Interview: Richie Sambora

On hearing that Joe "Schmo" Mackett had been asked to interview RICHIE SAMBORA, I figured that it was time for some severe grovelling. So I offered him my pet newt, my catapult, and a million pounds in exchange for the chance to do the interview myself. After much consideration, he said yeah. Phew!

Arriving at the St James' Club in the heart of lovely London town (the setting for my meeting) where the litter is of a much higher standard, the staff of this dead posh establishment look at me as if I've just landed from another planet.

I'm here to meet Kas from Phonogram, I tell the desk person, who directs me to the Terrace Suite (I say!). Kas informs me on meeting her, that Richie;s just getting up so he'll be a little late. So we sit slurping Earl Grey tea and watching some chick in a black and whit movie getting her noggin lopped off by a dude in a mask. I reckon she missed a few payments on her Conservative Party membership fees.

Richie actually turns up nearly an hour late, but who cares (well actually the press department do because they're running behind schedule). He looks a little tired but greets me with "Hi ya Pete." Blimey O'Reilly, he knows my name! We shake hands and for a brief moment, my bracelet gets caught on his ring. Great start! First rule of journalism, dismember your subject before you get your interview under way.

We adjourn to an adjoining room in order to proceed with our chat. Pulling a couple of chairs out from the onyx table, we start to get to know each other, which gives me time to get my shit together and organise myself. Aah, that's better!

When you listen to his album, Stranger In This Town, you get the feeling that it's autobiographical in a lot of ways, so does it express the heart of RICHIE...SAMBORA? (You'll not believe this, but at that point, I nearly forgot his name. What a dumb shit. I mean I meet one of my idols and...?

"Could you shut that TV down please!?"

The sound of MTV in the other room is spilling over and distracting him.

"Thank you. My mind was drifting off," he says, returning to me. "Yeah, I think that this record is one that I've waited a long time to make, besides, the company have been asking me for years to make my own record."

It's a very personal album.

"Definitely is. It's a very human album, as far as the subject matter of all the songs. It's very relatable to growing up and human problems and friendships. So I wanted to make it more...human."

Are they songs that you've written over a long period of time?

"Well, a couple of them are. There's two songs that I wrote when I was nineteen on this record."

Really! Which ones? (I hate to listen back to interview tapes. I mean do I really sound like that?)

"Erm...One Light Burning and The Answer. These two songs come out of a period of time where I was feeling a certain way, and I'll never feel that way again. So I felt it was appropriate to bring them here. They were taken at a time when I was struggling. I'd just left college and I was in the music business and I had no money and I was wondering what the fuck I was doing. Y'know, I was was asking questions and searching, searching for whatever answers I could find. Basically I really couldn't find any. So I wrote a song called The Answer. One Light Burning is a song about faith, a song about hope. Like, y'know, when you're in your darkest hour and you think that nothing's going right. You're in this big hole. But there always seems to be something that will get you through it. Sometimes it's your parents, your friends, or sometimes it's music. Sometimes it's your faith, but it gets you through somehow. I was contemplating just not putting these songs on the record, but I felt that I want to make a very relatable record to people, to like extend my hand in a friendship and say 'hey, how y'doin', I'm RICHIE SAMBORA,' ha ha."

Considering he's just woken up, he's very lucid about his definition of this record, but at the same time can find comedy in his expressions.

"This is what I feel like and err...I felt it's appropriate because I felt there's a lot of people in the world that feel like that. Y'know, in that same..." He looks to the heavens for the right phrase, "...head space that I was in when I wrote those songs, so I brought them up to date. Another little story about One Light Burning is that it was supposed to be...."


"I had twenty others that I could have put on the record that were probably more commercial in a way. Y'know, that were more pop radio. All that bullshit. But I felt that these were the right relatable substances. What I wanted the core of this record to be was basically feeling, not hit songs."

The album possesses a track entitled Mr. Bluesman, on which Richie is joined by ERIC CLAPTON. Was this written as a tribute to Eric?

