Tim Lefebvre Brings His Musical Moxie to the Mainstream

November 3, 2014

The visual for the hippest bassist on the scene is simple: 6'4", with scruffy locks and beard, and a low-slung, flatwound-strung P-Bass. His journey is bit more complex: a two-decade venture starting in Greenwich Village basement jazz laboratories, wending through sideman stints with a who’s who of major artists, and more recently lending global arena support to Southern rock royalty, while making cyber-stops with web-borne electronica stars. Tim Lefebvre (luh-FAVE) has become the bass player everybody wants to work with, thanks to his laid-back demeanor, choice-note grooves, scary-good ability to speak fluently in feels and genres both old and new to his ears, and a fearless improvisational sense. It's mostly the latter—which enables him to enhance a song musically or sonically via his mastery of effects pedals, adding fresh, signature moves to the textbook of bottom along the way—that has earned him hero status among working thumpers. Tim has the training and the experience, but these days his methods are that of a visceral visionary. Asked about the belt-level placement of his instrument, he offers, "The higher up you wear it, the more it makes you think about what you're playing. I don't want to think that much."

Born in Foxboro, Massachusetts on February 4, 1968, Lefebvre grew up in a musical family, including his middle-school music-teacher father, and siblings who played trumpet and guitar. While fooling around on his sister’s guitar, he played only the low strings, leading his dad to proclaim that he was a bassist. A school stint on sax ensued until 7th grade, when he was gifted with a Sears bass guitar, and he began thumping along with Eagles, Van Halen, and AC/DC albums. Guided by his brother’s interest in jazz, he joined his high school jazz band, while gathering the influences of Darryl Jones, Victor Bailey, and Marcus Miller. He also took on upright bass, with Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, and Charlie Haden in his ears. Tim enrolled in the University of Rochester as an economics/political science major, but was soon playing with students from the affiliated Eastman School of Music. Upon graduating, he followed a friend to work cruiseship gigs out of Florida. While working a cruise, he was introduced to drummer Zach Danziger, who was onboard vacationing. Heeding Danziger’s advice, Tim moved to New York City in 1993, working almost three years as an office manager before cracking the scene with Chuck Loeb, Leni Stern, and Bill Evans.

Over the next 18 years, Lefebvre’s reputation as a versatile doubler ran wild, leading to sessions, jingles, and TV and movie dates, the house bands of Saturday Night Live and the Caroline Rhea Show, stints with everyone from Donald Fagen and Chris Botti to Elvis Costello and Jamie Cullum, and an endless stream of jazz and experimental projects that resulted in genre-altering recordings by forward-minded artists like Wayne Krantz, Uri Caine, Donny McCaslin, and Rudder. Relocating to Los Angeles in 2011 for a recharge, Tim found that his plucking past preceded him, as he was quickly enlisted for live gigs and record and soundtrack dates. He also joined the cavalcade of bassists who served as road and studio replacements for Oteil Burbridge in the Tedeschi Trucks Band, making a deep enough impression that he was a invited to join TTB as a fulltime member. That’s where we began our wide-ranging conversation.

How did you get the gig with Tedeschi Trucks, and what is your approach?

I came on their radar through the recommendation of Jon Leventhal, after playing with him—he writes with TTB—and also from having jammed with drummer J.J. Johnson. In preparation, I learned all the songs and the relevant bass lines by Oteil Burbridge and the other great bassists on their records. Derek [Trucks] and Susan [Tedeschi] have never given me much direction, as long as what I play has the right intention. I don’t come from the Southern rock/jambass tradition, although I’ve been listening to it lately. I just try to keep it meaty and moving forward, especially given the size of the band, and I’m not using effects much—occasionally octaver and overdrive. The split between song and improvisation is about 70/30, so I have plenty of freedom to add my touch to the music. And there’s a point every show, in “Bound for Glory,” during Kofi Burbridge’s organ solo, where he and I bounce off each other and take it as far out as we want.

How about the two-drummer aspect?

That’s fun! J.J. and Falcon [Tyler Greenwell] play super-creatively together and have a great time feel, so there’s a big, fat pillow to sit on all night. I tend to play a little on top or right on the beat, and those guys sit back a little, so these past few months have been valuable for me in learning to play more on the back side. What’s cool is our front-of-house mixer has a mic on my rig for board recordings. So instead of the dreaded DI/no-EQ sound, I get a nice, wide amp sound that better represents where I played the notes and how they fit into the overall picture. The other element of the two-drummer lineup is that it’s often associated with the Allman Brothers, leading to expectations of long jams, but we’re more of a song band. We’ve been going down to Derek’s studio to work on new tunes for the next album, which I’m stoked about, and I look forward to trying different basses and sonic approaches for that.

