Interview:Musician's Friend Artist Spotlight Exclusive Interview With Lee Sklar
Part One: Touring, Drag Racing, and the Early Years
Lee Sklar's body of work as a bass player puts him in pretty rarified territory. An L.A.-based musician since the '60s, he has over 2,000 albums (and counting) to his credit and is a top-shelf choice in the highly selective Hollywood studio world. For music fans and musicians, his distinctive playing and style have made him just as iconic as his heavily bearded visage. Recording with artists as diverse as B.B. King, James Taylor, Willie Nelson, Billy Cobham, and Phil Collins, he seems as amused by his experiences as most of his fans are amazed by his flexibility and tasteful licks. Most of all, though, Lee is an exceedingly pleasant guy to be around with a quick smile, great sense of humor, and a million entertaining stories to tell. Even with a busy plate of touring, recording, more touring, and pet projects, Lee still found time to sit down and fill us in on life in the musical fast lane.
Musician's Friend: So who are you touring with right now?
Lee: Lyle Lovett.
MF: Where did you play last night?
Lee: Last night we played Atlantic City at the Borgata (casino). They have a big showroom there, it was a beautiful hall.
MF: Good sound?
Lee: Yeah, it sounded really great. It was really nice because in one of the other rooms Tom Petty was playing, and I got in the elevator to check out and bumped into Levon Helm who I haven't seen in a couple of years and just love to death. It was great to see him.
Our schedule is weird because we play the gig, get on the bus, and do a 400-500 mile drive every night. I don't really sleep on the bus and by the time we get to the next gig or the next town, it's seven or eight in the morning. We check into the hotel, sleep a couple of hours, try to have a little bit of a life, then go to soundcheck, check out of the hotel, do the gig, and drive again. So, it's almost like you're in constant jet lag.
MF: It's no wonder years ago musicians got so into drugs and stimulants.
Lee: Yeah, it's a pretty aberrant lifestyle. The shows are great and that's the reason you're out here, but the actual quality of life can be pretty diminished. Today is our day off. It's our last day off of this leg of the tour, and then we play the rest of the week. I think tomorrow we're driving to Delaware or Virginia or something like that. I don't even know where I am now; (general laughter) we just drove and were dumped off, and here we are. After I finish this tour I get one day off and then I'm heading to Switzerland to start up with Phil Collins again.
MF: I thought he wasn't touring anymore so he could be with his kids?
Lee: This is his farewell tour. We're doing Russia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the British Isles. But he's not really retiring. What he really wants to quit doing is giant tours. These gigs are going to be up to 50,000 people a night in soccer stadiums and stuff like that. And we're out there with 15 trucks and 10 buses and a private plane. It's just a lot of responsibility and pressure.
We did a live show for XM Radio last year where we went in with just guitar, keyboards, bass, congas, and two background singers. And he looked at us and said "Wow, this is really cool." And we said, "Think about it." And so we talked a little bit while we were out doing the big gigs, just reminding him about the feeling he had there. So there's a chance, but who really knows what will happen?
MF: Just out of curiousity, Phil can still kill on the drums, right?
Lee: Oh, jeez. The saddest part of his gigs—as far as I'm concerned and from a purely selfish perspective—is that it totally sucks to be standing onstage, ten feet away from a guy who I consider to be one of the best drummers in the world, and he's not playing drums.
MF: Does he play at soundcheck ever?
Lee: He plays a little bit during the show. The funny thing is that if you interviewed him and asked him what he does, the first thing out of his mouth would be, "I'm a drummer," but it's really hard to be a frontman and play the drums. It's one thing if it's the Eagles and Henley can come out and sing and then go back and play drums because there's a whole bunch of other guys in the band who are going to carry the vocals. In Genesis and his solo stuff, Phil's really carrying the weight of the entire show on his shoulders, and it just doesn't work to be back behind the drums. So it really negated him being the full-time drummer. And it's a real drag, because his pocket is so deep.
