"It transcends just being a job": An In-Depth Conversation with Bass Legend Leland Sklar
Updated: Jan 9, 2022
Leland Sklar definitely needs no introduction – and with a resumé like his it would be easier to list who he has NOT lent his bass chops and his feeling for how to serve a song to than to mention the legendary players he has worked with. Still want name dropping? Alright: James Taylor, Phil Collins, Jackson Browne, Billy Cobham, Carole King, Randy Newman, Rod Stewart, Toto, Glen Campbell, Warren Zevon, Bette Middler. Sklar has played on a several thousand records and created fundamentally important and recognizable bass lines.
The covid lockdowns have, of course, changed his usual life, too — but he certainly knew how to make good use of his non-touring time. He has posted videos on his YouTube channel on a daily basis, diving deep into his impressive body of work, sharing stories and bass lines with his fans. He has also released a photography book called "Everybody Loves Me", in which Sklar took pictures of friends, fans and colleagues (many of them very famous) flipping him the bird.
I reached out to Leland Sklar personally, asking him for an interview for Hyperlocrian.com. He kindly agreed — and then at first didn’t show up on Zoom that (L.A. time) morning we decided to meet virtually. No problem, I thought, and wrote him an E-Mail, asking him if we could maybe reschedule the talk. Some minutes later, all of a sudden Mr. Sklar’s face popped up on my monitor and we spent a good hour talking. He described forgetting our appointment in one of his videos — and then proceeded to say that we "had a really nice interview". Which we definitely had — and it was a big honor and joy for me to have the chance to talk to him.
See the full video interview — or read the (slightly edited, for the sake of clarity and readability) transcript below.
Your YouTube Channel has been such a goldmine in the pandemic for your fans, bassists, for everybody, at least remotely interested in popular culture. A huge treasure trove. I was wondering, as somebody as busy as you have been in the last decades: Has this channel been a chance for you to have a retrospect on your own career and to go back in time?
Leland Sklar: Well, it turned into that, but that wasn't the intention. When we played Phil Collins' tour, a lot of the venues on that tour were stadiums, huge venues. I had a number of bass players writing to me, saying "man, the show is unbelievable. We loved it. But we couldn't hear you sometimes and all the details of the bass parts in the songs." That's not the fault of the front of house — because our front of house guy was one of the best I've ever worked with. It's just the nature of those huge venues. I thought about it a bit, and then I had him send me the board mix of a show from Adelaide, Australia. I loaded it into my laptop, plugged in a little Bose speaker. I have a little Bass Amp sitting next to me here. I thought what I would do is that I would just take a song a day and play the song. So the people could hear the track but mix it so that the Amp was a little bit louder. So that they could hear the bass part with total clarity.
My intention was just to show some bass parts. And by the third video I put up, I had people writing going: "Man, we love your YouTube channel. And I go: "What are you talking about?" They'd answer, "Oh, you know, that new one you're doing." I said, "I have no idea what you're talking about, I didn't really think that doing some videos was going to suddenly become a channel. I mean, I love YouTube and I've watched YouTube ever since it existed. I find it to be an incredible wealth of not only information, but just sometimes I'll sit and I'll pick a song. I'll just sit there for ages watching all different interpretations of a song just to see how different people hear it and perform it differently. So all of a sudden here I was with this thing that people started subscribing to it. And it totally caught me off guard.I did the whole Phil Collins show, except for "Take Me Home". That's the one song I didn't do on it. And I figured when this channel comes to an end, whenever that is, maybe years from now, the last video I put up will be "Take Me Home".
But once I finished the show, I was really enjoying this and I thought what am I going to do now? So I went back and started looking at things like Jackson Browne and Toto and different groups I've worked with and showing bass parts for all of those, you know, a lot of that material. And and as of right now, I've posted at least one video a day, every single day. I haven't missed one day since March of last year. I really love doing it. An incredible community has grown out of this. Twice a month I do a live stream for the clubhouse — I have an elite level where I do one-on-one face time with people on Skype.
