Joe Bouchard (Blue Oyster Cult): ClassicRockHistory.Com Interview

Joe Bouchard from Blue Oyster Cult Interview

Photo: Eric Meola, Columbia Records, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Left to right: Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser (white shirt); behind him Eric Bloom (sunglasses); Albert Bouchard; Allen Lanier; Joe Bouchard

As a founding member of Long Island’s own Blue Öyster Cult and a forefather of heavy metal, bassist Joe Bouchard aided in ushering in a new era of rock ‘n’ roll music in the early 1970s.

Beginning with 1972’s Blue Öyster Cult, Bouchard and company flipped the script on what many rock believers thought they knew. Sure, the U.K. had offered up acts such as Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and Budgie, but here in the US, aside from Blue Cheer, proto-metal hadn’t taken hold quite yet.

And so, when Blue Öyster Cult appeared on the scene, few knew what to do with them, and even fewer were listening. But beneath the surface, a steady cult following was forming, and through songs like “Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll” and “Then Came the Last Days of May,” new levels of heaviness manifested as full-blown bouts of heavy metal glory later on in the decade.

While Bouchard has been gone from Blue Öyster Cult’s lineup since 1986, the mark he left on the scene is nothing short of indelible. Through his quintessential basslines and influential songwriting, Bouchard’s influence has been and will be felt for decades to come.

Now seven solo albums deep, Joe Bouchard recently dialed in with to discuss his latest record, the aptly titled American Rocker, his memories of recording Blue Öyster Cult’s debut record, his modern-day approach to songwriting, and more.

Tell me about the origins of your latest record, American Rocker.

American Rocker is my pandemic record. I put an album out about two years ago, during the pandemic, but that was mostly recorded before the pandemic happened. This one was written entirely while I was locked down at home. I know that a lot of people’s usual routine was completely shaken up, and I was in the same boat. I used it to my advantage and was able to put a lot of intensity into writing a new record. And I think the results speak for themselves. I’m getting a lot of great feedback from the fans about the matter recording. This was the most songs I’ve written for a record. There are no covers and no instrumentals; it’s all brand new.

What was it about that period that left you so inspired?

I often record more songs than I need, which usually end up being covers, but with this one, things came together in such a way that everything I wrote fit perfectly together. Another big part of this is that I am telling the story of my life: the story of a rocker in the ’70s and ’80s. That’s the theme I’ve lived through, so it made writing things much easier. When you write from the perspective of your own life, you don’t have to make as much up. So, these songs came together quickly – they just streamed out – because, in many ways, I was writing about my own life experiences.

I’d say this record is the closest you’ve come to matching the classic Blue Öyster Cult sound that you helped create.

I agree. There are a lot of great guitar riffs that harken back to the golden age of rock music. The sound of Blue Öyster Cult will always be a part of what I do, and this record does sound a lot like that. A big part of that type of music is great guitars, and Blue Öyster Cult was all about that. And during the pandemic, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by my great collection of guitars, and from those, I was able to mess around with things until I found the guitar tones I wanted. That’s another example of how I could use the lockdown to my benefit; for the first time ever, I had the time to sit with my guitars and hone in on which ones would give me the sounds I wanted for each song.

Which songs are your favorite from the record, and why?

Well, it’s kind of cheesy to say, but I like them all. I sat with this album for a long time over the pandemic and put a lot into it. In a lot of ways, it means a lot to me because of the idea that it’s harkening back to the golden age of rock music. I think “Hounds of Hell” is a great song, and I love how the guitars turned out. Deko Entertainment did a wonderful job with the release, and the singles we chose, like “My Way is The Highway,” “Love Out of Thin Air,” and “Off Season Hotel,” were the right ones, and I am glad that we went with them.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Blue Öyster Cult’s self-titled debut record. What are your retrospective musings?

Oh, well, that’s my favorite Blue Öyster Cult album. I had the most fun I ever had making that album; it really was. I remember going into the studio; man, I was just so excited. I was like, a kid in the most amazing candy store every day. I would get up in the morning and jump in the air because I was going to go to the studio and make a real album. And we loved the songs that we had, and I thought they were coming together so well.

I didn’t think we were the most commercial band, but that didn’t bother me. But I have to say, looking back on it, the aesthetic of most of the guys in Blue Öyster Cult was pretty non-commercial. I don’t know how to describe it, but we had this weird, off-the-beaten-path way about us, and I think that’s what made those early albums magical. And I think what we did with that first album was just the right amount of weird and a certain amount of this musicality. And when we put those two things together, boy, was it amazing.

