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Published: 2000/09/15
by Dean Budnick

Bruce Hornsby: From Hitmaker To Noisemaker

Bruce Hornsby is one of the rare performers to emerge relatively unscathed from the tense, enervating realm of top-40 radio. Hornsby came bounding of the box in the summer of 1986 as his major labor release, The Way It Is, yielded a number one single with the title track, en route to triple-platinum album sales. Despite this initial pop success Hornsby worked to maintain a thriving career as a touring musician. In the years to follow, he balanced his own recording career (initially with the Range and then in other musical formations) with studio sessions for such notable players as Bonnie Raitt, Shawn Colvin, Bob Seger and Bela Fleck. In addition, in the wake of Brent Mydland’s death, Hornsby, who had previously sat in with the Dead on accordion when opening for the group, joined Vince Welnick for nearly two years as the band’s vibrant keyboard tandem.

The fall of 2000 finds Hornsby focused on a number of projects. At present he is out on the road with the second incarnation of the Other Ones, currently touring the east coast with Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers. In addition, on October 24 RCA will issue a double-live record entitled Here Comes The Noisemakers, which collects a number of performances that took place in 1998 and 99, while offering songs that span Hornsby’s entire career. The following conversation touched on the arc of that career, beginning with his initial pop success and moving on to his future projects. Updated Information is available through his web site, www.brucehornsby.com as well as www.furthuron.com.

DB- Your new album draws from the full span of your recording career. I’d be interested to hear how your initial rather staggering success impacted on the rest of your career, both from a musical and personal perspective.

BH- I can safely say that the least enjoyable year of my career was that first year because it all happened so fast and so intensely. I had to learn how to do it all really quickly. I couldn’t get wet gradually, it was jump in the pool all the way right away. It was a very intense experience and not necessarily a good intense experience.

Here’s how it impacts the rest of your career- when you come out of the box as a huge top-40 success, those can be the hits that kill a career. The streets are littered with groups that came out with big hits and never were heard from again. The reason for that is that top-40 radio is a very fickle beast and the people who listen to top-40 radio and buy records because of what they hear on top-40 radio are not what I consider true music fans. They buy your record because they like that one song so that what you do is develop a large group of very soft-core fans, as opposed to coming out as a cult group where you develop a small group of very hard-core fans. The trick for me was to figure out a way to get through this notion of Bruce Hornsby as a top-40 hitmaker because that was a wonderful accident but you can really have a short shelf-life if top 40 radio is all you have going.

So soon enough you saw me follow my instincts which were not the standard instincts of the pop music business consciousness. I started getting asked to play on a number of records, I started opening for the Dead, and I started stretching out musically. Consequently, I went from having a career as a top-40 guy where 5,000 would show up in Chicago and if we played the hits early half the crowd would leave, to a situation now where we go to Chicago and play for 3000, 3500 people and they don’t care if we play the hits or not. They re there for the right reasons, to hear what we do. They re there to hear us explore and be adventurous with our music. So what’s the most attractive scenario for a musician? Obviously the latter scenario, not the first one. What we have now is way deeper and way more satisfying than what we had at the beginning.

DB- Did your tenure with the Dead lead you in that direction or were you already heading that way?

BH- It was happening already. If you came out to see our shows in 89 or early 90, you’d see a very freewheeling outfit doing everything from old Leon Russell songs to taking requests, and changing the way we play our music, although admittedly not as much as we do now. You’d see the beginning of my restless musical nature showing. But playing with the Dead certainly was influential.

When I started playing with the Dead there were two very polarized camps. There was a group that didn’t understand why I wanted to do it. Then there were all those aficionados, the Dead Heads who probably didn’t even know who I was but saw me as this dreaded top-40 guy because there was this prejudice about that. There is a large bigotry about the top-40 game, and it is badge of dishonor to have hit records. I understand that mindset as well, I don’t dismiss it&

DB- After what you’ve just said, what would happen if say a tune off the new album gets serviced to radio and boom, you re a top-40 hitmaker again.

BH- (laughs) I don’t think so. The first time it happened it was a great fluke, a wonderful accident and accidents can still happen so it’s always possible. I wouldn’t imagine it would come from this record though. There’s a very narrow band stylistically that is palatable for hit radio. A lot of it is about production technique. If you have a certain drum sound, a real roomy kind of open drum sound you’ve just shut yourself out of any possibility of having hits. It’s so narrow, so formatted and so rigid. That pretty much guards against a record like this one which has a lot of improvisation and a lot of spontaneity. Plus there are hardly any songs under eight minutes so I think our approach will guard against any possibility of hit radio (laughs).

DB- Let’s talk about Furthur. I saw the show in Hartford the other night and one thing that struck me was the way you carried yourself. You were bounding across the stage during the show to speak with various players. I wonder if you feel things are looser this time out than they were in 98?

BH- It’s certainly looser. The Grateful Dead was a very format outfit, very stoic. By formal what I mean is that there wasn’t a lot of that loose vibe on stage. Hardly anybody ever looked at anybody. You very rarely saw anybody react personally, mostly the interaction was directed at Steve Parrish and the roadies to come fix something. But that’s not my nature. My thing is much looser than that. I would say this year I’m being more myself and frankly I think everyone likes that because in the end it’s not like they were against any of that, it just wasn’t part of their modus operandi and their stage presence. It’s definitely looser than two years ago, so I feel more comfortable walking around and doing what I do at my own shows- not quite as much mind you, but a lot more than I did.

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