Bruce Hornsby, Musical Renaissance Man, Is Now An Indie Rocker

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Bruce Hornsby is not a mellow person. It’s true that his signature ’80s hits — timeless yacht-rock staples such as “The Way It Is,” “Mandolin Rain,” “The Valley Road,” and “Every Little Kiss” — continue to be cornerstones of every lite-FM radio station in America. But the 64-year-old Hornsby has a restless, relentless energy that’s carried him through many different guises in his 33-year recording career. He’s been a member of the Grateful Dead, the co-leader of a bluegrass band with Ricky Skaggs, a jazz pianist backed by legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette, Spike Lee’s go-to film scorer, a Broadway composer, and, most recently, an unlikely indie rock inspiration for the likes of Bon Iver and The Killers.

“I totally understand when somebody comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, you still doing this?'” Hornsby said during a recent interview, radiating a kind of amiable intensity. “I go, ‘Yeah, I did 70 concerts last year, and I did this film score, and I did this.’ And they go, ‘Whoa, really?'”

For his latest album, Absolute Zero (due April 12), Hornsby gathered a young supporting cast of musicians from the indie world — including Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, guitarist Blake Mills, the British folk trio The Staves, and musician-producer Brad Cook — along with the Brooklyn-based classical music sextet yMusic. The result is a record utterly unlike anything in his catalogue — a thoughtful, jittery, and thoroughly unsettled snapshot of contemporary anxiety set to adventurous, shape-shifting soundscapes.

Hornsby’s second (or is it seventh or eighth?) life as an indie rocker began “five or ten years ago,” he says, when Hornsby “started getting shout-outs in the press from different people who could be called indie rock artists — I only use these terms because I can’t think of a name.” (He adds with an implied wink, “However you want to categorize them, that’s your job.”)

In 2015, Killers frontman Brandon Flowers tapped Hornsby to play on his solo album, The Desired Effect, and then brought him back to play on the Killers’ 2017 effort, Wonderful Wonderful. Around the same time, Vernon invited Hornsby to his annual Eaux Claires festival to assist on Bon Iver’s debut performance of 22, A Million, as well as perform Hornsby’s triple-platinum 1986 debut, The Way It Is, in its entirety. In the process, Vernon and Hornsby became friends and, eventually, collaborators.

“It was a trip to work with Bruce,” said Cook, who assisted in the album’s production along with Vernon. “He has a great sense of humor and his curiosity is alive and well. I appreciate the fact that he has always been trying to push himself to fresh places with his music. Having a successful, long-term, sustainable career as an artist that centers around evolution is no small feat. In Bruce’s case, it’s been 30 years. There are a lot of parallels between Bruce and Justin in that regard.”

Many of the songs on Absolute Zero derived from music that Hornsby originally composed for Lee, who has been using Hornsby to score this movies since 1992, including last year’s Oscar-winning BlacKkKlansman. (“I’m a film composer that has one boss,” Hornsby says. “I’m like Tom Hagen in The Godfather. He has one client, Don Corleone. I have one client, Spike Lee.”) When it came time to write lyrics, Hornsby delved into the vagaries of the human condition with a decidedly literary bent, with two of his favorite authors, David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo, acting as his primary inspirations.

“The thread, for me, is being able to now and then create music that gives me chills,” Hornsby said of the album’s wide range of influences and support musicians. “That’s hard to do, but I’m able to do it sometimes. I’m always looking for the chill.”

I spoke with Hornsby about Absolute Zero, alienating his older fans, playing with Jerry Garcia, and the time he beat Allen Iverson in a pickup game.

How’s it going, Bruce?

It’s going good, Steve. Is that okay, or do you insist on Steven?

Steve is good. I keep that for my friends. Let’s just say you’re my friend.

Friends after one sentence. Okay.

Well, I’ve heard your music since I was 8-years-old.

That’s right, you’ve been listening a long time. You’ve been very malleable and willing to be moved in different stylistic directions, because that’s what I’ve been doing for a long f*cking time.

Do you feel like the fans that you had in the ’80s are the same ones you have now?

Look, I’ve been getting nasty letters since my second record from people who would like me to make the same record every time. So I got really used to losing fans.

I wonder to what degree that’s generational. I’m around Justin Vernon’s age, so I grew up hearing your ’80s hits, but I also know you from your work with the Grateful Dead, and the more adventurous albums you did later in your career. There’s an audience that came to you with a wider view of your music, rather than coming up with you as a multi-platinum pop act.

That’s right. Yeah, you described [Justin], that’s exactly who he is. I’m not sure when he got really in, but I know that he transcribed Pat Metheny’s guitar solo on the song “Harbor Lights,” from the record of the same name. And I know he’s a big fan of my song “Barren Ground,” which is from the previous record, the third record. When I played his Eaux Claires festival, he asked me to play the entire The Way It Is record. I think he has a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of old-time music and old folk music and R&B, blues, gospel. You hear it in his voice. He’s got that great background. He was a guy for whom my moves to new places were probably welcomed.

It is interesting, though, that you’ve had this long career, and yet you’re most famous for the hits from your first record. Those songs are still ubiquitous. I heard “Every Little Kiss” at the gas station this morning.

Well, my condolences. I’m not a real fan of the original record. I like the way we do it way more now, now that it’s been reinvented as a dulcimer song. But, yes, okay. I guess some of them are still around is what you’re saying, and that’s just fine.