Which tracks do you feel best illustrate that dynamic?

Offhand, I’d “Stairway to the Stars” and “Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll.” For some reason, a lot of motorcycle gangs took to those songs immediately. We had an underground nature, and what we did was not mainstream. There were other heavy bands like Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Budgie, but those were U.K. bands. There weren’t very many – if any at all – American bands who were heavy like us. We took a lot of pride in that, but we also took a lot of hits for it too.

Was Columbia Records entirely behind what you were doing?

I remember that Columbia Records had this feeling that they wouldn’t be able to sell a ton of Blue Öyster Cult records. They had pop artists like Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, and The Byrds, so they didn’t feel they needed Blue Öyster Cult and didn’t believe in us after we finished the first album. But they learned quickly that, in fact, they did need us because, eventually, we were competing against bands like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. So, while the first album was more of a cult record, it set Blue Öyster Cult on a trajectory to have a long career.

The funny thing is, though, I didn’t think that was the case at the time. I was too young to realize what we were doing. After we made the first record. I thought maybe the whole thing would last like two or three years. Maybe we would put out another record, and I don’t know, maybe we would be as big as, say, Moby Grape. [Laughs]. But boy, we certainly did surpass Moby Grape. But even to this day, I have to say that the whole thing is mysterious to me. A lot of it was being in the right place at the right time and then just being very lucky. Sure, we had a good amount of talent and a great group of players in the band, but a lot of it was luck.

“Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll” remains an enduring classic. Can you recall its inception?

Early on, we had some people who helped us with the lyrics, but honestly, they weren’t very good. We had a terrible writing team, and once we got away from that, we developed a creative core and learned to create songs more independently, and that song was a product of that development. My brother Albert [Bouchard] wrote that track with Sandy Pearlman and Donald Roesner. It wasn’t just one guy or a one-man show; we pulled out all the stops to make things work.

One of my favorites from the self-titled album is a song you helped write, “Workshop of the Telescopes.” I feel it’s one of the more underrated Blue Öyster Cult tracks.

Yes, I agree. That was one that the entire band was involved in, but as I recall, it was mostly me and Albert that wrote “Workshop of the Telescopes.” It’s funny you mention it because Albert and I are rehearsing that one and plan to play it during our upcoming shows. But I think it was the last song we recorded for the album. We threw it together quickly, and it didn’t get the same level of concentration as some of the other songs did. It’s another Long Island song about hanging out in local dive bars in Hempstead. As good as the song is, it’s funny because we were short a song, and we grabbed some extra lyrics, threw the chords in, and recorded it in a real hurry.

I can distinctly remember sitting in the studio and listening back to it, just taking the whole thing in. And as it got to the end of the song, it came to the point where this very spacey echo guitar kicked in at the end, and we were all blown away. We were all just sitting there listening, and it got to the point where it got to the big climax, and somebody screamed from the control room because we were all freaking out so badly. It was a real trip. So, right then and there, I knew we had something and were on the right track. When you get that sort of big response from people sitting in the control room, friends in the control room, to us, that meant we had hit the nail on the head with the crescendo.

How have your collective experiences shaped you as a songwriter, and how have you progressed since your younger years?

I’m a lot more methodical. I’ve learned a lot of important things over the years; if you work on a song and you only get one word for that song, even if you worked all day on it, it was worth it. There are no wasted words in songwriting because, in life, you only get so many. And you never know where or when you might use them. You’ve got to put in the time. If you don’t put in the time when you’re younger, you’ll never be consistent when you’re older. Some of the best music ever created came through a ton of time behind the scenes. I can come up with what I do now – the good stuff – because I spent a lot of time learning and coming up with things that weren’t so good.

No matter who you look at, be it Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, or Neil Young, if you investigate all these tremendous songwriting catalogs, they’ve still got a couple of stinkers in there, right? They’re not all grand slam home runs. So, I’ve learned to keep that in mind as I write. I write a lot of songs, and if one gets stuck or it’s not working, I back off from it and go to the next one. So, that’s my goal, theme, and ethos for writing my music these days. And I’m as creative as ever and am already planning my next studio album. I don’t know when or what it will be called, but I know it won’t be long. But for now, I’ll be playing shows, touring with my brother, and loving life.

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