Heading towards the 30th anniversary of his professional recording debut, Bruce Hornsby shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, the piano-wielding Grammy Award winning singer/songwriter is making arguably some of his finest work here in the present day, as exhibited on his two most recent solo studio releases, Halcyon Days (2004) and Levitate (2009). In the midst of those activities, Hornsby made a jazz record with Christian McBride and Jack DeJohnette, spent some time pickin’ on bluegrass with his longtime friend Ricky Skaggs and summarized his career to date with an eclectic box set release Intersections (2006) that mixed deep cuts with his more familiar hits in a form that often transmogrified them beyond recognition.
Somewhere in between expanding his discography with the above releases, Hornsby found time to put together his very first musical, cryptically titled SCKBSTD, a project that he spent several years working on with longtime collaborator Chip DeMatteo prior to eventually debuting the work this past January in Norfolk, VA.
With SCKBSTD officially submitted for public approval and feedback (and one should note that the audience approved), Hornsby has turned his attentions at least briefly back to his main gig of making music and with the upcoming Bride of the Noisemakers live release [which will initially be available as an Amazon exclusive in May with a general release following in June], Hornsby takes a moment to recap where things are at. Since his initial live release Here Come The Noisemakers was released in 2000, Hornsby and his band of Noisemakers (an appropriate band name for Hornsby’s longtime musical cohorts) have continued to refine a live show that was already quite epic at the time Noisemakers was recorded.
In fact, Bride shows how far Hornsby and the Noisemakers have come in the past 10 years; Bride plays like a mixtape for the diehards, loaded with nearly three hours of deep tracks, newer songs and relative rarities. While the Noisemakers live release occasionally felt a bit premature at points, with moments like the glorious “Fortunate Son/Comfortably Numb” segue not yet realized, Bride gets it right, first and foremost with that hallucinogenic Hornsby/Floyd mashup finally present and accounted for.
Besides “Fortunate Son,” you won’t find a lot of repeats and there are even fewer of the expected hits, which if you know what Hornsby’s about, this part will make perfect sense. In their place are some of the most definitive versions of many of the greatest album tracks from Hornsby’s catalog. No matter how many bootlegs you have (speaking from personal experience), the versions of “Resting Place,” “Dreamland” “Country Doctor” and the previously mentioned “Fortunate Son” on Bride of the Noisemakers (and I’m only naming a few of many highlights) will lift you up to new and higher places.
In a world of entertainment constantly wrestling for your dollars, the Bride of the Noisemakers release from Bruce Hornsby is worth every last cent and then some. It’s a mighty fine prelude to this summer’s dream pairing of Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers, who will share the stage with longtime friends Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. I had the chance to talk with Bruce earlier this week to find out what we all can look forward to.
[Setting the scene for the conversation, Hornsby's manager brings me on the line with Bruce and as he's introducing me, Hornsby interrupts him, recognizing my name from a prior interview that we did in 2009]
Bruce Hornsby: Matt Wardlaw. I know you! You’re kind of a big shot - a big time guy!
Matt Wardlaw: Allegedly!
I’m kind of impressed by that. I’m a little intimidated now; I don’t know what to say. I’ll try to use lots of big words to impress you. [Laughs]
Thank you….and that will also make transcription difficult, so I appreciate that!
[Laughs] How about I mispronounce them just to really fuck you up?
Exactly! Well, getting into it – when we last spoke during your touring cycle for Levitate, you were wrapping up work on the SCKBSTD musical. Now here we are in 2011 and you have a successful debut run for the musical in the books. What are your post-wrap thoughts and what’s next?
Well it was pretty successful and that’s great – that and a quarter will get you that phone call. We felt at the end of the run that it was really good. It had come a long way in about two months – it was a whole lot better at the end than it was when we first started rehearsing. But is it great yet? No. So we’re sidulously…sedulously [Hornsby laughs after the intentional mispronunciation] at work – I told you I’d give you some good big words!
