The Art Of The Sit-In | Col. Bruce Hampton Talks ARU

By Chad Berndtson Jul 8, 2015 8:45 am PDT

Words By: Chad Berndtson

:: Art Of The Sit-In :: Col. Bruce Hampton ::

Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Karl Denson, Reed Mathis, Adam Deitch, Neal Casal, George Porter Jr., and many more.

So many roads lead back to Col. Bruce Hampton that it’s tough to overstate his influence in the jam scene. He’s our John Wooden, our Studs Terkel, and our Gandalf, often all at once. 

The history speaks for itself. He’s been a working musician since at least the mid-1960s and the Hampton Grease Band, was (and is) friends with everyone from Frank Zappa and Duane Allman to Hubert Sumlin and Billy Bob Thornton, used to play poker with Newt Gingrich and touch football with Stan Kasten. He founded one of the jam scene’s seminal acts -the Aquarium Rescue Unit -helped found one of its seminal tours (H.O.R.D.E.), and created and collaborated with many more bands, guiding in no small part the musical development of Derek Trucks, Jimmy Herring, Oteil Burbridge, Mike Gordon and countless others now among our greatest and most recognizable players.

It’s 2015 and the Colonel endures. What’s more, the Aquarium Rescue Unit has reunited once again, with a fresh batch of tour dates (July 29 -August 16) and a new album on the way. Its touring lineup this summer features the original ARU core foursome -Hampton, Herring, Burbridge and drummer Jeff Sipe -along with keyboardist Matt Slocum. (The band already played a hot show with guitar legend John McLaughlin and other guests in Baltimore in June.)

If you’ve heard from the Colonel before, you know to think of interviewing him much like you would consider an ARU show: there’s an idea of what might happen, but you’re better off accepting the excitement of not knowing where you’ll end up. Let’s proceed …

JAMBASE: Do you enjoy doing interviews?

COL. BRUCE HAMPTON: I do if I’m talking to someone with a voice like yours. I can tell immediately whether someone has the right intention and wants to talk about music.

JAMBASE: That’s kind of you to say. What’s the dumbest question you’ve ever been asked?

BH: There was this one girl. She had to be about 19 and she was from Mississippi and dumb as a board. Gregg Allman and I were being interviewed by her for a school newspaper the same day. She thought I was Gregg and she asked me what it was like being with Cher. So I entered in to a 20-minute dissertation on what it was like to be with Cher. I don’t know Cher. But I had to do it, you know?

JAMBASE: And what did you tell her?

BH: Oh, that me and Cher met in Kansas on a train. That we both like fudge. That she told me she had all the original Robert Johnson records. The girl didn’t know who Robert Johnson was so there was that. That we went to Bolivia together and went to meet shamans in Ecuador. Our guy for Warner Bros. at the time read this and said he laughed so hard that he cried.

JAMBASE: So this was printed?

BH: You know, it was in Mississippi, maybe Mississippi State, about 1989 or 1990. We had it for years, until about 1995 and then we lost the copy and could never find it again.

JAMBASE: I’ve digressed far enough but you’ll probably send a few of our readers on a treasure hunt looking for that interview.

BH: OK. Find it.

JAMBASE: Bruce, the Aquarium Rescue Unit returns again. Why is it fulfilling to you to revisit this band? 

BH: Because we have great chemistry. We like each other -we like to play with each other, we have freedom and liberty and absolute chaos. There are no rules. When we’re on, we absolutely smoke. When we’re off, we fall flat on our faces, hopefully. We take chances that shouldn’t be taken. No other band we can get in does this stuff.

Whenever we play, and we really haven’t played in five years, we click on all cylinders for all reasons. We will go anywhere.

JAMBASE: Why this year specifically to return to it?

BH: The main thing is that Oteil is no longer in The Allman Brothers. They were always working when we tried to tour, and this time he had a free month. And then Jimmy is with Widespread Panic, and Jeff Sipe has been playing with the Jerry Garcia thing every year, he’s never had a minute to breathe. All of a sudden everyone is open.

