Bruce Springsteen’s media blitz leading up to the October 23 release of Letter To You includes Letter To You Radio, a five-part series on Apple Music Hits. The second episode premiered today at 4 pm ET and features Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, two of his longtime musical friends, discussing the road to musical success.
Bruce and Eddie go deep on topics including how the tape speed of old cassette recorders made Springsteen’s Nebraska record sound so unique, the pros and cons of demoing new songs, and how conflict and anxiety consume their mindset. Dave Grohl details the brotherhood nature of bands, his transition from drummer in one hugely influential band to front man and primary songwriter in a second, influential band, and his own new documentary What Drive Us.
Excerpts from the radio broadcast are below.
Listen to EP 2 live for free today (Oct. 20th) at 1PM LA // 4PM NY // 9PM LDN and check out all episodes on-demand: apple.co/_SpringsteenRadio.
Episode 1 featured long time manager Jon Landau and industry legend Clive Davis, who signed Springsteen to Columbia Records in 1972. Upcoming guests include The Killers’ Brandon Flowers, Jon Stewart and E Street Band’s Steven Van Zandt.
Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder on demos:
Eddie Vedder: You made demos on your own because you had spent so much time in the studio with The River because The River could have been two double records. A lot of time in the studio, a lot of time demoing with the band, tons of songs. And then even after a very successful River tour, you said, “I’m not going to spend that kind of money. And I’m going to do the demos on my own to-“
Bruce Springsteen: No, because learning how to record, we spent all the money we had. At the end of the River album. I had 20,000 bucks in the bank after 10 years of recording and Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, and those records. A lot of it was due to the fact, well, of course I had a lot of bad deals and signed a lot of bad contracts and there was that whole thing. But beyond that, it was the fact that we spent a lot of time in the studio learning how to record and finding the songs. I might write 60 songs and try to find the 10 or 20 that was going to successfully make an album. And so, the impetus for Nebraska was that, “I’m not going to do that anymore, I’m going to demo and hear if I have a good song or not.”
But the problem is, is once you begin to demo… What’s the difference between demoing and making records? It’s really simple. There isn’t any, you’re putting down on tape, a piece of music. And so consequently, I found that I would get really attached to my demos. And then it became very complicated when I tried to rerecord things with the band, there were things that I wanted from those demos back in the day when it wasn’t so easy to move things from one piece of tape to another. I’ll tell you one thing it led to, it led on Letter to You, there is no demoing being done.
The band heard I wrote some new songs and said, “Please, don’t demo them.” I recorded just me and an acoustic guitar into my iPhone. And that was the only record that I had of the new songs that I’d written. And then when the band came in, we got to play them fresh from the top. And the record is the first real recorded record of that group of music.
Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder on the sound of Nebraska
Vedder: Do you want to tell the people about the beach box?
Springsteen: All right. The beach box was a beat box, of which was popular in the mid-eighties. And because these were the first demos I ever made, we mixed the cassette down onto a beat box. And now the beat boxes, they’re really not very accurate and they run fast and run slow. And there’s commercial pieces of hardware and they’re not meant for any serious recording or mixing. And so consequently, they’re junky and I’m not sure if this is what you’re referring to, but we had a 4-Track Cassette, which then you could, through the small 4-Track tape player mix down onto a 2-Track Cassette, which I was running on the beat box, right? Now, consequently, the beat box, this is getting mega confusing, was running fast, which means when you played the tape back, it came out slow. And that had an enormous amount to do with the sound of Nebraska.
Nebraska in its entirety is slowed down from its actual recording pitch. It had a lot to do with some of the darkness of the record because I did go in the studio and try to both re-record it, remix it. And every time I did, I made it worse. When I brought the pitch up to where it should actually be, it brightened a record up and took away a lot of its mysteriousness. So Nebraska was this totally haphazard, happy accident that occurred over a few weeks with just whatever equipment we had laying around and the whole record cost us, including the price of the tape, it cost us about a thousand dollars to make.
Vedder: And you said at regular speed, it just didn’t… You said mystique. And then the other day you said it just didn’t sound creepy enough. It just wasn’t creepy.
