Chills in the Hot Seat:
An Interview with Bruce Hornsby, 1993
by Steve Silberman
This interview took place on October 14, 1993. It first appeared in Dupree's Diamond News, issue #29, Fall, 1994.
Steve Silberman: I heard you guys played Miles Davis' "So What" in L.A. the other night.
Bruce Hornsby: Yeah. We played Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas" two nights ago in Denver, out of "Scarlet Begonias." We take requests. It's not bullshit. Somebody passed us this piece of paper, and it looked like it said "St. Thomas" so I yelled, "You guys know 'St. Thomas'?" And I realized later that what I thought was a request for "St. Thomas" was a note for my keyboard player J.T. Thomas. I was glad I misread it.
Steve Silberman: "St. Thomas" is similar to the little mambo that the Dead finish "Scarlet Begonias" with.
Bruce Hornsby: Exactly. That's why I saw it and thought, "This would go perfectly in here." My band is really versatile now. We can go so many different places.
Steve Silberman: You strike such various emotional chords, from meditative and reflective songs like "The Tide Will Rise," to "Iko Iko."
Bruce Hornsby: From my solo stuff, to party time. Which is like the Dead. Not that what we're doing is like the Dead, but we cover a lot of ground.
Steve Silberman: How old were you when you first heard about the Dead?
Bruce Hornsby: Sixteen. My older brother Bobby was a big Deadhead. He was in a fraternity at the University of Virginia filled with Deadheads -- the Betas --and these guys used to roll to Atlanta or Boston, to go to shows. He took me to my first show at the Capitol Center in '73.
Steve Silberman: Did you like their music right away?
Bruce Hornsby: I don't remember being knocked out with the first Dead show I went to. That year I went to see Leon Russell, and that blew me away a lot more. Or Elton John, or Horace Silver at the Jazz Workshop in Boston. This was '73, my senior year. Those made more of an impression on me than the Dead did.
Steve Silberman: Did you like your brother's Deadhead friends?
Bruce Hornsby: [laughing] Yeah! They were wild as hell. I was a jock, but I was starting to get more into music. My first year of college, my brother started a band, and asked me to play in it. It was basically a Dead cover band, called Bobby Hi-Test and the Octane Kids. That's when I really started getting into them. Europe '72 was out, and I loved that record.
What really sold me was they came and played William and Mary College in Williamsburg, and it was a great gig. We were right up close, second row, and at the end of the night, Bob Weir comes up to the microphone and says, "We had such a great time tonight, we're gonna come back and play tomorrow night -- for free!" They took out all the chairs and made it into a big party. When you're 19 years old, and some sonofabitch says that, you're sold. "Man, these guys are for me!" But I never listened to only the Dead. I was too into jazz.
I was heavily into Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, and Chick Corea. Chick had his first fusion band then, Return to Forever, with Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, which was quite a raw-ass rock record, very intense -- not like what they call fusion now. McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, along with Leon, Professor Longhair and Otis Spann. And I was heavily into the Band. That year, '74, I saw Dylan and the Band, and I loved that. The songs really reached me on a gut level. Rock of Ages was my favorite record.
Steve Silberman: With those great Allen Toussaint horn arrangements.
Bruce Hornsby: Exactly.
Steve Silberman: I interviewed Robert Hunter last year, and he said that the first two Band albums had a huge effect on him, and that he wrote a lot of the songs on American Beauty and Workingman's Dead after hearing Robbie's stuff.
Bruce Hornsby: And probably Europe' 72, like "Jack Straw." That Western mythology scenario. The Dead do "The Weight" and lots of Dylan songs, there's definitely a kindred spirit there. Robbie and Dylan are definitely big influences of mine as a songwriter. I've always been more into telling stories, rather than being a personal type of writer like a Joni Mitchell or a Jackson Browne.
The Octane Kids didn't last long. All the guys were graduating. We played mostly in the spring of '74, fraternity parties, grain alcohol parties. We did a little Allman Brothers, a little Band, and the rest Dead. I played Fender Rhodes, and sang a lot of leads. We used to do "Jack Straw" and "Sugar Magnolia" and "Truckin',", lots of Europe and Skull and Roses. "Not Fade Away," "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad," "Me and My Uncle" and "Bertha."
