Stefan Lessard was still in his late teens when he started playing bass with Dave Matthews Band and has spent the better part of his 20s and 30s playing on some of the world’s largest stages. Yet, with the exception of the occasional guest appearance on albums like Gov’t Mule’s Deep End Volume 1, Lessard has largely shied away from making music outside the Dave Matthews Band for most of his career. Surprisingly, in January, Lessard teamed up with Guster’s Adam Gardner and Barenaked Ladies’ Ed Robertson to form the new supergroup Yukon Kornelius and, more recently, his work can be heard in the new 3D IMAX movie, MacGillivray Freeman’s Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk. The outdoor adventure film, which is spearheaded by the people behind popular IMAX films like Everest and The Living Sea, featuring an original score composed and arranged by Lessard, as well as appearances by his longtime collaborators Carter Beauford and Tim Reynolds. DMB fans may also recognize a handful of Dave Matthews Band songs like “Two Step,” “Mother Father,” “Lie In Our Graves” and “Steady As We Go” peppered throughout the film’s soundtrack (a CD compilation of songs featured in Grand Canyon Adventure will also be available in select IMAX theaters). Below Lessard discusses his involvement in the project, working with Beauford and Reynolds and why he’s a little jealous of U2.
MG- For readers who haven’t seen this project yet, can you start by giving us a brief synopsis of the film’s storyline?
SL- First off, it’s a 3D IMAX film. They use this special 3D IMAX camera to get all the shots, so that’s one thing. It is about a rafting trip down the Colorado River, through the Grand Canon. The characters in the film are Wade Davis, who is a National Geographic journalist, his daughter, who is about to leave for her first year of college in about a week, and a Bobby Kennedy Jr. and his daughter, who is also starting school. So there is an adventure side of things, which is the whole trip and the rafting experience, and the father-daughter side of things, which is kind of the one last adventure Wade and Bobby are going on with their daughters before they go to school. And then there is also an environmentalist side of things, which is that the state of the Colorado river is in crisis and the fresh water of the world is in crisis. So there is a lot of stuff in one big IMAX movie. But these guys at MacGillivray Freeman Films are really good at putting all those elements together. They are the same people who did IMAX films like Everest, The Living Sea and Greece, so they are incredible film makers.
MG- I know you are a father, an avid outdoor sportsman and an environmentalist. What element of the project intrigued you enough to first get involved?
SL- All of the above, really. First off, just the idea of the journey down the Colorado is something I’d love to do and, especially now, is something that’s high on my list. I grew up in Virginia and used to tube down the James, which is about as white water as I ever got [laughter]. But also, at the same time, right now I live by the ocean and water quality is really important to me. And I like the way the filmmaker isn’t just trying to capture sensation. He really has a message inside this film and, you know, it struck me. And knowing the band’s music was also going to be involved and they were offering me a spot on their team to help write the rest of the musicall that combined seemed like a great project to become involved with.
MG- In addition to playing several instruments yourself, you also recruited Dave Matthews Band drummer Carter Beauford and longtime DMB collaborator Tim Reynolds to interpret your score.
SL- Carter, Tim and a slide guitar player named Greg Leisz. They were all incredible. To have Tim and Carter, for me, really was the glue that put it all together. But I was also working with Steve Wood, a composer, who has produced music on almost every one of these MacGillivray Freeman films. So I sort of went to him and let him sort of start sculpting with what I gave him. I have this little guitar called a Veillette. It is a little 12-string guitar and the best way I can describe it is that is sort of sounds like a hammered dulcimer. So we started taking this guitar and writing these little pieces, which kind of set a tone for the ambient music that was sort of the theme between the big tunes from the band. So there was a lot of that and a lot of looking at the film. We watched it from start to finish. It was being reedited and changing every week, but there were different sections we had cues for. There is one “big rapid” section, so we wanted something more pulsating and fun, but then there also some sections that were more introspective, with less percussion and more melody. It was really my first time working on a score, but a lot of fun.
MG- That brings me to another point. Though you’ve written for Dave Matthews Band, had you ever tried your hand at non-rock composition before?
SL- I’ve done some composition. There is a part of me that definitely loves sort of “soundscapes,” music that I can imagine kind of being put to film. In fact, we started the process of doing this right before [Dave Matthews Band] tour last summer and I was constantly listening to film music. But not so much big blockbuster musicmore National Geographic films, PBS films or the Civil War documentary by Ken Burns. I was watching a lot of Ken Burns films that summer. It was so much fun because you can really go wherever you want inside the score. You can make a big orchestral piece or something simpler with just a guitar and a banjo and it can be just as effective.
MG- How would you compare working with Carter and Tim in this setting to Dave Matthews Band?
SL- Yeah, well first off they came to this project of out love for playing with me and being friends of mine. So I really got that sense from them. Timmy is an incredibly beautiful person and Carter equally so. I felt like there wasn’t any reservations then they played on it. And they put their signature on it. There is one sort of upbeat tune that is Carter all the way and the same with Tim. He does a lot of ambient stuff, which he is so good at. So he fit in really nice with that little Veillette that I play on some of the more cerebral type of stuff. I have been working with the band a little bit on some pre-production for our next album, so I am dying to hear this score in its completion.
MG- Though IMAX films are primarily known for their huge screens, many musicians actually prefer them for their superior sound systems.
SL- Exactly and it’s mixed in 7.1, which makes 5.1 seem like nothing! So, along with the production, everything is going to be really interesting. The bass is going to be right under your ass and different pieces of guitar are going to be coming from 10 o’clock and then 2 o’clock. So you are really going to be inside the film, which is exciting.
MG- Dave Matthews Band was also involved in the IMAX film All Access, correct?
SL- That was my only other IMAX experience and that was pretty easy on my part because we just did what we always do—-played—-and they filmed it. So we just had some extra cameras around. But I don’t think that was in 3D, though. In fact, I was a little jealous when I saw that U2 has a 3D IMAX movie [also produced by All Access’ Peter Shapiro].That is so cool!
MG- Finally, with Dave Matthews Band currently working on a new album, do you think of any ideas from your score might develop into new DMB songs?
SL- Well, actually, there is one idea I had been playing around with the band in soundcheck. I was trying to get Dave to play with one little line on the Griffin, because he has a Griffin too, so we messed around with it and messed with some chord changes. With the scoring, we wanted to be true to the band’s music, so I was writing from the sense of “well, this is something the band might play.” So there are definitely so moments where, listening back, I can hear Dave growling in the background. The one element I would have loved to put in the score were some vocals that weren’t really lyricsmore haunting voices. But he was away and it wasn’t going to work out. So there are possibilities for these pieces, even if it is just a piece of it, to come out. Now we are going to release a CD of this so people can here it.
_Senior Editor Mike Greenhaus stores his words, podcasts and typos at www.greenhauseffect.com