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Bob Gruen Discusses "See Hear Yoko"

April, 2015

BobGruen CBGB 102006 HannaToressonPhoto by © Hanna ToressonIn a world where fame and notoriety comes and goes and technology can make skilled artisans obsolete, legendary photographer, Bob Gruen, is still on the cutting edge of capturing intriguing and relevant images of people we’re all interested in.

Yet, as he still successfully crafts sought after photographic excellence in a world of Instagrams and YouTube, it’s the iconic work of his past that still excites people. 

Known for some of the most touching and historic images of the last nine years of John Lennon’s life, Gruen continues to work with Yoko Ono as her photographer and, more importantly, is still there for her as a trusted friend.

A couple of years ago, Bob and rock radio’s “Voice of Austin, Texas,” Jody Denberg, put together a book of photos Gruen had taken over the years and quotes from Jody’s work with Yoko. The tome was a gift for Yoko’s 80th birthday (yeah, way).

As is often the case with Yoko, things tied to her and her late husband tend to generate lots of buzz and demand. This book that was originally intended to be a gift of love to her friends soon lead to being published into a commercially available book entitled, “See Hear Yoko.”

It has been five years since I last interviewed Mr. Gruen (here).With the flurry of activity surrounding the release of Yoko’s book, I wasn’t sure that he would have time to sit for a phone interview with me. After graciously sending me a copy of the book to review (here), he generously made time out of his very busy schedule to talk with me about the book and what was on his plate in the near future.

Bob had this to say about the background and story behind the book.

“It was a very personal project. I’ve been friends and worked with Yoko for over forty years. She was turning eighty years old, and what do you get the woman who has everything? Jody has been interviewing Yoko for her official EPKs (Electronic Press Kits) for over twenty-five years. He came up with the idea to take quotes from her interviews and pairing them with my pictures from over the years to make a book we could give Yoko as a gift. These days, you can lay out a book in a program online, and they’ll print a nice hardcover book for you. 

“As we were making it, people asked if we were going to publish it. We said, ‘No, this is a personal gift for Yoko.’ We kept all commercial ideas out of the project. All of the photos were picked out for Yoko - pleasant memories, things that we did together, things she would like to have in a photo diary. She liked it so much, when I saw her at an event a month after I gave it to her, she said we should publish it. She came over again a half hour later and said, ‘I mean it. We should publish this.’ A month later, her lawyer called and said, ‘By the way, Yoko wants me to remind you that you should publish the book’. 

“It’s not always easy to find a publisher, but as things worked out, Jody knew somebody who knew somebody who knew JohnYoko1972Gruen72John & Yoko 1972 by Bob GruenJohnny Depp. He has his own publishing imprint called Infinitum Nihil. He’s done a couple books- a Hunter S. Thompson book and an unpublished Woody Guthrie book. He liked our book very much, so he brought it to HarperCollins. It just came out now since it takes awhile to go through the publishing process. The finished book is even nicer than the online version, which is kind of basic. 

“We didn’t really change the book at all. It’s pretty much what we gave Yoko. We changed the captions a little. There was nothing in the book that was a surprise for Yoko or me. They were all pictures we’d seen over the years, so I didn’t have to put very detailed captions for Yoko. For the public, we put the place, date, what was going on, who is in the picture, and so on. Jody and I both added a thank you note that Yoko sent as an introduction. People seem to like it a lot.

“There are a little over 200 pictures in the book. I first started working with John and Yoko in 1971. After John passed away in 1980, I continued working with Yoko for another thirty years. A lot of people aren’t aware of what Yoko’s been doing for those thirty years, but she’s been doing a lot. She’s been traveling around the world. She does art exhibits. She’s been raising Sean. The first quarter of the book or so is a lot of John and Yoko pictures, and then you see Sean as a baby with John and Yoko. Throughout the book, Sean grows up. 

“After John passes, there’s a period of mourning. You can see Yoko and Sean getting closer. He was five at the time- a very exuberant kid. By the end of the book, I think he’s older than John was at the beginning of the book. It really covers a long period of time. There are a lot of quotes in the book from Yoko’s interviews that are related to what’s going on in the pictures or related to her life at the time we took the pictures. It’s really a nice project, and I’m glad we can get it out to the public. 

“There were a lot of pictures in there that Yoko and I knew about, but they were never publicly published- Yoko at her art shows, pictures of her traveling, pictures at home with Sean. There may have been something here or there published in an article, but by and large, these have not been published. They were done for Yoko at the time. So it’s nice to sum it up, put it in a book, and make it public now.

“John Lennon said that Yoko Ono is the most famous unknown artist in the world. Everybody knows who she is, but nobody knows what she does. I hope this book gives a little bit of insight into what she does. There are all kinds of charity events. There’s Strawberry Fields in Central Park. There’s an event where she was speaking at the United Nations General Assembly when they performed ‘Imagine’ with about 135 countries around the world, a lot of her art shows, introducing the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland. So it gives a lot of insight into what she’s been doing the last forty years.”

I mentioned to Bob that I saw a picture of Yoko a few months ago, and that she looks better at 82 than I do at 55. 

JohnYokoCentralPark1973Gruen72John & Yoko CentralPark 1973 by Bob Gruen“She pretty well. Since I’ve known her, she has a pretty healthy diet. She taught us about the macrobiotic diet early on. I don’t know if she strictly follows that, but she’s a very healthy eater. She gets good exercise. She’s just a healthy person. She’s more active, alert , and aware than a lot of people who are thirty years younger than her. She’s pretty amazing.”

I was curious if there were there any surprise emotions that he or Yoko encountered while working on this project.

“There were a lot of very fond memories. There was nothing really I forgot, but coming across them, it was really familiar… a lot of happy moments. My first trip to Japan in 1974 was with Yoko, and that’s covered in the book. There’s a beautiful picture- I think it’s on the back cover- of her coming off the plane. There’s a mass of photographers waiting for her, and she just descends like an angel to them. Remembering all these moments, it was fun. I’ve always had a lot of fun with Yoko.“

Then, being the true friend to Yoko that he is, Gruen shared this story:

“Somebody asked me the other day for something people don’t know about Yoko. I think it’s her sense of humor. Yoko’s got a great sense of humor, and it’s always fun to be with her. You couldn’t live with John Lennon without having a sense of humor. In her photos and in public, she always seems serious. She works with a lot of serious causes. A lot of her work is peace. A lot of it is to help feed children, to help hospitals, and to make the world a better place. Those are very serious things, so a lot of her photos look pretty serious. But, in person, she’s got a great sense of humor. She’s really fun to hang out with, so while going through the pictures, there were just a lot of happy memories.”

I shared that, to me, the picture she took of John’s glasses that he wore at the time of his death was one of the most moving photos I have ever seen. But the behind-the-scenes photo in the book of the staging of that photo that was also staggering in a symbolic way. I asked if she has indicated what is the most emotional photo for her from this collection?

“Well, that’s a pretty strong one. As are the pictures of the memorial – I think there was one shot outside of The Dakota or something with the crowd gathered. The day we took the picture of the glasses was a very difficult, very emotional day. Yoko is not afraid of strong emotions, so I was able to include that. It was a memory of something she did that was part of her life. She never shied away from any difficult times. Doing that picture was very difficult. We were both crying while we were doing it. When she took the glasses out, we both just started crying. It was such a real expression of what happened. To me, it’s horrifying when you see that picture. You see the blood on the glasses.

“At the time, over the winter, a number of people said, ‘How is Yoko? She must feel terrible. I can’t imagine.’ When you see that picture, you’re so horrified. You actually feel some of what she feels. Just a little bit. You don’t have to ask the question anymore. You kind of know how she feels. 

“That’s the thing about Yoko’s art. It doesn’t just make you think about things. It makes you feel things. She’s very good at Yoko Ono Performing 1986 by Bob GruenYoko Ono Performing 1986 by Bob Gruenthat. A lot of people don’t like being in touch with their feelings, particularly a strong, painful feeling like that. Yet she’s open to it, and she lives with that as we all should. 

“A lot of people don’t like to live with their feelings. When they see her art and react strongly to it, they get very angry. They don’t like reacting strongly to things like that. Rather than seeing that Yoko is a really great artist that made them feel something deeply, they say, ‘She’s terrible. She made me feel bad. I don’t like her.’ 

‘As I said before, Yoko is the most famous unknown artist in the world. Everybody knows who she is, but nobody knows what she does. I’ve never met anybody who has met Yoko who didn’t like her and wasn’t amazed and in awe of her. I have met a lot of people who haven’t met her, only heard about her, who think they don’t like her. That’s really kinda funny.

“When she first came out, and The Beatles were breaking up, they blamed that on her. There was also a lot of racism in England, and they just couldn’t understand why John was with this weird, crazy little artist instead of a beautiful blonde bombshell. When you meet Yoko, you’ll understand why. People ask me what kind of woman Yoko is, and I always say she’s the kind of woman that John Lennon could marry.”

