Tim Lefebvre has a knack for bringing his voice to any musical situation, and it’s a skill that has brought him tons of incredible opportunities. He’s played with the world’s top artists from Elvis Costello to Donald Fagen to Wayne Krantz and more. He’s played in the house band for Saturday Night Live and a host of TV and movie soundtracks. Currently his main gig is with the outstanding blues rock outfit The Tedeschi Trucks Band. Last year he went into the studio to record with David Bowie. Little did the world know it would be the pop star’s final offering.
Blackstar was released on Bowie’s 69th birthday, just two days before his death. The album, which we now know was the Thin White Duke’s way of saying goodbye, is full of heavy themes pinned down by Lefebvre’s inspired bass lines. A master of using effects pedals, his sonic palette helps to set the tone of the entire album. He also helped fill out some of the song’s by contributing riffs.
Ever looking to the future, Lefebvre is gearing up for the new Tedeschi Trucks album, Let Me Get By, due January 29th. It will be his first album with the band after being with the group for nearly three years. The setting allows for him to both call upon the R&B bass masters and stretch out with his improvisational chops.
We spoke with Lefebvre in late December about recording the two new albums and what 2016 holds for the stalwart bassist.
When was the first time you listened to Bowie?
There were songs on the radio when I was a kid like “Fame” and “Young Americans”. I wasn’t a hardcore fan but I knew all his hits and I really liked “Let’s Dance” because I’m a kid of the ’80s. Over the years I’ve just become much more of a fan. Heroes is one of my favorite records ever.
How did you find out about the session?
When they were recording “Sue”, Maria Schneider had given Bowie a copy of [saxophonist] Donny McCaslin’s record Casting for Gravity. They cultivated a relationship, and I think Bowie snuck into the 55 Bar one night… A night that I was having an awful night, by the way. [laughs] The outlets there are janky and it got all of my pedals messed up, so I just sounded awful. But he came to that gig and was inspired enough to hire us. He talked to Donny after that and said, “I want to hire you guys for the next record.” Then it was just a matter of scheduling.
What’s amazing is that there are signature moments from the band. You can hear me doing my thing occasionally, but it’s just serving whatever it’s supposed to serve. [The album] is pretty avant garde. It’s evocative of some “Major Tom” era stuff and some stuff that sounds like the ’80s. It’s really incredible. There is some really poignant, sad stuff and some rebelliousness. It’s the most compelling I’ve heard him in years. There may be other people who disagree, but I’m just saying what I think- I think it’s one of his best. I don’t equate it to who is on the record, although that’s definitely helpful. Some personalities come out. Donny McCaslin’s voice comes out on it, so it’s pretty unique.
You’ve played with tons of singers before, but how do you prepare for someone like David Bowie?
The nuts and bolts of it is that he prepared pretty extensive demos for us. A lot of it was playing to the demo. We redid “Sue” with just a quartet, and that’s kind of a signature moment for Mark and I to just do some raging drum and bass. [laughs] For that kind of song, you learn the tune and just inject stuff. But the rest of it was pretty specific. “Lazarus” and “Blackstar” were pretty much straight off the demo. The first movement of “Blackstar” where it has steady, “Tony Levin-y” kind of bass, that was kind of what [Bowie] had written. He wrote some stuff on the demo for last two parts, but I kind of took some liberties. I did my bad Justin Meldal-Johnsen/Beck impression on the middle part. The last part is where I made it my own kind of thing. I’d been listening to so much soul and R&B like Sly and the Family Stone and Pino [Palladino] with that humpy kind of eighth note thing. Certain bars are pretty jagged, but they kept it all. It was pretty fun. To know that that’s on a Bowie record is still blowing my mind.
Did you get to explore your tonal palette much, or did they have sounds they wanted you to use?
They kind of trusted us, sonically. As much as I use pedals, Jason Lindner goes apeshit with pedals. There’s all sorts of cool keyboard stuff going on. I used a lot of octave pedal, with the Boss OC-2 and the Octabvre from 3Leaf Audio. I also used a Darkglass Electronics Vintage Microtubes Deluxe. I actually played a little guitar on “Girl Loves Me”, too, and I used David’s little multi-effects pedal. It was a cheap little thing but it sounded great. I was just copying the bass line, so it was easy to do.
Our playing was loosely structured off of the demo sonically, but there were places to go. A lot of what he programmed was keyboard bass, which tends to be subby, so I was leaning towards that a lot. As techno-y as the album sounds, I was using my ’68 P-Bass with flatwounds for the whole thing except one song where I used a Moollon with roundwounds. The rest of it was flatwound-y and warm sounding.
