Walter Trout Talks About Luther Allison, Recovery and Fred

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Chicago Blues Camp
Walter Trout Jazzbones
Photo courtesy of Shawn Skager

Walter Trout just released the much anticipated  “Luther’s Blues”  and man was it worth the wait. If you read our review, you’ll get a sense of how fond we are of the album. In our opinion, It has something for most blues fans and at the same time, it has something for all the fans of “Fred”, us included. For those who don’t know, “Fred” is a term that Walter came up with to describe the vast area in between rock and the blues that guys like him sometimes inhabit.

Walter was kind enough to spend a little bit of time with us and we had quite a conversation. We touched on a number of subjects and he’s a bright, funny and highly opinionated individual. After a fun discussion about what is blues and isn’t blues, we decided it was best to leave that subject alone and let other people fight that battle. Here’s the interview:

ABS:  Let’s jump right into Luther’s Blues. Obviously it’s just a fantastic album, I’ve told you how much I like it, and I think people are going to be hard-pressed to find a better blues album right now, man. I think it has something for everyone. How proud are you of this?

Walter: I am proud of this, but I don’t do these things to congratulation myself. I like to get them out there and hope people are going to enjoy them. There are people who have their prejudices and sometimes I think if I put an album out under a different name and didn’t tell these folks it’s me, they’d go, wow, listen to that, then as soon as they hear it’s me, they say they don’t like that guy.

Those are few and far between these days. I’m building more of an audience in this country and it feels great to me. What I hope to do with this album, though, is really re-ignite some interest in Luther and his music, because I feel that the man deserves it. I feel he was one of the all-time greatest musicians I have ever seen and when I was a kid, I saw all of them. When I was a little boy, my mom took me front row to see Ray Charles, and James Brown, and Harry Belafonte, when I was 10 she had me hanging out with Duke Ellington. I saw a lot of great performers. I hung out with Ella Fitzgerald and saw her many times. Luther, to me, is one of those special, magical performers. I put him in a class with somebody in a whole different genre, be it Ella Fitzgerald or Itzhak Perlman, someone who really creates magic when they perform. He had that ability and I just want people to go back and remember this guy, and that’s why I did this.

Like you said, I think you’re going to bring in a broader audience than you’ve had before. Let’s hope they go back and check out the other stuff too. The vocals on the album are amazing, some of your best vocal work. How hard did you work on that?

You know, I just went in and sang the tunes. The thing that was happening, when I was sort of hot and heavy into putting this record together and I was watching videos of Luther and I was listening to his versions. I went to my wife and said, “You know something, this might be too big a project for me. I might have made a mistake here because his playing and his singing is so intense. I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” She said, “Just go in there and sing it as yourself, but give it everything you’ve got.” And that’s all I did.

I went in there and just sang those songs. I tried to get as involved in it as I could and I also tried to picture Luther and think of him as I sang and played and I was very conscious of trying to do justice to his music and trying to pay homage to him. If he’s up there in the air, in the sky, looking down at us, I want him to think I did a good job.

I think he would man. I think  you’re going to get widespread thanks for this project. Let’s ask a few questions that people left on Facebook. This is from our friend Janiva Magness, who you’ve probably heard of… [chuckle]

Yeah, yeah, I know Janiva very well, we’ve been friends for years.

We love her to death. She posted this question: “What is your view on the music business now versus before the onset of digital downloads? Do you think it is better for the artist overall or worse?”

I have to say, and people might disagree with me on this, I think it’s worse. Even my own kids sometimes, I have to persuade them not to download music for free. I tell them, look, this is what your father does. This is how I feed you guys. Those other artists have to pay their bills too.

For someone to think music is some throwaway thing, everybody has a right to it, that’s bullshit. We spend years practicing and developing our abilities, working on it. It’s the same as guys who go to college for 20 years to become a surgeon. They shouldn’t have to perform brain surgery for free. They’ve put years of work into it. Now with the downloading… I miss the record stores, I miss going into a store and just walking through and shopping, and the main thing I have to say that sometimes ticks me off is that guys like me in the long run, Apple ends up making more off my music than I do. But if you don’t put your stuff on itunes, you’re screwing yourself because that’s the biggest music market in the world now. Apple makes more off my records than I do. I don’t think they need the money.

