Jack Sharkey. October 16, 2013.
If you’ve listened to any popular music at any time in the past 45 years, you’ve heard Leland Sklar play bass. If you’re not familiar with Sklar’s talent, do yourself a favor and check him out.
While majoring in music at Cal State Northridge, Sklar met James Taylor and the rest is music history. Simply put, a sampling of Leland Sklar's work is a discology of popular music.
Here’s a short, but by no means complete, list of recordings Sklar has put the note exactly where it was meant to be: America, Hoyt Axton, Carole Bayer Sager, Laura Branigan, Regina Belle, Stephen Bishop, Clint Black, Jackson Browne, Jimmy Buffett, Glen Campbell, Eric Carmen, Kim Carnes, Steven Curtis Chapman, Ray Charles, Billy Cobham, Joe Cocker, Leonard Cohen, Natalie Cole, Phil Collins, Rita Coolidge, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Neil Diamond, Thomas Dolby, The Doors, Art Garfunkel, Vince Gill, Arlo Guthrie, Merle Haggard, Hall & Oates, Don Henly, Faith Hill, Julio Iglesias, Carole King, Kris Kristofferson, Lisa Loeb, Lyle Lovett, Manhattan Transfer, Reba McEntire, Bette Midler, Aaron Neville, Randy Newman, Dolly Parton, Poco, Bonnie Raitt, Leann Rimes, Linda Ronstadt, Diana Ross, David Sanborn, Neil Sedaka, Carly Simon, Ricky Skaggs, The Spencer Davis Group, Rod Stewart, George Strait, Barbra Streisand, James Taylor, Warren Zevon.
Like I said, you’ve heard Leland Sklar play.
Leland was kind enough to take a break from dealing with a recalcitrant and missing screw during the middle of a home repair to talk with me about music, life, culture, and the dangers of filming a video in a bar in London.
On a personal note, Leland Sklar is an absolute musical idol of mine, so yeah, it was a boatload of fun to talk with him. Enjoy! - Jack S.
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KEF: I really appreciate you taking time out to answer a couple of questions.
LS: No problem, I’m just looking for a screw that fell while I was putting it in a wall in a tiny room and it’s just turned to dust. I can’t find it anywhere. So you’re a respite for me.
KEF: How important is listening to music just for entertainment or pleasure when you’re at home? Is it something you like to do?
LS: Yeah it is, but I don’t have that much opportunity because when I’m working I’m so immersed in it that by the time I get home I have a honey-do list that basically looks like the Dead Sea Scrolls so I don’t have a lot of downtime just to sit and relax. I tend to listen the most while I’m driving to work or leaving work. I have an old pickup truck, so I’m not listening to some unbelievable automotive [audio] system. I just kind of get into the head space and Zen out on it.
KEF: When you’re on your way to a session, are you listening to the stuff you’re going to be playing or do you kind of turn off from that?
LS: No. I never know what I’m going to be playing before I get there. It’s very, very rare that I have a heads-up on the material we’re going to be doing. Once in a while though, like I’m supposed to being doing something next week for Dwight Twilley, [and he] sent me a song he wants to use on his new album. I’m going to listen to it from the standpoint of putting together a chart of for the session.
KEF: Who are you listening to when you do listen?
LS: I tend to listen to a lot of Ralph Vaughn Williams and Aaron Copland and a lot of light classical when I’m going to work just to kind of chill out and de-Gauss my brain a little bit. I listen to everything on a regular basis, just to stay on top of my game. If I walk in the door and it’s a country date I have to be up on what I feel is demanded of me. If I show up and it’s a hip-hop date, or if it’s a jazz date, I really have to be cognizant of [the style] but I don’t do it with the intent of copying ideas, it’s kind of just to make everything fresh in my mind. I go to work with my own sensibility and try to bring what I do. When I go in and I do Latin sessions – and there’s very specific styles of Latin bass playing and I’m not that familiar with a lot of them – I'll listen to some of the stuff but I also try to meld it into my own styles so that when I leave the date its got a signature to it rather than just a part.
