Web Exclusive: Unedited Steffan Lessard Interview

 Web Exclusive: Unedited Steffan Lessard Interview
By BassPlayer ,

STEFAN LESSARD INTERVIEW – 4/25/09, NASHVILLE, TN

Stefan, how are you doing?

Good. How are you doing?

Doing really, really good.

It’s finally warming up here.

Yeah, it’s nice out and it’ll be nice and warm when you guys are playing tonight.

That’s the way I like it. I like it a little sweaty. A little humidity.

Your fingers kinda fly on the strings a little bit?

Yeah, a little natural “Fret-Ease” or whatever that stuff’s called! [laughing]

GEAR

I’m just gonna ask you a few gear questions right off the bat. The basses that you’re using now. What are they? What are the main ones that you’re using?

Live, right now, this one is my new baby, the Ken Smith. It’s a 5-string, so for my 5-string songs I have this one out there. I’m using a Hill, which is a 4-string. My 4-string bass is a Hill bass.

That’s a custom job, right?

John Hill, yep. He now works for Dean Guitars. He started off working for Dean and he went and started his own bass and guitar company, and then came back.

Is your John Hill a 4 or a 5?

I have a 5 and a 4. I play both. So far I’ve been playing this Ken Smith [5] now. The spacing on it is a little more to my liking. But the 4-string Hill bass, to me, is one of my favorite 4-strings I’ve ever played. We used it in the studio. We kept bouncing it back between a Ken Smith 6-string that I had, and then John’s 4-string. For the more rock songs and the modern songs, the 4-string just really shines.

In the studio I used a Fender P-Bass ’67, a 1967 bass I have. It’s in incredible condition. I got it a couple of years ago, but you could tell it was really loved, because it’s worn out and someone really played the hell out of it, which is awesome.

[question about what model the Ken Smith is…Stefan doesn’t know…talk about origin of current Smith 5]

What are you using for a fretless?

I use a Modulus. I’ve been using the Modulus fretless for a long time, same exact one.

So, the Modulus fretless, this [Ken Smith] for the 5, and the Hill for the 4.

Yeah. Spreading the love.

And your live rig?

For the live rig, I‘m using the IK Multimedia Stomp IO. And that’s fairly new. I started using that last year. We run it through a Mini-Mac, a little monitor on stage. But I’m still using the [Ampeg] 8x10’s onstage…and we power those with the [Ampeg] SVT [4] Pro.

So you use that just as a power amp?

As a power amp. And I’m on wireless, Shure wireless. I’m sending a clean signal to the house, and I’m also sending them a wet signal.

When you send a clean [signal] to the house, does it go through some kind of tube D.I.?

It goes through a direct [box]. Actually…[Stefan pulls out a piece of paper with the entire flow chart of his rig drawn on it][it ’s a] Countryman direct box.

Dude, I have to have a copy of that!

Sure. My bass tech did it because they’re changing it all the time, so I asked him to just…to me, I go up there, and it’s just like, me on a computer. But there’s a lot more going on.

[Stefan and BB talk about the flow chart, BB gets OK to take it with him from Stefan...they discuss random details]

I should say I just picked up a Hamer 12-string bass, so that’s gonna make a debut sometime this year.

[more discussion of the rig flow chart, crosstalk…talk turns to number of 8x10 cabs onstage, which is 2]

We did have three [cabinets] up there, and after using in-ears for a while, the front-of-house sound tech was kind of like, “You know, there’s a lot of bass coming off the stage…if you help me out by taking one of the speakers out, I don’t think you’re gonna missing it.” For the longest time I did have three.

What’s the controller for the Stomp IO like?

It’s awesome. I love it.

How many buttons is it?

There’s four I can scroll through, and then there’s two for up and down. And there’s others on there but that’s all I’m really using. And then there’s a volume pedal, or a wah pedal that’s connected to it, and…I mean, I’ve just started fine tuning some of my own effects and my own sounds. I have one now that, [on] our single that just came out, “Funny The Way It Is,” Dave’s actually playing a guitar synth on the front of that tune. But I was messing around with what it might sound like with a bass volume pedal with a synth-y type pad on it. So I started doing that and everyone loved it, so now that’s another sound – I’m using that sound. Tim Reynolds, who’s out with us, a guitar player, he does a lot of swells on the guitar, but then there’s times when he has to move to something else, and if I’m not playing it, I like to fill in. I love playing swells on the bass. I think it’s a beautiful way to use the bass inside of a tune when the bass isn’t actually laying down the 4.

