Interview: Bruce Hornsby

Bruce Hornsby is a piano player/singer-songwriter who works in many different styles and with a wide range of other artists. His latest release is the live album, Bride of the Noisemakers. He recently discussed playing with the Grateful Dead, how he is always looking to expand his sound and his passion for modern classical music. This interview originally ran on Bands That Jam on July 26th, 2011.

McClain JohnsonHow old were you when you first started playing piano?
Bruce Hornsby: I started really late. I started at age 17, junior year in high school, for a couple of inspirational reasons. My older brother, Bobby Hornsby, was the original musician in our band. He was the guy who had bands in junior high school and late elementary school, and I did also. I played guitar though. My brother went away to prep school in New England, and he got turned on to a lot of interesting music that we never heard in Top 40-dominated southeastern Virginia. He turned me on to two records that just totally floored me. I was just totally moved by them. Joe Cocker, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, with the great Leon Russell and Chris Stainton piano playing on it. The second Elton John record. I’d never heard of Elton John. He played me the second Elton John record, which to me is his greatest record, called Tumbleweed Connection. It’s the one Elton John record, for about 25 years, that didn’t have a hit on it. To me, it was his best record. He played me a song called “Amoreena” while we were driving down the Colonel Parkway  from Williamsburg to Yorktown, Virginia. I was hooked. That was the first inspiration. The second inspiration was the fact that we had this really nice Steinway grand piano in our house.

McClain JohnsonThat will definitely help you out.
Bruce Hornsby: Yeah. It will definitely inspire you to play, because it’s a great sound. As opposed to some beat up, never tuned upright. So, I got really immersed in this area.  It was really very simple. I wanted to learn how to play this music, that I liked so much, that he had played me. That’s how it started. I got really intense about that, and ended up going to music school and getting my degree. I became, at that moment, a lifelong student. I’ve remained that at age 56. I think that’s what you hear in this record that we’ve made. I think you hear the restless nature, creatively, I’ve always had. I’m always looking to remain inspired.  If I listen to the same music over and over again, that doesn’t really do it for me. I can’t really live my life listening to the same styles for all of my life. Most of my friends, that’s what they do. It’s just not for me. This is the product of my never-ending intellectual curiosity about music.

McClain JohnsonThat’s because you’re always looking to expand your sound, right?
Bruce Hornsby: I think it’s just the byproduct of being inspired. For instance, I think some of my fans really hate it that I love, and play in my concerts, modern classical music. There are four or five areas on this record where that influence is in the mix. For me, it’s something I’ve always been interested in. I went to Berklee College of music when I was a sophomore. I went to three different colleges. In Boston, at the time; which was the mid-’70s, ’74, you could go to the Boston public library are borrow records, like you’d borrow books. I went crazy in this area of the library. I would always be borrowing for or five records at a time. Mostly what I got interested in was modern classical music. Most notably Charles Ives, who was really the first great American classical composer. He wasn’t even a full-time musician. He was an insurance man by day. I always loved this area of music. I got more deeply involved with it when I signed with Columbia Records in 2003. When you sign with Columbia, one of the incredible rewards of that is that you get to raid their catalog. They have one of the greatest catalogs that exists. I went crazy. I ordered 176 free CDs. Most of it was like, Peter Boulez Conducts the Complete Weber. I got even more immersed in it the last seven or eight years. Unfortunately, for some of audience, I regularly inflict that music on them in my concerts. It continues to increasingly influence my writing. There’s a song on our Bride of the Noisemakers record, Michael-Raphael. It features a very chromatic, dissonant, melodic verse. I know I’m sort of talking in technical terms. I’m a lifelong student. It’s what I’m interested in. At the same time, I like gut bucket, down in the dirt, simple, bluesy, folk-y, bluegrass music. That’s also very much an influence in my music. It’s funny. I don’t listen to much jazz anymore. It’s not so much an influence on my music. Although, when we play songs from the period of my music in the ’90s when I was utilizing the jazz language, then, of course, that’s what we do. Even in that music, we move to harmonic places that are more what I’m about now. Oddly enough, what I listen to mostly these days are two types of music that are probably the polar opposites in every way. Modern classical music and traditional folk-blues country music. It’s an odd mix, but that’s what I like.

