Monday, May 12, 2014

California Breed - Zen and the Art of Glenn Hughes

Glenn Hughes is excited about California Breed. Glenn Hughes is very excited about California Breed.

Coming on the heels of the musically successful, but born to lose Black Country Communion, his new band is set to launch their debut album and their inaugural shows, and his excitement is well deserved. In the face of the possibility of restarting the failed supergroup, he looked away from an incredible A-list of world class guitarists offering to be the next in line, and instead took the road less traveled with a virtually unknown kid, the 23 year old Andrew Watt. The results are spectacular - this band sounds dangerous.

Hughes is never less than animated. Hell, he sang half of our interview, which was really more of a bull session. He's one of our last real rock stars - larger than life, and dressed to kill while he's at it. There are those who don't 'get' Glenn Hughes. They think he's over the top, and somehow less than genuine. However, they could not be more wrong. I know this because I often cross the lines that shouldn't really exist between journalists and their subjects - I play favorites, and I collect friends like some people collect vintage nicknacks. I was a huge Hughes fan for many years before we met and became friends. He's one of the most genuine, kind, and gracious men I know, and while I remain a big advocate of his art, I'm a bigger admirer of the man. I've always maintained that nothing could come out of this man's voice but what does - he is an artist, a creator, and he goes where his muse takes him, again and again.

We first met in 2010 - he was preparing to go into the studio with Joe Bonamassa, Jason Bonham, Derek Sherinian, and producer Kevin Shirley to give birth to Black Country - yes, even before they had to add Communion to the name because of some issue with a cover band in Maryland. He had this to say in February, 2010:

Glenn Hughes: "There will be proper touring, not just going out for a few shows here and there. My voice gets stronger as I work, and this will be a touring band. Joe has clearly told me, 'I want to be in a rock band.'"

Well, we all know that this did not come to pass. As it turned out, the band couldn't tour with any frequency due to the demands of Bonamassa's solo career, and all too soon the band was history. I had spent a day with Joe and Glenn in Indianapolis on the band's lone US tour, and things seemed hunky dory - the atmosphere was collegial, we had many laughs over lunch, and I spent several hours with the boys backstage before the show. I thought that this was band built to last....

By March of 2013 Bonamassa had announced his resignation from the band. This was after Joe had taken a public swipe at me on his fan forum for reasons that to this day remain unclear. His post was pulled as soon as it was posted (I only heard about it second hand, I'm not sure what he said, and it's not really important), and immediately we exchanged a few notes that would have seemed to clear the air between us, but as often happens, I have not heard from him since, and his forum administrator, and several of their forum members got extremely nasty with me, almost to the point of attempted intimidation. It would appear that the comments I had made were perceived by Bonamassites as siding with Hughes in these matters, but that was never really the case. What I had said was that what would suffer from the band's breakup would be the music, and the band's fans. I have never uttered a word against Joe, in fact, I think he's a great guy, a huge talent, and one of the world's great supporters of the blues, rock, and the guitar business in general. But, sometimes things get messy when there are breakups involved, and by getting too close to my subjects, I got my hair mussed a bit. I still hope to revive my friendship with Joe - I valued our relationship, and I honestly feel that it went weird for reasons that were not really valid. And I still hope this fence eventually gets mended.

Fast forward to late 2013,  and one evening I received call from Glenn well after midnight - he was in Minneapolis on a family vacation, and felt like talking. He was casting about, trying to figure out where and with whom to work with next, and still feeling very hurt by the breakup of his band. He had made some demos with one of the biggest bands from the last twenty years, but they had other obligations, and things were all rather, shall we say, up in the air. We spoke for a few hours that night, and we covered a lot of ground. It's at these times when you really discover a man's mettle - he was bitterly disappointed about what had happened, but he was also not judgmental, angry, or vituperative towards Joe Bonamassa in any way. He spoke of love, respect, remaining positive, and promising that whatever came next, it would be new and vibrant - there was to be no trying to resurrect BCC. That train had left the station.

