A NEED FOR SADNESS (conversation with Grigor Leslie)

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I thought about it for some time today and I couldn’t remember even one disagreement between us when it came to the music. Even when my opinion was a bit… extreme, like when I told him his brand new instrument (not too cheap, I reckon) sounds much worse than the one he had before. Even when I criticized their records or mentioned which concert was good or bad and why. 

Maybe that is the reason why there was some uniqueness in our conversation. When we finished, I immediately thought that I can’t remember a thing from it, and he – almost reading my thoughts – said: „You know? I have no idea what I’ve said”.

Concersation with Grigor Leslie / 24.06.2017 / OW WRATISLAVIA, Radzyń

The first question I asked Lewis was why is he playing more with the guitar than the base. So here’s the question for you: is it tough for you or maybe it’s an inspiration?

That’s true. At the beginning he was listening more to Gerry and when we first started playing after Dave went I found it really difficult. But eventually we fell into place together so now I just play my base lines and I’m not actually listening to the drums as much as I would have with Dave. I’m playing more towards Gerry and Pete as well, so in the way it is a strange musical situation because usually the rhythm section just lock in with each other and lead instruments play over the top of that, and this band maybe it’s more that we’re all trying to play along with the lead instruments and the rhythm section just takes care of itself somehow. But when I hear it on recordings I think it works fine. So I guess it’s organically grown, we haven’t worked on it particularly, we just let it happen on the gigs… I don’t know where that’ll go with it, it grows more all the time. Lewis certainly plays to the base as well and sometimes we groove of each other.

Do you play more outside or inside? Is it more important to have connection with yourself and play your own story or to stay connected with the surroundings?

When I do jazz gigs I am concentrating more on a base’s usual function in a band as a rhythm section. And this band – not so much, I try to keep it simple, I play less, I don’t do any fancy stuff because Gerry and Pete are doing all that. And if I start to try to be clever with a base, it would get in a way. But then there’s little bits in the song where I can do something harmonically, but I dumbed down and as I get older I play less… less notes, more root notes where base should be played. I don’t want the audience to hear the base so much, I want them to feel it. And sometimes I spot someone in the audience who is definitely listening to the base maybe a base player but I’m there to make a song sound good, that’s number one… base is not important… As an individual you shouldn’t hear the base standing as it’s own… I think the base and drums should sound like one instrument.

You said the word clever. What is the relation between intellect and emotions in the way you’ re playing?

It’s all emotion it’s got to be the emotion. The no1 rule for playing music I think for every instrument, but for base especially is: ”don’t think”. As soon as you start thinking you’ll step on the song but you have to concentrate… it’s almost a zen sort of thing. You have to empty the mind.

You can be clever but it’s gotta be natural and from your emotion rather than from your intellect, you leave intellect behind definitely.

so what for you builds the effectiveness of the music more: what is played or how is it being played

HOW. Gotta be energy and power

No matter what is being played?

Yes.

Do you think that music is one or there are lot of music styles?

No, music is one. There are two kinds of music: good and bad. That’s all there is. I don’t like genres, I don’t like someone to ask me what is my favorite song. I can’t answer that! What’s your favorite band? No idea! Don’t know. I love lots of bands. I love… every band just about. There is some music I won’t listen to, I can smell shit music in my other way, there’s nothing there, there’s no emotion, no energy and it doesn’t say anything. And the radio is full of it.

So where is the key to having your own sound and have you seen some steps, stages of getting it?

You do have to practice and go through scales but you can do too much of that. I’ve known many players who were technically brilliant, who were playing anything you ask them to, and were playing a lot like it sounds on the record. But it doesn’t speak to you, because they are not really plying from themselves, they’re trying to sound like someone else. You’ve got to be influenced by other people, so there are various players I really love, and hear I’ve stolen some ideas from them, but it sounds like me, whatever base I picked up, and it’s the same with all of us, whatever instrument you’d pick up it will always sound the same

So can the other musicians’ influence be a problem?

Can do.. I don’t want to listen to the music all the time. I need to have a lot of points in a day where there isn’t music going on outside. I need to just have quiet in my head, and that’s where I’ll find my sound. But if I’m listening to other people, it gets in a way of me having my voice.

What for you defines a cool gig and what kind of state do you reach there?

When it’s the best gig, I am in my own head and I don’t know the audience is there. And it’s trans. All the music is trans, so it’s like African guys hitting fucking log with the stick – and you play the same beat for an hour, simple beat over and over again, and you will get into a trans-like state. And then you’re plugged in, you’re plugged in to the planet, and that’s the best gig

Is something in music forbidden?

