Col. Bruce Hampton (Ret.) is a legend. He has had an impact on so many musicians and is a founding member of Aquarium Rescue Unit. Bruce recently discussed his first gig being his best, the weirdest concert he’s ever seen and teaching orchestras to dribble. Talking with him was an enlightening experience. His approach to music and outlook come from a totally unique place. For more info on Col. Bruce Hampton, check out http://www.colbruce.com/
How did you first get interested in playing? How that happen for you? I was in my teens, and I still don’t know. It was life-altering, to say the least. All of a sudden, the passion of what I was hearing on the radio inspired me. I just said, “I have to do this.” 54 years later, I’m still doing it.
You’ve always taken a really different slant on things. Did you always find yourself listening to really different styles of music? You combine so many styles within your music.
I like it all as long as it’s pure, you know?
Yeah. I love it all and, I just listen to the essence and purity in music. The only thing I play in my house, basically, is Indian music and blues, some gospel music and that’s about it. I like it all as long as it’s pure. Absolutely. It’s all the same, man. It either has essence or it doesn’t. Absolutely. I think people are so worried about labeling and trying to fit things into boxes. Obviously, you defy categories. Well, thank you. I liked it all. I enjoyed it all. You’ve worked with so many top level artists and so many artists cite you as being this force that helped them. It has to be interesting to have played with people that are skilled in so many different styles. Aquarium Rescue Unit is one of those bands where you guys mixed styles so easily. How did ARU get going for you?
I don’t know what to say. It’s all lies.
Right, yeah. It’s all rumors. It’s just rumors. When I go to a concert, I wanna hear somebody play something different. I don’t wanna hear the same thing all night. I’m doing something here with a small symphony. It’s like 12 pieces, so the first 3 minutes I want them to dribble. Yeah. You know, just a basketball and dribble. They’re very mad at me. I want their dribbling skills together, you know? Sure. They’re gonna do three of my songs. I want them to dribble and I want it light. They’re having a hard time with it. They’re in their 50s and 60s and have no sense of humor, but two of them will now dribble. Good. You’re slowly winning them over, huh? Yeah, the critical thing is that dribbling. It’s much more important than anything else. It winds them up. It’s one of those things that you wanna help people to get into that mindset. Well, I just want them play with it. Don’t play what you’ve heard. Every day is different. You wake up every day and it’s new to me. There is no past. Yeah. It’s all now and future. You gotta learn from the past, but every day is different. Yeah, that’s true. When you’re creating songs, do you start off with lyrics first or melody?
Lyrics. Yeah, I think that’s usually how it goes. I’ll write down and then, you know, I try to put a field to the lyrics or something. It just collapses into place.
Do you find yourself writing lyrics a lot?
It will grow into ten to 20 hours in one week of just writing and then nothing for six months. It always changes, you know?
Yeah. No program. When it comes, it just pours usually and then the faucets off. It’s my life: the faucet on, faucet off. I have no middle ground, none. I either hit 4 hits or I’m 0 for 12 with 8 strikes. Do you ever sense that feeling coming on, that the creative thing is going to get going? Yeah, definitely. but I don’t know when it happens for sure. Absolutely. It’s all been said and done, I just want to say it another way. Yeah for sure. There are different ways to drop a brick on stage and different ways to dribble. You’ve got to dribble differently. Yeah, for sure. Every time you’re out there playing, I’m sure you never approach the song the same way twice. It’s always different. What’s funny is I never get bored of any tune. You can put life into “A Tisket A Tasket,” anything. Yeah. Just do it differently or let it play itself. You can also you go to L Minor on it, you know?
Yeah. Change it up. You can tear it apart. Anything will happen. There’s so many different angles you can take to make something new. Bill Medley was on TV about an hour a go. He was one half of the Righteous Brothers. They’ve had to sing “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” every night for 50 years. They said, “Do you ever get sick of singing it?” He goes, “No, I never get sick of singing it.” I might get sick of singing that song every night for 50 years, but it kind of turns the crowd on.
Yeah. You know, it’s like looking for it’s first date. It’s brilliant what he said about singing it, that he never gets bored with it. Yeah, absolutely. You are endlessly creative with what you do. You’re open to so many different styles and you’re open to just putting your own spin on things. I think that that’s why so many artists are so inspired by the fact that you’re out there out there risking different things musically.
