L4LM Editor Dave Melamed had the opportunity to sit down with the legendary Col. Bruce Hampton ahead of his upcoming reunion tour with the Aquarium Rescue Unit. Back for their first full-fledged tour in over 20 years, Hampton advises to “expect the unexpected” at the scheduled shows. With a legacy that combines blues, rock, and all things bizarre, Col. Hampton’s quiet influences run deeply throughout the jam band world.
The Southern gentleman was very eager to discuss just about anything and everything with us. Read on to see Hampton’s thoughts on the Aquarium Rescue Unit (ft. Jimmy Herring, Oteil Burbridge, Matt Slocum, and Jeff Sipe), the Grateful Dead reunion, Phish, BB King, New York City, and everything else under the sun.
L4LM: Thanks for chatting with me, how’s everything going?
Hampton: I can’t complain, my man. It’s going actually too good, I’m scared. When things go too good they sometimes turn around, when they go too bad they turn around also. So I can’t complain.
L4LM: The good things… You’re reuniting and going on tour with the Aquarium Rescue Unit for the first time in a long time. How’d that come together?
Hampton: ARU manager Souvik Dutta put it together and we’ve been talking about it for years. We’ve played about every other year but we haven’t toured in about 25 years. I give credit to Souvik, he has a lot of groups that he manages and puts out records on. Right time, right place.
L4LM: How did the show a couple weeks ago go?
Hampton: It felt great, just like we’ve been together for 30 years. We’re very lucky man, those guys are so good and we have a great chemistry together. All of them can play and they all mean business every night. It’s wonderful, there’s no slack-o’s in that group. I don’t know what they do with me, I’m just a folk singer and I’m lucky to be with them. It sure is a thrill.
L4LM: The guys in the band have said that you give them “permission” to let loose and explore. What does that feel like from your perspective? Is that a conscious thing?
Hampton: Yeah, it’s conscious. I’d like everybody to find their own voice, and that, to me, is what music is. 97% of music is finding your own voice. You’re better than anybody as long as you’re playing yourself, but if you’re playing somebody else, you’re competing. Once you find your own sound, you’re as good as anybody. You can’t go on the radio and go “oh that’s Django Reinhart, oh that’s BB King” anymore.
L4LM: Do you think there are any modern/popular artists that have their own sound these days?
Hampton: You’ve gotta tell me. *Laughs* I don’t know, my friend. I mean the records I own are from 1920 to 1970, basically. Here’s my problem – I sit here, and I got so lucky to grow up at the time of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Stravinsky, John Lee Hooker, and all the other stuff. I’m asking, who is the Bach of today? Who’s the Thelonious Monk? I don’t hear anything. I hear good stuff, but I don’t hear that rich, rich, timeless music anymore and it’s sort of depressing to me that your generation – I mean, there’s certainly some sunshine in it, but you’re not hearing the masters. It’s very weird because there’s never been a time since 1900 where there hasn’t been somebody who’s just amazing, so it’s a very strange musical time right now.
L4LM: Do you think the internet has anything to do with that? It seems that now, more than ever, there are so many channels for artists to share their music that it can get diluted.
Hampton: Right, good lord, there’s just everything. You have a point there. When I was growing up, there was 20 things. Now there’s 20 million things, to do and to listen to. I don’t know everything in the world that’s going on, I only have a small perspective. You guys produce some good stuff, but it’s a weird musical time. It’s just a weird time, period.
L4LM: Aren’t they all?
Hampton: *Laughs* Where are you from, sir?
L4LM: New York City, born and raised.
Hampton: Wow, that’s an interesting perspective for sure. I’d consider you really lucky in a way, man, you see everything at an early age. I was 18 when I first visited New York City and it took me two years to recover. Just the stimuli and everything.
L4LM: It’s a crazy place.
Hampton: Back in the 60’s, it was insane, now it’s just crazy. Can you go see music in New York City for like ten bucks anywhere?
L4LM: Sure, definitely. I’m sure you mostly hear about the larger venues, I know you guys are playing at the Brooklyn Bowl and Capitol Theatre, but the city is full of smaller bars and clubs with live music.
Hampton: Good to hear.
L4LM: Speaking of live music, you get pegged as the forefather of the “jam band” scene. Does that term actually mean anything to you?
Hampton: Yeah, you know, when I started in 1963, I remember talking to my guitar player. We were listening to Fats Waller, McCoy Tyner and Coltrane and we’re going, “Man, all of them are improvising. They’re actually playing different tunes within the same tune, not just running scales and noodling but actually creating.” I said, “Why don’t we try to do that?” Let’s fall on our faces or see where it takes us. Nobody else was doing that at the time, and we were certainly hated. We were thrown out of every high school we played back then, because there wasn’t a lot of form to it.
L4LM: I know around that time, it was Duane Allman who stuck up for you and got you a record deal. What was it about your sound that Duane was inspired by?
