Tell us about the Gary Rossington Les Paul you’ve been using lately.
“I bought that guitar when it wasn’t even fashionable to do so. I got it at the Guitar Center in LA in 2004 for something like $2000, and now these guitars are worth over $7000. It’s a great guitar for BCC because it’s got a really rich mid-range sound and it’s very aggressive. You can really manhandle it. It doesn’t work so much for my solo stuff, but for BCC, it’s basically my main guitar. It’s got that right amount of meaty tone.”
And then you’ve also been playing a Steve Morse Music Man…
“That’s right. I have a stock Steve Morse model, the Y2K. It’s got three pickups, not four, and it doesn’t have all the switches. But the nice folks at Music Man made me a couple of models, one in black and another in like this Daphne Blue color. They’re really terrific. The headstocks are reversed. In America I use a black one, and in Europe I use the blue one. But it’s more of a recording guitar, really. It’s kind of Jimmy Page-ish, the way he’d use certain Telecasters on albums.”
OK, let’s get into the record a bit. Last time out, you guys had something like five days to make the whole thing. This time out, you had, what, five-and-a-half days? What a luxury!
[laughs] “Yeah, tell me about it! It was something like two weeks when all was said and done, and I’ll tell you, by the time we were finished, we were having a real goof! [laughs] We were having a blast.
“The first record was very intense, but this time there was more of a structure and a plot to everything. We did it at East West Studios – the Chili Peppers were right next door working on their new record – and it was cool. We definitely felt like more of a band instead of a project that Kevin threw together.
“It was really collaborative, as well. Jason brought in a song called Save Me, from the time that he was working with what was going to be Led Zeppelin, right after their O2 Arena gig, and that turned out great.”
Kevin said in an interview that he wanted to explore more of the ‘Bonham sound’ on this record. How did he go about this?
“Well, I can’t answer that per se because I’m not an engineer. The thing people forget about Kevin Shirley a lot of the time is that he’s not only a great producer, he’s also a world-class engineer. He really knows how to get a sound.
“Jason Bonham came in with his kit, and you know, we’re talkin’ about a guy who can play When The Levee Breaks and make it sound like Led Zeppelin. He’s got it in his genes. He’s one of the few people on earth who can do that. But how do you capture that? Kevin did. A lot of the other producers and engineers in the studio started sniffing around, like, ‘Hey, how did you do that?’ It was pretty funny.”
There’s some great rockin’ tracks on the record, but you do take some left turns with songs like The Battle For Hadrian’s Wall.
“Yeah, that was my song. I wrote that one. For some reason, I wrote it at the top of my vocal range. I wrote it in the key of A, but I said, ‘The hell with it, I’m gonna do it.’ So I went for it. Whether I’m going to be able to sing it live remains to be seen. I’ll need a lot of glasses of water and some oxygen.” [laughs]
Your solo in Man In The Middle has more than a hint of Jimmy Page to it. Does that just happen when one plays with a Bonham?
“There’s a lot of Jimmy Page all over the album, really. That just happens when you play this kind of material. I solo live in the studio, total improvisation. I don’t sit in the control room and comp solos bit by bit. I play everything live. So if we’re talking about something Zeppelin-y before we cut a song, it’s going to come out that way.”
There’s also a classic British rock vibe on many parts of the album – the Hammond organ and the way you double the parts on the guitar, some of which sound very Ritchie Blackmore-ish. Intentional?
“Sure. On The Outsider, we definitely went for Highway Star in some places, much to Glenn Hughes’ chagrin. I’d say we were unapologetically British rock on a good portion of the record, if not the entire record. Nothing wrong with that, in my opinion. British rock from the late ’60s and early ’70s was some of the best stuff around, so if we cribbed from that, well, there’s worse things you can do.
“Look, we’re not trying to make anybody’s cool list. We’re not trying to be the next Arctic Monkeys or anything like that. We went into the studio to make a modern rock record with a classic rock sound. That’s always been the rallying call in BCC.
“Take a song like Save Me… that took me back to my childhood in such a cool way. It’s so retro. There’s nothing wrong with using a retro sound. That’s like telling a filmmaker that he can’t be influenced by Citizen Kane or something like that. Why would you do that? As long as you’re honest about what you’re doing and you acknowledge your influences and intent, that’s cool. We’d never try to pass this stuff off as our own invention. In fact, the whole album is one giant homage.”
Crossfire is a cool blues track. When you guys sit around, what blues artists do you talk about and reference? Are you the go-to blues guy for the other band members?
“I don’t know if I’m the ‘go-to’ blues guy. I know why you’d say that, but everybody in the band has a pretty strong blues background. You know who we talk about? The entire band – or at least Glenn, Jason and I – really bond over Free. Free is a huge group with us. Then there’s Zeppelin, of course. But most of the time, we take a Free approach to the music. If I can channel Paul Kossoff in my playing, I’m a happy guy.”
Speaking of Zeppelin, we love Smokestack Woman. You play a theremin on the track. Now, you’ve played one before [on the song The Ballad Of John Henry] but tell us, do you have any specific approach to it?
“What’s weird is, the song itself isn’t Zeppelin; it’s more like Humble Pie. Right there, you might not think ‘theremin.’ I don’t know… It’s a very creative instrument. It certainly adds a lot to a live show, but in the studio, you have to treat it as a tension-and-release thing. It’s like bending a note. You can take it wide if you want, but you have to keep it musical. If you’re just going to get stupid with it, then you’re just being silly; you’re not really playing music.”
Sporting a 2008 JB Les Paul signature model, Bonamassa rocks a theremin. © Christie Goodwin
Overall, what did you come away with from this second recording experience with BCC that you didn’t the first time?
“Well, like I was saying before, I think we came away from making this record knowing that we’re a real band. We felt that way on the first album, but with the second record, which we recorded very soon after the first, that point was really driven home. It wasn’t about ‘OK, have your people call my people’; it was more like, ‘All right, here we are in a room, let’s jam!’
“We weren’t trying to be a supergroup. We really wanted to be a band, as trite and corny as that sounds. We wanted to take an old sound and make something new out of it. Thankfully, the first album was pretty well received, so we felt good going in to make the new one. I think we definitely kicked things up several notches this time. Now we’re not trying to be a band; we are one.”
What kinds of things have you learned from the other guys? In turn, what do you think you’ve taught them?
“That’s a good question. I learn so much about singing from working with Glenn Hughes. When you have to go up against a guy like that, c’mon, you’re either gonna stand there or you’re gonna fall. The guy is one of the greatest rock vocalists out there. If you can hit some notes with him and not look ridiculous, then you can live again to fight another day.
“From Jason, I’ve learned so much about the space in music. He has an approach to the kick and the snare, you could drive a truck through what he does. It’s a feel, it’s a dynamic, it’s a style. It’s something that is so magical, I’m just glad to be a part of it.
“From Derek, I’ve learned things about music that I can’t even put into words. Modes and things – I never know what mode I’m in, but Derek knows all of that, and somehow it creeps into the music I play with him. That’s the cool thing about musical osmosis that happens when you play with somebody far beyond your level. They make you better than you are, or they make you realize that you’re better than you thought you were.
“What have I taught them? [laughs] That’s a hot one! Uh… probably not much. I’m just the lucky guy who gets to tag along, really.”