We played the premiere of Brother Bear in New York and Tina Turner sang one of the songs on the soundtrack, so she flew in and did the opening. When she was up front singing he was back playing drums and he just looked over and said, "This is great," because he was just playing drums. When he went out and toured with Clapton and he was just playing drums in Clapton's band, he said it was so much fun to just be the drummer. But when he does his stuff, it's difficult for him to play. So I feel really bad for him because he really loves playing drums and there just isn't the chance to do it in his show. On his tours, he only plays for solo moments. Like on the current tour, the show opens with him doing a drum solo. He's just great, but it breaks my heart to not get to play with him.
MF: When you're home from touring, if there is such a thing as a break for you, do you have friends you get together and play with?
Lee: When I'm not out here doing this I'm basically in the studio. Right now I'm in a band and we just finished our CD and released it. I absolutely love playing with the guys in that band (Barefoot Servants, Barefoot Servants 2). Just before I came out on Lyle's tour, I did a record with B.B. King that Russ Kunkel played drums on and he's also doing Lyle's tour, so I see certain guys all the time, but the opportunity to get together and just goof around isn't there. Knock on wood, but I'm still working at this point. Being an old fart and still working is pretty miraculous.
MF: Do you work as much as you can?
Lee: Yeah, I work as much as I can and then when I'm not doing this, I have a life outside of music. I love gardening and working on my house and I love working on cars. I've got a street rod, so I have other interests that are not in music. Music keeps me busy enough so when I'm not doing my gig work I can fill the rest of my time with a whole bunch of other stuff.
MF: Wait, you've got a street rod?
Lee: I've been into cars ever since I was a kid. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley and it was cruising heaven. It was an American Graffiti upbringing and I've been through a ton of cars. I'm finally unloading some of them because at this point I thought I'd have plenty of time to just goof around and have hobbies, and it shocks me that I'm still as busy as I am. So I'm trying to pare down and I've got one car I'm focused on and it's a T-bucket. It's a 1923 Ford pickup truck. It's got a 1,000HP small-block Chevy engine with dual throttle-body fuel injectors, twin turbos, and nitrous oxide.
MF: That is not street legal, my friend. (general laughter)
Lee: (laughing) No, it is not at all legal. It's one of these zero-to-a-hundred-in-about-three-seconds cars. It's been sitting in the upholstery shop while we've been on tour. I've had the car since the mid-'70s and it's been through a million incarnations. Engine-wise, I used to have a blown small-block engine with Weber carburetors. And then I became involved with a friend named Gail Banks who's one of the foremost turbo-charger designers in the world. He holds tons of Bonneville records and he used to make racing boats. We became friends and he ended up building the engine for the T-bucket. So when I get back the car should be done with the upholstery guy and then it'll head to Gail's shop to stick a computer in the car because of the fuel injection.
Plus, I'm going to be talking to these guys who are reproducing the old, classic 12-spoke Rader wheels in aluminum now, which used to be magnesium and sucked. So I'm going to get a set of the 12-spokes for the front. I'm running Hallcraft spoke wheels on the front and every bucket-T in the world has Hallcraft wire wheels. The drag of the ones I've got is that they're really old and they're chrome instead of stainless so you have to constantly work on them and polish them. I think these Raders will make it look more like an old fuel-altered 'cause the rear wheels I've got are made by this company that does circle-track wheels, and there's eighteen inches of tread on the rear tires with the motorcycle wheels up front. Plus I've got wheelie bars on it, so it's probably one of the most outrageous bucket-T's in the country. It's just absolutely monstrous.
The beauty of the engine is that the induction system is a one-off casting made for Bonneville one year that it got rained out, so this engine configuration never even saw the light of day. So when it finally hits the street, there's none other like it.
MF: So you're into acceleration, then?
Lee (laughing): Do you know who Brian Bromberg is?
MF: Of course.
Lee: Yeah, well, Brian and I share this passion for drag racing. Drag racing is my favorite motorsport. Brian is friends with Ron Capps who used to drive top fuel and now drives the Skoal Bandit funny car for Don Prudhomme. So we try to get together at the Winternationals drag races and go down to the pit and hang out. To just sit in the pits while they fire up a 9,000HP funny car . . . to me that is the biggest aphrodisiac in the world: the smell of nitro-ethanol fuel and burning rubber. That's the stuff.
