Lee Sklar, YouTube star? Lee Sklar, author? Lee Sklar, studio maven, joining a band? They say you can’t keep a good man down, even one who dwells in the lower frequencies. Admits Sklar, “I’d rather be too busy than have to look for ways to fill my time.” That theory is being put to the test as the music world very slowly but steadily tries to emerge from a global pandemic. With a daily commitment to his outstanding YouTube channel, in which he revisits classic tracks and shares stories from his remarkable career as undoubtedly the most recorded bassist in history, Sklar is increasingly being pulled from his spare bedroom show setting to do tours and recordings.
Chief among those is the Immediate Family, whose self-titled, full-length U.S. debut just dropped [The Immediate Family, Quarto Valley Records], with a November tour to follow. The album features four lifelong friends who have been recording together as an A-List unit for six decades: Sklar, drummer Russ Kunkel, and guitarist/composer/vocalists Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar and Waddy Wachtel. Like-minded guitarist/composer/vocalist Steve Postell rounds out the quintet. Featuring eleven new band-written originals, two ’80s hits co-written by Kortchmar and Wachtel, and a Warren Zevon cover, the record crackles with considerable craft and nuance over a bed of hard-rockin’ grooves, delivered by one of the powerhouse rhythm sections of all time.
We found an open slot in Lee’s hectic daily routine—yes, beard maintenance is a part of it—to get the backstory on the Family and an inside look at his current projects.
How did you come to play in James Taylor’s band, with Russ and Kootch?
That’s an interesting story. In 1969, I was in a group called Wolfgang, which was an L.A.-based hard rock band managed by Bill Graham. Wolfgang was Bill’s name and we thought what better way to suck up to management than to name the band after him! Our drummer, Bugs Pemberton was friends with John Fishbeck, who owned Crystal Recording Studios on Vine Street in Hollywood. I was still living at home, but we had a band house where we used to hang and rehearse. One day John came by with a friend of his named James Taylor. He had just returned from England and cut his second album [Sweet Baby James, Warner Bros., 1970]. James hung out with us for a few days and played us his songs, and we even worked out a hard rock version of “Country Road.” I thought he was very talented but it wasn’t the music we were doing, we wanted to be Cream or the Allman Brothers.
Not long after, James got offered a gig at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. He had Kootch, who was a childhood friend of his, they did The Flying Machine together in New York. He had Russ, and he had a piano player named Carol King. But they didn’t have a bass player. James remembered me from his hang with Wolfgang and he told his manager, Peter Asher, and they tracked me down. The gig went well and then they asked me to do a month-long tour on the East Coast. I was attending Cal State Northridge at the time, close to a degree, and I just left without telling anyone. The next thing you know, James is on the cover of Time magazine as the champion of a new style of music. It’s funny how that one gig turned into the rest of my life. Which is why I always tell bassists, Never say no! Take any opportunity that comes along. If it sucks you have the option to say no at that point, but you never know what’s going to happen when you walk into a new door. It may be the artist, or someone in the band, or even someone in the audience that can change your life.
Did you sense the magic in James’ band right away?
Oh yeah, the first time we played in rehearsal I knew it was special. I had never met Kootch or Carol, though I was aware of Carol as a songwriter with her ex-husband Gerry Goffin. Russ I had met briefly when I was in Wolfgang and he was in a band called Things to Come, so I remembered him when I got to the rehearsal. But yes, the minute we all started playing together there was this perfect chemistry, it was effortless. That said, the challenge for all of us was how to play with a comprehensive fingerstyle guitarist like James, who was covering the bass line, the chords, and the melody. He was a self-contained act but he didn’t want to be up there alone, he wanted a band. I had to wrap my head around it; am I just going to copy what he’s playing with his thumb or am I going to find ways of moving around that while still being the bass player? It required me to re-approach how I played bass at that point. And the way Carol played piano was interesting, too. She approached the instrument from a songwriter perspective so her parts were never intrusive and they always supported the song. I also never felt like we were competing in any way in the bass register. It was an interesting group of people to put together and I think that’s why it was considered an entirely new sound.
