Multi-faceted bassist shares thoughts on the Fab Faux, new projects, and why he isn’t a dentist
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
October 25, 2021
Photo by Sandrine Lee
Will Lee is a familiar face to fans of David Letterman’s late night shows. Lee currently plays bass in the Fab Faux, a Beatles tribute band that also features Jimmy Vivino, longtime bandleader for the Conan O’Brien shows. Beyond that, the prolific musician and vocalist has appeared on more than 2,000 albums in the jazz, rock, and pop genres, and also contributed to radio and TV commercials. Over the course of his career, Lee has toured or otherwise collaborated with artists like Horace Silver, The Brecker Brothers, Billy Cobham, David Bowie, James Brown, Robben Ford, Bette Midler and Barry Manilow. His most recent solo album, Love, Gratitude and Other Distractions, was released in 2013.
FBPO: It’s been a few years since the Letterman show ended. What have you been up to?
WL: Well, everything else. But seriously, it’s interesting. There’s two things that lead to creativity, and this is funny because it’s such a dichotomy. One of them is having free time to express and to create, and of course the other thing is a deadline. That’ll get your ass into gear! You know what I mean?
WL: So it sounds like two opposite things, but they’re both things that actually really help towards getting something done. Coming up with something good and then finally executing it.
FBPO: I know you’ve been keeping busy. You seemed especially excited about the Burt Bacharach project you did in LA a couple weeks ago.
WL: I was very excited! I think the main reason that I jumped on it as fast as I did – and, of course, who would not jump on it anyway – but I jumped on it before the sentence was being finished that was asking me if I would participate. And that’s because 25 years ago I was supposed to do the first project that they did together, and I couldn’t make it because I was booked. I was so bummed for 25 years. I’ve been regretting it ever since, so when I got the call to do this, it was like, “Oh, maybe I can make up for all that regret and do this.” So I jumped on it, and it was so good. It was thrilling. There was a live orchestra in the room. Elvis [Costello] singing with the live orchestra and the whole band, Peter Erskine playing drums, the great Paul Jackson on guitar and the great Jim Cox on piano. It was pretty exciting to be at Capitol Studio A and B doing that.
FBPO: I’m glad to see The Fab Faux is back in action too.
WL: Well, right now, we’re doing local gigs in the New York area. We’re focusing on that again right now, as we did in the beginning. Since COVID, a lot of people have spread their wings out in all these directions. People are living in different towns now, doing different types of stuff with their time, different musical and otherwise family-type stuff. My saying is, “We do what we can with what we have, with the time that we can give it.”
FBPO: In your last interview with us, way back in 2013, you had just released Love, Gratitude and Other Distractions. Anything in the works for a new solo release?
WL: Well, it’s funny you should mention that because, as we are talking, today is a day that I’m trying to make a deadline of a video—not [a] release but just a presentation to Modern Drummer magazine for their festival—of a song of mine that Charley Drayton plays drums on. That Charley was hoping to use as his participation in the Modern Drummer festival. It’s going to be a virtual one, as it was last year, and it was super well attended. So the premier will probably happen at their online festival. This could end up being installment number one into the new album. It’s funny, man, I’m really writing songs that are song songs. I’m not going for any kind of fusiony, jazzy, fast licks, anything. It’s about the lyric and the melody and all that kind of stuff. That’s where I came from, that’s where I came into this picture.
FBPO: Tell me about your bass gear, what are you playing these days. Are you still playing Sadowsky’s?
WL: Yeah. My model, the Will Lee model, which is a really successful product, with a beautiful neck and 22 frets and special preamp with mid-range circuit. It’s doing really well everywhere.
FBPO: What kind of strings do you play?
WL: Well, I’m using Sadowsky strings, and I’m still experimenting. I do a lot with flatwounds, and historically, it’s always been the older, the better. In other words, it takes a long time to really break in a set of flatwounds to make them nice and flat sounding and thuddy. But I’m in the market. I still believe in the possibility of there being one that you can just buy and put them on and they sound good kind of early.
FBPO: How about amps, effects…?
WL: Well, I’m doing Aguilar, loving playing through Aguilar amps at the moment. I’m excited about a new Zoom Multi Effects Pedal, the B6. I saw my friend Carlitos Del Puerto doing his own little demo of it. And we spoke about it at great length, and it’s got a lot of the qualities that I’ve been looking for in a portable, one-size-fits-all pedal board.
FBPO: I was just talking about Carlitos the other day. What a great player. He endorsed my new book that’s coming out later this year. It’s called Funk/Jazz Bass.
WL: I love it!
FBPO: It’s a “play-in-the-style-of…” book, focusing on 30 great bass players. By the way, you’re one of the 30. You’re in the book!
WL: Wow! Do I have a style?
FBPO: Apparently you do.
WL: [Laughs] How many books have you done?
FBPO: I think this is number 11.
FBPO: You were so kind to endorse my first book, Funk Bass, the slapping book.
WL: That was your first! I thought that was your first.
FBPO: And you wrote such a great foreword to my Bass Grooves book.
WL: Bass Grooves, isn’t that kind of… It’s really one and the same, isn’t it?
FBPO: Bass Grooves: The Ultimate Collection. I was so honored when you wrote that it’s “the most important book of its kind since Standing in the Shadows of Motown.”