Steve Silberman: Was that your first band?
Bruce Hornsby: No, I had a band before that that played a lot around Williamsburg and Newport News. We played in bars, hotel lounges; basically a top-40 band. That was more of a band to make money. The Octane Kids was a big fun band. It was more about going out to this country house that my brother lived in with all these hippies and sitting around playing. I would see the Dead periodically through the rest of the '70s.
Steve Silberman: With Keith Godchaux.
Bruce Hornsby: Exclusively with Keith. The last Dead show I saw was '77, in Philadelphia. I remember it because they really weren't happening. It was one of those shows where I was like, "Oh, man! I'm sorry!" They just weren't firing on all cylinders, on that particular night at the Tower Theater in Philly. The reason I remember so well is because I had hyped them to a friend of mine -- "Man, you gotta hear these guys, they're bad!" We drove all the way up to Philly to see the show, and this friend was looking at me like, "Why'd you drive me all the way up here for this?" That's why I remember it --'cause I caught so much shit. [laughing]
But I still retained an interest, though I was heavily immersed in jazz. In 1986, our first record came out, and it went a long way very quickly. We had to become headliners with one album and nine songs. So we started playing other people's songs. We were doing "When I Paint My Masterpiece" the way the Band did it, and "I Know You Rider " the way the Dead did it. We would segue from our song "Red Plains" into "I Know You Rider." The Dead heard that there was this band riding around the country playing Dead songs, and Garcia and Phil became fans of the record. So we got a call saying they wanted us to open a couple of shows. I was just mad for this. So in May of '87, it was Ry Cooder, us, and the Dead at Laguna Seca for two days.
Steve Silberman: Beautiful venue.
Bruce Hornsby: It was a great time for me, of course, because I had been a fan. The next year, they asked us to open for them again. We played with them at Buckeye Lake, and the Rainforest Benefit at Madison Square Garden with Susanne Vega. Then in '89 we played RFK, and also at JFK, and the last shows in Philadelphia. At some of these shows they started asking me to sit in. The first time was in '88 at Buckeye Lake playing accordion, and then the next year I played a little piano with Brent. When we were cutting our third record, I asked Garcia to play on "Across the River." I sat in with them in December , a couple of nights after Garcia played with us. Then Jerry came down and did a concert video with us called A Night on the Town, with Bela Fleck and Joe Henderson. It was this growing relationship that culminated, sadly, in the death of Brent, and them asking me to help them through a difficult time.
Steve Silberman: Did you get to know Brent?
Bruce Hornsby: Just a little. I mostly knew Jerry and Bobby and Phil and Billy. All of them were always very friendly, but Brent was a little more shy than the other guys.
I connected with Phil talking about Charles Ives. I remember the first time we opened for the Dead, Phil was watching us on the side of the stage, and I went into a bitonal version of "The Entertainer" by Scott Joplin, C in one hand, and C-sharp in the other. Phil got a big laugh out of it. Garcia and I really connected, and still do.
Steve Silberman: What is it that you guys share so deeply?
Bruce Hornsby: We really enjoy playing together. Jerry's a walking encyclopedia of folk music, so I've always loved getting into conversations and learning from him. That's what I've always thought was the kindred musical spirit between my thing and the Dead's thing, that the two most influential musics for me are folk music and jazz. The Dead have always been influenced by folk music, and the improvisatory nature of the Dead is of a kindred spirit with jazz. The way the drummers play is much more a jazz concept of drumming, rather than a rock concept of laying it down simple and hard -- floating time.
That tour of Europe in '90 was fun, since it wasn't in airplanes. It was great, being able to spend all that time on the bus with Jerry. I was helping Leon Russell make a record, an old song called "Jezebel," and Garcia knew the origin of that, so he brought out this record by the Golden Gate Quartet and played it for me.
Steve Silberman: Did the Dead give you much direction for the music you were playing with them?
