He's seen millions of faces, and he's rocked them all. And next month, keyboardist and composer David Bryan takes his place among rock and roll royalty. KEYBOARD talks to the Tony and Grammy Award-winning musician about the hard work that keeps him on top.
A big congratulations on your upcoming induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with Bon Jovi. How does it feel?
It’s amazing. I was 21 years old when I recorded the first record in ’83. I started with Jon in 1979, playing in cover bands and then we went on to originals. Then Bon Jovi formed in ’83 and we recorded in ’84. I left my house when I was 22. Not many people have the same job after 36 years. The journey’s been amazing. We were five guys that wanted to conquer the world. We worked our little butts off and we opened-up for everybody. “We played every paid toilet and used our own change,” is what we used to say - everywhere in 50 countries. We went around the world and just persevered and kept doing it and doing it and doing it. The first record did alright, the second record did alright, and then Slippery When Wet changed our lives. We’ve always been a band that toured our faces off and who love to play. It’s always been something we love to do, and we still do.
Do you think that kind of attention to craft has disappeared in this era of instant internet fame? The concept that success should come after the work is put in?
Every generation and every time brings its own challenges. I started classical piano when I was seven. I took lessons for 13 years from one teacher and then another two years until I was 20. It was years and years. I went to Rutgers [University] and studied pre-med and music. So you have to know your instrument and work and work and work. We didn’t have the world of Instagram or the internet or cellphones or any of that. So I don’t know. There is no such thing as instant gratification. The show "Star Search" was probably the closest thing where you got on the TV and people recognized you. Now there are so many shows that do that and there’s always a new, different way. I can’t say it’s bad or good. I know it’s different. People get really lucky playing the lottery. I think everything else is you get lucky with a lot of hard work. That’s the only way and that’s the only thing that does it. I think it even means more for us because we’ve never been the “critic’s darlings.” We’ve been at this for a really long time, and now all the sudden the reviews are in. It used to always be, “Despite being a ‘hair band’ from the ‘80s, we like the songs and we like the concerts.” They always had to give that “dig” and say that we were never respected. We’re not respected by the Grammys. We got nominated a couple times, and we won one Grammy for a country collaboration. That’s all we ever won. And Rolling Stone hasn’t even mentioned us in years about tours or that we’re the biggest grossing band around the world. So I think for us, it’s a gigantic nod towards the fact that not only are we a classic, we’re a current classic. Our last record, This House is Not For Sale, was number one in 30 countries. What band from the ‘80s is number one anywhere?
I remember Neil Diamond saying that he made a decision early in his career that he could either please the critics or the people, and he decided to please the people.
My best awards that I have in my office are my American Music Awards, because they're from the people. We played 3,000-4,000 concerts to millions and millions of people over and over again. That’s your acknowledgment right there. We just did 30 shows in America last year and then we did five shows in South America. We did four 80,000 seaters, and then we did 120,000 people at Rock in Rio. So it really matters to me, but I think it’s great to get a nod from the critics.
Speaking of concerts, I ran into Asbury Jukes keyboardist Jeff Kazee in London years back. He was filling-in for you because you were nominated for a Tony Award for Memphis.
That’s the only show I’ve ever missed. When my father passed away 15 years ago, I had to wait two days to bury him because I had to play two shows. The stage to me is something I respect and that’s something he would have told me to do. I respect it like there’s no tomorrow. But I said to Jon [Bon Jovi], “Listen, if I get nominated I have to go to that.” And he said, “You’re definitely going to that.”
It’s a good thing you won!
Yeah. It’s worse coming back going, “I lost.” I won three Tonys that night – one for composing and lyricist, one for orchestrating, and I also produced it. In one fell swoop I won more Tonys than anybody in the history of rock.
Now everybody and their mother wants to have a show on Broadway. But you were ahead of the curve back in 2009.
I got that script in 2001. It took eight years to get to Broadway.
You worked on Memphis for eight years?
Yeah. Because Broadway is a very messed-up place where it’s like you hurry up, hurry up, and then wait a year. And the only reason you’re waiting is because your director always has four shows going on and the choreographer always has four shows. So he’s like, “I’m not available till a year from now.” I'm thinking, “A fucking year? Really?" So [co-writer] Joe DiPietro and I would work on it. We’d hone it and make it better. But it’s a gigantic journey.
