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The man who sings with his fingers

Interview by: Janne Stark (Fuzz Magazine – 11/2009

Howard Leese is probably foremost known for the classic riff in Heart’s  Barracuda from 1977. What actually made me set up an interview with Leese at this point is his solo album Secret Weapon, his first solo release since his recording debut in 1968!

DRG: You made your debut with The Zoo in 1968, why did it take such a long time to make a solo album?

Leese: That’s a good question. I was in Heart such a long time and nobody made a solo record. I told Ann Wilson she should make one. Being in a band like that was pretty much a full time job. Then I went right from there to the Paul Rodgers gig.
The reason I started this record was one summer we would usually play shows all summer long, but one year Paul went to Queen and I had the whole summer off and I have a little studio in my house. My friend told me I should make my own record, but I said I was too lazy. Then I thought about I should really make a statement of my own. So I started recording and it started growing. Originally I was just going to do some instrumental stuff, but I had a couple of tracks I felt were vocals songs. I have been working with some of the world’s best singers and it sort of started growing on its own.

DRG: You must have quite a treasure of songs written during all these years?
Leese: Yes, I did write all along, but for this record I didn’t want to use any of that, so I wrote all fresh music. The only thing that’s old is the little Keith Emerson candle piece (French Quarter). It’s from a session we did about 10 years ago, which I had on a cassette. That was just something we were jamming before doing the real session. I though it was great and he’s one of my heroes so I kept it for all these years and decided to use it now.

DRG: It’s a very versatile album ranging from funk and hard rock to southern rock and movie music.
Leese: I don’t think you should put any limitations on yourself and it’s hard to control what comes out of you when you’re creative. You can try to do something like, but when you try it’s not gonna come out that way anyway. I just sat on the porch and let the ideas come to me and I played until I played something I liked. I just follow the song.

DRG: Tell us a bit about your background.
Leese: I initially took piano lessons for a few years and I was doing pretty well with that, but then a neighbor had a guitar and it just seemed like a lot of fun. I picked it up and it just appealed to me, the shape, sound and feel. So I started playing at 11. I made my first record with The Zoo at age 15 and I just always wanted to be a professional player, never had a regular job. It’s wonderful if you can be an artist and make a living out of it. I’m always thankful for that. A wise man once said, do what you love and you will never work a day of your life (haha).

DRG: Heart made the debut in1976 and it seemed to happen pretty fast after that.
Leese: We went from playing clubs to playing stadiums in a year which was exciting. We worked really hard, played six nights a week and travelled all over the place. We toured with all we could, Rush, ZZ Top, we opened and try to win fans. We played every city in North America and Europe, but there’s one place I haven’t played – Sweden. I’m adopted but they say my father was a Swedish musician so I wanna walk around the streets and see if I look like anybody (haha). We got as close as Denmark.

DRG: Deep Purple has Smoke On The Water, ZZ Top has Tush and you had your Barracuda – the classic riff that has probably haunted you through the years.
Leese: Yes, I’ve played it quite a few times. That’s one of the fun things when I left Heart to join the Paul Rodger’s band, it was liberating to leave that entire song book behind. It was nice to step into a completely different situation and play different music, now I’ve been doing that for 11 years.

DRG: You also played on Dixon House Band’s album Fighting Alone
Leese: Yes, he was a good friend of mine from Canada. No one can seem to find him now. He was a very talented writer and singer.

DRG: You’ve been playing with Paul Rodgers for 11 years now. How did you get to play with Paul?
Leese: It’s funny. When Heart wasn’t touring more up in Seattle, I put together a little band just for myself to have some fun with and take my Marshall stacks out and blow a little bit, so I had a band called The Brigade. It was just some friends of mine. We played some Trower, Purple, Free, heavy 70s guitar music and one night Paul’s manager came into the club and they were looking for a band in North America as Paul had just moved from England to Vancouver. He didn’t find any band in Vancouver so he started looking around Seattle and they hired my whole band. We just had to fire our singer. I had to tell him - we’re replacing you with Paul Rodgers. What do you say? Paul’s my favourite singer. I did a gig with Ann Wilson onSaturday night, I flew home on Sunday, I was retired all day Monday, Paul called Tuesday we did a gig on the Friday. So I was retired for a day.

DRG: And now you’re with Bad Company.
Leese: Yes, I just got home last night from the Bad Company tour. It was a GREAT tour. Ten shows on the east coast, and we had the Doobie Bros open for us. Mick Ralphs hadn’t done Bad Co in ten years so it was great. I’ve been playing those songs with Paul, but not with Simon Kirke behind the drums which makes it a bit more authentic. We did the ten and it went so well we hope to come to Europe, too. On our last rehearsal we wrote like three new songs that sounded great and I felt like – I hope someone’s recording this! We were just jamming and the stuff came out. There should be a new album and it may happen!

