25 Year Rolling Stones Touring Member/Solo Recording Artist Bernard Fowler (INTERVIEW)

From the opening chords of Bernard Fowler’s new solo CD, The Bura, out this week on May 21, you realize he plans to hold true to his statement that, “It’s a rock & roll record with seasoning.” With guitars still humming from the opening track “Shake It,” he delves into a masterfully smooth, slow-burning trip into romantic soul on “See You Again,” a perfect homage to his elegant vocal chords. But it’s the fourth track, “My Friend Sin,” that really catches your breath as he goes bare bones on a blues foot-tapper written by himself and guitar player Robert Davis that could sit at home with the likes of Son House or Robert Johnson back in the day, featuring Sugar Blue on harmonica, Slash and Davis adding in guitar flavor and his Stones back-up singing partner Lisa Fischer loading down with some Hail Mary harmony.

Fowler, who has been singing almost thirty years behind the Rolling Stones, has been a busy man of late. Not only has he gathered together some very talented friends for his new material, but he went to Cuba in February with the Dead Daisies and is currently in rehearsals for the Stones upcoming Zip Code tour of the States. “Everybody is in great form and sounding good,” Fowler told me the other day. “Keith is rocking.”

Hoping for a chance to put his new songs in front of a live audience once the Stones tour is finished, Fowler is very excited about the tunes he has chosen for his second album. A cornucopia of originals and specially picked covers, the singer wraps his voice around rock & roll, funk and soul, with tinges of gospel and reggae filtered in for delectable nuances from his past. Guests like Slash, Albert Lee, Waddy Wachtel, Sugar Blue, Phil X, Lenny Castro, Jeff Bova, Stones bass player Darryl Jones and Chuck D helped Fowler bring his music to life, adding their own specialties to coax such memorable tracks as Queen’s “Dragon Attack” and The Beatles “Helter Skelter” into new territories.

Fowler has been with the Stones since Mick Jagger’s 1985 solo outing, She’s The Boss, joining the British icons on their Steel Wheels tour in 1989. He has also worked on Ron Wood, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts’ various solo projects. But his musical life has not always been about the Stones. He spent time in the hip-hop group Tackhead and has appeared on albums by Herbie Hancock, Philip Glass, Bootsy Collins, Yoko Ono and Steve Lukather, to name but a few in his catalog.

Glide caught up with Fowler recently to talk with him about all his adventures in the rock & roll world, where his voice is like a fine crystal.

I hear you are a very busy man lately.

(laughs) I like busy. I try to always be busy. Busy is good.

Earlier this year you went with the Dead Daisies to Cuba. What was that experience like?

It was a great experience. It was a lot more colorful than I imagined. I had been to East Berlin before the Wall went down so whenever I hear communism, that’s my reference. And communism is dark, dreary and gray, and I didn’t find that in Cuba. I didn’t find that in Cuba at all and that’s what I was expecting. I was expecting, you know, the Eastern Block but that’s not what I saw at all. The only thing that reminded me of that was the Russian Embassy.


Richard Fortus told me that everybody was really, really friendly over there.

Yeah, they were very friendly, very accommodating. I mean, from the time we got off the plane, once we cleared customs, it was beautiful, absolutely beautiful.

The band had the opportunity to meet with some local music school students while you were there.

That was great. The students were all just so sweet and so eager. Unfortunately, I got sick while I was there so I had to be careful and be quiet to save my voice but just the same, you know, the school was incredible, the talent in the school was just incredible. Some of the students played for us while we were there and the level of talent was extraordinary. This is a funny thing to say but I worry about music here in America because kids don’t listen to songs. They listen to samples. So many kids listen to samples and I don’t think that’s the case there. They are listening to music, music in it’s entirety, music as a whole, and you can tell that by looking at the students and listening to them play. It was great.

What were they asking you about the most?

Well, I was being quiet that day but they asked some basic questions. There was another singer there, John Corabi, and they asked the typical questions: How do you take care of your voice? How do you maintain it? In John Corabi’s case, you know John is a metal singer and one of the kids asked him if it hurt, which I thought was a pretty funny question. That’s John’s natural voice and I know it doesn’t hurt, but again, they’re not that exposed to all the stuff but they’re exposed to a lot more than you think they are, musically.

Do you think John is going to be good in the Dead Daisies?

I think John is perfect for them. Nothing could take away from the original singer but if anybody can come in and handle that stuff and add his own thing to it, I think John’s the man.

