An Interview with...
In 2022, The Hometown Foundation is excited to bring various musical talents to stages around Washington County. We are looking forward to our Thursday night summer music series at Regner Park and Sandy Knoll Park, a Washington County Park as well as our annual HomeGrown Music Festival on July 10. You will see many talented folks who call Wisconsin home. Joshua M. Miller interviewed one of those artists, Bruce Humphries. Bruce Humphries and the Rockabilly Rebels will play live on Thursday, August 11 at Regner Park in West Bend.
Sitting Down with Bruce
How have you kept busy the past few years?
I bought some guitar pedals. I had drum loops and just kind of messing with that, staring out the window a lot, trying to figure out what was going on. Did some live streams and it was all kind of a blur.
How did you get into music?
I didn’t grow up in a musical family. I remember going to state parks that were having bluegrass festivals. My parents liked bluegrass. We’d go, and I was exposed to that. I remember John Denver being piped through the speakers in the house. That was pretty much the extent of my education through my parents as far as music goes. But I got into the Beatles. I’m not sure how I really got exposed to music besides just listening to the radio and Dr. Demento on Sunday nights. Then punk rock and new wave came around and I really connected with that and started to explore the Clash and the Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys and stuff like that.
Never really looked back. MTV came around and that exposed me to a whole lot more music and rockabilly. We used to go to thrift stores, and I’d find record albums, pick up old swing records. I kind of knew a little bit about swing, but once I saw the Stray Cats live in concert, I was hooked. Anything that has a little bit of a rockabilly flare to it… The Cramps were big influence. I just never really changed as far as that goes. I may have mellowed a little bit with some of my musical tastes and just kind maybe expanded it somewhat. There for a while, it was just punk rock, new wave, and rockabilly.
An Upcoming Record
You have a new album coming out later this year. What should people know about the sound and theme of the album?
That’s a great question because that’s something I haven’t really thought about. I mean, I have in a way, and it’s just sometimes these things kind of happen. As far as when the record will be released, I can tell you it’s going to be this year, but it’s still in the final mixing stage. Our first album was pretty much recorded live, not a whole lot of overdubs or fixing. This one has a little bit more. We kind of just expanded a little bit more on the sound. There might be a little bit more layers of guitars, maybe a little bit more vocal layering.
We have a song called “Live It Up” that I wrote during the pandemic. I didn’t want it to be a pandemic song because all these people were writing pandemic songs and I was getting tired of seeing, “Hey, this is our pandemic song.” So, I tried to write it where it didn’t mention the pandemic. I definitely had to change some lines. I wanted it to be a little bit more universal, but it’s called “Live It Up.” I was thinking about calling the album Live It Up. I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I wrote the song probably a year and a half, two years ago, maybe at this point.
We found out in early spring of this year that our bass player has stage four cancer. He’s still performing with us. He’s in the middle of chemo right now, but that song becomes even more important because it talks about, “Living it up until I lay down and die,” going after any possible opportunities and just kind of putting yourself out there and just living life. That song, it talks about life, and it talks about death. Then we have another song that I wrote that my mom inspired me somewhat on, and it’s called “Leave The Lights On.” That’s also about living and death.
One other song, kind of a fun song called “In My Backyard,” it’s about, “When I’m dead, just bury me in the backyard.” It seems like life and death is appearing quite a bit on this album. I don’t really want to say that’s the theme because that’s only three out of ten songs, but it’s definitely there. Those songs have so much more relevance now that I have… Not only that one of our bandmates dealing with cancer, but I’ve got another friend that’s dealing with cancer. We’re just getting to that age where people are going to start getting sick, falling apart and all that kind of stuff.
Those songs definitely take on a little bit more relevance at this point. They’re still fun. “Leave The Lights On” is a slow one, so it might come across as being a very serious and sad song, but “Live It Up” is a rocker. “In My Backyard” is definitely a fun, country honky tonk kind of sound to it. I don’t want to make light of the subject of death, but it’s always been kind of a theme with me to put an underlying humorous aspect to a lot of my music or my artwork.
Solo release. Available on all major streaming and download platforms
What was one of the biggest surprises recording the album?
Our first album we recorded in our drummer’s basement, and we did the same thing with this one, but our drummer kind of took care of mixing and all that fun stuff. This time, we recorded the tracks there and then I brought it to my house, and I added some more tracks or I just kind of cleaned things up, put down a new guitar track. For me, it was just kind of that exploration of some of the software that was new to me and just trying to figure that out. I’m not tech savvy, so sometimes it takes me a long time to do it, but I’m really proud of where this album is heading.
I can’t really say that there were really any surprises on this one, but one of the cool things is on two of the songs, my daughter and wife sing background vocals. It’s all kind of hidden with a few other background vocals, but I know that my wife and child are on this album and that makes it super special to me. One of the songs, “In My Backyard,” the lyrics says, “Just bury my ass in my backyard,” so my 10-year-old daughter was really excited about being able to sing that into a microphone. It was kind of fun for her to be excited about singing a bad word into the microphone. Not that’s that bad, but still pretty funny.
Being a Musician in Wisconsin
How has Wisconsin and this area of the state most influenced you as a musician?
