Once an aspiring student of the trumpet, now a torch-bearing blues guitarist, Walter Trout continues to add to his legacy and his storied catalog. It speaks volumes that only two events in his life have prevented him from taking his musical tales on the road: a nearly fatal illness, and a once-a-century pandemic. With touring on pause, Walter shared a few moments with Blues Rock Review to talk about time, the human condition, and his upcoming album, Ordinary Madness.
I want to get right into the album. You’ve mentioned that recording for the album ended right before the major US lockdowns took place. Looking at the album’s that you did before that, Survivor Blues in 2019, some blues covers. We’re All In This Together is a lot of collaboration and there’s Alive in Amsterdam, which is a live one. So for a couple of years, you haven’t released an album like this. When did you really start writing and recording this album?
Well, let me go back and tell you that the Survivor Blues was supposed to be part of a package. This was the deal I had with my label, Provogue, who I love. I had approached them with an idea. I said, “Look, I want to do an album of all blues songs because I think it’s time that I do that. I have never done that before. But I also want to do an album of my original songs because I’ve got a lot of songs, you know, how about I’ll do two albums simultaneously. I’ll do them both at the same time. I’ll give you both albums and you can kind of release them, you know, within a couple of months of each other.” And they say, “Oh that’s, that’s a cool idea.” Well, I finished the blues album which became Survivor Blues. I started on this album, but then I had to go on tour, so I could not finish this one. So, when I got back off the tour and started, I was gonna finish this one in January. I listened to what I had done and I decided I wanted to junk it and start over. So, I started writing new songs and recording them in January and with the band, we kind of blew through it and we did it by the end of January. We had it done.
Is that usually how it goes when you go to the studio or when you get the idea that you’re going to do an album? Is it usually a pretty quick process or was this sort of unique in that way?
Usually what happens is this, normally my wife, who’s also my manager, is sitting watching a movie or something and she’ll come in and she’ll say, “Hey Walter, you realize you’re in the studio in two weeks, right?” And I go, “Yeah.” She goes, “What are you gonna record?” When I go, “Oh my god,” and then I have to write an album. So most of my original albums are written in about two weeks. Battle Scars, which is my last really completely original album, which was about my illness, that was written in two days.
Wow. Some people almost have to let it come to them, they almost have to hear it, and then on the other end of the extreme some people sit down and it’s time to write. Do you put yourself in the latter camp, or are you a little bit of both?
I get a little bit of both, but another thing is to really write, I have to get into a certain zone and I can turn it on, but my wife always says to me that when I get in the writing zone, I’m sort of not on this planet anymore. I’ve got so much music rolling around in my head and so many different lyrics and so much that, you know, I’ll walk out the door and forget to put my pants on. So, she’ll say, “Okay, I can see you’re getting in the writing zone, I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.” You know, she’ll lead me around like I’m in a stupor or something. But I get in that zone and that’s why if I want to have any kind of life I sort of have to turn it off. I mean, somebody just asked me this morning, “Well, this album is coming out, are you still writing songs?” I said, “God no, I have to take time off. I want to be on the planet for a while. I want to be able to relate to my wife and kids and, you know, I don’t want to be out in the ozone here completely.” So that’s the thing for me. I have to get into a zone. And when I get in the zone comes pretty easy to me, it comes pretty quickly.
Let’s get into “Ordinary Madness.” I know you had spoken about that we’re in times now of “extraordinary madness.” And ordinary madness is an interesting juxtaposition of words. You don’t see them together often. But within the opening song, and also the album itself, you spell out what seems like the meaning pretty clearly. And I think the quote is, “it’s the everyday kind.” It’s a no holds barred look at mental health. Is this about you, in particular, or possibly is this more of a general statement about how prevalent this is in our society?
