Leland Sklar Interview: Legendary Bassist Chronicles Finger Flips from Fans and the Famous in "Everybody Loves Me"
Image attributed to Rob Shanahan
Leland Sklar is revered as one of the greatest bassists in modern music and has contributed to over 2,000 albums as a session musician, including records by Olivia Newton-John, Bette Midler, Reba McEntire, Jimmy Buffett, Steven Curtis Chapman, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, The Doors, Clint Black, Art Garfunkel, Rod Stewart, Carole King, Bee Gees, Crosby, Stills & Nash, James Taylor, Dolly Parton and Barbra Streisand, just to name a very few.
Sklar was a member of the Los Angeles-based instrumental rock/jazz fusion group The Section, which served as the de facto house band of Asylum Records and was one of the progenitors of the soft rock sound that was predominant on top-40 radio during the 1970s and 1980s. He has toured with major rock and pop acts and recorded many soundtracks to films and television shows.
"I’ve got a little over 12,000 photographs of everybody imaginable giving me the finger: from the gas company guy, the guy working in my basement to the people that work in the grocery store. It’s not just about musicians and celebrities."
Available for order is Sklar’s unique, 320-page picture book titled Everybody Loves Me. The “coffee table masterpiece” is filled with thousands of unique photos of celebrities, fans and people from all walks of life flipping him off. The photos capture the personality and character of the people Sklar has met while touring with some of the biggest artists in the music world. The book can be purchased directly from Sklar’s website in either autographed or non-autographed editions.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Lee, how have you been doing during the pandemic?
Leland Sklar: Well, you know, I’m just hunkered down. I had to go to Ace Hardware. For me, it’s a major outing, but I avoided everybody I could in the store and just got what I needed and got out or there. But LA’s real scary right now. Where are you located?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: In the Birmingham, Alabama, area, if you can’t hear the tiny accent (laughs).
Leland Sklar: I was going to say, “Are you from Birmingham?” (laughs)
Smashing Interviews Magazine: That would’ve been a very good guess (laughs). I know you’ve been busy with videos and the book, but it’s really tough for a musician not being able to perform in a real venue in front of thousands of people, isn’t it?
Leland Sklar: It’s horrible. It’s horrible. I’ve been on the road every year now for almost 51 years, and I’ve never missed a year. The only good thing that happened last year was our group did a Rock Legends cruise from Ft. Lauderdale to Grand Cayman and back. That was at the end of February, so at least we snuck in a little bit of work before everything shut down. Like everybody else, I had a really busy calendar for a year that just evaporated like a fart in a hurricane, man. It just was gone.
But right now, it’s all about staying safe, so we’re here when things open up again. I’m seeing far too many people just being profoundly stupid and selfish. It’s hard. It’s real hard. But if it hadn’t been for the pandemic, I wouldn’t have ever done the YouTube channel, which was a total accident and would have never done the book, which people have been on my ass for decades to do. I would never be recording at home.
So I’ve tried to find a way of making lemonade out of this lemon, and it’s been a really productive period. But I have to temper that with a great deal of sadness because I’ve had a number of friends die, a number of friends who are still ill, and the thing I love the most in the world was taken away for a period of time, not indefinitely, but at least for a year and a half or two years by the time this is over and it’s safe again, I would think. It’s pretty surreal.
I’m fortunate that I’ve got a couple of dogs, I’ve got my wife, I’ve got a yard I can work in. I really feel bad for friends of mine that are living in studio apartments with no pets and no companionship. They’re really stressed at this point, so there’s a lot of zooming and a lot of talking on the phone for support. I think the most important thing right now is maintaining contact so you don’t just wallow in this nightmare. How are you doing with it?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Well, we primarily work from home, so there hasn’t been that much of a change in that area. And it helps to have a great book, Everybody Loves Me, to read.
Leland Sklar: Oh, thank you. It’s been such a drag dealing with the postal system and all that. Everybody keeps writing and saying, “Where the hell’s my book?” I always say, “There’s a tracking number.” (laughs)
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You know, a book about giving the finger seems so appropriate these days what with the violent insurrection apparently stoked by Donald Trump's false claims of a rigged election.
