Bass player and session musician
Published in PM May 2008
People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers
Bassist Lee Pomeroy is what one might call a man of musical extremes. On the one hand, he has made a name for himself playing with one of the greats of progressive rock, Rick Wakeman, in the English Rock Ensemble. On the other, he is the regular touring bass player with the hugely successful boy band Take That. Hardly surprising, then, that a player of such obvious versatility is fast becoming one of the UK's most sought-after session men.
Performing Musician caught up with Lee at his home in rural Kent as he prepared to join Take That on the band's 48-date European tour.
PM: The first question I have to ask is how did you develop your unusual style of playing a left-handed bass strung upside down, G to E?
LP: "It started when I was about 15 and my brother, Stephen, was a guitarist and drummer who had toured with various bands supporting the likes of Deep Purple in the '70s. He used to play guitar in the room next to me while I was trying to sleep at night and would play along to Genesis, King Crimson, Be Bop Deluxe, the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, and it just sort of sank into my brain. When I was about 15, around 1983, I suddenly had this overwhelming urge to listen to a Genesis record. I was ridiculed at school because the prog scene was dead. Everyone else was into break-dancing!
One day when I got home from school, I put on a Genesis track, picked up my brother's bass and started playing along to it. Because he was right-handed and I wasn't actually allowed to play his guitar, I used to practise after school before he got home from work and then put it back without his knowing, so there was no question of me changing the strings around. When I got a bass of my own, it just felt instinctive to play it upside down. Anything else would just have confused me. It is pretty unusual, but I'm not the only one. There's a bass player with a band called the Yellowjackets, Jimmy Haslip, who's a monster bass player. And the bass player with the Doves, Jimi Goodwin, plays a right-handed bass turned upside down."
PM: You say it felt instinctive. Did you pick it up pretty quickly?
LP: "Yes. I really didn't have to think too hard about it; everything just seemed to fall into place. I did have a few classical guitar lessons at school, but the teacher wouldn't let me play left-handed and I only lasted a few weeks. On the bass, I soon progressed from my brother's Avon, which was rubbish, to a Japanese Westone, which I loved. I also bought a set of bass pedals and a Wal fretless. All of them were right-handed models, but I just turned them upside down and played left-handed."
PM: What attracted you to bass rather than guitar?
LP: "It was Chris Squire who did it to me. As soon as I heard 'Roundabout' and 'Heart Of The Sunrise', I thought, 'What is that?' That sound and power just got to me. Chris Squire, John Wetton, Geddy Lee, John Entwistle — those were the people that influenced me. It's certainly not bass standing in the shadows at the back; it's bass right up front, but still in its rightful place at the low end."
PM: How long was it before you joined your first band?
LP: "Within about three years. We were living in Hackney in North London and there was a great service that began around that time called 'Link-Up', which was in the back of Melody Maker and put people in touch with like-minded musicians to form bands. Where it asked what style of music did I want to play, I just wrote 'progressive rock'. They kept sending me blues players and synth players and I wasn't interested, but then eventually they sent through the details of a bunch of guys who wanted to play prog rock. I went along for an audition and was the only bass player there. So that was my first band, Vital Signs. We were together for about two years, but then I really started to get into jazz.
Another epiphany for me was when I bought the video of Modern Electric Bass by Jaco Pastorius in around 1987. It blew my mind! I couldn't believe that anyone could play bass like that. For a time, prog rock sort of fell out of favour and I got into people like Chick Corea, John Patitucci, Stanley Clarke. It corresponded with a short period of unemployment and I really just devoted myself to the bass, day in, day out. I'd progressed to a 1978 Fender Jazz by then, and I would sit all day and practise scales and arpeggios and soloing. Up until then, I had been very much a plectrum player, but under Jaco's influence I developed my finger style. I would play that video every day. I almost feel as if I studied under Jaco for a couple of years."
PM: Had you decided that you wanted to become a professional musician by this stage?
LP: "Yes. I worked at various jobs, purely as a way of getting money to buy equipment. But when I left school, I knew that as soon as I was good enough I wanted to make the leap to becoming a full-time musician, and I consciously worked at developing every aspect of my playing. I got into Level 42 and Mark King at around that time and people said to me, 'Well, you'll never be able to slap playing upside down.' This was 1987 and everyone was slapping, so I bought a couple of Level 42 live albums and taught myself to slap. It was all done by ear; I don't read music and have never used TAB. I'm lucky to have perfect pitch and have always been able to pick things up just by listening. I could play along to Weather Report and Tower of Power records from start to finish without any trouble.
