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"I just stopped playing": Joe Bonamassa on his lockdown blues, new album Time Clocks, and why he doesn't care for TikTok

Joe Bonamassa
(Image credit: Eleanor Jane)

The last time Joe Bonamassa spoke to us he described his plans for his next studio album as being a “subway record,” meaning that he would decamp to his New York apartment, ride public transport to the studio, and maybe use a couple of guitars, a couple of guitar amps tops.

That’d be it, he said. This was to be a “cash and carry” affair. He booked some time at Germano Studios on Broadway for February, when hopefully the pulse of New York City had recovered its tempo post-pandemic. The thrum of the city would give the record its energy.

New York held up its side of the bargain, returning to something approaching normal after the Omega Man vibe of 2020. And Bonamassa was true to his word. The world’s most high-profile guitar collector resisted the urge to roll-in his touring rig. A couple of Fender Deluxe Reverbs and a Twin would get the job done. For electric guitars, he kept it to the essentials; some Stratocasters, a couple of Teles, and, well, a 1959 Les Paul Standard because it would be rude not to. But Time Clocks doesn’t sound like a throw-and-go recording.

 

With producer Kevin Shirley joining proceedings from Australia via Zoom, Bonamassa laid down the foundations with his redoubtable rhythm section of Steve Mackey on bass and drummer Anton Fig. The songs invited a more progressive treatment. “We layered some guitars, I did some vocals, and I didn’t know what to expect,” says Bonamassa. “I thought that was it.”

Once the music was sent to Australia, the backing vocals, the strings, keys and “extras” were added. No horns this time, but what Bonamassa ended up with surprised him.  

“I think it is one of our most ambitious records we have ever done, not going into the studio with that intention,” he says. “I think it came out okay. It was a strange way to make a record in a year full of strange shit. It is hard to get your head around these kind of things.”

Maybe that’s why Time Clocks sounds the way it does. Time is a recurring motif. The past two years had given Bonamassa too much of it, with venues shuttered and tours cancelled. And yet it was a waste of time, too. 

When we join Bonamassa over video connection at his New York apartment, he’s flanked by vintage guitars of various provenance, running through some blues figures to get his chops up. In a few hours, he’ll be sitting in with his friend Nir Felder at the 55 Bar, and he admits he’s a little rusty. 

He might have picked up the guitar for the occasional livestream, like the Ryman show, or when he went into the studio to produce someone’s album with Josh Smith, but without the stage, without that incentive, what was the point in playing?

Maybe it is that sense of the doldrums that gives Time Clocks its weight, with its light coming by way of tours getting booked and the rhythm returning into Bonamassa’s calendar. Because, as he explains here, the performance is what he lives for. 

You didnt play much guitar during lockdown. Did that change your perspective on the instrument?

“Well, here’s the perspective: as we are having this conversation, I have a guitar in my hand, and I am playing because I have a reason. I am sitting in with a friend of mine in New York City in about six or seven hours. I have a reason to pick up the guitar. Like, if this was just a regular Wednesday – and look around, I live in a house of guitars – I would pick up the guitar for a moment and then go, ‘Oh, there’s a ladybug on the wall.’ Why am I doing this?

“I know a lot of people, people who are my friends, who are my age group, who felt the same way. If you take the stage away, it takes away the impetus to play. I think the prevailing view outside of the circle was, ‘Can you imagine the kind of creativity that’s going to come out of this? People are going to come out and all they have been doing is locked up in their house and all they do is play…’ I’m telling you, from my perspective, it was demoralising, because it reminded you of what you did for a living and you have no control over the fact that you cannot do that. 

“It was demoralising to be reminded of that everyday, so I just stopped playing. I didn’t really play much. Yeah, okay, when we had something to do – a livestream or a record, or if I would produce a record, and I did ones with Eric Gales, Joanne Shaw Taylor, Jimmy Hall, and finished Larry McCray – okay then I have got to play again. 

“Ultimately, it’s going to take a minute for a lot of people to get back into real road shape just because they have been off it for so long. We did nine shows and I felt we were just starting to warm up by the time the tour ended.”

