Roll With the Changes, Time For Me To Fly, Keep On Loving You, Take It On the Run, Back On the Road Again, Ridin’ the Storm Out, Don’t Let Him Go. These are just a few of the songs that have become the soundtrack to our lives. Take one little band from Champaign, Illinois, a band that started out as a bar band, a college band, a local band, a protest band and one day found themselves on the top of the radio and sales charts and such a large part of people’s lives. That band is REO Speedwagon. They’ve sold over 40 million records, they’ve been featured in movies, TV and toured the world many times over. They aren’t just your parents’ favorite band, they’re still out there playing to sold out venues and to new generations of fans, but now, instead of lighters raised, its cell phones. REO has just wrapped up the Midwest Rock’nRoll Express tour with Ted Nugent and Styx and they’re not even close to done touring this year, or for years to come.
Bruce Hall is the tall, well-dressed bassist in REO Speedwagon. A fisher and a family man, when he’s on stage he is all smiles. Here’s what he had to say about his life playing bass with his friends in music.
Good morning Bruce. Are you on the road right now?
We’re in Kansas City, playing here tonight.
I appreciated that when I saw you perform at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles that it was so well-produced, with a stage setup, excellent lighting and special effects. Not just a bunch of guys in t-shirts.
We try to spiff it up a little bit, that’s for sure.
I saw your bandmate Kevin Cronin at the end of Rock of Ages.
(Laughs) He made it into the end of the movie. He had a lot of fun doing that. I’ve seen the Broadway play about six times. In fact, I just saw it again the other day, we were in New York. The movie and the play are really different. I don’t know if you’ve seen the play. I like the play better. I hate to say that. It’s more fun.
Were your songs in the play as well?
Can’t Fight This Feeling is in there and Keep On Loving You is in there. That didn’t make it into the movie. There are a lot of songs in the play that aren’t in the movie. There’s Styx songs, Damn Yankees, a lot of other songs that didn’t make it into the movie for some reason.
Have you ever been watching a movie and not realized until it was playing that one of your songs was in it?
(Laughs) You mean besides in Rock of Ages? Sure, I realize its one of our songs but it’s like sometimes the way they use the song in the movie or television show they catch you offguard and you’re like “Wow!” In Rock of Ages the way they used Can’t Fight This Feeling, I don’t want to give it away for those that haven’t seen it, but you said you saw it, what did you think?
It fit into the story.
It was one of the dramatic parts of the movie.
I’ve heard in many Adam Sandler movies all the bands I grew up listening to on the radio. It’s great to know there are others out there celebrating the music that meant so much to so many.
They used our song Can’t Fight This Feeling in the movie Horton Hears A Who at the very end of the movie, all the cartoon characters are singing. There was a recent movie out, I think it was called Little House in the Woods.
Cabin in the Woods
They used Roll With the Changes in that one, in a very odd spot. I didn’t see that one coming. It was fun. When they use your music in commercials it feels good to hear your music in different ways but sometimes it feels like “I’m not so sure about that” that wasn’t the intention, to use the song that way but what are you going to do?
It feeds the kids, right?
It feeds the kids.
I looked up on IMDB where we can find REO songs on TV and in movies: the Bachelorette, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Supernatural, South Park, You’re in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City…
There’s a lot of classic rock music from all of our friends that they used in the same way. We all think of it like it’s nice that it gets used but sometimes you give that little twist of your head and go “Really? That seems like an odd spot for that song”.
Anybody who was a kid in 1985 would know about the Goonies, right?
That’s right, the Goonies, Wherever You’re Goin’ (It’s Alright). We wrote that song for The Goonies movie and wrote it superfast, in a day or two and we recorded it really fast too. It was used in the movie, but you could barely hear it, it was playing on a transistor radio in the background. Then we released it on a record called Best Foot Forward that was only released in Europe. It did better over there but in the States it never really did.
If there was an REO Speedwagon superfan you could use that piece of trivia to stump them.
In Rock of Ages there was a lot of music from the 80’s that’s for sure.
I was singing along to a lot of it.
As a play on Broadway they incorporate a lot of the lyrics into the dialogue. That’s crazy, really, how they did it. The play is a better representation of the idea, of what they had in mind.
When you joined REO Speedwagon it was also around the same time Kevin rejoined the band. It seems like right at that time you guys started getting a larger public acceptance. What do you think was happening in that time that moved the band forward so much faster than all the years before?
