By: Craig Hunter Ross
To many, Walter Trout is a contemporary guitar legend and his guitar prowess, prolific recordings and non-stop tour schedule provide more than ample evidence to support the claim.
As member of Canned Heat and having spent several years with John Mayall’s BluesBreakers, Trout has also supported numerous masterful musicians throughout his several decades on the stage, including John Lee Hooker and Big Mama Thornton. He also ranks number six on BBC Radio One’s list of the Top 20 guitarists of all time.
Trout’s newest release, Blues for the Modern Daze, is his 21st album in the last 23 years and brings out his first hardcore all blues effort. As he prepares to embark on yet another extensive tour, he took some time to reflect on where he has been and where the new recording lead him.
Craig Hunter Ross: In reading that you were born and raised in New Jersey, can you share a little bit about who your early musical influences while you were growing up?
Walter Trout: Well, I grew up in a couple of different towns there, basically at the New Jersey sea shore and then I did high school up near Philly, actually doing my last year of high school in Philadelphia. I started off playing folk music really; Bob Dylan, Chad Mitchell Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary. Really though, I was ten years old then, and wanted to get into playing blues through Michael Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Cream, The Rolling Stones, you know pretty much a typical kid of the sixties I would say.
Craig: I’m assuming you also had the typical “Beatles Epiphany” watching the Ed Sullivan Show.
Walter Trout: Oh, that was beyond an epiphany! That was life changing. As a matter of fact, I can say eight o’clock, Sunday night, Channel 2 CBS in Philadelphia, February 9, 1964!
Craig: It’s always amazing how many musicians say that was the moment they knew they wanted to be a musician, as a career and to take it to the next step.
Walter Trout: That was it. After that, nothing was the same in the lives of me or my friends, especially me I think.
Craig: Was it the musical aspect? Was it the reaction they were getting?
Walter Trout: It was the whole thing. It’s really hard to explain if you weren’t there and didn’t experience it. I’m old enough that I remember Elvis on Ed Sullivan. So, I really remember that first rock and roll wave. I was five when he was on and watched it with my parents. My mother loved it and was freaking out, but it didn’t affect me in the same way as they [The Beatles] did. They were four guys that really seemed like one guy. It was a really weird phenomenon. When they played together, it was like one person playing four instruments. I’ll go back and watch live clips of them and I still don’t think there’s ever been a better band in history…there won’t be.
You know, I tell people it wasn’t just the music, it was a social movement. They’ll go down in history books; even a hundred years from now, people will still read about them because the entire movement of society changed at that moment.
Craig: You would almost have to ask if they hit at the right time, or did they create the right time?
Walter Trout: I think you would have to say it’s a little of both. In a certain way, and I hate saying this, the fact that JFK had just recently been assassinated, it was like the world, especially the United States, was looking for a new start, something to get our minds off this incredible national grief and guilt. They provided that. Sure it could have been other bands, but they had the musical genius to do it. So, it was a combination of stuff, but man they have stood the test of time. My wife and I went to the Hollywood Bowl two years ago and saw Paul McCartney and spent a lot, got front row box seats and he was amazing.
Craig: Speaking of icons, I’ve read that at a young age you actually spent a day with Duke Ellington and Tony Bennett, is that correct?
Walter Trout: Yeah, I didn’t get to spend much time with Tony Bennett though my mom was sitting there talking to him. I think she fancied him a bit, I don’t know. I was into the players, you know, the horn players.
At the time, I wanted to be a jazz trumpet player. So, I was sitting there with Paul Gonsalves, Cat Anderson, Johnny Hodges, the drummer Sam Woodyard; we’re just talking music and Cat Anderson gave me a trumpet lesson and I sat on the couch with Duke and just talked with him for a long time.
This was in South Jersey in a theater. We went there to pick up tickets; my mom was going to take me there for my birthday to see them. So we went down in the afternoon to pick up our tickets, since it was very near to our house. It was just going to be her and me. It was a beautiful day, we’re down there and all these cars drove up and these immaculately dressed black guys started getting out of all the cars carrying their horns. We were like “Wow, that’s them!”
So we went around to the stage door and my mom knocks on the door and says to the guard there “My son is ten and is an aspiring jazz player. Do you think Mr. Ellington would give him an autograph or shake hands?” Five minutes later, we were escorted in the dressing room.
I remember I walked in and the first person I saw was Paul Gonsalves. Now here’s a little ten year old white kid, and I walked up to him and said “Man, that solo you did on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”, where you did twenty-seven choruses and started a riot is one of the greatest things I’ve ever heard.” He just looked at me and started laughing his ass off and from that moment they pretty much adopted me.
Then I went up to Johnny Hodges and I say “I can’t believe how great you play the clarinet on “Moon Indigo’”. I knew all their music, so they just dug it, though it was probably kind of weird to them that there was this little white kid that knew everything they had recorded and who played the solos. So, I was pretty much “in” and we ended up spending the whole afternoon there. It was awesome.
I had a great talk with Mr. Ellington and sat there completely in awe. He was so nice, warm and had that grin. I told him I’d seen him in Philly with Ella Fitzgerald and he was just so into it. He talked to me about being a musician, an artist, how much he loved it and if I wanted to go into it to keep focused on the art aspect, not getting caught up in the quest for fame. He said the way to longevity was to devote yourself to the music, not the hype. I’ve tried to follow his words all my life.
Craig: Was it at that point you kind of knew that this was something you wanted to do?
Walter Trout: I certainly came out of there with that, yeah. That was in 1961, so that was still three years away from The Beatles. But, I knew I had never met anyone that charismatic in my life as those guys were. I came out of there and I said to my mom, “Those guys know the secret, I don’t know what the secret is, but I want to find out.” Like Louis Armstrong used to say, “If you have to ask, I can’t tell ya.” They were just unbelievably warm, humorous dudes. I have yet to be that affected by meeting somebody since. BB King is like that too; a unique special person, not just musically.