Did you have to do a lot of preproduction for this record because of that? Did it feel like a cold start?

“No, it didn’t feel like a cold start. We did a pre-rehearsal for our mini-tour in May before we did the record. So we rehearsed out of the blue for nothing, just to get these other songs working. Then we went into the studio, playing a little bit, and did the record, then we went back and rehearsed again and did a little mini-tour in May. 

That’s been the roll-in and rollout. We’ll rehearse three weeks out, take a break, come back with a fresh perspective, rehearse again and then go. We have the arrangements but mostly it’s just about getting these [fingers] moving again.”

Location always matters when playing. The context, too. Your guitar style is conversational. It needs a crowd, or at least some people to work with.

“Yeah, and it does not work on Instagram! I need an audience. I didn’t start playing guitar 40 years ago to go, ‘Hey, I hope I wake up one day and be an Instagram influencer!’ I didn’t start for that.”

You’re good at it though!

“I started playing guitar because I saw people playing in front of people. My Dad was playing in front of an audience. And then I would go see James Cotton or Danny Gatton, or somebody. ‘Oh, God! This is cool! There’s a crowd.’ Then you go, ‘Well, okay, if I play this then people will cheer? Ah, okay, I’m starting to see how this thing works.’ But without an audience, I am relegated into the also-rans and whatevers. 

“I am not a teacher. I am not really an influencer. I don’t really do those kind of things. Nor am I interested in making that kind of content because that is just not who I am. It would be disingenuous of me to do so. It would be a pivot, an unnecessary pivot.”

Thematically, this record talks about time a lot. What was on your mind?

“A passage of time will go by in the blink of an eye. Charlie Starr came up with this great line, ‘I got miles under my wheels / Notches in my walking cane.’ Ain’t that the truth? I go, ‘Okay, now we got a song.’ 

I had a riff. And he had the idea for the lyric, and we wrote the song [Notches]. But also, I personally think that I am either on the verge of being aged out, kicked out or shut out at any particular point in time, and I am okay with that.

“Again, I see a lot of pivoting and stuff that, if that was how it had to be going forward, then I wouldn’t be able to participate in that. It would just be disingenuous for me to show up one day and say, ‘Hey, guess what!? I'm on TikTok!’ 

I mean, they set one up for me! I have never been on it. I wouldn’t want to know how to use it. I don’t care enough about it, and I don’t feel the world needs more content either from me or from anybody else. For what? Am I going to sit here all day making videos?”

It is another distraction.

“It’s another distraction! People have a very, very skewed strange view of how I live, and I think a lot of that is because of what they see on Instagram. They see me on Instagram, and all I do is sit around and fuck around with guitars. That is not the truth!”

Exactly, sometimes you’ll have a cigar. 

“Sometimes I'll have a cigar!”

And it sells or creates that image of you going through life, buying guitars… But the thing is – it shows us too much, and yet it doesn’t show us enough, the gaps in-between. 

“They think that’s all it is, and I think it skews people’s reality of what life is about. I have good days and bad days like everybody else. I have days where I hate the way I play. I have days where I think I am a fucking fraud! And that’s okay.”

That’s healthy.

“That’s okay. And then there are days where I think, ‘Okay, I can actually play this thing today.’ It is a feedback loop because basically you are looking at time going by faster than you can process it. You look back and go, ‘Wow! This has been a wild adventure.’ We have made it everywhere I wanted to go and then some. 

“Ten years ago, I would have been like, ‘I would really like to play the Ryman.’ Well, in three weeks, I’ll play my ninth and 10th shows there. Or the Albert Hall. Next spring, I’ll play my ninth and 10th shows there. Same thing at Red Rocks. This whole adventure has gone way further than I would ever have thought.

“You have these good days and bad days. And it’s like, ‘What’s next? What’s the next adventure?’ Because you don’t want to end up rudderless.”

Maybe the next adventure is simply to be found in the act of creating. Was Time Clocks always going to have a progressive feel, maybe with those Chris Squire influences coming to the fore?

