An original member of Bon Jovi, keyboardist and backing vocalist David Bryan has a sweet gig. He regularly tours the world and performs before legions of fans every night, and he’s also ventured out on his own to become a successful, Tony-winning Broadway composer and co-lyricist with Memphis, a musical about turbulent race relations in the titular city during the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll.
When I spoke with Bryan two months ago for a story about rockers turned composers for Grammy.com, he was in the midst of a world tour with “that other job I got.” Don’t worry, Bon Jovi fans, he’s not going anywhere. But David Bryan’s love for musical theater — no doubt stoked by his recent Tony wins for Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre and Best Orchestrations for Memphis — is taking him on exciting new adventures, and more are coming up ahead. (Part One can be found here.)
How do you think your image has changed from David Bryan the rocker to David Bryan the composer? What have people’s expectations been like?
The best part is that everybody [high up in theater] is about 70 or 80 years old, so they call me “The Kid”. In my world we’re old men, and in this world, I’m a kid, so I like that. With producers in that world, I always said I’m trying to class up the joint in my band by being a Broadway composer. They think it [the music] is raucous. It’s funny what people think the cliché is. Joe DiPietro and I are halfway through writing another one. We made a pact that we’re writing with each other, that we want to be the modern Rodgers and Hammerstein and want to take a partnership because we really enjoy what we do and do it well together. But he really understands the sensibility of what I do. It’s completely not theater, if you will. It’s just different.
Then Chris Ashley the director, the same thing. I would sit in there, and he would never squash my outrageous ideas. To him they were outrageous; to me they were not outrageous. But then I wouldn’t squash his outrageous ideas to me. Why would you want to do that? Why would you want to cut that out? He would sit there and say something is off [with one part] and say it’s the hi-hat. I would say, “Wow! You’re listening to that?” A musical is a really complicated beast, and the biggest example of that is at one point we had the song “Love Will Stand Alone,” which is kind of a scene that didn’t do anything. Now it does something, but they went into the studio, she sang a song, everybody clapped and to me it was one of my favorite songs that I ever wrote. It’s a hit song. It was a static theme and didn’t do anything, and he said, “No, that’s not right.” I’d say, “Yes, that’s right!” “No, that’s not right, there is something else.” We never argued. It was just a healthy debate. He brought the story in with the song because you want story-song-story-song to blend into each other. It’s great. That’s the marrying of two different worlds.
Memphis isn’t a really loud show, which is refreshing.
You know what? That was a big thing that Chris Ashley and I had really honed in. Those are examples to me where it went a little awry because it’s not a concert. It’s a musical. Also, in a concert, I don’t think half the people really understand the lyrics unless they know them from the record. You can’t decipher it that clearly in any rock ‘n roll show I’ve ever been to in my life. In a musical you’re giving out information. You need that. But you also don’t want it to be wimpy sounding. If it’s loud all the time, your ears shut down. You want it to have some energy, so we took some rock ‘n roll tricks. You can get energy without volume. If you put it through a couple of gadgets, you can make it happen. The sound is a game of inches with the sound coming out not too hot, not too soft, and it has to build by the end. When you get it wrong it’s obvious. It’s just too fucking loud.
How is the music from Toxic Avenger different from Memphis?
That CD is available from Time-Life. I sound like a commercial. That was a different thing. That was more of a rock band because there wasn’t a horn section.
“The best part is that everybody [high up in theater] is about 70 or 80 years old, so they call me ‘The Kid’.”
When you’re coming up with new ideas, do you find yourself recording things in unusual places?
Oh yeah, totally. A great story is the opening song for Memphis, “Underground”. We had a whole different opening and completely different song. I saw the pictures of the stage and saw there was a bridge going across [and] underground into this club. I thought underground was such a great word and says a lot of things — it’s an underground sound, it’s an underground movement, it’s underground. I was actually driving to New Brunswick to do Toxic Avenger rehearsals. I was in my car and it was raining, so the wipers were making [a percussive sound], so I was sitting there singing and pulled my phone out [and recorded] “We’re going down down underground”. I kept singing it over and over and over, and I walked in and everyone was there for Toxic. So I told everyone to take a break and not to talk to me, and I went straight to the piano and banged it out for Joe. He was like, “Oh my God, that’s great!” So we wrote that on the lunch break, and there you go. The process is so fun. Then I take it as a demo and bring it to the actors and singers. The good thing is I can sing and play, so I can play it to them with rock ‘n roll intent. That’s something that has to be taught, to show what rock ‘n roll intent means. I can only teach by singing right in everybody’s faces as fucking loud as I can. I’m sweating after I sing it, to show what the intention is, and everybody gets it. I get to put my force and my energy into everybody.