“At one point, John was just getting too drunk, and Yoko couldn’t live with a complete drunk anymore. She sent him off to California, and during that time, he got so loaded. When they were together in the beginning, people would say, ‘Oh, what’s he doing with that horrible woman?’ After what they call the ‘lost weekend’ that lasted a year and a half, everyone was so happy and saying, ‘Thank God he’s back with Yoko! Isn’t that wonderful?’ 

“I noticed that these same people that used to say that they wished those two would break up were so happy when they were back together. It was just a symbol of togetherness, and he was obviously so much better off when he was back with her. He stopped drinking and carrying on. He cleaned up his life, Sean was born, and he stayed home to take care of Sean. It changed his life enormously.

And what does Yoko hope people take away from this book?

“She was willing to open up and share a lot of her private life- what her life is really like. There are a lot of private times with Sean, and there are times she’s working and appearing in different art openings. Some of it is very playful, and yet very thought- provoking. There’s a picture of Sean and Yoko sitting at a chess set. It’s one of her pieces called ‘Play By Trust’. It’s a chess game where all the pieces and all the squares are white, and she said that way you have to remember who’s on your side and who’s not. It’s much more like real life. It’s very difficult to play, and so is life. I think that’s the point she is making. I think it really shows a lot of who she is.

Yoko & Sean Playing Chess 1991 by Bob GruenYoko & Sean Playing Chess 1991 by Bob Gruen“Had I planned to make a book for the public, I probably would have included a lot more information. There are a lot of places we went and things we did that aren’t in the book, because it was just a random collection of good times for her. It wasn’t really thought out as an explanation of who Yoko is or what she does. In many ways, it was somewhat random. I have so many good pictures. It wasn’t difficult to edit because there was no pressure on me. It was just making a nice collection for Yoko, so I didn’t really have to tell a story as I would have had I been planning on making it for the public. It does tell a story, because there were so many pictures, so many places, so many different things that we did.

“At the beginning, there’s a lot of John and Yoko where you can see that they’re a team. But when he’s gone, you can see she’s in a period of mourning. She comes out of it with the help of Sean. You can see what an exuberant kid he is. There are a couple great pictures of him. Some of my favorite pictures in the book are actually the two pictures of Sean playing. You can see how that relationship starts developing. She kinda comes back to life, and she starts getting more active. Now days, she’s more busy than she’s ever been. At 82, she has not slowed down. If anything, she’s speeding up. She’s constantly traveling around the world, constantly appearing at places. She has new exhibits, retrospective exhibits of her John and Yoko period, and countless charities that she works for.”

Gruen said this about the audience’s reception of the book:

“We’ve been receiving a lot of compliments saying it’s beautiful. It’s insightful and really interesting to see these things that were so much behind-the-scenes, to see a collection of so many different things that people didn’t know Yoko was doing. Yoko likes it very much. At her birthday party this February, she had a small party of about thirty people. As a takeaway gift, she gave everybody a copy of the book. At a Beatles fan event last weekend, she gave them six copies of the book to auction for charities. She’s supporting it. We’re doing a book signing together next month, actually, at the Marc Jacobs bookstore on Bleecker Street in New York. She’s not doing any interviews, because she’s got her own projects going. 

In support of his dear friends projects, Bob says of them, “In May, she’s got a big retrospective of her work opening at the Museum of Modern Art here in New York. It’s a very big deal that they’ve finally come around and accepted her.  Luckily, she’s alive to appreciate it.  A lot of artists don’t get that until long after they’re gone. Like I said, she’s a powerhouse- nonstop coming up with new ideas, old ideas, and a lot of charities.”

As he alluded to earlier, Bob said that Yoko is viewed by some as a controversial figure. I asked him if he thought this book will help clear up misunderstandings about her and soften her critics view of her.

“I hope so. A lot of the critics don’t know her, and a lot either haven’t even seen her art or are afraid of it. A friend of mine was someone who really didn’t like Yoko, because she had ‘broken up The Beatles’. That was her opinion. As I got friendlier and friendlier with Yoko, my friend just couldn’t understand it. 

“Then Yoko had a retrospective of her art at the Japan Center here in New York. My friend went and came out saying, ‘I didn’t realize Yoko had such a sense of humor or how deep and interesting she was’. It completely changed her mind when she actually saw what Yoko did. 

“All of the Beatles have said that Yoko had nothing to do with their breaking up. It was just more convenient to blame her instead of blaming The Beatles themselves. I was with John Lennon once in Central Park, and some guy yelled out, ‘Hey, John, when are you going to get The Beatles back together?’ He yelled back, ‘When are you going to go back to high school?’ There is a time and place for everything, and they had their time and place. 

To help shed a John and Yoko’s relationship in a little bit different light and from a different perspective, Bob said, “Some people say that meeting John Lennon was one of the worst things that happened to Yoko, because she was a rising star in the avant garde art world which is very respected by many people and unknown to most people. Yoko doesn’t sing like Frank Sinatra, but Ornette Coleman doesn’t play the trumpet like Herb Alpert. Ornette Coleman is friends with Yoko, and they actually did some shows together. 

“When John met her, Yoko had her own one person exhibition. For a female artist, even now, to have a one person show is Yoko Ono 1982 by Bob GruenYoko Ono 1982 by Bob Gruenunusual. In the sixties, it was unheard of. Yet Yoko had her own exhibit, and that’s where John met her. She was doing fine on her own. In fact, she was doing very well. She was excelling- becoming quite well-known, understood, and appreciated in the avant garde world. Then she met John, and she all of the sudden was thrust onto this world stage in front of people who like pop music which had nothing to do with her life. They all started criticizing her without even knowing what she did.

“From my point of view, I’ve actually always liked Yoko and what John and Yoko did. I’m one of the few people, I think, who heard about Yoko before I heard about The Beatles. I remember, the summer before The Beatles came here, I was reading a story in a magazine about a Japanese woman who had a loft on Canal Street. You could pay five dollars to go into the loft, and it was full of large bags. You could actually get inside one of these large bags with somebody and, to use a hippie expression, do your thing which basically meant anything you wanted to do. Or you could go in the loft, not get in the bag, and wonder what the people in the bags were doing. I thought that was about the weirdest thing I had ever heard of called art. It struck me as really funny and weird, and I wished I was old enough to go to the city and go the exhibit. Actually, I think I was old enough, but I think by the time I was reading about it, it had already happened. 

“A few years later, there was this weird little Japanese woman with John Lennon, and they were sitting inside these bags. I thought, ‘Well, there can’t be two people like that’. The things they started to do- first, it was appearing in bags and saying who they are doesn’t matter. What they are saying matters, because all they were saying is they wanted peace on earth and an end to war. Then they sent an acorn to the leaders of every country in the world, and they asked them to plant the acorns so the world could grow together in peace. 

“When they were trying to plan their honeymoon, and the more they tried to think of a secret place, the more they realized the press would hound them no matter where they went. The more secret they are, the more the press would try to find them. Yoko suggested they turn it around, and they invited everybody in the world to come in and see them on their honeymoon in their marital bed, which was what the press wanted most. So they said, ‘Come on in and look’, and they put the word ‘peace’ behind them knowing that everyone who took a picture was going to print it on the front page of the newspaper. That way every newspaper in the world would say the word ‘peace’. How can you hate somebody who does that?”

I shared with Bob that I had met Ringo recently and that it was striking to me the peaceful and loving way he treated the band and how they treated each other and fans. 

“Peace and working for peace is a part of everyday life, all day every day. There were bodyguards/tour managers named Patty and JC Callaghan. JC, for many years, was the head of security for the Rolling Stones and The Who. When you’re head of security for a band like the Rolling Stones and The Who, you have to deal with a lot of very macho characters, so the Callaghans were pretty tough brothers. Yoko hired them to be the tour managers for when we went to Europe around ’84 or ’85. JC would ordinarily just take kids and toss them out the door when they tried to come in the wrong way or something. In this case, he would say, ‘Peace and love, please stay outside’. It even affected the way they were dealing with these people trying to sneak in. When I saw JC saying ‘peace and love’… that was kinda unusual.”

Are there any plans for a follow up to this book?

“There aren’t any plans, no. But now that I’m getting familiar with the book and looking at it as more than just a gift for Yoko, I realize there is a much bigger story I could have told. In the future, I might be doing more. I’ve got a lot more books in me, that’s for sure.”

With regards to what he’s working on now, Gruen shared, “I have several projects. I have an exhibit coming up in Helsinki at the end of May. I have an exhibit that will be in Liverpool at the end of August. I have two books being re-issued this year. Ten years ago, I put out a book called ‘John Lennon: The New York Years,’ which is being updated and revised with some new pages and new cover. That will be reprinted for John’s 75th birthday in the fall. 