I’m not in the mass market genre. I’m not a rapper and I’m not Taylor Swift here. I’m just trying to make a living in the blues genre, and it’s a niche market. It’s not mass marketed or anything. I think for artists like me it’s worse. For upcoming bands it’s probably better because they can get their music out there. They can have a website and Facebook page and they can put their songs up and their videos up whereas 20 years ago you have to go to labels and you had to get signed and hope that the label was going to market your records and get behind you. So I think for the young, upcoming guys it’s probably better, but for guys who have been at it a long time like me and Janiva, and we both started before there were even home computers, I think it’s a little bit worse than it used to be.

I agree with you. I see it all the time. You talked about record stores closing — do you think that the world is too busy for music sometimes? With video games, movies, and smartphones…

I know that in the 60s when I grew up, music had a very important place in our lives when we were teenagers. We looked to our favorite musicians almost like they had answers to the questions of life. I remember buying a Beatles album when I was 15 and thinking, these guys know the answer. I don’t even know the question yet, but these guys know the secret. It had a very important place in our lives.

Now there’s so much–back then there were 3 TV stations. Now I live in LA and have 1000 TV stations. I think music has been pushed into a little corner and it’s not really that important and now they use Beatles songs and Credence songs to sell underwear and perfume. And it used to be a whole different sort of thing. A whole different level of importance in young peoples’ lives.

That’s exactly what I had written down, that music’s turned into a commodity instead of a necessity. I know for me, I almost needed music to function.

Yeah, and I would get together at night with my buddies and we would just sit in the living room and listen to our records and marvel at them, turn it up and discuss the music and go over the lyrics, and then we’d all grab our instruments and go into the basement and play like our lives depended on it.

It gave us a sense of belonging, a sense of community, a sense of being part of something. A lot of that is gone now because it’s so readily available. I don’t think it’s necessary to have music playing all the time. It loses its specialness when you’re standing in line at Arby’s and the music is blasting and somebody’s got their headphones on and they’re walking down the street. It just doesn’t have quite the special place in the lives of young people that it did when I was young.

I’m not trying to sound like an old guy who knows the golden days, the good old days because that’s bullshit, but the incredible onslaught of information that our children are exposed to, music is just a small part of it.

It’s just background noise. And that’s part of the reason I think they download stuff. It’s not that big of a deal to them.

They think it’s music and we’re all entitled to it. No, that’s somebody’s creation. That’s like saying I’m going into the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and walk off with a painting and say I’m entitled to this. It’s bullshit.

Let’s talk about recovery for a minute if we can.

Oh yeah, you heard on my last album, I have a song called “Recovery”.

I love that song, man. It’s awesome.

That’s sort of my story and the story of a lot of my friends. To me, the people who I came up through the ranks with who did not figure it out and who did not quit that bullshit, they’re all dead now. I’ve got a long list of friends, who are musicians, many of them younger than me, who are now dead because they kept drinking and they kept doping because they didn’t figure it out. It’s a sad thing and I feel very lucky and blessed to still be alive. I was running around in the early 70’s geezing heroine. I was all the way down. I didn’t even play guitar for 2 years, I just chased dope on the streets of LA in my youth. So I just feel lucky, and that’s why I play like I play and burn it up.

Okay, well let’s talk about this then. How did your sobriety affect your music?

I can tell you that when I started playing at 14, 15 years old, I’d get together with my buddies and we’d jam in the basement and in the garage, it was this incredible buzz, and then later the dope and booze came into it and you start feeling like you can’t play unless you’re messed up. When I did get sober, I was on tour with John Mayall, and basically Carlos Santana sort of spent 3 days talking to me.

We were in East Berlin, Germany, when it was communist, and we were in the same hotel as Santana. He gave me a book to read and we had long talks and I went to John Mayall and said, “You’ll never see me high on a stage again.” And the first night I went out and played with him sober, the first time I had played the guitar sober in years and years, just playing a chord ripped my heart out. I could not believe how I could feel it emotionally.

I had this revelation that when I was high and doped up and drunk, it was dulling my emotions, and my emotional involvement in the music was not what it should have been or what it could have been because the dope and the booze were getting in the way of me feeling what I was doing. So I went out on stage with John sober that night, played a chord and started crying at the incredible emotional intensity I was feeling from the music. And I hadn’t felt that since I was that kid playing in the basement.

That’s incredible. That was ’87, then. Obviously the music scene can be a little shady at times. Was it hard for you at those times to stay off of it?

