By: Justin Beckner
On February 24th, 20015 guitar legend, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal will release his 10th solo album titled “Little Brother is Watching”. I remember hearing Ron on one of his solo records for the first time and being blown away by the sounds he was getting out of his guitar. Then I discovered the unique guitar sound was, in fact, being created from a stable of unique guitars – some fretless guitars, some that he made himself, some that had wings that would deploy out of the body when you used the whammy bar. It is that sense of intrigue that makes Bumblefoot one of the most revered names among guitar players today. In the following exclusive interview Ron discusses his latest solo effort, as well as the current state of Art of Anarchy, and sheds some light on what makes him one of the most fearlessly eclectic musicians of his generation.
Justin: So, I spent the majority of the morning listening to your new album and I must say it sounds great. Like all of your past albums, it’s not the typical self-indulgent guitar virtuoso sort of album. It’s a very well-rounded rock album. Out of everything you did for this album, playing, writing, producing, mixing, mastering, ect. What did you find most challenging about making this album?
Bumblefoot: Thank you. It was getting my brain in a creative place again because I was doing so much touring for years that, you don’t even realize it, but you start becoming very robotic and mechanical. You go through the continual repetitive motion of everything that you’re doing. So when you’re not improvising and being spontaneous, you start to lose your creative connection a little bit. So, forcing that back into my brain while being on tour was really challenging because usually I can’t write while I’m on tour. I just get into this performance mode but I’m not in the songwriting mode, which for me is this quiet deeply introspective kind of thing. But when you’re on tour you’re giving yourself to everyone else. You are not there for you and when I’m writing, I need to just be there for me. So it’s a battle between those two things. I was in South America and I would just be wandering around the hotel like a zombie in this sort of trance, just staring at my phone and typing lyrics and humming to myself. People probably thought I was insane and they were probably right. I think it was insane to try to write like that but I think you have to be a little insane to make good art - you have to be creative; you have to tap into that crazier part of your brain and pull things out.
Justin: How did you know it was time to start writing another solo album?
Bumblefoot: Well I had a few songs in the works that I had intended for other uses but those uses didn’t seem to be happening, so I had a few songs just sitting there. But it usually takes something hitting me out of left field to make me feel something where I start pouring out lyrics. They found a tumor in me and I was going to need surgery and it was cancer. So that’s what started me writing this album. The first song on the album is the first song I wrote with this album in mind is a song called “Clots” which is about exactly that – pissing out blood clots. It’s pretty gross but that’s what started it all. From there, I think it was a David Bowie exhibit that was going on while I was down in South America. Just seeing all his creativity in one building from his outfits to his old videos to his hand written drawings of his album cover concepts, it just hit me so hard and it reminded me of where my head needed to be at.
Justin: Did you name your tumor?
Bumblefoot: Yeah I named her Gladys.
Justin: Are you completely cancer free now?
Bumblefoot: To the best of my knowledge; and it wasn’t a battle or a struggle or anything like that. The surgery was a piece of cake. The recovery from the surgery was hell but everything else was fine. I don’t want to come off like it was this huge battle on chemo or anything because there are people who really suffer and what I had didn’t even come close. But catheters suck. If you can avoid a catheter, I’d definitely recommend it.
Justin: You don’t have time for catheters, you’re a busy guy. You’re leaving for a little tour stint in a few days, right?
Bumblefoot: Yeah I’m leaving in a couple days for Thailand. I just want to keep making music. I’ve been doing a lot more producing and I just feel like I’m doing everything that I wasn’t doing that made me feel like a zombie and now I’m doing all that stuff again and it feels fantastic. I want to continue to do that. I was to collaborate with people and make music; I want to produce; Right now I’m working with the metal band Generation Kill and they have a collaboration going with Darryl from Run DMC. They’re doing a rap metal thing and I’m putting guitar tracks on that and mixing it and doing the final production on that. We’re having a blast doing that and its coming out great.
Justin: Is producing something that you’d like to do more of in the future?
Bumblefoot: Yeah, it’s something I was doing a lot like 10 years ago. I would literally be working on 10 albums at a time plus my own album and touring Europe and teaching music production at SUNY Purchase College. I was doing 100 things and I loved it and I’d like to get back to doing all of that. I love the teaching aspects of the tours. I do clinics, master classes, I love going and playing for kids – going to an orphanage and bringing the guitar and just being silly and making the kids laugh or doing fundraisers and things like that for them. To me, going down and playing isn’t really enough because I know it could be much more for a greater purpose. So I like to include all of that in there and to me, it makes it feel worthwhile. So if someone asks me if I want to go tour, I say “not really”. But for example, I was talking to this promoter in India who builds houses for the poor and wants to do a fundraiser to try to raise $50,000 for it – that makes me want to go out and play. That’s my motivation, really.
