Lucas Lee Dives Deeper Into ‘Lowered Expectations’: ‘One Way of Maintaining Sanity’

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Lucas Lee, a Canadian-born, California-based multi-instrumentalist, joins Preston Frazier for another deep dive into his latest prog-fusion album. As with his earlier projects, Lowered Expectations features another world-class drummer – this time Marco Minnemann. Lee talks about working with him, as well as his personal creative arc, stand-out album tracks and the equipment he uses to create it all …

PRESTON FRAZIER: Lowered Expectations, your self-produced new release, is an interesting follow-up to 2017’s Acceptance of Gravitational Collapsing Manifestations. It seems to me to be a more positive album. Conceptually, how does the album differ from its predecessor?

LUCAS LEE: The mood of the previous album was certainly dark, but the idea behind Lowered Expectations is that with all the unthinkable things that are happening around us, while our minds may initially try justify them, eventually we would all adapt and adjust mentally, for better or worse, as some sort of coping mechanism. One way would be setting lowered expectations of what’s to come next, and sometimes it would just be laughing things off. I think maybe that’s one way of maintaining sanity.

There’s also another part to it. While going through the process of making this record, I had reoccurring doubts as to whether my music would ever be getting the attention I’m hoping for. There were often moments of discouragement, but I kept on telling myself to just have lower expectations and stay focused on the music. At the same time, I always believed that the lower expectations there are, the more creative freedom it entails, so I tried to stick to that thought. When putting together this album and playing back the music, there would always be sections that brought me grins and excitements, which really helped squash those momentary doubts.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Did any of the songs carry over from prior projects?

LUCAS LEE: I started writing all the songs at the beginning of the year and none of them were from prior projects. For all my projects, the songs that I put together all tend to end up being on the record. When developing the songs, there were times where I had rewritten entire sections, but they are usually written with the target to be part of the record.

PRESTON FRAZIER: You are working again with Marco Minnemann. Did you have any specific request of Marco in terms of his style for this album?

LUCAS LEE: When I delivered files to Marco, it contained my basic drum programming with all the time signature and tempo changes already set up in the sessions. This is in case he ever needed to refer to them, but he’s so prolific at this that they probably weren’t even necessary. I told him that certain sections are more open for drum solos, but he pretty much had complete freedom of what to play. Instinctively he knew when to be busier and when to pull back a little for the other instruments. The cool thing about having drummers at his level is not only the indestructible ability to play anything with ridiculous technical ability, but also there are years of studio drumming experience and developed taste all that come along. There was never any ego involved and we just had the common goal to serve the songs – and maybe just as importantly, having plenty of fun while doing it.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Tell us more about a few of the songs, beginning with “Please Don’t Squat on the Toilet Seat.”

LUCAS LEE: This song is one of the sillier songs of the album, which I wrote about various signs I’ve been encountering posted at various bathrooms, urging visitors to not squat on the toilet seat. I felt that it’s one of the things that people generally wouldn’t do and shouldn’t be something that ever needs to be communicated. I guess I was wrong, given all the signs I have come across. It fits right in the Lowered Expectations theme. The highlight of the song for me is the middle solo section in 9/8 – organ, followed by guitars, and drums, as one can see in one of my promotional videos. When I asked Marco about doing a video, that was actually the song and section that he picked. When writing that section, I remember it being a bit tricky to figure out what to play amongst the different solos, but I’m very happy with what I ended up with in the note choices, particularly in the guitar solo. The twisted-reggae section that came immediately after surprisingly ended up being a fitting outro for the promotional video. It wasn’t something that I had planned for and just ended up being a happy accident.

PRESTON FRAZIER: “Scripted Empathy/Uninvited Guests?”

LUCAS LEE: This one is about exclusion and division. It’s also about bullying and betrayal that happens in school, workplace and society in general. It happens in the world amongst different groups and races. There are people that pretend to care and boast in public about the great things that he or she is doing for the common good, but in reality, it’s all for show and sometimes filled with lies. It’s somewhat of a darker thematic tangent of the second track “A Jester’s Gesture.” The people perceive themselves as better over others and the only way for to reassure themselves is by inflating his or her own ego. They see perception of them by others as being the most important. You could be working on the same side as them, striving for same common goals for years, making countless amount of sacrifices along the way, but in order to further one’s own selfish agenda, everything changes in a blink of an eye and you’re shoved aside. A lot of the inspiration comes from current events, with most of the fuel coming from an accumulation of my own past personal negative workplace experiences. For this record, I wanted to put some emphasis and sections that allowed featured more soloing, but this is one song that didn’t really have that.

