One-Man Band Series, #6: B.O.M.B. (big one man band)
Some of the bands and singer/songwriters in the underground music community these days seem to put together projects that are as ephemeral as the luna moth’s lifespan, lasting but for a short time in the obscurity of the scene. These fly-by-night artists, though not necessarily untalented, never truly develop a well-cultivated style, much less a signature sound. They cannot evolve, since evolution takes time. Nor do they really contribute anything of substance for the many obscure music enthusiasts and record nerds, such as myself, who are forever rummaging through the seemingly countless bands and singer/songwriters of the underground. This is nothing new, of course. And besides, these types of artists only make the great ones that much greater to happen upon, listen to, and follow.
On the other hand, there are those artists whose efforts, though considerable, haven’t taken them as far as they would like, and in some cases as far as they deserve. One such artist is B.O.M.B. (aka Bruce Humphries)—a rockabilly one-man band who now resides just outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And he has been at it as a one-man band for the better part of twelve years.
B.O.M.B. stands for “big one man band,” which is a rather fitting moniker for Humphries, being that he makes a pretty big sound for just one person, and only with a self-constructed system of basic instrumentation. With a big ol’ kick drum, snare, hi-hat, ride cymbal, cowbell, harmonica, kazoo, and red hollow-body Gretsch guitar, Bruce has wowed audiences all over. Not only that, but he has shared the stage with the likes of Brian Setzer (of The Stray Cats), Frantic Flattops, Sasquatch & the Sick-A-Billys, Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers, The Hellbenders, The Hotrod Hillbillies, and the one-man band legend Hasil Adkins. He has also played several rockabilly and one-man band fests throughout the years.
At a B.O.M.B. show one cannot help but notice that Bruce Humphries plays in his bare feet, for one. And for another, he sometimes wears a helmet with a drumstick firmly attached to it, with which he hits a cowbell overhead. On the head of his guitar is yet another stick on a spring—a dow rod, actually—with which he repeated taps the crash cymbal. Suffice to say that he can be a blur of movement, all appendages working at once to create a sound at once wacky and sincere, fueled by a pure love for rock’n’roll.
In 2000, Humphries released his “Giddy-Up Go!” album, which received mixed reviews from press and radio alike. Eventually it caught on, climbing up and down the charts on Rockabilly Radio. “Cool Clad Daddy” and “This Durn Band Ain’t Gettin’ Me Laid” were two favorites from the album. Three songs—or two and a half, as Bruce tells it—were even featured in a one-man band documentary by Adam Clitheroe titled “One Man in the Band.”
After “Giddy-Up Go!” there came a live CD from a venue in Kansas City, Missouri, which was only available directly from Bruce. Most recently he put together “I Don’t Need No Lover” (the Memphis and Texas demos), which has just as much potential as “Giddy-Up Go!,” with the same energetic rockabilly and slight country feel. Most importantly, his songs are still fun, catchy, and altogether inspired.
2010 has seen Bruce Humphries of B.O.M.B. take a break from the big one-man band endeavor to re-embrace something he has denied himself for some time now—playing with other musicians and singer/songwriters again. This time around, Bruce is involved in the band Dibbs Preston & the Detonators—an old school rockabilly quartet in the vein of the great Reverend Horton Heat, fronted by Dibbs Preston, originally from London, England, the one time lead guitarist for Levi & the Rockats, and then lead singer for The Rockats.
Hopefully Bruce will return to the one-man band project at some point. And even if he doesn’t, we will always have what he has contributed to it over these past several years.
When I started my One-Man Band Series, I contacted Bruce about doing a little interview. Since then, we have done that interview. What follows is that content in its entirety.
It is typical of me in my interviews to begin in an introductory fashion, so as to let my readers know a bit about the artist with whom I am working. Having said that, I would like to ask: Who is Bruce Humphries, not just as a musician and singer/songwriter but as an individual, as a human being of this vast and crazy world in which we live?
