Interview With Ron ďBumblefootĒ Thal Part I
April 28, 2011 by Raymond
Some time ago I received an offer to conduct an interview with guitar wizard Ron ďBumblefootĒ Thal. Besides being a member of the current incarnation of Guns Ní Roses heís also known for releasing his own music under the Bumblefoot moniker and many collaborations with other artists and bands, including Freak Kitchen and Q*Ball. He turned out to be a very witty and sharp conversationalist with a keen understanding of todayís music business and a healthy outlook on his status as a high profile musician. Other topics we discussed were Ronís involvement with fundraising activities for MS Research, his frolics with with fellow guitar virtuoso Mattias Eklundh and the impact of being a member of GNR on his own projectsÖ
Nowadays you release one song at a time, instead of full length albums. How come?
Itís more of an issue with time. I wanted to do a full length album for a long time, but I really donít have the time. Iím simply not around long enough at one place to build up some momentum and get everything recorded and focus on that. There are too many things going on and with all the traveling I do that doesnít help either. I found that doing one song at a time was the best thing to keep the music flowing and it made me consistently stay active and it isnít as overwhelming as doing a full length album. Luckily there is the technology available which enables me to do it this way.
Another remarkable thing is that you releasing those songs in different formats. Whatís the deal on that?
I didnít want to release a bare mp3 on iTunes and leave it at that. I wanted to do something different, so I asked people on my forum what they wanted and they came up with lots of ideas. So I decided to release different versions of each song. For guitarists I have the so-called ďplayer packĒ, it has transcriptions on the lead guitar parts, which features the notes, picking and all that kind of stuff along with some remixes to accommodate that. Transcribing the songs was actually the most difficult part. Iím a big a studio geek, so I came up with a special ďproducer packĒ for people who like to to play producer. It features all the different elements used in the song, so people can put in their multi-track software and create their own mix.
You can make your own Bumblefoot remix. Nice! How are people reacting to it?
Exactly, do your own mash-up! People are really enjoying it. Last year I released a transcription book of my very first instrumental album and people really tried to nail that stuff and I really liked that. Iíve received some great reactions from it from guitar players.
You recently said some very really interesting things about the current decline of the music industry and how bands and musicians should react to it. What should people do according to you?
Haha, I could talk all day about this. The thing is that Iím not talking about the Metallicas and U2ís of this world, but about guys who are trying to get their first bands together and getting their music out there. Itís about delivering the music to people in the best possible way and have a future in doing that. Itís geared towards those kind of people. Where to begin? Itís really simple. Fifteen years ago when I started putting out albums you still had all the big gatekeepers like labels and distro. There was a lot of money being allocated to promote albums and making people aware of their existence. This was before the time the internet got big. The only way to do it was through hellishly expensive ads in magazines and you didnít get the worldwide coverage you get nowadays because of internet. If you wanted to get some visibility in a record store you had to pay 500 dollars each month on one location to have it in the listening booth. That really adds up and could wipe you out. The distro would be waiting on getting paid from the stores and it would hold up paying the label, and after all the expenses for recording and promo you wouldnít see a dime as an artist. That happened to me several times. A label wouldnít do a lot of promotion and they wouldnít help set up a tour, and would say I owed them twenty grand. I was busting my balls making albums and not making a dime in return. I wasnít in it for the money, but you still need to pay your bills. Youíre putting all of your time in but itís not putting food on the table. How are you supposed to live?
I can imagine it must be incredibly disheartening when you pour your soul into creating the best music you can and you get nothing in return..
Yes, it becomes a form of indentured servitude because youíre under contract. Youíre forced to make music for years but not make any money. Thatís how it used to be. Then the internet opened everything up, thanks to the old Napster. I had two computers set up, one for normal stuff and one for being connected to Napster 24/7 where people could download all these extra songs of mine and live versions on mp3. That was back in the late nineties. That was the best. It was the start of things opening to the whole world. Sites like Cdbaby and Amazon made it possible to sell your music online without going to a label. Then came Paypal which made it easy for people to buy it all. Now young bands donít have to sell their soul anymore. Thatís another thing that would happen. Once you surrender your music to the label they own all of it. When theyíd decide to stop printing your album thereíd be nothing you can do about it. When youíd give your music to a label youíd lose your ownership of it. Thel label owns the songs ďthroughout the Universe in perpetuityĒ. That means, if you try to sell your music on the moon, they can sue you. Now, you can make your music, keep your music and your rights and sell your music to the whole world from your own laptop. Itís very easy now and thatís the thing I want young bands to understand. Donít buy into the old myth. Now you can do everything yourself.
Iíve done some interviews with relatively big bands and many of them are totally ignorant about the business side of things. I find that rather disturbing.
