Letting the Stew Simmer: A Conversation with Percy Hill's John Leccese

Written by Jeff Wahl

The original Percy Hill six-piece ensemble had the classic jam band sound. Its anthem "Been So Long" was one of the first songs that inspired me to delve into the genre back in the mid-90s. A few years later, the line-up changed and I figured that was the end of the magic. Original members Nate Wilson and Joe Farrell were still in the line-up, but two newcomers were added: drummer Aaron Katz and bassist John Leccese, both relatively unknown at the time. To say I was skeptical is an understatement.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by the band the first few times I saw them with the new formation. The old hits were not as prevalent, but the songwriting was inspired and the stripped down instrumentation left more space, creating breathing room for the entwined solos of Wilson and Farrell. Then came Color in Bloom. Now, I've made no secret of my love for the album. In the current issue of Relix, I refer to it as "one of the best albums of all time in any genre," a statement I stand by. I still recall the week promo copies were sent out back in 2000, when industry folk began chirping behind the scenes about this "great new sound of Percy." Of course, the disc went on to win Album of the Year at the inaugural Jammys and many predicted huge things for the band, including larger venue sizes and a major label deal. They never happened. Shortly after touring in support of the CD, the group decided to take a break.

There have been a few reunion shows recently, one of which was recorded last fall in Rochester, NH for the band's new live album, Percy Hill Live. That line-up included the "Core Four" as well as guitarist Adam Terrell (Reid Genauer and the Assembly of Dust), the band's original percussionist, Zack Wilson, a horn section and backing vocalists led by the talented Anastasia Rene. What follows is a conversation with Leccese, who discusses life on the road, the decision for the split and the new double CD, among other things.

JW: Fill us in on some of your background, in the days leading up to Percy Hill.
JL: I started playing bass when I was 16, and came up to the University of New Hampshire in 1991. That's where I met basically everyone who I would play with from here on out, up until this point. That's also the year that I joined Groove Child and when I met Nate [Wilson]. He actually did some Groove Child gigs with us way back when, when he was like 15 or something. Adam Terrell was in the band for a while, but he had quit some time earlier than me. I played with them until '95. In the interim, I played with the Kristin Mueller Trio for two years. Then Adam and I went to Europe in '97 and upon my return, the very day I returned, I got off the plane, came home and my phone rang. It was Nate and he said that they were shaking [Percy Hill] up and they needed a bass player. At the time, my plans were actually to leave New Hampshire and regroup in the New York area because my family was there and Kristin was moving down there and we just wanted to try the New York thing out. So Nate called and sort of screwed that whole plan up, obviously. At the end of '97, I ended up moving back to New Hampshire and jumped in with those guys. Aaron [Katz] had joined the band.

JW: What was the chemistry like for that first national tour with the band's new line-up? Do you remember a moment where things just clicked for the first time?

JL: I had known Aaron from Vitamin C and had played with him in different formations, just on and off, nothing steady. In a way, I didn't really know what I was getting myself into. I knew Nate the best. We all got together in one of the practice rooms at UNH. I was familiar with Nate's songs, but I wasn't necessarily familiar with Aaron's song material. I knew his drumming style, but I wasn't really hip to his tunes as of yet. So we all sat in the practice room and we all sort of played the early repertoire.

JW: What were some of those first songs that you played together?
JL: "Ammonium Maze" I'm sure was one of them and "Make Believe." "Chrissy Reid" we got together in the van on that first tour.

JW: How did that come together?

JL: We were in the van in maybe Montana and had been driving all day. We were discussing the kinds of tunes we already had and we had a pretty limited repertoire for that first tour. We had maybe 30 tunes or whatever and we just wanted to challenge ourselves and expand it a little bit. Aaron had the guitar out and was just sort of strumming through the chords and we all said, "Wow, that's pretty good. Let's try and play that one." It's three chords, a very simple tune, although the keyboard part would lead you to believe differently. It's a little more complicated. We sort of treated the tune as a straight-ahead rock song initially. It had a rock backbeat before it morphed into the more calypso style that's on the recorded version. We did a lot of that in the van early on. A lot of that Color in Bloom repertoire came from the van.

