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
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!
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
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
Other Dunlop .60 Ultex picks, Planet Wave cables and straps, Mono cases,
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.”