Randy Bachman

Bachman: Reinventing Heavy Blues
by Sal Serio
February 2015

Randy Bachman live! - photo by Callianne Bachman

Randy Bachman live!
photo by Callianne Bachman

When the concept truly sunk in that I was going to be talking to the king of Canadian rock, Randy Bachman, the man behind the music of such incredible songs such as ‘American Woman’, ‘No Sugar Tonight’, ‘These Eyes’, ‘Undun’, ‘Let It Ride’, ‘Rock Is My Life And This Is My Song’, ‘Hey You’, and the FM radio behemoths ‘Takin’ Care Of Business’ and ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet’, well, I was a little anxious, to say the least. As it turned out, Randy is an extremely eloquent speaker with a warm personality, and I immediately felt at ease with our conversation. Bachman’s new album, “Heavy Blues”, comes out April 14, and the very first date of his tour is right here in Wisconsin, Wednesday April 1, at Potawatomi Casino in Milwaukee.

MAXIMUM INK:  I understand that, as a youth, your first instrument was violin, and that you played by ear.

RANDY BACHMAN:  Yes, I grew up playing classical violin, in Winnipig, from the age of 5 to 14. I didn’t realize [that] I couldn’t read music. I had a teacher, she was wonderful, and she would put this piece in front of me, Chopin or something, and she would play it first, as a guide. I would see these notes on the page, they went up and down, and they would follow what she was playing. And she’d say, “okay, now you try to play it”. And, I played it perfectly. You know, I’m 7 or 8 years of age. And she’d go, “you have to practice that for a whole week.” I’d say, why? I already know it. So, she’d give me [another] 2 or 3 and I would learn them right away as she played them. And then she said, “I think you should play in the Junior School Symphony, 2nd violin. I want you to go to this tryout next Saturday.”

So, I go, [and] there’s like 80 kids there, it’s a real Junior School Symphony. This is where Neil Young [went] to school, Kelvin High School in Winnipeg. So, I go to this high school, with my violin, and I sit down. [The conductor] gives us a standard piece to play, to see how it all fits together. We start to play this song, and I play a wrong note. So, there’s tap-tap-tap, and the whole symphony stops, and the guy says, “2nd violin, bar 32, it’s an E flat, not an E natural. Let’s take it from the top.” We start from the top, get to the bar, [and] I play the same note. He tap-tap-taps, “2nd violin, what don’t you understand about an E flat and an E natural, can you please play me an E flat?” I didn’t know what he was talking about.

I packed up my violin in tears, got on the bus, went home, [and] the next day saw Elvis Presley on TV, black and white on the Ed Sullivan show, and said, “THAT’s what I want to do. That’s wild. Nobody knows what they’re playing. Guys [are] jumping all over the place. Listen to the guitar! I want to learn that”. So, I met Lenny Breau, and that was like my transition of leaving behind this staunch, straightforward, classical, Royal Conservatory Of Music violin, in to the wild world of guitar playing, and I’ve never looked back.

MI:  It seems that guitarist Lenny Breau was a big early influence on you, along with Wes Montgomery, Hank Marvin, and Leslie West. How did you meet Lenny Breau?

RB:  I saw Elvis on Ed Sullivan, and said, “THAT’s what I want”. Classical violin is so restrictive, standing a certain way and playing certain notes, and Elvis was absolutely the epitome of wildness! At the same time, a band moved in to Winnipeg, it was a mother and father, and their son, Lenny Breau, was playing guitar. [His] father’s name was Hal Lone Pine… this was like his cowboy name, the family name was Breau, and the mother’s name was Betty Cody, so it was like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, that kind of cowboy singing rockabilly Johnny Cash / Webb Pierce kind of stuff. And they had this kid, who was 16, a year older than me, playing guitar. He played guitar like Scotty Moore, who was playing behind Elvis. So, they were playing live all over Winnipeg, barn dances and car lots and everything. [Back] then, you’d play anywhere, like in a park, or a parking lot selling used cars and everything. This was live on the radio.

I went to see him play, and they did an Elvis song and he played the Scotty Moore part just perfectly. I said, “wow, where did you come from?” and he said we’d moved here from Maine, we live in Winnipeg. I said, “where do you go to school?” and he said, “I don’t, I quit when I was 10, to play in the family band.” I thought, wow, this guy’s cool, he quit school when he was 10! I asked where he lives, and he told me where the house was, and I said that’s just right across the street from two friends of mine, two girl friends, twins, and I go to their house every day for lunch because it’s too far for me to go home from school. They didn’t have school lunches in those days, and it was like two miles to go home to eat lunch. And, Winnipeg is 40 below in the Winter, so you didn’t do that. So, I [asked if] every day when I go over to my girl friend’s for lunch, can I come over to your house? He said sure.