"Well, no I wouldn't call it a tribute to Eric. I think it's a song about Eric and I, in a weird way. First of all, he's been an idol of mine for many years. It's a song about me wanting to be like him, now I am like him!"

His voice suddenly booms the words, and his eyes reflect an almost surprised recognition that he's reached his goal.

"Now I am a guitar player because I've been trying for so many years. Bluesman was written because I wanted to find out what made me pick up the guitar for the first time. Let's go back to the beginning, let's go reach down deep into my soul and pull those feeling out."

Again there's a jocular tone in his voice, but more through a feeling of whether he's making himself clear to me or not.

The overspill of chattering voices emanating from the other room distract me this time, so I suggest we move to the other end of the table.

Getting back to the subject of you and Eric, have your paths crossed many times before you recorded this track?

"No, no, we crossed one time before we played, which was on an International Rock Awards show. They called me up out of the blue one day and said, 'Would you like to give Eric the award for rock player of the century or something like that.' So I said, 'Absolutely, he deserves it.' I was thrilled. Then they called me up the next day and said do you want to play with them cos they're jamming at the end of the night, so I went 'of course.' So I showed up at the rehearsal that day and was..."

I detect a retrospective feeling of disbelief at this point as Richie recalls the line-up that he joined that day.

"...BUDDY GUY, ERIC CLAPTON, BO DIDDLY, and LOU REED, oh, and Eric's band. I walkeed up to Eric and said, 'Man, I just got to tell ya'. you've been a big part of my musical development. I'm just a kid from New Jersey, and the next thing I know I sold 30,000,000 records. A lot of the reason why I play guitar is because I listed to your records and wanted to emulate you.' And he turned red and I turned red, and I, like, went to the corner to get my shit together,y'know what I mean," he whistles a sound of relief and mimics a mopping of his brow.

"Then we played that day, it was really, really great, then that broke the ice and I got a chance to sit down and talk to him and just shoot the shit, y'know."

I find, listening to this record, that you've got a CLAPTONish feel in your playing, but you've integrated into your own style, without being a clone of him.

"What I did take from Eric is emotional attack. Kinda way he plays. Not really his licks per se, more or less his attitude. Eric's feel is extraordinary, in the way he packs his emotion into his playing. It's always something I try to achieve. To get that feel, you've got to be inside it, to get it out, to push it out of your fingers almost. That's something that Eric always did better than anybody, I think. That's what makes him such a great artist."

The first single to be taken form Richie's album is called Ballad Of Youth, which on listening to, could have been taken from ERIC CLAPTON's August album, a suggestion that is met with a smile from Richie.

"That's right, sure. It's got the wah wah guitar line and stuff like that. Yeah, it's kinda of like from the old days. This record is basically like an old new record. It's got a lot of flavours of the early seventies, or maybe even late sixties at times. I wanted to go back to the period in my life when I was finding out about the guitar, back to the beginning of my roots so to speak. Since this is the first record, let's go back to the beginning. I'm sure that the next record will be later on in the years, my influences and how they kinda built up through the years. Retrace my steps in a way. I wanted to make sure that every track on this record had life in it and I had an emotional commitment from all the musicians that played on it."

The line-up of musicians appearing on the album includes two of his mates from BON JOVI, namely Tico Torres (drums) and David Bryan (keyboards). Also joining them is ex-PETER GABRIEL bassist Tony Levin. The whole project was co-produced by Richie and Neil Dawson.

Even though the album hadn't at the time of the interview come out in the shops, Richie sees it as a success.

"The reason I see the record as a success, even though it hasn't sold one copy yet is that first of all I feel it was an achievement for me to actually get it done and say, 'Yes, I did this,' y'know. That's number one. Number two, I really got something out of the record as far as being a producer and as far as getting the emotionality after each track. The hardest thing I think I did on the this record was the emotional director, which meant I had to keep everybody's focus and intensity. No matter if I was tired or fucked up or whatever was going on, I had to be on their ass to make sure they were inside the emotion of why I wrote the songs."

