“How you holding up in this crappy weather?” Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal asks seconds into our interview on a frigid Friday afternoon. Such cheerfulness was a constant presence during our in-depth conversation; a rare quality to find in someone whose nearly 20 year career includes releasing 10 solo studio albums, a role as a guitarist in Guns N’ Roses, and non-stop touring and recording on his own and with other rock icons. Yet 2015 is already shaping up to be Thal’s busiest yet, having just released his new album Little Brother Is Watching while still finding the time to collaborate with other musicians.
After our back-and-forth jokes about the awful Tri-State weather, Thal spoke with us about his mind-set during the recording of Little Brother Is Watching, how personal events (including getting diagnosed with a tumor) inspired his writing, how his latest endeavors (including playing in the supergroup Art Of Anarchy and producing Generation Kill’s collaboration with Darryl “DMC” McDaniels) came about, what he’d do if he ever had the chance to jam with Manowar, and how to prepare yourself for the backlash that comes from joining an already established band.
Your solo material has always had a nice balance of technicality and straight-up catchy songs. However, your new album Little Brother Is Watching feels a little more hard rock driven than your past albums.
What inspired the musical direction for this album?
I don’t know. It just kind of happened that way. It came out kind of pretty [laughs]. The past albums are a little more punky, progressive or edgy, and I feel like this one is sort of all grown up and kind of… it’s got more space and the songs go through more dynamic changes. It’s just more musical all around, bigger vocal harmonies going on, everything like that. It’s what felt right, it’s just what seemed like the right color to paint with.
Well that definitely stood out with “Women Rule The World”. I was blown away by how your pretty much just finger-picking/shredding away throughout the entire chorus and on top of a straight-forward, catchy song structure!
[laughs] You know what’s tough about that stuff? If it was just the guitar part, fine, but I’m a glutton for punishing myself. So I have to play those kinds of parts while singing something that in itself is not exactly easy.
It’s funny you say that just because with there being so many virtuoso guitarists who only play guitar, I always appreciated how you can shred and sing.
Doing both at the same time, that’s the hard part.
Yeah, I can imagine! You’ve been spending most of the past few years touring. I know you’ve been eager to write new music, but how would you say that the enormous amounts of touring helped with the musical direction?
I don’t know if it did. I think, if anything, it just…made me older [laughs]. I just finally did my next album! And maybe there’s something to that, where by NOT doing an album so quickly and having more life lived by the time I did, I think I had deeper stories to tell, more things that happened that were worth putting into a song and sharing.
Can you give me an example of that? In other words, compared to what you used to normally write about, what were you writing about this time around?
Things that happened in life such as… a year ago, when I was starting to do solo touring again, three days before hitting the road, I diagnosed with a tumor. So things like that, and it’s just like, ;Oh well, I guess I gotta hit the road for 2 months in the dead of winter in a van and then get this thing cut out.’ That kind of stuff, that looming thing. You can write a song real quick when something like that happens. Even just writing about touring, like the song “Living The Dream.” It really tells what it’s like to be on tour. It’s not all “Hell yeah, we’re gonna party all night and get laid, WOOHOO!” None of that bullshit. It’s about the real stuff, about leaving your life behind and having to hop into the Superman suit and be what you need to be for everyone. I mean lyrically, the verses are very real and honest – “I miss my father and the dog I had at 17, I start to let it go somewhere at 30,000 feet, take-off as who I am and land as who I need to be”…that kind of stuff.
If you don’t mind, I want to go back for a second to when you were diagnosed with a tumor. At that moment, were you afraid that maybe you’d never write or perform music again?
No, no! When they found it I was like “Well, finally you found the damn thing!” I knew something was up because I was bleeding out of my body for about five years, and every doctor would just say, “Oh it’s normal, it’s probably your prostate, you’re getting older,”…like, “Dude I’m not that fucking old!” And even if I was, picture a guy saying, “Oh, I gotta go drain some blood out of my body!” That’s not normal. Men don’t bleed! [laughs] So finally one [doctor] just drove a camera crew up my dick hole and found some things going on. So I got it taken care of. I named the tumor Gladys. I didn’t get to keep Gladys.
