"For some reason I wasn't frightened. I felt like I was going to be OK, but I'm still supremely grateful to be here," Hughes, whose doctors had been watching his aorta since he got sober in 1991, tells Billboard. "For me to still be doing this at my age (62) with what I've been through with drink and drugs...
"There was a time everyone was putting best on me, 'Ah, Hughes is gonna be the first to go.' But he's still here."
Watch the premiere of the band's new song, "The Way":
The Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Trapeze veteran says the episode made an impact on some of "California Breed's" tracks, notably "All Falls Down" and "Breathe."
"I'm singing about life and death, if you will, and what goes on in between," Hughes notes. "I don't write about fiction. I'm a human condition guy." One song not on the album, however, is one he wrote in a particularly vivid dream with Depeche Mode's Dave Gahan -- so vivid Hughes later found the lyrics written on his bedroom wall. "I've never met Dave Gahan," Hughes says now. "I was telling my manager, 'You've got to call his manager,' and he's going, 'Yeah, sure...' God knows how (Gahan) got into it, but that's how dark and strange my recovery became."
California Breed was at least already locked in by the time Hughes had his heart surgery, however. After Black Country Communion disbanded in late 2012, Hughes and Bonham knew "agreed we should continue. We didn't particularly want to continue under the name Black Country, so we said, 'Let's do something different.' " Hughes then met Watt during February of 2013 in Los Angeles at a party hosted by mutual friend Julian Lennon.
"Julian said, 'There's somebody here I want you to meet,' and of course I meet people all the bloody time," Hughes recalls. "But I really did like the way we started to talk about recording and songwriting and the kind of guitars he likes. He sent me some songs and the songwriting was splendid, and the guitar playing was different and splendid." That first impression led to a songwriting session that resulted in the tracks "Chemical Rain" and "Solo," which they quickly took into the studio with Bonham, who was in town working on another project.
"With no disrespect to keyboard players, I really wanted to do an organic trio and get back to guitar and bass and drums," Hughes says. "I've played with the greatest keyboard players you can imagine (including Deep Purple's Jon Lord and former Dream Theater member Derek Sherinian in Black Country Communion), but I wanted to shape something different and get back to my roots, which was Trapeze, before Deep Purple. I haven't really been in a trio since then.
"And, you know, if Jason and I would have gotten another famous guitar player, they normally come from famous bands or have careers of there own. It probably wouldn't have been appropriate. I keep saying we got lucky in finding somebody really uber-talented -- unknown at the moment, but really great. Andrew's a really ambitious young man."
Hughes, Bonham and Watt -- who until recently was Cody Simpson's band leader -- worked up the rest of "California Breed's" material during several sessions and early on roped in producer Cobb.
"All we were doing last year was living our lives and secretly putting this band together," says Hughes. "Cobb had me sing first, live with Andrew and Jason, and then overdub my bass later. The guys would play the track and we'd do the song twice. The next morning I'd go into the studio and (Cobb) would play me what I'd sung, and I'd go do it another time but it was never better. I'm a real first-take or second-take, never a third-take singer. I like to keep it bouncy and fresh and spontaneous, which I think is what this whole record feels like. It's really live; there's a few mistakes on the album, but it's real, you know?"
After Black Country Communion played just 41 shows during its three years together -- a major bone of contention between Hughes and Bonham with guitarist Joe Bonamassa -- the bassist is sworn that California Breed will be an active live band, although fans will have to wait a bit for that to happen, too. The group will play release shows in Los Angeles on May 28 and New York City on May 31, but with Bonham committed to his own Led Zeppelin Experience shows and a tour with Sammy Hagar during the summer, California Breed is planning to release three videos for songs from the album and then hit the road in mid-September, mostly likely in Europe and then returning to North America.
"After Black Country one thing I needed to know about this (band) is can we deliver to the fans?" Hughes says. "For me to greatest thing to do is write a song, go record it and then give it back to the fans, because I think they become the fans' music once we release it. So for me there's nothing better than playing it when you can see their faces."