"This is what I like to do," Bruce Hornsby tells me, as he prepares for the release of his new album Absolute Zero. "I'm interested in trying to push forward. I'm a lifelong student, and I've always tried to grow, evolve and change as a singer, a lyricist, a songwriter and a player."
If your awareness of Hornsby's music starts and ends with his chart-topping 1986 debut The Way It Is, the music on Absolute Zero may startle you. It's a sonic stew of sorts, with contemporary classical, Americana, jazz and electronic sonorities all seamlessly intertwined.
Not one prone to fits of sentimentality (i.e. he may play your favorite song in concert, but it may be slower, in a minor key or on a dulcimer), Hornsby is always looking to the future. "I want to make a sound that I haven't heard," he explains. And on his new release, he takes us all along for the ride.
The first single off your new album Absolute Zero is “Voyager One.” And it seems like a terrific snapshot of you in three and a half minutes. There's a great groove with polyrhythms, classical sonorities mixed with a pop sensibility, and your penchant for non-romantic, sardonic lyrics.
Yes, that's right. That’s a good encapsulation. I would have been fine with any of them being singles. My first hit was a complete fluke. Everyone thought it was a B-side way back then. This one’s about a kid's fascination with space. I call it “Steve Reich Meets Prince.” That's an unholy alliance, but that's been my job for years! [laughs]
I remember talking to you years ago about Randy Newman's disdain for standard love songs. You were saying how you'd be happy to write a love song if it was set in space. You seem to have a fascination with space.
I think it's that I have a fascination with science. Mostly in the last probably 15 years I've been interested in that. I think what I've always said about love songs is that I'm all for writing a love song, but I want to find an interesting take on it - an interesting way into a love song that's atypical. I think “Fractals" is a perfect example of that. It's a science love song. I guess you could say. "Voyager One" has nothing to do with love, although it does say, "Fix relationships we've wrecked," so I guess there's a little of that in there. I think it's more of my interest in science comes out in this record, for the most part. On one of my records, about 10 years ago, I wrote a song called “Here We Are Again,” which is a time travel fantasy. So it’s about finding interesting way to write a love song. I'm trying to make a sound that I haven't heard before. That's one of my overriding goals. I also want to write something that I haven't read.
For music and lyrics it's a high bar. Also, I guess the subject matter ranges further afield as the years go on, because I've been doing this a long time and the page is pretty filled-in. I'll start to write a song about something and I'll go, "Wow, that reminds me of something that I wrote 25 years ago.” And I’ll say, “Oh no, that's too derivative of this other thing that I did.” If you've done this for a while, you have to reach farther to find something new so that you don't repeat yourself. That's something I really try not to do.
That’s an amazing sentiment - to try to find something new. You're your own bullshit detector. We can name dozens of artists who are completely happy to continue writing and playing the same song over and over again to great acclaim.
And often that's what their fans prefer. I've been getting nasty letters since my second record [1988's Scenes from the Southside], which is shocking because, to me, my second record was stylistically very akin to my first. It was me trying to cement the fact that this is what I do. This is my sound. It's a little goofy, but true, to describe it as “a LinnDrum and a piano.” [laughs] I thought it was very much stylistically similar to the first record. Then I got all these nasty letters saying, "What is this? How dare you change." I thought to myself, "Well, you haven't seen anything yet!" [laughs] If you think this is dissimilar in a distasteful way for you, you should probably never listen again.
I love how the record has you working with esteemed elders like Jack DeJohnette and also younger talents like Justin Vernon. Do you find yourself equally inspired by both kinds of collaborations?