Bruce Hornsby: Not really. Every now and then somebody would say, "You're playing the wrong chord here." You've got to realize, I came in with no rehearsal, and was just winging it. I had a few charts, but generally I would just be listening and hearing the chords, using my ears. I was left pretty much alone. When I played with the Dead, I used to lay out a lot. The reason for that was there were so many chord players there, that I often felt it was busy enough, thick enough, and the most musical thing I could do was to lay out, because anything I could play would be too much.
Steve Silberman: I think some of the most beautiful music the Dead made in '90 was a jam you played out of "space" and into "Dark Star" at Wembley.
Bruce Hornsby: That's on Infrared Roses. Garcia asked me to do that during the set break, "Hey, why don't you play variations on the theme of 'Dark Star'?" So that's what I did. There was not a lot spoken to me on that level. It was pretty much, "Just play." Which was great.
Steve Silberman: How was it hearing the Dead orchestrate "Stander on the Mountain" and "Valley Road"?
Bruce Hornsby: Well, those things never got too far. The first time we played "Valley Road," I thought it was really smoking, but gradually people would just forget where the song was going, and it got to the point where I felt we had to rehearse more if we wanted to play it, so I called a halt to it. Which they were fine with, too, because they felt the same way .
It just never came up again. Same with "Stander on the Mountain." I thought it really had potential. I thought "Valley Road" could have really developed into something. The first couple times they played it, I thought it really rocked. I was never about pushing my music on them. That's not why I was there. I have my outlet for my music. I was there to try to enhance their trip -- I love their songs, and that was enough for me. They'd say, "Let's work up a couple of your tunes," and I'd say, "Let's do it," and we'd play them a few times. But if it wasn't happening, or it fell by the wayside, I would never bring it up again. I was there to help them out, not to make the Dead a forum for my music. We get lots of requests for "Stander on the Mountain" at our shows, probably from Deadheads in the crowd. We get a good number of Deadheads at our shows.
Steve Silberman: How has that been, going from having fans who came to you through your own music, to having people yelling "Jack Straw!"
Bruce Hornsby: About two years ago we were doing a tour, and I came back from it and told Jerry, "Now at every show we have this large number of people screaming for Dead tunes." And he said, "Sorry, man, you've got the curse. They'll never leave." We were laughing. I love that element at our shows because we like our shows to be very festive occasions. I like the dynamic range to get real small sometimes, real soft, but we like it to get off, too. So we love it when the Deadhead crowd comes to our show, because it makes for a more boisterous show. I've always thought that a Dead show was the best party you could go to, so I'm all for it, I'm mad for it.
Steve Silberman: Your own shows, and Harbor Lights, seem more improvisational than your previous albums.
Bruce Hornsby: That's right.
Steve Silberman: Do you feel your time with the Dead pushed you in that direction?
Bruce Hornsby: I'm sure. It couldn't have helped but influence it. But I think, frankly, that the main reason why Harbor Lights is looser and freer than the other records is the fact that I was the producer. If you saw our band live before, touring on the older records, which were much straighter, we were always more spontaneous and improvisatory live than on the records. But in the studio we always had some guy saying "You're jamming too much" or "This song's getting too long," or "We need to tighten this up." So we would succumb to that. This time, with no authority figure in the studio telling us what we could or couldn't do, it was just about a bunch of guys getting wild. I think that has more to do with it than the Dead influence.
Steve Silberman: Speaking of getting wild, how did you feel about playing "Space" with the Dead?
Bruce Hornsby: "Space" to me was a situation where sometimes it was really amazing, and lots of times, was not. It was a real hit-or-miss proposition. I think the Dead would say the same thing. Sometimes "Space" would get into some great things, other times I'd be sitting there, "I don't really see where this is going..." I'm all for the "Space" concept, but totally improvised music is a hard thing to make work. I know a lot of players in the jazz world who play freely, and a lot of them tell me, "More times than not we're up there scuffling to find something to play together." This was no different. If there's no structure, it makes it much harder for the music to be coherent and have meaning.
Steve Silberman: You're such a precise player, it would seem to me that it would be easier to get out there with a precise structure to play against or around, rather than no structure.
