Walking with Zambi: The Colonel Bruce Hampton Interview
By James Calemine
"I do not come to you as a reality. I come to you as a myth."
"Space Is The Place"
"I never had much control
Until I got to Arkansas..."
--Colonel Bruce Hampton
Colonel Bruce Hampton was born Gustav Valentine Bergland III in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on April 30, 1947, and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. His music transcends mundane boundaries. Bruce always walked to the beat of a different drummer.
His music has been compared to the work of Sun Ra, Captain Beefheart, George Clinton and Frank Zappa. After nearly 50 years of making music, Colonel Bruce retains a rare degree of sharp insight, worldly wisdom and musical wonder.
Behind the Colonel's avant-garde music, exists a soulful, smart and zen-like artist. Colonel Bruce was the first male child on his mother's side in generations not to attend West Point. As a toddler, Colonel Bruce was cared for by a family nanny--Liza Mae Williams--who was born into slavery and exposed the young boy to gospel music. His grandfather, W.A. Cunningham, coached the University of Georgia's football team from 1910-1919.
In Atlanta, as a teenager in the early 60s, young Bruce often snuck into The Royal Peacock Lounge where he watched Otis Redding, James Brown, B.B. King and Albert King perform on many occasions. Colonel Bruce started his first band in 1963. He formed the Hampton Grease Band around 1968. This group often opened for the Allman Brothers Band in Atlanta's Piedmont Park. The Hampton Grease Band released Music To Eat, which was the second worst selling album in the history of Columbia Records; the first being an instructional yoga album.
Bruce recorded on Capricorn and Terminus Records for years. In liner notes for the 1978 album One Ruined Life of A Bronze Tourist, Stanley Booth wrote: "He is, I can't help thinking, one of the bravest musicians I've ever encountered." The Colonel always refused to compromise his music for mass consumption. Years later, he formed the Aquarium Rescue Unit and the Fiji Mariners. All the musicians to ever play with Colonel Bruce Hampton admire him.
Through the years the Colonel has played and collaborated with Widespread Panic, Tinsley Ellis, Warren Haynes, Allen Woody, Jeff Sipe, Rev. Jeff Mosier, Paul Barrere, Oteil Burbridge, Matt Mundy, Jimmy Herring, T. Lavitz, Stanton Moore, Chuck Leavell, Cedell Davis, Kevn Kinney, Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, Ike Stubblefield, Grant Green, Medeski, Martin & Wood, Mike Gordon, Blueground Undergrass and many others. The Colonel played an integral role in starting the H.O.R.D.E. tour during the 90s.
Colonel Bruce Hampton has recorded over 18 albums in his career. He also played a role in Billy Bob Thornton's masterpiece Sling Blade. Other related projects include providing a voice-over in the TV show Space Ghost as well as the leading role in a film Mike Gordon directed titled Outside Out. Widespread Panic's John Bell wrote this about the Colonel in the liner notes for the Arkansas album: "Pretending is easy, but in Bruce's company, you're so aware of your own flavor of B.S., it just becomes more comfortable to surrender to his presence...I'm spewing my own brand new flavor right now--but after having been kindly dismantled by Bruce so many times since birth, maybe that observation comes close to being genuine."
Lately, the Colonel has been playing with his groups The Quark Alliance and Pharaoh Gummitt. The Colonel prepares to hit the road in February and March. The Colonel's sense of humor is often overlooked because of the gonzo nature of his music. I don't want to demystify the Colonel's image, but every time I talk to him I find him to be a distinguished--and very humorous--southern gentleman. Three days after we conducted this interview, the Colonel appeared on the first night of Widespread Panic's Wood Tour in Atlanta. The group rendered an old Bukka White song the Colonel adopted called "Fixin' To Die".
In this recent Swampland interview, we discuss the Colonel's early musical influences, his Atlanta roots, the Hampton Grease Band, the H.O.R.D.E tours, musical instinct, Billy Bob Thornton, spring tour dates, future plans, Widespread Panic, literature, wisdom, his insight to the end of the Mayan calender on December 21, 2012 and the upcoming Colonel Bruce documentary titled Basically Frightened: The Musical Madness of Colonel Bruce Hampton due out in March of 2012.
James Calemine: Let's start at the beginning...you were born in Tennessee, but your family roots are really in Atlanta.
Colonel Bruce Hampton: Right. Yeah, I only stayed in Tennessee about two weeks. My family has been in Atlanta since about 1830. I've got definite Atlanta roots.
