“I’m old enough to know that the Top 40 is a fickle mistress. I have no desire to get caught on that treadmill”: Bruce Hornsby on The Way It Is, having a hit with Don Henley and being “the Sid Vicious of the accordion world”

Bruce Hornsby
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Bruce Hornsby has never been afraid of musical collaboration. In a 50-year career, his explorations have paired him with everyone from Elton John, Sting, Bon Iver and Chaka Khan to Bob Dylan, Roger Waters, The Doobie Brothers and bluegrass bigwig, Ricky Skaggs. He’s written songs with Don Henley, was sampled by Tupac Shakur and guested with Clannad. He’s scored soundtracks for Spike Lee, toured with Pat Metheny and spent a couple of years as keyboardist with the Grateful Dead.

His latest release, then, should come as no surprise: an album with experimental chamber ensemble, yMusic.

“Chamber music takes me right back to my early days at music college,” explains 69-year-old Hornsby, who was a student at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. Berklee’s list of former students also includes Wyclef Jean, Quincy Jones, Donald Fagen and Brian Transeau, aka BT. “At the time, I was deep into my spang-a-lang, bebop jazz world, but next door to us was the classical ensemble room. I spent many afternoons listening to viola, violin, cello, trombone, flute and clarinet. I was no stranger to that sound.”

Explaining how his latest collaboration came about, Hornsby says: “I happened to be on the same bill as yMusic at a festival in 2016 and was instantly captivated. I stood on the stage watching them and I was getting chills, the hairs on my arms going crazy. So, we started talking to each other, we played a few gigs together, Rob Moose from the band [producer, multi-instrumentalist and nominal leader of yMusic, who has also worked with everyone from Paul Simon and Taylor Swift to Jay-Z and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra] did some arranging for me and we decided to try writing a song together.”

The result was Deep Sea Vents, completed just before the 2020 lockdown and title track of the new album from Hornsby and yMusic, who work under the name, BrhyM. The track itself is a strange blend of jaunty jazz, sombre chamber music strings and Hornsby’s slightly unsettling lyrics, inspired by a magazine article about... deep sea vents. Sample lyric:  “Submersibles help me go where there is no sound. Hot, super-saline, crazy acidic. Perfect for me.”

“Even though the world was living in isolation, technology allowed Rob and I to carry on working together,” continues Hornsby. “He would send me music; I would try to write lyrics that would knock ’em dead and add musical touches of my own. I enjoyed picking up the dulcimer again for the opening track, The Wild Whaling Life. You can hear it driving the choruses. What I love about the dulcimer is that it’s diatonic, there are no black notes. It forces me to keep things simple and stops me disappearing off into an ocean of weirdo, chromatic chords.”

The net result is an album of welcoming, mesmeric eccentricity. Imagine Frank Zappa duetting with They Might Be Giants. Or Captain Beefheart swapping ideas with Vernon Elliott - the bassoonist and composer who provided the haunting music for classic British cartoons like Ivor the Engine and The Clangers.

Hornsby admits that the album - like much of his recent work - is a far cry from The Way It Is, his huge breakout single in 1986. Credited to Bruce Hornsby and the Range, it was a US number one and earned a Grammy for Best New Artist.

“Some people have this idea that, after the success of The Way It Is, I turned my back on the mainstream,” he says. “Not at all! Whenever I sit down at the piano, I play, and I wait for the moment that gives me those chills I was talking about. I haven’t turned my back on anything. I’m open to whatever comes my way. For example, there’s a song called Never in This House from my 2019 album, Absolute Zero. In another era, that would have been a single. It might even have been a ‘hit’ single. But the Top 40 is no longer interested in old fogeys like me.”

Hornsby allows himself a quiet chuckle. “I hope that doesn’t sound like I’m complaining because I’m not. I love my life, I love my music, I love working with bands like yMusic and Bon Iver. But I’m also old enough to know that the Top 40 is a fickle mistress. I have no desire to get caught on that treadmill.”

His current studio is hidden in beautiful woodland, not far from his home in Williamsburg, Virginia. It’s a Pro Tools setup, but Hornsby admits that he’s a “technological clown”.