Bruce Hornsby: I'm all for playing freely, but I've been in too many instances where I've thought that the level of listening was not up to the demands that are required for this sort of playing to really be meaningful. Sometimes I felt that there were real conversations going on between people, and other times I didn't.
Steve Silberman: Garcia mentioned in an interview that he had an idea of getting a really free band together with you and Branford and maybe a vocalist .
Bruce Hornsby: I was all for it. I don't know if that'll ever happen, but Garcia still mentions it every now and then. My understanding of it was, we'd get up there and compose songs on the spot -- vocals, chords, everything. So it would be an attempt to find structure instantly, to compose songs collectively, instantaneously. I've never heard of that, so I thought it was a great idea. I'd love to try it. Probably most of it would be the worst shit you'd heard that month, but maybe now and then we'd hit on something and it would become amazing.
Steve Silberman: Did you ever consider joining the Dead fulltime?
Bruce Hornsby: No. There were a lot of people who thought that I would. There are some guys in the band who might have wanted me to do that. I didn't think I would play with the Dead for as long as I did. If this situation had arisen in '83 or '84 rather than 1990, when I had already sold about 5 or 6 million records on my own... I already had a pretty good head of steam going on my own. I really enjoy doing what I do because I've created an area which allows me to express myself completely. With the Dead, the context only allows me to express a certain part of my musical personality.
Take seeing me play at any Dead show, and take the show you saw the other night: it's so obvious! I come away from a show like that feeling like I was able to do everything I wanted to do, am able to do, and really connect too. That's the best feeling you can have. Because of that, I don't think I ever really considered playing in the band fulltime. Though I enjoyed doing it so much, there was a time I thought, "I wonder if I could do both of these things."
There were several reasons why I left. One big reason was that my wife and I had twin boys, and I didn't want to be the absentee father. Not only was I doing the Dead, but the "gun for hire" area of my career was really overflowing at this point. I was playing on lots of records for other people. Robbie Robertson's record, and Bonnie Raitt's, and Dylan, and Seeger, Shawn Colvin, and the Cowboy Junkies, and Liquid Jesus -- lots and lots of records.
Something had to give. I started saying no to almost all session requests at that time. I hardly play on any other records now, just for really good friends, like Bela Fleck and Rob Wasserman. And Garcia's talked to me about playing on their studio record. Special things.
Another reason for my leaving the Dead was that I felt a need to get back to a stronger focus on my own music. I enjoyed losing it for a while, but after a while, I wanted to get back to it. Another big reason was that I felt Vince was gaining a lot of confidence, and they were gaining confidence in him. That hadn't always been the case. I felt they were really becoming a band, and it was time for them to be a band without, as Garcia called me, "the floating member." I feel that I helped serve as a bridge between Brent's death and the time Vince got comfortable with the band and the band got comfortable with Vince. I was the transitional guy. That's why I left.
Steve Silberman: What's great about listening to the tapes with both you and Branford is that both of you can feed Garcia lines.
Bruce Hornsby: There was much more of a conversational aspect between the two of us, and I don't think that's there now. But that wasn't there before or after me, I don't think. I don't think it was really there with Brent.
Steve Silberman: It was on the best nights, but I know what you mean.
Bruce Hornsby: Brent was a more retiring, shy cat. I'm not that way at all. When I show up on anybody's gig, I'm going to try to kick their ass. That's my nature -- I'm a real jock at heart. Garcia always responded to that, and I think that's why he likes playing with me. I think it's much better now when I just show up, even though I just play accordion. It's more special for me, and it's more special for them. We had a great run at the Garden when I first started.
Steve Silberman: A lot of Deadheads think that that was one of the greatest runs they ever had.
Bruce Hornsby: Sparks were flying! But these guys get complacent. We were trying shit, and they were all excited, and here's Bruce coming in, let's do some duos and trios, and we'd break the group down to Phil and me and Garcia, or just Bobby and me and Garcia, or whatever -- different little side trips that they weren't doing before, or since. Then they forget, and go back their same rut. I got frustrated with this. I was like, "Hey, why don't we try something different -- why don't we start the show with 'Space'?"
