Blues legend, Walter Trout, has just released his latest album, Survivor Blues, where he uncovers some rare treasures. We caught up with Walter during his tour in Washington to find out more about the new album and his love of the blues.
WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO UNCOVER SOME RARE BLUES TRACKS FOR SURVIVOR BLUES?
WT: It’s something I’ve had in the back of my mind for a while. There is such a huge, untapped history of blues music. Artists that have been forgotten or
overlooked. Even if you have well-known artists like Otis Rush, B.B. King, Mississippi Fred McDowell, there are hundreds of songs that have fallen by the wayside. I just thought it’s really a shame that a lot of people covering the same songs. How many versions of I’ve Got My Mojo working are there out there? We don’t need any more. You go to a bar and hear a blues band, and a lot of them are doing the same songs. There's such a rich, beautiful history there why not explore it a little bit. The concept of this record is to find these forgotten treasures.
THERE ARE SO MANY TRACKS TO CHOOSE FROM, WAS IT A HARD CHOICE TO MAKE?
WT: Well actually it was. At one point I had over 50 songs on my list that I had to whittle down. I wanted to do songs that have not been covered, and I started with Charlie Pattern and worked my way forward. I looked at some of the great songwriters, for example, I spent a day looking into Willie Dixon. He’s probably the greatest blues solo writer ever. I found a song of his called It Don't Make Sense, and he has some lines in there about transplants. “You gave sight to the blind with other men's eyes. You take one man’s heart and make another live.” I thought oh my God I have lived this song because I had a liver transplant. So I thought this song is right up my alley and I looked into it and Robben Ford covered it. Styx even covered it and they did it with an orchestra. So I thought I’m not going to do that song even though I relate to it. It' a great song but it’s been done already.
COULD THERE BE A SURVIVOR BLUES PART 2 WITH SOME MORE RARE TRACKS?
WT: That’s not a bad idea. I’ll have to talk to my wife about that. Right now I’m almost halfway through recording an album of all original songs. When I get back from the tour in March, I’ll probably go and do some more work on my originals, and that will come out later in the year, maybe next year. I’m about halfway done. I’ve got about six songs recorded already. This one is doing so well for me I’m not in a big hurry not to put anything else out.
YOU HAD TO ADD YOUR STYLE TO THE SONGS, WAS IT A CHALLENGE TO REARRANGE THE SONGS TO GIVE THEM THE WALTER TROUT TOUCH?
WT: You know that was part of the fun. Some of them are kind of close to the original album, and some of them are very different. Gods Word, which ends the record, was initially done by JB Lenoir and he did that with just an acoustic guitar and his voice, there’s not even a tempo to it. He plays a guitar lick and then sings a line, he plays a guitar lick and sings a line, it’s almost free form. I took it into the band and said that I had an idea for this song and said we’re going to turn into Jimi Hendrix. So we have had a lot of fun with that one.
A LOT OF THE SONGS HAVE REAL RELEVANCE TO TODAY'S WORLD LIKE NATURE'S DISAPPEARING AND OF COURSE, BE CAREFUL HOW YOU VOTE. WAS IT DELIBERATE TO ADD THOSE SONGS AS CAUTIONARY TALES?
WT: Well, I think it certainly is. With Be Careful How You Vote, you could be on the right or the left. You can be for Brexit, or against Brexit. I want to use that song to bring people together and not alienate them. That one, anybody, could listen to. But I do have to say Nature is Disappearing is more relevant now than when Mr Mayall wrote it 50 years ago because of what’s going on in America. Our fearless leader, Agent Orange there, has got rid of the Clean Air Act and water that he is subsidising coal and allowing the coal companies to dump their sludge back into the waterways. He's selling off the national parks to people that drill for oil while the rest of the world is moving forward at a rapid pace with renewable energy and we are going back to the 18th century and subsidising fucking cold. I know it’s crazy what’s going on over here. Hopefully, it will be short lived, and we'll go back to normal.
ROBBY KRIGER MAKES A SURPRISE APPEARANCE ON THE ALBUM; IT MUST HAVE BEEN A BLAST IN THE STUDIO WITH HIM?
WT: We did the album in Robbie Kriger's studio in LA, and it’s spectacular. It’s got state-of-the-art equipment it’s full of vintage gear. When we were recording Robbie would come in all the time and listen to playbacks. A lot of times he'd be sitting on the couch and playing along on the acoustic guitar. We bonded over our love of old country blues. I know he was in The Doors, but he told me that his favourite artist is Reverend Gary Davis, who was an old acoustic bluesman and he also mentioned Fred McDowall. So I said let’s take an old acoustic blues tune and let’s play it together. So we did Going Down to the River, and we arranged it on the spur of the moment. We went into the studio and played it live in just one take. It was great fun.
