Blues Crusader

Rick Springfield rages at the abyss with a dark album full of fierce guitars.
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You’re reading the headline “Blues Crusader” and you’re looking at a photo of Rick Springfield, and you’re probably asking yourself, “How can that be? The Guitar Player staff must have been hit by a communal acid flashback that fried their collective neural networks.” O ye, of little faith…

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At this point in his career, Springfield shouldn’t be perceived solely as an actor/musician who scored a 1981 pop-rock mega hit with “Jessie’s Girl.” In fact, he has released 19 studio albums celebrating guitar riffs, guitar solos and balls-out rock and roll — albeit with a Beatles-esque approach to melodic hooks — and his live shows always deliver a take-no-prisoners intensity. The guitarist — who has a home studio to record his song ideas and album parts — has been honest about his own bouts of depression. The current state of the world sparked some very deep and emotional reactions, driving him to the blues and serving as inspiration for his latest album, The Snake King (Frontiers Music), released earlier this year.

While the new album is likely best categorized as a blues-pop-rock hybrid, the songs definitely have hellhounds on their tails. Each track is full of wall-to-wall guitar textures and intense and unhinged solos. One song, “Orpheus in the Underworld,” is even a very un-radio-friendly 14 minutes long. The Snake King is a brilliantly savage guitar opus by an artist who feels life intensely and has the guts to share his demons to warn, engage and inspire.

As The Snake King displays depth, scope and stylistic latitude, GP are curious how you developed your own definition of blues music for the album.

I wanted to do a blues-based thing, but I didn’t want to be completely bound by the stuff purists would say, such as, “Well, you can’t deviate from this or that or it’s not blues.” Honestly, the blues came out of guys just playing shit. There were no rules for them. Sometimes they played a 13-bar blues, or an eight-bar blues or a 50-bar blues. They just did what they needed to do to get their songs out. So I thought about that, and I decided I didn’t want to restrict myself. I didn’t want to limit the appeal of the record, for one, and I also wanted to be truthful to myself because I have a lot of pop and rock in my soul, and my strengths as a writer are in those areas. Furthermore, I felt if I stuck to the definition of “straight blues” — lyrics and all — it would be a somewhat meaningless album for me.

How do you mean?

Most everybody who does blues albums basically redoes old blues songs. I didn’t want to do that, because it has been done way better by other artists, and the originals are pretty fucking good, too. I’m also a hook whore, and I wanted people to go, “Hey, that’s catchy.” And then I had a lot I wanted to write about. So much was going on in my head, because I feel the world is just completely messed up. Evil is so prevalent, and it’s really the end for my childhood belief that there’s a benevolent god out there looking out for us. We need to do something soon or it’s going to be over. That’s what I wanted to write and sing about, and that’s not the kind of content that suits a pure pop album. But the blues can absolutely be about some dark shit. So for the album to be meaningful to me, all of this pointed to writing stuff with a blues-infused approach.

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Some of your stated influences — such as Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page — weren’t solely regurgitating, say, Albert King licks in Cream and Zeppelin. They also evolved a blues foundation into a hybrid.

Yes. I was encouraged by that. Those talented guys listened to all of the amazing blues originators, and then they went south with it. My favorite Clapton playing is on Cream’s Disraeli Gears, where he was doing that incredibly melodic stuff. He did recycle a lot of the old riffs, but he begins and ends with some amazing shit, and that’s what put him above the guys who were just recycling rote blues licks. And, wow, Jimmy Page took it completely somewhere else by infusing blues with Eastern stuff and British Isles folk and all that.

I kind of tried to follow the same path, but I didn’t limit myself. I’d start out with a blues attitude, but if some other idea came along, I would go with it and try to incorporate it in whatever blues structure I had started with. For example, “Little Demon” is based around a basic rock riff , but the lyrics and the arrangement stick to the blues-infused plan.

And, of course, the lyrics were pretty central to the album’s thematic journey.

