By Jason Hillenburg
Leslie West has been written off as a musical force so many times. Various band breakups, drug addiction, poor sales and his health problems of recent years have been accompanied by open wondering if he could come back. Yet, despite an amputation that confines him to a wheelchair much of the time, Leslie West remains as engaged and lively as ever and one of popular music’s great personalities.
His recent release, “Soundcheck,” is a sturdy reminder of his abiding virtuosity. It’s a bracing and entertaining blend of guest stars, originals and ingenious covers. From his soulful version of Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason,” the glistening textures of “A Stern Warning” and his moving take on the seminal “People Get Ready,” West’s latest effort is another strong entry in a legendary career.
West shared some time with Goldmine to discuss his recent creative endeavor.
GM: You said that you really wanted to be surprised with this new album (“Soundcheck”). What else sets it apart from recent albums like “Unusual Suspects” and “Still Climbing”?
LESLIE WEST: First of all I got to play with a couple of guys on guitar. For example, I’ve known Peter Frampton for 45 years and I’ve never got to play with him. I got to play with him two years ago with his Frampton Circus. He had a tour, a guitar circus where he invited people to come out and play with him and, as close as I know him, we’ve never played together. So, after we did that I said, “You know, I’m going to do this version of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ and I’d love you to play on it with me!” To finally get to play with Peter and to get to play with Brian May on “Going Down,” you know, these are thrills that you never expected. Wow, you get to play with somebody you really wanted to play with, and it made it extra special for me in doing this album. Especially calling it “Soundcheck” … I used to hate doing soundchecks, but I love doing them now because I want to make sure the guitar sounds good.
GM: Wasn’t the initial title “Soundcheck on the Summit”?
LW: Yeah, you know what, I sort of felt like enough with the summit and the mountain and this and that. I figured it would be nice as just “Soundcheck” and then we came up with that great idea for the cover … it looks really nice and it was a different turn and changed my perspective a little bit. You know, it’s still “Soundcheck,” but if I was on the summit, I don’t think I’d be doing a soundcheck, I’d just have to let it rip! (laughs) You wouldn’t have time to do a soundcheck up there.
GM: When I heard your cover of “Give Me One Reason” for the first time, it sounded so natural for you that I couldn’t help but wonder if you hadn’t wanted to cover it for years. Is that the case?
LW: Oh no, that came up really quickly, really quickly. I wanted to play blues and didn’t want to write a blues song because I’ve written them before … and I sort of liked it. It was a different sounding song and I thought I could put my own spin on it. You know, I liked the guitar players (Tracy Chapman) used … That (song) happened while we were doing the album. I never thought about it before. It just all of a sudden popped up and we said, “Yeah, we’ll give it a try.”
GM: There is a lot more acoustic guitar on this album than we’ve heard from you in recent years, and I was wondering if that was a conscious decision going into the album, or if it was simply how things developed?
LW: Well, you know, I thought about even doing an acoustic album, but I was doing guitar on certain songs and the keyboard player on the album (Max Middleton) played acoustic on a few of the songs, and it makes it easier for me to play rhythm and lead when I have someone else putting down the acoustic. I’m giving him an idea of what I want him to play, but until I can find somebody that can actually play what you’re thinking, I didn’t give it much thought. I play electric and I play acoustic, you know, so that’s probably about four cuts, maybe five cuts, of acoustic on there, but I play acoustic at home. I don’t play electric at my house.
GM: I’ve read that you said that before.
LW: Yeah, especially when you play acoustic and try to stretch the strings, man, when you do it with the electric guitar it makes it a lot easier.
GM: I can imagine it’s a good finger workout just to be sitting around home playing acoustic a lot. I’m particularly taken with that instrumental on the album, “A Stern Warning.” I’m going to have to listen to that a lot more before I really fully get everything that’s going on in that song. A lot of times whenever guitar players or bands will put those kinds of acoustic instrumentals on an album they sound kind of like afterthoughts, or like two-minute things that are just filler. And that song’s not filler at all.