Well, I think it’s a little of both but really I wrote it about myself. There’s a lot of times, especially since I went through my illness and I came back, I meet people and I get a lot of messages and they go, “Wow, you know you really inspire us and we look up to you.” I’m always moved by those messages and I’m incredibly grateful and thankful. But I always think, down inside I still am affected by things I went through as a kid, things that I’ve been in therapy to try to deal with, and I still feel anger and I still feel sadness and fear. I have days where I am wallowing in self-doubt, and I’m my own worst critic. And I have days where I think I stink as a musician and I go through all this stuff that I think everybody goes through. Everybody goes through periods of self-doubt and anger and sadness. And when I say ordinary madness, I mean the kind of mental space that comes with just being a human being, our common humanity. I’m not talking about people who are suffering drastic illness. I’m talking about what we go through in our common humanity trying to face the world in which we live, you know. Yeah. It’s where we have to face what is, you know, a crazy world and we have to do our best to get through and live our lives and so it’s a bit about me and I think something that pretty much everybody can relate to. When I say in “My Foolish Pride,” “I get filled up with doubts about myself,” you know anybody can relate to that night.
Along that idea of something anyone can relate to, there’s another line in “Ordinary Madness” where you sing, “Those who think they know the truth, they might find it odd. The ones who really know me see right through my facade.” You said you’re speaking about you, but do you find that even the most honest of people, put a facade between them and the rest of the world to guard against some of these feelings of doubt?
Yeah, I mean that’s a pretty big generalization there. I mean everybody’s different, you know, but I mean, if I’m smiling on the outside, but I’m sad on the inside my wife can see right through it. You know, I’m saying my boys can see right through it. I can see right through it. When it’s like that with my kids or with her, those are the ones that really know me. One thing that I try not to do is when I’m out playing a gig and I’m meeting the fans, maybe not in the best mood, I don’t want to broadcast that to them. Okay, I want to be grateful to them that they are there, and I want to thank them for being there. Now I might be dealing with something in my personal life that is very upsetting for me, or I might have lost a dear friend and I’m very sad. Maybe I’m in grief about losing a friend or family member, but I’m not going to go out and meet somebody and start leaking to them and telling them. I’m going to try to say, “Hey it’s great to meet you. How you doing?” Yeah, and that’s, in a certain sense, you could say that’s a facade, but it’s also not inflicting your own shit on somebody else. Right?
Right. We started with the first song, you get into the second song “Wanna Dance,” and within the first two songs, and a little bit on the album overall, the tone and mood is a little bit haunting, a little bit ominous perhaps, almost like there’s something lurking. You said you guys (the band) went out and did it all in January. Was this representative of how you were feeling or was there a message you wanted to convey about where we are as a society?
You know I was not trying to convey a message about society. I was basically writing songs to be therapeutic for me. A lot of these songs are as if I was speaking to a shrink or a therapist, and trying to sell them some of my deeper stuff. When I go, “I’ve been a criminal. I’ve been a clown.” I’ve been a victim of desires that only brought me down,” That’s about as honest as I can get. I have been a criminal, and there are people out there that know I’ve been a clown and made a complete ass of myself. At times, you know, also a victim of desires that only brought me down. Some people who know my life story will understand that I was a heroin addict for a couple of years, you know. So, I was just writing about myself and trying to be as honest as I could and it was therapeutic for me to get this stuff off my chest.
Yeah. Onto “Heartland.” You’ve written some songs that are very personal. On “Heartland” you’re speaking through the lens of a young woman looking out at her life in the heartland, but seeing a bigger world outside. In the specific, we’re talking about a young woman, but with a title like “Heartland” is there also a greater resonance for the bigger picture? Is this what America’s Heartland has become, or am I reading too much into this?