Carol wasn’t long for the band.
Right. James was always encouraging her to do her songs in our shows because people knew them, they just didn’t know this young lady in James’ band was the one who wrote them. But the next thing you know she got a deal with Ode Records and cut Tapestry . So all of a sudden we have a side person with one of the biggest hit albums ever, which meant it was time for her to leave and pursue a solo career. At that time I was starting to do studio work and I’d been hired to do a record for Tom Jans and Mimi Fariña, who was Joan Baez’s younger sister. The keyboardist on the session was Craig Doerge, who I’d never met before but who sounded very good. I contacted Peter Asher and told him I think I found the guy we’re looking for to replace Carol. Craig took over that seat in time to record James’ One Man Dog album [Warner Bros. 1972].
How did the Section come out of that?
During the course of touring, James was never enthusiastic about soundchecking. He would do just enough to see that everything worked and then leave. We were so eager to play all the time that we would jam after soundcheck until it was time to open the doors. At one point Peter [Asher] played us a tape and we said, Wow, that’s great! Who is it? And he said, That’s your soundcheck. So Peter got us a record deal with Warner Bros. and we were sitting around mulling over names and James said, “You guys are the rhythm section, why don’t you just call it the Section?” We thought, Yeah, that’s fine; we just wanted to get the name out of the way and get on with the music. We ended up doing three albums, with guests like Michael Brecker, David Sanborn, Jim Horn, and on our final record, David Crosby and James [Fork It Over, Capitol, 1977].
How was the band received both by listeners and the label?
Well, one of the issues we had was because of the pedigree we created during those first couple of years with James, Jackson Browne, and the other artists we worked with, the label thought they were getting one of those acts. Instead we turn in our first album [The Section, Warner Bros., 1972] and it’s a rock fusion instrumental record. They had no idea what to do with it, so there was very little label support or promotion. On the road we would open shows for James and Jackson and the audience was very receptive to the music, but with the label being unsure we ended up as pretty much a cult band. The coolest part was Peter had a partner named Nat Weiss, who had helped Brian Epstein get the Beatles to America and who signed Stanley Clarke to Nemporer Records. He was managing Mahavishnu Orchestra and they had a six-week tour where we were available, so he had us open for them. I became friends with Billy Cobham, who had just gotten a record deal, and he asked me to come to New York to cut Spectrum [Atlantic, 1973].
Getting back to the guys, what is it that made playing with Russ special?
I think the very fact that it’s hard to put into words is what makes it special. It’s on a whole other level. From the start, if you gave Russ and I a simple chart and a click track and put us in separate rooms where we couldn’t hear each other, when you listened back we would have caught all the fills and accents together. We never worked at becoming a rhythm section or anything like that, it just felt incredibly organic and effortless the minute we first sat down to play. It’s like we’re one organism breathing together.
How about Kootch?
Well, what I loved about Kootch at first was that he was an east coast guy. I only knew California players and suddenly here’s this tough little New Yorker on the scene with that edge and attitude. We hit it off instantly because even though we were very different in terms of our upbringing, our musical influences are the same: R&B and rock and roll. When I first played with him what struck me instantly is what a great rhythm guitarist he is, and that’s one of the true underrated arts in this business. Kootch is a terrific lead player, too, but when he starts playing a groove on guitar it’s pure heaven. And of course the other thing that bonded us was having to figure out how to fit in with what James was playing.
How about Waddy?
I first met Waddy while doing a Bobby Womack record at Sound City around 1974. He was another east coast-er who had been in town awhile, with he and Warren Zevon having been in the Everly Brothers band. I walked in, we looked at each other and went, We have to be friends! Musically, they broke the mold when they made him; in fact, there was no mold, Waddy was made freehand. Here’s a guy who could have been in the Stones—and was in the X-Pensive Winos with Keith Richards—but can also play an acoustic guitar ballad with the most beautiful, sensitive technique. The depth of his creativity is pretty amazing and he’s just abrasive enough to always be a presence in the room. On playback Waddy would immediately let his opinions and ideas be known, and I always related to that. For me, my playing is 50% of what I do on a session, 25% is co-production and arrangement ideas, and the other 25% is cheerleader—joking, having fun, hopefully not in an obnoxoius way but trying to maintain an air of enjoyment in the studio.