Absolutely. The words gave shape to the music, because a few of the songs initially started out with, what I’d call, standard blues melodies and chord patterns. And I had to come up with something more than that. I couldn’t just sing “la-la” lyrics about my baby and hope the songs would go anywhere interesting. I had to come up with lyrics that guided the songs to an appropriate thematic direction.

How did you approach the album sessions?

Initially, I was so unsure of the songs and the arrangements that I went into my home studio, put down click tracks, and played keeper acoustic and resonator tracks to give me an idea of the direction. Then I did rough vocals on all 12 songs, and I brought the tracks to EastWest Studios [in Hollywood] to do drums and bass with a great room sound.

It’s hard to believe that your band played the basics with such intensity, given they were hearing acoustic beds rather than screaming electric-guitar tracks.

Well, the original acoustic tracks are pretty frickin’ intense. They’re full-on Pete Townshend–style acoustics, where you go, “Okay, this guy is really hitting the guitar with a lot of energy.” [Drummer] Jorge Palacios and [bassist] Siggy Sjursen are in my incredible road band, and all of us are the kinds of players who hit hard. That’s just the way we play. It’s always a fucking rock show. [laughs]

Did you track your electric-guitar parts back at home?

Yes. I don’t like burning studio time by playing the songs and hoping everyone will figure out the right parts there, in the moment. I like to take my time and build the tracks, and my home studio is perfect for that. I can just sit there and try parts all day. If something doesn’t work, I’ll try something else. I don’t have to worry about the other musicians sitting around going, “Oh, come on. Can we get to the next song already?”

What was the main guitar rig you used?

I have a lot of guitars, but most of them are hanging on my walls because I love the way they look — although if something isn’t working, I’ll pull a guitar off the wall to try it. Mainly, I used this wooden Dobro that has a plunky, authentic southern sound, and a Luna Steel Magnolia resonator. The electrics were a Strat and my ’69 SG, which I used for some riffs. For slide, I played a ’60s Montgomery Ward Airline guitar. It’s a little piece of crap with an action so high you can’t play it as a regular guitar, but it’s a monster for slide. I only have one amp that I use a lot — the Morgan 12-watt that I also played on the last album — because, for me, the sound is in the guitar. That’s also why I don’t use pedals very often. [Co-guitarist] Tim [Pierce] had a whole bunch of amp heads connected to a speaker cabinet, so I think he tried different things, but I was listening to the sound rather than watching what he was doing. His main guitars were a Strat and a very cool Les Paul.

We love that there are long guitar solos blasting all over the album.

Look, it’s no secret that the guitar has taken a backseat to computer-generated stuff these days. That’s the way it is. I’m not moaning about it, but I’m a guitar player, and I love guitar solos, so I played a lot of them. [laughs] Tim is the only other guitar player on the album, and he did a couple of solos, as well. He said, “Wow, it’s so much fun to just take off on a solo, because usually people want me to play background stuff for the song.”

There is so much guitar going on — acoustics, electrics, riffs, solos, sweetening parts and so on — that it must have been quite a chore to get all the layers and textures to speak clearly in the mix.

I like to think I create parts that don’t conflict with other parts, but just because I can write a song and know what I’m doing in the studio, it doesn’t mean I have a clue where everything needs to fit so that people can hear what’s going on. Being an incredible mix engineer is a whole other gig. So I had Warren Huart mix the album, and he was absolutely the right guy. He got where the album was going and what it should sound like. He did a great job of pulling stuff out, leaving stuff off or sacrificing something I thought should be featured to live underneath the mix instead.

Any examples of those “sacrifices”?

When I did the acoustic guitar parts, I thought, These sound great; they need to be audible on the final mix. But that’s not how Warren mixed them. They’re not as loud as I thought they’d be, but they are still driving everything. That’s what recording is about — knowing what parts work best to truly animate the song.

This seems like a very personal album — one you’d have made even if it sold almost no records because you had to get the songs out.

That might be true. Probably. But even so, I really want The Snake King to sell so that people can hear it. That’s why you do stuff like this. You do it for yourself first and then to share it with others.

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