“I think once we started to record it and started to layer it, and once we had the arrangements down, it was like, ‘Well, these are long-form songs.’ And I started to hear the mixes that Kevin did, and we talked about Hugh [Syme] doing the artwork, it was like, ‘Okay then, we’ll here we go.’ 

“It was just naturally going there, and I like that. Prog music has always been in my nature. I am a huge Emerson, Lake & Palmer fan, Genesis, Yes, all those bands who were so great back in the day – and Rush and Dream Theater, which to me was Gen Two of that. I also like trad blues so you just kind of ram them together until it makes sense, or at least is all in the same key!”

Well its a little like what you spoke about with regards the guitars; you can pick up any of them and sound like you. Thats the same with genre; you can write a song and make it progressive but it still sounds like you.

“Yeah, I’ve established a baseline that this thing could take a left or right turn at any point. It’s not like there’s a typical ‘Joe song’ that has to stay within these rails. No one ever gave me a copy of a rulebook. And if they did, I misplaced it.”

Has collecting vintage guitars enhanced your appreciation of older music, in the sense that youve followed a similar path in terms of digging in the crates for older, undiscovered artists for production and tone?

“Well there are always the ones that you know and then there are the discoveries, like Bobby Parker, and people like that who have this great catalogue of music and you think, ‘Where have they been in my life?’ I mean, they have been out there. I don’t think I collect vintage guitars because of that, and I don’t think that influences the kind of music I listen to. 

“I have been around old guitars my entire life. My Dad was a guitar dealer. We were around old guitars. I had old guitar books around when I was a kid. My whole childhood, all I wanted was a Blackface Fender amp. 

"I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world. And all I wanted was a beat-up maple-necked Strat from the ‘50s and an old Goldtop with humbucking pickups. Oh, and here’s one right here! [Laughs] All nine-and-a-half pounds of it.”

They dont get any lighter over the years…

“Not they don’t! Not all of them were featherweights. Everyone says, ‘Oh the ‘50s ones are featherweights.’ You want me to get 30 of them out? We could grab the bathroom scales. [Laughs] My whole life was based on those concepts of this being really cool. 

“I was telling this to a friend of mine. We went to a blues gig in Nashville. And I said to her, ‘I wish you were around to see these great club gigs…’ Because the band was smoking. And they were playing modern instruments, and they were playing great. I said, ‘I wish you were around to see what it was like in the mid to late ‘80s when you would go into a smoky bar…’ Because that was part of the ambience, too.

“My Father would sneak me in and we’d go to a smoky bar, and there was a guy with an old Telecaster and a beat-up Princeton. Because it was like the Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler lyric, ‘an old guitar was all he could afford’

And it was all smoked out because they had been playing for years and years, and when you would see that equipment and you would hear how they played – oh, man! – it was symbiotic. 

“The guitar, the visual of it, the guitar told the person, whoever was playing, that person’s musical story. You could see where he played on the neck. You could see the cigarette burn. 

"Remember they used to stick the goose neck microphone on the top of the amps? Screw them on the top of the Fender amps and they would go over? And they would be on a beer crate or a bar chair. The band would go up there nonchalantly and just play for four hours, and it was a mixture of covers and blues and whatever it was. 

“It’s not like that now. It’s not like that. People just had nothing to do but to order some chicken wings and listen. They weren’t on on their phones, they weren’t taking videos. 

"They weren’t doing anything other than consuming entertainment in its purest form. And I was nostalgic for that. Because it was a time that influenced me greatly, both on the gear side and on the music side.”

Its all part of the same eco-system – the smoky environment, the scars on the gear, on the players, the stories they tell. That sort of thing creates memories, creates a feeling. 

“It does. And like the prevailing Twitter counterpoint would be, ‘Well, not everybody can afford $40,000 for an old Telecaster, Bonamassa.’ Well, you’ve missed the point; the point was that the old Telecaster or Les Paul that they were playing, they probably bought it for $150. It wasn’t until the whole thing went bougie in the early ‘90s when a Sunburst Les Paul was eight grand, Goldtops were two. 

