Col. Bruce: Intention and Improvisation
Col. Bruce Hampton is an improvisational icon. As the primary singer and spiritual leader of Aquarium Rescue Unit, Hampton helped lay the groundwork for the "second generation" jambands, blending his unique wit into his complex compositions. Since he retired from active ARU duty, Hampton has divided his time between a variety of musical projects, finding a few moments to appear in Billy Bob Thornton's Academy Award winning Slingblade along the way. But, since meeting songwriter Bobby Lee Rodgers in 1999, Hampton has devoted his attention to the CodeTalkers, an experimental outfit which rolls several of the Col.‘s favorite styles—-jazz, rock and bluegrass—-into a tight psychedelic package. Starting in mid-April, Hampton’s ARU foil Jimmy Herring, will join the CodeTalkers on guitar for a series of performances. Below, the Col. discusses his days in ARU, his evolving partnership with Bobby Lee and a series of shows which led him to the fountain of youth (no joke!)
MG- What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned as a songwriter?
BH- Space is critical to me. The songs are the silence in between the sound. Less is truly more—the key is to be simple. To me, the greatest songwriter ever was Hank Williams Sr. and then probably Duke Ellington and then Igor Stravinsky. And all of them had folk music. It has a simplicity. They all had "mama’s little baby loves shortbread" running through it. It’s the humanity of the tune.
MG- Recently, you also brought a few of your newest numbers into the studio.
BH- We have a couple of albums finished. We’re going through record company crap right now. I don’t know what to do—-we’re talking to people. But we have about five and a half albums semi-done. Everything is done besides the overdubs. And then Bobby has two solo albums himself, so we have an abundance of material. Between him and me we have about 400 songs. And, bringing Jimmy in, he probably has about 30 or 40 songs. But, what I really want is to get down to one song and play it for days.
MG- What’s the longest you’ve ever stretched a song?
BH- About an hour and a half. It was called "Basically Frightened." About fifteen years ago, we took it through about 300 or 400 transitions. It was in the really early days of ARU —- it just lasted forever, but it was flowing. I don’t care about the formlessness as long as it flows. It could be jazz or blues or anything as long as it’s flowing. I care about the intention. I really like just about every form of music—-I love it all: Latin music, classical music, Cuban music. I did a little tracing and it looks like Fats Waller might be the original "jamband."
MG- Where did you first meet Bobby Lee?
BH- We met Halloween 1999. He came to a gig and said the magic codeword. I was talking to him and he mentioned all the right musical names in jazz and bluegrass. If they know Bill Monroe and listen to Howlin Wolf and bluegrass—-that’s what I listen for. Usually if people go there, I’ll really listen to them [laughs]. I said, "Man do you need a gig?" And he said, "yeah." It just started from there. He came to the gig and has been coming ever since.
MG- You’ve said that the CodeTalkers was originally intended as a vehicle to showcase Bobby Lee’s songwriting. Do you feel the group has evolved into more of a collaborative effort?
BH- It just sort of happens. I mean Bobby writes so many songs that, when we do collaborate, they just sort of click on the van or the bus when we are traveling. I just can’t believe no one has heard his stuff. To me, the guy is the best songwriter in America and nobody pays any attention. Yet, maybe this time around, they will.
MG- In preparation for Jimmy joining the CodeTalkers on tour, do you plan to rearrange any ARU songs?
BH- We are actually going to get together next week with Jimmy and discuss all that. There are 4 songs I’ve done for about 600 years and I’ve never stopped doing, like "Time is Free" and "Fixin’ to Die." I keep trying to get rid of them, but they keep coming back. I am actually writing a lot of songs again and Bobby has about 200 which are just amazing. With Jimmy, Bobby is probably going to be playing a lot of banjo.
MG- Do you recall your fist encounter with Jimmy Herring?
BH- There was a jam session at a place called the Cotton Club. It was a benefit for a friend of ours—-Kansas was one of the bands playing. It was only a 500-seat club, but there were a lot of rock groups in there. That’s the first time I saw him play. But I didn’t see him for about another six months and then I asked him to join the band. I’ve known him for seventeen years now and a month don’t go by when we don’t talk. We played with Jimmy some last summer. He was off tour [with The Dead] and we were playing near his house.
MG- It’s been said that after shows, you don’t communicate with your band-mates verbally. Instead, you prefer to talk telepathically.
BH- Boy, you would hope so. On a great night—-maybe one out of every 300—-that happens. Generally, it’s pretty earthbound stuff. But you would want that to happen. Usually, though, we all talk and discuss everything—-if I was mad at somebody or if somebody blew a cue.
MG- Do you consider yourself an overly critical musician?
BH- To me there are no bad notes and no mistakes. It’s a matter of intention. We’ll just go, "man that was too fast —-I couldn’t sing it." But, to me, there is no too fast or too slow. If the intention was there, it was there.
MG- Shifting gears, I heard a rumor that you recently stumbled upon the fountain of youth.
BH- There is no rumor to it —- it’s for real. But you can’t print its location because I don’t want anyone to find it! We don’t tell anyone but our friends. We talk horseshit all the time anyway—-we’re bullshitters. But this is no bullshit. If you know a friend who has eczema, or someone who has psoriasis, send em there — I have seen miracle after miracle. You’ll see 300 or 400 Eastern Europeans there a day. I saw a woman—-and I wouldn’t tell you this unless I meant it because its serious shit—-but her body was covered with psoriasis or something. And, after about 25minutes, it was gone from her body. It’s the darndest thing I’ve ever seen. But I don’t want anyone to go there unless they got the right intention.
[Note: Col. Bruce Hampton did indeed clue me into the fountain of youth’s location. But some secrets I just can’t tell]
MG- You seem to have your pulse on the mad scientist’ community. Any new inventions catch your eye lately?
BH- Food. A friend of ours owns his own restaurant and you can write your own menu. And the food will get to you in less than a minute. We haven’t perfected it yet, but it’s getting there. You press a button and it will come to you in less than a minute hot and well-cooked.
MG- With ARU, did you consciously avoid mainstream acceptance?
BH- No. No. I am all for mainstream success. But, I’m all for mainstream rejection too. ARU was an experimental band—-I don’t think we had any songs which could make us mainstream. Those guys were amazing playersI could never see girls dancing at those shows. Whether you’re big, little or small that’s what you need. But that was never our intention
MG- Your recent ARU shows were well-received by both fans and musicians. Any plans for a full-scale ARU reunion?
BH- No, but that’s kind. Everyone is doing different things now and everyone has changed. We sure had a blast playing, but when it’s over, it’s over. We played about six or seven states and sure had fun with it, but things change and people get different concepts and heads. You might not ever get the same thing again — but it was great to see everyone.
MG- After a recent Allman Brothers gig, Hubert Sumlin and Derek Trucks carpooled to a CodeTalkers performance in Teaneck, NJ. Can you talk a bit about your relationship with Hubert?
BH- Hubert is my hero. He is my pope. I worship the ground he walks upon. I have been listing to Hubert since I was 15 years old. Jimi Hendrix once said, "On my best day, I am a bad Hubert Sumlin."
MG- You’ve been called "sober eccentric." Do you feel that description aptly describes your personality?
BH- I don’t drink, so I guess I am sober. I am left and right of the center, so I guess I am eccentric. I am basically a boring guy who drives psychotics around. Things basically haven’t changed since I was 4 years old. I work hard at what I do and am lucky to be doing it for 40 years. I was going to be an accountant—-I am basically a nerd. A change of consciousness happened when I was 17 years old—-basically a lot of weird stuff—- and I’ve been like this ever since.
MG- What happened at age 17?
BH- Just altered experiences. It wasn’t drug induced. I’ve never done drugs, never done drink and I’ve never eaten tomatoes either. I decided to hate tomatoes at ten years old. Sometimes people hate you, sometimes people hate me. So I decided to hate tomatoes—- so I have something to hate.