I don’t want to do cliches, things like that. Blues is notorious for it, I can play a straight blues dumpty dumpty base line and it will make a blues song sound good… it’s boring! There’s nothing there. I wanna hear my soul, I wanna hear guts, I wanna hear anger, I wanna hear frustration, I wanna hear emotion, and that’s what all music should be about!

So now I’m gonna ask you about something opposite, because I remember when you said “I am too happy to play blues”. How important is happiness in music?

Happiness is really important, but that was a silly thing for me to say, and that was a joke thing to say, because you have to have sadness in your life. I’m a better player now than I ever was, because of lot of the bad things that happened, losing people, losing Dave, losing my mother – pretty much within the same year. It put me in a dark spot but I laugh my way through it as usual, ignore it, but the sadness is there and it comes out in a music, but it comes out… I find it easier to get into the trans-like state, shut out everything else… last night gig it was a good gig: I wasn’t paying attention to the audience, I was looking a thousand yard stare.

I saw it.

That’s me. I‘ve got into a zone, for the base is kinda playing itself, I’m not thinking what note I’m gonna play here. Although last night was tricky, as I was not exactly hearing the base, but that’s OK. I’ve played long enough that I know what the note’s gonna be but I have to be able to shut off outside annoyance. But the best gigs are where you can actually see everything that’s been going on and communicate within the band, which we do quite well cause we really – although we know that people have come for a good night out so the show is their show the show is for them – we are playing for each other as well. I’m playing to make Gerry happy, to make Pete happy, to make Lewis happy and the audience witness it.

The reaction of the audience is not that important for you?

Quite often. If I’m in a correct state of mind when the audience gives us a reaction I like look at them and think: “oh my God! The audience is there!”. It catches me by surprise, but it helps then and boosts me! They are getting our energy and we are getting their energy as well, big style. I sometimes do gigs back home, jazz gigs for a double base, and sometimes it’s a restaurant gig. And that’s a weird situation: we played really well, I’ve been in a trans-like state and I’ve enjoyed the tune, I’ve been in a moment and we’ve finished the tune and no one claps – they’re eating their dinner! It’s a bit embarrassing for them to clap, and that’s like a balloon being burst… so you do need something from the audience. And then usually at the end of the night, when they leave the restaurant, the audience they all love the music and you got: “oh my God they DID like it, they WERE listening”… But it certainly helps the gig when we feel the audience and we take them with us. None of us like the break in the middle because you got your place with the audience and you want to go somewhere else and then you stop it and you have to start again and build them back up to where they were…

I like that kind of fight and I always find your second set better. Not everyone can do that.

That does make us have to fight, OK, that’s true, so that’s good…

I know that it’s not comfortable for the musicians but I like the new opening, it brings me a new story.

So it’s easier without the brake, but then, like you say, maybe the brake is a good thing because it’s making you fight again. It’s like a boxer coming back for a new round.

How important are the difficulties for you? Do you think the sound is better when you have something to fight with?

Yes. Definitely.

What with the soundcheck? Is it better when the soundcheck is OK or not? r John Lord said that it’s not good when the soundcheck goes OK because you are too confident and the music ends fucked up…

That could be true, but the ideal state is that everything is cool and everyone just play well and everything is just cool and it’s easy… And that’s a state of mind thing as well. So although you say it’s good to fight, it can get in a way of playing exactly what you want to play because you start thinking, and that’s bad. I don’t wanna be thinking, I want my head to be empty and just feeling the music as if I’m watching the show.

So when you reach that kind of state when everything is all right do you think music speaks only for itself or maybe for something else also?

Ah, for something else also, it’s kind of communication I think.

What can you say to the audience in this music language?

Well that’s an interesting question…

Peter said that he want’s to almost kill the people, Gerry said he wants to connect with their hearts… and what can you say?

You definitely want to be telling a story, so you want to be using music as a technique to communicate. And music speaks to everyone, whatever language it is, wherever they’re from, so… it’s all about the story. Communicating happiness, sadness. I like the idea of putting the audience back in their seats, oh my God, the power that we’re feeling from this! But that’s not enough. It’s like hitting someone, that’s not what I want to do. I wanna tickle them, I wanna make them laugh, I wanna make them smile, I wanna make them cry – all on the same show! And it doesn’t have to be a sad song to make them sad. It could be a funky funky number that gives them what they want: to move and dance, but it’s got actually to be saying something, to take them somewhere within the road. I don’t know what they’re thinking, I don’t know who’s died in their life and who they’re in love with… I can’t know that, all I can do is give them some kind of communication that lets them do their own thinking. And then its weird, because the audience do feel like one thing, as if they’re all getting that same message, but we don’t have a planned message, or we can’t – we’re not that clever. That’s fucking science fiction. We’re just lucky happen on something that pushes a trigger, we’re shooting in the dark, ah? And you hit on something, and the good thing is with a band – I don’t know how people who are solo artists do it, man, I don’t know how they manage to do just one guy with the guitar singing, that’s really a different thing altogether – because you throw four people like this together, coming from different places. We’re very different people, all with different interests, we’re not similar to each other in any way, in most ways you know – but you throw all together and one thing comes out and that speaks to people.