Well to be honest, Jack's the only older guy. Everyone else on the record, other than two members of my band, is young enough to be my child. This record is almost completely about that on a guest-list level. Jack's contribution is different. The Jack DeJohnette drum track on “Absolute Zero” comes from our old Camp Meeting record we made together. It's not like I had Jack in the studio. I just used some old Jack to good effect. A lot of this music stems from Spike Lee film cues of mine. Around two years ago, I was scoring Season One of his Netflix series, She's Gotta Have It. His dad, Bill Lee was also a jazz bassist, and scored his film She's Gotta Have It. We were using his old theme for the opening credits music and end titles. I said to Spike, "Well, how about if I make this an homage to your dad and write all these cues for a bass and get [acclaimed jazz bassist] Christian McBride to play them as an homage to your dad?" He said, "Wow. I'd love that. It's a soulful idea." So, I wrote all these cues, and he didn't use any of them! I had all these lying around, and one of them was this cue that became “Absolute Zero” that actually is in season one of She's Gotta Have It. To start, I thought to myself, "Okay, I'm just here in my house with nobody around. Let me just look for some found materials to start making these jazz-ish cues." So I made a bunch of Jack loops from the soloed drum tracks from that record from 11 years ago. That's where “Absolute Zero” came from. So other than that, which, again, is something from the past, it's really about these young musicians who have reached out to me for the last several years and asking me to work with them. They've returned the favor here for me. Justin Vernon sang on my dulcimer record Rehab Reunion, on the opening song “Over The Rise,” which is possibly the best song on that record, We've been doing this for a few years now, since 2015, and he was, as you can see, way more involved. We co-wrote and sang a duet on “Cast-Off,” which is the second single.
I was really knocked out by the kind of sonic treatment on that one. The chords, to me, sound unmistakably like you, but the way they are treated is so modern. Was this one of the thing you got working with Justin? The idea of how the sound can be as intriguing as the music?
Yes, completely. This is a situation where they asked me to come out to the Eau Claire, Wisconsin last year and do a gig with them at a motel of which Justin's a part owner. Then, four days of work in the studio. I thought I'd come prepared, and I showed up and said, "I come bearing gifts. I have a bunch of these pieces of music that I've written for Spike Lee films that haven't been used, and I picked several that I thought you may be interested in.” I think I brought him 25. I played him all 25, and he picked 10 or so. We started working on some of them and “Cast-Off” was one of those cues. They have this very idiosyncratic and beautiful way of making records. It's their own thing. He basically brought down from Minneapolis a bunch of his Bon Iver bandmates and other friends that they work with. So that song is basically Bruce and the Eau Claire cats. That’s why it sounds like that, because these guys bring this certain aesthetic and sonic philosophy to the music. I just loved it. The way the sax is used, it's nice. So there's no coincidence.
It's amazing to have somebody be able to take you out of your own mindset, and bring you into a whole new sonic space.
Look, I'm fortunate to have these people in my life. I think they're an incredibly creative, incredibly talented group of musicians and creators. That's probably the most obvious example of their influence. Justin also sings great on “Meds.” That brings the Rob Moose/yMusic part of this picture into view. “Meds” features 17 or so violins and violas all performed and arranged by Rob Moose. Rob's a very in-demand musician. I met him, again, through Justin while playing his great Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festivals. That’s where I met yMusic and The Staves and The National and so many others. Rob makes his entrance on “Meds” in the running order, and from then on, they are on virtually every track.
I noticed there aren’t any piano solos on this record.
I haven't taken an improvised piano solo on a record since 2004. And you know what? I just don't care. Again, I've done that so much, it just feels just old and “been there.” Although, the virtuosity demands are in two very real cases - way more intense than any of the other stuff, even my two-handed stuff. “Fractals,” for instance, the piano on that is this very fleet-fingered, Steve Reich-ian or Philip Glass-ian performance. It’s from an old Spike Lee cue from about four years ago, and it's four hands. It's two pianos playing together. I've had to learn that and also learn how to sing along with that. Oh, it's been an incredible bear. I've just hit the woodshed for about the last nine months to get this together. It's an incredibly high bar to move across. Then there's the crazy bitonal song, “The Blinding Light Of Dreams," with the B-section and the left hand? [imitates music] And again having to sing over that? I wrote it and then I had to learn how to play it before we performed and recorded it. That is really hard stuff. There’s also the crazy sort of Zappa-esque mid-section of the last song, “Take You There.” I wrote that song with Robert Hunter. It's an atonal bit and I sing that very chromatic melody [he sings], "Where it begins in the port of the skies…" It's a high bar. So yes, there are no piano solos as you say, but I just got to the point where I'm more interested in just the songwriting. I guess I couldn't help myself. Maybe I'm a masochist. I've created these sections that force me to flog myself into being able to perform them.
