Stefan Lessard – Growing Back Home by Steve Gregory: Bass Musician Magazine September 2012… In album reviews and artist interviews, the phrase “going back home” has become a comfortable, knee-jerk phrase to employ. Any time an artist returns to something familiar, the words seem to be magnetically attracted to the situation. Unfortunately, there is all to often an unspoken, passive-aggressive nature to the expression: “On the latest album, Artist X is going back home (which is good, because we don’t think that straying from the formula was a good idea at all)”. In other instances, there is a sense that the writer is insinuating that the artist is in their final stages of popularity and/or viability: “The latest album finds Artist X going back home (to trot out some music that they hope will resonate with fans they once had)”. Apparently, some people think you can’t go home again unless you are grasping for sustainability or gasping for musical life.
If those negative voices spoke the truth, there would be a true dilemma when talking to Stefan Lessard about his work with the Dave Matthews Band and their new album, “Away From The World”, which will be released on September 11. The number of ways in which Stefan is “going back home” creates a undeniable thread throughout our conversation: the new album features the reuniting of the band with producer Steve Lillywhite, the songwriting style is a throwback to the methods used on the first DMB albums, and Stefan is even finding his old Fender P-Basses to be his recent weapons of choice. To even think of using the phrase “going back home” with the aforementioned connotations is grossly incorrect and unjust. Contrary to those thoughts, Stefan and DMB are more alive than ever, bringing creative and innovative music to both stage and record.
When our conversation began, I allowed my fan-side to become briefly exposed by sharing the fact that my wife and I have a standing date to see the Dave Matthews Band each year on tour. I went on to explain that this was the first year since our initial trip that we didn’t get to keep our engagement, but for a good reason: we were traveling across the country to be united with our newborn adopted son. Stefan was gracious to listen to my gushing about both DMB and my child, but it was in later reflection that I realized that my trip was an accurate model for the “coming back home” that Stefan was describing. On round-trips that mean something, you return to your doorstep having grown into wisdom, vision, and perspective, which in turn alter the way in which you thrive in your home environment. “Going back home” becomes “Growing back home”, if you will. Stefan may be going back home in many aspects, but for no other reason than to fully utilize the elements of home in new, creative, and exciting ways.
Home with the Dave Matthews Band formed early for Stefan. He was recruited at the age of 16 to join a bartender named Dave Matthews, along with drummer Carter Beauford, and saxophonist LeRoi Moore to work through songs and to see if the grouping might work as a band. The band later added violinist Boyd Tinsley and the ensemble began to hone their unique sound, anchored by Stefan’s strong bass lines that switched between riffs that matched guitar figures, grooves shared with the drums, and melodic, vocal-like flights that spanned the instrument.
Early years forced Stefan to decide if DMB was indeed where he should be, facing the choice to either stay in the band or begin his college career at Virginia Commonwealth University. Instinct led Stefan to opt for the band and Dave Matthews Band began their long, successful trip together. Live shows became a proving ground for Stefan, being forced to grow into his new role without the benefit of the years of experience his band mates enjoyed. Stefan thrived with the group and infused the independently released DMB album, “Remember Two Things” and their subsequent EP, “Recently” with undeniable energy and creativity.
Large-scale commercial success for Dave Matthews Band and Stefan came in 1994 with the release of their first label-supported album, “Under The Table and Dreaming”. Singles including “What Would You Say” and “Ants Marching” introduced the pop market to the DMB sound and the creative center provided by Stefan Lessard. The album also marked the beginning of the band’s partnership with producer Steve Lillywhite, a successful collaboration that would last for 7 years. During that time, two more studio albums were released – “Crash” and “Before These Crowded Streets”. These albums gave Stefan the opportunity to explore bass lines that drew from a wide array of influences. Notable contributions include Stefan’s James Jamerson-like verse groove on “Stay (Wasting Time)”, the slow R&B pulse intro to “Crush”, and his upbeat, arpeggiated work on “Tripping Billies”. The first three commercial albums, known as the “Big 3” to the Dave Matthews Band fan base, clearly formed a foundation for Stefan.
After “Before These Crowded Streets”, Stefan and the band returned to the studio to work with Lillywhite. These sessions never culminated in an official album, with the band instead leaving the producer to pursue other options. The band released their next album, “Everyday” with producer Glen Ballard, which showed that the band was continuing to explore new directions. The band moved to producer Steve Harris for the next album, “Busted Stuff” and then joined forces with producer Mark Batson on the following offering, “Stand Up”. Stefan’s bass work continued to be an integral part of the DMB sound, adding his signature to each turn the band took.
