With more than 2000 records and 30.000 songs recorded, Leland Sklar is one of the most in demand bass players in the world. Leaving his musical fingerprint on records by artists like Phil Collins, James Taylor, Billy Cobham, Jackson Browne and many more for more than four decades. I got a chance to meet him in Amsterdam while he was touring with legendary drummer Russ Kunkel and Judith Owen. This is an interview about how it all started, his way of creating bass lines and the ever changing music business.
You and Russ Kunkel have been playing for decades. What’s it like to play with him again?
I met Russ for the first time in 1968 and we started playing together in 1970. So it’s been 45 years since we’ve been playing together. It’s nuts. It feel as good today as it did the first time I played with the guy. He’s just a beautiful musician and from the very beginning we’ve locked in with each other. We both have the same biological pulse. It’s one of the things you can’t put you finger on. We catch fills together we never discussed, it just happens. It’s not black and white, it’s that ‘grey’ that happens.
How did you get into playing bassguitar?
I went into Junior High School when I was 2 years old, I had been studying piano since I was 5 years old and I was kind of the proverbial child prodigy. I won a bunch of awards. So I went in assuming I was gonna play piano in school, but when I walked in there were 50 kids that played piano but there was no string bass player. So my music teacher pulled out a double bass and as soon as I played it against me I felt the vibrations and I fell in love with it. My teacher was really good and gave me some serious pointers what the bass was all about.
Which records did you listen to when you started?
My parents were very eclectic in terms of what kind of music we had in the house. It was classical music but also jazz and bigband. One of the big influences I had were Red Callender, Ray Brown, Mingus…
A lot of Jazz
Yeah I did a bunch of Jazz before I did any Rock. I was still doing Jazz on upright bass. And then the English Invasion took place, The Beatles hit, and it just twisted everybody’s heads around. The first time I heard The Beatles I thought: ‘Something’s going on here’. So I started joining bands. There were times that I was playing in 4 or 5 bands at the time, cause there weren’t that many bass players. Mostly somebody who sucked as a guitar player. But the hard part was, I had an upright bass, and the school let me borrow it, and so my hands were screwed ‘cause you’re just trying the be heard over the drums and there were no good mic systems at that time. So I talked my father into taking me to this this music store in Hollywood so I bought an electric bass and an amplifier. Cheap Japanese stuff, probably a hundred bucks for the pair. But when I plugged in and started feeling the neck out I thought: ‘I can be heard and I’m not killing myself.’
But when I was in college I was majoring in Science and Art. I thought I would either become a Medical Illustrator or Technical Illustrator, because I was really good at photo rendering. I was still in bands but never thought music was gonna be my career, even though I loved doing it.
Then how did you become a professional musician?
When I was still in college I was in a band called Wolfgang. Our drummer was a guy names Bugs Pemberton and he was a member of an English Rock band called Jackie Lomax and the Undertakers, which we’re kind of rivals to The Beatles. And Bugs had a friend named John Fischbach, who produced and engineered all the original Stevie Wonder stuff. One of his old friends was a guy named James Taylor, who just came back form England where’d done his ‘Apple’ record. James was hanging out at our rehearsals later he got offered a gig at the Troubadour in Los Angeles and they called me if I wanted to play this show with him. I figured we were doing one show, and suddenly it became the rest of my life.
So it’s a very strange thing. I’ve done clinics and masterclasses and people ask me: ‘How did you get into this?’. I didn’t have a plan to do this. When I went into the studio with James, it was the first time I ever worked in a studio. I had done some demo’s with Wolfgang but other than that I never recorded in a studio. I really didn’t have a clue what the studio was all about I had to learn it overnight. How to craft a sound and this all worked. I knew a lot more about sculpture and drawing and science than I knew about the studio.
Now decades later you have a ton of experience in the studio. So you get into the studio, listen to the songs, maybe for the first time. How do you come up with your bassparts? I know there isn’t one particular formula…
No there isn’t, but here’s what’s important: you listen to the song before you start playing. If I’m sitting down with a guitar player like I did with James Taylor, he would play a song and I would just listen to it for the first couple of times just to figure out what the song wanted from me. I try never to impose myself on a song. I want the song to just talk to me for a second and tell me what it needs. I was lucky, I started out with a certain level of intuition that worked. And never felt it was beneath me to play a whole note. This sort of thing makes me crazy. Like I said, I’m a shitty sleeper, so sometimes I’m up late at night in the wee hours of the morning and sit there on Youtube or on the Berkeley site and guys are constantly posting video’s of them playing. And I just did a Masterclass at Berkeley in Boston when I was there with Judith and I looked at these guys and I said: ‘I really admire all your facility and your dedication but the one thing I hardly see anybody doing in any of these video’s is play a song. They’re just slapping as fast as they can and doing this technical stuff that really doesn’t get you a job. It maybe impresses your family and your friends but no-one is gonna hire you for this stuff.’ So you gotta let the song tell you what is wants and if it’s a simple part, play it simply. Just support the song. If it’s fusion or something like that, you get called to do a project, you wanna have the chops to do it. But I really let the song tell me what it wants. That to me is the most critical thing.
You really have to be on your toes all the time, it’s a tough, hard job because the demand on you is intense. There’s a lot of money being spent and there’s a lot of stuff online. It’s like going in with a blank canvas everyday, and everyday you have to leave with a masterpiece. And sometimes you can’t make a masterpiece because the song just isn’t good enough or the artist isn’t, but you still do the best job you can. I’ll work as hard for some lame artist as I’ll do for the best artist because my name is gonna be on the project.
How do you deal with a situation where the session just isn’t working?
You just do the best you can. And just hope that when you leave they get something out it. There’s a finite amount that i’m capable of doing. One of the things that becomes difficult is that with a reputation comes an expectation. That you’re suddenly gonna come in and do magic to save this thing. One of the things that I’ve taken on in the studio is this: it’s one thing to just go in and play, I mean I know a lot of guys that can play, but you really need to be engaged. When you finish a track you go in the control room and you don’t just sit there on your phone. You go and listen to the tracks, make suggestions. And I always tell them that my ideas are edged in mud. If I have an idea but you like your idea better I’m good with that. So you gotta be engaged but I also approach it almost as a cheerleader. Because some guys are such downers in the studio that the whole vibe is gone. So I go in there and try to keep the energy level up and keep everybody having a good time. And it reflects in the music when people are enjoying themselves. So there’s little nuances that come with studio work. And it changes every day. Sometimes a go to a session and there’s nothing there. There’s no music of any kind and the guy just starts playing stuff. Other days I walk in and there’s chord charts, some days everything is notated for me. Or I go in and there’s a Nashville number chart. So everyday is a different adventure and I’m almost never sent anything in advance.
So you wanna do it in the moment?
Yeah I wanna do it in the moment. Because something you’ll work for people who say: ‘We’re gonna rehearse this stuff for a couple of days before we go into the studio.’ You’re gonna blow every creative moment in that rehearsal. At first, we’re gonna be sitting in a little tight group and we’re gonna be playing and it’s gonna feel great. Then you’ll get in the studio and the engineer puts your amp in another room and puts you in this iso booth and the whole energy is gone. So you wanna keep this all as fresh as you possibly can. So I try to discourage that kind of stuff. And the hardest thing for a lot of guys to get over is the fear for the red light.
How do you deal with the red light?
I’ve been doing it for so long that I look at it as kind of an elixir. That the light is the thing that turns me on. When I see it then all of the sudden I’m in this other zone. But a lot of other guys, when they see it, they freeze up because it’s a lot of stress. Because they are afraid to make a mistake. I’d rather play a great track with a mistake than a lame track that’s antiseptic and perfect.
For me, when the red light goes on, it creates a kind of tunnel vision. Some super focus on what you’re doing right now and everything else just stands still.
And it’s usually that way for the first couple of takes and if it takes longer than that then you start getting into this other headspace.
And than you’ll make make mistakes.
Yeah. Sometimes I’m looking a chart and I’m playing the song and I start having this dialogue with myself: ‘It’s weird how my eyes see that note, it comes in and goes into my brain and then my brain fires some synapses and my hands… shit did we do the bridge yet?!’. So for me the first takes is really where my creative passes are gonna be on and you hope the rest of the band is in the same headspace. So that you’re not blowing you’re best take while the drummer is still learning the song.
Do you play your parts the same live as you did in the studio?
You want it to be slightly malleable so like when you go out play in live in front of an audience you might be able to massage it a little bit differently live. A studio is pretty antiseptic; without an audience. It is hard to get off like you would in anything from a little club to a stadium. And if I see the audience is into it, it pushes me a little bit harder. So I might dig in harder live.
Plus, live I got a rig behind me. I don’t use in-ears so I have a wedge in front of me. I like feeling to it, as compared to where you are in the studio you and you have headphones and maybe your amps so that you don’t have the bottom end at all.
You respond differently. I don’t look at that as ‘Oh god, I can’t feel it here like I did in the studio.’ Well than don’t. Don’t worry about it. Just play it.
The thing is, if the people are enjoying themselves, than you are doing your job. If you look out there and they are gone. you suck dude. Then you better start looking for another job.
So you’ve been playing for more that 40 years now. Some musicians like you or Pino Palladino seem to stay ‘hip’ for decades. How do you, after playing so long and doing so many records, keep developing yourself?
Paranoia! The thing is, I wanna work! I love working and I love the community of musicians. I’m hungry everyday. I’ve never gotten blasé about this or think I’m gonna ride on the coattails of my discography.
To me I still have the same feeling in the studio today that I did when I was doing my first professional session. I’m maybe more skilled at certain things in terms of how it works. I have kind of a mantra that I always have for myself when I’m driving to work and it’s: ‘God, just please don’t suck!’ Because I’m still basically a player that’s full of self-doubt and all that. Regardless of what my discography would say I wanna do the best job I can. I hope I don’t get called for session that’s over my head. I listen to a lot music and there’s stuff that I’m not a big fan of but I listen to it because I do get called to work on those projects.
So you do almost everything?
You have to be chameleon. I’ve worked on probably more that 25.000 songs in my career and still everyday I’m learning new material and come up with new ideas. But there are times that I would’ve killed to be in a band that was just a hit band. To be Timothy Schmidt in The Eagles or Flea in the Chili Peppers. But some of those guys come to me and they’ll go: ‘Man, you got to do so many cool things!’ The grass is always greener on the other side.
But I’ve always tried to balance studio and touring as best I can. And if somebody came to me and said to me: ‘You have make a decision. You can only do one or the other,’ I would be a touring musician before I’d be a studio musician. It’s like being a race car driver as much as I enjoy being a mechanic. I would love to drive the car. Another aspect for me is that when you’re in the studio you could pluck a G. Fine. It’s it’s in a song live you pluck that note and it’s gone. You can’t do anything about it. You just move on and play. I like the immediacy of life. I like playing the part and move on. Even if you play a wrong note, it’s history, it’s over. So for me that’s world I really enjoy the most whenever I can. But I feel lucky to have both. But if it wasn’t for the touring I wouldn’t be sitting here in Amsterdam and enjoying the stuff I get to do.
While I was having diner I was listening to an interview with Sean Hurley and he was talking about touring with same band for a long time. And he said that one of the most important things is to let the band be your audience.
Some of the best gigs I’ve ever played were for ushers before the place even opened or during soundchecks. We’ve done soundchecks that were as good as any show we’ve ever done because we’re just enjoying each others playing and each others company. So I that he’s right with that but one of the things I’ve always looked at is this. Even if I’m going out there with James Taylor and play Fire and Rain. I’ve played Fire and Rain 50.000 times but there is somebody in that audience that is hearing it for the first time and that’s the person I always play to. It’s never boring to me because you focus on that audience and remember that this is a fresh experience for them and you wanna make it the best experience you can possibly make it. You try not to fall into too much of a routine. Even if we play the same set every night. I try not to play the song the same, ever. I always look for little nuances, a slight tempo change, or another lick. I’m not an analytical player. I’m a real sloppy player. I move around and I’m more responsive to living in the moment. And I go with whatever organically feels right at that time.
So, obviously the whole music industry kind of changed last years. How did it change recording wise?
I think the most drastic change was the digital revolution, certainly. When we went to protools and that format came in, it really changed dramatically. Another mantra that I always use is: ‘Don’t become an old fart.’
You know, as old as I keep getting in the business, I still want to feel as fresh as you can. I don’t want be in the studio with to kids in their twenties and tell them: You should have been here when there was tape. You sound like your grandfather talking about a model T car. Because if they have never heard tape, they have never seen an analog machine in running what are you talking about? If they ask me: ‘what was it like?’ Than I am happy to talk to them, but I don’t open that door.
But certainly when everything started going to protools and the digital format it really suddenly kind of scattered the whole idea of having a bunch of guys in the studio cutting. I spend a great deal of my time just going to people’s houses and sitting in their bedrooms or their garage, a little converted studio and putting down bass parts.
And the drag about that is my favorite part of being a studio player is the interaction of players. The juices that flow in the room and the ideas that get created there. If it’s just me sitting in a guys house, all I can do is a bass part. So I can come up with something, but it isn’t to me a as satisfying as it would be there as if I was sitting with four or six other guys. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be the tape, you know, we cut with protools all the time in the studio.
I don’t ever want to discourage anybody from working at this and enjoying it. But you have to tamper that with the reality that odds are that almost nobody is going to do this as an exclusive job for the rest of their lives. That is why I feel so lucky that guys like Ross and myself were at the perfect storm when all of this and our career started. The business was viable and I was hungry. They were signing all these artists. Budgets were there and people just wanted to get in and make music. So we had a job. I was doing sometimes five sessions a day, six days a week. It was insane.
Do you have some advice for the players these days?
Just love what you do. Just enjoy it. Meet as many other players as you can. Form as many relationships as you can.
You really have to love the instrument. And you have to love the music. And at that point, everything else is gravy. If you can get in that situation and you can make it doing music, that is the greatest thing in the world. But you shouldn’t be totally discouraged if they opportunity doesn’t come. Because you can always play.