WILL LEE: Life In The Fab Lane
by Rick Suchow
The Sideman Extraordinaire Talks Bass, Beatles and Beyond
(This is the complete interview I did with Will Lee for Bass Guitar Magazine, which appeared in Issue #38 in the fall of 2008. It was my first published interview for BGM. Due to space limitations, not all of the interview below actually made it to print, and my article title "Life In The Fab Lane" was changed by the editors. Oh well... my thanks to Will for a cool interview.)
It's a beautiful spring week in New York City, as the old town finally emerges from the seemingly endless chill of winter. But for Will Lee, there's no time to stop and smell the roses; it's business as usual in the hectic life of the bass world's most in-demand sideman. In a span of just four days, Will's impeccable low end groove will be jump-starting the Jammy Awards at Madison Square Garden, Sting's Rainforest benefit concert at Carnegie Hall (including an entire set with the legendary Brian Wilson), and the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland where he'll not only be the house bassist for eight different acts, but double as Musical Director as well. And yet somehow in his jet-set journey the bass veteran will squeeze in his regular gig on The Late Show With David Letterman, where his ebullient energy and punchy pocket are served up nightly for an audience of millions.
After compiling a discography that spans four decades and reads like a who’s who of pop and contemporary jazz, perhaps closest to Will's heart these days is performing the music of the group he readily cites as his biggest source of inspiration, the Beatles. Now celebrating their tenth anniversary, Will's "Fab Faux" band prides itself on accurately reproducing part-perfect live renditions of the Beatles' groundbreaking later years recordings, a feat that not even the original Fabs dared to attempt after 1966. As anyone who's seen the Fab Faux in concert can attest, they achieve their purpose with stunning attention to detail.
I caught up with Will after his whirlwind week of gigs, and in his gracious and humble manner was more than happy to chat about anything and everything.
You’ve just played three high profile concerts in four days, including backing up Brian Wilson at Sting‘s Rainforest benefit.
Yeah, last week was a pretty intensive one. Sting's benefit happens every two years, so that's something we plan on, but what I didn't plan on was being part of Brian’s band for the second half. That was a last minute request a week before the show, and I was really honored to do it. I see Brian and his band every time they come to New York, for me they're a model of how music should be played. The vocals are so great, really matching those of the Beach Boys’ recordings, and the music is really intense in arrangement and orchestration. It's a work of art. So to be a part of that was a really big deal for me.
Were Brian and the Beach Boys a big influence on you?
Oh absolutely. The Beach Boys were the first concert I went to as a kid growing up in Texas, we drove to Houston to see them at the Houston Coliseum in 1963.
You played the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame show for eight different acts. Were you playing the original bass arrangements note for note?
Well, note for note is pretty much the way you would do it, because for the most part these artists are coming up to the stage and singing these classic songs that everybody knows. Like Kim Carnes doing "Betty Davis Eyes", or Patty Smyth's stuff, I mean the hits are so well known. I feel that if you alter them, or just have a chord sheet and you're blowing over the changes, it's not going to have the same impact as if you really bring the record to the stage. And that's the concept behind Fab Faux and also the CBS Orchestra. I get a lot of my MD and cover band chops from Paul Shaffer, who's got one of the best known cover bands in the world in the CBS Orchestra.
Fab Faux was the backing band at The Jammys at Madison Square Garden, which celebrates jam bands.
I think people don’t realize that although the Fab Faux is a dedicated, "bring the records to the stage" band, a lot of those records faded out. We don't do that, we jam. We kind of play it as a 'what if'; what if the record kept going, what if the band just went nuts. We have guys in the band that can really play, so we like to take advantage of that.
You've mastered the art of singing and playing bass simultaneously, what advice can you give to bass players who have a problem doing that?
You have to really learn the bass part as well as you can because that's the thing you sort of turn off in your mind if you want to be expressive with your vocal. When the bass part becomes second nature you can really deliver the song with your voice. It's kind of tough sometimes, like in the Fab Faux, for example, where I’m playing Paul's actual bass parts. Sometimes you kind of glaze over and hope for the best.
Has your appreciation of Paul McCartney's bass playing changed since starting the Fab Faux and really digging in to learn and analyze his bass lines?
