Blues Blast: You are originally from the Jersey Shore area, one of my favorite places to be, but what’s up with that TV Show?
Walter Trout: I watched that show for five minutes once, and said these are not the people I grew up with. But here I am in Huntington Beach, CA. So . . .
BB: I agree, what are they trying to sell us ….
WT: Are you recording ?
BB: Yes I am.
WT: Great, you can quote me as to exactly what I am saying. I did an interview with a major publication and the guy said “…I don’t need to record or take notes”. He had asked me about authenticity, and I said if you’re talking about the real authentic blues – I am not an old black guy from Mississippi and I never will be. So I have to play what’s in my heart and be honest with myself and if I can look in the mirror and say that was me without a facade or a front then that’s authentic.
So when they published the interview he had me saying “authenticity is not honest”. He completely turned it around. I was dumbfounded.
BB: I had the chance to see you perform at the BMA’s, the required fifteen minutes, it was great, a tad late in the evening but well worth the wait.
WT: Yes, they gave me fifteen minutes and in front of the stage they have a counter, when I left the stage I had thirty seconds left.
BB: What were those selections, they were captivating?
WT: I opened the set with a pretty hard rockin’ number called ‘Maybe a Fool’ which is the opening track of my ‘Common Ground’ CD. Then I ended it with ‘Common Ground’ which is a softer number.
BB: That’s what amazed me was the softer side – not necessarily what you are known for but the stuff that shows you can do anything you want and well.
WT: Sure, what kinda gets me is that they always say he just gets up and plays loud and really fast, but on every one of my albums there are soft ballads. I love ballads and they are there. People just look past that, also there are acoustic songs on each album. I guess it’s the way it is, I just keep doing what I do and am enjoying it and having fun, it really is up to the people to make of it what they will.
BB: Walter, your music seems to reflect a ‘world view’ or have a ‘social conscience’ – without being folksy or preachy. Is this a conscious effort on your part or does it just come from within and is part of your creative inner self?
WT: I am glad you noticed that, it is important to me. If you are talking about the songs I write – I will give ya two answers on serious and one humorous. I am effected by what I see going around me, and from I was a kid I always I have always thought that art can be a means of communicating to people and maybe changing them a little bit. It’s important to me to do that, to try to say something with what I am doing, something I believe in. that I feel, something I see happening be it heartache or injustice in the world.
Now for the humorous part….this is a true story. Back in 1976-77 (?)I had a girlfriend that I was living with, and I was starting to write songs a lot. I still had a day job. At night I was playing with Big Mama Thornton and John Lee Hooker but in the day I was working in a warehouse. I was starting to write, and one day she had a few drinks, oh, and she was a blues fan, but she said to me. “Walter, every Blues song has one of two themes”. I’m sitting there trying to write, pencil in hand, I say ”Yes, my dear what are those themes?” She replies “Theme Number 1 – My baby left me and I’m bummed out” and I say yeh there’s a whole lotta those. “Theme Number 2 – I’ll buy you a Cadillac if you’ll sit on my face.”…..
BB: Oh man that’s great ! Hopefully you give her credit for this directional advice.
WT: I took that advice to heart, and have stayed away from those two themes. I still know her, she will show up when I play in Northern California and sometimes I will tell it from the stage. Well, she had a point – don’t fall into that typical rut, and I find that sometimes this genre can get a little too immersed in that stuff. When I was a kid, before I even got into the bands, my brother would bring home albums by John Mayall and he would write songs like the laws must change to fit the times. John always wrote songs about other themes. He wrote about politics and injustice – it always attracted me to his music.
I use that for an inspiration, you don’t have to be stuck into one thing just because it’s the blues. You can use it to say something.
BB: I think that might be happening more these days, many of the newer bands are addressing those issues and playing relative stuff.
I have to ask how cool was it that your brother would play John Mayall records for you, and there you were playing with him.
WT: I told John that when I got into his band. I said John I remember being a little kid and my brother handing me an album called ‘The Blues Alone’ by John Mayall, saying listen to this guy he plays the harmonica and overdubs it over the sound of a train. I really got into it back then, and here I am in your band and it blows my mind. I am still in awe of some of the people I have had the honor to play with over the years because they were such heroes of mine when I was a kid.
BB: So how did you go from playing with John Mayall to going out on your own?
WT: Well that was a difficult move for sure. When I lived in NJ I had a band, and it was still a four piece configuration, guitar, bass keyboards and drums. Played my songs, but we couldn’t get anywhere. I came out to LA with the intention of doing exactly what I am doing now. The original plan was for the entire band to come out here, but one by one by chickened out and finally when it came down I was the only one left. I said the hell with it, I’m gone.
I came out here with a VW bug, one hundred and fifty dollars, a Gibson 335, Martin D-28, a mandolin, a trumpet, and a Fender Super Reverb amp – stuck it all in the bug and just started jamming with people.
As it turned out, I got hired by people to play guitar with them, I went from one band to another. After I had been with John for five years – it was on my birthday and we were in Gothenburg, Sweden I believe it was ’88 or ’89 – I was standing up there playing with him, but started thinking that I was thirty-eight and being very lackadaisical about pursuing my own music. It had been very comfortable to play with Canned Heat , Mr. Mayall or out with John Lee Hooker, but if I wanted to make a stab at doing my own thing I had to go for it.
