Few groups have resided on the top tier of rock nirvana. That handful of bands whose music has infiltrated pop culture to such an extent that even those with the smallest musical interest tend to have an unnerving knowledge of their hits and off-stage exploits. But what if you were part of this fame? Would you talk about it?
Ron Thal, affectionately known as Bumblefoot, doesn’t want us to know. Following a decade-long stint in Axl’s millennial Guns N’ Roses incarnation, the Bumblefoot of today is more at ease chatting about his exploits as an independent virtuoso, than a shoe-in for one of rocks most iconic axemen.
“It was impossible not to fall in love with music being a child in the 1970s,” Ron begins, before casting forward to his earliest performing days. “I think it was that transformation from an awkward kid to a performer happy to be making music for people. That’s what made me realize I needed to stay in music. I was only fourteen when I began playing New York’s bars, it felt like I was thrown to the lions.”
Not one to dwell on the past for too long, our conversation quickly snaps over the creation of Ron’s tenth solo record. Composed, performed and produced almost entirely unaided, Little Brother Is Watching sees Bumblefoot draw from classic rock’s quirkiest corners. “Every element of the record is part of the self-expression. Giving everything that I have to give. Not just writing, but how I play it or sing it, how it's delivered sonically.”
Yet the LP’s birth was far from painless, with Guns N’ Roses’ relentless touring schedule and Ron’s strict DIY ethics threatening its very existence. “The tough part was being on tour and writing at the same time. For me, it’s the two opposite states of being,” Ron explains. “On tour, you're extroverted - you belong to everyone. When writing, it's introverted. Both require a higher volatility to bring out the deepest levels of creativity, but it felt very conflicted to try and do both at once.”
Outside pressures aside, Ron affirms that the record remains one of his proudest creations to date. “I was a singer before I was a songwriter, before I was a guitarist, before I was a producer, but I'm now all of these both individually and collectively. I need to share all I have. If not, I‘d feel like I played guitar with one hand, like I don't truly put everything I have across.”
Diverse as Ron’s sonic palette may be, it’s often a sound united by one common theme: politics. So with Tyler, The Creator’s recent British embargo still printing headlines, how vital is it for music to continue as an expresser of political concerns? “Music should say whatever you want it to say,” Ron says. “It’s got to have an individual voice. Music is there for whatever kind of medicine you want to take. Whatever the fire you want to add fuel to.”
More recently, the multi-instrumentalist has raised the odd eyebrow following rumors of this year’s most unexpected collaboration with hip-hop stalwart Darryl DMC. While melding the soul of hip hop with the finesse of hard rock may seem a challenge, Ron’s certain that the end product is going to be one that both parties will proud of.
“It's a great combination, the way DMC and Generation Kill combine their sounds. We’ve crafted an album that I'm proud of. Over the year we've grown to be good friends; it's been a pleasure to have them in my life. We’ve about a half-dozen songs completed, I laid guitar parts, did the mixing and mastering, some guitar and vocal tracking as well. The attention is where it should be – on the music.”
But for every success in music, there’s almost always a complication lurking nearby. In April, Rolling Stone reported that Thal’s latest side project faced jeopardy following comments by its vocalist and former Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland, that the band was little more “than a scam from the beginning.” Having since rescued the outfit, and with a little time to reflect on those comments, Ron confesses that it was “a shame that things turned out the way they did” for Art of Anarchy.
“Scott signed on as vocalist a year into the project, at that point everyone writing and recording freely. Scott did his recording in his studio, while everything else was recorded at mine. Any dealings I had with Scott were pleasant, but I’m a true believer that everyone needs to follow their own path for their own lives.”
Now with Weiland out of the fold, Ron’s certain that “Chapter two of this story is looking like a more positive one,” hopeful that a project with such depth may finally cash in on its promise.
Fresh from touring across a string of nations less trodden by today’s rock circus, Bumblefoot has always placed the fans at the forefront of his art. With this in mind, it’s with little surprise that Ron is anticipating his guitar masterclass at Derry’s Nerve Centre this September with such enthusiasm.
“I've been teaching since the age of 13, so it’s always felt natural to share what others share with me. It's the same good feeling that comes from giving people the tools to help them make music, says Ron, before asserting that his approach to touring may not suit every musician. “Really, musicians should only teach if their heart is in it, if they're comfortable doing it.”
So what can budding musicians expect from the masterclass? “We'll start by dissecting rubber frogs, then we'll take turns reading ceiling fan installation instruction manuals, then I thought maybe we could all bend paper clips into straight lines for three hours, and maybe, just maybe some guitar stuff in between all that.”
Even the shortest of exchanges with a musician as effervescent as Bumblefoot proves that you really don’t need to dwell on past fame to stamp some credibility on a music career. That is, providing you have genius to thrive in its absence.