Talking Blues – Part One
With renowned guitar stylist Robin Trower about to release his “nod to the blues” album, Roots and Branches our scribe Pete Sargeant met up with the artist to talk about the project and all manner of other topics. Since Robin’s original stint with The Paramounts and subsequently Procol Harum he has produced original exciting, but most of all, atmospheric music inspiring many guitar players along the way. Born in south east London he is North American success has led to him spending a lot of time Stateside. Thoughtful, gracious and forthcoming, Trower is an ideal interviewee though clearly not at all concerned with the glitz of stardom…..
JLTT: I wonder you realise how much of an influential guitar player you have been to your generation, mine right behind you and ever since! What are your thoughts?
RT: I’ve not given a lot of thought, although it’s been said to me before. I try and think about it. But I’m not hearing it particularly out there, but you just never know. If people say they’ve been influenced by you that’s good enough for me. I’m not really hearing anything out there that’s near to what I do.
JLTT: This leads me straight into something that I wanted to talk about. I link creative arts together in how I see them. And lets run this past you. If we were looking at painters, the Bosch’s and Breugel’s would be the great players like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani who tend to be quite busy and…
RT: and technically adept!
JLTT: I would say you are more akin to Monet and Gauguin
RT: (Sighs) Well that’s a lovely thought isn’t it? [Laughs] Yes that’s a lovely thought. Obviously my whole style and everything I do is trying to get an emotional depth to it. I’m very, very influenced by blues and black music. Various black players. I’ve always thought my playing is as much about my writing as it is about being a guitar player. Because I think it’s a lot to do with what I’m trying to create compositionally and that includes the guitar as well
JLTT: I wouldn’t say that you’re the only person with that ability to be, almost, a guitar impressionist. The other players that I like personally are Randy California of Spirit and Tommy Bolin, not with Deep Purple but when he was playing with Billy Cobham and Alphonse Mouzon. What we’re talking about is atmosphere, the ability to paint a picture and mood. My nickname for you is Dr Dreamscape
RT: [Laughs] Well I like it! Some of my favourite things are the more ethereal; those are some of the favourite things I’ve done.
JLTT: It’s easier to stamp your own style on things that are slower than fast choppier material.
RT: Yeah! I think that’s right. I’m always trying to get that very earthy thing combined with the ethereal. The ones that I feel do that, the tracks that do that are usually my favourites. But it’s still very much in touch with my roots
JLTT: This takes us very much into this new album you’ve made, Roots and Branches. It’s not out yet but I have been listening to it courtesy of the label. I looked at the track list [it includes Hound Dog, Thrill Is Gone, That’s Alright Mama and other familiar songs along with some brand new originals – PS] and I thought “my goodness, how’s he going to put a twist on these numbers”
RT: [chuckles] That’s what my manager said when I told him I was going to do it!
JLTT: But he said “Robin usually has a plan and he knows what he’s doing!”
RT: I set out to do a covers album…
JLTT: When you say ‘covers’ you mean ‘versions’, don’t you?
RT: ( Nods) Yes, I mean versions of some of my favourite songs. I’d like to have done a whole album, of some of my favourite stuff that has influenced me, has fed into what I do. But I couldn’t come up with what I would call my own take on enough of them to have a whole album’s worth. That was the cut-off point, I would use the song as just the skeleton that I would completely flesh out in my own way. I was really struggling, I got to about five or six I think and just couldn’t come up with more stuff. That’s why I added in some of my own material
JLTT: It sounds as though you’ve taken black and white drawings and coloured them in. Your way
RT: That’s what I wanted to do. I don’t think it is worth doing a version of, say, Hound Dog unless you could really do something with it. And there are other songs I looked at, I was trying to have a go at James Brown’s ‘Think’ and come up with something for that but I could not. There wasn’t quite enough of a song there, when you really break it down, it’s all about his vocal and the feel
JLTT: I’m quite glad, in a way, that you didn’t have a go at All Shook Up. I think the Jeff Beck version is…
RT: Oh yeah, quite right!
JLTT: What you’ve ended up with is a record of versions and own stuff which is almost your equivalent of Beckola
JLTT: Which does the same thing. Beckola is half versions, half originals. What I think you may be doing is really underrating these own compositions. And I said that to Alan [Robinson, RT’s manager] because without any bull**** the last two tracks on this are as good as anything you’ve done
RT: I have to say, I’m really pleased with the way they turned out, and it’s quite hard to write material like that. You don’t often come up with stuff like that. Especially ‘See My Life’ which is really a rock and roll version of a blues song that I’ve written. To get that to translate from that blues song, without losing any of that feeling, into a full rock and roll or blues rock as you like to call it version. But what I tried to do is set the template with the versions of other people’s songs and then I tried to re-work the material I had of my own so that they would all gel together and they would all seem like they had the same attempt at getting to a place, you know
JLTT: But it’s not really a looking back-forwards thing which would be a legitimate concept, because you haven’t done re-treads of Hound Dog or The Thrill Is Gone. You’ve coloured in the black and white outline. If I had [musically] picked up the coloured pens it would be different, wouldn’t it? We might be doing the same song but taking it somewhere quite different
JLTT: And Chris Rea or [Jeff] Beck would take it somewhere different. I fear you may be underrating the impact of these own songs. Let’s talk about Blues artists; obviously Blues Matters tries to cover Blues players, everyone from Robert Johnson, through to [Joe] Bonamassa and everything in between. Did you see the blues artists that were around when you started playing music?
RT: I did see some, in the early 60s. I remember going to Fairfield Hall to see what I think was a Chess package, Muddy…
JLTT: Sonny Boy Williamson?
