By Sune Schack
Welcome to Denmark … ;o)
How old are you, Uncle Will?
At the moment we’re speaking I’m 51. But at the time anybody reads this, I’ll be 52, because my birthday is September 8th.
You’ve been playing on the Dave Letterman show for 24 years, what that’s like?
The Letterman show is really easy for me, because when I’m there it’s just like turning on the TV and watching a really entertaining show. TV is my favourite drug and I don’t get enough TV as it is, because my schedule is so crazy, but if I had nothing to do, I’d just watch TV all day.
He’s a funny guy..
Well, most of the humour that’s today’s humour came from that guy. He started so much of a style that he’s become mainstream now. He was a real cutting-edge guy and he’s still really funny, I think.
You have one week of vacation every year, is that right?
No, every four or five weeks. We don’t have any real vacation, I mean a week off is a week off. People ask me what season do you tape and what season do you not tape. We tape all the year around.
What’s a typical weekly schedule?
Believe it or not, it’s like I get there at 3:45 and I leave at 6:30. Actually the TV show is a little too easy for me. I need to have a challenge and I need to play for a music audience. On the Letterman show, 500 people come into the Ed Sullivan Theatre and they seem to be just as fascinated with ‘Oh that’s the cue-card guy – I recognize him‘ as much as the band playing their ass off, or sucking – it doesn’t matter. But I need to play for an audience where that matters.
And you’ve done that for 24 years?
Yes, if it wasn’t for other gigs, I’d be insane by now, because the Letterman show is not a music gig, really. It is, but it isn’t.
Has there ever been anyone who didn’t stomp the band?
No, everybody stomps the band. Actually, Paul Shaffer is so musically aware that people brought in tunes that he knew. Beforehand they tell us the song titles, because it’s no fun if you don’t stomp the band, it’s boring.
But you do it for fun and think it’s worth doing, right?
It’s a lot of money for a musician. I mean it’s not a lot at once, but it adds up if you keep doing it over and over again.
But you don’t do it just for the money?
Oh no. I would never suggest anybody to do music just for money. As my friend Hiram Bullock says, ‘If you wanna get rich, be a banker or something’.
If you wanna get rich, don’t think about music as a career.
How did you get involved with the Letterman show, originally?
It was through my friendship with Paul Shaffer. We met on a session in New York , and it was a session for a guy he co-wrote ‘It’s Raining Men’ with. The guy’s name was Paul Jabara. Paul was an artist himself as well as a writer, and he’s also known for writing ‘Last Dance for Donna Summer’. But Paul Jabara got Paul Shaffer to arrange some songs for him when he went in the studio, and it was being produced by Ron Dante who was Barry Manilow’s producer. I did a lot of Barry Manilow albums and stuff. Paul and I got along really well right from the beginning, and he liked the way I dressed – and now look at how he dresses… So there was always a good vibe and good humour. And all of a sudden, one day he said ‘I just got a call’. See, I had a band called the 24th Street band, with Steve Jordan, Clifford Carter and Hiram Bullock, and that band had just broken up. Paul knew us all really well as he produced our second album. He said ‘I have this offer to be the musical director of a new talkshow on TV, there’s gonna be a 13-week pilot and I have this idea to do some instrumental James Brown, Motown and the Beatles as the music’. I thought it sounded great and it started the next week, so I said ‘Shit, let’s go home learn some tunes, man’. So we learned Smokey Robinson’s ‘Tears of a Clown’, some James Brown and Beatles songs and the rest of the band was that 24th Street Band minus the keyboard player. One week later the cameras went on and we started taping the first 13 weeks of shows, and it was like ‘Wow, thirteen weeks of work is great for musician. This was fantastic!’ Then we renewed the contract for another 13 weeks, and after 3 years big sponsors started to come in with lots of money, like Budweiser, and we started to feel a wave of energy and ‘big-timeness’. That’s a long time ago. I never thought it would last even a year, but it keeps going until Dave is ready to retire, I think.
But it gives you the time to do what you like?
Well, of course I can’t really tour, which is not a bad thing. If I do a record, I have to start in the morning, take a four hour break, continue at night and then do the same thing the next day. Many of producers don’t want to work that way. Some guys, like Arif Mardin has been good about that, he understands and he’s cool. He knows that’ll be my schedule, but that’s rare for producers to want to work that way. A lot of times the artist doesn’t even want to show up in the studio until three o’clock, and then I gotta go, you know.
