When Trey Anastasio announced the line-up for his current solo band, known as the 70 Volt Parade, most phans were surely asking themselves "Who the hell are these guys?" Save for keyboardist Ray Paczkowski (who played in the Trey Anastasio Band), the remaining names on the band's rosterSkeeto Valdez (drums), Peter Chwazik (bass), and Les Hall (keyboards, guitar)were entirely not familiar.
But I know Les Hallwell sort of.
I was in fifth grade when I first met Les Hall. My family had just moved to a different area in Columbia (South Carolina) and he and my older brother (older by three years) met and became friends in their eighth grade classes. My brother had recently begun taking guitar lessons, and I'd never heard more than awkward off-key chords churning out of the amp attached to his cherry red Kramer Stryker (complete with whammy bar). I entered our suburban home one day after school to hear the lead riff from "Sweet Child O' Mine" blaring live from my brother's roomwailing from the cheesy Kramer Stryker and absolutely nailing it. It rocked (as much as a 5th grader had yet to witness, at least). Surely knowing that my brother was incapable of such rocking, I poked my head into his room and met Les Hall for the first time and I think I remember seeing smoke rising from the guitar.
A move by his own family a couple of years later would take Les Hall from the strip-mall-laden confines of Irmo and place him in the cross-town rival town of Lexington. He resurfaced years later as keyboard player (though I'd later seem him play bass and occasionally lead guitar) for Sourwood Honeya band that never quite escaped the confines of Columbia but served as the first introduction to experimental (i.e. jam) rock and roll for me and my group of music junky, idiot friends while we were still in high school. Sourwood Honey's debut album, Big Neon Hound Dog, still is (and will always be for sentimental reasons) one of my all time favorite albums. Though their heyday is gone, Sourwood Honey still plays from time to time in South Carolina.
After Sourwood Honey's apex toward the end of the 90s, Hall was bouncing around a few other bands in Columbia. The last I'd heard about Hall, until recently of course, was that he'd moved out to Los Angeles. I heard through the grapevine he toured briefly with Howie Day, but a Les Hall sighting in Columbia over Christmas by a friend (who also has an older brother Hall's age) lead to a mums-the-word' rumor that Hall had just returned from The Barn.' Of course my friend, and the rest of my idiot friends, knew what that meant immediately. An official announcement from Trey Anastasio's site would later confirm it for us and make us wonder, "So who the hell are the rest of these guys?"
I caught up with Les Hall a couple of weeks ago, just before he was about to venture out on the road with Trey Anastasio's 70 Volt Paradewhere a monumental all-star jam in New Orleans, and surely much bigger shows to come (i.e. Bonnaroo), were awaiting him. I basically wanted to find what took him from Columbia to L.A. to Howie Day to Trey.
Mark Pantsari: So Los Angeles is home for you now?
Les Hall: I guess you could say I'm kind of homeless at this point if you think about it. I moved out there about four years ago and moved to London two years after that and moved my stuff into storage and I've mostly been on tour since then. I don't really know where home is right now. I'm looking forward to buying a house somewhere other than South Carolina at some point and have somewhere to chill in between, you know?
MP: What took you to London?
LH: I was doing a record over there with Howie (Day) and we lived over there for about two months. And then we hit the road after that and did about five laps around America and a few weeks over in Europethat kind of thing.
MP: How did you come into contact with Howie Day, by gigging around Los Angeles?
LH: I met Howie through his tour manager, Vance McNabb, who actually played baseball with my older brother when I was a kid. It's kind of funny, every connection I get somehow stems from my older brother. Like playing this instrument because he was doing it or being at this concerthe's more of a networker than I am. I'm kind of like the tweeker that sits around by myself.
So Vance called me up one day and said he was looking for a guy that played guitar and keyboards and could do looping and a lot of weird effects. So I was like, "ok, that kind of sounds like me," and it just kind of went from there.
MP: I saw Howie Day open for Nickel Creek about six months ago and his solo set had a lot of looping and effects in it…so you toured with Howie for how long?
LH: I guess we did about a year of touring and I kept trying to get into incorporate some of that (looping) with the band What I love about this gig I have right now is Trey actually rehearses and shows up to rehearsal before everybody and is really psyched about rehearsing. Whereas with that (Howie) gig I think we rehearsed a total of seven hours over the course of a supposed three week rehearsal. So it was a very learn on the fly kind of thing, so there really wasn't much time to get it all down. But hopefully this band will be a completely different story.