Leland Sklar: Oh, it’s beyond comprehension. I mean, I’ve been shocked the whole time that this scumbag wasn’t at the bottom of the East River just for all of his dirty real estate dealings in New York, which he’s famous for. So to me, what he is and what he’s done is completely expected because the guy’s a complete lowlife scumbag grifter. But to see all these creatures that have finally crawled out of the primordial ooze, it’s like a really bad Night Gallery episode or like a “B” horror movie. But we just have to be tenacious through all of this.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: There’s a light at the end of the tunnel?
Leland Sklar: Yeah. It’s not a train coming at you (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Tell me the story of how the book came about for those who haven’t seen it yet. Why, for the last 16 years, have you been photographing people flipping you off, and why did you compile those photos into a book?
Leland Sklar: When we were on the road in 2004 with Phil Collins, we were doing the First Final Farewell tour. There was talk later in the tour that Phil was probably going to call it quits at the end of the tour and retire. We had about a hundred crew people on the road. His tours were really big, big tours. I thought that I might not see a lot of those people again if he called it quits because they were from all over Europe and the States.
They hired a bass tech for me named Steve Winstead, but his nickname was “Chinner.” I think he came into the tour off of a tour where he was working his ass off. We had never met, and he came to me and said, “What do you need, man?” He was pumped and ready to go. I said, “Not anything really. I’ve never had a tech before. I’ve always done my own gear.” I could see his spirits drop. We were out for a long time, so Chinner ended up becoming kind of a general guy on the tour. He’d help the singers, the percussionists, just do a little of everything, and he would do a few things for me. At the end of the tour, I thought, "I’m going to take a picture of everybody and just have a little memory book from this tour.” The first person I go up to is Chinner. He’s sitting at his laptop typing something, and I go, “Hey, Chinner, give me a smile,” and all he does is give me the finger. It was a loving finger, but it was still the finger. I looked at it and went, “Ooh, ooh, this is kind of cool.”
So I went and got Phil, his manager, all the band and the crew, the truck drivers and everybody on the tour, and I had about 115 pictures. After that, I went on the road with Toto. I’ve known Steve Lukather since he was 19 years old, so I called the guys, and they were very happy to give me the finger. It was up to about 300 pictures. I’ve been a voracious collector my whole life. All the years of touring, I never drank or did drugs, so I would carry empty road cases with me, and I’d be out just wandering the towns and looking for junk shops while everybody slept in. This all just turned into that kind of a situation where I’d do the trade shows, the NAMM show here in LA, and people started coming up and giving me the finger.
I’ve got a little over 12,000 photographs of everybody imaginable giving me the finger: from the gas company guy, the guy working in my basement to the people that work in the grocery store. It’s not just about musicians and celebrities. I was at a party for a Pasadena artist and also a world famous artist named Kenton Nelson. I went as Van Dyke Parks’ date (laughs). I ended up meeting Kenton, so he started inviting me to these parties he would have every six weeks. The last one before Covid, I was talking to one of the guys there who was in the art publishing and reproduction business named Richard Trimarchi, and his nickname is “Blue.” I told him about the pictures, and it got him going. We ended up hooking up and pretty much did the book together. We’d sit there and go through pictures. See, 6,000 didn’t make the book that are all as good as everything in the book.
I had been taking these pictures for so long that people would say that I had to do a book. But I never really had time or inclination to do it because I’ve been busy with my real profession. Suddenly, this opportunity came along, and I thought that if I didn’t do it now, it’ll never happen. Blue and I talked through so many things just to make the book as high end as we could. It’s a pretty substantial book in terms of the quality of paper and print. Also I look at this as every person. That’s why I didn’t designate a section of celebrity or anything like that. I really wanted this to be a humanity book, so you’d see a person on the street, and suddenly there’s Jay Leno next to them.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: When you asked all of these people to give you the finger, did you run into some that were perhaps offended and didn’t want to do it?
