In 1993 Bruce Hornsby was headed in a new direction with the “Harbor Lights” album. His backing band “The Range” were no longer around and he was headed for more Blues and Jazz. Here is our interview with Bruce.
John Beaudin – Hi Bruce, welcome to the studio.
Bruce Hornsby – Hi John it’s nice to meet you. Thanks for having me.
John – We were just talking before you came in about tough interviews, one of my colleagues in the U.S. interviewed David Lee Roth live on-air years ago and basically Roth kind of took the interview from him.
Bruce – These guys are a pain in the ass, their just posers. They are not worth a shit to me. I never find the guys who can really play full of shit. Some pop star guys have this whole trip based on a pose.
John – Your concerts are a real different experience, you always seem to do a song differently every time and you really have come a long way from ‘The Range.’
Bruce – Well, when you come out to our show you’ll see that it’s a loose gig and very different from the Range, we had a great eight years with the range. They are great people in fact they are still my good friends. I got George Marinelli a real good prominent gig with someone and I can’t really say who it is yet (Bonnie Raitt) but the new group that we have is very strong there’s a lot more textural variety. We have a bass player who solo’s incredibly, we have a sax player and a trumpet player and a great female singer who sings with Patti Labelle and she’ll take you to the church every time she sings. It’s a little more variety and very strong. We played last night in Portland and played for three hours, we took requests and it was a good time.
John – I know it’s cliché to say, “Hey your new album is my favorite but really it is.” I always saw the jazz flavor in there and you seemed to be having a heck of a good time on Harbor Lights.
Bruce – Well, yeah John. The last record, the third, was kind of a group record and with that in mind I kind of gave of myself and there wasn’t so much piano on that one but I wanted to bring it back full force on this one. I wanted to take the music to other places maybe more complex musical places. The jazz influences were always in the old records. The solos on even the hit songs like ‘Valley Road’ and ‘The Way it Is,’ they’re not coming from Rock’n Roll their coming from Bill Evans and Chick Corea. This time I wanted to put it forth a little more aggressively. We had a really good time making it in my house. Yes, a home recording, a home record.
John – Was that a different mind set recording in your own house?
Bruce – It was a much more enjoyable mind set. Recording in a commercial studio is not the most creative atmosphere to work in. For instance, you can have an eight hour time slot booked but you know sometimes we’re kind of slow learners we may not get it by the seventh hour and once we’re figuring it out we only have an hour to get it and we don’t. You still have to get out of there because someone else has the time booked after you and remember you have to tear all your gear down. You might have a great sound on the drums but you have to tear it all down and start over again next time. This way if we’re in there and it’s not happening there’s no pressure. We can just say lets stop or lets go shot some basketball or lets go for a walk in the woods and just do something else to get away from it. It’s a much more creative and enjoyable environment to work in. It also enables me to stay at home and spend some time with my twin boys.
John – Have you been waking up at three o’clock in the morning?
Bruce – Sometimes but these babies are really good babies and they’ve been sleeping through the night since about three months.
John – Do they sleep together?
Bruce – No, they sleep in separate rooms so they don’t keep each other up.
John – That’s the way to do it.
Bruce – Oh yeah.
John – Did having children change the way you think?
Bruce – Sure, I just as soon that they never got older than they are now it’s such a great age. I love this time and it’s hard to be gone. It’s hard to be on the road, I try to arrange shorter lengths and shorter stints.
Bruce – With one break in the middle we should be out until the middle of December. My wife’s coming out to L.A. where we lived for ten years and I get to see them there and she’ll get to show off the babies to her old friends.
John – There’s a part of you that’s very much the session musician, you really have worked with so many people. Do you really love working with so many different people?
Bruce – Well it was just myself all of a sudden getting all these great calls. I never had this grand career plan of being this big star it was always about playing great music with great people and getting yourself into inspiring situations. I was fortunate enough to get all these very flattering calls to work with these great people and I wasn’t into turning it down. When the babies came something had to give I had to stop doing something. The collaborations, the kind of gun for hire aspect of my career has receded because I don’t want to be the father who’s never around. I gotta say it’s very inspiring to play with all these people, playing with the Dead (Grateful Dead) was great and I still play with them sometimes even though I quit doing that fulltime about a year and a half ago.
John – Well, obviously you were a fan but did you know the songs, did you rehearse?
Bruce – Oh you don’t rehearse with those guys. I was off the street in New York City at Madison Square Gardens and just got on stage and started winging it on stage right off the bat with no rehearsal.
Bruce – I’m sure I was a little nervous in the beginning but they are such good people, I’ve known them for a while. Jerry Garcia I’ve known for years, he played on our third record and this one (Harbor Lights). They make you feel very at home and it’s really a great crowd of people. It’s loose as hell and if you screw up your not going to have somebody on your case saying “Come one get it together,” it’s so loose and very forgiving. I knew the territory already I used to play in my older brother’s Grateful Dead cover band as a kid so I knew lots of their songs already. I probably didn’t know about one hundred (laughing) but I knew about forty. I always kind of had a head start and was very comfortable with it. It will always be a great memory for me to do that but it was time for me to move on and it was time for them to be a band without this guy coming in and out. Garcia called me the floating member.
John – Bruce, I was listening to Harbor Lights again this morning and it’s my favorite album of the year.
Bruce – Oh Thank you. I appreciate it.
John – I never thought I could listen to an album as many time as I’ve listened to this one.
Bruce – All right.
John – ‘Passing Through’ has Jerry on it right?
Bruce – No. Actually Jerry’s on more on ‘Pastures of Plenty,’ he’s on ‘Passing Through’ but it’s mostly this guy from ‘Fishbone’ John Bigham playing all this wa-wa stuff, a lot of people think its Garcia but it’s not.
John – Are you happy with the new album?
Bruce – Well I always have some regrets. I always think their are some things I could of done better, but probably as a whole I am more pleased with this one than all the others. I think gradually I figure out more how to do this. I like the vocals more on this one, it’s just looser, and I think it’s just stronger. I love some of the performances. I think (Pat) Metheny plays great, Bonnie (Raitt) sings great, I love her work on ‘Rainbows Cadillac’ and it’s one of my favorites so am I pleased with it? Yeah, there are things I’d do differently but generally its ok. (Laughing)
John – I interviewed Will Ackerman (founder of Windham Hill Records) a while back and I said to him, “Hey, you could have had Bruce Hornsby, what happened!”
Bruce – You said that to him? (Laughing)
John – Yeah and Will said, “Well that was the best course for Bruce to go.”
Bruce – What was?
Bruce – Well, I think the Windham Hill thing might have been a little bit limiting. They kind of do one thing but I guess they’ve branched out since then. At that point generally they were trying to solidify a certain sound that they had and maybe there was a certain aspect of what I did that fit in with that but a lot of what I did had nothing to do with that.
John – Were you going to record a vocal album with them?
Bruce – Oh, it was going to be vocal. They started a vocal branch as a matter of fact one of their best artists is Canadian, Jane Siberry. She’s not on their label now but her first couple of albums was on Open Air. So, yes my album was going to be vocal songs. Will Ackerman is a good guy they were the first people to offer me a record contract. In the end I would always wonder if I hadn’t have gone with a larger record label I would always wonder what could have been. It turns out it went really well and RCA have done a great job.
John – Ever consider doing something solo piano? Or is that too limiting for you?
Bruce – It’s not about limiting, I just don’t think anything I have to offer there is anything unique. I think there are too many people who make solo piano records who are really just derivative stylistically of the greats and of the real greats, I mean the solo piano records of the real greats like Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. There’s a guy named Ritchie Byrack who makes amazing records but it’s advanced harmonically for the pop audience but it’s very strong. Marcus Roberts makes some good solo piano records he’s sort of mending the old traditional Jazz area. He’s sort of a historian to me and he’s an amazing player who is going through the old Jazz literature and doing his own version of it. A solo piano record from me I think would be very derivative. So, all I can say is I’ll only do a solo piano record if I think I have something interesting to say and if I have a good idea where it’s not another damn typical instrumental record because to me there are too many of them.
John – There are a lot of them. In 1986 I started playing a lot of New Age and we got so much of the stuff. A lot of it sounded the same and I’d listen to something new and think hey, didn’t I hear this yesterday?
Bruce – Yeah, sure. So for me in the absence of a good idea I won’t do it. If I get a good idea then I’ll do it.
John – What’s coming up next for you?
Bruce – I tell you if I wasn’t on the road now I’d be recording. I have seven or eight things that I feel really good about. The next thing is going to be a very up record almost maybe a party record (he’s talking about Hothouse from 1995)
John – Is that right?
Bruce – Oh yeah! (Laughing) I mean my version of that. It’s definitely going to have a Jazz influence but it’s going to be pretty hard driving maybe a little funkier.
John – Does that feel good to know you can go wherever you want?
Bruce – Oh yeah!
John – You seem to have good backing behind you with RCA, you have a following.
Bruce – Well sort of, I mean in the big picture but there are a lot of people who listen to me who would just as soon have me do the pretty ballads all the time and I’m sure of that. They want to hear Mandolin Rain every time and I do a couple of ballads every time. Actually, some of my favorite songs on this new record (Harbor Lights) are ballads. I really like ‘The Tide Will Rise’ and ‘Fields of Grey’ the new single. There are a lot of musical areas that I’m interested in exploring so that’s just one side of me and I refuse to be limited by someone else’s concept of my musical trip. I have too many places to go, I’m too curious.
Bruce – That’s not accurate but Phil and I are friends. He worked a little bit on this record, he came at the end of the record and I was just about finished. There wasn’t that much for him to do. His contributions are much more subtle on this record. He has talked to me about recording with him even though I have stopped doing outside projects that is something I would do. He’s so great and such a good guy so I would definitely do something for him if he asked but no it’s never come up. I think he’s very strong. I think alot of people loss sight on how much of a great musician Phil Collins is in the face of his enormous pop superstardom but he is truly great. The musicians know it, the people might not know it and sometime these critics jump on him and kind of slag him for being this or that but the musicians know and that’s all I gotta say.
John – One other artist, Elton John. Wasn’t it Elton who came forward and said nice things about hearing the piano again on ‘The Way it is?’
Bruce – Yeah Elton John had some real nice things to say about bringing the piano back and inspiring him to play the piano again. You know it’s funny, VH-1 had this Elton John weekend and they had this interview segment with him and in one he was talking about me and saying very nice things about me such as “Bruce Hornsby inspired me to play the acoustic piano again.” So I saw this and I called him up to say what a nice thing you said and thanks a lot and he said, “Well great and just for your information now I’m playing a sampled piano.” (Laughing).
John – (laughing) Is that right!
Bruce – Yeah, like I said it but I’m not really doing it. I’m not playing an acoustic piano I’ve sampled it. Elton though has been a real supporter of mine. I did a benefit with him a year ago at Madison Square Gardens again where we did a duet on one of my songs called ‘Lost Souls’ which is one of his favorites. It was so very special to do this duet with just Elton and me. I sat in with him before we did ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ another time at The Garden also where we both got down on the floor and played the piano with our feet. My wife was in the audience saying it looked like a couple of little kids fooling around (Laughing) in front of twenty thousand people.
John – (laughing) But having a heck of a good time.
Bruce – Yeah, he’s a good guy.
John – I loved your version of ‘Madman Across the Water’
Bruce – Oh thanks man. We took it to another place it’s sort of like the Jazz version. It’s probably the rawest cover on that album. (Two Room an Elton John/Bernie Taupin tribute album) That album is very pop and slickly produced, our version is very piano based with drums it’s a little angular but we were proud of it because I really think we took it to another place. It’s not just a regurgitation of the old version.
Bruce – Oh yeah that’s a great album that and ‘Tumbleweed Connection’
John – Well good luck tonight, I’ll be there.
Bruce – All right, send up your requests. It’s a pretty free loose gig last night in Portland we winged two songs that we had never played together just on the spot. That can happen.
John – Enjoy your visit to Vancouver.
Bruce – All right we always do. Hey John, thanks a lot.
Check out our ‘Big Swing Face’ interview with Bruce Hornsby
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