Well, I think my love for music in general has grown as a result of digging into these records, there's so much information. What I've found with Fab Faux is that is you have the tools to actually try and replicate the records live so you dig in as deep as you can, learn your parts as well as you can, and perform the songs. But it doesn't really end there because once you've gotten to that stage you're sort of allowed to go back to the record and listen to the next layer. It's kind of an endless fascination with learning McCartney's parts. "Day Tripper", for example. I always assumed it was kind of random; the fact that he didn't play the same bass part in each chorus made me think that maybe he didn't remember what he played or didn't have time to think about it because they would shoot in and out of the studio, or whatever. And the more you listen to it the more you realize that, wait a minute, this cat was totally focused on that bass part. He treats the first, second and third chorus much like a song form, like the way he and Lennon would treat verses of a song. In the first chorus he plays one pattern, the second chorus he plays another, and when he gets to the third chorus he repeats the pattern he played back in the first chorus. And it wasn't really that random at all, it was very thought out.
What would you consider Paul's greatest recorded bass performances, if you had to pick one or two?
Oh boy, that's tough. Listen to "Rain", there's a good one. A song as simple as "Honey Pie" or "When I'm 64", with that old school charm, he plays extremely tastefully and supportive. He goes all the way from melodic to almost unnoticeable, you know, just right for the song.
Paul McCartney cites James Jamerson as a big influence. What did you get from Jamerson?
Oh, I got a lot of stuff from Jamerson. Like Jamerson, I basically come from jazz, so all that stuff that Jamerson felt and brought from upright to Fender, like sound, note links and swing factor, I find very easy to feel as well. I wouldn’t say that I’d be able to come up with as great a bass part on a song brought in by a great writer, I’ve never been a part of one of those rhythm sections that just turns them out all day long like those guys in the Funk Brothers did. But for me, Jamerson defined Motown, I can’t imagine that music without him.
How is your bass playing different now compared to twenty years ago?
Let me add a couple of years to that, because up until 23 years ago I was getting high on drugs and staying high on alcohol all day, every day. I could still play but I don’t think I was taking nearly as many chances because I was wanting to not be singled out. I wanted to get the job done and get out of there, which kind of translates into a lot of roots and downbeats. I think today I’m a lot more carefree and experimental because if a producer puts me on the spot, I can deal with it a lot better now. So I’m taking more chances.
After playing bass for nearly 40 years, have you encountered any physical problems?
Actually, last week when I was playing every day and night, going back and forth between the Letterman show and the Rainforest rehearsals and all that other stuff, for the first time in my life I was feeling a really bad pain in my left hand, the hand that holds the neck at a strange bent wrist angle. I found myself really hurting and worrying about whether I was ever going to have a chance to recover from this.
And the pain just went away?
Yeah, I finally had a day off on Sunday, after the show in Cleveland. Just a day of not playing, and that’s basically all it took.
How do you continue to challenge yourself as a bassist?
I continually listen to everybody and get my ass kicked by doing so. You’ve got the Victor Wootens of the world out there, and all these other great positive influences that you can really get a lot of inspiration from. Oteil Burbridge, I’m kind of fascinated by his great 6-string ability and beautiful chordal stuff. I continue to be inspired by Chuck Rainey even after all these years. Rocco Prestia, Marcus, cats who play with a pick, cats who don’t, you know just everybody.
You have an amazing discography. Who haven’t you played with, that you’d really want to?
I’d have to say Stevie Wonder at this point, except that I would not want to take Nathan Watts’ gig because I love him too much.
What basses are you playing most often these days?
Sadowsky. I don’t even own a Fender Jazz, which is kind of sad, but I just got an old ‘63 Precision that I’m having a really good time with, and sounds really good.
The Sadowsky 4 or 5 string?
Well I’m using both. I’m using the 5 a lot these days, especially in the studio, and actually designing a signature model . We’re hoping to have it ready for NAMM this coming January.
What about bass players who get hung up on choosing between the 4 and 5 string, is it a big issue?
Well for me, I always say that when I want to have a really good time I’ll bring the 4 string. But if you‘re basically a 4 string player, after the initial shock of having a 5 string in your hand you can really open up and get loose and start having fun on that too. It takes me a minute. I’ll go in the studio and pull out the 5 string when I know it has to be used on a certain tune because of the key, or maybe notes are written below the range of a 4 string. I kind of roll my eyes back and go "oh shit, here we go". And the next thing I know, I’m having the time of my life.