JW: How much collaboration was there in the songwriting process? Was a song like "Chrissy Reid" already written in stone when Aaron played it for you or did you each contribute?

JL: He pretty much had the song completely written, song and lyrics, but then we would tweak it a little bit and say things like, "instead of doing this part twice, let's do it three times." That's where the collaboration came in with all of us. The same with Nate, he would bring in a whole song and we would sort of nip and tuck together, as a group.

JW: Were your bass lines usually already written or would you come up with your own after the fact?
JL: There was both of that. For instance, in "Sun Machine," Nate had provided the bass line for me, which I think is one of the cooler bass lines. Something like "Chrissy Reid," I had started out with a different bass line entirely and then it morphed into the bass line that it is now. I don't know why. I think maybe we were thinking of it in a Paul Simon kind of feel. By association, I had thought of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the vocal group. They did a lot of "ow-oom, ow-oom" kind of stuff; that real low voice harmonic stuff that sort of slid around. They really inspired the bass line to that song.

JW: So then you went into the studio to make Color in Bloom, which really was sort of groundbreaking as far as the jam band world was concerned. How did the initial idea for the project come about? It certainly sounded nothing like the old Percy Hill.

JL: It wasn't necessarily a conscious effort. It felt so natural. I think that's the key to success. We didn't really think about it too much. We had an idea of what we wanted it to sound like sonically, in terms of the overall sound or feel of the album. We were obviously listening to a ton of Steely Dan at the time, as well as Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder and all that type of stuff. We were in the van for probably five weeks before we got to the studio. We did nothing but listen to music so I think all that sort of filtered its way into the process. But, in terms of saying "We don't want to make a jam band album," I don't even think we knew what a jam band album was at the time.

JW: I still don't.

JL: Right. I mean, it was like '98 or something. I don't even know if the term "jam band" was coined at that time. Was it?JW: Well barely, Budnick launched Jambands.com in '98.

JL: I think the material was strong enough to just sort of play itself in a way. We didn't have to strive to make it anything. It just came out the way it wanted to. We ended up recording about three extra tunes that never made it onto the album.

JW: Which three?.

JL: One was "Don't Think About It," which was from the earlier repertoire. One was "Make Believe" and the other was one of Aaron's tunes that I forgot the name to. We took stabs at those tunes and we got to a certain point where we realized they weren't fitting in to what we wanted to do. Again, it was such a natural event that it just sort of all came out without much thought.

JW: I remember there was such a great reaction to the album when it came out. After more touring, the band decided to stop performing regularly. Although you never officially said you were breaking up, it was pretty close to that. Talk about that decision and what the timing was like with such great feedback to the album.

JL: There were two things, one of which was the immediately tangible series of events that occurred on our last national tour. We had mishap after mishap pretty much from the day the tour started. The van was breaking down constantly. We got caught in a snowstorm in Maryland of all places, which forced us to sleep in a high school for the night with the Red Cross. I have photos of us in a bucket brigade, bringing cots and toiletry bags and coconut cream pies into the school. There were probably about 100 people in this school. We were supposed to be in Colorado the next day or something. On the way out, the van broke down for the second time. There was just a series of major mishaps and this was the third time we had been out. The crowds were growing. We were seeing success in a lot of areas, but in a lot of ways, all the rewards that came with touring didn't show themselves until after we came off the road. When you're looking for that instant gratification, when you want to go to a town and see lots of people there and there're people there but not as many as you had hoped for, it doesn't bode well for your psyche over the long run. When we got home, there was a wave of positive events: the Jammy nomination, Entertainment Weekly mentioned us, we got offered several bigger tours one with Mickey Hart I think. Between getting back and all these great things happening, we had decided that we had hit the wall of what we could do on the road at that particular time.

JW: So you made the decision to not break up officially, but just to take a break.

JL: Yeah, we never announced a break up and there was really no reason to. We still enjoy playing with each other now. Of course, the cracks begin to show when you spend as much time with a group of people as we ended up doing. You need to take that time apart in order for everything to grow. That was misconstrued by a lot of people as the band breaking up. Again, after that there was this huge wave of positive events. We had a lot of momentum that picked up after the decision to cool off a little bit. It was a hard time for everybody because we didn't see that immediate success. We were still young and if we had thought about it a little harder, we might have gone about it differently. It was maybe a little bit of an impulse activity.

JW: Do you think there will ever be another full tour? Has that been ruled out?
JL: Anything is possible. Nate and I are busy playing with [Reid Genauer and the Assembly of Dust] and Aaron is busy with his solo project and Joe is busy teaching music. So there's not much hope for us to pick it up full time any time in the near future.

JW: After you went and played with Reid's band, what was it like to come back to Percy Hill for the reunion shows?
JL: I think the most exciting thing about it was the grand effort that we had put in to produce the event that we ended up producing. It was hard to gauge what the demand for the band was. We have the website, which is popular and a lot of people talk on it. I meet people all the time that ask when Percy's getting back together, but I think it was really tough to gauge specifically how much demand there was for the band to come back. Nate had said that he always wanted to play with a big band with horns and singers and percussion. It was a dream of his for a while and we had talked about it years ago. So we decided if we were going to come back and do some shows we might as well just blow it out and get a big band together. Besides playing three amazing shows in front of packed houses and having such a great, welcoming response from everybody, the execution of it was what got me off the most. The long rehearsals and making sure everyone knew their parts was really satisfying for me.

JW: It seems a bit odd though. For a band that hadn't played together in so long, I wouldn't expect that you'd go through all of that trouble when you could have just come back as the quartet. Especially for only three shows, it was surprising.

JL: In a way, it's the only time we could have done it, because we didn't have a lot responsibilities financial and otherwise that go along with being a fulltime band. So we could put the time and energy and resources towards putting something like this together because we had all those things. When you're in a fulltime touring band, more often than not, those resources just aren't there.

JW: Talk about your philosophy on improvisation. As a bassist, what do you strive to achieve when someone else is soloing?

JL: The main thing for me is listening to the soloist and sort of gauging what type of solo it's going to be. It's mainly guitar players and keyboard players in my case. You can sort of tell out of the gate how they're going to treat a particular solo. Sometimes they scream into a solo. Other times they sort of tip toe into a solo. Depending on which approach the soloist takes, I can gauge what I'm gonna be doing. That's my first concern, and secondly it's the drummer. Obviously, I'm trying to lay down a groove that is tight and is a great foundation for the soloist but also has enough interplay so the soloist can react or offer something up. So mostly it's listening. Again, it's like the more you don't try, the better it ends up turning out. With Reid's band especially, I think we're really developing a nice improvisational style and it's much more conversant. There's a lot more conversation going on. For example, Adam might throw out a couple notes and then Nate will react to that. It's all about leaving space and reacting in a tasteful and musical way without stepping on the soloist's toes. It takes a while. It's like letting the stew simmer for a while. In the early days of playing with Reid, I think it was a lot more raucous and "let's just explode ourselves here." Now there's more restraint.

JW: Talk about the new live album.

JL: Well it's the entire show with the exception of "Slave [Self Promoted]," which wouldn't fit on the album so it's on our website as a video.

JW: What are your thoughts on the album? There are some rearrangements, like "Chrissy Reid," which sounds even more like Paul Simon's Graceland.

JL: [laughs] Right, right. More than anything, we had the privilege of performing at our top level. In some ways it's luck because you bring the sound truck in, set it up to record, and then hope that you don't miss the mark. It's like that theory: you can't study something without changing it. In the past, when we've tried to do something like that, maybe we've missed the mark, but on this particular evening, we nailed it. I think that energy really got captured. Everybody was at the top of their form for the evening.

JW: I assume Nate did most of the arrangements with all the extra instrumentation?

JL: Yeah, Nate gets the credit. Basically he wrote all the horn charts. We already had vocal parts for most of the songs that we would sing. So we just sort of handed them off to the ladies. We had to add a vocal part here or there.
JW: So Percy Hill is playing a couple shows this summer.

JL: Yeah, we have three officially as of now, Berkfest and the L.L. Bean Festival in Freeport Main on July 26. The third one will be in Vermont in late August, but it hasn't been announced yet.