DRG: Going back to your solo album, I love the version of Somewhere. There’s some pretty cool volume swells. How do you do these?
Leese: Thank you. It’s just with the Sho-bud Pedal steel from the 60s and the volume. It’s all harmonics. I was going for the Jeff Beck tone of Where Were You, where he plays the melody with harmonics. I love the music from West Side Story. I recently acquired the 1939 Gibson L5 that belonged to Al Viola, Sinatra’s guitar player. The guitar that’s on My Way, but also on a hundred movies, one being West Side Story. I’m gonna do Maria on the next record with that guitar. In Somewhere I tuned up half a step and played it like the original key and did in harmonics.

DRG: On In These Eyes you also do a backwards solo. How did you record this?
Leese: I love backwards stuff. The very first Heart record, the very first sound you hear, the intro to Magic Man, that’s backwards. It’s backwards on every Heart record. In the old days you had to pick the tape up, flip it over and figure out the tracks. I would take a cassette home of the track backwards and get into the groove. Now I have a thing called The Wayback Machine which I use for digital recording. It records what I do, flips it over and spits it out half a second later in a reverse mode. Use it live, too. You can’t listen to what you’re playing, then you get confused. I guess it goes back to my psychedelic roots, listening to Hendrix as a young boy. I got to work with Richard Lush once, who used to engineer the Beatles and I didn’t wanna bombard him with questions about the Beatles and I waited and just asked him one question, when George did the backwards stuff, what did he do? He flipped the tape over, took a cassette home and lived in the backwards world for a while. I love the sound of it. That and my lead tone I guess are my most recognizable voices. I call it singing with my fingers.

DRG: What guitars did you use when recording?
Leese: When I recorded Secret Weapon I mostly used my Paul Reed Smith Golden Eagle, which is on the cover of the European version of the album. It’s actually built from the wood of a maple cupboard Paul’s bass player owned. There’s actually a plug in the top of the guitar from the hole in the drawer where the knob used to be. I also used some of my HML signature models, a 57 Les Paul Gold Top with Bigsby, a 58 Les Paul Burst, a 61 blond Strat with gold parts and a Sho-bud pedal steel.  

DRG: What amp did you use? Any digital stuff or real amps?
Leese: I used my old Marshalls, my faithful Soldano No 2, the second amp Mike Soldano built and which was my main amp with Heart during the eighties. I also have a couple of Fender Tweeds, nothing extravagant, just old-school. It’s 90% is mic’ed up. On a couple of tracks I would do a rough track, a guide track with my Pod rack unit and a couple of them came out really good and they were fine so I didn’t re-do them. I wanted to be honest. I don’t punch in. I don’t like the new digital stuff where you can assemble a performance like the best sections of several takes. I like to record an actual performance. So, no punching in, no editing, no looping and no quantizing. All solos are one take. That’s how I challenge myself to improve. If I can’t play it all through I start over until I do. Then when I do a solo I can be proud and say that’s how I sounded that day. I feel like a painter. If I’m in the right frame of mind I go to the studio and work, then some days I have it, I’ve got it going on, I cut solos and I can really really play. Other days you just don’t feel it, and I stop and try the next day. That’s the advantage of having your own studio. I try to please myself and hopefully others will like it too. The singers had to come up to Ann Wilson standard. You go into the studio, you sing it three times all the way through and then you leave. We pick the best one. I tell them to sing it normally the first time, add 10 % more gas the second time and go nuts on the third and that’s always the one I tend to use. I want people to feel something. I’m not trying to make it perfect, I’m trying to make it real.

DRG: What about your solos?
Leese: I usually get it on the first try or when you’re just about to give up and say to hell with it and let it rip. The advantage of your own studio is you can keep trying until you get that magic moment. You don’t know when it’s gonna be, but you can really feel it. Like in hip hop they often piece together other people’s music and call it their own. My 9 year old son can put pieces of music together on his computer and it sounds pretty good, and he can’t even play. I reject that. For me personally I want it to be a real honest reflection of my talent. I can actually play, so why not play?

DRG: As you recorded the bass, too, I guess you had to flick the bass player switch from guitarist to bass player as it’s two different worlds?
Leese: Oh it is, it’s a completely different pair of shoes. Yes, you definitely have to change your thought and I enjoy that as it gives you a window on the world of other players. You’re paying way more attention to the kick drum than normally. When you’re the keyboard player it’s another completely different world, especially when I’m doing orchestration. Some days I’m an oboe player, some time a saxophone. You have to know how to articulate each instrument to make them sound authentic.

DRG: You’ve also opened your own steak house?
Leese: Yes, on July 11. The Rockin’ Steak House here in Malibu. I’ve got guitars and records on the walls, casual place with fancy foods. I’ve also got bands playing here.

DRG: So, what if Gordon Ramsey came in one day?
Leese: I’d be fine with that, our chef is great. I love Gordon Ramsey. He’d be all right. I wouldn’t wanna have him in the music business, though (haha).

We at the Dinosaur Rock Guitar would like to thank Howard Leese and Janne Stark for this interview. Copyright ©2009 All rights reserved.