CALIFORNIA BREED JUST MIGHT BE THE BEST OUTCOME ever of a band breakup. The power trio, which rose from the ashes of Black Country Communion, emerged in 2014 with its eponymous debut. Spearheaded by former BCC members Glenn Hughes (bass/vocals) and drummer Jason Bonham—and rounded out by 23-year-old guitarist Andrew Watt— California Breed comes at you with a sound so complete and so in sync that it’s almost hard to believe this is a newly formed, multi-generational band.
Black Country had been a supergroup that featured Hughes and Bonham alongside phenoms Joe Bonamassa (guitar) and Derek Sherinian (keyboards), but although expectations ran high and the band’s output was inspired and prolific— three records and a live DVD in four years—it was compromised by limited touring opportunities, due in part to Bonamassa’s successful solo career. Hughes had spent three years trying to get BCC off the ground, but when Bonamassa announced his departure in early 2013, it was over. Despite his regrets, Hughes credits BCC with getting him back into the mainstream rock market.
Hughes and Bonham decided they wanted to continue working together. While considering a list of usual suspects for guitar, Hughes ran into Julian Lennon, who introduced him to Watt, then guitarist and musical director for Cody Simpson. “When I heard his writing and his playing, I knew it was something I had to pursue,” recalls Hughes. After an introductory songwriting session, California Breed was born.
Hughes has some experience turning band implosions into success stories. A little over 40 years ago, he was given the task of rescuing Deep Purple from self-destruction. He was courted by Purple at a time when the band’s inner turmoil was threatening to derail the breakthrough success they’d attained in the early ’70s with genre-defining records like 1970’s In Rock and 1972’s Machine Head. The idea that Purple could reinvent itself at the height of its popularity seemed ludicrous, but 1974’s Burn—a mix of bluesy swagger and prog-inspired, neo-classical rock fueled by new members Hughes and covocalist David Coverdale—became the only other Purple record besides Machine Head to crack the U.S. Top Ten. Unfortunately, the ensuing years saw Hughes bogged down in a quagmire of well-documented drug and alcohol addiction.
California Breed is simply the most cohesive-sounding record Hughes has released in years. His distorted tone perfectly underscores the disc’s retro vibe, and on songs like “Strong,” he lets the bass take the spotlight, playing countermelodies and riffs that channel the influences of his youth. From the first moments of the opening cut, “The Way,” his playing sounds more ferocious and his vocals more emotionally connected to the material than ever before. Meanwhile, “All Falls Down,” “Breathe,” and “Midnight Oil” are so catchy and wellcrafted that getting them out of your head might require a lobotomy.
Clean and sober since 1991, Hughes is determined to ride the momentum and mainstream exposure Black Country Communion afforded him. “Because BCC was so damn good, I always thought we’d go on to do more live shows. But it wasn’t to be; I had to move on. I’m older than those guys, and my window of opportunity is now.”
What was the writing process like for California Breed?
It was different than in Black Country, where I’d come in with finished songs. With Cali Breed, I would start a song or almost finish it, and before I’d get into the melodies and lyrics, I’d bring it to the guys. It was more of a team effort, and when it’s a real band, that’s what it has to be.
What does Jason Bonham bring to the band?
You can hear the Bonham thing, because Jason is very akin to his father. What people should remember— and Jimmy Page will tell you this, as well—is that John Bonham was a huge arranger and writer in Led Zeppelin. He was enormous, and Jason is the same in Cali Breed.
How did you come to enlist producer Dave Cobb?
I had a radio show on Planet Rock a couple of years ago, and I played “Pressure and Time” by Rival Sons. I’m listening to it, and I’m like, “Jesus Christ this is brilliant. Who the hell produced it?” Lo and behold, it was Dave Cobb. Then, in the summer of 2013, when we started talking about who should produce our record, Jason and I both agreed it had to be Dave Cobb. We knew he would cut it live to tape, which is something I hadn’t done for a while.
How did you track?
I normally sing after I’ve laid down the bass track, but Dave asked me to sing along while Jason and Andrew played. It was something I had never really done before. I think we cut “The Grey” first, and when we listened to it in the control room [before bass tracks were recorded], Dave said to me, “Glenn, just go out and sing it.” I said, “Sing it without the bass? Is that okay?” He said, “Yeah, why not?” And I thought, “Okay, that’s kind of a first, but I’ll give it a go.” Thank God I had all the lyrics and melodies done.
We wrote 14 or 15 songs and cut 13 tracks, and I sang the album—tip to toe, every song we recorded— twice, no more than three times.
How did you get your bass tone?