JC: Is it true your grandfather W.A. Cunningham served as the University of Georgia's football coach from 1910-1919.
CBH: Right, then he took them to war. After the football game--he got them all dressed up and they went to World War I. Isn't that terrifying? He took the whole team. He was a captain then. We just found a picture of him about a year ago with all these football players. Bob McWhorter was an All-American then on the team. What's amazing to me, Bill Kurtzman and I have known each other for 40 years. His grandfather was with George Halas who started the Chicago Bears and played against my grandfather in 1919. I believe it was on November 15--they played to a 7-7 tie in Augusta, Georgia. Georgia played Tulane. When we both found that out we said it was impossible. Just impossible...
JC: Were you ever a big football fan Colonel?
CBH: I have been. I don't follow it like I used to. I've seen so many games over the years. I watch it occasionally here and there. Music takes time, and I'm doing a lot of projects so it's time consuming.
JC: What was your first musical memory?
CBH: Well, when I grew up in the early 50s I heard a lot of stuff and then Little Richard and Chuck Berry came along. Then I knew I found something I truly loved. That was 1955 or 56. I was a very young kid, but I remember being ecstatic because it brought so much joy, chaos and rebellion. I grew up in the Eisenhower 50s, and all of a sudden Little Richard comes along and I went 'My Gosh'. for my money, there's still no better singer in rock & roll than Little Richard.
JC: I've read when you were a baby--Liza Mae Williams--took care of you. She sang spiritual songs. I'm sure that was a musical memory long before Little Richard.
CBH: Oh, there's no question. Listening to her when I was 2, 3, 4 years old and what she would play or sing. It was unbelievable. I don't want to sound ridiculous about it, but I remember the feeling of the music to say the least. She'd play Mahalia Jackson, Rosetta Tharpe and all the greatest gospel music that's ever been played. I remember that music very vividly when I was growing up. You've done your homework James. Have you seen the movie yet (laughing)?
JC: No, I haven't seen the documentary yet. I've done my research--heh heh. I know you bought your first guitar from John Huey who later became the president of Time magazine...
CBH: Yeah, I bought my first guitar for $60 from John Huey the chairman of Time magazine.
JC: What kind of guitar was it?
CBH: He'd remember better than me, but I think it was a Fender Stratocaster without a case. I wish I had it now, and we could all retire (laughs). I think it was a 1959--probably worth 15-30 grand now.
JC: How old were you then?
CBH: Oh, I was 16 or 17. I've never been a serious guitar player like so many of the greats. I enjoy playing guitar. It's a freedom of expression for me--there's a million guitar players that are better, but I just love to do it. I don't want to play in the symphony with it or anything of that nature. It's just a wonderful instrument to express yourself on.
JC: You grew up in Atlanta. Talk about how you used to sneak into the Royal Peacock Lounge and see Otis Redding, James Brown, B.B. King...you caught a glimpse of that every night between 1964-1966 from what I understand, right?
CBH: I used to hide under the stage. To show you how things have changed, I'd sneak out and ride a moped 8 miles away with no helmet at 15 in the middle of the night. I'd put my moped at the front door and walk in. They would hide me under the stage. Eventually they let me stand on the side of the stage and I got to see the best music that's ever been done.
JC: Around that time you began to get your first band together.
CBH: Yeah, my good friend Harold put me in a band called The Four of Nine. I started playing tunes and paying dues. I started to learn what it's all about because I had no idea. I feel like I'm just starting to learn now. After 50 years, I feel like I'm just beginning to learn. And I'm 165 years old! (collective laughter)
JC: Even your most far out music never really strays too far from blues, country or jazz music. You studied and played all that old music before you started your own thing. You learned the ropes way before you put out your first record Music To Eat...
CBH: That's true. Yeah, that album was in 1969. In 68 and 69 we cut it, and I think it came out in 1970.
JC: The Hampton Grease Band opened for the Allman Brothers Band in Atlanta's Piedmont Park. You were friends with those guys before they had an album out.
CBH: Oh yeah, we opened for the Allmans a good 15 or 20 times in Piedmont Park. I got to know all of those guys.
JC: Were you discouraged by the reception of Music To Eat? You don't strike me as being discouraged by anything...
CBH: No, I've never been discouraged. I'm honored to play music. No, you're right, I've never been discouraged--ever. Sometimes I've slept in the Nebraska woods. If stuff goes the way it's supposed to go everything collapses into place. On my planet there's a different kind of gravity. So, I can't be discouraged on this planet. There's a set of rules and the only constant thing is change. And stuff changes. I've never really wanted to appeal to a whole lot of people. I do what I do and I follow my instincts. I do what I like. In order to survive in this business you develop and image or project one and pound it until people dig it.
