Bruce Hornsbys intersections
Some know Bruce Hornsby from his early radio hits. Others from his time in the Grateful Dead or the Other Ones. Still others from his collaborations with a host of notable musicians. His new CD/one-DVD box set, intersections 1985-2005, reflects all of these sides and quite a few more as it demonstrates the complexity and the breadth of his career. There’s more on the way as well, with a bluegrass disc and a jazz release on the horizon.
Before Hornsby joined the phone call, the topic of conversation with his publicist had been Bonnaroo. Filled in, he replies…
BH: I got asked to play Bonnaroo, but I wanted to go to my high school reunion. So, I didn’t do it.
JPG: A high school reunion over Bonnaroo
BH: Here’s the deal about it. I was in the last class of my high school. This reunion was for every class ever at the school. It’ll only happen once ever. I had a ball in high school. We just fucked with everybody. Sold worthless stock in our company. And we booked the worst bands in town. (laughs) We named all the bands. We had such bands as The Uncommon Cold, Polynomial and the Logarithms, The Soul Basketball and all sorts of things. My high school was quite hilarious. We wrote our own play and finagled our way to having it produced as the Drama Club production. The play was called “Schenectady.” And then we wrote a sequel called “Son of Schenectady.” It was also produced. So, high school was a very creative time for me. As you can see, our high school experience was sort of unique. So, it was more for me to go to that than to play Bonnaroo. Hopefully, I’ll play there one day, but if I don’t it’s okay, too.
JPG: It’s funny that we got into all this. I would think that you would be someone that would’ve been asked to play there in the past.
BH: This is actually the first year that they did. Also, I thought about playing there with Ricky Skaggs. I made this record with Ricky Skaggs, a bluegrass record, which is coming out first of next year. I would’ve played with him cause he played there. I thought of playing with him and with my band. It would have been a great time.
JPG: I’d like to talk about that album but this seems like a fitting segue because like a high school reunion, a box set revisits the past. What was behind it? Why now?
BH: It was my idea, but the record company went for it right away. This was the reason for it. I feel that over the last 10 years or so my music has evolved to a point where most people don’t know about. I felt that there was not one document where I can go, This is really what I’m all about.’ For those two reasons I wanted to put together this particular box set, which is not your standard stroll down memory lane. Not your standard nostalgic trip at all. To me it’s an artistic statement, really, in the present tense because fully one-third of it is new live music.
We put out Here Come The Noisemakers in 2001, which was our first live record. This is a de facto second live record, live double record. Also, there’s lots of solo piano playing on there. For instance, people have badgered me for years to make a solo piano record. Well, within this box set is really an entire record’s worth of solo piano “Song A” through [“Song”] H.” Then there’s four, five or six solo piano pieces from live concerts.
I think that the jamband community, they don’t really know me from those old hits. I wouldn’t imagine that they would. Half of America knows me from six hit songs from 1986 to 1990 plus a couple hits I wrote with other people, Don Henley for instance. That’s just such a tip of the iceberg of what I’ve done through the years.
JPG: While working on the box set or when you finished it, what was the mood you were in? Were you impressed with yourself? Feel sentimental thinking back to all those times?
BH: Mostly proud of the variety, the broad musical life that I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to lead and all of the disparate collaborations and just the songs.
JPG: Is this something that you’ve been taking notes and thinking about for years?
BH: Absolutely. For instance, the version of “Night on the Town,” the solo piano version is from a concert in either ’01 or 02 at University of Illinois, a college solo piano concert. It’s 13 minutes long. It’s an exploratory version. So, through the years I’ve been making notes like, This was a particularly good performance.’
JPG: Since you’ve planning this for awhile, was the release of Greatest Radio Hits part of the plan?
BH: That was the record company just wanting to mine the catalog and get a little bit of money. I don’t begrudge them that. That’s fine. That’s not something that was dear to my heart. I don’t care about that. I added a couple of tracks to it that I thought helped it out. I don’t define what I do at all by those hits. Now, I was very fortunate in that my hits were not novelty records. They generally are songs that we love to play even now and we play them in a very adventurous fashion. Don’t play them at all like the original record. The original version, I think we’re so far beyond those versions.
JPG: What I was getting at is that usually record companies want to release best-of albums, but at the same time by putting it out did that help you because it freed up one of the discs for intersections from being the greatest hits CD?
BH: That’s very possible. That’s a good point. Although, frankly, if they had not put that out I still would have done a box set. I’m sure that some people would have howled in protest. It was an artistic statement for me. Consequently, “The Way It Is” on it is an eight-minute solo piano version cause that reflects artistically to me where I’ve come to.