There has always been one thing that stuck with me in all the times that I've seen BON JOVI live, and that was the quality of Richie's voice. Now that may sound like bullshit to you seeing how he was my subject for this interview, but when he started singing at the Milton Keynes show two years ago, there was a buzz of voices as people by me, including my sister Flo, were asking, "Who's that singing?"

Does your ability stem from natural adeptness of does training play a big part?

"Well, it's basically natural, but I did do some training at the end of this record."

A yawn creeps up on him, causing him to fight it off.

"I've been a lead singer in most of the bands I was in before BON JOVI. I was confident back then, but over the past ten years I was just basically a background singer and guitarist."

Do you ever feel frustrated with not being able to take more of a lead vocal position when performing in BON JOVI?

"No, I mean half of me said yes and half of me said no. I'm not the kind of person that needs to be out in the limelight all the time. I was more than happy to be in that band, and my position in BON JOVI was great."

Has the fact that you are widely known as the lead guitarist for BON JOVI given you the ability as an artist to pan out rather than peak?

"Absolutely, I think that it will definitely expand people's perceptions of what I am, for sure. I think, y'know, that people will call me a guitarist and, I mean, that's cool but I think I would hope, as a complete artist, someone who sings, writes, and produces, and makes records, not only just BON JOVI's guitarist. That's the main thing that I needed to put across this time. I think that's why we called this record, Stranger In This Town because not only am I a stranger in all the towns that I visit, but also people know me in BON JOVI as the guitar player but they really don't know me as RICHIE SAMBORA the artist until they listen to this record. Then they'll get an idea who I really am."

Do you ever get bouts of doubting your ability even now?

"Artists are insecure by nature. Failure's the mother of invention, y'know. So people always ask me, 'Well, what if this record fails?'"

Trying to translate to paper the character that he assumes whilst quoting this question isn't easy, but try to imagine him, shoulders hunched, talking in a bickering little voice.

"And I go, 'Fuck, it fails! What do you want me to say? I missed. I tried, and at least I was swinging.' You can't be afraid to fail. I mean all you can do is try. Your never going to know if..." He takes a slight deviation here. "I hope that the record sells though and that it does real well. It seems like all the reactions to it have been real nice. You never know what's going to happen, if people are going to relate to it or they're not going to relate to it...Who knows?"

Do you feel that you're still in contact with your audience?

"I think so, I mean, I'm very much an easy person, y'know. You see me on the street and you could talk to me. I'm a musician, that's all. People, whose egos get in the way in this business...I don't get it personally. I'm doing thee same thing that I thought I would always do. I work very, very hard at my craft. Now I just play for a few more people. That's the only difference. Actually, it's sometimes harder to be in a more intimate situation and play, it's a little bit more naked. To play in front of a stadium audience with fuckin' 47,000 lights and 90,000,000 watts of PA, it's kinda like this business is done with make up and mirrors."

Do you still enjoy playing stadium shows, or do you think that there's a lot of a band that is lost, say, personality-wise in such vast venues?

"I'm not particularly an enthusiast about stadium shows myself. But it seems to me, like, the people enjoy them because it's an event. But if you're going to go and listen to a concert and be a part of it. I like the arena better, right in the twenty-thousand seat range. That is a lot anyway, but I mean I still feel I can still reach that kid in the back row. I could almost fuckin' point him out and he knows I'm talking' to him. Playing in a stadium is really impersonal but like I said, there is a certain magic about those gigs too, because it's all that mass of people having a good time, that makes it an event."

Richie used to do a lot of session work in New York before joining BON JOVI. In fact, he got into a clique with three other musicians - Bruce Forster, a pianist who played on hundreds of sessions, Steve Moseley, PHOEBE SNOW's drummer, and Hughie McDonald, bassist for BILLY JOEL. They used to be hired out as a unit. Does he miss those days at all?