So we’re rather sedulous right now in our pursuit of greatness – who knows if we’ll get there. I think we have a chance for it to be really good. For instance, we’ve just written a new song – my friend Chip DeMatteo and myself, to replace a song that we thought didn’t work. It didn’t connect with the audience and didn’t connect with us either; it didn’t connect neither with the crowd nor the creators. We felt like we needed to make the protagonist, the sick bastard himself, we thought that he needed to be a little edgier in the first act, so, oh I won’t give the plot away. So when the first act ends, you’re really concerned, for instance. It just felt like we needed to tighten things up – the first act felt a little long to us. [There was] just some tightening and tweaking, just trying to make it resonate from top to bottom, it’s really hard to do. I just saw The Book of Mormon about three weeks ago in New York City. One of my sons was running up there in the National Indoor Track Championships, up at the Armory. So we were able to see the great Book of Mormon play. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this play?
It’s written by the South Park guys and it’s just absolutely great with a capitol G – it’s just got it. So I knew we had some work to do, but coming out of that, coming out of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, I thought [that] it’s clear to me now that we really have a little ways to go. So the next run will be sometime probably the first part of next year, probably in a theater on the West Coast and that’s what it’s looking like now. It’s not a definite deal, but we have a great offer from a stage company out there. So yes, it’s onward and hopefully upward. But the first run was very instructive and hopefully we’ve learned a lot from it. But at the same time, there were some moments where I thought “wow, when it’s performed right, this really can connect on a deep soulful level.”
The letters of the title are abbreviated and when I spoke with you, I asked you what the meaning was. Of course I felt pretty dumb once I figured it out…
Oh, no no! And that’s another issue – whether to change the title? It’s problematic – mostly for old people. For people of a certain age, the word “bastard” is like a cuss word and it’s very offensive to people say, 70 and up. So people 69 and down, it’s not such a big deal. You have “Fat Bastard,” the character from Austin Powers or Fat Bastard Wine and on and on – Inglourious Basterds, the movie. It’s pervasive and it’s not offensive. So that’s another ongoing debate – whether to change the name of the play. I don’t want to change it but we may, I’m not willing to fall on my sword for the title, you know. So that’s another thing that’s ongoing.
And that was my question actually that I was leading into – were you surprised by the controversy that the name, even in abbreviated form, caused on a local level?
Well I guess I was because to me, it seems like what I just said – I think of Joey LaMotta saying to Jake LaMotta [ in the movie Raging Bull] “you’re a sick bastard!” So I just think of it as something you hear in standard conversation in 2011 and 2001 for that matter, but other people don’t feel that way, so we’ll see what happens.
Well, I want to talk about this new live album but before we get into that, I have to ask you about this; I saw that you were on stage with your old pal Huey Lewis within the past couple of weeks. What did you guys jam out on?
I sang “Jacob’s Ladder,” which is the song that my brother Johnny and I wrote for him many years ago. We didn’t write it for him – we wrote it for ourselves, but he liked it and asked if he could record it. We had turned him down once a few years before when he asked to record one of our songs and we had really regretted saying no to him, so we allowed him to record “Jacob’s Ladder” and he had great success with it. So I just went up there and sang that – it was great to see those guys, they’re old friends of mine. Their bass player John Pierce, played on my Spirit Trail record. [He's a] great bass player and he and Matt Chamberlain were the rhythm section for about one-fourth of the record – which is a lot of songs, because that’s a double record.
Here Come The Noisemakers, your previous live album is for me, one of the great go-to live albums for a road trip, right up there with Bonnie Raitt’s Road Tested. Through the years since that initial release, you’ve continued to release live shows online for download. What made you decide that it was time to release a proper follow-up?
I just felt like our band had evolved to a point where when I put on Here Comes The Noisemakers, as much as I like it, it doesn’t sound like our band anymore. And so I felt it was time to document a decade later where our approach to the playing of my songs has led us. My approach is about trying to find the new aspects of the music and trying to discover and create new ways of playing – dress the songs up in new clothes I guess, if I can. So that’s why I thought it was time to make this record, to have a document of where we are now. Sometimes I feel like…and I know that a lot of groups and songwriters have this situation, where you write the songs, you record the songs and then frankly, you learn how to play them. And our approach is pretty open ended and loose, so I feel like sometimes when I hear a particular live version of one of these songs from an older record, I go “well, you know what? We’ve so far exceeded the original version in ability and sound and just quality in performance.”
