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 todays most in-demand and prolific exponent of the pedal steel and lap steel guitars. Hes 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 Leiszs 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 langs 1992 Ingenue. In the years since, hes played on many pop-music touchstones: Hes fond of comparing himself to a plumber, so lets just say hes fixed pipes for Becks Odelay and Midnight Vultures, the Smashing Pumpkins Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Fiona Apples Tidal; unclogged drains for Grant Lee Buffalos Mighty Joe Moon, Wilcos Being There and Lucinda Williams Car Wheels on a Gravel Road; and put in new faucets for Joni Mitchells Turbulent Indigo, k.d. langs Absolute Torch and Twang, Dave Alvins King of California and Matthew Sweets Girlfriend. Hes 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. Its not that I dont have an attention span to focus on any one thing, he says. Im more interested in doing things I dont already know how to do. Thats why I started playing guitar in the first place. Born in Buffalo, New York, but raised mostly in Fullerton, Leisz started playing his mothers Gibson acoustic at age 14, listening to what he calls faux-folk groups like the Kingston Trio. (In fact, one of Leiszs first road gigs was with exKingston 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, Id 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 Ive ever heard in my life. I didnt even know the guys name. He probably worked in a factory. Thats 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 didnt 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 wouldnt realize what they were getting, namely stuff they couldnt 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 exFlying 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: Everybodys struggling.
In the 80s, Leiszs 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 didnt 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: Its not like because session musicians are in the background theyre these meek little guys; theyre people who express themselves playing music. Theres some need to put an emotional investment in everything they do.
In the studio, theres 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 wont even tell you whats going on. Its rough. Ive had guys get fired sitting right next to me. Thats 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, Thats 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 whatevers 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 Alvins 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 its 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 theyd 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 dont feel that whats going on in one room is really connected with whats going on in another. He laughs. Its 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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