Interview with Malcolm Bruce – The Music of Cream
British power trio Cream were an alchemical combination like no other at the time. The result of the combined musical powers of bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, both formerly of the Graham Bond Organisation, and Eric Clapton, whose tenure with blues purists The Yardbirds had cemented him as one of the premier guitarists in the UK, gave rise to what is now commonly termed the Supergroup and paved the way for countless such collaborations in the decades to come. Part blues, part psychedelic rock with a healthy dash of English whimsical folk and music hall comedy thrown in for good measure, the four albums they released between 1966 and 1968 were to have a significant impact on bands like Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Rush and hundreds of others over the years right up to some of rocks biggest names today. The heavy use of improvisation in their live shows was to become the stuff of legend, influenced in part by both Bruce and Baker’s solid background in jazz, and in turn they served to influence a whole new generation of bands to come.
Now for the first time the offspring of the original band members – Malcolm Bruce and Kofi Baker with Clapton’s nephew Will Johns – are bringing the magic of Cream’s live shows to Australia with former Deep Purple vocalist Glenn Hughes and legendary guitarist Robben Ford in tow. I caught up with Malcolm, son of the late great Jack Bruce, ahead of the tour, one he is incredibly excited about.
So to start with you’re touring to celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of the most influential bands of our time. How did the collaboration between all of you come about?
Well I’d worked with Kofi and Will off and on over the last few years, I’ve obviously known Kofi for many years, and we’d done a little bit of touring in the UK and the US over the years. And then Kofi’s Manager was approached by the promoter in New Zealand to do this show. So then we reached out to Glenn and Robben and the whole thing has really come together nicely.
Yourself, Kofi and Will all hail from a pretty impressive musical pedigree, is there a certain amount of pressure involved in pulling off some of these songs live?
We kind of do it on our own terms and honour the nature of the songs as best we can. The nature of what Cream as band created was a lot of spontaneity and exploring improvisation, so sure if we were going to be playing the songs note for note and dressing up like them and basically pretending to be them then yeah sure I think there’d be a lot of pressure! And we’d probably fail because they were so incredible at what they did. So really we’re just carrying on the tradition of what they did which was to create music of a certain kind of approach. And we’re good at what we do; we obviously grew up around those guys, and all we really hope is that people like what we do. So yeah from that aspect there is a certain amount of pressure.
Part of the magic of Cream’s live performance was the ability that Jack, Ginger and Eric had to improvise outside of the basic song structure. Are your arrangements of the songs sticking closely to the recorded works or are you allowing for things to get a bit loose in the live format?
Oh yes and that’s the part that we’re most interested in. Cream certainly had some of the jazz tradition about it in that they’d play the bones of a song and then just go off into something loosely based around a harmonic structure. But they were at heart schooled in the blues and we all love the blues, I’ve studied jazz and classical music as well so I’m well versed in all those styles of music, but yes the improvisation is definitely a big part of why we’re doing this.
So are you covering a wide range of songs from Cream catalogue or are you concentrating on specific albums?
Hopefully we’ll be doing about two and a half hours playing time and we can pack a lot in there. And yeah we’ll be doing the big hits like Sunshine Of Your Love and White Room – all those big songs – so yeah it’s certainly going to be a set that’s right across the board. And now that we have Glenn Hughes coming along I’ve been chatting with him about what songs he’d like to sing and so we’ll probably do a couple of Deep Purple songs as well. And because Glenn is such a great bass player, I’m playing bass on this tour but I’m also a guitarist as well, means that we can stick to the traditional trio format but we can expand around that as we see fit and I can play some guitar as well. So yeah it’s going to be a broad range of all those songs, we might even do Anyone For Tennis, just for a laugh.
There’s a few quintessentially British quirky songs in there as well as the powerhouse blues rock songs, songs like Pressed Rat and Warthog, will you be giving us a few of those too?
Yep actually that’s Kofi’s tour de force in the show! We’ve done that live before so Kofi will be on vocals for that one for sure. An we’ll obviously be doing Toad with Kofi’s six hour drum solo. And he’s great Kofi is; he’s taken what his dad did with all the African polyrhythms and he’s kind of made that his own. He has his own approach to it.
When choosing the setlist there are obvious songs you know you’re going to have to include, but were there ones in there that you specifically felt were important to include?
Because we’ve done the show already we’ve obviously got most of the songs worked out well but one of the ones that I really wanted to include on this tour was I Feel Free, which I don’t think we’ve ever performed live. So that’s one that we’ll be doing and it’s also quite nice because of all the different vocal parts in it too. So it’ll be interesting to see how that one goes live.
Is it a bittersweet feeling knowing you’re going out there performing your late fathers music? Do you feel a personal amount of pressure in doing justice to the songs?
In a way yes, because he has such a huge legacy, but also in a way it’s who I am. I grew up with my dad, I’d played with him and Ginger and Eric over the years and dad was always really supportive of me as an individual artist as well. In a sense this is our inheritance. The nature of this music means we have to jump on these opportunities while we can. I’ve got anew record out an another one coming out in the summer so I’m trying to build some momentum for myself as an artist and still be going out there doing the Cream project as well. And I think that my dad would love that. And we’ve gone out there and done it before and people have just absolutely loved what we do and that’s great. They realise that I’m not my dad but that I’m certainly doing it justice, if that makes sense.
How has it been playing with Robben? He’s obviously a phenomenal guitarist has having him on board added something to the songs?
Well we’ve only really had one rehearsal so far but we’ll all be heading to LA to rehearse for the tour. So we’ll have a chance to get things together for the tour but yeah Robben is a phenomenal guitarist. Not only is he a master of the blues but he’s also worked with Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell and so the spectrum of what he can do is so wide. And my dad was similar in that way too. I mean he was doing something within the context of blues as well but at the same time it was much deeper and wider than that. So really you can take those complicated songs and take them to a whole new place where you can explore that, it doesn’t have to stay within the basic context of the song and with Robben I think we’re just able to do anything.
Reading your bio on the website you’ve played alongside some pretty amazing artists. Do you have any personal favourites from your career?
You know every day is a new day, and the people I’ve worked with so far have been so incredible. I just feel so blessed to have been able to play with so many amazing artists over the years. Everything I do is a joy and I’m learning all the time and so hopefully there’ll be more collaborations in the future.