JAMBASE: But you don’t revisit other bands you’ve played with, like the Fiji Mariners or The Codetalkers. What puts the ARU in a different category?

BH: The same answer as above. The rebelliousness. The absolute disregard. A lot of the other bands were more structured, and we certainly have tunes in ARU, but we might go for 30 minutes into lands we’ve never visited. There is more discovery in this band than any band I’ve known. These are all world-class players, among the best in the world on their instruments, and we can go anywhere at any time. There aren’t many players like Oteil and aren’t many players like Jimmy. I’m just a folk singer from another planet who gets to play with them. Jeff Sipe and I have been at it together 30 years. We all play together a few times a year but never as a whole.

JAMBASE: Why did you leave ARU in the first place?

BH: Health reasons. I’m old and in the way. Yeah, I didn’t want to leave, but I had a lot of heart problems. I’m never looking for pity, but I had been on the road for years. I was beaten down. I was like Lebron James, too tired to play Game 6.

JAMBASE: How is your health these days?

BH: Let me knock on wood. I feel good. I am older and in the way, though. Once you turn 60 it all falls apart. I exercise every day and watch my diet -man, I can look at water and gain 12 pounds. Don’t turn 60. It’s not fun. I spend time making sure no one calls me sir. 

Laughter is helpful. Being childlike and not childish is the key to staying healthy. Enjoy yourself. Play every gig like it’s your last. To me, it’s the Super Bowl every night. But I’ve never seen any of the [ARU] guys not play like that.

JAMBASE: A lot of the players you’ve mentored over the years have been quite vocal about what they’ve taken away from their time with you. What do you look for in young players as you assemble new bands?

BH: I look for the jaw of a pitcher. Like Sandy Koufax or Greg Maddux -they have to have the jaw of a pitcher. I mean, attitude can carry 99 percent of it. You play three chords, you draw 1,000 people. You play 1,000 chords, you draw three people. I want someone who can do both. But I mostly look for good folks with good attitudes. You hit a couple of knuckleheads along the way but I’ve been able to work with great gentlemen. They’re givers and not takers.

[Photo by Stu Kelly]

JAMBASE: Can you tell immediately whether a player fits your criteria?

BH: Yeah. I can walk into a room and know right away who can play and who can’t. Players are a dime a dozen. They are. I want the player who will go the extra inch to get the job done. I really look at all of this through the eyes of a basketball coach or as a coach in the minors trying to get you ready for the majors.

JAMBASE: Ever been wrong about anyone?

BH: Every day. [laughs] Every day. Yeah, I have. Me, I don’t have any expectations, therefore there’s no disappointment. But I do sometimes pull people up who end up disappointing me. That makes me sad because they have so much potential and they don’t do anything about it. You know they can do it -that they can better themselves. How old are you, about 32?

JAMBASE: Actually, yes.

BH: Yeah. You sound responsible and very together immediately. Your generation is so weird, aren’t they? I don’t want to get into a generational fight, but if you have your stuff together it’s probably because you’ve worked your ass off to get where you are. Maybe you’re among the 40 in your generation that get that. 

Players are a dime a dozen. I can go to Nashville or Chicago or New York and see the greatest players in the world and they’re not going anywhere and wondering why they live with their mothers and they’re 64. Unfortunately, it’s perspiration, not inspiration. You gotta go out there and sweat. I’ve been wrong about people a lot. But I’ve been right a lot. 

You know, what you really want to do is be my road manager. We had a guy who went on to Electric Lady Studios and manage a guy named Miles Davis. We had RuPaul for two weeks and he’d help with the equipment. He became a TV star. We had E.J. Devokaitis who became Alanis Morissette’s manager. We’ve had people who went on to work with Phish, and The Allman Brothers, and lots of others.

JAMBASE: I might apply.

BH: We pay $32 a week.

JAMBASE: Do you actively go out looking for players, spending time in clubs? Do players come to you?

BH: A lot do come to me. We’ve been out with [Brandon] Taz [Niederauer], do you know of Taz?

JAMBASE: I do indeed.

