Dean DeLeo and Tom Bukovac unite on the trip the witch

Cosmic Convergence
Dean DeLeo and Tom Bukovac unite on the trip the witch

At a glance, there’s little reason to connect a guitarist like Dean DeLeo to one like Tom Bukovac. One is ’90s-rock royalty, the other a modern-day Nashville studio legend. Strange times, though, can lead to notable things like their new (mostly) guitar instrumental album/project, Trip The Witch.

One day early in the pandemic, a friend sent DeLeo a link to a video from Bukovac’s then-new Youtube channel; its title, “Homeskoolin’ Volume 3: ‘Train-Kept-A-Memphis,’” meant little and Bukovac’s name wasn’t familiar, but being guitar-curious, DeLeo clicked. Not only was he blown away by Bukovac’s feel, skill, and knowledge, but…

“I felt like I knew him,” said DeLeo. Thanks to recording engineer Ryan Williams, the two were soon bonding over the phone.

“The first time we spoke, we talked for hours, like kindred spirits,” DeLeo added. “So many things between us seemed to overlap, not only musically, but personal things we were experiencing at the time. That day, I told him, ‘I feel like we’re going to make great music together.’”

“Dean’s into that weird old prog-rock I grew up on – Yes, Genesis, Tull,” Bukovac said. “Watching my show, he connected with that, and I told him, ‘I’m a huge fan of your music, always have been.’ We hit it off like brothers. I didn’t realize the influence for many of those great Stone Temple Pilots guitar parts was that music, but that’s probably why I loved it so much.”

With no real intent, they started bouncing riffs off each other via e-mailed videos. Riffs became songs, and songs became an album.

Bukovac’s ’58 ’Burst amidst a gathering of amps at Nashville’s Blackbird studio. From left are a ’60s Gretsch 6160, ’52 Fender Deluxe, ’61 Princeton, and a ’64 Vox AC30. Dean DeLeo’s “kooky” ’60s Danelectro sitar is,“…one of those instruments you don’t use a lot, but sure does sound good.”

You’re both veteran musicians whose livelihoods have relied on guitars and amps. Was gear an important subject leading up to Trip The Witch?

Tom Bukovac: Not really. We talked about life. I’m way more into gear than Dean is; he’s an emotional guy, more worried about how everybody’s doing and feeling. So we’d talk about stuff like the emotional impact of a sound.

Dean DeLeo: Most of the talking was about music, and our childhoods; I’m about nine years older, but we grew up not far from one another. What was really interesting was the things happening in our lives. It really knocked us back because we were experiencing certain things at the same time.

The album is a modern, technology-driven creation, yet doesn’t feel that way. How did the songs come together?
DD: It was a unique process – never “Alright, you do this part and I’m going to do that part.” It was always easy and organic. For instance, Tom sent a video with the verse to what would become “Planet TD1” and said, “Hey, check this out.” I go out on a hike, get back to my house, pick up the guitar, and cut a scratch track for a section of the chorus. We put fake drums on it and Tom re-cut some of the chorus guitars and the verse guitars. Ian Fitchuk added real drums, the great Steve Mackey added bass, and the track was done.

“Dressed To Kill Myself” was the same way; I had the chorus and intro, played it for Tom, and he sent it back with the verse. He might say, “I want to hear a stereo Rhodes in this section.”

There was a bit of stumbling upon things, and a couple songs, like the “Wall Of Sound,” Tom had finished top to bottom, then I’d get the salt and pepper and start sprinkling.

In songwriting, the first thing that gets in the way is ego, but Tom is such an easygoing person – patient, too. And let’s face it, he’s very proficient on that guitar (laughs). The solo he plays on “Planet TD1” was a one- or two-take thing. For me to assemble a solo like that would take some time. But it went the way it did because of where we were. There was nobody hanging over us to make suggestions – it really was each of us adding and playing to the tracks, being 2,000 miles apart, left to our own creative devices.

When you write music with someone, it’s really intimate; you’re putting yourself out there. Within STP, I’d sometimes bring a song and, as dear as it was to me, somebody would say, “I don’t know if I’m really feeling that,” and you’d have to move forward. Tom and I never ran into that, though. Tom not only plays the way I wish I could play, but plays what I want to hear.

(Left)Dean DeLeo’s “kooky” ’60s Danelectro sitar is,“…one of those instruments you don’t use a lot, but sure does sound good. (Right) He used this ’59 Dano Longhorn baritone on “Wall of Sound.”