“I have an engineer who looks after that side of things. OK, we now record everything into a computer instead of a tape machine, but my time in the studio is pretty much the same as it always has been. I like the feel of real instruments: an acoustic piano, the dulcimer, my Rickenbacker 12-string and my accordion. I have a very punk attitude towards the accordion... I’m terrible, but that doesn’t stop me giving it a go. I’m the Sid Vicious of the accordion world!

“The developments in technology mean that, although my studio is nothing fancy, I can do everything I want here. I even managed to record the 2007 Camp Meeting album here, with Jack DeJohnette [drummer and sideman for the likes of Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Sonny Rollins] and Christian McBride [Grammy-winning bassist for James Brown, Paul McCartney, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard and Chick Corea].

“That was an album I’d dreamed about for a long time, but I wanted to be in a place where I knew I could produce an original statement. I didn’t just want to do my facsimile of Bill Evans, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. It worked well. Three motherfuckers in a room, watching each other’s faces, getting the shivers when we knew we were hitting a groove.”

Elton’s 1970 albums, Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection. Oh, man! They changed my world.

Although Hornsby is often referred to as a ‘jazz musician’, it was Elton John and Leon Russell who first drew him to the piano.

“Elton’s 1970 albums, Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection. Oh, man! They changed my world. The gospel feel of songs like Holy Moses or Amoreena. And it was only after Elton got me into the piano that I discovered jazz. Bill Evans, Herbie and Chick, the old bebop guys like Bud Powell and Wynton Kelly.

“People have often asked how I would describe my playing and the only thing I’ve ever been able to come up with is a mix of those two. The hymnal, gospel feel you get with some of Elton’s music and Bill Evans’ love of chords. If you listen to Bill, he was so obviously influenced by the early French impressionist composers, Ravel and Debussy. Most people would play an A minor chord in the regular way, but Bill came at it from all kinds of places. I would in no way compare myself to those guys, but if my style came from anywhere, it came from them.”

Despite having so many musical partnerships on the CV, Hornsby is constantly on the lookout for new encounters, but refuses to name names when we ask who his dream collaborator would be.

“I’ve had some names at the top of my list for a long time and I’m hoping - fingers crossed! - that they might happen in the next year or so. I don’t want to say too much in case I jinx it.”

And the most enjoyable of all those previous hook-ups?

“There have been a couple that seem to get people talking. Don Henley called me out of the blue in 1986 or 87, just when things were blowing up for me. I’d kind of missed the Eagles’ heyday because I was doing my jazz thing, but I loved his solo stuff and jumped at the chance of writing something with him. I had this piece of music I’d been working on, but I just couldn’t get the lyrics right. I handed it over to Don; he wrote some words on the way over to my house and that song became The End of the Innocence. Big hit, won a Grammy. It was that simple.

“But the collaboration I had most fun with was joining the Grateful Dead. That whole scene... the fans, playing one song for a couple of hours, the people I met, the body of work that those guys created. OK, it might not be on a par with the Beatles, but it’s pretty darn close.

“At first, I wasn’t really a full-time member, I sort of sat in when The Range were supporting them. They’d recently lost their keyboardist, Brent Mydland, and I was helping out while the new guy, Vince Welnick, was settling in. I had played in my brother’s Grateful Dead covers band as a kid, so I knew a big chunk of their material. I was familiar with how they improvised and how the music fitted together.

“And the great thing was that they simply sat me down and said, ‘Play whatever you want’. There were no rules, no funny looks if you came in at the wrong place. There was no ‘wrong place’! It was pure music and it was wonderful.”

So - how can we put this - does Hornsby remember much about those gigs? Or are they... a bit of a blur?

“Are you talking about drugs? Ha ha! I knew the score. Bear Stanley [Owsley “Bear” Stanley was the Dead’s live sound engineer, known by everyone as The Acid King] was still with them and he was wandering around backstage, dropping a little of this and that into the Kool-Aid. But I took Bear to one side and told him, ‘Look, this ain’t my thing. You dose me and I’m outta here’. He was true to his word. Not that it stopped the rest of the guys having a ball up there!

“Man, I wouldn’t trade my time with the Dead for anything.”

Deep Sea Vents is out now via Zappo Productions/Thirty Tigers