Interview:Strange Dates, The State of Music, and Consistency

Leland 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: With your busy schedule are you still available for session work?


Lee: Oh, absolutely.


MF: How does somebody hire a guy like Lee Sklar?


Lee: Call. [laughter] I’m listed through the RMA and through the Musicians’ Union Directory out in L.A. So I get calls. It’s weird; I did a record two years ago with a guy named Vasco Rossi who’s like the Springsteen of Italy and six months ago I did one with a guy named Eros who’s another Italian star. They’re actually talking about me doing his tour in Italy next year with 40 arena and 20 coliseum gigs. I do a ton of records with Japanese artists, Argentinian, Greek, French, and . . . it’s strange. You wonder sometimes how people get in contact with you. Often they call contractors and I know most of the contractors in L.A. so they’ll hook me up with these people who are trying to track me down. It’s been 35 years of relentless work. People network and find each other and so much of it just comes down to people. They’ve got records you played on they loved and want you to play on their record. I still consider myself a hired gun.


MF: Are you discerning when somebody sends you a request?


Lee: Not really, because generally I don’t know what I’m doing until I get there.


MF: You don’t do it at home on Pro Tools or anything?


Lee: No, I don’t have any home recording equipment. I barely have a stereo system [laughter]. The stereo I’ve got at home I’ve had for 20 years. I bought it out of the back of a guy’s truck who was probably hustling hot gear at a recording studio. It’s a little old Toshiba component system.


MF: They’re going to kick your door down and bust you for that.


Lee: Oh, fine. Any attention’s fine, just spell my name right when I end up in the newspaper as a common thief [laughter].


MF: It might get you some more jobs!


Lee: Yeah, you never know. One other guy I’d like to mention is the guy who makes my straps. He is the best guy I’ve ever seen in my life. Eyeland Straps are the most inventive strap makers I’ve ever seen and everybody who sees their stuff when I’m out on the road goes, "Where the hell did that come from?" They’re so interesting and so cool-just beautiful stuff.


On the website for the band in the gallery there’s a gear section and that shows the Euphonic Audio rig I use and the Gallien-Krueger amp, plus there’s strap pictures, all my basses, and the V-bass. I also use a Fast Forward MIDI Step. It looks just like the old Moog Taurus pedals but it’s a MIDI controller. I’ll use it live to trigger an old E-MU Proteus or something like that so I can do live string parts and other stuff with my feet.


MF: Man, you’re a gearhead. You’re pretty advanced.


Lee: Well, I know just enough to be slightly dangerous but not enough to be competitive [laughter]. So nobody out there is threatened by my stuff. The closest I’ll ever get to having any rhythm as a dancer is playing these pedals.


MF: You could play the pedals while Ashlee [Simpson] does her clogging!


Lee: What we would need is a clog sample so I could make it sound like she’s dancing in rhythm. It’s so sad . . . it’s so tragic, this whole aspect of the business. To me MIDI and Pro Tools and all that is a real double-edged sword. On the one hand it’s made some of what we do so easy and accessible in terms of editing and saving parts and all that stuff. But on the other hand it’s allowed a lot of people into this business that should only be saying, "Would you like fries with that?" Because you don’t have to sing in pitch, you don’t have to play in time, you don’t have to do anything, and the technology will fix it all for you.


So these labels are basically hiring either girls with great cleavage or a guy that looks good in jeans. They figure they’ll deal with the rest of it. And the technology’s so good now that they can do it all, even live. You know, to me that’s bullsh*t. Either you can do it or you can’t. It just pisses you off when you have friends who are incredibly gifted but can’t get arrested while you see complete crap that’s successful.


It’s just wrong . . . but my biggest fear in this job is becoming an old fart. I have to balance between realizing what’s going on in the world and accepting it because it’s not going to change by sitting here talking about the good old days. A couple of years ago I did a record with a girl, Vanessa Carlton. I walk in the studio and here’s this young chick in her twenties who’s practicing, working her ass off with her Chopin books in the piano booth and writing quirky, interesting songs and I just go, "Yeah, there’s plenty of talent out there."


