By Jack Sharkey. October 17, 2013.
This is part two of a fascinating conversation I had last week with bassist Leland Sklar. Today's piece focuses on the art and joy of being a high-demand session player, and the state of the music and recording industry.
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LS: The thing is, I consider myself a musician, so my approach is not dramatically different. When I wasJames Taylor, Leland Sklar, Carole King doing the Troubador thing with James and Carole, we had created our parts initially and we were part of the creative process. Now when I do the Oscars, or I’m getting ready to go to Vegas to do the Latin Grammies, for the most part you’re reading charts. You’re reading music, you’re not sitting there jamming. It’s all very thought out so your reading skills come into play. On a certain level that’s the easy gig because you don’t really have to think, you just have to interpret. That being said, when I did the Oscars and was working with Hans Zimmer, the musical director, I've worked with Hans for years, so he’ll go 'anything you want to throw in, go for it.' So I would read the chart, but if I felt there was something that could make it a little more interesting in a spot I would just throw it in. The same with the Latin Grammies.
I’ve ended up doing a bunch of Latin projects just based on playing the Latin Grammies and some artist is up there performing with us and his producer will come by later and say, 'Man, could you do the next album with us? I love the way you played.'
So there’s those things, but then, going out with Toto, or Billy Cobham or Phil Collins, each one of them is a different kind of gig. You approach them all respecting your seat and trying to figure out just how to be a part of it. I don’t like to impose myself on anything. Like when I play with Lyle Lovett, when I do the Large Band stuff, there’s sixteen guys on stage, so you really have to contain yourself. But every once in a while you find that little window and you throw something in just to give a little vibe to it and one of the other guys will look over and give you that smile.
I approach playing as playing and my parts are predicated on who I’m playing with and the kind of music I’m playing.
KEF: Lyle Lovett’s Large Band stuff is some of the best music ever recorded. I love the Large Band stuff.
LS: It’s amazing. It’s absolutely amazing. I trade off with Victor Krause on that. Like Lyle this year has been using Victor because he’s been doing a lot of small acoustic shows and Victor plays upright with him on those things. Victor is one of the best upright players I know so I don’t mind trading off with him. But when we do the Large Band, the hardest part of the gig is there’s times when you almost forget [where you are] because you’re kind of just staring around going, “shit, there’s so much talent up here it’s insane.”
KEF: So what do you have in store for us in the next couple of months?
LS: Well, I’m going to Vegas, there’s a fantasy camp this guy does that he’s been asking me to do for ages. I was asked to do it with Sammy Hagar and some other guys last year but I had other things going on. But what we did this time, Danny Kortchmar, Russ Kunkel, Waddy Wachtel, and myself are going to go give a master class on how to make a record, which should be really interesting. We’re doing it at the MGM Grand in the beginning of November and then I come home for a couple of days, do one rehearsal in LA and then go right back to the MGM Grand for the Latin Grammies. Then I come home for a week after that and then I head for Paris for a week of rehearsals with a guy named Eric Levi who did a project called Era. We’re going to Moscow and St. Petersburg to do these big concerts. It’s a fascinating project with a sixty piece orchestra and a thirty voice choir, rhythm section and four soloists. The guy wrote a fake language that sounds like old Latin, so its kind of like a rock version of Braveheart. It’s just amazing.
KEF: So, you're busy then?
LS: It’s been nuts. From July first up until a week ago I’ve done eighteen albums. We just finished a project with a girl named Alisan Porter. When she was a little kid there was a movie called “Curley Sue” and she played Curley Sue. I think she won Star Search when she was four. She’s in her twenties now and she sings her ass off and is a really strong writer. So we just did her album. We did Eddy Mitchell, a French artist. We did Alfie Boe who played Jean Velljean on the London stage. A guy named Antonio Orozco who’s a Spanish singer.
I also did an album with a girl named Dashni (Dashni Murad) whose father has a monastery in Tibet and we did a pop album based on mantras. A bunch of the monks in the monastery did the background vocals.
You find yourself in all these weird projects and they’re all really fascinating.
KEF: What’s been the biggest change in the industry since you got started?
