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As I started this piece covering my second interview with Bernard Fowler, I found myself forming it in a way that somehow felt familiar. As I wrote, I kept feeling that I’ve been down this path before so I stopped, thought, and then looked up my first interview with Mr. Fowler (here).
Dang it! I saw that I was writing something very similar.
I share this – not because I have this masochistic need to publicly humiliate myself – but to show the steady, solid, classicness (I just made that word up) of Bernard Fowler.
When I first interviewed Bernard, he was in the midst of working on his second solo album. That album was recently released (the Boomerocity review is here) and the opportunity presented itself for me to chat with the vocal giant once again.
We met in a private section of the lounge in the luxurious Ritz-Carlton hotel in the tony Buckhead section of Atlanta the day before he and the Rolling Stones hit the stage at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium. The purpose was to discuss that album I was just talking about, “The Bura”.
The setting and environment in the lounge was comfortable and staff at the hotel was gracious and accommodating, making for an easy and quiet place for Bernard and I to chat while my business partner/cousin, James Patterson, photographed the conversation.
Prior to the interview, I exchanged notes with our mutual friend, Steve Lukather, who was on tour with Toto and Yes in Europe. Luke said, “Send my best to Bernard from Norway ! Love the cat! Great singer even a nicer man! I miss him and tell him to say ‘hi’ to Daryl and Woody for me!” Sharing that message put the first of many warm smiles on Bernard’s face.
As we got comfortable and sipped on water on that hot, June day, I asked Fowler for his “elevator speech” about his new project and why he chose that title for the disc.
“The bura is like hurricane force winds that blow off of the Adriatic Sea, between Italy and Croatia. I was touring around that area and a friend of mine was taking me to some small town – I think it was called ‘Rabac’ in Croatia. We were going through a tunnel and some lights started flashing. We got out of the tunnel and he pulled over. I said, ‘what are you pulling over for?’ and he said, ‘The bura!’ I said, “what is a ‘bura’?’ Then this wind came and hit the van and the van started to rock and it shocked me. I said, ‘holy s***!’ He said, ‘this is small bura!’ He said, ‘if we don’t pull over, it will lift the truck and turn it over.’ I’d never felt anything like that.
“The term stuck with me and I liked the way the words sound. I love the way they pronounce that word. I thought it would be a great title for a record.”
As I mentioned earlier, Fowler was working on the album when I first interviewed him so I asked how long the project took him to create and what made “The Bura” different from other projects he worked on, including his first album, “Friends With Privileges”.
“I would say it took about two years to make but I think the total work time would probably be eight months . . . nine months. I didn’t work on it all the way through. I had to go to the studio, do some work there then I would have to leave. I would go and do dates and come back. It was a back and forth kind of thing.
“The only other one that I could compare it to would be ‘Friends With Privileges’. The process was very similar except that with ‘Friends With Privileges’, I did a lot of it by myself. This time, I made a conscious decision that I would have somebody sitting in the chair next to me and that person was Robert Davis – a guitar player. He co-wrote and produced the record with me so the process was pretty similar.
“The other thing that was different was I would go to the studio and work but I wouldn’t take the work home with me to study while I was on the road doing things. I didn’t do that. I might’ve listened to something (but) after I listened to it, I left it. I never listened to it again until I got back to the studio. That was the first time I ever worked that way.”
I found that method of work interesting so I asked Bernard why he worked that way and why did he feel that it was important.
“I needed it to be fresh all the time. I didn’t want to get stuck. I didn’t want to get used to works in progress. I didn’t want to get used to it. Too many times, I think people – and I’m one of those people – you work in the studio and at the end of the day, you make a rough mix and you’re listening to the rough mix until you get back into the studio the next time. You think something on it is really good and you can’t get past it. You go to the studio and if it’s not sounding that way then people may tend to freak out or, ‘no, I want it to sound more like it did the first day.’
“It’s a work in progress so it’s going to change. When you do that, you kinda limit yourself to possibilities. I didn’t want to be limited so I just approached it that way. Every time I went back into the studio, it was fresh. If I had been gone for a while, I’d call the studio and say, ‘Hey, what days can you give me to work?’ and they would give me the days, I would go back in and I would familiarize myself with it. Then the next day I would start to work.”
Fowler mentioned Robert Davis so I asked how he linked up with the guitarist and what made him decide to work with him as closely as he did.
“I got a call from an engineer friend of mine – an engineer out of Los Angeles that I had known for long time and he called me one day. He said he was working with a band; that they
Photo Courtesy of JamesPattersonsGallery.com
had a really cool vocalist, a great guitar player. They need some vocal help. ‘Would you, if you can, do me a favor and come by and help them out a bit.’
