Track By Track: Bruce Hornsby’s New Album and Latest Robert Hunter Collaboration, ‘Absolute Zero’
“I’ve been composing film music for Spike Lee for the past 11 years,” Bruce Hornsby observes, chronicling the process that led to the inception of his inventive new record, Absolute Zero. “Over that time, I have written over 230 different pieces of music in the film world, which are called cues. These range in length from one to four or five minutes long. And, through the years of doing this—I have scored six or so films for him and done instrumental music for three or four more—he has only used about half of those. At times, I would write a cue and think to myself, ‘Wow, this has a special quality that makes me feel like it needs to become a song; it needs to be more than just a cue.’ So, about two years ago, I had my engineer mark 14 cues, and I decided to write songs to this music that I composed for Spike. That is how this all started.”
Hornsby eventually used the tracks as the basis for an adventurous project that includes contributions from Justin Vernon, Jack DeJohnette, Blake Mills, yMusic, the members of Hornsby’s group, The Noisemakers, and others, including Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, who co-authors a song. As that roster of players suggests, Absolute Zero is a playful, eclectic affair that draws on an array of jazz, classical, R&B and folk sounds.
Absolute Zero (featuring Jack DeJohnette)
The first cue I worked on was from a more recent Spike work—season one of She’s Gotta Have It. I titled the cue “A-Minor Song” because I knew it needed to become a song. Zero K, a book by the great Don DeLillo, provided many of the ideas that informed it. Zero K is a cryonic fantasy, dealing with Ray Kurzweil and the singularity and all these interesting concepts. “Absolute Zero” is inspired by all that, plus my own musings. Jack DeJohnette is on drums, and there is also a little Mark Hollis-inspired drum beat coming in here and there. So it’s drums, piano and a 20-piece string orchestra. That was the catalyst for all this, and it became the first song on the record as well as the title track.
Six of the 10 songs on this record come from a cue, and “Fractals” is another one of those. It started as a cue used for Spike’s movie Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. I am Spike Lee’s B-team composer; Terence Blanchard has been scoring for him for probably 30 years. He does the big events, and I do the under-the-radar indie movies, which is great. I love the assignments I get from Spike because all of this forces me to compose and be creative, which leads me to new places.
I met Spike through our great mutual friend, Branford Marsalis. Branford brought the three of us together for dinner in New York in 1992, and I asked him to make a video for me for a song I recorded with Branford called “Talk of the Town,” which appeared on my Harbor Lights record. Then, two years later, Spike asked me for an end-title song for his great movie Clockers and, a few years after that, he asked me to give him an end-title song for his crazy, wild movie Bamboozled. In 2008, he hired me to write a score for an ESPN documentary about Kobe Bryant called Kobe Doin’ Work and he’s kept on hiring me ever since. It’s probably my longest continually running collaboration.
“Fractals” was originally a very minimalist, Phillip Glass/ Steve Reich piano cue—four hands/two pianos. I took it to a more R&B place—I would call it Reich-ian minimalist piano over funk. Lyrically, the song is not unlike “Absolute Zero” and several songs on this album, which are coming from a science background. It likens a relationship to fragmented geometric shapes that can be subdivided into parts and curves and shapes— i.e “Fractals.” You also hear a bunch of oddball percussion and I am playing violin which, in general, is a really bad idea but it creates a sort of scratchy, weird, funky, old vibe that is really great.
I was writing a couple years ago for Spike, and I thought I would try to write a broad and anthemic orchestral endtitle like you often hear in a classic movie. So, I went on YouTube and found myself listening to the music for the Tom Hanks Movie Cast Away. I often name my cues after the inspiration from which they came; although, at this point, I feel like I have a way of voicing chords that is my own. So, even if there’s an inspiration, it won’t sound anything like that. It’s an inspiration, not a replication. I think if I went back and listened to the Cast Away theme, it wouldn’t resemble what I did at all.
Then, last April, I went to Eau Claire, Wisc. Justin and his group of like-minded musicians had invited me out there to work with them for a few days. We had a gig at their hotel, the Oxbow Hotel, and then spent four days in the studio. I told Justin: “I came bearing gifts” and played them these cues, letting him know, “If you like any of them, then you can have them. They are yours.” I gave him about 25 things, and he picked about 10 of them. During those four days, we ended up working on a good five to seven, most of which will see the light of day here and there over the next couple years on somebody’s project.
