Lucas Lee, progressive rocker: Something Else! Interview

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Two albums in, Canadian-reared, California-based Lucas Lee has shown he can do it all. The progressive rocker played guitars, violins, keyboards and bass on both of his studio albums so far, while writing, arranging and producing as well. Only 2013’s Normalcy Bias, his most recent project, features any outside help at all: Pat Mastelotto, of King Crimson, Stick Men and Mr. Mister fame, sit on on drums.

Together with 2011’s Clear in Andrew’s Mind, they paint a portrait of an artist in ascension — with little, or no, outside assistance required. Preston Frazier caught up with Lucas Lee to talk about Normalcy Bias, his plans for a follow up, his musical beginnings and the albums that have inspired him most in this exclusive Something Else! Sitdown …

PRESTON FRAZIER: Talk a little about the writing process for Normalcy Bias. Did you write on guitar? Sequencer?
LUCAS LEE: Normalcy Bias was mostly written on the guitar. The drums were demoed and roughly programmed in as a general guide until real drums were played. Pat Mastelotto has his own home studio setup near Austin, Texas, where he engineers many of his own records, too. No word needed to be said and he just came up with whatever parts he felt were needed for the song, and they always sounded to be suitable parts. That’s the best thing I love when interacting with other musicians — whether it’s in this situation or during a jam session: that no words needed to be said, and we just know what’s needed based on the music alone. Pat also has all these records under his belt over his career, so that experience did make my job a lot easier. Everyone knows about his drumming, but he’s also an excellent engineer, too. For the piano parts, I came up with them when I was noodling around during my family visits in Vancouver and Edmonton, Canada.

PRESTON FRAZIER: What can you tell us about the new album?
LUCAS LEE: The new album’s going to be called Business Brunch Specials: Uranium Omelet (With GMO-Free Brown Sauce). Odd title, I know! The theme is about my distaste of the corporate environment/personalities I have gained over the last couple of years. The title is just a comical way of me asking myself, “When these interesting characters walk into a restaurant, what kind of odd, crazy health-risking food would they most gravitate towards?” As the saying goes, “You are what you eat!”

Musically, many of the tunes on the record are a bit more on the experimental side and does have a number of quirky moments. On the last record, I had purposefully held back on my guitar playing, but I went for it more on this one. The bass and keys are more elaborate too. However, this is still a guitar-based instrumental progressive rock record.

Even though I had Pat Mastelotto play on my last one, and not my upcoming one, there’s actually a bit more King Crimson influence on this time around. The songs may not sound like King Crimson, or be as complex, but there are influences in terms of arrangement, for sure. I have Tobias Ralph [from the Adrian Belew Power Trio and The Crimson ProjeKCt] play drums for me this time. When creating these compositions, I placed a bit more effort in terms allowing more room for interesting drum parts. You would get to hear a lot more of that in the new record. The release date will probably be some time in August 2015. There is one new song where I re-used the cymbal samples — cymbals played with a bow — that Pat played on my last record. So, I could jokingly claim that he’s “featured” on that track, even though he never played on it.

This time, there are a lot more parts that I came up with my keyboard, which I only acquired after the last album. Harmonically, I am able to come up with parts faster, since that’s my first instrument. Notes on the piano are unique, unlike the guitar, which makes things easier for me, if I wanted a specific cluster of notes. There are a number of bass lines that I came up with the keyboard first and figure out the bass fingering afterwards. Most of the guitar parts I have were written on the guitar though. Sound-wise, I’ve also switched out/upgraded majority of my guitar pedals for this project. I feel that my mixes sound better than all of my previous work — better mics, monitoring and plugin usage — and Ronan Chris Murphy also helped me with some of his magic during mastering. He’s really incredible.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Tell us about your musical background.
LUCAS LEE: I was born in Hong Kong and started taking classical piano lessons at around 4 or 5, but for the most part, I grew up in Vancouver, Canada. I played alto sax in the school band briefly for about two years, and started taking private classical violin lessons in middle school. I remember throughout grade 7, when I was actually actively playing all three instruments. When I switched schools the following year, I decided to stop playing the sax. There was an orchestra, although we were never really playing anything particularly interesting or half-challenging, but I was getting all of my development from private lessons outside of school. The guitar was something I didn’t pick up until much later — after I finished my bachelors, and that was self-taught.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Your projects are self produced and recorded, how did you become involved in your behind-the-boards career?
LUCAS LEE: While I self produce, record and mix all my projects, I actually do not do any of that as a career. I have not worked on other people’s records — although I am very much open to it, given the right opportunity. I work as an electrical engineer as my day job. Producing, recording and mixing all came as a necessity for me to be able release my own records. There are certainly financial reasons for that, but it also allows a lot of schedule and creative flexibility. Plus, I have caught the recording bug over the years and it became a new area that I just like to geek out on. There is also something very rewarding about being able to put together and release a record DIY, even if it could feel rather exhausting and time consuming at times.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Who are your musical influences? Do you incorporate any elements from them in your music?
LUCAS LEE: I certainly had a strong Pink Floyd/Radiohead phase, when I was first living in Montreal. I met a friend there — a great guitar player — who later introduced me to music by Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Dream Theater. I vividly remember the moment he played Dream Theater’s Awake album in his car and that was it for me: mind blown and never to return back to what it used to be. For whatever reason, I had never been exposed much to this combination of virtuosity and complex compositions in the rock genre before.