Did you go DI or run a rig?
They had an Avalon [DI] there, so I went into that. For the amp, I was using an Ampeg cabinet but I have a Yamaha EM-80 tube PA head. It’s cheap… you can get it on eBay for $100 or $200. It’s a tube PA head from the late ’70s. It has a little space echo in it and it’s really really warm sounding. I plugged that into the Ampeg cabinet most of the time. Tom Elmhirst, who mixed the record, really nailed the picked sound. I’ve never heard it sound as good as it does on the record. I’ve always been looking for that. I like how he used that amp a lot because it has some pinginess from the space echo. It’s really incredible.
How do you figure out to use a PA head for your bass? How do you come up with that stuff?
I wanted to by some Yamaha NS10 [monitors] from a neighbor of mine in Brooklyn and he said, “I’ll throw this amp in, too.” I plugged it in one day and said, “Holy shit!” It’s amazing. I have a bunch of great amps to record with, but it stood out. Plus it’s light, so I could ship it from New York to L.A. That was kind of key, though, because they used it quite a bit on the picking stuff. There are two or three tunes with a lot of picking on them.
What stood out to you about the final product versus what you remember playing?
When we played it in, Mark and I were doing pretty much two takes on everything unless we were overdubbing stuff. The way they treated the songs was amazing. Also, there were a lot of saxophone pads and keyboard pads. It sounds really avant garde. Some songs are like a wall of sound, like “Tis a Pity She’s a Whore”. That’s one where I was using a lot of octave pedal. It’s one where the vocal treatment of it sounds a lot like the ’80s. We just heard him singing live in the studio when he would come in and do the takes with us. You don’t imagine what the end product will be, and my mind was seriously blown [when I heard it].
If I can be philosophical for a minute… When you’re working in the studio with Bowie, it’s very a very small group and you just come in and work with he same seven people every day. So all you’re trying to do is please seven people. Now you hear the scope of the stuff and it’s a [expletive] David Bowie record. We actually went to Electric Lady Studios to hear it through Tom Elmhirst’s speakers that he mixed it on. It was insane. To hear everything realized is so far beyond the scope of whatever I thought it was [going to be]. I’m just the bass player in the studio, but this might turn out to be an important record in music history. Whenever it’s Bowie, there’s a chance it will be. It’s incredible to me. It was worth getting up at 6am and driving to New York to hear the first playback of “Blackstar”.
Did you get a lot of direction from him in the studio?
He would come in and explain to us what the direction of the song was. Then we’d get the roadmap together and that took a while, especially on the arrangement for “Sue”, because it’s kind of nebulous and floaty. We figured out where to change and not because it’s not an 8-bar groove kind of thing.
It’s kind of funny, but I came up with the intro to “Lazarus”. Actually, the end part is what I came up with first. With Donny’s band, that’s what we do: just space out at the end. So I was just doing this picking thing at the end. I’m a big fan of this band Fink, and their guitar parts are like that where they move roots around. After I played it, they said, “Why don’t you do that at the beginning, too?” So I did it at the beginning, too, and it became the thing. Anybody that has heard my playing has heard me do that five billion times. [laughs]
How did you start working with the Tedeschi Trucks Band?
There was a one-off with Donald Fagen where we had to a do a song on David Letterman. He got hired to do a song on David Letterman and some of his band was out with Michael McDonald or something like that, so a lot of them weren’t available. Michael Leonhart, who is his MD and producer, put together a band for that one show. He was a fan of the Wayne Krantz trio, so he had Wayne on it and Keith on it and he had me. The other guitar player on the gig happened to be John Leventhal, who happened to be writing with Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks for Made Up Mind. I think he knew about us, but he came to the 55 Bar on a night that we squeezed in a trio gig. John came, and he said he was captivated by the connection I have with Wayne. This was at the time that Derek was searching for a bass player, so he thought that my connection with Wayne could translate well into Derek’s band. Then Derek hired me for a couple gigs as an audition, and that was that. The Wayne Krantz Trio had a steady gig at the 55 Bar for years. With all of my side gigs, it just became the place to live.
Are you happier doing a steady gig in one place or touring?
People who are just writers or producers, it’s harder to make money, because records aren’t selling. That’s the reality of it. I was doing some of that for a minute, but I’ve always been attracted to playing live. That’s what’s on my plate right now and I love playing with Tedeschi Trucks. They’re like family. It’s a really, really great band. The other thing is that it was meant to be. I’ve freelanced for years and had band offers here and there, but it never felt right until Derek called. I knew I liked the music and how it was going down with that band. When I went in and did the gigs, it felt really natural. We’re out on the road a lot, trying to build a thing with it. There are some people who prefer not to be on the road, but I think that’s the only way you can make a living now, honestly. Or a decent living, at least.
