Sound on Sound Magazine Interview
by Rob Parrett
ROB PARRETT catches up with veteran musician Rabbit, also known as John Bundrick, who's still in demand as a session keyboardist after more than 25 years in the business. Born into a musical family in Baytown, Texas, John Bundrick - better known to many musicians as Rabbit - began playing piano at the age of seven and continued to take lessons through high school and college. In 1970, he moved to Stockholm, where he worked alongside Bob Marley as Johnny Nash's musical director and composer, before moving to England in late 1971. Rabbit first came to the attention of the British public after the break up of the band Free in 1971, when he joined Paul Kossoff, Simon Kirke and bass player Tetsu Yamauchi to form a collective catchily named Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu, Rabbit. When Free reformed for their Heartbreaker album, Rabbit became their keyboard player, whilst also keeping up his work with Johnny Nash. Two solo albums (Broken Arrows and Dark Saloon) followed. Rabbit's time as part of Free was succeeded by a period playing with Back Street Crawler (a band co-founded by him), and the recording of several albums. It was during this time that he met Pete Townshend, and it was their friendship, which led to Rabbit joining the Who full-time in 1979. The demand for Rabbit as a session player has led to a string of credits with Bob Marley, Joan Armatrading, Jethro Tull, Phil Collins, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Dave Gilmour, and Steve Winwood - the list goes on. He's recently had two solo albums released on Red Steel Music. The first is the new age instrumental LP Dream Jungle (conceived in the late '80s and originally released in limited quantities on Lumina Records), which has been remastered and enhanced by the addition of six extra tracks. The second, the rockier Run for Cover, features Rabbit not only on keyboards, but also on vocals. I met up with Rabbit at his surprisingly compact home studio for an update on his music and future direction.
WORKING WITH WHO?
I know you're currently writing your next solo album; is there anything else you're working on at the moment?
"I'm collaborating with John Astley, who recently did an albuum of the Rolling Stones music using, I think, the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He's now doing the same with The Who's back catalogue. In the last month, I've been called in to do two sessions - not involving The Who members themselves, but the musicians that Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey use in their solo work. They've combined as the backing band for this and orchestral album: we go in and cut the music as a band, then John Ashley brings the orchestra in to play over the top. He'11 be bringing in guest artists for the vocals, but I can't tell you who they are yet, as not everything has been finalised. There' s also a possibility that Roger may do a solo album later on in the year, so I may be involved for some of that session. Then there's a chance of an Australian and European tour."
Because your Dream Jungle album is instrumental, it's been put into the new age category. How do you see the new age market in the UK?
It sucks in this country. When we originally recorded the album, James Asher of Lumina Records described it more as a film sound track style of music, but being keyboard-based and instrumental, it automatically got categorised as New age, which immediately limits the market. America is much better. They have a lot of radio stations that only play new age, and there the term is used to cover a whole range of instrumental musical styles. The immediate reaction here is it is drifting synth music, whereas in America it encompasses all styles, from world music to jazz, rock and folk."
ON THE ROAD
Have you ever had any disasters with equipment when you’ve been performing ‘live’?
"When I first started playing in Texas, I was in a band called, funnily enough, The "The", and I had this Farfisa single manual keyboard -I couldn't afford a Hammond at the time. I was playing away on stage when smoke started coming out of it. All of a sudden it just went pop, and the red plastic lid melted right in front of my eyes. Sparks were flying out of it, so in panic I kicked it over, and it just fell to pieces melting and burning. I just stood there thinking, “Now I haven’t got an organ, I won’t buy another one of those because I don’t want one,“ and I can't afford a Hammond'. The start of my career as a professional career and I hadn't got an instrument - wonderful. "In the end, I was glad it had blown up, because I managed to find an old Hammond B3 that this woman was selling at a good price to make room for a new three-piece suite! It was so old it didn't even have the percussion buttons, but it was in immaculate condition. I played it all the time until I left America, and as I don't like to sell anything, I left it with my parents. Anyway, it just sat there and rusted away and became completely useless. They live in the country, in the woods, so they let their old neighbour, a tobacco - chewing Louisiana swamp man, to strip the organ of all the metal, then my dad took the shell and buried it in the garden. So my very first Hammond organ is now buried by the river in my mum and dad's garden. They know I don ’t like selling anything, so what a fitting burial for a lovely Hammond. At least no one else has it."
