Anyone who has attempted to learn a language in addition to his or her native tongue knows how daunting a task this can be. Rather than flowing naturally into the patterns of the dialect, many speakers sound crude and clunky, forcing new vocabulary into constructs that don’t apply. The resulting broken phrases highlight the gaps in understanding and paint the speaker as having an elementary grasp of the language.
In contrast, the feats of successful multilinguists are astonishing. Not only has vocabulary been acquired, but also the patterns and phrasing of the new language have been assimilated in a manner that permits communication to flow. The natural sounds allow the speaker to have true conversation, with their own ideas and thoughts being shared with ease. When this is done with 3, 4, or more languages, the accomplishments are nothing short of extraordinary.
This analogy holds true for bassists, also. Many bass players are completely fluent in one language – rock, funk, jazz, R&B, etc. However, when bass musicians attempt to cross boundaries without care, it is often said that they sound foreign to the new style. In these cases, the basic vocabulary may be correct, but something is missing – phrasing, rhythm, feel – a small detail that bonds musicians of a certain language together. When bassists are able to effectively communicate in two languages, the player is celebrated. Most amazing is the bassist who speaks a countless number of languages, without losing their unique voice.
Tim Lefebvre is one of the rare musical multilinguists. Equally adept at rock, jazz, fusion, electronica, R&B, and seemingly every other genre he encounters, one begins to wonder if Tim holds a personal Rosetta Stone that allows him to “speak” naturally in every situation he encounters. This astonishing ability has led to work with a wide variety of artists, including Donnie McCaslin, Chuck Loeb, Wayne Krantz, Mark Guiliana, Jamie Cullum, and Chris Botti. Film soundtracks abound on Tim’s discography (including recordings for “Ocean’s Twelve”, “The Departed”, and “Analyze That”), as do television credits (“The Sopranos” and “30 Rock”, for example). While working in New York, Tim subbed in the high profile arena of “Late Night with David Letterman” and “Saturday Night Live” and also stretched sonic boundaries with Wayne Krantz and Rudder.
Tim now resides in Los Angeles and continues to enjoy a full calendar of recording and live dates. Most recently, Tim has been holding down the low end for the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Tim is currently on tour with the 11-piece powerhouse, injecting his own personality into the creative live show of the group. When not on tour with the Tedeschi Trucks Band or in the studio for recording sessions, Tim continues to define the role of the bass guitar in a number of ways. Tim’s bass can be heard on huge variety of musical projects, from electronica with Knower to progressive music on upright bass with German pianist Michael Wollney.
Tim’s energy, creativity, and willingness to speak the language of those around him have led him to be the first call for countless artists. In each case, Tim speaks in the vernacular of the situation while employing note choices and phrasing that are unique to his voice. In addition, Tim is an expert in sonic manipulation through the use of effects. Creative uses of octave pedals, distortions, delays, ring modulators, and other effects have allowed Tim to enter conversations that were previously the exclusive domain of keyboardists and DJs. Rather than keep sounds segregated into their established worlds, he takes new sounds and introduces them into other music situations, blending elements to create new speech.
Perhaps the most admirable use of language by Tim Lefebvre is his unwillingness to talk in an egotistical manner that could be brought on by his long list of accolades. Tim is instead humble and gracious, talking with great passion about bassists and artists he admires and sharing his thoughts on music freely. His passion for bass, effects, gear, recording, and more becomes clear when speaking with Tim and has undoubtedly been a key component of his success.
How did you end up picking up the bass?
My dad (who was a middle school music teacher) kind of figured it out. I was playing along with all of these rock records when I was kid. AC/DC’s “Back in Black” came out when I was a kid, the Eagles’ “Long Run”. My sister had a guitar and I grabbed the guitar and I would just play the bass notes, I wasn’t playing chords. So my dad’s like, “You’re a bass player!” He kind of figured it out early.
He would always have his musician friends over and I would try to figure out their old swing tunes. It was hilarious; it was quite a scene! So, that’s kind of what it was. I was I think 6th or 7th grade then and I started playing upright bass my sophomore year in high school.
How did you transition from high school and college to playing on cruise ships?
