Le­Land Sk­lar

The list of hit albums he’s played on is even longer than his beard – but you won’t meet a more down-to-earth leg­end than ses­sion bass supremo Lee Sk­lar. Gui­tarists of the world take heed: Lee has some ad­vice for you, and it works as well for six strings

- Words Jamie Dick­son Pho­tog­ra­phy Joseph Branston Productivity · Ageism · BDSM · Pop Music · Lifehacks · Discrimination · Human Rights · Society · Music · Ray Charles · Rod Stewart · James Taylor · London · David A. Stewart · Jackson Browne · James I of Scotland · Jimi Hendrix · Buffalo · Los Angeles · Westwood · Leland Sklar · Peter Asher · Danny Kortchmar · Ten Years After · Jack Bruce · Stephen Stills

If you’ve switched on the ra­dio at any point in the past 30 years, chances are you’ve heard Lee Sk­lar’s bass play­ing. The man has played on over 2,000 albums – let’s just let that sink in for a mo­ment – and has waxed hits with ev­ery­one from Ray Charles to Rod Ste­wart, plus over a dozen mile­stone albums with long-time mu­si­cal com­padre James Tay­lor.

When we meet Lee, he’s poised to play a show with singer-song­writer Ju­dith Owen at Lon­don’s trendy Hospi­tal club, owned by Dave Ste­wart. To in­di­cate how lit­tle Lee’s be­he­moth ca­reer has af­fected his sense of hu­mour, we’ve only been chat­ting for a few min­utes when he ropes us in to his on­go­ing project to take por­traits of ev­ery­one he en­coun­ters on his trav­els, from mega stars to room ser­vice, ‘flip­ping him the bird’ – oth­er­wise known as giv­ing some­one the mid­dle-finger salute… We duly oblige, of course, and Lee kindly re­turns the favour dur­ing our pho­tog­ra­phy ses­sion for this fea­ture (in case you’re won­der­ing). De­spite his pen­chant for a rib­ald ges­ture, Lee’s one of the most in­tel­li­gent, thought­ful com­men­ta­tors we’ve met on what it takes, mu­si­cally, to trans­form a good song into an all-time hit and how to be­come a bet­ter, more re­spon­sive player. We join Lee to try to put our finger on it…

Tay­lor Made

“I never thought I was go­ing to be a stu­dio mu­si­cian. I was in col­lege study­ing art and sci­ence. I was ei­ther go­ing to be a med­i­cal il­lus­tra­tor or an oceanog­ra­pher. That’s re­ally where I was headed. All of a sud­den my whole life changed when I met James Tay­lor, but I had to learn real fast how to be a stu­dio mu­si­cian, be­cause sud­denly I was in the stu­dio ev­ery day. I was re­ally, re­ally lucky.

“Peter Asher in­sisted our names ap­pear on the records. Be­fore that, there weren’t very many records that had peo­ple’s names on them. Sud­denly, when James be­came this huge hit – he’s on the cover of Time mag­a­zine, he’s the dar­ling of the me­dia – peo­ple could pick up his LP and look on the back and see Le­land Sk­lar, Russ Kunkel, Danny Kortch­mar… all our names. When they would get a guy like Jack­son Browne, they would say, ‘We want him to have that James kind of vibe,’ so they would call us.”

Go­ing For A Song

“I’ve al­ways con­sid­ered my­self a song player. The song re­ally is every­thing; the song dic­tates to me what I need to do. I was for­tu­nate that when I met James I was only in rock bands. I was into Cream and Hen­drix and Ten Years Af­ter, and then all of a sud­den I end up with a guy who’s this com­pletely sen­si­tive singer-song­writer, acous­tic gui­tar player.

“The in­ter­est­ing thing, for me, was that un­like most of the guys – like the Paul Si­mons and so many of those guys – is that James has a style of gui­tar play­ing that’s so com­pre­hen­sive. He’s con­stantly play­ing basslines with his thumb. I had to fig­ure out, what am I go­ing to do with this guy? Be­cause he’s al­ready cov­ered the bass. It re­quired me to think a lit­tle bit differentl­y. Even though I al­ways felt like a melodic bass player, be­cause it harkens back to McCart­ney and Jack Bruce and play­ers like that, this re­ally took it to an­other level. So, when I would lis­ten to a song I would just try to find what the song wants.

“I was also for­tu­nate that pe­riod of time was pre-dig­i­tal: it was pre-clicks and drum ma­chines and all that, so we never felt that it was a hin­drance to have songs that sped up dur­ing the cho­rus and then pulled back. You did what felt right and let the singer carry it. Now, some of the singer-song­writ­ers were not that com­pe­tent as mu­si­cians, and they re­ally de­pended on the play­ers to help cre­ate what they needed. But oth­ers of them were re­ally, re­ally strong play­ers, and you al­lowed their per­for­mance to dic­tate what you were go­ing to do.”

