800 head, a NL210 and CxL112. Trading off with my iAmp 800/500 Combos, depending on the venues. I always try to keep my stage volume as low as I can get away with so that the house mixer can DO HIS JOB! I just want a full range sound that supports the rest of the live instruments and these rigs give me that. I have never been happier with a stage setup. It is rich and full without being invasive and overwhelming to the overall sound. Along with that, I use a Yamaha Sub-Kick in front of the CxL112 as a microphone, and a GrooveTube Brick mic-pre as my DI. No effects. And I run hardwire, not wireless. We A/B’d both and found the bass sound much better with wire. Thank god I am not running around the stage. As for my instrument, I am using my Dingwall fanned-fret 5string only. I have a duplicate backup, just in case, but this bass seems to meet all my needs live. I am not one for dragging around a half dozen basses and always changing. If the song was done with a fretless in the studio, I just try to emulate it stylistically. An arena can cover a multitude of sins. The most important thing is having a house mixer that you trust and has great ears. I am fortunate to have that with both Lyle and Phil. I am looking forward to getting out there with my band, Barefoot Servants, and enjoying the same thing as I am having with the current tours.
Thanks Lee, we truly appreciate your time and the love you’ve brought to your craft over the years!
Lee Sklar’s playing has been a mainstay on the music scene for 3 decades. Even if we did not know it was him, we heard his lines, we danced to his groove and perhaps, if lucky, we fell in love listening to the songs that were graced by his playing. Like many EA players, Lee has been instrumental in the design and development of EA amplifiers and cabinets. Just as we listened to his music, we, at EA, listened to Lee’s desires for the best bass amplification available.