Matt’s Hat Interviews – Jam Cruise Edition – Col. Bruce Hampton (Ret.)
Jam Cruise is best described as ‘A music festival at Sea where even the musicians become festival-going fans.’ Everyone is living on the boat for five days of nonstop music. During Jam Cruise this year I was lucky enough to get to interview several of the musicians. First off was the utterly unique Col. Bruce Hampton (Ret.) on the morning of Saturday, January 21st. We met just after breakfast in the main restaurant of the Norwegian Pearl.
As always, I placed a hat in the middle of the table that contained a number of questions ranging from questions I wanted to ask and cliché band questions as well as a number of ‘Would You Rather’ questions designed to get artists out of their comfort zone.
The conversation started with the Col. immediately commenting on how he loved to play in Dunedin, Florida, at the Dunedin Brewery. He says he gets down there for three shows every year and loves it primarily due to the location but also due to the fact that the venue owners treat the artists extremely well; due to that, he looks forward every year to getting back to Florida.
HAT QUESTION: (Note – right out of the gate Col Bruce pulled the one extremely weird question I keep in the hat in the hopes it will get pulled. It figures not only that he would grab it but that he pulled it FIRST!) Would you rather change gender every time you sneeze or not be able to tell the difference between a muffin and a baby?
Col. Bruce: Holy $#@% this sounds like something I’d ask… Well… amazing… On the plane down here this guy next to me sneezed about three or four thousand times, and I said I’d rather have a baby vomiting on me than that guy sneezing, and then I ate one of their muffins, which I’ve never seen a muffin on a plane. That’s incredible. That’s deep. That’s synchronicity.
HAT QUESTION: Do you prefer studio work or live gigs?
Col. Bruce: Live gigs. Because it’s at night. Because there is a crowd, there’s a vibe, and because it’s magic. Not to say there can’t be in studios. I don’t do records more than two days. Just go do it and get the hell out. I don’t nitpick it. I don’t want it to sound good. I want it to sound like it’s supposed to sound: good, bad or ugly. I like ugly as much as I do beautiful. Ugly is wonderful.
MFN: It’s been written many times that Aquarium Rescue Unit ushered in the new era of jambands in the ’90s. How do you feel about having that hung upon you?
Col. Bruce: I’ll let you judge that. I’ve been doing the same thing since 1963. I try to keep the music pure – blues, bluegrass, jazz, country. We play country music; I’m just not sure what country. I don’t care if the audience gets bored, but I don’t want the band to get bored. Keep the flow going. Life is capturing the moment. Whether you’re in sports, acting or whatever. But we’ll play anything. I like it all, as long as it’s pure.
MFN: Does that mean you might put “Candyman” back into the set list sometime?
Col. Bruce: If we do “Candyman”, I’ll do it for three days. No one will ever play it again when we are finished with it. You know, I might do that!
MFN: Is it difficult to connect with people when you are playing in front of a massive crowd vs. a small venue?
Col. Bruce: When you’re playing in front of 60 or 70 people you feel you’re naked as a person and everyone is staring at you, and you’re thinking, “I hope my zipper isn’t down.” I played Atlanta Pop Festival in front of 600,000 people, and then it’s a party because there’s no one there. You don’t have an image or anything. When you’re in front of a small crowd they are looking right at you; it’s personal. You get over maybe 2000; there’s nothing personal. It’s a Broadway show. I like music with no more than 1,000 people. You can still have magic happen.
MFN: What one album do you wish everyone should stop and listen to?
Col. Bruce: Well certainly not mine! They might need dental work after a couple of mine. Late ’50s Country and Western stuff, Don Gibson, Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds In Country And Western. My favorite record ever is Bobby Bland’s Greatest Hits. That’s my favorite.
MFN: Your music tends to involve a lot of improvisation. Why is it that some musicians are able to easily slip into improvisation where others aren’t so comfortable doing so?
Col. Bruce: I find that a lot of classically trained musicians just aren’t comfortable with improv. I tell them it’s just life. You open the door, you go through, and shit just happens. Just play it like you’re a child. Be child-like but not childish.
HAT QUESTION: Do you have any pre-show rituals?
Col. Bruce: Yes I do. I start at about noon, preparing for a gig. What’s going to go wrong is what I look at. I make sure of the small details. My road manager or I will call everybody and tell them when sound check is. About noon I start preparing mentally for the gig. Most of us in the band have that same attitude. To me, every gig is like the Super Bowl. Play it like it’s your last because it could be.
MFN: Do you ever get to hang out at festivals or does your schedule mostly have you in and out?
Col. Bruce: I did the H.O.R.D.E. tour for nine years doing 50-70 dates a year. I’ve got the T-Shirt. I’ve done it! After you’re on a bus for nine years… I don’t hang.
MFN: Your website is bratoganibe.com – what is that?
Col. Bruce: It’s “bray-toe-ga-nib”. It means Universal Peace. Or Canoeist. You can take your pick. I look at anything if you’re certain about something you’re a fool. If you’re intelligent you’ve got doubts.
MFN: What genre do you consider yourself?
Col. Bruce: I’ve always grown up in the Avant Tackle. Not Avant Garde but Avant Tackle. I’m an Avant Tackleist. I love it all, man. Probably what I play the most though is blues-type stuff.
MFN: What are you most excited about right now?
Col. Bruce: A lot actually. I feel like I’m just starting. After 54 years I’ve learned to hold a pick. It took me a while. So I’ve got that down now. It’s the only thing I’ve learned to do. I’ve been drawing and painting a lot, which I’ve been very excited about. Stuff comes out that I don’t know that was in there. I’m really excited about that. We play every Thursday night in Atlanta now at a place called The Vista Room. It’s brand new. It’s in Atlanta on La Vista Road. We have a lot of people come through and sit in with us which I’m excited about. 8-11 every Thursday night. We’ve had great success so far.
