"Well, when I sit back and I think back about my life I think here I am at 70, I have a great career going, I have a beautiful wife, I have three great kids who are all brilliant musicians and very talented kids and there’s a lot of love in my family and I just feel like I’m the luckiest guy on the earth. I have it all."
Walter Trout: A Wonderful Blues Life
Walter Trout has been nothing short of prolific over the course of his seven decades on this Earth. Walter released his 29th solo album “Ordinary Madness” (2020) over a career that has spanned the globe and delivered notoriety as one of the great purveyors of the blues and blues-rock. Trout's history is equal parts thriller, romance, suspense, and horror. There are musical fireworks, critical acclaim, and fists-aloft triumph, offset by wilderness years, brushes with the jaws of narcotic oblivion, and the survival of an organ transplant few come back from. From 1973, when he left his New Jersey home headed to Los Angeles, he has followed a road that afforded him an opportunity to just play, sharing the stage as a sideman with Jesse Ed Davis, Big Mama Thornton, John Lee Hooker, Lowell Fulson, Joe Tex, and of course the great John Mayall (following a three-year tenure in Canned Heat). (Walter Trout / Photo © by Alessandro Solca)
When Trout walked away from the Bluesbreakers, he embarked on a solo career that has yielded a catalog that has established a deep legacy in the world of Blues, Americana, and the realm of revered singer-songwriters. While many would slow down as they approach their 70th birthday, Trout continues to deliver inspired recordings, performances, and a voice that articulates relevant ideology and insights into The World that inspires his deep perspective. There’s no autopilot emanating from Walter Trout, but a true a sense of growing momentum, elements of surprise, and repertoire that continues to be more compelling with each new creation.
Interview by Michael Limnios Special Thanks: Walter Trout & Marie B Trout
Transcription: Katerina Lefkidou / Photos: Alessandro Solca & Walter Trout’s archive
What do you miss most nowadays from the music and the feeling of the past?
Walter: I don’t really miss anything, because I think I’m still playing the music that I want to play and all the music that I listened to when I was young, that inspired me, I still listen to it. I’m still playing the music that I want to play, but I try to get better with it with each album, I just recently finished my 30th album, it will be out next year. So, I don’t really miss anything, I’m very much trying to live in the moment, you know?
Too many experiences in your life, too many experiences in music. What are some of the most important life lessons you have learned from your experience?
Walter: Well, I can tell you that I went through a very bad illness and I had to get a liver transplant seven years ago and I had to re-learn how to play the guitar, because I had brain damage and I couldn’t remember how to play the guitar and I had to teach myself all over again. I did not play on stage for 2 years and then when I was able play again, I made my return to the stage at Royal Albert Hall in London and what I learned from all of that was that it is very important as I said to you to live for right now, because you can’t take it for granted that you’re going to be here tomorrow and we’re all on borrowed time, if you know what I mean. I learned to try and enjoy every minute and to live fully in the moment and appreciate the world around me and the beauty that is around me. I think that a lot of people sometimes get caught up in negativity and if you look around, the world can be a very very beautiful place and you have to focus on that. And that’s what I try to focus on in my music also. So that health scare that I had changed me in very deep ways.
Where does your creative drive come from for lyrics and music?
Walter: In all my life I have known that I’m probably a much more of an emotional person than a lot of people. I tend to cry very easily. So, the music from the time I was a little boy, I took up the guitar at age ten and I found that music can be a sanctuary, it can be escape, it can be a means of expression, things that cannot be expressed with words. Music is a language you use it as a language to express your inner emotions.
"I learned to try and enjoy every minute and to live fully in the moment and appreciate the world around me and the beauty that is around me. I think that a lot of people sometimes get caught up in negativity and if you look around, the world can be a very very beautiful place and you have to focus on that. And that’s what I try to focus on in my music also. So that health scare that I had changed me in very deep ways." (Walter Trout / Photo © by Alessandro Solca)
You were born in New Jersey, you grew up in New Jersey and later you were in Los Angeles and of course as a musician you were travelling all around the States. Do you find any differences and similarities between the local scenes in the US?
Walter: Oh yes. It’s very strange, but each city in the US I find is a little different with the way the audiences react, and you can go to a different city even in the same state and have a different feeling to the audience. But it is a very big country you know, so it keeps it interesting for me because I find that when I tour the inner America which I’m going to do actually in November, I’m going to do a US tour and every night is going to be different. And that keeps it interesting and keeps it exciting, you know?
Why do you think that Walt Trout music continues to such a devoted following?
