Bruce Springsteen with Rolling Stone magazine

A 54-Minute Conversation With Bruce Springsteen

The legend speaks candidly about his process, collaborators, future projects and more

Bruce Springsteen performs in New York City.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images
JANUARY 9, 2014 9:00 AM ET

Bruce Springsteen doesn’t do a lot of interviews, so when he called Rolling Stone recently, we decided to ask him not only about his new album, High Hopes, but about everything from his future touring plans to the status of the River box set and his long-awaited memoir to his thoughts on a Springsteen Bootleg Series. We’ve posted parts of this interview in recent weeks, but here is the complete 54-minute conversation.

You said that this album started as something else and morphed into this project. Tell me how it all came together.
The best way to describe this album would be to say it’s a bit of an anomaly, but not that much.  I don’t really work completely linearly like a lot of people do. You have to imagine that at the end of the tour, or when I’m home, I go into a studio and I’m surrounded by paintings that are sort of half-finished. There’s something wrong with this one that I couldn’t finish and it’s just sitting there, and I didn’t have time for this one or this one didn’t fit into the bigger project I was working on.

So I go into my studio where I’m surrounded by all my music that I haven’t released, and I wait to see what’s speaking to me. Imagine something like “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” That was originally written to be on the Greatest Hits package we put out in the Nineties. It was a rock song, but I couldn’t come up with an arrangement, so it became an acoustic song. Because it became an acoustic song, I then wrote The Ghost of Tom Joad album that went with it. Then those songs got into our tour, acoustically. Then those songs got into our E Street touring set list and became rock songs. I sort of found some of those arrangements on the road while playing with the band.

One thing leads to another, so they become part of our live show, but miss getting on the studio record because they didn’t necessarily fit with the sonic picture. So “Ghost of Tom Joad” ends up on this record as the rock song it was, perhaps, intended to be 15 years ago. That’s a pretty good idea of the way I go with these things.

Read Rolling Stone‘s review of High Hopes

Tell me more about how this one began.

I go in my studio where I’m surrounded by, hopefully, interesting things that I think that our fans might be [interested in] hearing, and I then proceed to work on them and see if I can bring something to fruition. Which is, for me, where I say, “Okay, this is something that’s focused enough and at a quality level where I think it won’t waste my fans’ time and they will enjoy hearing it.” That’s kind of the way that I work, so it sort of explains this group of music a little bit in the sense that it’s music that I’ve been working on over the past decade. Some of it was unfinished, so there was a lot of new recording on it.

The addition of Tom Morello also changed your perception of these songs.
Yes.  I was always trying to find a home for [these songs] and Tom came into our touring picture and suggested an obscure B-side from a band I loved back when I lived in Los Angeles in the Nineties, the Havalinas. He said, “‘High Hopes.’ That’s a jam. I could really do something on that.” I said, “Okay, if you have suggestions when you come on the road, let me know what they are.” So we worked that out, and with the addition of Tom, that turned into something. It was like, “Okay, we haven’t sounded quite like this before.”

We went in [to the studio] in Australia and recorded “High Hopes” there, as well as a cover of a Saints’ song [“Just Like Fire Would”] we were playing in Australia that I’ve had on my radar for 20 years or so that I always liked. Then that sort of plugged into the rest of the material that I’d kind of had, once again, sitting by the side of the road, waiting to see if I can turn it into something that felt complete. I don’t know if that explains how a record like this is put together and how it doesn’t fit under the word of “outtakes.” It’s the way I approach something.

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You have lots of material from the 1990s in the vaults too, right?
I have a record that I’ve been listening to since 1994, which is a record I made while I was recording “Streets of Philadelphia.” I made an entire record similar to that record, where I was using drum loops. I’ve been listening to that for almost 20 years. There was something at the time that was missing, but sometimes somebody comes along and plugs in that missing piece, or I’ll pick it out sometimes every two or three years, and I’ll see if I have any fresh insights. And if not, I put it away, and if I do I may work on it a little bit.

The best way to describe it would be I go in, I’m surrounded by all my stuff, and I have a lot of different types of works-in-progress in different genres, and some solo work. Some things feel more like they should be good for the band. Some things sit in the middle somewhere or it’s something I’ve never done before. And it’s all just raw material I went in and drew from.

I have a large body of raw material that I create from. Very often it might be a song or two, and then I write some. Even the music from Wrecking Ball – “Wrecking Ball” and “Land of Hope and Dreams” – are things we’ve been playing. But I had “Shackled and Drawn,” too. I had “Rocky Ground” from a film project somebody had asked me to work on from several years before that I wrote on a short stay in Florida. So they were sitting on my notebook.