Let’s talk about the great Metro "Express" album. Was it recorded mostly live?
Yeah, we did two days of recording in Calabasas, California. I was writing right up until getting in the car to go over to the studio, you know, in the hotel room. It was really slammed together, and thankfully Mitch Forman had the focus and time to get back into the tracks and do more keyboard work, he really did a nice bunch of overdubs on the material. Metro is a great band. I mean, you’ve got a guy like Wolfgang Haffner, the "lowly drummer", who’s harmonic knowledge is beyond almost anybody I know.
You’re playing fretless on "The Standard".
Yeah, that’s the Pedulla 5 string. That’s a lovely bass.
The band dedicated the album to Joe Zawinul and Michael Brecker. Brecker was a great friend of yours, and you recorded with Joe on an early Weather Report album.
I didn’t know Joe that well, but worked with him and was singing on the second Weather Report album called "I Sing The Body Electric". I wasn’t credited because I wasn’t in the union yet, so I got paid as a musical consultant for the two tunes I sang on. I remember the title of one song was "Ballad Of An Unknown Soldier", and the other one I can’t remember but I’ve gotta go back and check one of these days.
How did Michael Brecker inspire you?
He was so dedicated to improving himself as a saxophone player. He was inspired by everybody from Junior Walker to Trane, and was constantly practicing. I don’t know how his wrist didn’t hurt! For example, when I first got into New York I lived with him at his loft because I couldn’t afford a place yet, I had come up to audition for a band of his called Dreams and got the gig. He offered me his loft, to which I was flattered and flabbergasted. And there were days when, in my drugged-out stupor, I’d awaken to his playing and be like,"far out man, how long you been practicing?" and he’d say "four hours". I would have slept through that much of him working on his chops. I literally could find my way back to his loft by just listening, because it was guaranteed that he would be practicing. I can’t help but be inspired by a guy with that kind of discipline and dedication, because I’ve kind of come from no discipline. So anything like that that happens in your life, that you can latch on to, is a really wonderful thing. His success was no accident, it’s the same old saying of ten percent inspiration, ninety percent perspiration.
Who else inspires you as a musician?
The Beatles have always been my main spark. The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, coming to America and presenting some fresh, positive information to a country that was so depressed after John Kennedy’s assassination, at a time when we really needed something. And not only giving us that instant spark, but staying consistent with creativity and new ideas during their whole existence. So even though I grew up in a musical family-- my mom was a singer, my dad a pianist and well-known educator-- it wasn’t enough to turn an undisciplined lazy kid into a musician. But the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show changed everything about me. I really didn’t have a concept until seeing them, and they’ve been my main consistent source of inspiration. And I’m not the only guy that will say that, for example drummer Gregg Bissonette, who is a great friend of mine. With as many jazz and fusion records as he’s done, while he was at Berklee people would laugh at him because he would say the Beatles were his main source of inspiration and they’d go "hey, what are you talking about… Miles!", you know. But I understand what that is because I have the same thing.
What was your worst bass experience on Letterman?
My worst? Oh, I remember this very well, and it’s such an ego thing because when you think about what it means to somebody else and take yourself out of the equation, then all of a sudden there’s no problem. But I remember one day we were going into commercial and playing with David Johansen of the New York Dolls, who was sitting in with the band. We were doing some Animals songs, one of which was "We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place". It’s supposed to start out with the bass playing doo dood’n doo doo doo (Will sings figure), and I played some really wrong notes in the beginning. And the camera was right on me, it was the only thing happening on NBC at that moment! At the end of the taping I went home and got so high, just punished myself, thinking this is the worst thing that could ever happen to anybody. I just went nuts. And that’s why it’s so egotistical, because nobody else would have really given that much of a crap about it. In fact, I remember one person came up to me about eight years later and said, "man you played something that was so hip on that, I’ve been using it ever since".
One final question. What’s the single best piece of advice you can give to young bass players starting out who may want to do it for a living?
Well there’s no guarantee that there’s going to be any living to be made from it, and as my friend Hiram Bullock said, if you want to make money be a banker. So I would say make sure you love it. You’ve got to really love it.