Walter Trout: Survivor Blues Interview

We’ve seen a lot from Walter Trout in his decades-long career: He was Canned Heat’s guitarist in the 1980s, joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, started his own band and is currently one of blues’ strongest active musicians—especially considering his work over the last five years. After recovering from a liver transplant in 2014, Trout rebounded by releasing a stunning amount of material (one album each in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and another on the way later this month), each collection of which takes his interest in the genre in a new direction. Trout scored his first #1 on the Billboard Blues album chart with 2017’s We’re All in This Together, an album on which he specifically wrote or selected one song for each of the special guests who joined him in the studio. On Trout’s latest album Survivor Blues, out January 25 on Provogue Records, he again gives his project an unexpected twist, tapping lesser-known songs by the bluesmen he grew up admiring to cover, instead of the go-to picks that have already been reimagined too many times to count.

Blues Rock Review checked in with Trout before his new album’s release date to learn more about the recording process, why Robby Krieger was listening in on most of the days Trout and his band spent in the studio and how Mayall responded when Trout shared the recording file of his “Nature’s Disappearing” cover.

In the press release for Survivor Blues, you cite the final line of Jimmy Dawkins’ song “Me, My Guitar and the Blues” (“Since you left me / All I have is me, my guitar and the blues.”). Do you remember when you first heard this lyric and what its impact on you was at the time?

I was doing my research, looking for obscure blues songs out there, because I didn’t want to do songs that had been covered a lot. I wanted to do songs people didn’t know. I had been a fan of Jimmy Dawkins for years; I had his records when I was 16 years old. But when I heard that song, I thought it was one of the most beautiful, iconic blues songs I had ever heard. In a certain sense, “Since you left me / All I have is me, my guitar and the blues”—it’s almost like the Gettysburg Address. The guy has summed up the entirety of the blues in one sentence. I thought it was an amazing piece of work, and I still do. I think it’s an iconic tune. It’s beyond me why it isn’t more known, why there are not more versions of it out there. My hope is that people will go back and listen to the original song.

The “survivor” thing, it’s obvious with me—but the songs are survivors. They remain beautiful and relevant. A lot of them are very deep and have a lot to say. “Nature’s Disappearing” and “Red Sun,” they have a lot to say. They’re the survivors. They might have fallen by the wayside, but they remain potent pieces of work.

Photo by Austin Hargave.

We first spoke shortly after your liver transplant in 2014, and so much has changed for you since then. You’ve embodied the survivor comeback role, rebounded to release a #1 Billboard Blues album with We’re All in This Together and now you have perhaps one of the most rapt audiences of your career. When you reflect on “Me, My Guitar and the Blues” now, how has your relationship with that final lyric changed?

One of the other lyrics on the song that really captured me was, when I heard the very first verse, I thought, My god can I relate to that. Tomorrow will still be here. Going through what I went through changes your perspective on a lot of things. I try to live very much in the moment and for today, not worrying too much about the future because I don’t take it for granted. I’m deeply aware of mortality now. When I heard that first verse, it grabbed me. At the end of the first verse I thought, I am going to do this song. When I head the last verse, I just about fell over with the depth of the lyrics. But that first verse, I wish I had written that. It certainly sums up my feelings about life these days.

I heard that your wife Marie is the one who came up with the album title, which feels so fitting, given how close the two of you are and everything you’ve been through together.

She can critique my work in ways that other people can’t. She can say things about certain aspects of what I do that, if it came from somebody else, I’d get pissed off. But I trust her ear and her commitment to this work. She’s a big part of everything I do. She had a lot to say when I was choosing songs. At one point, I had a list of 50 songs, and I had to narrow it down to 12. We worked a bit on that together. “What do you think of this song?” She’d go, “It’s good, but this song has more relevance to you.” She had quite a big part of critiquing the mixes and the mastering. I trust her ear very much. She’s also a musician, she plays piano and violin. We’re quite a team.

You avoid making any declarative political statements in your cover of Sunnyland Slim’s “Be Careful How You Vote.” Were you tempted to get into specifics, or did you feel that including the song at all was a strong enough statement on its own?

It’s a fine line. I feel that music can do a lot to bring two sides together, too. A lot of my feelings and ideas have been in the songs that I have written. But also, I don’t want to alienate people. It’s important that artists make a statement, but music can also bring people together. When I’m playing a concert, a slow blues song of mine, or I’m playing some of my songs off Battle Scars…I did the song “Cold, Cold Ground” and I explained that the song’s about being in the hospital and not being ready to be put in the cold ground. I looked out and two people were crying. At that point, I don’t care how they vote. We’re all coming together in our common humanity. I think I can reach more people that way.