It must have been a tremendous learning experience to write in a different way.
For me, it’s writing songs. It’s like, “What’s the character?” The character is going from point A to point B, and so you do it in a rock way. Before Memphis, I had workshopped a Sweet Valley High musical at Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut. That was a book series about twins that sold something like 450 million copies. It was a TV show as well. That’s where I started with [music publishing executive] John Titta, and [late music exec] Frank Military was there too. I wrote 23 songs - all the lyrics, all the music. We went up to Goodspeed for a reading of the first pass at it. I remember people came up to me and said, “I can’t hear the words with all that noise.” I’m like, “That’s not fucking noise, that’s the song!” And then they asked, “Why do you keep repeating that one part?” I go, “That’s the chorus. It worked for the Beatles!” Now people know it. My thing is I come in, I write a song. It has an intro, it has a verse, it has a pre-chorus, it has a chorus, a second verse, the melody sounds just like the first verse, and it has new words. And then a “B verse” and a chorus and a bridge and double chorus out. The Beatles taught us that. So that’s really the rock form. People said, “Wow, you’re doing something new in that world.” I was like, “I’m actually just writing a song.” I delved into something that was completely unchartered.
Did you do a lot of research on your own about how to flesh those songs out in an authentic way?
Never. I don’t do research. I feel. That’s all I do. I feel it. When I’m writing with Joe DiPietro, I’ll sit with him and say, “I feel something.” With shows, the emotion is enough where they need to sing. In life you don’t do that, but in a musical you do. You have to have the emotions boiling enough where you deserve that song. And then in the song, you don’t just step out and talk about it. You actually journey the character so by the end of the song, even though you’re in the form of a rock song, that character went somewhere. But you can actually sing back the chorus.
I read you’re working on another one?
You never stop, because if it keeps taking years and years, you start adding up your years and you think, “I’ve got four or five more musicals left.” If each one takes eight years, then I’m dead. So you think, “We better keep doing this!”
So what’s next on your Broadway plate?
Joe DiPietro and I and Chris Ashley, our director from Memphis, started another one called Chasing the Song. It’s about the first woman song publisher in the Brill Building, like the female Don Kirshner. And there was no such thing because back in 1960, a woman didn’t have her own company. She needed a man to co-sign for her. So we’re championing women’s rights and I wrote 25 songs for that. We had a couple of “hiccups” in production - nothing with the art, just the business of it. And then while we’re waiting to get that one into Broadway, Joe DiPietro said to me, “Why don’t we do a musical about on Princess Diana?” I was like, “What? Has anybody else done it?” He said, “No.” And I said, “Not if, but when we get this right, it’s going to be huge.” We just did a reading for it recently.
You’ve written all the music?
I wrote 22 songs for that one.
How do you write such a large amount of material? Are you going into your studio every day and “hammering” songs out?
Yep. I’m in my house in New Jersey and Joe DiPietro is in New York City. And we put on Skype. I look at him, he looks at me, and we go. We use Dropbox, and we work on it and just “punch the clock” from noon to six. At night, if I have some ideas, I’ll play them and send them to him. And then we work on lyrics. He’s not a musician, so I do all the music. But if I’m heading somewhere, he’ll go, “No, I think it should be faster or slower.” He’ll play me an example of the song so I’m like, “Oh, okay. That’s what you’re getting at.” So we communicate. We each write half. He’ll write something out and for some reason, I can make a song out of it.
Are you writing at the piano, or at a digital rig?
I’m writing at the rig in my studio, which is basically piano. But if I want to give him an idea, like I’ll say, “Well this could be more rock,” I’ll quickly put a drum beat down and add things to it.
Is it an acoustic piano?
No, I got the new Yamaha Montage, which I love. It’s unbelievable. I use that and then all of my gadgets. But it’s very basic. It’ll be piano, synth, and then in this new one I want to do a string quartet so I’m like, “Here’s how it would be in strings.” I know in my brain what it sounds like, so I’ll show it to Joe and he’ll say, “Wow, that’s great.”
Are you still interested in checking out new gear or do you already have what works for you?