By the end of the '80s, I was also starting to get back into rock with bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and started listening to Yes again, so my style just got broader. I also thought I'd better learn how to play the blues. My playing up until then had always been right on top of the beat or just in front, playing fast runs and fast changes all the time. But with the blues, you need to learn to hang off the back of the beat. If you listen to Jaco, he's an amazing player, but he's always right on top of the beat. But then listen to the bass player in Stevie Ray Vaughan's band [Tommy Shannon], or Aston Barrett in Bob Marley's band — terrifyingly good! Just bang on, but all hanging off the beat. So I had to learn how to do that. I was also playing fretless by this stage and listening to Mick Karn of Japan, and Pino Palladino, of course. Eventually, all these different styles just sort of came together."
PM: So after Vital Signs split, what happened next?
LP: "The next big influence on me was the band It Bites. I'd joined another band by this stage called Picture This, and we had a very similar style. Even back then the music scene was quite muso-influenced. People like Nik Kershaw and Tears For Fears brought out albums featuring a who's who of great session players, and it kind of brought me back towards the whole progressive scene again.
Picture This lasted until 1990, when I got a full-time job in a music shop in Croydon, South London, where I met Dave Colquhoun, who is now the guitarist with Rick Wakeman's band. We were both big It Bites and Yes fans, so we decided to form a band, which was called Moon Digger. It was a brilliant three-piece outfit — bass, drums and guitar — and heavily influenced by bands such as Rush, Kings X and It Bites. We were quite successful and managed to get a residency at the Marquee supporting bands like Magnum and Samson, and we'd blow them off the stage.
We really worked at it for a few years, but when it became clear that we weren't going to get a record deal I started to put my name about for as many different gigs as possible, across all different styles. The good thing about working in a guitar shop was that people would wander in and say, 'We've got a gig tonight and our bass player can't make it. Do you know any bass players?' And I'd say, 'Yeah, me.' I ended up gigging six nights a week playing jazz, blues and rock.
That carried on from the mid-'90s through to 1997, when I got my first taste of proper touring. I joined a band called Genocide II — one of the real innovators of the drum & bass scene. Prodigy always name-check them as an influence, and we ended up touring across Europe with Prodigy and playing some massive gigs, including Red Square in Moscow, in front of almost 250,000 people. It gave me my first taste of proper touring, huge venues and big stages. I loved it!"
PM: But one of the things that always impresses me about you is that you can be playing a 60,000-seater stadium with Take That one night, but the next day will find you gigging in front of 50 people in a local pub with your band the Tar Babies. How did that situation develop?
LP: "I first met [Tar Babies' guitarist] Julian Dunkley at a studio session in East Grinstead, and he was impressed by my Rickenbacker 4001 V63 reissue bass. He mentioned that, if I ever fancied playing with his band the Tar Babies, to give him a call. They were doing brilliant cover versions of the Kinks, the Move, the Monkees, Small Faces — music that I love — combined with all sorts of TV theme tunes and advertising jingles. It was great fun and so I thought, 'Why not?' It gave me the chance to gig regularly and keep my chops up. I've been with them for nine years now, on and off, depending on other projects. The Tar Babies are a revolving setup because we're all professional musicians with other commitments, but the people we get in to cover are all absolutely brilliant — especially the drummers. Ash Soan plays with Squeeze and Del Amitri. John Tonks with Neneh Cherry and Fish. Marc Parnell is in Jethro Tull. And they're all falling over themselves to come and gig with the Tar Babies because it's so much fun."
PM: How did your relationship with Rick Wakeman come about?
LP: "I got invited to play bass on a session for a Yes tribute album called Wonderous, featuring Judi Tzuke. The keyboard player was Adam Wakeman, Rick's son, and he told me after the session that his old man was looking for a bass player and would I be up for it? I almost fell over. I was such a huge fan, I couldn't believe my luck to have the chance to play with a member of Yes. I already knew all the songs inside out. Rick calls me the 'oracle' because I'm the one who always remembers the arrangements from the original albums. He tells a story about how, when we were first rehearsing Yes's 'Starship Trooper', he played a couple of wrong chords in the middle of his solo. The way he tells it, I walked up to him afterwards and said, 'Do you want me to show you where you went wrong?' It gets a big laugh, but I wasn't quite that audacious!
