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Interview | Leeland Sklar

February, 2013

Leland Sklar was the bassist on the majority of Billy Cobham's 1973 masterpiece, Spectrum. He kindly took time out to answer a few questions about the recording and background.

 

How did you become to be involved in the project? 

I was in a group called, The Section. We were James Taylor's band. Myself, Russ Kunkel, Danny Kortchmar and Craig Doerge. We were a rock fusion band. We opened for Mahavishnu Orchestra on their tour in 1973. I became friends with the guys and that is how I got to know Billy. I had met him before that when he was in the group, Dreams. The Section and Dreams were both playing in Paul's Mall in Boston.

You had met Tommy Bolin prior to ‘Spectrum’ – can you elaborate?

I was, in the late 60's, in a group called Wolfgang. Tommy was in Zephyr and we were managed by the same guy, Bruce Glatman. We ended up doing shows together along with the group, WAR! That was how we became friends.

Around that period you were doing extensive work with James Taylor, Jackson Browne & Linda Ronstadt amongst others. ‘Spectrum’ would appear to be a radical departure for you at that time?

It was a departure for me but I was really a rock bassist when I met JT so THAT was actually more of a departure for me.

The album was recorded in 3 days (14 - 16 May, 1973). Was there much/any rehearsal time prior to the actual recording?

NO rehearsal time. I think Tommy came in a day early so that he could go over the heads of the songs with Jan. They had sketched out the heads on some of the songs so I was able to read them on the date. But, it was not rehearsed at all.

Jan Hammer has said that all of the performances are live which, considering the result, is almost unbeliveable in today’s climate of Pro Tools etc.

Totally LIVE. No fixes. There is one song where Tommy and Jan are trading solos back and forth. In the middle of one of Tommy's sections he is bending his top string and breaks it. You can hear it on the record. They kept it and went on. All the solos are live. Musicians of this caliber do not need to go back and fix things. The solos by Jan and Tommy are fly by the seat of your pants soloing. Just love that aspect of it.

Although all songs are credited to Cobham, I would assume that each musician had an input into song structures and melodies?

We all contributed to the songs, but the bulk was Billy. I do not know if he and Jan had worked on them previous to my arrival.

Arguably, part of the album’s popularity was that Tommy’s more ‘rock’ style made it more accessible to a wider audience as opposed to just appealing to the hardcore jazz fusionists of the time. Would you agree?

Totally agree. I have done interviews about this so many times and always say that the reason that I think it works so well and has stood the test of time is that Tommy and I both were coming to this from a rock background rather than a fusion one. So we injected something that was unexpected. I loved the combination of jazz, rock and fusion.

Tommy made no secret that he was in awe of the calibre of musicians around him during the making of the album. Did he appear nervous? and do you recall how much tutorage he was getting from everyone (taking into account that he couldn’t read music)? 

Tommy was on the same level as everyone else. He is still to me, one of the greatest guitar players ever to grace the instrument. Guys always talk about his playing on ‘Spectrum’. He did not appear nervous at all. The thing is, it went by so fast that there was no time to be nervous or too intellectual about it. Just grab your ankles and go for it.

OK, THAT BASSLINE that pulsates ‘Stratus.’ How did that come about?

I wish I could say I remember, but it just was. I think the thing that made things work with me playing bass is I am not a soloist and was so happy to just get into that groove and sit there as long as necessary. I have heard bands cover it a million times now and the bass player usually gets into adding other stuff. The essence of this line is adding NOTHING... just be a freight train and plow ahead.

‘Stratus’ was heavily sampled on Massive Attack’s ‘Safe From Harm’ (1991). That must have been satisfying?

Yes and no! I would assume that Billy found it cool but it always bugged me to have something totally lifted from our performance and not be credited. There were people who heard that first and then would say to me that we lifted the lick from Massive Attack. C'est la Vie!!!!!

Are there any standout tracks that you want to mention?

To me, the whole album is a stand out. It was a magical couple of days and to be a part of it has been one of the highlights of my career.

Is there anything from those sessions, be it, humourous, personal, musical that come to mind?

Strawberry Julius... There was an Orang Julius down the street from Electric Ladyland, where we recorded the project, and we kept getting the Strawberry ones from them. Would love one right now. Also, Ken Scott's involvement was deep. He is one of the great engineers in the business and I loved working with him.

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