Posted April, 2012
A year ago last month, after discovering Walter Trout via his Common Ground CD, I caught his show at the beautiful and historic Granada Theater. I proclaimed in that review that his work earned a spot on my list of artists that I would want with me should I be stranded on a desert island. I also wanted to interview the blues great.
That position was further solidified early last month when I received a review copy of Trout’s latest CD, Blues for the Modern Daze. I won’t go into my thoughts about that CD since I have that covered in the Boomerocity review here. But, as I told a friend of mine after my first pass at listening to Daze, if I could play guitar, I would likely focus on the blues and, if I could play the blues any way I wanted, it would be just like Walter Trout does on that CD.
My year long desire to interview Trout was finally achieved recently when I called him at his California home shortly after his return from his European tour. If he suffered from jetlag, I wouldn’t know it by how he came across on the phone. He was immediately affable, engaging and caring, asking about if there was any impact to my family by the tornadoes that had hit the Dallas area earlier that week (thankfully, there wasn’t).
After discussing the horrible destruction that hit the Dallas area, we began discussing Blues for the Modern Daze. With almost 40 years as a musician and over 30 years recording records, Daze is Trout’s 21st solo album in addition to albums he worked on with Canned Heat and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. With such a large body of work that he can be proud of, I asked Trout what makes Daze different from his other CDs.
“Well, it is really an attempt at just doing a blues album, which I’ve never done before. If you listen to something like Common Ground, just between that song and Open Book – at the time I was thinking to myself almost as a singer/songwriter and I was really trying to explore songwriting and experiment with it and try different things. On this one, I just sort of went back to where I started, which was with the blues – with old rock and roll. Very simple stuff. It was also an attempt at trying to capture in the studio the energy that my band puts out when we play live.”
When I shared with Walter my comment that I shared in the second paragraph of this piece, enthusiastically replied, “Well, thanks! There’s a lot of ways of doing the blues, you know? This was my attempt at really exploring that genre. It’s my version of what the blues is. It’s not everybody’s version. Some people will like it, some people won’t but it’s a definite, honest attempt on my part to present to the public what the blues is to me.”
I don’t put Trout on the same level as a Bible-thumpin’ preacher. However, on Common Ground, I sensed a heightened level of spirituality or spiritual awareness. I sensed the same kind of feel being carried through on Daze by the way he shared observations and life-lessons. I asked if my perceptions were correct.
“Yeah, that’s a very correct thing and it’s been that way for me for years and years. Maybe on the song Common Ground I might have been a little more blatant with it. It’s turned up at various points in my career. There was a song called Down To You which is on one of my earlier records, Go the Distance, and that’s a pretty blatant kind of Christian song.
“I’m not a guy who’s out Bible thumpin’, either. It is important to me in my own life and I don’t want to turn people off. I don’t want to come off as the guy who’s knockin’ on your door and throwin’ it in your face because I think that turns people off. But I do like to, once in a while, put it out there that this is who I am and it’s important to me. Also, for instance, on the new CD (quoting lyrics from Brother’s Keeper), ‘I get sick of people out there who use religion and use Christianity to advance their own political agendas’. That’s what Brother’s Keeper is about.
“For somebody to say, ‘Yeah, I’m a Christian but if there’s somebody dying on the street and they don’t have health care insurance, let ‘em die’, no, you’re not a Christian at that point. I’m sorry. You’re not. You’re hiding behind that label to advance your own agenda. That’s okay. That’s your agenda but don’t tell me that that has anything to do with the teachings of Jesus because you need to go back and re-read your Bible at that point. It’s just like the song (Brother’s Keeper) said, ‘Jesus said to feed the hungry, Jesus said to help the poor, so many of these so-called Christians don’t believe in that no more’. That’s about as to the point as I could get.
“When I did that tune, my co-producer, Eric Corne, he said, ‘You know, you’re probably going to get into a lot of trouble for that song’. I said, ‘I don’t care. I gotta write what I feel, here. I’m not gonna write an album about tulips and puppy dogs!”
With such a hard-hitting indictment against the church world, what does Walter hope the response would be from his listeners?
“Geez, I don’t know what the desired response would be. Maybe it can get them to think a little bit. I’ll tell you that back when the decision was made that I would do a blues record – like, we’re in the process of putting this together with the record label and they’re like, ‘Well, we could do this or we could do that – we want to do something a little different. You could do an album of covers.’ ‘Nah, I don’t feel like doin’ an album of covers.’ ‘How about an acoustic album?’ ‘There’s no way I feel like doin’ an acoustic album. I like loud guitar.’ ‘You could do Full Circle II and get guests.’ “Yeah, how ‘bout we just do a blues album?’ and they’re, like, ‘Yeah, that’s great!’