My time with the Grateful Dead influenced me. I mean, I was already doing this, mind you, but playing with them sort of pushed me along in that direction. Most songwriters approach playing their music, what I call the Museum Piece approach, Here’s the way we recorded the song and here’s the way we’ll play it forever.’ And for me that’s a real creative prison to approach music that way. I approach the song like living beings that can grow and evolve. Consequently, in a lot of cases the versions we play now for me are way better than the originals. So, I was interested in having one document for every song, what I consider a definitive performance in every way — groove-wise, musically, vocally, conceptually, everything.
JPG: I understand how you feel. I was going to say that I got more into your music after the hits, when I saw your live performances in the late 90s.
BH: Yeah, exactly! To me it started getting much more interesting from Harbor Lights (1993) on, although Harbor Lights had a couple of almost-hits on it. And Hot House also, [hit singles] “Walk in the Sun” and “Fields of Gray.” Still, the floodgates were starting to open with the guest musicians I had — Wayne Shorter and Branford Marsalis, Pat Metheny and, of course, Garcia playing on all those recordsCharlie Hayden, Chaka Khan, Bela Fleck. To me the music got much more interesting from then on and so that’s the area of my career, artistically and musically, I’m most proud of. So consequently, that is shown in this box set where there are definitely eight or nine songs from the record Spirit Trail, which I consider to be one of my best.
JPG: You have a very distinctive and recognizable warm tone on the piano. What went into bringing about the end result?
BH: I think a lot of what makes me sound unique or gives me my own sound is an approach to playing chords that I’ve come to over the years. I’ve been asked about this so much, that I’ve had to think about it and figure out a way to describe it. I describe it as Bill Evans meets the hymnbook. Bill Evans basically took his harmonic approach from the French Impressionist composers, Ravel, Debussy. Mostly Ravel. He found this way of playing chords that was very sensuous to me and very beautiful. I took that and, also, I was interested in folk music and all the hymn music.
JPG: At the same time you’re an educated musician. You seems to treat every day, every performance, every recording as a constant learning experience.
BH: Yeah, that’s right. I’m a lifelong student. I was a music school guy and got my degree in jazz music. I’ll be continuing to try to grow and learn new things forever. I am a lifelong student.
JPG: Which brings up this. When it comes to writing, recording and performing, where does the idea of. your artistic self versus the idea of
BH: Being commercially successful.
JPG: I really didn’t want to get at commercially successful’ because that puts it too much…
BH: You have to realize that our first record was such a huge commercial success. It was so not calculated to be that. I mean, if you hear the songs that were hits, they don’t sound anything like Top 40. “The Way It Is” is the perfect example. That’s nothing like a Top 40 record. It just became that. It’s similar to me like “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits. It doesn’t sound like Top 40, but it was a huge hit. “The Way It Is” has something very much in common with “Sultans of Swing” in that it was a number one record, but it had lots of soloing on it. In my case, of course, piano. In Mark Knopfler’s case, guitar. That’s really rare on the radio, playing long instrumental sections and soloing on an instrument have never been what Top 40 was about.
It was a great fluke, but we weren’t trying to do that then. We never really were trying to be commercial. I was always trying to write good things though. My favorite songwriters were not necessarily commercial songwriters, but they were great songwriters who did have a good bit of pop success. The one great example of a great songwriting group that never had a lot of Top 40 success is the Dead. To me, collectively, they have one of the greatest books of songs that anyone has. I think the uninitiated have no idea how many great songs they have. I was influenced by them. I was mostly influenced by Dylan and Robbie Robertson, early Elton John, music that was his least commercial. Tumbleweed Connection [by Elton John] for example. That to me is his best album. That’s the one album that did not have a hit on it back then. So anyways, I was never really trying to be calculated in that sense. I was trying to write good songs that I thought had their own sound.
JPG: At one point in your career it seemed the idea of branching out and trying new ideas and working with different people became very important.
BH: Oh, that just grew. That evolved out of what was happening in my career. All of a sudden after my first record, especially after my second, I started getting all these calls to work with all these great people. So, I started playing on Bonnie Raitt’s record, playing on Bob Dylan’s record, playing with Bob Seger, opening for the Dead, writing a song with Don Henley, writing a song with Robbie Robertson, his solo record, “Storyville,” writing with Chaka Khan in 95. I kept getting all these great calls through the years. Writing a song for Spike Lee. Making videos with Spike. Doing a duet with Roger Waters on “Comfortably Numb.” Things that I’m mentioning are all on the box set.
JPG: Playing with Roger Waters. Among all the collaborations, that one really blows my mind.
BH: That actually grew out of working with Robbie. I was helping Robbie with his band. I did “Saturday Night Live” and “Legends of the Guitar Festival” [in Seville, Spain in 1991]. Roger Waters heard that I was going to come over with Robbie and he wanted me to sing a duet with him. All these collaborations, my musical world was expanding so much and I was enjoying so much stepping into these other people’s world and finding and learning from their process and their philosophies of making music. I thought, You know what? I need to have the freedom to call these people just like they call me.’ That’s why after the third record, there was no more Bruce Hornsby and the Range. It was just me working with people I wanted to work with and having the freedom to cast my records like a film director would. That whole evolution, it all comes from what was happening to me, all the great calls I was getting.
JPG: Are you still a busy man or at some point did you start to say, “No?”
BH: I started saying, No’ a lot more around the mid-90s. I got the feeling after a while that people were just calling me because I was a cheap date. I didn’t charge them. This was a sideline for me. It wasn’t how I made my living. So, I would charge them the minimum. I’d charge them nothing if I could, but I think by law you have to charge one union session so I would charge that. In Bonnie Raitt’s case, she felt that what I did on “I Can’t Make You Love Me” was so pivotal, so essential to the sound of the record, to its success that she ended up later cutting me in, giving me a very small piece of the record, which was very nice of her and very typical of her generosity. But generally, it was whatever it was, 180 bucks, 100 bucks.
So, I was getting this cheap date rap. Consequently, when I was playing on people’s records I would try to take it to an adventurous place, and they would sort of rein me in and go, Can you play it a little more simple? Play it a little more straight.’ I would always come away thinking, You could have got anybody to do that.’ It became not as enjoyable to me, so I started saying, No,’ a lot more. It’s a natural evolution. You do this for a while and then the bloom comes off the flower and you’re starting to go, You know what? I don’t need to do this as much.’
Also, this is very important. One major reason why I stopped playing with the Dead, along with the fact that I thought Vince was really figuring it out, that it was really time for him to take over. By the time I left, my wife and I had twin boys in 1992. So at that point, I started saying, No,’ a lot more. For that reason too, I didn’t want to be an absentee father.
JPG: That’s what I gathered at the time. Was that a difficult for you because there was Vince and you didn’t want to step on his toes or be overbearing but
BH: It was harder for him. Garcia wanted me to be in the band. He wanted me. If I would have just said, Yes, I’ll do this full time. I will be in your band and join your band,’ there wouldn’t have been a thought of another person coming in. It would have just been me. But since I couldn’t really commit to that. My career was, too much going on, too enjoyable with my own career at that point. Then they brought in Vince, but Vince was really, at that point, it was pretty easily seen if anyone was coming to the shows he was really a texture guy, the colors guy. And I was the one who was getting to play a lot cause that was what was Garcia’s thing. He’d look over to me and say, C’mon go.’ or You go.’ So, it was a lot harder for Vince in that way, fitting in around what I was doing. I think, frankly, Vince loved it when I wasn’t there because he got to step forward. It worked out great for him when I said it was time for me to go, time for you guys to be a band without me.
JPG: The four CDs cover a great expanse of your work and collaborations, but I didn’t anything from your days in The Other Ones.
BH: The version of “White Wheeled Limousine” is totally The Other Ones arrangement. Now, it’s our version of it because, frankly, I’ve had seven years to get that down. The Other Ones played that 20 times. We played it way more.
JPG: I guess it goes back to your description of definitive.’
BH: To me it’s the definitive arrangement, The Other Ones arrangement, and that’s the definitive performance of the arrangement. That’s definitely Other Ones stamped on disc three.
Well, the influence of the Dead is certainly in there. Garcia is on more tracks than any guest by a lot, five or six songs. I was influenced by their approach, not that I approach it in the same way, but there’s definitely that wanting to have the freedom to have the song new again.
JPG: And that happens, to a degree, each night at every performance.
BH: Not necessarily. Just because you jam on a two-chord vamp for 10 minutes and somebody solos over it. That’s not creative and new at all. That’s what a lot of people do and they call it jamming. That to me is very much by the book. We try to not do that. Certainly, we have our set arrangements in certain sections, but I try to mess with the band and change it often, like, Okay, we do this usually but watch out! Here comes something else.’
JPG: So, when you say new’ you’re talking different arrangements
BH: I mean, really new. Like in “White Wheeled Limousine,” the middle section usually someone solos over the chords of the verse but sometimes I’ll just say, No, no, no. We’re gonna play this Miles Davis tune in here.’ I’ll give em a look and (vocalizes the notes) we’ll play “Nardis” or an old Sonny Rollins tune called “Airigin” or we’ll go into a one-chord vamp over that. There’s lots of ways to go.
JPG: On the box set’s DVD there’s a live clip of “They Love Each Other,” and Jerry looks over at you to take the solo. There seemed to be this look on your face as if you didn’t want to take it right then.
BH: Oh no, that’s not, that wasn’t it. It was probably my contact lens bothering me. (laughs)
JPG: You may have been the only one onstage not wearing sunglasses.
BH: Could be. Maybe it was too bright for me.
JPG: Glad I cleared that up. That brings up another thing, when listening to “Greatest Radio Hits” versus seeing you perform live by yourself and with The Other Ones, it’s just hard for me to deal with the production work on your early albums, a very tinny 80s production on the drums and everything.
BH: They were just demos with a drum machine that we couldn’t be with the band so we just became this drum and keys records. (laughs)
JPG: I was thinking, poor John
BH: Poor Molo?
BH: Well, right. It was tough for him because everyone loved the demos. When he would come in to try to beat it, I remember Elliot Scheiner and Neil Dorfsman producers of the first two records would be sitting in there, go “Well, it sounds good, but I like it the way it was originally.’ It was especially difficult on the second one because the first record had been so successful with all the hits. There were the band songs and then there were the hits. So, everyone was going, Wow! This is the sound. The sound that they want to hear.’ And so it was especially difficult, that second record, for Molo because he was doomed. He could have been playing his ass off and people would have been going, Yeah, that’s good, but it doesn’t sound like these hits.’ That was really hard for him. That was nothing but a drag for him.
He dealt with it really well, frankly. He was really nice about it. I think he just understood. It was pretty easy to see. It wasn’t personal. It was just, Hey, you know, this is an elusive thing. Very rare what’s happened to us that we’re making these records that aren’t like a poppy disco thing or whatever and then they’re hits. So, that’s kind of weird, you know? But let’s keep going with it.’ And that’s when he was caught up in that. Now, mind you, by the third record, we said, To hell with all this,’ and it was almost all Molo. “Night On The Town” is much more of a drums record and so, consequently, it sounded a whole lot better.
Frankly, to me a lot of the old records don’t hold up that well, mostly because the vocals are a little straight. My loosening through the years, stylistically, vocally is a huge aspect of this box set, for instance, and the subsequent records. It just sounds better to me on a vocal level. It holds up way better from Harbor Lights on. It’s a matter of just loosening up my whole consciousness about singing.
JPG: Seeing your two sons in the video for “Fields of Gray,” they’re in their teens now, are you the type of parent to encourage or discourage an artistic life for them?
BH: I neither encourage it nor discourage it. They both seem completely disinterested. One of them likes to download soundtracks songs: John Williams and James Horner are his faves. The other one likes Ozzy and Kiss. That’s what they like and let them have a ball with that. That’s just fine. They know what I do. They know my music. They’re fine with it. They like particular, certain things. My record, Big Swing Face is their favorite.
JPG: Earlier you mentioned about doing an album with Ricky Skaggs. When we talked back in 98 you said you were wanted to come up with a keyboard bluegrass album.
BH: In 2000/2001 I recorded with Ricky Skaggs as part of the Bill Monroe Tribute Record (_Big Mon_). I had a great time making this record, “Darlin’ Cory.” I ended up on Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno, PBS Bluegrass special. He asked me, We had such a good time doing this, would you consider making a whole record together?’ So, we finally got our schedules together and in the past year made this record. It’ll come out, I believe, the first part of next year. I’m really proud of it. We did a bluegrasss version of “Super Freak” (by Rick James) on there. Simply unique. John Anderson sings on it, not Yes’ Jon Anderson, the Country John Anderson.
And I just made a jazz record with Jack DeJohnette and Christian McBride. Jazz has always influenced my music. In fact there’s an Ornette Coleman and Bruce duet on this box set (“Hip, Skip and Jump”). It’s very special to me because I’ve always loved Ornette’s music and I did a session with him in ’95. We recorded together, just piano and sax, and one song that he taught me I recorded with Jack and Christian. The other song is represented on the box set, the duet that we did.
The jazz language has always been very present in my music, especially from Harbor Lights on. It receded a little bit with Spirit Trail but it’s still in there. So anyway, I’ve never been busier creatively than last year-and-a-half with the box set, the bluegrass record and the jazz record.