Once I moved to California, my friend Ronan told me to check out Mike Keneally’s music. While I must admit that I’m still a relatively new fan as compared to many of the die-hards, and not quite as knowledgeable of his complete solo catalog, I have had the privilege of seeing him live on many occasions. Whether it’s for his own material or playing as a side-man on other projects such as Joe Satriani’s, listening to the way he harmonizes things and the parts he comes up with on guitar or keys has been a huge, huge influence on me. Sometimes, he would slip in that one perfect note that would be the most unique and the most perfect part that nobody else in the world would come up with instinctively. The truth is that you can really tell that Mike Keneally makes a conscious effort not to repeat himself in his records, so that itself makes it impossible to be like him, because he’s got way too much depth and levels.

Funny that you ask this because I have a song on my upcoming album called “Be Like Mike (and Falling Short).” When I saw him perform live in San Diego several years ago, watching the way he improvised and the spontaneous musical ideas he would come up really stuck with me. In my own work, I felt that I’ve lost a lot of that spirit over the years, which can very well happen while working alone. I made a conscious effort to bring back some spontaneous elements in my arrangements, in hopes to make things sound a bit more organic. The song I just mentioned is based on an improvisational piano piece, oddly played in a way that I don’t typically play. So, I decided to name the song that. As for music I’ve been listening to most lately, it has mainly been a lot of Rush, King Crimson and The Aristocrats.

PRESTON FRAZIER: What other projects are you working on as artist, engineer or producer?
LUCAS LEE: I have only been working alone. All of my focus over the last several months has been on this upcoming record.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Give us five albums which have been a major influence on you.
LUCAS LEE: It’s very difficult to name five — or even 20 — since I enjoy so many records. The first five that pop up as of this instant would be Rush’s Moving Pictures; Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon; Steve Vai’s Real Illusions: Reflections; the Aristocrats’ Culture Clash and Radiohead’s OK Computer.

But then I would be leaving out Joe Satriani’s Extremist, Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Tarkus, King Crimson’s Discipline and The Power to Believe, Rush’s Hemispheres and Farewell to Kings, Steve Vai’s Passion and Warfare and Firegarden, Pink Floyd’s Obscured by Clouds, Animals, Wish You Were Here and Pulse, Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac, both Liquid Tension Experiment albums and Dream Theater’s Images and Words, Awake and Live at Budokan. I like Rage Against the Machine too, as much as I enjoy Alice in Chains, Audioslave (the self-titled first album), Massive Attack and Unkle. This is a very difficult list and could change completely if I came back to it.

As for additional projects, I recently started a blog to talk about anything that I have come across in my own productions at blog.lucasleemusic.com. It could be something on the recording/engineering side, or it could be things on the compositional/arrangement side. The hope is to be able to share ideas with others in the same boat as myself that may find the same things interesting or helpful. There are probably always going to be technical things in the posts, but I think our collective goal is to always get the technical stuff out of the way — or become second nature — so we could focus more on the music. I think us DIYs often need to wear multiple hats, so any way time that could be used efficiently or saved is beneficial. Plus, this is the kind of stuff I just like to geek out and ramble on, so I need that kind of outlet, like therapy.

Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier is a bass-playing lawyer living in Atlanta. His first Steely Dan exposure was with an eight-track cassette of 'Pretzel Logic.' He can be reached at slangofages@icloud.com; follow him on Twitter: @slangofages. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Preston Frazier
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