Hampton: I wouldn’t have a career if it hadn’t been for Duane Allman. He just said ‘Y’all are reckless and I love it. Y’all will do anything at any time.’ And he said, ‘That’s where I want to get to. I want to go in the stratosphere.’ He was so young when he died, and we only heard about 3% of his potential. He was 24, and it was just absolutely amazing what he did in such a little time. I guess he just liked the recklessness to it. And he liked the spirit of it; it was balls to the wall.
L4LM: So is the Aquarium Rescue Unit as balls to the wall as it was back in the 60’s and 70’s?
Hampton: Yeah, probably even worse. We did some stuff that you just can’t do.
L4LM: Like what?
Hampton: God, it’s been 26 years. We had four band members play outside of the window we’re playing in, with two guys in front.
We once… people would come in the door, and as soon as they came in, we’d have the audience and the band freeze. There’s nothing that makes more Twilight Zone than that. One little girl about 18 walks in, and we froze… I think she had a nervous breakdown. She didn’t know what to do.
Oteil would play a solo with a balloon, and the balloon would be four feet around. He would eventually get it to pop and it was always in key, it sounded like.
And Jeff Sipe, the drummer, would have about 10-15 drums around the room and he’d run to each drum for about an hour and never lose time but he would play the whole set running around the place.
We did as much insane stuff as we possibly could.
L4LM: Where do these ideas come from? Did you guys all push each other?
Hampton: Yeah, every night. We didn’t want it to be dull, and it never was.
L4LM: I read somewhere that you said that with good improvisation there should be a new song every two minutes. Is that what we should expect on this upcoming tour?
Hampton: I’ll say something trite, expect the unexpected. We go out on the limb as far as we can go, and we don’t mind falling flat on our faces either, which is thrilling. We just don’t have any fear, we just go, and some magic happens and some magic doesn’t happen, just like life. Sometimes it’s really nice and other times, women under 30 hate us.
L4LM: So you’re telling me I shouldn’t bring my girlfriend to the show.
Hampton: Is she under 30?
L4LM: She is.
Hampton: Uh-oh. I’m sorry, don’t bring her. Haha just talking BS! How old are you, man, 28?
Hampton: The best age there is. Don’t change. That was my favorite. You’re old enough to get away with murder and young enough to not get caught. Then 30 comes and you just change, and it’s a drag. I always wanted to be childlike instead of childish, that’s the key to life, the childlike side.
Are you a guitar player?
L4LM: I am, yeah.
Hampton: You sound it.
L4LM: How do I sound it? What does that mean?
Hampton: You talk like one, rhythmically. Bass player have a certain… drummers have a certain… piano players have a certain style of rhythm, and I can talk to them on the phone and know if they’re good or bad, or what they play, quickly. It’s like a baseball pitcher.
L4LM: Well hopefully I don’t sound too bad. Anyway, I wanted to ask you about your connection with Phish. How do you feel about their long-lasting presence within the jam scene?
Hampton: It’s amazing they’ve been together for so long now….it’s amazing. They’re all great cats. They used to come and open for us for like 90 bucks, and nobody knew who they were. I said ‘that group’s gonna be huge, because the women are singing the songs.’ There would be six women that had heard the tape or something, and they’d be in the front row singing the songs.
They were such good cats with such good intention and good attitudes. What is it? 26, 28 years they’ve lasted?
L4LM: They just hit their 30th anniversary not too long ago.
Hampton: Wow, that’s amazing man.
L4LM: I know you infamously “sat” in with the band once. Where did that come from?
Hampton: They asked me to sit-in and I said, ‘man I’ve been up since 5.’ I shot a movie, I was just exhausted and I couldn’t even move, you know. So they said, “sit-in.” I think I was the first person to ever really just sit in. And Fishman was on his game, so it was time to let him be the quarterback, and you can’t top that.
He’s completely fried, I love him. The whole band’s cooked. They create a bunch of cats, man. 30 years… I didn’t know that.
L4LM: They certainly have inspired quite a scene.
Hampton: It was the right place, right time. They’ll be around forever, they’ll actually get bigger probably.
L4LM: I know Trey is playing with the Dead guys for the 50th anniversary. What do you think about seeing the Dead celebrate 50 years, since you’ve been connected with them for so long?
Hampton: I just don’t know. I’m usually not a big concert type of guy with a billion people. They’re doing it, and I’m sure people will have a very enjoyable time. I’ve talked to the people who are going and they’re really looking forward to it. I hope it goes well and it’s quite an undertaking right there. 230,000 people? It’s unbelievable.
The Stones just played here and had 80,000 people… I’m not one of those types of guys. I figure when you get over three to four thousand people, it’s hard to make some other kind of thing happen. But to each his own, people love that, they like the whole thing about that.
L4LM: Yeah, I see that. It seems like the people who are coming to see you are those who are “in the know.”
Hampton: Right, yeah, you hit it. In the know. I just remember the great folk festivals I went to. Music was #1. There was no sideshow, it was all intention, and it was all music. Half of it wasn’t very good, that was the folk scare of the early 60’s.
L4LM: But your sound is so distinct. I was listening to your live album with ARU from the 90’s and there seems to be a sense of philosophy in the music. “Time Is Free”, “Fixin To Die”. What’s the inspiration there?