Stills Life

“I was al­ways a huge Buf­falo Spring­field and CSN fan, so to be able to do some stuff with Stephen Stills was re­ally great. It was dead of win­ter, so we were stuck in the stu­dio pretty much. You walked out­side and you were in a snow drift, but it was great. Stephen re­ally had his own fo­cus and what he wanted to do on this stuff – as com­pared with James, who would just sit and play his gui­tar and we would cre­ate the parts around him. Once in a while, he would come up with a thought on stuff, but for the most part he let us run with what we thought was right. Whereas Stephen wants spe­cific parts and ideas. He wasn’t afraid to grab your in­stru­ment out of your hand and show you what he wanted on it, which can be ex­as­per­at­ing at times – but I look at it as: it’s his project. I want him to be happy.

“Stephen and I are still friends. I’ve worked on stuff over the years with him, but he’s very in­tense. You’ve got to be ready for Stephen when you work with him. I’ve worked with ev­ery kind of per­son­al­ity in this busi­ness, so I sub­or­di­nate that stuff. I go, ‘Look guys, we don’t have to go to din­ner af­ter this. Let’s just make the best record we can and then see you later.’”

Fol­low The Leader

“I’ve al­ways felt as an ac­com­pa­nist you’re not drag­ging the artist along, you’re sit­ting right be­hind them and fol­low­ing their lead. Like when we’re cut­ting with Ju­dith Owen, we’re not cut­ting to clicks or any­thing like that. You’re go­ing for a per­for­mance and not: ‘We’re go­ing to as­sem­ble this later. We’ve got 20 takes of that song and now we’re go­ing to sit for two weeks, and cut and paste it all to­gether.’ This is re­ally hon­est per­for­mance ma­te­rial.

“That’s how I’ve al­ways ap­proached these things. I lis­ten to the song and think, ‘What does it need?’ If it only needs whole notes, I’m re­ally good with that. I don’t want peo­ple to be hear­ing bass parts in­de­pen­dently of the song. I want that bass part to be an in­te­gral part of the song, and not just a guy show­ing off his chops. That’s a tough thing in this day and age. There again, I do tons of projects where we are play­ing to dead-on clicks and every­thing is com­pletely grid­ded out. I don’t have a prob­lem with that, ei­ther. As a stu­dio mu­si­cian, you re­ally have to sub­or­di­nate your ego about things. Ev­ery day I walk into a dif­fer­ent kind of sit­u­a­tion, when I’m do­ing stu­dio work.”

Tak­ing On Toto

“For me, the re­ally chal­leng­ing jobs are things like when I went out with Toto a few years ago. They called me and it was five days be­fore the tour started. I had to learn their show in five days. That kind of stuff is chal­leng­ing, where you’ve got to hun­ker down and just fo­cus on ma­te­rial. The tour I just fin­ished with them, there were no re­hearsals, so I had to learn the show, and the first time I ever got to play the show was on stage in Brus­sels. The only re­hearsal I had was a cou­ple of min­utes at sound­check. That kind of stuff is stress­ful, be­cause you want it to be great and you’re also step­ping into a seat where a guy’s been play­ing for the past cou­ple of years, and play­ing the shit out of it.

“For the most part, while stu­dio work can be chal­leng­ing, it’s never been one of these things that’s re­ally dif­fi­cult. Once in a while you get called in on a project and you feel you’re a lit­tle bit over your head on it. I’m pretty hon­est about these things. If I think there’s a guy who I think would be bet­ter on the al­bum and I show up there I’ll say, ‘Why don’t we just call so-and-so and have them come in?’ If there’s a ton of slap­ping and stuff, I’m not great at that. So, rather than me fak­ing it I go, ‘Why don’t you call this guy? Be­cause he eats that stuff for break­fast ev­ery day. It’ll turn out bet­ter.’”

Duty Calls

“One of the things I’ve al­ways thought about is when that phone rings you have two op­tions: you can say yes or no. If you say yes, there are obli­ga­tions that come with that ‘yes’. You want it to be the best project it can be, and I may not al­ways agree with the process that they’re do­ing, or I think there could have been a bet­ter take or some­thing like that. It’s not my call. I have to go in and do the best job I can for what they want.”