I like to do different things everyday in the studio. I may want to dribble a basketball all night if the session requires that. Or bring an iron and do some ironing if I have to. A lot of people wouldn't like me ironing, but I'm a damn good iron-ner...(laughter)...I'm not sure if iron-ner is a word, but I wonder how many there are? I'm really good with irons.
JC: A good man with an iron is hard to find.
CBH: That's what I say.
JC: Let's switch gears. You played an integral role in starting the H.O.R.D.E tours back in the 90s. Talk about that a little. I always loved the concept...
CBH: Well, we'd been playing with Phish, Blues Traveler and Widespread Panic--everybody was there at the same time and nobody was doing much business. So John Popper asked me 'What would you guys do in the old days?' We toured with four or five bands to keep the ticket price down and do 30-40-minute sets. That's how it was done. Especially in the R & B world with 6 acts on one ticket...Aretha, B.B., Joe Tex, Solomon Burke and Albert King for $2.50 (laughs). That's how it worked back then. So, JB, me, John and Trey met in Bill Graham's office and we wanted to keep the ticket prices down. We had 6 or 7 groups on the bill--that's almost been 21 years ago. It was a phenomenal success.
It lasted 7 or 8 years. At the first of it we let all musicians run it and we didn't want to talk to ASCAP or floor drillers or whatever. Nobody wanted to deal with it or was capable dealing with those small details. So it got turned over to people who could actually run the thing. It was a lot of fun. We had everybody in every town sit in with us.
JC: I really picked up on your music during the Aquarium Rescue Unit and Fiji Mariner years. You eventually met Billy Bob Thornton through Phil Walden at Capricorn Records, which of course led to your role in Sling Blade. You also appeared in Thornton's directorial debut about Widespread Panic--Live From The Georgia Theatre.
CBH: Yeah, Phil Walden was managing Billy Bob at the time. I think Phil had us and Jim Varney at the time. I knew Billy Bob started working on an Otis Redding film so I already knew of him. He was already writing the screenplay for Sling Blade. I knew Phil before then. We got together in 1990. Billy said he was working on this movie. He was doing a TV show with John Ritter. I guess it was April of 95 when he shot Sling Blade. He shot the whole movie in a matter of a couple weeks. I don't think there was a third take in it unless there was a lighting or a technical issue.
But he just breezed through it. I've never seen anything like that. The most amazing thing about Billy Bob is his life was on the line with every bit of money he had in this film. Every day he'd go to the janitors and the cooks and he'd check on everybody. 'Is everything okay?' I saw him do that. I just thought, 'What a guy.' He life was on the line and he just knew this thing had to work. I'd see the daily screenings and I was thinking this is one of the best movies I've ever seen. Billy Bob is an amazing guy with amazing talent. You don't see people who write, direct and act anymore--they are few and far between. There are really five or six who can do it all. I remember a couple of us had to fly back to do a scene or two, and then he edited it, and put it out pretty quick. It's a perfect film. I haven't seen it in ten years, but people tell me they see it all the time. One day I'm going to watch it again. It's a masterpiece. I've only seen it four or five times. I really need to watch it again. That guy is unbelievable. He's got a new film coming out called Jayne Mansfield's Car. The guys I play with are in it. I can't wait to see it. It's coming out this summer I hope.
JC: You've got some dates with your band Pharaoh Gummitt coming up. I like the R & B feel to that music.
CBH: Yeah--we try to play everything--jazz, blues, country, R & B, bluegrass, but yeah fifty percent of it is R & B. It's the stuff we all love and we do five or six of my tunes. The guys in my band are very young and they've never had an opportunity to play it. The music is amazing and that's what I grew up on. To me, music has to come from the church, folk music or outer space. You can be a sophisticated folk singer, but it's got to come from those places or I can't listen to it. Or it doesn't make sense to me. It's gotta have a story and some soul. I want to hear from the people who have nothing to say instead of those who want to say something.
JC: I have 3,000 questions, but last night Todd Nance (Widespread Panic drummer) encouraged me to ask you about playing with Three Dog Night.
