A Conversation with Joe Bonamassa
Mike Ragogna: Joe, how and what are you doing, man?
Joe Bonamassa: I'm doing fine. I'm actually here doing my debut on David Letterman, sitting in with the band. It's a real honor. We're in New York and we're just about to wrap up the American tour. Plus, we have a new record coming out. There's lots of news.
MR: How is the Letterman experience?
JB: It's great. I've done a couple of television shows before. It's one of those things...it's a different world from the world I travel in. I play real loud. You get to blast. This is a little more contained. They end a song in the middle of a song because they have to cut to a commercial. There's no time for the big rock ending. It's fun.
MR: You also performed at the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame recently.
JB: I did. I had a small part in inducting Freddie King. It was myself, the two bearded ones from ZZ Top -- Dusty and Billy -- and my friend of twenty years, if you can believe or not, Derek Trucks and we played a couple of Freddie King tunes, which was a real honor. To me, it was long past due to get Freddie King into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. That completes the trilogy of Kings. They're all in now.
MR: Nice. So you have a series of online videos, Countdown To Daylight. Can you tell us a little about them?
JB: My friend Mark Sweeney from England has been documenting our record, The Ballad of John Henry, going back to 2008, 2009. He came out to Las Vegas and put all of these things together. It's not like Mob Wives, we're not doing crazy things and fighting amongst ourselves. But we're basically...it's just a good documentation in the studio of how the songs came together. A lot of people are really curious about how the songs come together because they hear the final product. A lot of times, it's not immediate for you to plug in and inspiration comes out. We've kind of shown a little bit of the balance of the inspiration and the stuff that's truly inspired and works themselves and what comes next.
MR: What is your creative process?
JB: At the end of the day, for me, it really starts with the lyric and the riff. If the lyrics are good, I can sell the tune. If the lyrics are weak and trite and I'm not feeling it, I tend to try to run away from the song. Kevin Shirley, our producer, has been a huge part of the eight or nine major things we've done. He gets me out of my comfort zone in a good way. I tend to just play to my strengths in these corners I've created and don't necessarily get out of them. It's his job to kind of get me out of that space.
MR: You start your new album Driving Toward The Daylight with "Dislocated Boy." Can you tell us about it?
JB: That song wrote itself. I wish I could bottle that and sell it. That song wrote itself from start to finish and it didn't take much to put it together. It was one of those great fun songs to do that you just wish you could bottle that and do it every week. It comes along every couple of years for me.
MR: What is the story behind that one?
JB: I guess it's a product of a time. I was touring a lot. I had to move out of a house in Athens, Georgia. In setting up another house, it became more advantageous, and it was easier, to live at this very nice hotel -- I felt like Telly Savalas who spent the last 20 years of his life at the Universal Sheraton. It was kind of like that. I lived like that for almost a year. I guess the lyrics come from that time in my life where I used to go from one suitcase to the next and I just don't have any roots, you know?
MR: I know, although the Universal Sheraton is pretty cool. (laughs)
JB: It is a very nice place and I'm not dissing it, and anybody who lives in a hotel, that's fine, it's their choice of lifestyle. But sometimes you just feel like you don't have any roots and I think some of the subconscious came out when I was writing that.
MR: And it seems like the title track, "Driving Towards The Daylight," ties-in with "Dislocated Boy."
JB: I spent my life on the road, I recently moved into a different place in December. To my friends, I always threaten to move back to New York because I'm a born and raised New Yorker. They say, "Have a place in New York and a little place in Los Angeles." I said, "You know, I spent 5-1/2 weeks in my little place in December and June's knocking on the door and it's been six months." I live on the road basically. I live this kind of nomadic life that I've chosen. I took the keys, as they say. A lot of the lyric writing subconsciously comes out of that.
MR: On the album, in addition to the originals, you also cover a couple of blues songs, like Howlin' Wolf's "Who's Been Talking" and Robert Johnson's "Stones In My Passway." But you work them up significantly so they don't come off as just covers.
JB: Well, we basically turned the beats around where you would feel it on the 1 and 4 or the 1 and 3. "Stones In My Passway" was 2 and the 4, which was a very difficult transition for me. The drummer, he got that straight away. Our interpretation of these songs are what they are. There's been a lot of Robert Johnson, but we got in the headspace of Zeppelin. In the case of "Who's Been Talking," it's basically us taking cues and you hear the voice at the beginning of the track, which is Howlin' Wolf. He's basically directing the band. Luckily, we were able to get the sample cleared so we could use it on the record.
MR: And the way it set you up, it was like he was having a conversation with you guys.
JB: Yeah, he was directing the band, going on about how he felt. It was up to us to kind of listen to him like he was in the room.