Steve Silberman: Were they not open to that? That's something I say myself...
Bruce Hornsby: Vince says it too. But they get stuck in their ways.
Steve Silberman: Would you literally say, "Hey, guys, why don't we start the show with 'Space'?"
Bruce Hornsby: Yeah.
Steve Silberman: What would they do?
Bruce Hornsby: They would just, "Ah, well, I don't know." [laughing]
Steve Silberman: Did you ever suggest jazz standards for them to play?
Bruce Hornsby: No, I didn't do a whole lot of suggesting on that level, but I would say, "Hey, why don't we mix it up a little bit?"
Steve Silberman: I hear you were into doing "Tangled Up in Blue" with them.
Bruce Hornsby: No, I never said that [chuckles]. The Dead rumor mill is hilarious! I mean, I would do it, I love that song. But I don't remember ever suggesting it. I think they do enough Dylan as it is.
Steve Silberman: What are the qualities of Garcia's playing that you really admire?
Bruce Hornsby: His fluidity. He's a very soulful player, and he makes great use of the chromatic scale in a very diatonic context. I know that sounds highbrow and shit.
Steve Silberman: Go for it.
Bruce Hornsby: Garcia's a great practitioner of what I'd call "rock and roll chromaticism." He's a very melodic player; a guy whose solos you can sing. In the end, it just moves me. His playing really moves me, it just gets me emotionally.
The Dead has like 50 or 60 truly great songs. Garcia's songs, I like so many of them, but some of my favorite songs are Bobby's songs, like "Jack Straw." I could list "Althea" and hell, "West L.A. Fadeaway." I'm listing some of the more obscure ones, but obviously there are so many. I love"Scarlet Begonias." It's really fun to play. I love "Terrapin"- sometimes I throw that little melody from the middle of it into my show. "Sugaree" I've always liked.
Steve Silberman: Do you remember any moments of playing with the Dead that you think of as really transcendent moments?
Bruce Hornsby: There were lots of them. There were times playing with the Dead that I would get chills. Much more than I got with my band, the Range. There was one night at the Garden. To me it wasn't a very good Garden run, 9 nights in '91, but one Saturday night it was just smoking. It was another situation where I had dragged a friend up from Williamsburg who knew nothing about the Dead. He was probably about the only black guy in the whole coliseum [laughing]. As opposed to the '77 show, where it was not happening, this was a truly killer Dead show. I was getting chills all night. This friend of mine just freaked -- he thought it was the baddest jam. That's a night I remember specifically.
Certainly that first Garden run. There were a couple of really great moments in Boston Garden in '91. One of those nights I decided just to take off with the drummers and play a kind of rock and roll barrellhouse thing with Mickey and Billy, just the three of us. That was great fun. I jammed with them last March at the Capitol Center --I played the second set with them, on accordion. Man, that was a great night. Playing "Wharf Rat," getting chills. "Wharf Rat" is one of my true favorite songs.
Steve Silberman: It's got narratives within narratives. At one level the narrator is the guy talking, but he's talking to the real narrator of the song.
Bruce Hornsby: This particular night at Cap Center, "Wharf Rat" and lots of things were truly great, and I was just sitting up there next to Jerry, getting off. There were lots of times; those are just a few. The first time they brought back "Casey Jones" -- that was a great time.
I feel like I'm a cousin of the Dead. It's the best crowd that goes to hear concerts, though I think sometimes they get excited for the wrong reasons [laughing]. Sometimes I find it inexplicable why they're cheering.
Steve Silberman: They might be cheering for a lyric that they like.
Bruce Hornsby: I know that, and those are very predictable. It's almost a ritual, you know --[sings] "Some other fucker's crime," for instance. Those little areas, "OK, I'll stand up and scream right now." [Laughs] I'm not saying that cynically, I think it's great. I was privileged to be part of that party for about a year and a half, and hope to always be able to go back and get a little bit of that buzz now and then. There's really nothing quite like it, and I'm very much into that.