Leland Sklar: I would say that out of the 12,000 pictures I got, I probably had 20 people refuse. Most people jumped on it. There’s a bass player I know, and she said, “No. It’s against my religion.” I looked at her and said, “What religion are you that bans the finger?” (laughs) Then when she saw all the other bass players doing it, she said, “I’ve changed my mind.” I said, “I did, too. You’re not in the book.”
But most people actually were very enthusiastic about it. The funny thing is I’ve got the nun in the book early on in the first few pages. She was my wife’s mother’s cousin, and her sister was also a sister, so they were sister nuns. Her sister was so depressed because her arthritis was so bad, she couldn’t give the finger. And the one who’s in the book, I asked, “Do you mind giving me the finger?” She said, “I was a high school principal. I have no problem giving you the finger.” (laughs) She spent her whole life as a nun. The only thing I didn’t want in the book was politicians. That was where I drew the line.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I did not see Barbra Streisand or Dolly Parton giving you the finger.
Leland Sklar: When I was in the studio with Barbra … you know, you have to read the room when you’re doing things. Dolly’s been a friend for 30 years. But the opportunities we have to get together are so few and far between that I just never had the chance. But Dolly for sure would’ve done it, and Barbra would’ve probably done it also.
I sent Linda Ronstadt the book. She’s freaking out. She just loves it. But I haven’t seen her in a long time, so I never really had the chance to get her finger in there. It was really funny when we did the James Taylor/Carole King Troubadour tour. I kept trying to get Carole, and she kept saying, “No,” then I’d turn around and look at her, and she was giving me the finger. So I never got Carole in there. Everybody else on the tour was thrilled to flip me off.
But sometimes, you’re in a situation with somebody like Streisand, and you don’t want to put them on the spot because there are other people in the room. It took a while before I could hook up with Billy Bob Thornton. Even though Billy’s a friend, we just didn’t see each other. So finally, he came down to the studio when we were doing our Immediate Family album, and I got his shot at the session. It’s been an adventure, I’ll say that. Everybody looks happy in the book. Even when they’re giving a scowl, you can tell it’s a moment of empowerment.
The other aspect of it is, I don’t really care about the fingers. There’s only about a half a dozen ways of giving the finger, but faces are infinite. It’s like a thing in the studio with Bette Midler, and then she kind of covers herself up. I had another shot of her grinning into the camera, but I just loved the idea of her covering her face. Marilyn Martin, who sang “Separate Lives,” with Phil Collins, is in there. But she’s covering her face pretty much, too.
All the other pictures are just great, too. It was the hardest thing to hone them down, but I really couldn’t commit to a 12 or 15-pound book. I had to self-finance the thing, so I printed 10,000 copies. I’m talking to people in Japan about maybe getting the book into Tower Records in Tokyo, and I had a publishing company in Colorado who just bought a thousand copies. I’m looking for fulfillment centers in Europe or the UK because I have somany people that want the book over there, but it costs more to ship it than it costs to buy it. I suddenly find myself in retail (laughs). That’s so far out. All I wanted to do was be out playing music and just goofing around. Suddenly, I know way more about retail than I ever wanted to know in my life.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Speaking of Phil Collins, how is he doing as far as his health issues are concerned?
Leland Sklar: That’s still ongoing. We just finished about a year and a half ago. We were on the road for about two and a half years doing the Not Dead Yet tour. There’s some chronic issues. There were problems, but Phil had some really screwed surgeries that caused him more damage than what he went in with, and that’s really been a drag. So he ended up with a condition called Drop Foot where he has to walk with a cane just to stabilize himself.
When we did the tour, he did the whole tour sitting on a stool, and at first we wondered if people would accept seeing a frail Phil when they’re used to seeing this powerhouse running all over the stage and playing drums and everything. But we were selling out stadiums every night in Europe and South America. People just wanted to hear the songs and see him. It went great. I wish physically he was in better shape, but I don’t know what the future holds for him in terms of his physicality. I know they just finished rehearsing Genesis for a tour that was supposed to be happening, and now I think it’s on hold until September at the earliest.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Phil Collins’ son will be the drummer for that tour?