Does that bother you, that so many people think of you as this ’80s piano man?

Look, every artist, every musician who has a career, they probably grapple with that. I think that a sizeable majority of the popular music listening audience, the arc of their pop music listening life goes like this: They discover pop music kind of like you did, around age eight or so, and you’re really involved with it, all the way up through high school. If you go to college, then through college too, where you’re really deeply involved, and you’re going to concerts and talking with your friends about the music you like. It becomes their whole, complete identity. Then you become an adult and you get a job, and you may get married and have kids, and for a whole lot of people — I’d say a sizeable majority of the populace — they listen for the rest of their life to the music of their youth, or new music that sounds a whole lot like it.

I don’t blame anyone for this at all, because they have a life. They don’t have time for all this. But if you’re a seeking, searching, ever-evolving musician, and you’re looking to have a career of any length, it’s difficult to retain a career in the face of that mass indifference.

You made a definitive move early in your career away from pop toward music that was more eclectic and even esoteric, and I wonder in retrospect–

Let me just speak to what you just said. My big hit, “The Way It Is,” was hardly an attempt to write and perform a hit. A song about racism with two improvised piano solos, that’s on two levels completely not the formula for pop success. It’s the opposite of that. Other than “Sultans Of Swing,” the iconic Dire Straits single, have we heard someone soloing on the radio, on hit radio? I didn’t, for the most part, try to chase that and try to write hits. It was just a lucky accident, a wonderful fluke. And it allowed me to have a career.

I just wanted to speak to what you were saying when you said … I forget exactly what you said.

You answered my question. I was going to ask if you felt like your pop career was a fluke, and it sounds like you do.

It was, in the best way. A disc jockey at BBC Radio One — the biggest station in England, at least at that time — he was given the record by a poor, flummoxed, befuddled RCA promo guy, saying, ‘We don’t know what to do with this. It’s a little country, it’s a little jazz. Can you just give it a listen and see if there’s anything in there for you?’ And this guy, he listened to the record and picked “The Way It Is” and put it on the radio, and boom. The phones lit up or whatever, and there it went. And then it broke in Holland and throughout the rest of Europe, then the rest of the world. And then in the United States, they knew that this song was going to be the second single, after the aforementioned “Every Little Kiss” from the gas station.

“The Way It Is” had an incredible life after that. What did you think when 2Pac sampled it?

Well, it has to be known that Tupac was not the first. He’s probably about the third or fourth hip-hop or rap artist to redo the song. A guy in England named MC Buzz B was the first to do it, I think, in the early ’90s. Akon did a version just about three years ago, which I loved. But Tupac’s was the greatest version to me. What do I think of it? I love it. I thought it was just fantastically done. Yeah, I’m a fan. It was a real compliment.

Excuse me, this is way off topic, but I saw this on Wikipedia and I have to ask you if it’s true. Did you really beat Allen Iverson in a pickup game?

I don’t talk about that very much, because it seems completely ludicrous, and it is. But look: He was convicted of brawling in a bowling alley, and sent to jail his senior year of high school. I thought it was a serious miscarriage of justice, and I was lobbying the governor of the time, because we had elected the first black governor, I would say, in America, Doug Wilder. This was 1992 or 1993 when this happened, and I started working with Spike. I told him about Allen Iverson before anyone knew about him, because he was a high school phenom around here.

A couple months after this happened, I got a call from his high school coach at Bethel High School, Mike Bailey, saying, ‘Hey, Allen knows what you did, and would love to meet you and blah blah blah.’ So I said, ‘Hey, why don’t ya’ll come up so we can play some basketball?’ So he said, yeah, he’d love that. And I don’t know what happened. I had one of those days where I couldn’t miss. And in front of lots of witnesses, this happened.

Like I said, I feel a little idiotic talking about it, because it seems not believable. But that’s the story, as quickly as I can sum it up.

I wonder if your background as an athlete has informed your work as a musician. For instance, when I listen to the shows you played with the Dead, you seem to be pushing Jerry Garcia like you would an ailing but still formidable teammate.

Well, I think that’s what he liked. I think it was mostly Garcia’s idea to ask me to join the band, actually. And when Brent [Mydland] died, we were opening for them here and there for a few years before, and then I would start sitting in with them. And the relationship just grew and grew. Then [Garcia] played on my third record, A Night On The Town.

Again, a growing relationship that culminated really sadly in the death of Brent, and asking me to help him through this tough time and really just join the band. I had my own career fairly solid by then, and didn’t feel like just blowing that off. If they had got to me a few years before, I’d have joined them and lived happily ever after as the Grateful Dead piano player. But I did tell them I’d help them through the time when they were getting the new guy Vince up to speed, because I was fairly familiar with their music. I went in off the street with no rehearsal and winged it with them at Madison Square Garden for five nights. That was wild, in the fall of 1990.

As far as a sports analogy, there were nights, I must say, where I felt like Jerry wasn’t really all there for whatever reason. We don’t have to get into all that. And I would try to prod him in ways that I sometimes felt were unmusical, just pushing and pushing. But that was just me trying to help inject a little life into what I thought was a fairly lifeless night musically.

I can say this, I never phone it in on a gig. I always mean it when I play, I’m always really trying. So if I’m up there being terrible, it’s not for lack of effort. Maybe that comes from a sports background.

Absolute Zero is out 4/12 via Zappo Productions/Thirty Tigers. Get it here.