Shawn Lee's Incredible Tabla Band

Interview - Shawn Lee



Shawn Lee’s Incredible Tabla Band

Tabla Rock


Incredible Tabla Band



All men are prepared to accomplish the incredible if their ideals are threatened.
Hermann Hesse (1877 - 1962) German-Swiss novelist


worldbeatcanada radio: Shawn Lee sets the way back machine for circa 1970 to create sexy party funkscapes that sound remarkably vintage. The difference, and it’s a big one, is that hindsight is 20/20 and Lee’s passionate vision benefits from everything that has passed since Isaac Hayes, Antonio Carlos Jobim and James Brown exploded from the single speaker on the cabinet TV. One of his latest projects (and there are many, many of them) is a complete reworking of the original Bongo Rock album by the Incredible Bongo Band, but in his version, the guitars are sitars and the beatnik bongos are served with a lick off the tabla. On the line to tell us more about his Incredible Tabla Band is Shawn Lee.


It’s great to finally have a chance to talk with you Shawn.


Shawn Lee: You too! Ya, thanks for giving me a call.


WBC:  I can’t find out a lot about your early life and pictures are scarce because of your signature tiger heads. Are you old enough to have been exposed to 1970 or did you just spend a lot of time in your underwear listening to Isaac Hayes and watching old Russ Meyer movies?


SH: I am old enough. I've been around forever.


WBC: I’m just fascinated by how authentically from the era your recordings sound. Is your place a warren of old plate reverbs and space echoes and analog recording junk?


SH: Yes, I have a lot of different equipment, a lot of vintage stuff. There's a lot from the 50s, 60s, 70s and early 80s really on the vintage front, and then various bits of completely modern stuff from the last 5 years.


WBC: And, I guess a lot of world instruments as well, right?


SH: I've been collecting instruments from around the world for years. I'm always looking for something interesting and don’t sound anything like something else I already have. A lot of the times, this stuff is pretty cheap. I'll pick up something for a few pounds here and there.


WBC: Two recent additions to your discography have been getting lots of spins from us recently and that’s because of the beautiful morphing funk and global elements on The World Of Funk recording and most recently, your Incredible Tabla Band, Tabla Rock album. Have you seen the latest Heineken commercial where this hipster couple jump through a paper wall into an Asian dinner club where a Bollywood singer in grooving with a surf guitarist?


SH: Oh ya! I haven't seen it but Heineken asked me to do something else about a year ago. They had an old Indian track and they asked me to do some music for that. They asked me to remake it, so I remade it.


WBC: Well, that's what's going in the spot!


SH: They should have used my music, man! I need that money!


WBC:  Well, that commercial makes me instantly think of your music. The question I guess is how did you find your way to this special juncture between funk and global music?


SH: As I said before, I've been collecting the instruments, so I'm just grabbing things I love the sound of. And, I like the idea of using folk instruments in a different context; taking them outside the traditional aspect and fusing them in with what I'm doing musically. So, there's that element. There's also the aspect that my wife is Indian and I've lived in London for nearly 20 years, so I've been exposed to a lot of music from around the world being in London which I probably wouldn't have been if I was still living in America. Certainly, I've been exposed to more of it, quicker being here. So, on a sub-conscious and a conscious level it's sort of seeped into my music.


WBC: London is a long way from Wichita, eh?


SH: It's a very long way from Wichita.


WBC: It’s worldbeatcanada radio with Shawn Lee on the horn. Where have we reached you at, Shawn? Bone up on Shawn’s compelling biography and stand in amazement before his massive body of work at the discography page, that’s Shawn Lee dot net. Naturally, your music is ideal for film and TV soundtracks and the list of those is also extensive. You appeared on my radar with the Moods and Grooves album is totally cinematic stuff. Is there one director in particular who you jump at the opportunity to provide a soundtrack for?


SH: Well, there's many actually. You know, Tarantino would be amazing, although he doesn't really have soundtracks, he compiles music. I did find out a couple of years a go that he was a fan of mine, so that really made my day that I was on his radar. So I'm hoping one of my songs will end up in his films at some point. But, there's him and Jim Jarmusch ... I just had a conversation with a cinematographer in America the other day who's done some work with Jarmusch and she going, "I should hook you guys up." And, I was like, "Ya, please!" To be honest with you, anybody who makes cool films, it could be anybody; you know what I'm saying? As long as it's cool and creative, I imagine something more on the independent side of things rather than a mainstream Hollywood affair.


WBC: I've got to ask you Shawn, I’ve been fiddling with noise filter patches and all kinds of things to coax that distinctive, 70s funky sound from my bass. Any tips you can share?


SH: A lot of sound has to do with the source and that's certainly the first place to start. The thing with the bass itself is old strings; old flat wounds or black nylon strings, straight away that helps. And then, having a good valve or old solid state amp will give you the right sort of colour. The other very big thing is tape. Analog tape loves bass. I run all my bass on tape. I'd say 9 times out of 10 I run my bass tracks go to tape. It's very rare that they don't. That's a really, really big thing actually. It gives you great round low end and the punchiness when you run it hot to tape. You can get nice tape compression and clipping and soft distortion. It's all good.


WBC: Sometimes there's no beating old technology.


SH: Ya, tape is the magic box for bass for sure and other things as well but particularly bass.


WBC:  You’re majorly prolific, what new things are you working on currently?


SH: I just finished the next album I've done with AM. Also, my next record is finished. It's called Synthesizers In Space. That's coming out in a couple of months' time. After that there is a hip hop album which is very old skool; some sort of early 80s-inspired stuff, some late 80s and some early 90s-type stuff. Basically, taking all the elements about hip hop music and production that I really like and doing my version of it.


WBC: We'll look forward to it all. Thanks for all the great music, Shawn. I’d like to take this home with The Incredible Tabla Band’s reimagining of the surf classic Pipeline. How did such a driving tune turn into chill? It’s like surfing on molasses or something.


SH: I know! It's a really crazy, inspired arrangement. I used to play Pipeline in a cover band back in Wichita. We used to do a surf version of it. That song's not actually from Bongo Rock. It's from the second record. And, I chose two songs from the second record to do. That was Sing, Sing, Sing and Pipeline, just because it was so delicious. I think that Pipeline is so lush and smooth and creamy. It was the last track that I did of all of them and I sort of saved it like a cherry on top.


Shawn Lee was interviewed by phone from London on March 30, 2012