I remember being at Lion's drag strip back in the '60s when Don Prudhomme broke seven seconds in top fuel, and everybody thought it was a miracle and we'll never go faster, and now pro stock doesn't even qualify in seven seconds. To sit there and watch these guys racing top fuel at 4-1/2" seconds at 350MPH is just unbelievable. But I love drag racing because the entire event takes place in front of you.
I've gone to the Indy 500 and stuff like that and Tony Smith who manages Phil in Genesis, he campaigns an F1 car. But when you go to those kinds of races, you end up sitting in a corner. It's bitchin' when a bunch of these cars come by at top speed and you just go "Wow," but then you just sit there waiting for them to come back. And at least with drag racing you see the start and the end all at once. I love the sound, the decibel level, and just the smell of it all. It's another world.
I've got a bunch of friends who are gearheads and it's really cool to hang out with guys who don't know anything about music or they just listen to it and don't really want to talk about it or anything. They're not asking me "What's Jackson Browne really like?" (general laughter) The biggest problem I have with loving cars is that there's some axiom somewhere that when you try to break loose a nut with a wrench your knuckle has to hit a piece of the framerail or something. I've ended up messing up my hands so bad over the years, in terms of injuries with machinery. There are times when it's slightly impacted my playing. I worked for a while as a welder, and that's not real conducive to playing music because you end up burning yourself, especially on your fingertips, and then you have to go play.
MF: If you weld, you will burn. If you turn a wrench, you will skin knuckles.
Lee: Absolutely. I used to have a go-ped out on the road and I ended up getting a tweaked exhaust so it had a single extra HP. We'd be out at some of these big summer venues and down some of those big hills you'd get that thing going about 50MPH. It was bitchin'.
I ended up selling it to an engineer who really fell in love with it when I kind of got bored with it. I've always just loved the sound and smell of engines and horsepower. For me, I'm anxious to get back and get the T-bucket back on the road again, because there's something really exhilarating about a car where you're driving 60MPH on the freeway and you stick your foot in it and go sideways smoking the tires. (general laughter)
I'm not even sure what it looks like now because when I left I had discussed with the upholsterer what we wanted to do with it, but I haven't actually seen it yet.
MF: Well, I guess we should talk about the music. So what's Jackson Browne really like? (general laughter)
Lee: (laughing) He's gay, but he's a hell of a bowler. (general laughter)
MF: Can we print that?
Lee: He's much shorter than John Oates. (general laughter) Like a leprechaun. (general laughter)
MF: Is that what you tell all the interviewers?
Lee: I don't get to read very many of them, so I'm not sure what I've said in any of them. I try to lie differently for each interview.
MF: Yeah, I read you're only 26 years old.
Lee: No, that was my beard. (general laughter)
MF: And you've had your beard a long time, huh?
Lee: Actually, it was born and then I grew into it. (general laughter)
MF: Never taken it off?
Lee: I haven't seen myself clean-shaven since they handed me my high school diploma in '65. It was that kind of rebellious time. School was incredibly repressive. They had grooming guards at school and they would come around and if your hair went over your ear, you were taken into the vice principal's office.
MF: Or the jocks would take you out and hold you down and cut it.
Lee: Yeah, there was a lot of that crap.
MF: Was that military school?
Lee: That was public school. I went to Birmingham High School out in Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley from the early '60s up until '65. It was a repressive thing. It was still the mentality that girls couldn't wear patent leather shoes because boys might see under their skirts.
Lee: I go by a high school now and it blows my mind the amount of freedom these kids have. It almost had a military camp vibe. College was a different thing, but then even college tended to be somewhat repressive because we were dealing with Vietnam. So you were dealing with the extremes at that point of radical left-wingism, sitting in an environment of almost John Birch Society. I remember getting called up before the dean at Cal-State Northridge when I was in college and they were getting complaints about me being a long-haired hippy. I looked at the guy, and I said, "If you look, I'm on the dean's list as a student. Obviously my long hair and beard aren't affecting my academic quality. Why don't we focus on that?"