When you’re in the studio, do you have a default signal path for certain things? A clean and a dirty?

Yeah. I didn’t use the [IK] Multimedia in the studio. In the studio we used…I have a cheat sheet…

Oh my god, you are the best!

I need it because they try things all the time in the studio! I use the SVT, the VR [Vintage Reissue] head, which is awesome. This was not the old one, but was one that they came back out with…it’s an old SVT head, and then Ampeg reissued them. The newer ones, some of them you can get and they sound better than the older ones. This one that [producer] Rob Cavallo had just was awesome. And we used the Klon [Centaur] pedal…the Klon pedal is made by this guy, it’s a handmade pedal, and it’s really for guitar. It’s kind of an edgy, distortion-type pedal. But you stick that in there with a bass…

Is it like a slight overdrive?

Yeah, it gives it a little bit of an edge, and it just worked perfectly. So that was the majority of it. And then we used the SVT 8x10 cabinet. That was the mike. In fact, for some of the tunes they put that in the big room, and put a few mikes up around the room, to get a really nice, big, open bass tone. And then they had direct.

Was there a particular direct box?

Yeah, an [Éclair Engineering] Evil Twin.

What strings do you use?

I’ve been using – [points to the Ken Smith bass] – these are the Ken Smith strings, for the Ken Smith. And then we use the handmade strings, the Thomastik [Infeld]. The only thing that’s changed is with the Ken Smith, we’re using his strings.

CURRENTLY SPINNING

What are three CD’s that you’re listening to?

Three CD’s…well, I hate to admit it, this is totally not a very musical answer, but I’m listening to a lot of Lonely Island, which is Andy Samberg from Saturday Night Live, he has, it’s like a rap album. And it’s him and his band called Lonely Island. Jack Black’s on it…a lot of them are skits, off of SNL, the musical skits. I don’t know if you know that tune “Lazy Sunday”? It’s a funny record and it’s a lot of fun to listen to. My wife makes fun of me because I’m starting to learn all the raps off this record. T-Pain’s on there. I’m listening to that one…

It’s hard now with iTunes, you’re always listening to bits and pieces. I’m listening to the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack a lot. I grew up listening to a lot of Hindu music when I was younger. My parents were lovers of Hindu music, and so I like the modern take. The whole Bollywood sound is really cool, and I try to incorporate that any way I can. And there’s some beautiful songs off that record.

And then I’ve been listening to Linine. A Brazilian artist. He’s a very folky sort of singer/songwriter, but he has an incredible band, and the rhythms are very Brazilian.

[BB asks if there’s an album in particular…Stefan doesn’t know…looks it up in his iTunes…]

I’ve been listening to a lot. I’ve been listening to Adele…I’ve been listening to a lot of Brian Keane…a lot of soundtrack music…the new Chemical Brothers…Damien Marley, sticking to my reggae roots…Isis…Kings of Leon…oh, this album’s just named Linine. But there’s a few records of his. And the one that I don’t have on here, which turned me on to Linine, is a picture of a flaming car on the front cover. When I was in Brazil I was talking to some friends of mine…they actually took me to the record store. I was picking up a bunch of bass players from Brazil, so I was going through the record stuff, and I was like, “You know, I like Linine, I know he’s not a bass player, but I love his band and everything,” and they were like, “Linine is like the Dave Matthews of Brazil!” He sings about everyday things, and the people, but his band’s always real rockin’. He grew up playing guitar in the samba schools…he has a very real live music about him.

CAN BE HEARD ON

[What are] the three most [recent records] you’re on? Obviously the new record is one, but then you’ve got the other two.

The Grand Canyon Adventure soundtrack.

What is the Grand Canyon Adventure for people who are wondering?

It’s an IMAX film about the Grand Canyon and water conservation…it features our music, but I also did…I composed the score.

So it’s an actual motion picture soundtrack…what would be the third one?

That I’m on…Warren Miller’s Children Of Winter. It’s a movie. I’m in the movie, snowboarding in the movie, but I’m also getting together with other musicians, and we put together a glorified cover band called Yukon Cornelius.

BB NOTE – Stefan requested to add 10,000 Days by Tool!!

INTERVIEW

What’s the single biggest influence on your playing since Stand Up came out? And how did whatever that was affect what you tracked on Big Whiskey?

