Spotlight: Bruce Forman’s Junkyard Duo

For decades, Bruce Forman has been a prominent proponent of the traditional, archtop, bebop school of jazz, as well as the go-to guitarist for Clint Eastwood’s movie soundtracks. But in recent years he has begun to explore some interesting new avenues of performance and sound.

In addition to waxing philosophical and hilariously on the podcast Guitar Wank, with Scott Henderson and Troy McGubbin, Foreman has turned his sense of humor, talent for story-telling, and pedagogy into a one man show, called The Red Guitar, based around a red archtop he owns. The show takes him out of the usual clubs and bars into theaters and performance spaces in a way more and more modern performers are finding exciting and necessary as they continue their careers.

In another twist on the typical, his Western Swing band Cow Bop starts off tunes sounding like Bob Wills, becomes more bebop, like Bird and Diz in the middle, and then returns to Bob Wills. That band too veered off the common performance path to do the Route 66 challenge, leaving Chicago with $100 and no gigs, attempting to play their way down Route 66 to the Santa Monica Pier without going into their wallets. This was achieved largely by busking, which often meant playing on the street. Finding his archtop guitar not loud enough to play live acoustically with a horn outdoors, Forman turned to a resonator guitar. “They have a natural reverb because of the cones,” he says, “The notes hang in the air longer, more like an electric guitar.”

This led to the Junkyard Duo, where Forman performs on the resonator with a drummer playing found objects as a kit. The band’s self-titled recording contains 29 tracks, many under a minute, for reasons he will reveal. The music is free flowing, and beholding to no genre, encompassing improv, swing, blues and more; all held together by the unique sound of the ensemble.

How did Junkyard Duo come about?

I had this Tricone National M1 with a mahogany body. I used it whenever we had street gigs, but never played it much otherwise.

I was at the school where I teach, talking to this great guitar player, Frank Potenza. He was about to embark on a solo project, so we were discussing how it’s important to have your own sound—especially if you’re doing a solo venture. I said, “I have this resonator guitar that no one’s playing in the way that we play. Why don’t you try it?” I brought it to him and five minutes later he brought it back to me saying, “No way, this thing is too hard to play.” In order to get volume out of it, you need to have a high action; it’s the only way it sounds great. A student I was with when he returned it goes, “What’s in the case?”—As any guitar player would. So I pulled it out, played it, and loved it.

Why is there no bass player?

I was doing gigs in a lot of hipster bars around LA for my own enjoyment. I was playing jazz, which was a little too bebop and swingy for them but it didn’t matter, the energy was right. I was having an issue with bass players deciding how every groove was going to go, and what the harmony was going to be. I wasn’t getting guys who were open to at least meeting me halfway. I was feeling hemmed in. So I said screw it, no bass.

I came up with the idea of playing the resonator with just a drummer playing a set made up of only reclaimed objects. We’re like junkyard guys. I found the drummers around town that would bring a suitcase for a bass drum, a popcorn tin instead of a snare drum, teapots, saltshakers, chains, and all sorts of stuff. They would go the Salvation Army store and find some whacked out thing.

We started doing it and I found that the beauty of this resonator guitar is it’s the most key-specific instrument you could ever imagine. In other words, if you’re in the sharp keys like E and A, it rings for days. It’s alive, with all the open strings going nuts. It’s like a reverb chamber guitar. When you get into C and G, it’s still alive but it’s as if they closed the drapes a bit. In F and Bb the drapes are mostly closed, and when you play in Db it’s a regular guitar. I can play everything in any key so it gave me the ability, especially with no bass player, to change keys at the drop of a hat in order to dial in the amount of light or resonance in the sound.

That’s how Junkyard Duo started. All the drummers I used were great, but the two that seem to get the concept the most are Jake Reed and Jay Bellerose. Bellerose is the personification of that concept. There’s no more sonic groove oriented conceptual guy; it has been his entire career. Jake and I have become very interested in it since we’ve been doing this project, but Jay has spent every project of his life is in the sonic junkyard.

How is it different playing with Jay versus Jake?

Jake is coming more from the same stylistic place as I am. He’s a great big band drummer; he’s a great bebop drummer. He’s into Elvin Jones, Shelley Manne, and all that stuff. We’ve done a lot of jazz work together. Jay is coming more out of the Willie Nelson, Allison Krauss, Americana thing. Jay’s been on every T-Bone Burnett project in the last 20 years. That’s probably wrong, but I know they work together all the time.

Jay won’t use a high hat in certain situations, and particularly with Junkyard Duo because there’s a sibilance to it that cuts out certain frequencies of the guitar. He’s that sound conscious. He puts a maraca in his sock and shakes his ankle to get that beat instead of having that much sibilance from cymbals. The guy is off the charts considerate, and he’s not attached to the traditional jazz drumming pathology.