A LOT OF THE ALBUM FEELS VERY LOOSE AND HAS THE FEELING OF BEING PLAYED LIVE. WAS IT LIKE THAT THROUGHOUT MAKING THE ALBUM?
WT: For the basic tracks we just flew through them and played each song once or twice. We tried to do that 90% of the time. I’d be so concerned with what I’m playing on the guitar and directing the band that it was not arranged in advance, and sometimes the vocals suffered. So the majority of the overdubbing was vocally, but it was minimal. A lot of this album is just us playing live. I’m not the kind of guy who wants to do ten takes on one song, because you start thinking more and feeling less. For me it’s about the feeling, I don’t care if it’s got some warts on it.
THERE IS A TENDENCY TO OVER COOK THINGS SOMETIMES, AND YOU CAN LOSE SOMETHING IN THE MUSIC CAN'T YOU?
WT: Especially with this genre. I think if you’re in the Human League or Gary Numan you approach it differently, but in this genre, it has to be about the feeling.
YOU'VE ALSO GOT SUGAR RAY RAYFORD AS A GUEST ON THE ALBUM.
WT: He is an awesome singer we had a great time. Again we just stood around one microphone and sang it together one time through, and we had a blast. He is incredible.
THERE APPEARS TO BE REAL CAMARADERIE IN THE BLUES COMMUNITY. IS THAT REALLY THE CASE?
WT: It’s the truth, and they certainly rallied it around me when I was ill. I found out that it's a very small, tight family. My wife and our dear friend Kirby Bryant ( Danny Bryant's wife) put together a fundraiser, and without that, I don’t know what would’ve happened to me, because I probably would’ve lost my house. I probably still would’ve got the transplant, but I would’ve gone home and had nowhere to live because the system in this country is pretty brutal. The blues community is filled with really great people. Humble, kind, sweet musicians that are very happy to be members of the blues community the blues family. We all love to play music with each other it’s a beautiful thing to be accepted into that group of musicians and fans and be part of that.
SURVIVOR BLUES IS ALSO AN INSPIRATIONAL ALBUM FOR YOU AND THE BAND, TELL US A BIT ABOUT THAT.
WT: My wife came up with the title we were talking about the musicians on this album. The main band: Mike the drummer, John the bass player and Skip the keyboard player were all survivors. Skip recently had a triple bypass operation. Johnny and Mike are both in recovery and doing just great at being sober, but they’ve been through hell in their lives. The four of us are survivors, and the songs are survivors. They may be from another era, and maybe they’re forgotten but they survive in their beauty, and they survive in their relevance.
YOUR LAST ALBUM 'WE'RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER' FEATURED LOTS OF SPECIAL GUESTS, WHO ELSE WOULD YOU LIKE TO COLLABORATE WITH?
WT: Well I’d love to get on stage and play one song with The Rolling Stones, just because I’m a mega fan. That would be like living the dream to be on stage with those guys once. But collaborating, I'm not sure because the list of people I had on my last album was pretty mind-blowing.
A LOT OF THE ALBUM GOES BACK TO THE PEOPLE THAT INFLUENCED YOU GROWING UP, WHEN DID YOU FIRST FALL IN LOVE WITH THE BLUES?
WT: My dad had a bunch of blues albums he had T-bone Walker, BB King, John Lee Hooker and I heard it growing up but it didn’t grab me. I wanted to be a jazz trumpet player, so I was into Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and people like that. For my 10th birthday, I got to spend the day with Duke Ellington which sounds insane. I spent the afternoon talking to Duke Ellington and hanging out with his orchestra, and I got a trumpet lesson from Cat Anderson. Then in 1962, my brother brought home the first album from Bob Dylan, and there was something about the songs that spoke to me. I got an acoustic guitar, and I learnt three chords, and I realised that these folk songs were all three chords, so I could play them. Then came The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. I can still remember the date: Sunday, February 9, 1964, Channel 2, CBS 8 o’clock, Sunday night. It changed everybody’s life in the United States. So I had to have an electric guitar. A year later out came an album by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and they had a guitar player named Michael Bloomfield and nobody play guitar like that guy, it was astounding. As a matter of fact, my brother bought the album home and said “before I play this Walt, you’ve got a sit down because as soon as you hear this guitar solo, you’re going to fall over”, and that was it I knew then I wanted to play the blues. I was 14, and I decided there, and then I was going to be a blues guitar player, and I’ve never looked back.
