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Walter Trout

After nearly 20 years and 18 albums as a solo artist as well as well as a previous decade spent playing guitar with John Lee Hooker, Canned Heat and John Mayall's Blues Breakers, Walter Trout has the kind of musical pedigree that most guitarists can only dream about.

And yet it is only in the past couple of years that he's finally enjoyed the kind of commercial success that his prolific song writing and gargantuan touring efforts richly deserve.

He all but hit the top of the Billboard blues chart with his last all star 'Full Circle' CD and he's repeated the trick with the magnificent new album 'The Outsider'. On top of that he's topped Guitar player polls and won album of the year awards and been invited to play as far a field as Russia and India, as both rock and blues fans finally seem to have caught on to a guitar player who industry insiders have been championing for years.

Pete Feenstra caught up with Walter Trout in London on the eve of his latest UK dates as part of his 2008 tour to promote 'The Outsider', a solo album with some stellar guests.

Pardon the pun, but you've had a 'radical' change of personnel on the album with session musicians and new producer, what prompted that?

I'm at a point where if I have a chance to play with great players then I'll do it. And the way it all turned out was I got an email from the drummer Kenny Aronoff (top session drummer name with Bonnie Rait, Rollin Stones, Bob Seger, John Mellencamp, Elton John, Richard Thompson, Iggy Pop, Lynyrd Skynyrd, John Fogerty). He said I really like your stuff and I'd like to play on your album, here's my number give me a call. So I called him and said, I can't afford you. He said, well I'm not in it for the money I want to play on your record. So you know, you get an email from Kenny Aronoff, .come on in!!!'

The funny thing there was I said great, but I have 4 days to do the basic tracks and he said, OK I can do it, but I will have to leave early as I have a gig. I said, what's your gig? He said I'm playing at the Grammy's with Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and John Fogerty. And I went, well, you'd better go and do that gig! (laughs).

So once he turned up I'm talking to the producer John Porter (John Lee Hooker/BB King/Roxy Music/Japan/Elvis Costello/Steve Stills/Los Lonely Boys/John Cleary etc etc) He goes, well we've got Kenny, lets keep going with this.

Now I'd known 'Hutch', the bass player James Hutchison (Bonnie Rait/Willy Nelson, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, David Crosby, Delbert McClinton) since my Canned Heat days, when he came to LA and wanted to get into my Perqs band (a 20 year plus residency that Walter still holds down today in Huntingdon Beach at the oldest Rock & Blues house in Orange County). But the late Jimmy Trapp got the gig. So I knew Hutch from back in the mid '80's when we played on a package deal at a club LA. So John Porter said, well give him a call then!

And how did you hook up with John Porter?

Well I was talking to my wife Marie about the fact we were back on Provogue records, although essentially it was a new record label for us as they had a new owner etc. So this was the time to try something new here. How about instead of me producing it like I did on 'Full Circle' with Eric Corne the engineer, let's get a producer. I'd done six records with Jim Gaines and love him to pieces, but this was something new.

So I called up John. I also knew him from Perqs when Richie Hayward was in my band (85/86) and he would come down to the club and bring in guys like Greg Bissonnette (David Lee Roth, Joe Satriani, Toto) and they'd get up and jam with me.

Was there a different approach to things on this album?

I thought we ought to try Porter as I've never worked with the guy. Id lost his phone number; and the last time I'd seen him was when I did 'Blue Haze' the Jim Hendrix tribute. That was in cello studios, which was the old western studios on Sunset Boulevard where Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys and Phil Spector recorded and John was running it.

So I asked my agent to call him, but he said you've got to book a year ahead with him. I tried, and he asked when are you recording? I said in 2 weeks and he said, well I have a project booked but I'll cancel it. So he was on board and it was time to try something new.

On The Outsider he seems to have got the best out of you, since 'Breakin the Rules', which you produced yourself?

