The music of Cream has influenced a generation, or two, of musicians, while their songs, birthed within a short period of time, have become timeless classics. Who doesn’t recognize “Sunshine Of Your Love” or “White Room” just from their opening chords alone. The chemistry between Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker was undeniable and it at times combusted badly; but no one can deny what that concoction created, even while it was imploding.
Starting this week, on Friday, September 28th, in Ottawa, Canada, a tour will be kicking off featuring the offspring of Bruce and Baker, and the nephew (by marriage) of Clapton. Dubbed The Music Of Cream: 50th Anniversary World Tour, Malcolm Bruce, Kofi Baker and Will Johns (son of producer Andy Johns) will be celebrating the music of their forefathers on a 34 city tour, playing the music of this legendary trio. As Bruce said in a statement released in the spring, “We not only have this amazing legacy of music to play, but an opportunity to share some wonderful insights and stories with our audience … a backstage pass like no other, if you will.” “We also have a few surprises in store that we know people are going to really respond to,” added Baker. “So we can’t wait to be on the road again playing these shows across North America this fall.”
Glide caught up with Malcolm Bruce, a guitar and bass player who released his debut solo album, Salvation, last year, during their rehearsals near Chicago to talk about the tour, the music and what fans can expect when they come to any of these shows.
Well, it’s kind of a delicate balance because we’re not a tribute band in the traditional sense. We’re not going out and wearing the clothes and playing it note for note and all that kind of stuff. Cream’s music lends itself to improvisation and that’s what the original band did. They went out and they kind of did something different every night, certainly when they were playing live. So we’re not copying it exactly. We’re sort of making it something new but at the same time we’re honoring it in the best way possible. Some of the songs are kind of the same format as the recordings and a lot of it is, you know, stretching out in the jam sessions and all that kind of stuff. So it’s exciting but we’re finding that balance during the rehearsals and it’s going really well.
To dig just a little bit deeper, what elements come out in your normal playing and how is that leading you in your interpretations of these songs?
You know, it’s all bits of elements. My dad had a very, very unique voice so when I sing, both me and Will Johns sing and Kofi is also singing stuff that his dad did, but when I’m singing, I have to find my own interpretations to some degree because my dad had such a unique approach. So that’s interesting, an interesting process. In terms of playing the bass, I’ve got my own thing, I guess. I’ve spent quite a lot of time on the road playing the bass and developing a style and I think Jack Bruce aficionados will hear his influence but at the same time, because Cream’s music is so much about improvisation, it gives me the opportunity to really explore how I would interpret the songs myself. It’s exciting. I have the opportunity to be myself within the music, very much so.
And that makes it more fun than doing a straight-out copy
Absolutely. I can’t imagine what that would be like. I mean, I know plenty of amazing tribute acts out there that play everything exactly as it was, the way the original band done it. We, as individual musicians, that’s not who we really are. There are people who are better at that than us (laughs). I think, by our very nature, we kind of take it in our own direction and I think that’s the best way to honor this music. It’s organic and that’s kind of how it was written. Eric was a blues purist to some degree but you know Jack and Ginger had that Jazz background that they brought to the music and I think that’s the best way to honor it, really through organic process.
I don’t think they even did it note-for-note themselves
Yeah, I don’t think they were able to do that themselves and I don’t think that’s what this music is about. I think this music is about improvisation, it’s about connecting with the audience, connecting with the energy in the room. It’s like some of the greatest music, certainly blues-based music, as it was always about expression and emotion, whether positive or whatever. Actually what comes through this music is an incredible positivity. I mean, I’m still in awe of the fact of what they came up with in a very short lifespan in terms of bands – they were together for two and half years or whatever – and they came up with all this incredible material, songs that are so strong. I’m very impressed with my dad.
I saw your dad one time, in 2012, in Vegas when I covered Carlos Santana. He came out at the end and did two songs with Carlos, “Spoonful” and “Sunshine.”
Oh great! You know Carlos’ wife Cindy had a band with my dad, kind of a lifetime tribute thing that they did and I think Carlos even got up and played with them in San Francisco, I think. But with “Spoonful,” Tomiko Dixon, Willie Dixon’s granddaughter, she lives in Chicago, and she actually invited us to a blues festival she’s producing and we’re going to go up and meet her.
All the things you get to do being a rock & roller
(laughs) Yeah right, living on a smelly bus with a bunch of smelly guys for two months. That’s what we’ll be doing! But I think from my experience of being on the road you kind of have to get into a routine and you have to take care of yourself. It’s not like the sixties where everyone was sitting around taking loads of drugs and staying up all night and all of that kind of stuff (laughs). I’m into meditation and yoga and Kofi works out every day and Will likes to go fishing. Each of us kind of has our own way of staying grounded. It’s a challenge to get out on the road, you know, it really is, so you kind of have to have a certain amount of discipline, I think.
How does your bass rig for this tour compare to Jack’s Cream rig setup?
Through my dad I met Hans-Peter Wilfer, who owns a company called Warwick, so I’ve been using their basses for twenty years now. I also know Larry Hartke so I use a Hartke rig and a Warwick bass. It’s not a psychedelic bass rig (laughs), it’s very much a modern setup that I’ve got, but it sounds great and I can rely on it, absolutely. And Larry Hartke has always been really supportive to me when I’ve been on the road with gear. But Will is using a Gibson 335 on some songs and it sounds awesome. As I say, we’re not dressing up in purple tie-dye flares – not yet anyway (laughs). We’ll see how it goes.
Other than the obvious songs, how did you pick what else is in the setlist?
