‘DEVIL’S’ in the details: The Tim Lee 3 make things happen for themselves and the scene
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Say this for the Tim Lee 3: This ain’t no bush-league rock ‘n’ roll.
On the surface, the get-’er-done attitude of the group’s bandleader may seem cantankerous or abrasive. After all, Lee eschews theatrics and flair in favor of plugging in and playing. With Tim — along with his bass player and wife, Susan Bauer Lee, and drummer Chris Bratta — shows start on time, guitar players don’t spend 10 minutes tuning their instruments from the stage and bands don’t sit around waiting for things to happen.
He learned a long time ago, he told The Daily Times this week, that for success to come, you’ve got to work for it.
“I think people definitely over-think things,” Lee said over lunch at Bread of Heaven in Alcoa. “The point of any art is the doing it. It’s not the talking about it or the questioning or the planning; it’s the doing. When I started playing guitar with friends as a kid, we had the name of the band, we had plans to tour, we had T-shirt designs picked out, and nothing ever happened.
“And then six months later, we’d start another band and pick out a name and plan for the T-shirts, and it would be the same thing. And that’s when I realized, this stuff doesn’t just happen. You’ve got to make it happen. You’ve got to take the bull by the horns and take control of your own destiny, so to speak.”
Friday night, the Lees will celebrate the release of a new album, “Devil’s Rope.” It’s the sixth record since Lee emerged from a decade-long hiatus in 2001 with the solo record “Under the House,” and the fifth on which Susan plays bass. In fact, “Devil’s Rope” showcases more lead vocals by her than by the band’s namesake, and after a revolving door of drummers, the Lees seem to have found a keeper with Bratta.
“A friend in Jackson pointed out that as Susan has come more forward, she’s playing the role of foil more than that of a bandmate,” Lee said. “And as she sings more, I get to play guitar more. It feels like we’ve found our places rather than Susan just coming along and doing a little more.”
But it was always a partnership, going back to Tim’s early days in music in Jackson, Miss. It wasn’t a musical one back then, but when he fired up The Windbreakers with long-time friend and partner Bobby Sutliff in 1982, Susan was along for the ride. She took the band’s early promotional photos and helped Tim establish Big Monkey, a record label out of the couple’s living room that gave a voice to an emerging Jackson music scene.
“The Windbreakers weren’t really a part of anything,” Lee said. “When I was growing up, you played in cover bands or you didn’t play at all. The Windbreakers were the first to challenge that.”
The band was part of a new wave of underground music that would get tagged with the college rock label, and while The Windbreakers didn’t get the attention their contemporaries in R.E.M. did, the band is still revered in certain circles for the jangly pop-rock that groups like Pavement would make famous. Along with his Windbreakers recordings, Lee’s solo works and side projects with Matt Piucci (of Rain Parade) and Howard Wuelfing (Nurses, Half Japanese) have garnered critical praise from Rolling Stone, Creem, Matter, Forced Exposure, The New York Times and more.
He’s toured the country extensively with his own bands and as a sideman for Let’s Active, Marti Jones, and the Swimming Pool Q’s. In 1988, he released his first solo album after recording six with The Windbreakers. “What Time Will Tell” featured members of the Bongos, the dBs, Chris Stamey Group, the Wygals and Let’s Active, and was hailed by one critic as “a stunning album, the kind of unexpected triumph that restores your faith in the power of art.”
Another solo album led to the regrouping of The Windbreakers and retrospective recordings with several side projects. In the mid-1990s, he took a break from the music business and, along with Susan, moved to Knoxville. After “Concrete Dog” and “No Discretion,” Lee ditched the solo act and put together a power trio dedicated to American rock ‘n’ roll in the purest sense of the word. “Devil’s Rope” follows the 2010 double album “Raucous Americanus,” which may have seemed like a head-scratcher to some in a day when albums, much less double albums, are fading in popularity.
The Tim Lee 3, however, has never been one to follow conventional trends.
“Why a double album? Why not? It seemed like the thing to do,” Lee said. “I don’t want to sit around going, ‘What can be done here?’ I just want to get it done. I have this reputation of wanting to do things my way, but that’s because nobody ever told me to do it any other way. It was never a conscious decision to go against the grain; it was the only way I knew. The only feedback I got when I asked for it was from a producer who told me, ‘Don’t forget; chicks dig slow songs!’
“So from the beginning, I’ve always gone against the herd mentality. It’s not like I’m striking a blow against the empire or anything; I’m just doing what I do.”
“Devil’s Rope” is a collection of songs that date back to early 2011, when the first — “Halo Days (4 ’Drew)” — was written in the wake of the death of a friend’s son. The title track emerged in late 2011, and by 2012, the band had assembled enough songs for another record. Tim and Susan hit the road, recording blocks of songs in the studios of friends across the country — Knoxville; Austin, Texas; Tucson, Ariz. Why? Because they could.
“For one, we have friends who have really cool studios; for another, it’s a good excuse to go work with those people, and when they offer you free studio time, you don’t say no,” Susan said.
“We we record in town, there are more distractions,” Tim added. “What we can do in an afternoon in Tucson would take eight or 10 hours in Knoxville, because one of us has to go home to let out the dogs. It forces us out of our element, and when we have a set amount of time to get things done, we try to be conscious of it, and that helps us be more productive.”
The end result is a hodge-podge of everything that makes rock ‘n’ roll great: the jangling guitars of “Signal” fades into the dirty blues rock of the title track, the acoustic sweetness of “Alibi” flows into the pop-punk of “Monkey Dance,” and the fuzzed-out garage-scuzz of “Says Baby Strange” transitions into the brooding Southern rock tinge of the album’s closer, “Any Day Now.” Susan’s vocals are more confident than ever before, and with the vocal load more than balanced, Lee gets the opportunity to showcase what a killer guitarist he’s always been.
That’s one reason the Tim Lee 3 has become something of the de-facto house band for a number of projects around town. At the annual Waynestock fundraiser earlier this month, the group served as the anchor for the weekend’s grand finale, an all-star jam of local musicians. They’ll play as the house band for an upcoming fundraiser for The Bijou Theatre. And once the insanity surrounding the release of a new album slows to a simmer, they’re thinking about putting together more of the showcases that they’ve dabbled in at The Pilot Light and The Well in Knoxville, which featured a cross-pollination of genres and local music acts that might not otherwise cross paths.
“We want to involve other people, and we want to play in front of other people,” Lee said. “I think if you’re a musician, you should just want to play. When we first started the Tim Lee 3, we played every night we could. We just wanted people to see what we were doing, because we thought it was cool.”
“We’ve always had that DIY thing going on,” Susan added. “We never wanted to rely on anybody for anything.”