Springsteen: It wasn’t strange enough. It didn’t sound far away enough. There was a timeless aspect that we captured on that particular album that came from all of the strange equipment that we used and strange approach that we took towards recording.
Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder discuss growing as artists and the inherent difficulties presented
Bruce Springsteen: Well, I decided that to grow, you have to be able to withstand the anxiety of growth. Growth always brings with it, tremendous internal conflict and anxiety. It’s just, that’s the way it works. And so I decided, and just barely sometimes, that my ability and the ability of my band and the kind of band that we were, which was inclusive. Our arms were wide open to whoever was interested in what we were interested in. Led me down a certain path towards, I suppose, more of a mainstream, if that’s what you want to call it, work life.
And I had a couple of big run-ins with it. One was obviously, Born to Run and then the other one was, Born in the USA where the thing quadrupled. It was like, “Okay, that was big enough.” And then, wham, then a wave of a size you can’t even imagine hits you. But by that time, I was 34 and I had been through it once before and I was much more able to handle it, even though it was challenging. But also, we didn’t come out of a scene with a lot of peers. We were a one-shot out of Asbury Park. There was maybe another band, Southside Johnny, but really those were the groups out of the shore.
We didn’t come out of an intensely big scene, which it seemed like you came out of more of where there were more bands and there was more of a real local scene, and you had to deal with the opinions of a lot of your peers. I mean, basically, I was anxious.
The band thought it was the greatest thing in the world that we were having success and all. And I dealt with the anxiety, and at the end of the day, I can always remember, there was a moment where I could decide whether I… At the time I was going to be on the cover of these two magazines Time and Newsweek, which to our listeners out there were magazines. And believe it or not, they were magazines at a time when a lot of people read magazines. And they were the types of magazines that did not have popular entertainers on their covers.
And so, I had the ability to decide whether I was going to do these interviews or not to be on these covers. And when it came down to it, I took the shot. I took the shot because I didn’t want to be on my porch 30 years later going, “Oh man, I should’ve… Yeah. If I’d only done that, this would have happened.”
I didn’t want to be one of those guys. I want to be one of the guys who said, “Well, hey, I may have a regret here or there, or maybe I don’t, but I took it as far as the limits of my talents and my abilities and my dreams and my desires and my hopes and my fears allowed me to take it.” And I don’t have any regrets about doing that. And one of the bottom lines was you had the kind of band that simply was a big, powerful band with a reach that wanted to extend to a sizeable audience. I mean, it was just in the nature of your music. I don’t know if you feel like that or not, but that’s how it looked from my vantage point from the outside.
Eddie Vedder: We were not that secure in our …Yeah. I thought if people like this record or this batch of songs, because really, there was a lot of attention just from the first one and we hadn’t even made the second one yet. I just wanted to make the next record and have the next record be better. I was like, “If you like this, then I think we got even more that we can better that one.” Yeah. I just wanted to make more records.
Bruce Springsteen and Dave Grohl on the rise of Foo Fighters and Nirvana
Bruce Springsteen: What was the difference between making that journey with Nirvana and making it with the Foo Fighters?
Dave Grohl: Well, probably just like you, I would imagine, you start playing music when you’re young, because something catches your heart, right? And for me personally, it was the Beatles. And I never imagined that I could be a Beatle. I never imagined that I could be one of the rock stars that I had in my record collection, or on posters on my wall. I just thought, to me, it was this puzzle. There was something about the puzzle of harmony, and composition, and arrangement. And I was obsessed with this idea that multiple instruments could create something emotional, or something that could make you feel. And that’s when I was like, eight or nine years old, and-
Springsteen: That’s pretty amazing. Because usually the first thing you do is imagine yourself, either with a broom or tennis racket, in front of your mirror, so you imagine yourself as a rock star before you know what I’ll have to learn to get there.
Grohl: No, I mean, for me, Bruce, if you would’ve seen me then, you’d be like, this kid is never, ever, ever going to make it. I was this skinny, nerdy, suburban Virginia kid, and-
Springsteen: Those are the kids that make it.
