Springsteen’s E Street Band bassist does a little “Break Time” on his own
By Gary Graff
February 20, 2017
The first among equals over the years in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band have been Clarence Clemons and Steven Van Zandt, who have long flanked The Boss at center stage. But the senior musician in Springsteen’s universe is bassist actually Garry Tallent, a fellow New Jersey native who played with Springsteen even before he started E Street, laying down a firm muscular foundation that nods to acknowledged influences such as Duck Dunn and James Jamerson. Tallent has also made his mark away from E Street too, primarily as a producer for Jim Lauderdale, Steve Forbert, Marshall Crenshaw and others. He has his own recording studio in Nashville, and last year Tallent released Break Time, a roots rock collection that delves into his first musical love. Tallent is supporting it with his first-ever solo tour, a 14-date trek that kicks off April 21.
FBPO: You’ve been at this a long time. What led you to finally do an album of your own?
Tallent: I’ve been toying with the idea for a while, but it never really seemed that important. My fear was always, of course, that anything I do is going to be compared to Bruce Springsteen, and I know a lot of people would expect it to be just another Springsteen kind of record. Obviously I’ve got my own slant on the music I like and I wrote, and it’s not as big and ambitious as the E Street band material, but it’s something I’ve been wanting to do for awhile and finally having a long break between tours gave me the chance to do it.
FBPO: How does it feel being The Guy, out front and center?
Tallent: Well, it’s forcing me out of my comfort zone, which is all I really want to do — and also to kind of give it a try and have some fun with it, not take it too seriously. You don’t need a big record company budget or promotion and all that; everybody can make a record in their bedroom and put it out and just kind of see what happens. All of a sudden there was nothing stopping me, so why not just go ahead and do it.
FBPO: Certainly you have to have some degree of confidence after all these years.
Tallent: Absolutely. The next test, of course, is taking it on the road, which I was prepared to do and then [Springsteen] decided he wanted to go on tour. But, yeah, it’s a bit frightening but frightening is also thrilling so you take it that way. It’s kind of like parachuting out of an airplane for the first time, and I’m looking forward to all that. It’s been a great thing, and reaction to the record has been very positive and makes you feel good people actually do enjoy the music.
FBPO: You seem to be doing a lot more singing with the E Street Band on this tour. Is that at all an outgrowth of having done the album?
Tallent: A little bit, maybe. We don’t have the backup singers anymore, so somebody has to pitch in. I used to do more background singing early on, until we got stronger singers. It’s kind of fun to do that. It’s difficult as a bass player, sometimes to sing and play at the same time; it kind of rubs against the grain. I admire people like McCartney and stuff who can do that. It’s very difficult sometimes. But it’s been fun.
FBPO: Anybody who knows about you, though, knows how much you’re into rockabilly and 50s rock and such. Where did that come from?
Tallent: From my childhood, from the first music that I fell in love with, and it motivated me to want to play music. There was the radio, and I had an older brother who brought records into the house. So since I was eight or nine years old I was just a big fan of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s all just part of my childhood, I suppose. Even when I was living in Detroit I remember hearing “Blue Suede Shoes” and early Elvis and Everly Brothers stuff on the radio and gravitating towards it and liking it.
FBPO: You left Detroit when you were young, of course, but that was a pretty rich musical city even before Motown started. Do you think you absorbed some of that?
Tallent: Probably, yeah. It’s a big city, but I never really thought of it that way. The amazing thing is, I guess I was five or six years old, and I would just wander all over the city. I’d go to the movies on a Saturday afternoon by myself or I’d take my little brother. I remember after we moved I went back to see a school pal and just took the city bus across town all by myself. It was a whole different kind of world back then.
FBPO: What else was turning you on, musically, as a kid.
Tallent: Well, I remember I got a record player for Christmas, and it came with a couple of records — “Lady Luck” by Lloyd Price. And I forget what else. But I didn’t have any other records. So I was walking down the street one day and sitting on top of a trash can was a stack of old 78s, and the one on top was “Annie Had A Baby” by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. So of course I took all these records home and I started playing them and that just kind of got me started.
FBPO: The British Invasion came along and alienated some of those early rock ‘n’ roll fans. Were you into that, too?
Tallent: Of course. The whole English thing was another part of my musical background, which is something I want to explore on my next record. But I figured I would start at the beginning, so I chose material that kind of would stick in that context.
FBPO: Have you been accumulating songs over the years? Did you have a big backlog when you decided to make Break Time?
Tallent: Some of them have been around. Some of them have actually been recorded by other people, and some of them I wrote recently just to finish up the 50s kind of vibe on the records. The more rockabilly things were more recent. The oldest song on there is probably “If Love Will Change Your Mind,” which I wrote 30 years ago for, I think, Clarence Clemons’ first album. I was writing kind of for JT Bowen’s voice, but I didn’t have the nerve to show it to Clarence.
FBPO: You mentioned a next album. What’s up with that?
Tallent: I’ve got about half of my ’60s garage band material picked out, and I’ll just finish it up. I’ll have a reason to write the rest of the record now. The E Street Band is always my first priority and I’ll continue on until that [tour] ends. But I had so much fun doing [Break Time] I’m really looking forward to doing another one.
FBPO: That kind of music will be a natural for Little Steven [Van Zandt] to get on.
Tallent: I would love that. We’ve talked about it, but it really depends on how busy he is. He’s a pretty busy guy, but that would be fun and maybe we will. If we don’t do the whole thing together, maybe we’ll do a couple tracks together. Time will tell, but that would be great. I did an interview with his [SiriusXM channel] Underground Garage for this album, so that’s been very helpful in getting the music out there.
FBPO: What was the exercise like of playing The River last year with Bruce? Did you get any new insights into that album — especially about the bass parts?
Tallent: I have no idea. I really didn’t go back and listen to the record. Like we do with all of the material we record it and then we play it live. I think the songs dictate a certain amount of consistency, but basically every night I’m playing around with the bass part. I’m just playing the songs in the moment rather than trying to duplicate what I tried to do 30 years ago or so. I’m sure some of the parts are similar to [the album]; they would have to be. But I’m not really certain how close they are to the record. I couldn’t really tell you.