I did just hear Gary Clark Jr.’s new song [“This Land”], and I think he made a genius, remarkable statement that I think is incredible.

Photo by Austin Hargave.

I’d like to ask about your tip of the hat on this record to John Mayall as you cover “Nature’s Disappearing.” Did Mayall weigh in about which song to include, or did you handpick this as you did the others?

I did talk to John. But before I talked to him, I went through his whole catalog. When I decided to do this record, one of the first things I thought to myself was, I need to do a song by John. He was a trailblazer in writing topical blues songs—songs that were not just about relationships but about politics and war, things like that. Before I called him up, I wanted to pick a tune. When I heard “Nature’s Disappearing,” I thought, This song is even more relevant than it was in 1970 when he wrote it. We didn’t know about global warming in 1970.

He told me, “I was sitting in the doctor’s office in a waiting room and I picked up a magazine and read an article about pollution. While I was waiting to see the doctor, I wrote all those lyrics on the back of an envelope.” I invited him to play harmonica on it, and he said, “No, you play harmonica just fine. You go ahead and do it.” After I did it, I sent it to him—and I was nervous. His email back to me was, “I’ve listened to it over and over and I intend to keep listening to it over and over because I think it’s fantastic.” That meant the world to me.

Can you tell our readers a bit about Robby Krieger’s connections to this album?

The majority of this album, 95 percent, was recorded in Robby’s private studio. He has a studio in L.A. that he built, and it’s spectacular. It’s one of the best studios in Los Angeles. He has this private studio, and if you don’t know it’s there, you’d never find it. It’s a spectacular place; it’s big and full of old vintage gear, and it’s covered in gold and platinum Doors albums and signed photos of him and Jimi Hendrix. It’s an amazing place.

[Robby] comes in a lot. It’s kind of his play place. So we’re in there recording and he hangs out, and he listens to playbacks and gives his opinion. One day I said, “Let’s play something.” He said, “Why not?” So we arranged the Fred McDowell tune [“Goin’ Down to the River”] together, decided to do it in a Muddy Waters style. That slide lick [that Robby plays] is really a Muddy Waters lick. We arranged it and played it live. It was really fun. He approached it like he just wanted to be a member of the band. There’s a big tracking room there, and we set up in a circle and we didn’t even really rehearse it. We just talked it out and said, “Okay, press record.” And off we went.

Photo by Austin Hargave.

Of all the songs on Survivor Blues, which were you most proud of or surprised by when you listened back to your final version?

“Nature’s Disappearing,” because it’s so different. We approached it very differently, very quietly, and if you notice there’s not even one drum fill. We really tried to pay homage to the original, but we also tried to keep it dynamically quiet. I sang it almost in a whisper. I couldn’t sing any quieter than I was on there. That was the most challenging. When it comes to rocking out, for my band, that’s our forte. But to play an entire six and one-half minute tune and keep it incredibly quiet and subtle as we did, that was a challenge. It was really fun.

Was there a need to expel all of the energy that built up during the recording of “Nature’s Disappearing”?

We did. After [recording “Nature’s Disappearing”] I said, “Okay, this one’s ‘Red Sun.’”

I’m always curious to hear what your next project is going to be. From crafting songs specifically for an album’s guest artists, as you did on We’re All in This Together, to now covering songs that are heard less often within the wider blues community, it’s exciting to learn what your next take is going to be. Do you have ideas for future projects already in mind? Is there a challenge that you’re eager to tackle?

It’s funny you bring that up. I’m already halfway through a brand-new album of all-original songs that don’t really have a lot to do with the blues. They’re more classic rock tunes that I’ve written that I think need to be heard. I’m not exaggerating to tell you I have maybe 150 original tunes that need to be recorded. I’ll be back up at Robby’s studio soon. Some of them sound like pop music, some of them sound along the lines of a Tom Petty song, some sound almost Beatles-esque. We’re working to do something drastically different. There’re some acoustic ballads on there. We’ve got four songs done and we’re going to keep working. It should be out by the end of the year.

The artists I respect so much are Neil Young, who puts out one album that sounds like punk rock, and then he puts out an acoustic album, then a country album. Same with Bob Dylan. I love that they’re fearless and put out their own art. They’re not trying to fit into any box. I want to do that with this next one.

Interview by Meghan Roos

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