MF: It's hard to get them to do that, though.
Lee: It's very hard. It's like the man behind the curtain, you know? There's all these distractions to take the focus away from what's really important. This could be a whole other interview and rag about the world we're living in right now. It's some sad stuff. But basically, I've had different incarnations of hair but I haven't seen my . . . the last time I saw my upper lip was 1965.
Lee: I think it's still there.
MF: In that same article I read that you didn't drink or do drugs. How did you make it through that era? Were there temptations?
Lee: Oh, Jesus. Well, I think the fortunate part for me was that I started working with a lot of older guys. I started shaving when I was twelve, and so in the summertime, I would just grow a beard every year. I could go play adult situations and not be carded or anything like that. These guys were doing heroin and shooting meth and stuff like that and I also worked with some people who had serious problems with LSD and were dying of drug overdoses. At 14 or 15 years old my eyes got opened up to the down side of all of it, so I never saw an appeal and my taste buds had a real adverse reaction to the taste of alcohol.
I was never judgmental about it. I wasn't like "Well, you guys are screwed up and I'm not because I'm not doing drugs." At an early age I became the designated driver. So when I'd be out working with bands, the other guys might be passed out at the end of the evening and I'd be driving us home. It just ended up turning into a lifestyle where I just never saw an appeal to drugs.
I would sit on the tour bus with guys who had just dropped $1,000.00 on cocaine and I still ended up being the guy tucking them into their bunks. Then the next day they would be passed out for half the day and I would get up in the morning. I've always been an early riser at home. Even if I work 'til 2 or 3:00 in the morning I'm usually up between 6 and 6:30. So I found myself hitting the streets in all the towns we would go to and I became a voracious antique and collectibles collector. While all the guys were sleeping it off, I'd be up scrounging junk shops and antique shops and looking for yard sales and stuff like that and that's how I spent my time. That was my drug.
MF: And you probably saw—being the straight one in the band—the music getting looser and looser; or more tired as the evenings went on?
Lee: Sometimes. One thing I value about the fact I didn't drink or do drugs is that I can recall everything that went on with a clear head. For some guys that's to their dismay, because I know exactly what was going on and they can't lie to me about it. I use a great deal of discretion, but there were times, when I'd be amazed at some of these guys. When I first started working with James Taylor, he was an addict. He did a lot of different things and it never ceased to amaze me that a guy who could barely walk to the stage never missed a chord, never forgot a word, never missed a note, and had perfect pitch the whole time. Some of these guys just have another door that opens in their mind when they start doing their music. As dysfunctional as they might be, the minute they walk onstage they're dead on. It's pretty staggering sometimes. To me it's a testament to the human mind; how much compartmentalizing can actually take place in a person.
MF: It seems like a lot of the great writers of the '60s had a creative burst and then sort of burned out. They might still be able to go up and perform, but their creativity goes downhill.
Lee: Yeah, I agree. A lot of these guys are like roman candles; they burn real bright for a moment. Otherwise you end up with the Hendrix's and the Jaco's and guys like that, who just burned really bright and then died. You kind of ask, "What would they have done and what would they have been like had they still been alive?" Think about a guy like George Gershwin. The body of work George Gershwin left music is so staggering. He died at 38. Some of these guys really can burn bright.
James [Taylor]—right now—is probably singing better than he's sung in most of his career in terms of his intonation and stuff, but I haven't really heard him write any great material in years. When I look back at the stuff he was writing through the '70s and '80s when I was working with him, to me he was this endless well of unbelievably great material. When he does a concert now, 95 or 98 percent of what he does is his old material. I've enjoyed arranging and I've enjoyed playing but I've never really been a writer and I'm not sure how much is in a person to write. My God, when you look at the body of songs and material some of these guys crank out. I don't know, maybe 20 years is about it for cranking out songs like that.