So after that gig I went to his room and said I would have to quit. We both cried, he was like a dad to me, so he said not to worry it’s your birthday and you would feel different in the morning. But I knew it was time, I had a very secure position with him, as far as being a side man and playing lead guitar in the blues you cannot get any higher than that – where are you going to go ? B.B. King, Buddy Guy you won’t be featured, that was the pinnacle. He made me into a name, put me out there every night let me sing, play lead and front the band. I knew I had to take the next step but it was frightening, one thing he did say to me was Walter if you do this and you fail don’t call me up a year from now. By then I will have a new guitar player and once you leave you are gone. It was said with love and respect, he has been through this a lot. To this day we are still friends, and I was talking to his wife and we realized I had just put out my twentieth album – who woulda thunk it.
BB: With your latest release, ‘Common Ground’ it addresses what seems to be a growing rift in our society, and, possibly, the entire culture of acceptance. Is there no common ground left for us?
WT: I have had that title and concept for that song for many years, and it was a ‘political song’, but I could never get anywhere with it. I realized that I had to get past the partisanship and make it a bigger picture thing. I don’t know if it’s in human nature to actually find common ground, but I think that with the internet and cable TV it gets harder and harder to find. I think the attempt at coming together and actually solve problems seems to get harder and harder to do. With the information explosion over the last fifteen years it has gotten more difficult to discern what the truth really is. Rumors become truth, it is harder – but I want to be a hopeful, optimistic person. I want to believe that we can dig ourselves out of the hole as we have done before, but it is going to require some serious, tough action.
That song is really just a prayer that I put to music. Once I decided to make it a call for help rather than a pissed off political song it wrote itself in a matter of minutes.
BB: So what did a young Walter Trout listen to as a young child?
WT: One of the big ones in our house, and this was long before he had hits, was Ray Charles. It ranged all over the musical map, Bill Monroe, Benny Goodman, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Rollins, Elvis. For my tenth birthday I got to spend the day with Duke Ellington – how cool is that.
BB: Can you tell me more about that ?
WT: One day my mom said hey it’s your birthday and Duke Ellington and Tony Bennett are going to be playing at the theater down the street and would you like to go. This is the day of the gig – it’s like two in the afternoon – and we go down to get tickets and as we are getting them up pulls a bunch of automobiles and all these Black musicians with horn cases are getting out, and there goes Duke Ellington walking around the back of the theater. So my mom and I go around to the back door and she knocks and says to the security guy my son is ten years old, it’s his birthday and is an aspiring trumpet player and is there anyway Mr. Ellington would shake his hand or give an autograph. Off he goes and says follow me – we are escorted into the dressing room with Duke and the full orchestra. So there I am with Paul Gonsalves, who played sax and Pat Anderson – trumpet – so I ask Pat how he hit those high notes and he pulls out the trumpet and gives me a lesson. My mom is talking to Duke and Tony and they call me over. Mr. Ellington gave me advice and told me several things that have stayed with me through the years. Keep your focus on the talent and the music, fame is fleeting – just be an artist and loyal to your talent and gift and it will take care of you. It was an amazing experience, he was the most warm, kind and charismatic human being I ever met. I came away thinking if this is what a musician is then I want to be one. I just hold Mr. Ellington in the highest esteem it was one of my most blessed experiences in my life. I try to keep his words close, and believe I have done so.
The post script to that is five years later I met Buddy Rich and I thought I never wanted to play music again. You know, every night after a gig when I am in the merch booth and a kid comes up, I say to myself, I can be a Duke Ellington or a Buddy Rich. I am extremely concerned about trying to give those kids a positive image of what a musician can be. You can greatly influence a kid’s life with just five minutes of your time.
BB: Can I ask about the Buddy Rich thing ?
WT: Well let me say he physically attacked me after I asked him for an autograph for my father. He had to be pulled of me in a music store in Philadelphia. He just went off, calling me names – so whenever a new drummer comes into my band and wants to play some Buddy Rich in the system I say get that off and explain the deal to them.
BB: Well that sucks big time, but it is in keeping with what I have heard about his reputation. I can also see your why you have such a dedication to being positive and reinforcing influence to young kids who come to your shows.
You will be touring with Poppa Chubby in the ‘Giants Of Blues Rock Tour’, starting in, I believe, November 2011. What can we look forward to from you guys?
WT: I think it is going to be fun and exciting. I have know Ted for years we toured Europe and we even made a record of that tour…Jimi Hendrix Tribute Tour… I think he and I will push each other to new heights and be there on the stage jamming out. There is even talk of us bringing it to the United States.
BB: What else is Walter Trout up to?
WT: I still got a lot of touring to get me through the end of the year, going to start a festival run Europe, in August back in the states – NYC, Philly, Boston. In October we are scheduled to make a new record. We are playing around with concepts. A few years ago we did an album called ‘Full Circle’ where I had a guests come in and we played live in the studio, so we are getting some positive response from some great musicians who are interested in this concept. That’s pretty much October, November and then it’s back on the road.
Interviewer Chefjimi Patricola is a classically trained chef, blues loving writer and creative master of Blues411.com. He can also can be found on FaceBook and at festivals and clubs in your neighborhood and town.