We also made t-shirts with my beard on it. So people are buying those. I was a graphic arts student in college. I've got a bunch of my artwork for sale. It went from just showing a couple of bass parts to like a little cottage industry. With my book and all the things that I've done this year… It's crazy. But I love the YouTube thing and the community. I didn't push hard. I mean, I could have really gone at it and really added numbers of people to it. But for now, I mean it's 150.000 really dedicated people on it. That's fine. I look at some of these sites that have like two and a half million people on it and the person It just kind of comes on and, and farts and picks their nose.
But to get back to where you started with this, it has required me to look at my career, because I never thought about it before. Sometimes, I would be doing an interview and somebody said, "What songs have you worked on?" And I would be completely blank. Because I don't think about it. That's not my nature. But doing this channel has required me to be like a forensics person and go back and really look at that album. It surprises me because there's so many things that I totally forgot about over the course of years, because I've done about 2500 albums. And as of right now, I've only probably touched about 500 some albums that I've worked on.. So I could do this channel for a long, long time. And the hard part now, as I'm hitting the road, will be maintaining as much of this as I possibly can while I'm traveling, doing gigs and soundchecks, you know, all the things that are going to come into play. But I'm not going to stop this.
You’ve also released a photography book called "Everybody Loves Me" in which you took pictures of people flipping you the bird. How did that come about?
This once again came from from Phil Collins’ tour. In 2004, we were doing the first final farewell tour. And there was talk that Phil was going to maybe retire at the end of that tour. I think they had one last Genesis tour in the books to do in like 2007, I think. I think Phil was just at that point, he'd been going at it a long time. And we had a huge crew, between band and crew and everybody there was well over 100 people out there on the road. And I thought that a lot of these people I’d never see again. And that was our way to be together. I didn’t want to just take a picture of everybody and make like a little photo album of all the people involved on the tour. I had kind of a running joke with the guy who was my bass tech, Steve Winstead. His nickname was Chinner. When I met him, he said: So man, what do you need? What do you want me to do?" And I said, "I don't know. I mean, I've never really had a bass tech, I've always done everything myself." He was so overqualified for this job. He's really good. So he ended up doing stuff for me, but also working for everybody. He became like a general kind of guy to run around the stage.
We always had this kind of joke between us: He would say what do you need, and I got nothing. So at the end when I started taking the pictures of everybody, it was my good fortune that the first guy I went up to was him. He was sitting at his laptop working and I said, "Hey, Steve, give me a smile." And he's typing away. All he does is that he gives me the finger and I go "Oh, that's kind of that's kind of cool". So I went and I got Phil Collins to give me the finger, Tony Smith, his manager. I got everybody in there. I ended up with about 125 pictures of people giving me the finger. It was completely unintentional. It was all because of Steve giving me the finger. It has become a signature thing now but it's nothing I ever really did. I usually saved it for when somebody did something stupid on the freeway, when I’d honk my horn and give him the finger. So I had all these pictures and I made a little folder and put it away. It was fun, but didn't think about it again. Then, a couple of years later, I went on the road for the first time with the band Toto. I thought, well, maybe I'll do the same thing with these guys. So I got all of them. It got up to about 300 pictures and it started to take on a life of its own at that point. Then I just started getting everybody from people like Phil Collins and James Taylor, Jeff Beck and Charlie Watts, and you name it. I was also getting actors, I would meet athletes, I would meet people on the street, I would be sitting in an airplane, and I would get the compartment to give me the finger, I get up and go, "Hey, everybody, come on, flip me off." And they'd all do that. I ended up with over 12,000 photographs. I met a guy who has an art thing called Art Alliance publishing. We had a talk, I told him about this. He said, "Let's do it. Let's make it." So we put this book together, we went through all 12,000 pictures, and got it down to about 6000. The book is huge. I mean, it's a six pound big coffee table book with a padded cover. Have you seen it?