MF: It's one hit for some people.
Lee: Absolutely. I did a thing a while back where I was asked how many records I've worked on. I had to sit down and kind of go through a list of artists and figure out how many records I'd done and I thought about it and I think I've worked on probably over 26,000 songs in my career.
Lee: And you start to go, Jesus, it's only eight notes you get to use! How do you not get redundant and start repeating yourself over and over? I'm amazed when I work with someobody like a Phil or a James or a Jackson or any of those guys about how much material these guys have cranked out.
MF: Yeah, Jackson still seems to be writing pretty good stuff.
Lee: Jackson's still a very viable artist. He's still growing and really loves what he does. In the same way, like Phil, you know, loves writing but he's been sidetracked where he's been approached to do movies. That's a different form of writing. A lot of people I've talked to have said, "Brother Bear and Tarzan? That's kind of trivial compared to 'In The Air Tonight.'" but it's only trivial if it's put on the same plane. He's writing for what he's writing for and it's a completely different medium. He's doing a great job and he's an adventurous writer. He wants to do as many different things as he can.
It's not like being in the Stones and you're only writing tunes for the Stones your whole career. Which is not to diminish the Stones but it's a fairly one-dimensional existence in terms of writing. If you're writing for movies, maybe you get called for television. Then somebody says, "Well, I need something for a commercial." and you suddenly have to consolidate your entire track into 30 seconds.
It's all different with different demands. I admire any guy that can sit and do any of that. I don't care what it is, I just sit somewhat in awe of the writers. I've just been too lazy to pursue that. For some guys it's as natural as waking up.
Out here touring with Lyle, I mean, he's an amazingly inventive writer and he writes the gamut from big band to Texas swing to the most intimate little acoustic things and his lyrics are really fascinating. The more time I spend with him and the deeper I dig into it; it's really mind blowing. So I just kind of sit in awe of that side of it 'cause I'm not part of that.
MF: How did you get plugged into that scene with the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne?
Lee: Well, it was real strange. In the late '60s I was in a band called Wolfgang—which is still one of the best bands I ever played with—and this is where all these stories get real convoluted, but we had a drummer in that group named Bugs Pemberton who was an English drummer. He was friends with a guy named John Fishbeck who owned a studio called Crystal Recording Studio in Hollywood and one of John's oldest friends was James Taylor. James came and hung out at some of our rehearsals—This is pre- "Fire and Rain" or any of that stuff—and we met and kind of hit it off. So he would come and hang out.
Then after he recorded "Fire and Rain" in England, he had a gig at the Troubador out in L.A.. Somehow through his manager, who was Peter Asher of Peter and Gordon, they called me and asked if I could come and play this show with them at the Troubador. The drummer on the gig was Russ Kunkel, who I had met two years before when he was in a group called Things To Come. There was this community of guys playing in different bands around L.A.. and I'd always been in different bands, and so I said, "Yeah, sure."
We got together, worked up a set, and went and played the Troubador and hardly anybody was there. (general laughter) It was just one of these weird little gigs. Right after that "Fire and Rain" was released and next thing you know, he's the darling of this entire new pop-folk-rock thing. They asked us to come and play the Troubador again and they almost had to close the gig down because they were able to sell the rafters. (general laughter) I mean, it was packed. So they booked a tour for James that was going to be a month long.
At this point, I was still in college. So they asked me, "We got this gig, do you want to do this?" It was a month-long tour and I hadn't really ever done a month-long tour. I had only played clubs and stuff around California with some gigs in San Diego and San Francisco with different bands, but was pretty much L.A. based. So we went out and did it and the next thing you know James is on the cover of TIME magazine and suddenly it's like THE thing. I ended up leaving college in the middle of my fifth year and we hit the road and it turned into 20 years.
During that period, suddenly James Taylor was the biggest thing in music and everybody was out there looking for the next singer-songwriter. That's where Jackson Browne came along and a ton of guys from that period: the Harry Chapins and I mean, you name it, there was a ton of them. So a lot of the producers would look at James' record and say "Well, let's see, Lee Sklar, Russ Kunkel . . . let's hire them, 'cause that will make our guys sound like James." Which isn't the case at all but in their mind, it was. So we started doing all that.