Let’s turn to your experimental, improvisational side. Would you trace much of your growth and development in that area to your time with Wayne Krantz?

Actually, the first person to plant the risk-taking seed in me was Jaco. I listened to him a lot early on, but hearing “Madagascar,” the live track on Weather Report’s Night Pasasage [CBS, 1980], flipped me out. In the middle of their jam in a C minor sus tonality, Jaco changes the harmony by dropping down to an A, and you can hear Peter Erskine yell “Wooo!” But it was with Wayne that it all came together for me. Zach [Danziger] recommended me and I started rehearsing with Wayne at his pad, without amps, which immediately got my time and sound more together. On gigs he was adamant that I not play anything derivative. His message was, “Strive to play originally, at all times,” and when that comes from someone who has developed his own harmonic language and plays completely outside the box, it has a huge impact. The peak for me came when Keith [Carlock] joined. We were playing 55 Bar twice a week, working on Wayne’s concepts: intercut pieces with unrelated tempo and feel changes, stops and starts, dynamics, “freezing,” effect pedals—all while improvising for most of the sets. Keith was breaking new ground on drums; he was like a freight train, and Wayne became even more monstrous as a player and conceptualist. Some of the heaviest musical experiences of my life came in that band, and it continues to open new doors for me. Wayne instilled in me the confidence and ability to improvise in any context.

How did you get interested in electronic music?

Zach turned me onto it in the ’90s, and I first got to play it with him and with [drummer] JoJo Mayer. I was into the bass-heavy, dance-friendly sounds of artists like Dillinja and Groverider, and I got the artsy atmospheric side from artists like Photek, Plug, Squarepusher, and Karsh Kale. What caught my ear was that the bass lines were static, but they would evolve sonically—with filters opening and closing, distortion added, and so on. I view electronic music with a song sensibility; it’s just a different kind of statement than the usual verse and chorus. It’s about having a good melody and a good beat, to keep people dancing.

How would you describe your role on Mark Guiliana’s new electronica CD, Beat Music?

Mark is one of the most creative musicians I know: thoughtful and fresh-sounding in any genre. He has taken the live electronica concept to an exciting new place with his awesome drumming. The album is improvised electronic music played entirely in real time, with no loops or overdubs. Usually, we’re working off an eight-bar phrase, and the only instruction from Mark is when he wants me, Jeff Babko [on keyboards], or Troy Zeigler [on electronics] to play by ourselves or with one other player. My approach was to provide a bass line that would support and enhance the music, and to change it up gradually, both sonically, via effects, and by altering the line. I would react to what was going on by asking myself, What would the bass be doing on an electronica track right now? Another trick I use, when the performance turns overly electronic, is to bring in clean bass, playing retro R&B grooves, or I’ll grab a pick and play a Beach Boys-style bass line—like the way DJs drop in old school samples and beats. [Saxophonist] Donny McCaslin’s upcoming CD, with me, Mark, and [keyboardist] Jason Linder is a similar, hard-hitting electronica album with a bit more of a dub/reggae vibe.

How did you hook up with the electronica duo Knower?

Louis Cole is a fan of Wayne Krantz and Rudder—you can hear the influence of Keith Carlock and Nate Wood in his drumming— so when I moved to L.A. he asked me to do some gigs with him and Genevieve Artadi. I dug their music, which is pretty forward-thinking, and they were kind enough to have me on some tracks. Louis is a great drummer, and he has an amazing feel and unique sound on keyboards and keyboard bass. The challenge with many web-minded artists like Knower is that video footage of the song being recorded is part of the equation. Which meant cutting the “Lady Gaga” medley—a very tricky bass part that Louis wrote— took two hours to film, even though it was only 16 bars long.

What was your initial attraction to effects, and how do you get your signature, dubby “808” sound?

I started out with an octaver pedal after hearing Darryl Jones use one during Sting’s “Consider Me Gone.” It blew my mind; he kicked it on and without playing anything different, he enhanced the music dramatically. I’m mostly into effects for the sonic aesthetic— to drive the music and make it a little more exciting without the crowd really knowing why, as opposed to using effects as a soloing tool. My two main colors are an octaver pedal and some kind of overdrive. As for the “808” sound, JoJo [Mayers] first encouraged me to do it. I was hearing it on dance records and I wondered how to get that sound. What I found, on my Boss OC-2, was if I turned off the octave 2 and direct level knobs, and turned octave 1 almost all the way up, I got something close to that dancehall-reggae, 808 tone. Now, 3Leaf Audio has made me a custom “Octabvre” box with a “sub” solo button, so I can get my 808 sound without having to bend over and turn knobs. It has the sine wave of the OC-2 and the Mu-Tron Octave Divider.