I’ll also go in my notebook where things wait until the time is right. This would be the way that I work today. I’ve had variations of it over the years, but I do a lot of writing, so you build up a greater body of unreleased work over time and you end up with just a repository of interesting things.

I’m not in any rush. I’m not somebody who, if I write a song, I get it out. That’s not something I’ve ever really quite done. A few of the records. But I don’t have a problem writing something. . .Take the entire Devils and Dust record. After “Tom Joad” didn’t work out as a rock song, it became an acoustic song. I cut the The Ghost of Tom Joad record while also cutting an entire album that was also a little more country-like at the same time. That became Devils and Dust. A lot of that album was cut alongside Tom Joad. All of these things are very fluid. They go in and out of one another. They feed one another. They spark one another. Songs that came out of one project may spark an entire other project. This is the way that I make my records today.

How did Tom Morello’s presence change the scope of the record?
I was on the road and, just to amuse myself, I’ll have a computer filled with a lot of this music. Very often, if I have nothing to do late at night, I’ll bring it up and look at different bodies of music I have to be worked on. I guess if there was a common thread in this music it would be that most of it had been recorded over the past 10 years and it had, for one reason or another, not gotten on The Rising or Magic or Working on a Dream.

I had music that was relatively current by my lights and had a similar sound-picture. They were modern recordings of the E Street band, which I credit to Brendan O’Brien as being the initiator of the modern sound of the E Street band on record. He was the guy that, when we went to do The Rising, I went down and cut two or three songs, came into the studio and immediately heard the band in a very fresh and different way. He kickstarted our recording career into another gear back in 2002, when we did The Rising. This is all stuff that’s post-that event, post-his influence.

There was this certain common currency to its sound picture. I was interested in putting this material together in some form because, orally, it sounded like it fit together. So I had that music, and Tom came in and what he did was, he took that music and sort of jolted it into the now. He brings a complete sound picture with him. He’s one of the few, few guitarists that creates a world by himself. It’s like, “Whoa.” Edge does it. Obviously, Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix, the great guitarists. Different guys for different bands. Johnny Marr, the Smiths, had that ability.

It’s funny. When Tom Morello’s up there, the E Street Band is a pretty big house. But he builds on another room. He builds on a room that hadn’t existed before. With that idea in mind – that I had another architect – I re-looked at the music that I had and said, “Let me run this one through Tom.” So that’s what I started to do. His influence is very noticeable on maybe half the [tracks].

Tom’s a very intellectually-inspiring guy. He has a lot of ideas. He’s very articulate about them, and very casual as we worked together. He has so much creativity. I’d just send him a track and he’d send me back four or five things that were just terrific. He was another way that I unified this particular group of material. He became a filter that I ran all of that music through, and he would send it back to me with a very current slant on it. I’m not sure if the record would exactly exist without his influence. He really allowed me to tie it all together, in a way that I’ve been looking for that I hadn’t found. He just really brought that stuff to life.

Can you give me an example where he had a real big impact?
I don’t have the set list in front of me, but “High Hopes” and “Harry’s Place” and “Heaven’s Wall” and certainly “American Skin” and “Ghost of Tom Joad.” Those were two songs that I said, “Okay, these are two of my best songs that I’ve written over the past 10 or 20 years.” And they didn’t have a formal presentation on a studio record. When that happens, a song always loses a little of its authority. There’s something about formally presenting it to your audience that I think makes a difference.

I said, “I really want these songs. They need that sort of presentation.” We went in and re-recorded those things with Tom, and his presence made a big, big difference. He obviously brings those things to great life and deepens them and deepens the characters. I realize I’ve spattered a lot at you, but this is sort of the way that this record occurred. Tom had a big, big hand in its existence. We also hadn’t really recorded together in a studio before. We’ve had so much fun onstage. It was a way of being like, “You know what? There’s material that exists, but it’s not fully-realized.” He helped me realize those songs that he came in and worked on. Now this feels like a record to me. And now here we are.

Your first two albums still aren’t remastered.
Yeah. It’s something between your work and your home life. Maybe I need to delegate a little more. [Laughs]

Back to the tour, you sound like you think there are more American dates coming this summer…
I don’t wanna say because I don’t want to disappoint. But we’re playing in Africa. We’re playing in Australia. Then we’re possibly doing some more playing. It would be nice to get back in the States if it seemed like it was going to work out for everybody involved… For more visit http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/a-54-minute-conversation-with-bruce-springsteen-20140109

 

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