I used to know Henley back when he was doing sessions around town. I remember doing a session with Don where we were sitting talking and he said "Does Eagles sound like a dumb name for a band?" (general laughter) 'cause they were just putting the Eagles together.
I just turned 58 in May and one of the good things—to me—about being around this long is when I was an art student in college I was sitting next to this friend of mine who I took all my painting classes with and he looked at me one day and he said, "Yes, this friend of mine and I, we're going to try to . . . Oh, f**k this, we're going to do a comedy act." And it was Richard (Cheech) Marin. That was when they were forming Cheech and Chong.
I've known so many of these guys for so long and watched all these careers happen. That whole West Coast phenomenon of Ronstadt and Karla Bonoff and Jennifer Warnes and all the people that were growing out of that thing, there was a real community. And all the guys, Richie Furay, Jim Messina, David Crosby, Nash, and Stills and all those guys, we all knew each other on different levels. I was a huge fan of the first Crosby, Stills, and Nash stuff. When David and Graham were going to do their duo thing they wanted me and Russ. When we had our group The Section together, we started to get hired by all those guys and to me it was kind of like this weird thing where you pinch yourself all the time and you can't believe that you're actually doing it.
When I get up in the morning and I'm standing in front of the mirror brushing my teeth, I still pinch myself. I'm a dork from the San Fernando Valley and somehow, when I see Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page, they go "Hey, Lee, how ya doing, man? Good to see ya." Or last night bumping into Levon Helm in the elevator and Levon's going "Lee!" and I sit there thinking, "The band I worship - The Band."
My perspective on this whole thing is really strange because I don't really understand what's happened in my career. It's always weird when I play and some people come up . . . "Oh man, I've got everything you've played on! It's meant so much!" I'm sitting here just pinching myself going, "This is the weirdest thing." It's a very strange phenomenon to me that I've had the career I've had. I never kind of intended to have it. I just liked playing in bands but I always really wanted to be an artist; a sculptor and painter.
MF: You're still playing with Russ. How many years has that been now?
Lee: Well, Russ and I have been playing together now since pretty much late '69.
MF: I mean, his drumming, not to take away from talking about you, but Russ Kunkel's drumming on the stuff in the early '70s, I mean he was . . .
Lee: Hey, I thought this was about me? (laughing)
MF: Yeah, it is (general laughter). Let's put you in it. You must really enjoy playing with Russ Kunkel.
Lee: Oh, I love Russ to death. I love Lyle Lovett and I've done most of his records with him and it's always been just an adventure to be in the studio with him. But one of the real hooks that got me out here was Russ was playing drums with him. Russ and I haven't been on the road together in about 16 years.
Lee: We just did B.B.'s record and we did Crosby and Nash's record last year together so we see each other in the studio a lot. But I'll tell you, coming out here on the road, it was like digging through your closet and going, "Oh that old pair of slippers . . . I haven't seen those in ages." And you put them on and suddenly it's, "Oh man, does this feel good."
MF: Yeah, he's got a magic feel.
Lee: He is absolutely unique as a drummer. He's as unique as Phil. His pocket sits in such a comfortable place. When we were doing a lot of records Russ and I could be in different rooms and not even have eye contact and our fills would be exactly together. We just have a relationship. I feel like one of the greatest things about my career has been that I've had access to playing with the greatest musicians in the world. I think back to playing with Russ, playing with Carlos Vega, playing with Jim Keltner, John Porcaro, Jim Gordon, and John Robinson, all these great drummers; that's been the biggest blessing to me in this business. It's opened the door for me to get to play with the finest musicians this world's produced. There's not a moment that goes by I take that for granted. And the coolest part of my career is the relationships and camaraderie that's come of it.
Want more of Lee Sklar? Don't worry, there's lots to come. Check back to read more as Lee fills us in on his new band, fan-boy moments, and some of the gear he uses.