Richie Sambora On His Split With Bon Jovi, Working With Orianthi + New Music
Looking back on his impressive run with Bon Jovi, guitarist Richie Sambora is quick to acknowledge that it was a really satisfying experience. “You have your first No. 1 record, your first hit single and then we had the second one and the 10th one and then you play all of the stadiums," he tells us. "It’s just insane. It was an insane ride. Thirty years is a good run for anything. Keeping a band together for 30 years is not the easiest thing to do in the world, and we worked really hard at it.”
While plenty of bands faltered as new musical trends came and went, Bon Jovi kept a secure lock on popularity, continuing to play sold-out shows around the world. As one of the primary songwriters for the group -- Sambora and collaborator Jon Bon Jovi were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009 -- he believes that there’s a pretty simple reason that the group was able to maintain that intense level of global popularity.
“I think [it was about] good songs and the authenticity didn’t really change. You know, you can’t all of a sudden [be] Bon Jovi and turn into f--in’ Pink Floyd! Some bands try that and it doesn’t work. Stick to who you are and be authentic -- I think that was a big part of it -- and then just go out there and work,” Sambora says. “I don’t care what band you’re in -- you’re a live band, you’ve got to go out there and prove it every night, and we did. We kept on working really, really hard. It was all hard work and that work ethic never stopped. We’re blue-collar kids at heart.”
Eventually, Sambora came to a point where he wanted to explore different musical paths. He started that journey in 2013 when he stepped away from his duties with Bon Jovi and came home. “I just needed some kind of change,” he says. “It’s not about money; it’s about music.” He found an important musical ally when he met Orianthi, the flashy Australian guitarist who has been turning plenty of heads with her fretwork, notably working with Michael Jackson and Alice Cooper. As he told Ultimate Classic Rock, the pair have been inseparable since they met and began working together a year ago.
Recently, they filmed an appearance together on the public television series ‘Front & Center,’ which captured Sambora’s first New York solo appearance in nearly 25 years. The performance finds Sambora performing tracks from his 2012 solo album, ‘Aftermath of the Lowdown,’ some select favorites from the Bon Jovi catalog and also paying tribute to his longtime mentor and friend, the late Les Paul. We spoke with Sambora about the show, which was recorded at the Iridium, and he also gave us the inside details on the new music that he and Orianthi are currently working on ...
You and Orianthi have been keeping really busy.
You know what, I’ll tell you, we’ve played so many shows in so many places. It’s been kind of a whirlwind, between the writing process and working with other artists and just us getting to know each other as artists and musicians and touring.
We did the Soundwave Festival down here, but we also headlined theaters in every city that we were in and then [it was] the same thing throughout Europe. We did London Calling and some other festivals out there. We went to Germany and different places and also headlined theaters everywhere there, sold those out too and then we went up and played Summer Sonic in Japan and a gig in South Korea. Everything was like 70 thousand people and we got it with no product, which is kind of surprising that Ori and I were able to get up there and we were second on the bill. We were killing it. We were knocking ‘em dead.
That’s the interesting thing that I feel somehow is missing in music today is people actually having a musical conversation and jamming onstage, having some improvisation happen. I demand that, because I was obviously starved for that a lot in Bon Jovi. I mean, you’re pretty much in that frame and that’s it.
So now I can go out there and both of us, we just feel each other’s rhythms and grooves at the same point. From the first time we ever went out onstage together, it was just a magical thing and everybody saw it. From there, we just kept on going. What’s happening now is that both of our musical views, Ori’s and mine, we’re kind of bringing a lot of people together and it’s becoming interesting.
Because when you’re in a band that’s that big [like Bon Jovi], it takes a lot of time. You don’t even have the time to actually have a foray and any kind of clear process with anybody else, because you’re so busy and you’re on the road. You know, because those tours were massive. The last tour that I did with Bon Jovi was like 18-and-a-half months and 52 countries -- not cities. It takes forever. Nobody’s complaining; it’s a dream gig for a musician, But, now there’s a new found freedom which is really, really nice. So we’re breaking out, you know?
Your chops as a guitar player are well-known and documented at this point. It’s really something to throw Ori into that mix. It had to be a lot of fun for you, working that out.