Was this your first time being involved with the Daisies?

Yes, this was my first time

Do you think they will let you come back and do some more?

I would love to. I would love to do some stuff for them but unfortunately Darryl and I both have things to do so they all went to Australia but Darryl and I couldn’t go. But I can’t wait until the next leg with the Stones is over so I can find something and give Richard a call. He is a great guitar player, a great appreciator of music, period; not just what he does and what he is mostly called to do. Richard likes a lot of different shit because some of the stuff that he mentioned to me that I had done years ago is far away from what we were there doing but that’s some of the stuff that we talked about. To hear him ask about those things, I was well blown away.


Well, right now you are busy getting ready for the Stones tour coming up. Anything you can tell us about what to expect this time around?

I expect more great playing. I’m going to be perfectly honest with you, I’ve been singing with them for almost thirty years and they are hitting better now than ever. I’ve never heard them play so well. I think you are seeing them at their best, musically, without a doubt, they are at their best.

Do you remember the first time you performed on a stage with them?

The first time that I played onstage with them I believe was in Philadelphia. It was in Philadelphia during the Steel Wheels tour and I remember we had a problem. We hit the stage and we opened up the show with “Shattered;” I believe it was “Shattered.” And maybe two minutes into the song, the power went out (laughs). So we had to wait till the power came back on and we continued and did the show and we never played that song for the rest of that tour.

That’s certainly memorable. Any other special memories you have performing with them that you can share with us?

(laughs) Well, let me think. The first highlight would have to be meeting them all. I met Mick first and when I met Mick, I didn’t know I was going to meet Mick. That was a mind-blowing experience. A friend of mine took me to a house and walked me in a room and Mick was sitting on the floor. I was in London at that time. Then working with the whole band the first time, that was probably one of the biggest highlights. You know, every night is a highlight. Watching them do their thing is a special thing to me and I still get off watching them. I think as far as shows go, I would say it has to be Brazil, when we played Rio de Janeiro in front of 1.5 million people. That was incredible. I’ve never seen that many people. There were people as far as the eye could see. You couldn’t see the end of it.

What is the craziest thing that you’ve ever seen Mick do onstage?

The craziest thing I have ever seen Mick do onstage, hmm, well every time Mick hits the stage it’s crazy (laughs). I mean, look at him. He is as active now as he was when they started and that’s crazy.

And how is Keith?

Keith is rocking (laughs)


You have a new CD coming out soon. I bet you are thrilled.

Yeah, I’m excited about the new CD. You know, producing your own CD can be a little tricky and it’s even more tricky when you don’t have a budget to do it. That can create a lot of problems and it did but I was able to overcome those problems. Something I did for the first time was I did the pledge thing. I did that and I mean, I’m really grateful for that but that actually didn’t help me a whole lot because, believe it or not, I have not received a dime of that pledge.

Are you serious?

I’m dead serious. I’ve not received a dime, not one dime of that pledge, and the whole point of it was, well, I thought it was to help me make this record. That’s what I thought it did but I don’t know if somebody misunderstood something or didn’t explain something, because basically they told me I can’t receive any of that money until I hand in the project. And I’m like, wait a minute, and this is me, I’m screaming in my head, “You guys are supposed to be fucking helping me.” I didn’t get any help, which is why the delay. It was supposed to be ready a few months ago but I had to make records now the guerrilla warfare style – by any means necessary.

And how did you get it done?

I knuckled down and did it and I got a lot of help from a lot of friends. I would not have been able to do this record without the help of my friends. All of the people playing on the record, they helped me do this. Without them, I could not have done this.

Who do you have playing on the record with you?

I have Darryl Jones, Waddy Wachtel, a friend of mine that just played with Sebastian Bach, Brent Woods; Slash, Albert Lee, Skip McDonald, Keith LeBlanc – you know, Tackhead, my old band, they’re all on it; Will Calhoun, Alvino Bennett, Phil X, who took Richie Sambora’s place in Bon Jovi; Lenny Castro, Jeff Bova, who I hadn’t done anything with since our Herbie Hancock days; Phil “Fish” Fisher from Fishbone. L. Shankar is on the record. Without their help, I would not have been able to pull this off.

In what ways is the record different or alike from your last solo CD?

Ways it is different is it’s not as wide in terms of the different styles of music that I put on. It is as wide but it’s a little more honed in. Basically, it’s a guitar record, it’s a rock & roll record with seasoning (laughs).

Did you co-write or write many of the songs on this album too?