Tell us about the Fab Faux …
Well, the Fab Faux has a couple of TV guys in it. The other guy is from a show called the Late Night with Conan O’Brien. They took over Letterman’s original time slot and studio and network to start that show. The band is called the Max Weinberg Seven and Max is the drummer and Jimmy Vivino is the musical director of the show, and he’s one of our guys in the Fab Faux. So the two of us have this TV-schedule to consider and there are three other guys in the band who are not on TV-shows, so it’s a little easier to get those guys, but they tour as well.
How much do you play with them?
We play about to or three times a year in New York City , three nights at a time at the Bowery Ballroom – a great venue – sometimes Irving Plaza , but we also do corporate gigs where we don’t advertise. We also do Liverpool almost every year, there’s a festival there and we close this big festival. Then we play for the National Basketball Association, they have these big parties and for some reason we’ve gotten in there. They like us and we play for their big thing once a year – all star week-end. And that’s a different city, it’s like Atlanta , L.A. or Denver .
And you know the songs by heart and don’t have to rehearse?
Actually, we do. Because we do a different show every time we play. In order to make the music sound really great at that show, you have to really focus on the songs before the show for that show. So we rehearse a lot as individuals and then get together as a band and put it together for the shows.
And only Beatles songs?
Yes. Right now we’re gonna be doing a psychedelic show in Liverpool with all the ‘impossible-to-perform-live’ stuff .
How’s the response in Great Britain ?
Really? Because you really sound like them. You don’t look like them, though ;o)
No, not at all. We don’t try. We don’t wanna dress up and pretend, you know. But the people that come to Liverpool to hear that music played correctly, they go nuts. They love it and it’s a great audience to play for.
Beatles music – it sounds easy but it’s not, is that correct?
Well, it depends. Everybody can sort of jam on a Beatles song. We’ve been doing it for six years and what I’ve found out is that you should learn it as well as you can, perform it as well as you can and then you go back and listen to the record. And now you’re allowed to hear all the new information under that last layer that you couldn’t hear before. So it’s a great learning experience and every time there’s new stuff that you never heard before, especially the later, more complicated records.
Did you ever meet Paul McCartney?
I met him, played with him a few times.
He’s a cool dude …
Yes, he’s very cool. After September 11th my wife made a flag, a United States flag, out of little safety pins and beads and sold them for 15 dollars a piece and made about 10,000 dollars for the victims of the World Trade Center, and the money went directly to the families – no in-between people – we just gave them the cash. We did a concert in New York called the concert for New York , that Paul McCartney put together. Doing the rehearsals we played with Mick and Keith, we played with the Backstreet Boys and Bowie and all these people. And I sold pins to everybody and I put them on the spot and even Mick Jagger bought one. Paul McCartney bought one, he was so touched by the whole thing, that he made sure all of his band members bought them. And he wore it and everybody wore it at the broadcast and he used it as the cover for his song called ‘Freedom’ – for the single. And it was very exciting for me because my wife made the pin. Plus I got to play ‘Let It Be’ on bass when he moved on to the piano, so that was really cool. And also some new songs from the ‘Driving Rain’ album and that new song ‘Freedom’.
Do you have any CD projects that you’re working on?
Slowly, yeah. I’ve been writing a lot of songs lately.
Is it a group effort or a solo album?
It’s gonna be a solo album. I mean if I want some slick marketing I might call it a group name or something, I don’t know.
Who’ll be on it?
You know yesterday I was in a session for this great guitar player Søren Reiff. And there was a blackbird in a tree, and it sounded like the blackbird on Paul McCartney’s ‘Blackbird’, so I recorded that – maybe that would be on it..
Your solo album will also be interesting for the Will Lee fans, because you’re the first call bass player for sessions.
Yeah, it’s a good challenge to do a solo album. It’s a lot of work and it makes you pay attention to every little thing, and that’s good.
And is it more difficult now putting on the right tracks on the solo album because you don’t have the possibility to tour with a band?
That would make it easier, because I would have more time. I work a lot these days, so it’s hard to … I mean if you wanna do a record, don’t just throw some shit out there. Search your soul, take your time, get it right and really be able to communicate something that you wanna say. And I have a lot of stuff in my heart that I wanna get out. I don’t have a lot of time to really finish songs, but sometimes I’ll be in the middle of a project and then need a song, and I’ll have a part of a song done and then just finish it up. I’ll get really down into it and I’ll give it to that person of that project. These are songs that might end up on my solo record, but they’re kind of just going to other people.
Isn’t it difficult to write a song for somebody else?
Well, I just write them. If they like it that’s good, and so far they’ve been liking it, so that’s good.
Being a musician you sometimes have to think about money, right? You could sometimes get more out of selling a song than putting it on your own album?
I don’t know that much about business, but I know there are no guarantees with song writing. You just have to really feel it and then express it and get it out and make it as good as you can with the time that’s allowed. And who knows what’s gonna happen after that.
