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Timothy B. Schmit: “I didn’t peak in my 20s or 30s, like a lot of songwriters do. I’m starting to get it now, which keeps me feeling hopeful“

Timothy B Schmit
(Image credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Back in 2016, when we met Timothy B. Schmit of the Eagles, he was at a bittersweet crossroads. Eagles founder member Glenn Frey had passed away not long before our interview, and the future of the Eagles was in question. 

But following the completion of a fine new solo album, Leap Of Faith, the Californian bassist was poised to begin a new chapter in his eventful life. He gave Neville Marten the lowdown on his years as bassist with country-rock’s highest-flying band, and how his early love of US folk act the Kingston Trio saw him sing for Steely Dan and moonlight with Crosby, Stills and Nash.  

Glenn Frey’s death was a terrible shock. Does his passing mean the continuation of the Eagles on hold – or is is it over? 

“My answer is... I have no idea. I just don’t know… Sorry.“  

You seemed almost ‘custom-made’ to fit in with the Eagles. I liken it to Ronnie Wood and the Stones.  

“Yes, I think you’re right. I’ve often said that it was a great fit, all around. And you are the second person that’s compared that move to Ronnie’s.“

Really? 

“Only two. I thought about it a long time ago…”  

The Eagles didn’t say, for instance, ‘This is how the song goes, and we want you to play these notes.’ It wasn’t like that. It all came naturally

You’ve said that Glenn phoned you to offer you the job. Did you have any idea that might happen? 

“I did. The reason was because of my neighbour across the street from me in the Hollywood Hills. It was JD Souther. And he’s literally across the street, you know? Right there. I could see his house from mine, and we used to hang out a lot. One time I was over there, and he said, ‘I’m not supposed to tell you this, you’ve got to keep it quiet. 

“But I think you’re going to get a call, that Randy [Meisner] is quitting, and I’m pretty sure you’re going to get the call.’ So I was like, going, ‘Okay, that would be nice. How do I not be excited about this?’ I can’t remember how much time passed, it wasn’t that long – maybe a few days, maybe a week or two. And I did get the call, I got the call from Glenn.“

What did he say and how long did it take you to respond? 

“I can’t remember exactly how he couched it. But it was, ‘Randy’s quitting, and we’re wondering if you’re interested?’ Something like that. You know, I was pretty much ready to just stop everything, and start, and I let him know that. But as it turns out, they wanted… I had to keep a lid on it. 

“And we had already had… Poco already had another tour planned. I had to go out on this tour with them, but not tell them. And then we came back, and we were going to start our next whatever it was. Maybe we were going to tour. And I called up Irving [Azoff, manager of the Eagles], and I said, ‘I’ve got to tell these guys. I can’t pretend like I’m going to do this, when I’m not.’ So I was allowed to tell them, then.“

I suppose the members of Poco [the band Timothy was in at the time] would have been both pleased and mortified... 

“The important thing to me was not to have management do it [tell them]. That happened to me once before. Where somebody left the group and they didn’t talk to me personally, I didn’t like that. I thought it was odd, actually. So I told management that I was going to go tell them, and I went to everybody’s house and told them.“

The real master of One of These Nights was Glenn, he was really good at it. One of his nicknames was The Lone Arranger!

When you joined the Eagles, did you have a great deal of input in the writing process? Or did they want you to play specific parts? 

“No, they never said that… Because when we started the record, we had no songs. That seems strange, doesn’t it? It kind of was. But we worked them out, and we worked them out together. 

“And they didn’t say, for instance, ‘This is how the song goes, and we want you to play these notes.’ It wasn’t like that. It all came naturally. Comments and suggestions, maybe: ‘Leave this out, don’t do that, don’t do this.’ But basically, I didn’t feel that constricted.“

Did you have to do much trying to get songs in the band? 

“I presented them with songs a lot. Was that a struggle? Not really. I mean, I didn’t have as many songs as them on records. But I was fortunate. I chose to look at it that way. And songs that I thought that were really, really good, that they probably should have done... I just put in my back pocket and did them myself. Everybody wants to shine but they were really savvy, as far as really good stuff goes. And the bar was high, so it was fine.“ 

I remember hearing One of These Nights and thinking it was a masterpiece – little parts put together in an amazing way. 