Yeah, no. This is a song about, this is a song(…) Let me go back. I lived in Jersey. I was 22 and I knew if I wanted to follow my dream to be a musician, it was not going to happen for me if I stayed in South Jersey. I had to go where the music business was located, and I had to try to get in. So I packed my Volkswagen Beetle, and I drove to Los Angeles, not knowing anybody, having no idea what I was gonna do, but determined to chase my dream. My producer, Eric Corne, grew up in a little town in Canada, and he knew he wanted to chase his dream of being a record producer and a musician. He had to go to Los Angeles. My wife only knew me for one week when she hopped on an airplane with me and left her country of Denmark to come here and take a gamble with this musician she had met. And it goes on and on. Jimi Hendrix, he wanted to follow his dream; he had to go to England. He had to leave everything he knew. This is a song about people who have dreams, who have desires for getting more out of their life, and who envision something other than what they are living. They know that they have to leave where they’re from, they have to leave the people they know and maybe have to leave their families. They have to go off into something that is completely unknown and take this huge gamble. But, chasing the dream is worth it. And that’s what that song is about.
That makes sense.
There’s an interesting story behind that song that you might like. I had a dream one night that I was sitting on the couch with my wife, and in the dream we were watching television. It was a TV show called Heartland. The show ended in the dream and then the theme song came on and I woke up from the dream and I was laying there and I thought to myself I don’t really like that show but I really like that theme song. Then I woke up a little more and I went, “Wait a minute. That’s not a show. That was a dream.” And I quickly, right next to my bed is a guitar, I pushed record on my phone, and the first verse alone, “At the break of dawn a young girl sits on the fence and she’s crying in the heartland.” That is exactly as it was in the dream. I had to write the rest of it. But that was the theme song from the TV show in the dream.
That’s awesome. Okay so that certainly speaks to sometimes it just comes to you because you wrote that in a dream, and decided you liked it.
I thought to myself, there’s a story here and all I need to do now to finish this song is to tell the story of this girl. Right? She cried because she wants her life to shine. You know, she knows there must be more than this. She’s leaving, you know? And I related to it. My wife related to it. Eric (Corne) related to it. I’m sure Jimi Hendrix related to, you know, going to England and not knowing anybody.
Moving from “Heartland,” the songs and the lyrics, and the subject matter of pretty much all the tracks, with the exception of “OK Boomer,” which is just nothing but sort of fun and lighthearted, the other 10 songs have a lot of depth to them. One song, “All Out of Tears,” is a very serious song. From what I know, it’s a tribute to the late son of Teeny Tucker. I know you guys collaborated on it. What’s the genesis of that? Did you reach out to her? Did she reach out to you? How did it come to be?
Okay, you know you know what the IBC is? It’s the International Blues Challenge in Memphis every January. Well, I was in Memphis with my wife for the IBC, because my wife was moderating the panel called Women and Blues, and my wife was the leader of the panel. After the panel finished, we were walking up Beale Street and there was Teeny, and we’re friends and I said, “Hey Teeny, how you doing? I haven’t seen you in a while.” And she said, “Well, I’m okay but my son passed away.” I went, “I’m so sorry to hear that,” and she said to me, “My heart is crying, but my eyes are dry because I’m all out of tears.” She said it, and I said, “Is that a song? Did you just make that up?” She said, “No, I’m just telling you how I feel.” I said, “We need to make that into a song. Are you cool if we make that into one?” She’s like, “Yeah let’s do it.” So she and my wife and myself worked on the lyrics together, and then I put the lyrics to music. It was originally going to be directly about her son, and then we talked and we said you know this song could have universal appeal if we just make it more general, and we make it about losing someone you love: a wife, a husband, a son, a father, a mother, a best friend. You know, how do you feel when you’re in that group. So, let’s make it a general thing. And I think a lot of people will be able to relate to it.
So there’s another question that brings up. You said you put the music to the words. In general, when you’re writing, are you a lyrics first or music first, or does it depend?
