California sounds, shaped in Buffalo
Kenmore native Jim Laspesa plays drums
and percussion alongside iconic pop musicians
Jim Laspesa is a longtime musician, but a bit role as an actor in Love & Mercy, the 2015 biographical movie about the Beach Boys co-founder Brian Wilson, shifted the direction of his diverse career.
Although he has played drums professionally alongside well-known names in pop and punk music for more than thirty years, performing in venues across the globe, it was a thrill for Laspesa to earn screen time in a Hollywood movie. No one had any idea how that opportunity foreshadowed his future.
“I’m still amazed at the order of how everything went,” he said.
Today, Laspesa is the percussionist and harmony singer in Brian Wilson’s Band, a job he has held for more than two years.
The Buffalo native, 57, has lived in Los Angeles since 1986. In that time, he has worked steadily as a musician and befriended a long list of heavyweights in the music industry. His talent and those connections led to his current gig.
The journey wasn’t a straight line, but over the years, pieces have snapped into place.
“My friend Darian Sahanaja became part of Brian’s band and was later hired to cast the Wrecking Crew for the movie,” Laspesa explained.
The Wrecking Crew, as pop music fans know, was a collection of talented studio musicians in Los Angeles who performed on thousands of recordings in the 1960s and 70s for bands like Simon and Garfunkel, the Carpenters, Neil Diamond, and Captain & Tennille. (The late Tommy Tedesco, the Wrecking Crew’s guitarist, was a Niagara Falls native, but that’s a different story.)
“In Love & Mercy, for the scenes where you see studio musicians, the filmmaker wanted those parts to be played by real musicians who loved the Beach Boys,” Laspesa said. “He wanted people’s hands to be in the right place on the instruments so it all looked correct. Darian hired me to be the percussionist. What a great feeling and honor that was.”
At the 25 minute mark, Laspesa and another musician carry a kettle drum into the studio. Within moments, he is in the background, clearly visible playing drums during the recording of several songs.
“[I]f we’re trying to portray some of the greatest players of all time in the Wrecking Crew, they should be real musicians,” Sahanaja told Rolling Stone magazine in 2015. “It’s a major pet peeve of mine when the actors playing musicians in movies are unconvincing, so I ended up gathering some of my super talented musician friends to play the parts.”
Appearing on film wasn’t the first connection between Laspesa and Wilson. They had known each other for years. More on that later.
Born on Buffalo’s East Side, Laspesa is the fifth of six children of the late Ignatius and Gertrude Laspesa. His siblings — Diane Keller, Rosanne Will, Joanne Moskal, Michael, and Mary Schinzel — all still live in Western New York.
“As a kid, I used to bang on oatmeal cartons and pots and pans,” Laspesa recalled. “Then the Slattery family moved in across the street. One of their boys, Jim, was a drummer. All of a sudden there were people in front of me who knew how to play, and it was amazing. They were my first musical mentors because they were doing everything that I wanted to do.”
Before then, Laspesa had been so intrigued by instruments that he cut cardboard into round shapes to make himself a mock drum set. That didn’t last long. Soon, his father bought Jim Slattery’s used drum kit for his son, who began practicing for real.
To this day, Laspesa has never taken a formal music lesson.
“You don’t have to know theory to feel music,” he observed.
Alongside his brother Michael, who wrote songs and played guitar, Laspesa began pounding beats in his basement. (Today, Michael is in the music business too, working as a jingle writer.)
When Jim was 12, the family moved to Kenmore, where he graduated from Kenmore West High School in 1981.
“My sister Joanne is the one who got me into the Beach Boys,” Laspesa said. “She bought the album Endless Summer in the 1970s. That was a gigantic record at the time, and the Beach Boys grew popular again. I have a memory of listening to the Pet Sounds album as a kid and thinking it was really different. I don’t know if I understood it, but it was intriguing.”
Laspesa came to love other bands as well, especially the Beatles, the Kinks, and Stevie Wonder. During his teen years, he continued learning to drum by keeping beats with songs on the radio. His music career launched with local bands like Green Jello and Big Wheelie and the Hubcaps.