It is important to note that, along with DMB studio albums, Stefan and the band were pushing musical boundaries on the stage. The ability to stretch songs far beyond the “radio friendly” 4-minute mark into extended improvisation-heavy works became a hallmark of the band. Recordings released of these performances, which include “Listener Supported”, “The Gorge”, and “Live at Piedmont Park”, to name only a few, captured the energy brought by the band to the live environment. Live DMB recordings also offer the listener a chance to hear Stefan play, build upon, refine, and reinvent the bass lines laid down on studio albums.
The next chapter for DMB was marked by tragedy: in 2008, saxophonist LeRoi Moore passed away from complications stemming from an ATV accident. The next album, “Big Whisky and the GrooGrux King”, became a monument to the memory of LeRoi. Throughout the record, which was produced by Rob Cavallo, Stefan’s bass lines are infused with a passion for his friend and band mate. Full energy is given to the groove-centric “Seven” and “Shake Me Like A Monkey”, while the bass on “Lying in the Hands of God” weaves its way through spaces left by other instruments. “One of the most interesting bass lines is found on, “Spaceman”, where Stefan imaginatively accents off beats in his quick, staccato figures.
Which brings us to the new album and the many ways in which Stefan is “growing back home”. “Away From The World” has Steve Lillywhite back in the producer’s chair, songwriting methods that harken back to those used on the “Big 3”, and Stefan locking in grooves with an old P-Bass. This isn’t a return home to “phone in” a mediocre attempt; rather, this is a time where the lessons, wounds, and rewards of life are funneled into an effort that releases the gifts of home that were undiscovered until now. “Away From The World” promises to be a landmark DMB album and a showcase of creativity for Stefan Lessard.
I looked through set lists from the Dave Matthews Caravan and the “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King” tours and I didn’t see evidence of new material being worked out on stage at that time. Was that actually the case, that this album was done in a separate writing session?
We went into the studio in January, right after New Year’s. I didn’t really know how we were going to go about it, because like you said, there wasn’t really much writing happening in the band since “Big Whiskey”. What happened was Dave had been working with John Alagia, who worked with us before doing some demo work and some pre-production. When the band finally got together, [Dave] had about 15 bits and pieces. Some were just guitar parts, some were more full songs, some had lyrics, some had pseudo-lyrics, some melodies. The bulk of the original inspiration for all of the songs came from Dave going off on his own to discover and to work through some things. It was really cool. When we first started, that’s kind of how we did it: Dave played me songs that he’d written and said, “Would you be interested in starting a band and seeing what we can do?” Since then, every record has been about catching up with songs that haven’t been recorded yet. “Crash” was that. We played those songs live for years before we put them on the record “Crash”. I think the first record that was really new material that hadn’t been played live was probably “Before These Crowded Streets”. Since then, the material is written before the album’s made.
So this way was cool. Not only were we working with Steve Lillywhite again, but we sort of went back to the beginning when it was just Dave’s songs and ideas that we then started to work off of. That was sort of the process for it.
It’s an organic evolution based on what the song requires and also what’s available when I’m writing the bass lines for the songs. For example, for the song, “Belly Belly Nice”, Dave had pretty much all of the parts together. I just followed his guitar and then kind of bounced around in different sections of the song so I could pull out from that part and showcase the bass a little differently. Typically I bounce around, as far as when it comes to the notes I choose, between the guitar and the vocals. I like to stick with the guitar in verses, because when I go into the bridge or choruses I tend to latch more onto the vocals. Especially during bridges, it makes such a beautiful sound to have a bass melody along with vocal melodies. Then on the songs that are very groove-oriented, I will listen to see where Carter is placing things and then listen to see where Dave’s at, inside of what Carter’s doing. Then I know where I can be.
In the studio, I try to find to find the soul of the song, or the pocket of the song, or the pulse of the song and then it is just experimentation. The good thing with this band is that no one is in a rush when we’re recording. We’ll play a song 20 to 30 times until we feel like we’re done. It’s not like I feel like I have to have something ready to go for the first few takes. Sometimes you’ll come back the next day after you thought you were playing awesome and you’re like, “Wow – what was I doing? I was all over the place!” Then there are days when you feel like you’re not doing enough and you’re not playing right or it just feels off, I’d come back and Lillywhite would play me something he’d put together from the night before and I was like, “Wow – it sounds great!” It’s all experimentation and listening. That’s why I love the studio, because you get to do all of that.