When I first started playing with the Dead, I got the feeling that there were some people in the crowd going, "What is this fucking top-40 guy up here doing playing with these guys?" They would send me DeadBase, and they'd have people reviewing the concerts. I remember some guy in particular saying -- it was a nice article, actually -- "I learned a lesson in prejudice today, concerning Bruce Hornsby." Because I'd had a bunch of hits, this guy thought that I was going to inflict some dreaded top-40 disease on the Dead. But he realized that that was bullshit.
Steve Silberman: I didn't know your music until I heard you playing with them. I mean, I knew that you had your own songs.
Bruce Hornsby: You didn't know "The Way It Is"? You must have known that.
Steve Silberman: I had heard it on the radio, but to be honest, I hadn't gone out and bought a record. So I didn't really have a prejudice. I liked "The Way It Is," but I didn't have a big prejudice either way. But the point you're making expresses a kind of frustration that probably a lot of musicians have if they make it. You're obviously a creative, knowledgeable guy, yet because you were so successful early on, some people would box you in. There is a kind of prejudice among some Deadheads against anything that smells like corporate culture.
Bruce Hornsby: That's probably true. I only sensed that because I had read this thing that this guy had written. I thought, "Oh, I imagine there were several people who probably thought this."
Steve Silberman: I had never seen you on your own before Concord.
Bruce Hornsby: Oh. We probably fucked you up, then [laughing].
Steve Silberman: In a bad way! When you started playing "Scarlet," I was like, "OK -- this better be good." It was so good! And then somewhere during "Not Fade Away" into "Iko Iko" my friend Hewitt said, "We have got to get out of these seats, run up that hill, and dance!" So we did. Now there are people who are seeing a few shows of yours in a row, doing little tours.
Bruce Hornsby: I've sensed that. When we take requests, we'll get somebody saying, "Play this like you played it the other night" -- 500 miles away! We let anybody tape the shows, you know. At Concord we had about 20 tapers.
Steve Silberman: There's this really big misconception, which the Dead have utterly disproved, that if people tape shows or trade tapes that they won't buy albums; it's quite the opposite.
Bruce Hornsby: We're totally with it. That's why we've set up a taper's area.
Steve Silberman: Once people hear, you know, "So What," they're gonna freak out. Or "Scarlet" into "St. Thomas." I can't wait to get a tape of that myself!
Bruce Hornsby: That's one thing that I always wished the Dead would have done more. They never do shit like that. They're so by the book. That was one thing that frustrated me. Our gig is more wide open. We did "So What" because somebody requested it. I saw the paper, I held it up, and I said, "Watch out!" [Sings opening notes to "So What"] And they were all right into it with me.
Steve Silberman: Do you know Garcia tried to get the Dead to play "So What" once?
Bruce Hornsby: I know he knows it.
Steve Silberman: Right. I think Bobby and Phil went along for a little bit, but then it dissipated.
Bruce Hornsby: That's too bad -- the Dead's fans would love shit like that!
Steve Silberman: Totally!
Bruce Hornsby: They live for that! Hell, they'll take a resurrection of "New, New Minglewood Blues." What was that song that we pulled out for a little while and then it went away -- off one of Garcia's solo albums? I really liked the song.
Steve Silberman: "Reuben and Cherise."
Bruce Hornsby: It was great! But then it went away again. I wish they would do more of that, and that's one reason I like playing with my band more! We do that. [Laughs]
Steve Silberman: When I first started going, it was more wide open. The second show I ever saw [Roosevelt Stadium 8/6/74], they ended the first set with "Playin' in the Band" into "Scarlet" back into "Playin.'"
Bruce Hornsby: It's too bad to get set in your ways. Because who cares if you fuck up a little bit? I don't care if we just fuck up. I'm not worried about it. Maybe they're caring too much whether they fuck up.
So this book you're writing -- it's a dictionary for Deadheads?
Steve Silberman: Yeah. I thought it might be useful for Heads to be able to find out what a balafon is, or the Rex Foundation, or that the Spinners were living a very spiritual life together on a communal farm. Deadheads have invented a whole culture.
Bruce Hornsby: Like I say, there's no better crowd than this. So when Deadheads come to our shows -- there's nothing better.
Bruce Hornsby's official website