Bon Jovi drops Fairbairn, goes with Rock for Keep the Faith

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Most often when the member of a touring rock band calls the Georgia Straight for an interview in November, it’s from some cold, rain-soaked, godforsaken town in the States. That ain’t the case, however, when Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora reports in from his particular location on the rock ’n’ roll map.

“It’s a fuckin’ rain forest, man,” quips Sambora cheerily from the sunny climes of Costa Rica. “It’s like totally encased by vegetation everywhere. And it’s very, very humid. Everything is dripping.”

Not quite able to disguise the jealous tone in my voice, I wonder aloud whether Sambora and his cohorts are actually working or just soaking up the humidity, as rock stars like to do.

“Naw, we’re jammin’ here,” he says, “we’re playing. We’re on our Central and South American leg, and it’s pretty wild down here. It’s very interesting, because it’s definitely Third World, you know. Like we’re gonna be playing Peru this weekend, and there’s all kindsa bombings and things going on there because there was just a general election. There’s all kindsa weird stuff goin’ on, and we’re venturing right into it, man.”

Bon Jovi—the little ol’ band from Jersey that visited Vancouver for a few months back in ’87 and left with an album (Slippery When Wet) that would go on to sell more than 13 million copies—is touring behind its fifth release, Keep the Faith. The new CD has only sold a scant seven million copies worldwide, but one should keep in mind that the group as a whole has not been in the spotlight for the last little while.

Several band members actually went their separate ways after 1988’s New Jersey album, leading cynics to wonder if the original lineup would live to rock again. Lead singer Jon Bon Jovi had a number-one, Grammy- and Oscar-nominated single in “Blaze of Glory”, from the Young Guns II film, and keyboardist David Bryan tried his hand at soundtracks, scoring and coproducing the music for the low-budget horror flick Netherworld.

Perhaps the most eye-opening of all the Bon Jovi side projects was Sambora’s solo album, Stranger in This Town, which showed him to be both a talented songwriter and one helluva fine singer. Potent, thoughtfully arranged tracks such as “Church of Desire”, “Ballad of Youth”, and “Father Time” had nothing in common with teen-oriented Bon Jovi hits like “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “Bad Medicine”. Eric Clapton even stepped in for a solo on Sambora’s ode to dues-paying pickers, “Mr. Bluesman”.

In retrospect, Sambora says that the band members’ self-imposed exiles from the group came more from necessity than choice.

“We needed to find ourselves individually,” he says. “The Bon Jovi situation was extremely successful, and I was very happy to be in a band of that stature, but there was almost nothing left to write about at that point—we were all just so tired and so burnt out. All we were writing about was bein’ on the road and bein’ in a hotel room and bein’ lonely and talkin’ to your girlfriend on the phone. They miss you and you miss them—that was what our lives were about at that time.

“So to actually take a step back and see what was happening in our lives gave us some more stuff to write about. Plus, all of a sudden I was working with people like Eric Clapton and Tony Levin from Peter Gabriel, and Jon was workin’ with Elton John and Jeff Beck, so workin’ with all these different artists gave us different influences, which we brought back to Bon Jovi. It made it fresh and brand-new, and we were excited to be with each other again.”

Although Sambora manages to sneak a tune from his solo career into Bon Jovi’s set every once in a while, he’s quite content to focus on the band’s new material. He does have trouble picking a personal favourite tune from Keep the Faith, though.

“Mmm…that’s a tough call. Once you do a record, you don’t listen to it much and the songs become live entities, not really recorded entities. As far as the live stuff goes, some weeks it’s ‘Keep the Faith’, ’cause we do a great live version of that, and other weeks it’s ‘Dry County’. If I listened to the record, maybe ‘If I Was Your Mother’ might be one of my favourites, but I think that the growth on the Keep the Faith record—as far as the production and the songwriting and the lyrical content is concerned—that’s what excites me about the record.”

The production on Keep the Faith was handled by local studio superstar Bob Rock, the ears behind platinum-plus projects by many of today’s top hard-rock acts. The choice of Rock to oversee the recording wouldn’t have been a surprise if not for the fact that fellow Vancouverite Bruce Fairbairn had put his own producer’s stamp on the band’s breakthrough best-seller, Slippery When Wet, as well as it’s successful follow-up, New Jersey, which moved nine million units.

“I think that we just needed a change,” says Sambora of the producer switch. “And Bob is not only a great friend and, like, part of the family, but there’s also a different tint to his production. While we were off getting burnt out on tour, Bob was honing his production skills in a very, very great way—I mean, he did unbelievable work on the Metallica record, and also unbelievable work with Mötley Crüe. So we just felt that it was foreign enough and also very much close enough, you know what I mean?”

But what about the concern that Fairbairn might feel miffed about not getting to produce the act that he helped make so hugely successful in the first place? Does Sambora think he’s ticked off at the band?

“Uh…I don’t know. Maybe, but I don’t think so. I think that Bruce is busy, and we were doin’ our own thing. And who knows—we might work with him in the future again, you never know.”

Whether Fairbairn or Rock or somebody else gets the nod to slide behind the console for the next Bon Jovi chart-buster, Sambora is pretty certain that it will be recorded within this city’s limits.

“Vancouver just happens to be like one of Bon Jovi’s hometowns,” he says. “I’ve spent a year of my life in Vancouver, at least, and it’s a very comfortable city for us, for some reason. We just felt very at home back in 1987 when we recorded Slippery, that’s why we decided to go back there for New Jersey and Keep the Faith, you know? It’s just a great city, man.”

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