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Richie Sambora Goes Indie With New Solo Album (Q&A)

The Bon Jovi guitarist opens up to THR about his new label, personal struggles, how Jon Bon Jovi factors into the equation, plus his thoughts on singing competitions -- and Adam Lambert.

Richie Sambora Portrait - P 2012
Courtesy of Dangerbird Records
Richie Sambora

Silversun Pickups. Beady Eye. Fitz & The Tantrums. Ben Lee. Richie Sambora. Which one of these is not like the other?

Yes, Sambora might stick out like a sore thumb, but the founding member and guitarist of one of the biggest rock bands in the world, Bon Jovi, released his third solo album, Aftermath of the Lowdown, on Sept. 18 via Dangerbird Records -- the Silver Lake, Calif. indie label that hosts some of alternative music’s coolest artists.

Sambora, 53, certainly could have taken his music to his pick of major labels, but the axman who once helmed his own indie in the early '80s still has the independent spirit in his soul.

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“The music business is changing so rapidly nowadays as far as the way records are being heard, marketed and sold,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “These larger companies don’t have the flexibility to move along with that. The independent structure has a lot more flexibility and a lot more freedom. I think that’s why I moved towards that.”

He adds that bandleader Jon Bon Jovi is extremely supportive of the project.

“I’m going to go play these songs live when the band goes out on tour [in the spring]," Sambora says. "Jon’s going to let me play a couple of songs, so I am going to continue promoting this record even when I’m out on the road with the band."

When Sambora signed to Dangerbird, it was largely due to kindred spirit Jeff Castelaz, the label's co-founder, who Sambora said understood his musical vision from the very first meeting and “a bond was created immediately.” The men were introduced through a mutual friend, Phil Cassens, a former A&R head at Virgin Records who now serves as Sambora’s manager.

“A good friend of mine brought him into the studio just to see what was up, and I do believe Jeff walking in the studio on day one had no idea what to expect,” he says. “What we found is we were very like-minded when it came to music and record-making, I think when he heard the music on this record, it changed his mind. We started to talk. Two strangers became family very quickly. This man was a great man to be walking this particular path with.”

As of last week, Castelaz went in a separate direction, as he departed the label in part to concentrate on his roster at Cast Management, which includes Dropkick Murphys. Billboard reported Monday that Castelaz is in line for the top job at Elektra Records. He was unavailable for comment, but a source at Dangerbird said Sambora’s record remains a priority.

“From the label perspective, everything is the same,” the source says.

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Aside from his music, Sambora's private life has long been tabloid fodder. His divorce from actress Heather Locklear a half-decade ago, followed by his relationship with her former BFF, Denise Richards, was dissected in the press. After losing his father to lung cancer, Sambora’s much-chronicled battle with alcohol, followed by an addiction to painkillers, came to a head in 2008 when he was picked up for DUI with his 10-year old daughter, Ava, in the car.

“I’m a man who has fallen down and gotten back up within the glare of the media,” he says.

The album, produced and co-written by Luke Ebbin (Bon Jovi, Melissa Etheridge, All American Rejects), is Sambora’s first solo effort in 14 years. It features Aaron Sterling (drums), Matt Rollings (piano and organ), Curt Schneider (bass), Rusty Anderson (guitar) and Roger Joseph Manning Jr. (keyboards).

Much of the album addresses his life, with songs of self-examination backed with blues riffs and plenty of his signature guitar licks. Songs such as “You Can Only Get So High,” and “Seven Years Gone” explores the musician’s trials and tribulations without getting too preachy, and the beefy “Sugar Daddy” is sure to please the Bon Jovi faithful. The biggest surprise on the album is “Burn the Candle Down,” with a dark, fuzz guitar lick that would be at home on an alternative rock station sandwiched between The Black Keys and Cage the Elephant.

“I look at songs like an emotional vignette of my life experiences, and in the studio I get to download that,” he says. “The final stage of that is bringing it to the people and getting that momentary rush of interchange between an artist and the audience.”

