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Leslie West- An Interview With The King of Tone

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In the mid-sixties, a New York kid named Leslie West was making his first dent on the music scene as the guitar player and singer of the Vagrants, a Long Island-based garage rock band that had a couple of minor hits on the East coast. By the end of the sixties he was making much more than a dent, he was making history, when he and bass player Felix Pappalardi formed the pioneering hard rock act Mountain. In a short period of time, the Cream-inspired band would skyrocket to the upper echelons of rock superstardom, thanks to an appearance at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in 1969 and the release of the 1970 album “Climbing!” which included the monster hit “Mississippi Queen.” Ever since, West has been regarded as a guitar god known for impeccable tone and beautiful phrasing that is every bit as unique and recognizable as peers such as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and Pete Townshend. Mountain’s influence has made its mark on many corners of music spectrum, including heavy metal, hard rock, the blues, grunge, and jambands.

In 2011, complications from diabetes led to the amputation of his right leg, but the legendary musician continues to persevere. On October 29th, he released “Still Climbing,” an album of originals and covers that shot all the way to #1 on the Billboard Blues chart. In this exclusive interview, West discusses his recent health struggles, the making of his hit album, the Woodstock experience and the future of Mountain.

First and Foremost, how are you doing health-wise?

Well, aside from the fact that I’m missing a leg, I’m doing OK. If you find my leg, give me a call!

Many of the new songs that you wrote for “Still Climbing” address struggle and survival… Songs like “Dyin’ Since the Day I was Born,” “Busted Disgusted or Dead,” “Tales Of Woe,” to name a few… You know, the titles and the lyrics could easily pass as typical blues themes and imagery, to go with a blues influenced sound, but knowing the challenges you’ve faced over the past couple of years, these songs seem truly autobiographical and carry that much more weight…

Hey, the blues are the blues. There are some covers on the album, and there are some new songs on the album. My wife and a guy named Jon Tiven helped me write some of the songs. Jon Tiven had something to do with a few songs on this album and I worked with him before on some of my other solo projects. Listen, we’re all dying since the day we were born. It’s like buying a car off a lot. Even if it’s a brand new car, as soon as you drive off the lot, it depreciates 25%. “Tales of Woe,” for what it’s worth, is about some of the stuff we went through this year. But you know, everybody gets knocked down. It’s about how you choose to get up. That’s the way I look at it. “Tales of Woe,” to me, it’s not a pity party song. When I sing it, it gives me a great feeling, because when I wrote it, I wrote the title, I wrote the lyrics. But yeah, it ties into some of the shit that I had to go through in the last year. I was battling bladder cancer… Thank God they caught that in time. Thank God I stopped smoking several years ago too. It’s a good thing that I did, but if I stopped smoking it could’ve saved my leg. Diabetics have blocked arteries, blocked veins. That smoke, as doctor described it, “You might as well throw rocks at your feet.”

So did you consider writing and getting back into the studio as therapeutic?

No. We had another album “Unusual Suspects,” that came out two years ago that we had done, ready, you know, before I lost my leg. I lost my leg two years ago. When I started working on this album a year ago, in June, I didn’t have any songs prepared and I knew I was doing another album because my contract called for one. I started writing songs, but what got me going was doing “When a Man Loves a Woman,” the one I do with Jonny Lang, the Percy Sledge song. It’s not exactly up my alley you know, but I was trying to figure out how I could do this song. I could put my two cents into it and make it sound like me, and having Jonny Lang sing and play it with me on it was absolutely fantastic. We sat in the control room of the studio, close to each other, playing back and forth, and we had the amps out in the control room. Playing with him was great. I actually interviewed him when he was 18 years old for a rock magazine.

There are a lot of other covers on the album. There’s Traffic’s “Feeling Good,” not to be mixed up with “Feelin’ Alright” by the same band. What made you want to cover this song?

“Feelin’ Good,” now that’s the one I related to, but oh my God, hundreds of people have recorded that song. Barbara Streisand has done it, I think, maybe Eric Clapton did it. It was written by Anthony Newley, who was an English broadway actor. I always wanted to do the song and I got my friend Dee Snider to sing it with me, and, God, I’ve known Dee for God-knows how many years.

