In Conversation with Walter Trout: Life Blues Stratocasters
Bluesdoodles was delighted when Walter Trout agreed to talk to us. As most of you will be only too aware in 2013 Walter was diagnosed with life-threatening liver failure and hepatitis C, followed by months in hospital, resulting in a successful liver transplant in 2014. Now he is back playing, and the first studio album since his recovery was the critically acclaimed Battle Scars and recently released Alive in Amsterdam. There was plenty to talk about.
BD: Good evening Walter thanks for taking the time out from your busy schedule to speak to Bluesdoodles this evening
WT: Delighted that Skype worked we can hear and see each other, even Othello joined in the fun with a wag of his tail and treats.
BD: Battle Scars an amazing album and unsurprisingly really emotionally charged, do you feel it as a concept album for the Blues?
I don’t know if it was the first concept album for the Blues but I think in some ways it was probably the first concept album for me. Go The Distance, when I did Go The Distance I had just turned 50 years old I wanted to do an album sort of what I felt on turning fifty. Which, now in hindsight seems to me I was a very young man at the time but I felt ancient you know. I tried to sort of do it but didn’t really work out to be as much a concept album as I had hoped it would be. I think this one [Battle Scars] certainly was especially because I told this story before, but will tell you here. I wanted to do a new album after coming through hell. I really wanted to write about, and had this new view of life, and had these new understandings about things, new feeling for being alive a new perspective on things. Everything had changed in my mind I saw the world differently I wanted to write about that but everything was coming out clichéd like for example, everything was ‘I see the sunshine’, ‘don’t the flowers smell wonderful’ it has all been done right. I went to my wife and I said I am really frustrated I have all this music. But every time try to put words in there it just comes out as clichéd bullshit, it would have worked great for who I don’t know err Olivia Newton John or something. She sat down and she said to me look here is what you have to do it might be painful for you sit down and put yourself back in that bed. I laid on my back for seven months that is a long-haul. She said put yourself back there think about it and when you get back how it felt, what you thought ,what you experienced write about that. Once she gave me that idea, she went out for the day and I wrote six songs I wrote more than half that record in on afternoon. By two days later I had it finished, it literally took me three days even two days so it was of course a concept album because I was really focusing on one thing. I would think about different aspects of it. Each song would be about a different part of that experience. So yea, it definitely came out as a concept album it kinda blew my mind really when two days later I had all these songs I was like wow this is like (Walter chuckles) almost like sitting on a couch and talking to a shrink talking to a therapist. Instead I did it with music. I really had something to say on this sometimes doesn’t always happen that way it can take a week to write a song this one was different I knew what I wanted to say.
BD: I am sure everyone is fascinated that you had to re-learn the guitar. Do you feel your approach/style has changed?
WT: I think I am a better player now. Let me tell you a story you know Bob Harris, his book Whispering Years, he told me that I am best guitarist in the world. I had lunch with him and he gave me the book back then, I said there are so many guys who can blaze, shred thank you for this. He said, “Do you know why I wrote this about you?” I said “No.” He said to me “it is how much you put into it” that was the quote. I think since I have come back from the brink and started out I can put even more into it. It means even more to me than it ever did. I think can put more feeling into every note. I can still play a lot of notes. Sometimes I can go way over the top and people say he is going over the top. But believe me I mean every single note. It was still in my head but I had no muscles. I had lost more than half of my body when I got sick I weighed 230lbs at the height of my illness I weighed little over 100 pounds so it was all my muscle had gone. When I first picked up the guitar I did not have the strength to push the string down to the fret I couldn’t do it. So I had to develop the muscle back, I also had to re-train my muscles to listen to what my brain, what signal my brain was sending. I knew how to play the chords just not capable of doing it. I basically spent a year with weights working with weights with little weights to develop my fore-arms. Spent 4-5 hours per day acoustic guitar they are a little more difficult they require, a little more strength. I came home in September, first time tried to play guitar in public was New Year’s Eve. I played two songs with my sons, every New Year’s Eve we set up a band in my front yard and on the stroke of midnight we play to my neighbour’s. We have done this for 13 years, I played two songs with my boys “laughing” Born To Be Wild and Fortunate Son by Creedance. After that I couldn’t play anymore, but I could actually play and it was joyous, then I did not really play a show in public until 15th June at Royal Albert Hall.
BD: So it was a long six-months between sitting on front step and getting up onto a stage.
WT: That was a lot of work still not up to full speed on New Years Eve.
BD: Was it scary getting back on stage again?
WT: It was a little scary but it was also, can’t say I was nervous I was apprehensive. I had come to terms with the thought of this maybe will go out there and have dizzy spell fall over. Maybe my hands will cramp up like they had been doing. Maybe I will open my mouth and nothing will come out. If that happens, it happens all I can do is go out there and give it my best attempt I have to say there was an incredible band of English musicians backing me up they were all just awesome. When I counted to four the band came in I thought to myself I’m home I’ve done this 10,000 times, this feels really good. Just a wonderful, wonderful time playing that show. BD: And you are back entertaining us once again WT: Yea yes we are.
