A Q&A With Jack Bruce

Jack Bruce talks with Pollstar about his latest album – Silver Rails” – as well as 2005’s Cream reunion shows and the legendary rocker’s personal connection to World War I.

Released last month in the U.K. and Europe, Bruce’s first studio album in 10 years arrives in the U.S. April 15 on Esoteric Antenna.  The long player’s impressive guest list includes Phil Manzanera, Robin Trower, Bernie Marsden, Uli Jon Roth, John Medeski, Malcom Bruce and Cindy Blackman Santana.  Produced by Rob Cass, Silver Rails features Bruce performing songs he co-wrote with longtime collaborators Pete Brown and Kip Hanrahan as well as his wife, Margrit Seyffer.

Photo: Lee Millward

Let’s start with your new album.  What has the reception been like?

It’s been tremendous.  People love it.  I haven’t had anyone who says they didn’t like it.

You just completed a short run through the U.K.

Yes. Very short.  Just sort of warming up.  I’ll be doing more dates later on in the year. … We were able to cover the album very well.

Were those the first live performances of material on the album?

Very much so.  It’s still pretty much a work in progress, the live thing.

You’re still tinkering with the songs?

They do sort of develop.  If you have a bunch of musicians playing, obviously things change a little bit. … I don’t think a live performance should be exactly the same as the recording.  I like it to be a little different.

Several artists appear on your album – Robin Trower, Phil Manzanera, Uli Jon Roth, John Medeski, to name a few.  When Jack Bruce says he’s making a new album, do other artists line up asking to play with you?

I wouldn’t go that far (laughs). I’ve got to call them [and] ask them nicely. All those guests, I was very lucky to be able to get them.  As I wrote the songs, I had those particular people in mind. Like Phil Manzanera on “Candlelight,” I wanted him.  And, of course, having Robin Trower [on “Rusty Lady”] was important.

Other things happened accidently.  Bernie Marsden, he happened to be working at Abbey Road when I went in there to check it out.  And I said, “Turn around, man.  You’re not going home.”

Do you sense a bit of the history of the studio when recording at Abbey Road?

Yes.  Even personally because the first album I made there was in 1965.  I remember it very well.  It hasn’t really changed.  The equipment has changed but it doesn’t look much different on the face of it.  The faders work from down to up.  They used to work from up to down.  That’s about all I can tell you about what’s different.  A lot of stuff has happened there since 1965.

I worked in Studio 2 and Studio 3, both of which are absolutely incredible places to play.  It does bring your game up a notch.  Like all musicians, nobody wants to play a bum note in Abbey Road.

From your viewpoint, what are some of the big changes in the recording process?

Simply, just the technology. .. When we first recorded … I experienced three-track recording at the BBC.  Then four-track recording was pretty amazing.  Going to Atlantic Studios we had eight tracks.  Wow! Made the drums go right across the room.  Now you have as many tracks as you want.

I tend not to use a lot of what I would say kind of cheating things, Auto-Tune (by example).  I would be averse to using something like that.  I like the performance to be the performance.

Do you prefer recording live with the band or does everyone play their parts separately?

It depends on the track.  A lot of the tracks, say, the quieter tracks where I’m playing piano, the technique that I’ve used since my first solo album is to record the basic track with piano, guitar and drums, which is pretty unusual.  But it makes it very spacious and you can kind of go in there and do what you want.

The other tracks, like “Rusty Lady,” that’s … very much done live, because you’ve got to have that for those old-fashioned rock and blues things.  You couldn’t really do that [by] phoning in your part.

What is the creation process like for you? Do you begin with melody, words, a riff?

Again, it varies all the time.  The first song that was written for this album was “Drone,” which is just vocals, bass guitar and drums.  That started off with me having the idea of the words and … then coming up with a riff.  Say, “Reach For The Night,” (Cream lyricist) Pete Brown sent me that.  He wrote those words on a flight from Germany back to the U.K. and emailed it to me.  And I set that to music.  “Candlelight” – my wife (Margrit Seyffer) wrote those words.  She would read them to me over breakfast. … A bit like “The Magnificent Ambersons.”  Except … it was lyrics for breakfast.

So you’re having breakfast and the subject is song lyrics.  Are your normal day-to-day activities centered around music?

Pretty much.  Music and I’m great for reading. … I enjoy reading (Baruch) Spinoza and (Friedrich) Nietzsche.  At the moment I’m reading a lot of books about the first World War. It’s fascinating to me and I also feel very attached to it.  My grandfather fought in the first battle of Ypres, which is called Passchendaele.  He lost an eye and was gassed.  That was one of the most horrendous battles of the first World War.  I’m very interested in the processes, the reasons and the mindset of a war of attrition like that.  It’s something I don’t think we could go along with, although there have been wars [since then].  That was The Great War, if you like.

Do you think people have forgotten about World War I?

It’s inevitable, isn’t it?  I think the last survivor of the war (from the U.K.) died a few weeks ago. I guess when those people die, and when their children and grandchildren die, those things will be consigned to history. … To think what those guys went through, what they were willing to put up with, for years.  It wasn’t a matter of doing a little tour of duty and then going home.  Some of them were in there from 1914 to the end.

