Interview with Alex Lee – Placebo, Suede
Alex Lee has been lucky enough to have enjoyed 17 years of playing guitar for a living. The many band’s he’s played for include Strange Love, Suede and now Placebo. I caught up with him on tour with Placebo at London’s Wembley Arena.
Why don’t you start off by introducing yourself and talking a little bit about what your playing career has included?
Well, my name’s Alex Lee and I’ve been playing guitar full time now for about 17 years. I left school and started playing in bands straight away and I’m still doing it now! I played in bands at school, was about 15 when I did my first gig and then within six months of leaving school I was asked to join a Bristol band called Blue Airoplanes. They needed a new guitar player to go on tour supporting a band called The Darling Birds who had a top 40 hit at the time so it was great! That went really well and they asked me to stay and pretty soon after we ended up signing a major deal. It snowballed from there really and things started happening really quickly for the band. There was just a big transition at that point from being on a indie label to being on a major and having enough money to go on tour properly and pay everyone a modest wage.
And where did you go onto from there?
After that I played with a band called Strange Love who were all friends of mine from Bristol. We put that band together after I left the Airoplanes. Strange Love then went on to support Suede and that’s when they needed someone new to play guitar. They knew me already as I’d spent quite a long time touring with them whilst playing with Strange Love. So really it’s all about meeting people and realising you’re on a similar wavelength as people.
How would you describe your approach to playing the Guitar? Do you tend to play with a technical mind or pick things up by ear and so on?
I think the great thing about playing pop music is that it encourages you to use your imagination. Essentially, the only rules are the one’s you impose on yourself. So I think the nice thing about it is, is that you’re able to try all the conventional things; playing rhythm lines, playing lead lines and playing the right chords…And then stop and have a go at playing the wrong chords, play something completely different, take an axe to your guitar!! You know, you can do anything until someone inevitably tells you to shut up or that’s brilliant! I quite like that approach…start simple and see where that takes you really. I think if you’re too aware of the conventions of pop music and guitar playing then things end up sounding too generic. I think realistically what you’ve got to do is find out what’s good about the music you like and get a good combination of following an arrangement and also some really out there playing. A good example of that is the Pixies for instance where every element of the band when put together in their own demonic way made their sound.
How would you describe you role within Placebo?
Well, i’m replacing the keyboard player who was playing on the last tour so it was a Keyboard player that they were originally looking for. The fact that I could play guitar was obviously appealing to them as there are a lot of songs on the new album that are guitar based. It also frees Brian and Stef up to do other things if they want. Brian can now put the guitar down for certain songs live and go off and not have to worry about that which can make for more of a visual thing. Then I can free Stef up sometimes so he can give me the meat and potato parts and he can go and do some of the more interesting parts.
What’s the tour preparation process like? How much do you rehearse before a big tour such as this?
With this tour we did quite a lot of rehearsing, we managed to rehearse for a month which was a rare luxury. With the Suede thing I didn’t get any rehearsal at all, they just sent me a cassette and had a listen on the way the airport and scribbled a few notes down when I got there!! But with Placebo we had a months rehearsal which involved a lot of programming as it was all new equipment we were using. Learning the songs was the easy part!
What would your advice be to someone who’s starting to play live?
I think, if you’re playing in a band, be a team player. It’s not all about you, play together, play as a unit. It’ll sound better if everyone listens to the other players in the band and you work on the whole idea that it doesn’t matter if you make a little mistake hear or there. Generally, with enough volume and spirit within the band, that’ll see you through some times and make people listen to the band as a whole. You know, if you’ve got monitors get the other members in there and listen to what they’re doing. Just concentrate on the basics like staying in time and think about the pyrotechnics later!
Do you want to talk a little bit about your live sound and how you go about moulding your sound to the sound of the band?
This tour is slightly different for me (the Placebo tour), because I’m using laptops on stage which is a first for me, so I’m completely in the digital domain now. I’m using a system called ‘Guitar Rig’ for the guitars, so every sound is programmed before hand, then saved and you can tweak and save at each show if you need to. So I go from the guitar, to a sound card, to the laptop and then out into a Marshall power amp and speaker. I wanted there to be some form of a valve and speaker in there somewhere! The reason we’ve done this is because both Brian and Stef have very classic rock setups; Brian plays through a Fender twin, Stef through a Marshall. So we thought it would give the sound a different texture. You have to get used to the new technology quite quickly, although I did have to put in the hours when everyone else was in the pub, I was sitting down shouting at computers!! Its still an education to me but we’re a year into this tour and its still working fine so touch wood it’ll work tonight!!!
Finally, do you have any advice for people who are starting to play and maybe have aspirations to get work at some point in the future?
Well, work comes from meeting people. It doesn’t necessarily come from having virtuoso skills. You know, you don’t have to be a technical genius to get on in this business. Don’t be fooled by the old session player image of some guy who can just turn up and play at a million miles an hour and sight read any piece put in front of him. I can’t read any music, I can’t play at a zillion miles an hour. The abilitly to do all that sort of stuff is a bit old school really. What you do need is a good musical brain and a good ear and learning to work with people. I think that’s really important. It’s life skills as much as music skills that’ll get you work.