We've travelled all over the world with the English Rock Ensemble, and it's just a joy to stand toe-to-toe with this rock legend and trade solos. You've really got to have your chops up to scratch for a gig like that, and when you take a solo Rick likes you to go centre stage. It wasn't something I was used to doing and it took some growing into. In the early days, it meant that I practised like a bastard because I was so scared, but I'm not really intimidated by it anymore."
PM: I discovered recently that you played on one of my favourite albums of recent times — Gravelands by The King [an Elvis impersonator who performs songs written after Elvis's death].
LP: "That's right, I did! I got £75 for it. His real name was Jim Brown and he was a postman from Belfast. We recorded it in two days and it got loads of radio play, and ended up selling over 150,000 copies."
PM: And you also play with one of David Bowie's favourite performers, Lewis Taylor?
LP: "Yes. Without doubt, Lewis is a musical genius. He is one of the best bass players I've ever heard. He's also possibly the best guitarist I've ever played with. He's the most amazing keyboard player you've ever heard, he can play drums, and he sings like that! He's a phenomenon! And yet he's never really made it that big, despite endorsements from the likes of Bowie and Elton John. He's always struggled with the fame issue. He just wants to make music, and as soon as it started to look as if his career was going to take off he backed away. Now he's playing guitar with the Edgar Broughton Band. Playing in his band was one of the best things I've ever done."
PM: How did all these different gigs come about? Is it always through personal recommendation?
LP: "Every gig I've ever had has been through word of mouth; Lewis Taylor, Archive, Belinda Carlisle, Bonnie Tyler, Take That all personal recommendations. I've even just done a gig with the Sugababes.
Take That came about through Adam Wakeman. I was working in my studio one day and had just found out that Lewis Taylor's US tour had been cancelled, so I was feeling a bit down. Adam rang me and said, 'I've just recommended you for a gig.' I said, 'Great, who is it?' And he said, 'Don't laugh it's Take That.' So, of course, I laughed! I thought it was a wind-up. But he said, 'No, I'm serious. There are a few others up for it, but Mike Stevens [Take That's Musical Director] wants a bass player who can sing.' I've always sung backing vocals in all the bands I've been in. I got a call from Mike and arranged to meet him in London. We had a chat, and the next day he called me and said, 'I'm going to take a chance. I've not even heard you play, but Adam says you're bang on. And you can sing. So it's yours if you want it.' So, basically, I got the gig more on the strength of my singing than my bass playing."
PM: Presumably you weren't that familiar with most of Take That's material? How did you go about learning everything?
LP: "I knew a couple of their big hits, but that was about it, so I bought their 'best of' album, shoved it in the car's CD player and that was it. I'm lucky to have pretty much a photographic memory when it comes to music. Usually, I can listen to a song and get it first time. Some of the more complicated prog rock stuff might need a second run-through, but I always learn songs in my head before I even pick up the bass. Often, I arrive at a first rehearsal without ever having actually played the tunes. I never write anything down; I don't want to rely on bits of paper. If you go on stage and you've lost your crib sheets, you're stuffed. I have to know the songs — that way I can immerse myself in the music."
PM: I suppose it was inevitable, with your prog rock background, that people would take the piss a little when you joined a boy band?
LP: "Yes, they did. But the people who laughed weren't musicians. Other musicians recognized that it's a good gig, and a very high-profile gig at that. Whatever people may think about Take That, they are great at what they do. The stage show is unbelievable, with fire and pyrotechnics and huge back-projections. To be part of something like that — something so big — has been amazing for me. It's a different discipline to what I normally play because with most of the other bands I'm involved in, there's an element of improvisation, particularly with Rick. With Take That, it's very much a discipline of playing straight down the line, but making sure it grooves and has real energy. Often, I'm singing completely against the rhythm of what I'm playing on bass and I've had to learn to lock the two things together a lot more."
PM: It was never an issue that you don't read music?
LP: "Not at all. We had six weeks of rehearsal before the first gig, so it was not a problem. Mike Stevens is basically looking for people who can play and are into what they're doing, but are also easy to get on with. That's the key when you're touring; just be a nice chap and have a good vibe about you. That's the way to get work. If you're a superb player, but a pain in the arse, you'll never get asked. The world is full of phenomenal musicians who are so up themselves that they are really difficult to be around. Being on the road with difficult people is really draining.