Walter: I think that blues and blues rock is a very good genre for as I said expressing feelings and emotion. It is all about communication. It is all about honesty. There’s no, I’m not putting on a a façade, I’m not putting up a persona. Those songs and my playing come directly from the depth of my heart and my soul. For instance, I can give you an example. When I used to listen to David Bowie, I used to get pissed off, cause I used to go I don’t care about Ziggy Stardust, I want to know who David Bowie is. I don’t care for artists who put up a persona. I care for artists who give you who they are. You know exactly who they are, when BB King sings the blues, you know exactly who he is and exactly what he feels and he is not putting on an act. I think this music and this genre appeals to a lot of people because of that, they relate to the emotions
You talk about BB, you have met so many great musicians and personalities. John Lee Hooker, Lowell Fulson, Big Mama Thornton, Joe Tex, Fito De la Parra, John Mayall which meetings have been the most important experience for you?
Walter: Well of course meeting Fito De la Parra and being invited to join Canned Heat. That was a big step in my career. That was a big moment for me and I remain a friend of his and I love him and I respect him dearly. And of course, meeting John Mayall. Having John Mayall asking me to join his band. I knew that if you are a blues guitar player side man, when you get in John Mayall’s band you are at the top of the mountain. There’s no higher place to go than that if you’re a lead guitar player in the blues. So, when John asked me to join his band, I knew that my life had changed forever, you know?
"I think that blues and blues rock is a very good genre for as I said expressing feelings and emotion. It is all about communication. It is all about honesty. There’s no, I’m not putting on a a façade, I’m not putting up a persona. Those songs and my playing come directly from the depth of my heart and my soul." (Photo: Walter Trout & Fito de la Parra with Canned Heat, early 1980s)
What was the best advice anyone ever gave you and you keep it like a motto in your life?
Walter: When I was ten years old, I got to spend the afternoon with Duke Ellington and his orchestra and I remember Duke Ellington saying to me, I sat on a white couch with Duke Ellington and he spoke to me for a while, we talked. And I was just a kid of course, but he said “Walter, if you go into this, he said, the important thing is to be a serious artist and to try and create the best and most honest art that you can create.” He said if you’re going into it with just hopes of fame and glory and stardom, that’s the wrong approach. Because what’s going to happen is one year everyone will love you and the next year they may hate you and you might make a record that they love and your next record nobody likes it, that’s going to change, but as long as you do your very best work and you can look in the mirror and say this is the best I can give them, the best I have and it’s coming from me, he said “That’s all you can do and all you must keep your focus on, is on being an artist, because that's going to give you the most fulfillment and the most satisfaction.
Really, what is the impact of the blues on the civil rights, human rights, spiritual, political and sociocultural implications?
Walter: Well, you know the blues is basically about human relationships. It is about love, it is about matters of the heart, but there are always songs, there are always politically conscious songs, that are about life and about the world and one of them, one of the leaders of writing this type of songs was John Mayall. He had songs like the law must change, things like that. I’ve tried to do that to a certain extend but the majority of my writing is about human relationships. Is about what I feel about life, is about love, is about things I see people going through in their every-day life. So, for me the blues is not really geared, is not really focused on politics or any of that, it’s focused on relationships between people.
70 years old. Is it easier to write and play the blues as you get older?
Walter: Well, I think you can play it with more authority, you have more to say. Like, when I came out of my illness and you know I was in a hospital bed for 8 months, I had brain damage, I lost 100 pounds, I was not expected to live and I came out of it and I found I had more to put into my music. And that’s what I think with blues musicians, the older they get, they have more to communicate. You know and sometimes when I hear very young players and I hear them play beautifully, they’re very lyrical and they’re very technically brilliant, but I think to myself they need to go and experience life a little more, be able to put more into that music. That’s why BB King could play one note and make you cry. Just one note told you his whole life, you heard his whole life into that one note. (Walter Trout / Photo © by Alessandro Solca)
"It’s very strange, but each city in the US I find is a little different with the way the audiences react, and you can go to a different city even in the same state and have a different feeling to the audience. But it is a very big country you know, so it keeps it interesting for me because I find that when I tour the inner America which I’m going to do actually in November, I’m going to do a US tour and every night is going to be different. And that keeps it interesting and keeps it exciting, you know?"
What are your hopes and what are your fears for the future of music?
Walter: I don’t have fears for the future. I think it’s in good hands, I think there are a lot of young brilliant blues musicians., but I look forward to hearing them as they get a little older and go through a little more experiences, but I think there is always going to be an audience. Always for music that comes from a human being playing an instrument and singing. Now I think the very big pop music you hear on the radio these days, it does absolutely nothing for me and some of it I even kind of find myself getting offended, because I want to hear emotion in music, to me the whole purpose of art is to express emotion. But that’s just my own opinion, other people will hear differently, but when I’m sitting in a restaurant here in California and they’re playing current pop music sometimes I have to get up and leave, I’m just like I can’t stand this shit.