This was the first one we worked on and it really got our juices flowing. He had his bandmates play on it: Sean Carey singing, Mike Lewis on sax, JT Bates behind the drums and Brad Cook playing bass. Jeremy Ylvisaker, a Minneapolis guitar player, also contributed. (The Noisemakers bassist J. V. Collier plays on the track as well.)
Then, Justin said to me: “I think the title of this piece of music, ‘Cast Off,’ is a good title; why don’t you work with that?” So I said, “I’ll give it a shot.” I thought about it lyrically and ended up writing a strange song about acceptance and even gratitude in the face of rejection— egolessness, patience, humility, etc. I guess one of the key lines is, “Self-loathing never felt so good. I kinda ain’t shit, but I embrace it. I can be OK. I’ll take what I can get and like it, and like it well.” Going to a semidark place, but embracing that.
Justin and I started trading back and forth in the vocal booth, working on writing in the moment. We came away from the sessions with a good bit of this completed, and then I finished it.
“Meds” doesn’t come from a cue; it comes from being inspired by a new friend of mine, the great British singer Olivia Chaney. She opened up a gig for us in Bremerton, Wash. last year. She had a song that I loved, and it was a left hand, left hand, left, right, left, right sort of pattern. I thought, “I want to try and write my own version of that.”
That’s how it started, and then my wife and I were hanging out one Saturday night and I had the urge to listen to the old Joe Cocker Mad Dogs & Englishmen record. So, I put on “Blues Medley.” There’s this one section where Leon Russell—one of my heroes and longtime friends who was the band leader—had this arrangement that goes to this great chord progression. I said to my wife: “Watch out, here comes this great chord. It just kills me every time.” When that came about, she said, “Wow, I like that too.” I thought to myself: “OK, I’m going to write a song with that progression.” And that’s the chorus.
So we had an Olivia Chaney verse and a Leon Russell/Joe Cocker chorus. Then, the great Rob Moose of yMusic made his entrance, and he wrote this amazing string arrangement. Blake Mills played this trippy spacey guitar, Justin sang his ass off and, voilà, there you have “Meds.”
Never in This House
“Never in This House” is one of three songs on this record that were written originally for our ill-fated play, SCKBSTD. I was commissioned in the late 2000s to try my hand at this, and I gave it a shot. The streets are littered with people like me from other worlds who tried their hand at the Great White Way milieu and had minimal to no success.
We had one production in Virginia and we had a nice head of steam—The New York Times called us one of the five edgy plays that have a chance to get to New York. We kept working on it for several years but nothing really happened after that, unfortunately.
“Never in This House” is a dysfunctional family trio song—it’s supposed to be sung by three different people. The father sings the first verse, the mother sings the second verse when I go up in falsetto and the third verse is the son.
Every now and then, I like to write an old-time folk song, and that’s what this is. It’s a simple folk song with yMusic and some sampled woodwind snatches that I’ve collected over the years and stitched together. From about the middle section on—after the second chorus—it’s all yMusic. It starts off with Rob Moose’s gorgeous intro with several violin parts, and then yMusic
comes roaring in for the last third of the song.
This is also from the play, but there is a fun story about the origin. Spike asked me to do a score for a film he was making to accompany the video game NBA 2K16. Then after I said yes, I asked myself, “Am I the right guy to be composing a score for this very urban basketball milieu?” I didn’t want to be one of these old white guys composing some faux rap, some ersatz hip- hop. And I said, “I’m not going to be that guy. I’ve made a fool of myself before, and I don’t want to do it again.” So as I was ruminating on this little conundrum, I thought, “How do I find my way into this that resonates and feels legitimate to me?” Eventually, I came up with the idea of old-time ‘70s R&B. I thought this would work because lots of rap uses samples from that era, like Marvin Gaye records.
I picked 10 Stevie Wonder songs and called my great drummer Sonny Emory and said, “Here is my assignment for you—would you play along with these 10 songs and send me just the drum tracks? I am going to write music over your tracks.” On the first one Sonny sent me, he was playing over “I Wish” and it resonated with me. So, I wrote this cue—I don’t think it was ever used—but then we needed an up-tempo song for SCKBSTD, and I brought this along and everyone went, “Oh yes please, let’s do this.”