So for an album like this, you really are playing the songs over and over, working out parts as you go?
For an album like this. With Lillywhite, that’s always been the way we’ve done it. The first thing he wants to do is try to showcase this band doing what we do for the record that can then translate back to the stage. He’s very thoughtful about the fact that all of these songs should be able to be ready to go on stage. Also, the cool thing about this record was that parts were recorded all together. Most of the records I have, everything’s overdubbed once you get the drums down. So you play together, just to get the drums and when the drums are good, everyone sort of starts layering again. Everyone has the opportunity to really think about what they want to do. That’s probably a safer way to do it, because you spend all day on one song, just you and the producer and the drum tracks and the scratch vocal and scratch guitars. That’s a great way to do really cool lines. If Carter does a crazy fill and I’m like, “I want to play a crazy line with that fill!” You can’t do that when you’re all just hashing it out take after take after take where you’re just trying to keep up. But what happens is, you get these performances that are glue because they come together. Lillywhite will cop together full-on performances – I think I might have done one or two small overdubs over mistakes that happened, but almost all of the bass, drums, and guitar that you hear on the record are all played together, no one’s overdubbing. Overdubs come in with other stuff like Tim’s guitar parts, Dave’s vocals, the horn section, and then percussion.
You mentioned Steve Lillywhite, who produced the “Big 3” and then the now infamous “Lillywhite Sessions”, which never made it to a published record. As a bass player and a member of this band, what kind of growth did you experience from leaving Lillywhite, working with other producers, then returning to Lillywhite again?
That’s such a cool thing! I always wanted to see what we could do with different producers. I didn’t realize that when a producer gets a good band, they want to keep that band to be theirs and work with them album after album. I’m glad that we went away from Steve when we did – I’m really glad that we got to experience working with Glen Ballard, which was such a cool experience, because it was completely different from what we had done for the last three records. It took a little adjusting for me, because I walked into that studio session where basically Ballard and Dave had written a record in 10 days. Ballard put all of the bass down, piano parts, drum parts, and everything. When I was listening to it, I was like, “Well, what am I gonna do?” Then working with him, I got to realize what it was like to be more of a pop producer in that sort of style. By the end of it I was psyched, because I was able to push my own bass lines over his. I could be like, “Hey, on this second take I’m going to just try something a little different. If you don’t like it, don’t worry about it, we can go back to the other thing, I just wanted to see if you like this idea.” Some of those stuck. The very end of “The Space Between” where Roi and I are playing that little line together, that was supposed to happen, but it was not on the original demo. So when you have little victories like that, it’s like, “Yay – that’s awesome!”
Then going from Ballard to working with Steve Harris who had worked on “Before These Crowded Streets” as an engineer, it kind of felt like, “OK, cool. We’re producing our old record with our old engineer, taking all of the songs we had before and we’ll finish them up.” There was a freedom to that, because you felt like you were completely in charge. Steve Harris had great suggestions and great ideas as a producer, but then after that I think we were looking to do something different and that’s when we went to Mark Batson.
I think that record (“Stand Up”) is funny, because it wasn’t what I expected! I didn’t realize it was going to be as mixed up as it was. Doing that record, everyone came in with their own songs and we worked off of that. It was cool because I had never really worked with a hip-hop producer before. With so much rap and hip-hop that Mark Batson did, it was just cool to see his whole technique and see how quickly he would come up with stuff. He and Glen Ballard would do things similar where you would walk in and there’s already all of this bass and drums already done. It’s sort of like, “What am I going to do?” but then you have to re-invent what they did to make it your own.
Rob Cavallo was like, “Finally – we’re home again!” because we’re back in the studio with a band producer who’s ready to make a big rock record and we’re that band for him right now. So “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King” was kind of like us getting back in the saddle.
Then Lillywhite was like, “OK, we’re back where we left off”. We all had a little adventure and had a 13 or 14-year hiatus from each other and now we’re back to make this record. It feels like all of those records in between were great, but there’s something very special about the records we make with Lillywhite. And who knows? Now that we’re working with Lillywhite again, maybe some of those older demos of some of those other songs will start to come up.
Looking back on your time with Leroi, what lessons from him really shaped you as a player and as a musician?
Roi had great ideas. Roi used to say, “One for one”…of all his ideas, one would work. You might have 30 ideas during the day, but one of them is awesome! His whole thing was that you have to play your ideas, because you’ll never know if they’re cool or not.