“Then it’s like that old cliche: ‘I own the world’s most-expensive gear to play the world’s least-paying gig.’ Especially if you are playing blues. This Strat? I’d have to play 500 shows to pay it off. It doesn’t make sense. 

So, on the collector’s side of it, has it been good financially for this stuff to go up, for people who have collected their whole lives like me? Yeah. But it does take it out of the reach of lots of players, and even if they do have old guitars they’re going to be like, ‘I'm too scared to bring them out because these things are worth so much. Back then? They’d lean ‘em against the fucking amp!”

And that feels like a shame in itself, that these great instruments wont get played for those reasons.

“Well, for some that it’s a shame. Then there are some that need to preserved, and don’t need to be out there getting beat down by anyone. Including me. And then there are some that are just cool-playing guitars that really just need to be out there gigging. 

"But it was also the fact that you could find it in a local music shop. My first Super Reverb cost me $275. I still have it, a ’66 Blackface. It’s in really good condition except for one replaced speaker, which, at one point I had Celestions in it because Gatton used to tell me that that’s what I should do, and then I saw Ronnie Earl play and he had Celestions in there. But that was my amp, and if something happened to my amp, I could find another one and it wasn’t like I had to go to Lloyds of London and get a cheque.”

What are we hearing on Time Clocks, the pedal-steel style playing on the title track?

“The pedal steel was the B-Bender, a ’68 Thinline [Telecaster] that has an original Parsons/White B-Bender. I’ve known that guitar since I was 12 years old, and I finally bought it from my friend in Florida 30 years later. That was the When One Door Opens guitar from Abbey Road [Royal Tea]. That was Time Clocks. Both those songs were written and played on that guitar.”

Its a lovely sound. Its cool how that works with the rest of the album, how thats got a southern rock and country vibe and then you can move over to something more English and pastoral, like on The Loyal Kind.

“Yeah, well I wrote that with Bernie [Marsden]. That was for Abbey Road, the Royal Tea record, and we never ended up cutting that. And we never ended up cutting Time Clocks either, so both of those songs were originally on the list for Royal Tea, and we decided to save them for the next record, and I am glad we did because they actually fit better on this record.”

Your production credits are coming along. What kind of producer are you? Has it changed your perspective on making your own records.

“This is the great thing about working with Josh Smith on these adventures; he is a real record producer. He knows about production. And Kevin Shirley also helps us out with his expertise and his time. My job, what I feel like I am good at, is giving a shit more than the artist – because I am one! And knowing what I would do, I would have more of a top-line concept. 

“I want people to listen to Joanne Shaw Taylor and go, ‘I didn’t know she could sing that good.’ Everybody knows she can play. A lot of people are saying about Eric Gales’ record, ‘I didn’t know he could sing that good. I didn’t know those songs are in him.’ That’s my job. It’s the same with Joanna Connor, like, where did that voice come from?

“One of the things is, and I have learned this from working with Kevin and Tom Dowd, and being around great producers, working with Bob Ezrin on the Alice Cooper thing – even just for an evening – is they find your weakness and they fucking antagonise you. They poke you! The job is to find your weakness and get that up to where your strengths are, and that’s my job in the studio. 

“I don’t like to overthink things. I like reactions, especially with the records we make. It is not a question of being good enough it is ‘Do I feel it?’ Y’know? If it’s not note-perfect and I feel it, then that’s the take I want. If it’s more of a situation where, ‘Well I just wanna get this thing note-perfect’ I don’t feel it. That’s been my role in these things… the great antagoniser!”

Finally, where are you most looking forward to playing on this go-round? Its going to be a little more special after all this time.

“Oh! [Pauses] I think when I walk onstage at the Albert Hall again – I never thought I would get back there, and not after this shit. It's like, ‘Okay, we're back.’ I am thrilled to be back, and I’m thrilled to have a situation where we can do that.”

Joe Bonamassas new album Time Clocks is released by Provogue/Mascot Label Group on 29 October via Mascot Label Group. Joe tours the UK in April and May 2022.

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.