When your producer says your side project is “everything I’ve ever loved about Rock,” it’s safe to assume that Joe Bonamassa is involved. The guitar virtuoso has been making a name for himself since his early teens and continues to indulge his virtuosity in a variety of solo projects and collaborations, including a three-album stint with the rock “supergroup” known as Black Country Communion.
Following proper “supergroup” tradition, the collaboration has not been without its internal strife and clashing personalities. Comprising Deep Purple legend Glenn Hughes, Derek Sherinian of Dream Theater, and Jason Bonham (son of late Led Zeppelin drummer, John Bonham), Black Country Communion created a bombastic new album, Afterglow, which is preemptively considered one of the best hard rock releases of the year (it’s released on October 30).
Bonamassa’s reputation as one of the greatest living rock guitarists is as secure with this record as it is with every project he undertakes. He takes particular delight in being a multi-faceted player, exploring a wide variety of genres, and a self-proclaimed “guitar geek” with a mind-boggling collection of axes.
On Twitter last week, Bonamassa quipped, “[I]t is really interesting and wonderful to hear how organic and dynamic music played by humans keeps your attention.” This commitment to a high level of authenticity in his music and appreciation for the album is filling concert halls worldwide with a rapidly-growing fanbase. When I spoke with him, Joe had lots to say about where he thinks music is going, how he beats the system, and why he takes his own music in so many different directions.
I’ve been listening to the Afterglow all week and I’ve got to say — it’s pretty damn rockin’.
Well, I appreciate that!
You are already a champion of the blues. Now, Black Country Communion is billed as the “saviors of Classic Rock.” Is that something you came up with? Do you feel like a savior?
Oh, no – that’s something you read in the newspapers. [Laughs] I’m not the savior of anything. A good interpreter? Yeah, I’ll take that. I have a day job that I’m happy with; I’m a solo artist that tours. I just got back from Southeast Asia and Australia and everywhere else.
We got involved in this thing – all of us, Glenn [Hughes], Jason [Bonham] and Derek [Sherinian] and myself and Kevin [Shirley, producer] – we wanted to make an old school record because we saw an opportunity to do “new classic rock”. Basically, using the recipes of yesteryear, but with new songs, and record it like it was Deep Purple, 1971. And that was because people would flirt with [classic rock and] the lo-fi thing, but there wasn’t the dais of players that would substantiate it. That was the whole point of it. We did one record, then did another record, then did a tour. And then we did this third record [Afterglow], and I think the third record’s good. I think the first one’s the best, but I think the third one’s good. But everybody’s going to have a different opinion, and that’s the beauty of music. I just got off the phone with someone who thought the third one is the best. And that’s great! Everybody has their own opinion.
You mentioned something really interesting – that you guys are doing “new classic rock.” I’ve heard that there is a “silent majority” of music lovers who miss that sound. Do you think that’s the case?
Well, at the end of the day the “silent majority” and the “loud minority” as I call it – the people who post nonsense online… the silent majority, it doesn’t matter if it’s rock music. Look at Adele. There’s a classic example of authenticity plus conviction plus some honest-to-goodness songwriting equals a ten million seller. Where everybody said the days of selling ten million were gone because there wasn’t enough record buyers. Well, what happened to those record buyers? They didn’t go away, they just got burned by bad record after bad record after bad record. So, they dress up the single. So, they make this video which includes every color within the rainbow and all the dancing girls and who-can-take-their-clothes-off-fast-enough.
Then here comes this girl from England who just goes, “You know what? I’m just gonna sing some songs for you.” All of a sudden, everyone says, “Wow! I want that!” And so they buy the record. “What do you mean Track 9 is really good? We’re used to getting two or three tracks and buying the single, and the rest is just nonsense.”
That’s basically the concept that we’ve taken – you’d better work on Track 12 because you want to make a deep record. There are people that will buy it if it’s honest. That honesty really has to be there – that intention has to be there – before you even step into the studio.
If the music industry is to be believed, people who want a deep record are buried by the hugely popular desire for singles. Where do you think the disconnect is?
I’m not sure if there is a disconnect. I think the music business has really been obliterated at this point to where it’s now going back to where it was in the ‘40s and ‘50s in the sense that small record companies are popping up going, “I have a niche market! I know where to market my albums and my artists because I know there is a crop of people that will buy it.” It’s the same way we got people like Elvis. Over the years, the major labels and conglomerates bought everybody out, so now how many real major labels are left? Maybe two or three – there’s RCA and there’s Atlantic, but everybody’s bought up to where Epic and Columbia are now imprints of Sony. Those used to be two separate labels!