Leland Sklar: Yes, Nicholas is the drummer. When we did the Not Dead Yet tour, Nic played drums on that, and when we started the tour, he was 16 and killing it. He was a really strong drummer when he was four. Now he’s got to be about 19, I guess. He is a badass drummer. He got all of Phil’s drumming genes, man. He’s an incredibly great musician.
That was a lot of motivation, I think, for Phil to come back out of retirement and do it, and it was to give Nic a shot at the big stage because he’s also got his own group down in Miami where he lives. They’re making headway as a new band but for him to cut his teeth playing stadiums and arenas was a great learning experience even though he’d been around it since he was born. But to actually be on stage and killing it every night, he’s really a good musician. I can imagine how Phil feels on stage turning around and seeing his kid behind him kicking ass and carrying the show. It’s a pretty button-bursting moment there.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Lee, were the 1970s a competitive time for session musicians?
Leland Sklar: I think really it was probably the most giving and sharing time of all the decades because there was so much work going on, so many artists, so many labels and people that I could easily do four sessions a day six days a week and still be turning work down during that period. So everybody was sharing and saying, “I can’t make it but call this guy. He’s great.” It wasn’t as competitive as years went on, budgets went down the toilet, labels disappeared and everything started becoming indie projects. You became maybe a little more possessive about the work because it wasn’t as much work.
But the late 60s, the 70s into the 80s was the golden age. That was unbelievable the amount of work that was available and the amount of really good artists that existed through that period. You just sat there every day just pinching yourself when the phone would ring.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Were you ever anxious or nervous about going in to play for the first time with a new artist?
Leland Sklar: I was never nervous. I was anxious. Generally, I would say probably 80 to 85% of the time, I had no idea what I was walking into. You really have to be prepared on so many levels for anything that’s thrown at you. It could be a metal date, a rock date, a country date, a polka, a commercial, movie or cartoon. I was lucky because I started studying classical piano when I was about five years old, so by the time my studio work started, I was already a comfortable reader of music. I was able to slip into that seat without any problems.
But you never really realized you had a career in the early days. It’s when you’re at the beginning that you’re always thinking it’s going to end immediately. As a musician, most of us have a certain paranoid side in thinking that because there’s nothing in the book since the last gig, the career’s over, but then the phone rings, and something else comes in. You could be pretty neurotic about all of that. So when I look back in those days, it was so vital and so exciting, there was so much great talent in the other players I got to play with, and the quality of musicianship that LA produced was just staggering. Every day was like a master class going to work. It was such fertile ground for the creative progress. I cherish it. I really cherish every moment in that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Many singers and songwriters lived or hung out in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Laurel Canyon in the 1960s and 1970s. Were you there?
Leland Sklar: Oh, yeah. Russ Kunkel was my compatriot, and his sister-in-law was Mama Cass. So we’d be around all of those people like David Crosby, Graham Nash, Dan Fogelberg, Carole King, Linda Ronstadt. It was really a profound community, and that was really the beautiful thing about those days. We’d be doing a James Taylor session. Let’s say that we’d cut a song like “Mexico.” All of a sudden, David and Graham or Joni Mitchell might come by the session, and we’d ask them if they wanted to sing background.
Everybody would work on each other’s records. It wasn’t this whole thing of coveting your space and not sharing with anybody. It was really one of the most incredibly giving communities in terms of sharing talent and enthusiasm for each other. Everybody was like everybody else’s cheerleader. It was exciting, and I really miss it. The big daily in and out of that doesn’t exist anymore. Now, it’s really the exception rather than the rule.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: We’re really enjoying your YouTube videos. In a recent one, you were discussing the anniversary of your mom’s passing. What was your relationship like with her and your father?
