Interview: Will Lee talks Beatles and basses with The Fab Faux
Will Lee and The Fab Faux perform "Hey Jude"

“It was twenty years ago today Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play,” sang Paul McCartney on The Beatles’ groundbreaking 1967 album.

The title track from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band may have been a fictionalized account of the Fab Four’s formative years in Liverpool, but it wasn’t before too long that the world was celebrating that record’s twentieth anniversary.

2017 marked the disc’s golden jubilee.

The Beatles broke up eons ago (three years post-Pepper), and John Lennon and George Harrison now occupy the hallowed halls of the rock ‘n’ roll hereafter. But their music is timeless—and even today’s new acts still cite the Lennon / McCartney combo as their raison d’etre.    

The members of the Fab Faux were so inspired by The Beatles’ artistic accomplishments that they abandoned their enviable day jobs in order to make the re-visitation and re-creation of key classics like Rubber Soul a fulltime endeavor.

Now they’re celebrating twenty years together.

Formed in 1998 by musical mainstays from the CBS Orchestra ("Late Show With David Letterman") and The Max Weinberg 7 ("Late Night With Conan O’Brien"), The Fab Faux made it their mission to bring album-authentic interpretations of Beatles songs—hits or otherwise—to the concert stage. Where most tribute acts focus on co-opting the quartet’s visual aesthetic (the mop-tops, the "Ed Sullivan" suits, the Technicolor military jackets), the Fab Faux concern themselves only with The Beatlessounds.

And if that means cramming a dozen different instruments on a single stage with five guys instead of four, so be it.

The Revolver-ready ensemble still boasts all-original members in Bassist Will Lee ("David Letterman") and keyboardist Jimmy Vivino ("Conan") who founded the Faux together. Drummer Rich Pagano (Patti Smith, Levon Helm), guitarist Frank Angello (Marshall Crenshaw) and keyboardist Jack Petruzzelli (Ian Hunter, Rufus Wainwright) came on shortly thereafter to complete the lineup.

The Faux have played hundreds of shows together around the world and headlined Beatles festivals in Liverpool. They’ve rocked Radio City Music Hall, the Hammerstein Ballroom, and the Beacon Theater in their native New York—but they’ve also recorded at The Beatles’ Abbey Road Studios in London. Rolling Stone scribe David Fricke called them “the best Beatles tribute band ever, without the wigs” while shock jock Howard Stern said their note-perfect renditions gave him chills.

The Fab Faux are taking it to the streets again this spring with a series of dates along the East Coast. At the Keswick Theater in Glenside, Pa. on April 7 they’ll be accompanied by The Hogshead Horns and The Crème Tangerine Strings, who’ll help fill out the sensational symphonic mixes heard on the albums The Beatles themselves never performed live, like Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour. Other shows will feature eclectic fare from 1968’s double-disc White Album.

AXS rang Lee this week to discuss the group’s two-decade career, The Beatles’ lasting influence on musicians here, there, and everywhere, and the importance of vintage basses (and round-wound strings). Be sure to visit the band’s website for more news and upcoming shows.

AXS: Hey, Will! So tell us about this anniversary. Pretty exciting stuff!

WILL LEE: This is an exciting year for Fab Faux because it’s been twenty years for us doing this, with the same exact five guys. So it’s a historical landmark. As you might imagine, it’s kind of hard to keep five people in New York on the same project for any length of time! Usually everyone wants to go their own way, but in this case we found the combination of five guys who are so like-minded and dedicated to the music that we just keep going, and it gets better each time!

AXS: [Sings] Got to believe it’s getting better, it’s getting better all the time.

W.L: It’s insane, right? [Sings] It was twenty years ago today! So yes, we’re very happy to be playing together, and we’re at our best ever.

AXS: How’d the band start? How’d you decide, “Okay, I’ll do a Beatles tribute?”

W.L: We didn’t really…it kind of just developed in a lucky way. I was never thinking that I’d have a Beatles band, even though it was The Beatles who shot me into my career by being as great as they were, and by being great songwriters. It was back in 1963 and early ’64 when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, I was one of those kids who loved listening to the radio. But I didn’t see myself being a musician like them until I saw them on the show. Then I got back behind my drum kit that my dad bought me years prior, but that I hadn’t really touched until then! As soon as The Beatles showed me what to do, I was Mr. Music! I was a Beatle [laughs]!

AXS: Which songs—or albums or Beatles era—did you tackle first?

W.L: I don’t know how the second, third, or fourth songs were introduced into the set list. But I wanted to do more than the look-alike bands do. I wanted to bring more texture and depth, like with the double vocals, which I learned about as a studio singer in New York. I wanted to hear those extra keyboard parts and the percussion parts from the records, so I knew it wouldn’t just be four people. I looked for four other guys who could sing. I thought of the song, “Because.” Jimmy Vivino was good enough as a musician to pick it out on the keyboard, and he played the intro and we each decided which vocal parts we’d sing. That was the “Ah-hah!” moment, the genesis of the band.

AXS: Do you have any favorite Beatles songs, songs you prefer to play over others?

W.L: Oh, man! All of them, really, but now that you mention it I’m thinking about how lousy a movie Magical Mystery Tour is, but what a great album it is. There’s spectacular stuff going on with “Your Mother Should Know” and “Fool on the Hill” and stuff like that.   

AXS: Early on they were a jangly pop band. And later they grew into an anything-goes experimental rock band. Like on The White Album, there are so many different styles. It’s all over the map.

W.L: The funny thing with The Beatles is their evolution. They were training us to be ready for anything, basically! By the time that album came out people like myself had no idea that this record was almost a collection of solo songs, as compared to prior stuff. But I didn’t see it that way. I just thought The Beatles were up to their old tricks, and this was the thing they were doing at that moment. I didn’t know about the drama behind the scenes. I was just savoring every note like I’d done with the prior Beatles songs! Then later in life, we all find out that that was the case and that all means something a little different. You’re like, “Wow, okay, that was just Paul all by himself in the studio.” Like on “A Day in the Life” or “Back in the USSR.” and he’d play the drums, because Ringo was nowhere to be found!

AXS: Ringo was off gallivanting with Peter Sellers.

W.L: Who would blame him [laughs]! I’d go off with Sellers, too!

AXS: Do you require specific tools or gear, certain instruments or effects, in order to recreate The Beatles’ sounds?

W.L: It really becomes fun to play Beatles music when you have the right sound. So for me as a bassist, that would have to include a minimum of four instruments: The Hofner for the early stuff—and even the Let It Be and Rooftop stuff—and then a Rickenbacker. Both of those instruments gave a special sound, and they used flat-wound strings. That really makes it official! And then he evolved and experimented on The White Album, where there are tracks with Fender jazz bass and round-wound strings! Like “Glass Onion” or “Yer Blues.” Then there’s also the ’66 Fender Jazz Bass with round-wound strings. It’s pretty well-documented that John played that on “Helter Skelter.” So that’s pretty bad-ass! Paul was a guitar player at heart. He drew the short straw and went over to bass out of necessity. For some of those other songs John played bass on—or George would play—and they’d use a Fender VI, like on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” or “Rocky Raccoon.”