INTERVIEW: Dave Leslie of The Baby Animals

daveandsuzeHot off the success of their first studio album release in 20 years, This Is Not The End (and its Top 20 ARIA Album Chart debut), iconic Aussie rockers The Baby Animals are hitting the road for the national Feed The Birds tour. The tour will be filmed for the band’s first ever live DVD, to be called Feed the Birds (Live). And Baby Animals can always be counted on for great guitar moments courtesy of lead guitarist Dave Leslie and vocalist Suze DeMarchi. Dave’s one of those incredibly adapatble players who is able to sound perfectly at home whether he’s playing a simple rhythm part, dishing out the shred or – and this seems to be his most impressive skill – playing the kind of stuff that sounds simple until you try to play it yourself, whereupon you learn that it’s impossibly perfect and unpredictable. I Heart Guitar caught up with Dave right before the tour kick-off to talk shop. 

So you’ll be filming a DVD on this tour. What’s that gonna be like? Are you shooting every show?

Nah, we’re shooting the Metro show in Sydney, I think it’s the 9th of November. That’ll be the last show of the run, so I’m pretty confident we’ll have all the bits in order by then. It would have been too expensive to shoot every show and compile it. It’s costing us a fortune as it is. But it’s gonna be great to have a record of it. We had a vote for the setlist, so we’re actually doing quite a few songs that we haven’t done for a while. It should be good fun.

I saw the show in Melbourne on the last tour and I thought it was really cool how the new and old material sat together. 

It is a surprisingly cohesive thing across the generations. I think having the new guys in the band gives the old material a bit of a kick, and it is ‘the band,’ and the band’s always done an eclectic mix of stuff. It’s really good to be able to mix it up, do some darker ambient things and then some ball-tearing rock and everything in between. It’s worked out well.

So the new guys in the band – where did they come from?

Well, Mick Skelton, the drummer, I’ve known for years. I’ve played with him in various different line-ups and bits and pieces. And we basically gave him an offer that he couldn’t refuse. Dario we’d known as well. He’d done a few fill-in gigs for us when we played at the Coloundra Music Festival, and Suze turned to me and said “Can we keep him?” “Well you can do whatever you like!” So we kept him.

baby animals

It’s a funny thing with bands – if you change the rhythm section you can change the whole feel of the band, but in this case it still sounds like Baby Animals: just a new, refreshed Baby Animals. 

Yeah. It did change it a bit. These guys are adventurous as well, and Dario’s a great rock player. Mick plays all styles. So it hasn’t impeded our musical progress at all, y’know?

So you basically released this album DIY – how’s that been working out? 

It’s definitely got its advantages as far as streamlining the decision-making process, material-wise and everything like that. We are finding out now on the back end of it that we are responsible for paying for everything. Advertising and everything. It’s an indie label so they didn’t throw a bunch of money at it, whereas when we signed with a big label in the late 80s, early 90s there was lots of money going around. We’re finding that it’s costly, but having said that, you have all that control. Y’know, I’m sitting in the mix and we’re getting mastering copies back for our approval, and that was something that we’d never had control over. It was sort of like “Well, now that you’re finished your album will be mixed and it will be mastered and you’ll get a copy of it. Like it or lump it.” But now we had the power – or not the power so much as the opportunity – to listen to it and maybe tweak things we weren’t entirely happy with. Having said that, it is what it is at the time it was recorded, and it’s still not finished but you have to leave it somewhere!

Ah, the old ‘albums aren’t finished, they’re abandoned’ thing. I have this thing where whenever I get a new piece of gear I have to re-record the same batch of songs with it. I can’t move on from these three songs. It’s like “I’ll get it right some day, and maybe this piece of gear will be the thing to do it.” And then you listen back and it’s like “Oh whoops… I got it right four years ago when I got that new pedal…”

I know what you mean. It’s hard. That’s when the producer comes in and says “No, it’ll be fine.” I guess that’s why it’s called a record: it was always just a record of what it sounded like at that point in time, and we’re finding that the songs are still growing, they’re still evolving a bit live, and they probably always will, mutating into other things.

