Shawn, you and Nichol had already worked together in the last few years on your and Andy Platts’ project Young Gun Silver Fox. Nichol was responsible for the great horn arrangements since “AM Waves”. Was it the first time you worked together?
Nichol and I first worked together on some of my Ping Pong Orchestra records. He plays a funky trombone solo on my version of “Trick Me” from the “Hits the Hits” album. Funnily enough,we both played in Kelis live band together a few years later. We tricked her!!! Hahaha
What excites you about his work?
Nichol is such a brilliant musician, writer and arranger. He is also very funny! We get on like a house on fire and our album was really really fun to make. His musicality always impresses me and keeps me on my toes always.
When did you first come up with the idea of recording an album together? And is it true that Nichol first laughed when you suggested to him in the middle of the Corona crisis to record a West Coast oriented instrumental album together?
The press release is absolutely 100% true Thomas. Nichol laughed when I suggested we make this record at the beginning of lockdown. Once he realised I wasn’t joking we began recording quite quickly and it was a breeze from start to finish.
Was it clear early on which musical direction the album should take?
The direction was always clear to us. We are both fans of this kind of music and it all made perfect sense. It was a wonderful experience to hone in on making a Jazz Funk type of record. It was key to keep it funky and not get too fusiony. There is some serious soloing on “Studio City” which brings the jazz element but always a tight groove on the bottom which delivers the funk!
As sources of inspiration for “Studio City” you have named artists like Seawind, The Crusaders, Quincy Jones and George Duke. What makes their music and sound so special for you?
I think it was a very special time of record making in 70’s into the early 80’s. The musicianship of those original players was at an apex. We are doing our best to channel the best of the best. Always aim for top kids! That’s where it’s at.
What can a great horn section contribute to a song? Is it about that extra groove or a bigger sound? What do you love about horns?
I’ve always been a fan of horns and horn bands. It’s such a majestic sound. I have been employing horns in my music for decades now. It always adds a bit of class to the precedings and makes it sound more expensive!
The great Jerry Hey told me years ago: “The secret to a great horn arrangement starts with a great song.” Would you agree with that and what do you think are the most important ingredients for a great horn arrangement?
A great horn arrangement includes harmonic support plus punchy accents. It also should have some hooky melodic bits and generally elevate the overall drama in a given track. Horns have a very vocal quality which I really find attractive. In closing – Horns are the shit!
On your new songs you both play with many musical references. Take “Chartreuses”, for example, which starts with this funky Stevie Wonder “Superstition” touch, then sounds like a rousing swinging 70s TV soundtrack and ends with this ultra-cool early 80s Herb Alpert “Rise” passage. Did this happen automatically while you were working on the songs or did you have the clear goal of weaving together as many influences as possible with the utmost artistry?
In all honesty Thomas, the music just flows naturally without having to conceptualise too much at this point. Both me and Nichol are working together in a real comfortable tandem. He’s so skilled, I just try to keep up with him! Doesn’t hurt to have so many wonderful guest musicians on the album either!
I love the references to classics in your song titles too: “Killer Tho” immediately makes you think of “Killer Joe” by Quincy Jones, “Just The Three Of Us” is very reminiscent of “Just the Two of Us” by Grover Washington Jr. How much fun did you have finding titles for your instrumental songs?
The song titles are usually just off the top of the head and mostly just some silly pun type of thing. I love a pun-good or bad!!!! The worse the better actually !!!! Hahaha…
“I know this super highway, this bright familiar sun…” –Steely Dan’s “Home at last” was the inspiration for the name of your project. Whoever refers to Steely Dan not only associates a certain musical style with it, but also a certain understanding of studio work.
When we were trying to think of a band name I just searched thru Steely Dan lyrics and it made it pretty quick and easy to find a good moniker. As you know, coming up with a good band name is a really difficult proposition – so thanks Donald Fagen!
Shawn, let’s talk a little bit more about the recording process. Even though the album was made during the pandemic, it sounds like you recorded it with a full horn section in a big ‘Studio City’ like LA. How did you both manage that sound?
It’s crazy how the album sounds like a big band all playing together live in a room! It even freaks me out. It’s silly cuz the rhythm section is just me a Nichol – two people!!! It’s mad, hahaha… The record was made mostly remotely as you know but Nichol would come by my studio sometimes and lay down an idea and I would overdub some drums, guitar etc. So there was an element of us being in the same room which added to the organic nature of the music.
Nichol was responsible for the bass, keyboards and trombone, while you handled the drums, percussion and guitars. But you also invited some friends to the studio. Who supported you on “Studio City”?
There a lot of great instrumentalists on the album. Tom Walsh on trumpet played a vital role on the album. He is a monster! A lot of great horn players: Andy Ross, Nigel Hitchcock, Mike Davis, Sean Freeman, Elliot Mason, Andy Greenwood, Tom Rees-Roberts James Gardiner-Bateman, Tom Booth, Dan Carpenter and Tom Richards. Matt Cooper and Jim Watson did some additional keys and actor/musician Max Beesley Jr played some vibes as well. It was a circus!
What happens next? Are Nichol and you planning live performances with The Superhighway Band?
We would love to play this record live. Hopefully we can get this onto the international Jazz festival circuit and blast it out! We’ll see….
Shawn, after the forced break due to the pandemic, you were finally able to play in front of a live audience again in the last few months. How did it feel to be back on stage and experience the direct interaction with the audience?
It’s been amazing to be back on stage again. I’ve missed it so much. The last few years or so have been very strange to say the least. Playing gigs is starting to normalise life once again. Can’t wait to get over to Holland this month with Young Gun Silver Fox. It’s been a long wait….
Anyone who follows your work can assume that you are already working on numerous new projects. I heard that Andy and you are already working on the next Young Gun Silver Fox album. What’s next, Shawn?
Speaking of Young Gun Silver Fox – we are now working on album four! We will release it in 2022 so keep your eyes peeled. I also have a follow up album to “Rides Again” in the can which will also come out sometime next year. There is a second Misha Panfilov/Shawn Lee album in the pipeline on Funk Night and a new project with Little Barrie called “Ultra Sonic Grand Prix” as well. I have another new solo project that I’ve just finished which is really fun and two Janktone Productions records finished to boot. There have also been a few productions and guest spots with other artists that are imminent too.
I’ve been a very naughty boy in the studio during this pandemic!!!! It’s been a productive time.
One last question: Have you sent Jerry Hey the “Studio City” album yet?
In fact, Nichol and Tom have been working with Jerry Hey now! It’s some pretty crazy shit. Those guys are the absolute best and Jerry’s endorsement says it all.
Shawn, thank you very much for the interview!
Photo: Paul Elliott