MP: Just to get the timeline straight, the Howie Day gig was kind of your first taste of success or something there of?
LH: I would say so; I can't really claim any other punk-ass band in L.A. I was playing in as being anything like that. That was the first one and I want to say that all kind of started two years ago. We did the record and then we started touring, not last year (2004) but the year before (2003), and we were on the road for about a year I guess.
MP: What initially carried you to L.A., besides wanting to get away from the South?
LH: There are many reasons, one you kind of nailed on the head. My girlfriend at the time talked me into moving out to L.A., and L.A. is where production is, film scoring and a lot of bands. There is a world of music out there, and I figured that it was either L.A. or New York to try to do something in that field and be serious about it. I've lived in Boston before, I've been to New York several times, and I'm not really a big fan of cold weather. So L.A. was kind of an easy decision to make, and I love it out there.
MP: A friend of mine said she ran into you at a bar in Columbia around Christmas time and that's kind of where the whole Trey Anastasio rumor came about. I was never quite as religious a Phish fan as some of my friends, but as far as keeping up with everything after they split I've kept up with it. So how in the world did this gig come about?
LH: Rick Beato is a producer in Atlanta and I met Rick through Vance. Right after I'd finished recording Howie's record, Rick called me up and wanted me to play on Owen Beverly's (_The Drunk Lover_) record. And he was like, "You know there's not much money in it, but I think you'll like the music and you can play guitar, piano and bass." So once he said that I was kind of like, "we'll fuck it, if I get to play all the instruments on it I'm there." So I went to Atlanta and I met RickRick's a funny guy. He's an amazing producer and showed me a million things. A lot of producers and other people in the industry don't really like giving away their tricks and would be lost without them if they got away. But Rick was very cool and immediately he and I kind of bonded and he was like "I'll show you anything you want." And he sat me down while he was doing the whole record and he showed me everything he did. We did Owen Beverly's record and then I hooked him up with the band Jump Little Children (both Owen Beverly and Jump are based out of Charleston, SC).
Owen's record was quite eclectic and Jump, I had always thought about that them as well and they had some great songs and I thought it would be a great match. So I hooked Rick up with Jump and then went and played on their record ("Between the Dim and the Dark"). Rick always told me when I first went to do Owen's record, "you came here to meet me and that's why you're here.
MP: So that was all done at Tree Sound Studios in Atlanta?
LH: Yeah it was up at Tree where we did all of that. He (Beato) got the gig producing Trey's record and called me up around that time and said, "Do you know who Trey Anastasio is?" And I'm like "…Yeah! I'm a musician aren't I?" Rick told me was going to do Trey's record and that it was a rock album more so than what Trey had been doing and he said he pictured someone like me playing on it. That's pretty much where it started.
They flew me out to Vermont right after Christmas and I went up there and played for a few days and then we went into the studio and now we're going on tour.
MP: Like you said you can't be a musician and not know who Trey is I guess, but was what Phish was doing is that at all the sort of stuff you were into?
LH: I listened to Phish back when I lived in Boston which was right 1994 I guess when Rift came out. And I thought he was an incredible guitarist from the second I heard him and I was just blown away. But after that I discovered Frank Zappa and Zappa kind of knocked out anything I was listening up to at that point. I spent a year listening to nothing but Frank Zappa and I bought everything he had put out that I could find and my entire house was decorated with Frank Zappa pictures and paintingsI was a fanatic. I haven't listened to Phish much since then, I listen to way more rock and electronica stuff and a lot of film music as well. I don't ever really listen to whatever it is that I am playing, which I guess is kind of cool. Most musicians that like Tool tend to play in metal bands. I like Tool and I was doing a pop gig last year (laughs).
MP: Have you done any other shows other than the one up in Vermont not too long ago?
LH: We did a gig in Atlanta at Tree Sound (in late January). It was actually very much on the fly. Four of us in the band had met in the studio and Trey was always telling us about this guy Ray (Paczowski) who had been playing in his last band. From the get go, Trey was like "you guys are all so different and I think Ray would actually mesh with this sound." As far as having two keyboards, we basically play different styles. I think he flew Ray down to do some overdubs on what we had recorded. In one of the songs the two keyboards meshed in a certain way and Trey called me upI was in Columbia watching a movie and I was the only person in the theater of course, so I could easily have a conversation on the phone.
