Joe Bonamassa talks touring, vintage guitars, Beth Hart and new studio album

27th Feb 2014 | 15:50

Joe Bonamassa talks touring, vintage guitars, Beth Hart and new studio album
Joe Bonamassa talks touring, vintage guitars, Beth Hart and new studio album

Joe Bonamassa’s new studio album – his first solo effort in two years and his first-ever collection of all-original material – is slotted for a September release. But the blues-rock guitar star is making sure that his fans have a little something to tide them over till the fall by issuing a pair of live packages.

Out this week is Rock Candy Funk Party Takes New York – Live At The Iridium, a DVD/Blu-ray set culled from Bonamassa’s part-time fusion band’s three-night stand last year at the legendary New York jazz club. And due out next month, on March 25th, is Beth Hart & Joe Bonamassa: Live In Amsterdam, a two-DVD/Blu-ray/two-CD document of the Grammy-nominated duo’s 2013 concert at the Koninklijk Theater Carré.

Before heading to Germany, where he was about to begin a European tour (one which would flip back to the States in late March and continue throughout the spring), Bonamassa sat down with MusicRadar to talk about his new releases, why he decided to work with Nashville songwriters for the upcoming solo disc and a recent dinner that resulted in a primo guitar acquisition.

Last year, you started playing an acoustic set followed by an electric set. You’re doing that again?

“Yeah, we’re taking both bands with us, splitting the show up. We do one set with the acoustic band, take a 15-minute break, and then we come back out and I play with the electric band. We did it in America last time, and I was like, ‘Shit, why didn’t we do this before?’ It’s such a soup-to-nuts gig, two and a half hours. We do our whole catalogue – nothing repeats itself.”

“We’re committed up to the summer festival season. It doesn’t make sense to try to do this show at the outdoor festivals when you only get 75 minutes on stage and you’re sandwiched between Five Finger Death Punch and some other band. That just can’t work. I won’t bring any good guitars with me for those shows – people throw mud sometimes, you know?”

You perform pretty much all year. Does it ever become a grind, maybe during the last week of a tour?

“That becomes a grind, sure. I joke with my manager, Roy [Weisman], that every tour is great, the routing is terrific, but it’s a week too long. Last year was legitimately too long, and it was a grind. But you have to pick yourself up because you owe those people at the end just as much energy as you give the people at the beginning. Getting up there and putting on your game face takes effort. Once you do, your DNA of 25 years that’s been programmed to play kicks in and it all works out. It’s like anything – you burn out.”

You’re putting out the Rock Candy Funk Party live set –

“Yeah, and we just did Conan. When was the last time you fusion on national television?”

I can’t think of the last time. Let me ask you, how do you tap into that side of your playing? It’s kind of a funny mix of styles.

“Well, I’m a huge Larry Carlton fan, a huge Robben Ford fan – that’s where it starts for me. When we started to make the record, playing with Ronnie [DeJesus] so many times, he’s a Fender guy. He’s got that Wah-Wah Watson thing down, and he’s playing Strats and Teles, the more Herbie Hancock Head Hunters scene. We have that style covered, so there needs to be a foil, like Larry Carlton playing the front pickup circa Steely Dan. When we started to make the record, it became clear that was the way to go.

“Fusion gets such a bad rap. There’s the good fusion that we all grew up with, and there’s the bad fusion. Bad fusion is easy to do – just go to the NAMM show. [Laughs] Good fusion is much harder because you have to write some songs.”

Joe Bonamassa talks touring, vintage guitars, Beth Hart and new studio album
Joe Bonamassa talks touring, vintage guitars, Beth Hart and new studio album

Have you ever seen what Chad Smith does with his side band, The Bombastic Meatbats? Rock Candy would be great on the same bill as them.

“No, I haven’t seen them, but that sounds like it’d be a lot of fun. That’s what this whole gig is about. We put this together basically around the Baked Potato. We never thought about touring it or anything like that; it’s just fun to do some gigs.”

