4/11/2013 - In advance of an intimate performance April 19 in Concord, Bruce Hornsby talked with the Hippo about a many-faceted career — three Grammy awards, time as a “floating member” of the Grateful Dead, collaborations ranging from jazz man Jack DeJohnette to bluegrass master Ricky Skaggs (a live Skaggs/Hornsby CD, Cluck Old Hen, is due in September) and the stage musical SCKBSTD, which is in the works to become a movie.
How much of your solo show is a set list versus governed by the way you feel when you walk on stage?
Well, it’s a little bit of both. I have some things that I definitely want to project out there. It’s an ambitious attempt at deep musicianship, that’s how to best describe my solo concerts. I say attempt because I don’t always nail it, I don’t always pull it off … I sort of walk the line between musical adventure and playing my songs that people would know. I feel that there are four or five songs in my history that I owe an audience most nights; I feel I’m pretty nice about it (laughs).
Did time in the Grateful Dead affect your attitude toward improvising and reinventing your music?
Well it’s like most truths —it’s a gray area. It’s not totally one thing and totally another. Before I started playing with the Dead, let’s start with the first record. … “The Way It Is” was a rare song on Top 40 radio that had not one but two improvised solos in it. It was not the formula. That and “Sultans of Swing” are probably [among] the few songs that really deal in improvisation on commercial radio. … I got my degree in jazz music; improvisation and dealing with the instrument on a deep level have always been important to me, so we were always winging it. … In 1988, we came out with “Valley Road” [with] even a longer improvised piano solo, which had McCoy Tyner-esque quartal harmony. My musician friends couldn’t believe what I was getting away with on the radio. But then talking about the reinvention — the next year, I was part of this great record with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume II. … We turned “Valley Road” [into] the bluegrass version. We won a Grammy for that and pissed off all the bluegrass purists who hated that Bill Monroe didn’t win — and I don’t blame them! I hated that Bill Monroe didn’t win, but I’m proud of that record!
It was genius — from start to finish one of the best records ever made.
Oh, great, so you’re aware of that record! Of course the first one is classic and for good reason, but the second one is a very good record that holds up really well too. Ricky’s on there, his thing is great: (singing) there’s a little mountain church house … then I joined the Dead. So this consciousness was completely a part of my musical approach, which made it very natural for me to join them. Because I was a kindred musical spirit and they recognized that right away. But then my time with the Dead couldn’t help but influence me. It didn’t influence me on an approach level; I had my own improvisational aesthetic fairly cemented at that time. It’s grown and changed and evolved like crazy since then, but [it] was pretty fully formed at that point. [Joining] their band for a while, as a “floating member” as Garcia would call me; I got so much more deeply involved and aware of their great catalog of songs … so I was more influenced as a songwriter [than as] an improviser, and I also grew in my knowledge of folk music by hanging around with Jerry, who was a walking encyclopedia [and] turned me on to the Harry Smith anthology of folk music, among other things.
Is there a collaboration yet unrealized you’d like to see happen?
Not really. I used to say Mark Knopfler; I think he’s fantastic. I love his songwriting and singing and playing and everything he does. But I don’t say that anymore, because I don’t feel any dying urge to do that. My collaborative plate is pretty full with the Spike Lee scoring, the Skaggs/Hornsby, the musical play collaboration SCKBSTD...
What is the current status of that?
Well it’s potentially amazing and not something I can really discuss, but there’s a movement afoot to turn SCKBSTD into a movie musical from a couple of great actors. I wish I could tell you the name. If I did, you’d go, ‘Wow,’ but I can’t.
Will we have this generation’s Rocky Horror Picture Show?
I don’t know. I really am not a fan of most movie musicals … it doesn’t connect with my aesthetic at all. So my antenna is way up for movie musicals sucking and we could be the next one. But I damn sure hope not, and I think the people who are interested in this have a beautiful track record of not sucking. There is potential to be one of the most amazing experiences I could have. We are still writing the songs, I may even debut a song in Concord, a brand new song I’ve written about drugs, called “Life in the Psychotropics.”
After The Way it Is, you played many of different sessions … was there any particular OMG moment for you — like Wayne Shorter playing on “End of the Innocence” when Don Henley recorded it?
That was certainly one of ‘em! Oh my God on the sort of level of, “I can’t believe I’m in this room with this iconic presence” - is that what you mean?
Like David Byrne saying, “Well, how did I get here?”
Well, certainly with Wayne Shorter - I’m not sure I would have thought of that if you hadn’t brought it up but that was clearly one — loved it. Danny Kortchmar — Kootch — and I were sitting in the studio [saying], “I can’t believe we’re here and he’s on the other side of that glass playing that beautiful soprano over our song.” … Another was the whole experience that I had working with Robbie Robertson, writing and recording “Go Back To Your Woods” and making a video for it [and] recording with the Meters in New Orleans … performing on SNL, going over to Spain [to] a guitar festival in Seville. That whole experience was certainly one of the greatest situations I’ve found myself in. I was going, “This is fantastic, totally amazing.”
Wasn’t that guitar festival where you played with Roger Waters?
Yes, exactly right, that also led to my song “Fortunate Son,” which was inspired by my singing “Comfortably Numb” with Roger Waters. I ended up playing with four of the five groups on the bill that night. We played with everybody but Les Paul. Manu Katché, Tony Levin and I were the basic rhythm section for Robbie’s band and then when Roger McGuinn and Richard Thompson came in — they just came in with their guitar, saw us playing and they both asked us to be their band, so we played. It was easy to play with Roger McGuinn because we knew all the Byrds songs, so we rehearsed them in the day and we knew the songs so we remembered them at night. But poor Richard Thompson, he rehearsed it with us that afternoon and then 7 hours later we’re playing and we don’t remember anything, so we just were terrible behind him! And to his great credit, Richard Thompson was so strong, just this stoic presence. He just charged on with the people behind him (i.e. us) just sucking … he looked back at us with a grin on his face like — “Yep, you guys are out to lunch but I’m undaunted.” I had to say, this guy has a strong sense of himself. I remember looking at Tony Levin, going, “Yeah, I don’t even remember what key this is in.” He said, “I don’t remember either!” (laughs) That was an amazing night, playing with the four R’s — Roger, Roger, Richard and Robbie.
Talk about your work with Robert Hunter and what people can look forward to.
Well right, I’ll probably play two of those songs. We’ve written four songs and working on a fifth. I just sent him a demo of the first attempt at a new song. That seems to be continuing and I hope it keeps on. We wrote “Cyclone” for the 2009 record Levitate — then we wrote a song last year called “Might As Well Be Me.” A dodecaphonic Dixieland tune is how I describe it.
It’s a bluesy Dixieland tune utilizing a 12-tone row. It’s Schoenbergian, inspired by a tone row of Schoenberg from his piano concerto. I often preface “Might As Well Be Me” with a selection from the Schoenberg Concerto, the first five pages of it. I know it sounds like some highbrow bullshit, but it’s just where I am. I regularly inflict modern classical music on a poor unsuspecting audience. … Interestingly enough, it’s often one of their most favorite parts of the show.