John Lefler: "My Voice Sounded Like Keanu Reeves Trying To Be Dramatic In The 'Rush, Rush' Video"
John Lefler might be better known as a member of Dashboard Confessional, but he has built a pretty impressive catalog as a Dallas-based solo artist. With the recently released six-song EP Shoutfire, Lefler shared with us some of his musical firsts.
What was the first instrument you learned to play?
First instrument that I got was a PVT-60, which I think is an odd-looking, almost ugly guitar. My dad got in a pawn shop in Edmond, Oklahoma, because my older brother decided he was going to play the drums after "Sister Christian" came out. I'm like, in third grade or whenever that came out. So I got the guitar, a Peavey amp, and it sits there. It was always around until gradually you pick it up and make some noise. It went like, basketball, baseball, and then, all of a sudden, none of that existed anymore. It was The Police, U2, even Living Colour. It's like learning a language; if you do it when you're young, you have the time to sit there and practice all day long. I feel bad for adults learning an instrument now. I couldn't do it. It's interesting, my older brother, he was an all-state jazz drummer. Went to Berklee. Just a really great musician, which was inspiring and somewhat impressive for me. So it wasn't until he left for college in 1990 that I decided to be the musician of the house. I kinda took it from there.
What was the first cassette you bought?
Men At Work, Cargo. It was the first time I got an allowance. It had "Overkill." In those days, you only know the songs you like, then the last five seconds of the song before it.
Oh yeah, I did that with a lot of U2 records back then.
It's funny, the Toto IV record, the one with "Rosanna" and "Africa" on it -- they made the mistake of putting "Rosanna" on the first side of the record and the last song on the second side was "Africa." So you'd play "Rosanna," flip it and play "Africa." I bet you no one has heard the rest of the record, to this day. Maybe until it came out on CD.
Well, it's easier on vinyl or CD.
I don't have any great story about why Men At Work. I think "Overkill" was a big song and I really liked it. Little bit darker, somehow. I think I still have that.
What was the first single you bought?
I remember saving up for Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger." I remember thinking it was the most amazing cover ever. Because it was just a three-colored tiger roaring.
What do you remember about the first time you played in front of people?
Let me think. You mean playing piano recitals or band stuff?
The first band, I was a sophomore in high school, because they always had the talent show. That was when my older brothers started moshing. In 1990, they outlawed the talent show. So we didn't have it in my time in high school. We were relegated to pep rallies. We had a deep baritone singer because the music was popular, like Alice in Chains. I don't think we even had a name. They introduced us as the Dulles High School band at the pep rally. We played "Man in the Box," plus some of the songs off the Singles soundtrack. So bad. We'd play the few ones that they knew and then we'd play U2 and Police songs, terribly, with a baritone singer.
Anything really stick out from the first proper show you played with that band?
I remember we were doing "With Or Without You" by U2. The singer couldn't remember the words, so he took a piece of paper, wrote the lyrics down, and didn't want to sit there and hold it. He took a booger out of his nose and stuck it on the mic stand. It was a windy day and we start the song and the paper blows off. He sings all the right lyrics, but to "One." Being the boss, I fired him instantly. The world's at stake when you're that age. No one would have known the difference. Bono might have known the difference.
You were doing a live mash-up.
Yeah, we kind of invented that. You get so mad. Looking back, you wished more stuff happened like that. Being a perfectionist kinda takes the fun out of it.
Speaking of an aspect of being a perfectionist, how did you respond when you first heard your singing voice?
Oh, it's so bad. I don't think I'm a very good singer anyways. You like the character of it and enjoy the music and that's enough, but I don't even entertain the thought of being a singer. At least I can perform a song at this point in my life. After I fired the booger singer guy, I started singing. All the grunge stuff went out the window. We did all Sting, The Police, and U2 - stuff we shouldn't have been doing in 1990. We weren't a popular band. Some people have natural voices. I was not one of those. My voice sounded like Keanu Reeves trying to be dramatic in the "Rush, Rush" video. Maybe since it started so poorly, I can at least chart some improvement.
