Last Friday I had the opportunity to spend some time with the legendary Southside Johnny before the final show of his UK tour, featuring Gary “US” Bonds, at Shepherds Bush Empire. He was entertaining and engaging (as always):
AM – We did an interview here three and a half years ago and at that time you spoke to me about this acoustic thing that you might or might not be doing, which was really big news at the time and that’s happened now, so how’s that going?
SJ – It’s really good, it’s a fun thing. It’s really stripped down; we travel in a van together, we have breakfast in the morning as a band (there’s only six of us, with the road manager) and we set up our own equipment and tear it down and it really feels like the old days when you used to have to do that. It was a complete commitment to the whole day of travel, set up, play, tear down and travel again and even though I’m kinda long in the tooth I really enjoy it because it seems so organic and basic; there’s no star turns at all. I love playing acoustic music and it gives us a chance to play George Jones and Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan and Tom Waits and some Bruce in a different format.
AM – You mentioned a few country artists there; you’ve always been a country fan haven’t you?
SJ – Yes I liked country when I was very young. What I didn’t know is that my mother, way back in the thirties when the ukulele was the big thing, she bought a ukulele from Sears Roebuck and she would sit on the porch with her father (her mother had died young) and some neighbours, and they would sing country songs, so I guess it’s in my blood, it’s the Irish part of me.
AM – I’ve heard you play “He’ll Have to Go” (country classic made popular by Jim Reeves) at The Astoria, I think.
SJ – Well, Soozie Tyrell, who plays violin with Bruce, she has a country band in New York City, and I would go up and do lots of songs with her because they’re real singer’s songs, they’re story songs with great melodies so it’s fun to make that kind of music.
AM – The old Jukes revolving door seems to have slowed down a little…
SJ – Not too much. We’ve got a new saxophone player, John Isley; I think (drummer)Tom Seguso’s been over here.
AM – At the time of the last interview, Joey (Stann, tenor sax) and Ed (Manion, baritone sax) were still with you but they’re obviously off doing other things now. There seems to be lots of side projects going on as well now that the New York Horns have made a record.
SJ – These days it’s a lot easier to make a record for a little money and it’s also easier to manufacture; for a buck apiece you can make as many CDs as you want and there’s a profit margin once you’ve paid for the studio time and the musicians and all the rest of it. I’m lucky that Jon Bon Jovi lets me use his studio but, even if he didn’t, studio time’s not as expensive as it used to be, home recording’s easier and the internet makes it easy to get distribution to all your fans round the world. It’s a good time to be a musician because you can do all the little things you want to do without incurring great expense.
AM – Did the side projects always happen to a certain extent; do we just hear about them more because of social media?
SJ – We’ve always done those things; Bobby (Bandiera, guitar, now playing with Bon Jovi) and I went out for months, here and there, doing a lot of charity gigs and they put us on a plane, in business class, just him and me and a guitar and harmonicas. We went all over and played charity things and it was just a chance to play in hotels and every little place you could find and it was a lot of fun because it was no stress.
AM – I saw you at Sheffield City Hall in 1995, I think, just the two of you doing the stripped back thing and it was a great night.
SJ – Well, if you have confidence in what you’re doing and you have material you think you can accomplish with just a guitar and a harmonica it’s a chance to explore all that too. Years ago Bobby, Rusty Cloud, David Hayes and I played in Paris at the Chesterfield Club. We did a two-week stint there with very little publicity and we rode the Métro and that was a lot of fun too. We all stayed in the same hotel, this funky little place and it was two weeks in Paris. I’m lucky I’ve had the chance to do those things and just explore what making music means other than pedal-to-the-metal trying to earn a living. I can do just about anything I want now. I’m never going to be rich, I’ve known that from the very beginning so there’s not a great stress to be a big star and make a lot of money; I make a living and that’s all I want. I just want to be allowed to do whatever kind of music I want to make.
AM – I was going through some of my very old Jukes records today and it struck me that after Billy Rush left, you got much more involved in the songwriting process; there’s not a lot of your songs on the early albums.
SJ – I was a writer back then but I would write certain things with certain people but the bulk of the song would be theirs and I’d say “forget it, I don’t want to have anything to do with it”. I wrote with Billy but I don’t have the kind of ego that I need to see my name on the album, but now with Jeff and Bobby the songwriting is really a collaboration so I get to write a lot of lyrics that I find interesting like “Into the Harbour” and “Winter in Yellowknife” and stuff like that which is not the norm for romantic love songs.
AM – On “Pills and Ammo”, it struck me that your name’s on every track as a writer. Do you have a certain way of working; do you do the lyrics and Jeff does the music?
SJ – It’s pretty much that way except that if I come up with a musical idea we’ll explore it and he helps me with lyrics; it’s a real collaboration in other words. I’ll come with an idea, a whole lyric and I’ll say “I think it sounds like this” and he’ll find a way to make it sound like what I want, but then he’ll say “what about this…” and we really try to bounce ideas off each other.
AM – I know Jeff’s a big fan of Squeeze and Difford and Tilbrook wrote in that way as well.