Oh yeah. Honestly, it’s just organic, really. There really was no work, to be honest with you. I mean, we were good from [the first moment]. And honestly, I’ve never run into this in my life. Never. We were just good right off the bat. That was it. We just felt each other the same way and I think both of us were going, “Wow.” Instinctively, it was just really, really crazy. I think people can go, well, I’m just the guitar player in Bon Jovi and she’s the guitar player from Michael Jackson or something -- that’s how it can be perceived, quote/unquote.
But look, I used to be a lead singer in all of the bands I was in in my life, so I think I sing pretty well and she sings great. When we sing together, it’s awesome. We’re on a different groove now and I think with this new record that we’re doing, we’re going to be able to cover a lot of ground genre-wise, because we can take it from two acoustic guitars to the heaviest sh-t you’ve ever heard.
You mentioned the album that you’re working on. I’ve heard that you’ve got about 60 songs cooking for this thing, allegedly. That’s a healthy base of material to be working with. Is that normal for you to write that many songs for a project?
No. But like I said, as you go along -- it’s been 11 months now -- we’ve been pretty much inseparable and we’re always just sitting around jamming. We pick up a couple of guitars and it’s a daily thing.
Do you have anything mapped out as far as when you might put something out?
I don’t know when it’s going to be out. When it’s done it will be out. We started recording right at the beginning of January. We wanted to put it down sooner than that and then all of the holidays came up and then you get a lot of philanthropic things that I do and Ori does and people get busy, you know? People are wrapping up their fourth quarters and all of that kind of stuff. We were going to try to get in there and throw a couple of songs down before the end of year and I said, “No, don’t rush it.”
We’ve got the material -- I’ve checked -- I have people that tell me the truth and they don’t bullsh-t me, my friends that are great producers. We hit a nerve about probably 20 songs in that we knew we were onto something. I think those 20 are really good songs, but stylistically we started to hit our vein around 20 in and it just kept getting better and better and then we were just bouncing [songs] off of my producer friends, Dave Stewart, Bob Rock, Michael Bearden -- just great people.
Who were the guys in the band that you used on this ‘Front & Center’ gig?
Some of them played on my last record ‘Aftermath of the Lowdown’ and a couple of guys, you know, sometimes people take other gigs. My drummer Aaron Sterling is an amazing drummer; he was playing for [John] Mayer for a while, so I got this guy Victor Indrizzo who is awesome. He’s an awesome drummer. Even in that little room, I mean, this room is small. There was not a lot of room for me to be a showman or do anything, but the music speaks for itself. Everybody was playing and singing their ass off. There was no overdubs -- that’s it.
It’s very real. It had to be cool for you to play that room and get a chance to celebrate and remember Les Paul. Certainly, that’s a venue that had a special connection with Les, so it had to be really cool to be playing there.
I was choked up. Because I put his seat [on the stage]. His son had his seat -- you know, I was family. It was further than friendship, further than musicianship. We hung out and talked about real sh-t besides music. He and I were very, very close. When I met him, a friend of mine brought him over to my house for my birthday one year. He showed up with Les Paul and Les gave me this amazingly beautiful white Les Paul that he wound the pickups for me and everything.
It was like the fairy godmother coming down and hitting you in the head with a wand, you know? [Laughs.] That was the first time I ever played it live [on ‘Front & Center’] -- I’ve used it many times in the studio, but I’d never taken it out live. So I’m sitting there and Les’ chair is right next to me and there’s this really great picture of him that his son brought me and I’m playing the guitar that he gave me. I got choked up, man. I did. I miss him. He was 93, but he wasn’t 93 -- not in his head. He was sharp as a tack and he was still playing. So we played together a lot. It was a pretty touching moment.
I’m here in Cleveland and got a chance to see him play at the tribute show that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame presented in his honor not long before he passed. I know you were there. It was a great night and it was great to see him play.
You know, that evening after the show, I was in my room and Rusty, his son, calls up and says, “Hey, Pop wants to see you. Come on up here.” We ended up being there for like three hours, just eating and shooting the sh-t. That’s the way it was with Les. There was no boundaries, and we’d talk about anything. I just had an amazing relationship with him. Who the hell does that? You know? It’s like I’m blessed. It was great to do that.