Absolutely no kind of process to it. Sometimes the lyrics come first. Sometimes the music comes first. Sometimes it comes out all together. A few years back I won Song of The Year at the BMAs for a song called “Gonna Live Again.” That was off Battle Scars. I was sitting on the couch and I was thinking, why did God keep me here, when people were dying all around me in the hospital. Why did God keep me here, what, what does he expect of me now? I picked up my acoustic guitar. I pressed record on my phone and that song came out exactly the way it is on the record. The lyrics to music, the whole thing came out at one time. Other things(…) I was riding in the van on tour, I was thinking about myself. I was being self reflective. I guess I had a bad gig and when I have a bad gig and I feel like I’d let the audience down, I feel a lot of shame of myself, and I have written on a piece of paper, “Sometimes I do my best, but I fail.” It happens to everyone. But then I try to hide away my shame. But then I end up getting all wrapped up in myself. I found that note, and I started strumming the guitar and that became the song “My Foolish Pride.” It became the first verse. That’s the reason the first verse does not rhyme. It was just a note that I wrote to myself trying to understand why I was feeling that way that day. I had to write the rest of it so the rest of it will rhyme. But I just put that note to music, you know? Other times, the music will come first. “OK Boomer,” I just had that lick on the guitar. I was goofing around with a lick, and I’d sit and play the lick, and again I said to my wife, “I think I want to make this song about being in the boomer generation.” She handed me the first verse, she wrote the first verse, said, “Here you go.” I said “Okay, I’ll take it from here.”
That makes complete sense. As long as you’ve mentioning “OK Boomer,” of the 11 songs, it has certainly has a less weighty mood. You would be considered part of the baby boomer generation, and because there’s so much about this album that deals with the passage of time, your generation can look back, and it seems that there’s some animosity brewing between the baby boomer generation and some members of Generation Z, or I guess the 15 to 30 year old range. What’s your take on the final verdict of the boomer generation, and what do you think about this potential conflict between these two generations?
Well, you know, I have three sons. The youngest is 18 the oldest is 26. The middle son is 24. We were talking about, when I wrote the song, we were talking about “okay boomer,” and we were laughing and I said well you know that’s a put-down on my generation. I’m gonna own it and I’m gonna write an anthem here for people my age. I’m gonna keep it light hearted and funny, and my son said to me, “Dad. You’ve got to admit. You guys are not doing such a good job.” And then he said to me, this was back in January, or no it was after the album came out it was during all the protests after George Floyd. He looked at me and he said, “If you look around the whole world is on fire, and you guys are handing this to us and expecting us to try to make this a better world.” And I said, “I have a lot of faith in you guys.” I’m not one that looks down on the younger generation. I think they’re the most informed, the most capable. And I have a lot of hope for the world when the younger people take over, but that’s just me. I don’t think we’ve done quite a good job. You know, there was a lot of hope in the ’60s, when we were all sort of peace and love. It’s sort of got squandered somewhere along the way. It is just my belief. I’ve had somebody try to argue with me about this. I have a lot of hope in the younger generation, and I have a lot of optimism that the world is gonna be a much better place 20, 30 years down the line when they sort of take over. As I think in many ways my generation has squandered things. As my son said, and he said it with love in his heart, he said, “Take a look around man, look at the world.”
Jumping back a bit to “Final Curtain Call,” the song itself, it’s not very heavy but it’s a somber topic. The title Final Curtain Call whether we’re talking about performing, writing, life…
It’s a metaphor for mortality.
Got it. You sing, “And someday I know I’m going to hit the wall.” What I find interesting about this, and you did this on the song “Almost Gone,” you seem to have a knack for taking weighty subjects, but then putting them to music, that is, upbeat, and almost joyous when taken by itself. Why do you think you do this?
Man, I don’t know. I listen to that song and I don’t hear it being really joyous. I wanted to write a rock tune and I can tell you, I haven’t said this to anybody yet, but when I went in with that to the studio with a band I said, “Look, I was really thinking Led Zeppelin when I wrote this, you know, I want us to play it like that. That’s what I have in mind here is some heavy rock. You know, I had those lyrics and that is another one of those songs about the passage of time and mortality. Since I came back from the abyss, when I was almost dead there, I’m deeply aware of the passing of time and that we’re all on borrowed time. You know sometimes when we’re younger it seems like we’re gonna live forever, but I know that’s not true. I don’t know how long it’s gonna last, but I’m sure gonna try and enjoy every minute while I’m here.