Craig: Let’s skip ahead to your time with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers; such an impressive fraternity to be part of, what with Clapton, Green and Taylor. How did that affect you as a player?
Walter Trout: Well, you know, at the time I was in Canned Heat, whom I had met through playing with John Lee Hooker. I’d gotten to know Mr. Hooker and Big Mama Thornton and people like that playing with Canned Heat. After I had been with them for awhile, Mayall put the original Bluesbreakers back together with Mick Taylor and John McVie and Canned Heat did three shows opening up for them; Santa Cruz, San Francisco and Oakland. I just started hanging out with John and one night he came up to me and said he really loved the way I was playing guitar. At the end of those three nights, he told me he had some gigs coming up and that he’d like to hear me play second guitar for Mick Taylor. I had a few weeks off, so I went out and did shows with the original Bluesbreakers. I was still though committed to Canned Heat, so I went back on tour with them, but John and I kept in touch. Then one day John asked if I wanted to join his band and I was like “You best believe I do, where do I sign?” (Laughs)
Craig: Fast Forward to the present, you’ve just completed a successful European tour…
Walter Trout: Yeah, got back about two weeks ago. The tour went great, lots of sold out shows. I’ve been touring over there with this band since 1989, so it went great. You have to understand; in Europe I had a number one record in 1990. It was a gigantic hit and moved me up to be one of their more mainstream rock guys, even though I am really a one hit wonder there. It did give me a large fan base and I have been able to hold onto them. Over here [United States] I just tour constantly and give them the best shows that I can, building up that audience slowly. In Europe it was really overnight. One day I was playing in Copenhagen to two hundred people, then I hit a number one record and in two months I’m playing to five hundred thousand in the Netherlands.
Craig: What goes through your mind when you look out on such a vast expanse of humanity like that when you stand on a stage?
Walter Trout: You go “wow”. That show was the biggest crowd I ever played to. I remember going on and then remember it being over and wondering if we were done and what had happened. I was transported to somewhere else. My whole thing playing live is about communication, looking people right in the eye and establishing an intimacy with the audience. If you are in a little club you can do that a certain way, but with a half million people, it’s a challenge.
Craig: Do you find in performing live that you vary your approach depending upon the size of the venue or the crowd, or when you are on the stage you are just on the stage and you perform regardless?
Walter Trout: When I’m on the stage I’m playing to those people. I have to look them in the face. So, if it’s a big crowd, I may be looking at and playing to the people in the front, but I am also trying to project to the people all the way in back. I’m not a guy that has some imaginary wall between me and the crowd. I want them to know I am one of them, I just happen to be playing the guitar. In the dressing room we jokingly refer to ourselves as “the people’s band.” We want them to know that we are one of them and it should be a communal experience. We don’t want some “hey look at us” feel, we want to move you and have you feel what we’re doing. That’s what it’s about for us, the communication and the connection.
Craig: I know a lot artists lately have complained about those who come out on stage, stare at their shoes and act as though they are doing the audience a favor as opposed to, as you have stated, being one with the audience…
Walter Trout: Exactly, I can’t handle that either. We have a lot of humor in our shows, though I have toned some of it down, because of You Tube. We just play, we’re spontaneous. I’ll go out at a festival, the crowd will be over a hundred thousand and we won’t even have a set list. We just start playing. The band watches me, I stop one song, start another. If they aren’t paying attention, well there lies the potential for a train wreck! I hire great players, but man they can’t let their attention wander. They have to stay tuned in.
Craig: You said on your newest release, Blues for the Modern Daze, you wanted to really capture the band as they would be live. Do you think you accomplished that goal?
Walter Trout: I think I have. Of all my studio records, I think this one comes the closest to what you get when you see us live. We also mixed it and mastered it in a way that would be very dynamic so it would be similar to a live performance. We didn’t put compression on there; we didn’t do a bunch of studio crap. It’s just a good recording of us playing live. We did go back and put a few extra solo tracks in and such and sweetened it a bit, but it is really us in a big room set up in a semicircle looking at each other and playing.
Craig: Did you record any of this on the road? Going back through your touring schedules, they just look like a beast, how did you manage to fit this in?
Walter Trout: I wrote it all in about two weeks. I’ve done 21 albums in 23 years. I come home from a tour and I’ll be sitting down and my wife will remind me I’m in the studio the next month and I’m like “Yeah, what about it?” Then I go “Oh Shit,” and disappear in the garage for a few weeks. This one though came to me really quick and really easy. I think it was just sort of meant to be. Sometimes writing is painful. When I was in the middle of writing my last one, Common Ground, my wife sent me an email telling me that I was becoming mentally unstable. This one though just flowed out. It was a joyous experience.
Craig: Some of the tracks on the new recording sound a bit autobiographical. Were they, and was that your intent?
Walter Trout: Yes, they are. The opening track is about my mom. She raised me by herself, she had a tough time. She was married but my step father had a lot of mental problems and alcohol problems, so we were always moving around trying to get away from him. So, that’s directly about her. A lot of it is right out of my experiences, thoughts and beliefs. I can get emotional to play. When I do “Brother’s Keeper”, that gets emotional.
Craig: One track especially, “Pray for Rain” that has such a soundtrack feel to it. Has anyone like say a Ken Burns or others ever tapped you for a movie score?
Walter Trout: I just need someone to push that song to Ken Burns, I am a mega fan! I wrote that song on tour driving through fields that are now just dry dirt and river beds that look like desert. I tried to do a 1930s type feel to that. We even mixed it in mono so it would sound like an old record. Hopefully sometime that’s something I could get into.