CBH: (Chuckles) Well there's a great deal of mythology with that story. We did cause a full-scale riot in front of 8,000 people in 1968. We were opening for Three Dog Night, and we considered covering all of their tunes before they came out. We were booed off the stage in five minutes! Doing "Joy To The World" for about 20 minutes with another 20 minute guitar solo was not what they had in mind (laughs). Yet, I've talked to 30 or 40 people who were there that night, and they said it was the greatest concert they've ever been to. My guitar player acted like a wrestler and challenged 8,000 people to a wrestling match! We were not courting the rock ballad crowd in 1968 (collective laughter). We were way too weird for them.
JC: What's coming up that we need to keep an eye out for as far as your music goes? I know you've been recording some...
CBH: I never know what's going to collapse into place. I'm in a band with Dennis Palmer and David Williams--that's really avant-garde stuff we do four or five times a year called The Egyptian Windmill Operators. It's really gone stuff. I mean, really gone. I've got the Pharaoh gigs coming. I'm also going to be doing some quieter stuff with a piano player and a drummer. I'm down to about 3 days a week on the road. I was on the road for 30 years. I just do 2 or 3 days a week now. I'm going to Canada in the summer to do the Jazz Fest. I'll be out in California also. I just don't work hard as I once worked. I'm 65 and it starts to hurt when you stay up until 3 in the morning.
JC: I want to ask you about Widespread Panic. Since they are winding down on their 25th Anniversary...what's the most important thing you remember about them?
CBH: They are probably the nicest band I ever met at the time. Always have been. They were so young when they started. They used to work and play at the Uptown Lounge in Athens. Dave was the doorman, Todd tended bar and I think JB was hanging around playing the pinball machines. I remember thinking about Dave Schools at the time, 'Wow this young guy really knows a lot about music. More than anyone I've ever heard. He was discussing Miles, Trane and Monk. I was just blown away by his musicality. Panic was a breath of fresh air. In the 80s everyone had bad hair and stupid shoes. They were good cats. They were at the right place at the right time and it worked. You just didn't find people like them. There weren't people like that back then. It was really positive and uplifting to see people with such good intentions.
JC: Can you explain the Energy Room up at JB's place in the mountains? I know he told me you experienced it. I'm curious. I'd like to visit...
CBH: I can't explain it. Nope (collective laughter). It's on the other side of the moon you might say. Just wear a long sleeve shirt (chuckles).
JC: What's the word on this documentary coming out on you, Basically Frightened?
CBH: It will be out March 23-31 at the Atlanta Film Festival. Hey James, how old are you?
JC: I'll be 44 in February.
CBH: Do you still live in Atlanta?
JC: I moved back to south Georgia a couple of years ago. Before I lived in Atlanta for many years, I lived with Danny and Eric from Bloodkin for about four years in Athens after I graduated from UGA.
CBH: Oh, wow.
JC: I've got another question for you...
CBH Ask me anything James. You are a man and a writer with the best intentions. You only find one out of a thousand like you. It's always a joy to talk to you. So I thank you.
JC: That's high praise coming from you. I'm humbled and flattered. Hey, what are you reading these days?
CBH: Well, I don't read much anymore these days. But I've been reading Jiddu Krishnamurti's The Intelligence of Thought. I've been reading Vladamir Nabokov. Of course, I'm a big Hunter S. Thompson fan. I love him. I think he's very funny.
JC: After all these years, what's been the hardest thing to learn? Musically, or personally?
CBH: Wow, interesting question. The number one thing to learn in life is to get rid of Ego, which stands for Edging God Out. When you think you're doing something you're in bad trouble. There's a thing called faith and there's a thing called confidence and then there's a nasty thing called Ego. That's a tricky thing. You can't let Ego cripple you. I've seen it ruin people more than drugs, booze or relationships. That's what usually kills a band or a football team or whatever--Ego. For others, it's drinking, drugs and relationships. Clarity is also a danger to me (laughs).
JC: You got that in before I could say money...
CBH: Yeah, money. I'm not sure what that is yet. I've never had to wake up and say, 'Well, I have too much money.' It's amazing how serious people take it. People change for money and I find that ludicrous. They think it's a serious thing. You gotta pay the bills and be responsible and all of that, but I've seen people sell their soul for $1.50 and it disgusts me personally. I try to treat janitors and presidents the same. Power is a silly thing. I've never understood it. What does power do?
JC: So, Colonel...what do you think about the Mayan calender ending on December 21, 2012, when some say the end of the world is coming?
CBH: Well, to me--it's after the end of the world. To me, the world ended a long time ago...
JC: So, we're all safe then?
CBH: Well, I don't know about that...