I’d have to say, going outside from Stand Up, I’ve done these other side projects, the Grand CanyonAdventure, where I actually scored with Steve Wood, and with our music, deconstructed that music a little bit, and came up with different themes that happened. So my mind was thinking very film, very…further away from the typical, “make a record and go play the record.” Very music-to-image, really, which I love doing. And I guess when you play a live show you’re given an image right in front of you, but when you’re in the studio you stick up a picture of something on the wall, or you have to create your own images. But that was one influence, was just working in that style and that capacity.

Another is…I’ve just been listening to a lot of soundtracks. I’ve been listening to a lot of music that’s not necessarily pop, or on the radio, and just try to fill myself up with as much as possible musically. And then outside of that, just try to dig into some bass players I haven’t really heard of, or didn’t listen to when I was growing up. My influences are James Jamerson, Charles Mingus, Jaco Pastorius, and Justin Chancellor of Tool. To me, living-wise, [he ’s] my biggest idol, what he does in that band. So, going into this record, I was sort of ready to take myself to that kind of place.

I also wanted to get back into working as a band, as a unit, as one thing, rather than Stand Up which was more about separation of our different styles and our different personalities. I really wanted to lock in with [drummer] Carter [Beauford], and I really wanted to be right there melodically with Dave’s voice, and with what was happening with the guitars. So I think that was another inspiration.

How about other influences non-musical, like the loss of LeRoi, and the fire, life in general…where does that factor in?

Whenever Dave mentions anything about “house on fire,” which he does on a few of our songs – I think “Funny The Way It Is” actually there’s a part about a house of fire – that hits me. The visual, like I was talking about, with visual images…one of the reasons I love this record is because I feel like Dave and his lyrics [have] provided so [much] visual imagery for the music. That affected me just in realizing that life is very important, and to play and have fun playing while you’re at it is really probably one of the most important things to do while you’re in the middle of performing. It’s so easy to, if things aren’t going right, like the sound’s not going right, or something doesn’t feel right, you’re not really in the pocket…it’s so easy to get frustrated, and wish you were off doing something else when it’s not perfect.

But losing LeRoi, and being close to a situation where I could have lost my life, I’ve really had a new appreciation now about being in the studio, and being onstage. And whenever I get that chance to play, I’m playing like it’s my last show, and I enjoy every note and every minute. Even when I mess up, it’s part of the learning experience.

How much was tracked live in the studio? On tunes like “Lying In The Hands Of God,” it sounds like there was a real jam going on in the end there. How much of the record was done like that?

Well, that one – it’s funny you said that, because I always use that as an example of a tune that did not come from New Orleans. That one came out of Seattle, and that one came – that was one track, and when we started to re-cut it in New Orleans, we just couldn’t get back to that magic that had happened for that moment, and so we kept it.

That one’s like, that, “Lying In The Hands Of God.” “Spaceman” is another one. Same thing. Just something was happening…when you’re creating and you’re in that moment, and all of a sudden it’s coming out of you, and you’re like, “Oooo, I could do this here, I could do this there…” you’re not thinking, “This is what I do here, this is what I do there.” You’re like, “Oh, this could go there, or I could do this…” And there’s a dancing that happens between everyone playing. And sometimes when you start to hone in on your parts, you’re still dancing, but you’re not dancing in a discovery situation. So those two tunes in particular both came from Seattle, and they just captured us while we were dancing with each other.

So some of the record was recorded in Seattle, and some of it was recorded in New Orleans…

What happened [in terms of] the timeline – it started in Virginia. We played small 10-minute jams in Virginia just to come up with ideas, just to get things out. Out of those jams we had maybe 20 that are possibly able to be turned into songs. So we went to Seattle. And in Seattle we worked full as a band, in a room in [Studio] Litho, and started writing songs off of these jams. There’s one, “Why I Am,” and the jam was pretty much just like…[sings main riff from “Why I Am”]…with variations of that for about 10 minutes. So we took that, and we’re like, “There’s something there.”

So a lot of the writing happened in Seattle. Once we sort of figured an arrangement, we’d go in the studio, try and hash it out, play it through a few times. But we knew we weren’t doing it to track. We knew we were doing it just to create. But out of that, some magic happened. And then at the end of the summer, that’s when we went to New Orleans…and that’s where we started taking these songs and getting the sounds for the record.