You guys not only invented the sound of L.A. singer-songwriter rock, you served the artist and the song in a whole new way compared to previous notable rhythm sections.
That’s true; with the Wrecking Crew in Los Angeles it was a very different world of recording. Their commitment to the artist was strictly in the studio reading charts and—often brilliantly—embellishing their parts. But they rarely worked outside the studio with any of the artists. When we got started we dug in on a much deeper level. In the studio we were involved in the writing, arranging, and producing for the artist, and then we would tour with the artist, which enabled the music to grow in new ways. Denny Tedesco, who made The Wrecking Crew documentary , is doing a documentary on the Immediate Family to be released next year. His spin is that the Wrecking Crew had about a 10-year run, rarely left the studio, and had no vested interest in the artist. We’ve been together for 50 years and we’re still working with artists in all of those capacities, both in the studio and on the road. I know I still approach sessions that way. When I get called in I treat it like I’ve joined this band for the day and my commitment is as a band member, not someone who is hired to play bass and then I’m out of there.
What do you think led to that new level of involvement for you guys?
Well one factor was we were in a whole new scene of young artists and musicians. Within the Laurel Canyon scene there was a lot camaraderie and sense of community, nobody was possessive. Artists would share ideas for songs and lyrics, and appear on each others’ records. It was a vibrant and intoxicating period, and I pinch myself for being in the right place at the right time. Another unsung factor was that when we did James’ albums, Peter Asher insisted that our names appear on the record jacket. The Wrecking Crew and the Funk Brothers at Motown never got album credits. So suddenly anyone who was interesting in making this new kind of music would see our names and hire us. The band took on a whole other level and each member had his own fan base. I remember walking onstage at a ’70s James show at the Merryweather Post Pavilion in Maryland and half the front row had on t-shirts that said Lee Sklar Fan Club!
How often did you guys see each other in the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s?
What happened was the Section finally disbanded in 1978 after our third album because we were turning down good work to do a band that was not getting any label support. From there we would see each other in the studio, especially Russ and I, we were the bread and butter studio guys. Waddy was doing sessions and working with Stevie Nicks and Warren Zevon. Craig was focused around sessions and tours with Jackson [Browne], Crosby, Stills and Nash, and his wife [vocalist] Judy Henske. And Danny never considered himself a hired gun guitarist, he was more of a songwriter-producer-guitarist, which he got do with people like Don Henley, Billy Joel, Bon Jovi, Hall & Oates, Neil Young, and Rod Stewart.
The business was also changing dramatically as we moved from an analog to a digital world with the advent of the CD. That meant you could burn your own copy of a record your friend had instead of having to buy it. As a result, artists made less money from album sales, session budgets dropped, and for sidemen the road beckoned. After cutting …But Seriously [Atlantic] for Phil Collins in 1989, I toured the world with him in 1990, 2004-2005, and 2017-2019. Russ and I have done numerous Lyle Lovett and His Large Band tours. I got to tour with Toto twice. With those plus other road dates, and recordings in L.A., Nashville, and Europe I stayed plenty busy.
In 2010 you, Russ, and Danny reunited for a tour with James and Carol.
This happened because the Troubadour asked James do a week of shows with his original band for the 50th Anniversary of the club, in 2007. I hadn’t worked with James since 1990 when my year-long commitment to Phil Collins’ …But Seriously Tour made me unavailable for James summer dates. When the Troubador shows came up James called Russ to do it, and he said yes, and then he asked Russ if he thought I might be interested in doing it. Russ was on the tour bus with Lyle Lovett at the time and I was sitting next to him, so he said to James, Why don’t you ask him yourself?, and he handed me the phone. I said, Hi James, how ya doin’, man? He explained the Troubador scenerio and I said, Sounds great, I’d love to do it. As soon as we started playing in rehearsal it was unbelivable. We did the week and it blew a hole in the old adage that you can’t go home again. We got to go home and it was better than ever. From there a world arena tour was put together that ingeniously let us retain the intimacy of the Troubador by having a stage in the round surrounded by a small section that simulated a club, with tables and chairs. Those VIP seats included dinner and access to the band at rehearsal, and 100% of the profits went to charities in those cities. It was incredible, at every gig you’d look out and see three generations of familes all singing the songs together.