I think I know the reason why. Kevin was back in the band three or four years before I joined them. I joined them in 1977. I’d known the guys, I’d actually played in a band with Gary Richrath before he joined REO Speedwagon and I played in a band with Mike Murphy. Terry Luttrell was the first singer, then they got Kevin and he left and then they got Mike Murphy. I was in a band with Mike Murphy back in Champaign, Illinois and with Gary for many years, so [REO] knew who I was. What happened was, from the very beginning REO was formed, they started on a campus: University of Illinois, and it was during a time when there was a lot of protests going on because of the war in Vietnam. There used to be a lot of rallies and gatherings. No one was for the war, nobody understood it. It seemed like, (coughs) it’s still hard to understand. So REO was popular for that because they were a hard-driving rock band that at the time were writing songs like Gold Country and a song off the first album called Anti-Establishment Man and songs like that. As time went by and the war was over, also, those songs, they were longer songs, more jammy, with long instrumental parts in them. And that didn’t work real good for radio. What happened with REO is they got better, they started writing songs that were more like you’d hear on the radio.
Some of my heroes growing up were the Beatles and all their songs were very short and to the point and catchy. So we started writing songs that were more in that vein. Kevin became a very good songwriter and Gary got really good at it too. So those two started writing different. When I got into the band it just seemed like… I’m not sure exactly what happened, I felt very fortunate and I still do. The music had to change for REO because we couldn’t just stay the same, that’s for sure. I was a fan of the early band too. I loved the way that they played. One of the things I’ve always been proud about with REO is that the songwriting started to progress, we started to look at it as something to be proud of and stand up for years. One thing we were always afraid of was not being able to play the song later on, if we were fortunate enough to keep going. The last thing you want is to be singing a song about “hold my hand and kiss my face” stuff like that. You had to put more thought into the lyrics. You had to really concentrate more on the arrangements. So we got better at that. And that helps to this day when we play any song, I feel that we did a good job of arranging it and putting them together. That’s one thing I love about our live shows.
You’re not retired, so obviously, the songs hold up.
And you can sing them and play them every night and not feel one bit embarrassed.
That’s what I wrote in my live review, “fans sang along without irony” these songs are part of our lives.
Can’t Fight This Feeling, it sounds like its a little on the cheesy side because its a love song. But really what its about, and it happens all the time, is that basically a man and a woman who were friends for a long time and the guy fell in love with this lady and she was everything that he wanted. They had all this friendship to build on, major building blocks for a good relationship and he had to tell her, not knowing if she felt the same way. That’s what the song is about. I think it is a good song.
I’m sure you used many of these experiences from the songs for when you met your wife.
We used Can’t Fight This Feeling at our wedding (laughs)! We used another song at the reception that Kevin wrote called Until All The Rivers Runs Dry. Not a lot of people know it but it is a beautiful song.
When you first picked up the bass how old were you?
I played guitar first. I had an uncle, my mom’s brother, he was young, 20 years old when he passed away. He had a guitar and it ended up at my grandmother’s. I asked my grandmother if I could have it and that I wanted to learn. The Beatles had just come to America so that was in ’64 and I was about 11. She let me have it and I just started trying to learn how to play it. I had the books, chord books that told you how to put your fingers on the strings. The songs I heard on the radio I started to learn. I learned how to play guitar first. As time went by, some of my early bands, people knew how to play the bass but they usually only played one string. So I switched over to bass. I love the bass. I’m glad that I learned guitar first because you start learning about chords. There are a lot of similar notes like between C and A Minor, they’re not that different, like one finger. Those little things, and if you know that as a musician, as a bass player, it gives you a chance to use more melody because you understood where you’re going with the lick. It’s just moving around the neck and trying to make it fit.
From listening to music and seeing bands I’ve noticed that there are the bassists who just play the bass chord progressions the same as the guitarists.
That’s the easy way. It’s called playing the root of the chord but a lot of the times you can find what the third and the fifth is and with those you can create melodies and all kinds of things that sound sonically right but it changes the overall color of what you’re hearing. A lot of bands like sticking with just the root of the chord and that’s a good way to go. Even the bassist for Bon Jovi, he plays like that and he basically plays the bass root notes, all the time, it makes the song drive, it jumps right along. Myself, I grew up with The Beatles and Paul McCartney’s melodies. Leland Sklar, I love the way he plays bass, guys like that. It used to be a real melodic instrument and it lays down the bottom end at the same time.
