Bluesdoodles In Conversation with Sonny Landreth
BD: Firstly, thank you for taking the time out to chat with Bluesdoodles today; July 4th. I was delighted to have had the opportunity via Mascot to review your latest album Live at LaFayette; it is ninety-three minutes of music heaven, smooth, warm and spiced up with clever licks and breaks to keep the listening ear totally engaged.
SL: Great, I love hearing that we try to plan some of these things out, but other things we have no control over and just hope it all pans out when playing live.
BD: What were your first musical influences growing up in Louisiana?
SL: In Louisiana I was already into music, my elder brother Steve was always bringing music in to the house. Elvis Presley was a big thing in Mississippi when I was still living there. Then I discovered Scotty Moore. By the time we got here, there was always music in the area as it is such a big part of the culture here with the Cajun and Creole influences. There were shows on the weekend, on TV and live bands playing, bands would play at the openings for a store you name it a flatbed truck would have a band playing on there, that was in the area and it was great to have that. Walking down town on my first Mardi Gras locally and I sneaked into a bar because I was mesmerized by the sound on the jukebox it was Ray Charles. It was great my family would go back to New Orleans that was the first time I heard Jazz, Rn’B and second line rhythms and so forth. So between all the influences of the music I liked I became a big fan of Chet Atkins, The Jazz Cats and Wes Montgomery. I started out on the trumpet so I had all those jazz heroes like Miles Davies, Ornette Coleman and so forth. So by time I got into the blues which is more of a guitar thing I was thirteen and the list goes on and on… (laughing)
BD: So what Made you change from the Trumpet to the guitar?
SL: Well I actually kept up the trumpet at school from 10 years old, fifth grade up until my two years in college and twenty. By the time I started to play guitar the Beatles came along and everybody wanted to have a band. If Scotty Moore fired me up to learn how to play a guitar it was The Beatles that fired me up to play in a band, as did my best friend Tommy, he wanted to play drums and that was our first band he and I, guitar and drums, lot simpler back then! You know with the guitar learning Beatles songs, really for us it was the instrumental thing that worked up some of those songs, played our first gig, we were hooked. A little later I was working in a family operated music store Prof Erny – that was a great experience. He supplied the music, sheet music, instruments for all the band directors in the area. They sold records, they had a guitar room, so I was lost in there most of the time. There was an older kid there who said man you have to listen to Chet Atkins. Well I heard of him so he sat down and started playing Chet songs it just blew my mind. He started to teach me finger style, so I had to practice that to get the right hand finger picking style of Chet. That was my entry in to the world of solo guitar meaning playing the melody, rhythm and bass lines all at the same time and think of the guitar as a solo instrument. By the time I started listening to the Delta Blues and getting into the blues that’s how I related to the finger picking of all the old blues cats. Started tackling the Slide, I had Chet’s Right Hand technique and slide on little finger of my left hand that started me on my path really.
BD: That all sounds really clever to me!
SL: Well sure shows how clever I was. I was young so into it, so enthusiastic, didn’t have any hang-ups, preconceptions or perceived notions. My worlds view is about figuring out the next chord. Not a bad place to be, you don’t have prejudiced perception. So your view of reality has not been so imposed on, that you are not open to any and all ideas. I think that was one of the great things about being raised here in South Louisiana because music is such a part of the culture I was open to everything and all those influences.
BD: Yes lots people get closed into a style or approach very early one.
SL Yes they do, I think having played a wind instrument to start off with I came to the guitar with a different perspective, more like a horn player. Where you have to take a breath that affected my phrasing. I guess what I was trying to accomplish on the guitar was different from my contemporaries. They were coming more rock n’ Roll cranking it up to 10 and fire away nothing wrong with that I love it. It helped me in addition to that to think of it in a different way more dynamically. Also that is where the slide comes in because of its vocal quality. I didn’t realise it at the time, but many years later I recognise that my jazz and blues heroes were all striving to emulate the human voice so slide really leads itself to that because of its lyrical quality.
