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

Cultural Critic

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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.

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