What are the keys to becoming fluent in multiple styles?

For me, it starts with motivation and preparation. I’m always nervous that I’m going to suck, so I bring my ‘A’ game every time. I learn the music thoroughly before coming to the gig or session. Genre-wise, I may not get the exact notes and tone, but I’m pretty good at capturing the intent of the music and getting to the essence of the feel, even with limited exposure to it. For example, I don’t come from a Willie Weeks bag, but having been fortunate to meet him and watch him play and just own it, that rubbed off on me and comes out in my playing when called for.

What’s your approach on a session?

I got to watch Bob Glaub record recently, and he has a whole history of songs that he played on to draw from. By comparison, I draw from four or five general concepts: a melodic McCartney approach; a super-spacey, dark approach, with lots of slides and playing mostly on one string; a busy, notey approach; maybe a rhythmic R&B take. There’s a sweet spot of activity between playing too much and not enough that I look for. Generally, I like to thread together the chord changes with my part, to provide a sort of counterpoint to the melody. I try to make my line climb or descend at some point, to add motion and make something musical happen. Producers and artists usually want that in some form. And then there’s the sonic side: finding the right bass for the track. In that way, I fit in well here in L.A. because we bassists are all going to play somewhat similarly on a given song, so the sound factor becomes a key—even after the manipulation of tracks that’s so common now.

You’re known for what you call your “broken lines” approach. Can you explain it?

The root of it was D’Angelo’s Voodoo album [Virgin, 2000], with Pino Palladino, who is my favorite bassist. I was aware of Pino’s great ’80s and ’90s pop output, but this was an earthquake album for me. The rhythm-section concept, with Pino laying way back and putting phrases in odd spots, gave the music a push and pull tension that was really special. I remember trying it with Zach for fun; I called it surfboard bass, bending and weaving, and hopefully bringing the line back on one. I first got to apply the Voodoo vibe on a Till Brönner track called “Oscar Said” [from Blue Eyed Soul, Verve, 2002]. For it to work, there has to be someone in the rhythm section referencing metronomic time. A good way to develop it is by playing to a click and messing with the eighth-note after the downbeat; lag it so it’s almost a triplet. From there you can experiment with taking a phrase and stretching it within the bar line, or even across the bar line; maybe delay the first part of a phrase and finish it in a flurry, or vice versa. Eventually you’ll become comfortable playing freely within a given space.

What’s the state of your upright playing?

I’ve been practicing and recording a lot, and getting together with players like Linda Oh and Larry Grenadier in New York, and David Piltch and Michael Valerio in L.A. I learn a great deal from simply watching them play. They all have so much command and such big sounds that they make the instrument as powerful as the bass guitar. More important, beyond the notes, they have the conceptual side together. It’s what they bring to the music with their minds, which is what I strive for. I’m finally getting to the point where I can be creative on the upright, instead of just being functional. I’m able to use the same toolbox I draw from on bass guitar. We’re talking about bringing out an upright with Tedeschi Trucks, for the acoustic portion of the set.

What can you offer about your transition between New York and L.A.?

After 18 years in New York, I felt like I needed a change of scenery. Once I fell out of the rotation at Saturday Night Live, there was no steady work to keep me there. Some New York friends had moved to L.A and done well, so I came out, and fortunately I had made enough connections that work happened right away. I’ve done film and TV soundtracks, played on a bunch of pop and jazz records, including Toto and Corinne Bailey Rae, and I’ve done a lot of club gigs at places like the Blue Whale. The bassists out here have been very supportive, recommending me. What’s different from New York is there’s more of the industry here. There’s more business going on, which means there’s always the potential for something to happen—people are always looking for material, which is good from the writing side. And there’s a more concentrated amount of super-talented players. I’ve met a slew of great pop/rock textural guitarists, for example. Of course the weather and quality of life are hard to beat, as well.

What lies ahead, and what are some longer-range goals?

Tours with Tedeschi Trucks, Donny McCaslin, Mark Guiliana’s Beat Music, and Michael Wollny will keep me on the go into next year. I have a project with Gary Novak called Superego, where we team up with different artists and genre-mash. I’m also trying to maintain my writing side—everything from jingles to pop songs to electronic dance music. At this point, I’m most comfortable collaborating with other writers. One of my goals is to write an EDM hit, like “Clarity” by Zedd. Other than that, I’m most fulfilled getting out and playing creative music, no matter the venue or audience size. It’s more difficult now that I’m busier, but my policy has always been: Say yes until further notice!

