Review / Interview for Tabula Rasa in Guitar Player Magazine, 2000 - Posted on October 24th, 2000


Lyle Workman “Clean Slate”
By Matt Blackett

“Doing my own record was incredibly liberating,” says super-sideman Lyle Workman. “When I play other people’s stuff, which is how I make my living, my goal is to make them happy and give them what they want. It’s still me, but it’s a small percent as opposed to the 100 percent on my album.”

Workman’s latest solo outing, the mostly instrumental Tabula Rasa [Infrared] – a Latin phrase meaning “clean slate” – is aptly titled. After years of playing parts to accompany music by Todd Rundgren, Frank Black, or Beck, Workman was able to start with a truly blank canvas for Tabula Rasa.

“Most of the time I’m winging it when I write,” he says. “I very rarely have an idea of what I want the song to sound like as I’m composing. For instance, I wrote ‘Timbuktu’ the day I got an Ovation mandolin. I didn’t know how to play it, so I just started messing around, and I happened upon a few things that turned into a song.”

Such an innocent approach to writing might seem surprising to those who assume Workman’s rich chord progressions, staggering lead chops, and a style that melds elements of rock, progressive fusion, classical, and country are products of intense premeditation. For Workman, however, some degree of naiveté is essential for keeping things fresh. “When I write on piano, I move my fingers around until I find a chord I like,” he explains. “I don’t approach it from a series of learned voicings. I apply that same philosophy to the guitar. That’s why on almost every song on this record, I’m playing chords that I’ve never played before.”

Because many of the arrangements on Tabula Rasa are thick and complex, Workman was careful to choose instruments that would complement each other. To balance the rhythm tracks of “Timbuktu” – which were tracked with a Telecaster through a Matchless DC30 and a Vox AC30 – he used a Roland GR-300 guitar synth. “I still love that GR-300,” says Workman. “It tracks amazingly well, and I can always come up with something on it.” To produce an ear-catching, unusual tone on “Here Comes the Cavalry,” Workman relied on a Finnish kantele. “The kantele has 13 pretuned strings – like a little harp,” he explains. “I tuned it differently for every song so I could play melodies on it. I miked it with a Neumann M582 and played it with a pick. It’s a great timbre.”

Tabula Rasa also features plenty of Workman’s lead guitar – an ample feast of pretty melodies, tasty fills, and go-for-broke solos. As with everything else on the record, Workman sees his single-note playing as a wide-open road. “All the solos are off the cuff,” he says. “I’ll solo over a progression until I hear something I like, and I’ll just record over the parts I don’t like.”

On his previous solo album, 1995’s Purple Passages, Workman played nearly all the instruments and programmed all the drum machines. But this time out, he brought in a stellar cast of musicians that included guitarist Mike Keneally, percussionist Luis Conte, drummer Toss Panos, and ex-XTC guitarist Dave Gregory. According to Workman, being the bandleader comes as naturally as being a sideman. “Once I get the basic idea for a tune down, I start to get a clear picture,” he offers. “By the time the others come in, I pretty much know what I want – especially from the drums. I’m very specific about beats and fills. But I always bring in musicians whose playing I respect, so most of the time all I have to do is give them suggestions.”

Although Tabula Rasa offers listeners an extremely rich musical palette, the hired guns, exotic instruments, and dense arrangements all serve Workman’s quest to produce a work that is true to himself. “I made this album to make music that is honest and a part of me,” he says. “I think that’s what people respond to. I have a small but very appreciative following, and I’ll continue making music for them. When someone genuinely likes something you’ve put your heart and soul into, it’s the best feeling in the world.”

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