From living off packet noodles to filling the Royal Albert: we at Quench Music found out first-hand from Joe Bonamassa what it takes to become really really good at music. (We’d call him a legend, but he’s having none that shady fame chat.)
Who were your influences originally? We hear you’re pretty into the British music scene?
British blues recorded around ’66-’67 was just the kind of thing I dug. I was always a bit of an anglophile, even in school. The thing that I couldn’t figure out when I first came to the UK back in 2004 was that nobody was playing this kind of music! I think it’s partly due to that that you get somebody like me: an American reinterpreting the British ‘60s scene, and you get more following after.
You had televised recognition at the age of 13, but how old were you when things really took off and music became a serious career?
In November I’ll have been in the music business for 24 years but it didn’t really start to take off until 2006. I get a lot of credit for coming out of nowhere, but those people didn’t see the years of me driving my own van around America before we even went over to the UK, Australia and so on.
When times were toughest, what were you doing to keep your head above water?
I used to have a place in New York next to the Beacon Theatre, with a store on the corner where I’d buy my groceries. I was convinced that it was the cheapest source of peanut butter and jelly [that’s jam to you and me], and these solid squares of ramen noodles, like a Pot Noodle concept, which cost about 50 cents. I would spend 20 dollars and be able to survive for a week, which was often necessary when you’re playing for 100 dollars.
Sounds familiar, minus the paid gigs! You’re very open about the highs and lows of fame and are renowned for your humble attitude, especially considering your success. How did you avoid fame going to your head?
I think it’s partly by nature and partly that this whole thing just fuels my addiction for buying vintage guitars.
I live in LA; it’s a sunny place for shady people. So many think they’re the pinnacle of success and they start to believe what they read: ‘I am this great god of music and all shall bow before me!’ It’s so overblown. The ones that have been successful are just lucky. For me, I wake up going, ‘look at what I’ve pulled off; thank you very much’ and that keeps you humble. I get very uncomfortable when people say I’m some god or use that British term ‘legend’ – I’m just a bozo with a guitar.
We wouldn’t go that far: you’ve played with the likes of Eric Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall. Would you say that was the highlight of your career to date?
Best moment of my life. The only reason I’d even heard of the venue was because of Eric Clapton’s history there, playing Goodbye [with band Cream] in ’68. So to have him come out and play that song, which is probably the first electric blues song I ever learned [‘Farther Up The Road’, originally by Bobby Bland in 1957] and to not have to get a real job… That really set up the next 5 or 6 years, and we’re still enjoying that momentum.
You recently performed an all-acoustic set at the Vienna State Opera House. As someone who is primarily an electric musician, what made you go acoustic?
For two weeks only each summer, the venue lets us non-opera musicians in. They offered us the gig so of course I took it, and afterwards the reality hit us: we can’t play electric here. I came up with the idea of an acoustic show and my producer suggested we include music from all over the world. So we had 3 days to rearrange and rehearse 20 songs and it was great, it was honestly the most fulfilling experience of my life.
In the light of that, which would you pick if you had to choose between acoustic and electric?
Oh, I’m an electric guitar player. Those vintage wooden boxes are my kryptonite.
Before your UK tour, you played a series of shows around London ranging from 200 capacity at The Borderline to 6000 at the Royal Albert Hall. Do you prefer intimate gigs or the big stadium shows?
That was crazy, we did every gig I’ve ever played in London in a row. We did 4 shows in a week, 4 different venues and 4 different set lists. I’m 36 and have no vices other than Diet Coke, but remembering 60 songs over a week, that tested my memory. It was a good challenge and I can safely say I’ll never do it again. None of it is perfect: you can see all the trials and the tribulations. But I like that; I think people really dig the mistakes. A flawless show is kind of boring.
With 15 [‘16, now’; I stand corrected] solo albums under your belt, where do you see your music going next?
We’re doing an album next January and, basically, I have no idea yet. I’ve started writing some riffs but I probably won’t know where it’s going to go until the end of the year. We try to change up the players – I have a lot of laughs with Derek [Sherinian – stellar keyboardist]. He fits well with the group and gives us something more to play with, though I know it’s slightly incestuous because of the other situation…
I believe you’re referring to the Black Country Communion [a supergroup of sorts which came to a shaky close in March 2013]. What went wrong?
It’s like all bands of that nature. I’ve worked 20-odd years to build my solo career. We book venues 2 to 3 years in advance. Glenn [Hughes, founder, bassist and vocalist] really wanted to tour and make it my full-time gig but I just couldn’t do that. So he used the media to blame me for the band’s lack of direction. You’ve got a Blackberry or an iPhone, right? [Yes, I am a slave to capitalism.] So you’ve got a bevy of e-mails coming in every day, then you’ve got online forums and all that nonsense. There are some days where everything is a pain in the ass, and as a musician you try to avoid that: I was waking up to some Brazilian kid saying, ‘it’s my dream to see Black Country Communion live and you’re taking that away from me’. That’s when you call time.