Interview: Bruce Hornsby Rises Again

Pianist-bandleader Bruce Hornsby is the only Grammy-winning pop musician to also serve as the Grateful Dead's utility keyboardist. Hornsby's last few albums testify to his relentless musical exploration and comfort-zone avoidance. In 2007 he released Camp Meeting with jazz drummer Jack Dejohnette and bassist Christian McBride. Last year he released Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby with the country/bluegrass star. And last month he released Levitate, an ambitious and thoroughly enjoyable rock album with his latest band, the Noisemakers, with whom he's touring.

We caught up with Hornsby by phone from Florida, where he was checking in on a pet project.

What's going on in Miami?

Bruce Hornsby: I was at my old school this week: the University of Miami, "Suntan U." I started the Bruce Hornsby Creative American Music Program there a couple of years ago. You can now go into the halls of academia and study Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Rogers, Gilman Rowe, Stephen Foster, and the folk music that influenced and informed American songwriting. It’s basically a songwriters program. I just gave them a big endowment and said, "Here’s what I want to do." They were really excited about the idea, which broadens their range of offerings like crazy. I thought there was a big hole in college music curriculums, so I thought I’d try to fill it in at least my school.

What other nonprofit organizations do you support? Are you on any boards?

Hornsby: I’ve been on the National Fair Housing Alliance board for several years. I’ve been involved on a giving level with the Southern Poverty Law Center for more than twenty-five years. I’ve been involved with the Innocence Project. I actually tried to help the Project plead cases to governors who owed me favors because I played benefits and raised money for them. Yes, I have played the grim, tainted political-fundraising game.

I understand that some of the songs on Levitate are part of a musical you’re working on?

Hornsby: Eight out of the twelve songs are from the musical. That’s not quite accurate, though, because the musical people liked a couple of the songs so much they decided to try to shoehorn them into the musical. "The Black Rats of London" was written for the record, not the musical, but now it’s in the musical so it’s included in those eight songs. "Prairie Dog Town," "Cyclones," "Space Is the Place," and "Levitate" aren't part of it.

What's the musical called?

Hornsby: SCKBSTD, all capital letters.

It sounds like a vaguely obscene license plate

Hornsby: That's astute of you because the poster for the play is that title on a Virginia license plate. I don’t have great expectations. The streets are littered with fantastic songwriters who have stiffed on Broadway. But I like where this has led me on a songwriting level, both musically and lyrically. It's freed me to write more dissonant and chromatic twentieth- and twenty-first-century harmonies as I did in songs like "Paperboy" and "Michael Raphael." So I'm headed in a more dissonant and chromatic direction, much to the chagrin of the part of my audience that's unadventurous.

What's SCKBSTD about?

Hornsby: That’s top secret, under wraps.

Some of the songs on Levitate have a political bent, others not so much. What sort of balance were you going for?

Hornsby: "Black Rats of London is certainly political, in a semifrivolous sense. We're poking holes in the exaltation of American history, the isn't-our-country-so-great mindset, which isn't necessarily American in its origin.

"Cyclone," on the other hand, is a very personal song. How did you end up writing it with Robert Hunter?

Hornsby: I’ve always loved Hunter’s lyrics and it’s always sort of been in the air that he was open to the idea of writing with me. So I got in touch with him and said, "Hey, how about it?" And he said, "Please send me a track." Maybe that’s how he likes to work; he likes to work with a track. So I sent him this track that to me had a classic Hunter-Garcia feeling. I sort of scatted the melody I heard over the track and sent it to him, and two weeks later he sent me back these finished lyrics that speak very clearly to the melody I had sung over the track. So it was a very simple process.

You don't take any solos on Levitate. Was it hard to restrain yourself?

Hornsby: No, not at all. I had no real interest. Frankly, soloing would’ve felt stuck on. Like an afterthought. Like, "Oh, I'd better do this because that’s what people expect."

Do you consider yourself a politically engaged musician?

Hornsby: As I get older, to be honest, I get more disillusioned with how nasty and political politics has become. It seems that American culture – both popular culture and the whole American discourse – has become coarsened and just nasty. So it’s hard to not become disillusioned with the whole tone of the debate, whatever it is. I hate to say that. I am of course hopeful about the Obama administration. But I wish he'd take tougher stances in some cases and not be such a middle-of-the-roader. I'm a fan but hope he'll become tougher.

Read any good books lately?

Hornsby: Absolutely. I read the last John Updike, My Father’s Tears. I read William Styron’s collection of stories, Havanas in Camelot. I read the latest Pat Conroy novel, South of Broad. I read King Lear. I could go on; I'm always reading something. I read my cousin Hayden Saunier's first great poetry book, Tips For Domestic Travel, and it’s absolutely fantastic so I’ll give her a plug right here. She’s a great actor and a great poet.

What are you listening to?

Hornsby: I'm listening to Elliott Carter. The great piano virtuoso Ursula Oppens recorded Elliott Carter at 100: The Complete Piano Music. I'm actually working on the last piece from the CD, "Catenaires." It’s a perpetual-motion piece, incredibly virtuosic but way over my head. But I love it so I'm trying to play it. That’s something else I'm inflicting on my audiences these days. I'm a big fan of twelve-tone serial music – like Schoenberg, Webern, and the second Viennese school. Don't get me started; this is one of my favorite topics and I'll just keep going. I’ve also been listening to a lot of my own show tapes, both to learn the sound of me sucking and to learn the sound of me being good. I started doing it six or seven years ago, when we started putting together the Intersections box, which has a lot of live music in it. I should have been doing it even earlier. If we think a show is pretty good these days, we put it up for download at Bruce Hornsby Live.