A Different Kind of Reunion.: An Interview with Col. Bruce Hampton
A conversation about the highly anticipated shows reuniting the original members of Aquarium Rescue Unit.
The headline stealing and by all accounts historic reunion fifty years in the making has finally played out to perfection. The Grateful Dead blew the lofty expectations into another time and forgotten space. They managed to not only cement their legacy, but even added to their legendary rock and roll history. Guitar savant Trey Anastasio confronted the impossible task of filling in for the beloved Jerry Garcia by simply being himself. Trey joined the core four alongside Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti and captured the imagination of dead nation by performing all five shows with euphoric results. The record breaking shows will easily be the yardstick that all reunions will be measured.
I enjoyed a phone conversation with the infamous Col. Bruce Hampton a few months ago shortly after the news hit that he managed to carve out enough time from his now legendary former bandmates schedules to reunite his short-lived but genius band from the early nineties, the Aquarium Rescue Unit. Maybe you have heard of his former bandmates? The Unit includes Jimmy Herring on lead guitar, Oteil Burbridge on bass, Jeff Sipe on drums and the talented Matt Slocum on keys as the one ringer. My mind was bubbling over with questions for the mad hatter of the nascent scene, commonly recognized as the father of jam bands. I was a little disorientated and was feeling anxious as I l had an infinite amount of questions and a short time to ask them. I was immediately put to ease the second we started to talk. It was akin to talking to your cool uncle as he quickly made me feel comfortable and assuring me no topic was off the table. So over the next hour we discussed everything and nothing, with him being equally curious about myself. His demeanor and sense of humor made this interview feel like a conversation which is rare.
K.L. Your huge announcement was greeted by all smiles, “Are you surprised about all the negative press over The Grateful Dead's reunion shows? As a band do you think that constant negative press affects the creative process?”
B.H. “First you got to give them credit for keeping this thing alive for fifty years, that is special. I know Trey is a great choice to fill any pair of shoes. Look I don’t know what's good music and what is bad. They probably would not allow B.B. King, Thelonious Monk or The Grateful Dead into the Berklee School of Music and I heard that they only take professionals.”
K.L. After all these years, What inspired you to get the gang back together for a full scale reunion?
B.H." Actually it was our manager. We have been discussing it for twenty years. It was just a matter of our schedules matching up. The band is extremely busy being stars. (Chuckles) We got serious about it last year & we finally made it happen."
K.L. What material to you expect to play, are you going to lean on your old material or our y'all writing new music?
B.H. "We are writing lots of new material. I guess we plan on playing about eighty percent new songs with a mix of old songs and some covers thrown in. My plan is to play the same song every night, I just have not written the right song yet." (laughs)
K.L. Wow! That's exciting, so our you planning on releasing a new album?
B.H. "Yes, that is the works"
K.L. Back when you formed in the late eighties did you realize how talented your band was & did you ever imagine that their careers held so much promise?
B.H. Yea! They just needed a few years of seasoning, but I knew they were great. In the eighties it was a different time. The older cats would tell me that they were over playing, but they did not realize that they may have been playing a lot of notes but a song was always there."
K.L. James Brown is called the godfather of soul, is it fair to call you the godfather of jam bands?
B.H. (Laughing) "More like the grandfather. In 1963 we were talking about improvising but did not know how to, it took a couple of years to figure it out. In 1966 we really started improvising."
K.L. The Grateful Dead & yourself came up about the same time. Where you a fan?
B.H. "Well I played with them in the sixties and became friends with Pigpen & his father. Then I met Billy and we became great friends. We are from the same planet. But I was not a fan because I did not know the material. I did not like any of that California singing. The Eagles ruined it for me. I did not become a fan until Jimmy started playing with them after Jerry passed away. He introduced me to their vast catalogue of music and I really dug it. I really like how they covered every kind of music. Dark Star is just an amazing piece of music. Jerry Garcia was just an amazing composer, but I was not aware. I came from a background if you did not play blues or a-vanguard Jazz I did not want anything to do with it. I went through a twenty year period of being really close minded. I was in a jazz place, you could say. (Laughing) These days I will listen to anything as long as the intention is good."
K.L Who is your favorite musician that currently is in our genre?
B.H. “It would have to be Steve Kimock. He is amazing and he listens, he's sensitive and considerate. He can sit in with anybody and make the music better immediately. He has absolutely no ego or agenda. Steve only answers to the music. He is my jam cruise buddy, we have the best times.”
K.L. (laughing) On that subject, we park our cars in the same garage. If you had to pick just one musician who has influenced you the most, who would it be?
B.H. (This interview took place before B.B. King passed away) “Easy! B.B. King. I was lucky enough to play with him when I was eighteen. He was and still is a saint. You learn as much from B.B. King talking to him, I have also learned even more about being a man from watching him conduct his affairs He is the most humble, honest man. I learned so much more just watching him then you ever do playing with him.”
K.L. Getting back to the A.R.U. tour, why did y’all split up in 1993 when the band was at their highest creative peak and the crowds started to grow?
B.H. “That’s simple, the crowds did not grow big enough to pay the bills. In order to have big crowds you needed chicks to like you. We could not win over the women. I knew Phish would become big because in the late eighties, we always toured with Phish. They may have only been 8 chicks at the show, but all 8 would be singing every word. It’s a simple business model(Laughing) Get hot chicks singing your songs.”
K.L. You clearly taught the future greats undefinable knowledge while in A.R.U. Is there a clear lesson or message you installed into the minds of those young proteges?
B.H. “That there are no rules! Musically, everything is on the table.”
K.L. Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue unit is easily one of the most important acts in the evolution of the jam band. Do you agree with that statement?
B.H. "I don’t disagree with it, but who knows. One thing is for sure, we were ahead of what most bands were doing then. I know it was a special time in my life. We had a blast touring with Phish, Widespread Panic,etc. Those kids taught me, just as much as I taught them. We were making good music and that is what matters."
K.L. Well, I could not be more excited about this upcoming tour.
B.H.”It will be something new and that excites me as well. It's going to be a blast. Revisiting this band after they have matured, magic is bound to follow."
K.L. Before I let you go, I have to ask a personal question. In 1995, Phish serenaded you with a moving version of Fish(man) singing "Wind Beneath My Wings" while you read a newspaper. What in the HELL?
B.H. (laughing) “ They called me to sit in and I had been working 20 hours straight. I turned them down, later they called and said I only had to sit in a chair. I was attending anyway. We got used to fucking with each other and they won that night.”
K.L Thanks for your time Col.
Besides "The Treyful Dead”, this is the best music of the summer. You cannot afford to miss this band.Words and Questions Kevin Long