The problem, I find right now, is the business isn’t run by people with a passion about music. It’s mostly run by lawyers and accountants and these big corporations, so you don’t have labels nurturing artists through five records to let them find their voice because they believe in their talent. I mean, how many records did Bonnie Raitt do before Nick Of Time? [Ed. note - nine] But man, right now, if your first single tanks you’re history. That’s why I think independent record labels are the wave of the future. It might be a little harder for music fans to discover new artists, but I think what they’re going to find is so rewarding it makes it worth the effort.


MF: Bands and artists operating on the independent level are doing it with passion and the fans who go out searching for it are passionate also, so they’ll find each other.


Lee: Yeah, so I don’t have any weird feelings about the future of music. Music and arts are the soul of the society and we’re living in a time right now where we have an administration and a kind of a societal meltdown where they just don’t give a rat’s ass about any of it. Their priorities are so wrong that you basically have to nurture your soul on your own basis, ’cause they’re not going to bring it to you.


The idea of making music independently and finding your own way and the audience going out to discover new music harkens back to the old days. That’s the beauty of XM Radio, Internet radio, and all that stuff. It goes back to the days of what FM once was-with pirate radio and Wolfman Jack playing all this stuff that blew your mind. Somebody would play a teaser of a Vanilla Fudge record and you’d go, "What was that?" And then you’d go through this whole effort to find the record and you’d hear it and go, "This is unbelievable." That doesn’t exist anymore in radio; it’s all the same old bullsh*t over and over and it’s really tedious.


I hear all the arguments about people downloading music but when I listen to most of the crap out there, I usually only hear one or two songs I like from an artist. I really don’t want to spend $12.99 or $15.99 on a CD that only has two songs worth listening to, so I would just download those one or two songs. I’d buy those songs for a buck apiece and put my playlist together like that. I’m hoping, when people listen to our stuff, they say, "This is an album’s worth of material."


MF: Right.


Lee: There’s an element of the old LP days and making records I desperately miss. One of the most important things was crafting an A side and a B side. How do you end that A side? Is it up? Is it down? How do you reintroduce the next side? It was almost like a Japanese tea ceremony: cleaning the needle, wiping your record down, turning it over, having that moment of reflection . . . now you almost don’t even have to sequence your record ’cause half the people are hitting random and just listening to a couple of tracks. So I miss the whole dynamic of sequencing the record. I don’t even want to get into the loss of artwork. Opening a record was like opening a cereal box and having a treat in it, a toy. You’d get a record and you’d open it and there’d be something interesting artistically happening, an insert or posters or something you could rotate to turn a disk inside the album sleeve and it was this whole exciting thing and now it’s just a little sh*tty plastic box [laughter].


MF: I saw Vanilla Fudge in ’66 and they opened for The Mamas and The Papas. You talk about a dichotomy, I mean the people there were not ready for Vanilla Fudge.


Lee: Oh, man, one of the greatest experiences of my life was when The Beatles were going to play at the Hollywood Bowl. I was this total Beatles freak so I sent for tickets but I got a notice that the show was sold out. A year before, though, I had applied to the Hollywood Bowl to be an usher in summer. So after I was rejected for my tickets I got a call that said, "We need extra ushers for an upcoming concert, would you be available?" and it was The Beatles! So I spent a year as an usher at the Bowl and I saw Vanilla Fudge open for Jimi Hendrix, which was one of the most unbelievable concerts I’ve ever seen in my life. I also saw Lovin’ Spoonful open for The Beach Boys and Lovin’ Spoonful did one of the best sets I’ve ever heard played and when The Beach Boys came on and started playing, the audience got up and left.


MF: Wow, no way!


Lee: Because everyone was satisfied-they had just seen a great concert.


MF: Like Hendrix opening up for The Monkeys.


Lee: The worst billing I ever saw in my life-I felt so bad-you remember the actress Christy McNichol?