KEF: To me as a listener who is familiar with your work, I think that’s what’s always set you apart from other studio musicians is that you can tell when Lee Sklar has worked on it as opposed to some other musician.
LS: I find it really essential that when I finish a project – regardless of whether I think its great music or not – if I’ve committed to saying ‘yes’ and accepted the date I feel like I need to go and do the best job I can. I try to create parts that represent me and validate me being there. And, stylistically over all of these years I’ve managed to find some things that seem to define my playing. Some of it is based on the fact that I’ve had enough hand injuries where I’m not one of these absolutely pristine players who, you know, defines every note. I do a lot of sliding around. I’m a pretty ‘greasy’ player. I do a lot of glisses. When I move into a note sometimes, it’s not just, you know, C to G, it’s C sliding up to G, so what that does is creates a different personality. I’ve basically taken a limitation that I felt I had and turned it into an asset.
KEF: You said a lot of hand injuries. That seems to smack in the face of being a career studio musician.
LS: Well, it does, but I also really love doing other things. I love working with machinery. The only place on my body I’m loaded with stitches is my hands. When you’re working on a Bridgeport Mill and a piece of metal starts to spin, you get a nice cut. I was a welder, so I’ve burned my hands. As much as I love what I do, and I love music, I always feel its just a facet of what I do.
I don’t put myself in harm’s way if I can help it but I also don’t hide from things just because I think it might cause a problem. I won’t go roller skating or ice skating, or anything like that, just because even if it didn’t revolve around falling down and maybe breaking something, if you’re at an ice rink and you fall down and somebody skates over your hand that can be pretty career threatening, so I try to avoid some of that. But there’s a lot of stuff that I really enjoy doing and I really don’t’ want to limit my life experience with the anxiety that I might cause some problem. I mean, I could injure my hand carrying my rig into a studio, so you can’t hide from this stuff you just have to be cognizant of your frailties.
KEF: So let’s jump into the Wayback Machine…
LS: Okay, Sherman.
KEF: What was it like the first time you heard yourself on the radio?
LS: James Taylor would have been the first stuff I heard that had I worked on. It was interesting. It was one of these things that kind of caught me off guard. My entire career caught me off guard. I really had no thoughts that I was actually going to have a career in music, it was my hobby, and it was what I liked to do.
But the first time I heard myself I think what I was most pleased with was the idea that the stuff we had started doing – I think One Man Dog was the first album I did with James – it kind of validated the experience we were having, that it was suddenly on the radio. I was always in bands but nobody ever got any radio play.
So it was great, but I think I enjoyed it more when I would get in a grocery store or an elevator and hear the stuff. That to me is like the ultimate. It’s like bringing an element of kitsch into you life. When you’ve made it to the grocery store, you’ve made it!
KEF: How much more of a social icon can you be than to be elevator music?
LS: It’s fantastic, it’s really good to hear yourself in the meat department. The only thing better is when you’re looking at cheese and you hear yourself, then you’ve transcended.
But, it’s been fun. There were times, like with Phil Collins when we did Another Day In Paradise and you couldn’t get away from it. I’d be in the gym, I’d be anywhere and that’s what was playing on the radio, it was really neat. And more than me going ‘oh cool, that’s me on the radio,’ the thing I found that was really cool was to look around the room and people are singing along with it, and you realize that you really have touched people – that there’s an impact to what you do. I have a perspective of where I’m at, but I really don’t have any kind of ego about it. I’m a blue collar worker and I go to work and if stuff’s successful I feel I’ve done a good job. I don’t bask in it or gloat in it. If I was a plumber I would want to do the best copper pipe work I could possibly do. I treat it as my profession. Now, I’m fortunate to be in a profession that brings pleasure to people – that to me is the real bonus.
KEF: Three words: Phil Collins. Sussudio.