How about “Faded Into You,” from the TV show Nashville?

Yeah, I heard it on the TV show that I was watching with my wife and thought “What a great song.” It was a girl and a guy doing it and I said, “Well, how can I do this?” because I really love the song. It starts off acoustic but then all of a sudden, in the middle, the band kicks in and really… whooaaa, it made me sit back a second and take notice.  So I wanted put my signature on the song. I wish I wrote that song! Great song, great song.

You even covered yourself, covering the classic “Long Red” from the 1969 album “Leslie West Mountain.” What made you want to revisit that song?

OK, so are you ready for this? “Long Red” is one of the most sampled songs in hip-hop history. Jay-Z, Kanye West, Common, Nas. Lana Del Rey is the most recent now. She sampled it on the song “Born to Die,” and I think the album sold three or four million copies. And also A$AP Rocky, a new guy, he sampled it. There was no hip-hop back when I wrote it, so I guess they took to it. I saw Kanye West on Jimmy Kimmel one night when his album “Graduation” came out and he sampled another two songs with it. So Jimmy Kimmel is looking at the credits and he says, “I can see you sampling a Michael Jackson song, but what would possess you to sample a Leslie West Mountain song?” and Kanye says “Hey listen, me and my friends go down to Amoeba Records in LA and we’ve got good taste.” You know, there is a sample map that somebody did, of how many different people and groups sampled that song. It’s mind-boggling. I have all the platinum albums on my wall, so we have great publisher at Universal who gives the OK when people call for clearance to use it. So all these different groups sampling the song, why shouldn’t I do it? I wanted to do it more representative of the how I do it now. It’s much heavier now than when I wrote it back in 1969.

The title of the new album is a play on Mountain’s 1970 album Climbing!  How has the album-making process changed for you in the forty-odd years that have passed since that album was released all those years ago?

Well first of all, we can record using the computer now. Pro Tools, as opposed to, just tape. I still like to use tape for certain things, just not for the whole track. Making the edits now is so much easier man, it’s like ten minutes and you are done with an edit. Before you had to cut the tape, splice it together, listen to it… “Do like that?,” then unsplice it and retape it back together… So you know, it was a loooong process. It’s so easy to sit in the studio and the control room and have the amps out in a different room and just play away. It helped my writing quite a bit. Before I worked on the songs already, I’d bring them in, Felix and I would work on finishing the songs or whatever, but now I can just sit there and take my sweet-ass time in the studio and just write the songs. There’s no rush to get it done, with the record company saying, “Well, you gotta get this done in two months man.” If you didn’t have any songs written, you’d be fucked.

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So this year marks the 30th year since Mountain’s Felix Pappalardi was murdered. In Mountain, he was not only the bass player, but, is it fair to say that he was the George Martin of the group as well, in terms of production?

Yeah, he would tell you that himself!

So are there any habits or practices that you applied to the making of this album that you learned from Felix?

Yeah, you know what I learned? I learned a lot of what not to do in the studio. We’d waste so much time waiting for him to get to the studio. Back then, things had to be done under so much pressure. You know, you’d have a song and it’s barebones, just a metronome and a lead guitar or a piano. I’d work around that. Then I’d have to write the lyrics. Then, “What can I use for the middle section of the song?” We really needed to have our shit together. Cream was a great live act. The greatest live band.  In the studio, it was a different story. When Felix was producing Cream, you know, he would do the same thing with them. You had to have a different approach in the studio.

lesliewestalbumThe production on this album really captures the grandness of your sound. How was this achieved?

Mike Goldberg, my engineer and co-producer, recorded my guitar. Amps were out in the studio, not the control room. But there’s no EQ on my guitar. We added, you know, delay and maybe reverb, stuff like that, but there’s no EQ, like bass, treble, middle. There’s none of that. That’s the sound that’s coming out of my amp. I was really impressed with that on this album. On “Unusual Suspects,” I thought it was OK, but the overall sound of this album, my guitar sounds soo much bigger and really, I’m thrilled. Not only that, it was mixed by Mike Frazier who… oh God what a list… You ready for this? He mixed albums by Joe Satriani, Metallica, AC/DC… all these groups. I had a fresh pair of ears. He’d send back a cut or two a day when he was mixing… Maybe a slight change here or there but man, he was right on the money. I was really thrilled about the way it came out. In fact, I may have found something for myself to work on in the future. You know, “Oh wow what a great idea, I’ll record it, produce it, and then give it to somebody to mix,” and hopefully it will be Mike Frazier because I’d use him in a heartbeat, he did such a great job.