He said a bunch of things that stuck over the years. One of the things he said that really helped me out when I was younger and still lasts to this day: once you find your own rhythm, don’t care about what other people are doing. Stay true to your own self. Be true to your own meter and you know that your meter is right. You’re right there! You don’t have to worry about what everyone else is doing, because if you’re right, you’re right. Playing with someone like Carter, who, for the first 10 years of my career with him and this band, was an exciting struggle on stage. I wasn’t really professionally ready to play with someone at his level. I should have still been in school, studying his playing, not on stage with him playing! This is all to say that Roi was always there and he could tell when I was messing up and he would be, “You’ve just got to stick to your own meter! Stop trying to figure out where his ‘1’ is, you know where your ‘1’ is!” Going to the studio now, I just get into my own world. I’m listening and I’m around, but if I want to do something, I’m going to do it, because I want to try it. Roi was just very real with music. He loved all types and was so open.
This is the first record without him. On “Big Whiskey”, it was almost like there was a ghost of Roi that was on the record. I think that was perfect and such a beautiful statement at the time for us as a band with Roi. Now this record, it kind of felt to me like, even though he isn’t with us, it is back to the way it was. His spirit is there, but this band now is not about us paying homage to his spirit, this record is about doing what this band does. You have those moments of breaking through the other side. In a way, this record is the other side now and “Big Whiskey” was us actually breaking through. I always wish he were there and wish there was a million horn solos to throw on top of stuff, but I think that the one thing that was different with “Big Whiskey” and then the other Lillywhite records, was that Lillywhite records were very organic and very real. People who were playing the music and playing the notes were the ones that were on the record and the ones you saw on stage. So now, we’re kind of back to that.
A phrase you just used was, “doing what this band does”. One thing that I would suggest the band does in a live setting is exploring songs and stretching out on them. Are there are any songs that have grown on the road, in your part especially?
It’s funny, because “Stand Up” is the one that is probably our most “mix tape” sort of record. There’s so much overdubbing and so much other stuff happening that Mark had going on with the drums and other bass notes. In the intro of ”Smooth Rider” on “Stand Up” I think I’m on that song! I’m not really necessarily sure that’s my bass you hear when you play it! That record is really hard to play those songs live and make them sound and feel right.
“Everyday” was the same way except the difference is that we’ve had a lot more time with “Everyday”. On “Everyday” songs I think Glenn Ballard still tried to keep them in the way that this band should still be able to play them live. You listen to songs like “Everyday”, my bass parts have changed a lot, but typically when I write a line for a song, it typically doesn’t change. The vibe might change, but the line is still rooted in the same fundamentals where it came from. “Everyday” is the one record where I had the least responsibility for writing the bass parts on top of the songs. Those are the ones that now I feel that, whether the bass line was my own or not, now I feel that every time I play those songs, those songs are now more known for their live-ness than their studio recordings.
Songs like “What You Are” has really changed. “The Last Stop”, going back to Lillywhite. “Before These Crowded Streets”, that record itself has so much improv happening with the bass lines when we were writing and while I was recording, that I kind of feel like a lot of those songs are always improvised in certain parts. For example, with “Stone”, when it goes into the chorus, I’ve never had a bass line that ever really stuck to it. I guess, to answer your question, probably songs off of “Before These Crowded Streets” and “Everyday” are the songs that have really changed the most from their originals record recordings.
Are there any tunes that you typically don’t play live that you wish could be pulled back out, so that you can rework, or at least “re-vibe” them?
Yeah, there are still songs on “Everyday”. I love “Everyday” songs. I know there was a controversy when that record came out, only because of the change and I understand that. As far as the love of playing songs, the “Everyday” songs are super fun. For one, “Mother Father” is one that we might have attempted to play one time live and that’s it. I have always felt like that song would be such a killer song live. From “Before These Crowded Streets”, everyone loves hearing, “The Last Stop” and that’s a killer song – it’s big and fun and awesome and that’s one that would be nice to get under our hands again. “Spoon” is one we hardly ever play and the few times we’ve played it, you get this looseness to it and it’s sort of like a rocky boat ride or something. Each time you do that, something new happens and it’s like this new thing. It’s kind of like the song, “Lying in the Hands of God” from “Big Whiskey”. Same thing, it’s very loose and fluid. There are certain songs, for example, “Don’t Drink the Water” where the bass line is so obvious, but there are songs like, “Lying in the Hands of God” where you don’t really know what I’m going to play. I kind of have an idea of where I’m at, but it changes each night. Those songs are the ones that the more we play them, the stronger and tighter they would get, but maybe they’ll lose that loose fluidness that the song needs, so if “Spoon” is only played once every two or three years, maybe that’s what that song is for. It’s cool the way that happens, because there could be a certain song where I’m still playing the same bass line for 20 years and I still have to look at my fingers to do it, but yet the new stuff I wrote I don’t have to look, I don’t have to think about it, because it’s so where I am today. When I’m playing bass lines from when I had only been playing bass for two years, playing those bass lines now is in some ways more difficult. Its like, “Why did I do that?” and I don’t know where to go from there, because it’s so stuck in muscle memory.