Tell me about your thoughts on what went into the basslines on the following tracks: “Lying In The Hands Of God” – that really wide register, and that almost-dub feel, it’s really high, really low, kind of stuttering…

That one…I love reggae bass and dub bass, and when I was a teenager I was listening to Bob Marley, and Pata Pata, and Steel Pulse, and everything I could get in the reggae section of the record store. That was just one where it just started flowing, and the way Carter’s playing, it just really fit so I could play a lot of triplets, and a lot of, sort of, moving…and it didn’t really matter where I was – I could be low for a second, and then I could go high, and then I could swim around with Carter. That one happened in a state of where I wasn’t trying to play anything other than I was trying to create what I might be playing [on the final recording]. So that was very spontaneous, that whole bassline.

“Shake Me Like A Monkey,” the changing time signatures on the outro chorus, when it keeps looping around there?

Yeah. You’re counting! The outro, the drumfills before the very end, the last part.

Exactly.

Well, for that one, it’s just really sticking to that pop bassline. Even though the time signature’s changing, you don’t want to make it really necessarily feel like it’s changing. That’s the one tune, as far as a bass player, I was probably trying to channel Tony Levin in there at some point, because that was another bass player that I admire, and I draw a lot from his style of playing for a lot of the tunes. And for “Shake Me Like A Monkey,” I was just thinking, “What would Tony do here?”

“Spaceman” – in that tight, offbeat main verse groove.

That was another magical moment that happened, so there wasn’t too much thought process in “What am I going to be playing?” It was more, “What do I play right now?” In a way it’s more of a jam-style bassline, because it comes from more of a spontaneous, improvisational style than something that I really thought out. For example, “Why I Am” is kind of a thought-out bassline, and that’s thought out because I had a chance to think about it, where “Spaceman,” it was just sort of like…we wrote the changes and we sort of knew the arrangement, let’s go in the studio and let’s just see if it sounds alright.

For that one, I like to drop out the ‘1’.I like to not play the ‘1’. Even though I hit it every once in a while, I like my main line to be off of the ‘1’ and that tune seemed to be perfect for it. It reminded me of a tune called “One Sweet World” that we have, and it’s not the same groove, but it’s the same concept. I like to dance around it…then when you hit the ‘1’ for the choruses, it just…[makes sound of an explosion]…

When I was in high school we had a guy come over, and he was from…I want to say Puerto Rico, I was little…but his big thing was, “You never play the ‘1’, bass players never play the ‘1’!” So I was like “ugh,” ‘cause I’d go play pop and rock and everything, and I’m like, “No, we do play the one!” I like to know where the ‘1’ is. If we don’t know where the ‘1’ then we’re in trouble, but not playing it doesn’t mean we don’t know where it is.

And… “Seven”.

“Seven” is a big one. [The way] it started off, I was playing the whole guitar line on “Seven.” And then when we were recording it after we got the drum tracks, Rob Cavallo was like, “You know, we really just need the punches. You could really make those punches big. That’s gonna say more at that spot than if you follow the guitar line.”…We wrote the groove, the main part you hear. And then Dave added the chunk-chunk-chunk, and then he added the 5 section. So when we went back after the summer, when we went to New Orleans, I was trying to figure it out, because before it was all just in 7…

That’s the one tune I worked on for the longest in the studio when I was overdubbing. I was doing about four or five tunes…I think I recorded overdubs for four or five days and I did everything pretty quickly. A lot of takes are one or two takes, there wasn’t a lot of chopping up…but that tune, when I got to that 5 section…[laughs]…I was like [throws up hands], “What do I do here?” And so we did the 5’s on the 1’s, and then we played up high, and what I did is I took my P-Bass for the bouncy bassline you hear in the 5 section, and put a piece of foam underneath the strings to kind of get a dampered…

Deaden it up.

Yeah. And it worked. How I’m gonna do that and play the big notes live, I’m still trying to work out.

Is it in the [live] set?

Nah, not tonight. We haven’t played it yet. We’ll break it out. We’re trying to save a lot of these until the album’s actually released. We have three new ones, and we’ve been playing around with the idea of maybe bringing out one more.

Tonally, gear-wise, are you exploring anything new for the tour?

Yeah, I’m really trying to hone in on it [the IK Multimedia], and one of the things I’m discovering is that you don’t need to have your bass running through a bass amp at all times if the song calls for something different. So a lot of the effect patches I have, I’m actually going through the metal guitar amps. I’ll put on a volume pedal, a flanger, there’s a whole Jimi Hendrix, all his amps and all his pedals—

So you’re saying that the wet signal that you send to the front-of-house, sometimes you’ll use a guitar modeling amp if you’re doing something really kind of wild?