MF: Yeah . . .


Lee: Her brother Jimmy McNichol was trying to be groomed into a pop artist at one point, almost like an Osmond. I saw him at the Universal Amphitheater . . . he had to open for James Brown.


MF: Oh my God! No . . .


Lee: I felt so bad for this kid. I thought, if you really want to entertain this crowd just go out there after your first song and pour gasoline on yourself and light yourself on fire [laughter]. Every once in a while you see those kind of billings and you go, "What were they thinking?"


MF: I saw Van Halen in ’84 at the Cow Palace and they had a little three-piece rockabilly band opening. It was completely out of character and the audience was throwing M80s and trash at them. They were probably really good but it was the wrong match.


Lee: The wrong situation. Every once in a while you end up with these billings where it’s either the greatest thing you ever saw or you’re scratching your head trying to figure out who thought it would work. When I was in college I saw Cream open for Canned Heat and as nice a band as Canned Heat was, to hear Cream open with "Tales of Brave Ulysses" . . . they just didn’t have a chance. [laughter] On the other hand, I remember going to The Hullabaloo in Hollywood back in the ’60s and that night Canned Heat was the headliner but the original Sons of Champlin and Sly and The Family Stone opened. It was one of those nights where you say to yourself, "It just doesn’t get better than this."


Consistency means a lot in music. One of the things that I pride myself on and I really try to live up to is consistency. When somebody is making the effort to get you there and is paying you, their careers are living and dying by what goes on during your time with them. I’m always horrified when you end up on a project where somebody comes in one day and they’re really great and the next day, or later that day, they suck. You just think, "How can you do that?" You’ve got to be consistent. You’ve got to give 110% through the whole experience.


MF: Sometimes if a musician plays well on one song and not the next, it’s because they really don’t have an ear. They had something memorized that fit the song you just played, but can’t catch the next one.


Lee: Yeah, or their depth of musical experience is too limited. You’ve got to become a chameleon and really absorb everything. At the same time, there are certain things I know I’m good at and certain things where I feel like I’m kind of faking it. I’m not a thumb slap player but I can fake my way through it. However, if somebody calls me with a project based on that, I just give them the names of a couple of friends of mine who eat that stuff for breakfast. I’m confident enough to know what I’m not good at. I would rather stay home and do yard work and know there’s a guy playing his d*ck off on this person’s project than me sitting there feeling like a faker through the whole thing.


MF: You could be working on your car, man.


Lee: Well, it’s true. I did a project with a guy named Steve Kowalchak who’s kind of a Harry Connick type of piano player hearkening back to the old big band kind of stuff. I ended up using a Washburn AB45 five-string that I made into a fretless and it sounds like a weird upright bass. But there were a couple of songs they asked, "Are you sure you don’t want to play an upright for this?" I studied on upright but my chops are down the toilet on it ’cause it’s been way too many years. They said "We’d really like it, " and I said, "I’ll tell you what, call John Patitucci and have him come down and do these tracks." John is a friend of mine so I just stayed at the date and hung out with John and watched him play-which always blows my mind. It turned out great. I was on the bulk of the record and they were thrilled with that and on these other couple of tracks, John was on it and it was fantastic. But I’d always rather relinquish to the guy that’s better at that.


The weird part of doing Lyle’s tour is his normal bass player is Victor Kraus, Allison’s brother. Victor is a monstrous upright player but because I did so many of Lyle’s records on my old autographed [electric] bass he’s had to adapt those parts to upright and the parts all are very different. Now I’m back playing with Lyle using an electric bass and he’s a little confused by some of the things because he’s used to hearing a whole different approach to the songs from an upright. I would always rather give up my seat to a guy who has that area covered better. To me the loss of a few dates with somebody isn’t going to make or break my year or my career but it makes me feel better knowing that-for the sake of the project-the best guy’s doing the gig.


MF: Well, shoot. You know what, we’re going to have to call it.


Lee: It’s been fun talking. If you have any other questions, just shout.


MF: Thanks, Lee.