Well thanks. He was both incredible to work with and he's actually an awesome guitar player. And he's also got some amazing stories.

I happened to mention I love Cream and he'd say, oh I drove Eric to their rehearsals. I said, you mean the recent reunion? But he was referring to the one and only rehearsal back in London in some club in 1966!

Anyway the whole time we were recording he sat with his guitar and he played along and gave me all these ideas of approaches and stuff.

Walter Trout

So how were his ideas markedly different from what you'd done before?

Well he got me to sing differently for instance. On every other record I've done when its time to sing the song, I'd gone into the booth, they roll the tape and I'd belt out the song. John would say, before you go out and there and sing the song, let's think about this, think about the lyrics, the feel, and how you are going to approach the song?

And I'd say, well I'm going out there and sing the fucking song! But he'd look at the approach. The best example is on 'Matter of the Heart'. I was belting it out and he stopped me and said, I want you to whisper and see how it works.

So you couldn't have heard me three feet away when I was singing that, and they had the mic's right in my face! So this was a big difference from what I would have done on my own. So I had a great time working with him, and I'll work with him forever if he wants.

Given the characters in the songs and the lyrical content in general is 'The Outsider' a concept album?

I guess so, though it didn't start off that way. I started to write songs, it's the old situation where Marie my wife says, OK you're in the studio in 3 weeks what are you going to record?

Did you have anything on going in terms of writing before this album?

Not really, though I had a stack of lyrics, 'cos when I'm out on tour in the back of the van I write lyrics all the time, poems and thoughts.

They seem to be about characters, people, and different eras?

Yeah well they came out that way I guess, and then they took on that kind of theme.

You've been a prolific writer down the years, does the fact that you explore different genres help in your song writing?

Yes it does. I've always liked to explore stuff and not be stuck in a corner. Even when I was with Mayall, much as I love him, I would come of those tours and I'd head down to Perqs and play all kinds of stuff. We'd play bluegrass songs, Merle Haggard tunes, lots of covers for fun, everything from Beatles and Stones to old blues songs.

But I was thinking more about your own material, the songs that set you apart from your contemporaries?

The genre doesn't matter to me I try and write a song and what comes out comes out.

You also redefined Dylan as a blues artist on the 2000 'Live Trout' CD at the Tampa Bay Blues Festival?

Yeah but that announcement was a bit tongue in cheek. It was for some of the blues purist critics who have their head up their ass. I could already picture them in something like Blues Review saying, 'this isn't the blues, he's doing Bob Dylan' and there so anal!

'Welcome to the Human Race' the opening track on 'The Outsider' is almost the perfect Walter Trout track. It's full of bludgeoning guitar and emotive lyrics. Did you have the idea for that song some time before?

I had the lyrics written as a poem. I get the itinerary from my road manger Andrew Elt and it's like a novel. But on the back of the itinerary the pages are blank, so I sit in the back of the truck and fill the things up, start going on a stream of consciousness.

At what point do you knock them into shape?

On this album I sat down at home with two of these tour itinerates and all these songs were in them except maybe 2/3 of them and I had to set them to music. On this record the lyrics came before the music, that's not the case on every record though.

This was really a jigsaw puzzle of trying to take that stack of lyrics and trying to match them with music. So for example, on 'Matter of the Heart', 'Welcome to the Human Race' and 'Restless Age' I had the lyrics, and then I was thinking, should this be a ballad, what should it be? So I started playing around with them and all of a sudden it all started to fit together and I'm wow it fits really well and there it is?

So where did all the grooves, the little guitar motifs and riffs come from?

The whole thing started with just me and acoustic guitar and the itineraries. For example, on that song 'Don't Wanna Fall' I was goofing around and the lick happened. OK. So I got the lick and I'm thinking that's cool, and even though this was just the acoustic, I could hear this kind of tom-tom thing behind it. So the next step was what's going to work over this lick?