INFO

LISTEN

Mark Guiliana, Beat Music: The Los Angeles Improvisations [Beat Music Productions, 2014]; Michael Wollny Trio, Weltentraum [ACT Music, 2014]; Andy Snitzer, The Rhythm [Native Language Music, 2013]; Donny McCaslin, Casting for Gravity [Greenleaf Music, 2012]; Peter Eldridge, Mad Heaven [Palmetto, 2011]; Emily Zuzik and Tim Lefebvre, Domestic Blitz [TLC, 2010]; Wayne Krantz, Krantz-Carlock-Lefebvre [Abstract Logix, 2009]; Rudder, Matorning [Care, 2009]; Oceans 12: Music from the Motion Picture [Warner Bros., 2004]; David Binney, Balance [Act, 2002]; Till Brönner, Blue Eyed Soul [Verve, 2002]; Uri Caine, Bedrock [Winter & Winter, 2002]; Boomish, Clearance Sale [Escapade, 2000]

EQUIP

Basses Moollon P-Classic (with flatwounds), P-Classic (with roundwounds), J-Classic 5-string, fretless J-Classic; Callowhill OBS-5; ’68 Fender Precision, ’65 and ’77 Jazz Basses; Gibson EB-2; Guild/DeArmond Starfire; ’50s Matthias Thoma acoustic bass with Gage Realist pickup and Pirastro Evah Pirazzi strings; American Standard acoustic bass with Realist and D’Addario Zyex strings Strings D’Addario Chromes Flat Wounds (.050–.105); D’Addario XL Half Rounds (.050–.105); DR Strings Legend flatwounds (.045–.105)
Rig Ampeg SVT-VR head with SVT-810E cabinet, vintage B25-B head; Aguilar Tone Hammer 500 head with SL 112 cabinet
Effects Boss OC-2 Octave and RE-20 Space Echo; Dunlop Way Huge Pork Loin Overdrive and Carbon Copy Analog Delay; Custom 3Leaf Audio pedalboard with Octabvre octave pedal and You’re Doom fuzz pedal; Darkglass Electronics Microtubes Vintage and Microtubes B7K bass preamp; Electro-Harmonix Frequency Analyzer; TC Electronic Röttweiler Distortion; Line 6 Tap Tremolo; Pigtronix EP2 Envelope Phaser
Recording signal chain Bass into passive Radial JDI, into Neve 3104 or Vintech X73i mic pre, into HCL Solution S2 tube compressor, into Apogee Duet or MOTU Traveler-mk3
Other Dunlop .60 Ultex picks, Planet Wave cables and straps, Mono cases, German-style bow

LeGrooves

Tim Lefebvre has a gift for being able to ground music firmly, while remaining buoyant and free in his improvisational interaction. Example 1 shows the five main ways Lefebvre approaches the New Orleans-tinged 7/8 groove of “Jackass Surcharge,” from Rudder’s 2009 album Matorning (featuring Henry Hey on keys, saxophonist Chris Cheeks, and drummer Keith Carlock). Says Tim, who played his ’65 Jazz Bass with only the neck pickup on, “These are basically all of the ways I feel seven. Keith is playing a twobar phrase, so I thought I’d play a one-bar phrase against it, which gives it a cool lilt.” Phrase your 16ths in-between straight and swung.

Example 2 contains eight bars of Lefebvre’s flatwound-strung Moollon P-Bass part on the pre-chorus of Knower’s 2013 cover of “Get Lucky” (from 0:54–1:08). Laughs Tim, “Louis Cole said, ‘Just play a lot of notes.’ So I went for it, stream of consciousness-style, and the sloppy sound— due to my poor execution because I rarely play that busily—ended up having a vibe!” Play it with the same loose approach, but be sure to nail the one.

Finally, Ex. 3 is from “Did You See That Catch?” off Mark Guiliana’s Beat Music album. After improvising an eight-bar bass line on his Moollon P with an octaver pedal, Tim goes back to a clean sound here, at 1:22, while continuing to embellish the part. Bars 7 and 8 in particular allude to his “broken bass line” concept. In bar 9, first heard at 2:04, he closes the track with a repeated one-bar phrase that ventures deeper into “broken” territory. Listen as he stretches and pulls the phrase, and emulate. He stresses, “Mark is playing straight time, which allows me to move around freely.”

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