Most of the originals I either wrote or co-wrote with a friend of mine, Robert Davis, who also co-produced the record with me.

Do you prefer doing collaborations over doing songs by yourself?

It depends on what it is, especially when I am making my own record. When making someone else’s record it’s different but when I’m making my own record, I think it’s important to have someone else there that I can bounce ideas off of, because I don’t know everything and I’ll be the first one to say that. And I’m a firm believer that most of the time two heads are better than one. There are some people that do great jobs alone but I think those are few and far. Not that many.

You said you co-produced this. How do you wear two hats?

It’s easy. I don’t find it that difficult. I am going to be singing on it so I need to make sure that the bed that I am getting ready to lay in is good and it feels good for me. Once the bed is made right, then it’s easier for me to put the voice on. I usually try to do that last but there are a few times on this record where I’m actually singing while they are tracking. There is one song that’s absolutely live. We all recorded it together.

Which song was that?

That would be “Helter Skelter.”

Why did you pick that song?

I picked that song because I was reading something about the Tate-LaBianca murders. I was reading about that and that song came into my head. I knew some of the history about the song and whatever I was reading made me angry, that this asshole would try to start a race war at that particular time. Like we weren’t going through enough shit, we had to have somebody else trying to create a race war. So it pissed me off a little bit and I said, you know what, I’m going to record that song and I did. I recorded it and basically I’m flipping the bird at him and everybody that thinks like him. This one’s for you.

Do you go into a frame of mind to sing certain songs? Like on a song like that you said you were angry. When you did some songs for Charlie Watts’ Jazz albums, you have that really beautiful, smooth, crooning voice. Do you have to get in a mood to sing something?

You know what, it’s easy for me when I feel it. If I’m feeling it, feeling the music, it just comes automatically. I know the voice that the stuff needs and that’s the voice that I give it. I give it the voice that it’s calling for. I can’t sing rock & roll over it, I can’t sing soul over it; I’ve got to put on it what is supposed to be there. And for that stuff it was this smooth, kind of croony stuff, which of course I am a big fan of.

How was Charlie as a band leader in the studio?

(laughs) He really loves his Jazz and when he is on his own doing his thing, he really does what he wants. It kind of reminds me of me when I am producing a record. You get the personnel that you want, you give them the material and you let them do what they do. And that’s how Charlie is. He doesn’t get worried and he doesn’t interfere; of course if there’s something and he has an idea, he will say it or bring it up. But he’s pretty easy-going. He’s confident in the people that he chooses to do his projects. He’s confident in their ability.

Did it go fast recording with him?

I don’t know (laughs) I don’t know what fast is but I think, yeah, it did go relatively fast. The project I worked with, a lot of the guys in the band were his friends. Maybe one or two of them, he actually grew up with. So after the songs were picked, he gave the piano player, his name is Brian Lemon, he’s passed away, and he gave Brian these songs and had Brian do the arrangements and we got to the studio and everybody had their charts and it was just a matter of getting it to tape. And we recorded to tape. We didn’t record to ProTools. And I recorded my album to tape. I didn’t use computers. I used two inch tape. I wanted to feel like it felt when I first started. I love recording to tape. I love the whole thing about it. I love the smell of it.

Was there a song on your new solo record that was a new experience for you vocally, a little bit different than what you’ve done before?

Yeah, there are two songs I would probably say would be, well, actually more than that. For instance, “Shake It.” “Shake It” is special to me because for the first time I was able to bridge funk and rock & roll. Sure, a lot of people have done it but “Shake It” to me is it, those two combinations coming together. The other song would be “See You Again” and that’s because I sang most of the song in a falsetto. I don’t usually use that part of my voice to sing lead. I usually use the falsetto to do a lot of background things. The instrumentation on there is just incredible. I hand-picked everyone that is on that track. Well, I hand-picked everybody that’s on the record but it is one of my favorite songs on the record. The other song would be “My Friend Sin,” which is a blues and I wanted it to be as authentic as possible so there is no bass guitar, there is no drums. It’s me patting my foot, guitar, harmonica and voice. That’s it. And I have never done that before.

As a singer, what do you think is the most important part of a song?

The way it feels. That’s probably the most important thing about a song. And of course the melody.

What was THE song or album that literally changed your life when you heard it?

Wow, that’s so hard to say cause it was so many songs that changed my life and it kind of changed my life all at once.

Was it a genre of music perhaps?