What’s the biggest experience or highlight in your career as a musician?
This thing with McCartney was really exciting. I told him about our band, too. I said ‘I know you hate Beatles bands, but we have a band that does songs by you, John, George and Ringo. I think we’re quite good and we focus the later, more impossible-to-do live stuff.’ And he said ‘Do you do Tomorrow Never Knows?’, and I said ‘of course’.
Can we expect him to be on a future Fab Faux cd?
I don’t think it would be appropriate, because The Beatles music has been recorded perfectly the first time around. There’s no need to re-record The Beatles music, but to perform it is important, I think.
Because of the audience?
Yeah, I think to record it is kind of a wank, you know?
They’re nice guys, the band you’re playing with tonight – David Garfield, Alex Ligertwood, Steve Ferrone, Søren Reiff … I’ve seen them in many constellations. Søren Reiff, Danish guitar player, tell me what you think about him. He played with big artists outside Denmark …
So far I haven’t noticed any limitations with that guy. He’s got a great spirit and he plays his ass off, so what’s wrong with that. It’s all good stuff.
He should go to the states. He has a life here of course, and you’re saying being a musician will be difficult. You don’t do music because of money.
That’s not a good reason. Because you love it, that’s the best reason, I think. But that’s just my opinion, you know. Some people might see it as a cash cow and just make formula music.
Going for a number one hit …
I don’t find that interesting.
Did you ever think about that, trying deliberately to make a number one hit?
I think that my brain is totally commercial as far as taste goes. Some of the great things about commercial success for records are great production, for example. And some of my favourite records are probably records that everybody knows, like Sting records – ‘Nothing Like the Sun’. I don’t think it can get much better than that.
Hiram Bullock played that one, on ‘Little Wing’. That was a brilliant solo. You’re right ‘Nothing Like the Sun’, definitely that’s one of Sting’s best albums ever …
Hiram was one of four people that were invited to my wedding, and he played ‘Little Wing’ for us. That’s our wedding song and he did it on acoustic guitar out in this beautiful garden. It was really nice.
He’s a good friend of yours, right?
Yes, a very good friend.
He’s a fabulous guitar player.
Yeah. An amazing talent, a great writer, he’s written some really fantastic songs.
I’ve got one of his solo albums. He’s singing on that one.
Yeah, there’s a song that he wrote called ‘Peace’, from the album called ‘Color Me’, I think? It’s a really important song and he wrote it in an hour. I suggested something, I said ‘why don’t we do a song like this’, and an hour later he had the song finished, it’s a brilliant song.
The basic chorus is ‘Peace begins within’, which is the whole problem with everything. I think people are so not at peace with themselves that they can’t be at peace with the person next to them, or the person in the next country or the person across the world. Inside is where it begins. And if people were not so uneasy, they wouldn’t be using all these other excuses to cause problems for everyone, like ‘Allah told me to do this’ or ‘God told me to do that’ and ‘that’s why I’m gonna kill you know, and I’ll kill myself’.
World peace is difficult to discuss, because we all have different interests, right? The United States , the Middle East, Europe and so on. If we were all musicians there would be no war …
If we were all bass players, of course.
That’s like saying if we all believed in God, there would be no war. It depends on your interpretation, you see how it can be used for good or bad – even music.
Religion is not bad, but extreme religion from any group will be …
Fundamentalists or extremists.. It’s just such an excuse for a personal anxiety.
You know David Garfield from the Los Lobotomys days?
Yeah, that’s basically how we first got together and played.
That was your only, once in a lifetime concert with Los Lobotomys, the live album?
With me and the Lobotomys, yeah. They continued on and did some gigs as a West Coast band. I sat in with these guys at The Baked Potato one night and I really sucked. I don’t know why any of them ever talked to me again, but next thing I know, I get a phone call ‘Do you wanna fly out and do this record?’
And you sucked?
So fucking bad. They called a song called ‘Freeway Jam’. The bass player at the time was playing a five string bass and I’d never played a five string bass before. I didn’t know the song, I didn’t know the instrument and I was totally awful.
You didn’t groove that evening?
I don’t think so. But I got a call to do the record and it was like ‘okay, I’m there. Don’t ask anybody else, I’m coming!’
It was Jeff Porcaro …
It was Jeff, Vinnie and Carlos Vega. Three incredible drummers.
Especially Jeff and Carlos Vega. Vinnie is still alive and he’s also great.
Yes he is. Vinnie is unbelievable. He’s one of those guys who can play any groove and make it feel so great, even the most stupid groove, just floating on a bed of loveliness, you know?
Makes it worth being a bass player?
