By: Michael Wright
In November 2009, Joe Bonamassa attended at a Guitar Center event in Los Angeles. He performed with his friend Glenn Hughes, who had etched his own place in hard rock history with the likes of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. Producer Kevin Shirley was also in attendance, and it was Shirley who suggested that Bonamassa and Hughes form an all-star band. The duo were game and enlisted former Dream Theater keyboardist Derek Sherinian and Led Zeppelin drum scion Jason Bonham to create the supergroup Black Country Communion. BCC released their first album, Black Country, last September to rave reviews. Commitments to other projects kept the group from extensive touring, but that will be remedied this June when Black Country Communion take to the road on a world tour in support of their upcoming sophomore album, 2(set for release June 14).
We sat down with Bonamassa – whose Gibson USA Joe Bonamassa Les Paul hits stores in a few weeks – to discuss the band, the album and the joy of taking the music to the masses.
Moving on to the big Black Country Communion CD, the last time around, I think you had only a week or so of prep time before you guys started recording. Did you have more time with this one or was it also…
We had a lot more prep time. Glenn [Hughes] did a lot of writing on this record. He did a lot of greatwriting, actually, and he was really instrumental in putting this one together. So he did a lot of work while I was on tour. I wrote a couple songs myself for it. But the thing about this band is when you get in a room with everybody… you can’t get married to your ideas, because everybody interprets them in a different way. And it comes out sounding like Black Country Communion, you know, not anything else. And that’s the way I prefer it, you know? I totally prefer it that way.
What does this band do for you creatively that maybe you don’t get from your solo work?
It allows me to be more unapologetically hard rock, to really explore my roots in British hard rock. Where sometimes I do that in my solo band and it’s a bit out of place, you know, and people start giving you that weird look. But with this band, we don’t have to apologize for it; this is just who we are and, you know, it sounds like 1974. But it’s a bunch of guys making new material. We’re kind of like… You know, people go, “It’s classic rock.” Exactly. But not many people refer to “classic rock” as an actual genre of music. They think that classic rock was just music that was made in the ’60s and ’70s. Well for me, it’s an actual genre. And it’s really important to look at it from that point of view.
As a group with an album and a few shows under your belts, do you feel like there’s more of that telepathy that bands acquire over time?
Jason [Bonham] and I have had that pretty much straightaway, and I think Glenn [does], as well. And Derek [Sherinian]. We’ve always had this kind of connection. Something special happens when the four of us – I should say the five of us – get into a room. I have to include [producer] Kevin Shirley in that conversation, as well, because he really is like a member of the band. You know, there’s something really [special that] happens when all five of us get in a studio and we start playing. You know, when we did the live gigs in the U.K., Kevin Shirley came out and helped the band work itself out and come up with a live show, which was killer. So it’s a really interesting group of cats, I’ll tell you that.
The album has several great driving tracks. But when you have those kinds of songs, how important is it to switch gears now and then, as you do on tracks like “The Battle for Hadrian’s Wall” or “Cold”? How important is it to have those different textures on a hard rock album?
I think it’s critical. When Glenn and I sat down to talk about the album, he was like, “Well, I’ve got a bunch of stuff I’ve been working on.” And I was like, “Great.” And he goes, “Well, how many songs do you want to write?” And I go, “Well, listen, I’m on the road. I just did a record, you know?” But I go, “I can truthfully, with great confidence, say I can come up with two good ones.” So, I started thinking about it and I said, “You know, we don’t have an acoustic track.” So I just started writing these riffs. And I wrote the riff to “Hadrian’s Wall” – and I kind of backed myself into a corner vocally on it, because it’s really high for me. But I sat here for, like, four hours and taught myself how to sing it and got around it. And I think, honestly, to me it’s one of the most interesting songs I’ve ever written. And I’m very proud of it.
Lyrically, it’s a very interesting song. Not the sort of thing you get from most hard rock bands.
With “Hadrian’s Wall,” I wanted it to be like… that very British title, you know? Almost like a song that Iron Maiden would write. You know, with old wars and stuff.