“About fifteen years ago, I made a book with all my pictures of The Clash. It’s been out of print for a number of years, and that’s being reissued by Music Sales Omnibus

in London. It’s an edition of 1250, and it’s got a box flip case with a limited edition signed print in each book. That’s coming out in about a month when I finish signing all the prints. Those are the major projects right now. I’m also working on a proposal for a biography.”

Bob then graciously answered a couple of questions offered by Boomerocity readers. The first asked if he had ever been put in an embarrassing situation while on a shoot. 

“Not offhand. I’m not easily embarrassed, and I kinda take things as they come.”

The second question wondered if he had ever fallen or injured yourself while shooting photographs.

“I do remember one time I got hurt. It still affects me a little bit. I was onstage with the New York Dolls in Japan, and I went to jump off the side of the stage. There was

a 5’ plastic pillow in front of the stage, and there was gravel around it. I was going to jump on that and step off, but my foot got caught. Instead of stepping off, I fell right on my knee on the gravel. But I haven’t been seriously hurt, luckily. God knows why not, because I’ve certainly been in a lot of horrific situations and total chaos in front of stages. I’ve seen other people close to me get hurt falling off chairs or getting banged around in the crowd. I haven’t broken anything, and I hope I don’t. 

“I’m still in some of those chaotic situations on occasion. I don’t photograph like I used to. I don’t go to every show that I can, and I don’t photograph four shows a night. The media has changed so much that everybody is taking their own pictures. I used to take pictures at the show then go home and develop the film. You make some prints, and a couple days later you send them to magazines. A week or a month later, they would print them, and it would be news. Now everyone takes cell phone pictures and uploads them so quickly that, before the first song is over, there are pictures around the world. I don’t really try to compete with that. Luckily, I have enough old pictures that can’t be reproduced that I make a living on those.”

As we wound up our chat, Mr. Gruen updated me on the coming changes to his website, BobGruen.com.

" allowtransparency="no" width="120" height="240">“I launched the website in 2000, and by 2001, people were telling me I needed to revise and update it. We have finally revised and updated it, and in a couple weeks, we’re going to launch the new website. It’s going to have a search feature which was glaringly missing all these years. I have two major sections of the website- one relates to all the files from the past, and the other is what I call 'The Photo of the Day,' which is all the current work I still do. I still do take pictures. I go out pretty regularly. I don’t do it with the intensity I used to, but I still go our four or five nights a week to take pictures. I post them in 'Photo of the Day' which has turned out to be photo of the season since I only update it every three or four months. All those photos will be searchable now. It’s not online yet, but we’ve had what is hopefully our last meeting with our webmaster and should have the final glitches touched up in a week or two.”

Glitches or not, Bob Gruen’s work is still exciting and captivating. He’s one of the few photographers that Boomerocity is intrigued by and anxiously looks forward to seeing what’s new from. 

John would be as proud as Yoko is.

Note: Please do keep up with Bob Gruen’s work and activities at BobGruen.com where you can also purchase his work. You can also order and/or download “See Hear Yoko,” by clicking on the widget above right.

You can also read our first interview with Bob on Boomerocity (here) or on Yoko's website, ImaginePeace.com (here).

Walter Trout Discusses His Health And New CD

April, 2015

trout walter croppedPhoto by Jeff KatzIf you’ve been into the blues for very long at all, no doubt your attention has been directed to the tremendous work of blues great, Walter Trout. Whether you heard him during his days with Canned Heat or during his tenure with John Mayall and the Blues Breakers or during his lengthy solo career that continues today, you would be left being blown away by this man’s monster talent.

I first interviewed Trout three years ago this month (here).  Having watched him perform and then later interviewing him, I developed a hard core fondness for the man and his music. 

Like the rest of his fans around the world, I was saddened to hear last year that he was in need of a very expensive liver transplant. Those legions of fans contributed the badly need funds for that transplant. Trout’s lovely and devoted wife, Marie, kept fans apprised of his progress and kept him informed of the continuous outpouring of love and support from family, friends and fans.

Walter had this to say about his bride:

“We’re coming up on twenty-five years (being married). When I met my wife, I talked to her for probably forty minutes. I said to her, ‘You’re going to move to America. We’re going to get married. We’re going to have children and get old together’. I’d only known her for forty minutes. She, of course, told me I was crazy, but here we are twenty-five years later, madly in love, with three beautiful kids. She really kept me alive. She’s the one who convinced me to fight when I was packing it in. It was very difficult and incredibly painful. She kept me going and fought like lioness for me. The doctors performed miracles on me, but the one who really kept me alive and saved my life was my wife.”

As Walter began to heal and gain strength, he started to make plans to hit the road again. As the plans were solidified, the opportunity to chat with Trout again presented itself and I grabbed it.

Our chat began with Walter sharing how he feels after such a harrowing health experience.

“I’m glad to be here. It’s been a hell of a year and a half. I’m feeling great. I feel reborn. I have plenty of energy, and I’m putting weight back on. 

“The last couple tours I’d been getting these incredible cramps in my hands, especially my left hand and forearm. I tried everything- physical therapy, acupuncture, and magnesium. I was going out on stage not knowing if I’d make it through a song. And I got to the point I couldn’t bend strings. If I tried to bend the string, my whole hand cramped. I did the last tour without bending a string. How do you play blues without bending the string? I managed to pull it off by playing a bunch of fast stuff. I had to totally re-think how I play. It turned out it was from my liver, which I didn’t know at the time. Now I’m playing again and don’t get any cramps. I’m strong. The band has been rehearsing, and we’re kicking ass. I feel great and very, very excited about the future.

“I’m going to make another album at the end of May. It’s going really good. I’m a wonder of modern medicine.”

As for what has been his biggest realization or lesson through this whole ordeal, Trout said, “My whole perspective on life has completely changed. I see beauty where I didn’t see it before. I don’t take anything for granted. I wake up in the morning, open my eyes, and just start laughing. I go, ‘Wow, I have another day here.’ It’s amazing. Little things that used to bug me just don’t bother me anymore. I don’t care. 

“I see things very differently, and I’m very happy and blessed to have some more time. I see the majesty of being alive, and I didn’t really see that before. A lot of things I took for granted, and I don’t anymore. It’s a whole different way of viewing a lot of things. My wife, my kids, and my music mean more to me than they ever have. I didn’t think that was possible, but it’s a whole new perspective.”

I asked the blues great if there has been any change in his playing style as a result of his transplant.

“I think I can actually put more meaning into every note. I rehearsed with the band last week out in my garage. I played a long solo, and I just closed my eyes. Even though it was rehearsal, I just got really into it. At the end, I had a breakdown. I was weeping halfway through the song. I put more into it, and I feel it more. I realize how lucky I am to get to do that, because I really didn’t think I’d get to again. 

“I went for at least a year where I was getting the cramps, and I thought it was over. When I was in the hospital and was so Walter Trout 01 by Jeff KatzeditedPhoto by Jeff Katzsick, I had lost 120 pounds. My oldest son came to the hospital in Nebraska, and he brought me a Stratocaster. I couldn’t play it. I couldn’t get a note to come out- I was too weak. I could not press the string to the fret. I didn’t have the strength. I thought, ‘That’s it. I’m done. Even if I live through this, I’ll never be able to do that again.’ 

“I’d lay there in the hospital, and on my phone, I’d watch YouTube videos of myself. I couldn’t relate to it: ‘Did I do that? Who is that guy? Is that me? Did I actually do that?’ So I thought it was over. I’m actually playing better now than I have in a long, long time. It’s joyous to get to do that.”

When “The Blues Came Calling” was released, I reviewed it, and we all thought Walter would be hitting the road but he didn’t. I asked him if his need for a transplant was known while he was working on the album and what was his frame of mind at the time.

“I was really sick when I did that album. I got sick when I started putting it together. That April before I’d gotten really sick, we’d gone in the studio and done a couple basic tracks. I had a couple licks in my head, and I just got some guys together and said, ‘Let’s go in the studio, play some stuff, and see what happens’. 

“We did a few basic tracks, and then right after that, in May, I got incredibly sick. I swelled up, and my body filled up with fluid. I looked like I was in my ninth month of pregnancy. It was insane. I’d go in the hospital, and they’d put a drain in my abdomen. At one point, they drained out twenty-five pounds of liquid. I would have that done every once in awhile. Twenty-five pounds of fluid I was carrying around- in my legs, in my feet. It was called ascites, a result of having liver disease. Some people get it, some people don’t. Ascites means you swell up with this fluid, and I had it really bad. But that’s when I wrote and recorded the album.

“I couldn’t walk. I would drive up to L.A. and stumble into the studio. I had a cane, and at one point, I even had a walker. I would go in, play and sing for maybe an hour and a half or two hours. Then I’d have to come home. If you listen to the lyrics, there’s a lot on there that’s pretty dark. ‘Blues came calling/All night long it told me/You’ll never be the man you used to be.’ And that was the frame of mind I was in. ‘Bottom of the River’… same thing. That’s a metaphor for what I was going through. It was pretty tough. I didn’t know if it would kinda be my last will and testament. I had a feeling it would. 

“If you listen to the opening track, ‘Wasting away/Looking in the mirror/I don’t know who I see/I take another look/It don’t look like me’, I wrote that after I’d lost 120 pounds. One day I got up and stumbled into the bathroom with my cane or my walker. I looked in the mirror, and I was a skeleton. I came out and wrote those lyrics. It was pretty tough, you know? Plus, I did all the leads on there with the incredible cramps in my hands. I just went in and would play until I couldn’t play anymore. I was good to play a couple solos, and then it was like, ‘I gotta go home’. My hands just closed up. I can’t move, can’t straighten my fingers out. My forearm feels like somebody stabbing it with a knife. It was hard album to make.”

When I asked Walter, aside from the health issues, what made this album different for him compared to his previous albums, he said, “I have a technique for making an album. For instance, let’s go back to “Blues for the Modern Days.” I was not sick. I kinda go through a little period of writer’s block. It’s like, ‘Ok, I’m going to be in the studio in three months.’.  I’m going through this right now, as a matter of fact, because I’m going to be in the studio in May. I start saying, ‘I gotta write this thing.’ I go through some writer’s block, then I have this revelation. It’s kinda weird, but it always happens. 

“One day, I hear the voice of my dear, departed, beloved mother. She says, ‘Hey Walter, my son. You wanted to be a musician. That’s all you ever wanted to be. You are a musician, so just quit freaking out. Quit belly-achin’, and just make some music. All you gotta do is make music- that’s what you do. So do it.’ I hear that, and all of a sudden, the flood gates open. On “Blues for the Modern Days,” I wrote the whole thing in two weeks. There were times I wrote four songs in a day.

“But I have to wait for that to happen. I’m waiting for it to happen right now. I’ve got a bunch of musical ideas, but I’m just kinda floundering around… to make a fish joke.

“First, I rehearse for, say, two or three days with the band. I show them the songs, then we go in the studio. We take about four days. We do the basic tracks: bass, drums, keyboards. The rest of the time I’m in there playing and singing. We maybe put an acoustic guitar on, and I’ll sing the song. We might have some background singers come in. I’ll bring in, like, Deacon Jones, who is the keyboardist I play with in John Lee Hooker’s band. The great B3 player… I always have him play on my records, ‘cause he’s my mentor. He brought me up through the ranks and got me in John Lee Hooker’s band. I always have him come in and play on a song or two. Normally, within about ten days, the thing is done. Then it’s time to mix it.

“This last album took me a year, because I could only do an hour and a half to two hours a day. There were many, many days I couldn’t record. We would have to, maybe, do one day every two weeks. The rest of the time, I was too sick. I’d get up and call Eric, my producer, and say, ‘I feel ok today. Can we get the studio later?’ He’d call the studio, and if they said, ‘Yea, we’re open.’ I’d drive up there and spend two hours. There were a lot of days I had the studio booked, and I’d have to call Eric to say, ‘I can’t do it today.’ It was a chore. I was determined to do it, and I soldiered through it. 

“By the end, I was pretty much in a wheelchair. I didn’t have any breath, so it was hard to sing. You can hear that on there. The vocals don’t have the power I used to have, but I did my best. I was determined to do it. Maybe the vocals are not as powerful or as deep as they used to be, but there’s a lot of urgency in them. I’m pushing myself to even get a note to come out. The last vocal I did was ‘Nobody Moves Me Like You Do’, and it was really hard to just get anything to come out of my throat.”

Walter Trout 02 by Jeff KatzeditedPhoto by Jeff KatzIn sharing how has the transplant has affected Trout in being able to prepare for the tour, he said, “There’s a little bit of apprehension. I’m going to make my return to the stage on the 15th of June at the Royal Albert Hall in London. It’s a Lead Belly festival, and I’ll be on the bill along with Van Morrison and Eric Burdon. They have another big name that they haven’t announced yet. I’m going to fly over there, and that’s going to be my return to the stage. I’m going to play with a great, young British guitar player named Lawrence Jones. I’m going to come out and play with him and his band. I played on his first album, and he’s a really great friend of mine. Mike Zito produced Lawrence’s first album, and I played on it. So I’m going to go do some tunes with Lawrence and his band on this festival. 

“I’m a little apprehensive since I haven’t been on stage in so long. Am I going to be ok? I know I’m going to be ok, but there’s always that little voice in the back of your head that goes, ‘Am I going to walk out on stage and start weeping like a baby?’ I think it’s going to be really emotional for sure. I’ll get through the tunes then probably walk off the stage and have a nervous breakdown. ‘My God, I did it! I can still do it.’”

Here’s what Walter said about what fans can expect for the rest of the tour:

“We have a brand new bass player who is just awesome, and he’s taken the musical level of the band up a notch. This guy has played with everybody from Steve Winwood to Slash to Branford Marsalis. He can play anything. We’ve been rehearsing with him, and right now, we’ve gone back through my old catalog. We’ve pulled out some tunes we haven’t done in a long time, even a couple we’ve never done live. We’re going to go back and try to do a bit of a different show, and we’re also doing tunes off of “Blues Came Calling,” which we’ve never done live. I think the band is killin’ right now. I think it’s the best it’s ever been. 

“Like I said, I’m sort of a reborn musician in many ways, and one of them is that I don’t have problems with my hands and theWalter Trout 03 by Jeff KatzeditedPhoto by Jeff Katz muscles in my arms that I had. I’m working out with weights, and I’m riding a recumbent bike. I’ve put on fifty pounds since the transplant, and I feel great. I have some off days. I have days I get up and have dizzy spells, but they say it takes at least a year to get back to normal after a transplant. I’m at nine months, and I’m kickin’ ass.”

Three years ago when I interviewed Walter, I asked him this question and this was your answer:

"As we were wrapping up our chat, I asked Walter how he wished to be remembered when he goes to that great blues gig in the sky."

Your response was, “I would hope they look back and go, ‘He was a dedicated artist who tried to say something with his art. Whether he succeeded or not, that is up to interpretation. That’s a guy who devoted his life to being an artist and was serious about it and also, helped a lot of young people get going.’ I have a lot of young guitar players that I mentor and that means a lot to me. 

"Of course, I would want my wife and my kids to look back and say, ‘He was a good husband and a good father.’ That’s incredibly important and probably the most important- three kids! But as far as how the world would see me, a guy who just gave everything he could have to try to be the best artist he could be.”

I asked him if there was anything he would change about that answer.

“I couldn’t say that any better. I would also like to be remembered as a man who was devoted to his family.  One who realized that the art is ultimately important, and the family is ultimately important. Those are the two things that keep me going in my life. I have to say there was a time when I was close to death that I would tell my wife, ‘I’m ready to go. This hurts too bad.’ And she would say, ‘No, you have to stick around. You leaving is not an option. You need to be here for me and for our kids.’ At that point, I really decided to fight. There was a time I said to her, ‘If I’m never able to play guitar again, I’ll be sad, but I’ll be okay as long as I can still be your husband and be a father to our kids.’ My family is the most important.”

You can keep up with Walter, his tour and his work at www.waltertrout.com and look for his tour dates here.

Randy Bachman Talks About Heavy Blues

March, 2015

randybachman2015Whether you were a teen in the late sixties or in the early to mid seventies, chances are pretty much one hundred percent that The Guess Who or Bachman Turner Overdrive banged around a bit on your ear drums.  Songs like “American Woman,” “Undone,” “These Eyes” or “Takin’ Care of Business,” “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” and “Let It Ride” dominated the airwaves in those days, insuring that those tunes are indelibly burned into the recesses of our minds.

One of the men behind those iconic musical memories is Canadian born Randy Bachman – co-founder of both bands as well as songwriter, guitarist and co-vocalist. Referred to as the architect of Canadian rock, Bachman is soon releasing a new CD of straight forward blues/rock entitled, “Heavy Blues.”

Joining Bachman’s three piece band in recording the album are heavy weights like Peter Frampton, Neil Young, Joe Bonamassa, Robert Randolph, and the late Jeff Healey. The result is some amazing, new blues that will blow you away.

Boomerocity recently chatted with Bachman about “Heavy Blues.” We started out by talking about what was different about making this album compared to all of the other albums he has recorded.

“Well the first album I made was with The Guess Who. This is very similar in that there was no over dubs. It was live off the floor. If you made a mistake you lived with it. You embraced it. 

“I remember when we cut “Shaking All Over” in 1964, we took the version that had the least amount of mistakes. You're sitting on pins and needles. You're playing a brand new song. You don't really record songs that you've been playing for 10 years. You're doing a song you've just written or you're copying a song or you're doing a cover of a song you've just heard. So you're all sitting in the room on chairs and it's all recorded mono or 2 track and somebody makes a mistake you start over and it goes on and on.  

“As you get near the end if there's a mistake there you leave it in and that's the great thing about some old classic records is little notes and bass notes and endings and things that are there that kind of give it some charm and shows that it's real people. 

“So that was the same cut in this album, it was live with the girls. We had no rehearsal. No getting to know each other - none of that. I found a great drummer.  I found a great bass player. I thought, ‘I'm going to do something weird, I'm gonna get two ladies to back me up.’ They play incredible. One plays like Jeff Bruce and John Entwistle on bass and the drummer plays like John Bonham and Keith Moon on drums. Holy cow this is the British blues! This is what I always wanted. Wildness! 

“I said to them both when we started I said to Dale Anne Brendon - the drummer, ‘I don't want you to play drums, I want you to beat the drums. I want you to pound the drums.’ 

“Have you ever seen the black and white from BBC - the early photos of Led Zeppelin? You can Google that. John Bonham doesn't play the drums. It's literally like he's chopping a tree down with an axe. He's just pounding the drums. If you look at Cream with Ginger Baker, it's the same thing, He’s just pounding the drums. The bass player is hammering away at the bass. 

“I said, ‘That's what I want. I don't want a little light, polite groove. I don't want a 2 and 4 and 1 and 3 on the kick and snare. I want a maniac. I want Keith Moon drums.’ He was the most exciting drummer. The next exciting is John Bonham with his most incredible sound. He'd leave spaces and then he'd fill the holes up. 

“This is the kind of what I want in these songs. I'm writing new songs. I'm writing blues songs, which has a lot of spaces and not a lot of chords. There's accent on the lyrics. I'm writing really bluesy lyrics for the first time about the devil and the devil made me do it and all the blues songs - a Rufus Reid kind of thing. I didn't tell them anything other than just to let it rip and play everything they ever wanted to play on record that nobody would let them play cause it went a little wild. 

“This is the first record that I've been in love with once it's done because when it's usually done I'm so sick of it, I've lived with it so long and overdubbed it so long, it's enough already. This is so fresh and new and happened so quickly -like in 5 days recording and 5 days of mixing and after the solos came in because obviously the guest soloist were not there. We had to send them (the guest soloists) the tracks and get them back. Kevin Shirley laid them in and sent them to me one at a time. 

“The solos were such a revelation of such incredible guitar playing and these guys giving a bit of their heart and soul and personality to each song. It just blew me away. As a guitar player, if I wasn't on this, this would be one of my favorite albums. The guitar playing from each guy gives each song such a distinct look into their own style laid up against blues thing. For me it was just a wonderful experience.

Artists typically have their tunes worked up and ready to record before running the clock on expensive studio time. I got the impression from Bachman that this wasn’t the case so I asked him about it.

“I had a couple of songs because I knew I was going to try a blues thing. I was going to do a tribute to a lot of blues artists. I had a Howlin' Wolf song. I had a Frankie Lee Sims song. Guys that I had their 45's.  I got all my 45's out and even 78's. This is how I learned to play guitar. I got out Muddy Waters and I go to Jimmy Reed and I had them in my song list and I was there in the studio and I start to play. Kevin Shirley would come in and say, ‘What is this?’ And I say, ‘Well this is Jimmy Reed my favorite song, Baby What You Want Me To Do. I've been doing this since I was 15 years old. 

“He said, ‘Yeah, but everybody else has been playing these songs. You can't do cover songs if you're going to do a blues album. Haven't you heard like 2 years ago Jimmy Ray Vaughn and Al Omar from the Howlers did a whole Jimmy Reed album?’ I said yeah, ‘I saw them on TV doing their song. He said, ‘Yeah, well, it's already been done. Everybody's done Close To You Baby by Bobby Blue Bland. There's another song that I love. 

“He said, You've got to take these songs and write your own songs that are kind of like them and speed them up and make them real heavy blues.’ And I go, ‘Uh oh. Heavy blues. Great title.’ 

“So I take Baby What You Want Me To Do and that becomes my first line in Learn To Fly, Fly Away and I'm singing it like Jimmy Reed would do it but it's faster, it's sped up like ZZ Top doing LaGrange. 

“So, Kevin comes in and says you can boot all these songs up, if this is heavy blues it got to be heavy and fast so kick everything up a notch. So once we did that we got into this late 60's British trio power trip like Hendrix and Cream and The Who and Zeppelin and we just had the time of our lives. It's just as if we went to a party and found old drums and old bass and old guitars and said, ‘Let's do late British blues for an hour and played Sunshine Of Your Love and My Generation and Whole Lotta Love and then went home and forgot about it -like a Wayne's World kind of thing. But we did it and we kept it and it's become the album. We can't wait to play on stage and do this cause it is such a flashback to the late 60's.

I was dying to ask about all of the artists who contributed to this album but we were short on time so I asked what the story was on the Jeff Healey contribution. 

“Well, he and I were great friends. We both had radio shows on CBC where he explored jazz. He collected old jazz 78's and he would play them on his radio show. l have a radio show that's still going called Randy's Vinyl Tap on every Saturday night. I play all my old vinyl and I tell the stories behind The Who, Zeppelin and The Beach Boys. Everybody I've met and I tell my own stories that aren't in any bio or Wikipedia. It's me and Elvis or me and Duke Ellingtion and whoever the stories about. 

“So, we had that in common and every time he would be playing around Victoria, Vancouver, even in London, I'd call him up and he'd invite me down and I'd go and see his gig. I'd have dinner with him and the band. I'd go on stage and play with him. There's a wonderful video of me playing with him at Islington Music Center Academy in London doing While My Guitar Gently Weeps. When I watch it brings tears to my eyes because that's one of the last times I played with him. 

“Right after that I recorded live with him at Massey Hall in Toronto and I was going to put it on an album. It just never happened. I got busy doing other things and he got serious cancer and passed away. I thought here I am doing Jeff Healey's stuff and so I sent a little email to his wife, Cristie. 

“Previously, the year before, I played the Jeff Healey playground thing. It's a playground for kids. So I came to this thing in Toronto on behalf of Jeff Healey and here I am on stage with Jack Bruce, Ian Gillan and all these others and we're doing Smoke On The Water, Sunshine Of Your Love with all these guys. It was absolutely incredible. I'm a kid in a candy store playing with these guys. And I think, ‘Gee, Jeff would like to be on this album!’ So, I say to Christi, ‘Can I go to some of these tracks that I did with Jeff Healey? I've got them, no one else has heard them - can I take one of his guitar solos and write a song around it?’ 

“She said, ‘Oh my God! Jeff would love to be on this album with you. You have my blessing. I'll send you his amp, I'll send you his guitar.’ I said, ‘No, I just need permission. He and I recorded a BB King song called Early In The Morning. It was one of his standard encore kind of songs. So I write a song that was in the same beats per minute and I'd leave it all in the key of G and it becomes, Confessin’ To The Devil. Every lick that he plays fits into this and you'll notice, if you listen to the song, he sounds very much like BB King because he's actually playing BB King’s licks from Early In The Morning, which is one of BB King's great signature songs and one of Jeff Healey's. 

“It fits in there like he's in the room. When I'm doing it, it's like, Jeff is here. ‘Hi, Jeff. Nice that you showed up.’ He's kind of there in spirit. It's pretty amazing. 

“And the same thing happened with a lot of the other guys. Peter Frampton, I did a Guitar Circus with him and Robert Randolph at the Hollywood Bowl in August. I've known Peter since the early 70's. He came and opened for BTO and we'd open for him and vice versa. So I said, ‘Would you do me the favor of a solo on my album?’ 

“Joe Bonamassa was one of the first ones in and once Joe was in it gave it real credibility and I thought maybe I should invite a couple of other guys to play. So, after I got Joe Bonamassa, I got Jeff Healey, I think I'll ask a couple of other guys. 

“So, I asked Rival Sons’s Scott Holiday and he's totally into it and then Frampton says he's in and Randy Randolph says he's in and I get these solos and they blow me away. They give the songs on the album such soul and depth and love because no one asked for any money. All I asked for was their time and I didn't give any directions but get into the song. ‘Give me a piece of your heart, a piece of your soul. Play your butt off. Do your best. I'll mix you loud. I'll give you credit and we'll see what happens.’ And they all did it and it came back in. Even getting a solo from Neil Young - which I don't think anyone else in the world gets these days. It took three, four or five times to get his blessing on it saying, ‘Go ahead, I love it.’