"Aaah yeah!" His voice is a bit raspy. "But I don't miss them that much. I'm really glad now to have my knowledge of making records and all the experience that I've learned along the way. I have the unique position now to do my first solo record with 30,000,000 records behind my back. I've waited a long, long time. It couldn't have worked any better. For years everybody wanted me to do my own record, but I kept saying 'no' 'cos I've really dedicated my life to BON JOVI for the past ten years. I mean I've had nothing else but that for the past ten years, nothing to show for it basically. Alright, the money, a little success."

The modesty of his last comment suddenly dawns on him and he grins.

"A lot of success. Y'know, I've just finally got a house and some furniture, and I'm never there. I really haven't had a home for ten years, it's been the road."

Desmond Child with his gay partner and children adopted from a surrogate mother.

Coming back to the subject of your songwriting, when Slippery When Wet hit, were you disappointed that it was the DESMOND CHILD arrangements to Living On A Prayer and You Give Love A Bad Name that got you noticed?

"They weren't DESMOND CHILD arrangements. Desmond wan't the arranger. We wrote the songs together. BON JOVI made those songs, songs. Personally I was glad to work with Desmond. He's a fuckin' genius. I was never put off by him. I mean other people say..." He assumes a bickering character once more. "'I don't want to be like Desmond.' Man, I'll tell ya, I was never insecure about our songwriting. I mean, when Desmond came to work with us, we already had Wanted Dead Or Alive and Never Say Goodbye, written a bunch of great songs, so it wasn't like I was threatened or anything like that. Like, we weren't writing commercial pop hits like that at that point in our lives, and he came in and gave us a little bit more of the overall view. Then I think he was overused by a lot of people after that. But, see, if you're smart, you can use Desmond's genius without having his 'stock choruses' that come up all the time. If you listen to What It Takes and Angel by AEROSMITH, that doesn't sound like 'stock.' Those are two fucking amazing songs. So it's all up to the artist who he's working with to actually corner him. If you sit there with Desmond and you're not throwing anything at him across the table, he's going to come up with..."

Richie breaks into a rendition of You Give Love...

"Y'know what I mean. He's going to come up with that kind of chorus and that's what you're gonna to get, and some people would be happy with that, but if you challenge him and you have a conversation with him, and actually talk to him about what direction you want to go and you have some ideas and he helps you finish your ideas, rather than you helping him finish one of his ideas, then that turns around."

With all the various collaborations you've done, who in your mind was the most memorable?

"Let me see... Oh, I really had a good time when I worked with ALICE COOPER. That was a lot of fun. He's fantastic to work with, plus it's ALICE, man. I remember, it was funny because we had written four songs together, and we went right into this small demo studio in New Jersey where we were writing, and Desmond had left to do something, and Jon had to go to some family meeting, and it was just ALICE and I in the studio, and we were finishing up the demos. Y'know he had to sing vocals and I had to so some guitar stuff and me and ALICE were producing the sessions. And I'm sitting there and he's on the other side of the glass singing the songs that we wrote and I'm goin', 'Fuck man, that's ALICE. Holy shit!' We had a really good time and we got to be really good friends."

He also has fond memories of working with CHER.

"I had a good time with CHER when we did those tracks. That was extraordinary. It was great to work with her. We'd been very good friends for two years before I ever got involved in ant relationship, because I had a really good working relationship with her, as a producer and also as a friend."

You've never really adopted the two-handed playing technique (tapping) in your style. Why is that?

"Yeah, I stayed away from that personally. A couple of times on the BON JOVI records I would do it just to show people I could do it, just to pull it off."

Did you think that you had to prove yourself to everybody?

"Yeah I did. For some reason I don't really enjoy playing like that to tell you the truth. Y'know, some people do it well, but I think EDDIE VAN HALEN does it better than anybody. He has feeling inside it. If you listen to the first VAN HALEN record, you just get fuckin' blown away. The guy's a fuckin' genius. He's someone I believe is a guitar hero. A guitar hero is somebody that does something innovative to the business. Basically all I've done is go back to my roots and play with a lot of emotion. But I just have my own style."

Sometimes ingterviews can be a bit like sucking a McDonalds milkshake through one of those stupid straws. But this one...I had a blast!

Peter Grant
Riff Raff
October, 1991

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