Considering all the styles of music you’ve recorded since the original band, did you find your playing style had changed when revisiting that music?
Not at all. I played pretty much the same way I did in 1971. We all fell into the same groove instantly. It was like seeing an old friend after 20 years and you pick up and finish the sentence you started back then. Overall, I’d say I’ve fine tuned my approach a bit in recent years compared to the ’70s, where maybe I was playing busier because we all had chops and youthful energy, and we wanted to express ourselves. For me everything is predicated on the song that I’m playing in that moment. I don’t bring any preconceived stylistic notions about it. So what I find myself doing is minor adjustments depending mostly on who the drummer is and then adjusting to the band on the session. Genre is also a factor, of course. But over the years I don’t think my style has changed much. And I still mainly use my Frankenstein bass, relying more on hand position and technique than electronics to get different sounds. [The Frankenstein bass, built by John Carruthers in 1973, consists of a P-Bass neck reshaped to J-Bass dimensions, a Charvel P-Bass body with two first-generation EMG P-Bass pickups routed into J-Bass positions, and mandolin fret wire.]
How did the Immediate Family come together?
What happened was Kootch, who had moved back east for a number of years, decided to move back to L.A., and he became friends with Steve Postell, who was living in the same area. I had known Steve for awhile having done some of his solo projects, and Kootch and I also played in a fun band Steve had with rotating members called the Night Train Social Club, which did club and private gigs in town. Not long after, in 2018, Kootch got offered a deal in Japan with Vivid Sound Records. The label’s concept was for Kootch to record songs he wrote for artists like James, Jackson, and Don Henley, but do them way he would have cut them if he were the artist. Kootch and Steve did some pre-production and then we cut the tracks at Jackson Browne’s Groove Masters studio over three days. At that point the label wanted a name for the band and Kootch thought about it and said, “You guys have been my immediate family forever.” So the album was called Danny Kortchmar & the Immediate Family, and we went to Japan for a series of gigs. Playing live felt incredible and we collectively thought this has been a longtime coming, and it’s reallynecessary to do at this point in our careers. We continued with Vivid and we also signed with Quarto Valley Records here in the States, which is when we shortened the name to the Immediate Family. Kootch’s line to the audience at shows is, “We’re a cover band that only plays originals.”
Steve fits in very well.
He’s the perfect “fifth Beatle.” What I loved right away was he gave us a three-guitar lineup, with no keyboards in the band. Steve, Waddy, and Kootch have completely different playing, writing, and vocal styles. Steve is a great songwriter, has a high tenor voice for those kinds of songs, and in addition to being a great electric guitarist, he plays acoustic guitar like Christopher Parkening and Leo Kottke. He’s also the band’s tech wizard.
How did the new self-titled album come together?
Well, starting in 2019 we released two EPs here in the states, and we did a little tour and some livestreams. From there, the guys were inspired and came up with all new originals. So right before the pandemeic we worked the songs up in rehearsals and went back into Jackson’s studio to record them live, with the idea being to get the bass and drum tracks locked in. Then the guys went to Steve’s home studio for post production, to add their vocals and solos. The sessions went very smoothly, the hardest part was ordering lunch.
What gear did you use?
