Bon Jovi circles back: Richie Sambora discusses songwriting, guitar-playing and longevity

[19 March 2010]

By Brian McCollum

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

DETROIT — Few bands have managed the endurance game like Bon Jovi.

Nearly three decades after cutting its teeth on the New Jersey bar scene and its reign atop the late-‘80s rock scene, the group continues as one of the world’s top touring draws.

After a slight dip in the early ‘90s — temporarily displaced by the rise of grunge and alt-rock — Bon Jovi returned to superstar status through a series of best-selling albums and hit-laden shows. Latest is “The Circle,” featuring new blue-collar arena anthems from Jon Bon Jovi and guitarist Richie Sambora.

An upbeat Sambora spoke last week from a Kansas tour stop.

Q: The band just finished sound check and the show starts in a couple of hours. After all these years, do you still have nervous energy as you prepare to step onstage?

A: It’s excitement, not nerves, really. On this particular tour we want to make sure we cover a lot of ground. We’ve got 15 albums with so many songs to choose from. Before the tour, Jon sent a list to everybody with 70 songs on it. ... You’ve got to keep it fresh, and we try to integrate new songs into the set every evening, taking requests off our Web site. We have a different set every night. Jon is always calling audibles. He’s like a quarterback up there.

Q: The new album returns your guitar work to a more prominent role. How do you think your playing has changed over the years?

A: Honestly, there are a lot of good guitar players out there, but they’re not all songwriting machines. They’re more technical guys. I choose, because I’m a songwriter, to play what’s going on with the song. With “The Circle,” it’s a very guitar-oriented record. I got to stretch a little bit, get a little more technical. You grow with the music you write.

Q: Is the songwriting process different for you and Jon nowadays?

A: We approach it very, very simply — a couple of guitars, a piano and vocals, the two of us in a room knocking it out that way. ... This record, we couldn’t have written at another time in our career. It’s about how people are reacting to the change. It’s not a political record, but with (President Barack) Obama getting elected, we were able to write “Work for the Working Man,” “When We Were Beautiful,” “We Weren’t Born to Follow.” ... We were going with the currents of what’s happening in the world.

“Living on a Prayer” — there’s a social aspect that has more lyrical relevance now than it did back then. So we have songs that have transcended the ages and generations of fans, really.

Q: Did you guys know — when you’d just finished writing a “Living on a Prayer” — that you had a song that would persevere a quarter-century later?

A: It didn’t even occur to us. When we made “Slippery When Wet,” we knew we’d made the best songs of our career. We figured, “OK, cool, we’ll be able to go out there and maybe headline arenas, maybe sell a couple million albums.” ... But lo and behold, 17 million records later, “Slippery” was this phenomenon. We toured for 16 months and became a household name. ...

One thing we did right was just be us. You can’t go out there and try to bend with the trend. We’re on our own evolutionary path as a band.

Q: Speaking of perseverance, how do you prep for a long tour like this? Even just physically, it’s a real investment.

A: We’re in shape. We work out; we’ve got Oscar De La Hoya’s chiropractor on the road. You gotta put Humpty together again after falling off the wall. (Laughs) We’re looking at basically 18 months out there. Hey, who can do that now — who can be out on the road so long and still say they’re sold out? Any time you get to the place where you’re doing cities with multiple nights, it’s crazy.

Our last tour was the largest grossing in the world.

Q: Are you conscious of not letting it get too routine? It’s still rock, after all.

A: With us, rock ‘n’ roll is a contact sport. ... It’s about the contact between artist and audience. ... That kind of communication and excitement still exists. And for guys like us, it’s in our blood. ...

We’re ... very blessed that we’re still making relevant music, and we vowed to each other a long time ago that we’d never become that county fair act. The fact that Jon and I are still writing songs that are still touching people, with records still coming in at No. 1 — we’re just tickled. A lot of great achievements have been happening, and it encourages us to be excited.

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