Randy Bachman: The Complete Tell Interview

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Randy Bachman (Photo by Mike Hough)

Musicians can count themselves as lucky if they can take credit for one classic hit. Randy Bachman’s resume includes many, first with The Guess Who (where he played the legendary guitar solo on “American Woman”) and later with Bachman-Turner Overdrive (BTO), the hard-rock hit machine responsible for “Taking Care of Business” and “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”, among many others.

Reunited with BTO bassist C.F. “Fred” Turner, Bachman is back with new music, a new concert Blu-ray, and even a movie! He recently spoke with Tell Magazine and about his current projects and ideas for future ones.
Note: An edited version of this interview was published in the October 2012 issue of Tell Magazine. The following is the complete, uncut interview.

Tell: How did you get back together with Fred Turner? What prompted you to reunite?

Bachman: For years we got offers from a guy named Ingalls who runs Sweden Rocks. He was running it for about 22 years. It’s on the coast of the beach of Sweden and it’s a heavy metal and rock festival—they have great bands. So I keep getting an e-mail from Fred Turner saying, “this guy wants us to play, he wants you and me together to play, he doesn’t want us to play for anyone else. He wants to bring you and me back together.” And I said, “Well, I’m busy with Burton Cummings. I’m doing this and that. Give me a year.” So this went on for a couple of years. Finally I said, “OK, I’m done with Burton Cummings. I’m working on a solo album—a rock album. I’m going back to rock and I’ve got Neil Young, I’ve got Jeff Healey on a track, I’m going to get Paul Rodgers to sing on a track and bla bla bla. Would you (Turner) like to sing on a track?”, and he said, “Sure, it’d be great.” So I sent him a song and he sang on the song. It’s called “Rock and Roll is the Only Way Out”, and when I got the song back, I said “Wow, Fred, this is amazing. You want to sing on some more songs? I’ll scrap the other guests and let’s turn this into a Bachman-Turner album, and then we can go and do Sweden Rock—we’ll have something new to play.” Because we just didn’t just want to go in as an oldies band. So we did a new CD called Bachman & Turner and (had) really good songs, (we) kind of picked up where BTO left off in the late 70s. We went and played Sweden rock to about 50,000 people and wow, we were stunned—amazed. We walked out with no sound check, no line check, we just walked out on a Saturday night and everybody knew every song. We went to London and played the High Voltage festival and right after that we went and recorded Live at the Roseland (DVD and CD). We were on a roll and we did all of our old songs, some of our new songs—we even did a couple of Guess Who songs, “Shaking All Over” and “American Woman.” And then now comes the live CD and DVD. We’re thrilled that good old Walmart’s ordered, like, 20,000 of them and then that makes Best Buy order. These are the last record stores that are standing, and so we actually might sell some product. It’s also a part of a PBS special called “Front and Center” where they’re going to play part of the DVD showing people that were back—what we look like, that we’re better than ever. Our new songs are really good songs. I mean, there’s a follow-up to “Rolling Down the Highway”, there’s a follow-up to “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”, there’s the follow-up to “Taking Care of Business”— they’re all in there, disguised with different titles, but it’s what we do, it’s how Fred and I create music together. So it’s a lot of fun and we’re touring the states. We’re going down early June for this release and the DVD coming out and everything, and playing the Iridium Club in new york—actually the Les Paul Trio’s opening for us. I’m going to go play a couple of songs and pretend I’m Les Paul and open for myself with them, because I have some great Les Paul stories to tell. I met him when I was about 16, so I’ll tell the story in the club and then show them the riff that he showed me back when I was 16 that I can still play in “How High the Moon.”

Tell: How is it working with Fred again after all these years apart?

Bachman: It’s great. It’s the same old “get on the bike” and the ride is the same. We’ve both mellowed out. We were both always very similar in BTO. BTO always had a division of Fred and I, who were the married and kind of older guys, and my brother Robbie who was 10 years younger on drums and Blair Thornton—they were eight and 10 years younger. They were wild and single guys on the road and Fred and I were the married guys. So to be back with Fred has got a really nice comfort zone. The music is great. It’s really fun playing with him. We’re the same age, the same temperament, we like the same things. It really couldn’t be better; it’s really fun.