McClain JohnsonDo you have fun trying to figure out the meeting point between these styles?
Bruce Hornsby: You’d have to go song-by-song. It’s all about the song. This is all in service of the song, mind you. People always ask me about all these styles, but it’s all about the songwriting first. To me, I’m mostly into writing a good song. The style of the song will dictate the influence that the playing has on the presentation of the song.  For instance, on this new record, there’s a song from my 1993 record “Harbor Lights.” It was my first foray into utilizing the jazz language intensely in my music. The song is “Talk of the Town.” It’s a very simple blues tune, with a swing feel and a bebop-y melodic line. In the middle of it, I play a song from my jazz trio record I made with Jack Dejohnette and Christian McBride. It’s called “Camp Meeting.” It came out in 2007. The jazz police were very kind. I’m sure their antenna was way up for somebody from the rock or pop world trying to make a statement in that area. They were kind. They realized that my heart was in the right place. It was truly a jazz record. There was nothing smooth about it. There’s a song from that record called “Charlie, Woody and You.” It’s a play on an old Dizzy Gillespie tune, called “Woody and You.” I took a bit from a Charles Ives piece called “Study Number 22.” I put that into this blues scenario. We named it after Charles Ives, “Charlie, Woody and You.” I play that song song after “Talk of the Town.” I do that quite often, because they go together. They’re in the same key, and they are both blues tunes. Because that’s a fairly dissonant tune of mine, I open the piece with an Elliott Carter piece called “Catenaires.” It’s a fantastic perpetual motion piece. Carter, the great composer, wrote it 4 years ago when he was 98. He’s now 102. He’s quite an amazing figure. Stylistically, to me, they go totally together. I’m starting off with a very dissonant piece, moving into “Talk of the Town,” then moving back into that more chromatic, dissonant language of modern classical music. One of our songs is called “Candy Mountain Run,” it’s the first tune on the second disc of Bride of the Noisemakers. “Candy Mountain Run” is a very simple song, sort of modal. It’s in the key of C. Since it’s called “Candy Mountain Run,” and the song is a simple song. It was a very natural move to start the song with “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” It’s an old folk song that I know from the “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. I just love it. I love the movie, and I love the song. “Big Rock Candy Mountain” into “Candy Mountain Run.” There’s always a reason for this. Even though, a lot of the time, we’re just flying by the seat of our pants. There’s always a connection. Those are two pretty good examples, of the folk side and the classical side.

McClain JohnsonThe thing that connects it is the fact that you love all these styles. You’re able to seamlessly meld them together. Your passion for so many different styles of music comes through. 
Bruce Hornsby: I think it’s a passion for continuing to grow and evolve in my music, continuing to make it interesting. The first couple of records, when I wrote songs with my brother, there were probably a few more love songs on the record. From the third album on or the fourth album, certainly, I’m moved on in a lyrical way. I became mostly about writing story songs, or it will range very far afield. On my last record, I wrote about the rodents and bacterial strains that came over on the ships from England, infected the locals, and allowed the colonists to defeat them in battle. The black rats of London. It’s all over the place. I just look for something that’s interesting to me, both musically and lyrically. I’m not going to be making the same record too many times. Certainly, there’s a whole lot of people that would want me to do that. They are always saying, “Why don’t you go back to the good old sound?” I did that, I’m not against it. It’s not like I’m totally opposed to that. I play those songs live.

McClain JohnsonYou still like those songs, right?
Bruce Hornsby: Yeah, for the most part. One of them, “Every Little Kiss,” doesn’t hold up well for me. I hardly ever play that. There are a couple of songs that don’t age well. I’m happy to say that songs from 25 years ago mostly hold up for me. I’m pleased about that, that they still hold up. I still like playing them. The records don’t hold up for me. I find them unlistenable, the early records.

McClain JohnsonWhy is that? The production?
Bruce Hornsby: The production seems lacking in vibrancy and energy. The vocals, stylistically, are just not what it’s become. I just wish the feel was a little better. I can’t make a blanket statement about it, you have to go song-by-song. There are certain ones that hold up just fine. For the most part, I find them hard to listen to. Mostly, it’s about the vocals. You’re getting me to dig deep and be very self-critical.

McClain Johnson: Sorry.
Bruce Hornsby: No, I don’t mind doing that. I just said that because I know I’m going to get a lot of responses saying, “Well, wait a minute, that’s my favorite stuff of yours.” It’s your favorite stuff because you’ve heard it 100,000 times on the radio. I always thought it was hilarious when people would say to me when The Range was no longer a group, “I sure miss the old band sound.” It always killed me when they said it. The songs they are talking about are the hits. All the hits were just me playing along with a drum machine. There was no band involved. One guy, David Mansfield, played a little guitar and mandolin on “That’s the Way It Is,” “Mandolin Rain,” and “Every Little Kiss.” Otherwise, it was just me and a drum machine, playing synth bass and piano. It wasn’t until it became Bruce Hornsby that it became completely about a band. What they are saying, that they don’t understand, is that they miss the sound of me playing with a drum machine. I always thought it was so funny when people would say that.