SJ – I’m a big Squeeze fan too.
AM – About your audiences; you’ve retained a very loyal audience in the UK. In the US, are the audiences different?
SJ – Well, they speak English. There’s people who come and see us a million times and there’s people who come and see us for the first time and usually we can win people over. It’s the energy and a lot of the music is made to lift you up so it’s not some shoegazer and it’s not some egomaniac, it’s really just music. I think one of the things that keeps people coming back is that it’s never the same night after night and I don’t know where it’s going to go and tonight’s going to be like that too because we’ve got Gary Bonds and we know what we’re going to do but when we get on stage, that may change.
AM – I’ve been watching Billy Walton live for a while and I’ve noticed that his crowd seems to be getting younger. I’ve seen teenagers at his shows but I’ve also seen people in their twenties who know all of the songs. I just wondered if that was happening with The Jukes.
SJ – We do get a lot of younger people; we had a bunch last night in Holmfirth, but we have our loyal fans and they’re the ones that usually get the first tickets and they’re older, but they bring their kids and some of them bring their grand-kids but anybody who’s willing to give us a shot we’re willing to play for as long as they come and have a good time and just enjoy themselves.
AM – November used to be the traditional time for a Jukes tour but the last couple of years you’ve been over during the summer. I’m guessing that’s because of festivals.
SJ – Yes. This year especially, because we had the Cornbury Festival to start it and we’re ending with Bospop in Holland so we had two festivals and we put a bunch of gigs in between and those get to be the anchor gigs. Unfortunately there’s new taxes in England, Foreigner Entertainer Tax (FET) and Hood, who settles everything got hit with it the other night and they wanted £1,400 for FET. Nobody knew exactly what it was but it’s legitimate and all that does is it makes it harder for bands like me to come over here; you can only lose so much money. On the one hand I guess they need the tax money but if they really need that, they should get all those people who hide their money offshore and let us poor bands try to play a little music.
AM – And a lot of musicians are hiding money offshore.
SJ – Well I’m not hiding any money; my money comes and goes and I get to see it as it goes past and that’s about it.
AM – Going back to the festivals, what’s the biggest gig you’ve ever played?
SJ – Probably Knebworth with Led Zeppelin. We did two shows; we did the first one, flew home and did a show in Washington DC, flew back and did the second show at Knebworth and flew home again, if I remember rightly, so it was a lot of flights. And we played about forty minutes but it was fun, it was a unique experience and we met some good people over here.
AM – As far as I can remember, and I was a long way away from the stage, it seemed like you got a pretty good response that day.
SJ – It seemed like that; of course we didn’t the full power that the headline act got (we don’t do that, if somebody opens up for us they get full power, but I’m not ever worried about a band opening up for us, I hope they do well). But I thought Led Zeppelin was terrible; there was no bass in the mix in the audience.
AM – That’s all the serious stuff but I’ve got couple of other questions for you. You’ve now got a huge body of work to choose from when you play; is there anything you feel can’t be left out?
SJ – Well, there’s nothing that can’t be left out, but I’m not there to just indulge myself, I’m there to give people what they want too and you split the difference. I know they want to hear “I Don’t Want to Go Home” and “The Fever” and “Trapped Again” or “Talk to Me” or “This Time It’s for Real” or “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” or whatever and you try to include those but when you twenty-two, twenty-three songs, there’s plenty of room for you to do what you want too. There are times when I say “I’m sick of this song, I’m not doing it” and it lasts for few months then it’s back in.
AM – Here’s one from my sister, who’s a big fan. Is there a song that makes you cry?
SJ – There’s a lot I guess. I’ve got some that I’ve written but Alison Krauss does a song called “I Can Let Go Now” which I think was written by Michael McDonald and it just kills me because I relate it to my mother. I don’t think that’s what it’s really about but for me it is and I just can’t listen to that song. There’s a lot; there are things that really touch me. I wouldn’t be doing if I didn’t get emotionally involved. When I was young and heard certain songs, I either got happy or excited or even felt sexy or touched, and to be part of that tradition is an amazing thing, but I’ve never really lost the idea that if someone sings a great song and really means it then I can get lost in the emotion.
AM – I find it really difficult to listen to “Many Rivers to Cross” after the version Jeff did here in 2010.
SJ – He really puts his heart and soul into it.
AM – Finally, hoping for another scoop, have you get anything in the pipeline?
SJ – Well, Jeff and I have written most of the songs for the next Jukes album; when we get it finished, I don’t know. We’re hoping to get in the studio, perhaps this winter and get it out some time next year. I’d love to get it out by Christmas but that’s just not gonna happen, and I’ve written some songs for a new Poor Fools acoustic thing and I’ve got a couple of other projects in mind too. I could retire if I wanted to, but then what would I do? I’d sit around the house, get fat and drink myself to death, and I can do that on the road.
AM – Johnny, many thanks for making the time for the interview.
SJ – My pleasure, any time.