Well, I am a musician as well as a visual artist. Some days/months/years I am more artist than musician and vice versa. I received a M.F.A. in Sculpture in 2001 from the University of Kansas (Lawrence, Kansas) where I actually began playing as a one-man band. For the past ten years I had been teaching college and university level art until the economy bottomed out. Around that time we were relocated to the Philadelphia area and jobs became extremely difficult to find. I spent most my days drawing and playing with dolls in the basement. Wow, that sounds kind of weird, so I guess I should mention that my artwork is inspired by the figure and childhood fantasies. Ok, that sounds odd too. Maybe you should just go check out my website to see what the heck I do!
Your first album “Giddy-Up Go!” has a primitive rock’n’roll sound, together with that rockin’ quality wielded only by the old school rockabilly greats, especially in songs like “Cool Clad Daddy” and “This Durn Band Ain’t Getting Me Laid.” And your vocals sometimes have that awesome hiccupy quality used by Charlie Feathers and Bloodshot Bill. Was this sound you’ve created a preconceived idea you sought to produce, or did it happen purely by chance, you know, through trial and error, and just knocking around with various instruments, etc?
As a kid I loved finding old swing records in thrift stores and listening to them on the record player. When the ’80s rockabilly revival began, I became obsessed with The Stray Cats, the Rockats, The Polecats, etc, etc. Singing along with those acts as well as the original rockabilly cats had a huge influence on me. For about four years prior to going off to grad school I lead a rockabilly trio in Kentucky, so the sound I came up with in the one-man band was simply a progression from this previous experience. Come to think of it, I really didn’t get exposed to Charlie Feathers until I moved to Memphis in 2007.
As for the sound on “Giddy-Up, Go!”… It was my first time in a studio, and because I was in grad school I had a very limited budget. The excitement of being in a studio and the extra large super grande mocha from the local coffee shop helped create that record. In fact, my wife swore me off of coffee before performing. I definitely had a tendency to play fast.
Ok. I have to ask… Did you really play a show with the late, great Hasil Adkins?! If so, that must have been some experience, huh? I mean, it was because of Hasil Adkins and a few select others that the one-man band scene is what it is today. He inspired a lot of people, and brought others a lot of musical enjoyment.
Oh yeah! Hasil was great. I believe my first exposure to him was due to The Cramps. He of course showed up really late to the concert and luckily the club stayed open a couple hours past the legal closing time. Hasil was extremely gracious as I spoke with him after the show in the streets of Lawrence, Kansas. I gave him a copy of “Giddy-Up Go!” and he asked me to sign it, which needless to say shocked me. He did sign the back of my Gretsch, which has since faded away. I will be honest though, I really didn’t have any exposure to Hasil or any of the other one-man bands until I started doing it myself. It wasn’t like I saw one of these guys play and then decided to do it too. I had planned on quitting music altogether as I became increasingly frustrated playing with other musicians. My wife and I were at a farm auction somewhere in Kansas and they had this huge bass drum that I ended up buying for fifteen bucks. I took it home and that is where it all started. I sat, played guitar, and beat on the bass drum. Slowly I began adding other equipment like a ride cymbal, snare, crash cymbal, cowbell, hi hat, etc.
Speaking of the one-man band scene as it is today, what are your thoughts on it? Let’s be honest, there are a large number of one-man bands all over the world right now, each one doing his or her thing just with his or her appendages and whatever instruments he or she can scrounge up. Some of the songs these one-man bands write and play are remarkable, made even more remarkable by the fact that they’re doing it by themselves. You are among these artists, obviously. So…what are your thoughts on the one-man band revival taking place?
To kind of continue with the last question… It seems that in the early 2000s I began to see a huge increase in one-man bands. There probably have always been a few around, but with the growth of the internet they have become more noticeable and accessible. In a way I was kind of disappointed as I thought I was really on to something original that no one else was doing. For a while it seemed that every time a one-man band would “friend” me on Myspace and I would take a listen to their music, it all began sounding the same. I don’t mean every one of their songs, but more that they sounded just like the other one-man bands. Distorted and fast. Not that there is anything wrong with that! I grew up listening to a bunch of distorted and fast punk bands—Negative Approach, The Freeze, DRI, etc… Maybe I am just getting old!