“I was in a high school band called Green Jello, that was kind of punk rock, comedy rock,” he said. “We played at the Continental, and planned to move to Los Angeles as a band. I was also in Big Wheelie and the Hubcaps from 1982-85. I saved money for a few years, which helped get me here. We were all just out of high school, and it was exciting at the time.”
Green Jello became infamous in Western New York for being banned at several venues. (Read their Wikipedia page to learn their hilarious history.) They eventually garnered national attention, but by then Laspesa had left to join the Muffs, a Los Angeles pop-punk band with a cult following. He played with the Muffs for a year, touring and traveling overseas for the first time.
When the opportunity arose to play drums for Dave Davies of the Kinks, Laspesa was thrilled.
“I played and recorded with him for seven years, and loved it,” he said. “The Kinks are one of my favorite bands ever. I got to play all those fantastic songs, including every hit. I got to sing all of Ray Davies’ harmony parts with Dave. I’m really proud of that. It was a big thing for me.”
Laspesa’s connection to Brian Wilson did not begin with the movie Love & Mercy. He had met Wilson, a California native, several times around Los Angeles over the years.
“I had been in the city so long that I had actually been around Brian a number of times in different situations,” he said. “We’d see each other at parties. I’d sit down and talk with him, so we knew each other.”
When the movie finished, Wilson wanted to perform a concert at the wrap party, held at the boutique Hotel Figueroa in downtown Los Angeles. Several members of his backing band live out of town. Laspesa was local, so he was recruited to play drums that night. He knew the music already. Because of industry connections, he had been friends with Darian Sahanaja since 1994. Sahanaja is a key member of Wilson’s band, and Laspesa knew most of the other band members as well.
“It was an obvious thing for me to do it,” Laspesa said. “Darian said, ‘Jim could do this. He knows the feel of the songs. He’d be a perfect fit.’ When I walked into that rehearsal, Brain saw me behind the kit and said, ‘Oh, hey.’ He recognized me and and everything was cool.”
A short time later, Laspesa’s name was submitted to join Wilson’s band as a full-time percussionist and harmony singer.
“I had actually suggested him for the band as early as 2003, but couldn’t push it through,” Sahanaja said via email. “Jim’s intuitive musicianship and perfect pitch have always impressed me. He has an unabashed love for Brian’s music and is passionate about the Beach Boys’ legacy. He was a perfect fit.”
“I guess I didn’t really need to audition,” Laspesa recalled. “I had a half-hour phone call with Paul von Mertens, the band’s musical director. Most of the guys knew me, and they knew I loved the Beach Boys. They got a good feeling from me.”
The first concert Laspesa would play was scheduled for two months away in Colorado Springs. He needed to master 65 songs before then.
“I had a percussion rig sent to my house and had to learn the parts. Darian is the keyboard player in the band, and he doles out the harmonies. He’s a real student of the Beach Boys and their music. He had the vocal parts separated out on computer. I received a CD with all my vocal and percussion parts.”
Laspesa does not read music, so he memorized and studied like a graduate student. He spent hours driving through Southern California, piping songs through his car stereo. One speaker played music, and the other was Laspesa’s part. It was not simple, even for a veteran musician.
“I love the music so much that it was a joy,” he recalled, “but it is not easy music to play. These guys are very precise with their arrangements. With Brian’s compositions, some of the vocal parts he created are not intuitive. A song like ‘In My Room’ may sound simple, but when you dissect it, it’s at least five parts. Maybe three of those parts are what you sing in your head when you listen to the song. There is always one part that’s so unusual that if you take it away from the mix, it doesn’t sound the same. Some parts are very low, some are very high.
“The Beach Boys mixed harmonies like the Four Freshman with rock and roll. When Brian wrote those classic songs, he was a young kid with a piano. How did he hear that in his head and manage to get it down on paper? That’s why Brian is a genius.”