WL: Wow. I thought that book was important, not because I was part of it, but because I’m also a student of what that book has to tell you and what that is, to me, it’s so colorful to be able to listen to a performance and to watch it on the paper, to see the notes, to hear the notes. It’s such a lesson that it just does something to your brain. If you’re at all interested in being any kind of studio-type player, or a person who wants to play with others in a room where you’re able get it right as soon as you sit down and somebody counts it off, due to the fact that it’s written down, you can all get along immediately. Reading is just a great thing, and for that reason. It just really fast-forwards you to be able to hear something that you’re really digging listening to and watch those notes, to see what that sound looks like. It’s a great lesson.
FBPO: What advice do you have for somebody who wants to learn to play bass?
WL: Make sure you’re the worst guy in the band. Surround yourself with musicians better than you, if you can find them, because that’s always so much fun and it improves your playing, if they have the tolerance to have you in their situation. I mean, you don’t want them looking over their shoulder going, “Man, that guy’s the worst guy in the room.” Do your best to find a great, for instance, drummer, especially if you’re a bassist. And learn how to lock in, to focus on the way that person feels. Try to learn how to predict where their foot’s going to land, because you can do it, you can adapt to that, no matter what your inherent groove is that you play when you’re by yourself. The more you play with other people, the better you can play with other people, because you can get into bad habits playing with yourself. So it’s a really healthy thing to do to get in a room with other players and create some sound together.
FBPO: What lies ahead, Will? Is there anything else that’s on the horizon that you can share?
WL: I’m doing a lot of one-off type gigs. I’m doing a gig with ex-Yankee Bernie Williams, who’s a great guitar player, and his pal, Gil Parris, who I’ve known for years. I’m doing a one-off fundraiser with Billy Gibbons and Southside Johnny and The Blind Boys of Alabama, in a multi-artist show. And as you mentioned, The Fab Faux are going to be doing a thing in early November. And I’ve been asked to be a part of a thing honoring the music of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, for an 80th birthday celebration of those two artists here in New York City. I’m going to be doing two Dylan songs and two Paul Simon songs with a girl named Chrissi Poland, great artist that she is. The two of us are doing a duet version of some of those great writers’ songs. And then, since I’ve been writing, I was invited to be a part of one of those “Songwriters in the Round” kind of things. It’s also going to be streamed on November 18th. Also I have a friend named Ray Levier, who’s a fantastic drummer. We’re playing at The Cutting Room in New York City on November 23rd. And that’s a great band with my favorite saxophone player, Aaron Heick, percussionist, Daniel Sadownick, keyboard player extraordinaire, Etienne Stadwijk, and the guitarist, David Gilmore.
FBPO: I remember Aaron. He was on the Letterman Show.
WL: He was, man. I looked forward to everyday walking in to see what he was going to play next. I just love his playing. We were talking about Carlitos earlier. He and I were, along with Lee Sklar and Nathan East and Neil Stubenhaus, were included in this thing that was featuring 100-plus drummers in an arrangement of “Come Together” for WhyHunger. All of us donated our time and talents to feed some people.
FBPO: That’s beautiful.
WL: Yeah. And Ringo is the first thing you see, so it’s pretty great. I just did an album in Germany with an artist named Simon Oslender, and drummer Wolfgang Haffner, and we’re going to be touring at the end of May in Germany.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
WL: Well, you’d have to ask a young me that question because that’s when it would’ve been possible to be anything else. At this point, I’m a little bit locked into this particular career. But I think, honestly, with all my heart, when I was a kid, I went to the dentist. I was probably … It was back in Huntsville, Texas. I’m thinking that I must have been every bit of, I don’t know, 8 years old, 9, whatever. And I was alone in a chair with a dentist, and this super creepy Muzak was playing. I remember that it was the theme from A Summer Place, a string arrangement. [Hums the melody] Do you remember that song at all?
FBPO: I do. I absolutely do.
WL: So imagine the horror of being by yourself in this room with a guy who’s drilling into your teeth. And I just couldn’t believe the fear and the pain that was happening to me at that time. And I said at that moment, “That’s it, I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to be a dentist, and I’m going to put an end to all this trepidation and negative experience.”
FBPO: Did you know the word trepidation when you were 8 years old?
WL: No. That’s a big word for an 8 year-old, isn’t it?
FBPO: It’s a big word for anybody.
WL: I just learned it yesterday, as a matter of fact. But I was scared shitless. Let’s put it that way. And I thought, “Man, this is just so primitive. I can’t believe the fear and the pain. I’m going to be the guy who puts an end to all that. I’m going to save mankind,” basically. This is my ideals speaking. And I kept that in mind up until the moment that I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. And I said, “Dentistry, what the hell’s that?” Honestly, I really had my heart set on being that guy that got rid of all this terrible experience and made it something great, something cool.
FBPO: I guess somebody else will have to do that.
FBPO: Anything else you want to talk about?
WL: Well, let’s see. I just feel like this world is getting so bizarrely divided and so filled with negativity, and people seem to be really not digging themselves. And I think it all starts there. I think it all starts with just loving yourself, respecting yourself. And honestly, if people did that, and believe me, everybody alive is worth the trouble of looking in the mirror and going, “You know what? Let’s hang, man. You and I are cool. Let’s enjoy, let’s just be a good person. And let me dig myself because I’m not so bad.” And I think if you can get to that place, if you could just look at yourself and decide you’re going to dig being with you… I think that once you get to that place, you can be that pebble that puts out that ripple of positivity that allows the rest of the world to start falling in line. But we have to really start immediately, because life is way too short to not be grooving.
See Jon’s blog, with key takeaways from this interview here.
Love, Gratitude and Other Distractions is available here.
The following bass books are available in the FBPO store:
Funk Bass, by Jon Liebman (endorsed by Will Lee)
Bass Grooves: The Ultimate Collection, by Jon Liebman (Foreword by Will Lee)