And last year I had this physical problem where I had lost my equilibrium for months where I couldn't stand up and it's just a song about that. People say what's the symbolism? There isn't any, its just every time I stood up I'd fall over and I got sick of it! It was a pretty horrendous thing, constantly spinning and having to do some gigs on a chair.

Going back to the title of the record, do you consider yourself an outsider?

Well the song is about a friend of mine, actually a close relative of mine who I watched in a group of people. It was a party with some nice people and he was standing across the room by himself looking at the people, and I could read in his eyes what he was going through -'I cant go over, I don't know what to say, I have a hard time making friends and I'm a loner'.

Now that song started as a free, acoustic quiet ballad but as soon as I got to where the chorus should be I got stuck!!

Marie and Ed van Zijl (the Provogue boss) were both freaking out and said, what are the titles of the songs? When I said I'd got one called 'The Outsider', they said, that's it, that's it! So I had this ballad and this was the one song they had chosen for the title and the one they were already making the cover for and I couldn't finish it!
So at the last moment I took the verses I had and made it a blues song and it actually worked pretty good.

What can we read into the lyrics of 'Child of Another Day'?

It's a song about people who live in the past. Really, I run into both young and old people who act like their life is over and they spend all their time looking back on the glory days of their life and they actually miss out on what's going on around them.

You know you have a certain amount of time here and then you're done!! And I keep losing all these friends and colleagues and I think pretty soon that will be me and I'm not going to be sitting on my death bed going I missed the last 20 years 'cos I was thinking about how great life was back in '69, or at Woodstock.

It's about living today and working towards a better tomorrow. Everyone in that song is a real person. There really was a hippy chick in a Jimi Hendrix T shirt who was dancing around in front of the band and then talking to me after a show, about her kids and divorce and she was crying etc.

The two veteran things in there, one guy was a friend of mine who was in Vietnam. He deserted and went to Canada. He then ended up going to prison when he came back and it screwed up his life. So they are real people. The last verse of 'Child of Another Day' was a kind of humorous thing about a blues purist critic - 'he's playing a million notes again and this isn't the real blues', so I wrote that as a poem and the verse fitted the song.


I was playing live on MTV over here some years ago on 'The Bridge' on VH1. I played 'Let Me Be The One'. So I'm in the make up room with a guy acting like he was hot shit. He was the big time guy who wouldn't speak to me. It was the guy from Kula Shaker. And when I'm writing this song I'm thinking to myself where the fuck is Kula Shaker now? And I'm still out here doing it.

What is 'The Next Big Thing' about?

You name it. Let's go back to Johnny Lang, Kenny Wayne Sheppard and these guys that are out in the States now who were gigantic superstars in their 20's and now they have to try for the rest of their lives to regain it, trying make a comeback at 30!!.

It's basically a look at the business. Not just blues rock. I was playing live on MTV over here some years ago on 'The Bridge' on VHI. I played 'Let Me Be The One'. So I'm in the make up room with a guy acting like he was hot shit. He was the big time guy who wouldn't speak to me. It was the guy from Kula Shaker. And when I'm writing this song I'm thinking to myself where the fuck is Kula Shaker now? And I'm still out here doing it.

This business is full of these people who come out like a comet across the sky but then they burn out immediately. So I think maybe I never had the big time glory but I've had nearly 20 years since 'Life in the Jungle', and longevity is hard to find in this business.

'All My Life' is also a very catchy song

There's two parts to how that song came about.

The first part I had a dream where John Mayall and I were on stage and we were dancing show biz style, and singing 'All My Life' and we were singing the chorus, and I woke up and immediately thought, wow that's a good melody. So I ran out to my little studio and recorded the melody and the chorus with the words. But then I needed verses and it sat there for a while.

Then one night I was watching the history channel and they were showing films of the great depression of America, the dustbowl, the soup lines and they had Woodie Guthrie on there. So I thought I would try and write a song from that era, like an old American folk song form the 30's. And it seems that in a week from now the song might be completely topical again (thanks to 8 years of fine republican leadership!)

