HOWARD LEESE - Live From Hollywood!
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Howard is a busy man. Heart's lead guitarist has been producing local bands in Seattle over the last couple of years. He recently finished a record in Los Angeles for English guitar player Stuart Smith, formerly of Sweet, featuring collaborations with Glenn Hughes and Joe Lynn Turner from Deep Purple, and Richie Sambora. Advance copies have already received rave reviews! Although Howie will miss Nancy, he's excited to be heading out on the road this summer with Ann. After that his side group, the Howard Leese Brigade, will tour with Paul Rodgers as his backup band. Howard splits his time between Seattle and LA where his 91 year old father lives. He is also busy being a dad himself (Happy Father's Day Howie) raising his ten year old daughter Bonnie. The following is a phone interview I was lucky enough to score with Howard last May live from his home in Hollywood California.
I remember when you did The Road Home filming at the Moore Theater. In between sets there was this little girl in the restroom putting lipstick on or something and I asked her how she liked the show. She said, "my dad's in the band" and asked "did you see me?" It was Bonnie. How is she doing?
She's doing great. She sings backup on "The Road Home." I was playing mandolin and she stood next to me and when the vocal part comes at the end she sings with Ann and Nancy. She comes to all the rehearsals with me and she just sort of learned the parts, the la-la part. She was singing it at rehearsals and the director was there one day and asked her if she wanted to do it when we did the shows. We just sort of sprung it on her so she wouldn't get nervous and she was fine with it. She sang before with us and she sang with the Beach Boys once.
She's not very shy is she?
No. She goes to a private school here in LA and she's Student of the Month in the fourth grade. She sings in the choir and they just had their spring show. It was cool because they started the show with a 60-piece choir. They all file out and they all line up. The music starts and Bonnie walks up to the mic and starts singing lead all by herself. She sings the first verse all by herself and then the choir comes in and they all start singing so, she's soloing already. She sounded good. She sounded like Baby Spice (haha) She has a kinda sing-songy voice but right on pitch and right on beat. She has good rhythm already, it's pretty cool.
Does she go out on the road with you? Is she going out this summer?
Do her and Marie get along? I bet they are fun together?
Oh yeah. They're great friends. They've been friends since before they remember they were friends.
Does she have a favorite Heart song or favorite Heart album?
Probably The Road Home. She was really young when we were in the studio when we did Brigade. I held her in my arms most the time while I was playing keyboards and stuff like that. She's been in the studio with us for all our recordings since she's been around but that's probably the one she remembers the best because it's most recent. But she knows our stuff and what's really interesting is when we're driving down the road and one of our old songs comes on the radio. She recognizes Ann's voice and she knows our style and she'll say, "that's you isn't it?"
I saw your solo band the other night and you totally rocked!
Yeah, that's a lot of fun. Looks like we're going to be playing with Paul Rodgers. My little fun band has just been asked to be his backup band.
Wow! When is that going to happen?
Well actually starting soon but I'm not going to be able to do it right away. I'm going to wait to play with him until after I finish the Ann tour.
So this little solo band of yours... do you plan on recording?
I might record that band just to have a document of what it sounds like. Just go in and do it live like we do onstage. Just take an afternoon. Unless we write some original stuff I don't plan on doing any recording. It's just more of a fun live thing for me to do.
Kinda like the Lovemongers but a completely different direction.
So what do you think of Whirlygig? Do you have a favorite Lovemongers song?
I think their stuff is good. Very creative stuff. I've played with them on a few occasions and remember a couple really interesting and unusual songs that they've done.
They played "Saltwater" once when you joined them onstage.
Yeah that was fun. I thought that they should have seriously recorded that one. Of the times I've played with them that was my favorite. It has a real lyrical melodic solo that I enjoyed playing.
Was it weird to see this new full-length CD release by Ann and Nancy and not have you on it?
Not really. I think it's healthy. I've produced six albums in the last couple years that all have my name on them. I think it's good that everybody does things outside of Heart. You have a wider view working with different people and doing different kinds of projects. When we do work as Heart it just makes it richer and everyone can bring in more experience. For me now, being a producer is fun because of all the hours I spent at the studio making Heart records, I've been paying attention and learning how to do it. So it's kind of fun using my experience to my advantage.
Your new studio.. is this Rainee Daze?
This is Rainee Daze. I don't think we're going to call it that anymore though. We moved it into a new facility that is adjacent to the Northern Stars people so I think they want to use their name, but I'm not really sure. It's the same setup, me and my engineer Marino (Corriea). As my recording rig got bigger and bigger pretty soon we needed a place to put it, so I went into partnership with these guys over at Northern Stars. It's their building and it's my gear and we just share the time. It's great, a good place that I can work and do whatever I feel like doing. My barn fell down a couple winters ago and we took all the wood from my 100 year old barn and made the drum room out of it. So the drum room in the studio is all lined with old barn wood. Sounds really great.