Do you still enjoy touring?
"When you're touring with The Who, same as the Stones, you just get swept along with it -it's so massive that it's not reality. When you do a smaller tour with one of them as an individual, it's a completely different ball game. But yes, I still enjoy touring. What I like about it, and most musicians would back me up, is being on stage - the atmosphere, the audience, the applause. What I don't like about it is the travelling in aeroplanes, and staying in hotels. But I wouldn't say no to a tour- whoever it is who asks."
You've just released a new album and re-released Dream Jungle. Are you planning to promote these live?
"There's no way to reproduce Dream Jungle ‘Live’ without using real musicians. I would never go out with a 'Karaoke'-type set-up, sitting at a grand piano with everything else MIDI'd up. The only time I would like to go out on a small scale would be playing my own rock and roll stuff with some friends, just playing on a low-key basis, but not the circuit travelling up and down the Al in an old van" I suppose I'm a bit lazy, and hope that people will be interested in hearing the albums. ”
How do you approach composition? Do you start from a melody line and build from there or do you come up with a chord sequence first?
A lot of composers write commercially in order to get their songs recorded by other artists". As I've been writing since I was a kid, I've never trained myself or concentrated my ability on trying to write something specific." I write more as a therapy, because to me it's a way of expressing a lot of things I feel. There ’s no set way for me to write a song. but I usually start from the piano.”
Having worked on various films, including The Rocky Horror Show and McVicar, do you find it easier to compose when working to images?
“I do like it, even though I haven’t done a great deal of to-picture work. The Rocky Horror Show was fun - weird but fun. We were just a rock and roll band, and I didn't know any of the other musicians, so I didn't have anything else to rely on but my ability to play. "The producer said 'Here are the songs, here are the chords, just play some rock and roll'" He didn't even say 'put some Jerry Lee Lewis in here, put some boogie-woogie in there ’.. We just had to play. It was great."
How do you prepare yourself for session work? Do you go in cold, or do the artists give you a demo tape prior to going into the studio?
"Nowadays the trend seems to be to send a tape" Then I usually write out a chord chart - It ’s a very quick way to learn a song. In Pete's band, I always do that, then everybody else wants a copy, so it sort of morphed into me becoming the chart writer-for no extra pay, I hasten to add!'
Do you still enjoy session work, even after all this time?
I enjoy playing other people’s music; it's sheer pleasure putting my style into their music" I recently did a session for Barbara Dickson's new album, and I thought I was going to be told exactly what to do, because her music's so smooth and precise, with everything in the right place" I drove up there thinking “It’s only a couple of tracks, and they'll know exactly what they want me to do, so I'll relax and enjoy it', but when I got there, Pip Williams, who was producing, just said, 'Go out there and play the Hammond'" So I just played the way I do, and I stuck a solo in there" When I went in to listen afterwards, I said, “Sorry about the solo, and they said 'No, it's great - that's just what we want'" It ’s funny. I got that session through Pip Williams phoning up Dave Pegg from Fairport Convention and asking him if he knew anybody who played Hammond like Rabbit, and Dave said, “Why don’t you just ask Rabbit?” Pip replied, “I didn’t even know he was around anymore.”
Though you re known as a Hammond player, you also own and play a variety of synths. What was the first synth you are ever owned?