BD: Live at LaFayette is a long awaited live album. How did you decide which tracks to include from the three nights and the decision to have a mix of Acoustic & Electric and as a double album.
SL: That was one of the advantages of doing it here at home. Everything came together my engineer’s studio just few blocks away as a resource for equipment, had him there and musicians in the main are all close by. There is a real nice theatre that has been built since my last live album I did eleven years ago. It was perfect setting for this kind of thing for a multi-night stance. We went in on the Monday set up, sound checked rehearsed with my trio Steve Conn and Sam Broussard. We recorded three nights in a row, that way you can relax more, you have more than one go at it. The hardest thing about recording live is not to think about it, not worry about it, get into the moment just like you do at any other gig that is what you have to capture. So in order to decide which songs that was a little bit of a trip. Some songs were real obvious, some of the instrumentals I wanted to get those down just like we play night after night with my trio. Then I knew I wanted Steve and Sam to expand some of the other songs that we had been playing like for example Back To Bayou Teche and Walkin Blues I knew they would wail on those, have more colour more texture creating a big sound. Acoustic is where it got really interesting I started to think well, some of these songs that had been electric all along and had bigger production in the studio like probably any songwriter would tell you. Some of those songs started out with me just on an acoustic guitar coming up with ideas, melodic line, set of changes that led to an idea for a lick, then led to a line lyric line of song becomes a chorus. Takes a while! That is what the whole process revolves around just you on an acoustic guitar. Went back to that just to embrace the essence build on it somewhat with an ensemble it was fun cos then you are re-interpreting songs that had a bigger production on the albums. I have always felt a good song can be interpreted in a number of ways like Creole Angel and Bound By The Blues actually speak better as an acoustic setting. Because there are so many lyrics they go by so quickly and I think the audience gets engaged more. There are some element of dynamics as well, we figured out the best first come out and do an acoustic set, take a break and then come back out and ramp it up. That is how we approached the recording as well, then I realised we had enough material to do a whole disc acoustic and another electric. We kept adding a song each night that is how it came about. I wish I could say I masterminded the whole thing from day one, had it all planned out. I always wanted to leave something to chance anyway cos that is where some of the more interesting stuff happens, but in terms developing into the concept of a double album it was kinda cool how that came about.
BD: If planned too much it can become too produced too sterile?
SL: Yes, it does nothing wrong with that if that is your thing. That is what I love about the studio a lot of that is like a painting where you have a canvas and you are adding colours then you get up one morning and you go that looks really good here or embellish it here and that is great. The thing about a live performance the energy with audience and the performers it becomes actually something else more personal connection that way. It certainly propels us to play better there is no doubt about it I can’t really do that in the studio up to a point. To be honest our last album Bound By The Blues was pretty much live in the studio with my trio and so we had lot of that feel about it. But when I have an audience it just takes it to another level and that is what you want to capture with a live album. And the other thing was in that setting and have it be somewhat of a retrospective of different songs over my career which I felt took it to the next level as well more of a personal statement. Something I felt the long-time fans would appreciate the different interpretations you know and then for newcomers be a good introduction. BD: And they will then go and explore your other albums! SD: I mean it was kinda like your life flashing before your eyes. To be honest it was a nice affirmation to have too many songs to chose from. I would far rather have that than like only have three albums for forty-six years on the road that would be little disappointing. That was fun for me I enjoyed that aspect of it.
BD: Tell our readers about your infectious sound delta blues and zydeco influences? And for people especially in UK what is it about zydeco, creole sound that you create, separating your sound from pure Delta?