I was at the University of Rochester so I was still playing a little bit at Eastman. My freshman and sophomore year I played at Eastman School of Music. I met a friend (Brian McKenna) who did some cruise ship work and he referred me. I went out and had a four month contract on a Premier cruise line ship (SS Oceanic) and then I wound up in Florida doing the Disney ships with a bunch of people with whom I am still really good friends. They’ve been long lasting relationships.
It was on one of the cruise ships that you met Zach Danziger?
The final cruise ship I did was the Majestic and my friend Pete Davenport was the drummer on it. Zach Danziger, who happened to be a friend of his, had just finished that Wayne Krantz record, “Long To Be Loose” and wanted a vacation. He came out on the cruise ship and started sitting in with the band. We started hitting hit off. He sort of encouraged me to move to New York. One of my dreams had been to move to New York anyway, since I had an affinity for the city. He said, “Yeah, you’d do fine if you moved to New York”. I decided at that point that I was moving to New York. It was just picking the right time and all of that stuff. The reason I have a career is due to Zach. When I got to New York it took me 3 years to get my feet settled. [Zach] was always championing my cause to Wayne, Leni Stern, Chuck Loeb and those guys. It finally started to come around.
Was it in New York that your sound started to evolve into what it is today?
My intention when I came to New York was to play straight ahead jazz. As it turned out, all of a sudden I’m playing a lot of electric bass with people. It was sort of by accident that I started playing electric a lot. At that time I was influenced by Marcus Miller, Darryl Jones, and Victor Bailey, so I was trying real hard to sound like those guys. I started thinking about my sound. Like Darryl Jones’ stuff with Sting – I watched “Bring On The Night” a million times. I saw that he had the octave pedal and I was like, “Oh, ok!” The trick was that he would be playing a vamp and he wouldn’t change the vamp and what he was playing, but he’d kick the octave pedal on. I was kind of stunned by that and how musical it was.
So, that started coming along and I started plugging that into stuff I was doing at the time. There was sort of a renaissance period in New York, between ’98 and 2002; that’s when I started playing with Wayne Krantz and Keith Carlock. In the meantime, I was doing a lot of weddings with Henry Hey, the keyboard player in Rudder. We started developing this language together by re-arranging and messing around with the tunes that we were playing during the weddings. That language ended up being a lot of what we did with Rudder later on with Keith Carlock.
So between ’98 and 2002, I started playing with Wayne Krantz. Wayne was the guy who said, “Please don’t play any device-y stuff, just really improvise”. To this day, it’s something that has really stuck with me. Also, that’s when I started playing with Jojo Mayer doing “electronic nights” we used to have. Once a week we used to set up and play, completely free. We’d sort of imitate what the DJ’s were doing at the time; they were playing all these drum-and-bass sides (a big influence on me to this day) I was trying to emulate that stuff with the pedal set up I had.
With Wayne, there was a strong musical language that was developing. Keith was just a monster and Wayne was already a monster and I was trying to catch up. I was just trying to hang in there, because it was super intense. After a while, I got very comfortable with it, sort of finding a thing to do in there, finding a sound. During that era, I was using a ton of pedals, just doing electronic sub bass stuff, filtering that stuff. Wayne was doing a lot of ring modulation stuff and I started to do it later. But it was a lot of octave bass, 808-y kind of stuff, which I still kind of use today. As long as it doesn’t start to sound stupid, I keep using it.
New York seems to be a time of living in both straight ahead and creative, electronic worlds.
Yeah, that’s definitely true. It is just one of those things where I feel like I can function in both worlds. I mean, I’m never going to sound like Ray Brown, but something reasonably usable. The only place I don’t think I can function is in the Latin world; I just never studied it.
That’s kind of the cool thing about LA. I’m really learning how to play rock and pop out here. Things like sonically which bass to choose. The New York thing is that you just bring one bass to the recording session and make it work. Just plug it into a direct box. Out here, there are amp choices and bass choices and people really care about what gear you’re bringing into a session. In most cases, it really is important. I’ve been doing a lot of that recently; it’s been really interesting. I’ll come in with expectations that I’ll do this and this and half the time I’ve ended up just playing on one sting, just sliding back and forth between a C and F. But you know, whatever works! You just drop whatever you think you know and try to work with whomever you’re working with.
