Stefan Lessard: The Best Of What's Around

Stefan Lessard reflects on his 27 years with Dave Matthews Band - and why the best is yet to come
By Jon D'Auria ,

It’s a gloomy, overcast day in Washington, D.C., where Stefan Lessard is holed up in a hotel room with the night off between concerts—but his demeanor is nothing but upbeat despite the rain. The 44-year-old has every reason to be happy, given that this day marks the release of Dave Matthews Band’s ninth studio album, Come Tomorrow. As prolific as DMB is known to be, given the group’s vast catalog of songs that fill out its three-and-a-half-hour marathon sets, this album marked the longest lull between records in its 27-year history. “I love making studio records and having our new music put out there on a regular basis, so going on six years was starting to get hard for me,” he says. “I definitely had the itch to get back in there. But we wanted to put out a record that said what Dave wanted to say at this very moment, which was a lot, so I’m glad we took our time on this one.”

Rodrigo Simas

And take their time they did, as their four-year process ended up spanning numerous studios in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Charlottesville, Virginia, and enlisting the help of four producers (Rob Cavallo, John Alagia, Mark Batson, and Rob Evans). Lessard even took some of the recording duties into his own hands, tracking parts on a portable studio in his Southern California home and sending them to Matthews and drummer Carter Beauford to bounce around song ideas. Wishing to depart from the acoustic-driven, earthy vibe of DMB’s previous album, Away From the World [2012, RCA], Lessard embraced a modern tone and a funk mentality, which forced him to revisit his roots from the band’s early days. His beautifully phrased, pocket lines on “Virginia in the Rain” and “Black and Blue Bird” expertly demonstrate his ability to balance his evolved playing and his highly melodic style.

In breaking his boundaries on bass, Lessard expanded his skill set by using Moog Taurus synth pedals to fill out the bottom under some of his lines, and he also honed his slap skills, thanks to inspiration from his longtime friendship with Victor Wooten. (The pedals and slapping both appear on the track “Again and Again.”) Having been known for switching basses often, nowadays Lessard stays mostly true to Music Man StingRays, thanks in part to his newfound penchant for slap and his subsequent revisiting of the playing of Louis Johnson. All of those factors make for a lot of change for a musician who has been in the same band since he was a wide-eyed 16-year-old, but Stefan has never been one to grow complacent with his craft. “The older I get, the more I realize that I don’t want to be just one type of player. I want to learn how to do it all—every technique and style of playing—and utilize opportunities to help me push myself on the bass and put myself out there. That’s what keeps it exciting.”

Rodrigo Simas

Every DMB album seems to come together in a different way. What was the process like this time around?

It started right after the 2014 Grammys, when Daft Punk took home all those awards. That marked the beginning of this sort of revival of synthesized funk music. Our previous record, Away From the World, was really organic and took us back to our first producer, Steve Lillywhite. It was a fun record to make, but I don’t think it was received the way we wanted it to be. So we decided to explore a modern take of who we are. We started off using producer Rob Cavallo. We weren’t trying to copy or be Daft Punk, but more so be the modern band that we’ve evolved into since the ’90s, and he led the way. We worked on a full body of music for about a year and a half. We were into the songs for sure, but when it came time to write the lyrics, Dave realized that the songs were missing something and needed more. We took a break before starting to write entirely new songs together. The process took twists and turns, and after a couple of years, we ended up with four different producers and a lot of material to work with. From there, we narrowed it down to this album.

What was your concept when writing your bass parts?

When I’m writing, I have a melodic style that I’ve always tried to stick with. I’ve tried to latch my playing onto either Dave’s riffs or Carter’s rhythms and throw in melodies somewhere in between. I’ve never been one to take over a song by playing slap bass. I come from a jazz background in the little time I played before I joined this band. But going into this record, knowing that we had been talking about bringing out the funkier side of DMB, I got into practicing and finding that voice. I’ve known Victor Wooten since I was about 20, and I’ve always been fascinated by his ability. I reflected on what he had shown me, and I started using double-thumb slapping [upstrokes and down-strokes with the thumb] and incorporating it into some of the songs.

Rodrigo Simas

So there were songs written where you exclusively slapped?

There were around six songs where I recorded nothing but standard slapping and double-thumbing on my Music Man, but they didn’t make the cut. “Again and Again,” which did make the album, is actually the first true slap-bass song that has ever been on a DMB album. But my slap parts made the overall bass tone kind of thin, so I brought in my Moog Taurus pedals, and we added that to that tune. I love that song, because it embodies the progression of my playing: using those foot pedals, slapping, and really going beyond the type of player I thought I was. This band has always encouraged me and pushed my playing to go in new directions. We’ll just keep evolving, because we continually try to raise the bar.

What kind of bass tone were you channeling for this album?

For certain songs, I was going for a funk sound that I’ve been dialing in for the past few years. But as a whole, I love deep reggae bass with a fat bottom, where the warm, round lows sit nicely with the kick drum. I love the tone I got on the song “Can’t Stop.” With our older records, sometimes I have to strain to hear what I was doing, because it got buried in the mix. In my head, the bass is right up there in importance with the vocals. I’ve learned to be more particular with what I dial in now, especially with us using four producers. That’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen.

Rodrigo Simas

“Virginia in the Rain” has a grooving line with a great muted tone.