What about the Beatlesy 'Revolver' style guitar sound on the end of that song? Was that planned?

I played some really strange stuff on there. John had his guitar on his lap when we listened to the track and he played this weird lick, in fact it was the opening lick of the last solo. I watched him, liked it, so went out and messed around with it. I played a lot of Clarence White on acid kind of stuff.

After I played it, I said, OK let's record now, and John went, no, that's it that's great. I also wanted the guitar to feed back at the end of the notes. And the way I do that hurts my head….cos I have to turn the amp all the way up and turn the headstock of the guitar on the speaker cabinet, so the guitar is facing the speakers but you're in at a 120 db in the phones so you can even hear the track. So that's what I was going on there. I'd hold a note and it would come out an octave higher. I was experimenting trying to get the amp and settings right, and he said, no, that's it

You always seem relaxed in the studio, whereas a lot of other artists struggle to replicate what they do live?

Well the whole album took no more than about a week. When I record I tend to use the Bob Dylan technique, you get to sing, you play and get the hell out. I don't like to spend a lot of time on it; I'm not searching for sonic perfection. I'm searching for feel and honesty. I sing the song and there it is. If I have to do it again, I'll go right back and do it and there it is! You need a solo, here's a solo, and lets get out of here!

Is J Alfred Blues Rock autobiographical?

No not really. That's just about guys winging and bitching at home really.

Some people including me (laughs) have noted the similarity with some of your previous best songs such as 'Put It Right Back On You' (from the 'Breakin' The Rules' album).

The thought behind that song was this. A lot of people who if they want to put me in a category say Blues-rock and I agree. I do a lot of genres but that's my main thing. And one of the things I've done a lot and do well is what I like to call a power shuffle. It's got a shuffle beat like an old blues song but it's a rock shuffle. In order to do that with 3 chords, its gonna come out you know……

There are about three songs I've done that you can put in that category including 'Put It Right Back on You, and 'I Can Tell' but they are all different in terms of the grooves, chord changes and the basic lick. You can take a BB King record, and it's basically all slow blues out of C and then it ceases being what it is. I almost knew some people were gonna go, no this sounds like….it kinds of does but it's a different song, to me its just the evolution of that style, and I think this is a better song than the others.

On 'The Restless Age' you have the lyric about 'coming out the other side'. Is that the kind of song you couldn't have written a few years ago?

Yeah, 'cos it was really about a time in my career when I was thinking, how come I'm not more successful? Eventually I thought actually its going good and I'm still climbing the ladder, the journey is till exciting and to be 57 and still slowly crawling up is pretty unique.

So the first verse is definitely about me and the second verse: - 'Ricky boy has had enough he's leaving for the coast' - that's about my buddy Richard Ormsby who sadly just died of cancer. I couldn't get phrase 'Richard's had enough', so he became Ricky. Right out of high school he ran away from home in New Jersey and hitch hiked to California.

He came back months later with long hair and a bag of LSD. He was the first hippy in Collingwood. So a lot of the words were really what he said at the time. I saw him before he died, and played the track to him and he cracked up! On that song I set it out for my own fun, to write a Rolling Stones song.

So I told Porter, I want this to be the Stones except I'm singing it. So we brought in a 1962 Telecaster and a Fender bassman amp so I could sound like Keith Richard. Then we told Kenny and 'Hutch' your gonna be Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman and they nailed it. So I said but we need a piano solo on this and Porter said, yeah, we need Ian Stewart (sadly no longer with us)! So he said I can get Jon Cleary and tell him to sound like Ian Stewart. (laughs)

And you included a song about Sanjay Dutt the Indian movie star.

You know he's a friend of mine, a real guy and a huge Indian movie star in Bollywood. He's just got out of jail and called me to say he had a humble request and asked me to write his story into a song. So it was really a gift to him.

