Bachman’s songwriting has always been about the hook. “Songs that you like are songs that you remember,” he says. “There are little bits and pieces that resonate. It’s called the hook, and you sing it every single time and that’s why you like it. You listen to the verses and the story they’re telling, but it’s always all about the hook.”
He also preaches the power of the simple but memorable intro – that immediately recognizable riff or musical figure that grabs you right at the get-go. Think “Day Tripper,” “Oh, Pretty Woman” or “Folsom Prison Blues.” Now think “American Woman,” “Takin’ Care of Business” or “No Time.”
Those memorable hooks and simple but powerful intros and riffs have always been the meat and potatoes of Bachman’s songwriting. He says he really hit his stride when he wrote the piano intro to “These Eyes.”
“You listen to the verses and the story they’re telling, but it’s always all about the hook.”
“When I played it for Burton Cummings, he said ‘That is so absolutely primitive, lowest-common-denominator and simple; I would have never have thought of that,’ because he’s grade 12 piano, right, and all kinds of boogie-woogie stuff. It’s the little, simple things.”
There’s no room in the Bachman Book of Hit-making for self-indulgence or musical pretentiousness. “You don’t want to write for yourself, or you’re gonna sell one record,” he says. “You’re not trying to appeal to other musicians, who are just as broke as you; you’re trying to sell to people, the masses.”
His new album, Heavy Blues, his 13th release as a solo artist, is giving him another chance to reach those masses. It’s also given him a chance to take a fresh approach to some familiar musical territory. It presents 11 tracks that draw their DNA from the kind of guitar-driven blues-rock that ruled the roost from the late 1960s through the early ’70s with bands like Cream, The Who and Led Zeppelin, an era that Bachman knows all too well.
But rather than cover old ground, producer Kevin Shirley (Iron Maiden, Rush, Led Zeppelin) challenged Bachman instead to write some new blues tunes of his own. He accepted the challenge as a kind of songwriting exercise.
“So I go back and I say ‘What’s the essence of this song?’ Well, I’m gonna keep the tempo and the beat, [but] I’m gonna write my own thing. I’m gonna take this riff from ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ and make it even more simple than the original; play three of the notes instead of eight. Or I took Hendrix’s ‘Manic Depression,’ which is kind of a 6/8 thing, and I wrote a song called ‘Bad Child.’”
Bachman says he relished the challenge to “write some new blues; take these old things, recycle them and make them like no one’s ever heard them before, but give it a ring of familiarity.”
On the advice of his old Winnipeg chum Neil Young – “He said ‘Do something absolutely different and new,’” Bachman recounts. “‘Get a new guitar. Get new amps. Get a new band. Re-invent and scare yourself, because scared is good; it puts you on the edge and makes you excited and gets your adrenaline going.’” – Bachman formed his own blues-rock power trio to record the album. He recruited drummer Dale Anne Brendon, who played in the Stratford production of The Who’s Tommy, and bassist Anna Ruddick from the Montreal band Ladies of the Canyon. The three had never played together before stepping into the studio.
“I got these powerful performances out of these two ladies,” says Bachman. “And Kevin Shirley felt this energy and synergy and just kept pushing us, saying ‘Do it faster! Do it louder! Crank it!’”
Young also added his searing electric guitar playing to one of the tracks, as did a bevy of other big-time guitar-slingers, including Joe Bonamassa, Peter Frampton, Robert Randolph, Luke Doucet and the late Jeff Healey.
With Heavy Blues released, the Bachman power trio is playing the blues festival circuit in Canada this summer, as well as gigs in the States.
“I love going out and playing with the girls,” Bachman says. “We don’t rehearse. It’s a real flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of thing. There’s this excitement on stage of… imperfection. For me, it’s a great balance in my life between playing with my regular band that’s kind of classic rock, and then going with the girls and doing this wild, abandoned kind of blues stuff.”
The enthusiasm is palpable in Bachman’s voice. This new project has energized him. His mojo is rising. He may be crying out to have someone cover his songs, but his new blues are giving him reason to smile.