Very much so. That’s one of the most joyous things when a guy can just play a groove and make it feel good. And that’s like the thing about Ferrone. His simplicity as a drummer provides a lot of space and it provides that pulsating feeling that the whole room needs to have. I remember going to see him playing with Duran Duran one time at Madison Square Garden , and when I walked in the room they were already playing and the walls were just like breathing. And that brought everybody together, just that simple beat …
Yeah! They were playing something like that song.
If you think about it, drums and bass will always be the fundament in the song, so the more simple you make it, the more it will groove. Like Steve’s style, maybe even Jeff Porcaro’s style, they would be so simple and minimalistic.
That gives the other instruments a lot of space to do stuff, you know. That’s the basis of funk for me, the holes in-between the beats.
It’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t play..
It sort of is.
I think Wayne Shorter said: ‘It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play’. He’s getting old, he’s almost 70. He was here yesterday with Herbie Hancock. On the same evening they had Keith Jarret at the Tivoli Gardens and he got the Sonning Music Price, which is normally a classical music award, but he got that as a jazz pianist. But he said: ‘I didn’t learn to play so I could get awards, but thanks, the music got the award.’ He’s kind of a monster playing the piano, right?
I’m not saying anything about that guy.
Do you like his music?
I don’t have any records. I think I met him, and after that I didn’t want to listen to his music.
He’s in another world, I guess.
Yeah, and it’s not a good world. Not a happy world, at least it wasn’t when I met him.
What’s your favourite style? Funk, jazz, R&B?
You know, I get so much pleasure out of everything, like Latin, funk and everything that just grooves. And I don’t know what it is about the Beatles music, but it’s got a little of everything. It’s got some funk, it’s got some Latin. If you listen to the first couple of bars of the song called ‘You Know My Name, Look Up My Number’, there is the root of all hip-hop right there. So they got everything going on there, it’s incredible. I don’t even know how to talk about it, but in 5 years or whatever it was, all those incredible songs with so many great directions were made. Of course George Martin had a lot to do with it, giving it shape and stuff too. But just the basic stuff there, the song sections and the way they connect, and just the message from the songs and how it got more and more incredible as the band kept growing …
Gregg Bissonette, the drummer, told us once that Ringo Starr didn’t get any credit for what he did. A lot of drummers today would say that he wasn’t that good because he had trouble keeping the beat. What he did, Gregg said, was like he invented a song on the drums …
Like ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, those odd beats. Even if (Will emulates a drum beat) was the only thing he contributed to music, that’s a lot right there. That’s like Benny Benjamin going… (emulating Benjamin’s drum beats). That’s just as valuable as anything, it’s something that’s used over and over again. I mean how many times have you heard Phil Collins play that.. And how many times have you heard people like Nigel Olsson play (….). And everybody has used it.
And he invented it?
That’s a strong statement. It was probably just an inspiration for a second. But of course all the other cool uses of the drums and percussion overdubs that Ringo did.. I mean he had a great groove, it felt so good, man. When the Beatles were inducted to the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, I walked up to the drums because I wanted to see what he was playing. Billy Joel on keyboards started singing ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, and I had to go up and see what Ringo was doing because I was playing bass and I wanted to be as close as possible. And Ringo was playing.. (Will emulating Ringo).. That’s all he did all night. That’s total Ringo.
Yeah, don’t make it too difficult.
I know. It was classic. And that’s another Ringo-ism (more emulation). I don’t think anybody’s played that, but him. There’s another contribution.
Yeah, if you’re honest and sincere about what you’re doing. Alex told me that even Elvis Costello would be sincere, and you can discuss if you like him or not …
Elvis Costello? Not everybody is gonna like everybody, but at the Letterman show I was surprised that before our first song with Diane Krall, he came to see some opera singer that was on the show. He got an invitation to be in the audience at the rehearsal. And I thought ‘Man, Elvis Costello is sitting here watching an opera singer.’ He’s dead-serious about his shit, you know, and he’s very cool.
Will we ever see you on more West Coast releases?
I think if it happened, it would be because I was already there. Musically there are not the big budgets that used to be, so they probably wouldn’t fly a guy out too much too often to play on projects, unless he was already on the West Coast or he had a place to stay. No hotel bills, no flights.
But today you can still send Pro Tools files.
There’s a bit of that happening. Yeah, I know who’s taking advantage of that, but I do it all the time. It’s easy and it’s a great way to do it. It’s a smart way to do it these days because there are no obscene budgets..
Anyway, Will, I look forward to seeing you later tonight …
I can’t wait.. There’s a lot of good music to play.
Thanks to Will Lee for taking his time for this interview, also thanks to Thomas Høyer for helping out with the recording/transcribing of this interview …