It's a great challenge, and I like the challenge. It's a lot of work to get to the point where I can perform them. Of course, when we work on difficult music, you know this very well - the feeling of when you get out the other side of having put a lot of work into something very difficult, the feeling of freedom that you have when it's now really easy for you is one of the best feelings that a musician can have, for someone who's interested in playing his instrument well. There are two very clear examples illustrating the fact that this record on a pianistic level, doesn’t sound like some of my older music like “King of the Hill,” of which I'm very fond and proud .
I have to give special props to the fact that you got the phrase “Robotize, enzymes, nucleotides, in time” into your song “Absolute Zero.” As a guy who’s finishing up a new album myself, listening to how you stretch lyrical and musical boundaries is both a revelation, and somewhat terrorizing!
Well, look, we all have our own idiosyncratic past. If this influences you to do something to push it, well, I'm happy about that. I'm always searching for inspiration and ways to push myself into new places. Again, a lot of my longtime fans, they really hate that because they would like me to make the same record again and again but that's such a creative prison. If I had to do that, I'd just might as well go play the oldies circuit.
So we can’t expect a reunion of The Range anytime soon?
Those guys are still good friends of mine. I still talk to all of them semi-regularly. In [drummer John] Molo's case, very regularly. But I love who I play with now. It's just a different thing. But back to "enzymes and nucleotides…" A lot of this record has been informed by the reading that I do. That's also an area where I've over the years pushed myself to deal with some reading and some modern fiction that is demanding and difficult and that requires work on the part of the reader. I've gotten to the point where it's not such hard work for me anymore to read David Foster Wallace or Don DeLillo or so many others. I mentioned them because they're the ones who I referenced on this record quite a bit. That's where a lot of this information comes from. It's been totally influenced by my being deeply involved in reading. Again, a lifelong student in that way. I'm always looking for something interesting. If you read The New York Times Book Review, your world can open up. If you dive in.
There's heavy lyrical content on a song like “Never In This House.” Was that one informed by reading you did?
Those are not my lyrics. That's my great, long-time, kindergarten friend, Chip deMatteo, with whom I've written a lot of the old play songs, like on the ill-fated, SCKBSTD Musical. That's totally coming from him and you'd have to ask him. He's a great writer – a very bright, creative guy. I've loved collaborating with him. That song was written on assignment. When you're writing a musical, it's very specific. The subject matter will be very specific to the songs placed in the play, moving the story forward, I guess. That's where "Never in This House" comes from. It comes from the play.
Let me ask you a couple of questions from some of our readers. The first is, “What's the secret to the droning bassline in “Spider Fingers?”
You mean the repeated note piano pattern in the left hand? I guess the only secret possible could be how you finger it. It's very easy. It's 4,3,2,1. A lot of people do the old Billy Joel way of repeated notes, which is two-handed. Anyone can tell who's listening that that's not how I'm doing it because then all of a sudden you hear the right hand play while that other thing is going on. It's just 4,3,2,1. It's not an easy technique but it's an enjoyable one.