The same question as earlier, what are the differences and similarities between American and European blues scenes, you are very popular in Europe, your wife is European, what are the differences between American and European scenes?
Walter: Well, I was very lucky in that on my second album, which was only out in Europe it was in 1990, I had a huge massive radio hit, so in Europe even though I’m considered a blues musician, I’m also considered sort of a mainstream rock musician. I mean if I had to compare it to somebody I’d say Eric Clapton. He’s a great blues player but he also writes great songs, right, that are based on the blues but aren’t 12 bar blues. So, I was very lucky in Europe, because of that and I gained a huge audience with that hit song in 1990 and I’ve been able to hold on to a lot of it. So yes, I’ve been very popular in Europe for 31 years and in America I didn’t really start touring over here until 1999. But there is a difference of course in that I’ve been touring Europe much longer. I find underneath it all people are the same. They want you, they come to my shows, hoping that I’m going to communicate with them and that I’m going to make them feel something. And there are times I’m playing a slow blues and I look out in the audience and I see somebody crying and then I know I’m doing the right thing.
You are a survivor, a street survivor. What is happiness for Walter, what is the key for a life well lived?
Walter: Well, when I sit back and I think back about my life I think here I am at 70, I have a great career going, I have a beautiful wife, I have three great kids who are all brilliant musicians and very talented kids and there’s a lot of love in my family and I just feel like I’m the luckiest guy on the earth. I have it all. All I ever wanted to do was play music and I’m still getting to play music at age 70 and I have a beautiful family and I’m able to keep the balance between the career and the family and I’m you know, as contempt and happy as I can be. (Photo: Walter & Marie Trout, Denmark)
"In all my life I have known that I’m probably a much more of an emotional person than a lot of people. I tend to cry very easily. So, the music from the time I was a little boy, I took up the guitar at age ten and I found that music can be a sanctuary, it can be escape, it can be a means of expression, things that cannot be expressed with words. Music is a language you use it as a language to express your inner emotions."
I know you talked to Blues Radio International and Jesse Finkelstein about your connection with Carlos Santana and how it changed your life. What moment changed your life the most?
Walter: Well, that was a big one when Carlos spent that time with me and gave me the book to read and I quit taking drugs and quit drinking. Because in my earlier years, I was a lost soul, I was a heroin addict and I was an alcoholic. I even went a year when I lived on the streets in Los Angeles and just did heroin. And I’ve been able to, I’ve now been sober for, let me see, I think we’re going for 37 years. And that was the main change in my life. I was on a path to die very young, from drugs and drinking and I was able to turn that around with the help of Carlos and also with the help of John Mayall and also with the help of Richie Hayward, who was the drummer for Little Feat and who was a friend of mine. So that was the big moment in my life, that was the turning point which was to get serious about music, to get serious about life and not just to be throwing my life away and squandering and wasting my talent. That’s what I was doing. So that was a big change.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine. Where would you really want to go with a time machine?
Walter: I’ve thought about that a couple of times. If I could go anywhere with a time machine, there’s a couple of things I’d like to do. I’d like to go to the Cavern Club in 1961 and see the Beatles. I’d like to go to November 22nd 1963 I’d go to Dallas and I’d see who actually shot JFK. I would like to know that. I’m kind of an amateur researcher, I’ve read about 40 books about the assassination and I don’t have any opinion, I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows. But if I could do that, that would be the two things I would do. I would love to see the Beatles before anybody knew who they were. I’m just a big fan of the Beatles. As a matter of fact, I’ll tell you a story. My brother year ago, got into a religious group where he told me that he could make his soul travel through time and he wanted me to become part of it. And I said to him so if I adopt what you’re doing and I work at it that means my soul can go back and see the Beatles? He was like “no, that’s not what this is about.” “Well, I want to go see the fucking Beatles man”. He didn’t get it at all. But yeah, I’d like to go to Dallas and see who killed Kennedy.
"You know the blues is basically about human relationships. It is about love, it is about matters of the heart, but there are always songs, there are always politically conscious songs, that are about life and about the world and one of them, one of the leaders of writing this type of songs was John Mayall." (Photo: Walter Trout with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, 1985)
Please, tell me this funny story with the homemade cassette tape and John Mayall...
Walter: There was a time when I had a house band when I was not on tour with John. I had a house band in a bar at the beach and I played there all the time, unless I was touring. And John said to us “I’m going to take 4 months off” And the European promoters they said to me “Hey Walter, why don’t you bring your band over here” I said okay, I’ll do it. So, I told the band we’re going to do a tour of Europe. A couple of weeks later John handed me a cassette tape. And he said to me, that’s exactly what he said: “Walter, when you’re on tour with your band, two weeks into the tour, you’re all going to hate each other. Everybody’s going to be pretty tense in the van by two weeks. You’ll start off it’ll be fun, by two weeks you’re all going to hate each other. And when it gets really bad in the van you put this tape on. So, he was right. Two weeks into the tour we hated each other. We were all pissed off at each other and I thought it’s time for the tape, I wondered what this tape could be. And I put the tape in and it was forty-five minutes of John Mayall farting. And what he had done, he had walked around with a little tape recorder, every time he had a fart he recorded it. And he had labeled the tape “The farter of British Blues” And I have to say within five minutes of the tape we were laughing so hard, we had tears streaming down our face. John is just a great man.
What is your dream and what your nightmare nowadays about the madness in the world?
Walter: I’m very worried for my country. I see it getting more and more polarized more and more right and left and there’s not much in the middle. I hope and pray this country does not have a second civil war in the next couple of years. So of course, I’m very concerned with that, but I will tell you I’m really concerned with now is as I said is I’m going to live my life and try and enjoy every moment that I can. Because I had a liver transplant I have a song on my brand-new album, you’ll hear next year and one of the lines is “I worry about the left, I worry about the right, I’m looking for the middle, there’s nowhere in sight, I worry about the future, I worry about the past, I worry about my liver, how long is it going to last.” And that’s the thing, I don’t know how long this liver that I have is going to last, so I’m going to concentrate on enjoying these days that I have left. So, I do see the madness and it’s insane, but if I really get into it it’s going to, I don’t want to just walk around sad, you know? Ι spent a lot of years doing that.
"I’ve thought about that a couple of times. If I could go anywhere with a time machine, there’s a couple of things I’d like to do. I’d like to go to the Cavern Club in 1961 and see the Beatles. I’d like to go to November 22nd 1963 I’d go to Dallas and I’d see who actually shot JFK. I would like to know that. I’m kind of an amateur researcher, I’ve read about 40 books about the assassination and I don’t have any opinion, I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows." (Photo: Walter Trout, early days in New Jersey, 1971)
From Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Barry Goldberg, to Duke Robillard, of course you, Jimmy Vaughan, and many others… what were the reasons that so many white guys start the rock-blues research and experiments?
Walter: Well, I can tell you when I was 14 years old as I said I loved the Beatles, I loved the Rolling Stones, I was listening to all the British bands that had come over, but then my brother again came home, with the first Paul Butterfield album, that had Michael Bloomfield on it. And my brother said I know you like guitar music, you gotta hear this guy. And he said you better sit down, because when you hear this guy play, you’re going to fall over. And he put that record on and I found a depth to that music that I had never heard before, I found a depth and a meaning and a profound expression in that music that I had never heard before and I think many of my generation have said the same thing. A good friend of mine has Robben Ford. And he’s told me the same thing. That when he first heard the very first Paul Butterfield album it changed his life. That guitar playing a lot of guys my age, that guitar playing changed our lives and it gave us a direction because there was a commitment a passion and a fire in that guitar playing that we had never heard before.
Of course, Walter Trout is an electric guitarist. Also, I saw you play some acoustic and body metal guitars. What touches you from the sound of electric guitar? And what are the differences between electric guitarists and acoustic guitarists?
Walter: Well, the possibilities with an electric guitar are quite endless really. You can make it sound like just about anything. And you don’t need petals. If you manipulate the controls on the guitar, you can make that thing sound like anything. When I was a kid and I was learning the electric and I was playing ten hours a day, one of my favorite things to do was to say to myself “Okay, maybe now I’ll see if I can make it sound like a flute.” And I would use a certain pickup and I would manipulate the volume button as I played and I would make it sound like a flute. And then I’d go now, let’s see if I ca make it sound like a violin and I would do the same. And I would go now I want it to sound like a five-string blue grass banjo. And I would do the same thing. The possibilities are limitless with the electric guitar. It is the most incredible instrument to be able to express yourself on and also with being able to bend the string. You know? That’s a big part of it. And now as much as I enjoy hearing great jazz players the great jazz players of the past the Wes Montgomery and Charlie Christians, amazing guitarists but they never bend the string. And I always thought to myself why don’t they bend the string? That really adds a whole new vocabulary to the music you know? So that’s the thing, I just love to play the electric guitar. Still to this day get on a stage, in front of people and have the opportunity to play and sing in front of those people, still excited me beyond expression.
(Walter Trout / Photo © by Alessandro Solca)
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