This Thursday, April 26, the Fulero/Lehe Band will make a rare live appearance at the new Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, CA. It’s a pity that this new group only gets onstage once in a while due to circumstances because they are jam band gold, the sort of energetic self-starters that helped establish the genre as a stylistic stew pot that mellowed and mingled rock, jazz and more into something flavorful and new. Fulero/Lehe are descendents of proto-jammers like Steely Dan and Golden Era prog like Yes and King Crimson as well as jam archetype Phish. However, the fates have conspired to keep this project – the brainchild of keyboardist Asher Fulero (Scott Law Band, Everyone Orchestra) and guitarist Sean Lehe (Izabella, Poor Man’s Whiskey, 10 Mile Tide), both West Coast festival/jam circuit veterans – from taking full flight when originally Fulero/Lehe was to be a hard touring, wild setlist kind of band in the classic H.O.R.D.E. sense.
Recently, Lehe was officially diagnosed with Ménière’s disease, which means he is losing his hearing in a big way and will need to drastically alter his career plans in the days ahead. It’s a tough blow but one that makes this band’s debut, Cocoon (receiving official release at the Sweetwater this week and available online here), all the more special. Rounded out by the rhythm section of bassist Mark Murphy (Izabella, Huckle) and drummer Zach Bowden (Jackie Greene), the Fulero/Lehe Band has the feel of a beginning of something special, a combination that allows hitherto unknown talents to shine, a collaboration that sparks the best in those involved.
Everyone Orchestra at 4 Peaks (2008) by Michael Weintrob
“We met at 4 Peaks [Festival] during an Everyone Orchestra performance. It was a really cool night where Matt [Butler] ended up conducting two stages simultaneously. Asher and I connected musically onstage right away – a click kind of a thing – and we both have obvious Phish influences from earlier in our lives. That band was hugely influential on both of us and made for another quick link,” says Lehe. “Then we discovered we shared a LOT of the same musical influences beyond Phish, including 70s British prog-rock, which we’d both found it hard to find people to jump on that vibe with. When you play in the Bay Area it’s easy to get someone to play some country influenced, jamming rock ‘n’ roll influenced by the Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead, or even something a little more World Beat. But it’s hard to find cats who will really fly the prog-rock flag [laughs]. It’s a male dominated music to begin with, but now it’s a male dominated music from 30 years ago! It’s pretty much the peak of musical dorkdom, but Asher and I really connected over it.”
“The prog thing is there, but it was really that epic night with Everyone Orchestra that created an instant connection. We walked away thinking, ‘I want to play more with that guy!’ Then, I saw Izabella not long after that and thought they were a good band, but more, I thought, ‘That guitar player…and that bass player are fantastic! I want to steal them away and do a rock band!’ [laughs]. The more we hung out the more we realized we had exceptionally similar listening tastes,” says Fulero. “I’m a little more classically trained than Sean, and he’s a little more of a psychedelic warrior than I am. In that way, we push each other a little bit. It’s really great finding somebody along the way that you feel that kind of kindred connection to. It just seemed that everywhere we went we would run into each other – High Sierra, some show in Seattle – and after a while we said, ‘We need to do something together.’ I’ve dreamed of having a rock band for ages. After playing with Scott Law for so long, I was really missing that classic rock quartet thing.”
Lehe (left) w/ Izabella by Susan J. Weiand
“When we first met at Everyone Orchestra, before the performance backstage, Matt Butler asked, ‘What should we play? Can we do a song?’ Sean and I were both, ‘We should do a Phish tune!’ and we ended up playing ‘Back On The Train,’ and it was the highlight of the show. At that point, I was thinking, ‘That guy can really pull off that Trey power guitar lead,’ and he was thinking, ‘That guy can really play jam band keyboards and back up a ripping guitar solo.’ Or so I imagine [laughs]. It’s a skill like being a support player on a basketball team. The lead player is only as good as those guys back him up. It’s a very different skill than being a slaying lead keyboardist. The idea of being a rhythm player geared to supporting a guitar solo is a very jam band thing. The bands that really translate in this field are the ones where the rhythm section is really tight.”
Cocoon finds the band putting a lot of this theory into practice. The songs working in the studio setting but suggesting in classic jam band fashion the scintillating live extrapolations to come hiding in the notes.
Asher Fulero By Steve Kennedy-Williams
“Every sound on the record was laid down in three days over a short weekend studio session. Asher then put in a ton of time going over it and making it right. It’s nowhere near as prog as we’d originally envisioned. However, our second effort will be far less accessible,” chuckles Lehe. “The first track [on Cocoon] is so Steely Dan, but then it roams around from there. Asher has some compositions that are really, really involved on par with Gentle Giant/Genesis type stuff. I have a new tune for the Fulero/Lehe Band that could have come right off a Yes album, though I generally like a song to be ready to be performed after three days of rehearsal instead of 30 [laughs]. Some of the stuff I totally loved at 16 I put on now and find really obnoxious. I can put on King Crimson’s Discipline every six months though, no problem.”