My old kindergarten friend Chip DeMatteo, who also wrote the lyrics to “Never in This House,” worked with me on it. In high school, we had Zappo Productions—we booked only the shittiest bands in our town and we reserved the right to name them. We were just two kids seeing what we could get away with, and we are still two old clowns trying to do the same thing. So, he wrote “House” and “Voyager One.” It’s about a fascination with space. I describe the song as Reich-ian funk music or chamber funk.
“Echolocation” uses an approach influenced by the great Robert Rauschenberg and his series of paintings that he calls “Combines.” They’re pastiches—a mélange of found objects and newspaper articles and a feather and whatever, put together into a piece of art. So, I decided to try my hand at musical combines.
Scoring for Spike leads me to new places—which is something I’m always trying to do anyway, trying to make a sound that I haven’t quite heard before, that doesn’t sound like anybody else I have heard. So a song like “Absolute Zero” or “Fractals” may remind one of something, but hopefully the combination of elements is a little fresh. At least that’s the attempt.
I wrote a cue for Spike, and he never used it, but it was called “Combine One.” It was me taking this drum beat, and then using all the crazy bits and instruments that I have in my studio: crotales, cymbals, old tambourines, autoharps, vibraslaps, the aforementioned terrible fiddle, old funky out of tune accordions. It’s a fun way to work. Then, I wrote a dulcimer song over that, so it’s really an old-time traditional song with onthe-run/on-the-move lyrics, but, in this case, moving away with knowledge of the night sky and human echolocation skills. There’s an old broken-down banjo and human echolocation—what a combo. A combine combo!
The Blinding Light of Dreams
“The Blinding Light of Dreams” is the third song from SCKBSTD. It’s a bitonal pop song with some Elliott Carter influence and chromatic lines—the great Hungarian composer [György] Ligeti was an influence on the first section. It also features yMusic playing chromatic, angular lines that I wrote for them, akin to the ‘60s spy TV show Mannix. It’s a narrative story about the secrets of a small town.
This is my David Foster Wallace moment, although White Noise is also the title of a great Don DeLillo novel. My favorite David Foster Wallace novel is The Pale King, his unfinished book about workers in the IRS. This song is totally inspired by that book. It’s about tax-return examiners and CPAs as American heroes—just like what everybody likes to write about. [Laughs.]
It’s a string-quartet song, and it came from a cue that reminded me of “Eleanor Rigby,” but the first melody is similar to the melody of Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” so I called it “Eleanor Supreme.” It was going to be in Oldboy but it was never used. It’s The Beatles meets Fleet Foxes or Crosby Stills & Nash—that kind of harmony singing— with a string quartet and the John Cage prepared piano samples also heard on “Meds.” I brought this John Cage prepared piano sample library, and I love the sound. It’s something I never hear, and I like to find those kinds of sounds.
Take You There (Misty) (featuring yMusic)
This is a song that I wrote with Robert Hunter—it’s the fourth Hunter-Hornsby collaboration. In about 2008, he reached out to me out of the blue and asked if I wanted to write a song with him and if I had any music to send over. Of course, I said yes. Hunter’s songs are some of the great ones in the songwriting canon. They sound timeless, like they could have been written a hundred years ago. I’m such a fan.
So I found a piece of music I had worked on that gave me a similar feeling to some of the things he had done. About two or three weeks later, a lyrics sheet magically showed up in an email. It was an amazing moment for me, and he had written to the music syllabically. It worked so well and became “Cyclone,” a song that is hugely popular with my true fans. Then he sent me a much more irreverent set of lyrics, which became “Might as Well Be Me.” And then another one, “Tropical Cashmere Sweater,” ended up on my last record, Rehab Reunion. So he kept sending me these through the years, and I actually have one more he sent me. I wrote a completely weird atonal piece of music to it that I haven’t gotten around to recording yet.
So, this is the fourth song. It was originally called “Take You There.” But I added “(Misty)” because, for the longest time, I referred to this as “my Father John Misty song,” so now it’s called “Take You There (Misty).” It has Hunter lyrics with, again, sort of minimalist, Reich-ian yMusic choruses, and an atonal bridge— another move into the black notes. Most people want to live a white-note life but, with “Blinding Light of Dreams” and the middle section of “Take You There,” I’m not doing that; I’m moving into a more chromatic, dissonant area, which is part of what I’m really interested in these days. It is Robert Hunter lyrics with minimalist and atonal stylings played by the great yMusic.