Why do people hate Russ

Interview with Russ Kunkel & Lee Sklar

The legendary rhythm section
by Marian Quantity,

The two started in Los Angeles in the late sixties, where they called "The Section" - also known as "The Mellow Mafia" - together with guitarist Danny Kortchmar and keyboardist Craig Doerge with their own instrumental releases, but above all as a rhythm section for Folk singer / songwriters caused a sensation. The fact that the first small recording sessions were followed by a career with world fame is thanks to the formation of James Taylor, whose second album "Sweet Baby James" unexpectedly became a mega-seller in 1970.

Russ Kunkel played the drums on this album, Lee Sklar joined the band on the following tour. From then on, The Section could hardly save itself from offers. Even though they have each pursued their careers as independent musicians and have participated in thousands of sessions independently of one another, their path has brought them together again and again, as recently on the album by the Welsh singer / songwriter and pianist Judith Owen. Their latest work "Ebb & Flow" seems to be made for the sensitive, precise playing of the two veterans. During a showcase we met the two of them for an interview in a Cologne hotel.

You two have been making music together for decades, you have to be pretty good friends.
Soot: No, that's not the case. We hate each other. (laughs)
Lee: Yes, sitting so close to Russ really hurts.
Soot: No, honestly. We spent a lot of time on tour together. And that we have been able to do this for so many years is a great stroke of luck for us.

Does friendship help make good music?
Soot: Absolutely!
Lee: I agree. When you go on stage or get on the tour bus with someone you don't like, it can be really exhausting. Every time I come to a studio or a gig and see Russ sitting behind his drums, I get the feeling that you have when you go through your closet and find those old slippers that you just feel good in . This feeling gets right to the point!

Can you describe the musical influence you had on each other?
Lee: I found one thing in connection with Russ, and I always find it astonishing: Whenever we work together and regardless of the project, there is always this blind understanding. In my opinion we both have, musically speaking, the most organic relationship I know. And that without great effort. We never have to discuss much. I mean, I've worked with a lot of great drummers, but I have to talk to them about things like what kind of kick pattern they're going to use. I just start playing with Russ and it fits right away. This is a unique situation for me and makes our musical relationship one of the most informal in my whole life.

Soot: In terms of influence, I don't think we have shaped each other much. We just do something together at the same time. It just happens without our having to talk about it. We noticed that when we were just starting to make music together. We complement each other well. When Leland is playing something a little differently than me and I notice it first, I adapt. And when he first notices it, he changes his game. As a result, we very quickly get to this point where we are perfectly together. And of course that has an impact on the artist we play with or on the respective song. We don't influence each other, but together we influence the end result. And that is also the reason why we are often asked for such great projects. The artists or producers are just happy with how quickly and easily we can deliver exactly what they want.

Lee: Russ and I have such a blind understanding that I can remember that we once played in the studio in different screened rooms and the only way we could hear each other was through headphones. Something suddenly stopped working and all I heard was the click. When I listened to the recording afterwards, I was amazed because we had played fills together even though I couldn't hear him. That shows how similar our understanding of music is. We're both looking for what the song needs from us instead of imposing ourselves on the song. At least that's how I think about it.
Soot: Absolutely. You explained that well.

If you were to re-record your first joint recordings today, how would they sound?
Soot: I think exactly the same. We wouldn't do anything differently than we did then.
Lee: Well, you have to understand that the two of us started around 1970 and now look back on 45 years in music. So many things happened in our lives and in the world during that time that I don't think I would play a James Taylor song the same way today as I did then. Back then I was influenced by everything that was happening around me at the time. I had different influences than today. They weren't better or worse, but different. We all change over time, but I know that if we go to the studio together today, we will feel the same as we did in the 70s. That hasn't changed a bit.

Sometimes I listen to old recordings and I have to laugh at some of the things I played back then. I was still in the process of finding myself and still had to approach life as a studio musician. I never planned to become a studio musician. I thought I would play a bit in bars on the weekend and otherwise do a normal job. But then suddenly I was there and was thrown into the deep end. That was a very good school for me and this learning process is not over yet.

