Tim Lefebvre is currently on the road for Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Wheels of Soul tour. He and his TTB bandmates, drummers Tyler ‘Falcon’ Greenwell and J. J. Johnson and saxophonist Kebbi Williams’ side project, Whose Hat Is This?, has a new album dropping on November 16th via Ropeadope. His contributions to David Bowie’s Blackstar album are well known, and soon, he will be heard contributing fresh takes on Bowie’s redone Never Let Me Down album. Live For Live Music contributor Scott Horowitz had the chance to speak with Tim about these projects as well as his recent forays into producing records.
Scott Horowitz: You were involved in the re-recording of David Bowie’s Never Let Me Down album. What was it like coming up with new parts for old Bowie tunes, and how’d that project come about?
Tim Lefebvre: Bowie recruited Mario McNulty, who engineered “the next day” to redo the record. He got all the files from the label, and management was all gung-ho on it. So, in March, we went in and basically recut the record with me and Sterling Campbell initially. They kept some of the acoustic guitars. They kept all of Bowie’s vocals. They kept anything distinctive to the song.
But it was interesting to reinvent the old songs. You know, also Reeves Gabrels is on it, so when I heard the mixes with Reeves, Sterling Campbell, and David Torn, it sent tingles down my spine. You know, the sound of Bowie in the ’90s was Reeves Gabrels—between Tin Machine and the albums Outside and Earthling, all those really great records. So to hear me playing with Reeves and those guys on a Bowie record was surreal. Super cool, super cool.
SH: You spent a lot of time with David Bowie while recording Blackstar. A few years removed, what are your takeaways from being able to work with him on such a heavy record?
TL: Yeah, there’s a lot of great things that came from that. It should be noted that he was a lovely guy and just an absolute pleasure to work with. He knew what he wanted with the music. And also, working with Tony Visconti was really cool too, because he’s obviously a legend also.
Basically, it was a quiet thing. We were just kind of making the record with a small group of people. We also got into insulting each other. He’s British—that’s one of his things, he’s very sharp at that. He was like Ricky Gervais where he finds a weakness in you to needle and just goes at it. It was really funny and really human.
Scott Horowitz: Was his terminal predicament something you were aware of?
Tim Lefebvre: Well, we knew he was very sick, but we didn’t know it was terminal. I mean, with cancer, you never know—my mom died from it also. He had just come off a round of chemo, but he went into the live room and sang all the songs with us. We tracked in three different week-long sessions. He kept getting stronger and stronger. He got healthy enough to do those videos—“Blackstar” and “Lazarus”—and write the play, Lazarus. And then he got sick again towards the end of 2015.
SH: How did you land the gig playing on the Blackstar album?
TL: Well, that’s an operating band—it’s the Donny McCaslin Band. It’s me and Mark Guiliana and Jason Lindner, and Donny. We’ve been playing together as a unit for a long time. So, Maria Schneider, who Bowie was initially interested in doing the record with, didn’t have time to work with Bowie, so, she handed off this CD we did with Donny McCaslin called Casting for Gravity. He loved it, and he came to see us at the 55 Bar and decided to use us. Kind of an incredible, flash-in-the-pan, once-in-a-lifetime thing to happen.
SH: Wow, that’s a pretty epic project to just come about like that.
TL: Yeah, like, “What do I do now?” But we all knew what to do because he had sent us the demos and we were comfortable playing music with each other. I mean, these guys are all homies of mine. When I lived in New York, we played a lot together. It was easy to do the songs because we already had chemistry. We could just launch into stuff and go places and see if they liked it or not. It was really cool.
SH: Having been able to witness someone like Bowie craft something like Blackstar, were there any takeaways you carry with you now as you’re starting to do more record producing yourself?
TL: I just think he did the record he wanted to do. Since nobody’s really selling records anymore, why do a record that conforms to something? It’s just one of those things like, “Let’s do something original.” Why would you do something that’s been done before? Because you’re gonna sell hundreds of copies, maybe a couple thousand. Why not be brave? This is what Bowie taught me—why not be brave and do the record that’s really brave and artsy.
Now that I’m producing a little bit more, helping artists have a vision that doesn’t include “Well I want this to sound like Katy Perry”. Though, nothing against Katy Perry—I admire her! It’s just that it’s done already and people are already imitating that. Whatever you’re hearing on the radio, if it’s out and released, it’s already passé, and there’s something new on the horizon. So, if Bowie can do something like that, why can’t I? I mean, I’m not David Bowie, but still. Why not set the bar that high?
SH: You produced a new album for Rachel Eckroth. How did that go? I really enjoyed the new single you shared.