He was the guy that got me to India twice. At this stage the album was already finished, I called John about the song and then I called Kenny, can you come and do this song? He said yes, but Hutch had gone on tour with Bonnie Rait, so John Porter played bass on it. We did it in an hour or so. All the Indian stuff came later. I wanted a tabla and tambora and called Bernie Pershey, but he never checks his messages. So John Porter downloaded them from the internet and transposed them to E from C and figured out the different tempos.

The sequencing is good on the album too and a real strength of 'The Outsider' is the dynamics to the whole thing. Did you ever have a problem when the formats changed a few years back from vinyl to CD and the longer running time?

Funnily enough when I first recorded on CD on 'Positively Beale Street', we had the possibility of 74 minutes. My thought was if I'm a guy that's going to spend money on a recording and I know the potential is 74 minutes and they only gave me 40 minutes then I'm going to be pissed off.

So I told the producer Jim Gaines we're going to fill it up. But some critics said this is too long for one sitting. I'm thinking do they want less for their dollar??

It's 15 years or so since CD's, and now I read reviews in the LA Times who said that my CD was too long, now they complain that some CD's are only 60 minutes long! I think their thinking has come around.

Given you hit #2 in the Billboard charts is 'The Outsider' your most successful album?

Well 'Full Circle' also did that too in the US. 'The Outsider' has done well and really good over here in the UK.

Talking of 'Full Circle', that album broke new ground with the idea of jamming with different guests on each track.

The idea came to me in Norwich when I was invited to play on a CD with guitarist Danny Bryant. I had to do it after my gig that night at about 2am. So I got there and said to Danny what are we gonna do? Danny shouted out a slow blues in C minor, the 4 and 5 are major, I'll sing the first verse, you sing the second verse, here's your words, roll the tape.

He counted the four and off we went. When I got back to my room I thought, that was cool and I thought if you could take that approach and get different guys in there and have a jam session basically, but with guys like Bonamassa, Mayall, Sardinas - it could be really good.

But when I came up with the idea everyone hated it, the record company, management, everyone. They all said you can't take a CD with guys like that and jam on it. And I said yes you can and watch it's gonna go great.

It turned out to be my best selling CD and put me over in the States. I'd done this at festivals when I brought out people like Coco Montoya to jam and people would freak out, so I thought let's try this in the studio.

But there were some good songs on there too?

Yeah but that was the trick; All these great guys would come in and we had nothing - except for Jeff Healey as I wrote the song for him. We would sit down and think now what are we gonna do? We need to write a song and we did that with everybody. It worked great.

'Relentless' the album before 'Full Circle' was also ground breaking in that it was an album of all new songs recorded live. You must have been under pressure doing that?

Oh yeah! When I was doing that we were really under pressure because you had to get it right, you couldn't go back and fix it in front of a live crowd. There's no fixes here. But we did that at the end of a month long tour and had done the thing night after night leading into the date. So by the time we got to he Paradiso (where we recorded the album live) we had the songs down but I still couldn't remember some of the lyrics. I had a big stack of hugely written lyrics at my feet whilst we were doing that. One little screw up and you have to do the song again.

That was a pretty new idea I think and it was the album's unique selling point - all new material in front of an audience. The funny thing is I've read some interviews since then with Paul McCartney and an old interview with George Harrison. And with 'Let It Be' they were actually going to do that in a little club, but it never happened as they were fighting too much and couldn't get it together. But they had that idea to do that. But with 'Relentless', it was Marie, my wife's idea.

Going back to your early career, you are now known for your big tone, emotive singing and passionate performances, but when did you first feel you'd found your own style and tone for example?

As far as tone of the guitar is concerned, basically when I discovered Messa Boogie amps! I was in John Mayall's band and we were playing in Virginia and the band didn't carry its own gear at the time so we used different amps each night.