You know, I didn’t want to say it, because I didn’t know if you were into that stuff, but it reminded me of songs like “Alexander the Great”…
Yeah. And I love Maiden. I think they’re one of the most popular underrated bands in the world. I say that meaning that, not many times is a band like that mentioned in the same sentence as a Zeppelin or Metallica or something like that, but then all of a sudden 60,000 people show up for the gig. [Laughs] So they’re doing something right, you know? So to me, they’re really good. And I wanted to do something like that, because it’s so unapologetically British, you know? Not like I’m trying to take the piss, but just… We’re like this British hard rock band, we may as well have a song about something British.
Speaking of that British feel, the song “Save Me” sounded, to me, like it had a very early Rainbow feel to it. Are you a big Ritchie Blackmore guy?
Yeah. When I listen to that song it sounds almost like Zeppelin and Deep Purple, you know? I thought Glenn sang it great and, to me, that song in particular, it just kind of transports you to a different time and place. You just go, “Man, I’ve kind of heard this before” – but you haven’t. But I’m pretty happy [with it]. That whole song was Jason’s idea and we kind of wrote the song around it. You know, he had a beat and this kind of feel and these kind of Arabic-sounding bits. And we all sat around, collaborated and Glenn wrote the lyrics. I think he wrote a great lyric.
You play a pretty sick solo on that one, too. Did you plot that one out or just sort of let it rip?
None of this stuff was really plotted out. We do three or four takes of these songs and when Kevin does the solo – ’cause it’s all cut to a grid, you know, cut to a click track – so you can take a solo from a different take, even though you’re using the drums from another. So I think that was, like, the second take that we did of the song, where I really kind of nailed the solo and he marked it down and then he used it. And all it really was was the two Marshall amps – the Jubilee and the Super Bass – a MXR flanger, and my adopted Les Paul for this band is a 1999 Gary Rossington model. I love it. And it sounds great for this band.
And is that a theremin you bust out in “Smokestack Woman”?
[Laughs] Yeah, it is a theremin.
I’ve been using a theremin for three or four years. We did the song, “The Ballad of John Henry,” and used a theremin on that. It’s been really great. And people look at it like it’s something new that I’ve come up with. And I go, “Dude, that’s been around for, like, a hundred years.”
Which track, by the way, on this album is going to be the lead single? Do you know yet?
I don’t even think we release singles. I think we just kind of capitulate that radio wouldn’t give us the time of day. [Laughs] I would probably say “The Outsider,” but again radio and me are kind of like the Hatfields and the McCoys.
Well, “The Outsider” is a pretty good choice. That’s a killer track.
I know you’ve announced eight shows in the States. Is there more to follow or is that pretty much it?
Well, we’re going to Europe. We’re probably going to do 35 shows total this year with that band. We’re really excited about it because, again, we’ve only done a handful of shows and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun getting on the bus with everybody and going out there and seeing what happens.
And when will you be returning to your own band? You’ve still got your own album, Dust Bowl – which you put out pretty recently – to support.
I return to my own band as soon as this Sunday [note: this interview took place in mid-April. – ed.]. We fly to Norway and we do five weeks, between Europe and Australia and Singapore and Hong Kong. It’s a pretty tough tour and then I fly to London. I’m playing with Jack Bruce at the Royal Festival Hall, part of his celebration of the British blues thing. And I get to play with Jack Bruce, which is cool, and then I go back to L.A. – which is where I’m at now – and I go straight into rehearsals for Black Country 2 and do that the whole summer. Come off the tour in August and kind of recharge the gears and get ready for the end of September when we do the whole fall again with my solo band. It’s a busy year.
Do you ever get tired or does it still energize you to go out on the road?
Oh, I love it. I’m really blessed to be able to do this for a living. You know, there are a lot of great guitar players out there and a lot of people right now who are struggling to work, you know? Especially in the music business. So I just feel like what’s happening now has been a real blessing for me. And I’m happy to go work out there until they tell me to go home. [Laughs]