Over the years, I’ve collected probably about 60 keyboards. I’ve always had them and I just put them in my storage. Finally, I had enough time and I’ve been pulling them all out and repairing them. I have an Oberheim four-voice. I have Jupiters and Junos. I’ve got a Baldwin harpsichord that was actually played by the Beatles. I have my Mellotron from the Moody Blues where they did “Nights in White Satin.” I have the one.
So you’re still into gear?
What kind of piano do you have at your house?
I have Steinways. I have a Steinway 9-foot concert grand, which I bought myself for my 40th birthday. I did an event at the old Steinway Hall on 57th Street, and [late Steinway President] Henry Steinway signed my piano. It says, “To David, Henry Steinway." There is no better instrument on the planet. And then my piano teacher’s family sold me his piano when he passed right around 1990. It’s a 1912 Walnut Model B grand that I had completely reconditioned. It’s amazing. I walk past it every day when I’m home and that’s the piano I saw my piano teacher on when I was seven and I studied on it for 13 years. That one’s actually in the same house, but in my bar. And then I have one in my apartment in New York - a 1911 Model O Grand, a 6-footer that I had rebuilt. I bought that one with my Bar Mitzvah money. At least my father had rich friends!
Are there things you haven’t done that you still dream of doing, like going into different areas musically?
The Broadway thing was pretty wild because for me, it’s writing songs. With Diana, I’m going to have a string quartet. What I wanted to do was give each character - like when it’s the royalty, the string sound. But I want it to be twisted, a little like Kronos [Quartet] strings or what Bowie would do. It’s dark. I want it to have a little darkness to it. We’ve also been in talks for a Memphis movie, but that takes even longer than the musical. I want to score the music for the movie.
Does the public know about the Princess Diana show yet?
We mentioned it and Michael Riedel from the New York Post picked it up. We announced that we’re going to the La Jolla Playhouse for the first big show of the season - January, February, and March of 2019. Vanity Fair also picked the story up. We did a presentation for investors and theater owners recently and it couldn’t have gone better. People loved it. We told the right story. We’re telling a human story and they happen to be royals. And people are singing my songs walking out. So mission accomplished. We’ll take it to the production now and make it bigger and get it Broadway runs from May to May. We're looking at the 2020 season.
You’re also quite active philanthropically in terms of music education. Is that something that you continue to be excited about?
Yeah. I’ve worked with Bob Morrison. It started with VH1’s Save the Music foundation. He was there, and then he broke away and did it on a school level. So I’ve been working with him. A couple of years ago, I went down to the Capitol and I spoke to legislators about it. We’re reconnecting to do more stuff again because I was on tour last year. He wrote me a note and said, “A lot of these programs that are happening now are because what you did that day.” I was like, “You can’t cut music out. Music is math, music is English, music is everything.” You don’t want to cut the arts out of a school. So I’m proud of that.
What’s the best advice that you can give young musicians who want to have a career like yours?
Know your instrument. That’s number one. And always remain curious. I think that what’s always helped me. If you remain curious about things, it just keeps making you look. Like musicals. I’m like, “Sure, let me look at that. Let me see what this is about.”
Billy Joel had a late career hankering for classical music. Is there any desire on your part to try a similar thing?
Maybe. For me, the music in this new musical is such a challenge, and it’s fun. I really was proud of myself because in a lot of the songs and vocal arrangements, there’s a lot of counterpoint. I did that in Memphis a little bit - just like Bach two-part inventions. You make sure you’re putting something in the hole of the other phrase, but they all have to phrase out and make sense. On this one, I was doing things like three-part inventions. And to make everything sing and to not have your ear go to all three equally is a hard thing to do. That’s like classical, and I keep pushing. I wouldn’t be able to do that as well if I wasn’t tortured by Bach!
When you get together for the Rock Hall induction, will all the original Bon Jovi members be together?
Yeah. They invited all of them. We’re going to have our band - what we’re touring with now, and then Alec [John Such] is going to join. We talked to him the other day. And we emailed Richie [Sambora] and told him he’s welcome to join, and he’s going to come. For me, celebrating what we did is a great thing. Like I said, we were never the “critic’s darlings” and I think for us, this is deserved and I love the fact that we’re still doing it. I’m still just as jazzed to walk on the stage at 55 years old as I was at 22. We’re still going.
For more information, visit http://www.davidbryan.com