Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal: on life, music, and Abnormal

Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal is a musician with a really interesting history. Working now both on his solo project Bumblefoot, as well as with Guns N' Roses, of which he's been a member since 2004. But it was about Bumblefoot's solo work that I caught up with him recently, talking about his recent release Abnormal - and his navigation away from being 'bumblefucked'.

If you read Bumblefoot's biography on his official website, which has to be one of the most detailed and personal bios that I think I've ever come across, you begin to realise what this dude has gone through mentally and emotionally throughout his life.

By April 2003, Bumblefoot was feeling battered, 'bumblefucked' as he puts it in his bio: pretty well over life – to the point where he made a decision to go on medication to get past it. But what happened was that, while the medication made him feel great, he couldn't' think a bad thought if he tried, it was also like they blocked everything else as well. Knowing this, I asked Ron how much of a struggle it really was, and what the catalyst was that spurred him to kick it. It turned out that it was a combination of his inability to make music, and the fact that he felt he'd gotten past what he needed to.

'I went as long as could without making music, until it felt like I was denying myself something valuable to my soul,' he told me. 'For a year-and-a-half I was content, at peace – at its best it felt like a celebration with a slight buzz.  I got past whatever I needed to, I was out of the hole, all healed up, ready to put the crutches down, so I did.  I remember wondering if-and-when things would start to revert back to how they were before.  It was weeks after stopping, I didn't feel any different yet, but people started to ask me 'what was wrong?' he recalled. 'They said I looked, I guess the best word would be 'conflicted'.  My face was changing - people saw it, but I still felt fine. Not long after, it hit me, while waiting on line at the Post Office - I remember the feeling, it was like seeing the first dead leaf on the ground and knowing Summer's over.  But ya know, I wouldn't change a thing.  That’s what I meant before - it's about experiencing life and having something to share.'

The inspiration for Bumblefoot's latest release Abnormal happened really suddenly. The album itself is an incredible production, and blending of styles, and there are so many components to it. The inspiration hit Ron in its entirety – and the process after that was to write it down, decode it, and start working with it.

'It always begins the same. I'd have this impending anxious feeling building for weeks, and right when I'm ready to completely snap, the first half of an album flashes in my head, complete, instrumentation and all,' Ron explained. 'I'd hear it; no, more like I'd know it all in my head, the opera singers, tubas, cello, everything. Picture having an intuitive feeling that someone's sneaking up behind you,' he went on, 'and when you're about to bust into fight/flight mode, you turn and a stranger puts a book in your hands - as soon as it touches your hands you know everything in the book as if you had just read the whole thing. It's like that, only that when the book touches your hands it's like the inside of your head gets hit by lighting, it's this big flash.'

After this moment, Ron would spend a couple of days writing it all out; but then that itself  also had to be decoded. Then he and Dennis Leeflang (see his website for more about him) would start working together on the material.

'I'd spend two days by myself in the studio writing down the lyrics and the musical ideas quickly in some cryptic way that I'd only have a limited time to be able to translate - if I'd wait too long it wouldn't make sense anymore. I'd get together with ... Dennis and start showing him the songs on acoustic guitar, singing along, and he'd start feeling out beats,' Ron explained. 'I'd lay some tracks down and Dennis would play along to the tracks, we'd listen back and see what's working, what isn't, and continue building from there.  Dennis does the drums, I do the rest, have some guests, and let things form.'

The eclectic sound of Abnormal comes from several places. Primarily though, the diversity of the influences is a measure of the personal musical influences in Bumblefoot's own life: and the dualities that exist.

'The more you experience, the more you can share,' Ron put to me. 'The goal is to have the listener feel what you feel, and to give them a glimpse of the world through your eyes, sharing that part of yourself, lyrically, musically, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually. It's about the feeling you get when you listen to it. I enjoy contrast, duality - seriousness and light-heartedness, respect and mockery, complexity and primality, elation and disdain...   one has an edge the other doesn't.'

The fun in Abnormal is infectious. As a listener and critic, it reminded me of so much, and sounded like the band had such a good time making it, that I asked Ron if it was the case that they'd had a ball during the production?
'Definitely,' was the answer.

The reason?  Ron took some approaches he hadn't tried before.

'Starting from the beginning with the drums, using floor toms as kicks, then recording the direct signal from the bass and guitars and re-amping them later, manipulating sampling rates. The vocal approach was different also - I'd sing the entire album straight through, one song right into the next without stopping, no re-takes or listening back. I'd leave, come back the next day and do the same - did that for a month,' he recalled. 'By the end, I knew what I wanted to do and how to do it, everything fell into place. It was a good way to do it, but I don't know if I'd ever do it that way again.'

One of the other fun factors was getting pirate thrashers Swashbuckle lay backing vocals too. As Ron said, it's 'always a blast hangin' with them'.

Besides Swashbuckle, though, there were other guests: opera singers. To find them, Bumblefoot ran the worldwide 'Opera Challenge'.

'Haha, the Opera Challenge,' Ron laughed when I asked him about it. 'Yes, people would send me videos of themselves singing a famous opera. Worldwide entries, not sure what the exact total was, around 30 or 40 I think? Brian Larkin was first - it was the fire in his face as he sang, and of course having a great voice. Natalie Kikkenborg was chosen for her strong, classic opera voice.  And Erin Bailey is a passionate singer, her voice made it breathe.  A pleasure to have them all on the album.'

If you want to see the full video log of the making of the release, head over to this location on the Bumblefoot website.

While in the liner notes, if you read them closely, you'll see that there's a statement that reads: "Thanks to all of you who've been there and continue to be there, no matter how much my albums suck”.  If you read it, don't take it literally: he was merely being self-deprecating or, as he puts it, 'obnoxious and dismissive'.

'I don't think they suck,' he laughed. 'Not completely'.

For Bumblefoot, he finds that the honeymoon period after an album is released lasts about a week – and then he starts to hear things he'd like to re-do: whether that's in the mix, in the performance, or in what he'd like to add – harmonies for instance. But eventually, Ron's had to learn to just let it go: giving too much of a shit about it can cripple you.

'The process of making an album never ends, we simply release the album somewhere during the process, but it continues after the release, in your head, and you become haunted by a growing pile of subtleties that can't be changed,' Ron explained. 'I never liked listening to an album once it was finished, but I'm becoming more accepting of things just being what they are. Caring too much is toxic, best to not over-think it - you can build it up in your head to become this obstacle that cripples you, obsessing over levels so fractional that you're making judgement calls based on changes in your nasal congestion and the air pressure that day. That's when you have to back the fuck up and say 'It's just an album. I should be focusing on the future, the next one..." and just liberate yourself from that bullshit, let it go.'

Abnormal was self-produced, and Bumblefoot's take on why he'd not bring in an engineer, producer or assistant hasn't got anything to do with personal control or perfectionism: it's all about honesty.

'I've thought about it, having an assistant while recording, an engineer, or a producer,' he mused. 'I think for something else, a band thing that I'm part of, that would be cool, but for my own albums, no.  I'm not going for perfection, or commercial success, I'm going for honesty.  For better or worse, that's what's most important with my own albums, and the way I might obsess over the smallest detail to make sure the point gets across the right way, I wouldn't want to put anyone through that torture.'

Now, while I'm famous for at times jamming my foot in my mouth and looking like a bit of an idiot, I couldn't help myself and asked about the bomb-cum-scorpion image on the cover. Here's what Ron replied with:

'Shit, you see it as a scorpion too?,' he laughed. 'The limbs are actually his arms, elbows bent with his fingers in his ears. It's just a picture of a guy whose head feels like a bomb, the fuse getting shorter, and his fingers in his ears as he braces for the explosion. That's how I felt at the time that the album was being made.'

Obviously I'm not anywhere near the first person who's asked that question; but at least I'm not the only one!

Diverting briefly from the album, I asked Ron about his Bumblefoot Limited Edition Guitar Cables, that Spectraflex released in 2008. The money from the cables went to the Diabetes Foundation; if you have a look at Bumblefoot's website, you'll know he's big on charity works, so this should be no real surprise. He explained what he does with charities such as the MS Foundation, and why it's important to be careful when you do work with them.

'The cables!' he exclaimed. 'Yes, that was a limited run we did to raise money for Diabetes research.  I'm always interested in working with charities, but you have to be so careful with that. Making sure they're reputable and that the money goes where it's supposed to. That's why I'm part of the MS Research Foundation - it's a legit non-profit group: I know everyone involved, they're all volunteers (including myself) so there's no overhead, and all donations go to research. I've been to the research labs, looked through the microscopes, spent lots of quality time with the researchers, and have complete confidence, knowing that the money donated goes to good use.  And it's personal - a close friend of mine started the foundation after being diagnosed with the disease in '97.'

While it's a gamble for Ron to make solo plans while Guns N' Roses plans are being developed, given the huge potential for scheduling conflict, he is hoping to tour to such far-flung places as Australia, with Bumblefoot.

'I'd absolutely love to,' he enthused. 'Hopefully I can find a way to make it happen.'

Bumblefoot's Abnormal is out now on Bumblefoot Music/Riot.