And me and Coco (Montoya) would fight over who would have the Fender Super Reverb and here's a pig nose (laughs). We'd go down in the afternoon to check out the amps, and some guy working in the bar said I have this thing called the Mesa Boogie its really good, should I bring it down? I said yeah, and I played through it, and thought, there it is and have used it every since.

As regards song writing I've been writing songs since I was 15. I actually wrote 'The Love That We Once Knew', The Mountain Song' and 'Earings on the Table' all in one day when my high school girl friend dumped me, but she's still my friend now and I talked to her the other day about my buddy who just died.

Tell me about your days as a sideman to Joe Tex, Percy Mayfield, Lowell Fulsom, Finis Tasby, Big Mama Thornton, John Lee Hooker etc?

Well with Big Mama Thornton we used to play 'Ball & Chain', you 'Ain't Nothing But A Houndog' etc. With Big Mama and John Lee Hooker it was in the mid 70's at a time when after 'Saturday Night Fever', disco ruled and live music was on a downward slide. We played clubs to 25/30 people in a club the size of your living room and live music was at its lowest ebb in the States all due to 'Saturday Night Fever'. This led to 2 to 3 years of Disco madness. And a lot of critics and friends of mine like Skunk Baxter will tell you that it was Bruce Springsteen who was the catalyst that brought music back after disco.

Given that both your sons have played with you on stage and appeared at festivals, as both a band leader and a father what would you advice be to your sons as regards music?

I'd be happy for them to do whatever they wish as long as they love what they are doing. That for me is the key to life. I have all these friends that bitch about having to go to work and what a drag it is. I tell them I have to go to work, what a blast! I think my sons have seen that in me and I have hammered that concept to them since they were little kids. If driving a taxi brings you incredible deep joy, then be a taxi driver.

They are finding their own style of music be it heavy metal or whatever. My son Jonathan writes songs. He's actually incredible at writing songs (and I'm not saying that 'cos he's my son), but he writes potential radio hits. It comes to him naturally, but he wants to be a pilot, that's his passion. So more power to him.

What principles did you take with you from John Mayall in his role as the band leader when you finally set out on your own?

The work ethic which is that if we're gonna come out here and tour were gonna work our asses off. If you want days off we'll go home. If it means 30 nights in a row then that's what I'm gonna do. On one run of dates we did something like 80 something show in 65 nights as we played doubles on the weekend!

On the new album you feature Jason Ricci on harp and he's also appeared on some of your Canadian and US festival dates I believe?

Jason Ricci has taken the harmonica to a new place. It's like listening to John Coltrane or something, he's really pushing the boundaries to an incredible degree. He really pisses off the blues purists even more than I do and we sort of became friends over that (laughs).

He does jazz and funk and all kinds of stuff, almost like Sonny Rollins. He fits great on 'The Outsider' and in November I'm bringing him to Holland for 5 shows as my special guest. 'Cos I want to help him get going in Europe; He also has his own band Jason Ricci and New Blood on Electro Groove, THE new label in America. You should see this guy live! He's an astounding live performer and he's unique, nobody plays like this guy. I mean technically - and I'm a harp player too - I know what he's pulling off on that instrument; he's really great.

And right now you are starting your latest European tour with basically the same band apart from the drummer?

Yes when I started making the new record I was in the process of switching drummers, so it was nice to have Kenny Aranov turn up - you know he's not a bad intermediary (laughs).

So my new drummer Michael Leasure made it on to the record but as a back ground singer. He's on 'All My Life' and 'Matter of the Heart'. Sammy (Avila) the keyboard player is on about 8 of the tracks I think and Rick Knapp the bass player is on one track. And as regards my band I had actually rehearsed all the songs on the album with them beforehand and had John Porter come down to my house and heard the songs being played by the band. So the band knew the songs anyway, which is good as we're pretty much playing the whole album on this tour.

The only problem I have now is that sometimes on a show I want break out an old song. And if I've got a 2 hour show, if I do the old song there one less new song to play!!


Interview © October 2008 Pete Feenstra

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