Leland Sklar: It was great. I hear all these horror stories of people growing up and all these things about family. I was really quite fortunate. I’ve got a sister who’s two years younger than me that lives up in Montana. We were a very supportive type family. My dad was quite a character, and when they were in their late 40s, he decided that he was through with all of it. He was more like a gypsy, and he probably had about 30 businesses in his life. He would get bored and dump them before he really made any money and do something completely different. At one point, they decided to move to Mexico. They just packed up and moved to Guadalajara and lived down there for about 30 years. Then finally, my dad had a triple or a quadruple bypass down there, and they decided they were just too far from everybody, so my sister found them an apartment up in Spokane, Washington, which is about an hour and a half drive from where she lives in Montana. So they moved and spent the rest of their years up in Spokane, and I’d fly up once or twice a year and visit them.
My dad passed about five years ago, I guess. Time is so weird at this point. But yeah, he suffered quite a bit towards the end. He had congestive heart issues, and he really hung on tight. When he passed, I think they were a month shy of celebrating their 70thanniversary. I think he was hanging on for my mom, and she finally just said to him, “We’ll always be together no matter what, but it’s time for you to let go.” The next day, he went into Hospice and lasted two days and then passed. My mom lasted about two more years after that. You see that so many times. Actually, she got better after he died because the stress of seeing him suffering really was taking her down, too. When he finally was at peace and gone, then she could kind of chill out. She was actually quite healthy and vibrant all the way up to the very end. She was 93, I think, when she passed. But it was one of those things that whenever I’d travel, I’d land at LAX, and as soon as the car picked me up, the first call I’d always make was to my mom to say that I was back in LA and for her not to worry. She’d always fret about travel and all that, and it was just weird the last few times I flew. I’d get in the car and think about calling her, and then realized she wasn’t there at the end of the call anymore.
Those relationships when they’re good and positive will always be intact. I don’t think that’ll ever change. I feel bad for a lot of people I know who had miserable relationships with their families. I was fortunate that my mother-in-law was like a bonus. My wife’s mom was just the coolest gal, and she was 78 when she passed. I wish she had lived another 15 years because she was a hoot. She was quite a character. There’s been a couple of people within family that you really didn’t give a shit if you saw again, but that’s the nature of people.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You have been married for 50 years?
Leland Sklar: Yeah. It was 50 in December. Like with this pandemic, I think it’s hit her a whole lot harder than it’s hit me. I miss touring. I miss going to work, but I’m pretty much a loner. I’m just as happy doing yard work and stuff where my wife has always had a real vibrant relationship with all her girlfriends. They’d go to Europe together or off on vacations. She’d go out to lunch practically every day with girlfriends or to the movies or the theater. So this has hit her a whole lot harder than it’s hit me. But she’s hanging in.
It’s a tough time, but you just try to be patient with each other because she’s not used to seeing me all year. I think she loves the fact that I go on the road and disappear for a couple of months. It gives her a chance to have her life. She’s never depended on me. I know a lot of guys, and their spouses would just kind of fold up. They depended on each other for everything, and I feel very fortunate to be with somebody who is independent, who likes me being around but who doesn’t need me every second to feel valid. I’ll be glad for her when we all finally get the vaccines and things start opening up again. She’ll thrive in it far more than me. The only thing that’ll change for me is that I can go to work.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The internet makes it pretty easy for trolls to attack others on politics or social issues behind the safety of a computer screen, and you’ve had some problems with that on your YouTube channel. How do you deal with it?
Leland Sklar: Yes. They’re pretty brave behind the screen. Yeah. I’ve gotten death threats. People come on and say, “We know your touring schedule. We’re going to get you.” Then sometimes I go back and say, “Yeah. You’re probably sitting in the basement in your jammies with a flap in the back jerking off to some video game while mommy’s bringing you Ovaltine. So bring it on.” (laughs) And I never see them again.