“Then, a day later, as I thought about it, I said to ‘em, ‘You know, everybody that does a ‘blues album’, you’re gonna have version #683 of Got My Mojo Workin’ and version #845 of Hey, Hey, the Blues is Alright. I don’t wanna do that. It’s been done. When I turn on blues radio and here’s another artist doing Sweep My Broom, it’s like there’s fifteen songs that get done over and over and over and over.
“I said, ‘How ‘bout we do a blues album but I’m gonna write the whole thing and I’m gonna write about what I feel, what I believe, my observations on life and I’m gonna make it a little bit of a concept about my feelings about the world we live right now’ and they said, ‘sure’.
“I did a lot of writing on here, for instance, about what I see as the corporate takeover of the American political system and that’s how I see it. I love this country dearly and I’m sadden to my core to think that you can go out and vote this year and it don’t mean anything because, as the song say, ‘Politicians bought and sold but they belong to Exxon and Goldman Sachs’. I really think this country has to get back to being a democracy and not The Corporate States of America.
“So, I wrote about a lot of things – not just spiritual. I wrote a lot about my feelings about what’s going on in the world. ‘You get yours, I’ll get mine, just make sure you toe the line.’ I don’t know if it’ll change anybody’s ideas but I certainly got a lot off my chest!”
We chatted a little longer about the political climate and problems in the U.S. While we were solving the world’s problems, Walter said something very interesting and compelling - something that I’ve mulled over and over ever since he said them to me.
“I’m married to a girl from Denmark. She’s still a Danish citizen and my kids are Danish citizens. In Denmark, it is highly illegal for any corporation or business to donate money to political candidates because they see that as a conflict of interest. Any corporation that gives a political candidate a million bucks and that guy gets in office, he owes that corporation something. Really, who he owes something to would be the people of the country, not the corporations.
“I see a different way of doing it over there. It’s a completely different approach. They don’t have lobbyists. To my Danish wife, the idea of a lobbyist just outrages her to her core. It doesn’t compute at all because she was raised in a country where they can’t contribute, they can’t come in and push for laws to get passed that are going to help them make more profits at the expense of the people of the country. So, I’ve seen a different system and I think that this gets more and more and more out of hand.
“If you listen to Puppet Master and Money Rules the World, it’s right there. We can agree on one thing here: We can say that you might be a right wing conservative and I might be a complete left wing wacko, but we can certainly agree that the money in politics has gotta go! To me, whether you’re a fan of Rick Santorum or a fan of Joseph Stalin, whoever, you can see that it’s the money in our politics that is corrupting the system so much that the people are ending up getting the shaft here with the corporations making more money than they’ve ever made in history. To me, if you’ve got a problem with bail-outs, you should also have a problem with giving Exxon $60 billion a year in subsidies. Same thing!
“I don’t know, man, something’s gotta change here! As long as they’re (politicians) getting millions and millions of dollars and it’s based on influxes of money from corporate entities, none of them are going to do what they say because as soon as they get in, they owe. They owe those people big time! That’s where the problem arises I think.”
Trout accentuated those comments by sharing with me his love for our country and how that was fostered in his upbringing.
“I love this country. I was raised in the Philadelphia area and my mother took me to Independence Hall and we saw the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were written. Then, one summer, she took me to all the Civil War battlefields. The next summer we went to all the Revolutionary War battlefields. She raised me to be patriotic and to be thankful and happy to live where I live. I get despondent with it now.”
Over Trout’s 30-plus year career, he’s recorded a lot of great music, played with an impressive array of people and has played all sorts of well known venues. With such an impressive resume, I wondered if there’s a project he hasn’t yet done that he wants to and who he would like to play with that he hasn’t.
“As far as a project that I want to do, it’s hard for me to even think about that now because I still haven’t gotten this one released, you know? Right now, I’m sorta like – as my wife would make the analogy – a lady who’s in her ninth month of pregnancy and is waitin’ to pop the kid out. The kid’s fully developed He’s in there. He just don’t want to come out. Right now, I’ve got a little more than two more weeks before this thing is released and I start getting some feedback on it from fans and people like you. I’m anxious to see how it’s received, you know what I mean?
“My wife always says that, when I do these CDs, it’s kind of like giving birth. I kind of disappear into my garage for three weeks and come out with a CD written. I do it in one, long three week period. She says, ‘Okay, it’s time for you to do a CD’ and I say, ‘Okay, I’ll see you in three weeks’ and I go sit in the garage and write a CD. So, as far as the next project, I really don’t know the answer to that. I want to get this one out there and see how it does.”
In answering the question as to who he would like to play with, it’s not at all surprising to hear who that is.