Regarding leaving New York for LA: Did you feel that you were getting pigeonholed in New York for certain styles or did you just want to try something new?
It was a combination of all of that. There are always bands that I’ll feel at home with in New York, like Mark Guiliana’s band, Wayne, David Binney, and Donnie McCaslin. I still play with those guys a lot . But it was sort of like I was banging my head on this ceiling in New York a little bit and I think the work scene is diminishing there a little bit. Once in a while, I just feel like I have to just pick up and start over. The really cool thing is that since I’ve been here in LA, a bunch of different stuff has come up. I’ve been recording a ton here and I didn’t feel like I was doing a lot of that in New York. Plus, I’m touring a lot, so as long as I’m near a big airport, it doesn’t really matter where I live.
The other thing was that New York was driving me crazy – it’s an intense place to live. After a while, you’re like, “I just want some mountains and some sea!” I wanted to work [in LA] and I’m certainly getting busier and busier as it goes along. I just needed a change and I think it was the right thing to do. I miss all of my friends in New York, intensely. I was leaving kind of a creative scene and coming here to more of a rock, song oriented town, which is cool. It’s a skill I needed to work on anyway. Looks like it kind of worked out, you know?
How do you feel losing the super creative environment of New York?
I haven’t really lost it. I just started touring with the Tedeschi Trucks Band; I’m still doing Donnie McCaslin gigs, I’m still playing with Beat Music (Mark Guiliana’s band), I’m still playing with Wayne and now occasionally with Knower…it’s just not as regular. I didn’t really lose it; it’s just not an everyday thing anymore. That is really a good thing, because I feel like I’m evolving still, which is cool.
I play the gigs with Wayne, Donnie, Uri Caine and Mark (and Binney and company, when they come to LA) because it keeps the “talons” sharp, and I have a deep personal and musical bond with those guys. I’ll feel kind of empty if I don’t have contact with them musically in some way or another. It’s part of who I am at this point, really. If I don’t do that stuff once in a while, I think what I bring to the table is going to suffer. Plus the cool part is that the stuff I’m doing here is starting to inform [the creative side] a little bit; I’m sort of calming down a little bit.
I’m not afraid of change: if I have to put down the creative stuff, I’ll put it down. For instance, with Tedeschi Trucks, it’s a blend 75%-25%. 75% play the song, 25% be creative. The creative part is kind of structured, it’s not like I can play whatever I want; you have to sort of police traffic for 11 people. That’s an evolution for me. But the sax player in that band, Kebbi Williams, and Derek, play super free, which is great. But the jams need some kind of structure – it’s kind of like Miles Davis’ “Star People” with what Marcus Miller is doing under that. It’s kind of vamping away, even though there’s no specific key. In the Tedeschi Trucks set there’s a song called “Nobody’s Free”. In the jam section, I’m vamping away and you’re not in a key necessarily, but its kind of keeping an 8 bar phrase with a repeating motif. It sounds kind of like early 70’s Miles. It’s not like you’re putting on the ring mod and just dropping the subs on people, because I think you’ll look out in the audience and you’ll see faces looking at you like moose in the headlights! Even though I would love to do that, and maybe at some point I will, I’m not ready to do that yet.
When you started subbing for Tedeschi Trucks Band, you were entering a situation where there were some established parts left by Oteil Burbridge. Did you go in thinking of keeping those parts or making the songs your own?