"When I was over in Sweden with Johnny Nash, I had a Wurlitzer piano used with an Echo-plex and a fuzz box" I was playing Jimi Hendrix on my Wurlitzer!" While exploring a junk shop, I found this weird-looking instrument which was a long black tube with a keyboard on it, called a ‘Tubon’, or something similar" It made a synthy type of noise, a sort of wirey reed sound" I don't think synths as we know them were around then, but this thing was strange, so I played it to Johnny and he said, 'That's weird -let's use it!' " Then I discovered the Stylophone, so we used that on his recordings as well. But I didn ’t see a true Synthesiser until I came to England in ’71, and the Minimoog was the first one I came across. Then there was the first ‘string synthesiser - a big blue keyboard that this guy named Ken Freeman said he’d invented. The first time I saw it, it was in his house, spread across the floor in pieces! He was regularly bringing it into Island records studios, because everybody was renting it off of him. I used it a lot on my solo album Broken Arrows, and I worked with Ken later on the McVicar soundtrack.
The Leslie cabinet is obviously a major part of the Hammond sound. How do you go about miking up the Leslie in the studio? Or have you found a suitable electronic substitute?
The best way for me is to close-mike the real thing, whether live or in the studio. To get a good stereo effect, close-mike the high tweeter and the low bin separately. You can get different effects by adjusting the pulley system that drives the horns; these are belt-driven and have three different speeds. I've used these to great effect, especially when recording with the Who, when we had four leslies miked up, one not rotating and the other three running at different speeds -it gave a fantastic phasing effect. If I have to use an electronic simulation, I have a Toneworks Korg G4, and though, it ’s only a mid-priced device, I love it. I mainly use it to process organ-type sounds and it really enhances the stereo spread. Even the Emu Vintage Keys DIGITAL samples, which are already in stereo, seem to get pushed right across the speakers. There's also a control which simulates the effect of mic positioning, and you can adjust the rate at which the speed changes as you switch from slow to fast, to simulate the effect of the ‘real thing’. I also use it in the studio for guitar processing.
Do you feel that technology and MIDI has helped expand your ability as a musician and composer?
"If I didn't have all this gear, I'd still be writing on the Wurlitzer and the piano - although in a way, I suppose I wrote more songs when I didn't have the gear. But unless I had a band, the songs would just be shelved; nowadays I can compose the whole thing."
When recording your own material, do you tend to sequence a lot, or do you stick to conventional multi-track?
"I tend to use Cubase like a tape machine, so I record everything as a performance with the minimum of quantisation. I try to play each part as if I were the player of the actual instrument- flautist, viola player or whatever. I suppose the only thing I sequence conventionally is my Korg DW8000, which I use for special effects and loops."
What does your set-up consist of at the moment?
"I use a Technics SSPX30 as a mother keyboard. I don't use the internal sounds any more, but the keyboard has a lovely feel. As far as the rest of my keyboards go, there's my Hammond C3, an original Wurlitzer electric piano, and an original D4 Clavinet. At the more hi-tech end of things, I have an Emu Vintage Keys and Proteus 2 upgraded to XR status, and a Kurzweil 1000 PX. The Kurzweil grand piano sounds are exceptional, but I'm not so keen on the string sounds. That doesn't really bother me, though, because I never use any string sound on its own. If I want synthy strings, I'll mix the Kurzweil with strings from my Korg MI, or, for a more realistic sound, I'll mix the Kurzweil and the Proteus 2. At the moment I'm considering buying a Kurzweil PC88, as I've heard nothing but good reports. "If you haven't got a real bass player, I think the instrument to get for basses is the Peavey Spectrum Bass module - I love mine. I also have a Korg MSIO, a Korg MI, and the Korg DW8000. I seem to have a lot of Korg gear, so perhaps they'd like to talk to me about a sponsorship deal! ”
"Apart from the keyboards, synths, and modules, I use a Yamaha RM5O drum module, an Akai S900 sampler and an Emu Emax 1 sampling keyboard. In the effects department, I have a Behringer Composer compressor/ limiter, a Quadraverb GT multi-effects unit, a Lexicon reverb, a Digitech VHMS Vocalist and a Yamaha SPXIOOO effects unit to handle the processing. My main microphone is the Sennheiser 421D, and I record the whole lot onto an Alesis ADAT. I also run Cubase Score on a 4Mb Atari ST, and that's synchronised to the ADAT using a JL Cooper DataSync. Everything runs into a 24-channel Spirit Studio LC24 desk, and I monitor with a Technics amp and Realistic speakers all the way from Tandy, although I also have the obligatory Yamaha NS10 Studio speakers as well. The rest is just bits and pieces, like Sony Dats, and another 16 channel desk. Though I like to use a real Leslie, I have a Korg Toneworks G4 Leslie simulator, and there's also this box from the old days that enables you to plug a guitar straight into a Leslie. Nowadays Geoff Allan, Sensible Music builds them, but the original ones were built by Leslie themselves. That leaves just various odd pedals and effects, and, last but not least, a Roland harpsichord -I think it's a CP55 -which is brilliant. "I suppose if I had to rate my equipment in order of priority, it would have to be Korg at the top, then Emu, and then Kurzweil. I find Yamaha sounds tend to be over-used -but then again, the Yamaha RM50 drum module is really good."