TL: It came out really great, I’m super excited about it. It’s a good collection of songs. Really good musicians. it just naturally came together and I’m hoping she can explode into being a major star. She’s got this cool kind of indie sounding voice. She’s also very good with pedals and electronics. Her sonic concepts are interesting and the way things fit around her voice is really cool. This new record is pretty hard hitting for her, considering.
SH: That single you sent me was “Dark Waters”, right?
TL: Yeah! That was just kind of my ode to T Bone Burnett. You know, sort of swimmy, David Lynch-y, soundtrack-y thing like Twin Peaks. Kinda foreboding. I came up with that in the hotel room, and then Rachel wrote the rest of the song. Then, I got Doyle Bramhall to play guitars on it and Matt Chamberlain to play drums. It was one of those things where I just wanted people who knew what to do on it. It wasn’t gonna be any mystery.
What was funny was I got Matt Chamberlain because I had the Matt Chamberlain Loop Loft Collection, so I pulled up something similar to what he actually put down. I told him to get more creative when he actually recorded the track. I happened to pick the right guys, and then Rachel sang some magic on it. It was super easy, and it just came together really quickly. That was the last song we worked on.
Rachel Eckroth – “Dark Waters”
Scott Horowitz: How did the ‘Whose Hat Is This’ project start?
Tim Lefebvre: Well, in 2015, Tedeschi Trucks Band went to Europe, and because of my touring before I joined Tedeschi Trucks, I knew some club owners over there. Especially my friend Sedal—he owns the A-Train in Berlin. So I hit him up, I was like, “I got this collective improvisation group from Tedeschi Trucks, and we’re gonna be in Berlin, blah blah blah.” So we had a successful gig, and the engineer happened to multi-track record it, so that’s how we put out the first record.
SH: So, the band’s first record is the band’s first show, which was completely without-a-net improvised?
TL: Basically yes, that’s right. Totally from scratch. Un-preconceived. Also, magic. But yeah, and the reason why Whose Hat Is This? came to be is we were starting the second set and somebody left a brown hat on J. J.’s snare drum. So J. J. grabs the emcee mic, and he goes, “Does anybody know whose hat this is?” You can hear it. It’s the first line on the record—like a public service announcement.
Scott Horowitz: The music is a bit of a departure from what the 4 of you are normally doing in Tedeschi Trucks Band. What is it like switching gears like that with those guys?
Tim Lefebvre: Well, it’s where we came from, for the most part. Like Kebbi Williams is very much a free improviser, and I’m coming from that a little bit too. And the drummers obviously play together a lot. Just as a playing experience, it’s pretty great because it’s this open canvas. I can create any sound I want. I try to find something and let the guys can go off on it. So that Kebbi can build a thing and go nuts, and go out in the audience and scare people.
SH: The world needs more Kebbi!
TL: Yeah! It’s true. Kebbi’s one of my favorite improvisers in the world. Also, because of his big personality, he goes out and is actually selling free jazz to people. He’s in their faces playing—it’s really hilarious. But, it’s also cool. Instead of people onstage with long faces just kind of moping around playing free, which, to me, people have a harder time understanding—instead, somebody’s out interacting with the audience the way Kebbi is. That kind of helps them get reeled in a little bit, so it’s super cool. So yeah, it’s a really fun band. The two drummer thing makes it super exciting too because it’s always this massive groove to lay stuff into.
SH: How do you make that work? A lot of jam bands or whatever sometimes easily fall into a formulaic and, in my opinion, boring mode of playing when they’re trying to improvise but are really just soloing in one key or another.
TL: Yeah that’s right. We start totally from scratch. Un-preconceived. What makes it work to me is like, sometimes we just start noodling around and somebody suggests a groove, and sometimes it takes a few minutes, but we all lock into this thing, and then, all of a sudden, it’s this huge marching animal. The searching stops, and all of a sudden we’re on this groove and it’s pretty tight. It’s like this kind of confident, marching forward thing. Especially when Kebbi’s playing cool shit over it and the groove is this deep, haunting, also kind of angry sounding—electronic. I’ve done a lot of improvising for a lot of different people, and I really get off on this band because it’s a cool, unique, new sound to me.
SH: What you shared with me from the new Whose Hat Is This? album sounds very locked in. Especially with the new layer of vocals from Kokayi. How did he end up in the Whose Hat Is This? mix?
TL: Yeah, you can definitely hear it lock in on the new record. Again, that was all totally off the cuff that night—it just kind of all happened like that. And Kokayi was basically composing on the spot. It just was a serendipitous kind of night. Kokayi an amazing artist, really.
The reason why I originally knew him is because he was doing improvising stuff with my cohort Jason Lindner. What really kind of put him on the map was him doing his own hip-hop stuff in D.C. for a long time, but he was out with Steve Coleman and the Five Elements in the ’90s and 2000s. He’s been working with Steve Coleman for a long time. So he’s been part of the M-Base improvisation scene. I just kind of felt a kinship with him, so I recruited him to come and sit in with us, and it just turned into this magic performance.
Whose Hat Is This? with Kokayi
[Video: Sofar Sounds]
Scott Horowitz: Were the special effects on his voice done live too?
Tim Lefebvre: No, actually that was done after. The guy who mixed the record is Geoff Stanfield, one of my favorite mix engineers and producers. I told him what it was about—it being one show where we all improvised. He’s good at cutting stuff up and making moments out of it, so he did that to Kokayi’s voice. He doubled it up, put delays and little cool musical ear-candy things on it. When I heard it back, I was just like, “Fuck yes.” It was so good. We did a little editing before I handed it off to him, but basically, he ran with it and just made all the sonic stuff. For a live record that just was off the board, it came out great. I’m really stoked about it.
SH: Has having Whose Hat Is This? as a free-jazz outlet outside of TTB brought more improvisational jamming into TTB shows?
TL: Well, a lot of TTB is predetermined, but there are moments in the show where it’s built in where we just kinda play free and it’s cool. It’s great that Derek [Trucks] can let that happen, and people enjoy it. Although, you look out in the audience, sometimes you can see their faces, they’re like, “Uh …” You know, sometimes a little mystified. Because it can be like [John] Coltrane’s Interstellar Space. But at a TTB show, you get the full universe of music.
SH: How do you enjoy being in such a big band like TTB that keeps gaining popularity? Also, what’s it like being led by Derek and Susan?
TL: Well, I love playing for these audiences—they’re so fun. The audience keeps growing and growing so it’s cool. Just from my own standpoint, you know? I’ve helped write some of these songs so it’s cool to see the reaction of people to what you’ve had a part in. It’s cool to be appreciated like that. And it’s cool to be appreciated by Derek and Sue [Tedeschi] and everybody in the band, because they’re awesome people. You know, they don’t tell me what to do musically, and hopefully, I’m doing it in a tasty and good way.
It’s just a rush to play in front of this many people. I come from playing in small clubs with people basically breathing down your neck. Which is cool; it’s another kind of high, but the high from this, especially when the band’s really clicking, is pretty amazing.
We’ve had about ten shows, in my estimation, that were totally like the Holy Grail. Where it didn’t even matter if the audience went crazy or not. Like, we played a gig at the Chicago Theater on a Saturday night in January. The second set was one of the best we’ve ever done. Period. It was incredible.
We were basically taking the set and improvising with it, just starting songs off differently. Everybody was just playing and everybody was just totally locked in, it was incredible. Obviously, Kofi [Burbridge] and Derek were just taking these solos that were just insane. And the rhythm section was right behind them and just propelling everything forward. It was something to behold—and it was in front of four-thousand people!
“Angel From Montgomery” > “Sugaree” – Chicago Theatre – 1/26/2018
SH: What do you think is going on when that happens in a live-music setting?
TL: It’s definitely a higher wave, man. It’s hard to describe. I get it from Whose Hat Is This? too; there’s a higher thing going on where you just feel it in your stomach—it’s like you’re fucking giddy. You don’t even feel like you’re playing. It’s all happening, you know what I mean?
SH: Is there anything you’re consciously doing that helps facilitate those moments?
TL: Well, if everybody’s in a wiseass, daring kind of mood, that always helps because we know the songs really well. It’s just a matter of how far you wanna go with them. You don’t wanna alienate the audience either by just playing it very esoterically or something.
But there are ways to play familiar stuff so that people can enjoy it in a different way. That’s what can set a band apart or not set it apart, as you know. Just being able to play a song differently kind of every night, if you can, if you can manage it. Some songs are to not to be played differently every night. But some are, and those are the ones that I think people are there to see.
SH: On your social media accounts, you’re always posting different gear and really experimental sounding stuff. Is that just personal practice, exploration of sound, or are you working toward something with it?
TL: I just discovered Mattoverse, this guy from Wisconsin, who’s making exactly what I needed: analog machines. I can still play bass and have it lock up to the machines, and that’s another crazy great development for me. I’ve been searching for that. It’s the next move in my sonic journey. We’ll see what comes out of it, because I haven’t been able to make something that’s a complete statement yet. But, once I have this stuff altogether, I’m gonna do some shows where I’m just improvising, breaking out the analog stuff. I’ll bring a bass, but it’s just gonna be analog with noise and just see what happens.
There are a couple pedals I have that’ll lock up to the tempo of the drum machine, so I can time the bass stuff to it. I’ve got enough weird bass sounds where that’s just gonna be a given, but it’s discovering the old analog stuff that’s kind of a new challenge for me. It’s fun.