Fonzie Plays It Cool
By Brian Fox | September 2005
Stefan Lessard Shows His Street Smarts With The Dave Matthews Band
Stefan Lessard might have grown up in the scholarly college town of Charlottesville, but the University of Virginia isn’t where he got his education. For the past 15 years, Lessard has developed under the tutelage of his bandmates in the Dave Matthews Band. The “Doogie Howser” of the band, Stefan was only 16 when he enrolled in DMB University. Since then, he and his bandmates have released 13 multi-platinum albums and thrilled millions of rapt fans with their freewheeling, jam-heavy live performances.
As a teen, Lessard took music study seriously, playing upright bass in youth orchestras and jazz combos. But when the time came to take it to the streets with charismatic singer/songwriter Matthews, Stefan jumped at the chance. “I developed everything I have from being in this band,” Lessard says. “I’d had only a bit of instruction before I was thrown in, and ever since then I’ve been trying to keep up.”
Amid an international tour, and just a few days after the band’s performance at Philadelphia’s Live 8 concert, Stefan—or Fonzie, as he’s nicknamed—sat down to talk about the band’s new album Stand Up, how he works with producers, and what it’s like to play alongside singer/guitarist Matthews, drummer Carter Beauford, and touring keyboardist Butch Taylor, the core players in one of the most successful pop bands in history.
You’ve gotten your musical education on the road. Do you ever wish you had pursued formal study?
Sometimes, because I still battle with technique. When I was studying upright, it was all about technique. But when you’re young and playing with a band, you’re more concerned with just making it through the set, getting the notes and timing right. On electric, I concentrated more on playing in the pocket. Even now, when I see pictures of myself playing, my hands look tense. I just think, I’m playing with some of the greatest musicians on Earth—I can’t be playing like that! But you can’t look back, because if I had spent all my time studying, I might have missed this whole boat. I might overthink everything, and miss the organic simplicity of what is happening.
How are you making the transition from the studio to the stage as you take Stand Up out on the road?
We’re beginning to play more from our hearts than from our minds. When you play from your heart, you’re not holding on to anything from the past—you’re just going with the present and the future, which are more important. Stand Up sounds great, but the record is a moment in history that’s already been captured.
The new songs are starting to evolve so they’re different from the album. You strive for that, but you can’t push too hard; if you try to make a song totally different, it sounds contrived. We rehearse them the way they were on the album, and then we just let them go. A lot of it comes from eye contact onstage. I watch Butch, because Carter, Butch, and I are holding everything down. Dave might not be aware of where we’re going to go, but if Butch leans over and calls out a chord change, as long as we come down together, it works out.
How long does it take to get to the heart of a song?
Sometimes it can take a few years. I’m still not totally comfortable with some tunes we’ve been playing for ten years or more. Then we have years when a certain song is feeling really good, but then if we don’t play it for a while, we have to … not re-learn, but re-feel it.
What are some examples of changes you’ve made to the new songs?
“Louisiana Bayou” is one that’s starting to develop its own live identity. On the record, it ends with an A major fadeout, but during one rehearsal, Dave started playing a minor pentatonic lick as we finished the song. I caught on, and I started playing the lick along with him. Now that’s how we end that jam. Once the song itself has ended, it’s up to me to figure out the best way to get into that lick.
“Dreamgirl” is another example. The song is in E, but when our producer Mark Batson came out to see one of our shows, he suggested going to D at the end. It sounded great when we tried it, so now we vamp on D, and then swell back to E. That’s something that came about pretty recently. At the end of that song I normally play roots with Butch, but for a while I started playing the lick from Carole King’s “It’s Too Late,” transposed down a 4th.
With other songs, like “American Baby,” I’ve been sticking close to what I played on the record, and I’m just starting to figure out where I can go from there. I think everyone is—that’s sort of what we do.