I'm getting ready to go on this tour. I was just leaving for the warehouse because I'm shipping 24 boxes of books out on the road. We're going to do meet and greets and signings, so I'm hoping I can sell more there and I seem to go to the post office every day mailing them. It has become a challenge. Making the book was the easy part. I'm doing everything myself, shipping, all that stuff. But it's really fun. Everybody who's gotten it just keeps going "Man, this is so much fun looking through here and trying to figure out which people are in it". Because I've caught people not in their makeup or they're how you would expect them to look because of what you've seen them look like on an album cover or something like that. I've caught them in darker moments. It's been a lot of fun. The weird part was I had to create a website to do this so I went to get a website. I went for Lelandsklar.com. Somebody owns that. So I went for Leesklar.com, but somebody owns that. too. I'm not going to pay anybody for my name. So we ended up with Lelandsklarsbeard.com.
Can you remember the first time you set foot in a recording studio?
The first non professional one that I ever did: 1967 I was in a band called Group Therapy, which was a perfect name for this band. We really needed group therapy. We went to the studio. We were being produced by a composer and arranger named Mike Post. Mike is famous for television themes. He wrote the theme to "Law And Order", which plays a million times a day around the world in every country. I worked with him on Rockford Files and the A-Team and Hill Street Blues and all these shows that were huge in the States. He produced that band, but we weren't allowed to play on the record. We could only sing on a record – because the Wrecking Crew did our record. We were too young and inexperienced. But that was the first time I was really in a professional studio. It was at United Western Recorders in Hollywood.
The first actual album that I ever worked on was an artist who is still working, named Brian Hyland. Brian had a huge hit as a teenager with a novelty song called "Itsy Bitsy Teensy Weensy Yellow Polka Dot Bikini". I ended up getting hired. I actually recorded with him before I recorded with James Taylor. I think it happened because he came to James Taylor's concert that we played at The Troubadour in Los Angeles. I got hired to work on his record. That was actually, I think, the first album I ever worked on where I was actually getting paid. I had done some demo things before with bands that I was in, but that was just demos. But the thing that was weird: I met James right after he cut "Sweet Baby James". So I did not play on that record. I worked with him on "one man dog" I think was the next album after that or "Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon", one of those. But it was just very strange because I was a guy that was in rock bands, mostly playing around Los Angeles and doing gigs in town. When I got hired to play with James at the Troubadour, like I said, I had no real experience in the studio. But because James got huge so fast, all of a sudden — and to our great benefit — Peter Asher insisted that the musicians’ names appear on the records. The Wrecking Crew and most other studio musicians never got album credits. Nobody knew who the musicians were. But Peter insisted that our names were on it. With the advent of the singer/ songwriter movement, that grew out of this whole experience with James with the Jackson Browns and Linda Ronstadts and Eagles and all the things that happened on the west coast, people would look at James's record and see my name, Russ Kunkel, Danny Kortchmar, all of us on it — they'd go, "Hell, if it's good enough for James, let's hire those guys." So I ended up going from no experience to working every day, and having to kind of figure this all out on the job. It's not like I had all this experience ahead of time when I got in the studio. I'd never plugged into a DI. I didn't know about mic placement, about where to put the mic in front of a cabinet.
Just the whole idea of dedicating yourself to putting charts together, trying to nail first or second takes for the freshness of it all. Suddenly, there were demands on me that I had never experienced in my life. And I was expected to perform. You wouldn't know it by listening to the records, because this stuff really came together. The group really was great players, and everybody really was learning together. So it became this collective. But we would look at each other sometimes going "What are we doing? what's going on?" Because we were really in completely unchartered territory for all of us. Through experience and doing it you just get better and better by doing something over and over. And at this point, you know, it's everything second nature, except the music. Because every time you walk in that studio, it's a new adventure. You don't know what you're doing that day because rarely am I told in advance what kind of project I'm working on. So you really don't know till you get to the studio, if it's a pop record, reggae, r&b, funk, jazz. So you've got to kind of have yourself psyched and prepared every time you walk in. Today's the first day of your career because it's fresh every day. And now it's starting to open up again. So it's getting exciting again, I've got album projects in the works. It's been a drag to wait for one and a half years to work. Then suddenly a couple of things came up and they were all at the same time and I had to turn half of it down because I was already booked. You go from nothing to too much overnight. Crazy.
