Q: How important is it to learn various styles? Why?
A: Real important. Two reasons: 1) If you want to work a bunch, it’s great to be hip to a lot of styles for obvious reasons. If the song says “turn left 60 degrees” & you can only go forward, you’ll be left behind! 2) Check it out- even if you were a master of a particular genre, say, you were living in Jamaica & a great reggae bassist-wouldn’t it be great if you could bring in some influence of some really cool outside thing you just heard on the radio that had little to do with what everyone else was doing & took the song to a fresh place? Bass is a powerful tool in your hands-please use it for good, never evil!
Q: How do you approach working with new drummers (in terms of striking a groove) and what do you do if you and the drummer aren’t locking in?
A: Aha! That’s an important question! Each drummer has a very specific feel (or non-feel, as the case may be). It’s important to be able hear kick, hi-hat & snare in the monitors or on stage, or whatever, so you can “lock”. Simply listen & don’t fight it, just ride it. If the drummer has no time whatsoever and you know you do, you have to become the timekeeper. It’s hard work from behind a bass. Nobody but you will know how hard you are working, because you really can give the illusion that the tune is grooving, and nobody but you will know how it got there. If the drummer is a half-decent person he/she knows they can’t groove & will be unspokenly thankful for a lifetime that it was secretly you that kept them on the map for so long-it’s up to you to be cool about it.
Q: What advice would you give to the aspiring bassist?
A: Be sure you love it and that will translate. It’s uncanny how much pleasure can be gotten out of a piece of wood & a few strings.
Q: When doing a session do you find that charts are mostly written out or are you given mostly chord charts to work with?
A: I’d say 60%-70% chord charts, roughly 20% Sometimes, no charts. I like stuff written on manuscript paper. That’s the best way to write specific details like figures, slurs, ties etc. HOWEVER-if the key changes, then I need a minute to redo my chart in a way that I can read it. For that reason, a Nashville-style chart is great sometimes-you know the chord symbol-type:(I IV, VI VIm, etc.)Bottom line-any chart YOU can follow is a great one, so have some kind of systen you understand.
Q: How do you approach laying a groove that is not written out?
A: Every song has some kind of “feel”. Just make sure you are aware of what’s happening on top of the bass & drum track-lyrics, melody etc. so you don’t step all over it. Again, try to be hip to various styles & come in to the studio inspired & the shit won’t sound too tired!
Q: How does live performance differ from studio performance?
A: Live performance is exciting because you are not only being heard, but also watched, sometimes by huge amounts of people! The live thing is where you can really get your rocks off, but it’s also a place where more things can go wrong when you don’t need them to, like PA problems, monitors, equipment breakdowns etc-all in front of your adoring fans! The studio, on the other hand is a much more conrolled environment where you can be aware of fine-tuning your instrument and equipment for buzzes, intonation, tone, sustain as well as your own precision as a player in a much more focused way.
Q: What other skills are essential to being an in-demand studio bassist?
A: This may or may not qualify as a skill you can learn, but I would say above all, being social & enjoying the hang! For me, my profession has given me big-time pleasure as a musician, not only because of the sounds you make, but because of the people you meet while doing it!
Q: How important is it to be a good soloist? Why?
A: As a (working) bassist it’s most important to be a supportive player, but soloing can add a great dimension to a jazz or other performance, especially if you’re saying something, musically. If you do want to solo, a great way to get into one is start real simple & build it from there. Let the music “play you” as much as possible so the build of the solo is a natural one. Don’t fish too long for something to say, or everybody in the room will be looking at their watches! On the other hand, if you only have a measure or two to solo, start it as outrageously as you want!! The reason it’s important to have some soloing chops is that it makes you that more of a complete musician and that ain’t too bad, now is it?
Q: Are there any experiences you encountered that you were unprepared for? Some-either attitude clashes or “creative communication encounters”. How did you deal with it, and become better prepared?
A: In the case of harsh attitudes, I would never laugh at or challenge the person, just try and dig into the music & hope they wouldn’t get too abusive. In the cases of “creative communication encounters” I would try & interpret what an artist or producer was saying as well as possible. For example, Laura Nyro once said, “Will, I want this song to sound like an old wicker chair I have in the country”. It seemed a strange request at the time-we were in a concrete studio and I was seated in a cold, steel folding chair. What did I do? I closed my eyes & tried as hard as I could to interpret that damn wicker chair!
Q: My career is getting stale. I wanna branch out & do more & different gigs. What should I do?
