Q&A: Jeff Bridges Talks Tom Waits, the Dude, and His Band, The Abiders

The personas are unforgettable -- Duane Jackson, Lightfoot, Scott Hayden, Jack Kelson, Jack Lucas, Jeff Lebowski, Jackson Evans, Otis "Bad" Blake, Rooster Cogburn. Jeff Bridges has never wanted to be typecast for a specific acting role over the past half-century, and consequently, he brought these diverse characters and more than six dozen others to life the way only an Academy Award-winning actor could: He doesn't portray them; he becomes them.

One of the constant threads weaving its way through Bridges' acting tapestry has been music.

For the past 15 years, Bridges has added "country-rock musician" to his growing list of personalities. And unlike the at-times embarrassing attempts of William Shatner, Bruce Willis, or Billy Bob Thornton, Bridges' music holds up very well.

See also: Up on the Sun's 10 Top Music Stories of 2014

Bridges' discography seems to prove that this Lebowski is more than just a fan of Creedence. As the new year unfolds, Bridges is wrapping up a string of mini-tours, which he performed intermittently throughout 2014 with his aptly named band The Abiders, promoting his third LP, Live.

Recently Bridges spoke with New Times about his mortal coil, avoiding being typecast, family, world hunger, his second career as a country-rock musician, and the Zen of The Dude.

Phoenix New Times: Happy New Year and Belated Happy Birthday, Jeff. How are you doing?

Jeff Bridges: Hi Mark, Happy New Year to you. I am doing great!

You recently mentioned to AARP that you have two sides of your conscious telling you about your ambitions. "One side tells, 'Hey, you that you've got a lot of stuff you want to do, and now's the time because, you're gonna kick the bucket pretty soon,' and the other side says, 'relax.'" Is it hard to choose which voice to follow now that you just turned 65 last month?

I get very excited about different projects and that's very wonderful, but sometimes my wife will let me know, "You've got too much on your plate." It's frustrating sometimes, but I do my best and try not to take it all too seriously.

You are known in Hollywood circles for being a bit of a perfectionist and method actor. With your music career beginning to take hold, do you follow that same attention to detail or is it more relaxing?

You try your hardest to get it right as you can, but there is no question about going with the flow. You've gotta go with the flow, man.

Your family, father Lloyd lived to 85, your mother Dorothy lived to 93, and brother Beau is still thriving at 73; what is the key to your longevity as a human and as a performer?

Well, the mortal coil has a lot to do with genes, and I'm thankful for that. As I get older, I'm thinking that I need to pay more attention to the mortal coil. I gotta take more care of it; I'm working on that. And, as far as the career, speaking for me personally, I saw how frustrating it was for my father, Lloyd [Bridges], who had a wonderful TV series, Sea Hunt [in the 60s]. He played that part of Mike Nelson so well as a skin diver, that people thought he was a skin diver. He seemed to see more skin diving scripts. It was frustrating for him because he was a Shakespearean actor, a great comedian, he did musicals and all kinds of things.

So, I tried early in my career to especially not develop too strong of a persona for two reasons. One -- to send a message out to the financiers that I could play many different parts, and they could send me different kind of roles. Also, for the audience. It's got to be hard if you do see a guy who would have a strong persona, and doesn't happen to be playing that persona in a certain role. it is very hard for members of the audience imagine him in that role. As I have gone on in my career I haven't worried as much about that.

Do you look at your musical career with a few albums under your belt as a second career or is it a ongoing side project, hobby or unknown for now?

I know I love my music, I've been involved with music since I was a teen, so that's 50 years or so. I've got a sea of songs I want to realize, and make recordings of, you know. the music has kind of taken off, so I will probably be doing music from here on out, but you never know.

Music has been a major part of many of your films. From your singing in Crazy Heart to your solo albums, including the new one, Live, one can hear Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan and even Stevie Ray Vaughn. Who do claim as your main musical influence?

There is not one guy, you know. all those guys you mention are wonderful artists. I am also a big fan of Leonard Cohen, of course The Beatles, Tom Waits. There are so many wonderful artists that inspire me subconsciously.

What was it like working with Bob Dylan? You worked with Dylan in the movie Masked and Anonymous in 1980 and narrated a short video that is a companion to his Vol. 11 Basement Tapes, just released. You played with Waits in the Fisher King. what were those experiences like?

I've got to say working with [Dylan] as an actor and playing with him for a couple of weeks, was spectacular, you know, wonderful.

With two solo albums out, Be Here Soon in 2000 and Jeff Bridges in 2011, what prompted the recording of Live, which was recorded from live performances last year on tour in Las Vegas, Texas and California?

Well, like you said, I'm getting up there at 65, and I need to get to work now, and they are all pretty good. I think all the songs are from shows we did back-to-back in [Red Rock Casino in] Vegas. My musical director, Chris Pelonis, is a wonderful guitarist; he was really in the mood to lay down some tunes. so I want to celebrate that, put those songs down and get to the next batch. Whose idea was it to immortalize The Big Lebowski by giving the moniker of The Abiders to your band's name?

We were sitting around trying to think of a name for the band. I came up with from The Big Lebowski, The Royal We's. It's something the dude says when he is dusted in the car. Then I thought that maybe too obscure. Then our pedal steel guy Bill Flores said, "The Abiders, it's gotta be the Abiders." that kind of stuck. We couldn't come up with anything better so we went with that.

Among the 14 cuts on Live, you do your 2011 single, "What A Little Bit Of Love Can Do," "Falling & Flyin" from Crazy Heart, and a Creedence song, Looking out My Back Door, just as was played in one of the classic funny scenes from The Big Lebowski, but you also do one of the modern classics by Tom Waits from his Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards three-disc opus, "Never Let Go."

Tom and I go back quite a ways. He was in Fisher King. You know, he's a wonderful actor. We worked together in a movie called Cold Feet, and another movie, American Heart, that I produced. [Waits sung the song, "Waiting for My Child."] It's a wonderful tune and one of my favorite movies. You might want to check that out.

And, as your music goes, your guitar of choice, the Gretsch G6122-1959 Chet Atkins Country Gentleman guitar? Obviously, a vintage country-rock-sounding instrument, but why that particular guitar?

Well, when we were looking around for one, when we were starting Crazy Heart with [producer] Scott Cooper, T-Bone Burnett (the film' soundtrack director) and (long-time friend and prolific musician-producer) Stephen Bruton, who was so instrumental in the making of the music for that movie, we were trying to find the right guitar. You know, what this type of artist might play. Scott, I believe was recording stuff for Merle Haggard. I asked him what his favorite guitar was, and I could be wrong, but I think it was a Country Gentleman. We also had a telecaster I played and a couple of the guys used that. I tried them all on, and I started seeing the kind of music that would speak to me, and that was it. It's just is a really good guitar.

The ongoing love affair and cult status that America has with The Big Lebowski is seemingly unexplainable, and yet it helped give you a name for your backing band, The Abiders. It showed you at the apex of your modern comic, quirky best. This would seem to be more than a pleasant, yet unexpected continuation of popularity for one role you have had for any one movie in your body of work. In your mind, what has given it such a sustained fame durability?

The Big Lebowski as far as I'm concerned, is a masterpiece, made by the masters (Ethan and Joel Coen). It's a great movie, and I am so proud of it. I am surprised it has taken off and had this new energy. but the fans are wild, man. I played at a couple of the Fests [Lebowski Festivals] with the Abiders. It's wonderful to be around people who love the movie so much.

How different is it for you, performing on musical stage versus the set of another movie, in terms of the nervousness and the energy? Is it similar or way different?

I think it's very similar than different. You have anxiety about pulling off what you want to pull off [in terms of performance]. Then when you get out there as opposed to being an actor on a movie, I'm doing a long improvisation with the audience. We sing together, and we're sort of out their together. When you're out there with the guys [in the band] the anxiousness disappears. If the audience is having a good time, it returns to the band.

You are truly in a time where you can do what you want. You have it all, legendary film career, body of work, loyal family, charitable causes, photography, painting, and more. How do you balance all of that? Does your meditation help?

It's a challenge. My wife keeps me grounded. You don't take yourself too seriously. I am more a Zen guy. I do meditation inside and it seems to bring me a certain amount of peace. One of the causes you have promoted for three decades, and continue to do so on your tour, is the issue of hunger and more presently, the documentary project A Place At the Table. You started the End Hunger Network in 1984 and are a major promoter of Share Our Strength which provides food for needy school children. Can hunger be solved?

The larger problem of hunger is quite complex. it has to do with poverty, but ending the hunger in poverty is a very doable thing. There are programs in place; it is just letting those programs be used and letting people know they exist.

To whom do you credit your philanthropic and genuine interest in paying it forward and giving back?

The motivation came from my folks. I remember my father bringing home a book called The Family of Man. (It was about the idea) We are all in this together. We gotta take care of each other, and that really impressed me.

Speaking of family, your middle daughter Jessie is making her own path with music and toured with you this past year? While she will not be on tour with you in Arizona what satisfaction do you feel with her following in your musical career?

It's a real highlight for me to play with my daughter. ... Being an actor and being away from home, making movies, I wasn't around for a lot of their childhoods. So, I'm trying to do my best to help them as adults, and it's really been wonderful. Jessie's being my assistant, and my oldest daughter Isabel -- we are writing a children's book together. [His youngest daughter Halley runs her own drafts and kitchenware boutique.]

Talk about the deeper connection you have to the Big Lebowski and how due and the Zen Master came about?

One of my dear friends Bernie Glassman came to me and said that in many Buddhist circles, the dude is a Zen Master. I said, "What are you talking about, man?" It is a modern-day koan [a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment], questions you can't answer, you just have to experience them.

He said The Big Lebowski is filled with modern-day koans. He says just look at who the directors are -- Coens. So he said why don't we write a book together about that. and I said, 'That's interesting'; so we did.

Back to your music, you did some limited touring in the Central, Midwest and East last year and are now saddled up for this five-stop mini-tour in Phoenix and Tucson, then you hit three stops in California. Are these all litmus tests for future bigger tours or something else?

This latest mini-tour that we're doing now be sort of the end of these tours. I have some movie parts in the fire, nothing I can talk about right now, but I will shifting into some movies this year. but I have a whole slew of tunes to make a record out of and I'm hoping that will happen down the line.

Jeff Bridges and The Abiders are scheduled to play Livewire in Scottsdale on this Friday, January 9.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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Mark C. Horn
Contact: Mark C. Horn