Exactly. Those moments don’t happen too much for me, but when they do – like, for the example, for “Funny The Way It Is,” I was just messing around with sounds, and I just happened come across this sound. It’s like a bass, and little bit of a synth sort of sound that swells up with it.

But I really love that I haven’t had a single problem live. I was worried for a while, you know, computers, is it gonna freeze on me, or is the pedal gonna freeze? That was my biggest fear, it freezing up and then losing my sound. And it hasn’t happened at all. They’ve been great. I’m just really psyched with this new frontier of bass modeling. Fender now is in the mix too, there’s a Fender one, and Ampeg’s there, it’s pretty cool.

What’s the biggest challenge for you as a bassist, touring at such a huge level for such long stretches at a time? As a bassist, how does it show up as a challenge?

As a challenge? To be honest? Practicing. Shedding. Progressing forward as a bass player, not getting stuck in doing what you’re so comfortable doing, trying to put yourself in situations where you’re learning. This band has been my home, and it’s been my school, and other than about six months worth of lessons before I joined up with this band. I’m self-taught inside this band. At times you feel like they’re helping you out, and at other times you’re kind of out there on your own.

I was in New York the other night, and onstage I was playing against Jeff Coffin, who’s playing sax now with us, and the thought came to my head: “I really need lessons!” [laughs] And I’m like, “Why am I thinking this?!” But it’s true, I really do need lessons! Then I started thinking about it more, and I’m like, “Maybe I don’t need lessons, what I need to do is do what I was doing, and grab my workbook, start playing through the exercises, reading music. Because outside of the music that I’m playing in this band, there’s other music I love to play and I love to listen to, and I want to learn how to score. So there’s this whole world of music that, because I didn’t go to school…I feel good when it comes to the feel, and playing with a pocket. I feel really good about that. But when it comes to soloing, I’m still…I always struggle when it comes to just playing solos that I really feel good about. I’m getting there.

That’s my biggest challenge. You’re always going and going, and on a day off sometimes, it’s like, “Do I really want to practice for three hours?” And then I go home, and I have two kids, and a family, and I need to spend time with them too, so there’s this whole disconnect from the root of what I do, of being a bass player, and continuing, trying to grow as a bass player. This year, my biggest thing is just to stay in that pocket. That’s the most important thing for a bass player, I believe, is to be in the pocket. Because you can be a chops demon, but if you can’t play in the pocket, it just sounds all over the place. I mean, we have some incredible players up on stage with us. I can try and follow them, or I can try and really be that rooted bass which I think they need.

Where do you see yourself as a player and a band in five years?

Probably right here. Hopefully a stadium! I think this record’s gonna have some legs on it, and I have a feeling in five years’ time we’ll have another record. We definitely had a great formula for this record, and I think it’ll go into our next record. So there will be more really good live music and really good organic music coming out of us, and music that will be able to go from the record to the stage pretty seamlessly, without…that was a hard one for Stand Up, because the songs in Stand Up, the way they were created and written, to play them live, it really took some time for us to really make them our own. But in five years I see…and hopefully Yukon Cornelius will be out, and Dee Snider will be the singer for my other band.

Is Yukon Cornelius going to open for Dave Matthews?

One day? Sure! [laughs] Sure, why not! It’s great – we play “Psycho Killer” in Yukon, and now we’re doing “Burning Down The House” in this band. Talking Heads!

What is the one thing you wish bassists knew about you that they don’t already know?

Hmmm, good question. [long pause] That’s a good question. I think…well, for one, the style that I play in this band is maybe 10% of the style of bass that I like to play. And as a bass player, I strive to play in all sorts of genres of music. Luckily with band, I’m able to get little teases and tastes of those different styles. But as a player, I love taking the bass where normally bass wouldn’t go, whether it’s in a movie soundtrack, or…there’s a lot of places where bass guitar is the melody on top of a song, but not necessarily in a situation where you’re expecting it, but in a situation where you’re not expecting it. That’s where I like to put myself.

But mostly…I think I’m rambling, but…as a bass player, I’m not comfortable where I am now, and I’m always wanting to learn and expand my knowledge and expand my playing, and I think that every moment you play, you have to play as if it’s your last show and your last notes, but at the same time, you can never expect that your at that spot where you don’t have any more to give, or any more to learn. That’s the biggest thing for me, to be an inspiration to other bass players not only just to want to be where I’m at as a musician, but also [to] really want to continue learning.

You talk to great bass players – Victor Wooten, being one – and you never get the sense that they’re done learning what they’re learning. And I think that that’s the most important thing.