Let’s jump to a couple of gear things. You’ve journeyed through several basses. You’ve been with Warwick, Modulus, and now I believe you’re playing Hill basses?
I play Hill and now my Precision. I have two old Fender P-basses that I played. In fact, this album was the first record where I played my old P-bass for most of the record. You are correct though; it used to be Hill basses, now they’re called Bootleg. I like John’s (Hill) work a lot. Robbie from Godsmack was the first one to show me those basses and ever since then I was like, “I love it!” The producers all love them, engineers love them, and they are such great basses for the bigger, modern sound, more for rock songs. But I’ve really been enjoying playing my older Fender P’s.
Growing up, everyone always asked me, “Do you love Jaco? You have to love Jaco!” and I was like, “Yeah, it’s all right – I get it.” But to tell you the truth, if I had to put one guy up there it would have to be James Jamerson. That’s who I would want to be, because he was on the radio. Jaco wasn’t on the radio and I’ve always wanted to be on the radio. I’m like an 80’s pop kid, so for me like James Jamerson and Flea, of course, but these guys that have been able to take the bass to new levels but also keep the bass where I like to listen to it, which is in a song supporting the lyrics and melody and so on.
You recently wrote an article (http://www2.timesdispatch.com/news/oped/2012/jun/25/tdopin02-lessard-keep-instruments-free-of-illegal–ar-2010657/) talking about legally sourced woods for instruments and the Lacey Act. What piqued your interest in this issue?
I actually have to give credit to Adam Gardner who is the guitar player from Guster, but who also started the organization Reverb, which we use on tour. He and I are good friends and in fact, he plays in my side project Yukon Cornelius. He brought me up to date with the Lacey Act. I had no idea that there was a bill that was basically saying you weren’t allowed to use these woods and that bill was going to be stricken down. After we talked about it I was like, that’s not something that I want to see happen because I like my instruments and I like my woods, but I want to know that it comes from a good place and it’s not illegally forested wood. Just knowing that is enough to make me feel better promoting it and playing it on an instrument. There’s so many great woods that you can get that are legal and are forested correctly. That was why we started talking about it. It’s one of those things where if I can put my name and help support what I feel is a good cause, I will. That, to me, is a really good cause. I spend a lot of time in the Northwest and you see these mountains where half the hillside has been forested. It’s one of those things like, if you have to do it, you have to do it in a controlled setting and make sure it’s all done correctly so all of these forests come back strong and we’re not hurting things in the process. We aren’t taking wood out from places where there’s not going to be any of that wood left. I don’t care what it is in my hands; I’d rather it not be that wood.
You mentioned Yukon Cornelius – is there anything coming up for that group?
I haven’t been working on any Yukon stuff, only because we’ve been promoting the record for the band. I’m hoping to see some activity after the release of the record. Yukon is great because the guys in Yukon are all busy; we’re all doing tours in our bands. There’s some time, maybe spring next year that we’ve started looking at a few arena shows possibly. We’re looking to take it one step further. Our last show was in Vail and there were about 8,000 people that came out to see us. So with those numbers, we gave the organizers that are involved with the band a little hope, so we’re looking at one, maybe two shows. Maybe one in Colorado somewhere and possibly somewhere on the East Coast.
You’re closing out the current DMB tour with some dates on the west coast. After that, will you be on break for a bit or will there be more touring?
I’m hoping that there will be more touring this year. We just had another show added, which was the Hollywood Bowl show on the 12th. I can only imagine that with the promotion of this record we’d start playing some other shows. Nothing’s on the books right now, but knowing the way things work, I wouldn’t be surprised if people start to see some other shows popping up this year.
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About Steve Gregory
Steve is a graduate of the prestigious Berklee College of Music and serves as the bass player and assistant band director for the Highlands Fellowship (Abingdon campus) praise band. Much of his time is dedicated to exploring bass in the praise and worship setting while working to dispel the myth that worship bass is boring, bland, and musically unfulfilling. Steve also enjoys playing for a wide variety of musical opportunities, in both live and studio settings.