As the founding guitar-slinger in Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora has done everything he can to live up to his job description. He’s shredded solos in stadiums across the planet, married and divorced a famous actress (Heather Locklear), been to rehab and experienced all the excesses, pitfalls and perks of international superstardom. As the song goes, he’s seen a million faces and he’s rocked them all.
However, Sambora is sometimes portrayed as the Robin to Jon Bon Jovi’s Batman, the Watson to Jon’s Sherlock. Now that Bon Jovi has some downtime between album and tour cycles, Sambora is stepping into his own well-deserved spotlight with his third solo album, Aftermath of the Lowdown, out September 18th. For the first time in his 30-year career, Sambora signed with an independent label, Dangerbird, instead of sticking with the majors (Bon Jovi has stayed with Universal Music Group, home of Sambora’s previous solo albums).
Sambora chatted with Rolling Stone about his master plan for his new album and asserting his independence while staying fully aligned with his legendary main band.
Aftermath is a totally different animal than your previous solo albums.
I’m very, very happy with this record. When you’re making a record, you try to achieve stylistically what fits on you. Like a good old coat, you know what I mean? With this record, I’ve achieved that. I feel really very good. The reason I called it Aftermath of the Lowdown is because when you give somebody the lowdown, that’s the truth. And when you tell somebody the truth, there’s an aftermath to it. So the songs are the aftermath of my particular story, of my life experience over the past decade.
Bon Jovi recently came back from an incredible, extremely successful world tour. You were selling out stadiums around the globe. At what point did you start getting material together that was specifically for a solo album?
I really didn’t start writing until the tour was over. We did a mammoth 18-and-a-half month tour, 52 countries. The first 12 months was named the biggest tour on the planet; that was pretty amazing. Actually, you know, I got home, I took a 10-day vacation with my daughter, and I came back to my house and I was extremely energized and I knew that was going to be my window. So right then and there, I started. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I just said, “You know what, I’m going to start writing some songs and see what happens.” Once I started writing, I really liked the material and it was authentic, passionate and honest. And that’s what makes a really good record. So there was a bit of magic happening right off the bat. Building the foundation of this record, obviously, was the writing process.
The lyrics are very heartfelt. You have, “Every heartache’s a blessing/ Every knockdown was a start.” I know you touched upon this with the album title, but did you intentionally set out to make a record that was so intensely personal?
What I found, interestingly enough, through the ups and downs of my life over the past decade since I made my other solo record, and all the stuff that I’ve gone through in my life over the past decade – this record is basically about my stuff. And what I really found out is that my stuff is pretty universal. The stuff that I’ve gone through isn’t that alien. The stuff that I’ve gone through, anybody can go through in their lives and they probably will. Ups and downs and things like that. So I really felt like everybody can relate to these lyrics and make them their own. At the end of it, when I looked back on it, that’s really what I’ve found.
You’re exactly right except, perhaps, for “Seven Years Gone” because of the specific number of years. That one’s about your ex-wife?
About seven years ago, life for me started to take kind of a little bit of a dip. I was getting divorced, my father was dying of cancer at that point in time, so things were definitely at a transformative period in my life. And then all of the sudden, I looked up, when I started writing this record, and I said, “Wow! Seven years gone!” It really went by very quickly. I started to think about the transference of time. My God, it’s like, all of the sudden, I’ve been in this business for 30 years now and all the amazing stuff that’s happened to me. So I guess it was kind of a reflection on all that kind of stuff, and I think anybody can relate to that.
You know what else I found during the making of the record? Pain and struggle are necessary, and challenging situations like that are necessary, for you to actually find your freedom and move on. The essential message of this record is freedom. A song like “Taking a Chance on the Wind” – about “Raising my flag/ And taking my chance on the wind” – it’s all about risk. But, it’s like, people ask me, “Why’d you make this record, Richie? Wasn’t it a risk to make such a record?” And I say, “It would’ve been a risk not to make this record.” I had to get this stuff out. It was a cathartic thing for me to do this album. And also, just to express my individuality away from the band.
I think that’s probably why I went with an independent record company. That’s why I went with Dangerbird. All this about “raising my flag” – independence. That’s what I wanted, you know? I wanted independence from stuff that I knew before.
When I first heard some of these songs, they sounded like they came out of jams. There’s this freshness and immediacy to it that feels like a bunch of guys in the studio playing from their hearts.
Thank you. That’s what it was. At the end of the day, I was trying to capture my independence through this music. I love being in Bon Jovi and I’m going to obviously continue with that band and it’s going to be fun. But when you can actually break free as an individual and have the great opportunity to go in and make a record like this, where, like you said, a guy like me… I don’t really care about the press. I don’t mean to sound like an asshole but I don’t care about the press. What I do care about is having an artistic opportunity like this.
It’s a classic rock album in a sense. There’s metal, there’s rock, there’s blues – the elements. It’s a timeless kind of music. But I know you have a teenage daughter. Does she keep you updated with new music and new styles like, for instance, electronic stuff?
Ah, bro, check it out. This new record also definitely sounds modern. The guys that I play with are younger than me; I made sure of that. So we added very much of a younger flavor and my voice actually sounds younger than I am.
My daughter is an essential part of my listening process; she turns me onto stuff all the time. We went to Coachella this year together. I stayed for the whole three days and saw everybody. It was a blast. And to be honest with you, I had never really experienced this electronica stuff before. I really took a shining to this kid Madeon who’s a DJ but he adds music and he really plays to the crowd. I thought he was really brilliant. I got a chance to talk to him afterwards.
But I’m the kind of guy [where] I buy two or three new records per week. I spend a lot of time on the treadmill staying in shape these days, so I like to listen to new records when I’m on the treadmill. And also I got a lot of friends that send me their Spotify playlists. The other musicians in my band and my producer, who did a stunning job on this record, is always giving me stuff to listen to. Always inspires me. Anything that’s out new I like to pick up and listen to and then I’ve got my classic diet of old blues that I bring out of the closet too, you know?
This is a solo project, not a side project. You get to assume the role of dictator. In Bon Jovi, does Jon assume the dictator role or is it a democratic process that you all get to participate in?
At the end of the day, Jon has to be out there; he has to be the mouthpiece. So I mean, even from a writing standpoint, essentially, I’m really writing for Jon to actually sing those lyrics. But luckily, we grew up five miles away from each other, a couple years apart, in the same place, the same kind of blue-collar work ethic of New Jersey and stuff like that. We have a lot of common ground, so it’s quite easy. But obviously when I’m making a record like this, like you said, the words for me are uncensored because I get a chance to tell my story here.
And also I think what was important to me as I’m growing up – because I always think I’m growing up and I still think of myself as a kid – [is that] I hope I’m going to be able to change people’s perspective as to who I am. As a lead vocalist, as an artist in his own right, away from the band. Because I think that my music also has merit and I think that it has a lot to offer people.
I’ve had a very, very interesting view of the planet over the last 30 years, touring as excessively as I have. And music is the most evocative, transformative, connective force in humanity, man. I’ve seen it firsthand. I’ve seen it all over the world, how it connects people. I’m hoping that my music can be a part of that whole energy.
One last question, something I just have to ask: Alec John Such left Bon Jovi in 1994. Hugh McDonald has handled bass duties since then, but he’s rarely in any of the official photos nor is he listed as an official member. Eighteen years into it, is he finally part of the brotherhood?
He’s exactly where he is right now. It’s exactly where he came in, but he’s obviously a treasured piece of what the band is. I think that Jon just wants to keep the integrity of the five guys that started this unit and that’s what it is.