And that’s how you play, you want to be heard but you want to support the music, you’re not just playing those root chords.
But you’ve got to be careful, that’s the thing. You can’t step all over the melody line either. Playing a part that fits a song, you’ve gotta have your ears open because you have to fit together like a puzzle. It has to compliment. It can be melodic but it can’t be the overall melody of the song.
You don’t want to stand out too much when you’re playing but at least live, you’ve got that look. Would you compete against the rest of the band for best dressed?
(Laughs) No. You see our buddies in Styx, those are some dressed up guys. They got some fancy stage clothes. We dress up on stage, not your normal street clothes but we don’t go way over the top.
What keeps you going between shows? Do you have hobbies? Do you stay in shape?
I think we all do. The band is one family and then we all have our own separate families at home too. I have a wife and kids, Kevin and Bryan (Hitt, drummer) have kids too. Neil (Doughty, founding keyboardist) is married with kids. Dave (Amato), our guitar player he doesn’t have any children but he has a lot of hobbies: he loves to garden, he collects, he’s got at least a hundred Les Pauls and he’s always into that sort of thing so he has a few hobbies. I like to fish and golf and spend time with my family. That’s about it.
I saw a picture of you and your family on Facebook. Do your kids have any musical inclinations?
Sure. My little son is a drumming man. I have these bar stools at home and he drums on everything. He put the sticks through the tops of the bar stools. He’s only five and I could jam with him. I have a daughter, Sara, she just moved back to Champaign, she was living in Indianapolis for a while, went to school at Purdue. She’s just finished her first album and she’s playing Champaign and everybody is just loving her. She wasn’t into music as a kid, she was into sports. She was a catcher in baseball and she got a full-ride scholarship for college which saved me a bundle. She got into her music and I gave her guitars, taught her a few chords and off she went. Now she’s on fire. Her band is called Upshot and they’re really good. She sounds like Janis Joplin. She likes to rip, I’ll tell you that.
Have you sang with other bands?
I’ve worked with Jimi Jamison of Survivor. Jimi did a solo record and I did some singing on that. Basically, when I’m home I don’t do a lot of that. Dave sings and plays on a lot of people’s records. Kevin, he’s been writing with some country singers. Kevin is a folk singer by nature. He can sit down with a guitar and write. That’s what he likes. So he’s been writing a lot with some of the girls in country. Just scratch the itch. As a songwriter, he’s the worst at it because, the best, is what I meant to say. He can’t not write a song, he just keeps writing songs all the time. Me, something has to hit me pretty hard to make me work.
You’re out there catching fish and he’s trying to figure out lyrics.
I try to get away from it. I love my music more than anything but there’s times when I need to take a break, do something else, to come back fresh.
It’s time for Bruce to fly.
I’ve got to do something just to mix it up a little bit. I do love to play and I do practice and try to play every day. I keep my chops up. That’s something about being a musician: you’ve got to keep it up.
What are some of the songs outside of REO that you like playing to? Do you ever play to other songs?
It’s probably a lot of stuff you’re not familiar with. One bassist I like is Leland Sklar, he played on a lot of the early James Taylor stuff. I play along to that. I’m listening to more standup bass players these days. I like that sound. Leland Sklar, he’s got a big beard, he’s a great bass player, been around for a long time [Sklar is in the Phil Collins Sussudio video). I got a new bass, its called the TB10, made by Takamine, and it is the coolest bass. It looks like an acoustic bass guitar but its got this peg that comes out of the bottom. Its got the look of a standup bass but it has active electronics in it. It plays so nice, its fun, I can play with that thing a lot. I haven’t played it live yet. I’ve been trying to find out when the heck I can play it. I’ve got to be careful because we are a rock band. I can’t be up there looking like I’m in a jazz band.
I had a blast at your Los Angeles show and it was really good talking with you. I hope to see you and REO Speedwagon come through town again soon and maybe see you play your upright bass.
I’d love to meet you, shake your hand and say hi.
REO Speedwagon will be performing in the Midwest and North East this summer with a few stops in California with Rick Springfield. Check their website for details.
(Interview and Photos by Bret Miller)