Stand Up was mixed differently than past albums, with a lot of low end. I’ve always had a problem wanting to hear more low end on our records, so I’m all for boosting the bass frequencies. For me, even though the album is bassy, it’s very clean. The drums and bass are tight, but they still retain some looseness. And I like going with a different sound in general with albums, because I think it helps freshen things up.
Do you prefer a consistent bass tone throughout a record, or do you like each track to sound different?
I’m not picky. If a producer says, “I want to try something; you might not like the sound, but I have an idea,” great. I’m all for being given something that’ll stretch my ability. If a producer wants me to play with a pick, I’ll do it. But live, I know what I want.
You’ve worked with several producers through the years. How have their approaches differed?
With Steve Lillywhite, who produced Under the Table and Dreaming, Crash, and Before These Crowded Streets, we’d rehearse, do pre-production, and then record all together. He’d get track drums, guitars, and scratch vocals, and then I’d do all my bass tracks at once. For Everyday, Glen Ballard was more song oriented. He’d finish each song, and then I’d come in and do a few bass tracks each night. And he had charts written out.
What was it like playing lines written by someone else?
When I first played them, I thought they didn’t sound like me at all, because on albums like Crash I felt my playing was more fluid. With Everyday the bass was what I see as pop bass. But it was great, because that’s what I wanted to sound like.
What do you mean by “pop bass”?
Like a bass line from a Quincy Jones record, or like what you’d hear from a boy band. Or Kelly Clarkson, because Glen actually writes for her—that’s the way I felt on Everyday. I was learning to play more poppy bass lines. Peter Gabriel is another good example of the style.
It was something I hadn’t really been able to tackle before. It wasn’t as organic as what I was used to. At the same time, I was psyched. Learning the lines was a lot of fun, and when I’d throw in my own ideas, Glen was open to them. The end of “The Space Between” was something I came up with, and there are lots of other bits and pieces. It was great not being on my own—I had someone guiding me through the songs. With Lillywhite, I was definitely more on my own. I came up with bass lines, and he’d just tell me if he liked them or not.
On Stand Up, Mark Batson taught me a lot about bass in hip-hop—he’d show me by playing keyboard with the kind of feel he wanted. I listened to hip-hop when I was growing up, but now I have a better understanding of what the bass is doing, and how it’s not just haphazard. Like the groove on “Dreamgirl”—I would never have thought to just sit there on the E while the piano goes to A.
What music first inspired your playing?
I used to listen to a lot of English reggae like Pato Banton, Steel Pulse, and Burning Spear, and Jamaican reggae like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. That was my big thing growing up. I wanted to be like Sly and Robbie: Carter and Fonzie. Reggae was my emphasis outside of jazz, which I viewed as the music to study. I’ve always tried to broaden what I listen to. Dave and I used to sit and listen to Bartók and Vivaldi, picking out the cool things. Dave would say, “This Vivaldi piece sounds like a rock song right here.”
I love players like Stanley Clarke, and I studied that when I was younger, but I like to hear bass as part of the support system. That’s why I love Sly and Robbie—because they did their thing, but it was always supportive. Not to take anything away from people like Jaco—I’ll give him his props; he was a genius, and his was a tragic story. His fingers had a story to tell and he decided to tell it through the bass. That’s amazing, but that’s just not where I’m coming from.
Do you still play upright?
Yeah, I have one at home, and I play when I can. I would love to bring it back out. But I put it down because I don’t think I could play this type of music on upright.
Do you still read music?
I enjoy reading—that’s why I loved making Everyday, because I was reading Glen’s charts. But I’m not going to front and pretend like I read well. There are so many different things to practice—do I practice reading, fingering, scales, or writing? The great thing about reading music is that I can get more ideas from it—things that aren’t coming from inside me. And sometimes I feel dry inside and I need something new. Just the other day, I was reading through a Jimmy Haslip book about harmony. It was cool, because even though I knew everything I was looking at, it was great to revisit. It gassed me up for the show, and I went out feeling a little smarter. That’s the thing—even now I still need that. I have a book on harmony, one on harmonics, and then just a general “bass bible” with every type of scale imaginable.
With harmony, Butch is a great help, because I can see where he’s playing all the notes on keyboard. And Butch is a really smart guy—just talking with him makes you feel smarter.
What advice would you give to a bassist trying to become a better player? If something feels right, don’t be afraid to try it, and keep on doing it. If you don’t follow through with what you’re feeling, you might be missing out on something great.
Stefan Lessard’s stage signal starts with one of the Modulus basses he’s using on tour: a black Flea Bass 4-string, a black Flea Bass 5-string (a custom job with a 35" scale), or a fretless Quantum 5-string. Stefan also occasionally plays a silver sparkle Flea Bass 4-string. Eric Porter, DMB’s bass and violin tech, installed Shure U4D-UB wireless transmitters inside each instrument. “I routed out the back of each bass to make room for the batteries,” Eric says, “and installed a switch on each to turn on both the wireless and the onboard preamp.” The signals from the wireless receivers run to a Rane SM26B mixer. “Stefan uses the Rane to adjust his levels on-the-fly if he feels one bass is louder than the others,” Eric says. The signals then go to a Whirlwind Multi Selector Switcher, which Stefan uses to activate the bass he wants to play. From there, it travels though a Countryman DI to a Whirlwind AB Box connected to a Korg DTR-1 tuner. All rack gear is plugged into a Furman PL-8 power conditioner.
Then come Stefan’s effect pedals. “I’m not much of a tech head, but I’m great with gadgets,” he says. “I’ve started using an Ampeg Sub Blaster [SCP-OCT Bass Octave] for soloing. It’s cool because it’s expanding my view of what I can do during a solo. For the longest time I was playing high, fusion-y fretless solos, but recently I’ve been rethinking solos, trying to go lower. The octaver gives me some nice options.” Stefan also uses a Boss GT6B multi-effect unit and an Eventide GTR-7000 Ultra-Harmonizer (with a Rocktron MIDI pedal controller) for chorus, flanging, and distortion effects. “I’ve been experimenting with different guitar presets on the Eventide,” he says. “I mainly use two distortion presets from there, Devil Distortion and Evil Distortion. Devil Distortion has a lot of reverb, and it really screams. I use that for the beginning of ‘What You Are,’ where I play a slide solo with lots of distortion. It’s a strange sound, but it’s cool.”
For amplification, Stefan recently switched from a patchwork of power amps and preamps—one for each bass—to a more straightforward, all-Ampeg setup. It starts with an Ampeg SVT-2PRO head, which powers two Ampeg 8x10 cabinets. The 2PRO’s slave out runs to an SVT-4PRO head connected to an Ampeg 2x15 cabinet. “I’ve joined the camp of players who love Ampeg SVTs. It has the sound I want—bassy but with some treble, and enough mids to cut through. I use in-ear monitors, so the cabinets are there so I can feel the air moving behind me. For years, I used to stand right in front of my rig, but everyone kept telling me, ‘The sound waves are going right over your head.’ Last year I moved downstage, and this year I moved down even further. It’s amazing how I can still feel that rig behind me.”
“Stefan likes much more low end than some of the other artists I’ve worked with,” says Eric, who has teched for Les Claypool with Primus and Eric Avery with Jane’s Addiction. “I think that comes from his background playing upright.”
“Recently I’ve been using more treble,” Stefan offers. “I used to listen to a lot of dub and reggae, so I’d always turn down the treble and boost the bass so I’d get the big, fat bass rumble. Now I like the EQ curve to start high in the bass, dip a little in the mids, and then come back around midway on the treble so that when I hit harmonics, I can hear them. And I like the bass to have a little attack. With my Warwick basses, I’d turn the treble way down, because the highs are really responsive. But the Modulus basses are so bass-heavy that I can play with the treble knob and keep the sound I want. I like to really be able to dig in, but sometimes when you dig in too hard, you lose low end. If you really pop it with low action, the sound deadens. So I have my strings raised a little bit.” For this tour, Stefan has been using Thomastik-Infeld Power Bass strings, gauged .045–.125. “I was using DR Lo-Rider strings for a while—I really liked their grunginess, but I just fell in love with the Thomastiks when Eric suggested I try them. They’re bright, but they don’t lose any low end. Eric’s been dealing with basses much longer than I have, so if something comes up that he thinks I might like, he throws it my way.”