“So, I went to the studio and met the band. I did some stuff for them. Robert was there, obviously. I heard what they were doing and I got to hear them play and I think the first thing I said was, ‘This kid is good.’ I had some solo dates that I would do and I would put together a band and I called him and asked him to be part of the unit. We just got along really well. I enjoyed his playing, his enthusiasm and his fire when he plays.
“When I thought I needed somebody to work with – we’ve known each other for a few years but the relationship was still fresh so I thought, ‘Let me call Robert. He’s the guy I’m gonna work with.’ I just made that decision. It turned out to be a really good decision.”
I have three favorite tunes that Fowler wrote on “The Bura”. They are, “See You Again”, “Will You Miss Me”, and
“My Friend Sin”. I asked him for the back stories on these songs. He began answering with another one of those warm smiles and an easy laugh that I’d grown to expect out of him when he’s happy.
“Okay, ‘See You Again’, that’s probably one of my favorites – if not THE favorite of mine on the CD. When I was looking to write and compile material for the record, I would go and spend some time with Robert early in the afternoon. I went to his house. Most of the pre-production stuff was at Robert’s house. I went to his house and he goes, ‘B, I got something I want to show you.’ He started playing this thing that he put together – just a drum machine and a kind of keyboard. It felt really good and I kinda recognized it. It was a song that he played for me a while ago . . . but it was really fast – a rocker type thing.
“So he took that same thing and slowed it down – way down. I’m listening to it and I’m, like, ‘I like that. Set up a microphone and let me try to put some ideas on it.’ Usually, that’s the way it works. I’ll hear something and I’ll just sing melody without words. But this time I started to sing words. I pretty much ripped myself off of a song I had written before for Ronnie Wood years ago. I just started to sing those lyrics but altered them a bit. I had a face on it. We listened back to it and I said, ‘Hmmm. There’s something there. It’s really minimal. A drum machine, some keyboard and voice, at that time.
“As things progressed, then I had ideas about certain people doing certain things on that. I think that’s probably the first song that we worked on when we went into the Steakhouse recording studio. Everybody on the record was hand picked for their specialties.
“My daughter’s school teacher called me up and needed a studio. I sent him to the Steakhouse. I went there to check on him to see how he was making out. He said, ‘Hey, there’s somebody in the control room that you know that you probably haven’t seen in a long time.’ I said, ‘Who is it?’ He said, ‘Well, go in there and see.’ I walked in and it was L. Shankar. I hadn’t seen L. in more than twenty-five years. We used to do recordings together with Bill Laswell years ago. I was so happy to see him.
“He had to go on the road and when I started working on ‘See You Again’, I thought, ‘Oo! L. would be perfect for this track!’ So I called him. He said, ‘Send it to me.’ So I sent it to him and he was gracious enough to send it back with great violin and some great vocal things on there. It just grew from there.
“Will Calhoun came into town. Will was the first one to overdub on this record. Waddy Wachtel is on there. Jeff Bova who I spent a lot of years with when I was singing for Herbie Hancock. Jeff was the second keyboard player. He did a great string arrangement for it. I love listening to it. It’s so good. Everybody did great. We were stuck. We needed a bass player but we needed the right bass player so I called this cat. He teaches at a local university. I said, ‘I need a bass player. Can you send me one of your students there?’ He sent me over this guy. A young cat. Emilio Teranova. He came in with an upright. We had a little trouble with the sound. Robert or myself put a t-shirt behind the strings. That stopped the buzz of the bass but it created another thing to that bass. We had it! Then it was just a matter of me doing the rest of the vocals.
“That vocal is the vocal I sang when he played it for me. I didn’t go back in and re-record it. There was something about that vocal. I’m a fan of male falsetto. I loved Eddie Kendricks from the Temptations. I don’t have that range, really. I only use that vocal range when I’m doing a lot of background. I’ll use that part of my voice. But for a lead, I never did that before. I remember being really sick when I sang that, also. As it went on and I kept listening to it, I had a vibe. So I thought, ‘I’m not going to re-record it. I’m going to leave it just the way it is.’
“’My Friend Sin’ also was when Robert and I were writing. I went to his house, again, early one afternoon. ‘I got a call from a friend of mine. He’s a movie director. He’s doing a movie and he’s asked if we would write something for the movie.’ I’m, like, ‘Okay, what is the movie?’ ‘The movie is about a kind of preacher. A holy roller during the day but when the sun goes down, he’s a bad man.’ I said, ‘Okay, well, do you got anything?’ and he said, ‘I got a little something”. I listened to it and I said, ‘Give me the mic and let’s try it right now.’ He said, ‘What about lyrics?’ I said, ‘I got it!’ I wrote a few things on a piece of paper. I just had it in my head. It was an easy one. We had a click track. He started to strum. I started to hum. That was it. It was done that fast. It was done really, really fast.
“That was just the beginning. I thought of how was I going to complete it. I wanted it to sound as authentic as possible. I wanted it to fit. If you were going to listen to Eddie Taylor or Robert Johnson or or Son House, it would be able to fit in there. So I kept the instruments to a minimum. I tapped my foot. I recorded that and Robert. I called Chicago and asked Sugar Blue if he would put some harp on it and I played a Jew’s Harp. I called Slash and asked Slash if he was in town and he was and I said, ‘I’m working on a record. I’d love for you to come by and play’ and he said, ‘Sure! Where are you at? What time?’”
Then, with that infectious smile, Bernard shook his head and said:
“I love that!”
Then continuing his story about Slash, he quotes the guitarist:
“’Where are you at, Bernard? What time?’ He came with his guitar tech. He didn’t come with an entourage. Just the two of them. He walked into the studio with his guitar. ‘Lemme hear what you’re doin’.’ I played it. He plugged in, tuned up and went to work . . . and kicked some ass. I think that day he did three songs and ‘My Friend Sin’ was one of them. I’m very pleased with ‘My Friend Sin’.
“I did most of the vocals but I needed another texture so my girl, Lisa Fischer, happened to be in town and I got her by the studio and she added that texture that I needed, then it was complete.”
With Fowler mentioning the lovely Lisa Fischer, I just had to ask the question: When are you going to record a whole album together of just the two of you? Shaking his head slowly for emphasis, he said:
“Everybody asks that! I’d love to! It’s gotta be the right things, the right songs and probably even the right producer. I don’t know if I would want to produce that. Maybe! But I’m not sure. I think we could do a really killer thing and I think it would be not so traditional between the two of us. We both like kinda different things. It would be good.”
One thing that is a bit different on “The Bura” is that Bernard has three “flavors,” if you will, of the legendary hit by the Box Tops, “The Letter.” I asked him why he chose to do that. He answered with a laugh.
“I did that because – okay, making the record wasn’t easy. I was in my own pocket (paying for the recording costs himself). There was no record company. There was no budget. Reluctantly, I called Pledge Music – no, I didn’t call Pledge Music. Pledge Music called me. ‘We can help you raise money’ blah, blah, blah. I thought about it a lot. I was swinging back and forth. I have a problem asking people for things.
“So, by the third meeting, I agreed to do it. The pledge started happening. People started to donate money to the cause and we surpassed our goal. As we were recording, we got to the point where it couldn’t keep coming out of my pocket so I called pledge. ‘Call ‘em and tell ‘em that I need that money!’ My manager calls me and says, ‘you’re not going to be too happy’. ‘Why? What’s wrong?’ ‘Pledge won’t hand you the money until you hand them the record.’”
When I suggested that that might be a tad backward, Bernard responded:
“That’s what I thought.”
He then continued by sharing:
“I was forced to by any means necessary. Because of that, things started to take long. I wanted to get it done quickly and get it out but time! I would have to go on the road to do gigs. There were people who had donated money and they were getting impatient. ‘What’s happening? Why is it taking so long? I sent my money and I still don’t have a record.’ I apologized! I sent two or three apologies on Facebook. ‘I’m sorry it’s taking so long!’ But, for some people, that’s just not good enough and I understand.
“So, because they waited so long – there was only supposed to be ten tracks on the CD. Ten is always my magic number. Because it had taken so long, I just thought, ‘you know what? Let me just try and give a bonus track or two.’
“It was towards the end. I knew the Stones thing was getting ready to start up and I had some other things to do so I just thought, ‘you know what?’
He then he interrupts himself by sharing a related story:
“Early in my career when I was singing with the New York City Peach Boys, we were the first band to actually put out an a cappella. We put out a twelve-inch a cappella. The DJs – they were able to mix the a cappella with other songs. So I thought, ‘You know what? Let me just do that again.’
“So, I just put up the track. The only thing I forgot to do was turn up some delays and stuff. I didn’t have a whole lot of time. The studio had other clients coming in so I put in a kind of dub mix and then the a cappella. It was just to give the fans something extra. That was it.”
Fowler covered “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” and “Helter Skelter” on “The Bura” – the latter being the best cover of that Beatles tune I’d ever heard . . . including U2’s version of it. I asked him if this was his answer to the perpetual “Beatles/Stones” debate.
“You know what? It’s always the Beatles and the Stones, the Beatles and the Stones. I said, ‘**** it, I’m doin’ one of each! I’m doin’ both on the same record!’ I decided that any solo project that I do I will always do a Rolling Stones song. I’ve been with them close to thirty years now. It will be kind of my ‘thank you’ to them for keeping me around.”
I sensed that, all seriousness, “Helter Skelter” has a strong personal meaning to Bernard so I asked him if it did.
“Well, yeah, I had been reading about – it was online that I was reading something about the Sharon Tate murders and that stuff. Long story short, the article said how that they did all these murders and they wrote the s*** on the wall. What they were, basically, trying to do – because of the climate at the time – the race relations climate at the time in America; the Black Panther Movement, the Watts riots and all of that stuff – so they killed all of these people and then they would try to shift the blame to the Black Panther Movement to try and start a race war!
“When I read that, I thought, ‘you gotta be kidding me! Like we didn’t have enough problems!’ Like they didn’t have enough problems! The black folk didn’t have enough problems without this guy trying to stir up more s***. I got a little heated and said that I’m going to cut that.
“I went on YouTube and found a speech by Eldridge Cleaver. That’s the speech that you hear in the middle. Someone pointed out to me a couple of weeks ago, ‘do you realize that that speech that you picked for that is relevant right now?’ I went back and I listened to it and I go, ‘Shit! That’s exactly what’s happening right now!’ It was a beautiful coincidence!”
I had mentioned to Bernard that I felt his cover of “Helter Skelter” was the best treatment of it (besides the Beatles, of course) that I had ever heard and had worn it out listening to it. He said:
“That was the only song on the record that was recorded all at once. Me singing and the band playing all at one time. It is live. It’s live . . . all the way.”
Since we had just discussed his cover of “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’”, I shared with Bernard a recording I had from the first time I interviewed him. It was a conversation between Bobby Keys and myself about Bernard. Bobby was the Stones’ sax player for most of their iconic hits that included a sax. He passed away in December of last year. I played the audio and listened as Mr. Fowler made comments back to Bobby as if he were sitting there with us and then he would look off as if he was glancing back into the past at his dear friend.
I asked Bernard for comments about his late band mate.
“I miss him. I miss him. We miss him. It’s really weird, now, everything kicking up and him not being here, man. Me, (Stones bassist) Darryl Jones, Lisa (Fischer), Keith (Richards), his wife, his manager, and some other friends - we all saw him off.”
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With the shock and disbelief clearly written all over his anguished face, Bernard said:
“We all thought we’d see him again. I thought we’d see him again and I thought that he would play on this record. He didn’t stick around long enough to do it so I said, ‘you know what? I’ll just leave it off. Nobody’s gonna play saxophone on it. No Bobby, no nobody!”
To brighten the mood up a bit, I asked Fowler for his favorite memory of Keys.
“There’s a lot! I’ll give you a ‘light’ one. One memory is we were in Toronto during a tour. I walk in the elevator and (sniffing), ‘I smell weed!’ I’m on the elevator . . . first floor . . . in the lobby! I get up to the floor. I walk out and I hear this vrrrrroooooommmmmm!!!! There were two HUGE air filters outside his door to filter the f***ing weed!
“That’s one of my fondest memories of Bobby Keys. If we wanted weed and we didn’t have any weed to smoke, Bobby was happy to help us!”
I then asked Mr. Fowler my only question regarding the current tour with the Stones and that was how it was going for him.
“The tour is doing absolutely amazing! I keep telling people – especially if it’s people who’ve seen them before – ‘you know what? Forget what you’ve seen. You’re seeing it at its best right now! I’m telling you! They are playing so good! Mick is killing ‘em! It’s incredible! It’s incredible to watch. They are playing so good right now. I’ve been there twenty-something years and, for me, it’s the best I’ve ever heard them.”
Bernard then shared his post-tour plans.
“I got a couple. One is to try to do some dates to support ‘The Bura’. Another is to get back into the studio. I started a project a few months ago that I’d like to complete but I’d like to get into the studio and start work on the next solo record. Hopefully, it won’t be six years before next one. The last one was six years ago – something like that – so I don’t want to take too long. I think I would like to spend more time in the studio doing stuff for myself as well as with other people."
You can purchase “The Bura” on the Amazon or iTunes widgest, below and follow all things Bernard here on Facebook and Twitter. He really is a blast to follow and he’s always posting great, personal photos from his exciting and eventful life.