Yes, you hear that a lot. Most are doing it for the passion of playing music and not to be a manager or a promoter. The way I see it is that your music is your baby. You need to feed it, clothes it, and make sacrifices. Thatís what itís all about, making sacrifices for your music and your art. It means you have to get a job in order to fund and support making music. Itís a noble sacrifice to make. You have to be your own lawyer sometimes, because you canít always afford one. You should be able to work out a simple contract and know whatís right and whatís wrong. Over the years musicians should learn how to do that. Donít look for some Sugar Daddy to hold your hand and do everything for you. You have to take things in your own hands. You need to be smart and educate yourself. You need to know the business youíre in. There are sadly two words in it, namely ďmusic businessĒ. Nobodyís going to hear your music, unless you take care of the business.
Doesnít matter how nice labels are to band, they still need to make a profit at the end of the day. If a band or artist doesnít succeed in doing that youíll get ditched sooner or later.
Yes, back in the late nineties when I ended my first record deal I never wanted to sign another. Nothing against the label, they did what they did, but it wasnít my vision of how I wanted things to be done for my music. So I started my own business and took care of my music. People started asking me to sign them to my company and Iíd always give the same answer, ďNo, instead Iíll teach you how to be your own company and take care of your own business.Ē Thatís the way it should be. Artists should be self-sustaining as much as possible. So I started doing things myself and it was the first time I started to make money from my music and was able to support myself and continue making music.
Bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails played a pivotal rol in releasing their own music without any major label support. Both bands managed to build up a substancial following back in the nineties. Do you think itís vital having such a large fan base in order to sustain yourself in a reasonable way?
Those two bands really managed to become a part of the new scene. They both already had a massive fanbase, but the difference with them is they grew with the times. They evolved, they knew how to do things. The way of doing smart business is to make a smart connection to your fans. Instead of giving your music to them like it was done years ago, you have to give it the way your fans want it. Itís all about them really. I make the music and the most beautiful part for me is to share it with them. You can make all the music you want, but if you donít bring it out there, itís a tree falling in an empty forest. Itís all about sharing and finding the most creative ways to get it out there.
Perhaps musicians should accept the dire fact that itís coming to a point when making music isnít profitable anymore to actually make a decent living out of it?
Yeah, thatís a whole other point to contend with. The income from music is a tenth of what it was. Big studios started to experience it when home computers started to get better and better. Nowadays you can make a record on your laptop. You donít have to buy studio time and you can do it yourself. You donít need a photography darkroom anymore, because you have a digital camera and Photoshop. As a producer you donít get 50,000 dollars anymore to work on an album, the numbers arenít as high and the expenses arenít as big. The ratios may be the same, just the proportions have shrunk. So now youíd produce that same album for 5,000 dollars. Thatís reasonable because thatís the amount of money that is moved around and people arenít making as much. Also because of all that your income isnít as much in the very end. There was a time where making music was the nucleus and all the merch and promotion was based around that. That has changed now, everything orbits around you as an artist and as a human being from my point of view. Connecting to the artist is now the nucleus and recording music has become one of the aspects of what an artist does, like touring and whatnot. Hopefully people are understanding enough to grasp that artists are spending money to do all these things and they need to be supported in order to keep doing it.
It does take a lot of the magic away of being a musicianÖ
Thatís the way it is nowadays. Itís convenience over quality. Weíve gone from the warm sound of vinyl on this foot by foot square of art to compressed files streaming through your phone. There are definitely losses with that. If you are signed to a label thereís less support to make your masterpiece. But thatís where the economy of this whole planet is at. So, yes itís harder to fund your music and it has to come out quicker. There are two sides to it, one you have less time, but when you have your own business you can spend a year working on a music piece and release it the way you want to. It may not make much money, but it didnít cost as much money either, so youíre doing it for the love. So yes, in that sense music has become more of a hobby for many. It doesnít pay the bills as it used to and meanwhile the bills have become bigger. You have to be creative if you want to make a living out of creating music. Thatís life, you play the cards you get dealt and roll with it and you have to figure out the way of making the most of it. You can bitch about how things used to be or how you want them to be, but it doesnít get you anywhere.
Letís change the subject a bit. Youíre involved with fundraising for MS research. How did you become involved?