In addition to the “Giddy-Up Go!” album, you now have the “Live in Kansas City” album and “I Don’t Need No Lover (the Memphis and Texas Demo Sessions),” as well as a song on Rock N Roll Purgatory’s “Attack of the One-Man Bands” compilation. What are your plans for past, present and future recording projects?
Currently I am playing guitar with Dibbs Preston and the Detonators. Dibbs was the lead singer from the Rockats and we just did a tour opening for The Brian Setzer Orchestra that culminated in a sold out show at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. Sharing the stage with these two great musicians who were huge influences on me has been quite the experience! I have exceeded any and all musical expectations, so I am not really sure where to go from here. And of course we are living and performing in a different time. People are not buying as many CD’s, which makes it tough to have a career as a musician. I do have quite a few new songs that I would like to get onto the digital recorder and then eventually on my website. I would also like to make another DVD. The lo-fi, low quality DVD of a show I did in Dallas has sold well. Just sold one to someone in Kansas City, while last week one was sent to Australia. Go figure.
What have been some of your most memorable tour/gig moments?
It isn’t a tour/gig moment, but I had a pretty memorable review. The Lawrence, Kansas paper did a really nice spread about my artwork and the fact that I performed as a one-man band. I had sent them a copy of “Giddy-Up, Go!” and I couldn’t understand why they didn’t review it in the same article. The following week a review of my disc was in the paper. It was a negative review and one of my instructors asked me whom I pissed off and if I was sleeping with the guy’s girlfriend! The reviewer compared me to the “ninth circle of musical hell,” which I thought made a great song title and so I wrote an instrumental by the same name. You’ll find that one on the “I Don’t Need No Lover: Memphis/Texas Demo Sessions CD. That was the first out of four reviews. Luckily for my ego, each review progressively got better with the last one (Kansas City’s Pitch Weekly) raving about the disc.
Much of the time it’s difficult to tell where a singer/songwriter is in his or her career, whether he or she is a work-by-day and gig-by-night underground type or a hard working career type. Which would you consider yourself? And what are you striving towards?
Things start happening in your mid forties that make you re-evaluate your priorities. At least that is the case in my situation. I will begin working this fall at the University of the Arts in downtown Philadelphia, and I am hoping to find a nice balance between my visual art and music.
Why do you play barefoot?
I found that wearing shoes just got in the way of the drum pedals and wearing socks made my feet slide around. It sucks when I am playing winter gigs, as my pedals get really freakin’ cold. I did play a New Years Eve show in Texas once where a rather drunk grandmother came up to me after the show and told me she didn’t recognize me with my shoes on. Classic!
What band and/or singer/songwriters, past or present, have been most the most influential to you and your songwriting?
Besides the bands I mentioned earlier, some of my other favorite groups are The Dead Kennedy’s, The Cramps, Circle Jerks, Nick Cave, etc. I really don’t stay up with the current music scenes. I prefer to keep my head in the sand and pull random vinyl off of the record shelf. Same bands that I’ve been listening to for 30 years—classic old school punk, new wave, and rockabilly.
Lastly, if I failed to cover anything, or if you would like to express anything or discuss anything else, please feel free now. The floor is all yours, Bruce.
Well, I definitely picked two careers that lack in the money-making department. Fortunately they are both subjective. One person will really hate your work while the next person will love it. It can definitely get schitzo at times. I am lucky that I have the creative outlet to release the tensions of this screwed up world. I am also fortunate in the aspect that I am able to take a humorous approach to life. When we lost our house and jobs, and our dog died, all within the same week, I was able to turn around and write a song called “I Got Screwed!”
And now I must go as I hear the dolls in the basement calling my name…