The Interviews: Blues Encounters 2000 – 2020 is the second installment in the Who Is Blues book series. It includes conversations held during the past two decades with B.B. King, Bobby Rush and more than a dozen other artists. The following is an excerpt from the chapter on singer, guitarist and songwriter Walter Trout.
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Interview by Vincent Abbate
Though practically all of our interaction has been via the phone, I feel like I’ve gotten to know Walter Trout a little bit during the latter part of his career. He may be a celebrated blues guitar hero, but he’s also someone who will treat a stranger like a friend.
Our first “phoner” coincided with the release of his Luther Allison tribute album Luther’s Blues in 2013 and introduced me to Walter as a plain talker whose New Jersey accent would always remind me of home. Our second conversation was as emotional as it gets, as he was still processing the near-death experience that inspired the writing of his unforgettable Battle Scars album. By the time we discussed his subsequent record We’re All In This Together, the worst of that storm had passed and he had emerged as someone the entire bluesrock scene could rally around. Mixed in was a quick hello and a handshake before a concert in Leverkusen, Germany – the only time we’ve ever spoken face-to-face.
His fans love and respect him. And yet, Trout routinely gets pounded by critics for his explosive, sometimes frenetic style of electric guitar. “You play too many notes and you’re too loud,” complained one of his detractors years ago. In an act of rebellion, Walter chopped that statement down to five words – “Too many notes, too loud!” – and began using the phrase as his official slogan on T-shirts and other merchandise.
Trout’s uneasy relationship with more traditionally-inclined listeners became a topic of our fourth and most recent interview, conducted once again by phone during the run-up to his latest studio album Ordinary Madness, released in August of 2020.
Of course, in the year of the corona virus pandemic, I had to start by asking Walter how he was coping.
Vincent Abbate: 2020 has been kind of a weird, difficult year for everybody. How have you been managing?
Walter Trout: Well, it’s kind of a double-edged thing in that I had, literally, the best tour coming up that I would have ever done with my band. At 69, I’m still climbing the ladder, which is very exciting. My wife, who manages me, and our booking agencies had me doing big shows and great festival slots. It was going to be a really exciting summer. And it’s all gone. [Basically] I’ve been in my house since the thirteenth of March. I’m trying to look on the bright side, though. My wife and I realized that we’ve been together for 30 years and we’ve never spent this much time just hanging out together. We’re actually having a great time. We’re getting to know each other all over again. Two of my sons are here. So we’re getting into being a family. We’ve got a garden going in the back and we do cooking projects. I’m gonna do an online concert on Wednesday with two of my sons as the rhythm section.
If I really sit down and think about how badly I miss touring and playing with my band, I can weep like a baby. Then I just try to look on the bright side and think about how I’m spending this time with family. I have a beautiful family.
What I try to do … every morning I wake up and the first thing I think of is: OK, what am I grateful for today? I try to approach the day with gratitude and not with “what if?” or “why not?”. I try to approach it with a positive attitude. So I’m getting through it.
VA: One thing that came out of this corona-induced break is the video you put together for “We’re All In This Together,” where you asked your fans to participate. For you to see all these people from all walks of life sending you photos and videos must have been special.
WT: That was really awesome. The cool thing was, it was my wife’s idea. She ran it by the label and they went for it. It was truly amazing. There were a lot of photos that didn’t get in there. One reason was people were sending in photos of themselves with me. We wanted it to just be them. It wasn’t about me. It was supposed to be about them. So a lot of the photos did not get in there. The video was really beautiful. I have to say, I loved it. There were people from all over the world. There were people from India, Japan, from all over Europe. From Australia and New Zealand. It was just like, wow. This is incredible.
VA: Germany is well-represented. Holland, where you’re big. And the UK, obviously, where you have a strong following. It’s only until the very end that you and your wife appear.
WT: Yeah. The last photo is her and I holding up a sign that says “Huntington Beach, CA.” We wanted our fans to let us know where they’re from. We’re all stuck at home, so let’s see where you are, you know? The ones that really moved me were the doctors and nurses, all wearing their scrubs and masks. There would be three or four or five of them in the picture. Health care workers sending in photos – that really moved me. Because they’re on the front lines.
VA: Considering your past health issues, I guess you’d be considered high-risk.