Oh man, so many opportunities. It’s really interesting because I’ve lived in a lot of different places throughout the U.S., from Kentucky to Kansas to Texas to Tennessee to Pennsylvania and then to Milwaukee, a brief stint in Ohio. I played music pretty much everywhere I’ve lived. Originally from Indiana. I don’t think I threw that in there. But the opportunities around here, the festivals, the clubs. There’s always something going on during the summer, spring, and fall, not so much during the winter. That’s a little difficult, but just the opportunities that I’ve had to play State Fair, Washington County Fair five years in a row, Shank Hall, what else? Oh, Harley Davidson Museum, Harley Davidson rallies in Oconomowoc.
I’ve had more opportunities playing here than anywhere that I’ve lived. I had quite a few when I was playing in Philadelphia, but I was a guitar player in someone else’s band at that point. We had pretty decent amount of shows and some pretty big high-profile shows, but nothing compares to Wisconsin. Nothing compares to the Milwaukee area. I don’t know really what the majority of Wisconsin is like because we haven’t got to… We’ve done Green Bay, played in Sheboygan, played the Southern part of Wisconsin, Northern Illinois area once or twice, but most of the shows are just around here.
It’s phenomenal. You can get your foot in the door and play shows and get the exposure. I’m excited about playing a show up in West Bend because we did a show last year at Sandy Knoll. This time we could do the Regner. It’s just opportunity after opportunity. I’m extremely lucky that I have the guys that are playing in the band and I’m extremely lucky that a lot of people seem to really like my original music. We get to play some decent shows.
You've opened for some well-known acts. What's one of your favorite memories?
My ultimate high point of my career was opening for the Brian Setzer Orchestra over on the East Coast. I was playing with Dibbs Preston, who was the lead singer for the Rockats, who had a minor hit in the ’80s on MTV. I was a big Stray Cat fan and I found out about the Rockats. I had both bands’ albums. This would’ve been like ’82, ’83. Then 26… I can’t remember how many years later…I’m playing in Dibbs Preston’s band and opening for the singer from the Stray Cats, so it was a very surreal experience.
They knew each other from back in the day. That’s how we ended up getting the… It’s a long story, but we ended up getting three dates on the east coast. We played the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City and then a couple venues in the Philadelphia area. Incredibly surreal to be up on stage the Taj Mahal playing songs I used to listen to on the records when I was a teenager, while the singer from the Stray Cats was standing to the side, watching us. Just surreal.
That was the ultimate highlight, but I do have to say having my own band and us playing my originals is pretty darn close to that because I was always just playing someone else’s songs. We’d just play maybe one or two of mine when I was in Philadelphia. That was fine. That was absolutely fine, but there’s something about writing a song and performing it and seeing people enjoying it that is a pretty close second to playing opening for one of my idols while playing with one of my other idols, if that makes sense. It was cool. Then the next day I was home raking leaves in the front yard, which was awesome too because I was still buzzing from the night before.
Bruce Humphries and the Rockabilly Rebels perform at the Mayfair Collection in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.
Life Outside of Music
What’s your most surprising hobby outside of music?
I taught college art for twenty some years. I’ve got a master’s in sculpture. I used to create some pretty creepy sculptures, something I walked away from just the past year so I can concentrate on music. I was teaching a punk politics and the art of rebellion class, which was a fantastic class and difficult to walk away from, but it was something I needed to do. Oh, I collect circus paraphernalia, posters, and stuff like that. I called my studio The Circus because I’m surrounded by clowns and circus posters of apes and stuff like that. How’s that for outside of music?
Connecting with The HomeTown Foundation
Why is the Hometown Foundation's mission to help local artists important to you?
Oh man. Just the fact that they’re giving me a chance for musicians that are… Well, I wouldn’t call myself up and coming, but musicians that aren’t necessarily well known an opportunity to play and get that exposure… Just having the opportunity to play at the park in front of a bunch of people is… I mean, those kinds of shows are hard to come by. I’m super honored that they chose me… Huge honor.
I don’t have to say this to the musicians out there, but to other people that don’t really understand what all goes into being a musician, being in a band, it’s difficult to find people to play with, find people that have the same kind of ideas on what direction they want to go, people that are not just about the party, finding people that are just about the music. Music first, party later, if you so desire. That’s really hard to come by. I know I’m blessed with the musicians that I have and blessed that I get the shows that I get. I think I’m just honored that I get the opportunity to perform at West Bend again through the Hometown Foundation.
I’m excited this year to be up there with our full band with the drummer because it adds so much more energy. I’m excited about that.
Listen to Bruce Humphries & the Rockabilly Rebels
Listen to Bruce Humphries Solo
Josh also interviewed these artists for the HomeTown Foundation’s 2022 concert series season.
About Joshua M. Miller
Joshua M. Miller is a frequent contributor to the Chicago Sun-Times, Guitar World, and the Shepherd Express, among others, He has interviewed the likes of Brian Wilson, Steve Martin, U2 guitarist The Edge, Kiefer Sutherland, and William Shatner. He resides in Kewaskum, is an avid music fan, and is a supporter of the Hometown Foundation. You can follow his writing on twitter and facebook.
Check Joshua’s features in Rolling Stone, Guitar World, SPIN, the Chicago Sun-Times and more at his website.