I see that hidden underneath all the other stuff, there are some interesting - looking guitars...
"Yeah... there's an old metal Dobro and an electric guitar that was made for Pete Townshend in the style of a Stratocaster. There's a Gurian acoustic guitar, and a miniature guitar which a guy in America made and gave to me when we were touring over there."
You can obviously get the quality you require in your own studio.
"If I went to a larger studio and used a real piano and a real Hammond instead of my Vintage Keys module, I'd probably get a better sound, but what I tend to do here is record everything here, then a friend of mine comes in to help out when it comes to vocals and final mixes. But we still do the final production here in my studio. Apart from perhaps having more outboard gear, there's enough here to get a decent quality sound."
Do you tend to use the equipment from your own studio for live performance, because you're familiar with it?
"No, I won't do that any more. I did take some gear to a session for Snowy White, but when I got it there we didn't even use it, so I decided not to do that again. The only problem with leaving it to other people to provide the gear is that you never know what you're going to find when you get there. I always insist on having a real Hammond and a Korg SG1D piano, and that's easy enough when you're playing England, but we had one gig in Germany when they gave me a Korg MI to do all my Hammond Pads on! In the middle of the set, Snowy turned to me and said 'that sounds crap' - so now I insist on no M1 ’s as substitutes for Hammond organs. I'm a ‘real’ organ player, and good though the MI is in its own right, it's a long way from being suitable as an organ substitute."
Are there any samplers or synths that you would use to play organ sounds on?
"I did use the Vintage Keys live once, but you still can't play it like a real Hammond. And you can really only use the presets for solos because they're so beefy - you have to program more subtle pad sounds yourself. If you arrive at a gig where you're not using your own instrument, you don't have time to program new patches. Unfortunately, the Vintage Keys doesn't have a card slot -and I'm not in the habit of carrying a MIDI data filer around with me. Even so, if I can't have a CX3 or a real Hammond, I would use the Vintage Keys, because it will cut through on solos. Emu did a good job on it - my only criticism is that they could have made it a bit easier for a real organ player to personalise the sounds."
What's the next piece of equipment you intend to get?
"I've been offered an Emax II HD, and I could do with another sampler. I'm also really keen on the idea of the Akai DR8. I would like to use one instead of the ADAT, and then I could be completely hard disk based, but the download time is excruciatingly long. I'm told that every time it fills up, you have to stop the session. I spoke to Akai about it and they said there's something coming out to speed it up a bit."
Finally, is there any equipment or keyboards that you had in the past and wish you hadn't got rid of?
"I'm very touchy about gear, and I tend not to get rid of anything. So, for example, the Wurlitzer piano I had in Free is still there, as well as the Clavinet that I used on Bob Marley's ‘Catch A Fire’ album. They all mean something special to me."