It’s sort of a blend. I listened to what was going on the records and I also listened to the board tapes. It wasn’t always Oteil; it was Bakithi Kumalo, Dave Monsey and couple of other guys. What sounded like a part, I would play as a part. Like “Midnight in Harlem” is a beautiful song that Mike Mattison wrote and its very parts-y. The parts that Oteil came up with are genius and I totally copped that. Some other things I simplified, other things I know I can do my thing on. On a song like “The Storm”, everybody’s playing this one vamp and I’m dropping an octave pedal in there on the high stuff. When the solo section starts I’m doing Lynard Skynard-y chord progression stuff. What’s cool is that during the solo section I’ll do it and everyone will follow me, which is interesting. Right now, I’m in kind of conservative mode with that – I don’t want to launch to far into the weird. They love it, but I’m not going to launch into full Pino Palladino D’Angelo “Voodoo” stuff. But on the rock tunes, I’m figuring out sonically what I need, kind of playing hard rock stuff. It’s fun! E-D-A, just simple stuff that sounds really good! Derek’s playing a certain way over it that you can bend the chords. I’m always interested in bending stuff but not being ridiculous, because there’s a lot of playing the same chords over and over again. I’m keeping that interesting and moving forward. I think it’s important to know when to put the brakes on and when to let it go. You have to police yourself on that stuff because that ends up sounding like “Oh, I know all this harmony” instead of a pop song. Its kind of fun to find that line, especially with a new band.
Since you get such a diverse range of calls for gigs and recordings, how do you decide where that line is and how much you can stretch?
Number one priority when someone calls: I learn their music. I show up somewhat prepared, even if I can’t spend as much time on it as I want; I don’t come in blind. We just finished up doing this Peter Gabriel show the other night with all of these Peter Gabriel songs, a lot of which I knew and a lot of which I didn’t. But it’s Tony Levin! You can’t come in there without some of the bass lines! So if a guy is writing music, you want to have a grip on what’s going on, then you can add in your own stuff.
In terms of preparing for stuff, it’s interesting; it’s a case-by-case situation. You write out the charts for the songs and you bring some amp choices and you bring some bass choices. Most of the time out here, they’re looking for more vintage-y stuff; they’re not looking for new sounding basses. But, I just played on this record (The Rhythm) with Andy Snitzer, who is a great saxophone player, and I used this Callow Hill bass. I just love how it sounds on the track. It’s a great 5 string, but people get scared seeing that; they want to see a 70’s P or a 60’s P. Most of what I use right now is my Moollon P on everything; it sounds really vintage-y. I used it on Corinne Bailey Rae’s record. I brought in every bass I had and we ended up deciding on that one. It’s a P slung with flatwounds and it’s pretty amazing sounding. Young Joon Park (Moollon luthier) is a genius! I have a 5 string that he sent me – it’s a passive 5 – and I have a fretless Jazz, and a Tele guitar that’s pretty awesome too.
Being in a town that requires amp choices, what are you bringing with you on calls?
I’m an Aguilar endorser. I’m using a 751 and a 4×12 cab with Tedeschi Trucks, which is pretty meaty. Around town, I have a couple of handmade cabinets from New York, by a guy named Hamhead. I have a 2×10 and a 1×10, and a 1×12 from Aguilar. I go back and forth depending on what the situation is. When I record, I have an Ampeg B25B that I bring and an old Yamaha tube PA head from the 80’s that’s pretty awesome too. I just plug it into its speaker jack and it’s super warm sounding. Then I have an Aguilar Tone Hammer 500. Just for gigs, generally speaking, I bring the 12 and the 2×10’s with the Tone Hammer and it’s pretty loud and thumping.
Do you think of having the “Tim Lefebvre sound” or do you feel that you just play as yourself in the variety of situations you find yourself in?
I don’t think of myself as having a sound, but I think people think I do – it’s interesting. I check out what bassists do on stuff, obviously, but I don’t go out and buy bass soloist records, so my head is in the sand about that. So in that way, I’m not current, but at the same time, it kind of allows me to keep doing my thing. It’s interesting – “the Tim Lefebvre sound” – I never think of it that way. I’ll put it this way: if I don’t feel like I’m the right guy for something, I’ll tell you that, I’ll be honest about that. I mean it’s no use; you’re going to get fired anyway! I feel like that. People call me to bow and it’s like, “Dude, it’s really awful”. I’m totally honest about that. Having said that – I’ve ended up on some movie soundtracks doing some horrendous bowing…who knows?