I think the most shocking thing for me out of this entire episode, especially these last four years politically, is that there’s a bunch of players here in LA I’ve known for decades and that I thought were great, and all of a sudden, I find out that they’re these right-wing lunatics. I find it really shocking when you’re a creative musician and you think on that side of the aisle. It really caught me off guard, and there’s some guys I just don’t want to be in the studio with because at this point, you’re dealing with values that are so profound. So when you find somebody that you are diametrically opposed to in everything, it’s kind of hard to sit there with them and groove when you’re thinking, “You’re such an asshole.” (laughs) It’s very weird. It’s just weird. But you’ve got to deal with it. It is what it is.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How did The Immediate Family come about?
Leland Sklar: First off, Kootch (Danny Kortchmar) and Russ (Kunkel) and myself have been together over 50 years. We were James Taylor’s original band in 1970. Then a couple of years later is when Waddy (Wachtel) joined us. I met Waddy before anyone else did. I got hired to do a Bobby Womack record, and Waddy was on it. He had moved out to LA from New York, and we immediately hit it off. I started recommending him for work, and then he met Russ, and then he met Kootch, so he became part of the scene, too.
Russ and Danny and I formed a group called The Section with a keyboard player called Craig Doerge. We were James Taylor and Jackson Browne’s band, and we would open their shows and play with them. That had its period in the 70s, and then it all just came apart because it was like a cult thing. But nothing was happening for us. Then a few years ago, Danny got offered a record deal with a label called Vivid Records in Japan. When it came time to do his album, he called me and Russ to see if we were around and could work on it. He assumed we’d probably be on the road because it was at a time of the year where normally we would’ve been on tour. But he caught us between tours.
Danny had just moved back from the east coast and hooked up with Steve Postell. They lived a couple of miles apart, so they started spending time together and ended up doing pre-production for the album together. I had done Steve’s solo album. There were all these weird six degrees of separation with all of us. Then Danny had called Waddy to see if he would play on it, but he was on the road with Stevie Nicks. But Waddy did come home for the last day of recording and came in and did some overdubs.
So this whole thing came together because of Danny’s record deal. When it came to titling his album for Japan, he called it Danny Kortchmar and Immediate Family because he looked at us as his musical immediate family. We’d been together forever, and unlike all these groups you hear about who hated each other and wouldn’t travel on the same bus or plane together, we’ve never had words. We’ve never had a problem together. It’s really a band based on admiration and friendship. So we did that album, and once that obligation was done, we signed a deal with Quarto Valley Records here in LA. We dropped the Danny Kortchmar name, and it just became The Immediate Family.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Are you guys writing new music?
Leland Sklar: I think we’ve got two EPs out, and there will be a third one coming out. We were supposed to have our studio album out in November, but because of the pandemic, it’s just been sitting and waiting for the right time. We’re going to do the next EP, but the album will probably come out closer to summer where the potential for us to actually maybe start doing some promotional work will be there. Denny Tedesco, who did The Wrecking Crew movie, is directing a documentary film about The Immediate Family. We’re going to try and coincide that with the album release.
The label’s been so good that they know we haven’t stopped writing and doing stuff, so they’ve given the go ahead to go back in the studio and make another album even though we haven’t released the new one yet, just to have another for later this year. Jackson Browne was great. He let us use this studio. Niko Bolas engineered it. We’ve all been working with Niko for 35 years. So it’s just a wonderful situation to be in, and I’m grateful that this incredibly dark, horrid period in our history has really also allowed some pretty cool stuff to happen.
The YouTube channel was a total accident. I had no intention of starting a YouTube channel. I was just getting some examples of some bass parts of Phil Collins songs that bass players had written me about. The next thing you know, people were writing to me and saying, “We love your channel.” I had no clue what they were even talking about, but it evolved into this thing where I haven’t missed a day yet since the pandemic began. I’ve posted every single day. But out of that, we created this clubhouse.
It’s just unbelievable the community that evolved out of this. There’s about 144,000 people on the channel. I do two livestreams a month, and they’re usually two hours or more. All of these people have become friends with each other. They talk to each other. They support each other and write me saying that they don’t know what they would’ve done if it wasn’t for this. I’m just thrilled with it. It’s been a remarkable experience.
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