That was recorded using my Warwick Thumb Bass. I used my thumb and index finger for the whole tune. When I play it live, I use my fingers for the chorus section to make it bigger, but I bring it back down muted for the verse. I don’t play the Warwick live, though, because unfortunately they’re heavy basses and my back disliked supporting one for three hours at a time. I’ve used that Thumb Bass a lot in the studio over the years. There’s a song on Big Whiskey [2009] called “In the Hands of God” where I use that bass, and I love the sound I got.

“Black and Blue Bird” has a very melodic line that cycles through three bars of 5/8 and one of 6/8. How was that written?

I heard a version of that song early in the process, when it was a fairly barebones idea. When I went in to record the song, I had a killer, almost solo line over the verses with lots of melody. The producer asked me to try following Dave’s bass notes from his guitar and going back and forth between that and what I had written. I learned what Dave was doing, and I merged the two parts to make that one bass line. When the melody goes down in register, I kind of go with the guitar part, and then when he goes up, I go into my own melodic line. I was definitely trying to channel Paul McCartney, playing bass into the vocal register.

Rodrigo Simas

Your style has evolved a lot from DMB’s early days. Do you still dig the lines you wrote back then?

It definitely has. I was 16 when I joined the band, and I had been playing bass for only a year and a half, if that, and my experience was all on upright. That’s a different headspace, a different stance, a different technique, and pretty much different everything. I can’t get away from those early bass lines, but I feel that they’re wrong. My technique was wrong, my fingering was wrong, I was looking at patterns instead of chordal structures—I was mainly focusing on what Dave was doing on the guitar. Even though there are bass lines on certain tunes that I’ve updated to fit my current style, I have a hard time with the older songs. Everyday [2001] and beyond would be my favorite material to play live. That was after I had progressed for 10 or 15 years and I knew more about modes, scales, chords, and placement.

You’ve always kept the neck of your bass almost vertical.

Starting out on upright shaped my form and how I hold the electric bass, and that stuck. Then, learning about Jamerson’s “hook” technique [plucking with only one finger] when I was young had a big impact on me. I really do use “the hook,” where my middle finger gets way more work than my index finger. I’m getting better at rotating the two and being more consistent with it. I’ve been incorporating my thumb a lot, too, for that muffled, muted sound.

DMB plays sets that run over three hours, from a huge catalog of songs. What’s a concert like from your perspective?

Laying it down and keeping it in the pocket are my two biggest goals when we’re out there. I like to lock in with Dave’s vocals, mostly because Carter is the type of drummer who accents everything that’s happening onstage. He can keep the kick and the snare in rhythm with the bass and guitar, but then his toms, hi-hats, and cymbals can easily embellish what’s going on with the horns. I’m lucky to be able to play with a drummer who can do all of that and support everyone with what they’re doing. We don’t use click tracks; we keep everything organic. In any given show, a particular song might sound fast, but that’s because we got excited and started it off fast. I try to go out each night with a completely open mind and be ready to do my best and play to the songs. I play to the audience, but I try to play to the song first so everyone has something solid they can bounce off.

Rodrigo Simas

What’s it like playing as a rhythm section with Carter after all these years?

I’ve played with a few other drummers on side projects here and there, but nothing comes close to playing with Carter. He’s one of the most musical drummers I’ve ever heard. I know that I’m never going to catch up to his abilities [rhythmically], but I can hear everything he’s saying when he plays and what he’s communicating to me as his bass player, and that means so much to me. There were times when it would all go over my head, and I would get lost or be looking for the one. Now I listen with more of a relaxed ear and I know what to dial in to.

Your musical taste gravitates toward heavier bands like Tool and A Perfect Circle. What have you been into lately?

I like all the popular hip-hop, and of course the old-school stuff like the Roots. I love ambient music, too, because it’s different from everything else. Especially after an intense show, it’s nice to put that on and just drone out to it. I’m not as in tune to new bands, but I do love the new A Perfect Circle record [Eat the Elephant]. It’s a beautiful album, and I dig how they just ease you into getting heavy. I’m super excited for the Tool album—Justin Chancellor is one of my favorite bass players. I’ve been checking out a lot of Jaco lately, especially his work with Pat Metheny; I’ve been learning Jaco’s solo from “Bright Size Life.” I’ve also been busting out my Real Books and have been sight-reading jazz again, including some Charlie Parker heads.

Why has bass always been your tool for expression?

For one, you’re always there. If you’re a sax player, you might be waiting around to play on a song; when you’re a bassist, you’re going to be playing on almost every single part of every song. And I love the idea of being an integral part of something without being the shiny chrome on top of it. I like understated things, so I enjoy that element of bass. That really matches my personality.

INFO

LISTEN

Dave Matthews Band, Come Tomorrow [2018, Bama Rags Recordings/RCA]

EQUIP

Bass Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay & StingRay 5, Fodera Monarch 4-string, fretless Modulus 5-string, Warwick Thumb Bass 6-string, Hill Guitars 4 & 5-strings, Hofner 500/1
Rig Eden WTP 900 Head, two Eden D810XT cabs, Eden WTDI preamps
Effects Hofner Chorus, MXR M85 Bass Distortion, MXR Bass Envelope Filter, T.C. Electronic Flashback Delay, T.C. Electronic Ditto Looper, Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synth, Electro-Harmonix POG
Strings Ernie Ball Super Slinky Bass Strings
Other Moog Taurus pedals, Furman SMP EVS-Lift, Shure AD4D wireless