The fusion, rock, and R&B bassist Tim Lefebvre is a master of both the electric and acoustic bass guitar. He has worked constantly with a variety of high-level artists, lending his skills to projects by the likes of Sting, the Sleepy Jackson, Jamie Cullum, Elvis Costello, and more.
One of the higher-profile projects he has been involved with is David Bowie’s final album Blackstar, and he is also known for working on a number of soundtracks for big and small screens alike. He counts 30 Rock, Analyze That, The Departed, and Ocean’s Twelve among his credits.
Lefebvre, originally of Foxbro, Massachusetts, has around 150 recordings under his belt, and also spent five years and three albums with the blues-rockers Tedeschi Trucks Band. His improvisational side is worked to the max on the free jazz band Whose Hat Is This?, and he continues to explore musical and bass boundaries with a recent single by New Age Doom and the sadly-departed Upsetter himself, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.
Lefebvre took the time to chat with us from his Los Angeles base about some key records in his storied career, how he came to play with the Thin White Duke, and the time when he unwisely agreed to join a session that was never going to work.
Must-have album: David Bowie – Blackstar (2016)
“The way this came about was that the musical director Maria Schneider said to David Bowie, ‘Check out Donny McCaslin’s band’, and gave him a CD, so he came to see us play at the 55 Bar in New York.
“With a track like Lazarus there was already a demo bassline to follow, and I took it to a few different places. Tis A Pity She Was A Whore also had David’s bassline on the demo, but Blackstar was more freewheeling, so I had licence to do more of what I wanted to do within the confines of the song.
“It’s three sections. The first I approached like Tony Levin’s playing on Peter Gabriel’s Don’t Give Up, with big slidey lines and sustain. The middle I approached like a Serge Gainsbourg or R&B line, because that’s what it reminded me of.
“I was trying to channel Herbie Flowers on Space Oddity and just go with it where we have the chord changes. Mark Guiliana was playing something super-simple on drums with just kick and snare, and I had a lot of fun in all the space to fill.
“For the outro, I was playing eighth notes off-kilter, kind of Sly Stone, Pino Palladino – I was ready for them to say they wanted to re-track it, but they kept it, and the whole thing was awesome.”
Worth contender: Fangtooth – Movie Club (2021)
“Vince Cueno, the guitarist and founder member, just said to me, ‘Do whatever you want,’ and I was trying to follow – he was nice enough to make charts for me, too. Then he’d specify, on his guitar, something that I could then freewheel with, so on Badlands I follow the guitar line quite a bit.
“The way Jessamyn Violet, the co-founder, plays the drums, is really raw and, in a good way, kinda loosey-goosey. It’s not restricted to a grid, and it’s really fun to go around the beat and play punky, like I’m in a nightclub and not giving a shit. It really works great. They have a cinematic, punk vibe that you just tune into and I played in drop D, stuck on some fuzz pedals and just went for it.
“Vinny was careful to sketch out what he needed and what he didn’t like, so I’d always have eight or 16 bars to just go crazy under the guitar solo, or in a psychedelic section.
“I did a lot of recording at home over the pandemic. My go-to is a Noble DI, and I go through my Neve 3104 mic pre for things that need some sauce. I also made a bunch
of bass plugins for Native Instruments, and for Ampeg SVT, and so sometimes I cheat and use my own presets on my Guitar Rig 6.”
Cool Grooves: Scary Goldings – Feel (2021)
“This is the organist Larry Goldings getting together with the Scary Pockets guys, and me on bass. Ryan Lerman and Jack Conti are the bosses, then there’s a rolling set of sidemen. Lemar Carter was on drums. We also had Roland Gajate-Garcia on percussion, Josh Smith on guitar, Louis Cole on drums, and various singers. It was mostly improvised, and some of it is kind of groovy. It has funk elements and also happy-sounding punk.
“We just started jamming, establishing a riff and taking it places, so I’d start playing something, then someone else would come up with a B section or some other chord changes – it was a real collective effort. I used my ’68 P-Bass on one track, and the rest of the time it’s either the hollowbody, or the DeArmond Starfire, or the Nordstrand Acinonyx Cat, which is a really good bass, especially at its price point. Hollowbodies are very prevalent right now in indie-rock, and I like finding interesting-sounding basses. It can change the vibe of the tune, the sound of the bass.
“These days I’m 50-50 about using a pick – I’m not afraid of it. You know, a lot of those old B-movie soundtracks had converted guitar players on bass. I use a Dunlop .60 – a lighter pick. It really helps with string jumps and flying around the neck.”
Wild Card: Rachel Sermanni – Swallow Me (2021)
“I’ve been trying to play more singer-songwriter, super-tranquil, mellow stuff. Fin Greenall – or Fink – was producing Rachel, who is a Scottish songwriter, and he got me playing my upright on this. Any time I pick up the upright, people don’t expect it!
“I’m on Brighton House with this arpeggio stuff going on. It’s funny – I try and make my bass sound darker and bigger because it happens to be pretty thin-sounding. I have to trick stuff, whenever it’s cool – and in this genre it’s pretty important to have a dark-sounding upright. So don’t chord-lead too much, don’t keep pushing, don’t do too much activity from one part to another.
“You can have a frill here and there, but it’s really just a matter of making big, beautiful sounds and letting the song breathe, with Fin on guitars and whatever else, Ruben Hein the pianist, Tomer Blum doing lots of stuff, plus Tobias Humble or Nicky Hustinx on drums.
“People think I’m the ‘fusion guy’ and okay, I get it, but some of my very favorite music is songwriter-based. Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell – it’s unbelievable how great that stuff is. I’m producing some songwriters too, and for me it’s a natural fit, and certainly a natural progression.”
Disaster sessions: Unnamed R&B project
“I was living in New York and a bunch of my friends were riding with this R&B group. At the time I was playing with Wayne Krantz, and not really exposing myself to rhythm and blues. I went into the session and I just didn’t know how to do what they wanted. They were like, ‘Just do this, and that,’ assuming that I knew my stuff. But I didn’t, because I was still really young.
“As a bassist, I’d been highly recommended, but when I had to play on a tune, I couldn’t handle it. Once you lose your confidence and start fucking up it’s like, ‘Oh boy,’ and it’s an avalanche. I don’t think I even finished the tune.
“In the pre-internet days, you couldn’t just get emailed a tune in advance. I made sure from then on, that if someone called on me for a session I would make sure it was something I knew how to do. It’s such a good lesson.
“Later, I came back to that project, this time on upright bass, and I was confident, improvising, plucking around – and they loved that. When Bowie came to see that gig, it was an absolute fucking disaster. The amp kept cutting out, the power fell out the wall – and there was Bowie with Toni Visconti and Maria Schneider. What a disaster – or so I thought!”