LW: No, it’s not, and the reason it’s called “A Stern Warning” is I’m friends with Howard Stern, and he asked me about a song that I did a long time ago and it’s an acoustic song and he said, “What did I mean by that?” I said to him, “Well my ex-partner Felix Pappalardi gave me a beautiful 12-string and said ‘If you can play this song you can have the guitar.’ ” So Howard gave me an idea to write another one along the same lines, and I called it “A Stern Warning.”
GM: Yeah, it’s a beautiful piece … very beautiful.
LW: It reminds me of an Irish/Celtic type song and I wanted it to have bagpipes on it with me, but it never worked out.
GM: Yeah, I noticed that influence, that kind of Celtic thing going on. I was even thinking an almost Richard Thompson kind of thing going on in it. You know, a lot of really great, clean picking work on it and it recorded very well.
LW: Well, I use a Larrivée acoustic guitar, a Canadian guitar, and it records really well.
GM: Besides their obvious quality and popularity, I was wondering what it is personally that keeps drawing you back to songs like “Going Down” and “People Get Ready?”
LW: “People Get Ready” I’ve done onstage for a long time by myself with my bass player, and I figured I’d like to put it down and do it different than Jeff Beck did with Rod Stewart. “Going Down” is maybe the best … if you want to jam on the guitar, it would be the best song for me. I really get a kick out of it and I did it a long time ago with Brian May. We were in the studio at the same time, but it worked out and I’m playing the first half of the song and he’s playing the second half of the song. It was written by a guy named Don Mix that didn’t play any instruments. A friend of mine produced it, we got it and he said, “Why don’t you sing it?” So I sang it and I can play that song all day long. It’s a lot of fun to play it.
GM: I thought it was interesting how the press sheet for the new album quoted you as really admiring the lyrical content of songs like “People Get Ready” and “Stand By Me,” and I remember reading a younger Leslie West who sometimes would say that you didn’t care much about what the lyrics for a song were.
LW: I didn’t give a sh*t about the lyrics! (laughs)
GM: I was wondering if that’s more important to you now as you’ve gotten older than it used to be.
LW: I don’t know if it’s more important but I’m listening to them more. My wife wrote a couple of lyrics on the new songs. “Left by the Roadside to Die” and there’s another one also. Sometimes she sends me these lyrics all the time on my iPad. I wake up and see them. I look at them and, if it gives me an idea, I’ll say “Oh, let me try to see if this fits with that music.” I used to think of lyrics as an excuse to get to the guitar solo. I do care more about them now, especially Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.” You can’t get better than that, man. I mean, those lyrics mean a lot. I’m not a religious guy, man. I’m Jewish. I don’t go to church but still, you know, “People get ready, there’s a train a coming.” I can see the train coming when I’m singing that song. Yeah, I just don’t want to get on the train yet!
GM: It reminds me of something I read in a Bob Dylan interview a few years ago. They asked him about religion and he talked about doing old religious songs live in concert and how those songs are his religion. I couldn’t help but think that when I was listening to “People Get Ready” that this is a guy who is not in church every Sunday but, for him, that’s kind of his church right here.
LW: Yeah, Bob’s Jewish, too, so I don’t know if he’s going to church! (laughs) Maybe a synagogue! For me, though, the music, that’s my church, so to speak. Except I haven’t gone to confession lately … that’s another album in itself. (laughs)
GM: Are your best solos one take and spontaneous or do you think it’s best like when you’re recording to plan things out a little bit?
