Bruce Hornsby on Pranking Bob Weir and How Basketball Inspires Him

Bruce Hornsby knows how to bring the rock.
Bruce Hornsby knows how to bring the rock. Keith Lanpher
Bruce Hornsby has had a storied career as a rock 'n' roll performer, songwriter, side man, and sports fan. From his time with Bruce Hornsby and the Range (1984 to 1991) to a stint with the Grateful Dead (1988 to 1995), the 62-year-old musician has enjoyed one of the more successful careers of any of the late-80s Grammy winners for Best New Artist. (He won in 1987.)

His song "The Way It Is" achieved number-one status on the U.S. and Canadian charts and cemented Hornsby as one of the most widely recognized songwriters in the world, even if many fans would have walked right by him on the street without noticing him. The unassuming singer and keyboardist has continued to create great music, with an easy style and accessible sound, for the past 30 years. And there seems to be no end in sight. Hornsby has collaborated with Sting, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, and many others while continuing to write and record his own music.

On Thursday, July 6, Hornsby and his band, The Noisemakers, will play Celebrity Theatre. New Times caught up with him via email near the end of June to talk about his memories of Phoenix, the evolving music industry, and getting inspired by basketball. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

New Times: Any special memories of Phoenix or Phoenix gigs?
Bruce Hornsby: Sometimes the most memorable moments involve "extra-musical" events. In 1997, on the old Furthur Festival at the Desert Sky Ampitheatre, the date was Bob Weir's birthday and he thought I had some shenanigans planned to mess with him. I had no such plans. So he made a pre-emptive strike on my set, and sent out two strippers to jump out of a cake and come dance lasciviously around me as I played and sang; quite hilarious. Luckily for me, my bass player JV Collier had two massive friends (6-foot-8 and 300 to 350 pounds) visiting him, friends from his days living in Tucson. We sent them out on the most sensitive Weir ballad — I believe it was "Looks Like Rain" — to stand on either side of him, very closely, glowering at him as he sang. Of course Bob, being the gamer that he is, just laughed his way through it. Memorable moments!

How was working with the Dead and Jerry Garcia in particular? I saw you play with them several times.
I wouldn't trade my time with the Dead for anything; it was a truly singular and often transcendent experience for me. Any time you spend that much time around a musical scene as vast and deep as the Dead world, it can't help but have an influence. I loved them as writers, so that was an influence; I loved their loose approach, so that was another influence, although having been a jazz major at University of Miami, I was always game for winging it and improvising, and the whole "be kind" philosophy that permeated their scene was another beautiful influence.

How has the music industry changed, in your eyes, for performing artists and songwriters like yourself over the past 10 to 20 years?
There's lots of fantastic music being made today, interesting and innovative, and for me, most of it resides in the margins, under the mainstream radar screen. It's still about the same thing — finding your own individual, unique voice stylistically, as a writer, instrumentalist, and singer, and creating something original that reaches and moves people deeply.

What is your writing style ... do you write all the time? Have a set time for writing or write when the urge moves you?
My style comes from a combination of these disparate stylistic elements, and is often described as "Bill Evans meets the Hymnal, with some blues thrown in." It has moved in the last 10 years to a more modern, dissonant, chromatic place than before. I'm always in search of the chills, in search of that feeling of being deeply moved. It's really hard to give yourself chills, at least it is for me, but that's my aim. Or, I'm looking for something that makes me laugh! I'm always looking for inspiration for songs, lyrically and musically, and my songwriting partner Chip DeMatteo and I had an epiphanal month a couple Junes ago when we wrote four songs in that one month. That was a rare prolific month for me; I'm generally pretty slow.

Do you keep instruments pretty handy all the time?
There are lots of instruments in my studio: pianos, accordions, Hammond B3 organ, Casios, dulcimers, autoharps, snare drums, shakers, slap percussion instruments, clarinet, violin ... I use the odd instruments now and then in my film scoring work for Spike Lee. Everything gets used sooner or later.

I've heard you are an avid basketball fan ... does watching sports ever inspire you to sit at the keyboard or pick up an instrument? For example, do you ever have a keyboard handy while watching a tense game as a means to relax? I often watch Suns games with a guitar in my hand, especially when they were good ... haha.
I'm just a fan of virtuosity in any area of life. I'm inspired when I see great athleticism, because I know how difficult it is to develop those talents. Basketball, for instance, is a sport that requires amazing hand-eye coordination and serious yearslong work on specific skill development: shooting (so many different types of shots), ball-handling, lateral movement, and quick reaction for defense, which is very much akin to football in this area, and on and on. I just appreciate great skill, and it inspires me to get my ass in the practice room and go after it.

What do you think of the lack of parity in the NBA? As as Suns fan, why should I even bother watching? half kidding here, but also half serious ... won't the Warriors just win every year for about five years now?

I'd watch the Suns for Devin Booker. He's a bad child.

Who are some of your favorite keyboardists?
When I was getting into the piano I was influenced primarily by these great men: 1. Leon Russell 2. Elton John 3. Dr. John 4. Otis Spann 5. Professor Longhair 6. Chuck Leavell. I got interested in the piano at age 17 because of Elton John's Tumbleweed Connection album and Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen record with all that great Leon Russell piano. So Elton and Leon, and then Keith Jarrett, who led me to Bill Evans, Dr. John, Professor Longhair, Bud Powell, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, and now modern classical music, composers like Elliott Carter, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Olivier Messiaen, Gyorgy Ligeti, and more.

Who would you like to collaborate with that you haven't had a chance to work with yet?
At this point, no one really. Paul Simon asked about my playing on his last record, and of course I said an enthusiastic yes, but alas, it never came together.

Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers play Celebrity Theatre on July 6. Tickets are $40 to $70 through Celebrity Theatre's website.
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Tom Reardon has written for Phoenix New Times since 2013. He's been in several notable bands over the last 25 years including Hillbilly Devilspeak, North Side Kings, and the Father Figures.
Contact: Tom Reardon