Richie Sambora in tune with his heart

Richie Sambora has remained a passionate musician despite thirty years spent touring the world at a hectic pace with Bon Jovi. But these last few years, he realized how much he had missed in terms of family life, and he retired from the stage from April 2013 on, letting Phil X fill in for him. It apparently did him good: Richie Sambora is now on top form for his solo tour (which will stop by Paris on June 26th) with the divine Orianthi, with whom he shares a “magical” relationship, “a tremendous thing”. So magical, in fact, that their collaboration should give birth to an actual album.

We discussed all this in an interview with the talkative, relaxed, and very pleasant Richie Sambora. After reading it, you’ll know all about his story, his values, his musical experiences (his latest infatuation being Black Sabbath), and his love of guitar. As a bonus, you’ll even find a few confessions on the subject of Bon Jovi.

« I took my first guitar lesson when I was 52 years old [laughs]. »

How are you doing?

Richie Sambora (guitar/vocals): I’m doing good man, as a matter of fact, I’ve been working really hard. Last night I did a gig. Unfortunately here in New Jersey, not too far away from my house – I’m at my mother’s house right now -, there’s a county, ten miles away from here where ten to twelve kids a month are dying from heroin overdose. So, about three months ago I got involved as an activist and we put on a show last night. Five thousand people showed up and we made a lot of money to start a rehab center and an awareness center for children not to make those bad decisions. There were parts of that gig that were very very sad and other parts of the gig where I lifted up. I actually wrote a new song specifically for that show, called “Lighthouse”, and I’m sure it’s up on YouTube by now – as with everything these days, you know [laughs].

Did you feel particularly concerned by this subject?

Ok course, I mean, I’ve lost many many many friends because of heroin. Oh, yeah. So many guys I’ve played with in bands. Like Willie Deville, one of my good friends. Too many people, man, and now the kids are dying too. So, I got involved about three months ago and, you know, it’s my community.

Playing with a children choir must have been an incredible experience, could this have given you ideas to record with a children choir?

Well, I’ll tell you what: I’m definitely gonna record “Lighthouse” with a children’s choir, for sure. I thought it was utterly special. Utterly special. Because it was a multi-denominational. Equality is something that I’m lucky enough to be brought up with through my family. Giving back is another thing I was lucky enough to be brought up in my family. My dad was one of nine children, his dad died when he was three years old, so my grandmother raised all those kids and they all, obviously, got married and had children, so I have three hundred thousand cousins… [Laughs] You could imagine that I’ve seen every kind of joy and tragedy and problem and a myriad of all that stuff. And what they taught me in my family is to help each other out! I guess that there’s a couple of things that I do that come from my parents. That’s what showed me… I mean, number, I’m a sucker when it comes to kids. Look, I’ve got a sixteen and a half year old daughter, how easy it would have been for that to happen to her? You know, the charities that I put myself up to are usually the charities that are in my community, right in front of my face, those kind of things. Because you could imagine I get solicited all over the place. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about anyway, so let’s move on! [Laughs]

You have released two years ago Aftermath Of The Lowdown, your first solo album in fourteen years, which is a long time. So how come you had put on hold your solo career for so long before coming back to it?

Well, you know, I was pretty busy! [Laughs] No, I mean, obviously, the band was rolling. The last two tours that the band did, the last one was fifty two countries in eighteen and a half months and then the one before that was fourteen and a half months and forty or so countries, I don’t remember how many it was. These were the biggest tours on the planet, back to back. It’s only been done two times before that: one was the Rolling Stones and the other one was The Greatful Dead. So inside myself I thought: “Ok, we could take a little bit more of a break and have a different pace.” And the rest of the guys wanted to continue to go out. I said: “Ah, you know, I missed so much life over the past thirty year with my daughter.” She was getting ready to get ready to drive and be independent and I really needed to… You know. And also find myself, make that record and stay home with my family. It was very important. It wasn’t a popular decision, obviously, but I made it and I’m glad I did!

And do you feel like having revitalized yourself away from intense touring?