LW: I have a little plan in my head and usually I have to change the plan but I’m pretty good at calling audibles where, all of a sudden, I’m going to try this. My engineer will roll the machines and I’ll put something down to a click track and then I’ll f*ck around with it and see if I can sing something over it, a melody and, if it starts to fit, then I can tailor the rest of it, too. So, I really don’t go into it with a total plan. I think sometimes it was too planned when we did it with Mountain. My partner Felix (Pappalardi) produced it, at least on the songs that he would bring, they would be like, holy sh*t! He used to be a director of music for a woman that used to sing a long time ago named Dinah Shore. He went to University of Michigan and conducted a 100-piece orchestra. Felix came from that school and I came from the school of “I don’t know what the hell a whole note or a half note is.” Between the two of us, we had it pretty good, but his stuff was really planned. Now, once in a while I’ll have a plan but I sort of like half and half; no plan and “Oh yeah, this will work out great with what I had in mind.”
GM: Alright, the album ends with a great performance of “Spoonful” with Jack Bruce on bass and vocals. What was it about that particular performance that leaped out at you or made you want to include it on this album?
LW: Well, I was doing a solo album in upstate New York and Jack was playing bass on it and the album was called “Theme” (2006). There was a club near where the studio was that knew we were up there recording at the studio — Milbrook, New York — and they called and asked if we wanted to do an impromptu set; no advertising, nobody would know. Word of mouth got around, and sure enough there was probably about 500 people there. The engineer Paul Orofino recorded it in stereo and, of course, Jack Bruce dying last year was really sad and I said, “You know I would love to put …” I knew we had the song, we needed to edit it down and I listen to it now and tears come to my eyes because, man, he was the absolute greatest musicians I ever played with, you know? Just sad that we didn’t get to play … I got to play with his son a couple of years ago, Malcolm, but we never got to play with Jack again. It’s too bad.
GM: Do you have memories of any sort of snobbery that you had to deal with from people who thought that these two wild American rock n’ rollers, you and (drummer) Corky (Laing), had no business playing with the great Jack Bruce, or did you not have to deal with that at all?
LW: Well, I’ll tell you the truth, I went over to England and we finished … Mountain played in Canada, in Montreal with the stadium, the hockey rink on New Year’s Eve. We knew we were going to England because we had to put a band together because Felix (Pappalardi) was leaving the group. So my first choice was Jack Bruce. I called Jack and he was on the road with a group called Colosseum with Johnny Hiseman, and he asked me about a drummer. I said my drummer Corky Laing is here. He didn’t really know Corky or anything else, so we went in the studio and started recording all kinds of different songs … Cream songs, and we wrote a couple of songs, and I don’t know what anybody said, man. I was just thrilled to death to be playing with one of my heroes. I didn’t care what anybody said, you know? I just wish we had played a little longer … lasted a little longer, but drugs came into the scene and it f*cked all that up. But I would have loved to played one last time with him … he was really sick.
GM: Do you recall the last time you got a chance to talk to him?
LW: Yeah, I went to see Colosseum in England and he just went to the show. I saw him and we had a drink at the bar and we talked for a little bit. It was a little strange but he was quite a musician. His son Malcolm plays the bass and piano, and we did a little tour a couple of years ago. He sang “Theme From an Imaginary Western” and, I swear to God, he sounded like his father and played the piano. It was just a piano and me playing guitar onstage. We didn’t use the drums, but we called it West, Bruce Jr. and Laing, but it’s too bad we never got to play with Jack again. He’s in heaven playing with somebody, I’m sure.
GM: You know, moving on, I was going to say your vocals are a marvel. Few singers – especially those with your kind of “go-for-broke” sort of vocal style – improve with age. I was wondering, did quitting smoking really make that much of a difference or is it just something that you put a lot more work now into than you use to? Maybe both?
LW: No, I think you hit it on the head. If I would have stopped smoking a long time ago, I’d have my other leg, you know, but I think it definitely had something to do with it. Absolutely.
GM: Most singers seem to fall off a cliff more or less at about 40, you know? And you haven’t at all!
LW: (laughs) Yeah, well, I think it’s gotten better and I really care about it more. Not that I do anything to work it out, but having not smoked. I used to talk like this … (does a smoker’s voice impression) … but now my voice seems to be in a higher register, so it has to be from smoking. You know 10 million people can’t be wrong, you know? GM