Joe Bonamassa, Back in Black.
Interview conducted by Janne Stark (also published in FUZZ magazine, www.fuzz.se). 2/10/2010
Over the years, Joe Bonamassa has been called everything from a wonder kid to the new king of blues-rock. With his new album Black Rock, and the upcoming, star-studded project, Black Country, Joe proves he can combine quantity and quality.
DRG: On Black Rock you have again recorded several covers. Has this become something of your M.O.?
JB: You know, I try to make records that are enjoyable from start to finish -- whether I write twelve tracks, or just five of the twelve tracks. I don’t have an ego about it, I just want it to be enjoyable. Most people just sit back and listen to it. They don’t look at the credits and they don’t care. Like when I was a kid putting on Led Zeppelin or Ike & Tina Turner records it was very rare that people wrote all their material all the time. So, yes, it’s kinda become my M.O. at this time, but it’s a page from a playbook that’s 45 years old.
DRG: I like that you make the covers your own, which makes them fit together really well with your own material.
JB: Thanks. That’s important when you're talking about doing covers. I listen to the original version, maybe twice. I feel, ok we can do this. I get the lyrics and sit down and rewrite the song with the original vibe in mind, or completely different and then at the end of the day they almost become re-writes, which is why they feel like my own. You know, sometimes ignorance is bliss.
DRG: You’ve also given the old Beck-track Spanish Boots a nice swagger.
JB: Yes, you know, the original version is beautiful because is ramshackle and it starts really great and then sort of off base. There’s no real structure to it. What I wanted was to give it a structure and a melody as much as I could. I’ve been trying to pull it off for ten years, but never got the vocals to work and I was not feeling I was worthy of singing it. So finally I’m ready to sing it in the proper key.
DRG: Weren’t you sort of intimidated interpreting Beck?
JB: I don’t care. Honestly. I’m not talking about Jeff in particular, I met him and he’s a really great man. I’ve been lucky enough the last 4-5 years to meet a lot of my heroes and truthfully, with the exception of very few, Eric Clapton being one of them and Jeff Beck, I’ve been disappointed almost every time. I've had some bad experiences come from hero-worshipping, so I’m done hero-worshipping. I don’t know if they were in bad moods for one reason or another, but at the end of the day, I’ve taken this attitude. To love their music is one thing. To be intimidated -- especially if they’re just gonna be rude to you because that’s the way they roll is another thing. I’m just a fan, regardless of what you think of my music. Fuck my records, who cares, right? It’s like, if you don’t like what I do, you don’t have to say it, just be a human being and be nice. I meet people I don’t like, but I’m not an ass about it. Just because you made a great record and people lie to you just to kiss your ring, that doesn’t give you the right to be an ass. So when I approached this record, all that went out the window. I felt if we’re gonna do a cover song, we're gonna do it the way we want to do it. And that’s it. About the Beck song, we did it a couple of years ago and (the idea of recording it) kinda stuck around.
DRG: Well, that seems to work. Like with Steal Your Heart Away, which is quite far from the Bobby Parker original.
JB: Robert Plant had come to Kevin Shirley’s house. Plant is super-nice, and he’s been following what we’ve been doing over the last 4-5 years. He’s like: "You know Kevin, you guys should do Bobby Parker’s Steal Your Heart Away because we were going to work it up for Led Zeppelin in one session, but we never got around to it and the record was finished, everybody was excited and Atlantic put it out." I was like, yeah dude, thanks for the tip. We listened to it and it was perfect for us. We added that kinda Zeppelin riff up front and just went from there. It was the perfect opener for the album coz it really sets the tone for that old English kinda like mid-rangey analogue sounding British blues record. That was what we were going after. That youthful, reckless abandon kinda record.
DRG: There are also some nice Zep overtones in Blue & Evil.
JB: Yes, I stole from Jimmy Page who stole from the rest of them. No offence (haha).
DRG: What I felt when listening to this album, like in When The Fire, is that the sound is really raw at times.
JB: Yes, for some reason. We recorded the basic tracks in the same studio all in one day, over the course of three days, but for some reason When the fire sounds like something done in Muscle Shoals. It was recorded in the same scale and I love the sonic temper of that track. It’s one of the favourite tracks I’ve ever done on any record. It just has this kinda juke joint, like English blues guys doing Mississippi juke joint music recorded in Muscle Shoals. It’s a very weird combination, but it just works for me. I love the rawness of that track. It just kinda sits right.
DRG: Then on the other hand you have Quarrymen’s Lament, which is really sweet sounding and really beautiful.
JB: Can you believe we did that and When The Fire in the same day? Talk about shifting gears!
DRG: On this album you’ve also tried a bit of different instrumentations, like more horns in Night Life and in other places.
JB: Yes, the horn section was totally on purpose. I mean we have BB King coming up to sing on the record so we had to have horns and do it right. The Greek guys add such a beautiful feeling to three of the other tracks. It really brought home what we were trying to do with the album, really.
DRG: In When The Fire, is that a Dobro with slide you’re playing?
JB: Yes, it’s a steel one, a National.
DRG: You also managed to get BB King to guest on this album.
JB: Yes, he's been my friend for 20 years, it’s really cool.
DRG: I also have to complement you on the excellent live DVD.
JB: Thanks! That was a lot of hard work. Fifteen months in a lot of people’s lives dedicated to solely one purpose. To make me look thin and good on camera (haha).
DRG: What I like about it is that a lot of DVDs today, they just put up a few cameras and roll. You put a lot of work in it, both with light setting and sound.