What’s happened is they move like cruise ships through an F-1 course – very difficult to steer, very difficult to react. And by the time they get to the finish line, the race is already over and people have packed up their bags and gone home. Whereas the smaller, independent labels are able to pivot and move and turn their cars throughout this course and market very directly and very effectively to their “customers.” Do you get millions and millions of record sales? No. But you are effective and if you keep the budget within reason, you can be a very viable, profitable business.
That’s one of the best analogies I’ve heard about music labels.
Well, there you go! I’m full of them! [Laughs] People usually say I’m full of it.
You’re known for being a guitar virtuoso who attained an amazing level of skill at a really young age. Your non-profit, Keeping the Blues Alive, promotes blues music awareness to the next generation. Given today’s musical landscape, does it surprise you that there are kids who are into the blues?
It doesn’t surprise me. I think the best thing that’s happened now is that the internet has opened up the whole ballgame in a sense that you don’t need the major labels. Before, you needed a major label, with a major publicist, with major backing, and major video. Now with YouTube, all of a sudden a kid who plays Harper’s Ferry in Boston and shreds can get two million views on YouTube when there were 47 people in the venue. All of a sudden everybody knows his name.
A great example of that is a guy named Andy McKee who’s now a world-renowned guitar player. He was always a world-class guitar player, but he was from Iowa and nobody knew him. Then he started putting these videos online and two, three, four million people started hitting these videos and all of a sudden, he’s touring the world. That never would have happened in 1999.
Do you feel that you’ve adapted how you market yourself to the social media era? You’re on tour constantly – I read that you play over 200 shows a year – does it ever become a strain or take away from the music?
Well, it’s survival of the fittest, really. We got into the social media stuff probably four or five years ago. We direct market to our fans. Our records come out, and we direct market directly to them. There’s no hype, generally. We don’t even get a review in Rolling Stone; I think I got my first one after fourteen records on this [BCC] record. I’m was on Letterman this year for the first time in fourteen albums, and I sat in with the band. Generally, the mainstream media really doesn’t pay a whole lot of attention to us, and that’s fine – that’s their prerogative. But we also know that we have our own fans and if you put enough of them together [the media’s] gonna go, “How did J&R Adventures and this kid Joe Bonamassa debut in the Top 20?” We missed out on having the number one record – out of everybody – in the UK by 80 copies. They go, how the hell does that happen?
It’s like being a bricklayer. Every year, you try to get more and more people within the fray that are legitimately interested. Of Kim Kardashian’s three-and-a-half million Twitter followers, how many of those are legitimately fans of what she does? Or there’s the fair-weather ones who basically don’t care and come and go and aren’t active. So, on paper you have three million disciples, but in reality it’s much, much less because it’s more of a sort of a reality show, pop culture thing. We’re not interested in that.
We’re interested more in the direct approach in which the people who are our Facebook followers and Twitter followers, hopefully, are active fans that really dig what we do, or else they wouldn’t have hit the “Like” button or the “Follow” button. There’s no other reason to follow me and get my stupid-ass guitar geek pictures of fuzz basses and amps if you’re not legitimately a fan – there’s nothing else there! [Laughs]
Yeah, that ‘66 Rickenbacker is pretty all right.
You want the 370? It’s a nice guitar.
With all your solo projects, and your massive touring schedule, what has kept you wanting to record with Black Country Communion?
I enjoy it! The weird thing about what we’ve been able to accomplish now is that I don’t do anything that I don’t enjoy. So, the reason why I chose to participate in all three records is because I enjoyed all of the process. The reason why I tour as much as I do is because I enjoy it. The reason why I make records with Beth Hart is because I enjoy it; it’s an interesting musical journey that’s much different than what I do for my 9-to-5 job, which is play blues-rock and make solo records in the blues-rock vein. That’s the only reason why I do it.
I really enjoy hearing from musicians who are doing what they genuinely love on a day-to-day basis and expanding their creativity.
I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I can do that. Not many musicians [can]. Sometimes they feel stuck playing the music or a style that they don’t want to play, or they don’t feel fulfilled creatively. I’ve set up a situation between my manager, Roy, and myself where twenty years of hard work… our “strategy” meeting is like me ringing him up and saying, “Hey, my drummer Tal [Bergman] and I and his band, Rock Candy Funk Party want to make an all-instrumental record. Should we do it?” And he says, “Fine. Do you think it’s cool?” And I said yeah.
So, I spent twelve days this summer making instrumental music and it was a thrill of a lifetime! That was it – there was no, well, what are the ramifications long-term on my career? The cool thing is that my fans know that if I’m involved, I’m passionate about it. We have so many different styles of songs, not just with the Black Country Communion records, but with everything… people know it’s not all going to be for them, but they at least know that it’s not just being put out for me to buy a new guitar. It’s not just taking the money.