The music is very focused on melodies. Was that a conscious thing?
DD: Very much so. We wanted guitar lines that carried so much melody you’d walk away and they’d still be in your head, so you weren’t really missing a vocal.

TB: I kept saying all along – and Dean agreed – I wanted to make a record you could put on at a cool party, and everyone would dig it. I didn’t want it to be challenging or the kind of thing musos would love. I like records that are about a vibe and a mood; every once in a while I like to be challenged by Mahavishnu or something, but sometimes I want to put on something that just makes me feel good, you know?

That was the point of this record. Both of us can shred, and there are a couple solos, but there’s a vibe we’re both really happy with. It’s mellower than people expect, I reckon.

Whose idea was it to ask Jon Anderson to sing on “Saturn We Miss You?”

TB: That was Dean. He kept pushing to get singers on a couple tracks (laughs). Jon is a childhood idol, and we couldn’t believe it when he sent that back – it was such a treat.

DD: Tom had the song 80 or 90 percent done when I got it, and I was really into how it was so atmospheric, so vibey, so cool. I added the sitar, then said to him, “Jon Anderson would be amazing on this.” So, I wrote a lovely letter telling Jon what he means to Tom and I, who are complete and utter fans of Yes and all he has done, then said, “…and here’s a song. We have a working title and you’re welcome to do whatever you’d like.”

A few days later, I opened my e-mail and there was the song with a beautiful note saying, “Hi, Dean. I hope you like what I did. I had a great time singing on your music.” Not song – he used the word “music.” I felt like a seven-year-old who just got a pony for Christmas (laughs heartily) – excited beyond words.

That song is so emotional for me because there are many moments in Yes music that, even 30-some years later, make me very emotional; tears well up and I get goosebumps when I hear “Heart of the Sunrise,” “South Side of the Sky” or the instrumental section in “And You And I.” So there I was, opening this song with Jon singing, and it brought me to this really beautiful emotional place.

What’s crazier is that Tom and I actually said, “Wouldn’t it be great if he comes in right after the mandolin part.” And he did. We didn’t talk about that with Jon, but he captured the essence of the song – completely tapped into it.

Tom sent me a video of his wife listening to the song and she was in tears, as well. It has no verse, no chorus, no pre-chorus, no bridge – it’s the same four chords top to bottom, and the way Jon laid out his vocal is so brilliant.

Tom Bukovac’s ’38 Martin 000-18.

Did you choose instruments and amps as you might for any other project?
TB: I use whatever’s laying around, and I was working in several studios all over Nashville. I’ll bring a couple things of my own to a session, but if there are cool guitars or amps in a studio, I’m going to use them. The one I played on pretty much everything was the ’58 ’Burst I bought from a friend who was kind enough to let me borrow it for ages. I tried not to fall in love with it, but man, it absolutely made a mockery of every guitar I compared to it.

DD: When I’m putting a song together, sometimes the playing or writing comes down to the guitar I’m playing.

Which other guitars do we hear?
TB: I also used my cool Cardinal Red – or maybe it’s Ember Red – ’65 Firebird, which sounds amazing, and a Duesenberg with a Multibender, which moves the B and G strings up a whole step. I got that in 2007, and the learning curve on that was long – it took me years to figure out how to get good enough to use it the way I wanted. It’s cool, and really does sound like a pedal-steel. I did acoustic tracks with my ’38 000-18 and 12-string stuff on a Taylor.

DD: For my acoustic parts I used an early-’70s Hummingbird and a 1950 J-50. My dear friend, Bruce Nelson, has been building a lot of guitars for me lately and I love having them in the studio. I have five Telecaster-type guitars he built for me, a Strat-type, and a couple with Junior and Special bodies with Lollar High-Output pickups, so it’s basically a humbucker in a Junior. Bruce’s guitars play so well and are so beautifully in tune with one another.

I also used a ’66 Telecaster with a Bigsby, and a ’57 TV Special, but when I use old stuff, sometimes it’s a hassle to get them in tune, so putting two or three tracks down can be trying.

Which amps do we hear most?
TB:A lot of it was my Valco-made ’60s Gretsch 6161 combo and a ’65 Pro Reverb.

DD: I had a ’66 Super, a Pro Junior, a ’60s Tremolux, ’60s Supro, a Laney, a’ 64 AC30, and an Ampeg Reverberocket.

Is there pedal steel on “Wall of Sound?”
TB: No. That’s all the Multibender.

Given the density of the sound, people might think they’re hearing keyboards or synths where there are none.