You’ve been opening some of your recent shows, including this one, with a cover of Leon Russell’s ‘A Song For You.’ What brought that one into the setlist?
I sat down at the piano one day and started playing it, and I went, “Damn, I wish I wrote that song” and I said, “Well, I’m going to do it, anyway!” You know, the interesting thing about it, I thought if I walked out without the guitar, as the singer, it would change the perception immediately. I think that’s an important part of what needs to happen. You know, when you’re attached to these huge projects and bands and stuff, people have this perception of what the complexion of that looks like, whether it be a sonic complexion or a physical complexion or a general complexion of who you are as a person.
Everyone has their perceived notion of that, and Ori and I just want to be recognized as our own artists at this point. I think that we both have earned it, at least a shot at it -- because if it doesn’t pay through, it doesn’t pay through. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. First of all, the songs are just really, really great and I’m going to surround this with a lot of talent and we’re going to make a record that people should be curious to hear because it’s truly an anomaly: It’s me and her. I said something in an interview the other day, I said, “You know, in my perception, I think she’s probably the best female guitar player on the planet and on any given night, she’s the best guitar player on the planet.”
The interesting thing is our voices together and there’s a relationship and all kinds of great energy that’s happening that you’re not going to see anywhere else, because nobody’s doing it. She’s my partner -- I get it -- that’s going to be the project right there. It’s really our two personalities that are driving this boat and everything we’ve learned. Lord knows, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve done everything in this business from being the manager to being the producer to record company president to songwriting -- everything. The last 30 years, I’ve been all of those three times over, so I have a lot of experience and she’s got a ton of experience herself.
She’s a dynamite producer herself, she can run a board like nobody else, knows what to do, plays her ass off, sings her ass off, writes her ass off -- she’s great. We’ve all got a lot of friends too, which is great. It’s very communal. My house out in California, Lord knows who is going to walk through that door. We have dinner parties sometimes, and it’s Gregg Allman, Dave Stewart, Stevie Wonder. It’s crazy and so wonderful. Then her friends come by and she’s got a bevy of them, like Tal [Wilkenfield], who plays bass with Jeff Beck and sh-t, she’s over at the house jamming. Brooklyn Allman, we just wrote a couple of songs with her and took her in the studio. That reminds me, I gotta mix that sh-t. She’s going to be somebody to watch.
When you’re laying stuff down, do you keep things pretty organic, or are you not afraid to build it up, depending on what the song calls for?
You know what? I’m into the deconstruction of things these days. I am utilizing space as much as I can. Piling up would decrease that and I think the more personality that you can give it -- I mean, look, there are tracks that are going to be massive [with] guitars, because we want to do that. That’s what we do! The songs call for that. Then there’s other tracks that you’re very minimalist [with the approach]. There will be a good range, between the 60 songs and everything that we have.
We’ll be able to sift through what’s going to be this record, you know, because there’s two records here for sure. Right now, I can make two records, easily. Maybe one record. Like, I have this cockamamie idea -- I have a pretty big house in California and I have this giant foyer with marble flooring and very high ceilings and the reverb and everything for singing and playing. Acoustic instruments, though. You bring electric stuff in there, it’s going to start being boomy. You know, put a piano in there and maybe an upright bass or a small bass rig and a couple of acoustic guitars and some percussion. It could be an interesting way to go about making a more acoustic album also.
I don’t know which way it’s turning now. I’m not really sure. We’re just going to get a studio and start cutting and see where we’re at. You know, get a bunch of musicians, all of our friends, because we’ve all played together in my house so many times now. I’m waiting on it, waiting on a dream.
That’s a good place to be. Because as you’ve said, you’ve kind of been known for one thing and it’s got to be great to be able to just break out and do whatever.
Obviously, look, as a songwriter, I certainly know when that cake is baked. I just won’t write a bad song anymore. I’ll just throw it out and I’ll stop halfway through. I mean, if you listen to my solo albums, really, those songs are pretty-good sized stories lyrically and melodically. They’re pretty much all in the ballpark.
Whether you like it or not, is one thing, whether stylistically it’s your bag. But from a songwriting perspective, I made sure. I’m the the police when it comes to that. That’s how I got inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, man! [Laughs.]