LS: The biggest thing is the technology. Both good and bad. When I was a kid starting out everything was still records and when you’d go to somebody’s house and hear Sergeant Pepper you’d go ‘oh man, that’s unbelievable’ and then you’d run to the record store and buy your copy of it. So everybody was purchasing a product.
"...like a Japanese Tea Ceremony. It was a very spiritual experience to have records."
I love the process of making records from the standpoint of there was so many times where we would be doing records and be thinking about order. ‘How do you want the A side to end?’ ‘How do you want the B side to begin?’ We would be in the Mastering Room sitting there and the first track would fade out and we’d all look at each other and then just snap our fingers as to when we’d want the next track to begin. And then when you’d be listening to the music, that first side would end and you’d take the record off and you’d wipe it, it was like a Japanese Tea Ceremony. It was a very spiritual experience to have records.
And then when cassettes came along, you could maybe make one copy of it before it starting degrading but with the advent of digital technology and CDs all of a sudden the whole playing field changed, when you got into sampling and other things. I totally appreciate Pro Tools and all that from the standpoint of being able to log a whole bunch of parts and not be sitting with a room full of boxes of tape and you can sit there and do comps* and stuff. But to me the best stuff I ever worked on there were no comps, so there was no sitting and worrying about click tracks we would have to edit together. You went in and you ******* played it right and great. Done. Top to bottom. That was the world we lived in. It wasn’t like ‘it’s adequate, now we’ll get to work on it to make it good’ in the technical process.
Ed Note: "Comping" is the process of taking several tracks, vocal or instrumental, and editing them to make one final "master" performance for the final recording.
Now, there’s certain things about [digital technology] that have made things easy. The thing that’s hard a lot of times is so much of my work at this point is going to guy’s houses and working just by myself overdubbing bass on their Pro Tools rig. The drag about that is to me the essence of what making a record is about is the camaraderie and the interplay in the studio between musicians. You might go in and hear a song where you go ‘man the bridge is a little weak on this, let’s work on that,’ or ‘it needs an intro’ or ‘are you sure about that key, are you sure about the tempo?’ It’s through the process of four, six, eight, guys sitting in a room that magic happens. When I’m just sitting in somebody’s bedroom at their Pro Tools rig I can affect my bass part only to a certain point because there’s restrictions that they’ve already added that I can’t affect. I don’t enjoy the process of recording as much as I used to. It was a magical time when you had that many people in a room that are that good, and everybody’s feeding off of each other and there was an absolute succinct moment where things just lock up and and you just knew it was magic.
Lately though a lot more of the sessions I have been doing have been live in the studio and I’m grateful for that.
KEF: Do you see it starting to a change a little bit where people are starting to realize that maybe some of the life has been sucked out of the process?
LS: I’m sure there’s an element of that now but the only real problem with that, is so many of the studios I worked at in LA for years are gone and the buildings have been turned into strip malls or parking lots. So, I don’t think it’s ever going to go back to what it was but there’s an element of the business that’s trying to hold on. You have studios like Henson and Capitol, Conway and Village. There are still really good, legit, rooms in town that are booked around the clock because guys want to make records there.
The one thing I’ve tried to be cognizant of in my career is 'please don’t become an old fart.' Don’t be the guy who goes ‘well, in my day…’ and dwell on that because that makes you seem like a footnote in history. I want to work until I’m worm food. I don’t talk about analog versus digital to a guy who’s never seen an analog machine or heard analog recording. That just makes me sound like an old fart. But, if they want to talk to me about it, I’m really happy to hip them to it. And on my Facebook page, when I’m at Henson and we’re cutting to tape, I always film the 24-track machine and the sound of the rewind. At Capitol they’re still doing vinyl work so I video the cutting lathe and all that stuff and I just put it on my page and go ‘for all you guys who always heard about cutting a record, this is how you cut a record.’ You try to educate, at least about the historical aspect of the business regardless of if they’re ever going to use it, it’s just nice to know where your roots are.
KEF: This has really been a lot of fun. Thanks!
LS: Well, if you ever decide to do volume two, give me a shout.
The opinions expressed in this piece are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of KEF or its employees.