SL: Two different things in that regard, there is common thread and that is the Blues.Zydeco music Creole much influence of their African roots, original tribes, sound, rhythms and syncopations in particular and that is the biggest difference between that and Cajun music. Cajun music is the descendants of Nova Scotia and the Great North up there who were deported and settled in this area and a lot of them grew up side-by-side with Creoles so there was a give and take, that is really beautiful there which is why the music is so rich and diverse. Delta Blues across the Mississippi River there is a thread if you listen to say Mississippi John Hurt, playing his acoustic guitar and singing basically telling a story, call them story songs. Then if you were to hear Clifton Chenier playing Blues always in his repertoire, he mixed up blues with everything else and he formulated the sound, the great pinnacle to Zydeco sound there was that element to it. Zydeco per se is real upbeat, syncopated and really the best of it Clifton on his accordion, his drummer Big Robert and his brother Cleveland on the rub board. The three of them would just get of the stage a played old style Zyedeco, I just loved it, you just can’t not move when you hear that music, it is good for the soul.
BD: What are the Blues or how do you define the Blues the perennial debate?
SL: For me main thing about the blues if you take an overview it is such a profound experience again speaking culturally again. It is Grace in the face of adversity. Lot of the kids coming up they learn the licks try and get across to them they need to study the history of the players and the time they lived and what they were going through. It is the back story that is so important and all of them that as a common denominator overcoming challenges. That is why Blues is a universal language, it is something people all over the world relate to. It is these challenges really the things that unite us, I think that is why it resonates with people everywhere. It will always be pertinent, always evolve, will have new players. A lot of the old guard we have lost; not many left at all. That is probably true of all folk music or music that is important of the people. When I say folk music I literally mean music comes from people and their lives, big part of history there that’s when you factor that into story songs it becomes a richer experience that to me is profound.
BD: For me it was your opening phrase Grace in the face of adversity is just brilliant.
SL: Part of it is all the trials and tribulations and my God! The things that people went through was just horrific and beyond belief. But they would turn to music and they would express, there would be a release in that expression that joy in the moment a thing to have, there is something about that connection that does make it so profound. It is not just another fad or pop song sells in the moment but doesn’t equate to the test of time and that is the big difference. Great music to me is music that stands the test of time.
BD: Your bottleneck/slide guitar style is so full of power what makes your playing stand out from the crowd and your distinctive sound many describe you as King of Slydeco?
SL: I think what happened to me looking back I am so comfortable is so many different genres of music because of growing up here and that is great, versatility is a good thing. It is possible to go in too many directions at once I think when I landed on and beginning to work with the slide and started to make my way with it I realised it was a way to crystallise all these influences into a unified sound that was my own. Very much included songwriting as well and that became my focus. The fact that I started out on another instrument, influenced by all the other instruments in the area, accordion, rub board, triangle everything because slide offers a greater potential for creating sounds, I picked up on that pretty early and would begin to try and emulate some of these other instruments so I think that is part of it. I definitely made some discoveries that opened the window in terms of possibilities, harmonically, percussively, lyrically I could accomplish all that it was a bigger layer of sound from one instrument so to speak. All those influences come to bear you hope some like cosmic dust rubs off on you. As I got more opportunities to work with people, I always paid attention to how they worked and it has to be your passion.
BD: If you were putting together the perfect fantasy band with members from across the years (dead or alive) who would you have playing
SL: I would probably but my heroes together, I could watch them play just sit on the side of the stage
Accordion: Clifton Chenier
Drums: Big Robert, just primitive style never heard anything like him.
Bass: Noel Redding
Guitar: BB Guitar, Jimi Hendrix
I met Jimi Hendrix in store in Baton Rouge he had run away from his road manager and I talked to him . I heard BB; Jimi and Clifton play for the first time within a year when I was 16/17 years old. I have also met them all, takes us back to your first question that was incredible experience set the bar so high not a bad way to start out
BD: Are you planning to come to the UK.
SL: We are Yes, hopefully in the fall if not certainly 2018.
BD: Thank you for taking time out on 4th July
Note from editor: Check out his music over at Sonny Landreth