I first saw Bobby Bandiera play in June 1995 at The Leadmill in Sheffield as part of an unplugged-style tour with Southside Johnny. I know; it’s a huge surprise that I was at a Southside Johnny gig, but you have to take my word for it. Looking back at it with the benefit of nearly twenty years of hindsight, the tour was probably an attempt to find out if Southside still had a following in the UK and whether a tour with a full band was a viable proposition. On the night, Johnny and Bobby were outstanding; it’s surprising how much variety you can squeeze out of two voices, a guitar and a few harmonicas. They played every request that came from the audience and proved that good songs are still good songs when all of the arrangements are stripped away. Before the gig, I knew that Southside was a great singer and harmonica player; after the gig, I knew that Bobby Bandiera was a hugely talented guitar player and a very, very good singer.
Bobby played in various bands on the Jersey shore following his debut in 1968, building a reputation as a gifted player and was considered as a replacement for Steve Van Zandt in The E Street Band for Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” tour. It didn’t happen, but in the following year he joined Southside Johnny and The Jukes, following the departure of Billy Rush and kicked off a collaboration which has lasted for nearly thirty years. I’m guessing that playing in The Jukes isn’t as lucrative as playing in the E Street Band, but it has other rewards.
I’ll come back to this later, but I truly respect any musician who naturally leads a band (whether it’s as a singer, guitarist or songwriter, and Bobby is all three) and can also take a back seat for a while and just be one of the players; Jimi Hendrix couldn’t do it, and he wasn’t the only one. When Bobby joined The Jukes they were mainly functioning as a live act and releasing albums that only the dedicated fans were buying but, from the very start to the present day, they remain a live phenomenon and Bobby has always been a perfect fit for Southside’s live performances. I’ve heard a story, from someone who knows, that Southside always likes to test any new Jukes (and there have been plenty of those) by suddenly, mid-gig, calling a tune that they haven’t rehearsed. I’m willing to bet that he never caught Bobby out that way because according to Billy Walton, another hugely versatile frontman and supporting guitarist, Bobby’s memory for songs is legendary.
There must have been a settling-in period but I’m guessing that it didn’t take very long for Bobby to become a perfect foil for Southside and give the singer a chance to drop down a few gears during live sets by passing the baton to his guitarist for a few songs. Leading any band isn’t easy, especially if you’re talking about nine or ten musicians and having Bobby Bandiera as a trusted lieutenant (in the same way that Springsteen has Steve Van Zandt in the E Street Band) helped keep the Jukes a tight live unit while adding another great voice to the mix. Any musician who joins The Jukes has to be a gifted player; you don’t play the same set night after night and you never know which song (or version of a song) is coming next. Apart from the challenge, the upside of this is that the musicians never get bored or complacent.
During twenty years with the Jukes, Bobby has also released three solo albums and continues to play live in New Jersey with the Bob Bandiera Band whenever he’s not touring in his current day job . Did I forget to mention that Bobby has been touring as part of Bon Jovi’s live set-up since 2005 in a supporting role? He’s usually described as rhythm guitarist, but I’m going to get all controversial on you here and say that there’s much more to it than that; the reason that Jon Bon Jovi wanted Bobby Bandiera in the touring band is that he needed a safe pair of hands. If your lead guitarist has had well-documented substance and reliability problems, then you need a reliable backup plan and Bobby Bandiera is about as reliable as they come; a tremendous guitar player who also adds very strong vocals. In April 2013, Richie Sambora left the tour at short notice and, in Canada, for one night only, Bobby Bandiera shook off the rhythm guitar tag and took on all the guitar duties, doing the job that he was brought in to do. It didn’t last long, as another shredder, Phil X, was brought in the next day to replace Sambora. And that incident kicked off all the predictable online spats between fans and friends on various sides of the debate (and not a serious word from any of the protagonists).
For what it’s worth, I’m not keen on bands bringing in extra players (for whatever reason)without giving them full bandmember status but, ultimately, it’s up to the players involved to do what they think is right. I don’t think you can criticise a musician for taking a supporting role which (presumably) pays well without the dubious benefit of a spotlight and big-screen shot; it’s a hard world out there as a professional musician and it’s getting harder.
I know it’s difficult if you live in the UK, but the best way to appreciate the artistry of Bobby Bandiera is to see him live. You can find YouTube clips of “C’mon Caroline” and covers of “Like a Hurricane” and “Baba O’Riley”, but the quality’s variable at best, and it’s almost impossible to find his albums online (at least at anything less than eye-watering prices). So, I guess the best I can hope for is that Jon Bon Jovi takes an extended break and Bobby comes back to the UK on the next Jukes tour; it’s unlikely but if it does happen, Music Riot will let you know about it then it’s up to you to go out and see him.
Some guitar players throw shapes and use smoke and mirrors (and the occasional wind machine) to grab your attention, but Bobby Bandiera doesn’t need any of that; he just has to play and sing. He’s a very modest guy who seems to be happy just to be doing something that he’s very good at, and that always looks and sounds good on stage. Whether he’s playing with his own band, The Jukes or a group of teenagers at a rock school, he’s always a great player to watch and he always looks like he’s having a great time. What more could you ask for?