“The real master of that was Glenn, he was really good at it. One of his nicknames was The Lone Arranger!“

We became really enamoured with the Kingston Trio... And we tried to find striped shirts, because that’s what they wore a lot

Did you start off as a guitarist or as a bass player? 

“Well, at the very beginning, I was just strumming ukuleles and banjos, and so on. One of my best friend’s older brothers was into singing, learning simple folk songs, and stuff. So those were my first instruments. Then, we started doing this during the 60s folk thing. 

“And we became really enamoured with the Kingston Trio, as well as other groups from that era. We were 13, 14 years old, so we got ourselves matching button-down shirts like the Kingston Trio wore. And we tried to find striped shirts, because that’s what they wore a lot. By the way, a footnote, if you look at early Beach Boys, they’re wearing striped shirts.“

Exactly, I was just going to say it… 

“That’s Al Jardine’s influence – he was a Kingston Trio fan. I took the role of Nick Reynolds, who played a tenor guitar. But I couldn’t afford a Martin tenor guitar. So I scrimped and saved for months – maybe a year – to buy it. It was a Harmony tenor guitar, out of a catalog, for $52.“

Is that trio where you started to hone your harmony skills? 

“Yes. The two other guys in our trio were working with somebody else who wasn’t that good. And I came over once, and I joined in – and this is what they told me happened, because I don’t remember it that much – but I started singing a harmony, very easily. The other guy couldn’t do that, and they never went back to him.“

I’m really proud that I got to sing with Steely Dan. that was the first time I heard myself on the radio – it was great

You have such an individual voice and you’ve done thousands of sessions. I heard you did three Steely Dan albums? 

“Yes. I’m really proud that I got to sing with those guys. The first song I did, that they tried me out on, was Ricky Don’t Lose That Number. Back then, radio was a little less sophisticated, so you listened to the Top 40 a lot. And that was the first time I heard myself on the radio – it was great.“ 

What other things have stood out in your session-singing life? 

“There was a period of time when Crosby, Stills and Nash were making a new album and David was, shall we say, indisposed. So they needed a third singer, and they were doing it on Oahu, Hawaii, at a studio. They asked me if I would go there, and pretty much do most of the album with them, as their third voice. That was great. 

“They flew me and my wife, my girlfriend at the time, there, and I just went and sang with those guys every day. It was great. They couldn’t tell the record company that David wasn’t on most of that stuff. They had to keep that secret. So I’m credited as Additional Voice or Backgrounds or something.“

When you recorded vocals with them, did they do it round a mic or was it layered? 

“We sang: Stephen and Graham and I sang together. And I think, at times around the same mic, but I honestly don’t remember. Things are sometimes a little fuzzy, I’m not really sure why .“ 

On Leap Of Faith, do you play all the acoustic guitar? 

“I play acoustic guitar on every song. I took it out on one song – I just did it as a guide, on the song, of what I should do. After it became a bigger track, I took it out, because there wasn’t any place for it. Basically, the whole album is layered. I put acoustic guitar down, get a good lead vocal, edit it down to a good lead vocal, and then add everything else.“

The Island is beautiful. The harmonies are stunning, and the chords are lovely. Tell us about the track. 

“My wife and I have a place on the island of Kaua’i, so we visit there as much as we can. And we have a lot of friends there. There’s three main rooms in my studio, which is really a converted guesthouse. There’s the control room, and an office behind it. No glass window between it, but everything’s wired up – every room’s wired up. 

“And I was sitting on the couch in the office part, and I have a 1940s Gibson baritone ukulele, which I bought on eBay. It was sitting there, so I picked it up and started strumming. I just started singing some words, and then wrote them down. I was strumming the ukulele with my feet up on the couch. 

“It was like I had an imaginary – what I say in the song – umbrella drink, you know? And I said, ‘I’m just going to write, I’m not going to try and be clever with this. I’m going to just sing a song about the island.’ And I wrote that fairly quickly, and I knew how I wanted to record it. I could hear it. At first it reminded me of… What’s the a capella Beatles song?“

Because? 

“Yes, it reminded me of that. And it was obviously Beach Boys. So when it was time to record it, I thought that right then and there, I knew I had to try and get a Beach Boy on it, you know? Anyway, I was talking to Geoff, the guy who’s assisting me here today. 