A: Believe it or not, I think things can spring up organically from the strangest places. Although there’s no guarantees & no place to actually predict where a “connection” is gonna be made, I do know that the network of people that I know was and still is a growing “family” of people I meet on the gig I am doing at any given time. For instance, the cats you’re surrounded by on your gig may all have some other shit happening, so there’s a few good connections right there. Why wouldn’t they think of you first & foremost if you’re the groovin’est, tastiest, most-homework-doin’, havin’-the-tunes-rehearsed, great-hang cat in the band? As silly as it sounds, why not go down to some (inexpensive) live music clubs & just be there for a minute now & again? You never know who’s gonna be sittin’ there that you haven’t thought of in a while!
Q: What was it like growing up in Texas and what kind of music did you listen to back then?
A: It was cool for me because my Dad & Mom were jazz musicians, so I was exposed to a lot of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly, Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson. Also, Dad, a great jazz pianist played constantly & Mom would sing around the house and with Dad. Texas was a place of Country music & early Rock & Roll & Baptist church music-a special kind of Gospel. My parents weren’t that into it, but my ears were wide open. I was a little wierd- I used to go out in the yard & sing, pacing slowly & dreamily as if I was doing a video or appearing on TV, crooning my little brains out.
Q: How old were you when you discovered you had a musical ability, and what was the first instrument you learned to play?
A: I never realized I had any special ability, but I knew I loved the act of trying to make the sounds. I think I had drums first, but my parents sent me to a piano lesson once, which I hated. That was purely and simply because of the teacher’s personality. Just like any other subject you’re taught, the teacher’s attitude can really get you interested in something, or make you wanna bail out altogether!
Q: Where you in bands at school?
A: Once the Beatles hit, I was off to the races. I was always in at least one or more bands from then on. Scholastically, I was playing trumpet in school for a lot of years, then switched to French Horn, just before college.
Q: Your mother was a singer, what was her reaction when you told her music was all you wanted to do?
A: She never discouraged me about that. It was kind of subtle how it happened slowly over many years. What started out as a fun, challenging thing to do just kept going and getting more fun & challenging. I never thought twice about “what to become”.
Q: You have received many awards for being a great bass player(congratulations, it’s well deserved); how old where you when you decided that you where going to make the bass guitar your main instrument?
A: It’s funny-I don’t know who’s voting, but it ain’t me. I’d definitely not vote to have me on the list of greats-there are too many! My decision was made fairly unwittingly, as we (our band of 13-year-olds, The Chances R) were looking for a bassist & couldn’t find anyone amongst our age group, so I volunteered!
Q: At what age did you turn professional, and who was it on the music circuit that noticed you had something special to make it within the industry? When did you decide to move to New York?
A: I had done my first pay music gig at age 12 for six dollars a man, so I guess that’s professional, right? Greed must have set in early on, because after that I kept looking to get paid for playing! In our lives we encounter any number of “angels” that look out for us. There has always been a great deal of support in my direction. I think I may have generated some of it with my enthusiasm, but there was much unwarranted love that came my way. Here’s the story about coming to NYC: I was in college in Miami, studying jazz by day and playing rock gigs by night. A band named “Dreams” was causing a big commotion because of a Columbia LP they had cut under the same name. I and all my Miami muso friends were heavy into this stuff. Out of the blue I get a call one day to come to New York & audition for this band! Those cats didn’t realize how into their music I was. Once I got to the audition, I was floating through the process. It was like a dream (no pun intended). I got the gig & never looked back-that was 1971. I was 18.
Q: How did you get involved with session work?
A: Here’s where the angels took over: Dreams was not able to stay afloat past the 2nd album, so the band was folding (everybody on good terms) but I basically had all my eggs in one basket with really no firm grip on the NY scene. I was ready to purchase a one-way ticket back to Miami. However, 2 of the cats who had played with Dreams said to me “You’re not going back to Florida. We’re gonna put you up & get you work.” Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. They were heavily connected in the music scene. Their names? Bob Mann & Alan Schwartzberg. Thanks again, my friends!
Q: What has been the highlight of your career so far?
A: Hard to say. I have so many great moments. Meeting Paul Shaffer, playing Live Aid, playing each year with the inductees as they go into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, writing with my hero Brazilian artist Ivan Lins, getting a lifetime acheivement award from Bass Player magazine, playing with George Harrison at Royal Albert Hall, McCartney at The Concert For NYC, having The Fab Faux do well, marrying Sandrine (my wife). It sounds crazy but one of the things that I’ll never get over is having my name be listed amongst the greats on the back of The Cavern Club’s official t-shirt!!!
Q: You’re the most long-standing member of the world famous CBS orchestra, (from the David Letterman show,) how did you become involved with the CBS/David Letterman show?