As if Blackstar wasn’t enough to start 2016, you also have Let Me Get By with Tedeschi Trucks coming out January 29th. What can you tell us about that?
There’s a record there where I could just interpret anything the way I wanted to. A lot of that soul and R&B stuff, when you hear Jamerson and Jemmott and Willie Weeks over that, they tend to play a lot of shit over the tracks. A lot of it is I-V-I, but there’s a lot of moving going on. I got away with a lot of playing and bass stuff on that record. I think it works. I went back with the guys after we did some of these takes and there’s this song called “In Every Heart”. I’m just going apeshit on it and I’d say, “Are you sure this is cool? Do you want me to do another take to calm it down a little bit?” They said no, so the approach works.
I’m excited for that record because it’s like, “Now the band sounds like this.” The funny thing is I was actually doing this at the same time I was recording with Bowie. I was flying from New York down to Florida to Derek’s studio. I also used the same Yamaha amp, so I was shipping that and hoping it would get down there in time. It was crazy. Derek eventually went out and bought one. I also used a Noble Amps DI for the whole record.
After being in the band for two and a half years, this is the first record you’re on with them. I’m sure at this point you’re part of the family… How does it feel to solidify that?
I’m committed to this band as anybody possibly could be. I’m interested in other stuff because that’s just what I do, but my number one priority is this band. I think the record captures what this band sounds like right now. It’s definitely a different sound for the band than before.
How do you think it has evolved?
I think it’s more stretchy when we stretch out because of my background. It’s like one of those pie graphs. One night I’ll have an inspired night and fire it off, then the next night it could be JJ or Falcon on the drums. The next night it could be Derek, the next night it could be Kofi… There’s always someone stepping up every night. This record captures that. It’s fun and it’s organic.
I think we came back and retracked a couple things once, but we mostly tracked the stuff and then started playing it live. They mixed the record in August and September. I think it distills what is going on with the band right now. We’ve been playing on the road a lot. It’s not as safe as the other records. All the songs have been generated within the band or with Doyle Bramhall, who is a close friend of Derek and Sue’s. Everybody kind of wrote on this record. A lot of the tunes came from soundcheck jams. We’d be just jamming at soundcheck when someone would pull out their iPhone and record it. That became the seeds for a bunch of things.
The song “Let Me Get By” came that way. It’s a 12/8 groove and Kofi put a melody over it. “Laugh About It” was the same. JJ was playing a 7/4 groove and I started playing a riff over it. That’s one of my favorite tunes because it feels good to me. It’s in 7/4, but it doesn’t feel like it. I think the band sounds like a band now. For a second there the band was going through a lot bass players.
There’s something to be said about sticking together and really honing in with a group of guys rather than hiring in.
Absolutely. It’s like being tuned into a different frequency. Derek can make a weird sound on his guitar – which is one of the things I love about him; he’s insanely creative – and it can turn into a whole direction for the music in the middle of a song. There’s some of that and there’s some just straight up Rock and Roll. I wouldn’t know because I wasn’t in the band before, but these guys seem to be happy, and I’m happy. Some of the concerts we play are just stunning, and we’ve done some big slots. We did New Orleans Jazz Festival last year for 20 or 30,000 people. Sue is huge in those shows, too. We did Austin City Limits and she killed it.
That’s what’s awesome about this band – when someone is not feeling like they’re having a great night, there’s someone else stepping up and having a great night. Every night, someone gets strapped to someone else’s back. Most of the time it’s Derek. [laughs] He takes you on and energizes you. There’s always somebody stepping up.
You seem super inspired by the band.
I am. I don’t want to sound like a politician, but I’m just so happy to be in that band. It’s one of those things where the right thing happened. I’ve been in some bands that were right before like with Wayne Krantz, but it’s different. This band is sustaining and it seems to be growing. It’s just been amazing. Let Me Get By is a great record, and I think it’s going to make some noise.
What else is coming for you in 2016?
I’m working on a record again with my friend Emily Zuzik called Angelenos. I’m also working on an album with Gary Novak. It’s kind of avant garde-like hip-hop. There are a bunch of albums I played on last year that are coming out soon. I did a trio record with this saxophone player named Zhenya Strigalev, and Eric Harland was playing the drums.