As for his main gig as lead guitarist for Bon Jovi, Sambora is committed to play one more date with the band at this weekend's iHeartRadio Festival in Las Vegas. After that, he has plans to tour on his own in October and November, with plenty of time to promote his record before the Bon Jovi album drops in March.

“With an independent mentality, structure and business, this is a long play,” he says. "This record could catch fire 10 or 11 months from now, who knows? The Lumineers had that record out for two years, and now it’s just starting to go."

In an interview with THR, Sambora reveals his reasons for going with a smaller label, his process of creating music, some anecdotes from his time performing in almost every bar in New Jersey, his thoughts on reality television and his hope for future musicians.

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The Hollywood Reporter: Why did you decide to sign with Dangerbird?

Richie Sambora: It’s almost like a full-circle thing. I had my own independent label when I was about 22 years old. I had a couple of failed deals on major labels [including Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song label with his band, The Message] before that, and I found a backer and created my own independent label. I signed a couple of local bands, including my band, and went out and did tours, played a lot of college dates and promoted myself on college radio. So this is like coming back home to me. I think that the reason I did it is for the artistic freedom. Just what the name implies: an independent is independence.

THR: Aftermath of the Lowdown deals with a lot of your personal demons. Talk about the theme.

Sambora:  I tried to capture freedom, because on this record I am away from the band. Looking back on it, I was getting off the road after this mammoth 18½-month, 52-country tour. When it stopped, I was able to look at what was happening over the last seven years of my life. A lot of stuff went down. I was looking at my stuff. I think everybody has stuff, and I wanted to write authentically about things that had happened to me or observations that I had over the past 10 years. So I started to write the music, and I had no idea if I was going to have an album or not -- but then, when I was about five or six songs into the writing process, I started to get turned on and said, "Wait a minute, I think this is a record." So I think the songs were encompassing everything that happened to me. What I found is, my stuff essentially is everybody’s stuff. So many things that happened to me that everybody goes through, whether it be divorce or losing a parent or becoming a single dad, all of that -- a lot of people, almost everybody goes through that. But there is so much energy and so many different things happening on this record, especially when you listen to the lyrics.

THR: Let’s talk about the first single, “Every Road Leads Home to You.” It seems to have struck a chord with your fans, and now you are including them in the creation of a lyric video for it.

Sambora: People seem to be gravitating towards that track. I was writing about me wanting to be home with my daughter, but again it’s a very universal concept, because everyone in the whole world has a home they want to get back to. It could be their girlfriend, their husband, their boyfriend, family, maybe just their house and their stuff. Maybe they are lost inside themselves and they want to find their way back to who they are, and that’s home. So many people have attached themselves to that particular song, and I thought it would be a fun thing to do if I could ask the fans to send an instamatic of their road to me. Basically, I really want to interact with my audience, and that’s the way this is moving now, through social media. I thought it was a great idea, and we got thousands of pictures and we created this video. I am calling it a lyric video because the lyrics will be accompanying all of these personal pictures of my fans. We also made a proper video for it, too.

THR: You seem really at home at Dangerbird. How is the process different working with a smaller label, and what are your goals?

Sambora: We get in a room and we make decisions very quickly. One of the things I wanted to do was showcase my singing, because people put me into this box where I am a guitar player. There are a lot of people that have a preconceived notion of who I am as a person and a musician, and I think this record tried to break that mold. Even from a guitar-playing standpoint, what I don’t see in a lot of bands and a lot of records right now is a lot of guitar playing for self-expression -- playing solos. On this record I had a great band, and my producer, Luke Ebbin, put together a great band really quick. It was really exciting to be in the room with these guys and play. There was a ferocity to our communication that you could really hear on this record. … I decided to leave those extended jams on the record. That was my influences, the Jimi Hendrixes of the world, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck -- guys that played their electric guitar and moved you solely. When you are working with a label like Dangerbird and I was the boss, the sole driver of the train, I could do all those things. I think there are a couple of songs on this record that people are gravitating to that will get on radio -- “Burn the Candle Down” right off the bat, that is something that might be on an alternative station somewhere down the line. It’s a song with an extended solo, and right off the bat I wanted to punch people in the face and say, “This is very different.”

THR: Is there a marketing plan in place?