“They'd send me the stuff and we'd comp it and lay it into the mix and send them an MP3 back to get their okay. Everybody loved it and everybody that came that did their solos just blew me away. Some guys couldn't show up for the gig. Like, I was waiting on Billy Gibbons, who was on tour and he couldn't do it. Neither could Kenny Wayne Sheppard. So now my label is already asking me for the next album. Yeah these guys are left over cause they couldn't do it because of scheduling. I had a deadline to get it mixed and mastered. 

“Having seven guys in there as guest soloist was enough that it gave me time to leave some of my solo playing in there ‘cause I can still play pretty good. It led my way to a contest where now once you buy the album you could go to a website and get the seven songs without the solos. So if you're little Joe Guitar Player and your 14 or you’re 40 or whatever age you are, it doesn't matter - or if you're a woman it doesn't matter.  You download these songs without the solos. You play your own solos. You YouTube it. You put it up on YouTube and when I come to that town we are going to have – with the radio stations - you can come on stage and play that song with me when I'm playing in Cleveland or Texas, whereever I'm playing - or L.A, whatever. 

“You'll get a brand new Epiphone Standard Les Paul. You'll get a couple sets of guitar strings and heavy blues guitar picks and you come on stage and play this song with the Bachman band. You play Taking Care Of Business and you become a little guitar hero on your own little corner of the world. That's a contest that's going to be running. 

“Q107's going to do it in Toronto. It's going to be like The Voice because when you hear a guitar solo, you wanna know who it is. You're going to say, “That's a good guitar solo. Who is this? Oh, it’s Jimmy Smith or it's little Jody Smith. Let's call them up. I'm playing in Cleveland or I'm playing in Dallas in a month or in 3 weeks. Have them get ready and have the radio station hype it up.’ They’ll come on stage and play with me and, because they won the solo thing, they get the guitar. 

“If you go now to 'Randy’s Heavy Blues’ on Amazon or Itunes and pre-buy it, when it comes out in April, you would get a couple of free downloads that aren't even on it. And you'll get the song Heavy Blues, which is the one Peter Frampton is soloing on is one that you can play a blues solo over it and send us your YouTube of you playing in with your own band. If we like it then you win that contest. 

“We're giving two hundred Epiphone Les Paul guitars, ten  thousand sets of Optima heavy blues guitar strings, ten  thousand guitar picks from Tusk, which make a wonderful triangular heavy pick that has harmonics in it that will give you that Billy Gibbons sound. I got the same kind of harmonics on Wild Texas Rider, if you listen to my solo of these double high harmonics when you're playing the notes from this Tusk guitar pick. We have these contests that are going to be amazing. This is going to be an album for all guitar players to get because the amount of guitar soloing on it by some of the greatest in the world is pretty mind boggling."

What about tour plans?

“Early April is the big kick off at the big classic rock station in Toronto, Q107, where they're gonna have the contest with the winning solo gets to play with either, we're going to announce the winner, gonna have a big club date at a rock and roll club here in town. And we're going to do that in Montreal and then we're going to do that in Hamilton. Then ,we're going to the west coast of Canada and working my way across Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, that kind of thing. 

“In the middle of April, we're doing the Cleveland Blues Festival and the Chicago Blues Festival, where we're going to run the same contest. We're taking offers. We just got one from California yesterday. Radio stations said they love the idea of the contest. We’re going from New York - they love the idea of the contest. They want to run it. They want to promote the whole thing give away the guitar; have a lguest soloist appear. Play on stage. So, where ever we're getting phone calls from different radios or different cities, we're now planning a tour of maybe Hard Rock Cafes or Houses of Blues or radio stations promotions. 

“This is like the 70's again, where we're getting into radio stations promoting stuff. I can't believe it because I put out this record thinking I'm not going to get any airplay and I don't even care. This is for me and all guitar players out there. Maybe the internet will do something. I'm not really savvy on how much the internet can do yet because I'm not Justin Bieber with 30 million followers. I don't even do Twitter because I don't want people to know where I am. I enjoy my privacy. 

“Things are starting to happen. I'm getting incredible response from guys like yourself who are previewing the album and radio that are hearing it. We want to do this contest. This is like the 70's again. You’re bringing some life back to radio. It's interactive with the crowd and listeners and everybody's getting in to it. 

“I got to thank Gibson/Epiphone Guitars. I’m getting a couple hundred guitars. Thirty for Canada. Thirty for England. One hundred for the states. Thirty for Germany. So I've got to suddenly be everywhere in the world at once. So we're trying to balance it out. I can do a few in Canada, a few in the states, a few in England, a couple in Germany. Come back to the states and do a few more. 

“You can't go out and lose money so you've got to get a big money paying gig and then you fly and do a couple of promotions gigs around something else. The radio station might rent a club. So you could have the door and it will hold twelve hundred people and run the contest so I can get there. I've got a record label that has said anything you do we'll support you. That hasn't happened in decades. I feel very blessed and fortunate and lucky. I'm actually in training now for what's coming. For me, it's a marathon that starts early April. A bloody marathon.

As we wrapped up our chat, I asked Randy Bachman what he hoped his legacy would be and how he wished to be remembered.

“Well, this was a good guy. He wrote some good songs. He was a better than average guitar player. He helped out young kids playing guitar and played on the records and taught them how to write songs and he took care of business.”

 

 

 

 

Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal Talks About "Little Brother Is Watching"

April, 2015

Bumblefoot CroppedI’ve been fortunate to have the privilege of having interviewed lots of artists from lots of different genres – from Americana to Alternative and everything in between. After I interviewed Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal from Guns N’ Roses a couple of years ago, I had come to the conclusion afterwards that he had to be one of the nicest and most genuine artists I’ve ever met from any genre.

I can honestly say that, after this interview, my opinion of the man has grown exponentially. Kind, polite, informative and considerate, one might think that he has a Jekyll and Hyde personality when one sees the mad guitarist persona during a GNR show. 

Not so.

What you see on stage is a man who is intensely driven and passionate about his craft; a man who throws two hundred percent of himself into anything he does.

When I called Ron recently at his home in the Northeast, it was to talk about his new CD, “Little Brother Is Watching.” Before we drilled into that subject, though, I asked him how his venture into the hot sauce business was coming along and what the latest was with his charity work.

“Going great! It’s spreading to all parts of the world, and I have distro from Dubai to all different places. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a whole other little subculture- the hot sauce subculture. It’s funny how similar it is to music, just a different passion. You find that when people are passionate about something, it doesn’t matter what it is. It’s people that are passionate about something. At all these food festivals, you see familiar faces, and we’re just enjoying what we enjoy.”

When I mentioned that I spotted a couple items from his hot sauce product line at a local hot sauce specialty store here in East Tennessee, he said, “I’m glad to know they were there. You know, the distributors have to want to buy it from the manufacturer. The retailers have to want to buy it from the distributor and put it on the shelves. A lot of people have to really want it before people come in and see it.”

As for the latest in his charity work, Ron shared, “I just came back from Pattaya, Thailand. I headlined the big bike festival- it’s like Sturgis. It was three days of doing gigs, and the guys that run the whole event have been doing it for eighteen years. They have a children’s charity, Jesters Care for Kids, that provides care for disabled kids, orphans, any kid in need. They help with their education, getting food in their stomachs, and clothes on their backs. 

“We did all these events there, which raised $163,000. In Thailand, the dollar is worth a good chunk of change, so this is really going to make a huge difference in a lot of lives. I want to come back next year, and see if I can bring some more international artists into it. I was the first international artist they ever had, and it doubled the attendance of the event. I want to see if I can help them step it up even more and keep trying to make a difference.

“After that, I came home, released the album, and ran out for the UK. I just got back from that two days ago. Out there, I worked with an organization called 7Cs based out of the town of Witney in Oxford. It supports kids in music, and it gives them a creative world to work in.”

Segueing to the subject of the new CD, I asked if I was correct that this was his tenth solo project and to tell me a little bit about the album. 

“Yea, it is, not including all the collaborations and producing and everything else. With all of that, I’ve done probably a hundred albums. In 2004, I was working on twelve albums at once. That was a tough one, but I tend to do that. I work until I practically collapse, then I pull back just a hair. It’s not healthy, and I shouldn’t do that. But honestly, I love what I do so much to the point that if it’s going to kill me, what better way to go?”

I asked how has this album been different for him from the others, to which he said, “For this one, I forced myself to write Bumblefoot001while I was touring. For me, I always had to choose between touring and writing, because they’re just two different mindsets. You exist for two different reasons, and I always found it hard to flip the switch. When you’re on tour, you are there for everybody else. Your time belongs to the fans, and I would always try to give every minute I could. That’s not something you can just quickly shut off. I couldn’t just shut it off, go into the hotel room, and start writing a song. I always need a minute, sort of, to decompress and reboot. I’d get that going and build momentum. I would never get a chance to do that on tour. I’d been doing so much touring over the last year that I’ve just not been writing.