I played my Dingwall [Lee Sklar Signature II] 5-string on most of the tracks because if there’s anything lower than an E I’ll pick up a 5-string rather than use the Hipshot on my Frankenstein bass. I used the Hipshot with James because he has a lot of Drop D tunings and the Hipshot enables me to have the open D string ringing while playing melodic parts up above. Then on a couple of tracks I played my Warwick Sklar Bass, which is a customized Star Bass II. I requested rounded edges, like a solidbody bass, which they couldn’t do on the hollowbody Star Bass. Instead they made a soldibody version and routed out as much as they could, so technically mine has a chambered body. My strings are GHS Super Steel medium lights [.40-.58-.80-.102]; I like a .40 Gstring so I can wiggle it and be expressive. The Dingwall has Dingwall strings, with a GHS .40 Gstring. I use Cordial cables. And to record the basses we went both direct and we miked my rig, which is a Euphonic Audio iAmp 800 head and NL-112 cabinet.
How do you view the band’s music and your role in it?
My role is similar to most of the projects I’ve done; I’m the bass player holding down the bottom end structurally for the songs. With three guitarists there’s less for me to do than there was in the Section days. Here, Russ and I are the support element of the songs. But I always try to maintain my identity by having some little signature in my parts. Musically, I’d say our songs have a tougher attitude and sound than other bands I’ve done. We run the gamut from cranked stuff to singer-songwriter ballads but we’re all basically rock and roll guys at heart. When we’re playing I want to see heads bobbing and butts shaking. That’s the connection I enjoy. As Omar Hakim says, “Don’t lose the dance floor.” Words to live by.
You’ve been just about the busiest bassist since the pandemic, let’s talk about your YouTube channel.
That started by accident. After the last Phil Collins tour I had people writing me from all over the world saying we sounded great but they couldn’t hear some of the detail of the bass at the stadium shows. So I had our front of house mixer, Michel Colin, send me a recording of our show in Adelaide [Australia]. I loaded it into my laptop, plugged a Bose speaker into the headphone jack, plugged my bass into my Euphonic Audio combo, mixed the bass louder than the track, and each day I covered a song in set order. Except for “Take Me Home,” I’m saving that for my very last video. I do the videos on my iPhone, either leaning it on my laptop or putting it on a selfie stick so you can see me playing. Well, by the third day people were writing to say, We love your YouTube channel, and I had no idea what they were talking about or that YouTube does that as you start amassing videos. Once I got through the songs in the Phil set I started covering random tracks and taking requests. My initial videos were a few minutes longer than the songs, now they run around 30 minutes. I began on March 23rd, 2020, and I haven’t missed a day yet, so I’m nearing 700 videos. I do one every day, some days more than one. Within the YouTube channel I’ve created a clubhouse that does two livestreams per month and an upper level tier where I do one-on-one Skype or Facetime sessions for those who sign up. Plus there’s a gift shop with mugs and t-shrts and other crap to buy. It’s become a labor of love.
You’ve also self-published a new book.
It’s a coffee table book called Everybody Loves Me [https://lelandsklarsbeard.com]. The backstory is that on Phil Collins’ First Final Farewell Tour in 2004 there was talk that he was going to retire at the end of the tour. So I decided to put together a photo folder on my laptop of everybody on the tour, not being sure I’d ever see them again. The first person I went to take a photo of was Steve Winstead, my bass tech. I asked him to give me a smile and he gave me the finger. I looked at the picture and I thought, this is cool. So I went and got everyone in the band and crew and ended up with about 150 photos. I put them away and a couple of years later I was on the road with Toto and I decided to do the same thing. Well since then I’ve amassed over twelve thousand photos of people giving me the finger; musicians, athletes, actors, the man on the street, anyone I come in contact with. From there I decided to make the coffee table book with six thousand photos of everyone flipping me off. Personally, I love looking at everyone’s faces. There are only so many ways you can give someone the finger but faces are infinite.
What else is up?