MFN: Will Stained Souls ever do any more gigs?
Col. Bruce: I don’t really think so. We had a good run, 20 years ago.
MFN: Do you have any memorable goosebump moments? Those moments when things hit just right and you get goosebumps?
Col. Bruce: The only reason I do it is because of those magic moments. They happen maybe 2 ½ times a year, and you don’t know where it came from. They are unexplainable. I had a loop machine, and I don’t know what I’m doing with those. We are playing one night, and that machine just came on by itself. I didn’t know how to work the things. The band starts looking at me like what are you doing? So I just started pretending like I was playing it with my foot. The band just was screaming, and the crowd just started screaming. That was an unbelievable moment. Life is 16.83% chaos. You can’t control it. You’ve got to let it happen. Most people just block it. You have to embrace it.
MFN: How do you feel about the tribute/recreation sets that are so popular now?
Col. Bruce: I’ll try to be nice. It’s like the movie industry that is just redoing things that were already done. Create something. Music is an art form. We were put here to create, not to see people do covers every night and making an industry of it. Have you seen anything good lately?
MFN: Saw the ‘Miss Sharon Jones’ movie not long ago, but that’s about it.
Col. Bruce: Sharon and I were very good friends. I knew her when she was a waitress. I’ve known her since ’88 or ’89. She would come to our gigs in New York. We always let her sit in, and she just smoked our asses. I played with her every year when I could. We would sing Bobby Bland songs together. He was her favorite artist and mine. She was a fireball. She was from Augusta, Georgia, I believe.
MFN: I’m from Georgia as well, you know. Rome, Georgia.
Col. Bruce: Rome, Georgia? Really. I did an interview with Spin Magazine in Rome, Georgia. The guy flew there from LA to Rome to do the interview. I drove up to Rome from Atlanta. The reason he did the interview was because we had won one of ‘The 5 Bands To Commit Suicide To in The 20th Century.’ It was Yoko, Neil Young, Lou Reed, somebody else very, very famous and us. So he flew in, he left and was completely confused.
MFN: What are you best at musically and what are you doing to cultivate that?
Col. Bruce: I have what you call ‘intentions.’ I never consider myself a musician. I look at this way: it starts Player, Musician, Sorcerer, and the highest level is Troubadour. I am a troubadour of the lowest ebb. To me, that is what the divisions of it are. I don’t know. I’m not good enough to be humble. I save that for Mother Theresa.
MFN: Would you rather be able to speak any language fluently or speak to animals.
Col. Bruce: Oh speak to animals. I do it all the time.
MFN: What’s the key to being child-like versus childish?
Col. Bruce: There’s nothing more disgusting than a 75-year-old man at a frat party. It’s like New Year’s Eve – it’s fake joy. Being Child-like – incredible sense of humor. It’s taking what you seriously but not yourself. Take what you do deadly serious.
HAT QUESTION: Do you have any good road stories?
Col. Bruce: Oh too many. Thousands. Millions. Let’s see. Oh, I know. We had a drummer playing with us. Played with us for like 30 years. So once back in about 1992 we had a gig in San Francisco. We saved about a grand by flying into Oakland since it’s much cheaper. So we buy everyone tickets to get there a day in advance. Day of the gig comes, and there’s no drummer. He was leaving at 7 am. He falls asleep on the plane. They land in Seattle and then they go to Oakland. He’s dead asleep. He finally shows up a day later. We couldn’t find him. Turns out he flew to Aukland! He heard on the overhead the plane was going to Auckland and thought they said Oakland, and then he lands 17 hours later.
HAT QUESTION: Anything you wish you’d done differently?
Col. Bruce: Oh god yes, everything. I mean, I hear these cats that say they have no regrets. Yes! I had 40 regrets yesterday! I didn’t let the nice lady in traffic. You know. Yeah I wish I’d done 1000 things differently. Of course.
MFN: Anyone out there you’d still really like to work with?
Col. Bruce: One of my goals in life was to work with Fred Willard. And I did. That was like a dream come true. He’s been in 311 movies. He’s a pro’s pro. He’s amazing. He’s so good he makes everyone else around him good. I turn down about 10 roles a year. Not that I’m in great demand, but I really want to know the director and know the role. I love acting, but only at about five minutes at a time. I don’t want to work that hard, man! I’m old. Those 18-hour days for a month about kill me. I’ve done two leads. I played Hemingway in a movie called Djembe Man, and I nailed him, and it’s the best performance I’ve ever given, and I hated him so much. It brought out so much emotion.
Musician-wise I got to tour with Hubert Sumlin for a week. That was like being with the Pope.
MFN: Do you have any secret shame music loves? That stuff you don’t want your friends to know you listen to?
Col. Bruce: I like it all, man. As long as it’s pure. Even if it’s not pure I might like a melody line. I like “My Favorite Things” by Rogers and Hart. “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” It’s the only tune that starts with an octave! I think every tune has to include “Mama’s Little Baby Loves Shortnin’ Bread.” You gotta have that emotional chord.
MFN: Anyone ever give you any life-changing advice?
Col. Bruce: Oh yeah, all the time. Quite a bit. When I was 16, all the older folks said you can’t do this music thing and make a living. They were probably right. All it did though was made me want to do it more. I hate advice. I don’t give advice. I’ll give emotional support, not advice.
MFN: I have to admit, that’s all I’ve got for questions. Most people don’t hang in this long, so I’ve never run out before.
Col. Bruce: This was fun. Fascinating. This was a lot of fun, man. I’m having a good time.
MFN: Thank you very, very much. It’s been a privilege to get to speak with you, and I appreciate your time.