WT: Yeah, I’m high-risk. I do go out and take walks. A couple of times, I put on a mask and gloves and went to the hardware store. We had a merch company selling our merchandise and they went bust. They were in the US and the UK and they stopped [operating] in the US. So we took over in the US. For about three weeks, every day, Marie would print out the labels and I would get CDs and books, pack them and tape them up and take a big box of stuff to the post office. So I have been out of the house. I live a couple of blocks from the beach, but I don’t really go down there, because there’s too many people. But there is a park near my house with a little trail and nobody seems to ever go there. So I can go there and walk around. But we haven’t been to a restaurant. We have some great restaurants here which we used to frequent and we haven’t been there at all.
VA: You just mentioned the two sons who sometimes form your rhythm section. I know your son Jon plays guitar and was featured both on We’re All In This Together and your new album Ordinary Madness. Is it Dylan who plays drums?
WT: Dylan is a drummer, but he’s also a ridiculous guitar player. He doesn’t want to play guitar in public, for some reason. He’s been taking lessons for a few years from a Nashville hotshot guy. He can play all this Eric Johnson shit. I hear him playing in his bedroom and I’m like: Damn, kid! I told him that he can do all sorts of stuff I can’t do. He looked at me and said, “Dad, you can do all sorts of stuff I can’t do.” That cracked me up. So … he’s the drummer. A virtuoso, really. I have my son Mike playing bass on these home jams. But Mike is almost like a Paul McCartney. He sort of plays every instrument. He’s doing a record right now on his own in his garage on a recorder where he writes all the songs and plays all the instruments. He does the drums, the bass, the guitars, the keys and all the vocals and harmonies. It’s awesome stuff. It’s incredible.
VA: So all three of your sons are into music.
WT: All three. Jon is a great guitar player. He’s toured with me and did a track with me on We’re All In This Together. But he’s been accepted into the Royal Conservatory of Music in Denmark to study electronic music. He actually did the little opening on my new album. He’s known as Space Fish, has his own website and he has a record deal. They put out his electronic music. He doesn’t really want people to know that he’s my kid, so he’s called Space Fish. He does electronic music but adds electric guitar to it. It’s really quite amazing stuff.
VA: Did your children all gravitate to music naturally?
WT: Yeah, they came to it naturally. I’m the last one who would want to push them into this. But all three of them have grown up on the road. From the time they were babies, every summer, when I would go on tour in the States, the whole family would come on tour. We had a Chevy Suburban and we would follow the band around. Sometimes my wife would take them and go off for a couple of days, take them to museums or take them somewhere else while I was off with the band. But they’ve seen all aspects of it. The little shitty, dirty blues bars and the big festivals. They’ve seen the whole thing. They all just gravitated towards it. All three of them. That’s what they wanna do.
VA: They want to make it their profession?
WT: Yeah. It’s quite amazing, really. Jon did his first tour with us when he was three months old. So they’ve been raised in this shit!
VA: Let’s get to talking about the new album. One important theme that runs through several of the songs is time. The passage of time, the issue of growing older and the subject of mortality that goes along with it. Do you have a particular philosophy or attitude that helps you deal with those issues as you get older?
WT: That’s a good question. Yes, it is a theme in a lot of the new songs. When I was in the hospital and I was supposed to die, I was facing death and really expecting death. The doctors told my wife many times that I wasn’t going to make it through the night. That kind of stuff.
When I came out of it, I came out with a vastly different perspective on a lot of things. I feel like I’ve been given another chance and I want to enjoy every minute. I want to focus on the positive things in my life and on the beauty in the world. Like I say in “Wanna Dance”: “I wanna love completely the beauty that I see.” There’s a lot of good in the world and there’s a lot of beauty in the world. A lot of times, we find ourselves focusing on the negative aspects of life and on the ugly parts of the world. It’s there for sure. But make sure you don’t forget the light when you’re looking at the darkness. That’s what “Up Above My Sky” is about.
I try to look at it like: I’m 69. I know I’m on severe borrowed time because I had the liver transplant and I don’t know how long it will last. To use a metaphor: I’m in the last chapter of my biography. But I’m going to make the most of it that I can. I’m able to look back at my life and say: You know what? I did exactly what I set out to do. I didn’t let people tell me what to do. I maintained my vision and I followed my muse when people were vilifying me and my music. I didn’t change it. My life has been a great, great adventure.
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Read more of what Walter Trout has to say about his decades-long journey as a musician in The Interviews: Blues Encounters 2000 – 2020, due for publication in spring/summer 2021.