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.
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
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
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
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