You said you were working on another show with Joe.
We’re probably about halfway through it. We’ve been working on for about a year or so and got about eight songs in it already. We found the heartbeat of it. So when Joe and I write when I’m on the road, I’ll call him up while I have a keyboard in my room, we’ll write over the phone. Sometimes if I’m in the city for five days, he’ll fly out and we’ll sit together and write for five days. Time marches on whether I’m on tour were not. We want to get another one out there.
Can you say anything about what this particular show is going to be about?
Our tentative title is called Chasing The Song, and it takes place after Memphis and after the Fifties, right in 1960 before the Beatles came in. So that small window of time when everything was about the songwriter, before bands wrote their own songs. People always say, “How do you write songs? Do the words come first? Does the music come first?” This is going to be about songwriters and have a story as well, and we’re still developing it. Chasing The Song is you’re always chasing the number one hit as a songwriter.
Bon Jovi underwent this big resurgence in 1999, and it hasn’t stopped.
It’s killer. My whole goal today is to not get hit by a bus. I found something that I truly love. At the hundredth show for Memphis, I probably hadn’t seen it in about a month. It’s such a wild experience because you have given it away. It’s in your soul and then you give it away, and when you watch it all go down there’s a sense of removal that it’s not me. I’m sitting back enjoying it and going, “Holy fuck, I actually did this?” It’s such a mountain of work. It’s 15 hour days for six weeks. It’s insane. You walk into that building, and the workload is insane. To me, when I look at the finished product, I am completely satisfied in every inch of that show and care about every inch of that show. That is so rewarding to see that, and then to be also teaching audiences a little something while still entertaining them. I can do that until I’m 100 years old.
Do you think this is a healthy thing for musicians who might not want to rock out in their later years and find something else to do?
I guess it all depends, too. I’m lucky that my band didn’t end up just being an Eighties thing. We kept transcending and transforming and still have current records. We’re a current rock band. We have a number one record. Our songs are on the radio. We still matter. I could do nothing, but for me it’s so rewarding, and I get to use all those years of training. Memphis has nine musicians and 26 actors, and I’ve told everybody what to play. I sit there and do horn parts for the band, then tell everybody what to sing. When I sit there and close my eyes, I’ve got 35 people making my music. It’s insane. A musical is the most complicated beast. We didn’t have dance until [choreographer] Sergio [Trujillo] came along. I had guys flipping upside down while singing. You retool it for what it is. It came back to the first story I was telling you about. You should not be attached to your ideas so much. I don’t work that way. Nobody in my organization will ever work that way. Nobody’s that headstrong. We didn’t lose the patient here. We’re trying to make the best work that we can. In the end, everybody wants the best piece. You want the best product, and as long as you want that you can get there in a negotiable way.
Have you seen Spring Awakening or Next To Normal or any of the other rock musicals that have come out over the last couple of years?
I did see Spring Awakening. I didn’t see Next To Normal yet. The last couple of years have been so insane. I had two shows in New York. Every Bon Jovi break that I’ve had from recording and touring, I go straight into a musical. It’s really nice to say that I had two shows New York at the same time, but the reality is it’s a lot of work. I didn’t get to see too many shows. I did see Spring Awakening, and I liked it. I don’t go out and see every show. I see certain shows. Nobody can say that I ripped off anybody’s anything. I’m nine years in.
What do you think of the future for the rock musical then?
Broadway is a wild thing. When Joe got All Shook Up, that was about at the end of the song cycle, when people took a bunch of groups like Abba and made a story out of it. And everybody thought those would go on forever. Then that ended and straight plays came in, and that’s the big thing. They call it a rock ‘n roll musical because the songs are in the form of a rock song. I’m going to keep doing what I do. I love to do it, and as I said I think the essence of a rock song is all about the emotions. The definition of that was created by the Beatles, which was a three-minute, thirty-second song. Play it on the radio, get us to the chorus, don’t bore us and that’s it. In that world it’s having songs that people walking out of the theater are singing.