And I guess another aspect of DIY is using social media, which is a relatively inexpensive way of getting out to other people. Twenty years ago you couldn’t have imagined being able to interact with artists like that. 

Yeah, I’d be a serious stalker if that was happening 20 years ago. It’s good, it’s a great opportunity. We have these question-and-answer sessions and it gives people an opportunity to engage. And it gives us an opportunity at gigs: “Oh, you’re so-and-so!” Y’know, it’s really good. It’s a great marketing tool.

Like The Baby Animals on Facebook

The first time it hit me, I was on a tram and I was having a conversation on Twitter with Vernon Reid about parenting. 

That’s awesome! That’s a cool moment! I love the fact that you can do that. I get a big thrill when Pete Thorn gives me a thumb up on a comment or something.

baIt’s probably time we shifted into the guitar-nerd talk. You were saying recently on Twitter that you were modding one of your cabinets for stereo operation for the tour. How’d that go? Do you have much of a background in that sort of stuff?

Not really, no! I was really trying to recall what I learned in Year 10 woodwork! And it worked okay – it all fit, it all lined up and everything like that when I installed it – it just made the cabinet sound like ass! I plugged it in yesterday. It was a really cheap cab, a lucky eBay find. The cab cost like two hundred bucks, and I pulled the back off and was like, “Wow, Celestion G12-65s! I dated them to about 1983. I thought “These are nice,” and they sound great as four but they really don’t sound very nice in twos. They’re really cracky and there’s all this bottom end going on. I don’t know if I’ve done the wrong thing will putting the two compartments in the cab. As a woodworking thing it was a success but as a guitar sound thing it was a fail.

So what are you using on the tour?

Unless a miracle happens, that cab will probably stay in the garage. We have to rent gear, so I’m using a three-amp setup. The signal gets split three ways. At the moment one way is through a Super Crunch box into a TC Electronic Nova system for delays and choruses and things, and that goes into a Reynolds cab. The other way goes into a Line 6 M9 which goes into the front of the MI Amplification Duke. I’m just trying to thin of a way to get the Duke into the mix of things. The Duke is working great, and that’s going into another 2X12 with Wizards in it. And the third could be a 65 Amps London going into the second speaker of the Reynolds. I’ve got the back off the Reynolds so I can use it as a stereo box just for solos. It’ll go to a preset solo channel so that way it doesn’t mess with the rhythm sound, so the rhythm sound maintains and you add this little thing to make the solos sound pretty poky and middy, and it’ll just poke through the middle of your already-existing sound. And then when you’re finished you just hit it off and it just disappears from the middle and the vocal comes back in. It’s working really well. The front-of-house guy doesn’t have to chase it and it doesn’t fuck with your normal sound. I should be able to pull a half-decent sound out of that gear, y’know? I’ll be doing something wrong if it sounds bad.

One thing I’ve always liked about your playing is that when you want to pull out the real shred stuff, you really do it, but when you’re playing rhythm it doesn’t sound like a shredder awkwardly playing rhythm – you’re really able to sell both elements. Where did that come from?

Probably the English guys I listened to. I mean, I’m a huge Pete Townshend fan, and I’ve always been a rhythm guitar player. We’re mostly a three-piece band. Suze plays rhythm guitar for bits and pieces but it’s mostly been a three-piece ideology, I guess, so you’re a rhythm guy first and foremost, and then the opportunity have a wail and do single note things and other tech stuff is just a bonus, y’know? Rhythm is the most important thing.

I mean, you listen to the Van Halen stuff and you get so wrapped up in how great his leads are, and then you listen to what he’s doing on rhythm and it’s mind-blowing. 

