By Brian F. Johnson
“The sad thing is that you can’t go see a horrible band anymore. Everybody is mediocre,” said Col. Bruce Hampton in a recent interview with The Marquee. “When I was growing up there were awful bands that would barely finish the tune, and I’d go every night to see what not to do. I really liked those bands but there’s nobody awful anymore. I want to hear the potential for chaos.”
For more than 50 years Hampton has been searching for and creating that chaos. The man, who has been called “The Mad Hatter of Music,” “The Professor of ‘Out’,” “The Vincent van Gogh of Rock and Roll” and of course, “The Granddaddy of Jam,” has been blending avant-garde rock and roll with anything else within arms-reach for decades. In doing so he has inspired masses of musicians, from Widespread Panic and Phish to Leftover Salmon and an enormous, ever-growing list of other bands, many of whom point to Hampton as the inspiration behind the entire improvisational jam movement.
His band The Aquarium Rescue Unit, which originally formed in 1988 and parted ways in 1993, is reuniting this summer for their first proper run of shows since a brief 2011 reunion. The group features Jimmy Herring of Widespread Panic, Oteil Burbridge of the Allman Brothers and drummer Jeff Side of Apt Q-285 and Leftover Salmon, and for this run they will be joined by keyboardist Matt Slocum.
“Back in the early days we rode five people in a van filled with equipment and some of us slept in it,” the Colonel recalled. “We had one room for two and a half years and I don’t know how we got through it. We didn’t lose our minds too bad besides painting ourselves with mayonnaise, but we did 290 shows a year minimum. We meant business and we weren’t playing checkers. We were there for a reason. The great thing about the group though is that when we soared, we soared and when we fell flat on our faces, we fell flat on our faces and we weren’t embarrassed by either one. To me, we were rising to failure, and when you do that, other stuff happens. Once you clear out some of the garbage the magic takes over, hopefully. You never know, man. At least we were willing to take that chance.”
Taking chances is what Hampton’s entire career has been built on. Since the performer very first stepped on stage at 16 years old in 1963, being willing to hit the wrong note meant that a lot of times he and his band mates ended up hitting the right note, because they were free to do so. This idea, musically speaking, of jumping out of an airplane and not worrying about where the parachute would come from sometimes meant that the band cratered, but since every player in the group was a virtuoso in some regard, they had the confidence to explore, and when they did find the chute before the ground, it was a magical experience. “If you repeat a wrong note three times you’re a genius, so if you play a wrong note, just play it three times until it works,” Hampton chuckled.
Despite his mark on music, and the credit that other musicians give him as an inspiration, Hampton has a way of breaking down music into its most elementary terms, and sometimes seemingly demeaning the very art form to which he’s dedicated his life. “Everything is ‘Mama’s little baby loves shortnin’, shortnin.’ I mean, take Ornette Coleman. That’s nothing but nursery rhymes that he’s playing but they’re the greatest compositions in the world,” Hampton said, adding that what matters is the artist’s intentions. “In music the greatest thing you can do is to play yourself. You know, take the 8,000 people you steal from and put it into yourself. Like, I can hear every lick where Prince got his stuff, but he’s now Prince. I can hear the Jimi Hendrix and Little Richard and all of it, but he’s got his own voice now and that’s the hardest thing in music to do.”
Aquarium Rescue Unit will be recording the upcoming run of shows in hopes of producing a post-tour live album that will take highlights from the performances, and Hampton said that there is some new material being developed for the tour, but as can be expected by Hampton and the crew, there’s not a lot of nerves going into the final stages of preparations. “We’ve had one and a half practices so far,” Hampton said with a hearty laugh. “Because there is some new material though and we want to do this live record we will spend some time practicing, but we won’t rehearse the old stuff.”
Most likely they won’t go near the band’s classics for rehearsal because doing so would eliminate that potential for chaos, and Hampton isn’t about to shelve that opportunity. “Since I was young I’ve had a rebellion against organized sound,” Hampton said. “When I talk about going ‘out’ I talk about chaos, but chaos with extreme taste and respect.”
Col. Bruce Hampton
and the Aquarium Rescue Unit
July 29 and 30
Go If You Dig:
- Frank Zappa
- Widespread Panic