Hampton: They’re just songs we all liked for years and we still do them. I’ve probably done “Fixin’ To Die” – I heard it in 1962 by Bukka White – and I probably do it 80% of the time. We don’t do anything like he did, it was basically a field holler, but I certainly like the feel of it. We just do it because no one else at the time was doing it, or doing anything like it. They didn’t know what to do with us, they call us an alternative, trying to pigeonhole us into something but we never quite fit in a niche somewhere.
They couldn’t believe we called the band Aquarium Rescue Unit, they tried to change the name 100 times and we said ‘nah.‘
L4LM: Where did the name come from?
Hampton: It came from a song of mine, and it’s a line of occupation that I had. I worked on aquarium rescue. I only did it one night, the aquarium broke and it was terrifying. The water was everywhere. That didn’t last too long.
I was a lasso instructor and a lariat importer, and they were all weird, fleeting jobs. I’ve been fortunate to do music all my life and I’ve done enough acting to make it fun. We’ve got a movie coming out called “Here Comes Rusty,” I think they put the trailer out today or this week, if you want to take a look at it.
I’ve done a lot of work for Ted Turner doing cartoons, I did Space Ghost as well. I’m going in tomorrow to do some more, and I really enjoy doing it.
L4LM: So it’s voice-over work?
Hampton: Yeah, I do a Southern guy for Popeyes chicken or whatever once in a great while, and Motel 6 which I love. You have Motel 6 in New York City?
L4LM: They don’t, but it’s certainly a familiar chain.
Hampton: So you were born in the city and lived there all your life? Wow, that’s amazing. It’s so hard to do anything there, how do you get to gigs? Do you take a cab?
L4LM: Most of the places have a backline setup so you don’t have to carry around too much, but I keep getting more and more equipment and it’s harder to travel.
Hampton: Get rid of it, you don’t need it! Put it through the smallest space amp you can. We played with John McLaughlin last weekend and he didn’t even bring an amp. He plays with something, I don’t know what it is, but he don’t even carry an amp anymore. I don’t know what it is he’s playing through. Most everybody I know has pretty small stuff now.
I’m not an equipment guy, are you? Do you think bigger is better?
L4LM: I’m pretty novice at that stuff to be honest, but I’ve been experimenting with effect pedals.
Hampton: I try to keep that away from me, otherwise I’ll start using them. The tone’s in your hand, I say. I’m a novice about it too, I’ve never tried to go there. Some people can do it, but I want to hear the person. We were talking about finding your own natural sound and that’s all that matters.
You can hear Hank Williams or Django Reinhart or John Lee Hooker immediately, you know it’s them.
L4LM: They have such a distinct, identifiable sound. Speaking of legendary musicians, I know we’ve lost a couple of the best recently with BB King and Ornette Coleman.
Hampton: It killed me. Those were two of my favorites of all time. What’s so funny is that I had three CDs in my car, starting in January, I put BB King, Ornette Coleman and an Indian mandolin player named Srinivas. We were going on tour with him this summer and he’s been my favorite mandolin player of all-time for 20 years, since he was a 13 year old kid.
He passed away first, two months ago, then BB and now Ornette last week, and those were the three records I had in my car. And those are my heroes!
I mean, BB King is my favorite human being I’ve ever met, my favorite musician. I met him in ‘65, it was still thrilling, and I talked him 6 or 7 times through the years. Probably saw him maybe 80 times and I never heard a bad note. He’s BB King, he did it.
You know what’s so fucking funny? Nobody can play like him, and he plays four notes. I was talking to a friend of mine and he said ‘I’ve played with Wes McGovern, Joe Pass, George Benson, Grant Green Sr.,’ and he said nobody can touch BB. He just plays those four to six notes and the Walls of Jericho come down. And nobody else can do it, it’s amazing.
L4LM: It’s beyond amazing.
Hampton: Beyond amazing! I don’t know how he did it… He was 85 years old and he had 280 dates, give or take 20, but it was in the 200s when he was 85!
To me, he’s one of those guys who could come out and breathe and that’s enough for the money. He’s BB King, he was the Babe Ruth of guitar. Just a giant, and the sweetest, most humble person you’ve ever seen in your life. Just amazing. And as you get him talking over 20-30 minutes and telling stories, you sit there like a six year old kid.
I sat on the bus one night, and this was about 1992, and he signed autographs until 5:15 in the morning. He was there at 11 oclock to 5:15, it was the most childlike thing I’ve ever seen. He was the music teacher to me, he taught how to live, how to treat others, how to be BB King and what not to do. Everybody can learn from him and I can’t imagine anybody not liking him. There are people who don’t like air, they don’t like water, and that’s what he was, the air and the water, man.
And Ornette, that was so sad, he’s been a hero too, forever. Just a complete inspiration. The thing that blew me away is that he had more facility than anybody. You don’t hear it on his records, he doesn’t use facility, but he certainly did.
L4LM: Well, thank you so much for your time Col. Bruce. Looking forward to seeing you and the ARU on tour!
[Originally published June 2015]