You and Beth Hart are putting out a live package, as well.

“Yeah, we’re really excited about that. That tour was amazing. Beth did great.”

Were you bummed about not getting the Grammy, or do you not pay much mind to awards?

“Ah, you know… Ben Harper is a guitar geek friend of mine, and Charlie Musselwhite has been around a long time. By the way, they deserved it, especially Charlie. He’s a superstar and a bona fide legend – so is Ben. We weren’t worried about that. But hey, the cool thing is that they took notice of us.”

Do you think you and Beth might do something else soon, maybe an album of original material?

“I don’t know. We both do solo records, so it’s hard to say. I really don’t know where things are at the moment. I know she wants to make a couple more solo records; she wants to tour with this new incarnation of her own self. Whenever it’s convenient and it makes sense for everybody to reconvene, let’s do it. I know there was some tentative talk about doing another run of dates in 2015 – we’ll see. It’s a fun band. A killer band.”

So let’s talk about your own next solo album.

“Man, it’s been two years since my last record. That’s an eternity for me. The album's almost done. I still owe [producer] Kevin [Shirley] a vocal – he’s been chomping at me to come down. We only live three miles apart, so I really should do that. I’ve been trying to get stuff for the tour together. So, yeah, the record’s basically done. It came out great. We’re actually putting out an album of original material, which we haven’t done in 10 years.

“We don’t have a title yet – I’m hoping that comes soon. We’re putting two songs in the set straight away. There were at least five or six songs that I wanted to put in, but I’m holding back because the album isn’t coming out until September. It would be a little like taking a hot air balloon for a ride prematurely. Songs would be all over YouTube – you know how it goes.”

Joe Bonamassa talks touring, vintage guitars, Beth Hart and new studio album
Joe Bonamassa talks touring, vintage guitars, Beth Hart and new studio album

How would you describe the record right now?

“It’s got two surprises at the front and back. When you hear the first song, you’re gonna be like, ‘What the fuck were these guys smoking in the studio?’ [Laughs] And then at the end, you’ll be like, ‘Whatever it was, they’re still smoking it.’

“I went to Nashville four times last year and wrote with some really cool, soulful cats. I wanted to make a blues album of all-original material, and I needed lyrics, song structures. I wanted to work with some of the guys who write choruses – real songwriters. I got in with a bunch of different people, and the results were pretty great.

“I worked with a guy named James House. One of his biggest hits was A Broken Wing by Martina McBride. I couldn’t believe it when he sang it for me. I was like, ‘You wrote that? No wonder you have a nice house!’ [Laughs] I worked with Jeffrey Steele, who’s had more number ones than anybody. Gary Nicholson, Jonathan Caine from Journey… Jerry Flowers, who plays with Keith Urban – really cool cats. But I’m not looking for hits.”

You’re not? Why wouldn’t you want a hit song?

“I’m convinced that a hit song would be the death of me. The way the business works down in Nashville, it’s all about placements and hits, writing songs for Luke Bryan or whoever. It becomes very incestuous, and they all want to write songs about lifestyle – tailgating, girls in Daisy Dukes, beer koozies and bad food. And your Chevrolet – or, if you’re a Mopar man, a Dodge.

“That’s that world, and how can you argue with that? But truth be told, a guy like me comes along and says, ‘Hey, no pressure. Let’s just write something funky and cool,’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, hey, I can do that.’”

You and Kevin Shirley have worked together steadily since 2006. Kind of like a marriage or any kind of long-term relationship, how do you keep things fresh?

“I think what really helps is that when I go on tour, it’s really my world. I arrange the tunes and put the sets together, by and large – except for maybe when we do DVDs. I manage the touring part of it, and Kevin doesn’t really say much about it. He trusts that I can do my thing out there. When we do the albums, he knows what he’s doing. He put some doo-wops on a shuffle yesterday, and I said, ‘What the hell is that gonna sound like?’ And he said, ‘Trust me, it’ll be fine.’ And I was like, ‘All right.’