MR: You have another cover, "New Coat Of Paint," from one of the great albums, The Heart Of Saturday Night.
JB: From Tom Waits. We've had a lot of luck with the Tom Waits catalog. It's all about the lyrics. A lot of his stuff is very bluesy and a lot of it adapts well to a blues type of situation. Those lyrics paint pictures. Unlike Bob Dylan with 17 or 18 verses before the first chorus, Tom kind of gets more to the point. There are only three verses in this song, so it lends itself to a blues rework.
MR: Leaving a lot of guitar lead space.
JB: It was fun. It was one of those things where Kevin said, "Just do your thing, like it's a live gig here." I asked how long should I go and he said, "As long as you feel like," so it went on and on.
MR: And you slipped in Willie Dixon's "I Got All You Need."
JB: We got it from the Koko Taylor version. A good shuffle is hard to find, whether you write it or find it, that kind of says something.
MR: This time out, your album includes players like Aerosmith's Brad Whitford on guitar, and Blondie Chaplin, Anton Fig, Arlan Schierbaum, and Michael Rhodes.
JB: We changed the band a little bit for the studio record. It was Kevin's idea to put me in a situation where I'm meeting new cats and before the greetings and handshakes are done, we're in recording. It was a smart way to do it. We did kind of a transplant gig. We took everything out of our storage and set it up in Vegas for a week. It really has a different sound than if you were sitting at home and having the pressures of the family and your daily life. You're there and you have nothing better to do than to play.
MR: With "Too Much Ain't Enough Love," you feature Jimmy Barnes, an artist who never should be better known in the US but isn't for some reason.
JB: A lot of people in this country are not familiar Jimmy Barnes and it's almost a shame. In Australia, he's like Robert Plant or Mick Jagger. And Cold Chisel is bona fide in Australia, they'll sell 20,000 seats anywhere they go. Yeah, Jimmy was nice to come in from Australia. Jimmy and I got booked to do this Deep Purple tribute record for this Australian label, and we did a really killer version of "Lazy" that isn't out yet. For the other song, I said, "While you're here, why don't we pick one of your songs for the record." "Too Much Ain't Enough Love" lent itself to a bluesy interpretation.
MR: How do you react to all of the accolades thrown at you? For instance, you were called Guitarist of the Year in 2011 by Guitar International, and you're constantly honored in Guitar Player Magazine as Best Blues Guitarist.
JB: They're very nice about that.
MR: And you constantly have the #1 spot as Blues Artist in Billboard.
JB: Yeah, knock on wood, it's been a wonderful thing. I think the truth lies in the middle. People say you're the greatest; some say you're the worst. I'm just a guitar player who sings. I'm very proud of the work we've been doing. I think at the end of the day, that's all I can really ask for, to be proud of the records that we make. In a market where physical market sales have been not just on a decline but a nosedive, we've been able to almost double our sales every time we come out. That tells me there are still people who don't know what we're doing and they're coming to the party a little bit late, which is fine, we welcome them with open arms. It's been awesome, the support from the guitar community and the vintage guitar community. I'm just a lucky dude that plays guitar for a living.
MR: So fans following your career also would be exposed to talents like Vince Gill and John Hiatt, right?
JB: Well, when people say what would be in The Book of Joe, it would have to be more a pamphlet, than a book. But you'd have to mention guys like Ian Anderson, George Federoff, John Hiatt, Vince Gill, Eric Clapton, obviously, who changed the game for me. At the onset of it, it really worked out for me. But it's 24 years of hard work. And it has been other things than hard, but it's been a long run.
MR: You also have your Beacon Theater: Live from New York DVD/Blu-ray release, right?
JB: Yes, we just put it out on Blu-ray and eventually, there will be a CD for those frustrated with trying to convert the audio to mp3. We just did that, John Hiatt came and Paul Rogers came and sang -- that was the best part of any given Tuesday where we did those gigs. It was a huge production with four extra band members, but this was our normal Tuesday night band and we just had a blast, by where I used to live in New York, which was cool.
MR: Upper West Side?
JB: Upper West Side. I used to be able to find the cheapest ramen noodles and peanut butter and jelly at the bodega across the street from The Beacon Theater. It literally had to last me a week. I would see all of these people on the marquis -- The Allman Brothers, Steely Dan, Crosby, Stills & Nash -- and I thought, "One day, I've got to be able to pull this off, at least get in there," so it was a dream come true for me.
MR: I know that type of living on ramen noodles myself, having lived across the street from The Shamrock for a while in the eighties.
JB: The Shamrock was awesome and has really cheap beer.
MR: Is it true that Bloodline is getting back together?
JB: No, that's not true. I haven't seen those cats in ages. I don't know if anybody would want to see it. We didn't sell that many records. I ran into Aaron Davis, the drummer and it was really cool, but I don't even know where they are.