Oh yeah, now it’s my pace. I’m coming out on the road and I’m going out for three and a half weeks, because these are the gigs that came to me. I’m working with Orianthi now and that was kind of a happenstance thing that happened between us. I’ve got these gigs offered to me, like the Soundwave Festival down in Australia. I wanted to get out and play because I missed the contact of the musicians, the audience and the whole band thing. I missed the electricity. Unfortunately, my guitar player that was with me, his mom was sick and he had to go hang with her because he didn’t know if she was gonna live or die. So I called Orianthi up and said: “Hey, man, do you wanna go out and play some gigs?” And she said: “Yeah!” And it was magic! That was it! I mean, the energy between us is a tremendous thing. If you go on YouTube and look up “Orianthi, Richie Sambora, Voodoo Chile at the Troubadour”, you’ll see what I mean! And that was with no rehearsal and it’s called improvisation! It seems like it doesn’t happen in music today. Nobody improvises anymore. That’s why I was listening to Jimi Hendrix when I was growing up, (Eric) Clapton, Cream, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, BB. King, Freddy King, any of those guys. They were all improvising all over the place. That’s what made me wanna play lead guitar and do all that! And also you have some very good songwriters: I learned from Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and countless of other acts. So I kinda put that together and now that I have my own band, and if you listen to Aftermath Of The Lowdown, there are extended solos and people are just playing their asses off! I don’t have to conform myself to a frame. A lot of freedom in there.

« I go to concerts all the time. I wanna see everybody. I went to see Kanye West! I went to see Lady Gaga! I don’t give a shit. [Laughs] I love music! But I’ll tell you, Black Sabbath blew my ass away. »

And actually you’re playing a lot of 70s cover songs live and the album also features a couple of very 70s sounding songs. Would you consider this to be your roots as a guitar player?

Yeah! Of course! Yeah! I think, for me, that was a renaissance. I had the luxury and the privilege of growing up in the renaissance of music. I mean, I liked everybody that played folk, I liked everybody that played metal, I liked everybody that played blues, I liked everybody that played jazz! I was kind of like all over the place. I go to Coachella every year and I take my kid and a bunch of her girl friends there, I get to see like fifty bands, man, in three days! And it’s amazing! And another night, I inducted Black Sabbath biggest album of the year on VH1, and the next night I went to see them play: they were fuckin’ unbelievable! Unbelievable! And it was the first concert I ever saw of them, brother. I know Sharon and Ozzy for a long time now. I played with them and they’ve been so gracious and wonderful to me. But, holy cow! When I saw them, they blew my ass away, man! I’m not kidding. I’m serious. I go to concerts all the time. I wanna see everybody. I went to see Kanye West! I went to see Lady Gaga! I don’t give a shit. [Laughs] I love music! But I’ll tell you, Black Sabbath blew my ass away. And then in Coachella, a band called Cage The Elephant blew me away. I like a lot of different stuff. But, you know, I’m gonna play my songs from Aftermath Of The Lowdown. Obviously, it’s a much more heavy record than any Bon Jovi record that has been done over the last decade. My heart is in that and the blues and into improvisation. And then I’ll sit down with a couple of acoustic guitars and do a little unplugged stuff too. I’ve got some new songs I’ll try out, I’m gonna do a couple of covers and I don’t even know what they are yet! Sometimes you just pull them out, you know. Through social media now, it’s been interesting because I get a lot of requests and now I get to do them, because I feel like doing them! If I play “Voodoo Chile” and I feel like taking an eight minute solo, I’m gonna take it! [Laughs] Nobody’s gonna say nothing! You don’t wanna go too far, obviously, but you wanna be able to emote. That’s what I’m at now.

I heard your cover of Willie Deville’s « Storybook Love » that you played yesterday and will play on the upcoming shows. This is a very soulful song. I guess it must have a special meaning to you…

Well, Willie and I were good friends, man. He lived in New Orleans, in the French quarter, and I was always a fan to begin with. And then we got to know each other and I would hang with him a lot. He would take me into the clubs, the saloons and bars where always great musicians were playing and we would jam. And remember what I was just telling about the heroin thing: Willie was doing heroin, you know. He didn’t tell me about it, but I knew he was doing it, and loved him dearly. I played that song with him a bunch of times. Plus I’m in a writing period of my life, besides going out and playing live, I’m getting ready to put out another record down the road, and I just sat down with my acoustic guitar one day in my house and I just started playing “Storybook Love” and it sounded good to me – that’s a demo! That’s all it is. I played it last night. I mean, I just love the song. And you know what? I almost didn’t get through it! Because I was sad! I miss him! And I revere him. We talked a lot about the French culture and he didn’t even get why he was so accepted by you guys, and I said: “Probably because french people accept art, and their hearts are open minded” [chuckles]. We had this conversation a bunch of times, so I guess it just came up. It kind of happened organically. I’ll probably put it on my next record too. I just love that song that much. I just really do. I know I’m going to play it live every night, I know it.

I’ve read that you’ve learned how to play finger style with Laurence Juber, but I also know that Mark Knopfler who plays on the original Willie Deville song is also a master at this technique. Is he also an inspiration to you?