“We’ve worked together for so long, I just know that he’s not going to take me down a path that I don’t want to go. We just have this trust between us – I have no idea why. You know, it always seems that between artist and management there’s always this combative relationship, which I don’t have. Roy is like a member of the family for 20 years – more. Kevin’s like a member of the family for almost a decade. You have a trust factor, and you get good people who have your best interests in mind. It’s kind of like what the Allman Brothers had with Tom Dowd.”

Joe Bonamassa talks touring, vintage guitars, Beth Hart and new studio album
Joe Bonamassa talks touring, vintage guitars, Beth Hart and new studio album

But even though you have a good relationship with Kevin, he still pushes you.

“He does. I mean, he has to. His job is to keep me slightly out of my comfort zone at all points so that the music is vital. All artists basically want to default to lazy.”

I’m curious – if the album is pretty much done, why wait till September to release it?

“I think between the European side and the US side, we needed time to set it up properly. You don’t want it to be like a fire drill. That’s the way it’s been for the last four or five albums. They’re asking for artwork when we’re in the studio recording it, and we’re like, ‘Hey, we don’t even have a title!’ After 18 albums in 12 years, I don’t believe in my heart of hearts that we’re desperate for a CD to come out. This was a conscious effort – let’s take our time, set it up properly, make sure the album’s right, listen to it when it’s all mixed; if we need to go in and fix something, we can. Like I said, I still don’t even have a title.”

You could always do a Roman numeral like Chicago used to do.

“We’re running out of Roman numerals! We gotta put an ‘M’ in front of it.”

Any new guitars in your collection? You always seem to be adding a cool new piece.

“I’ve got a lot comin’ in, a lotta boxes. On the new side, I’ve got the Bona-bird II, which is a Pelham Blue Bona-bird. Essentially, it’s a Les Paul with two pickups – the first one had one pickup – and a reverse Firebird neck. And it’s got my name on the fretboard too, so it’s like the coolest-thing I’ve ever seen. The thing’s killer.”

Are you ever going to Bona-bird out commercially?

“You know, they’ve been chompin’ at the bit to, but I don’t know… I like the idea of having something that nobody else has, ‘cause then I’d have to think of something else. Then you wind up with a three-pickup Les Paul Junior.”

Joe Bonamassa talks touring, vintage guitars, Beth Hart and new studio album
Joe Bonamassa talks touring, vintage guitars, Beth Hart and new studio album

Anything else?

“I found a mint ’61 Fender White Twin. I also got a High Power Twin and a brown suede Dumble – serial number 14. Oh, and I bought something else – the original owner died in the fall, so the family had to settle the estate. It was during this weird dinner conversation with a guitar buddy and his wife – oh, and you could clearly see the unhappiness on his wife’s face when it went into the second hour of guitar geek talk – but she suddenly said, ‘My friend’s got a guitar…’ I was like, ‘Oh, yeah?’

“She texted her friend, who texted right back with a photo. She put her iPhone on the table, I looked at it, and I couldn’t believe my eyes – ‘That’s a blonde ’57 Strat with a 310 Bandmaster. You now have my undivided attention!’ [Laughs] I ended up making a deal with the family, and it’s clean: Original owner, bought November 22nd, 1957. I have the receipt. The Bandmaster and the Strat all for $350.”

I can only imagine what you paid.

[Laughs] “I paid $50,000. Slight difference. Finding original owner custom-color Strats – straight custom-color Strats – is very difficult these days. Quite frankly, I won’t buy one at a guitar show. The skullduggery is too much. To pull one out from under the bed is pretty fun.”

Nice use of the word “skullduggery."

“Oh, yeah, I use that word all the time when referring to the curmudgeons and cretins of the vintage guitar world.”

You can purchase Rock Candy Funk Party Takes New York – Live At The Iridium right here. And you can pre-order Beth Hart & Joe Bonamassa: Live In Amsterdam right here.

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