The album cover has similarities to the original “Climbing” cover. What’s going on there?

The reason that we have a rocket on the cover with my logo on it was because 1969 was the year of the landing on the moon, and around that time, “Climbing” was released. The rocket looks like it is going to continue on past the mountain, and hopefully it will hit the moon. I wanted to say, “This is where I come from and this is where I’m going.”

So on the last record, you had a ton of guests; Slash, Billy Gibbons, Joe Bonnamassa, and Zakk Wylde. On this album, you’ve got fellow Woodstock alumni Johnny Winter, Jonny Lang, Dee Snider, Mark Tremonti. How did you get everybody involved on this?

 Well I’ve known Mark Tremonti for quite a few years. His brother Dan produced my DVD called “The Sound and the Story.” It’s like an instructional DVD but also shows how I wrote the songs and how they make my guitars down in Florida at the Dean Guitar Factory, how they make my pick-ups, so… Mark Tremonti made a nice little piece for it. He’s a great guitarist from Creed and Alter Bridge, and after I did… Actually before I finished “Dyin Since the Day I was Born,” I sent him the song and he did an incredible solo in the middle and at the end. I sent that song to Slash because I wanted to get his opinion on it after it was done, and he wrote me back saying “You can’t get any heavier than that man.” When I listen to it, I say, “Mannn, this sounds so big and full.”

So you told me about recording with Jonny Lang, but how’d you get him involved with the album?

Well he was coming into New Jersey. He was on tour with Buddy Guy. I heard him playing over a year ago with Cyndi Lauper on Howard Stern. I heard she was doing a version of “Crossroads” a slow blues version of it, and I heard this guitar player and I said, “Who’s that?” Jonny doesn’t play with a pick, he plays with his fingers like Jeff Beck… So I found out who it was so I got in touch with him and I said “Man if you are ever in the area, I’d love to have you on my album” and as it would have it, he was in the area within a week… He had a day off from his tour with Buddy Guy. Mike Goldberg picked him up at the airport, brought him to the studio and we played and sang together.

You know, usually when you have somebody play on your album, when it comes time to do it, it’s like “Where are they?” They could be in Australia and you say “Oh shit how am I gonna do this?” Yeah, you can send people files and they could do it all on the computer but having them in person is better.

And Johnny Winter?

Mike Goldberg had to go out to Connecticut to record Johnny. I just had a cortisone shot for the one knee I have left, so I couldn’t be there when he recorded it, but there was a bunch of different takes and we picked out the best one. You can really pick out Johnny Winter when he is playing slide… Come on, I’m playing slide too, but it’s two totally different types of sound, so you can tell when he comes in with that undeniably recognizable slide sound that he’s playing. It reminds me of pornography. I couldn’t tell you what pornography is, but when I see it, it’s like “Oh yeah that’s pornography.” When Johnny is playing slide, it’s like “Oh yeah, that’s Johnny playing slide.”

We also introduced a kid named Dylan Rose on the song, “Don’t Over Let Me Go.” My manager asked me “Hey, do you have a spot to give Dylan to play on?” I didn’t even know who Dylan was. But you know, when your manager asks you for a favor you see what you can do. I said, “I don’t have a spot but let me see if I could come up with one. I’m working on a song now and maybe I could put him on the ride-out” You know, at the end. And he plays very much like, not quite as the same category, but, like Mark Tremonti, he’s a shredder. So I said “Maybe I’ll give Dylan a shot.” I’ll listen to his playing and if I think I could put him on here, I will, if not, I’m not just gonna stick somebody on there just because they could play the guitar. But he did a really nice job. I like giving young guys a shot, you know? I think he plays with James Durbin, the guy that was on American Idol a few years ago. Not sure if you watch that show, but he was the guitar player for him.