Well I’m sure you were happy to get rid of Gladys.
We had fun; me, Gladys and my wife! It was a nice threesome, we had a lot of good times. We went to the Grammys, we traveled all around, and…it was a nice little trio that we were!
Besides your solo career, you are involved in so many different bands and projects. When you’re writing music, how do you determine where the song will ultimately go? Like, “Alright, this is going to be for my own album” or “I’m gonna use this lick for Art Of Anarchy”?
Good question. Sometimes I’ll just be writing a bunch of things and when you’re writing you’re just saying, “This would sound so right with this person singing it” or “This seems like it would fit better with this band or with that.” It just very organic, it’s very natural the way it happens. Or what happens is you’re writing specifically with that band in mind, this is the vibe of the band and you just sort of step into those shoes and get into that swagger. It goes either way honestly, it happens both ways. You write specifically for something in mind. It’s homework, it’s like “Alright, today’s homework is to write a metal song for this metal band!,” but a lot of times you’re just noodling around and you’re just letting ideas come out and then you hit on something and say, “Oh, this would be cool for that metal band.”
One particular project you’ve been involved with lately is Art Of Anarchy. How did that particular band come together?
That started in 2011. It has been in existence for four years. It started with two friends of mine, John and Vince [Votta] that played guitar and drums and have always been in bands together. I produced their band for the last eighteen years and they’ve always been friends. They started this music company and they wanted to start putting out music. The first thing they wanted to do was make their dream album, a cool supergroup album. They got everyone together, and everyone wrote and played their stuff, and it should be coming out in May.
I hate to dwell on drama, but there was a bit of confusion regarding Scott Weiland’s involvement with Art Of Anarchy. In your opinion, how did it get so out of hand or so muddled in the press?
Well, that’s what happens when we say what we say [laughs]. You can’t necessarily blame the press for things we say, and I take full responsibility for the things that come out of my mouth and cause any trouble that they cause. It’s on me. It’s like “Oh! Putting my foot in my mouth again! Okay, hopefully this’ll blow over within a week.” But that’s how it is. Yeah, there’s…I don’t want to elaborate too much because I don’t know where it’s going to be going, but I think we all were in agreement on one thing and then were surprised to hear something not exactly what was agreed on.
Fair enough! So over the past few years, you’ve collaborated with some vary notorious frontmen – most recently Scott Weiland and more notably Axl Rose. What are some of the biggest challenges that come with working with such notable musicians like them? Any tips you can maybe give up and coming musicians who might find themselves in a similar scenario?
Well if you’re going to play in a band that has a whole bunch of songs and history, and that audience is coming there to hear the songs they love in the way they love them, first: don’t try and rewrite the song and feel like you have to prove something to anyone. It’s okay to play those parts note for note and just be yourself as you do it. Don’t try and rewrite someone else’s song that people came there to hear the way they’ve grown to love it. That’s one part of it. Two: you’re going to get a lot of shit [laughs] because it’s going to be a lot of “You’re not my real daddy!” all that kind of crap. Just expect it and know that people will react and lash out at you according to who they are, but it doesn’t change or define who you are. The only thing you can really do is just stay grounded about it, say, “Look, I’m carrying the torch. Would you rather this whole thing end? I didn’t kick anyone out… Slash and Buckethead are not tied up in the closet as I’m coming out on stage!” [laughs]
But if they were, where would they be hidden? [laughs]
[laughs] It’s not the one in the second bedroom upstairs! [laughs] I think people are frustrated that…they’ve learned to really love a lineup of the band and when it changes they just resent that. And there’s nothing you can do about that, you can’t stop a person from resenting that the world did something that they didn’t want it to do. You just gotta deal and roll with it, and if you’re playing that gig, that’s what you’re gonna get. So don’t worry about it too much, just have fun playing because that’s really all it’s about. You play because you enjoy it, and you want to share that enjoyment. It’s kind of like throwing the party and if people wanna sulk in the corner, that’s on them. They’re welcome to enjoy themselves and have fun at the party along with you and everyone else. So focus on that, don’t sulk with them.