No, it was a lot of different music. You know, the Stones, Herbie Hancock, Joni Mitchell.

Did that make you want to sing or had you already been singing before that?

I had already been singing. I’ve always sung. I grew up listening to all that stuff, all the Atlantic, all the Stax, all the Kudu. Those are the labels I grew up listening to and I took something away from all of them. You know, we had to physically get up and put that record on and put the needle on and I think THAT also adds to how things affect you. You’re really part of the whole experience and I played my mom’s records, my dad’s records and then when I was able to go buy my own, I went and bought my own stuff.

If I have to say a genre, it has to be soul and blues. That’s what I grew up listening to. My mother and father played blues and gospel stuff and my older brother, he played the soul of the time, and Salsa. I grew up listening to Salsa, which was why Cuba was also a really great experience for me, because I grew up listening to Salsa. My first gig I ever played was I played bass in a Salsa band. So I grew up listening to a lot of Cuban artists and when I was there we did a couple of interviews and I mentioned that fact to them and they were like, whoa (laughs). I think it kind of took them back, like, wait a minute. This guy is coming here singing rock & roll but grew up listening to Mongo Santamaria.

How much did gospel music influence the way you sing and the way you write?

I don’t know how much that influenced my writing. How I write, no, gospel music had nothing to do with how I write. Well, maybe it did. The blues is influenced by gospel so yes, it had a direct influence (laughs).

You’ve worked with many wonderful artists, most notably Herbie Hancock, as you mentioned before. What did you learn from him?

Simplicity. I vaguely remember him saying something like that to me. It’s not all the complicated details. It’s the simple stuff. Wayne Shorter and I were singing with Herbie and he was telling a story, and I don’t remember this story exact, but I remember in the story he was talking about music being like scrambled eggs, music is all scrambled eggs. It’s HOW you scramble the eggs.

Did growing up in the part of New York City that you grew up in, did that have any influence on the kind of music you do?

Yes and no, cause I grew up in Queensbridge Projects, which at the time was predominately black and Puerto Rican, and that’s why Salsa was a big part of my music life growing up, because of the neighborhood. But I loved Chuck Berry as a kid, but nobody else in my neighborhood did. I loved the Stones. Nobody else in my neighborhood did. I was a radio kid and I listened to whatever my mother put on. When I had to go and take a nap, whatever station she put it on is what I listened to. And I think that has something to do with my appreciations.

What’s it like singing with Lisa Fischer on the Stones gigs?

I’m going to be perfectly honest with you – I would never want to do the Rolling Stones gig without her. Never. We just know each other. One of the reasons the Rolling Stones is such a cool gig for me is because it’s never exactly the same from night to night. Some things can go a little longer, some things can go a little shorter, some things can just go from one place to another that’s not been rehearsed. And you have to be there and when those types of things happen, I know whenever it’s time to go, we’re always together. That is my girl.


When Mick Taylor came in and played with you guys last time, did you have to change anything in what you do to accommodate?

No, I didn’t have to change anything. I don’t think there were that many changes made for him to come in and play with the guys. They might have swapped parts but I don’t think many things changed.

You’ve talked about doing vocal arrangements. For those of us who don’t know exactly what that term means, what do you do and what does that encompass?

It means that I give them an idea of what to put vocally where. Or if they have an idea, I always try to make it the best it can possibly be. Let’s say there is an empty section somewhere in a song and they say, “Bernard, you know what, something needs to go there. I need something to go there. I’m not sure what it is but I need something to go there.” So I listen to it and I put something there.

Is that something that can be learned or it’s natural with your ear?

I think it’s something that could be learned but I think probably most of that is just a natural ability to hear a piece of music and be able to add something to it.

Where can people find your CD when it comes out?

Hopefully, they’re going to be able to find it everywhere (laughs). [The Bura will be available through iTunes and at record stores; he will also be doing some in-store signings during the Stones tour. Up-to-date information available on his Facebook and Twitter pages].

Are you going to get to play any solo dates?

It looks like it’s going to have to be right after the Stones tour. The plan is to go right back out with me and some of my friends to perform together.

What is still exciting to you about being a performer and singing for everybody?

For that little bit of time when I’m there and I’m performing, I have peace. Nothing else is going on, nothing else, no one else; that time is truly my own. You know, part of what we do is we do it for ourselves but we do it for the people that come to listen to it. That’s just the way I look at it but we’re giving somebody, everybody, an escapism. Nothing to think about except just groove with us (laughs). That’s all we want at the end of the day.


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