“Spider Fingers” has a funny story behind it. The aforementioned John Molo was in Du-par's diner in Studio City when I was playing with the Grateful Dead in the early '90s. He overheard some Dead Heads talking to him - about four of them in a booth next to his, and they were talking about a show. Molo's ears perked up and he started listening to what they were saying. They said something just like, "Dude, it was so great when Bruce played “Spider Fingers” in the middle of “Scarlet." [laughs] Molo called me up and asked, "What do they mean?" I said, "Well, I have no idea what they mean about ‘Spider Fingers.’" Then I thought, "Well, maybe they mean this repeated note trick that I use." He said, "You should write a song about that." I said, "Yes, it's a good title, it's fun," and so I wrote a whole song about a piano technique. [laughs] That's how “Spider Fingers”came to be.
Another reader writes,"How about touring Europe and Denmark, particularly in 2019?"
Well, look, it's tough for me. My favorite line about this is, “I'm about 5'2” in Europe.” I’m not very big, and I don't work the room. We broke in Europe. “The Way It Is” was a big hit in England first and then in Holland, and then throughout the rest of Europe, then throughout the rest of the world, and then in the US. We started off by going to England, and then on to the continent. Right away, in '86, we made our first video in London and we're on Top of the Pops, lip-syncing our asses off for the people, and The Terry Wogan Show. He was the British Johnny Carson at the time for many years there. Basically in 1986, '88, and '90, and '93, I went over to Europe and opened my wallet to the continent and said, "Here, take it all." Basically, I just went over there and just lost my ass to try to sort of “build the market.” Then I went in ’95 to play solo. Now I could actually make some money playing solo because there's very little overhead, obviously as opposed to taking planes,buses and trucks. I just show up and make friends with a new piano every night and that's it.
I remember you played London’s Jazz Cafe solo.
That was 2003. I was making the Halcyon Days record, which could be unofficially titled Bruce and the Brits. I had the great guest list of Sting, Elton and Eric Clapton. I flew over there to record Eric. He was working in a studio in London and I thought, "What the hell, I'll pay for the trip and book a solo gig." I played the Jazz Cafe and had a great night there. We get European offers now and then to play with the band, but it never really seems to work out so that I won't lose my shirt over there. I've tried to not be an absentee dad for 27 years now. That coupled with the beautifully and never-ending demands of my music career, and now really, the two-pronged affair as a film composer for Spike and also being a singer/songwriter, which as you can see have a symbiotic relationship to each other, I don't have the time. It's a downward spiral. I've never been that popular over there, so I don't go. Then I'm less popular. [laughs]
Next reader question: "What was your most memorable moment with the Grateful Dead? Do you have a favorite Jerry Garcia story?"
To answer the first question, there were so many amazing moments playing with them, and I can't pick just one. My best Jerry Garcia story is this. I used to phone prank him a lot using different voices. One time I had him thinking he was talking live on “WWOZ 90.7 on your radio dial New Orleans.” [imitates New Orleans accent] "This is Ernie K-Doe. Jerry Garcia, what you got to say to New Orleans, Jerry Garcia?" He said, "Hey Ernie, I just want to say Merry Christmas to everybody in the Crescent City, and--" I realize, "Oh man, I've got him." So I just kept wearing him out, asking, “When is the Grateful Dead gonna play “Mother-in-Law,” Garcia." Ernie K-Doe's big hit was “Mother-in-Law.” And Jerry says, "Yes Ernie, we really like that." I just had him for the longest time, just wound him up for quite a while, and then said, "Hey Garcia, it's Bruce." To which he reacted, "You weasel." Then we had a big laugh and I continued to phone prank him. I could keep going about this and tell you crazy goofy things that we did, but that was the main one.
Another reader asks, “What exercise can you recommend to develop hand independence like he has?"