Pop Up The Jam
The Dave Matthews Band’s jam-saturated live performances involve extended solos and breakdown sections, but on record, the band gets straight to the point with hooky pop music. Stand Up is no exception. “Stand Up (For It)” is built on the one-bar lick shown in Ex. 1, which sounds like a nod to guitar-driven African pop music. After his authoritative downbeat on one, Stefan Lessard rests on two but jumps back in on the “and” of two, holding the G across the downbeat of three. He then starts the descending G Mixolydian lick. Except for the hammer-on from C to D in beat four, Stefan plucks every note.
Starting with two bars of Stefan’s final notes in the chorus, Ex. 2 shows his verse line from “American Baby.” From bar 3 through bar 6, Stefan doubles Dave’s guitar, but while Dave then repeats the four-bar phrase, Stefan plows onward with a contrapuntal line in bars 7 through 9, meeting up with Dave in beat two of bar 9. “That whole part is like a finger exercise,” Lessard says. “When I learned it in the studio, Mark wanted me to record it right away. But my fingering was all messed up, because I was following what Dave was playing on guitar, where you can stretch farther. After I thought the line through a little more, I realized that I could play most of it in the same position.” Keep your 1st finger on the 7th fret, but reach down to grab the C#’s in bars 4, 6, 8, and 10. For best positioning, shift back to 7th position at the D on bar 6’s beat three, and again on the one of bar 9.
DMB drummer Carter Beauford is one of popular music’s tightest, most intricate players. Stefan reveals the key to grooving with this drumkit powerhouse.
The trick to playing with Carter is in trusting your inner rhythm and timing. Whenever I start doubting, I find myself falling. But if you trust what your one is, you can follow him. That took me years to develop. I’m just beginning to feel like I’ve got my time down, and he can throw me anything. It’s great, because now I can actually hear what he’s doing—everything he’s saying. A lot of our drum solos happen with Dave, Butch, and me playing along, so I struggle to keep a constant, because he’s playing off-time so much. The more I feel comfortable with my own style and my own ability, the more fun it is to play with him.
I have a lot of kick, hi-hat, and snare in my live mix—especially kick, because I want to lock in with that to make the kick and bass sound like one. But I also try to connect with Dave’s guitar and vocal melodies, so I’m not just playing the root.
Stefan sounds off on Haunted Hollow, the new studio the Dave Matthews Band built outside Charlottesville, Virginia.
“A few years back, we started talking about doing something along the lines of U2—how they recorded The Unforgettable Fire in a castle. We thought, Let’s find a cool place, bring in a bunch of gear, and get the vibe of the building. And everybody was excited about doing something at home in Virginia.
“Nothing caught our eye until 2000, when we found a place back in the woods. Some guy had built a brick house with an attached dance hall, for after Sunday church. It had a stage and a big open room. It seemed perfect. We were like, What would you do with this except turn it into a studio? We tried to record there without actually turning it into a studio, but it proved to be very difficult. We weren’t getting the sounds that we liked. When you clapped the sound was like: geezh. After six months of trying to work with it, we weren’t feeling good. But we loved the spot and we loved the building.
“We went and made Everyday, all the while knowing that we were going to come back and gut the building. It had cool-looking steeple roof, but we tore it out and put in old wood beams. We had acoustics specialists come in, and they turned it into a Conway or a Plant, or any other big-name studio. You’d never know that you’re in the middle of the woods outside Charlottesville.
“Also, it’s a great rehearsal space. The only problem with rehearsing there is that it sounds so good that when you get onstage, it sounds totally different. But if we want to get any ideas down, we can just press RECORD.”