What keeps the band fresh? Next year you will be celebrating your tenth anniversary…

What’s the connection that brings you to the higher level and gives you power to go on?

It always scares me that at some point we will play and I’ll be bored, I won’t enjoy it. We play the same songs all and over again, they’re always different but it scares me that at one day we’ll play the show and I won’t enjoy it. I’ll stop right there and then, maybe on that show and I ain’t do this ever again. I’ll walk away. And I don’t wont that to happen, that scares me and I think every band probably hits that point at some point. It’s very rare for bands to do for ever and ever and ever, cause everyone has come from different places, life gets in a way and people start thinking “oh I don’t wanna do this”. That scares me… But it all seems to work every time – whenever we rehearse we get the same feeling we get on the show, and the buzz is there.

What’s the thing that makes you… because I love jazz and impro music…

Yeah me too my favourite… impro… doesn’t have to be jazz but impro…

Yeah… and what I’m trying to ask about is: what’s the thing that makes the improvising more or less present in your shows with this band and others?

That’s a good question as well… because some of the jazz stuff that I do I play with a really good guy called Simon Gall he’s musical genius. We arrange tunes and rehearse more precisely than we do with this band, but there is still impro within that framework, the rehearsed arrangements don’t get in a way of being able to improvise. So it’s been able to express your emotion within a framework, that’s important. We do arrange these tunes, we do work out, we practice, but the trick is to make it sound like you just come together and you’re just playing off the top of your head. That’s a secret. But the improvisation has got to be there, so even if I play the same base line for that song pretty much every time, I play different. Not because I’m thinking “oh I’ll do it different” – it’s because in a moment I will be a little late with getting that note and I have to snatch at it and I just make it – that’s when it’s best! Because I’ve just got there, my muscles are tot, oh, I am like a boxer, I am gone ping! And I’m hitting that pan and coming off that without burning myself – that’s the important thing – to go ping! And that is as if a spark has happened and in the cosmos someone’s listening somewhere. We’re all the same thing, man, it’s all one thing, isn’t it? You know we’re just little bits on this lump, that is on another lump – that is all the same thing. For me that is spiritual, it’s all talking to god. And guess what? I am god, so are you, you know… we’re just talking to each other

So I wanna go to the base and double base topic, because on a base you use some effects…

I don’t use any effects…

What about wah-wah?

I’ve got a wah-wah pedal for sixteen bars and one tune? And I only use it once.

So all the differences I hear are only in…

Fingers. Which is important and I like that direct connection with a sound. I hate effects pedals, I don’t like any of them… distortion I want to come from the tubes and the amp. I don’t like electronics that fiddle with the sound.

So what’s the kind of sound you’re trying to get to?

I want some variety in the tone because it’s all about the good tone. I could play really clever lines with lots of notes and musically it’s correct, but if the tone isn’t good, it’s shit. It’s like a singer – you’ve got singer with a bad tone, you don’t want to listen to it cause it’d kill a song. The tone’s got to be good, same with drums, same with everything – it’s got to be a good tone. For me for a base I want it to have a little back grovel. My favourite sound is when I play my double base not amplified, usually at home, cause that’s a clean, real sound of the acoustic. That’s the air vibrating and that’s what I wanna hear – I wanna hear vibrations in air, so if I put electronic in a way it makes a mess. Gerry and I always fight to keep him with his unaltered sound. When we first started playing he had his Gibson Les Paul, had his Fender twin and he had no pedal… and I liked that sound the best. I remember being in a gig and there was two young kids at the front and they never seen Gerry before. And Gerry sounds good, ah? He’s got natural, gutsy, bluesy sound. I remember he had a tuner on the floor plugged in with his foot pedal and I could see these kids trying to see what’s the pedal, how is he getting. And in their heads they were going “I’m go and buy that pedal”… and I saw their faces go “it’s a tuner! There is no pedal, how is he doing that!?” And it’s his fingers, they’re doing the deed – it’s his fingers.

So the sound comes only from fingers?

Sound comes from fingers, but you’ll brake them if you just try to use the muscles in your fingers. The muscles you use are in your body, your main muscle group, like when you tense your stomach muscles – that’s where you get the power into your fingers.

How much playing on a double base influenced playing on a base? Or is it the other way round?

Two different instruments altogether. Physically it is different technique. On the jazz gigs I do arrangements that we work through on the double base. If I go to play on the electric base I can’t play it – I have to then re-learn the song and adapt it to work with the electric base.