That’s great advice, and it really can be tough to deal with the fans, but in regards to how to actually interact with…
Oh, how to handle the band! [laughs]
Well not to name anyone specifically, but you have worked with a fair amount of musicians with a reputation of being somewhat difficult to work with.
I’ll tell you, every single one that I’ve worked with musically has been great. When we made music, it was great. A lot of the part that people say is difficult is not necessarily the musical part. It’s all the crap that surrounds it, that gets in the way of making the music. That’s usually how it works, but I mean the one gig I did with Nancy Sinatra, she was cool as hell. [I did a] bunch of shows with Lita Ford, that was great. Everybody was great, there weren’t too many douchebags. At least not when it came to [working together] musically.
As if you weren’t busy enough, you’re also producing Generation Kill’s collaboration with Darryl “DMC” McDaniels [of Run DMC fame].
Yeah, what a great bunch of dudes!
How did that come about? I mean, it’s seems so random just to imagine Rob Dukes [former Exodus singer] and DMC in the same studio, let alone with you into the mix. How did you get involved?
I’ve known [Rob] since he was in Exodus years back, and we always stayed friends. When they were working together and they were looking for someone to do the mixing and the production stuff, they hit me up. I heard the stuff and it was just so badass, it was just so nasty! A lot of good stuff and I was like, “Yeah, let’s do this, let’s have some fun!” And it’s been great. So we have one song done called “Lot Lizard” [laughs]. Vile lyrics, holy shit! Yeah, it came out great and I’d like to do more and get more done. They’re working on some stuff right now and they’ll get me some tracks and we’re gonna keep it going and hopefully they’ll be ready to share music soon and get it to some ears.
Have you actually been in the studio with the band and DMC, or have you been working with them remotely?
I’ve been in [the studio] with DMC and Rob Moschetti [bass/backing vocals] and the guys. Rob Dukes has been out in Arizona.
What’s it like to be in the studio with DMC, a rap legend?
Oh, it’s cool. That’s the thing. Everybody is just normal, cool people. You don’t think about them like they’re some object other than a human being. And he’s just a down to earth, cool dude from Queens.
You’ve worked with so many great musicians before. Which band or artist that you’ve never collaborated with before would you love to work with (whether it be in the studio or onstage), and what would you hope to accomplish with that collaboration?
Oh, [laughs] that’s a tough one! I mean, there’s a lot of answers to that. There’s Manowar.
Yep! I’m a huge fucking Manowar fan. I would love to just blast through the first few albums with them. Hail To England, Battle Hymns, Into Glory Ride and all that stuff. I would love to just hang out, go through it all and just blast it out. That’s one. Of course, who isn’t gonna say Dave Grohl? Just to jam with him [and his band] would be cool. Who else? I will think of a million names as soon as I hang up the phone.
I just love the idea of you and Manowar on the same stage. I know you’re an old school metalhead, but I guess I never expected that. That would be really cool though!
It could work! I just gotta get my loincloth ready, gotta work out like a motherfucker.
I’d be too self-conscious. I know I’d never look as good as them onstage.
[laughs] So yeah definitely, that’s something I would like to do. To me, Eric Adams [Manowar vocalist] is one of the greatest singers ever.
I mean, I was just talking for like an hour and a half on the phone with Tony Harnell [former singer of TNT]. We were just catching up on everything, and he is probably one of my all-time favorite singers that I looked up to and try to model my own vocals after and could never do. So making music with him and getting to know him personally has been an absolute pleasure.