You were part of the first generation of studio musicians that became famous by their own rights.
You were also the first studio musicians who got a lot of creative input.
That was one of the differences between us and the Wrecking Crew, who were the group of musicians that preceded us by a decade. Even though they were putting creativity into their parts. Carol Kaye would be given a song and she might come up with a bass part that just made it that much better. But that was it. For us, our relationship with the artists was different. Because we would get involved sometimes in the writing, the production, the arranging, then we would tour with them, which the Wrecking Crew never did. So our engagement on projects was much deeper than had ever been done before. I think our relationship with the artists was on quite a different level. It was great. When you're in a studio working on a song with somebody and you hear something that you think can make it better, it's great to be in a position to offer it. Now, it may not be accepted. But at least it shows an involvement and an engagement with the band. I've always kind of felt that whenever I go into the studio, it doesn't matter if it's a one day project with somebody: I always go in feeling as if today I've just joined their band. You commit to it as though you have a vested interest beyond just doing your bass parts and getting your paycheck hopefully at the end of the day. So many artists, especially in those states, were artists that were playing coffee shops, or something like that, and they had never really worked with other players. They're sitting there with a guitar, they didn't think about an intro to the song, or maybe not even a bridge. And then we would come in and we would listen it to and go "Oh man, this could use like a little set-up here. What about this as an intro?" Or you'd say "Look, the song's great, but it really could use a release somewhere".
I don't think back in the days of the Wrecking Crew, when they were doing playbacks, that the musicians all went into the control room and listened to the playback together and the arranger would come out and make suggestions. We would always go in the control room and have a dialogue about the music, because you want it to be the best it can possibly be. But again, it was all just a learning process. We had no rules because we'd never done this. So we were making them up as we went along. It was great to do a James Taylor record or a Jackson Browne record and then go on the road and kick it live. That was really a unique experience. I love it to this day. Every time when I work with somebody and then we go out and play live, it's just a different validation of their music. To see an actual audience, man, right there in front of you, digging it. It's so nuts.
When I listen to your interviews or ones with your peers such as Steve Lukather, I sometimes wonder if such careers are even possible today.
I don't want to discourage people from doing this, because the world needs music. The world needs artists. But I think the careers that we've had would be virtually impossible at this time in history. Because so many of the parameters of this industry have changed. First off, when we started, it was all records, LPs. That was a viable business at that point. I remember when "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" came out, you went to somebody's house, you heard it and then you ran to the record store and you bought your copy of it. Well, if "Sgt. Pepper's" came out now, people would be live streaming it and getting it for nothing. Suddenly, as a business model, things changed dramatically, when the digital world entered the news. When it was cassettes, you could maybe get away with burning a copy of a cassette, but after that, it would be the generational loss was so much that it wasn't worth listening to. But when CDs came up, all of a sudden, people could start burning CDs. You could make 1000 copies of it if you had a good CD burner. Suddenly, nobody was making any money at that. So much of our career was based around having this be a viable financial business for you to be in. A lot has changed since then. Labels, for the most part, don't exist, like they did, there's a few big labels still. But there were a lot of labels back then, where you had artist development, you had support, even though everybody knew they were probably going to get screwed by the label. But they had a process of getting things on the air, where your music was heard. They had departments that work with management to get touring and all that stuff going on. My issue at this point is: I'm not concerned about music, as much as my concerns lie with the music business. Which is a whole other animal. When I look at schools, like Berkeley, or MI here in Los Angeles, and I'm sure there's music schools over there in Berlin: these players are amazing, gifted students coming out of these. But: They come out of there on Friday, and what's there for them on Monday? I get guys and girls writing to me, saying "I want to do what you did". I don't want to discourage people because the world needs music, and it needs talent. But the opportunities to express that talent are much less. Everybody, when I was starting, was getting signed. We were doing sometimes three or four sessions a day, six days a week. I mean, it were absolutely ferocious schedules, where your health was even jeopardized at times, because of overworking.