Grohl: Well, I guess that’s what happened. I didn’t peak in high school, I’ll tell you that. So, when I started playing, I fell in love with the underground music scene, the punk rock music scene in America. I discovered, the first time I ever saw a band was at this little dive bar across the street from Wrigley Field, called the Cubby Bear. And I mean, it was a hole in the wall, in the 80s. And I saw this Chicago punk rock band, and then, I had that Ramones moment, where a lot of people saw the Ramones, and they were like, “Oh my God, it’s three chords, man. And the songs are two and a half minutes long.” It’s like, this is not ELO. This is not Genesis. This is real, and this is, yeah. And so, I saw that, and I went home to Virginia, tried to convince my friends that is the new thing, and this is the way we should play. Didn’t really work out, but I started playing in bands, and that type of music, there was no sort of commercial success. It was just like, man, “I got to play this music because it’s what’s in my heart.” But when Nirvana first became popular, Kurt obviously was an incredible songwriter, and he was in touch with himself, and the listener was in touch with what he was singing. But we still functioned like one of those bands driving around in a dirty, old van, playing those dive bars. Really, with no idea that what was to happen was even possible. I loved playing in a band, but I didn’t think that it would become what it became. And so, it was entirely pure. It was just kids banging on instruments. And then, when Kurt passed away, there was a period where I just didn’t even want to play music, man. Even sitting behind a drum set, broke my heart. And then, I realized that music was the thing that healed me when I was young, so music has to be the thing that’s going to heal me now. And so, that’s when the Foo Fighters began, it was kind of like starting over.
Bruce Springsteen and Dave Grohl on brotherhood of bands
Grohl: I just made this documentary called What Drives Us, and it’s about bands and their early beginnings, the inspiration, the process of going from a kid who loves music, to a kid with an instrument, to a kid with his friends, writing songs. And then, how do you deliver it to the people? Once you get it together, you’re like, all right, let’s go out and let’s deliver it to the people. Maybe it’s the corner bar. Then you get a gig in Baltimore, so now you’ve got to drive. So, what are you going to get in? All of you are going to pile in some shitty, old van, and you got your sleeping bags, and you’re sleeping on floors, and you’re eating corn dogs, and you’re just trying to get enough gas money to get to the next city.
And you’ve been there, everyone’s been there. And that’s the thing is, I think that, I interviewed everyone from Flea from the Chili Peppers, and Lars from Metallica, and Edge from U2, and Slash and Duff from Guns N’ Roses, and Ben Harper, and St. Vincent, and all these different musicians. And I think that, and they’ve all had these shared experiences, and one of the reasons, I think why a lot of these musicians survive is because it begins with that foundation, right? So, you rely on those early experiences, just like, so now you guys went in and you made a record altogether, live in five days. You rely on those early experiences to stand on.
Springsteen: Well, you’re right. Because it’s funny, what is the first thing that we do when we get back together after not having been together for a year or so? We tell old stories. “Hey man, do you remember, the night (on) the bus, and the shit came out of the frickin’ toilet.” The first thing you do is you start to tell old stories, I guess to remind you of that bond. And then you pick up, and you take off from there.
But you’re right, if you’ve survived those early years of that kind of experience, particularly your youthful years, when you were in your 20s or even early 30s, it’s something, it’s forever, my friend. No matter what comes between you, or what happens, it’s just forever. And so, it is lovely, we get the guys together, and I don’t think I’d written a song, an actual band song in about six or seven years.
And you’re always at a place where you’re going, I don’t know, do I have any more of those inside of me? I know I have music inside, but I’m not sure if I have that kind of music inside of me right now, or in the foreseeable future. And so, sort of, I’m lucky enough to come up with most of it in a short period of time. And then to get the guys in, and just all of a sudden, you’re re-inhabiting all the roles that you play in each other’s lives. And you’re bringing something new to it, so you’re creating a new chapter as you were paying due and honoring all the work you’ve done together in the past. It’s a blessed experience.
Stream Letter to You on Apple Music beginning Friday, October 23, and catch up on all things Bruce Springsteen HERE.