In that same song, you do say that when you were younger “time just seemed to flow.” What advice do you have for young musicians, or young people when dealing with that feeling that time takes forever when you’re a kid, but then it starts to get faster and faster and faster? What advice would you tell someone who’s young?
Exactly. You just nailed it with time going faster. If you think back to when you were 10 years old, or 11, years old, it seems forever between birthdays.
It took forever. You couldn’t even imagine a year from now having a birthday. But now I’m 69 and it seems to me I feel like I have a birthday every other week, and I don’t even like to acknowledge the birthdays now. “My God, here comes another one!” You know, I don’t have much advice for younger people on this one because it’s almost, it has to be learned through the passing of time. And also enjoy your youth. You enjoy that feeling of the time passing slowly and make the best of it. My wife and I have always told our kids is that you got one shot here and you want to make the best of it. Don’t waste time. Do something. You know, live it. Your life is about what you’re going to do with it. What my mom used to say to me(…) I’ll never forget one day when I was maybe 10, I was sitting in my room, sitting there and said, “I’m so bored.” And she just lost it on me. She said, “Walter, boredom is a choice. The world is full of things for you to do, things for you to learn, things for you to develop, things for you to see and things for you to experience. And if you tell me you’re bored then you’re making that choice. You’re choosing to do nothing, and then complain that you’re bored. Do something with yourself. Practice your trumpet. Practice your trumpet and get better as a trumpet player. Go take a bike ride and go look at the trees, go down by the lake, and throw stones into the lake. Go do something with yourself.” For the youth, enjoy that youth, make the most of it because it is gonna go very quickly, man it’s gone. One day you’re gonna turn around and go, “I’m now an adult with everything that comes with adulthood, you know, bills and relationships. I mean, when you’re a kid, make the most of it.
Yeah. I’ll let you go on this one, when the album is out, and what usually goes hand in hand is a tour. Obviously the dead horse has been beaten about pandemic and whatnot, but what are the plans for a tour? Are there plans for a tour? Where are you guys with that?
Well, right now(…) I came home in March. I was supposed to be on tour right now. I was supposed to tour from the beginning of March through the end of the year, actually, through the middle of December. I had a huge amount of touring booked and it at all went away. Now, a lot of it has been rescheduled. And right now I have some shows in the States, in October and November and December. I’m supposed to do some shows with John Mayall, and I’m supposed to do some shows with Dave Mason, and I’m supposed to do a bunch of shows on my own. But that remains if that is going to happen because in the United States it’s like we’re just getting going with the pandemic. I thought it would be over by now. It’s worse than it ever was, so I don’t know if that’ll happen. I do have a tour of Europe, both in January and February, In Europe they certainly seem to have a much better handle on this than we have here. So that tour may happen. I don’t know, but I know that most of my friends, even some kind of big time guys that I know who shall remain nameless, they tell me we can’t imagine touring until maybe next summer. So it’s all up in the air. Yeah, but I can tell you that most of the acts I know, including a very well known female singer-songwriter, she told me. “I have an album that’s done, and I’ve decided I’m not going to put it out until I can tour.” I’m like, “That could be two years! How do you know?” Our thought is that people are sitting at home and they want to hear some new music. So, why not put it out and let people hear the music? When you’re on tour, you can still play the same songs. And also if all the people hold their records back, all of a sudden everybody out there has records all at the same time. Right? That’s why we made this decision to put this out. I want people to hear it and I want to get it out there. I don’t want to sit on it for maybe another year and a half or two. By a year and a half from now I’d like to make a new record. I’ve made 29 albums and I’ve had a band for 31 years. I was out of commission for two years, because I was a year in the hospital and then I was a year really learning how to play the guitar again. So for 31 years, this is my 29th. I’ve done an album, every year, and I like to continue doing that.