Bruce Hornsby Brings the Noise
Photo by Norman Sands
Bruce Hornsby has a new live 2-CD compilation out with his longtime band featuring a sturdy and spirited group of performances culled from gigs played from 2007 to 2009. Bride of the Noisemakers is the result and, other than being a very successful reading of Hornsby and his crack group’s talents and way around some fairly choice material, is the sequel to 2000’s live Here Come the Noisemakers. Hornsby has a full artistic plate as he will detail in our feature. But he also seems wise enough to stop and refocus at times.
Indeed, as the front man/ pianist/accordionist/vocalist sits down with Jambands.com for this warm, insightful and entertaining discussion about all matters Hornsby, one gets the sense that the man, well into his third decade as a versatile artist, is catching his breath before re-imagining not only his body of work, but what he can offer with his band, and all those other configurations he finds himself playing. The Noisemakers serve, push, and enhance Hornsby quite well on the live release, but the band also appears to be an incredibly resourceful well of inspiration for the always probing musician.
RR: We have something in common. I also have twin sons, who are about to turn 5.
BH: Oh, fantastic. My sons are 19, and they are ready to go to college. They’re seniors in high school, now.
RR: Any advice? Stay out of their way?
BH: I would never want to give anyone advice about much of anything, but in this case, one thing I would say is that you can expose them to so much to the broadest array of possibilities of areas of interests for them. Help them find something that they are passionate about, and try to help them get as good as they can at it, I guess. My sons are both jocks now, and they are very committed in that area. They are both going to be divisional and scholarship athletes—quite an achievement in this incredibly competitive age that we live in. I spotted their abilities early on, and helped nurture it like a motherfucker. (laughter)
Try to help them without pushing, which can certainly lead to burn out. You have to have your antennae up for anything like that because, certainly in sports, there’s the trend towards year round specialization—one sport for the year—and it’s very tough. 5 years old? All I know is I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. My boys are great guys, and, in fact, you can see a picture of one of them [Russell Hornsby of Georgetown Prep] in the Washington Post last Sunday. [His team] finished in fourth in the Penn Relays 4×800—they came from 10th to 4th. Really great fun. The other one [Keith Hornsby] plays for Oak Hill Academy, the great basketball power, and he was on ESPN about five times this year. It’s quite something what they are accomplishing. It’s really special.
RR: You touched upon some areas I’d like to explore with you, such as exposure of as many different areas and interests as possible. You’ve done that with your music over the years, transcending many genres to create your own Hornsby sound. Plus, you brought up the concept of burn out. Were you at a point within the last couple of years where you were touring too much, and chose to take some time off?
BH: Are you talking about last year?
BH: Well, yeah, I think so. I felt I needed to take a break, and sort of re-position our band. I just felt like, well, to be perfectly honest, I have four incarnations of my musical trip right now—there’s the band, solo piano concerts, which are very fulfilling, but (laughs) very difficult and very challenging the way I do it, then there’s the Skaggs/Hornsby bluegrass collaboration, my country cousin, Ricky Skaggs and I who play together, and then there’s the whole jazz area with our jazz trio, Jack DeJohnette and Christian McBride. We made that record [2007’s self-titled release].
So, there are four different ways to book what I do. It got to the point, frankly, where my solo concerts were outdrawing our band gigs, and I don’t like that. I love playing with my band. I think we have a lot to offer, but I think it has to do with this odd career that I’ve had where I came out having all these hits over a five-year period—’86 to ’90. And, then, I sort of turned my back on that. I started getting all these great calls from all these musicians to work with and for them. Obviously, the most well-known collaboration is the Grateful Dead, but there were many, many more—Robbie Robertson, I played on Bob Dylan’s record, Bob Seger, Bonnie Raitt, of course, for years, Béla Fleck, a lot in the bluegrass world like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ricky Skaggs, and Randy Scruggs.
I started moving in these other directions. I started acquiring an audience made up of factions that didn’t really co-exist very peacefully together. You had people who were there for a nostalgic reason to hear the “good old songs,” quote, unquote, and then you had the people who were there for what I consider to be the right reason, which is they were there to hear us play music in an adventurous manner. That’s really what we do. But for many years, I guess we booked ourselves into these halls, and you’ll have some people sitting down, and the people who want to dance are frustrated, and I don’t blame them a bit. (laughs)
I thought it was time to take a break from this, and try to move it into a different place; hence, Bride of the Noisemakers, our sequel to the Here Comes the Noisemakers record from ten years ago. I thought it was time for there to be a document of what we sound like now because our approach makes it so we attempt to dress the songs up in new clothes quite often. If you heard a version of one of our songs in, say, 2003, and heard it played in 2009, it would be rather different in most cases. In some cases, not; but, in most cases, it would be. And, so, I wanted to show that.
There were lots of reasons why I took the year off, but those were a couple of them.
RR: Bride of the Noisemakers —the very title makes me think of reinvigorated spirit, or bringing life to something that was almost inanimate or staid. What I love about your music is that you have a template, but you are also able to go off in different directions, and make it appear natural. There are no awkward transitions. How important has it been within your live improvisation over the years to have that template, and move the music in any direction you wanted?
BH: Well, it’s of utmost importance. It is all-important because I just could not be that guy who is to be your vehicle for your stroll down memory lane, and playing the songs just the way we recorded them. That’s the way most people play music in the popular rock world. But, I always felt a real strong psychological and philosophical kinship with the Dead because my influence was always that way. I got my degree in jazz music, and improvisation has always been really important to me. It’s just such a creative prison to feel like you have to play the songs that way, so I just could never have done that, if I had had to do that. If somebody said, “You’ve had these hits, and now, every night, you’re going to play that,” I’d have just stopped. I’d rather teach somewhere, than do that.
The approach makes it ever-interesting to me. I’m a lifelong student. I’m always interested in being continually inspired. It leads me to some places where a lot of people wish (laughs) it didn’t lead me, for instance, modern classical music. That’s touched on in several—three or four or five—areas of our new record. There are excerpts from different modern classical pieces, and they’re always the most dissonant part of the night. But, I think dissonance stiffens the spine. (laughs) I think it straightens your posture. It’s like the Army—strong dissonance makes strong men. (laughter)