Over the course of the past 50 years, you’ve played with some amazing talent… Jimi Hendrix, Jack Bruce, Ozzy Osbourne and Warren Haynes. You sat in with The Who during the “Who’s Next” sessions. Is there anybody that you have not played with that you would like to play with?

Eric Clapton.

You’ve met him right? After all, Felix produced most of Cream’s studio albums.

Yeah but I didn’t meet him through Felix. I met him in a studio when I was recording in New Jersey, doing a session for Hubert Sumlin, who was Muddy Water’s guitar player. Clapton came in after I had done the sessions. I was really nervous, like a little kid. I met him, it didn’t go quite as well as I had hoped, but I got to meet him. I just never got to play with him, so that would be nice one day, before I go.

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So are you going to hit the road with this album?

Well we are trying to work out how to do it. It’s not as easy for me to tour as it used to be. No tour buses are handicap accessible. I’d have to play in an electric wheelchair because I can’t get used to my prosthetic, my balance is off, really off. They had me try on the guitar and stand between two parallel bars and see how long I could stand. I was supposed to put half of my weight on the prosthetic and half on the other leg. You could actually see on a meter what percentage of my weight is on the prosthetic and what is on the other leg. I was only able to stand with the guitar strapped on me, with no hands on the bar, for 40 seconds. I certainly don’t want to play live if I’m gonna fall down. If I’m worried about falling then I won’t be thinking about singing and playing. It’s more important for me to sing and play and be comfortable and not be afraid. But you know, I’m glad it was my leg and not my hand. Otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about a new album.

Earlier this year, you re-released the original “Climbing” album on vinyl, from the original master tapes, and you are releasing “Still Climbing” on vinyl as well. I’m curious of your take on the vinyl revival. Do you listen to the vinyl medium yourself?

No I don’t, but we also put Unusual Suspects out on vinyl as well. There is a big resurgence, but hey, listen, tape disintegrates so we know that’s useless.  No more cassettes, same with that piece of tape. But I’m sure there are advancements on vinyl. I don’t have a turntable but I like looking at albums, and it’s so nice to hold the album.

When you’re recording analog, when you’re mastering, what we learned was you don’t want to put your heavy songs towards the hole, meaning the end of the album. That’s because the grooves are much smaller as the needle cuts the grooves, from the first track to closer to the hole. So the best thing to do is put an acoustic song or a song with one instrument on the end of the album because you don’t have to worry about any distortion when you are cutting those grooves so deep, especially on a really hot track.

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Let’s talk a little history. Did you have any idea that Woodstock was going to be as big as it turned out to be, or did you think it was just going to be another gig?

Well it was only our third or fourth show so it couldn’t have just been another gig. The reason we were on the show was because Jimi Hendrix’s agent was our agent. And we probably made them take us if they wanted Jimi Hendrix. But yeah, I had no idea. If anybody says they knew it was going to be that big, they’re full of shit. No way.

I asked you that question because Ray Manzarek of the Doors once said that they were invited but they didn’t play the show because they didn’t think it was going to be anything significant.

Well, sorry to hear that. You know, we weren’t in the movie, something happened during the filming, but we’re on the 40th anniversary reissue of the box set of Woodstock. Eddie Kramer, Jimi Hendrix’s producer, mixed two cuts that we have on that album, so we’re on Woodstock Two, the album, we just didn’t make the movie. I don’t know why, whether it was that the management couldn’t come to a deal with them or they really did lose the footage. By the way, I got married right on stage at that 40th anniversary.

Was that at Bethel Woods?

Yeah, it was the exact spot where the Woodstock Festival stage was, they built a new amphitheater there. Levon Helm was there; he was part of the wedding party holding up one of my guitars as my wife walked out. We lost a really great guy when he passed away. And also, one of my other dear friends Alvin Lee of Ten Years After, he died this past year as well. It’s a shame. I think he went in for a normal, standard operation procedure. I don’t know what they were doing on him, but he died. To end things on an up note, I’m thrilled with the way the album came out and I hope you like it and enjoy it.

Right on, well I have one last closing question for you; where do things stand with Mountain? Will you play with drummer Corky Laing again?

I don’t play with Corky Laing anymore, and since Felix and our organ player Steve Knight passed away, I don’t have any plans to revisit Mountain.

 

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