So, I played hooky from school for two years, went over to his house every afternoon, and he’d be working out Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, Elvis Presley, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, Howard Roberts, all that kind of jazz, and rock ‘n roll, stuff. So, when I took him Chuck Berry, it was easy for him to figure that out and show it to me, because I was transposing from a violin, right over to guitar. And, you know, Hank Marvin from The Shadows, and all that kind of stuff. So, he basically taught me guitar etiquette, what to play, what not to play, and to listen to the two Chets: Chet Atkins and Chet Baker. That was like a whole new world to me. And, from my years with him and dabbling in to jazz, I was able to write ‘(She’s Come) Undun’, kind of a jazzy song for The Guess Who, and do the guitar stuff on ‘Blue Collar’ and ‘Looking Out For # 1’ for BTO, so I’ve always had a little jazz influence there. Now, to leave out some of the chords and just totally embrace blues, is what I did on this [“Heavy Blues”] album. It was kind of a cathartic moment for me, to do this album.

MI:  Is Lenny’s influence still present on the music you are currently playing?

RB:  It is. When I do a solo, I think, what would Eric do?  Eric Clapton is one of my big influences. What would Jeff Beck do? What would Lenny Breau do? And try to do a composite of what they would do at that moment in that song. And that kind of ending up being all my solos on most of the records you’ve heard. Plus, being a violin player, all you play on violin is melody. So, most of my solos, like ‘American Woman’, ‘No Time’, even ‘Takin’ Care Of Business’, you can sing the solo as if it’s part of the melody, so it’s really engrained in there as part of the song. It’s not just a guy improvising, it’s actually a melodic interlude that keeps coming back throughout the song. So, that’s kind of my style.

MI:  I was surprised to learn that your last name is often mispronounced here in the States. You say it with a short “A” sound, as in “Back”.

RB:  Yeah, but there’s a difference between the [Canadian] and U.S. language, in pronunciation. For example we say falcon [with a long “A”] and falcon [soft “A”]. Datsun [long “A”], which used to be a car, and Datsun [soft “A”]. In England they say Bachman [pronounces it like “Beckmen”] and in Germany they say Bachman [pronounces it like “Bockmon”], so I’m used to my name being said in all these different countries in a different way. To avoid confusion, when I was doing interviews, I would say, “this is Randy Bachman [“Backman”] of Bachman-Turner Overdrive”, and get it both said at once. Because, when we signed with our record label back in the 70s, the head of the label was Charlie Fach, and he was German. So, he put up this thing in our bio that our name was Bachman, but then in parenthesis he put “B-O-C-K” so everyone would say “Bockmon”. So, that was kind of like an instruction given to everybody in our first bio, so that’s what we were called. I’m used to them both, and most D.J.s , or even myself in interviews, use it both ways.

MI:  One of my all-time favorite references to Bachman-Turner Overdrive in popular culture was when you were featured on The Simpsons TV program, in 2000. I loved it when Homer was chanting “TCB, TCB!” (a reference to ‘Takin’ Care Of Business’). That must have been a lot of fun to do.

RB:  It was amazing. BTO broke real big out of Seattle, and Matt Groening at the time was going to Evergreen University in Tacoma, so the music was on the radio there all the time. I didn’t know this until one day, out of my fax machine, came a request for ‘Takin’ Care Of Business’ and ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet’ for The Simpsons. So, I called my publisher and said, “I don’t understand what this is, are they going to play the song on The Simpsons”? And he said, no, they actually want you to be on it. They want a cartoon BTO playing the band shell. The whole thing is about initials. Homer is going to say to Bart, “This is the days of ELO, BTO, CS&N, and CTA, the Chicago Transit Authority… that’s what initials meant, from ELP Emerson, Lake, and Palmer… Bart thinks his Dad is nuts, and then we go play the band shell. But, going out to L.A. to do that was really quite an incredible experience for me. It was wonderful.

MI:  Your new CD “Heavy Blues” is being released in April on Linus Entertainment, a division of True North Records. How did this new album deal come about?

RB:  True North Records has been around in Canada forever. They were one of the first labels back in the 60s, in Canada, but they changed hands recently, and the guy who got part of the ownership is Geoff Kulawick [who] used to run Warner Chappell Publishing in Canada, so I’ve known Geoff for quite a long time. He called me up and said, “I’m taking over this record label, and it’s pretty hard to find a new band because they’re here today, gone tomorrow. I want to find some evergreen artists”.

He signed a friend of mine, Buffy Sainte-Marie, who’s a really great Canadian artist and she has written some wonderful hit songs. She’s doing an album. I think I’m going to guest guitar on her album. And [Geoff] says, “I signed Buffy, and I think I want to give you a shot. Do you want to do an album? I’ll fully back you, but let me help you pick your songs, because I’m a song man.”