Well, we all know sort of all the Cream songs so we just kind of got together over the last few months leading up to this and we’ve been going back and forth and looking at material. Now that we’re actually in the rehearsals, we’ve got a two and a half hour set so we have to kind of figure out how to make that work so we don’t go overtime, cause a lot of the venues start fining you if you go on too long (laughs). So you kind of have to make it quite succinct. So we’re putting in a lot of the pretty well-known tunes. I think pretty much “Sunshine,” “White Room,” “Crossroads” and I’m going to be singing “We’re Going Wrong;” I just love that song.
Again, going through the rehearsal process, we’re starting to cut some stuff out cause we feel there’s already enough material there, especially when we’re going to be improvising, jamming out. We started off with maybe twenty songs, twenty-one songs, on the setlist and now we’re down to about seventeen and will probably take it down to about sixteen by the time we’re at the end of this process. It’s like if you look at, for instance, the Cream Farewell Concert. I don’t know how long that show was but they played seven songs in that show, which by today’s standards doesn’t sound like many songs but back in those days people would do thirty minutes. If you look at The Beatles or whatever, they’d do sort of a twenty-minute set or something. But something like “Spoonful,” you could play for an hour, you could play for twenty-five minutes, thirty minutes, because it’s such an amazing song, like classical music or something. You have this riff, this basic riff, that can be extended, elongated, contracted and you could theoretically play one song for the entire set (laughs).
But I promise there will be a bit more than that. I think it’s going to be around fifteen songs and Kofi is doing the big drum solo in “Toad.” It’s not Ginger’s solo but very much Kofi’s own solo and that’s a really exciting part of the set where me and Will get to walk off the stage (laughs).
I like the drum solos
Absolutely and Kofi, he’s a little bit of a showman and he does little tricks. There’s a thing he does, which I really enjoy, where he starts off with the kick drum. He’s got like a double kick drum pattern that’s really fast and he’s got a really slow snare drum pattern at the same time and then he swaps them over so the kick drum slows down and the snare speeds up and things like that. It’s a real crowd pleaser. People love that kind of stuff so it’s exciting and it’s going to be a lot of fun I think.
Is “Dance The Night Away” one of the songs you’re going to do?
Ah, I love that song but we haven’t actually done that one. Maybe we’ll have a look at it. We thought we’d try “Born Under A Bad Sign” last night and it worked so well that we’re now thinking of putting that in the set and throw one of the other ones out. It’s so impressive the amount of songs they came up with in that short period of time. So there’s a lot of material you can choose from and I don’t think you can have everything in there but that’s a great tune.
In these songs there’s a lot of technicalities. Is there one in particular that has been kind of difficult for you guys to really nail down like you want it?
Well, we still have yet to decide whether we’re going to do “I Feel Free.” We started working on it yesterday and it sounds great but it’s because there are so many different vocal parts and it’s quite a challenging vocal to sing and I’m playing. We’ve tried it in different ways, like having our own stamp on it, slowing it down, making it more groove-based. So that one, there’s a question mark over. I would like to do it, myself, but we’ll see how it goes.
Would you do the vocals on that or would Will?
I do the lead vocal but there’s that very important harmony part as well so, you know, quite a few of them involve both of us singing.
I understand that Jack was very, very proud of his Scottish roots and I wanted to ask you, has any of that traditional music been an influence on you and your music?
I don’t think directly but I think it’s very much there. And I think there is very much a connection between the Celtic history and the African history. There’s a lot of inflection in those two kinds of music that have an affinity and you can hear there’s an obvious Scottish folk influence in a lot of my dad’s writing; it’s certainly melodically. And I think, yes, when I write songs I think I come up with similar melodic ideas that have that root; but it’s not like I sat down and studied Scottish folk music. When I was a kid, I mean, my dad used to read out Burns poems and stuff like that. But it’s an interesting thing, he left Scotland when he was quite young, he was seventeen, and never went back to live there – although we did have a little cottage in the Highlands, the West Highlands, we used to go and stay in when I was a kid. So he absolutely was very proud of being Scottish and it’s evident in his music. And I think in some ways I have continued that in my own writing.
You know, I did a tour with my own band at the end of last year and we went right across the Highlands and it’s the most beautiful place and the people, nobody there locks their doors, nobody locks their cars, everyone is friendly. It’s one of the last kinds of untouched places on the planet.
You released your own album, Salvation, last year. What can you tell us about that?
It was my first solo release. I didn’t at that point have a ton of backing to promote it so it had kind of been sidelined a little bit but I am very proud of it as a kind of first record. It was a long time coming. I did the basic tracking in Nashville five years ago and then I ended up going off on the road and doing other projects. Then I finished it in London in my own studio and a guy called Steve Orchard mixed it, who is Paul McCartney’s engineer. It was a huge learning process. I kind of rewrote the lyrics at some point cause I fell in love with this girl and then we split up and all these different things went into it. I’m very proud of it and I think I achieved something with a few of the songs. I don’t think I succeeded completely at what I set out to do but you never do. I think I grew through the process and I’m looking forward to doing my next record at the end of this year and getting that out next year and doing some touring in support of that.
So is that what happens after the Cream tour? You go back to being Malcolm.
I’m going back to being Malcolm (laughs). I’ve actually started work on my first opera. It’s a contemporary classical opera. We’re very close to getting the funding for that. I’ve got a really great producer working with me and it’s based on an ancient Chinese mythological story. So we’re looking at co-producing it with some people so it will be performed in London, and hopefully in the States as well, and then in China. So that’s a huge undertaking to write an orchestral score.
That seems so complicated to me, writing an opera
It’s really complicated (laughs). It’s a funny thing, there’s also a kind of simplicity in it and I think somewhere along the line all these different kinds of music split up and it’s a shame, you know, because I hear the great blues artists and I think, that’s classical music. There are such subtleties in that but it’s just as complex and just as deep.
Band Portrait by David Geraghty