TB: Right, like on “Saturn We Miss You,” where the only keyboard is the upright piano on a couple melody lines and at the end. The rest is all Dean, playing trippy stuff through a bunch of effects. There was a Rhodes running in stereo on one track, and we did put synth and B-3 on “Planet TD1.”

Speaking of “Planet TD1,” whose melody is that?
TB: That’s a good example of how I’d write an A section and Dean would write a B section. That’s how most of the tunes came alive. That singing bit was mine, I think, then he came up with the next bit, where it goes to Eb. I’d send him a riff and he’d say, “Great. How about this for the next part?”

For many players, even those with higher profiles, entering the realm of “’Burst owner” can involve a whole lot of thought, sacrifice, and maybe even a dose of rationalization.

That’s how it went for Tom Bukovac. A top-tier Nashville studio ace for more than two decades, he hard-talked himself into finally buying his ’58 from the collector friend who’d let him use it for years.

“I had to sell about 10 guitars and a bunch of amps, and I still owe a bunch on it,” he said. “But I have no regrets. People have said, ‘It’s crazy to spend that kind of money,’ but others have said, ‘You should have that guitar. You’ve given your life to playing, nobody practices and plays more than you do. You’ve earned it.’ And I can honestly get with that because it is all I’ve ever done. I can’t change a light bulb (laughs), but I’ve given my life to playing guitar. I ended up asking myself, “Why shouldn’t I own this?’ And I think the guitar is happy it’s being played all the time.”

All-original with an understated flame top faded to a gorgeous yellow, he describes its condition as “7.5 out of 10.” Its PAFs are not super-hot.
“You don’t plug it in and go ‘Holy s**t!,’ but everything you play on it sounds like a record. It has the most friendly, recordable tone. Every note is 10 out of 10 sustain, everywhere on the neck. It’s the perfect emotion vehicle, doesn’t hold you back in any way. Not all ’Bursts are great, but when you get a good one, there’s nothing like it.”

After being re-fretted by Greg Voros at Gruhn Guitars (“the Michelangelo of frets,” Bukovac says), it now “…plays so good. It’s hard to put the thing down.”

So, writing came easy working that way?

TB: For sure. We got to where we had so manysongs we had a hard time narrowing it down to just 10 or 11. That was another time I was glad Dean’s around, because he’s so good about picking the best bits and fashioning them into tunes, editing them just right. Every time I got something back from him, it was like Christmas.

Are there certain tracks that stick more in your brain?
TB: My favorite is “Space Wagon.” Something about that spooky melody just gets me. It’s so cool, and it’s one people will notice the least.

DD: I got “The Bird Returns” with bass, drums, and guitars all but done. It shows how brilliant Tom is and is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. Ryan [Williams] and I looked at each other teary-eyed because the track was so beautiful, going, “Wow, that is really something special.” And my next thought was, “How do I not break this? (laughs) How do I not ruin this?” So I very delicately added a bit of acoustic on the bridge.

The title of the new album by DeLeo and Bukovac is inspired by a lyric from the STP song “Ride The Cliché.”

I later mentioned to Tom, “We should have somebody play a little [Wurlitzer organ] on this.” He goes, “I got the guy – the legendary Matt Rollings.” I came up with the bridge chords, though Tom played them, and I played the slide solo and the out solo.

Do you have immediate plans to do more together?
TB: People have asked if we’re going to play live, and I doubt that’ll happen in person, but I think we both would love to do some live streams – put a great band together and do faithful reproductions of the songs. I’d love to do that.

What are the chances there will be another record?
TB: Very good. We’ve been throwing ideas around and sending videos with new tunes. The reception has been wonderful. I’ve never put out a record before, so this is a big deal for me and all the positive response has been wonderful. It’s like, “Why did I wait 52 years to do this?”

What else did you take away from working together?
DD: I learned what an amazing person Tom is and came away with great friends I really love. Musically, it was definitely that “Less is more,” which Tom said out loud on a few occasions, whether I was playing bass or doing a little part or solo. He’d say, “Leave a couple notes out and see how it sounds.” And he was right. We wanted – and Tom really expressed this – the songs to have space to really breathe.

TB: What made the record the coolest is there was no ego and competition, we genuinely love each other’s playing, and I’d rather hear him play than hear me play. It wasn’t like we were fighting over solos. We just wanted to listen to each other. He’s the sweetest guy in the world – a very soulful, gentle, awesome cat.

This article originally appeared in VG’s January 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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