Tell: We’re a tech-oriented magazine, and technology has certainly changed a lot since your early days of recording with BTO and The Guess Who. How does the new tech impact what you’re doing now?

Bachman: I think the new technology—basically, pretty much Pro Tools—has taken over the world. It’s the ability—and I love this button—u-n-d-o, undo. It allows you to splice songs and move whole pieces around without cutting tape, without destroying your master in what you’re creating, and if it doesn’t work, you push undo and bada-bing, it’s back to where you started, you can try another one. I don’t think it sounds as good as tape but let’s face it, the app of Pro Tools for digital editing and moving an mp3, especially if you’re writing a song, it really helps as a big composing tool, which what I kind of do. You’re kind of writing and recording and producing and performing the song all at the same time now—you don’t go in there with 20 songs. You go in there with little bits of songs, you try them, you see what their groove is like. You want to change the tempo, you just change the beats per minute on the thing and it speeds it up it, just saves a lot of work. It doesn’t sound as good, but when you look at what people are listening to music on these days—these weird little iPhones and iPods, with little things in their ears—the high fidelity, almost it boils down to what it always did boil down to when things were in mono: the song. And I’m very good at songs. I specialize in writing songs. My hobby and my job is writing songs. I’m a composer. I knew that there would always be a faster, younger, hotter, good-looking, skinnier guitar player than me. I also knew that if I wrote good songs, they’d last forever, like Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney and Jagger & Richards and Irving Berlin, whatever. Songs last forever.

Tell: And your songs have lasted.

Bachman: So I’ve concentrated on writing songs. Growing up playing violin from the age of 14, I learned melody, because all you play on violin is melody. I see Elvis on TV, I switch to guitar. I start to play melody and I’m suddenly called a lead guitar player! So that’s been my whole thing in life and that’s why I think the songs are memorable—it’s because they all have great lead lines or melodies. You just put the right words to that and you’ve got something that works. If I can write 10 songs and get one endurable song that lasts, that’s my ratio. I write 100 songs, I get 10 songs, and that’s an album.

Tell: What’s the current status of your collaboration with (former Guess Who vocalist) Burton Cummings? Any future plans?

Bachman: It’s on hold because I’m with Turner. I’m open to working with Burton. I have a couple of unresolved issues with him that he needs to address, and then the door is open. We’ve been offered to do Bachman, Turner and Cummings, which would be a mixture of The Guess Who and BTO. We might even be able to talk Neil Young into joining us. The four of us were all growing up in Winnipeg in the 60s. That would be an incredible concert—all would we have to do is find a charity. So my last e-mail to Burton was sort out these other things—“you’ve got to work on these things that are unresolved, because we’re getting offers all the time. We could look at doing this, it would be great.”

Tell: “BTC” would generate a lot of interest, I’m sure.

Bachman: Yeah.

Tell: You released and toured behind the Jukebox CD, on which you covered classic radio hits and blues classics with Cummings. Any plans to do a part II?

Bachman: I might do that with Turner. I had an idea called “From Detroit to Memphis”, which would allow us to do Motown and all of the Stax stuff, so I blotted out a couple of songs and said to Fred, because he’s got that Harley Davidson voice, “How would you like to sing ‘Papa was a Rolling Stone’—which is all one chord, it’s almost like “American Woman”, it’s all one riff. He said that would be amazing. “And then how would you like to sing ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’,” and together we could sing “Soul Man”, the great Sam and Dave song. So we’d call it the Bachman Turner Drive from Detroit to Memphis. He thought that was a good idea so we’re tossing that around, which would really be fun because a lot of people are now going paying tribute to songs that influenced them, as Cummings and I did songs that made us want to play in a band.

Tell: You’ve done some jazz-tinged CDs, Jazz Thing and Jazz Thing II.