Trey was flipping out and was like, "man, I can't even describe what it sounds like. Once we got it all layered on there with everybody playing it was kind of like a victory." So he called me back to Atlanta to play a show the next night and that was the first time all five of us had actually played together. It was very unrehearsedwe just went up there and it was like one, two, three, GO.'
MP: I heard an audience-recorded CD of the Vermont show and didn't know who was playing electric keys and who was playing piano..
LH: I'm doing keys and guitar. I've got the grand piano and then Ray's got the Hammond organ. That's the main difference there. He's also got a clavinet and Wurlitzer and I've got the Rhodes, the synthesizer and the lap top, the guitar rig and about 50 pedals. Most of the songs with two keyboards, he's on the Hammond and I'm on the piano.
MP: The new song "Low" seemed to stand out amidst the set of mostly covers.
LH: Yeah that's one of the songs with two guitars on there. Good ol' rock and roll "Low."
MP: So what all is in the band's repertoire at this point?
LH: There's a ton of shit in there. He's got a lot of new stuff. And then there's old stuff from his first solo band with all the horns that we've kind of adapted to our own instrumentation. And then obviously there are a couple of Phish songs which there was a bit of controversy surrounding that.
MP: I'm sure, the Phish clan can be a strange and very possessive bunch?
LH: I didn't really think twice about it. I view it as Trey wrote all these songs so he can do whatever he wants with them. And they're like, "Hey you can't do that." I always bust his balls because he'll be thinking of songs he didn't sing but that he wrote and I would say "So you've had that song for over ten years now and now it's your chance to finally sing it (laughs)." But I just fuck with him on that. I think he can do whatever he wants with those songs. I figure at this point that since Phish doesn't exist as a band, it's not like when he was going out to do his solo projects and Phish was still playing, it's not like Phish can play them anymore. So we're doing that and a lot of covers as well.
MP: I imagine playing guitar with Trey has to be pretty amazing.
LH: Yeah man. That's where it gets pretty fucking cool. It's kind of interesting. When I got this gig, it was definitely for keyboards. I didn't play guitar around Trey until we'd been rehearsing for a week already. One day out the blue he was like, "Hey, let's try this song with dual guitars." So it kind of opened up a new door. You know we have two keyboards and with this kind of set up it's easy to create a wall of sound but it's more of a challenge to actually leave the space and be subtle with stuff. Once we throw the dual guitar stuff in there it's just another element of instrumentation where we can get that full rock and roll sound where as with the two keyboards it limits what you can do.
MP: Did you know anyone else in the band prior to meeting them?
LH: No one had actually ever met before. I met Ray the day of the Atlanta show we did. Skeeto and Peter I met the night we all showed up in December for the first time to do some playing. It was definitely a brand new personality of a band without any past whatsoever.
MP: How is the band chemistry?
LH: It was pretty immediate actually. I think that's why it's worked out so well. The chemistry was very obvious over the first couple of days that we got together to play. We'd play a song none of us had ever heard before and it felt like we'd been playing for half a year the first time we played it. Even beyond the musical part of it, the personality is there as well. Everybody gets along and everyone is their own entity.
MP: So it all happened by chance, just knowing the right guys at the right time?
LH: In a sense it was all Rick's master plan. Rick was listening to Trey's songs in preproduction and pulled one out and said to him "I know who should be in your band." And it ended up working out.
MP: Well congratulations, you're a raging jamband success! Was that ever the intention you had?
LH: Just like I always imagined (laughs). It's definitely not what I had in mind; I was always kind of open. I went out there thinking I would get into film scoringorchestra compositions and what not. I discovered a lot of things out there I was very interested inproduction as well as gadgets. I spent about a year on Ebay buying every pedal imaginable and I got to the point where I wasn't even playing the instrument, just the pedals. I would just hit the instrument to get sound out of it. I guess it's kind of a wasted effort to visualize where I was going to be because it's not going to be that. But at the end of the day I've got a fucking bad ass gig.
Mark Pantsari is a freelance writer living in Folly Beach, SC