It happened back in 1997. A good friend of mine, Ralph Rosa, who was a musician and a terrific guitar player. He was one of my students in the early nineties. He was such a wonderful dude that we stayed friends. He had a band in Puerto Rico and they were opening for bigger bands and as things were getting on their way he started getting dizzy spells and numbness in his hands. He went to a doctor and was diagnosed with MS and that was pretty much that. Instead of feeling like a victim he started a nonprofit organization ďMS research FoundationĒ www.msrf.org to raise money for MS research and send it directly to the labs, working towards a cure and maintenance for people who are suffering from the disease. All his friends and family volunteered and weíd organize fundraisers, arranging dinners and comedy shows and concerts with the all profits being donated to research. He and I would go to the laboratories and see how things were going, look through the microscopes and reviewing the results and documentation. We started to write checks directly to researchers and for the research we believed in, to keep things going. There are many types of MS and my friend has the type called primary progressive MS. This means you donít have good or bad days, itís a slow steady decline of your nervous system. His brain is fine. We email each other everyday and he uses a laser pointer on his forehead to write emails. He is still the same guy with the same sense of humor. But now heís bedridden and it takes him all his effort just to whisper to me when I visit him.
It must be incredibly difficult for you to see your friend deteriorating in such a wayÖ
It is heartbreaking. Out of all people why him? It touched me personally and thatís why I started doing something about it. Now, I donate 5 dollars from every autographed merch I sign to his organization. Every little bit helps.
I would like to move on to your compositional activities. Besides releasing your own music and being a member of Guns Ní Roses, youíre also active as composer for tv series, movies and commercials. Whatís the big difference for you as a composer between all these activities?
A lot of the stuff that is used for TV is my own music from one of my albums. When Iím writing specifically for something itís being creative in a different way. When youíre scoring a movie you want you to capture the vibe and the mood of the movie and turn it into music. You also try to adhere to the wishes and visions of other people when you start busting things out. Itís that simple.
Do you also enjoy that kind of composing?
Yes, absolutely. Itís a different kind of composing. Itís a different kind of collaboration. I work together with this guy Q*Ball who makes electronic music. Heíd come over with some lyrics and keyboard parts and Iíd make a beat and some guitar parts and do the recording, mixing and mastering. Thatís one type of collaboration. Another form is like something I just did with a metal band from France, Madonagun. They asked me to play a guitar solo on one of their songs. I did it from my studio and I sent a reference mix of it, they liked it, I sent the main solo file and they put it on their record. Another type of collaboration is when you have an independent movie and the filmmakerís looking for music with a specific vibe and you write something specific for that. All different ways on how you can work together with other people. They bring the video and I bring the audio. If they got a keyboard, I bring my guitar. Itís all collaborating in different ways.
You did some guest vocals and a guitar solo for a Swedish band called Freak Kitchen, led by guitar virtuoso/singer Mattias Eklundh. What do you think of them?
Theyíre old friends of mine. We go way back. We toured together in France and Switzerland, all packed in a van. We did it twice before I joined Guns Ní Roses. Mattias played a solo on one of my songs in 2001 and I played on his as well. I was a guest teacher at one of his Freak Guitar summer camps and we did some guitar clinics together. His drummer Bjorn visited New York and we got some pizza together. I really love the band and theyíre all incredibly talented musicians and theyíre incredible together. Theyíre a great bunch of people.
Mattias is also known for his wicked sense of humor and using dildos to create certain sounds during his clinics.
Haha, yes, I remember stories of him passing through customs at the airport and he had to open his suitcase and theyíd find a vest full of dildosÖ ďCan you explain this?Ē ďUm, I play guitar with themÖ?Ē Heís a funny guy. We performed together once and when I was about to get on stage he took my microphone and farted into it. I was so pissed at him. We definitely have gone back and forth a bit with joking around.
Talking about guitar wizards I did an interview with Jeff Loomis, formerly of Nevermore. He said the best way for musicians to improve themselves is to play with other people, instead of sticking in their bedrooms filming their antics and put it on youtube. Whatís your take on that?
I totally agree. Playing with other people is the way to gain the life experience that makes you a better player, one hundred percent. Another thing guitarists need to do Ė coming from me, a guitarist who often plays like he gets paid by the note, haha Ė is to focus on rhythm. Thatís the bulk of a song. You need to follow the drummer, heís the leader. Donít try to lead the music, thatís something a drummer is supposed to do. Work on the dynamics in the rhythms. Donít play everything with the same level of intensity, try to use accents and muting and make rhythm Ďrhythmicí. Give it groove, even when itís metal you still can make it groove. Everything should be in the pocket of the drummer and the best way to do that is to work on your rhythm, let the drummer lead the way and to play with other people.
Unless you got a someone with the drummer skills of one Lars UlrichÖ
Come on, I like Lars. Heís perfect for what he is doing. Heís the drummer of Metallica and give the band their sound. When you listen to Master Of Puppets heís as important as everybody on the record. Actually I jammed with him a couple of years ago. Heís a great musician and a great guy. We had really nice conversations about stuff and heís a great fuckiní drummer. In the end you only have to be good enough to play your own songs well, and he does.