Here's Glenn's final take on the matter as of yesterday:

Glenn Hughes: "Listen, man - I have nothing but love for BCC.  
"Tony, I don't know what Joe thinks about BCC. We're still talking, we haven't stopped talking, but the fact of the matter is that Joe didn't want to be in the band, and he didn't want to be in the band for the last fifteen months, but it's something we haven't really spoken about. I have no resentment towards anyone, or about any of that, it just didn't happen. 
"The press got their hands on it, the fans got their hands on it, but there were BCC fans who obviously really wanted the band to continue. And obviously, I wanted it to continue - not for monetary reasons at the time, but because I and been welcomed back to the rock industry by rock critics and rock fans. They welcomed me back, but, there was no debating after Black Country broke up - 'Is Glenn going to go back with Chad Smith and John Frusciante, and make a funky album?'  
"Nope - I was going to make another rock album with Jason, and a guitar player. It wasn't going to be a famous guitar player, because A) you can't just make an album these days doesn't mean a fucking thing unless you go tour. 
"I'm very, very proud of California Breed's record - but, we've got to go tour this thing. 
"We've got a few shows coming up, and I'm going to be honest with you, T - I really want to promote this album. But, I want to have 18 months to work this album. Something we could not do with Black Country."

So, I was very pleased to hear, very soon after New Years 2014, that there was new band, a new guitarist, and a new direction for Mr. Hughes - a return to organic, straight up rock and roll, perhaps not heard since his formative days with the legendary Trapeze. Julian Lennon had introduced guitarist Andrew Watt to Hughes at a John Varvatos fashion function in New York City - they exchanged numbers, Watt sent Hughes some demos, and they agreed to get together in California to see where it may lead. They wrote a couple of tunes, and Hughes called Bonham and told him that they just might have their guitarist. Their first jam, soon after, sealed the deal:

Glenn Hughes: "Jason and I wanted to wrap our arms around what I considered my heritage, which was Trapeze, Zeppelin III, The Who, and Cream. Archetypical guitar, bass and drums, two inch tape, and live. 
"We did not want Blackmore, we didn't want the big Hammond Organ, and no hammer ons - the guitar player could be 22, 32, 42, but let's have a strong right hand, Gibson playing guitar player. We only wanted three things - we wanted a great guitarist with a great right hand, no keyboards, and we wanted the right producer. We got all three."

The trio got together in the spring and laid down a couple of demos to see what they had - when I heard these demos last June, I was shocked. This was a new breed, indeed. It's clearly Hughes and Bonham doing what they do best, but it's with a new direction, a new thrust, and a completely different approach from their young prodigy, Andrew Watt. Almost punk in its 'in your face' attitude, and tone, the album is going to be a new horizon for the fellows' fans. It has all the familiar sounds, but it's wrapped in a completely new package:

Glenn Hughes: "Listen, bro - remember, I've got a guy here, a different generation than me, or Jason, that's bringing in his own vibe. We've got to allow him to do that. This isn't a Glenn Hughes album, it's a very, very collaborative thing. 
"Andrew wrote this song, Scars, and he played it for me, and I'm going, 'Eh....I hear it a bit different.' But, I said, 'If that's the way you hear it,' and when I heard it, and he wouldn't know this, but I heard it like (Glenn sings a lilting melody) Leon Russell, but Andrew heard it differently, and that's how I did it."

One song that exemplifies the new sound that is California Breed is Days They Come. Out of the gates with what sounds like a proto-Zeppelin riff with Watt and Hughes bludgeoning the opening riff with gut wrenchingly brilliant vintage tones, then it's into a verse that slows down deliciously as Hughes weaves his tale - then the first refrain of "Goin' down, goin' down, goin' down" comes crashing down, and it's a calliope of cascading vocals that are perfectly panned in the mix with one side being heavily effected and the other being sung straight ahead and the heady brew is almost an opiate of sound. I asked Glenn about the genesis of the tune, and he sang me a master class in rock arranging and composition:

Glenn Hughes: "Hahahahahaha! Tony, listen man - This song, and this is crazy because I know how much you love this kind of music, this is our band's favorite track.  
"This is our band's favorite fucking track. I wrote that song in the first week, I think back in April - I wrote four songs in a week, and that was one of them. I just knew it had this energy, and this start/stop, push/pull thing going on.  
"The whole thing (he stops and sings the first verse) it's Glenn Hughes and bluesy, and then (he sings the first refrain) it's so me. That was originally meant for a guitar part (sings the riff as a guitar part), but then I went, 'That has to be a vocal melody.' 
"And here's the thing - all respect to Kevin Shirley, Kevin Shirley was the perfect producer for Black Country. Dave Cobb. Cobb, for me, Cobb is the greatest rock producer right now, of our times. The greatest rock producer we have on the planet."

True enough, when you hear the full album you will come to know what Glenn is saying - You never lose sight of the fact that it's Hughes, Bonham, and Andrew Watt, a new true guitar hero if there ever was, and almost a fourth member in producer Cobb, whose stamp is all over the album. Vintage amps, two inch tape, a band playing and singing in one room at the same time (The album was cut with Bonham, and Watt playing their parts, and Hughes singing along). Little did Hughes realize that he was tracking live vocals, and only later would he overdub his bass parts and vocal harmonies. And it comes across sounding as exciting as Glenn's narrative.

Glenn Hughes: "People are asking me, now that the album has been percolating with people, they're going, 'Damn? How did you do that?' 
"And I say, 'It's been inside of me for years.' The songs that I write now are songs that I haven't written before. 
"Listen - I'm singing about some shit on this album that will remain private for now, but this album is a real pivotal piece of work for me as a lyricist. Again, we've talked about this before, and I'll tell you again - I don't write Tolkien, or King Arthur stuff, you know - no dwarves in my music. This shit is about shit that really happens to us. When I sing (he sings), 'My friends sit around my bed, and I thought I had died,' it's something that really happened. 
"People ask, 'How can you write this?' Well, I couldn't write this shit when I was 22. When we look back, when you talk to Robert (Plant) about these lyrics when he was 21, he's like, 'Yeah, I'm sorry, I was 21.'  
"I had nothing to write about when I was 21. Now, with all the stuff that has happened to me, good, bad, or indifferent, I have so much to sing about. When I wrote, Cold, and all those songs with Black Country, I was really honest about life, and without sounding anything like BCC, I brought that into this band. 
"I had this pent up artist inside of me that has got so much to say. I could have easily made a left hand turn, and done a solo album. I could make a classic R&B record, you know that! 
"But - I know that I was born a rocker. From the West Midlands in the days of Trapeze, and hanging out with Plant and Bonzo. That trio of Trapeze with that organic thing with Mel and Dave - now, I've got it again! I've got Bonham on drums - Jason overplays wonderfully, he sounds like a combination of Keith Moon and his dad on this record. It's his best drumming yet. And, I've got this young dude that has no hammer ons at all - it's all coming from his right hand. 
"Tony, Kevin did not like major sevenths and minor ninths - when I wrote them for Black Country songs, he took 'em out. Dave Cobb loves these chords, but when I play them in my solo stuff, it's very R&B - when you play them heavy in this band, they sound GREAT! 
"It's like me being in Trapeze - those chords are so Trapeze-y for me, but he (Andrew Watt) didn't know that, because he's just twenty-three."

California Breed is one of those bands that could save rock 'n' roll. They're big, they're brash, and they go for the throat with every moment. Hughes and Bonham have done work that matches anything they've ever done, and we have a new 'for the song' guitar hero in Andrew Watt. The album is out in less than two weeks, then the band will set out to prove their point. Let's revisit this in eighteen months, and see how it's turned out.

Glenn Hughes has again reached deep into his soul, and delivered well over one hundred percent. He's as real an artist as we have on the planet, and whether you're with him, or against him, you cannot deny the fact that he follows his heart and gives it his all. If you don't dig that, maybe you don't know what the fuck rock 'n' roll is all about. Rock Ain't Near Dead, and California Breed and Glenn Hughes prove it.

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