So, I saw Neil Young in Nashville. I was inducted into the Nashville Musicians Hall Of Fame last January, a year ago. I was inducted with Stevie Ray Vaughan. Double Trouble was there. Kenny Wayne Shepherd sat in for Stevie Ray Vaughan. Frampton was inducted, Duane Eddy, Barbara Mandrell, Brenda Lee, and a lot of really great musicians and singers. And, so, I told Neil I was offered a record deal, and he said, “Well, don’t make the mistake of doing the same thing you’ve always been doing and saying that it’s new… because it’s just you re-doing yourself. Really get scared. Scare yourself. Get a producer who will make you do stuff that you wouldn’t normally do. And get different guitars, and do a different kind of music. If you get a shot, really make it a great shot. Totally reinvent yourself. Get scared of what you’re going to do. Frighten yourself. Challenge yourself, and you’ll be amazed at what happens”. Because he just recently had Daniel Lanois produce him, and he’d been producing himself for years.

MI:  You were pretty fortunate to wind up with such an amazing and sought-after producer, Kevin Shirley.

RB:  Giving Kevin Shirley the reins to produce me, he said, “My one caveat is that you listen to me. You do everything I tell you to do. You do the music and write the songs. Let me do the sonic, and the mixing, and that kind of stuff. We’ll work collaboratively, but you have to give me control, or else I don’t want to be your puppet. I’ll push you down roads you’ve never been on, and I’ll pull you past the stop sign where you normally stop, because, you’re going to do your own vocal, your own guitar, and you say that’s great, I’m terrific, and you eat dinner, and you go to bed. I’m going to keep you there past dinner, trying to get a better solo out of you, or a better performance out of you and the band”.

I said, “Great, that’s exactly what I want.” So, we go in to the studio, and we did twelve songs in five days! One day getting the sound, and then we just ran through the songs. I was writing them, and molding and shaping them, on the spot. Taking songs I had written with four and five, and sometimes twelve, jazz chords, and common denominating it down to one, or two, or three chords, making it blues. Therefore, that changed my singing lines to be more flat at thirds, more blue notes and stuff. I was pretty surprised at the results, how I came to write these blues songs. Which is kind of the essence of growing up, you know, rock ‘n roll, rockabilly… all came from the Chicago blues mixing with hillbilly and all that stuff. All three chord country and blues music. For me to go to back to those early roots of learning in Winnipeg was kind of a comfort zone for me, in a way.

MI:  It sounded like you had to work very quickly and disciplined with Kevin.

RB:  [Kevin Shirley] does all of Joe Bonamassa’s stuff, and you’ll find they start at noon, and they knock off around 4:30 or 5. They’re all family guys. He’ll say, “I do not want to stay in the studio 12, 15, hours while you’re doing your guitar lick. If you can’t do your lick, you can’t do the lick, okay, so let’s just move on. So, let’s start at noon, we’ll plug in, and kick in and be recording by 1:00. We’ll do two or three takes of each song. We’ll do two songs a day, listen to them… if we don’t get it, we don’t get it, you’re no good. I want you to be that good that you’re going to be that on, that you and the girls push it and rock on. We did it, and I was amazed by that attitude of relaxed, but pushing, right? You know… relax, but get this done in two takes! You really have to concentrate.

And, having these girls as the rhythm section, my one edict to them was… I don’t want you to play drums, and I don’t want you to play bass. I want you to attack them. If you look at an early film of The Who or Led Zeppelin, which is all in black and white on YouTube, like early BBC shows… John Bonham was not “playing” the drums, he was hitting them like a bar fight, like he’s hitting a guy in the face who he didn’t want to get up again. So, every single hit is like a killer hit. So, look at Keith Moon, look at Ginger Baker, John Bonham, this is what I want out of drums. They said, “You’ve got it, this is what we’ve always wanted to play. Everybody wants us to be so restrained and play in a groove”. I said, our groove is thrashing! I want thrash. I want late 60s power trio. Let’s crank up. I want to be Pete Townshend, I want to be Clapton and Hendrix. You can be Entwistle and Bonham, whoever you want to be, and let’s do a song like The Who. Let’s emulate Zeppelin, let’s do a song to emulate Cream, stuff like that. That was our template. That gave us direction, and a kind of vocabulary… a riff to play to. So, when you hear some of the songs on there, you go, “Wow, this is very reminiscent of 1969 Cream ‘Wheels Of Fire’, this is very reminiscent of the Jimi Hendrix Experience”. There’s a song there called ‘Bad Child’, where I said let’s take the groove from ‘Manic Depression’, which nobody does in rock ‘n roll. I think the Allman Brothers did it in ‘Whipping Post’, like a fast 6/8 thing that nobody does anymore in rock or blues, so let’s revive that in ‘Bad Child’, and then, when Joe Bonamassa did his solo on ‘Bad Child’ it took it to a whole new level. So, I was very lucky in capturing this late 60s British blues invasion power trio thing, and then the modern icing on the cake were these guest soloists who showed up and gave me a little bit of their heart and soul on each track and really made it distinctive.