Are there any Bon Jovi songs that you would like to hear come back into the band’s set list?
On the tour we came in with our master list of about 90 songs, just to keep the boredom out. We first learn them, then walk into the sound check and play them. We’ve been playing some old ones from the first record. We’ve played “Roulette” and “The Hardest Part Is The Night”. Songs we haven’t done in forever. It’s fun to do that stuff.
Bryan on “Memphis”: “The talent on that stage is insane. Everybody is a performer extraordinaire that cares.”
And 10 years from now you can have your own David Bryan musical revue on Broadway.
Knock on wood. It’s great to see 1,200 people on their feet, clapping their faces off for Memphis. The talent on that stage is insane. Everybody is a performer extraordinaire that cares. They care about the story, they care about being the best they can be all the time. That’s something I can really relate to them, and they relate back to me because we’re both performers. It’s on a different stage, but it’s a great art form. I will do it till they nail the coffin shut.
Are you still doing the VH1 Save The Music charity?
Yes. We restored one school when we opened the box office. We gave them $30,000 and restored a music program at a school, so I continue to support that. Joe DiPietro and I are both involved in Inspire Change. He and I put some dough in and paid for 1,200 kids from a school in Harlem to come down in buses and see a Broadway show. It’s a matter of giving back. That’s what I’ve done for a long time. Once you get old enough and start having your own kids, you turn around and give back.
I worry about the arts education in this country, because every time we have economic problems, programs get cut in schools. I believe everyone should have an artistic outlet, regardless of whether they are doing it professionally or not. I have a lot of friends who have day jobs and do writing on the side for fun. It’s really important for your soul to have some way to express yourself.
I agree 100%. I can sit there and get as much enjoyment with a piano in a room alone and make myself cry and feel all the emotions on the planet and love it. I could go onstage to 70,000 people, or 15,000 people, or 2,000 people, or a couple hundred people, or two people and still get that enjoyment. The arts are a great thing. It moves you inside. It shows you that there’s a bigger force in the world, that you can move people and entertain people. There’s so much value to that.
Are you still in touch with Larry Fast?
Yes. Like I said, he was one of the pioneers of electronic music.
You had a cameo in the house band in Netherworld.
And that was Edgar Winters playing sax on that song.
Isn’t it amazing that you got to do that?
It’s unbelievable. I was down in New Orleans, and there were floods. Edgar wanted to jam there, and I taught him the song in about three seconds. He’s just such a fantastic talent. That recording was live, live, live. We just found a local drummer, bass player and guitar player, and I taught it to them. I taught the violin player in the trailer in three seconds on a little keyboard. [On set] I was playing this upright where half the keys didn’t work. I was using my left foot to lift up the sustain pedal because it kept sticking.
Are there any other projects you are going to be working on?
The next plan is for Joe and I to keep writing. I’d like to do a version of me doing my songs because now I have a reason — not just doing a solo record for the sake of doing it. On the Memphis soundtrack there’s a version of me playing “Memphis Lives In Me,” where I sit at the piano and just sing it. I would love to do that. That would be great. A funny story: I was at the one other theaters, and afterward everybody was gone. A piano was up on stage, and I was singing all of the songs in the show — the girl songs, the guy songs, the mama song. Some woman was sitting down listening to me, and I didn’t even notice. She goes, “How do you know all of the songs?” “I wrote them.” So it’s pretty neat when you hear from the person who wrote it as well. I think it gives you a different viewpoint into where it came from.
I’m sure you’ve probably discovered some songs that you forgot about.
Oh yeah. We call those “trunks songs”. There are probably about six songs that weren’t used in Memphis, that were in it and then got cut. They go right into the trunk and will show up in another musical. They’re good songs. The thing I love about live theater or a live show, it’s live no jive. You do it right then and there. People say, “Wow, you guys are great! You make it look so easy!” I say, “You always have the opportunity to fuck up. You just choose not to.” It’s a conscious effort from the act of walking out there, and everything you do is to make sure that show is 100% and it’s live.