Keyboard Player Magazine Interview - by Douglas McPherson
Key People, Issue 266 000
The Who keyboardist, tells Douglas McPherson about his 25 years with the band and his new John Entwhistle tribute album in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust.
As audition technique goes, it's hardly the right way to win friends and influence people. But when John Rabbit Bundrick tried out for The Who he admits he didn't know who they were. "I said, 'Are we gonna play Bus Stop?' Pete and Roger looked at me and looked at each other and thought, 'We got the wrong guy. He thinks we're The Hollies'." Bundrick clearly redeemed himself with his playing, however, because 24 years later the Texan keyboard player is still hammering his Hammond with Roger Daltrey and Co in the quintessential British mod band. Recalling that fateful audition at Shepperton Studios, Bundrick says, "We just sat in a room and jammed for hours. We didn't play any songs and looking back I realise that's why I fit with them. They do a lot of jamming and they needed somebody who could jam with them, not just play a song." Another reason Bundrick has been able to slip seamlessly into a band known primarily for it's powerhouse guitar playing, is that he has always played his Hammond like a guitar. "When I was a kid, back in Houston, in my old high school bands, I was one of the first people that shocked blues guitarists by running my Hammond organ through wah-wah pedals and phase boxes, anything I could do to make my instrument more guitar-like. My friend Billy Gibbons from Z.Z. Top said the only thing I can't do is bend the notes. "Pete (Townshend) loves what I do because when I run my Hammond full tilt it has so many harmonics that it blends with his guitar. Sometimes it's hard to tell who's doing what, because the harmonics are joined together." Apart from playing their guitars, of course, The Who became famous for smashing them up on stage at the climax of their shows. Bundrick, however, doesn't get through a Hammond organ a night. With a chuckle, he recalls, "I attempted that when I first joined them in 1979. I thought I'd have to join in, so I started to tilt my Hammond over. It was half way over, I was still hanging on to it, but I was fixin' to let it go...
"Pete was bouncing about like he does on stage and he bounced over to me, took his two fingers and poked them in my eyes! I let go of the Hammond and it came back upright. He mouthed at me: 'You can't tip that over. That's MY Hammond!'
"Since then I haven't attempted to tear anything up. Pete let me know that day: let them do the destruction. I'm a musician."
Living in Britain and being part of The Who has taken its toll on Bundrick's Texan drawl, twisting it into a curious English hybrid, especially when he drops in UK colloquialisms like 'you know' and 'innit'. Nicknamed Rabbit since his schooldays, because of his prominent front teeth, Bundrick first crossed the Atlantic to play on the Johnny Nash album I Can See Clearly Now. He went on to join Brit bands Free and its descendant groups Kossoff, Krike, Tetsu And Rabbit, and Back Street Crawler. He also became the in-house session keyboardist on Island Records as well as the keyboard player of choice for London-based producers Mickey Most and Glynn Johns, which is how he first came to the attention of The Who's Pete Townshend. Asked if there was a point when Bundrick felt he had made the transition from sideman and been fully accepted into The Who, the keysman lets out another chuckle. "I think the fans accept me as a member of The Who, I consider myself a member of The Who, and I think The Who accept me as a member of The Who when it suits them! "Depending on what's involved," Bundrick continues. "They have their reasons for keeping non-early original members at a distance. Those reasons can be financial, they can be shares, and they can be sorta egotistical reasons, like you weren't there when we started and did the groundwork so you, can't really lay claim to being a member of that Who. But that Who no longer exists, because there's only Pete and Roger and you can't really call that The Who." Which brings us to the reason for this interview: the sudden death last year of The Who's bass-playing co-founder John Entwistle, and the tribute album ‘The Quiet One’ which Bundrick has just released as a tribute to his colleague of the past quarter century. Entwistle's bass playing was far from quiet, but Bundrick reveals he was indeed the quiet one off stage. "If you sat down with him in a bar or a club, he talked so quiet that if you were trying to have a conversation you would just give up because you couldn't hear him."
Bundrick began the album as a spontaneous outpouring of his grief when he returned to his Somerset home after Entwistle's death in Las Vegas on the first night of an American tour.
"I can't express things in words very well, but I can do it in music, expertly. I was in such a shock. I just sat down at my piano, turned on my computer, which is permanently connected straight into my keyboard, and I just played, thinking about John.
"I wasn't conscious I was doing it for any purpose, I was just playing my soul out. I was healing myself from John's death. My best way to do that was to play music. Then, when I'd finished consoling myself, I had a look at what I'd done, and thought I'd better make an album out of this and dedicate it to John." Bundrick's music room is jammed solid with keyboards including the Wurlitzer piano he played in Free, a Hammond XB2, a Roland RD700, a Roland RD600 that is his master keyboard on stage with The Who, and a couple of Kurzweil SP88s that he uses for local gigs. The Quiet One, however, was recorded entirely on his favourite, a Kurzweill K2500. "I treat it like an old upright. When I want to sit down and just have the enjoyment of playing and messing about, that's the keyboard to do it on. But the lucky thing is I can have it plugged into the computer and keep in running just in case I come up with something." That's how Bundrick has managed to record more than 50 solo albums that are currently available on his website. The Quiet One features one vocal track with a lyric written and sung by English country singer Reg Meuross, who is perhaps best known for his part in the Hank Wangford Band and who is married to Bundrick's stepdaughter. The remaining tracks are all piano-based instrumentals.
"I don't know if you would call it drifting, new-agey kind of music," says Bundrick. "The tracks are all slow and reflective; there's no rock'n'roll on this album. Then, interspersed among the instrumentals, the music dips in various places and I have recordings of John speaking. Most people who have bought it and come back to me say they didn't expect it and that when his voice jumps out at them it sent shivers down their spine."
All proceeds from The Quiet One are being donated to The Teenage Cancer Trust, a charity of which Roger Daltrey is a patron and for which The Who have already raised almost two million pounds with just two concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. "The aim of the trust is to build 20 special hospital wards for teens with cancer. So far they've built seven," says Bundrick, who met some of the teenagers the trust has helped at one of The Who's Albert Hall gigs. Recalling that day, he says:
"They had a room set up full of music equipment and asked if I would go in and mess around with the kids on the keyboards. At first I was a little bit shocked because I didn't know what to expect. I thought they'd be in wheelchairs and so sick they'd be incoherent. But when I walked in I thought: 'They're just musicians.' We just had a big jam session. We had a great time. The people at TCT said my bit was the highlight of the day for the kids because I was hands-on with them."
It was that meeting that made Bundrick remember the TCT when he began work on The Quiet One. "I thought if I make an album of this and sell it on my website that's sort of not fair, because I would be pocketing all the money on the strength of John's death. So I thought, I've got to do it for charity."
So passionate is Bundrick about making sure every penny earned from the album goes to its deserving cause that he has set up a one-man cottage industry, personally burning each CD, autographing it, printing the artwork, and mailing it out as the orders come in.
"When I approached TCT about the album I said I want to control it. I'm keeping it in-house because that way every piece of money goes to the charity." The Quiet One - A Tribute To John Entwistle is available exclusively from John Rabbit Bundrick's website.