I have a love hate relationship with toms on drums. For the most part when they’re played, the guitar might as well not be, because they’re in the same tenor register. The Cow Bop drum set I built has no toms. It has a snare drum and an old-fashioned 20″ bass drum, like in the New Orleans days, with woodblocks and cowbells. That left the entire mid-range spectrum free for my guitar. In the Junkyard Duo it’s the same thing. I seem to be creating bands where toms are not that prevalent. It’s not like I don’t want the guy to play all that shit, it’s that I want them to play it in some other range.

It’s all about everything sitting in it’s own frequency range.

Right. We’re having a ball playing in a landscape where we go from playing Count Basie with a big band shout chorus to Sonny Sharrock.

I was going to ask you about that. Do you have any background in playing avant-garde, free improv music?

Yes. I grew up in the Bay Area; we’re talking the ’70s. While I was still bebopping, I loved Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman. As my career moved on, that was a part that I hadn’t revisited much. The attitude of going anywhere at anytime is in all of my music, but it has been more what most people would probably call traditional sounding.

What was the concept for the short tunes?

That was a cultural, sociological, and political statement. Historically, the reason we played three-minute tunes is because of the technology: 78-RPM records couldn’t hold more than that. The radio stations played them and realized they could put ads in between. People got used to that length because of the 45 and the 78. Before that you had sonatas that were long and symphonies that were longer. Technology dictated that recordings be shorter.

Now we’ve got Instagram, where you can only put one minute up. What I want to do with the Junkyard Duo is to open source the music so that people can make videos for the songs of their choice and post them on Instagram. So far only a couple of guys have taken me up on it. That was the whole point of the one-minute song. That, and the sociopolitical statement about the technology and people’s attention span.

There was an inherent musical challenge to making one-minute pieces. Being a guy who’s used to three to eight minute pieces, you have to establish what you’re going to establish, make something happen, and get out in one minute. It’s a great creative exercise. I’ll leave it up to the people who listen as to whether it worked or not.

On some of the more Avant tunes there’s processing involved. Was that done while you were playing or applied later?

That was applied after. That’s all Jake Reed’s production. We were also hoping that people would take some of the tracks and remix them. I wanted to make a statement about community.

Have you pitched it for music libraries?

That’s Troy’s business. He hasn’t been able to place any yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens and we end up doing movie. It’s got a Paris, Texas vibe, the jazzier side of Ry Cooder.

Nationals can sound very metallic, but yours sounds warm.

That guitar is all mahogany, so a lot of that warmth you’re hearing is probably because it’s not a metal guitar. It’s the housing, the cone housing and all that stuff is metal.

So it’s almost more like a Dobro than a national.

It is, yeah. It’s a wooden guitar. They made it for me. It was their M-1 model with a cutaway as a Tricone. No one had ever put those three things together.

Did you record it with a pickup, a mic, or both?

We had a ribbon mic and a condenser mic and he mixed those two together. I put a pickup on it, but when you hear it through the pickup it sounds more like an arch top. It doesn’t pick up any of that beautiful cone resonance.

In the video that Jay did for Vic Firth you looked like you’re plugged in and miked.

It was both. Luckily he did have a mic on me so you can hear some of the resonance. I had the amp going because in certain rooms it’s not loud enough for the percussion.

What pickup is in it?

It’s a little humbucker. National installed it. Those guys are making great instruments these days. I can’t get the old ones in tune. They’re gnarly, the necks go everywhere. For the ones they’re making now they’re using C&C machines. They’re consistently accurate and in tune.

Why not a Piezo?

Piezo pickups amplified the worst parts of the guitar. I didn’t get the resonating cones; I got the sound of the bridge. I tried the types of mics that go inside the body, but they were feeding back and very uneven. They fell in love with one frequency spectrum, but you couldn’t even hear another frequency.

The Humbucker pickup, while it was the least acoustic sounding, was the most balanced, responsive, and prettiest sound. If we ever get to do big tours and big halls, I would put a mic in front of the guitar and use a little amp. If you blend the two it sounds beautiful. That’s the other thing with the Piezo. It didn’t blend well with the acoustic sound, nor did the internal mic. The humbucker and microphone fit well together.

What lies ahead for Junkyard Duo?

We’re going to keep playing gigs; we love doing it. We’d love to play more concerts. Sometimes I double up and play the first set as the Red Guitar and the second set as Junkyard Duo.

I’d like to get a chance to do a quirky, rootsy, vibey, movie, but edgy. Creating the soundscape for a story like that would be a fun challenge. I guess the way in is to get some of the sounds out as cues, let people hear what it is, and maybe talk to my friend Clint Eastwood to see if I can get something going.

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