“One time in my life I’d like to get up on stage with the Stones and stand there next to Keith Richards and play some rhythm guitar. That would be it. That would be about as much fun as I can imagine having! I’ve done a bunch of playing in the past with Mick Taylor but I mean the band – the full band. To turn around and there’s Charlie Watts would just kill me. I’d just be like, ‘Wow! This is awesome!’
Regardless of one’s profession, it’s human nature to get tired or bored of what some might think is doing the same thing over and over again. If you’ve ever had the privilege of watching Trout perform, you’ll see that is clearly not the case with him. It’s obvious that he still has a blast entertaining crowds and performing his craft. I asked him what is the biggest thrill or satisfaction that he still derives from his work and how does he keep it fresh and exciting for himself.
“I can just tell you, for instance, I just finished a tour of Europe. I got home three days ago. I’ll play a venue – say, The Paradiso in Amsterdam – and I’ll walk out on stage. It’s sold out. There’s, what, 1,800 people in there? It’s packed to the rafters. I walk on the stage and they freak out and they send me up waves of love! I play to them and I look them in the eye and I get right down in their face.
“If I’m playin’ a slow blues tune like Brother’s Keeper, there’s people in the front row and they’re visibly weeping. I realize that what I’m doing means something in their lives. It brings them joy. It brings them – not just entertainment – it means something. It matters to them and I feel that I’m the luckiest guy on the face of the earth.
“It’s not about huge commercial success here. I’m not the guy who’s out scraping and clawing to climb up to the next level and play the bigger venues. I just don’t care about that. Some of the best nights of my life happen in little bars.”
As Trout continues to answer my question, he becomes genuinely emotional.
“That’s what keeps it goin’ for me is to realize that I was blessed with a gift that I can do something that actually has some meaning for people. And, man, I don’t take it for granted. I used to when I was all messed up. I was a heroin addict for three years – back in the Jessie Ed days. That’s why I say that they’re a blur. But I don’t take it for granted anymore and I haven’t for years. I want to get as much of it as I can get.
“People will go, ‘you’re sixty-one, are you going to retire?’ Retire? Retiring is what people who hate what they do! ‘I hate what I do and I want to stop doing it and go fishin’!’ No! I want to keep doin’ this until I can’t do it anymore. John Lee Hooker, who I played with, he was 85 and he played a gig two nights before he died. I take inspiration from those guys. I just did a couple of shows with B.B. King. He’s 86 and he still loves going out there. So, it’s easy to keep it fresh when, every night, you have the potential of really connecting with some people on a deeper level than just playing them some happy little ditty but connecting and seeing that it’s affecting them down into their heart and soul.”
With economic times being as dicey as they are, does Walter see a correlation between these hard times and the public’s receptiveness of the blues?
“Not particularly. I’ve been at it a long time and people enjoyed it as much during the boom years as they are during the bust years. I think it’s more about the common existential difficulties that everybody has in their life that goes beyond financial problems. Granted, some of those tunes will affect people more when they’re struggling and having a rough time but everybody has heartache – whether they’re a homeless guy on the street or they’re Bill Gates, they’re going to experience heartache. But the homeless guy on the street has a lot more to deal with just to get through a day. But I don’t notice that it chances the audiences any. It’s an interesting question.”
For relatively new fans like me – as well as for those of you who have followed Trout for quite a while - I asked him what fans can expect from the upcoming tour.
“We’ll be doing, pretty much, the new record. We’ll still do some old stuff and we’ll still do some spontaneous jammin’ but we’ll concentrate on the new record. I also wrote that record with the thought of doing it live, too. There’s not a whole lot of production and stuff on there that we can’t come out and do those tunes. You’ll see the same band that’s on the record that I’ll have with me and we’ll be doin’ those tunes. We do change the tunes around a little bit. There’s a version of Brother’s Keeper that I just put on the fan page that we did in Cologne. It’s different than the record. I changed the key and I changed the melody. It’s on the Facebook fan page so you can see it there. I changed it a little bit but it’s the same tune.”
Let’s say that you and I were chatting and you had never heard of Walter Trout. Let’s also say that I could play only one song off of Blues for the Modern Daze as an example of why you should buy the record. Even though I’d make you listen to the whole CD, for the sake of this hypothetical example, I would play either Lonely or Brother’s Keeper. I asked Walter which song off of Daze he would point people to.
“Well, I can tell you that when I’m driving around and I’ve got that CD in my car, I probably keep going back to Lonely. I think the words to that song are very unique and very timely. I think there are people more of my generation who will understand what I’m trying to get at with that song. I do go back to that song myself and listen to it a lot. I think it came out well.