So I have an interest in having definitive performances of these songs that are available so people know what we really sound like. Especially people who only know my first two or three records, they start talking about that and I’d like to have Bride of the Noisemakers in the car and say “hey listen to this, this is what we really do, this is what we really sound like.” Because I find the early records unlistenable compared to what we do now on a vocal level, on a playing level, just everything about it. The songs hold up great to me, so for instance, the song list on this record includes songs all the way back to our second record – nothing from the first record, but there’s songs from our second record on up to the present.
At your concerts, you often joke about the unfamiliarity of the majority of the material to the casual Hornsby fan – the one that is there to just hear the hits. As in “when’s Bruce going to play something that I know?” The Noisemakers live disc certainly covered those bases well and this really does feel like a good follow-up with a setlist that will satisfy the diehards and give those casual fans a good dose of continuing education.
[Editor's Note: Here's a choice moment that demonstrates the difference between Hornsby's casual fans and the diehards.]
[Laughs] That’s true! Here Come The Noisemakers was real kind to the casuals because there were five fully hit songs – now they were different versions, sometimes we might have rendered them unrecognizable [but they were on there]. But this one is not about that at all, there’s arguably one hit and that’s if you call “Gonna Be Some Changes Made,” which was number one in 2004 on the Triple A format. So if you call that a hit, there’s one, but if you don’t call that a hit, there’s none! [Laughs]
Building on that thought, with this being your first album on a new label, was there any pressure or nudging from them to include some of the known hits on the Bride record?
Well there wasn’t, but if there was, I would just say “look, enough of that!” It’s 20 years since our last hit, it’s just crazy. I don’t know, I think if people say “there’s no new material,” I would go “well, for all practical purposes it is, because the vast populace, they don’t know these songs.” Unless a song was a hit, most people would never know it. No, this was just me trying to show what we’re about now. And also the song list, as you seem to know because you know what I do, a lot of these songs are real fan favorites for our true fans.
This, for our true fans is a bit of a “greatest hits” package, because “White Wheeled Limousine” for instance is a big song for our fans. Or “Candy Mountain Run,” “Resting Place,” our version of “Standing On The Moon” from the Dead – there’s so many of them. “Swan Song,” “Dreamland” “Funhouse,” “Talk of the Town,” “Fortunate Son,” those are big songs with our fans and oft-requested. So for our true fans, this is a greatest hits for them! [Laughs]
You hit on a lot of those songs on this album that do indeed feel so definitive whether it’s “White Wheeled Limousine” or “Dreamland.” And there were a couple that really stuck out to me as favorite versions that I’d heard before, the version of “Resting Place” and one other track that actually made a previous appearance on the free holiday download that you gave away in 2007. Using those two tracks as an example, if I was going to pick a couple of tracks to represent that era, those are really great picks and fit in great on this album.
You caught us! You’re right though, Matt – because the version [of “Resting Place”] on Bride of the Noisemakers is the version from that 2007 download, you’re right. So you nailed it, good for you – you’re pissing me off! [Laughs]
So there’s great stuff like that, but also some nuggets that are a little bit more obscure like “This Too Shall Pass” and “The Tango King.”
You’re exactly right. I tried to find a balance of fan favorites and also things that we think are underplayed by us, but really good [like] “Line in the Dust,” you mentioned “This Too Shall Pass,” “Country Doctor” is a good example and “The Tango King” and “The Good Life” are good examples. “Swan Song” is one that whenever we play it, we always go “aw man, that just has something so stirring about it and we don’t play it enough.” It’s maybe a reminder to me to play those songs more, having them on this record.
Hearing a song like “This Too Shall Pass” on this new live record brought me back around to reappraise the Big Swing Face album as a fan and it’s interesting, because now, I can hear the musical kinship with songs like “Space is the Place” and “Prairie Dog Town.” So I guess to me, that shows me that you’re still writing those types of songs. But at the time that Big Swing Face came out, what was the musical headspace that you were in that inspired an album’s worth of material like that that was such a left turn for you?
Well it was really a challenge by my [record company] oddly enough. Most people think of record company people as being conservative and this is a good example showing that’s not always the case. My [RCA] A&R guy, a guy named David Bendeth, I played him some songs, several of which ended up on Halcyon Days. This [Big Swing Face] was the next record after Spirit Trail although Here Come The Noisemakers came after Spirit Trail, but it wasn’t a record of new songs. So I play the new songs – one of them was “Lost in the Snow” from Halcyon Days, one of them was “Circus on the Moon” from Halcyon Days and I think another one might have been “Dreamland.” He said “wow, these are great songs, but it’s just the same old style – let’s try something completely wacky.” He basically challenged me. So I said “okay, I did this crazy little bit here, let’s try this.” So we cut one song and I loved the way it came out. I loved what he brought to the process. And so I said to him “well okay, I’ll go down this crazy road with you and let’s make the whole record.” It was met with complete question marks of the heads of most people who heard it, but it’s funny, for some people it’s the first record I’ve ever made that they liked, because it was so different, it was so odd. I guess it was more of a comment on their taste than what I was doing. But yeah, I think Big Swing Face holds up just fine.
I agree. And I think that if you look at people who are just discovering your band now, they’re going to hear that record with a different set of ears, because they have no pre-conceived notions going into it. I look at it as the same kind of thing as the way we would go and investigate the back catalog of an artist on vinyl. I think there are going to be people who hear that record as they’re making the trip through your catalog and it’s going to be the interesting moment that really sticks out. As in, I know you’ve heard these albums from Bruce, but have you heard this one, because this one is really an interesting listen.
Exactly and that does happen – I hear that a lot. Big Swing Face has its small very committed group of devotees and I guess you’ve become one of them and that’s great. We play a lot of those songs live, probably a good 6 or 7 songs and we just pulled out [another one]. Three weeks ago, we played our first gig of the year – we hadn’t played for 15 months and we pulled out a song we hadn’t played in years, “Try Anything Once,” and we had a ball with that. So that will be played this year quite often.
Popdose site owner Jeff Giles is the other big Hornsby fan around these parts and he wanted me to touch on the musical shift and specifically, the willful jump away from tasteful AC that you made with Harbor Lights. So many other artists would have started chasing their own tails at the time that you made Harbor Lights, trying to recapture their earlier success, but instead, you did a 180 and have dedicated your career to doing your own thing. How did that color your relationship with RCA — I know Harbor went gold, but by the time Big Swing Face came along, they didn’t even want to release it. Adding to all of that, Jeff says “I admire the hell out of his ability to do stuff like Face, or the bluegrass record, or that crazy box set, without having to make many apparent concessions to the labels.”
I was with RCA for 18 years, so that’s really the “label,” that’s who you’re talking about. Harbor Lights was in year 8 of that relationship, because I got signed in ’85 and that was ’93. They were really supportive and they really tried hard. I actually think they thought we had a couple of hits, but we didn’t. One thing got to 69 with an anchor on the Hot 100, [which] feels great, but generally it wasn’t very commercial. But they were really supportive in staying with Hot House. Of course on Hot House too, they thought they had a big hit with “Walk In The Sun” and that got to 54 with an anchor. So these were close, these were sort of almost-hits, the record company couldn’t quite deliver them, but I don’t blame them. It was a tough climate – grunge was all of the rage at that point.
With Spirit Trail, I gave them a double album – they were supportive and they were trying. I’ve got nothing bad to say about my time with RCA – they really tried for me, even in the face of what I was giving them which wasn’t commercial. But here’s the deal with that – my first stuff that was hits, that wasn’t commercial either. Everyone thought “The Way It Is” was a B-side, nobody thought that stuff was going to be big, it was just a fluke [thanks to] a wonderful accident that happened in England. And then everyone thought [this could be big] because these people were Top 40 people. But those records weren’t formulaic at all, it was a little bit like John Mellencamp’s records at the time where he was using all of those fiddles, you know “Paper in Fire” and all of that great stuff he was doing. And that wasn’t formulaic at all, but it just worked. Mark Knopfler’s “Sultans of Swing,” that hardly sounds like Top 40, but it was a big hit. So I felt like “The Way It Is” was very much like that and “The Valley Road” too. It’s more about other people’s expectations and I wasn’t trying to be a hit maker then, it just happened.
You’ll be on the road this summer with your old friend Bela Fleck – can we expect some collaboration during the course of the evening?
