“I’m too old to not do it,” says Bruce Hornsby on a recent spring day, talking about experimentation and his upcoming new album Absolute Zero, out Friday (April 12).
And experiment he did, starting with the musicians he surrounded himself with. For the album’s 10 tracks, Hornsby rounded up a stellar cast of supporting players to help him branch out sonically, including jazz drummer extraordinaire Jack DeJohnette, guitarist Blake Mills, New York City-based chamber group yMusic and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. He also co-wrote a song, “Take You There (Misty),” with Robert Hunter, the longtime writing partner of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. But the genesis of the album didn’t start with any of these artists: It started with film cues he wrote for his other longtime collaborator, Spike Lee.
Here, Hornsby discusses the “science” behind Absolute Zero, his thoughts on the Grateful Dead offshoot Dead & Company and how he’s changed since his first big hit from the ’80s, “The Way It Is.”
The title of this record, Absolute Zero, seems so final.
It’s very specific and literal. The song “Absolute Zero” is a cryonic fantasy, meaning the idea of freezing a body with vitrification, allowing the body to not ice over. There’s a lot of science in this record and increasingly in my music for many years now. So that’s what it is: Absolute zero is minus 273 degrees [Celsius] on the Kelvin scale. Let’s all bow to the lord Kelvin here.
You’ve worked with a bunch of different musicians on this album. Do you see this as one of your most experimental in sound in a while?
I think that’s true. I’m always trying to make an interesting sound. I feel like I’ve been in that mindset for a long time. I think anybody who has a cursory knowledge of my whole career would say [2002’s] Big Swing Face was the most experimental. This is probably more towards that. So, yes and no. Sort of. [Laughs]
It certainly sounds like a melding of jazz and pop throughout.
The origins of this music is coming from Spike Lee film cues that I’ve written over the last 11 years that sounded like they needed to be songs. And so, there’s a cinematic quality in a lot of this music. I’ve written over 238 pieces of music for him. And he’s used about half of that number. We’ve been working for 27 years now and way more intensely over the last 11 years. It forces me to compose and some of it really moves me. That’s why it has a different feel, because it’s a different approach to writing. You could call this record “chamber pop.”
You’ve worked with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver for a few years now and he’s on this album too. How does he push you creatively?
Justin is one of the great creators of amazing, gripping, moving soundscapes, over which he sings. When I get together with his band of Merry Eau Claire Pranksters, they bring a certain aesthetic that is very special. It fits very hand in glove with the Spike Lee scoring I’m doing. I might pick some different approaches, and have a more classical-modern influences, a little Steve Reich here and there — but Justin has his moments with that too. The Big Red Machine record that he made with [The National’s] Aaron Dessner — some of the sounds on that record are coming from that downtown New York, modern minimalism sound. There’s a lot that connects us musically, from old time, traditional blues and soul, and country music, and hymnals, to all this modern music.
Have you had a chance to see Dead & Company?
I have not. I’ve only had a chance to see Billy Kreutzmann at a music festival and Bobby Weir when I presented him an award at the Americana awards in Nashville a few years ago. Those are the only two guys I’ve seen since Fare Thee Well, almost four years ago. So yeah, Cousin Bruce has been a little out of the scene, involved with the Spike Lee music and my own thing. But I’ve heard YouTubes and they sound great. Sounds like they are doing a fantastic job.
Are you working on new music for Spike Lee?
I did a new score for season 2 of She’s Gotta Have It. There’s a lot of my music in there. What I’m working on now is my next record, which is informed by previous cues and cues I wrote for this new season. It’s a symbiotic relationship between these two hats I’m wearing. So I’m far down that road.
If you’re looking back to “The Way It Is” era Bruce Hornsby, do you still see that guy pop up in your music these days?
That was a wonderful accident. It was a song about racism with two improvised solos on it. That’s hardly the recipe for pop success. There are remnants. But I don’t solo any more. I’ve done that enough. The challenges now are pretty deeper. That first record was our band trying to do our version of The Band. All that old-time music is still part of me. I’ve evolved over the years, but there’s still basic areas that I will draw from.