I look at it kind of like a lottery contest. They say the chances of you winning are like 200 million to one or something like that. But at the end of the day, there's somebody standing with their big cardboard check who won. I just feel that the odds are not stacked in your favor of this being your profession.
But somebody will make it. I mean, there's always new artists coming up that are having tremendous success, but it's not in the numbers that it used to be. At this point, you sell 100,000 copies and that's really remarkable. I remember playing on albums that were selling 11 million copies. It's a different world. But I absolutely don't want to discourage people from it because I know there's a ton of talent out there. And under the right circumstances, it will be heard. But for studio musicians, it's a little more difficult at this point because it just isn't the wealth of gigs going on that there once was. So the competitive level, the trying to get gigs is pretty, pretty high. There's a lot of talent out there but a finite amount of gigs. So I tell people: "Just love what you're playing and love what you're doing and, and never say no to anything." Man, you never know what's gonna happen when you walk in the door. And you might meet another player who's like: "We're just doing this band, you'd be perfect for it". And somebody in the audience that's going "Man, I got a project coming up, you would be great." They would never know about you if you had turned the thing down. Now, if you do a gig and it sucks, and you don't like it, then if they ever call you back, you can say no. But I literally never say no to anything, even l at this point. Because of the idea that I might just meet somebody cool and new there. That could be another little adventure in my career. So just always leave yourself open. And then just experience as much as you possibly can. Because you just don't know where these roads lead. It's a pretty interesting world.
You have often said that besides the artists themselves, a good relationship with the engineers was very important to you.
This isn't to denigrate anybody else. But say you're a tree trimmer and you're hired to go over and trim somebody's trees. You get your chainsaw to climb up the tree and you trim it, you do that and you leave. You can easily never meet the person that owns the house where you're working. You're just contracted to do it. For me, I've always loved the fact that when I walk in the door of a studio, I'm either gonna be like old home week, and hanging out with guys I've been with for you know, half a century or 20 years or whatever. Or I'm gonna meet somebody brand new in my life. When you're engaged in a creative process, like making original music, there's depths that you can go to in this emotionally. It's like joining a band every time you go into the studio on a new project. The more you connect with these people, I think it shows in the music. You're not just going through the notes, play the notes and when the date's over, you're loading up in the car and you're out of there and you'll never see them again. A lot of times I'll work with somebody new and when we finish even if it's a day's recording, we sit around and we talk and reflect on it, maybe listen to playbacks of everything we did that day, just to double check before we all leave. I feel a real strong emotional attachment. Certainly one of the most important conduits to the music in the studio is the engineer. Because you can be playing your ass off and doing great stuff, but if the guy's not recording it, well, then it's kind of a moot point. Or they may come up with a sound and you come and listen to playback and go: "What's that? What are you doing on that?" There's times when I've got the same instrument and do five projects in a week. And that bass sounds like a different bass every time I walk into the studio, all predicated on how the engineer is recording. So I try to maintain relationships with everybody involved and many of them turn into like these long term projects. There's an artist in Japan named Yumi Matsutoya who's been the biggest kind of pop singer in Japan for decades. And I think I've done 28 albums with her over the course of decades. I just finished another project with another Japanese artist named Mari Hamada. I think I've done at least 12 albums with her. Sometimes I look through AllMusic or discography sites and it'll show me having played on a record with somebody. Then I go: "Actually I did eight of their records, but they only list one". That is why relationships are very long term. It almost becomes like family. We see each other and everybody's hugging and it's great to see you. Let's have fun, let's hear what you got kind of thing. And then you go back in after the songs recorded, listen to the playback, and we're either all patting each other on the back going, this is great. Or "you suck, let's do this". It's an interesting relationship, it really transcends a gig. It transcends just being a job.