McClain JohnsonHow does your recording process work now?
Bruce Hornsby: Oh boy, it’s all over the place. Frankly, we’re not very good at it. We try really hard at it. I’ve never felt I’ve been a great record maker. Often I will write a song and cut a demo of it. If the demo is good enough, and I want to maintain a lot of the feeling that’s in that, I’ll have the band guys come in and play over what I’ve done. There are other times, like on the last record “Levitate,” where I’ve resisted the urge to cut demos. I would wait and have the band do the often painful process of working the song up from scratch. Nothing other than, “Here are the chords and here’s the tempo. Here’s what I think the groove should be.” Then, we go from there. Often, that works really well. My best idea for the drum groove is, generally, not as good as what my drummer, Sonny Emery, will come up with. He’s one of the great drummers, and that’s what he does. It’s his area of expertise, the groove. I often fare much better when I leave the control freak personality out. I say, “OK, just play what you think it should be.”

McClain JohnsonYou’ve worked with so many different people, in so many different styles, over the years. Do you feel that has helped to expand your overall sound? 
Bruce Hornsby: I think so. It really affected me more when I first started doing it. When I first started getting all these calls to work with all these great musicians. That was about 188. I started playing on a lot of records and writing some songs with some great songwriters. I started working with a ton of great bands, most notably, the Dead. That was certainly the most intense collaboration, until maybe, the Skaggs-Hornsby collaboration. We played a lot of shows with that. It doesn’t come up to the amount of time I spent with the Dead.

McClain JohnsonHow did that come together?
Bruce Hornsby: It was very natural. It was like how almost all these collaborations come together. They called me because they are fans of what I do, what I was doing at the time. They asked me to open some shows for them. They asked me to sit in with them. They asked me to sit in a little more. They kept asking us to open for them, and I’d sit in with them more and more. I’d sit in with them even when I wasn’t opening for them. Jerry Garcia played on our third record.

McClain JohnsonWas it a challenge learning all of their tunes? 
Bruce Hornsby: Yeah, completely. I considered my self fairly well versed in their music, which meant I knew about 40 Dead songs. I thought that was a lot. They had a revolving list of about 160, that were on their list of songs in active rotation. It meant I had to learn about 120 songs. That was definitely challenging, but they were so loose about it. It was such a loose environment. They hated to rehearse, kind of like I do. I’m the same way. They would just tell me the key and just say, “OK, just wing it.” Some of their music is very simple, and some of it is very complex. “Help On the Way>Slipknot>Franklin’s Tower,” that part in the middle isn’t something you can just wing. You can’t hear that and play it. You have to learn it. You have to spend time wood shedding it. There were several songs like that. Those would often be the most enjoyable songs to play, once you learned how to play them. There’s a little more meat on the instrumental bones. It was really fun, but they were a lot to learn. I could have probably done a better job of doing my homework. I did what I did. I can’t say I did my best. I probably could have been a little more studious in my wood shedding of the songs. I tended to just use my ears. Frankly, I would just lay out a lot when I didn’t know something. Often, the best thing to play is nothing. There’s a lot of players up there. Often, I would just sit there. People would think, “Why is Bruce not playing? He must be bummed out or something.” It couldn’t have been further from the truth. I was just trying to leave some space. Also, a lot of times, I wouldn’t be playing because I didn’t know what the hell they were doing. I didn’t know it, so why be up there sucking? All in the name of looking like I’m into it and playing. I would just stop.

McClain JohnsonNo matter what you’re doing, you’re always thinking about the song overall. If that means not playing, that means not playing.
Bruce Hornsby: Absolutely. There are lots of times with my band, where I’ll get up from the piano and walk around while the band plays. There’s a nice yin-yang dynamically. It’s all about servicing the song. We’re not really much for the long, interminable two chord jams. I’m not really interested in that too much. Our spontaneity really comes in the area of trying to create a new section. Playing a song with a new groove or go from one song to another in a way we’ve never done. It’s a very conversational approach that we take. We have some very dexterous musicians that can turn on a dime. If I go to a new place, they follow me very well. What I mean by conversational is, someone will play a little, improvised lick and I will hear it and play it back at them. Then, we’ll play it together. That will become this new riff that becomes a new section. We just jump on that and play that for awhile. Now, we’ll have this new riff and I’ll say, “Play a drum solo over it.” I’ll have everyone lay out and we’ll play that. That sort of thing happens, in the moment, all the time.

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