Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal fits the profile of the modern archetype of a blue collar rock and roll hero. He is accomplished in a variety of areas and during a conversation with Thal, his humble, unassuming personality draws you in as effectively as his virtuoso guitar talent. When you listen to both his solo and collaborative work, you can easily pick up on his passion for music and his true songwriter's ear.
As a solo artist, producer, side man, and purveyor of hot sauce, this renaissance guy just released his tenth solo album, Little Brother is Watching, had a stint in Guns N' Roses under his belt, and still finds time to teach guitar to students all over the world as often as possible. A true teacher, Thal prides himself on bringing the fans into the experience of creating his music as often as possible, whether it is have a contest for the best opera singer to join him and sing back up on his 2008 record, Abnormal, or the 100 people he invited for a listening and recording party recently in Brooklyn to help with backing vocals for Little Brother is Watching.
I sat down for a long conversation with Bumblefoot to find out the scoop on his new record, as well as a few other tidbits. Here's the best parts….
Tom Reardon for antiMusic: Tell me about the new record…seems very autobiographical, lyrically….
Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal: It absolutely is. Over the past couple years, I've had more stories to tell and that's really what's happening. That's what songs are, when we tell a story, and try to get someone to share an experience with you, that understanding. Things that have occurred in life over the past couple of years…I've felt like there was a very direct line I was able to draw from.
antiMusic: Tell me about the first track, "Clots."
Bumblefoot: That one was inspired by the diagnosis of a bleeding tumor in my body. I was pissing blood clots and the whole song is about clots tearing your insides and the doctor turning you inside out. That (experience) pretty much started the writing process and I was thinking, "time to start a new album." I started singing the verses on the drive home from the doctor.
antiMusic: Clean bill of health now?
Bumblefoot: To my knowledge. It's good…it's fine.
antiMusic: Your bio talks about the "tour flu"…do you think with this tumor, did you take it seriously off the bat or did you chalk it up to "tour flu?"
Bumblefoot: I knew something was wrong and I had symptoms for about five years. I would go to the doctor and they would say, "Oh, you're just getting older." I would tell them look, "It's definitely not just getting older. Men are not supposed to bleed." Finally, the symptoms got worse and a doctor sent a search team to inspect my insides and they just found stuff.
antiMusic: The guitar riff in "Clots" reminds me a lot of one of my favorite bands, Nomeansno, who tend to be on the jazzier side of punk. I understand you took a lot of jazz and music theory as a young'un…
Bumblefoot: Cool, gotta check'em out for sure. Lot of music theory, lot of jazz, classical…all the academics, (I'm) kind of a music nerd.
antiMusic: I also heard a ton of Queen influence on Little Brother is Watching…
Bumblefoot: Bits of Queen, bits of David Bowie, bits of George Harrison…all that stuff, all the building blocks, all the little things you got something from and you feel, like, some part of you needs to pay that enjoyment forward and it comes out in some inspired version of it.
antiMusic: Tell me about track eight, "Women rule the world"….
Bumblefoot: That's a weird song. I gotta make a video for that. Something low budget, science fiction…like Plan 9 (From Outer Space…notorious sci-fi film from 1959). It goes back to the Honeymooners, you know, Ralph Kramden saying "I'm the king of the castle." We (men)do the conquering and the controlling, and try to do everything, but it's all within a matrix women build. Most of what we do, most of our stupidity, is done trying to impress women. It's part of nature and I love being one with nature. I'm totally cool with it. Most good relationships, the woman lets the man think he's in charge. While we're fluffing our feathers, women are shaking their heads to themselves thinking, "There he goes being a man again."
antiMusic: You played all the instruments on Little Brother is Watching except drums, correct?
Bumblefoot: Correct, correct.
antiMusic: Dennis Leeflang on drums? He's a longtime collaborator of yours, right?
Bumblefoot: The pronunciation is Lay-flung. It's Dutch. We've been playing together for 12 or 13 years.
antiMusic: Tour plans to support the record?
Bumblefoot: I plan to tour but I don't have the tour planned. I want to work the record a little bit more. I want people to get more familiar with it and know the music, and then I want to head out. I don't want to just jump out and play everywhere without a strategy.
antiMusic: What do people need to know about this record?
Bumblefoot: It's really just so primal, so simple. I just want people to listen to it and enjoy it. I want them to hear the little stories being told and really get something out of it. The same thing we all get out of listening to music that we love. That makes us feel so good and just grateful for that feeling. That's what I've gotten from music I hope I can share with people and I hope they can get something from this…someone, somewhere.
antiMusic: Is there a deeper meaning behind the title, Little Brother is Watching?
Bumblefoot: It's pretty much just a statement on where society is right now. How we live day to day….everything we do is on display, for better or worse. I think mostly for better, but sometimes for worse. This is the world we live in. Wikileaks…a police beating….our neighbor falling on his butt. Whatever it is, or something of us we want to put on display. We're watching each other and we're being watched. The song touches on this and also how you're going to react to it. Be yourself, be you and do what you want and don't worry about anything. Be yourself, be human, and enjoy it. Nobody's perfect.
antiMusic: How has living in the Little Brother is Watching world, being a public person, affected you?
Bumblefoot: I think I was able to roll with it pretty well. I think lots of people feel very out of control, especially when you're talking about sharing intellectual property. You have to have some faith that you'll get out of this in one piece.
antiMusic: You put a lot of things on video. How important is video as a tool for you?
Bumblefoot: Oh yeah. Audio is not enough, at least not anymore. Before there was this technology, that's what we had, but now that we have the capacity to add this whole visual aspect, and the behind the scenes, and everything to the music we share, why not? I love doing that. I love bringing people in and giving them a window to the creative process. I want people to be part of the whole thing, not just hand them a finished product. Every album that I do, I bring in people and have them contribute something.
antiMusic: We noticed you're a long time teacher. Is this a way to keep teaching involved in the projects you do?
Bumblefoot: It's part of it, yeah. I love explaining what's going on. I love teaching. I love learning. I love sharing. That's really all it is. Teaching and performing are not that much different in that you're sharing something you've received, that you want to give back.
antiMusic: Switching gears…Why is it so difficult to keep a band together?
Bumblefoot: I think trying to get four or five guys to marry each other...how long is that going to last? Everybody's life is going to grow in different directions and figuring out how to make the band fit is difficult.
antiMusic: You've done a lot of collaborations. Do you have a preference in projects of being THE guy or being one part of a working unit?
Bumblefoot: I think it is good to be able to do both. Each one gives you something you can't get from the other. It is important to have the diversity, collectively, in everything you are doing so you're not trying to make one thing your 'everything' where it just doesn't fit. I love doing solo music where I get to fully express every bit of myself from songwriting, to the cello, to what I do on the bass to compliment Dennis' drums, to guitar solos, and the rhythms, to the singing and harmonies, to the mix. The overall feeling from it all, to me, I'm not just a guitar player. If I give myself musically to people, I'm going to give them everything and that's what they get from one of my albums. It could also be something where I am just a silent guitar player, where everyone is doing their thing. I love being part of a band, too, where I am just a working piece of the whole machine and I'm not carrying the machine. You get everybody's personalities where you get so much more depth when you combine it all. It makes it deeper and more interesting.
antiMusic: You also produce as well…how do you find the time to do everything?
Bumblefoot: I love producing, where, if you don't hear me at all, I'm just helping other people to be themselves as much as they can be. When you put it all together, you get everything you need and you're happy and it's gratifying. It's hard to find that balance…it's definitely hard to always keep a balance and do what you need to do when you need to do it. Finding the compromises and how long you can hold out on one thing before you go crazy and want to do something else. You can tour for years and it can make you nuts if you don't get to be creative and get in the studio and write and record. You can't have hot dogs every night for dinner.
antiMusic: How did you get into producing?
Bumblefoot: It happened very slowly where everything I was doing, I started doing for others. At a very young age, where I was recording, other kids in the neighborhood started having bands and I started recording them and they started asking my opinions on things and next thing you know, that turns into being a producer.
antiMusic: When did you start recording?
Bumblefoot: From the age of six…I figured out how to do multi-track recording by using multiple cassette recorders. Around 16 I started getting into really hands on engineering and producing other people as well.
antiMusic: You were living in Staten Island, right? How was it growing up in one of the most vibrant music scenes in the whole world?
Bumblefoot: Brooklyn, originally, then Staten Island, and for the last 20 years, Jersey. It was good. Late 70's, early 80's…all the classic albums coming out at the time. New albums from Queen, the Who, the Ramones…then suddenly, things were getting heavier…Iron Maiden, Queensryche….
antiMusic: What was your gateway Metal band or album?
Bumblefoot: There was a place called Rock and Roll Heaven I would go to. It was at a flea market in New Jersey. It was run by a very nice married couple named John and Marsha Zazula (who would later found Megaforce Records) but they had this record store that had all these imports. They would always turn me on to all this different stuff. They exposed me to a lot of cool metal when I was ten years old, eleven years old. I think it was probably just roaming the store and finding the Killers album (by Iron Maiden) then running back to the store and buying Maiden Japan and the first album (Iron Maiden) and became a diehard Maiden fan for the rest of my life. My all-time favorite metal band, though, is Manowar. I'm a huge Manowar fan.
antiMusic: How did you get involved with Guns N' Roses and are you still involved?
Bumblefoot: I'm really avoiding the whole subject, and don't hate me, but it always ends up hijacking everything I'm talking about. We first started talking in 2004 after I was recommended by Joe Satriani. We started talking. In 2006, they had a tour lined up, and we got together in New York where they were rehearsing, I jammed with them about seven times, and we ended up hitting the road for three months.
antiMusic: Were you able to write and contribute during your time with the band?
Bumblefoot: I wanted to. I did write guitar parts for Chinese Democracy…I wrote everything I played. I'm happy about that, definitely.
antiMusic: What doors did being in Guns N' Roses open for you?
Bumblefoot: If anything, people will be aware of you, but….any kind of situation like that can work both ways. Once you're on the radar, it's out of your hands and the world is going to react however they're gonna.
antiMusic: It seems like you've consistently made a point of giving back in your career…where does that come from?
Bumblefoot: I just realized, you know, looking at what was important to me, and what mattered, and the power we have as musicians to motivate people to do good things. We should be doing that and it is an injustice not to. It just makes sense to do it. We can take what we do and without having to change a single thing that we do, we can help other people.
Click on the album cover below to preview the tracks and purchase a download
Tom Reardon is a veteran musician who played on over two dozen releases from several bands. He is currently the bassist/vocalist for Phoenix post skate-punk band The Father Figures which also features JFA cofounder Michael Cornelius. Tom's previous bands include North Side Kings and Son of Crackpipe (with included notable producer and member of Fudge Tunnel/Nailbomb Alex Newport.) He lives in Phoenix with his wife, kids, and pets.
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