BD: Which we see in your latest album Alive in Amsterdam your current album. It is full of emotion and the joy and power of being back on stage. Do you feel re-charged and motivated after the liver transplant?
WT: Being able to do that, it was taken from me all that time I laid in that bed sometimes late at night I would go on my cell-phone and watch a video of myself and I would go who is that guy? I couldn’t do that now if I tried. I can’t relate to that person. Then after I got it back, it means more than it ever did it is joyous to do that. Playing guitar and listening to what is coming out and I’m saying goddam this is fun. Like when I was fifteen I would play guitar with my friends it was not about going to be a star or getting record deal just playing in garage just experiencing the most joy in your life that you can experience being able to make sound most beautiful thing now to get up there. I don’t take one of those million notes I play for granted.
BD: Tell us about your guitars, and have you a favoured one?
WT: I am really Fender Strat guy. The first really good guitar that I owned, I had a bunch of kinda like cheap electric guitars when a teenager. I literally quit school and got a job so that I could go and buy a Les Paul. I started with a Les Paul and then from that I went to Gibson 335 because I dropped the Les Paul the neck broke in half it was horrible, I was 17, that happened to me and I was destroyed. Then I got a 335 I really loved Gibsons. Then one day I was at a party, which was a jam session with a bunch of musicians in Philadelphia a guy said try my Stratocaster he handed me a Stratocaster and I felt like I had found my lifelong partner. Ever since then it has been a Stratocaster and you know have that old one that has is on the cover of all my records the one that when I bought was white now turned yellow and not much finish left on it I toured with that thing for 34 years. That guitar is an entity and has my spirit in it. I have retired it from road for two reasons. One, I was too worried about it getting stolen or something happening to it. Number two, it is very, very heavy some years ago I had problems with my shoulders and lost use of left arm and had to go and get all this physical therapy. I couldn’t play and had to start all over again back then also. Literally had to start all over again twice. It is just too heavy for me, I can play when in the studio when sitting down it is a Stock Strat. Now the guitar I am using on this record and tour with and unlike certain young guitar players well known guitar players who part of their hype use fifteen guitars on one song. I am one guitar one woman man here. I have this guitar that, back when shoulder went out a guitar builder out in California, Scott Lentz he built me an incredibly light Stratocaster, that weights almost nothing, he said this will save your shoulder. I didn’t really care for the neck so went to one of my other Strats that I have, I have a bunch of them, I only use one but I have other ones just to have them around. Took neck of one of those and put on the body he built for me. Then, Seymour Duncan, world’s foremost maker of guitar pick-ups. Seymour is a friend of mine we both come up playing in club circuit in New Jersey and Philadelphia he did the same thing, we’re the same age we came up through the years in the same place. He said to me, “I hear you’re retiring your old guitar”. I said yea, I can’t use it anymore, it killed my shoulder and also if someone stole it I’d have to like jump of a bridge or something” Seymour said, I’ll build you pick-ups and will sound just like it. He built me a couple of sets of pick-ups that is what is in there. If I set up my stage rig in the garage and if I go from the old to the new guitar it is very hard to tell the difference, he did an incredible job. That is my road guitar no, it is really a mutt! A dog of five different species. Neck off and old one, a body build for me and Seymour’s made the pickups. It definitely plays wonderfully and sounds great It’s become my main road guitar. That is the one on the live album.
BD: Going to take you back now, what were your musical influences growing up in New Jersey
WT: My parents were music aficionados was great to have, they didn’t play they just loved music. For instance my Dad was into Jazz and big bands. There used be a radio show in Ocean City, New Jersey where I grew up that played Big Band music and every week they would have a contest of trivia about big band musicians. He won it so many times that they disqualified him from calling in. He knew everything and all he did was listen to Duke Ellington, Ben Goodman, Glenn Miller he just loved it. He was also very open to all music. I remember him telling me to check out this guy from Ashbury Park, Bruce Springsteen and I said I knew him from when he was in competing club bands. Well he just made a record and it’s really good. My Mum was an incredible aficionado of music my big memories of her was in the other room I heard one of Ray Charles old blues albums before he had hits when he was doing R n’B on Atlantic. He was playing some Slow Blues song and my Mom was crying to the song. When they realized I really dug music they started taking me out my Dad would take me to black jazz cubs. They took me to see Ella Fitzgerald, Mum took me to see James Brown, Righteous Brothers, Lou Rawls Dad took me to see Clive McPhatter, Chuck Berry it was just really awesome
BD: If you were putting together the band of your dreams/perfect with members from across the years (dead or alive) who would you have playing?
WT: I would have the Guys I play with right now in m y band that’s the best band I’ve ever had. Part of having a band is the chemistry between the players the communication between the players as evidenced by The Beatles for me the greatest band of all time. If you take them separately they are what they are. Put those four together it’s an unbelievable divine intervention type of thing it’s about the chemistry. Right now I think I have the best blues rock band in the universe as evidenced by the new live album.
Alive In Amsterdam – Mascot Record Group
Guitar & Vocals – Walter Trout
Keys – Sammy Avila
Bass – Johnny Griparic
Drums – Michael Leasure
Battle Scars – Here