“I wrote that at a Starbucks on a napkin as a poem. That’s why I say, ‘I’m waitin’ for my coffee and I’m standin’ in a crowd’. I was standin’ there and there was people screamin’ in their phones and lookin’ at computers, nobody’s talking to each other. So I grabbed this napkin as I stood there and I wrote the whole thing lyrically and stuck it in my pocket. When it was time to write the CD, there it was and I put it to music.
“At first, I read them and I thought, ‘Nah, these lyrics are a little too – nah, it’s not gonna lend themselves to this’ then I thought, ‘Screw it!’ That was, I think, the first song I did when I sat down to write this one. I found that napkin. I had stuck it in a folder of lyrics, opened it up, found that one, and went, ‘Well, if you want to write about today’s world, well, there you go!”
Speaking to the songs commentary about how technology as isolated us from one another, Walter said, “It’s really great. With the internet you have all the information in the history of the world at your finger tips, right? That’s a beautiful thing. But I don’t see that it’s increasing our understanding as human beings at all. All it does is give people more ways - if you’re prone to be an intolerant, prejudiced person of a certain ilk - you can find others just like you and have a little community where it would’ve been harder before. So there’s a plus and a minus. I’ve always had this thought that, with every advance we make as a society we give something up, too.
“Have you ever seen the movie, Inherit the Wind? There’s a line in there that Spencer Tracy delivers about progress of technology. That happened in the twenties, right? So he does this line – I saw it as a kid and it stuck with me and I’ve remembered it – and he says, ‘You can have airplanes but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline so be prepared for that change’. That’s it - with every advancement something falls by the wayside and that’s really what that song is about. I don’t think the internet’s a bad thing. I don’t technology is a bad thing. It’s a great thing! For instance, I have friends who, if they want to invite their next door neighbor over for dinner, they send them an e-mail. I’m, like, ‘Just go knock on the door, look them in the eye and say, ‘You wanna come over?’”
Speaking of technology, I was curious what Walter has playing on his iPod these days so I asked him.
“It’s funny, I really don’t listen to much that is like what I do because I do at least 200 shows a year and I’ve done 21 albums in 23 years. I need to get away from it so when I’m on tour and I’m sittin’ in the van and I’ve got my iPod goin’, I’m probably listening to anything from Joni Mitchell to Miles Davis to Duke Ellington to Crosby, Stills and Nash to James Taylor or Kate Bush or something like that. I kinda stay away from blues with loud guitars and stuff because, in order to do it at the level I do it at, I have to immerse myself in it and dive in completely. Then, when I’m done, I wanna hear something completely different. So, like I said, I’ll listen to jazz. I’m a big fan of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell and Ella Fitzgerald and Placido Domingo and lots of different stuff. Nothing like what I do.”
My final pair of technologically related questions had to do with guitars: how many does he own and is there what he considers a “Holy Grail” of guitars?
“I don’t know. Maybe about 20. I’m not collector. I’m not into the whole vintage thing. Matter of fact, the whole vintage thing ticks me off ‘cause they’ve taken those guitars out of the hands of players and put ‘em in the hands of guys who put ‘em in a safe. I’ve got a few Strats, got an old Tele – I own probably 20 guitars but I end up just using a couple of them.
And the Holy Grail of guitars?
“Oh, yeah, the old one that’s on the cover of all my CDs. I’ve owned that one – next year it’ll be 40 years and when I bought it, it was white. We actually have it done as a mosaic in stone in the floor of our house. We have an exact duplicate of it in stone. When you walk in my house, that’s the first thing you see in the floor. So, that one for me is the Holy Grail. Actually, I use that on Lonely. That song is on my old guitar and after did that song with it – we started with that song and after I did it, the guitar broke electronically. It needs to be taken apart and re-soldered. The rest of the album is my touring guitar. I don’t take that old one on tour anymore. It’s too much stress. People go, ‘Well, why don’t you take it on tours?’ when I’m in Europe, and I go, ‘Because, if somebody stole it, I would exercise my Second Amendment rights’ and they look at me like, ‘What?’”
It’s an American thing. They wouldn’t understand.
As we were wrapping up our chat, I asked Walter how he wished to be remembered when he goes to that great blues gig in the sky.
“I would hope they look back and go, ‘He was a dedicated artist who tried to say something with his art. Whether he succeeded or not, that is up to interpretation. That’s a guy who devoted his life to being an artist and was serious about it and, also, helped a lot of young people get going.’ I have a lot of young guitar players that I mentor and that means a lot to me. Of course, I would want my wife and my kids to look back and say, ‘He was a good husband and a good father’. That’s incredibly important and probably the most important – three kids! But as far as how the world would see me, a guy who just gave everything he could have to try to be the best artist he could be.”
Clearly, many of us are already saying just that.