Oh Yeah, Mark is a great guitar player. I mean, come on! An unbelievable guitar player. As for Laurence, he plays in alternative tuning. I met him as I walked in one of my favorite guitar shops. There was a guy playing acoustic guitar and his back was to me. He was one guy but he sounded like two guys! [Laughs] So I walked around in front of him and I said: “How are you doing that man?” And he started to explain to me all these different alternative tunings and stuff like that. I said: “Would you teach me that?” And he goes: “You gotta be kidding?” I go: “No! I have to go on the road for a little while but when I come back we can sit down and start playing!” He started to teach me. He was getting some stuff off of me and I was getting some stuff off of him. We played a couple of gigs and about eight months later we were doing clinics. I wrote a song called “Forgiveness Street” that’s a bonus track on my record in alternative tuning. So I immediately kind of took into it. And now, we just kind of hang out and brush up every once in a while. But, yeah, I took my first guitar lesson when I was 52 years old [laughs]. See, that’s the thing: I’m still passionate about learning. I mean, I look to work with new producers, new engineers, new writers sometimes, no matter what, I want to continue to learn! I gonna play until I’m dead! This is what I do. This is my passion.

« It’s like you’re walking through a museum and you see a specific painting, you could do it for five years in a row and then something happens in your life, you look at that painting and it speaks to you. That’s guitar playing. »

And would you say that guitar playing a never ending learning process?

Absolutely! There’s no doubt about it. I mean: where do you wanna go? Do you wanna go Django Reinhardt? Try that! Do you want to go Wes Montgomery, do you want to do Jeff Beck? It’s an amalgamation of all of your influences, that’s what guitar playing is to me. And you find them as you go along your life, in different situations. You know what? It’s like you’re walking through a museum and you see a specific painting, you could do it for five years in a row and then something happens in your life, you look at that painting and it speaks to you. That’s guitar playing. It’s the same thing to me. Or any instruments for that matter. That’s the way I look at it.

I read you say in an interview that you « almost fell out of love with music and » you « needed to fall in love with it again. » But hearing you talking about music, I guess you actually found that love back now…

Well, yeah, it just got a little stale for me, you know. I wasn’t able to explore enough genres and I was so busy, and the work pace in the band was so fast, that I didn’t get a chance to expand my knowledge. I guess that’s the best way you can put it. Look, I ain’t complaining, nor am I shunning the thirty years that I’ve had in this band, because it’s been a blessing, I know that. But you’ve got to step away sometimes. A man has to make a decision, maybe it’s not the most popular one in the world but here you go. I’m not saying that the band will never get back together again because never say never or never say ever. It’s all about when the four of us want to get back and jam, and really start going for it again. Because it seems to be… I don’t know. It’s just got a bit complacent maybe or something. I don’t know, that’s just me and maybe everybody else think differently. That’s the way I was feeling. Plus, you know what? Honestly, the priority was my family: I needed to deal with my kid, man. I mean, I’m the guy who wrote all those songs, I was co-producer on the records and then went on the road for at least a year, I did fourteen cycles out in about 31 years. Plus, I put out three solo albums and toured with thoses and produced countless of other artists and wrote songs for everybody else too. I mean, I lost a lot of family life, so I decided, hey, what was more important? That’s the way I made my decision.

You’re first and foremost known as a guitarist, but you’re also a singer and you’re known for these high pitched vocal harmonies in Bon Jovi. What is your relationship with singing?

Well, I’ve been a lead singer in all the bands I was in besides Bon Jovi. I miss it. As you can tell on “Storybook Love”, you don’t always have to sing high to be effective. You have to interpret the lyrics. I miss being a lead singer, obviously, that’s another part of who I wanted to get back to, because when you’re the lead singer and you’re also the songwriter, you talk with sincerity and you’re authenticity about what’s going on. And I think that your fans want to know what’s inside you, that’s important. That vulnerability is very important and I think that a lead singer is obviously the megaphone for that. And then, I get to pick up the guitar and emote my feeling through music. That sound like a pretty good life, no? [Laughs]

I’ve read you consider Stevie Wonder as a vocal teacher…

Well, by listening. He was not my vocal teacher. I do have a vocal teacher, his name in Ron Anderson and he’s worked with everybody. And I still take vocal lessons to get better. You always can get better, always. But Stevie Wonder, I learned his phrasing and how he’s singing.

What can we expect from you in the future?

I think that Orianthi and I are going to make a record together, that’s going to be the next thing. Because, people don’t know: not only is she a guitarist but she is also a great songwriter and a great singer, and when we sing together, it’s only magic! When we play together, it’s only magic! I think that people are going to be happily surprised about what comes out of us. I’m already happily surprised. But I think people are going to get a good insight when they’ll come to see us play, and I hope everybody get surprised.

Interview conducted by phone on May, 28th 2014 by Spaceman.
Questions, transcription and introduction : Spaceman.
Promotion photos: James Minchin.

Richie Sambora official website : Richiesambora.com

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