“I had never worked with the drummer before but Sean and he had worked together in The Bumptet. So, we didn’t have a full-time drummer. We’d worked with a bunch of different drummers including Dave Brogan (ALO). But when it came time to do the record it just made sense to use Zach,” says Fulero. “I had never actually met Zach before the first day of recording, but he’s such a talented guy that it went well. He has such a natural feel for all the general grooves in the book. We were looking for some fairly classic things, so he was able to go to his natural tendencies.”
“[As producer on the album], I didn’t add as much as it seems. I mostly worked and reworked the mix and fixed some vocals, but other than that all of it was laid down in the original three day session,” says Fulero. “We didn’t fix any solos or backing parts. I might have done a few editing things to tweak timing here and there, but it was mainly mixing. We didn’t have a big budget to go into a big studio and spend a bunch of days getting mix right, so I kept at it at home. After three or four tries, I hit upon a feel that was fairly classic but also had a modern energy. I wanted it to be modern rock with a classic feel.”
Opener “Time Goes By” has an unmistakable Steely Dan feel, the jazzier end of rock explored delightedly, but Fulero explains that their influences haunt the entire album.
“All the songs are tributes, in a certain way,” says Fulero. “The second track [‘Cocoon’] is Phish meets Zappa, where the beginning is a very Phish-y, floaty jam and the end is very Zappa Shut Up And Play Your Guitar. Track three [‘One More Move’] is very much Wilco influenced. Track four [‘Life Inside The Blue’] is The Who with some other tendencies, maybe later Phish. The Radiohead tune [‘In Limbo’] was just an attempt to do something unique with it. Track six [‘You’ll Know Why’] is a little bit Jerry Garcia Band with a bit of Mose Allison mixed in. And the last one [‘Sugartooth’] is Genesis meets Yes [laughs]. I have to say, the whole synthesizer part on that song appeared during the recording session but had never been a part of live performances in the year leading up to the session. Listening back during mixing, I said, ‘I have an idea!’ and the whole synthesizer part just transformed the song.”
“This is also a chance to step up and be a lead singer as well,” continues Fulero. “Both of us are singers and songwriters who love the power of the voice. I don’t either of us are the greatest singer in the world, but that never stopped lots of people [laughs].”
Despite their gusto for the project, Lehe’s health issues have drastically altered the original vision for Fulero/Lehe.
Fulero/Lehe Band by Steve Kennedy-Williams
“Since I was 17 I’ve gotten dizzy spells and vertigo attacks, and they were very intermittent,” says Lehe. “When I was 17, one of the doctors I saw diagnosed me with Ménière’s disease and a second opinion thought I just had some residual vertigo problems due to tubes put in my ears as a baby to help with chronic ear infections. So, I just rolled with theory number two because Ménière’s disease is really messed up for a musician…or anyone really! For a musician, though, it’s a rock ‘n’ roll death sentence. As the years went on I had more attacks but none of them were so severe I ever missed a show or tour because of this issue. But then in the past 18 months it’s become more and more of a problem, and I now have an official diagnosis of Ménière’s disease from my ears-nose-throat specialist. I only have 44-percent of my hearing remaining in my right ear – I’m going deaf in my right ear. 40-percent of people get it in their other ear, too, and I’ve already noticed things in my left ear that mirror what was going on my right ear 10 years ago.”
“At this time, I’m getting two or three vertigo attacks per week, where I have to grab something and ease myself down to the ground. They’re called drop attacks. It’s definitely a scary thing,” continues Lehe. “It makes it hard to tour, but I’m a performer – that’s where my heart and soul are at. It’s what I do. I play live music. But what I think is in the future I’m done playing loud, drunken bars. That’s not going to be part of my life anymore. I’ll be moving into quieter instrumental music. I have a new project here in Sacramento called Wires and Wood with my good friend who plays mandolin and Weissenborn, and we have a stand-up bass player and percussionist. The instrumentation is almost exactly the same as the Garcia-Grisman group, but we’re leaning more towards instrumental stuff. I’m also doing this thing called The Bumptet, which I’ll be releasing the debut for in a few months, which is a tribute to my brother, who passed away last year. In the future, I’m going to need to rely more on direct connections to get my music out to people. My time of playing 120 gigs every year is coming to a close. But if I am going deaf then I’m going to get in as much playing as I can before then.”
The Fulero/Lehe Band performs Thursday, April 26, at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, CA with special guest Garrin Benfield opening the show.
Jeff Tweedy’s Tweedy band took the stage at Wilco Sky Blue Sky in Mexico on Monday for a set that ended with a Neil Young cover and saw Jeff joined by both of his sons at various points of the afternoon.