A: It started when the show began at NBC in 1982. I was working with Paul Shaffer on lots of records (Cher, Barry Manilow, my band “The 24th Street Band”, etc.) and we were hanging out a lot as friends. He came to me & said he was bandleader on a new comedy/music/talk show with David Letterman and he wanted the band to play instrumental Motown, James Brown & Beatles as the music for the show & would I be interested in 13 weeks of solid work. Thirteen weeks? I was thrilled to get that much steady work. That sounded like an eternity! Anyway, that was about 25 years ago & it’s still going strong.
Q: What is it about the Letterman show you love?
A: Playing with live musicians, of course, but being able to watch a fun TV show (from the Ed Sullivan Theatre*HELLO*) while doing it is a gas-and-a-half!
Q: Which do you prefer, playing live or studio work?
A: Each one is great for it’s own reasons and benefits the other. I dig playing live because you’re performing in front of an audience that’s giving you constant feedback. The vibe is strong because of the energy between you and the audience. This gives you something special to bring to the studio, because of all that accumulated inspiration you get from the audience. However, the studio is a much more controlled environment where you can really tweak your sound and perfect your parts while you’re in there, and that kind of focus you can’t get on stage. Overall, live performance is the most fun!
Q: You’ve worked with some of the biggest legends in showbiz, which sessions have stood out the most for you, and which artist was the most inspiring to work with?
A: That’s a hard one. D’Angelo was fun. Chaka Khan, Phoebe Snow. Having played with (not all 4 guys at the same time) John, Paul, George & Ringo is a blessing. Some of the studio experiences can be quite a calculated effort, so I had would have to say, because of how much fun it is to play live, that maybe playing on Letterman with James Brown was a real big standout.
Q: You obviously write your own songs, who or what inspires you to write?
A: Emotions are the strongest inspiration to me. It’s probably easier to state that which is the biggest enemy of writing for me, and that’s self-consciousness.
Q: Which make of guitars do you use?
A: I like a huge variety. I have Fender Jazz basses, Sadowskys, Pedullah fretlesses. Of course for Beatles music, you have to use Hofner and Rickenbacker, with the occasional Fender VI (six-string guitar with strings an octave lower than normal) and 1966 Fender Jazz bass for some of the songs from the White Album!
Q: One of my favourite records which your featured on is ‘She Bangs’ by Ricky Martin, were you sing 2nd vocal. Can you tell us the story of how the recording came about?
A: I was called in to sing background vocals, along with some other professional studio singers. After we were done, the producer Walter Afanasieff asked if I would stay around & double the melody. If you listen to that record, you hear a lot of my voice!
Q: How does it make you feel, knowing that your style, techniques, have influenced other artist over the years?
A: I’m not sure that’s true, but I am the same way-I listen to everybody!
Q: Sir Paul McCartney, recently included you among his favourite bassists, how did it feel?
A: It’s more than a great honor to have someone who is that high-up on the influential scale acknowledge your musicianship-it’s hard to describe in words, really.
Q: What tips can you give to other up and coming artist, wanting to make it in the music industry, esp. in New York City?
A: From my own experience I can only say, put your soul into what you are doing, and the rewards begin immediately. By that I mean that the satisfaction of playing is instantaneous, in real time. If you are sincere in your love for what you are doing, I find that it’s contageous and people just want more! It doesn’t hurt to be in a creative career in a city where culture really thrives. I often imaging being on a farm in Iowa, where the farmer is banging on the door at 4 AM, shouting “GET UP, BOY! WHAT ARE YOU DOING OVERSLEEPING?” I would say, “But sir, I play bass real good.” His reply would be, “HUH? SHUT THE HELL UP AND GRAB A PITCHFORK. YOU GOT WORK TO DO!!”. Being in a city like New York alleviates all that kinda dialogue!
Q: What kind of venues do you play and where can people/fans come and see you?
A: I play all over. I love playing live and do it often at small places in NYC with people like Chris Parker in his “Toph-e and The Pussycats” group, or with the Oz Noy trio, or Terry Silverlight’s group. Check my homepage www.willlee.com for stuff.
Q: What are your opinions of the music industry of today?
A: It’s changed so much over the years and is still changing rapidly. Don’t follow trends. There’s too much good stuff out there. Look around, hear samples of music on iTunes for example & checkout different kinds of stuff. Do random searches & surprise yourself. Decide on your own what you like. It’s a drag that corporations would dictate what kids listen to, but that’s what happens to music these days.
Q: Describe Will Lee’s career to us:
A: My career is a series of lucky accidents mixed with wrong turns, which led to surprises around every corner, driven by a passionate love for music and nurtured by hard work!