Tom Petersson from Cheap Trick had given Dave his 50-watt Hiwatt head, which I plugged into. When I plugged my P-Bass into the Hiwatt, it sounded like Glenn Hughes. If you solo any bass track on California Breed, it sounds like me. John Entwistle sounded like Entwistle all the way through the Who, but I lost my way in the ’80s and ’90s, using active electronics and whatnot.
How would you describe your bass playing on the record?
My bass playing in this band is exactly where I would have been after Trapeze. I’m going back to my youth, playing the way I would have played in Trapeze, finding the holes in the grooves.
Do you think being in a trio has something to do with that?
Yes. I wanted to get back to being in a trio. When I think of a trio, I think of the Police, Rush, and Cream. Zeppelin was a trio, really, because Robert didn’t play an instrument. The key ingredient here is: Less is more. The sparseness of Zeppelin—and the echo and the ambience and Jimmy Page’s histrionics—spoke to generations of people, and that’s where Cali Breed lives.
As part of the rhythm section in a power trio, what ideal are you striving toward?
I’m very free playing bass in this band. Having said that, I love the way Simon Kirke and Andy Fraser of Free used to play together. John Entwistle and Keith Moon, John Bonham and John Paul Jones—they were formidable rhythm sections. There’s a Hughes/Bonham thing that’s evolved from BCC to Cali Breed; Jason and I have formed a relationship that’s pretty barnstorming when we play together.
How do you come up with your bass lines?
If I write a progression like “Breathe,” with a lot of minor 9ths and major 7ths, I can automatically hear what I’m going to play on the bass, and that goes with every song I write. I’ll play something and Andrew or Jason will be like, “Where did that bass line come from?” And I’m like, “What bass line?” It’s just me.
What influences are you pulling from?
I grew up listening to James Jamerson and Paul McCartney. When you blend those two together, that’s Glenn Hughes. I’m picking from both of those players.
When do you think your style of playing came together?
I started out playing guitar. When I joined a cover band in 1968, I spent a year quickly learning to play bass; I was like a typical guitar player on bass. Then in 1969 I started to develop a taste for Jamerson and Carol Kaye, and that’s when I started to realize that the notes I don’t play are probably more important than the notes I play.
How do you work out song arrangements between singing and playing?
I don’t write songs I can’t play bass on. When I write a song, I know the bass line is going to go a certain way so that I can sing it. Long may that continue!
You have a heavy left-hand vibrato that comes through often, like in “Scars.”
That comes from the tail end of Deep Purple, in 1975–76, when I was getting into Stanley Clarke. He became a good friend and opened up a whole other world to me. I’m not really a slap bass player, but I’ve been told by other bass players that I’m the only bass player who plays with a pick that sounds like I’m playing with my fingers.
Speaking of slap, “Gettin’ Tighter” [from Deep Purple’s Come Taste the Band] is still probably one of your all-time classic bass lines.
That’s the only time I ever really slapped. I can slap, but what I do comes from playing with a pick and the trills with the left hand.
Your approach is so different from Roger Glover’s. Why do you think Deep Purple courted you, and did your playing change the band’s sound of the band?
Purple were very bold to replace Roger with another kind of bass player. Roger does a very traditional, follow-the-guitar kind of thing; I play the spaces. They knew where I was coming from. We made Burn steadfastly and in a traditional rock way, but with Stormbringer, you’ll notice I went back to a Trapeze style of bass playing. And then, when we wrote songs like “Gettin’ Tighter,” people called it a funky track, but it’s really just groove. The word “funk” has been batted around so much in rock & roll that we really should just call it groove.
Do you have a preference between playing live or recording?
I love playing live. People generally know more about my voice than my bass, so they probably don’t realize that for me, playing bass is as important as singing. But if you know my bass playing, you know that I really enjoy playing bass.
What keeps you going?
Learning how to excel on each record, learning to grow, and learning who I am as a bass player and as a singer. That’s really important to me. I’m 62, but I feel like I’m 22. I am so grateful for what God has given me, and to give that back is so important.
With California BreedCalifornia Breed [Frontiers, 2014]. With Black Country CommunionBlack Country Communion [J&R Adventures, 2010]. With Deep PurpleBurn [Warner Bros., 1974], Stormbringer [Warner Bros., 1974], Come Taste the Band [Warner Bros., 1975]. With TrapezeMedusa [Threshold, 1970]. Solo albumsPlay Me Out [RPM, 1977]; Hughes/Thrall, [Boulevard, 1982]; Soul Mover [Sanctuary, 2005]; Music for the Divine [Demolition, 2006].
Basses 1965 Fender Precision, Nash PB-57 P-Bass
Amps Orange AD200B MK3 head, Orange OBC810 8x10 cab
Picks Dean Markley .96 mm