Sambora: Some of the people at Dangerbird play the record for journalists or radio people and don’t tell them who it is. It’s really cool. People are going to have a preconceived notion of what this record is supposed to be. I think it’s a great exercise because it lets people visit the music fresh, and after three songs they go: "Who the hell is that? Richie Sambora. Get the f--- out of here.” I love that people are so surprised.

THR: You have lent your talents many times as a mentor on The X Factor, and you’ve reached out to contestants like Chris Daughtry on American Idol. Would you ever consider joining a panel on one of those shows?

Sambora: I like those shows personally because people get signed and become stars from it. I did a gig with Jennifer Hudson not too long ago, and she is astounding. Carrie Underwood came out of that situation, she’s amazing, and so is Kelly Clarkson. This Adam Lambert kid? I think he’s really, really good. [American Idol] builds stars, and that excites me. I do not have the time to give to a show like that. Maybe down the road at some point I would consider it. I would be good at it. I have been a mentor on X Factor all over the world, and Simon Cowell is a friend of mine. I have been a mentor on Idol in many different countries. I had Chris Daughtry out on the road with us. It’s been a fun show to watch with my daughter, and I really get off on it. And there is a lot of great talent that comes off that show.

THR: How do you feel about the odds of kids coming off a show like that, or bands trying to make it these days?

Sambora: The difficult thing, and I feel bad for some of the kids that come on there, is they basically go from their bedroom onto a stage looking at 30 million people. Then right after that, they get a record deal. For me, the essential part of what I did in my life growing up in New Jersey is there were so many places to play, so many bars. There was always work. Live music is really hard to find these days. Those proving grounds were essential for an artist to find his stylistic niche and work out who he was personally-what worked and what didn’t work in front of an audience. It does give you a lot of poise. You find your influences, as well as your songs in those clubs. A lot of guys don’t have the chance to do it. As for bands these days- where do they play? I played six nights a week for years and years. I was in I don’t know how many bands. It was countless. I had three record deals and my own independent record company before I joined Bon Jovi. I was a musician that was always working. On Monday and Tuesday nights, the club owners didn’t have a lot of money to pay because not a lot of people were coming out, so I would play acoustically by myself. Wednesday, they could afford a trio so I would put a drummer and a bass player in and then on Friday and Saturday, they could afford the band, so I would bring my guys in and call it “Richie Sambora and Friends” and have different musicians play all night. Those proving grounds don’t exist anymore, unfortunately.

THR: How was it different writing for your record than a Bon Jovi record?

Sambora: When I write songs with Jon, it’s an awesome experience, but basically there is a lot of commonality in our relationship. We grew up five miles away from each other, a couple years apart, in the same social bracket, but our styles are very different. When I write for the band, he is the megaphone for that band. So I write words that he is going to be able to sing, and I look at that as very important. With my solo stuff, I’m the guy with the mic. I’m the megaphone. … In the band, we all sit down and talk about things. Jon is the leader of this band, and I have had a lot to do with everything. I have been a guy that has co-written 90 percent of the hits, as well as many songs on every record. I also co-produced a lot of the records with Jon. We were essentially the songwriting team that moved that team forward, and on the business level, I have been his right-hand man. We were label presidents on our own label on Atlantic Records and produced Skid Row out of that, so Jon and I had done a lot of work in this organization for a lot of years, and that’s the way it’s rolling. Jon’s the leader, and there are no bones about that -- and no hard feelings. Everyone has a specific role in the caste system of what this band is, and that’s why it has lasted for 30 years.

THR: It also helps that everyone in Bon Jovi, like keyboardist David Bryan with his Broadway projects including the Tony-winning Memphis, has their own individual pursuits.

Sambora: It keeps everything fresh. Every time you do something individually, you learn something. Nothing lasts forever. Who knows what is going to happen with the band? I am a musician, and it’s in my blood. Richie Sambora needs to build his own brand, so no matter what I can go out and have an outlet to work and play and make my own albums and be an artist in my own right because that’s what I love to do. There is no way around that.

 Check out Sambora's video for "Every Road Leads Home to You" below: