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South of Here

Photo (top) by Debra DiPaolo

Greg Leisz has a “road face”: Divots carved in his sallow cheeks and crinkled maps around his boyish eyes make one think of a Walker Evans Dust Bowl Okie. Now in his 50s, he has traveled a long road to become arguably today’s most in-demand and prolific exponent of the pedal steel and lap steel guitars. He’s managed to forge a distinctive style — what he calls “head space” — from some of the least flexible instruments in the guitar pantheon. According to an oft-repeated quote from k.d. lang, Leisz “single-handedly liberated pedal steel from the bondage of country.”

Steel guitar in Leisz’s hands is less weepy, yeasty honky-schlock and more eerie, spare modern-retro — the dustblown primitive awash in the digitized city. He memorably introduced himself to modern radio with his alien-in-an-aquarium slide on “Save Me,” the gorgeous ballad that opens lang’s 1992 Ingenue. In the years since, he’s played on many pop-music touchstones: He’s fond of comparing himself to a plumber, so let’s just say he’s fixed pipes for Beck’s Odelay and Midnight Vultures, the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Fiona Apple’s Tidal; unclogged drains for Grant Lee Buffalo’s Mighty Joe Moon, Wilco’s Being There and Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road; and put in new faucets for Joni Mitchell’s Turbulent Indigo, k.d. lang’s Absolute Torch and Twang, Dave Alvin’s King of California and Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend. He’s also a full-fledged member of the international instrumental supergroup the Intercontinentals, with guitarists Bill Frisell and Vinicius Cantuaria, percussionist Sidiki Camara, oud and bouzouki virtuoso Christos Govetas, and violinist Jenny Scheinman.

Being the All-Around Session Guy seems to fit his temperament. “It’s not that I don’t have an attention span to focus on any one thing,” he says. “I’m more interested in doing things I don’t already know how to do. That’s why I started playing guitar in the first place.” Born in Buffalo, New York, but raised mostly in Fullerton, Leisz started playing his mother’s Gibson acoustic at age 14, listening to what he calls “faux-folk” groups like the Kingston Trio. (In fact, one of Leisz’s first road gigs was with ex–Kingston Trio singer John Stewart.) After kicking around the latter days of the SoCal folk scene (with sidetracks to San Francisco and to Idaho, where he worked for the U.S. Forest Service), he took up pedal steel in 1973. “For every one name you leave out 10,” he says when asked to name his influences, adding, “I’d go out to these country bars in Downey — once I could get in — and see some totally obscure pedal-steel player who sounded as good as anything I’ve ever heard in my life. I didn’t even know the guy’s name. He probably worked in a factory. That’s the reality of that instrument.”

By 1976, he had done some tentative studio work and was in the rhythm section of the Funky Kings, playing R&B-meets-country-rock with future MTV Unplugged host Jules Shear and Eagles songwriter Jack Tempchin. Barely in his 20s and thrust into the vagaries of the music business, Leisz realized he “didn’t feel a real strong affinity with something that operated behind closed doors in boardrooms and had nothing to do with playing music.” Refusing a couple of lucrative offers to go on the road, he wandered back into the L.A. club scene and stayed there for the next 10 years. “I lived down in Laguna Beach, where a lot of good musicians lived. Bars like the White House, the Sandpiper and the Quiet Woman hired them to form these loose bands and play whatever they wanted — everything from John Coltrane to Merle Haggard. The audience wouldn’t realize what they were getting, namely stuff they couldn’t hear on the radio.” Leisz played in bands with unsung revolutionaries like steel guitarists “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow and Al Perkins or fiddler Byron Berline (all ex–Flying Burrito Brothers), “people that for me were just names on a record way back when, and I realized we were all on the same fuckin’ floor: Everybody’s struggling.”

In the ’80s, Leisz’s road ran alongside that of L.A.’s punk-rock generation, who not only shared his animosity toward the corporate music world but were also beginning to plumb the roots of American music. “I worked with John Doe by the time he was singing Hank Williams songs, but I didn’t even listen to X until much later,” Leisz laughs. “That was the hole in the sand that my head was in.” Prominent collaborations in the roots-oriented bands of Doe, Dave Alvin and Rosie Flores led to a call from k.d. lang.

Leisz says he goes out on tour with artists like lang, Joni Mitchell or Emmylou Harris to get away from the pressures of the studio. He notes the “double bind” of a studio musician: “It’s not like because session musicians are in the background they’re these meek little guys; they’re people who express themselves playing music. There’s some need to put an emotional investment in everything they do.”

 

In the studio, there’s precious little time for rock-star shenanigans — except, of course, for the rock stars themselves. “You have to know your place. What you have to say is not as important then as what someone else might have to say. You sit there thinking: ‘I know they heard what I just said. Am I being blown off? I think I am.’ Sometimes people won’t even tell you what’s going on. It’s rough. I’ve had guys get fired sitting right next to me. That’s close enough.”

As to the (extramonetary) rewards, Leisz says, “The highest compliment you can be given as a session musician is if the artist says, ‘That’s exactly what I was hearing in my head,’ and they are blown away when they say it.” He credits his time with the Forest Service as helping him cut whatever’s thrown at him in the studio. “I was up there for two days, and someone stuck a chain saw in my hand and pointed, ‘Go cut down that tree.’ And it was on fire! It seems totally unrelated to what I do now . . . but when you do things that come at you in life that seem almost impossible and it actually works out, it sets you up with a different kind of attitude. You are able to go into situations that before would have been terrifying.

Leisz could very well be booked solid for the rest of his natural life. Currently, he is producing Dave Alvin’s new album, Ash Grove, and in May he will go back on the road with lang. He maintains he is the worst guy to ask about how studio work has changed over the years — although he does maintain it’s a different world than it was before. Then again, other things feel the same and different simultaneously.

“Before work dried up for him in L.A. and he went back to Oklahoma,” Leisz recalls, “Byron [Berline] used to tell me that there was a time when he would finish playing one session, walk to a studio down the street and they’d say, ‘Hey, Byron, didja bring your fiddle?’ I went down to Cello on Sunset recently to record for a band. There were four recording studios: In one, someone was producing a British band with a weird name; Jon Brion was in the next one with Fiona Apple; and in another, this young white rap kid. I could go into any one of those rooms and know at least one person. Yet I don’t feel that what’s going on in one room is really connected with what’s going on in another.” He laughs. “It’s like, the only thing connecting them is me

Leisz will play with Willie Nelson and Friends at the Wiltern on Sunday, May 2.


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