Not once I decided to do it, no. I just had hit, in recovery they say you gotta hit bottom, and I’d hit bottom. I had enough. It wasn’t fun. I can tell you that some of the things that Carlos talked to me about were doing a serious examination of yourself and what gifts you have been given, and using those gifts to your fullest potential, and that’s how you can contribute to the world be it you’re a guitar player or be it you’re an auto mechanic. If that’s your gig, do it to the utmost and the best of your ability, and that’s how you can make this world a little better. He told me when I first met him the first night, “you’re in a famous band, you have a gift, and you’re so drunk on stage that you’re flipping the bird at the one that gave you the gift”.

So at that point it wasn’t that difficult to stop. To this day, I’ll be playing in a club somewhere, and there’ll be someone in the club that I look at from the stage and go, well, there it is. That’s the reason I quit. That used to be me. Some guy stumblin’ around puking in the corner making an asshole of himself because he’s all messed up. That was me, and that’s the reason I quit. If he comes up to me afterward, I’ll try and talk to him about it. I’ll try to gently say, “Don’t you think you would have enjoyed the gig more if you wouldn’t have been in the corner puking on your shoes?”

Yeah, that’s the funny thing about when people first get sober. They don’t think they can go to a show and enjoy music unless they’re wasted. I’ve found that I have a way better time because I remember everything.

Sure, that’s exactly right. I had a good friend who’s now dead, he didn’t die from drugs or booze, he died from something else, but he was one of the ones who was behind me sobering up too. When I was running around the streets, he was one of the guys I was running with. He sobered up and changed his life, and one of the things he said to me when I had just quit he said, “Walter, you have everything you used to do high, everything you need to do it sober now, and you’re going to enjoy it more.” He didn’t mean going and running around the streets, he meant if you went to gigs high, go out and live your life and do the same things but don’t do them loaded, and you’re going to see that you don’t have to change your life and you’re still going to enjoy, even much more so, every day of your life not being messed up. I’ll never forget that.

Do you remember the first album you ever bought with your money?

I saw a movie on TV called the Al Jolson Story so saved my money and I went out and bought it. The first rock (Modern) album I bought was the night after the Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan Show. Feb 9th 1964, Channel 2 Philadelphia, 8pm Sunday night.

We talked a little about the lack of major bands on television like they were in the 60’s & 70’s (at least our favorite bands) and Walter tells us about a friend that was in the entertainment business. He was big into commercial jingles and when asked how do I get my band on TV, Walter’s friend said, “Be mediocre”.

What do you have planned next?

I’ve already began some of the work on the next one that will come out in a bout a year. John Mayall plays on a couple tracks and in fact he does something he hasn’t done in a long time. He plays some boogie-woogie acoustic piano and also the Hammond B3.

So who is your favorite Beatle?

John, of course. I think he had the rock & roll in him.

I liked him not just for his music but his stance on the world. What’s your stance on all the crazy current affairs?

I try to make a statement with the music. If you read the lyrics on “Blues For The Modern Daze” that’s exactly what it’s about. That whole album was about me trying to make some statements. Money rules the world, politicians bought and sold, doing just what their told, pretending that they got our backs but they really belong to Exxon and Goldman/Sachs.

What do you think about Monsanto?

I think they should just close up and f#@king go away. That’s what I think about Monsanto. I gotta say that I’m severely disappointed that our president signed a bill that protects them. If they really think their products are safe, then why would they even want to be immune?

The corruption between Monsanto and our government is just unbelievable.

Oh I know it is. It’s awful. I just wish they’d go away. That song “Money Rules The World” is about that. There has to be somebody out there that could run for office who actually cares about the people and doesn’t just give lip service but will actually fight somebody like that evil company. There’s gotta be somebody that is out for the good of the people.

The older I get and the more shit I see going on, the more radical I get in my views. Because I don’t see it changing and I see people come out and they inspire you with their rhetoric and you think this is gonna be great and then they turn out to be another in the pockets of the corporation, ya know? I’m just sick of government by corporations for rich people.

Okay, let’s wrap this up, I know you’re busy but we’ll do this again.

Thank you for what you guys are doing. That’s a great website and one thing I really enjoy on that site is that you guys are not purists. You guys put stuff on there about Hendrix and Bob Dylan as much as you put on Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. You’re covering the whole gamete and I think it’s great and I really think that’s why it has taken off.

Thank you to Walter and his camp for setting this up.

 

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