YOU WERE IN JOHN MAYALL'S BLUESBREAKERS WHAT WAS IT LIKE BEING PART OF HIS BAND?
WT: I did five years with John and three albums. He called me and asked me to join his band, and I knew then that my life would change forever. If you’re a sideman in the blues and you’re a guitar player when John Mayall hires you, you've hit the pinnacle. You're at the peak. You can’t go any higher as a sideman in the blues. The only place to go is to stay in his band or go solo because anywhere else is a step-down.
IT'S AN INSPIRATIONAL ALBUM TOO, GIVEN THAT YOURSELF AND THE MUSICIANS ON THE ALBUM HAVE ALL HAD THEIR BATTLES. DO YOU THINK YOU OWN BRUSH WITH DEATH HAS MADE YOU MORE PASSIONATE ABOUT MUSIC?
WT: Oh it certainly has because it was taken from me. I was in hospital in that bed, on my back for eight months. I lost 120 pounds; I had brain damage, I couldn’t speak, I didn’t recognise my wife or my kids and I was in a coma for a lot of the time. It was a miracle that they were able to save my life. When I got home, I couldn’t play any more. It was gone from my brain; it was gone from my muscles. I couldn’t remember how to do it. I had to start over. So I sat down on the couch, and I started from scratch. I taught myself to play all over again from the very beginning. I and picked up the guitar and I couldn’t play. My fingers were cracked, and they were bleeding, and I said to my wife “this is the most painful thing I’ve ever done, how do people do this?” It was taken from me, so the fact that it came back, and I worked very hard to get it back, means more to me than it ever did. And I think that I have much more to say than I used to.
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO GET THE ABILITY BACK?
WT: It took me over a year, and I'd practice every day for six or seven hours. I just sat on the couch, and that’s what I did. And then I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do a gig or not. My first time back on the stage after two years was at the Royal Albert Hall. Most guys would go down to the corner bar and try to get up, play, and see what happens. Me, I went to the Royal Albert Hall. No pressure. It was nerve-wracking let me tell you.
YOU'RE PERFORMING WITH KRIS BARRAS AT THE ROCKING THE BLUES FESTIVAL LATER IN THE YEAR. WHO ELSE WOULD YOU CONSIDER TO BE RISING STARS OF THE BLUES?
WT: You’ve got a whole list of amazing young guitar players in your country. I can start giving you the list because they’re friends of mine, but I’m going to leave somebody out, and that will hurt their feelings. (laugh) But you've got Danny Bryant, Oli Brown, Lawrence Jones, King King, there is an amazing list of players from the UK, and it’s a really exciting scene you've got going there.
IT'S A BIT LIKE 1964 AND THE BRITISH INVASION, WITH ALL THESE BRITISH BANDS REINVENTING THE AMERICAN STYLE BLUES FOR A NEW GENERATION ONCE AGAIN.
WT: I grew up in the era of the British invasion. It started with The Beatles and then The Stones and The Animals, Manfred Man, the list just went on and on. We had this rock and roll, and I believe we were taking it for granted back then in 64. The British came over and said, “hey look what you’ve got with rock ‘n’ roll: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Motown.” They presented it right back in our face, but they put a little different spin on it. It was an amazing time in music, it was very creative. There was so much new stuff. Guys were taking these different genres and blending them. The 60s was an amazing time musically to grow up. You could turn on the radio in your car in 1967, and it was The Beatles, The Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Procol Harum, The Doors, it just kept going. It was an exciting time.
DID YOU MAKE IT TO WOODSTOCK?
WT: Yes I did. I was 18 years old. I was working in Ocean City, New Jersey and I was the trash man. I was driving around collecting people's garbage and some friends of mine showed up and said “we have this van, and we are going to this rock festival in New York do you wanna go?” and I said “well I’ve got a great job, I’m making really good money on the trash truck, who's playing?” They went down the list: Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, The Who, Joe Cocker, Sly and the Family Stone. I looked and thought, trash truck or Jimi Hendrix? I hopped into the van, and I never went back. It was an amazing experience, but I have to say a lot of it wasn’t that much fun. It was hard to get food, there was nowhere to go pee. It was very interesting, but I was so high it’s all a blur to me. I went to Woodstock, and they said “don’t take the brown acid,” so I took the brown acid, and I’m still waiting for it to wear off.