“Finally, I just forced myself. It felt like driving with your foot slammed on the gas and your foot slammed on the brake at the same time. But it needed to be done, and I think good stuff came out of it. I was really able to tap into everything I wanted to say and do. Compared to other albums, it really seemed that there was a more direct line - the connection, the root, the little line from your insides to your outsides - was very uninterrupted. Exactly what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it freely flowed. It worked out well.

“I’m happy with the album. I’m happy with the way I sang what I wanted to sing, the way I wanted to tell whatever story I wanted to tell. I had more room, and I left myself more space for melody and production. I just let the song come through, so it didn’t get overshadowed with a fancy guitar riff. With the technical guitar stuff, it’s almost like a very strong spice. A little goes a long way. Even if you don’t do it that often, it just jumps out. It can overshadow all the other flavors. I pulled back a little bit. Those moments are there, but I found a better balance between the melody and any technical stuff. I think it helps the song come through more. “

I mentioned that I thought this project seems to be a very complex, intricate album with an almost rock opera feel to it. Was that his intent?

“I think it does sound like that. You can hear plenty of influences that are easy to point out from Queen to George Harrison to David Bowie. You’ll always hear classic rock and a little bit of old punk, a little bit of old metal. That’s just what’s in my blood, and it ain’t coming out. 

“It’s not that I had the intent of, ‘I want the album to sound like this’. I just wrote the songs and thought, ‘I’m going to sing them the way I feel comfortable singing, and play the way I feel comfortable playing’. Most of the melodies and most of the ideas were from the one take scratch track that I made just to demo the songs when we were laying the drum tracks. Afterwards, I said, ‘You know what? These are very honest ideas that aren’t over thought. I’m just going to go with a lot of these and not change something that feels right.’

“A lot of the melodies that were going on, like at the end of the song ‘Argentina’ where they are sort of dancing around the vocal lines, was all spontaneous stuff. I think it was the right thing for the song. I didn’t over think it or preplan very much. I wrote the song, recorded it, and just let it come out the way it was going to come out.”

Ron’s answer to my question of if there was a song from the album that he would point to as the calling card for the entire album, he offered, “I would go with ‘Don’t Know Who To Pray To Anymore’. It shows the guitar playing, song writing, and singing. I don’t know if it’s the definitive song that someone could listen to and get an idea of what everything sounds like on the album. But, to me, that’s the one that something about it resonates. It’s about something we’ve all felt when we’ve all felt challenged and tested to the point that you really question, ‘what is good? Is it a real thing?’ When you’re left angry, and you know you need to get past that anger, but you’re just not over it yet. You tell yourself, ‘I know that things are okay, but I’m just not healed yet. I’ll probably get there someday, but I won’t let myself. I feel like I need to punish God by denying the faith I had, because I feel betrayed myself.’ I think we’ve all been in that place at one point.”

In sharing what the response to “Little Brother Is Watching,” Thal said, “So far, I think the people who would like it are liking it. The haters are gonna hate; the lovers are gonna love. I hope that people like it. All you can do is just put it out there, and the world will decide.”

I knew that fans would want to know if Bumblefoot would be touring in support of the album, so I asked him.

“I’m not doing a tour yet. I want to let people know it exists and let them get to know the music a little more. Put out some videos, do some things to just let people get familiar with the music. Then I’ll book a tour and see where people want me (and where they don’t). I want to book the right kind of tour. I don’t want to rush into it and go out there without a plan, playing everywhere and torturing my band. ‘Alright, we’re doing a 100 dates where people don’t even know who we are!’ I want to have a good plan so that the people who would want to see me get to see me.”

I’d heard some rumblings about another project that Ron was reportedly working on called, “The Art of Anarchy,” so I asked him about it. 

Bumblefoot003“That’s an interesting one. We started in 2011 with Jon and Vince, the guitarist and drummer, who are twin brothers. They started the whole idea of it. They were musicians in bands I’d been producing for the last eighteen years, and they wanted to make a very special album. They wanted to make a super group. Really, they wanted to start a music company, and the first thing they were going to put out is this super group album. They came into the studio and laid their parts. I laid my parts. [John] Moyer came in and spent three days hanging out playing his stuff. Then Scott joined. He recorded at his own place; at his own pace, just did his thing. He came up with some very interesting stuff… things I never would have thought of for these songs. 

“That’s what’s great about it. When you’re collaborating and creating something with different people, they’re all going to bring something you never would have thought of. It makes it very special. He added fantastic vocal melodies to a lot of the songs. Moyer had great bass lines. Everything he does is great. It’s an interesting rock record. Century Media is releasing it June 2nd in the US, June 8th non-US. I hope people like it. I think people who have not heard Scott doing heavier stuff for a while will enjoy hearing him in this. A lot of the music sounds like old Metallica or Disturbed with a lot of dynamic changes musically. It goes from heavy, double bass metal riffs to nylon string acoustic solos.”

Just as with “Little Brother,” I asked Thal if there are any touring plans for that album or will he approach it the same way he is for his solo album.

“That’s pretty much the plan. Just letting people know the music exists, and let them share the music we made together. If there is a demand for touring, we’re going to cross that bridge and figure out what we need to do.”

Bumblefoot also revealed what is on his radar for the next year.

“I have a whole bunch of things coming up and a lot of blanks getting filled in between. Besides the eventual Little Brother Is Watching tour, I’m going to be doing a two-month guitar festival tour throughout France. All the big Le Zenith arenas, a couple thousand people. That’s going to be a nice one. It’s called ‘Autour De La Guitare.’ That’s going to be October/November.”

 (Note: visit http://www.autourdelaguitare.com/ as well as http://www.facebook.com/adlg2015 for more information)

“I’m going to continue working with all the U.S. embassies on cultural events. I’m going to do a couple days at SXSW. At the end of the month, I have Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy Camp in Vegas. We’ll be doing it with Glenn Hughes, Michael Schenker, Bill Ward, Rudy Sarzo, and Brian Tichy. That’s going to be a fun one. Then I’m going to be acting in a horror movie called Clean Cut which we’ll be shooting in early April.

“I’ve got to finish up the video of ‘Little Brother Is Watching’ and start thinking about the next video. Then I head out to Asia to do some stuff. It’s looking like, tentatively, we’re doing Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia, and Brunei. I have to run back in time to do a USO benefit in New York on May 1st. I think that’s it- at least, all that my brain can remember. Oh, littlebrotheriswatchingcoverand all the producing. We shot two great videos for the Art of Anarchy stuff, so we’ll roll those out with singles and then the album. 

“Right now, I’m finishing up two more songs with DMC and Generation Kill. They’re all going to a metal show today to film, but I have to stay behind to take care of mixes and get everything on schedule. We’ll get the first song on iTunes by Saturday, hopefully. Darryl McDaniels from Run-D.M.C. is on vocals with the band Generation Kill which is great stuff. You’ve got Rob Moschetti from Pro-Pain and Rob Dukes from Exodus, a real cool metal band. They have this rap/metal collaboration that they’re doing. I’m producing, mixing, and adding some guitar to it. I’m sort of like the sixth member. We have one song called ‘Lot Lizard’ that we’re going to be putting out on Saturday to coincide with D.M.C. airing ‘That Metal Show’ episode. We’re working on another song called ‘Fired Up’ which will be on DMC’s solo record. It’s going to a very musical year.”

With all that’s going on in Bumblefoot’s world, there’s a very good chance that you’ll be able to see him in person somewhere on this beautiful planet of ours. To make sure that you have his latest news and itinerary or to purchase merchandise like “Little Brother Is Watching” or some of Ron’s scorching hot sauce, visit www.bumblefoot.com

Neal Morse Discusses His "Grand Experiment"

March, 2015

nealmorsebandloresAmong prog rock fans, when they hear the name, “Neal Morse,” bands such as Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, or, more recently, Flying Colors come to mind. Of course, really hard core prog rockers think of Neal Morse as an amazingly prolific artist in his right. 

That hold on the mind share of fans of the genre will grow stronger with the release of Morse’s latest solo project, “Grand Experiment,” a project that is as bold in its approach to creating as it is in its musical brilliance.

I recently called Neal (my second interview with him) at his Nashville area studio to chat about “Grand Experiment.”  After a bit of small talk, I asked him if the album pre-prepped or was this a “winging it” kind of project.

“Most of my albums are 90% there - before I fly people in to record them. Sometimes a little less, maybe, sometime even more. The “Testimony” album, Mike just played to what I had already recorded on the computer at that time. They vary. I think the one album that we messed with a bit more. Some albums we shaped more than others when Randy, Mike and I got together. 