LS: The best part of that video is we shot it at a pub in Shepherd’s Bush in London and the locals were in that night too. The producer of the video walked by this one table and this drunk local looks at him and goes, “you breathed on me.” And [the producer] goes, “Well, I’m sorry.” And the drunk goes, “You, *------ breathed on me,” picks up a bottle from the table and hits the producer square across the nose, splitting his nose wide open. A fight starts during the filming of the video, and they’re duking it out and the police come and take the drunk away and our producer gets rushed to the hospital to get stitches. We did that and we did One More Night that same evening.
The bass part on Sussudio is all David Frank. He used about six synthesizers when they made the record and it was all just the sequenced stuff. The first time I heard it I looked at Phil and I said “dude, you really painted us into a corner.” Because, how do you reproduce that live? What we ended up doing when we did the first No Jacket Required tour, was run a sequencer and the only thing we took from it was the filter of the keyboard bass. I played the actual tonal part and the thing I was playing to was just going pow-pow-pa-pa-pa-pow-pow-pow [mimics the rhythm of the song]. And then by the next tour we just blew that all off and just made a totally live version of it. I would put a little envelope on it and that was it.
KEF: Because you don’t use a lot of effects live, right?
LS: I use no effects. The only thing I might possibly use live is a Boss Octave Divider which I used on Another Day In Paradise. But for the most part, and this is where we’re getting into sonics, when we were out on the ’85 [Phil Collins] tour, and we started rehearsing, Phil’s drums had a lot of effect on them, which was also used on Chester [Thompson]’s drums. Peter Robinson had a half a dozen keyboards on stage and they all had effects on them. Darryl Sturmer plays with a lot of delay and effect and at that point I also had a bunch of different stuff I was using – TC Chorus Flanger, and different things, and I finally said to our House Mixer, “Would it help you if I didn’t use anything?” and he got on his knees and started bowing to me (laughs), because you have to have a tonal reference point to build from and if everybody’s running effects it turns into a wash. The halls themselves are going to have enough [effect] to them to begin with.
So, since then I’ve almost never used any effect. I’m plugged straight in. I don’t like wireless because I don’t like the [sonic] degradation that happens with wireless. I’m always just hardlined into the rig.
KEF: You’ve also got to be a rarity because you don’t use any compression. I don’t think I’ve ever met a bass player who doesn’t use compression.
LS: I hate compression. To me, the limiter and compressor I use is my hand and my ears. I like to play dynamically and I don’t want to be in a situation where I’m trying to dig in and the harder I dig in the quieter I get. And it’s the same for the studio. If I walk in and I see the [recording engineer] start to dial in a compressor before he’s heard me play one note I just go in and I go “shut that ******* thing off.” If we get to the point where we need just the tiniest bit to even it out, then fine, but I understand how to do that without [using a compressor]. Allow me to create the dynamics.
KEF: As a listener, one of the things that frustrates me is trying to listen to a player who can really say something with their instrument but it's squashed to the point that all of the life's been sucked out it just to make the record as loud as possible.
LS: Yeah, I know, and I’m adamant about how I feel about this when I’m in the studio. When I’m listening through the headphones I can tell instantly when the engineer’s dialed in a compressor or a limiter and I just go “will you shut that off please” It drives me nuts.
KEF: Do recording engineers generally listen to you?
LS: Well, if they want to live through the [session] they'd better (laughs). I never want to be [difficult] in the studio, but I also feel that after forty-five years of this I’ve earned some kind of respect. Now, if the guy can show me how what he’s doing is improving it, I’m willing to go with him, just like with DI’s.* For the most part I’ve been dragging the same DI rig around for about twenty-five years, but if they want to plug something else in and it sounds better, I’m happy to use what they’ve got. Otherwise, I always have my own there that I know I can count on.
*Ed Note: DI (direct input, direct injection or direct interface), sometimes called a Direct Box, is used to connect a high-impedance, unbalanced output signal to a low-impedance microphone level balanced input. DIs are used to connect an instrument such as an electric guitar or bass to a mixing console to minimize noise and distortion.
Tomorrow: James Taylor, Carole King, Lyle Lovett, the history of recording and the future of the industry.
The opinions expressed in this piece are the aithor's own and do not necessarily reflect those of KEF or its employees.