Justin: That’s a really great thing that you do. It goes to show the transcendence and the importance of music.
Bumblefoot: I think music will always be important but I think it’s experienced differently than it was a generation ago. The whole act of finding music by browsing album covers at the record store and going to a concert for a couple of bucks and enjoying the moment – that has changed. It’s no longer a diamond, now it’s a grain of sand. Music is still valued but in a different way. It’s not so much a privilege to go to a concert and see something that will never happen again, now it’s something where people can take a souvenir with them and post it on YouTube. Music is still the soundtrack to everybody’s life in one way or another. I don’t think music will ever not be important to anybody. Music will always be able to say the things that we don’t have the words for. It will always be something that will make us feel like we’re understood and we connect. It will always be something that people love so much that they want to pay it forward and make their own music and share it in the hopes that other people will get the same feeling they got from it.
Justin: Do you have any specific charities that you’d like to bring to our attention?
Bumblefoot: Not so much a specific charity but something that I would like to talk about is the rise of autism is growing exponentially and it’s really something that should not be overlooked and needs to be addressed. I do what I can with that. I go to autism centers and visit the kids. It’s something that we need to figure out and support the research.
Justin: In all of your travels, do you try to check out local musicians and how does all of that travel expand your musical horizons?
Bumblefoot: I do. I always watch the opening acts when I play with Guns and I would, on my own tours, connect with local musicians in different parts of the world that I play and do stuff with them. This trip to Thailand, the first show will be a fundraiser for a kids charity and then the next couple shows are for a big bike week kind of thing – like Sturgis. Then I organized with the US Embassy in Bangkok and I’m going to play with some local Thai musicians. I do that a lot where I will do things in conjunction with US Embassies. I’ve done it in Albania, Belarus, Malaysia, it’s like a cross cultural musical thing where we play some traditional music and some of my music, do some educational stuff and just have a lot of fun. It’s great. I’ve connected with so many great musicians and I’ve learned so much interesting music that broadens your mind when you get to experience something completely new, musically.
Justin: Maybe that’s why your records cannot be confined to a specific genre. You played everything on the new album, even a cello I’m told.
Bumblefoot: Yes everything except drums. Dennis Leeflang has been my drummer for 12 years. He did some phenomenal drumming as he always does. I did everything else except for the backing vocals where there is all the big crowd foot stomping and chanting. I did a listening party in New York in December of last year, before the album was done where I would play a song and then we’d talk about it a bit. Then I’d show them parts to sing and I recorded all of that and I put all of that into the album. So that stuff you hear on the album is those 100 people from the listening party. They’re all in the album credits as well. It’s one whole panel on the album cover.
Justin: What’s the story with this Art of Anarchy project and what does the future hold?
Bumblefoot: So that started with these two twin brothers who were in bands that I used to produce going back about 18 years when they were just kids. I was always part of what they were doing musically, be it recording or producing or whatever. They started a company a few years ago and the first album they wanted to do was a super group type album where they get a bunch of people together from different places and make this cool, fun record. So we went into the studio and started tracking everything in 2011 and we had the music done. John Moyer joined in on bass and kicked ass as he always does. Then we started reaching out to different singers and Scott agreed to do a song and then he agreed to do the whole album and we made this really cool album together. I know he’s said a lot about distancing himself from it and not playing live, and playing live wasn’t really in the cards unless it happened organically and grew into something. But at that point we just crossed each bridge as we got to them. At that point it was just about making an album that we thought people would find interesting and enjoy. There are some interesting songs on that.
Justin: When will that album come out?
Bumblefoot: It will probably be out the middle of this year. No date yet though.
Justin: You had a great quote that went something like - you spend 5% of your time playing and 95% of the time trying to make that 5% happen. Do you have any advice to folks for getting through that 95%?
Bumblefoot: Probably the best advice on that is to not forget about the 5% when you’re dealing with the other 95%. It’s easy to get lost in that 95%. Just keep in mind that it’s all about the music and everything you do in that 95% is to make that 5% happen. It is what it is and that’s what it takes but if you love music that much, you will do that 95% and be happy to do it because that 5% is worth it.
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