Glenn Hughes isn’t called “The Voice of Rock” for nothing. Throughout his career, his one-of-a-kind howling rock vocals have cut through the wall-of-guitar din of such legendary bands as Deep Purple, Trapeze and Black Sabbath.
After spending years as a solo artist, creating albums that mixed his traditional rock style with the soul music grooves he loved in his youth, singer-bassist Hughes got back into the band thing in 2009 by forming supergroup Black Country Communion (BCC) with popular blues guitarist Joe Bonamossa, drummer Jason Bonham (who has drummed with his late father John’s old band Led Zeppelin) and former Dream Theater keyboardist Derek Sherinian.
When BCC dissolved in 2013, Hughes and Bonham carried on, forming a new trio, California Breed, with now-23-year-old guitarist Andrew Watt. The band’s self-titled debut album was released in May 2014, and it’s a scorcher. Leaving behind BCC’s bluesier tendencies, California Breed finds Hughes and Bonham in full Zeppelin mode, with Hughes’ stronger-than-ever vocals careening over Watt’s thick Jimmy Page-esque riffs and Bonham evoking his father with a mighty stomp and perfect feel. The songs they wrote together are great, too—not a clunker in the bunch.
When this interview was conducted, Hughes was anticipating the release of the California Breed CD and looking forward to playing live with the new band. It was recently announced that, at least for California Breed’s upcoming live shows, Bonham will be replaced by former Queens of the Stone Age drummer Joey Castillo.
Read on for Hughes’ insights on the new group and album, the dissolution of BCC, recording techniques, and the perspective that comes with the hard life of a rocker.
Glenn Hughes: Top of the morning to you, mate.
Howard Whitman: Yes, same to you sir.
Hughes: Where are you, on the east or the west?
Whitman: I’m on the east coast—in Philadelphia.
Hughes: How lovely is that?
Whitman: It’s kind of grim and gray today.
Hughes: One of my great places we played all those years ago, before you were born, in Deep Purple …
Whitman: (laughs) I was with you in those days!
Hughes: Listen, man, I always assume I’m talking to someone younger.
Whitman: I wish! No, I remember listening to Burn when it was new…
Hughes: Good, man.
Whitman: … and thinking what a wild and amazing voice you had, even then.
Hughes: You know, bro, there’s a lot of stuff we need to talk about. We’ll talk about the voice, so just fire away.
Whitman: OK, let’s talk about the new album. I was wondering about how you made the transition out of Black Country Communion—how that came to a close and you transitioned to this new band with Jason Bonham and your awesome new guitarist Andrew Watt?
Hughes: Well, let’s talk about where I’ve been the last 20 years. Obviously, if you’ve heard about my autobiography, I’ve had a really hell of a time on drugs, bla bla bla bla bla. So 20-odd years ago, I came back from that. The last 20-something years, I’ve been making albums and I’ve a relationship with Chad (Smith) and John (Frusciante) from the (Red Hot Chili) Peppers and stuff like that and I’ve been working. But let’s just say that I really love R&B and soul and rock and all the things. So when I formed Black Country with Joe, I had to take a look at, “Where do we go with this?” So Joe and I figured we were going to make a rock band. So when I put my hat firmly back on in the rock genre, I just thought, “Would the fans and critics appreciate it?”, because I’m really into coming back as a rocker. And everybody said, “Where’ve you been? We’ve been waiting for you.” Because actually, Howard, I’m not black. I’m actually white. I was born in the West Midlands. You know my background from Purple and stuff— I made my grace and my name from rock. So when Black Country broke up, we signified with the three albums and one DVD, we did 41 shows. I’m not really complaining that much, but I was suddenly back playing rock music to rock fans. So when Black Country disbanded, shortly after that Jason and I decided we were going to move on, not with Black Country part 2, not with any of the guitar player people you know and I know, but let’s do something new. Let’s do something without a keyboard player—something I’ve been wanting to do for years and years. Let’s go back to it organically. Let’s make it about a guitar, a bass, drums and a vocal. As Zeppelin were a trio with Robert, The Who were a trio with Roger, Free were a trio with Paul—it’s basically trios, for me, a key element of my roots. So we didn’t know who we were going to ask to join us, but the first guy that came up was Andrew Watt, who was introduced to me by my friend Julian Lennon in L.A. the day before the Grammys last year. Julian introduced Andrew and I found him to be a really smart young boy from New York. He looks a lot younger than his 22 years, but he had a vibe to him, and he spoke about his love for certain people I liked. He doesn’t really remember the 70s and 80s. He grew up listening to Jimmy Page. His father had him listening to Zeppelin when he was five. Andrew sounded to me, when I heard his music, he sounded to me like he knew about Arthur Lee and Love and maybe Zeppelin but he didn’t know about the Van Halens and the 80s stuff and the 70s stuff. It was more late 60s or grunge or Pearl Jam or (Alice in Chains’ Jerry) Cantrell. Friends of mine, all these people are dear friends of mine. He just sounded to me like—“man, send me some music”—and I heard his music and I’m going “Kid can write, kid can play, but the right hand …” I’ve always been about the right hand. Keith (Richards)’s got a great right hand. Pete Townshend, right-handed. Angus Young, right-handed. Not all the hammer-ons and all that trickery, which is good if you like that kind of stuff. I’m strictly a 60s kind of guy. So here we’ve got this new kid. Andrew came to my home and we wrote “Chemical Rain,” track 3, and “Solo,” which is a bonus track … I don’t know if you heard that one?
Whitman: I just got a download of the CD this morning and listened to a little bit of it, but I’m not sure if I heard that one yet.
Hughes: Check it out, you have got to check it out … when you’re writing this piece, the first thing that Andrew and I wrote completely in its entirety was “Chemical Rain,” so when you hear it you’ll go, “So that’s the first thing they wrote,” and that would be a nice springboard for the reader of this piece to understand where we were coming from. So we wrote “Chemical Rain” and I called Jason, and Jason was actually in L.A. that week and we went in and cut “Chemical Rain” and” Solo” demos, and it sounded fucking huge. And also, I want to tell you that we didn’t want keyboards because we didn’t want to sound like Black Country. I wanted it … although I am the singer of Black Country and California Breed, we wanted it to sound even more British than Black Country I guess. So here we’ve got this young kid now, and were we going to continue with him? So we decided we would get together every month either at my place or at Jason’s place in Florida, and we did it last year. We kept it quiet, because when you’re working with an unknown, when you’ve got two people who’ve got names—me and Jason—and you’ve got a new kid, you can’t really go on the Internet and start talking about it. I don’t really read comments, but people get freaked out. We kept it quiet successfully, because I’ve got a big mouth and so does Jason. So we kept it quiet and we went to Nashville with Dave Cobb and we made the album. And now you’re about to listen to it, and I’d rather have you tell me later … I’ve got to tell you, Howard, that I am 62, I’ve been doing this for bloody ever, and there are moments, everybody, you’ve had moments, we’ve all had moments in our lives—that was a great moment, that was a bad moment—this album for me is a good moment. It’s a collaborative thing. With Black Country, I was the main writer—I couldn’t get the guys to write with me! It’s not like I wanted to write alone. When I formed this band, I wanted everybody to collaborate. I wanted everybody to throw something into it—I’ll finish your piece, you finish mine, let’s all finish this together. I wanted it to be a band. And it’s a real, real band. We talk, we walk, we eat breakfast … I just want you to listen to the album, and you need to know, this is frightfully important: I’ve been doing this for 45 years. Dave Cobb said to Andrew and Jason, “Why don’t you go out there and record? And Glenn, do you have lyrics?” Yeah. “Do you have melodies?” “I do.” “Just go sing, while the guys are tracking. You can overdub the bass later.” So I did that, and I overdubbed the bass. And the next morning I said, “I’m going to sing.” He said, “You’ve sung the album.” I said, “Excuse me?” He didn’t trick me but he was recording everything I sang. He recorded every song twice, so he comped the vocals. So he said, “I’m going to play you what you’ve sung. I did this last night, and I’m going to play you what appears to me to be your vocal on the album.” And it’s the first time ever that I’ve done a live vocal. And again, drums completely—because a lot of drum things are trickery—completely live drums, completely live guitar. What Dave Cobb brought to this is an element of sheer energy, spontaneity … He tried to get me to sing a song (without lyrics) … just for the hell of it. What I’m trying to get at, Howard, is it’s the most live album I’ve ever made—we’ve ever made—in the studio.
Whitman: You can really hear the energy.
Hughes: It’s got a vitality, and I don’t think—you tell me later—I don’t think you can hear three generations of musicians here.
Whitman: It just sounds very solid, a very unified band, and it sounds like you’ve been together for a while.
Hughes: I mean, it sounds to me like at least we’ve been in a room playing … it sounds like we’ve been touring this thing, which is why I said last year was vitally important. I don’t call it rehearsal or writing—I call it playing. I don’t care if it’s in front of 10,000 people or two people. I want to play, and the fact of it is we were so into the writing of this album, you can hear how vital it was for us to come out with this thing. It smacks of the energy, and, almost, it’s got a punk rock vibe to it in places. It’s just, to me, new and vibrant.
Whitman: So you’re saying that the writing, a lot of that was done together as a band, rather than coming in with your own pieces?
Hughes: I’ll tell you how it was done. This is exactly how it was done: I write all the time. So does Andrew—young guy. But even when I was 20, I was in Deep Purple, I was writing. Kids these days are writing when they’re 12. So Andrew was writing a lot, he’s a very good writer. I wrote half a dozen songs, would send them to Andrew, and he’d suggest, “Well, can I add something there?” You know, it took me five seconds and I went, “Yeah, yeah, sure. Go for it.” I just thought it was important to have a collaborative effort here. Then I finished some of his things, and then Jason had finished some of our stuff. For me, collaborative efforts seem to last longer. It’s important. Jason’s really good, like his father—I was privileged to see John (Bonham) rehearse with Zeppelin, and John’s role in Zeppelin is just like Jason’s in this. John was an amazing arranger. His son Jason is as well. And so get Cobb in the mix, who is, for me, in my opinion, he’s the greatest producer we have right now for rock music on the planet. He’s an absolutely outstanding producer.
Whitman: Sounds like he did a great job.
Hughes: He did a great job, man, because that’s live. There’s no trickery there. There’s no Pro Tools—this is all onto two-inch tape on a board like Zeppelin used to use. All of the equipment is from the 60s—the pedals, the guitars—everything. Look, bro, I am fucking retro. I’m fucking born in 1951. I mean, that is me. I never was a Pro Tools guy. When Chad (Smith) was working with me, over the last 10 years, everything I’ve done with Chad was onto two-inch tape. I just love that thing, analog.
Whitman: Are you going to put out vinyl of this?
Hughes: Yeah, absolutely. Abso-fucking-lutely.
Whitman: It was recorded on analog, it should be put out on analog, right?
Hughes: The album comes out May 19, I think by like, early July, it will be out on vinyl. This is what I was told last week. I wasn’t complaining about it. I wanted to make sure we were coming out on vinyl.
Whitman: The album has cool cover art too, and the wonderful thing about vinyl coming back is that we’re getting album covers again.
Hughes: Yeah, man. I don’t really want to talk too much about Black Country, but Black Country to me was a really significant band because it’s where Jason and I were born in England. Black Country is like the middle of England, where Robert (Plant) and Bonzo and myself and Jason and the guys in (Black) Sabbath were from … that kind of England, industrial. And California Breed is like, wow, it’s still rock but different. I just wanted to be perceived differently. Black Country is all dark hues and black and smoke and crows, and this shit is palm trees and fuckin’ purples and magentas.
Whitman: It is a little brighter, yeah.
Hughes: Look, you know as well as I do—you’ve been doing this for a while—a fucking name, a good graphic, a good logo, is uber-ly important. And this band needed a really good, vibrant essence about this—the graphics, the logo, the vibe. We’re really sort of trying … not trying, we want to be exactly who we feel we are. We don’t want to be like anybody else. Jason and I have got our own thing, and Andrew now is getting his own thing. It’s like, now I think I’ve found my notch in this industry. I know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing on a daily basis. And the music was just flowing, the music has continually flowed. I’m just really happy with the way this turned out.
(Note: At this point, the call was cut off, and I took some more time to listen to the California Breed download. Then Glenn called back.—HW)
Whitman: So I assume you’ll be doing some live shows?
Hughes: Yeah man, our agent is booking Europe mid-September through October, but it appears now we’ve been asked to play in America the same period. So the good news is that we’re being hit with all kinds of requests, but the (other) good news is that we are starting the tour in September, whether it’s Europe or the USA. Things are moving. We plan on having a whole calendar of shows for this band. So the good news is that the people will see this band live. It means so much to me, Howard, to bring this to the stage. I am a live singer and that’s great.
Whitman: So it’s just going to be the three of you, right? No extra players?
Hughes: It’s going to be just the three of us, man. If you know anything about me from before Deep Purple, I was in a band called Trapeze, and we toured America for three years and we started out playing to 10 people and we ended up playing to 5,000 every night. My roots, Glenn Hughes’ roots before Deep Purple, was in a trio. That’s where I excel the most, because—one thing about me, I love the groove, I love the holes. When Jason overplays, we underplay. It’s something that really means something to me. When you’ve got a keyboard in there, sometimes it makes it different and I wanted this band to be completely different to the last one I was in.
Whitman: And it is. But it just seems very full anyway—I didn’t miss the keyboards.
Hughes: It’s full. And I’ve got the usage of many different avenues onstage. Because, like I said, there’s a lot of holes in this music, there’s a deeper groove in this music to the last band. I have got to be honest with you, man—I was in a band called Deep Purple with Jon Lord and I played with Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman and it’s a dying breed—no disrespect to Jon—it’s like, rock music for me, honestly, is about guitar, bass and drums. I don’t want to upset anybody that’s reading this who are keyboard players. But if I start writing on a keyboard, it’s going to change dynamically and drastically; the song will not be what it is. And I have written songs on keyboards that have been on my solo albums that have taken a left turn. I wanted this to be very urgent and dirty and I just want Les Pauls and SGs and I want it to be nasty.
Whitman: By the way—I listened to “Chemical Rain” after we got cut off and it’s huge. What a powerful track.
Hughes: Can you believe that’s the first song we wrote?
Whitman: Right out of the gate, you guys had it. It’s phenomenal.
Hughes: That fucking tempo (sings riff) … it’s so fucking nasty!
Whitman: It’s Zeppelin-y, but it’s also got your R&B feel.
Hughes: Yeah. Isn’t that cool?
Whitman: I think it’s tremendous.
Hughes: We’re in love with this band. I’ve been doing this for 45 years, and I’ve sold millions of albums, I’ve done it all. I had a fucking heart attack, I’ve fucking been shot, pistol-whipped, stabbed … and now I’m fucking here, talking to you, breathing on my own on the right side of the grass, with this beautiful new band, and I’m so happy.
For further info, go to www.californiabreed.com