You got a point there, but when youíre playing long songs as Metallica did on their last album you need a drummer who can accommodate that to keep things interesting. He isnít exactly a Mike Portnoy (ex Dream Theater) or Sean Reinert (Cynic).
I disagree. He plays Metallica stuff great. We jammed a bit and he played some Guns stuff and he played that great too. So it comes down to taste and the choices made while writing and recording Death Magnetic. I donít know man, I think heís a great drummer. Look at the stuff heís done all the way back to Kill Em All, Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets. The guy is a fuckiní legendary drummer.
Letís talk about your activities in Guns Ní Roses. How do you balance your own activities with being a guitarist in GNR?
Itís like having a testicular problem. Youíve got two balls and one of them of is humongous and you have to figure how to walk with that. Itís basically having one big ball and a bunch of other smaller balls, so walking becomes very difficult. Itís a challenge sometimes with how to budget time and be in multiple places at once without an army of clones. Itís not easy. When Guns needs me Iím there and when my time is free I run like the wind, haha. Right now Iím using Skype for giving guitar lessons, because I miss the hell out of teaching. Iím also getting back into producing other bands, Iím doing some guest spots here and there and Iím busy with releasing my own music. Next week Iíll by flying out to Israel to play with death metal band Salem and play on a bunch of their songs. Thatís going to be fun.
By judging your various musical activities youíve got a broad taste in music.
Yeah, like releasing a clean poppy version of ďYellow Brick RoadĒÖ http://tinyurl.com/BumbleYellow I just love making music. The core of who I am is really in old school metal. If I had a pick to band to play in ítil I die it would be Manowar. When I started playing guitar I was very inspired by Kiss. When their Kiss Alive album came out I wanted to be on stage with all the bombs and the lights and whatnot. Listening to The Beatles as a kid really made me love music and love the production of music and everything you can do with a song.
You certainly succeeded in the bombs and lights department with GNR. I watched some clips of the bandís performance of Rock am Ring back in 2006..
Oh yeah we had the big olí stage and the big olí light show and all the pyro. When I saw Kiss in í79 I still clearly remember the awe of it all. It was at Madison Square Garden and I was back by the second balcony and can still remember feeling the heat on my face from the flames on the stage. Now when I get on stage and we play ďLive And Let DieĒ I run within two feet of the flames and let Ďem burn my face and itís like ďyeah Iím doing it!Ē I hope that Kiss feels some kind of gratification about how many people and bands theyíve inspired. They put the light in somebody and 20 years later theyíre doing it and doing the same for somebody else.
With Guns Ní Roses you performed on the biggest festivals and venues often in front of thousands of people and it also gives you somewhat of a celebrity status. How do you cope with that and whatís keeping you grounded?
Probably because I donít think I have celebrity status at all and most of the people donít think I do either, haha, so that helps. Honestly, Iím not a kid anymore. Iím set in my ways and I know who I am so shit doesnít go to my head. Iíve been beaten down enough by life to know whatís important and what isnít. I have a pretty healthy perspective of whatís going on. I enjoy what Iím doing on stage and giving people a good time. After the show I walk off the stage I shake hands and say ďanother day at the officeĒ, haha. Then I wipe my sweat off and go to the meet and greet room and hang out with everyone and sign some stuff, take some pictures, eat some spicy foot and burn a hole in my stomach, hang some more and go to bed at some point. Itís no big deal. Iím still doing the dishes, taking out the trash and cleaning the cat box. When I go to work itís just a lot of people watching. Itís all about giving people a good time and thatís why I got into performing in the first place.
Time for the final question. Whatís the biggest Spinal Tap moment with GNR?
Jeez, Iíve blocked them out of my brain, so I can continue functioning, haha. A true Spinal Tap moment was when we performed at Wembley in London (UK) back in July 2006. Weíre doing the intro to ďRocket QueenĒ and we suddenly see the crew bringing out these low long platforms on either end of the stage and weíre looking at each other like ďWhat the hell are they doing?Ē. We head into the main part of the song and the crew comes back out and takes them away. We were a bit baffled by that. Then we noticed there were about two dozen Ďlittle peopleí dressed up in red and blue outfits hanginí out along the wall back stage. Turns out that management wanted us to play an extended intro to ďRocket QueenĒ and have all the liíl folks get on the mini-stages behind us and dance throughout. Just nobody told us. A little breakdown in communication, so yeah thatís a Spinal Tap moment, haha.
Alright Ron, thank you very much for this really entertaining story and ditto for the interview. It has been a blast.
No problem, it was my pleasure. Thank you very much!
Photos courtesy of Bumblefoot.com