Silver Rails is your first solo album in about 10 years.  Why did you wait so long to release a new LP?

I’ve been busy doing other things.  The other reason was nobody asked me. The boss of the record company, a guy called Mark Powell, he’s been very good about re-releasing my back catalog over the years. And he said, “Why don’t you do a studio album?”  It was something I hadn’t thought about, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea (for recording the album) in this stage of my life.

You said you wrote songs for the album, but did you already have any material already written?

I didn’t.  I had some musical ideas.  I always have musical ideas I’m fooling around with but I hadn’t thought about putting them into song form or onto an album. “Hidden Cities” was something I was working on, the music for that.  Also “Don’t Look Now.”

But I got focused very quickly.  All the songs have to grow and they seemed to grow out of each other. It was quite an easy process, a rewarding process.  I was a bit worried that it might be quite difficult for me … and it wasn’t.  It was the opposite.

Each song sounds different, like you took a different approach to each track.

I’ve always liked a lot of different kinds of music.  I think most of my solo albums – I’ve done 14 of them – have been like that.  I think this one works probably the best as far as stylistically … different kinds of approaches sort of melded into each other quite successfully.

I think one of the first impressions from listening to the album is that each song sounds unique onto itself.

Having those different guests helped that approach as well.  Having somebody like Cindy Blackman Santana on drums instead of just having one drummer, Frank Tontoh all through.  Also, the drummer on “Drone,” Milos Pal, helped. … The difficulty is to put those songs in an order that won’t be jarring.  I think that was quite tricky.  I think each song kind of runs into [the next].

Did you try listening to the songs on the album in different orders until you got what you wanted?

I think it was maybe the second attempt.  The first attempt didn’t quite work.  Then, with a couple of adjustments … that was the second attempt.

Your reputation is that of one of rock’s most acclaimed bassists who has influenced generations of musicians.  When playing with younger musicians, do you think your history and presence can be somewhat intimidating to them?

I don’t believe that I am.  Obviously, I don’t know.  But I think I am very encouraging if I’m working with younger musicians.  I like to think I am.  I wouldn’t want to be intimidating.

When you listen to new music, do you ever hear musicians play as if they might have been influenced by you?

Sometimes.  I do hear certain things that I introduced, possibly, to the language of rock music. … That’s one of the nicest things, I think.

Cream lasted for only two years.  Do you think it’s best for a band to shine brightly but briefly as opposed to going on for decades?

That depends on the band.  Let’s take The Stones.  I can’t imagine a world without The Stones. It’s not that I’m a great lover of The Stones, they’re old friends of mine. I met Mick when I was 19. I met Charlie Watts slightly before that.  Charlie remains a good friend. …They like the security blanket of being in a band.  It’s very good for them.

Then there are mavericks like me who prefer to being out on a limb, as it were.  I have found music to be quite a challenge as a career.  But I like it that way.  If I was in a band like The Stones, that wouldn’t be right for me.

As far as Cream is concerned, I think we said what we had to say.  The honorable thing was to leave the stage and then have a reunion years later.

Was it easy to step back into the Cream period of your life when you, Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton reunited for the 2005 shows?

It was very easy.  We booked three weeks of rehearsal but we only used a couple of weeks because we were beginning to get a bit bored and we wanted to have a bit of spontaneity left.  It was obviously very different as musicians, as people.  We were a lot older so we weren’t throwing those really fast lines about.  I was a bit willing to do that but the other guys seemed to prefer a more laid back approach. It would have been curmudgeonly of me to not go along with that.

After playing the reunion concerts, did you think the shows came off well or were you critical about the performances?

I’m always very critical of my own work, super-critical of my own work and quite critical of everybody else (laughs).  I think we did OK.  Let’s put it that way.  I don’t think we let ourselves down terribly badly.

You said music can be a challenge.  Has singing and playing always come easy for you or was there a tough learning curve at the beginning?

It’s not something that was completely natural to me, I have to admit.  I wrote this song “Politician” which was written for a BBC recording. … The vocal was overdubbed over the riff.  Then when I came to do that live I realized I couldn’t sing and play at the same time. The vocal and the base are completely against each other in the beat.  So I had to learn it [and] had to practice.  That was a challenge.

Some of my work with Tony Williams’ Lifetime, for instance, there’s some quite interesting playing and singing at the same time. …  The vocal might be in one key and the bass part in another key. So that was challenging.

But I guess that’s what I’ve done.  That’s been my challenge to make things work.

When Hollywood makes the Jack Bruce story, who do you think should play you?

That’s a tricky one.  Sean Penn?  I think he would be quite good.

Photo: Marek Hoffmann
“I’ve always liked a lot of different kinds of music.  I think most of my solo albums – I’ve done 14 of them – have been like that.”

Silver Rails is available as a CD as well as in a Digipak two-disc limited-edition deluxe version that includes a DVD depicting the making of the album.  You can also snag Silver Rails on 180gram vinyl.  Please visit JackBruce.com for more information.