Didn't you start out producing up at Mushroom Records?
Yeah I was on the production staff. In fact if you look on Dreamboat Annie I'm credited as Production Assistant because I sort of co-produced that with Mike Flicker. We were partners. We went to junior high and high school together and we were playing together since we were teenagers.
Is that how you met Ann and Nancy?
Yeah, actually I produced the very first Heart demo. The day they came in to cut their first demo, a year before the recording of Dreamboat Annie started, everybody was busy, I was there so I produced the very first Heart recordings.
Which songs were they?
"Sixty Years On" by Elton John and they had a medley of things. I think it was "Willie And The Hand Jive." Some kind of the Bo Diddley beat medley. It was just two songs. That was before they got signed and were still playing clubs.
I read somewhere that at first you were reluctant to join Heart and go out on the road?
Yeah, they were doing five sets a night, six nights a week in clubs. I was working just four or five sessions a month, playing tennis most of the time and really enjoying living up in Vancouver not really having to work too hard. I knew if I joined them, I'd be working every single day and leaving home and being on the road so I was reticent. I had a cushier job than they did. After a few months went by and things started happening for them a little bit, Mike Fisher said "c'mon it's your last chance, you know we're not going to stop until we are successful so you should come with us." I said, "you know, I guess you're right." So I joined and we were still playing clubs but I ended up only doing seven weeks of clubs. The band leaped and we started doing concerts right after that.
What was your first impression of Ann & Nancy when you first heard them?
When I first saw them live Nancy only played one or two songs. She was sort of a guest and had just started jamming with them. At first when they were playing in Vancouver it was just Ann. I thought she was phenomenal, I mean it was obvious she was amazing! They were doing a lot of Zeppelin stuff and she sounded just like Robert Plant. They did a little of their original stuff and some other stuff like Moody Blues. I mean, I could just tell from the first time I heard her sing that she was a great singer. One of the funny shows I did with them before I joined the band… They were opening for the BeeGees..
Yeah, in Victoria. We were already making the record. The record may have even been done and I had been working with them for awhile but wasn't in the band at the time. I was at the show and there was no spotlight operator for the opening band so I ended up running Ann's spotlight when they opened for the BeeGees (hahaha). That's weird. Never been a light man before or since.
On the early Heart albums there are a lot of strings - was that your idea to use strings?
Yeah, well probably. I wrote all those charts and conducted the sections. Mike Flicker liked using real strings too. He admired the records that Elton John made. Paul Buckmaster was his string arranger and he thought it was cool that they would use a real orchestra. I just came out of music college here in LA and had been studying classical music and writing for strings. I started putting my formal training to work and writing charts for the strings and we still do it. The last record, The Road Home, has great string arrangements.
It's fun to interact with musicians of that caliber but they come from such a different world. At first they are skeptical. They don't think we're going to be on their level of players. After they work with us awhile they realize that we play just as well as they do, but we play different kinds of music and work just as hard. When we prepared for The Road Home we worked 10 hours a day for almost a month to rehearse for that, so they were kind of surprised that we had a work ethic that was as serious as theirs.
The beginning of the show opened up with "The River" that was incredible!
Yeah, that's one of my favorites too. John Paul Jones, when he agreed to produce that record, his stipulation was that he got to do the string parts. So Ann called me up and she asked "do you mind if Jonesy does the string charts for this stuff?" (outside the ones that we already had like "Dreamboat Annie"). I said "no" not only would I like to hear what he would do but that just made it easier for me! I already had my hands full playing mandolin and 12-string and every instrument in the world on that stuff. I thought "great, let's hear what he does." That's where he really put his time, I think, is in writing the string charts.
So it was pretty easy to work with him?
It was great. At first we asked him if he wanted to play and he said, "well I really don't want to play but maybe I'll play one little mandolin part somewhere." Pretty soon, as he became more comfortable with us, he started playing more and more and before we knew it he was never in the truck producing - he was on the stage for most of the show! In fact, he never did really go in the truck very much. He played the show with us and conducted when he wasn't playing and then just mixed it after that. It was really great how involved he got and the more comfortable he became with our level of musicianship, the more he wanted to contribute. Pretty soon we were doing "What Is And What Should Never Be" which we didn't put on the record at his request. It was so great to be playing that song and you'd turn around and there he was, the guy playing the part. It was a lot of fun.
It was amazing for us to watch but must have been even more amazing to play along with him.
Yeah, some of the coolest stuff we did was in between at rehearsals. He and I went over Elizabethan magical stuff and early mandolin stuff. We played some Brazilian Salsa music with him on the piano. That was pretty great. He has a real wide palate so we were able to jam on all different kinds of stuff.