Oh, I would be shocked if it didn’t happen. I’m hoping that there’s a little area in the show where we break it down and play some old traditional gut bucket blues and country music, I’m hoping that we’ll do that. I know that there’s going to be a lot of notes flying around with his very virtuosic band and [also] our band to maybe a lesser extent but [there’s] still a pretty dexterous group of players in our group. I would like it if somewhere in the middle, maybe as a baton passing from whoever is playing first to whoever is playing second that night,[to] break it down with just me playing dulcimer or a little piano, banjo and upright bass or something fun like that, I would love that. But I’m sure, hell, you know we’re old cohorts – we’ve done duo banjo and piano concerts through the years – we haven’t done one in a while, but we’ve done several through the years. He sat in with my band and I was on his live record and he’s been on two of my records. It’s such a natural combination for a tour, I’m surprised we’ve never done it before, but I’m really happy that we’re doing it now.
Talking about live musicianship, what are your thoughts on the fading art of leading a band through the changes the way you do — how much work does it take, and why do you think so few bands play as freely as you do with the Noisemakers?
Well, I think there’s a good number of bands playing as freely as we play. I think you find them in more of what they call the jam band community. You’ve got the great group Umphrey’s McGee for instance; whose festival Summer Camp we are playing. There’s lots of groups out there who are doing this, I just don’t think that you’re ever going to find this type of group – with the great exceptions of let’s say Phish, Dave Matthews Band, Grateful Dead, I don’t think you’re ever going to find these types of groups being on the cutting edge and being what they’re writing about in USA TODAY or People Magazine. That’s never been and there’s no reason that it should be and who cares?
But I think there are a good number of groups doing their own version of what we’re doing. Everyone has a little different approach to it but I don’t think it’s that rare. I’m trying to think of in the big picture, what sets us apart. Obviously, the fact that it’s being led by a piano player, so that’s certainly a different take on it and my interest in modern classical music. There’s probably a little bit more dissonance going on in what we do, but not necessarily, I can’t really say that either. So I don’t really think it’s true that there’s not many people doing what I’m doing. What’s it like to lead a band now like this? It’s just great fun because it’s a very conversational night out – I’m always looking to entertain the band and it’s musical conversations all night. You’ll hear somebody play something and you’ll hear me take that and turn it into a new section and that’s what’s great fun about this.
I mean, hell man, I think going to live shows is becoming a fringe enthusiasm in the culture now – it’s sort of an ancillary part of American popular culture, really. Now with TV, movies, video games and the internet – hell, even movies are dying now it seems to me. I think what we’re doing is trying to create a night out where you really feel engaged with what we’re doing. You know we’re up there – we’re not just going through the motions, we’re having a great time and it’s a joyful noise. We’re trying to make the music new every night and that hopefully is something that people can connect with. It’s not really great for the nostalgia lovers, the people who are looking for their stroll down memory lane, but at the same time I’m still kind of nice about it – I still play three or four of those a night. But as far as what’s it like to lead a band like this? Man, it’s as much fun as you can have when you’re not in a bed. [Laughs]
We spoke about this in 2009, but what I really love is the basketball team mentalities that you bring to the way you lead your band. I compared it at the time to you being the head guy on the team that is passing the ball back and forth to all of the other band members.
Yeah, I’m the point guard – I’m the tallest guy on the team, but I’m the point guard. [Laughs]
From what I’ve heard, it also sounds like you’ve got a few new records brewing and mapped out – what all are you working on?
I think next February-ish, I’ll put out a solo concert for the first time. People have been badgering me for years [to do that]. People used to badger me for years about making a jazz record, they badgered me for years about making a bluegrass record. Now people have been badgering me for years to come out with a solo concert record, because I do a lot of solo piano concerts. So that’s coming out in the first part of next year and I’ll do a tour on that. And then at some point, I’m sort of casually making a record of new songs, mostly the [SCKBSTD] musical songs. It will probably be called something like “Songs from SCKBSTD” [Laughs]. So that to me will be an interesting stylistic record, it will be very stripped down I think, really just piano, vocal and some textural production work – strings, maybe some horns and orchestration. And then I think at some point, the Skaggs/Hornsby/Kentucky Thunder train will start rolling along again and we’ll probably put out a record that we’re working on now for that. And then probably another jazz record with Jack and Christian again and that puts me out to about 2015! [Laughs]
- Youtube Gems: Bruce Hornsby Live [Dispatches from the Culture Wars] (scienceblogs.com)
- Love Me Still (jefitoblog.com)
- SCKBSTD Featured in Variety (boneaubryanbrown.com)