Over the years, I've sung live in front of people. Actually, the first time I played in front of people, I sang. But I prefer to play the drums in a band situation. I have recorded my own stuff where I play all the instruments and sing. Recently, I recorded some stuff with a friend of mine who wanted to test out some new recording equipment. I can completely vouch for the drumming and guitar playing, but when it comes to the vocals, it's very uncomfortable to listen to. It helped that my friend was a singer as well. He said, "Eric, I hate my voice as well, so don't worry about it."
I know what you mean! Like, we would do five, ten-minute instrumental jams on each of the songs. That was the style where you'd have to solo and do this or that. Now I'm glad that we did those. Anything without singing is alright. It sounds like a garage band.
Anything pop out about the first show you played with Dashboard Confessional?
I don't remember the exact show, but it was April 2002. Meeting a band mid-tour, it was like that jump rope game, where it's in progress and they're not going to slow down for you. You have to catch up and I had to learn the songs on my time. Less than two weeks after I did my first show with them, we did the MTV Unplugged show. We had this hour and 45 minute set, which they edited down to an hour. Learning all these songs in D, E, open tunings. I had all this information in my head. I go there knowing I can play guitar, piano, and luckily, this was before I sang with the band. It was so bizarre; you grow up watching Unplugged and suddenly you're on it. And you're like, "Please don't let me make a mistake." In two hours of songs, I made one little mistake, but I think I only know where it was.
Do you recall the first time you heard a Dashboard song on the radio or saw it on MTV?
I was in the band the first time I heard a Dashboard song on the radio. When I got the record, I got Swiss Army Romance instead of The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, which was the tour I joined on. I was replacing the guitarist who left to play with Ben Kweller. I had the record, was learning it on the airplane. The reason why I got the job was because I showed up and did a good job. Basically I said yes. There was no audition. I showed up and didn't screw up. I got to know the catalog. I remember hearing "Screaming Infidelities" a lot on KROQ in L.A. So, around 2002, that summer, I can tell you all the videos that were on MTV2. That was when it was John Mayer's "No Such Thing" and stuff like that. When I'd be home from tour, I'd watch it to see if the video came on because I had never seen it.
What brought you to Dallas?
Salim Nourallah brought me to Dallas. He was on tour with Rhett Miller. I was stoked when Rhett opened for us and Salim and we became really good friends. Maybe a year or two later, I was between either moving to Milwaukee or moving here. Ultimately, I'm from Texas, but I've never lived in Dallas. So Salim's like, "I've got a studio, you can record here, you can play on other people's stuff. It's cheap here. I'll show you where to live." I needed to get out of L.A. I was like, "Absolutely!" I just took a chance and that's all there is to it, really. Salim and I are still really good friends. That first album, Better By Design, I did in his studio. I've recorded on dozens of people's records there.
What do you remember about the first time that you played here as a solo act?
I think my first one was at The Prophet Bar. People came to see if I could set up my amplifier or tune my own guitar, just snide comments like that. An early show we did was at the Granada, which we shouldn't have done. It was too early. Salim took me under his wing as far as performing and it was very helpful, introducing me to club owners and getting me as an opener for him at his shows, whether it was Opening Bell Mosaic or somewhere in Fort Worth. The first record is very involved, instrumentally. A lot of musicians on it. Then you go play it by yourself, you don't know how to do it yet. It's like a learning curve.
There was only one situation in Fort Worth where they had advertised it as Dashboard was playing. That's only happened once. The guy tried to get kids off the street, so these ten kids came in, all excited. Having a good time, waiting for me to play Dashboard songs. And so I said, "I'm not going to do that. First of all, I don't know all the words. Definitely not going to be able to sing them because they're not in my range. That's not what I'm here to do." I made them give all their money back to the kids that came in. Ever since then, I've been very clear about a distinction.
Dashboard Confessional plays the Wildflower! Art & Music Festival on Saturday, May 19.