What is some of your favorite music that you've written for Heart?
I like the string charts. I'd have to think to name my favorite sting charts. But pretty much I'm proud of all that stuff. Really the main things that I compose for the band are my guitar solos. Most of our arranged and thought out original melodies that aren't the vocal melodies, I usually come up with. Some of my favorite solos are "Secret," "I Didn't Want To Need You," "Alone," "What About Love." There's a lot of them. The ones that sing. The ones that have melodies that you end up humming after you hear the song.
On the original unauthorized release of Magazine, you can hear a backwards guitar solo from "Magic Man" and the Elvis eulogy in the background on the title track. What's the story behind that?
In the studio we turned on the radio like the Beatles used to do just to see what we could get and throw something down on tape and we got Elvis's eulogy. There's backwards guitar on every Heart record except the 85 record, the one with Nevison, he didn't let me turn the tape around. We've done that a few times, flew in bits from our other records and flipped them around so you don't know what it is.
There is a box set that Epic is coming out with. Do you have any input on that? Will they include the three songs they left off the CD release of Greatest Hits/Live? You know, "Unchained Melody," "Hit Single," "Strange Euphoria…"
The comedy classics. Well, no we don't really know because we're not on Epic anymore. They're gonna do what they do and hopefully they will do it in good taste.
Do you have a favorite Heart album or song? Do you have a favorite song you like to play live? I guess that's three questions.
My favorite Heart album is Brigade. Just because we did it with Richie Zito and he's a guitar player. He played with Elton John for awhile. He gave me the most freedom guitar wise. I think it's one of our best records. My favorite song... there are two of them, "Mistral Wind" and "Wait For An Answer" on Bad Animals, the Lisa Dal Bello song. I thought we did a good job on that and Ann just kills it. That one still gives me chills when I listen to it. "Wait For An Answer" was a lot of fun to play live because it changed keys 5 times. I like playing "Alone" live now the way we do it with the classical guitar.
That is so cool. You completely changed it.
Yeah that's a lot of fun for me because I grew up playing that kind of guitar style and it was cool for me to have a place to use it. So I like playing that and it's real gentle and beautiful and I think it makes the song even more powerful.
I saw your guitar collection in Guitar Shop magazine? What's your favorite ax right now?
The ones I make. The first one I made, HML Number One, that's my favorite right now. I also have PRS Number One, Paul Reed Smith, his first one. My old Les Paul's are still my favorites.
Are you making guitars for anyone else?
I just made one for Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, Number Eight. Nine and Ten are being started. Number Nine is for Scott the guitar player in Indika, the band I produce. Number Ten is another one for me.
Did you make any for Ann or Nancy?
I haven't made one for Nancy yet - she should get one. She needs one (haha.) They're like Les Paul but lighter because I cut five chambers out of the body so they don't break your shoulders. Nancy has a nice Les Paul, she has a couple but they're heavy. The regular ones are kinda heavy.
You recently did a score for an underwater dive movie, Puget Sound Journey. How did that come about? Are you a diver?
I'm a skin diver. I've only dived with tanks a few times. I'd like to do it more but I do skin dive all over the world, I love doing that. So yeah, I go down there but not with tanks generally. I'm enthusiastic enough about it that I wanted to do the film plus they gave me complete freedom to do whatever I wanted. It's something my engineer Marino brought to me. They wanted some original music and he played them some little home demos and they really liked it. So I wrote a bunch of the original stuff for them.
Besides diving, what are your hobbies? What do you like to do in your spare time? Not that you have tons of it...
I play tennis, archery and hiking.
What do you think of the state of Heart right now? Do you see yourselves getting back together doing another album eventually? Do you want to do that?
Sure. I think our recorded work is our finest work. I know we are sort of known as a live band but our recordings I think have stood up real well. I'm proud of our recorded work so I always like to record. As far as playing live me and Ann are going out. It's a shame Nancy is not coming with us but anyway we're still going to keep playing and hopefully in the next little while we can do another Heart record. I think before that we'll do Ann's solo record. She's getting some really good songs together. I've been going over these songs and programming my keyboard for playing them live this summer. Some of them are REALLY good.
"God Give Me Strength!"
That's the one! It's a killer song. I just figured out how to play all those parts. It's got piano, synthesizers, violins and that flugal horn. I have to be able to do all of that at once. It's pretty tricky because I only have two hands. Makes it challenging but fun. That's a deep piece of music. Really well constructed. I'm sort of looking forward to first going in and doing Ann's solo record and I think after we do that, get that out of her system, probably by then Nancy will want to do another Heart record.
[editor's note: Howard Leese recently added a son to his family.]
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