JB: It was a special moment. When we got the gig, everything was worry worry worry. It was like, ok, can we fill the seats? Fortunately we got past that hurdle. Then it was, let’s record this! It could be the greatest situation we ever got ourselves into, and it was! So before you know it, we got a whole big band, two drummers, horns and everything. I wrote a little letter to God and he came. It’s a big deal. The weight of this thing! Talk about sand bags on your shoulders. Nine cameras, three busses full of people, trucks and people I don’t even remember their names. I didn’t even have the time to show them the courtesy of remembering their names. May 4th you had the weight of the world on your shoulders and that’s a lot of pressure. Everybody did such a great job and Kevin Shirley, again. He put the whole thing together, dealt with the camera and sound crews.
DRG: Yes, two drummers, that’s kinda putting it out there.
JB: Well, we did have some rehearsals (haha). We had four gigs travelling around Europe a week before and we rehearsed diligently. That one shot was a quarter of a million Euros right on the line. That’s a lot of money for a little company like J&E Adventures and Provogue Records. We had one shot to get it right and thank god we did!
DRG: You also had a bonus track. Why was it not included in the show.
JB: I watched it from start to finish and it came right after Clapton. Basically it’s a cool song but it’s a guitar-song again. I didn’t want it to seem like, in no means would I ever do this in a million years, but I didn’t want it to seem like, Joe plays with Clapton and now Joe’s showing off. The whole thing flowed better without it, you know. For me, I dug the whole thing more cutting it out and adding it as a bonus track. At the end of the day the show flowed better without it and I was happy to do it without hesitation.
DRG: So tell me a bit about The Black Country.
JB: Oh yeah. Here’s the thing. My friend Glenn Hughes and I and Jason Bonham and Derek Sherinian are all friends. Glenn and I have been talking about doing something together. What I didn’t want it to be was some half-hearted Bona-Hughes weekend blues record, you know. If we’re gonna do this let’s do it right and start a band. Kevin Shirley got involved. He was like, call Jason and see if he’s interested. We didn’t wanna do a power-trio because it’s been done before and we didn’t want people to think we were some Cream sort of thing. So, let’s get a keyboard player. So we got Sherinian and he’s fantastic. The whole thing really worked from start to finish. We have five tracks in the can right now and we’re gonns do another five in March. We’re gonna see how it goes. People ask when we’re gonna tour. I don’t know, we don’t have a record yet! What do you sound like? I don’t know, we don’t have a record yet. Everybody’s got a day job. Black Country is not something I’m doing 24/7. I mean I have commitments to the album I just made, commitments to 22 people that work with me on a regular basis. I have to maintain these commitments, and I have to write songs for The Black Country and we have a session booked in March. So, we’ll know in the next few months really where we stand. We’re gonna finish this thing in a few months, come hell or high water, and everybody’s committed to that, and we’ll see how it goes. What it’s NOT gonna be, is Zeppelin II, Burn and whatever Dream Theater you wanna pin it to, or whatever Joe Bonamassa record that might be worthy of pinning it to. It’s not gonna be that, it’s gonna be its own entity and it’s very heavy rock. It’s a heavy rock record, but it’s not gonna be done with cleaner guitars, it’s not done with tons of synths. It’s really organic and represents everybody’s inputs. It’s some really exciting songs and the cool thing it’s gonna be an all original record with the exception of maybe a couple of things we may do for fun. It’ll be its own entity and something we can be proud of. It’s no sense in rushing something out that we’re not proud of and all happy with.
DRG: Cool! So what’s your approach when recording this?
JB: I’m playing a Gibson Explorer and a Les Paul with a couple of old Super Leads, really stripped down approach. Nothing majestic. So what if the guitar stutters a bit in the solo, so what if it’s clean but it’s heavy? Heavy-handed old school, you know. Glenn’s the primary singer and I’m happy to let him do it, coz if you’ve got Gordon Ramsey in the kitchen cooking for you, why the hell would you wanna make the salad? He’s fucking brilliant! So, at the end of the day it’s like, I have no ego, I’d be happy to just play rhythms! I think people will be pleasantly surprised at the level of writing and the level of care going into it. I’m excited about it! I however don’t wanna over-hype it. I’m not that happy the rumour is out. My thing is more – here’s the record, enjoy it or not. There’s no pretence going on. It’s like the LA rumours - This is gonna be bigger than bread! No, it’s not. People still need bread, they don’t need this fucking record. So, calm down, let us be creative and let us do our jobs. It won’t come out if it sucks.
DRG: It feels a bit like the same attitude Hagar, Satriani etc. had with Chickenfoot.
JB: Yeah. All of us have very good day jobs and we do this coz we love it and we’re very good friends. That’s the best way to do it.
DRG: So, what equipment did you use on Black Rock?
JB: I actually used the exact same Albert Hall rigg for the whole record. Due to the fact that I couldn’t get my US rig over here. A had an old vintage Martin, an old Tele an old Les Paul and a bunch of fun stuff. I had about 30 guitars at the studio, which most people wanna shoot me for saying. But yeah. We had racks and racks of amps, more than 50. The two amps I’m actually really glad I had were the two WEMs. I had two WEM Dominator, one 50 and one 60. They’re worth about 300 pounds a piece, but those things are smokingly good and if you put a Dallas Treble booster in front of it with the Tele you definitely have Zeppelin I pretty much in a nutshell.
DRG: Yes, there’s a great crunch in your sound.
JB: Yes, we wanted it to be a bit more crunchy, but we featured a lot of different amps.
DRG: And Kevin Shirley is still the man?
JB: He’s my best friend, my musical mentor and I won’t make a record without him. I won’t do The Black Country without him, or my record. We’re pretty much locked in. Roy manages the show, Kevin produces the albums and I play guitar and the label does their thing. Everybody’s got a role.
We at the Dinosaur Rock Guitar would like to thank Joe Bonamassa and Janne Stark for this interview. Copyright ©2010 All rights reserved.