MR: Joe, I ask this question of everyone I interview, what is your advice for new artists?
JB: Well, you have to take the good with the bad. What you do, you have to do with conviction. Never follow the trends, never let anybody tell you what you should be doing musically. Take all of the advice in the world, listen to it, absorb it, process it. Some of it is good advice, some bad advice, but never let it change what you're doing down deep because at the end of the day, basically, it's your life. If you win, do it on your own terms and come out of it on the other side and it's something to be proud of. If you listen to someone else that derails you, you always have that thought in your mind, "Maybe if I stuck to my guns, it would have happened differently." So young artists getting into a trailer and going across The Great Plains of the United States or into Europe, it's not an easy thing to do, but it's not impossible. If this bozo with you on the line right now, can pull it off, anybody can.
MR: (laughs) If you were to have even more words of wisdom, what would they be?
JB: When it comes to guitar playing, everybody can shred. The guy at Sam Ash or Guitar Center can shred. The guy who's a line cook at Denny's can shred because he plays everyday. How can you put it together to make it different so it's a total act? Why do some people make it through and some don't? They sing, they write songs, or they have an act. So it's important to work on not only the playing, but also working on the product -- what's going to make people get up, book a ticket and come out when it's raining on a Tuesday night in Topeka, Kansas.
MR: That's really more advice for new artists.
JB: It's really critical you look at it in those terms, the spectacle.
MR: Speaking of spectacle, at South by Southwest, you were all the buzz because Bruce Springsteen was rumored to be going to see Joe B.
JB: I don't know, I never saw him. At the end of the day, we play Austin and we've always had good luck in Austin. My gigs are always chaotic. I had a real thrill the other day. We were in Syracuse, New York, almost my hometown, and I look over to the monitor and on the side stage was Joey Belladonna from Anthrax. I wouldn't have thought a guy like that wouldn't even know my name, but sure enough, he was there and loved the gig and was following my shows for a long time. I'm a fan, too, of lots of people that you wouldn't associate with just a blues guy. The high water for me was when Clapton walked out. That can't be beat in my opinion.
MR: Tell me what that was like.
JB: It was surreal more than anything, I just can't believe I pulled this off. I invited him and he came down and was super cool and played his song. I said, "Wow, just to get to meet the cat."
MR: What year was that?
MR: Plus you played one of the Crossroads events, right?
JB: Yeah, I was invited to his third one.
MR: One last thing, you mentioned Derek Trucks.
JB: Yeah, I'm good buddies with Warren Haynes and Derek. I've known Derek since we snuck into a Hooters when I was 11 and he was 13 back in Jacksonville, Florida sharing a bill.
MR: Derek's another one that everyone admires.
JB: At the end of the day, he's been traveling the same road, albeit a different type of music, for years. He's starting to get his due as well. He's put in his 2,000 hours. If you stick in the game long enough, it will happen. If you work hard, it will help.
MR: Joe, we have to wrap things up. I really appreciate your time, man.
JB: Cheers, I really appreciate it.
1. Dislocated Boy
2. Stones In My Passway
3. Driving Towards The Daylight
4. Who's Been Talking
5. I Got All You Need
6. A Place In My Heart
7. Lonely Town Lonely Street
8. Heavenly Soul
9. New Coat Of Paint
10. Somewhere Trouble Don't Go
11. Too Much Ain't Enough Love
Transcribed by Brian O'Neal
Video Exclusive: DarkDriveClinic "Litmus Heart"
About the album Noise In My Head: "The music for DarkDriveClinic has taken so long as it has always been secondary to making other people's records," says John Fryer, member of This Mortal Coil, producer of Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, Lush, Cocteau Twins. "It's something I always wanted to do but there was never enough time and I was in no rush to finish it 'til the songs were, in my mind, how I wanted them to sound. Rebecca's voice fit perfectly to the sound of the music. It had to be a voice that can be all things to all people all at once. She can go from being a soft fragile siren to a serial killer waiting to pounce in one song. It's just what the music wanted and needed."
About the video: "'Litmus Heart,' the song, is all about making the same mistake over and over again...falling in love too fast," explains Rebecca Coseboom. "In the video, I go to Shamen, have my tarot cards read, read tea leaves, try voodoo, essentially try whatever it takes to make it stop. There is no real storyline or plot, it's mostly imagery to create a mood."
2. The Offering
3. Mercury Head
4. Litmus Heart
5. Find the Flaw
6. Love's Lost Cross
7. Breathe Shallow
8. Still Contagious
9. Angel of Malcontent
10. Bite My Tongue
12. Don't Give Up On Me
13. Noise in My Head
...and The Box Story's Noah Chenfeld hosts E Street Radio on SiriusXM: