Something Else! Interview: Glenn Hughes of California Breed, Deep Purple + Black Sabbath

Glenn Hughes has been to the top, and he’s skidded along the bottom. He’s joined going concerns, and he’s started from scratch. He’s played alongside legends and up and comers alike. Been heralded and counted out. Lived life on a thin edge, and — for some time now — lived as if every day was a gift.

And he’s always, somehow, lived to tell.

The 62-year-old, in conversation, is as expansive as his own music, which has brought in pop hooks and funk snarls and glam attitude and hard-rock barks and some other thing, something uniquely Glenn Hughes. You hear it in places as disparate as Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, as distant as Black Country Communion and California Breed, his just-founded band with Jason Bonham and newcomer Andrew Watt.

Hughes holds these threads together, it seems, with sheer force of personality. And he always, somehow, keeps moving.

“It’s wonderful to have this kind of thing happen,” Hughes tells us, in an exclusive SER Sitdown. “You know, I can’t put my finger on it. I can tell you this: I work really hard at writing songs, and presenting songs — and being available to forever change. People say to me: ‘How do you do it?’ I say: ‘Because I’m always changing. I’m always in the rock genre, but I’m forever changing. Never stand still, man.”

NICK DERISO: There’s an electric, first-take feel to California Breed’s debut. How much of it was done live?
GLENN HUGHES: I’ll tell you the truth. We were in the studio, me and Andrew and Jason and Dave Cobb, who’s our producer in Nashville. So, Dave Cobb had us in, and he talked about how he likes to do things. He talked about the choice of going digital, or going analog. I said: ‘Analog, absolutely.’ He put a two-inch tape in there, something I hadn’t done for 30 years, or something. It was really exciting, because when it’s tape, you can really tell. So, we went in the next day, and everything was all set up. I put my bass down, and he asked if I had the lyrics. I said, ‘I do.’ And he said: ‘How about if Andrew and Jason go cut, and you go in the vocal booth and just sing?’ I said: ‘I can do that. No problem.’ We recorded each song twice, and after that, I went in and put the bass down and went off to dinner. The next morning, I came back to the studio, and I said: ‘I’d like to sing.’ He said: ‘You’ve already sung the album.’ He wasn’t tricking me; I knew I was actually recording the songs with Jason and Andrew — but I had not realized I had completely sung the album. He said: ‘Let me play you what I’d consider to be the vocal side of this album,’ and he played it to me. I’ve got to tell you, man, it really brought something home to me. I’ve always known that I was a live singer. I think people know that about me. I’m a first or second take guy in the studio, never more than three. You really heard that on this album.

NICK DERISO: Starting over doesn’t sound like its been very daunting. In fact, you sound exhilarated. It must be quite a difference from, say, joining an established entity like Deep Purple or Black Sabbath?
GLENN HUGHES: I had a good apprenticeship in Trapeze, before I joined Deep Purple. But through the years, I learned everything I needed to know — good, bad or ugly — with Deep Purple. You know, millions of records sold, millions of people played to. In those days, when we were selling out soccer stadiums, and the private jets and the drugs and the women, all of the things that have happened to me, the one thing I wasn’t, Nick, when I was 23 was wise. I was very ambitious. I was always, always — and over the years you can pin point this — I always put the art before financial gain. I’ve actually walked away from a lot of money to stick to my guns in the artform, you know? That’s a really important thing to me. If you know me, you know I’ve never repeated myself on any album. From, like, the first Trapeze album to the second to the third, from Burn to Stormbringer to Come Taste the Band, to the stuff I did with Sabbath all the way through the solo things in the 1990s. But when I put my rock hat back on with Black Country, when I wrote the song “Black Country” with [former bandmate] Joe [Bonamassa], everybody welcomed me back! Like, ‘Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you?’ I was, like, I’ve been here. I’ve just been experimenting, you know? So, the answer to your question, is I’m just wiser. I can actually have fun. I’m not trying to compete with myself.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Deep Purple’s tough ‘Live in Paris: 1975′ concert recording is muscled along by Glenn Hughes’ funk-metal attitude, but the heart and soul of the show will always belong to the late Jon Lord.]

NICK DERISO: It’s true. Every one of your projects tends to sound self contained — different in ways large and small. Is there a unifying element, the one thing that makes it a Glenn Hughes project?
GLENN HUGHES: The fundamental thing about my music is that I have grown. I have never, ever felt afraid to step into another thing. I have never felt afraid. And fear is a big aspect in our industry. A lot of people just get scared shitless. I don’t welcome fear, but I’m not frightened of fear. I’m not afraid to go out and play this entire album — I mean, every song. I’m not afraid to do that, because I know the album is strong. I’m really always concerned about lyrical content nowawdays. Melody has never been a problem for me. I think, when we look back, a lot of artists from my peer group will agree with what Robert [Plant] said about ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ Some of the lyrics he wrote, he said, ‘Well, I wrote that when I was 21.’ When you’re 21, you’re writing these songs like I did with Deep Purple, on Burn or something, and what I write now is so much different.

NICK DERISO: Describe that moment, while you were still with Trapeze, when you found your voice. It seems like, all of a sudden, you emerged as a frontman.
GLENN HUGHES: Here’s the thing about Trapeze, I was very young. I was 17, and the guys in the band were all five, six or even ten years older than me. I was always, like, too young. I couldn’t drink, I couldn’t go to the bars. So, I was like a bass-playing, harmonizing singer. I didn’t think about being a lead singer, until the manager of the five-piece Trapeze called me and said: ‘Hey, the band, they want to fire Johnny Jones and they want you to sing. I’m going: ‘Why?’ Then we talked about it, and we talked about going to a trio. I believe in fate, I believe in fate. I thought: ‘I’ve got to get out of my own way.’ This is something I understand more now, as I get a little bit older. So, I didn’t start out to become a bass player, I was a guitar player. Then I became a bass-playing lead singer, and now I am one of the dudes that can still do his artform at this age. I’m really grateful.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: The pity of it was how perfectly named Black Country Communion’s last album was. ‘Afterglow,’ a thunderous delight from Glenn Hughes and Co., arrived just as the band fell apart for good.]

NICK DERISO: The power and range of your singing on this new album seem all the more amazing considering where things stood at the end of your stint with Black Sabbath. People were saying your voice was shot.
GLENN HUGHES: I was in a meeting, and we saw something on YouTube from that period. Listen, Nick, we were talking about fear, right? I was very fear-based, back then. When I was in my drinking and drug years, I was in fear. When you’re drinking and using drugs, you try and escape fear by numbing yourself — or dumbing yourself down. When someone gets clean and sober, they have to face life on life’s fricking terms. I remember when Eddie Van Halen got sober, he says: ‘Man, I’m Eddie Van Halen. I’m supposed to drink.’ I said: ‘Eddie, no. God didn’t create drinking for you to play.’ I understand what he meant, because I was the same way. For me, I think being sober and clean all of these years has given me an element of wisdom. And you can not buy wisdom. You can not do it. I’ve learned so much about the artform of staying to what you believe in. Because I think if I believe in my artform, everything else will come naturally.

NICK DERISO: With the late and lamented Black Country Communion, the process seemed to involve your writing alone, then seeing the pieces go through a post-production process with Joe Bonamassa and Black Country Communion’s old producer Kevin Shirley. California Breed, on the other hand, sounds like a more truly collaborative experience.
GLENN HUGHES: Look, I have no bad words to say about Joe. But I will say this to you, and Kevin will tell you this: Joe doesn’t have time to write, and he doesn’t particularly want to write — for Black Country or a lot on his own albums. I think Joe is more of a blues dude who wants to play fucking music, whether it’s his own music or, you know, one of the King brothers. Joe is OK with that. You know, every 10 or 15 years, a new [guitar hero] guy comes around, and Joe is that guy. With Black Country, I was left to my own devices, and I loved that. I put my rock hat on, and I embraced that. With this band, when we formed it with Andrew and Jason, I said: ‘I want it to me collaborative. Although I’m going to write a lot of stuff here, I want you guys to finish it with me. And I’ll finish some of your stuff,’ and that’s the way we did it. Jason is actually a way better writer than people think — and [Led Zeppelin guitarist] Jimmy [Page] told me that. And Andrew is such a really talented young man, and I welcome that. Remember, I’m forever changing. I am forever changing. And long may that continue.

Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.