Bachman: I did. I wrote “(She’s Come) Undun” for The Guess Who and “Looking Out for Number One” for BTO, and everybody kept saying “Why don’t you do more jazz?” So I did a couple of jazz albums. It was really great. It was terrifying to go and open for George Benson at the Montreal and Toronto jazz festivals, because he’s a giant. It was great to be scared again, because I don’t get scared anymore playing music. I’ve done it for so long in this classic rock thing, so to go and have to do a song and change it every night or have a band that wants to play different every night—like a jazz band, they don’t want to play the same thing over and over. When you’re playing classic rock, people come out, they want to hear every note the same as the memory. When you go to your hometown, you want to go to the same restaurant, taste the same hot dog or the same chili or the same pizza that you used to taste. You want it to be the same. It’s the same with classic rock. Jazz, they want it to be different every night. They want it to be a potpourri, a new mixture, and throw in some new spices. So for me, it was great training. I found myself practicing every night for a couple of hours, for a couple of solid years. Now that has helped me in my classic rock return with Turner, because I’ll do the solo exactly like it should be in “Blue Collar” and “Number One.” Then I get to stretch out for a minute or two and try all-new, other kinds of things and trip and fall on my face. But at least I’m trying something new and the audience can see it that’s kind of what jazz is. I realize that’s why they clap in jazz—they try something new, and if you don’t get through it you try it again in the next pass. You get through it and you go “Wow, he made it. He did that amazing riff” and that kind of thing. So it’s kind of a great adventure.

Tell: So what other projects are in the pipeline?

Bachman: I’ve got a new project coming out. I can’t talk about it. It’s with another Canadian classic icon—we’re going to get a name so nobody knows it’s us. So the album’s done already. We did it live off the floor; it’s not a recording session like modern—it’s a recording session like old, where you set up a mic in a room and everybody plays together and that’s it. If there’s a mistake, gee, it’s too bad, you made a mistake there, but we’re leaving it. Because it’s like an old fashioned polka at a wedding—it’s a party environment, so we just left everything in. It’s almost like a Black Keys or White Stripes thing—it’s just live off the floor. It is what it is. It’s rock and roll, it’s party music. We’re not going to go back and meticulously change the little blips on things or when the guitar string broke or it’s slightly out of tune. Everybody will know you’re slightly out of tune—they hear the string break in the middle of the solo, let’s just leave that. It’s the Neil Young “let’s get it live” thing—it’ll never happen again.

Tell: Your stuff used a lot in TV, movies and commercials … one notable example is the use of “Taking Care of Business” in commercials for Office Depot. How do you feel about that? Some artists aren’t crazy about their work being used that way.

Bachman: I write songs for a couple of reasons. One is to please myself and the other is to make money. I stipulate that my songs are not used for alcohol or tobacco. If I approve of it, it’s a go, and Office Depot is a really great marriage for me and my song. There’s a new movie coming out called The Campaign with Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis. It’s a spoof on elections and Will Ferrell plays “Taking Care of Business.” It’s used in the movie three times and that’s a good usage! It was fun playing with him.

Tell: So you’re in the film?

Bachman: Yeah, me and Fred are there, the whole band, in the finale, because it’s Zach against Will, it’s two college guys who now are on different parties and running for Congress and (SPOILER ALERT) Will Ferrell wins, His campaign song—and then his winning song—is “Taking Care of Business.” He flies onstage from the balcony with one of those flying harnesses, with a keyboard around his neck, and plays the song with us onstage. So we shot that in New Orleans in early February. It’s going to be a phenomenal use for that song. It really kicks it into high gear again.

Tell: Sounds great, and hopefully it will put some dollars in your pocket

Bachman: It will! A lot. It’s used in the trailer right now. The trailer’s funny.

Tell: Your Guess Who albums are hard to find on CD these days. I was wondering if any plans to get those back out on CD—and the BTO stuff as well?

Bachman: They were out, but they only did a limited amount. They said, “We’re doing a re-run. We want to add a couple of songs here and there”, and we’d say OK. They would say, “We’ve done 2,500” and it’s gone in the first two weeks, and they don’t make any more. However, I’m working right now on the 40th anniversary BTO box set, which is going to have outtakes. It’s going to have songs that in the middle fall apart, like the middle of “Stayed Awake All Night—we had run out of riffs and it picks up about 30 seconds later because it’s a jam session. The same with “Blue Collar”—we found a 12-minute version where I run out of solo to play and they keep going and suddenly I start to play again. That’s edited out on the real record. We’re just leaving that in for the box set. We found a couple of other songs and some live stuff from Japan that was never mixed. So that is coming out for the fans. It will have pictures and photos and stuff you will not believe. So it’s going to be a great 40th anniversary box set! I hope that might happen with The Guess Who as well.

Buy Bachman & Turner: Live at the Roseland Ballroom NYC [Blu-ray] on Amazon
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