I finally began recording bass parts at home, which I had never done before. If someone wanted me to cut a part for them I would go to a friend’s home studio and then take them out to lunch afterward. But the pandemic put an end to that. Then a friend of mine, Gussie Miller, asked me to put a bass part on a version of “Easy Lover” he was singing on. I told him I wasn’t set up for it. He said he knew someone at SSL and had them send me an SSL2+ Audio Interface. I then called Steve Postell and he talked me through using the interface and GarageBand. I’ve done about eight albums now, including songs for Ian Paice and Julian Lennon. Being old school, I prefer to do a top to bottom performance and let the part evolve—plus I don’t know how to punch! So I record totally flat and do three or four passes per tune, providing different feels and interpretations. Then the artist has the option of using a complete take or cutting and pasting and crafting the part as they hear it.
But my main focus now is the Immediate Family. We’re having so much fun that I’m not committing to anything else at this point. We’ve already cut ten new songs for an album next year, when the documentary comes out. We’re going to record an album of our covers to be used for corporate gigs. We’ve got a U.S. tour in November, and we’ll be doing the Rock Legends Cruise again in February. I just turned 74, and with that comes the realization that there’s a finite amount of dates left in the ol’ datebook. I’d like to make the most of it.
Immediate Thoughts On The Immediate Family
Famous for his first-take creativity on sessions, we asked Lee Sklar for a spontaneous assessment of each track on the band’s new record.
“Can’t Stop Progress”:
What I love about Kootch’s writing is he tries to express what’s going on in the world and he pulls no punches with his thought-provoking lyrics. Kootch wanted the bass on this song to be ugly, distorted, and in your face, so I went over to Steve’s in post-production, broke out some pedals, and did a couple of more passes on it.
“Slippin’ and Slidin’”:
I love hearing Waddy’s slide guitar on this. The song has a shit load of attitude and a Stones-like vibe. All of our songs are well-written, fun, rock tunes that lay out so well they tell you what to play. You never have to think, How do I make this good?
“Everything That’s Broken”:
I love the pocket on this one. Russ so nails it. It’s a great song for Steve vocally and the guitar interplay really shines.
This has such a cool retro feeling. I love how Waddy tells a story. it just cruises along old school-style. Most of these songs were first or second take.
When I heard this song my initial reaction was that I needed to give it a rhythmic bottom. It’s my R&B roots coming through. I fine tuned a few things when we ran through it, but this is mostly as I initially felt it. Like one of my t-shirts says, “I Don’t Rehearse My Spontaniety.”
“A Thing of the Past”:
I was torn between whole notes and eighth-notes. Eighths would have created more of a Police vibe. This way, with footballs, there’s a lot of space and atmosphere.
This song just kicks some serious ass. It’s a great message song and a great song to play live. Ya gotta love rock and roll.
“Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead”:
This cover was so much fun to play when Waddy first pulled it out live that we knew we had to put it on the record. Warren was such a character with his lyrics. For the ritardandos where the song slows down we just watched Waddy, who conducted. We’ve always been a band that constantly eyeballs each other onstage.
“House Will Fall”:
This is another great story song by Steve, Waddy, and Kootch. For me, a lot of this record was about playing to the lyric because at the end of the day that’s the essence of the song. I also love that the track is aggressive but it has dynamics.
“Not Made That Way”:
It’s always great to have a ballad in the mix. Kootch is such a terrific story teller. It felt so good hunkering down with Russ and letting the song float.
“Time to Come Clean”:
I played a lot of chordal stuff on this one. My two favorite things to play on bass are fifths and tenths; I love the meatiness and I don’t get to do it that often. I’ve gleaned something from all of the great bass players but I never intellectualize my playing. I’ll throw in a little nuance that makes it me without even knowing I did it.
“Turn It Up to Ten”:
This is getting into ZZ territory. I love how it chugs along when we play it live. If I could have been in any band it probably would have been ZZ Top. Billy Gibbons is a buddy of mine and Dusty Hill was a terrific bass player. Rest in Peace, Dusty!
“Johnny Strikes Up the Band” and “Somebody’s Baby”:
The minute we play a cover it becomes our own, The Immediate Family version. I didn’t even think about what I originally played on “Johnny” for Warren’s record, or what Bob Glaub—a great bassist and friend—played on Jackson’s original recording of “Somebody’s Baby.” And we’ve since changed up the groove a bit on “Johnny” in our live shows.