BH: We’re playing with him some. I also have [jazz piano great] Johnny Knapp, who’s 90 years old. It’s funny, playing with a 12-year-old and a 90-year-old. Johnny’s a history book, man. His resume is all true. He played with Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong. He taught Bill Evans. So he’s someone I sought out.

But my ears are always listening. I have a list of 10 players on every instrument, and if someone is sick or something, I can get someone. But I don’t know too many great bands under 40. Outside of Derek I don’t know many great players under 40.

[Photo by Stu Kelly]

Who haven’t you played with that you’d like to?

BH: There are probably 40 or 50 people. George Porter Jr. was one, I’ve played with him a lot now through the years and he was always someone I wanted to play with. He’s one of the top two bass players in the world probably, and now we hit two or three times a year, usually on the Jam Cruise or at the Panic event. There are plenty of people I’d want to play with that I’m not sure would want to play with me. [laughs] Of course, Son House. I have to say I probably would not have been able to hang with Bach, but I’d love to have heard him interpret. Yeah.

JAMBASE: Do you envision returning to any other of your previous bands? Some readers have soft spots for the Fiji Mariners, or The Codetalkers, or another.

BH: Those were sort of done. We did them. The ARU always breathes, it seems. We could do one tune for three days and have it go there, man. We just have this unbelievable chemistry. These three guys, man, we were all together making 20 bucks a night for years. We laughed a lot because we were all so miserable. We had no A/C in the van. But we showed up. 

Woody Allen said that line about success is showing up. Johnny Knapp and I were at a college last week and there was a talk and the advice given was, “Be on time, have a good attitude, and show up.” If you can’t do those things, you can forget it. Most great players, their problem is their attitude and their ego. You know, you talk to bands -you’ve seen this. Ego is the greatest danger, followed by attitude. Get rid of those two things.

JAMBASE: Do you write new music?

BH: Yeah. I’ve actually written a lot this year. The way I do it is that it’s all in about three or four days, and I’ll come through with 10 to 12 tunes. We put out an album last year called Pharaoh’s Kitchen. ARU is going to have a new album, too, and we’ll do new live stuff when we play this summer.

JAMBASE: So these are new ARU songs?

BH: Some of them are new ARU songs. Some of them are mine, some of them are Oteil’s. We’re going to rehearse some of them during a few 12-hour days we have coming up.

[Photo by Stu Kelly]

JAMBASE: I have to ask you for a favorite sit-in story. You with someone else’s band or someone else with one of your bands.

BH: A sit-in story?

JAMBASE: It’s how I close this column and I’m sure you have a few good ones. 

BH: It’s your lucky day. The best sit-in story I can think of. It was at the Wetlands, about ‘96 or ‘97. I was told to jump up onstage. Warren is there, Bob Weir, Hanson, Johnny Popper and Andrew Cyrille, John Coltrane’s drummer. That was the best sit-in experience I’ve ever been involved in. Look at the people involved. John Coltrane’s drummer and Hanson. That’ll never happen again. That ain’t in the water.

JAMBASE: What was your role in that?

BH: I don’t know, I just watched and left pretty quick. I think I sang half a song. It was crowded. It was weird.

Who would you like to see featured in a future Art Of The Sit-In installment? Send your recommendation to [email protected]

Col. Bruce Hampton & ARU Reunion Tour Dates:

7/29 -Boulder, CO @ Fox Theatre
7/30 -Boulder, CO @ Fox Theatre
7/31 -Bellevue, CO @ Mishawaka
8/1 -Denver, CO @ Ogden Theatre
8/5 -Birmingham, AL @ Iron City
8/6 -Nashville, TN @ Cannery
8/7 -Atlanta, GA @ Buckhead Theatre
8/8 -Athens, GA @ Georgia Theatre
8/9 -Asheville, NC @ Orange Peel
8/12 -Raleigh, NC @ The Ritz
8/13 -Richmond, VA @ The National
8/14 -Washington DC @ The Howard Theatre
8/15 -Port Chester, NY @ The Capitol Theatre
8/16 -Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Bowl

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