That's more of a mid to late '90s Spirit Trail kind of thing but I'm still deeply involved in the independence concept. I got a lot of my inspiration in the independence area from one piece that Keith Jarrett played and there's no name for it that I know of. It was on his Solo Concerts Bremen/Lausanne record. It's just freaky. It’s an ostinato in the left-hand [sings tune] and then he plays this melody and then he just goes rhythmically far afield in the right hand soloing, just very free playing across the bar line. It sounds like two people playing. I always wanted to do that, but I would open that door and then close it right away over the years, realizing, "This is too difficult to deal with." Finally, when I turned 40, I thought, "Okay, I want to deal with this." My way of doing it was I'd start off playing the most simple left-hand pattern, just some rhythmic pattern. I guess you could use the song “Sneaking up on Boo Radley” as a template. This is not such a simple left-hand pattern but it's not incredibly complex. Then I would just start by getting that pattern working well with a metronome and playing it well in time. Then I would just play a whole note over the pattern in C minor. I'd play C [sings tune], C [sings tune]. Obviously, that's not so hard because you're playing the C note in the top, probably the same beat as the C at the bottom. Then you play half notes [sings tune] that gets a little harder [sings tune]. That's not so easy to do, but I'd do that for a while. Then you gradually improve. I guess it's the concept of learning how to crawl before you can walk, before you can run, before you can sprint and you gradually work that up from a whole note while playing that pattern, to a half note playing that repeated half note. Then to a repeated quarter note, then to repeated eighth notes, and then off-beats, and then triplets [sings tune], triplets while playing the ostinato.
It's a very painstaking process that gradually, if you're willing to sit there and work on it for months and months, will allow you to develop this independence. It's a pure, pure grind. It's pure work because the brain cannot hold two thoughts at one time. What this allows you to do is get the pattern under your fingers in the left hand so it's second nature. You develop the freedom rhythmically in your right-hand gradually by crawling, and then walking, and then running, etc. Then that's the way I did it. It's very simple in concept, it just really takes a lot of time and practice.
Is the music from the new album Absolute Zero going to be the focus of the live shows you have coming up?
It will definitely be a focus, but it will be also continuing on what we've been doing. We played 105 of my songs last year with the two new guys that we had, so we'll draw of course from all of that. We will definitely be playing a lot of new music. We have two gigs at National Sawdust in late April with a very special guest. We're also playing with a couple of symphonies, including the Atlanta Symphony in June. Rob Moose is going to be the conductor at the Atlanta gig. There will be some special events. We're playing a Troubadour in LA, and several Absolute Zero-centric events to come.
What do you think you would do if you were getting out of music school in 2019? Could you even imagine that it was possible to have a career in music?
It's a great question. Who can say? A career in music often can have little to do with art, with being creative and being original and unique and not safe. Actually, I’d say that in the Indie rock world, it's all about that. Maybe now, in some cases, it's a great time for someone to try. I think what matters is that you have something original that moves people and doesn’t sound like anybody else - you have your own thing. If you can find that at any time, I think you're going to have some kind of career. I think you have a great chance unless you're someone who's such a reclusive figure that you just live in your box all your life. No one can hear you if you don't try to get the word out.
When you look at the Grammys now, it's all very pop and very young. You won't find Evgeny Kissin playing Scriabin on the Grammys like you used to. You won't find Herbie Hancock and VSOP or Wayne Shorter playing a tribute to Tony Williams or whatever. You won't find that ever on the Grammys. You find that kind of person on the Grammys now, it's all about, "Let's get Chick Corea to play with some young rock band." It's very difficult now. It's a very different time. Most people would lament that and go, "It's terrible. There's no place for originality and art and consciousness in pop music." But that's not true. It's just under the mainstream radar screen and a very beautifully performed all across the Indie world where artistry is really prized. You could name so many groups that illustrate what I'm saying in a very clear manner. Check-out the group Palm. It's like The Beach Boys go to Uranus. Truly. There are so many groups. Dirty Projectors, for instance. Perfume Genius, Grizzly Bear. Fleet Foxes are fantastic. I feel like I have a Fleet Foxes moment on this new record, for instance. “White Noise,” one part of it. You can just keep naming them. I think it's actually a pretty good time if you don't care about being on national network TV. If you just want to do something of depth.