It's amazing to think about how many integral bass lines you created.
It's weird. I don't think about it. I'm not a person who is, if I'm listening to a song, always just listening to the bass part. I'm listening to the entire game, and how everything fits together. It's been interesting with this YouTube channel, listening to things and then finding out: "That was really a good bass part, I forgot about that". Then there's the obvious stuff, like "Doctor My Eyes" or "Your Smiling Faces", "Stratos", things like that. But there's so many that I've listened to where I sat back and I thought: "I didn't suck! That's actually pretty good!" I can be my own worst critic a lot of times. It's been interesting listening to bass parts that I cut in the early 70s — and then listening to how the parts have evolved through the 80s and the 90s.
You start to get more of a perspective of what you've actually done. I always still look at the bass as that foundational instrument. It doesn't make me crazy, I'm too close to crazy all the time, anyhow. But when I'm sitting there, doing a YouTube binge and watching people, I see all these videos of bass players and generally they're showing off chops. I admire the facility when I see everybody double tapping doing all kinds of chordal stuff or tapping. But I never see anybody really posting how a bass line is created for a song. For me, songs mean everything. I mean, I can jam but I'm not a jam guy. I go to the NAMM show, I used to come to the Musikmesse in Frankfurt. You go around these booths and you see these guys playing, nobody actually has a track going in there or is playing a song. They're just sitting there slapping away, trying to impress you with their chops. That's impressive to me for about 20 seconds. Then I'm bored and it's time to move on to something else. But if I walked into a show and I saw Bob Babbitt sitting there showing the bassline to "Rubberband Man" by The Spinners, which he did — or there was Doug Dunn playing "Green Onions" or something like that, I would be mesmerized, I would be completely engaged in it. I want to hear a song and I want to hear a part that weaves into the song, to give it support. But one that also goes beyond just root notes, having little passing things that really allow you to kind of direct the flow of traffic in the song.
My great challenge when I started was having James Taylor be the first guy I really started working with. Because James is probably one of the most comprehensive guitar players I've ever worked with. He always has a walking bass line thumb thing going on. He's really melodic and rhythmic in his playing. And I would sit there listening and ask myself: "What am I going to do on this one because he's already got the bass covered!" I would have to figure out what things I could do along with him. But then it afforded me the opportunity to step away from the bass, because he sort of had it covered in or it was indicated in his play. So I could go on and do other kinds of more melodic parts around it. And I think having started with him kind of set me in that focus of how to treat songs, even if the person I was working with wasn't that kind of a guitar player. It made me think of my bass lines in that way.
For so many players, when I hear something like that, that first or second take, really, unless the song is incredibly complicated and just needs a lot of working out… Generally, those first couple of takes are the ones. Man, you've closed down, and you are in this other cerebral level responding to it. I've done tracks where we've done 80 takes of a song, and you end up going with take three. But for some reason, the artist really was insecure and unsure, the producer was inexperienced and just kept wanting us to go and go. They want you to go until it's completely beaten to death. And I mean, it's your job. You've been hired and you do what they want you to do. But you're sitting there, just kind of going: "We've already got it!" In your mind you know: "We've already got this tune". I don't know what the hell they mean when they always say: "It's perfect. Let's just do one more." What the hell? If it's perfect, why is this one more required?" That generally is just lack of experience and lack of understanding of what's going on. But you're not signing the check, you weren't the person that hired you. So you have to just do what they want to do. You can throw in a suggestion, and they may say "cool", otherwise, they're just gonna go: "Ok, let's just try it again". It's different every day, and different with every song. The challenge is: every time a new piece of music comes in front of you, you're starting over again. Your thought process, your relationship to the music, and also every time you walk into a studio, there's different musicians in it, it's a different set of circumstances. The difference between playing with a drummer like Vinnie Colauita or Levon Helm… it's like the Grand Canyon is between them. You have to understand and work with both of them equally. That's the challenge in this. There's lots of challenges. But that's a big one, just addressing the song and the people you're working with.
Among the thousands of sessions you did, I suppose there must have been at least one or two that didn't work out that well. Did you have sessions where you thought: "Oh, this is not going anywhere?" Did you ever step out of a project?
No. To me, when the phone rings, you have two options. You can either say yes or no. And if you say yes, it comes with obligations. I've worked on lots of projects over the years where you kind of know we're just beating a dead horse, as they say. This is just coming in, but you still give it everything you've got to try to make it as good as it can be. There are times where you might do the best stuff you've ever played. And that person just going "yeah, whatever." Or you come in and the stuff's just not good and you give it your all— but at the end of the day, it's not your project. I try to always leave the studio feeling I've done my best job. Now whether or not this is ever going to be heard by anybody. So many of these things are vanity things or projects where they're really not sure where it's going and they've brought this together.
I've done some projects where it's either female or male artists, which are really good looking. The focus of the label or whoever is involved, is to get them out there because they think: If it's a great looking guy, then they're going to get the girls to really go crazy for him, regardless if the music sucks. Their priorities are on a different level. There are certain projects where you just walk away thinking: "This just sucks. You don't have to put my name on it if you don't want to." But when you commit to something, it's not yours to judge. You just go in and do the best job you possibly can.
It could be one of those things where they'll say: He really didn't like it, it wasn't working and they decided to do another album. And they might call you at that point. You go "No, I'm busy. Can't do it. Sorry." Just because you don't want to go through that again. But that's so rare. Most of the time, everything's really pretty good. And sometimes it's mind blowingly exceptional, and you just kind of walk out of there going, "Holy shit, this is unreal". The weird part of it is there have been those projects where I thought they just sucked but they became huge hits. And other stuff that I thought was some of the coolest stuff I ever worked on, never got released. You just don't know.
That's the part of this business that really is nebulous. It can be really cloudy, how this all works. Because there are other things that come into play that have nothing to do with the music. You have to know that you're going to also potentially be subjected to that kind of decision making. Do your gig to the best of your ability. Have a good time. Leave feeling good. And hopefully they bought your lunch. Yeah, people ask me: "What does a great producer do?" I said well, ultimately, you are working and they can tell that the band needs a break and it's a little hungry. So they order lunch and then they pay for it. That's a good starting point for a producer to make.
You even invented the so-called producer switch that can be found on your Frankenstein bass – a knob that does absolutely nothing.
Yeah, it was one of these things that came about because of the great Tommy Tedesco, who was probably the greatest studio guitar player I've ever worked with. I was doing a project with him. A TV show I think, it might have been Knight Rider or some show like that. But in the studio we worked behind sound baffles. So you would see only about this much of a guy's face, the rest would all just disappear. I'm sitting next to him. It was a pretty good size orchestra in the room. The conductor was across the room. He goes, "Hey, Tommy, could we hear an acoustic guitar in this?" So Tommy bends over and picks up this acoustic and he's playing a bit. And the guy goes "No. Do you have a mandolin?" And Tommy reaches down, picks up a mandolin through like a half a dozen instruments. And I'm dying next to him because Tommy only had his acoustic guitar sitting there. He just kept bending over, because the guy couldn't see the instrument. He just pretended he was picking up a different instrument each time and played it in a different position — until the guy finally heard what he wanted to hear. That was the genius of Tommy Tedesco, that he could make that instrument sound like anything you want. I looked at him and I just said: "I just learned more in the last five minutes than I learned in all of my junior high school, high school, college education" There's so many times where I would be in the studio and you'd have a producer go: "Can you make it shimmer? Can you make it more blue?" I mean, they didn't know how to express what they wanted. And so I finally went out and I got a switchcraft toggle switch, just drilled a hole and put it in. And then, if they would ask for things, I would make sure they could see me flip the switch. Then I would just play in a whole different position on the thing. They'd go: "That's great, man. Thanks." All I did was just move my hand to a little different location.
It became a kind of industry joke. A number of years ago, when Jim Roberts was the editor of bass player magazine… I'm not sure if you also do that over there, but in the States, April 1st is always called April Fool's Day. You have everybody playing jokes on each other. Well, every April issue, they would put in fake ads in bass player magazine that looked like real ads, but they were just jokes. They put one in one year for my producers switch and they said: "You have no idea how many people inquired and wanted to buy one of these". I thought I could have made a forshay charge of $25 for it. Because it was only like about a dollar and a half switch. It's just funny how these things become urban legends after a while. But I mean, it could work on me, too. If I'm sitting there and somebody goes: "Here's some options, check this out". And you see them working on a scope or something like that. Psychologically, you're telling yourself you're hearing something different even though you may not actually be.
Do you still practise?
I practice not so much like scales or things like that. But I try to play every day. I've got this tour coming up. I've got a stack of music here. I've been starting to go through all of that for the tour. I play a bit when I'm going to be playing on the videos. I've got this other gig coming up with Lyle Lovett, I'm going to have to go through 28 songs, I got to go through for that. And then I've got to start revealing all of our band's stuff so that when we start hitting the road, we're all up to speed. So I try to play every day. But it's not so much sitting down and doing rudiments, which is probably what I should be doing. Because your playing, as you get away from all that, can get sloppy at times. Not that anybody else is going to hear it but it's certainly something I'm seeing. I thought that by the time I got to this age, I would be out in the pasture with the cows. Because no matter what you want to call it, rock'n'roll, in your mind, is still a youth business. I've kind of thought by this time, who knows, I might just step in playing bass with some friends and doing some club gigs and weddings and stuff like that. Which we still do when they come along because I still enjoy those. But man, I never thought I'd be as busy as I am at this point in my life. Being able to set time aside to just really focus on practicing is almost impossible. For the way I live right now I could still use 25 hours a day, that wouldn't be enough. But if nothing else, I tried to keep my chops up certainly, to the level of the things that are demanded of me. I think if I sat down and somebody gave me a Victor Wooten transcription and said, here's what we want you to be going: "Call Victor, here's his number!" I think the hardest part of the entire pandemic was maintaining calluses. I was so used to playing all the time that my calluses were really thick. Now, all of a sudden, even when you're just sitting or playing at home, even if you're playing for a couple hours, it's not that intensity, it's not that focus. When all in our band all finally had their shot and actually started rehearsing together and writing together again, we all realized: We haven't stood and played in like a year. Everybody's been sitting in chairs at home. All of a sudden, standing up, the bass was in a different position. Muscles were responding slightly differently. That only lasted like a day or two. But it was like a psychological thing: I had never not stood up and played. But all of a sudden, for a year, there was no reason to be standing up here at home. So it's been really interesting. And the calluses came along with it. The first couple of days of playing, I was going "Man, these strings feel different than they've ever felt". But it's because I don't have that extra layer of callus on my fingers. That went away by lack of intensity and use. That's been the enlightening part of this whole thing. And hopefully that's behind us. I mean, the disease is far from over, there's lots of cases here in the States, especially certain areas of the country that still think it's all bullshit. They're way behind and these new variants are really taking hold down there. But living out here on the west coast, everybody was diligent. I think our vaccination rates are probably up in the 80 percents. So it's gotten a lot more open out here. But I'm still gonna be really cautious when I'm traveling. I'll wear a mask and distance myself from people because although I think I'm safe, I don't want to get anybody else sick. You know, it's a bizarre time in our history.