We always had a good time. If the gig is bad, you are bad. You get a chance to be free and do what you want to do. With freedom comes an incredible amount of responsibility to be considerate to everyone around you, which is usually not the case with a lot of people.
Also, just being sensitive to sound and movement. It’s not always the case though that you find five or six people that can play together very well.
Being able to find folks that can step it up, and change and morph easily. Well, that can play county, bluegrass, Latin, Moroccan, everything. People that can urn on a dime and go anywhere. I don’t expect people to play Cuban music. You gotta be born to do that, but you can fake a Latin song. Sure. Are there any other styles of music you would like to dive into that you haven’t explored yet?
I’m trying to study it all. It’s all fascinating, but to me is all the same thing. I made an album about 50 years ago where I put Son House, Ravi Shanker and John Lee Hooker on it. I put four seconds from each person. I had 30 musicians think who it was, but no one got it right.
Oh man. It’s all the same. Yeah. Everybody thought John Lee Hooker was Coltrane. Yeah.
He was playing through a 1952 amp that was distorted. I think I had about seven or eight people on it. I’ve just asked dozens of people and no one was even close. Somebody got five out of the eight. That was my argument, you know?
Yeah. Having worked with so many folks over the years, is there anybody you would like to do things with that you haven’t yet?
Okay. Ann Harper’s great guitar player.
I’ll have to check him out. That’d be the one, and a guy, named Glen Halverson, that nobody knows. I don’t even know what he plays. He plays drums, reeds, and strings all at once. The thing is that he doesn’t perform much. I’ve only seen him once in my life. It’s amazing, he’s got trains going around. He’s got these fine metal trains, thousands of them while he plays. These drums go, and horns, and strings, every instrument’s going at once.
That must have been a really weird show, where was that? Chattanooga. It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen by far. I heard it took four hours to set it up. That’s insane. They’ve only done one show in the last 20 years and I saw it. I don’t want to work with him, I just want to watch him. Right, watch it happen. If there was going to be one guy that was able to track him down, you’d be the guy. Well, we can probably track him down. We could find him, hopefully. I’m not sure he was ever alive Right. I mean bolts in him and he associated with that metallic stuff. He had a metallic sound to his voice.
Yeah. I’m sure he was an in-mall unit. I don’t think he was human. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t human. In his closing statement, he said Earth only had one problem and that was to get rid of the astronauts and bring in cosmonauts. He was sick of astronauts, and that’s all he said the whole night.
That was his only banter? Yeah, that was the only thing he said. He had a 20-track broadcast board, which you don’t see. It was amazing that he was using all this stuff on a 20-track broadcast board, which I’d never seen.
No. That’s nuts. 20 panels. That’s crazy, and he was operating that while he was doing everything.
That’s insane. How old are you man? About 27.
Yeah, I am actually. How could you tell?
You just sound 27.
That’s one thing that I’ve heard about you is that you’re really tapped in about that too, ages and birthdays. It’s one of those things where you’re on a different plane of thinking. Your birthday is coming up, I think, in a couple of months. Is it not? Don’t tell me, but I mean, tell me if it is or isn’t. No, it’s not. No, then you’re January 28th or February 28th?
Nope, I’m not actually. What are you? I am May 10th.
You’re a Taurus?
Yeah. I was thinking Capricorn.. I’m April 30th.
That’s good. Yeah, you’ve got a good birthday. . Coming up, did you always have kind of a different outlook on things? No, I was brought in by guitar player.. I was a basketball player who could shoot hook shots from full court for no reason. Okay, I painted my coat yellow. I would sit out there and hit hook shots from half court. No reason to do it. I could just do it and I don’t know why. It’s a game. Right. He said, “You’re the weirdest person I’ve ever seen, come to a gig.” It was like saying “Let’s go operate on bulls in Bulgaria.” I knew I had to do it from then on. I’ve said it many times, that night I absolutely killed and the next 50 years I haven’t found the total center. Beginner’s luck on that first night. The rest of the time, it’s been hard work. I just happened to be real lucky and landed with the weirdest man who was on the planet. His name was Harold Kelling. After that, things got weirder and weirder.