Leslie West Interview

Leslie West and Felix Pappalardi formed Mountain in 1969.  Their fourth ever show was at Woodstock where they went on after the Grateful Dead.  Those hippies were in for a big surprise to say the least. The group got its name from lead singer and guitarist Leslie West’s imposing stage presence, which one British publication referred to as “girth some.”  Leslie West went on to form West, Bruce and Lang with Cream bassist Jack Bruce.  He has been sampled by rap artists like Jay Z.  He is also a frequent guest on the Howard Stern Show.  He has just released his 16th solo album called, Soundcheck and shows no sign of slowing down.  

Leslie, you basically started your career at Woodstock.  That is a pretty high bar to start at.  You’ve been in the music business ever since, what are some of your favorite moments from your career so far?

Jimi Hendrix’s agent, Ron Terry, was our agent, and I think he made them take us on that show. He said, if you want Jimi Hendrix, you have to take this new group down.  So we got on that show, which was lucky for us.  We weren’t in the movie, I don’t know what happened with my manager at the time, he probably didn’t get enough money, who knows.  We were on the Woodstock II album.  They came out with a 40th anniversary box set six years ago.  I got married the night we had the 40th anniversary reunion on stage with some of the acts.  I got married right on stage to my beautiful wife, Jenny.  Actually on YouTube, you can see Leslie West’s wedding right in the middle of the show. The justice of the peace comes out in his blue robe and all the guys in my group grabbed my guitars and formed an arch and Jenny came out.  We had 25,000 witnesses.  They built an amphitheater where the actual original site used to be.  It is a beautiful, beautiful amphitheater that big money built.  It was a great night for us.  I will never forget that night.  

That is amazing, it is an anniversary show and you get married to the love of your life.  I don’t really know how you can top that.  Let’s shift gears a little wee bit.  In the rock and roll business, there is always crazy stuff that happens.  Other than getting married at the 40th anniversary show, just off the top of your head, what is the most wacky, insane thing that you ever saw go down at a show?

Well, the night before West, Bruce, and Laing signed a deal with Columbia, we were playing Carnegie Hall. We sold out two shows and we didn’t even have an album out.  It was just word of mouth.  Right in the middle of the second show, all of sudden I see the house lights come up and paramedics come in with a stretcher and I thought, “Oh no, please don’t tell me…”  My brother O.D.’d in the fuckin’ show.  They carried him out on a stretcher.  I said, “How did I know when those lights came on…”  I remember the next day my mother was screaming at him, “You couldn’t keep yourself under control for one night and let Leslie enjoy his night at Carnegie Hall.  God Dammit.”  She was really mad at him.  I will never forget that night man?  He’s recovered alright.

So let’s talk a little bit about your new record.  We will fast forward a little bit.  You have 16 solo albums. You have been making music for a long time  What keeps you going? You have a new record out, Soundcheck.  It kicks ass.  What keeps you still keep making this great music?

Mountain started in’69, but I was in a group called the Vagrants before that, but we never really made it.  Felix happened to be our producer.  The first cut on the new album is called Left by the Roadside to Die.  When I lost my leg four years ago, I sort of felt that way, but everybody gets knocked down in life.  It’s how you choose to get up that is something else.  I heard Lawrence Taylor, a great football player say that.  Doing this album, I started with that song, which was the first song.  I wanted to pick other songs,  because I was going to do interpretations (I don’t even like the word cover, because I am hoping when I do a song that you recognize it was someone else’s song).  So, I wanted to put everything together that fit with the new songs song and pick songs by other people.  I was going to do that very blended.  I think I did that with, especially, You are my Sunshine, that I did with Peter Frampton on this.  It is a really dark sounding song.  I was watching Sons of Anarchy and thought I heard somebody playing acoustic on the soundtrack. I hear acoustic guitar playing what I thought was You are my Sunshine but in a minor key.  So, I started fooling around with it and made an arrangement of it and recorded it.  I played swag guitar on it and we put the bass of the drums, so I said to Peter because I know he was going to play on the album, ”Tell me what you think.” He wrote me back by text right away.  He said, “Man, I can’t believe how fantastic that sounds by changing the key and what you did to the arrangement man.”  What we have is the finished product that Peter did and it’s one of my favorite cuts on the album.  He is a fantastic, underrated guitar player, Peter Frampton is.

There are a lot of great guests on this record.  You collaborated with Peter Frampton, Bonnie Bramlett, Jack Bruce (rest in peace), and Brian May.  You obviously have known these people for a long time.  How did you and Peter get to be friends?

We toured together for years and we had the same agent, Premier Talent.  In fact, a few years ago, Peter had this tour called Frampton’s Guitar Circus and he invited guests to come out.  So he asked me to come out and do some shows. He wanted to sing a couple of Mountain songs.  He sang “Theme for an Imaginary Western,” which was great, and I sang the chorus.  Between doing that, I think we did “Mississippi Queen” also.  I said, “Peter your manager is dead; my manager is dead; our agent is dead, what are we still doing here.”  He walked over to the mic and he says, “They can’t take our money now mate.”  I never recorded with him.  I toured with him on Humble Pie and Frampton Comes Alive.  He has made it in so different areas, but we never recorded together, so that was a great thrill to finally come up with a song that we could do.  He’s one of the sweetest guys I ever met and businessman.  You don’t even want to call him a businessman when you talk about Frampton.  He is a big star.  He used to be the biggest star in the world.

Frampton Comes Alive, who didn’t have that record?  

How much money he made from that because it was a live record?  It is very inexpensive to record a live version as opposed to studio.  Probably my favorite guitar song doing a jam is “Going Down,” and it was written by a guy named Don Nix.  So, the guy that produced the album, John Tivet, called mad up and he said, “Look, I’m doing an album with Don Nix, the guy who wrote “Going Down” and I’d love you to play on it.  I said, “Who else is on it.”  He said, “Brian Mays is on it, Bonnie Bramlett, Max Middleton, the keyboard player/piano player with Jeff Beck who actually did the original version of it, and Bonnie Bramlett is singing background.  I called John back up and said, “I’d loved to do that man, Don Nix is the singer.”  He said, “But you have to sing it.”  I said, “How am I going to do that? Where are the files?”  He says, “I have them. I will send them to you tomorrow.  Just go sing the song and remix it.”  As we were working on it, it says BM on the tape.  I said, “Wait a minute, that’s Brian Mays.  You can’t even hear him on the original.”  So, we remixed it, I sang it and I’m playing the lead guitar from the beginning to about 2 minutes and 48 seconds in the song, somewhere in that range and then Brian Mays played the lead from there to the end of the song. After I did it I said, “John, go ask Brian it’s ok that I want to use it with me and him.”  He said, “Brian said he would be flattered if you do it.”  I was thrilled man.  Brian May doesn’t do too many outside projects if you know what I’m saying.  

That shows a lot of respect between you two guys.  That is awesome.  

I love that man, I really do.

Now you’ve said in the past that Jack Bruce was your favorite bass player.  How did you guys become friends, and talk a little bit about the track Spoonful.

Leslie West
Leslie West

Well, Cream is my favorite group. So, Felix Pappalardi, bass player of Mountain, all of a sudden one day, I’m looking at his album of Cream out and I see, Produced by Pappalardi.  So I said to my brother Larry, I said, “Is the same guy who produced us in the Vagrants (my first group). He said, “Yeah,”  I said, “How come we don’t sound like Cream.” He said, “Because we suck.  We didn’t practice enough.”  He says to me, “Let’s go see Cream.”  They were actually playing at what became the Filmore East.  It was actually The Village Theater at that time.  My brother said to me; let’s take some acid before we go.  So we took LSD and all of a sudden the curtain opens up and I hear them playing “Sunshine” and I see Eric Clapton and his buckskin jacket with a flash over his shoe like Daniel Boone.  I said, “Oh my God, we really suck.”  After that, I started really practicing and practicing.  One day after my first album came out; it’s now called the Filmore East. Jack Bruce was headlining a show and then it was Mountain… I was dying to me him, so Felix introduced me to Jack.  We really hit it off good.  In fact, John McLaughlin was playing with him at the time and he wanted me to talk to John about what kind of amps I was using to get that sound.  Jack liked the sound.  So, a few years go by and we go over to Jack Bruce’s house in London.  It was Mountain’s first time over there and Felix was busy talking to Jack Bruce’s wife, Janet.  While he was busy bullshitting with Janet, I went upstairs and I’m jamming with Jack.  He was playing on the grand piano and I was playing on the acoustic guitar and we got to know each other.  When Mountain finally split up, Felix just didn’t want to go on the road anymore, we flew over to England and he was the first guy I called, Jack, and luckily he said yeah.  So, we had West, Bruce and Laing, and we did about 3 or 4 albums and then we broke up unfortunately about drugs and so on and so forth.  Jack recently died last year and that track “Spoonful,” years ago I was recording an album upstate and Jack flew over and was playing bass.   I guess someone in Poughkeepsie, New York heard we were recording and wanted to know if we wanted to do a set the next night, which was Saturday night.  I knew Jack was going home Sunday, so Jack says, “Yeah, let’s do it.”  So, Joe Franco, the drummer who was playing with me, and our engineer at the studio, Paul Orofino recorded the show on a stereo tape deck. I wanted to put this on the album as a tribute to Jack.  We edited it down from 15 minutes to around 7 minutes.  I get tears in my eyes when I listen to it because he’s not here anymore. Although I must say his son, Malcolm, sounds uncannily like Jack on these songs.  It’s just that I put that song on there and I heard how much fire Jack has in his voice when we are playing.  He knew what I was going to play before I played it, and I knew sometimes what he was going to play before he played it.  I was just a great, great night and to have it on a record is fantastic.  

You guys had a sort of unspoken connection when you were playing music.  

That was what the magic was, man.  Even though we broke up, we weren’t talking for a while, who knows what happened.  Believe me, you don’t lose that.  It’s hard to lose.  If you throw a football like Joe Namath, I bet he still knows how to throw the football.

So Jack Bruce was your favorite bass player.  You guys had a great connection when you worked together.  You influenced a lot of people.  A lot of people grew up listening to the Mountain records and your subsequent projects, but who were some of your favorite guitarists?

Right off the bat, it was Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Keith Richards.  Now there are a bunch of new ones that came in, Joe Bonamassa and Joe Satriani, these are guys that I listen to, and Slash.  Last year on the Rolling Stone, you know they had the top 100 list of greatest rock acts, greatest guitarists, so someone calls me up and says, “You came in at #66 out of 100.”  I said, “Really.”   I’m looking at the list and I see Slash came in at 65,  “I said come on, I think we should be a little higher up than that.”  So, I called Slash on the phone and I said, “Listen man, I came in #66 and you came in #65 on a Rolling Stone guitar poll.  Slash says to me, “He’s lucky he’s on any list.”  That I was as good as he is very humbling because he is rock star from the minute he opens his eyes.   He has that certain thing and he certainly he plays great.  That is good list I just gave you.

On a little bit of a personal note, what is a typical day like for Leslie West?

It’s different now that I lost my leg, but I typically wake up and I do what every other person does, go brush my teeth, have a cup of tea maybe, then look at my iPad and start fooling around. My wife wrote a couple of lyrics on the new album, and she is always sending me lyrics on the cloud.  I wonder where the lyrics come from.  She really is a great lyricist.  I always check the cloud.  I write songs, not necessarily what she just sent me which is why I keep them in a list.  Some of the lyrics she comes up with are fantastic.

Do you have musical ideas swirling around all the time where you grab a guitar and start to put things together?

We live in a condo on a golf course and I don’t play electric guitar in the house, not because I don’t want to bother the neighbors or shit, but I play acoustic.  It makes me play a certain way, then I can transfer to an electric guitar in the studio.  I don’t play the guitar everyday, sometimes I will go and give my head and my fingers a rest for a month and then finally I will pick up a guitar.  I have quite a few guitars lying around the house. That way you can’t avoid it.  I get ideas for songs at all different times, never the same.  I don’t wake up with an idea although I remember writing a song in my dreams one night.  I didn’t have a guitar in my hand but I remembered everything in the morning.

Speaking of songwriting because there is an original on your new record called “Stern Warning,” tell us about that song.

I did a song a long time ago with Mountain for my friend, it was about Felix.  It was an instrumental and Felix had this beautiful 12-string and he told me Clapton played it when they he was producing him.  So he said, “If you write a song, you can have it.”  I said, “No shit.”  It must have been a 7 or 8 thousand dollar guitar.  I said I’ll write a song. So, I wrote to my friend.  All of a sudden one day because I’m pretty friendly with Howard, he says to me (we email all the time), what did you have in mind when you wrote that, because it’s such an off the track song, it sounds like an Irish Celtic dance, a Riverdance.  So, I said I am going to write another one and have it in the same genre as that. I am going to call it “Stern Warning” because he reminded me about it.  I listened to it and I couldn’t believe I wrote that, so I wrote a new song and tried to emulate it together.  My father used to tell me a stern warning.  He used to say to me, “I want to talk to you when a minute.  Right now.  Let that be a stern warning to you.”  So it all worked out great, my stern warning.

What’s coming up for you next, Leslie?  Are you guys going to be on tour?  Are you going to be on the Stern Show?

Two weeks ago we started at BB King’s in New York.  New weekend we are going up to play at Darryl Hall’s.  He has a club called Darryl’s House and I’m going to Annapolis and Maryland.  Two weeks ago at BB King’s when we were playing, it was supposed to be the album release party as the album came out on November 20th.  We were going to be at BB Kings, but my wife says to me two days before the show that we got a call from a security team.  They want to come and scope out the exits and entrances for Paul Allen.  Paul Allen is Bill Gates’ partner.  He’s worth about 23 billion.  I know Bill is worth about 67 billion.  Anyway, we played at his Experience Museum in Seattle.  Paul Allen is a real guitar freak and loves guitars.  He built this great museum up there and he has a lot of Hendrix stuff there, so we played there.  Paul wasn’t there that night, but the staff asked if they could record the show so he can keep it for his archives and I said, “Sure.”  Now he wants to come see me in New York and I’m getting a little nervous.  I said to my wife, Jenny, “The place is sold out.  It’s standing room only.  Where is he going to sit?”  She says, “He’s sitting in the front row right in front of you.”  So I see the bodyguard and sitting next to him there was this beautiful blonde lady, his date for the evening, and I am watching him enjoying the show and was eating sliders and having a great time.  I had a meet and greet afterwards.  There were quite a few people and it takes a while to do all that and they knew about it.  The security team wanted to know if he could meet me before that because he didn’t have that much time and he wanted to come back stage and meet me and so on and so forth.  I said, “Sure.”  So right before our set ended, the bodyguards took him backstage with his lady friend, I go off stage now in the middle of the song.  The last song we do is Willie Nelson’s “Turn out the Lights the Party’s Over.”  They took Paul backstage before the crowd got up and the lights came on.  So I go backstage in the dressing room and I see two of the bodyguards outside of the room and the door to the dressing room is wide open.  There is Paul sitting there with his girlfriend.  He introduced me to his friend Monica, a really great looking woman.  I walk into the room and what am I going to say to him. I pretend I’m Howard Stern.  I said, “My hero.  I change guitar strings.  You change the world.”  I started to ask him questions about Microsoft, like how they came up with the name.  He said he and Bill were just sitting around contemplating a name for the company, and Paul says he came up with it.  He says we have something very small and it’s also software, so why don’t we call it Microsoft.  Bill said ok, let’s go with that.  I said also know that, I read a lot about him and Bill, is it true that you talked Bill into quitting Harvard.  He said, “Yeah, his mother didn’t talk to me for nine months.”  They grew up together as kids, and he said Bill’s mother was so mad at them.  I had a ball talking to him.  I have about five different models of Leslie West signature guitars and I was playing Mississippi queen.  I gave it to him after the show as a present.  I got a great picture of him and me.  He was playing around and he played a B chord.  He actually can play pretty good.

On top of being a software mogul, he is a guitar player, too.

He has one of the greatest guitar collections in the world.  I think it’s worth about 60 million dollars, all the guitars he has, which is chump change to me and you.

Is there anything else that you want to let the folks out there in the rock and roll world know about Leslie West, what is going on, or what is coming up?

I am really proud of this album because it sounds really good.  Every album I do, I want to make that much better than the last one or have something about it flow better and I had some really good guests on the album.  Usually when you have too many guests, it means you are not good enough to carry yourself.  In this case, it was Peter Frampton, Brian May, Jack Bruce, and Bonnie Bramlett.  That is a good bunch of people, most of them are going down, but I am really proud of how the album came out.  I hope you enjoy it and I hope your listeners and readers enjoy it.

Interview by Lou Lombardi

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