Far out, man, Edward Van Halen’s an awesome rhythm guitar player. But he’s not a strummer. He comps. These rhythmic sort of stabs. Having done that tour [Baby Animals supported Van Halen on the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge tour], you stand there night after night listening to his parts, and fuck man, that guy’s so good! As well as being a fucking monster solo player, he and Alex just lock in, man. It’s a real lesson.

Read Gear Porn By Dave Leslie: Ernie Ball Music Man EVH

Did you ever pick his brain? 

He’d be jamming. He spent a lot of time in our room and you’d watch a lot of stuff, but when I’d ask him something specific he’d go “Aww c’mon man, I’m not a fucking guitar teacher,” y’know, he’d get really coy about it. “Let’s just jam, man!” So I’d like to, and I did garner a little bit of stuff. You can’t not learn by being around and watching a person like that play. But as far as “Can you teach me how to play ‘Eruption’,” he wouldn’t do it. Bastard. Hahaha.

Well one thing I find doing a lot of interviews is that you can learn a lot about music just by talking about different ways to approach it, different things to think about while playing aside from the technical aspects.

Taking the guitar head off, yeah. I’m finding that doing these old songs and everything, “Early Warning” and so on, you think “I’m enjoying it but I’m a different player now, 20 years on.” I don’t know about trying to do super-charged pentatonics any more. I’m not trying to be slower on purpose but you can say what you need to say with a lot less effort rather than being young… it’s like the adage of the two bulls. The young bull runs up to the old bull sitting in the field and he says “Hey dad, let’s run down to that field and fuck one of those cows down there,” and the old bull says “Hey son, let’s walk down and fuck them all.”

Haha. So what guitars are you taking on tour?

My two Grubisa Merlins – the original tiger one and the cherry with the tremolo – a Grubisa Junior with a single P-90, and a Taylor SolidBody Classic.

Read Gear Porn By Dave Leslie: Grubisa Merlin

Oh cool! I have a Taylor SolidBody.

Oh they’re great! Mine’s got the two mini hum buckers. Man, for this song “Because I Can,” It’s got this Jimmy Page kind of light-but-heavy-at-the-same-time thing going on, and it works great. You roll the volume back and it cleans up without getting muddy. I really like that guitar a lot.

And the tone control is designed to give you that cocked wah sound when you roll it back.

Yeah, very clever. A guitar player must have thought of it! Because you’re in no-man’s land most of the time. “Oh really? You can actually use this?” It’s got that Queens Of The Stone Age kind of mid voicing that goes straight through the middle. And the in-between pickup sounds on it are really, really good. It’s like channel-switching for old guys. There’s a position, I think it’s the second from the front on mine, where it really cleans up. You can be running some pretty heavy drive then pull the volume back and it’s a really nice clean. It’s good to have controls to be able to twiddle on the fly. One advantage about having offspring – I’ve got boys – is I’ve got the little tyres from their toy trucks and I’ve put them around the gain knobs of my guitar pedals so I can move them with my foot.

Genius!

I know! The poor kids are playing with trucks with no tyres, but, y’know…

“Why does it only turn left? Daaaaaaad!”

Haha.

The new Baby Animals album This Is Not The End is out now.

Feed The Birds Australian Tour Dates:

Saturday, 12 October
Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle
Tix: http://www.bigtix.com.au

Friday, 18 October
The Zoo, Brisbane
Tix: http://www.oztix.com.au

Saturday, 19 October
The Zoo, Brisbane
Tix: http://oztix.com.au

Thursday, 24 October
Governor Hindmarsh, Adelaide
Tix: http://moshtix.com.au

Saturday, 26 October
ANU Bar, Canberra
Tix: http://www.ticketek.com.au

Wednesday, 30 October
The Wool Exchange, Geelong
Tix: http://www.oztix.com.au

Thursday, 31 October
The Corner Hotel, Melbourne
Tix: http://www.cornerhotel.com

Saturday, 2 November
Astor Theatre, Perth
Tix: http://showticketing.com.au

Saturday, 9 November
Metro Theatre, Sydney
Tix: http://www.metrotheatre.com.au