PRESTON FRAZIER: “Marginalized?”

LUCAS LEE: I wrote this song about the never ending obsession with the best. We see this all the time in professional sports, arts, politics, classrooms and workplaces. In pro sports, there would be endless debates on who is the greatest of all time and crowning whichever current player the sports media is so desperately trying to push and promote. In politics, it would be the one holding the highest position. In school, it would be the teacher’s perception of his or her class, or on a particular student. At the workplace, it would be for a certain employee of the year or month. The obsession makes it seem as if nothing and nobody else but the best matters, as we tend to easily forget and ignore all others that may be just as important. The ones ignored and pushed aside, in many cases, should have been the ones celebrated in the first place. I strongly feel that just because someone speaks the loudest or looks a certain way doesn’t mean he or she should grab the most attention. We are all missing out on diamonds if we continue to discard them in the rough, rather than recognizing their true value and what they offer.

After the initial synth pad-based introduction, I was experimenting with the main riff, which consisted of a 12-note pattern comprising of all notes of the chromatic scale. It was split up to be made a little more digestible for the listener. I also added a stack-fourths riff to interact with the 12-note motif to give it the dissonance vibe. It was quite a fun experiment. The groove in the middle solo section came as a happy accident. Initially I was going for a Tony Levin-esque dotted eighth swing and played the bass part via MIDI as a means of getting the compositional idea into the computer, but when I quantized it to make the notation more legible, no matter how many times I tried to re-play in time, it ended up with the same odd groove that didn’t resemble anything like the original idea, but also something that I would never have thought of. With a couple of small tweaks, it ended up being the 9/8 groove that you hear on the record. I ended up really liking that groove. It was also originally meant to be a tapping bass / chapman-stick line played with lots of attack, but I ended up just playing the part with a pick on the bass. With the sound of added rhythm guitars playing in unison at the beginning of that section, I couldn’t help but visualize gigantic elephants dancing to it.

PRESTON FRAZIER: As a writer and producer how has your music developed since 2011’s Clear in Andrew’s Mind?

LUCAS LEE: I think generally, my music is getting darker as time progressed but I’m also becoming more comfortable translating my emotions into music. When I was working on my first record Clear in Andrew’s Mind, I was just starting out on writing and the recording side of things and hadn’t quite developed some of the technical engineering knowledge, or had developed any specific taste in sonics. I had the foundation through years of playing music, but song writing is an entirely different art form and way of thinking. My goal at the time was to just see whether or not I would be able to write and release my own work. A lot of that has changed since, which allowed me to shift my primary focus back onto the music, which really is what matters most. I’ve since also made some equipment upgrades, mostly in instrument-related gear but also some studio gear. The way instruments sound deeply inform performances and writing, so the changes in style could have very much been attributed to that.

It’s becoming a bit easier to draw out my creative energy. I think I’ve also since made some improvements in song writing/ arrangement and developed further as a guitar player. These are things that never end and something that I work on continuously. But I’ve also gotten much better/efficient at programming drums – at least good enough to convey what I’m going for to a real drummer, particularly if there were some angular groove/feel that I was going for. That helps. Also, improvements as an arranger helped make my life a lot easier as a mixer. Overall, there’s a bit more confidence and clarity in knowing what my end goals are. As a producer, I’m a lot more organized and know how to solve specific problems quicker whenever they pop up. I would also spend less time on tweaking things that don’t really matter. When the creative juices aren’t there, I would know when to jump onto other technical work before coming back to the creative process. The music can get a bit tricky at times and with my projects being almost completely DIY, every little bit of efficiency in the process helps. I’m also not exaggerating when I say handling sleep, diet and exercising all have some sort of impact too.

PRESTON FRAZIER: What recording equipment was used on the album?

LUCAS LEE: My recording gear has, for the most part, remained the same since my last album, with almost all instruments tracked through the A-Designs Pacifica Preamp (which is basically a Quad-Eight clone). How I approached tracking differently this time was running audio through as many pieces of outboard gear first before hitting the converters into the computer – even if my collection is very limited. Even with 0db reduction in the compressors or 0db gain in the EQ, the idea was to capture as much of the analog coloration by going through as many circuits (many of which are transformers) as possible. This idea’s not my own and is a method that I’ve heard others of doing more as of late, to emulate the amount of circuitry that audio used to go through during the days of pure analog recording. After reading Ronan Chris Murphy’s article in Mix Magazine regarding his recording process for GWAR’s Blood of Gods project where he did something similar, I decided to give that a try also. With the little bit of extra harmonic distortion it adds, stacked across multiple tracks having the same, I found that the mixes do in fact come together a bit easier. It’s something that I’ll be looking forward into doing a lot more of in my projects from now on.

Compared to the last release, where I was going for a wall of sound with less separation, the guitars this time are a bit more present and perhaps have a little bit more definition to it. For this reason, most of the rhythm guitar parts on the left and right channels are single tracked on each side, rather than stacked with too many layers. Each guitar track was single-mic’ed with a Shure SM57. Acoustic guitars were mic’ed using the Shure KSM32. Aside from that, it’s the Empirical Labs Distressor and JLM Audio LA500A (an Opto compressor) doing most of the drum compression processing. I didn’t feel the need this time to do parallel compression on the elements as I typically would have done in the last 2 records. Drum overheads were processed using the A-Designs EMPEQ, which is a Pultec-styled equalizer. In general, I was a little bit more specific with the drum sounds I was going for and was a bit bolder in the decision making during mixing.

Equalization in-the-box was nothing fancy. It was solely depended on the stock EQ (ReaEQ) that came with Reaper, my current DAW of choice. Bass was recorded by having the clean signal going through the A-Designs REDDI and the dirt signal going through the Xotic Bass BB Preamp pedal into a SansAmp. I’ve added a hint of stereo chorusing on the overall blended bass to give it a bit of movement and spread (aka, the Andy Wallace trick). That was just using one of the stock stereo
chorus that came with the Cockos Reaper DAW. Piano was initially recorded in Vancouver, Canada, through my portable RME Fireface. The preamps were super clean. When I returned back to the studio, I ended up reamping through the A-Designs REDDI into the Pacifica for some warmth and coloration. During mastering, Ronan added Manley Vari-Mu on the 2-bus for its warmth sonic footprint.

PRESTON FRAZIER: What were you main guitars, basses and keyboards?

LUCAS LEE: My main guitar is my Gibson Les Paul Standard and is the guitar that I use on majority of the tracks. I also have an American Stratocaster, a Taylor Acoustic and a Simon & Patrick Acoustic. If I’m going for a more sparkly tone with harmonics, I would go for the Taylor, but if I’m going for a more warm and natural sound, I would go with the Simon
& Patrick. What I started using in this record was a Diezel VH4 pedal, modeled after their well known VH4 amplifier. At NAMM 2018, Peter Stapfer was patiently giving anyone attending their booth, including myself, all the time he could for us to discuss and demo the gear at the show floor. I have to say that, not all vendors at NAMM are this generous with their time and I have certainly have met some much less welcoming vendors (to put it nicely) at other booths the show. Peter was by far the friendliest who just so happens to be behind a company that makes such incredible gear. It was my first time playing through any Diezel gear and I was blown away when I heard the density and articulation of the sounds. I’m not an impulse-purchasing sort of person, but the experience really stuck with me. I couldn’t afford the amp head, but the pedal version is very, very similar sounding and sounded great going into my Marshall Vintage Modern 50W head.

Modulation effects on the guitar were a mixture of CMATMods’ analog Chorus and analog Phaser pedals. At times I also used the TC Electronic Shaker Vibrato. For lead tones, I often used the Xotic Effects Wah and Xotic Effects BB Preamp, running into my Marshall, into the Orange 2×12 closed-back cabinet with Vintage 30s. My bass is a 4-String Fender Jazz with rosewood fingerboard. If I could go back in time, I probably would have picked a 5-string for the extended range and one with a maple neck, since I do prefer a brighter bass tone. Having said that, I do enjoy playing this bass tremendously. For acoustic piano, I use a Yamaha U3 upright. It was recorded in a room that might have been too large for what I needed. I had to put up thick curtain fabric all over to tame much of the early reflection reverb and flutter echo. For electronic keyboards, I use an 88-key Korg SV1 keyboard for my Rhodes and organ sounds. It weighs a ton, but it sounds great. I also used it, along with my 25-key AKAI, as MIDI controllers to trigger virtual synths on my computer. That would be for atmospheric pads, koto, sitar and electronic synth sounds. On “Grateful to Entitled to Disrespectful,” what sounds like a 12-string in the folksy intro is a Seagull Merlin/Dulcimer, layered with acoustic guitar and sitar samples. This was the first time I included Merlin/Dulcimer sounds on a record and it was fun experimenting with it.

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 [email protected]; follow him on Twitter: @slangofages. Contact Something Else! at [email protected]
Preston Frazier
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