The preparation and hard work paid off. When Laspesa finished playing his first concert with Wilson’s band, he left the stage feeling exhilarated. Sahanaja recalled that night.
“After the show, all of us [in the band] were winding down in the dressing rooms,” Sahanaja said. “We are our own worst critics. Some of us were upset that we didn’t nail a part just right. Others complained about the sound onstage. There was a whole bunch of talking, and in the middle of it all, Jim sat quietly in a daze.”
At a break in the conversation, Laspesa spoke softly.
“That was the greatest moment of my life.”
Band members chuckled, according to Sahanaja, thinking that the new guy was being sarcastic, trying to lighten the mood. But Laspesa looked up and met everyone’s eyes.
“No, seriously,” he said. “I think that was the greatest moment of my life.”
“And with that,” Sahanaja said, “he put everything in perspective.”
Wild Honey Orchestra
Laspesa is also proud of his work as a founding member of the Wild Honey Orchestra, an ever-changing assembly of musicians — including several regulars from Wilson’s band — who perform an annual tribute concert that raises money to help combat autism and spotlights a different artist each year.
Last February, the Wild Honey Orchestra played a live show at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, California, performing music from The Lovin’ Spoonful. Three surviving members of the original group — Joe Butler, Steve Boone, and John Sebastian — joined them onstage.
“It was the first time those three guys have performed together since the 1960s, other than when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Laspesa said. “We don’t just do four or five hits. It was a two hour show. The Lovin’ Spoonful guys came to rehearsal and they were blown away. Some of their songs, they had never heard live, let alone with an orchestra. They recorded it once, and that was it.”
Each year, the Wild Honey Orchestra organizes a concert focused around a musician’s catalog, then invites that musician to accompany them. Past guests have included Jackie DeShannon, members of Three Dog Night, Buffalo Springfield, Jackson Browne, Al Stewart, and Micky Dolenz — along with many others. Shows sell out quickly. Laspesa has been involved in the project since the late 1990s.
“I’m excited about this every year,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing to watch these artists look around and react when their music is played. It’s great to be with your friends and work toward a common goal. I’m proud of what we do.”
His longtime partner, songwriter and bassist Derrick Anderson, is also a veteran of the Los Angeles music scene. Anderson performs with the Wild Honey Orchestra, has fronted his own band, the Andersons, and toured as the bass player for the Bangles. In 2017, he released a solo album featuring several prominent guest musicians.
Although he has lived on the West Coast for more than 30 years, Laspesa’s Buffalo roots are always on display. He visits family regularly in Western New York, jokes about Mighty Taco, and remains a fan of the region’s pop culture from the 1960s and 70s.
“I learned so much about music from listening to WKBW and WYSL,” he said. “That was huge for me. I loved all the jingles, and the classic D.J.s and the great music. [In California] I also had an online radio show and played music from Buffalo artists like The Road, with novelty records and one-off 45s like ‘We’re Gonna Win That Cup.’ I guess I’m very sentimental about my childhood in Buffalo.”
Covid cancelled Brian Wilson’s scheduled tour for 2020. Musicians and fans remain disappointed that live music wasn’t performed this year.
“It sucks,” Laspesa said. “We had so much work coming. I was looking forward to going to Japan for the first time. We had an amazing 2020 lined up, and now it’s all postponed until next year.”
That doesn’t diminish the thrill of working with one of America’s greatest composers. Laspesa appreciates every show, and understands his responsibility.
“When I joined Brian Wilson’s Band, my focus was on being prepared and professional,” Laspesa reflected. “I didn’t want Brian to think of me as anything other than a guy who’s here to play his music faithfully. Brian’s music has such a spiritual quality. I believe he was blessed by God when he created those beautiful harmonies. His songs are hymnal, like church music. It gets in your bones, and is like nothing else.”
© 2020 by Jeff Schober
Special thanks to Jeff McEvoy, Brian Wilson's photographer, who graciously allowed his photographs to be published here. Jeff is a Western New York native who was previously profiled on Buffalo Tales. Read that story here.
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