On Dif­fi­cult Chem­istry

“There have been peo­ple that, mu­si­cally, I dread. If I walk in and I see their gear in the room, I know it’s go­ing to be like pulling teeth that day. They’re great play­ers, it’s just for some rea­son we don’t gel or it doesn’t feel right, or their con­cept of what a song needs to be is so dif­fer­ent than mine. You try to mas­sage that the best that you can, just be­cause at the end of the day it’s not about that per­son or me, it’s about the artist. They’re liv­ing and dy­ing by that day. So, you

“I never thought I was go­ing to be a stu­dio mu­si­cian… I was ei­ther go­ing to be a med­i­cal il­lus­tra­tor or an oceanog­ra­pher. All of a sud­den my whole life changed when I met James Tay­lor”

do the best you can and you try to work and work the stuff out. There are other times where if some­body calls me and go, ‘Is there a key­board player you could rec­om­mend?’ I know who I’m not go­ing to rec­om­mend. That’s the only thing you can do at that point is have a ‘do-not-play-with’ list. But it’s a very short list. It’s like life. There are al­ways go­ing to be those few pant-loads that you just go, ‘No, please not him.’”

Cre­at­ing ‘Franken­stein’

“For some rea­son I ended up with a ’62 Pre­ci­sion Bass neck. I’m not a P-Bass guy. I like a jazz bass. I had a ’62 Jazz Bass. The great wa­ter­ing hole in Los An­ge­les for mu­si­cians, in the old days, was West­wood Mu­sic. Fred Walecki owned the place and his main re­pair guy was a guy named John Car­ruthers. I ended up with this neck and I thought, ‘Gosh, I should do some­thing with it. It’s a re­ally good neck.’

“This is when Charvel first came out do­ing re­place­ment parts. They were in an area called San Dimas, which wasn’t that far from me, so I went there. I looked and there was a stack of these older blank P Bass bod­ies sit­ting there. I just picked each one up and I hung them from a piece of wire and just hit them. Just one of them went ‘boom’ and so I said, ‘I’ll take this one.’ I then took it to John and we con­tacted Rob at EMG and we got two sets of Pre­ci­sion pick­ups. They were the very first pick­ups where they had a big EMG em­bossed on the top of them. We just worked on this thing. I al­ways call it Franken­stein in my in­ter­views, be­cause it’s re­ally like body parts as­sem­bled into a per­son.

“We de­cided to put the two P pick­ups where the Jazz pick­ups would’ve gone, but I thought by the na­ture of the E and the A string, they could use more clar­ity than the D and E, so we flipped them over so that the bot­tom half of each of those pick­ups was closer to the bridge. We used the P rout­ing that was in the thing and put two nine-volt bat­ter­ies in that. And while this was be­ing done, I brought in my ’62 Jazz and we took a tem­plate off that neck. John was re­shap­ing that neck into a Jazz neck. In or­der to do that, he stripped the frets out of it.

“While he was do­ing that I just walked around his shop and I saw all these spools of fret wire. I said, ‘What’s this wire?’ and he said, ‘It’s man­dolin wire.’ So I said, ‘Let’s try that.’ And he said, ‘That’s not good,’ but I said, ‘Let’s try it. The worst that hap­pens I’ll pay for an­other fret job if this sucks.’

“Well, it was the great­est thing I ever did. That bass I’ve used on prob­a­bly 2,700 albums and toured with it for years – and I’m on my third re­fret. It’s not like be­cause they’re small they got ate up – I’ve al­ways used round-wounds and I play hard – but the thing was, you could lighten your touch and you could do glisses where peo­ple would say, ‘I’d swear that’s a fret­less.’”

Don’t Knock Collins

“I love work­ing with Phil Collins. He’s one of my favourite artists I’ve ever worked with, as a drum­mer. Now he’s think­ing of re-en­ter­ing the work­force, although I don’t think he’ll be play­ing that much drums, be­cause he’s had so many prob­lems since his back surgery. To me, he could just stand up there, play a lit­tle pi­ano and sing; his pop sen­si­bil­ity is so strong.

“I cher­ish all the years I’ve spent with Phil. I’ve never known a guy who cared more about an au­di­ence than he does. His phi­los­o­phy was al­ways that the first au­di­ence of the tour de­serves as good a show as the last au­di­ence of the tour. We would spend a month just 12 to 15 hours a day fine-tun­ing a show, so that first show would be killer rather than bands that go out and say, ‘We’ll spend the first two weeks work­ing out the show.’ It’s not fair to peo­ple that have dropped some dough to see you. It’s re­ally un­cool as far as I’m con­cerned.”

Way Of Life

“I feel so blessed at what I’ve been able to do in this busi­ness and the fact that I’m still at this point – I thought I’d be out to pas­ture a long time ago. The only time it’s ever fright­en­ing is when you walk by a re­flec­tive sur­face, and you go, ‘Who’s the old dude? Some­body broke into my house.’ Then you re­alise it’s you. It’s a funny busi­ness, but I wouldn’t give it up for any­thing.”

“Once in a while, you feel you’re a lit­tle bit over your head on a project. I’m pretty hon­est about these things. Rather than me fak­ing it, I go, ‘Why don’t you call this guy? Be­cause he eats that stuff for break­fast ev­ery day. It’ll turn out bet­ter’”

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