My sound is not a conscious thing; I kind of just try to be present and do what I do. I know there are certain thing that I tend to lean toward, but I’m not trying to be too device-y with it. I have certain idea points, but I’m trying to lose those. I catch myself sometimes, especially when I haven’t been playing a lot of creative stuff, tending to go to those same places. That’s hard to keep fresh, your islands of ideas. Like filling at the end of four bars, I’m always trying to change that stuff up.
I’m also big into note spaces; sometimes you can change the lengths of notes. I’m always trying to think about that. It just comes from whatever music you’re listening to and whatever you’re being exposed to at the time, along with whom you’ve been playing with.
If there’s a sound, it’s not something I’m consciously trying to create. I read articles where guys say they’re trying to find their sound and I’ve never really thought of it that way, I thought of it like A) don’t suck and B) I was trying to sound like Darryl Jones and Victor Bailey back in the day. That was the basis of it all, just trying to sounds like those guys and I ended up sounding like my own thing.
Since you do get noticed for some of the effects driven, creative things, do you find that people try to paint you into that single corner?
Maybe. People can think what they think. I mean, I still run into people that didn’t know I play upright! That’s hilarious! I just did [an upright gig] with Michael Wollny Trio, a fantastic young pianist that just won an Echo award – same thing as a German Grammy. Finally I’m going to be exposed as playing with guys on that level!
It doesn’t bother me. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s not. I find that the younger kids know what I’m up to and the older people don’t. Young kids see the Wayne Krantz videos from 1999 and then they’ll see me doing the Knower video with Louis Cole and Genevieve. “Surprise – he’s doing that now!”
What do you think keeps your phone ringing for such a wide variety of opportunities?
I don’t know. There is some loyalty is involved: guys that I used to play with in New York are still willing to fly me to out to wherever we need to play. So I’m always grateful for that. I think people are fairly sure that I’ll come in and do a good job, if they know me at all. There’s some kind of confidence thing. But it’s hard to say – you can basically call anybody, everybody’s replaceable, I think.
I also firmly believe in momentum – I almost never say no to anything, if I can possibly squeeze it in. I think that helps keep the forward momentum going. I think the more you say ‘yes’, the more things will come in. If you start saying ‘no’…the way the business is right now, who could say no? It’s funny, everything I’m doing right now, playing wise, doesn’t feel like work, which is really great. I’m just up there doing a thing, which is really awesome.
In a perfect world, I would love to be the American Pino Palladino. I mean, who wouldn’t? I admire that guy so much. He can just do anything; he sounds awesome on everything. Because he is who he is, it’s up to his discretion on how he wants to record something. He can call the shots, which I think is a really enviable position.
Do you feel that you have some of that license?
More and more. I used to play some stuff like him back in the day and people were like, “No, we don’t want that”. I’d be like, “Wait – that’s a direct Pine Palladino cop!” Or Darryl Jones or Marcus Miller! But because I’m not one of those guys…it is what it is!
It’s beautiful though, to hear someone just learn the song and pop it down. Like the guys in the 70’s – the Louis Satterfields and the Jamersons and the Jerry Jemotts. A lot of the simplicity came from the drums; there’s no busy crap from the drums, so the bass players got to fill up all of the space. I love it!
Like “What’s Going On”: the reason that’s so genius is that the drums are just doing eights, 2 and 4, and that’s it. Those are the beats that the hip-hop acts of the 90’s would sample. Like that sample of Greg Errico at the end of “Sing Me A Simple Song” – that’s the “Humpty Dance”! That’s the funkiest thing you’ll ever hear. If you can’t lay into that…I don’t know, there’s a problem. That’s something that I really gravitate to.
A great thing about Tedeschi Trucks is that JJ [Johnson] and Falcon [Tyler Greenwell] just lay it in like that. Stuff at that tempo, that’s what it feels like, it’s super funky! Kofi Burbridge is funky…the whole band is great, it’s really something. It’s very much a revival band. Here’s a live band in your face, no samples, just 11 people up there doing it. There’s never any neutral reaction to it – I haven’t seen any hate, but I’ve seen a lot of joyous insanity. The whole jam band community, they love live music. You can see the effect on people – when Susan Tedeschi finishes singing “Midnight in Harlem”, for example, people go insane! It’s like a jazz concert when there’s an amazing solo; it’s the same thing. She’s one of the best singers I’ve ever worked with.