“Generally, yeah, it's pretty mapped out. I like to kind of feel like I've got enough really strong material before I commit to going in that far. But this time I felt to take more of a risk and not prepare really anything and just get together with the guys and see what happened. I think that's why this one seems to have a real fresh sound and feel to it. It can really all be accredited to the band.”

Is it fair to say that this album is a prog improvisation project or is that a fair way to describe it?

“No, I don’t think so. I don't think it will come across that way at all. I think it comes across like a really strong, fresh, prog project with some rock and pop songs in there too. I think it comes off like a Neal Morse album, though, with a different twist and a lot of other singers. It's very accessible - in fact maybe even more accessible than some of my other albums.”

It stands to reason that this approach had to have some surprises so I asked if there were any using this approach.

“For me, the whole album is a surprise, really. Many different things happened that surprised me. ‘The Grand Experiment’ song surprised me by how good it came out. I had that chorus and that riff that I was playing on keyboard.  I think of it as kind of a piano and organ riff. Eric (Gillette) started playing it heavy and we started  playing a little faster. Then Mike had this idea, he was just sloshing away on the drums going, ‘oh yeah, it'll be awesome !’ and adding his ideas to it.

“I'm thinking, ‘Okay …’ You only know if it is anything ‘til it all kind of comes together with the words and everything. I was still seeing how it was all gonna turn out ‘til we put it all together and I went ‘Wow! This really came out really special!’ That's part of the adventure and the mystery of creating in a group. That's why I think groups are so cool is that stuff happens that you would never expect and you would never create on your own.”

As for whether or not the lyrics and been pre-written, Neal said:

“The words were not entirely created when we shot the video. We couldn’t use any of Mike’s video footage, hardly, of him singing because he hadn’t written the words – his little after parts in the verses – he hadn’t written those. So he was mouthing the wrong words in the video so we couldn’t use any of the shots.

“We shot that at Morsefest and we were still in the middle of overdubbing and we weren’t really done with all of our parts yet. It was amazing that it all came together as well as it did because it was kind of very spontaneous.”

Within a group, the dynamic is such that members don’t always receive a change in the formula of what has worked in the past. I asked Morse if there was any resistance to this freewheeling approach.

“I think Randy (George) and Mike (Portnoy) were totally into it. I think Bill (Hubauer), maybe, was a little uncomfortable. He would say to me, ‘I know you worked like this before,’ because I have with Flying Colors and, to some respect, Transatlantic is that way, too. A lot of adventure going on. 

“Bill usually maps things out. He’s a pretty organized sort of guy, too. I don’t know, man, you’re sort of flying an airplane by the seat of your pants and you’re not sure how you’re gonna land!”

Neal and the guys always come across as having a lot of fun making their records and videos, coming across as being quite crazy, sometimes. I asked if the zaniness took place in the studio as much as it does on the videos.

“Mike, himself, is a nut! He ranges from a very high powered New York business man to, like, a two year old child within minutes. He can be really intense and really serious and super driven. Then, the next thing, he’s standing on the table making noise like Jerry Lewis or somebody. You kinda never know what you’re gonna get! 

“I’m probably a little more staid in the studio. Playing live, I’m more animated. I think I enjoy that maybe a little bit – not that I enjoy it more, it’s just a different experience. I love being in the studio, as well.”

What was the most fun for Morse and the band working in this manner?

“Well, it was either breakfast or dinner. I’m not sure which. But I would have to say dinner, I think. I love recording at home, ‘cause my wife and son cook these amazing meals. That’s definitely a fun part. Recording “The Grand Experiment” was awesome. That was a very fun one to do. Some of the extra tracks were really fun. I really enjoyed recording “The Call,” you know, with all the different changes and all the things that were thrown into that one. That was a gas. It’s a hodge podge of hard work and the most fun you’ve ever had in your life at the same time.”

As for negatives to using this approach, Morse said:

“Well, sometimes I wasn’t sure if what we were doing was good enough. And there were times I was doubting. That’s not a good place to be.”

Did any of those doubts materialize?

“No, they didn’t materialize on the album. You know, once it all came together, it becomes great and how it should be. A lot of things work themselves out. When you’re collaborating, you’re trying things. It’s like you’re traveling, and you go down a road, and maybe some people in the car are like, ‘I don’t know. Maybe we should turn back.’ But, eventually, you arrive. You get there. And we definitely got there on this record.

When I asked Neal if there were there any epiphanies or “lightbulb moments” regarding previous albums while you were working on this album, he said:

“No, I don’t think so. There were a lot of things that we thought about, and when we started to do it, I thought, ‘Oh yea, this is really going to be special.’ I really don’t compare things too much. 

“A lot of times, I’ve forgotten what I did before. People actually tell me, ‘Oh, that sounds like something you did before.’ I don’t really think about what I did before very much. So I need people around me to keep me honest, so to speak. 

“When we came up with the a cappella beginning, Eric, Bill, and I just started singing that in the room. That was a real special moment. I was like, ‘Oh, yea, what a cool way to open the record.’ I can’t remember if I’ve ever opened a record with a cappella three-part vocals on anything I’ve been involved in. I was just really happy about it. I think the beginning of the album particularly has a great, fresh energy.”

I asked Neal if he was taking anything from his “Grand Experiment” method of album making to future projects.

“I try not to hold on to methods. It’s easy to think that, because something worked once, we should do it again. Sometimes that’s good- you know, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. For example, I’ve used Rich Mouser to mix for years, because if you love it, why change it? 

“I try not to predict the future because I never know what the Lord has in store. But I’m pretty sure we’ll do another Neal Morse Band record. If we do, I’d really like to be together when we do some of the overdubbing, particularly the vocals. It was a challenge to get all of the vocal phrasing right when you’re not in the same state. But we did manage to do it through the miracles of modern technology and new cutting things. It was a crazy way to make a record. 

“After the initial sessions, we were all overdubbing in our respective homes. And sometimes I’d listen to a mix, then I’d text grandexperimentcoverhiresBill and Eric, ‘Hey, man. I don’t like the phrasing on this line.’ or ‘I’d like to change the lyrics to this line. Eric, can you sing this?’ So he’d sing it, send it to Rich in California who would then line it up and tie it into the master that he’s mixing. Then he’d remix the session, send me an MP3, and I’d listen to it on my phone from whoever knows where I was. I was traveling a lot during that time. I was on vacation with my family and whatnot. So I’d listen to it on my phone and go, ‘Yea, cool, approved!’ or ‘Maybe we should phrase it a little differently…’ Sometimes I would sing things the way I wanted them phrased into the Memos on my phone, and then send it to the guy. There’s a million different ways to sing a line, you know what I mean? The line that we kept texting and e-mailing to each other was ‘This is a crazy way to make a record.’”

I posited that he must be thankful for the types of technologies that improve affordability and prevent him and the band from settling for something that is less than what they envisioned, he agreed.

“Yea, it’s a matter of affordability, and also being able to do other things we already have planned. It would take a lot longer if we all had to be in the same place at the same time. Also, we all get to be at home with our families for the holidays. A lot of this took place during the holidays, and that would be pretty rough. So yea, I’m thankful.”

I asked Morse which song from “Grand Experiment” he would use as the album’s calling card.

“For me, it’s ‘The Call.’ I think everyone is really well represented on that. It’s real ‘progy.’ It’s got the three part harmonies. It’s got different guys singing lead on different parts, and everybody’s killing it. Mike’s killing it. The instrumentals are great. To me, that’s the quintessential Neal Morse Band song right now. That’s how I feel about it.”

I tried to pry out of Morse whether or not there was any left over material that from Grand Experiment that would be used for the next album. 

“We used pretty much everything between this and the bonus disc. There are some other ideas we didn’t get to, but everything that we got to is on the three disc special edition.”

As for tour plans in support of Grand Experiment, Morse said:

“Well, we’re doing seven or eight shows in North America starting February 21 in Nashville. We’re doing a few dates in Canada as well. L.A., Chicago, East Coast. And then we go to Europe, and we’re doing nine dates in Europe. So we’ll be out for about three weeks, maybe a little more, which is just right for me. I don’t like to be away from my family that long.”

And after the tour?

“I’m working on a piece for musical theater, actually. It’s very different than anything I’ve done before, so I’m hoping to see about getting that on the stage. I’m also writing some worship songs, more singer-songwriter songs. Then, later in the year, there’s probably going to be a MorseFest Deluxe package with both the live albums and the live DVD. The whole MorseFest experience will probably be coming out in the fall. I’m not sure what else will be coming, but I’m sure it will be good. I know there’ll probably be at Flying Colors live this year from the last tour. And maybe some other surprises.”

Morse fans, no doubt, can’t wait to see what those surprises are. In the mean time, they can indulge themselves in his “Grand Experiment” for a musical extravaganza.