Russ, when you were young, did you dream of becoming a permanent drummer in a successful rock band, or did you always want to be a sideman?
Soot: At the age of 18 or 19 I knew that I would be successful as a musician and that I wanted to make a living playing drums. I wish I had cared more about being financially independent than becoming a good drummer. (laughs) But the wish was there. When we started doing all these early records we had no idea what we were doing. We didn't have the perspective that you or we have now. All we tried was to make ends meet. Little did we know when we recorded “Sweet Baby James” that this album would end up at number 1. We had no idea. We just swam in this stream and let us drift. If you look back at it now, you have to say that it was a special, magical time in which a lot of exciting things happened. But when you're in the middle of it, you don't even see it.

Most teenagers dream of one day being a rock star and playing in big stadiums.
Soot: Yes, that is the motivation, and you have to have it in order to be successful in anything at all. Every dream is a motivation, but to get from point A to point B you have to do something. Motivation has to turn into a work ethic in order to be able to work towards the dreamed goal. I think it was like that with us that we were just happy to work in the first place. I mean, if you are a musician and work independently, i.e. you do not work for a certain company, then you only work for yourself. But that also means that you will be unemployed until the next call comes. And so it has been all of our lives. We don't get a weekly payroll, we get paid when we work.

It's the scariest job in the world and the most exciting at the same time. You are almost permanently stuck on a cliff, from which you could fall at any moment.
Soot: I keep asking myself: is this the last gig I'll ever play?
Lee: That's exactly what I do.
Soot: Will someone call me again after this tour? Lee: We have been asking ourselves these questions for half a century! (laughs)

Were there phases in which you feared for your existence?
Lee: Yes, but never for long. Sometimes you look at your calendar and find that you have nothing to do for the next few weeks ...
Soot: ... I can also remember one summer and some phases after that when there was little going on. But that was mainly due to the general economic situation and less to the job offer. I was very worried at the time because nothing was coming in and I had to tap into my savings.

Lee: There is one thing I taught myself a long time ago, and I always try to keep that in mind: We have a kind of job that you have to think of as an annual job. If you look at your schedule and see that you have been out of work for a while, you can panic. But you can also set yourself a guideline that it was a good year when you could finally pay all the bills and maybe put something aside. You have to see the long-term development and not the individual phases. Because even if it was a bit lean, somehow it always went well. I always try to keep that in mind. The record that we have now made with Judith Owen has a suitable title: “Ebb And Flow”.

This is the story of our life. There are times when things don't go well, but as long as you don't panic and go through your life completely stupid and throw your money out the window, you'll be fine. Russ and I are in a comfortable position because there is still a demand for what we have built together. Many colleagues offered exactly what they wanted for a certain period of time, but then failed to follow the changes in the music business. On the other hand, we have developed a product that is still in use, and I am very grateful for that.

Soot: I also think that music was extremely important during the time we were developing, i.e. between 1965 and 1985, and that it set a lot of groundwork. I don't know if that will be the case again in the form. We were fortunate to be part of this development. And when I speak of luck, I really mean luck, after all, 45 years later, we are still with us and can record with new artists as well as with the old ones we have worked with before. I can't tell you how many friends and colleagues of mine who are really good musicians call me every week and ask me to recommend them if I hear anything.

And by now they would even be working almost for free. The market has changed completely, especially in America. Young musicians who start now will later be left without a pension because they cannot find jobs now. We played one session after the other, some of which sold well and was played a lot on the radio. We get a certain share of that. I have a guilty conscience towards the young musicians because they will never get this opportunity.


Hasn't the market for live bass / drum recordings in everyday studio life also shrunk?