Since you have so many choices in your effects arsenal, what do you typically bring as your standards?
Around town, an octave pedal and an overdrive pedal of some sort. I’ve been using the Way Huge Pork Loin, the Boss OC-2; those are the staples. Generally speaking, if I know it’s going to be a song thing, if it’s not going to be sonically adventurous, I’m going to bring those two. With the octave pedal, I can get into the 808 stuff, even the R&B guys flip out when they hear that. That’s the around town thing, I’ve pared it down a little bit. If I know I’m going to do an experimental gig, I’ll bring the electro harmonic frequency analyzer ring mod (thanks to Steve Wall and Mark Guiliana) and an envelope filter and a delay. When I record I bring most of the stuff. I’m driving a lot [to recordings], so I bring a lot of distortions and drives. It’s all done to a click, so you can time your delays.
How did you gain the knowledge of sound creation through effects?
It is all because of that period from ’98 to 2002, the drum and bass gigs and playing with Wayne. We just strung everything together. With Wayne, we were playing compositions, albeit it short pieces, but there was a lot of improvising. Boomish (initially) Jojo Mayer’s project was all improvising. I’d just go in there and dig up some sounds and basically it was an hour of improvising. It’s intense, but by doing that, you learn what works and what doesn’t work. It’s all trial and error.
I’m totally comfortable busting out the 808 sound on just about anything, as long as it’s appropriate. As long as it’s not going to sound like some woofy, weird thing, like, “Where did that come from?” It does shock some musicians when I do it, but when they realize that it sounds like dance hall reggae or something like that it’s like, “Oh, ok”. It’s the stuff you hear coming out of people’s cars, it’s not a like a sound you haven’t heard before, you just haven’t heard it live. You especially haven’t heard a bass player do it; you’ve heard keyboard players do it. There’s always a strong reaction to it (increased dancing) most of the time good.
You mentioned the OC-2 as a staple. Why is that pedal such a good octave pedal?
The square wave is just so strong in it. There’s only one little flaw in it – I overdrive the front end sometimes, which doesn’t really bother me. The lower octave on it is so strong, it’s unbelievable. When Pino used it, he kept it mid-range-y on the fretless bass, then on the D’Angelo days he made it more, but he is a little subtle with it. Darryl Jones isn’t as subtle with it, but he was using the EBS on those Sting movies, which is more mid-range-y, more pillowy. This thing has a really mean point to it. When I put it on, it’s supposed to be heard and “Ok, the music just changed”. It’s definitely for some kind of effect. There’s a signature Lefebvre move: where you’re playing a vamp and there’s a drum solo and halfway through you kick it on. All of a sudden people lose their minds; they don’t know why they’re losing their minds, but they’re losing their minds.
I’ve heard you talk about enhancing vamps with that change.
Yeah, staying disciplined and just playing the vamp is cool, but you don’t have to be bored doing it. There are ways to add intensity to it without changing the musical content. That’s the genius, fun part of that. There was this track called “Consider Me Gone” that Darryl did, where they play through the whole tune and there’s a vamp at the end. He played a Db vamp and he kicked it on and it just blew my mind. It’s in the video and on the album. Also on “Children’s Crusade”, he drops the octave and it just blows my mind.
This is an unfair question, considering your schedule, but do you want to mention a few upcoming projects?
I’m playing with this great piano player Michael Wollny (with the excellent drummer Eric Schaefer), that’s the guy I just did the record with in Germany. We have some gigs and tours coming up. I’m doing a record that Eric Harland is producing with this saxophone player named Zhenya Strigalev from London, which is going to be interesting, because it’s me on electric bass and Larry Grenadier on upright bass. I have Tedeschi Trucks tours; I’m playing with Donnie McCaslin at the end of January. I have a project with Gary Novak and Scott Kinsey called Superego, which will have an album out in 2014. I have a festival with Jim Beard and Keith Carlock and Bob Malach in Mexico…a lot going on. I’m lucky that the phone stays ringing a little bit!
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Photos courtesy of Tracy Ketcher, www.tracyketcher.com