MI:  One of the guest guitar solos on this album was a posthumous performance by Jeff Healey.

RB:  Yes, I had recorded with him live at Massey Hall in Toronto, with Duke Robillard and him and me, like with three guitars, and that got never got released, because while it was happening Jeff was battling cancer, so it just wasn’t a priority. When I was doing this album, I was like, gee, I’m kind of like the Jeff Healey Trio here, and I called Crystie, his widow, and said I’m doing this album with Neil Young on it, and Peter Frampton and stuff, and could I use one of his tracks when I recorded live?  And she said, “Sure, you have my blessing, Jeff would love it”. So I took one of Jeff’s signature songs, which was a B.B. King signature song, ‘Early In The Morning’, which we had recorded live, which is in the key of G. So, I wrote a song in the key of G, and it’s called ‘Confessin’ To The Devil’, and it’s a very Bo Diddley beat. Amazingly enough, Jeff’s solo fits in there so perfectly it’s like he’s in the room with us, and it’s very B.B. King sounding ‘cause it’s lifted out of the B.B. King song, I’m talking young B.B. King, that kind of guitar playing, it gives the album a very classy jazzy blues, because some of the riffs he plays in there are really cool kind of pick up notes in there and stuff. I think the best playing probably was Frampton, who did blues licks that were just unbelievable on [the song] ‘Heavy Blues’.

MI:  How long have you known your new rhythm section? Anna Ruddick on bass and Dale Anne Brendon is playing the drums.

RB:  I just met them last year, pulled them together for this session, they all went their own way. We’re getting together in about two weeks to rehearse the album and all of my old songs, because when I play live I’m going to have to honor ‘American Woman’, ‘No Time’, ‘Takin’ Care of Business’, and ‘Let It Ride’, and things like that, so, we really haven’t played together that much. It’s a wonderful thing to call people together, almost like Neil and Crazy Horse, where you don’t rehearse. Here’s the song, get familiar with this or listen to it on the radio, get iTunes, and we’re going to get together and play them with some energy, and give me something brand new in this song. Honor the old template so people know what it is, and let’s just get in to it. So, that’s what we’re going to be doing. It’s going to be exciting. It won’t be note for note, it’s going to be song for song. I mean, you’ll recognize ‘American Woman’ and ‘No Time’ and ‘(She’s Come) Undun’ is done a totally different way. It’s done like Metallica would do it, or a real heavy metal kind of thing. So, some songs are reinvented, but you’ll still know the songs when I do them, because I don’t want to come out and play twelve new blues songs, I’m just going to do a smattering of them, four or five of them, mixed in with my hits.

We got some amazing gigs. I’m looking forward to surprising and pleasing the venues that are taking a chance on me, and a brand new band. They are not going to be disappointed. We’re going all out. They’re going to be getting hits from The Guess Who, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and three or four new cuts of mine that are hopefully going to be played on radio or the Internet, or you can Google them and get them. I’m very excited about it. It’s going to be a great Summer.

MI:  Speaking of radio, what has changed in the radio industry where an artist can have all of their classic hits played in heavy rotation, but the new releases don’t get airtime?

RB:  Well, there’s something about what they call “classic rock”. It was an extension of 60s pop music, that was very melodic. There were great songs written in the 60s. The great songs written in the 70s were guys copping the 60s but playing it heavier. It was called heavy rock, right? We took normal rock ‘n roll, and got louder amps and guitars, and screamed a bit louder, and it was called heavy rock. That’s the genre that has become classic rock.

I think what’s wrong today is classic radio is not properly honoring the classic artists that are out there. They should be playing an old Aerosmith and a new Aerosmith, an old Heart and a new Heart, an old Yardbirds and a new Yardbirds, and Tears For Fears and Beach Boys, Journey and Journey, and Bachman and Bachman. Everybody’s got new albums out and radio is not playing it. Radio is missing out big time. In the old days, radio used to discover a song, and try to break a hit. They don’t do that anymore. They’re all stuck in this 3 hour play loop, and songs are basically an excuse to play commercials, because they get money for playing the commercials. So, I really don’t like a lot of modern radio.

That’s why I have my own radio show [CBC Radio One’s “Vinyl Tap”] with a free format every Saturday night and I play anything I want for 2 hours, and tell my own stories [about] my own vinyl collection, and it’s been the top rated show in Canada, and in the States, and the Internet, for 7 or 8 years now. That’s what radio needs to do. If you look at any hit parade chart from the 60s, it’ll have Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Elvis, Webb Pierce, Johnny Cash, Patti Page, The Rolling Stones, Donovan… it’ll have everything on there, and that’s what’s missing from radio.

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