“He’s worked with the Beach Boys for 20 years, and I said, ‘I need some more singers, besides Al Jardine.’ And, in fact, his two boys are great singers, and I knew one of them. So I got them all set up, because they live out of the state, and Al lives up north. I got it all arranged, and Al calls me up, and says, ‘I can’t make it, I’m sick. I don’t feel well.’ And I thought, ‘I’m not going to change everything up, I’m just going to have the boys.’ 

“The boys, they’re like in their 30s and 40s. And I think they thought they were just going to come and do some oohs and aahs, and I said, ‘No, we’re going to hunker down here for as long as it takes, and we’re going to sing everything’. It took two days and two nights, and they were hard workers, and I wanted everything as precise as possible. And that’s how it came out. 

“Also, there was a time I could have done those parts myself, but I didn’t want that quality, I want some different characters in there. And the fact is, I can’t hit those notes anymore. Which is painful, in some ways, but I have to embrace it.“

Would you join another major band? Suppose Elton, Clapton, Springsteen, or even Toto approached you, what would you say? 

“Well, that’s so hypothetical! It would depend… When the Eagles had broken up, for almost 14 years, I was doing a lot of sessions. I didn’t have that six years of hits before I was in the band for a while. I had to work, put it that way. And I had a new family and stuff. So I was doing a lot of work. And I realized that Bill Wyman had quit the Rolling Stones. 

My wife was in the kitchen, when I got the call. I wasn’t supposed to tell anybody. But of course I said to her, ‘The Rolling Stones called me back!’

“Then I heard they were searching for a bass player. And I thought, ‘What the heck.’ I wrote them a letter, and found out through my management the right people to get it to. Anyway, they called me back – they were holding auditions in New York, for that spot. My wife was in the kitchen, when I got the call. I wasn’t supposed to tell anybody. But of course I said to her, ‘The Rolling Stones called me back!’

“You know, I saw the Rolling Stones play a half-house in Sacramento in the early 60s. And then of course they got huge. I decided to try to get the gig. I went to New York, and they were auditioning. They asked me what kind of amplifiers I wanted, but you had to bring your own bass.

“I don’t know how many people were going for it – it could have been 10 or 20 people. When I got off the plane, into baggage reclaim, I saw Stu Cook from Creedence Clearwater. We looked at each other and laughed. So we had dinner that night, kind of going like, ‘Hey, this is cool.’ You know?“

How did it go?

“So I went in, and when it was my turn, I spent well over an hour playing Rolling Stones songs with them. And it was so great… It was me, a sound guy and the Rolling Stones. And it was just so thrilling. And I didn’t do bad – I didn’t go away going, like, ‘Oh man, I blew it.’ 

“I went like, ‘You know what, I feel good about this.’ But I didn’t expect to get it and in fact, to keep my mind off it, I booked some writing time with some friends in Nashville instead of going right home. So I could keep busy and not obsess.“

Every artist is going to say this about their newest project, but I think this is some of my best stuff

“But, in the event, I didn’t get it. Later on they played the Rose Bowl, and I wanted to go see who they got. And it was Darryl Jones. And when I saw the posters, I realized, this is how it relates – Darryl Jones is not one of the Rolling Stones, he’s the hired bass player. So would I do that? Well, I would have to see what they were talking about, and who it was. It wouldn’t be just anybody. If it was Elton John, for example, I wouldn’t fill that bill.“

Given the title of your recent album, one might reasonably think that it’s a statement of intent connected to the Eagles possibly finishing, and a whole new road now opening up for you? 

“No, they’re not connected. I was searching for the right title, and I found it in a lyric. I think every time I put out a record, or any time you go on stage, you’re doing that. You’re saying, ‘Here it is,’ you know? I hope this is good. Every artist is going to say this about their newest project, but I think this is some of my best stuff. 

“It’s all completely from me, it’s almost like a diary. There’s some personal stuff in there, that if you were to ask me what it’s about, I’d probably say, ‘I’d rather not say.’ But I think the feeling’s there, of all that stuff. And I hope people can get into it.“

What lies ahead for you? 

“I don’t have anything else to say. It’s my latest stuff, and I feel like I’m getting better at what I do. Which is really great, because I’m older now, I didn’t peak in my 20s or 30s, like a lot of songwriters do. I’m starting to get it now, which keeps me really alive and feeling hopeful for the rest of my life.“

  • Timothy B. Schmit's new solo album, Leap of Faith, is out now via CD Baby.