There was a time when a lot of my job was going to people's homes and doing bass overdubs in their home studios. Now I'm playing more studio sessions with live bands again. But that is also constantly changing. The quantity is of course smaller than it used to be, but there are more and more projects, like the record with Judith now, where we just go into the studio and record live. And that makes a difference. Many, especially young artists, ask me why our records from the past are so different and so special.

I can only answer: There was a room full of creative people who encouraged each other - and we weren't under any time pressure. We had the luxury of taking our time in the studio. Our band at that time became everyone's band. When we were in the studio with James Taylor we were James Taylor's band, but when we were in the studio with Linda Ronstadt or Jackson Browne we were their band. And each of these artists needed a slightly different sensitivity from us. And that was only possible because we were in the studio together.

Soot: Part of the sound of the records from back then is also made up of the sounds that were recorded via the drum mics and the drums that landed on the tracks of the other instruments.
Lee: Many people are so afraid of crosstalk that they want to put my amp in a soundproof cabinet. Not only do they want to record all instruments with the purest possible sound, but they are also afraid that if you make a mistake, they will not be able to fix anything. But then I won't make a mistake! There have been many projects where I didn't have to touch up a single tone. And yet they don't want bass on the drum mics and record all instruments as clean as possible. In the past you put up a couple of partitions, but now everything has to be perfectly insulated. This then results in them covering a piano with 30 pounds of woolen blankets and then wondering why they hear the pedal. Well, you can hear the pedal because you shoved a microphone up the piano's ass right where all the mechanics are.

How do you feel about the editing and post-production options that we have today?

Soot: To a small extent, that's okay if it saves time. If I play a take that is 98 percent good and a kick drum comes a little late, I have no problem with it being pushed.
Lee: The only thing I don't like is when it makes people lazy and say, “Your take on the first chorus was great. Let's copy it to the second chorus as well. ”The second chorus should evolve and contain something new to reach the next level. So I always try to make the producers happy with a complete take. Then when I leave the studio and they want to cut and move, it's up to them. After all, it is they who sign my check. But I want to be sure that I did the best I could. The nice thing about the new technology is that you can cut things out and they won't be lost afterwards.

With tape, you always have to weigh up which track you can transfer. We were honored to work with some amazing singers who recorded their takes in one go. Nowadays singers try to cut a good performance from different takes. But I also don't want to look like an old guy who mourns the old analogue times. However, if I did a solo record, I would probably tape it because I really like the sound of bass and drums.

Soot: Last year Lee and I had the pleasure of working with a fairly young artist named Pat McGee. He had written songs and wanted them to have the feel of our 70s records. So we went to the studio in LA and recorded on a 24-track tape. One thing we completely forgot was that tape machine sound. We hadn't heard that in a long time - and it's still great.

Is the impression that recording sessions take longer today than they did in the 70s because you can spend so much time in post-production?

Soot: That depends on the respective artist. The recordings we did with James Taylor and Jackson Browne didn't take a lot of time, but we took the time we needed. But there were also artists like the Eagles who worked on an album for a whole year at the time. And this album is great too. They were lucky enough to be able to take this time. The artists we worked with didn't have that. But you're right: there are too many options these days and it takes time.

Lee: Too many options can quickly make you lose focus. Sometimes it happens that I took a picture and six months later they're still sitting on it and I just think, “What are they doing? It was finished long ago! ”That's one aspect I like about being a sideman: When I've done my job, I just go and do something else. If I had to choose between playing live or recording in the studio, I would always choose live. Because there every note is over as soon as it is played, and you can't sit down for two weeks and examine and discuss every single note. I like the immediacy of the live performance, and some evenings are good and some are not. But then they are just over.

Can you describe what “being tight” means?

Soot: I think it means arriving in the same place at the same time, consistently for the length of a song or an entire show.Be in sync.
Lee: To listen.
Soot: Listening is the most important aspect of this. They have a common goal, which is to make the best of a song and put your ego back on track. When you play in a band, nobody cares what you can do. But when they all work together, everyone is in a good position.

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