The Take That tour has been one of the best touring experiences I've ever had. It's like a big family. The crew are great, the musicians are great, the dancers are great, and they're all very loyal to the band. Mike Stevens and most of the musicians have been around since the early '90s, which tells you a great deal. We've also got a lot more in common than you might think. Milton McDonald, the guitar player, is a massive Rush fan. Bernie Smith, the keyboard player, is a huge Genesis fan. Mike Stevens, the MD, is a fan of Yes and Gentle Giant. Gary Barlow told me he likes some of the later Yes albums. So within Take That there are also all these closet prog rock fans. It's one of the reasons we all get on so well."
PM: So how does it feel to walk out onto that stage in front of 60,000 screaming girls?
LP: "It's absolutely brilliant! We did two nights at Milton Keynes Bowl in front of 65,000, and the first night we stepped out on that stage I just kept thinking, 'Genesis played here when they reformed with Peter Gabriel in '82, Queen played here and I've got that gig on DVD' All these bands that I knew and loved, and I was standing there on the same stage, seeing what they saw. I've played bigger gigs, but always as a support act. This felt really special because we were headlining. We also did the Royal Variety Performance and the Princess Diana concert at Wembley this year. And this European tour we're just about to start is taking in some pretty major venues as well. I was pretty nervous at first, but now I just look around the stage and I'm surrounded by all my mates in the band and having such a good time. I almost feel guilty getting paid."
PM: How do you see yourself developing in the future? You mentioned Pino Palladino earlier, who's played with just about everybody. Would you like to emulate him and become the bass player of choice for a number of big bands?
LP: "Yes, I'd love that. Pino is so versatile. He's a real inspiration in the way that he seems to be able to do anything; he'll play with Omar, then John Mayer, then John McLaughlin, then the Who. And he's not what you'd call a virtuoso player as such, but he certainly has got chops. Tony Levin — another great hero — is a really musical player, who's so sympathetic to the song. And both of them have such a great sound. That's the kind of road I'd like to take. It doesn't really matter what sort of music it is, as long as I enjoy it. I'm just a musical prostitute really."
PM: And you've recently formed your own band, Headspace. You must have high hopes for them?
LP: "It's just so good to be doing something that you really love and believe in. All the guys in the band are phenomenal musicians and great fun to be around. We landed the support slot for Ozzy Osbourne's recent tour. Columbia in the States has shown interest. And the guy who produced Ozzy's new album, Kevin Churko, loves our stuff and wants to produce us. In Europe, we've had interest from SPV and even from Sony, so it's looking pretty good. The good thing about this type of music is that it's not fashion-based and there's still a real market for it. And you don't have to be 20. I was really happy that the first band to play the new Wembley Stadium was Muse — basically a prog rock band. And the likes of Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree are also flying high at the moment. Mark my words, prog is back, and it's going to get bigger and bigger in the next few years." 0
"With Take That, everything is played on my 1996 Music Man StingRay five-string, but with Headspace, I mainly use my two 4001 V63 reissue and '85 4003 Rickenbackers, plus my '78 Fender Jazz and '96 Precision. I've also got a British Goodfellow — which is a Fender Jazz-style bass, but with bigger pickups and LEDs up the neck — and a Gibson EB3, both of which I very rarely play. I've also just taken delivery of a couple of new four-string fretted and fretless Music Man StingRays, which are both superb.
Amplification with Take That is all Ampeg: a pair of SVT IV Pro heads linked to 1 x 15 and 4 x 10 cabs on stage, just to give it a bit of oomph because everything is DI'd with in-ear monitoring. With my other bands, I use an Ampeg SVT Classic head linked to a pair of SWR cabs. I love Ampeg stuff. There's no sound on earth quite like it.
Effects-wise, with Headspace I use a SansAmp bass driver, EBS compressor and EBS octave divider. With Rick Wakeman, I also use an old MXR phaser pedal and an EBS envelope filter. And with the Tar Babies, I'll add a Lovetone Meatball and a Moogerfooger envelope filter to give me that genuine '60s sound. With Take That, it's just the SansAmp bass driver. I use it to give the Music Man five-string a bit more mid-range for when I need to slap. I've also just added an Avalon U5 DI preamp, which is fantastic for tone shaping. With Headspace, I use the SansAmp all the time, and turn the drive control about three-quarters of the way up to give me that classic Chris Squire/Geddy Lee tone.
I also own a Chapman Stick, a set of Moog Taurus 1 bass pedals, and a Mellotron that I bought on eBay from Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream, which was used on many of their best-known albums. Rick Wakeman borrowed it from me to use on his recent Retro and Retro 2 CDs, as his own Mellotrons got thrown on a bonfire many years ago when they kept breaking down!"
Published in PM May 2008
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