For what kind of atmosphere base and double base suits you better? Or is it just the matter of voltage?

No… I just wanna good tone… that’s what it’s all about. I need the music to follow the pulse so timing to a metronome – not so important. I want it to pulse so that the body… it’s like dancing, you wanna feel it, you don’t wont to go “where’s the one”, you gotta feel the one. So – counting? I don’t count when I’m playing. sometimes when we have a tricky passage or when we are learning the tune I have to actually try and count where about within the bar is that sitting. And that’s not a good place to be, but once I’ve got that down I want to forget about the counting, because if I have to count on the gig I’m not listening to the music. I’m listening to my head going” one, two, three” and that’s the route for madness. That’s not talking, that’s not telling the story. That’s just closing your eyes and hoping for the best, so I don’t like that.

I’ve got one more question: to be honest I don’t like festivals

Me too.

What is the best place for playing music for you? Is there a difference between bigger stage and extremely small one?

Ah, difficult question because sometimes in a small room, where I can’t even move, where Peter’s standing on my feet, where I’m so wet I can’t see – is a great gig… but also on a big stage where there’s space and there’s air moving about and I can move and I can dance? I love that as well. Again – the most important thing is the tone, so it’s got to be a good room. The best, one of the best rooms we’ve ever played, it was in Kielce there’s three towns and there’s a huge forest in the middle of forest park… it’s down Silesia way, it’s a famous place because it’s a wooden hut in the middle of the forest and I think it was an underground music club in the communists days…

I can’t remember, you have to ask Peter. I remember… it was a nightmare to find this place. It was a hot day, I plugged my base up and I was a bit pissed off. I don’t know – hard day, why are we here, there’s no one is gonna show up, there’s a show in the middle of nowhere, we haven’t eaten… I plugged in the base and I played the first note and I could hear beautiful tone and it was the room! The shape of the room, the materials it’s made out of and I then relaxed. I went: “this is gonna be a great gig whatever happens, because the sound is good”. And if the tone is good I’ll play better I’ll bounce off the wall. And there were three people in the audience that night, and it’s one of the best gigs I’ve ever had. The audience didn’t really matter – I loved that those three people saw it but the sound was good, it was going to the heavens. God was good, everything was good. So the important thing is a good tone and whether it’s a little room or big room… Sometimes on a big opened festival can be a good sound but I’m like you I’m not so keen on festivals. I’m wearing a t-shirt North See Jazz Festival – three days, hundreds of shows. I mean its biggest jazz festival probably in the world actually and in a way I don’t like it. It’s one band, next band, next band, and there are people who go to this festival and are ticking out – I’ve seen this guy, I’ve seen this guy…

After three shows you hear nothing…

Aye, you hear nothing. But you’ve asked me who I’ve seen and I’ve been listening twice… I can’t tell you who I’ve seen I don’t know, but I tell you – it’s good music. Voodoo was in the room, man, there was a black drummer… He was a black panther, he was like the devil was on the stage. I thought they’re gonna put out chicken and fucking sacrifice it! The voodoo was in the room, the audience was in the trans state, it’s voodoo, it’s back into the primitive society. African, they play music for hours, they go into a trans, the witch doctor is the conductor, he want’s them to loose themselves. I’ve been thinking “Ah, I’ve got to go to work tomorrow, I’ve got to do this”… he just wants them to feel love, fear, proper emotion, base emotion

So maybe one more – you said about the difficulties and when I talked to Mikołaj Trzaska great polish saxophonists, only improvising, he makes also music for the movies but it’s also improvised…

Great!

He said that for him the music is the music of the road. And I wanted to ask you is the situation of being on a tour helpful in any way or is it a problem? Because I know that there are people who don’t like being on the road, they say that it’s too much travel, you play for two hours and you don’t know where you are, it’s tough for them…

It’s a crazy story, isn’t it? Because all I wanna do is play music, but I spent 23 hours traveling, not eating, trying to find somewhere arguing, all the bullshit and then you only get to play music for an hour if you’re lucky. So why would you do it? That hour of music is enough. And that 23 hours of bullshit makes what that music is gonna sound like and I love being on the road because it makes me a better player. It makes us a better band, it makes our songs better, we’ve got more to say in the songs but I know that most bands… you can be on a road too much. And it’s a common story that you got jaded with the road and you walk away from the music, it ruins it for you. So I think you can tour too much and that’s the point for you – you can be playing the gig and don’t enjoy it but then maybe you’re paying your mortgage with that band and you have to keep doing it. And to me that would be hell, I would hate that. But all that travel, all that shit that’s happened to get you where you are comes out in that song. And being on the road and having that solitude in your own head is kinda comforting because that’s how you find who you really are, I think. So I do enjoy it.

Photo: Maks Krybus

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