RT: Yeah, and certainly Willie Dixon, and the piano player Otis Spann
JLTT: Muddy’s ‘cousin’!
RT: Yeah sort of. I wasn’t knocked out with it. I don’t why, I was just so into the records. These records had such a power to them and I think that was a little disappointing, it didn’t come over with that raw power. They were recorded ten years earlier or even earlier than that. My favourite Muddy Waters track is Still a Fool
JLTT: I was doing She Moves Me at a gig last night!
RT: [laughs] Great! I did see Albert King in the 80s in America and he was the best guitar player I’d ever seen. AND still is the best guitar player I’ve ever seen. What reason isn’t there to rate him? The most soulful phrases, notes, vibratos and bends and every phrase he plays is a great melody
JLTT: I saw him on a tour with the J Geils Band, he had a second guitar player with him, and it must have been Don Kinsey of the Kinsey Family. Amazing player, flying V!
RT: That tone as well!
JLTT: No Albert King, no ‘Strange Brew’…
RT: [laughs] That’s right. Crosscut Saw thing, wasn’t it? Albert King. The next greatest guitar player that I saw was obviously Hendrix, I only saw him once, and that was when I was in Procol Harum we played on the bill with him in Germany. That was amazing as well. And then below that, BB King. I was on the bill with him when I was with Procol Harum at a festival, bloody amazing performance. At the time in the 60s he was at his peak, he really was hot stuff. He had that great voice too
JLTT: And at that time, he had Gerry Gemmot on bass, a very sprightly player
RT: one of my favourite albums, might even be my favourite album was him playing live at The Regal. That was like a bible to me back in the 60s. I had it on all the time
JLTT: Albert King’s Blue Power was the one for me.
RT: Blues Power? Yeah, the live one, there’s some lovely playing on that, isn’t there. The trouble is the band is crap.
JLTT: A lot of these guys they would play with whoever was around. I was lucky enough to see Howlin Wolf backed by the Groundhogs, with Dave Kelly, that worked really well. That’s the first time I saw Wolf. Then later John Lee Hooker also backed by the Groundhogs. They so loved him they called their band after one of his songs. Did you ever see Freddie King?
RT: I wasn’t a Freddie King fan. No really into Freddie King at all.
JLTT: He had a lovely fluid style about him.
RT: I never got into him, I don’t know why. Something a bit light about the music. He could play, you know, great player, but for me something light about the music
JLTT: I’d say he was as much an entertainer as he was a musician.
RT: It’s a bit like BB King after he got further into his career, it became more like cabaret than blues, do you know what I mean? But his earlier stuff is gutsy, gets you really where you live.
JLTT: Your own playing, yes there’s plenty of bite there, for example on Too Rolling Stoned, but you’ve also got all this other impressionist feel. Let’s just talk briefly about the song Bridge of Sighs. The way it was layered… Mendelsohn came to mind.
RT: [Laughs] You know more about it than I do, Pete – I don’t know anything about Mendelsohn!
JLTT: I did strike me the regal sound that you got on Bridge of Sighs was classically influenced, the layering and counterpoint
RT: It’s not, though…
JLTT: Where did it come from, if it’s not from there?
RT: [humbly] That’s the thing – I have definitely got some sort of gift for creativity because I’m writing all the time. And I think that’s it, it’s just a creative gift. People used to say to me, especially in America in the 70s, “when we heard Bridge Of Sighs we thought you must have been stoned out of your mind when you made it”. [laughs] To me what they are saying is it’s a great release of creativity, somehow. I think they mix up the ethereal side of the music with being spaced/trippy…
JLTT: You’re talking to someone who’s never taken a drug in his life! That’s one reason why you’re more influential than you realise. Can we just talk through some of the tracks? Hound Dog… Which version of that are you most fond of?
RT: The original. Big Momma Thornton. It just blew me away that. I know there’s nothing to it but it’s such a great song
JLTT: Have you been to Sun Studios in Memphis?
RT: No, but I’ve seen many documentaries about it
JLTT: The Thrill Is Gone. These days I’ve heard everybody do that, the only version I really like is Chris Duarte’s. But now this one, what have you done to it?
RT: I purposely did not listen to the original and I hadn’t heard it for donkey’s years. I liked the idea of doing something in that minor key. I actually love the mood of those changes. Minor key, minor seventh – the turnaround at the end I particularly like that, it’s the same as one of the other songs on there I Believe To My Soul
JLTT: Little Red Rooster, that’s happy memories for me, but what are yours?
RT: I think it’s just one of two or three of my favourite Howlin Wolf tracks. I’m a big Howlin Wolf fan
JLTT: I do tributes to him!
RT: He’s a giant. I had a look at the song, had a play about with it, see if I could come up with something. I had to comfortable that I was being creative around that tune. That was one of the ones that came off. It must have been about 15 songs I was looking at, playing around with for months and months, years even, trying to come up with something of my own. It isn’t easy around a twelve bar to come up with something fresh, but you know I really like my version of it. It’s not Howlin Wolf and it’s never going to be Howlin Wolf!
JLTT: When I saw the Rolling Stones do that on Top Of The Pops, I jumped up and punched the air because I’d seen Howlin Wolf on a folk show and that really turned me on to the blues. And here they were putting that song in the public domain
RT: (Animated) That’s right! A good version of it too! It was just a cover of the original though, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to bring something of my own to it
JLTT: I Believe To My Soul?
RT: Yeah that’s just one of my favourite Ray Charles tracks. Again, that minor key with those changes. It’s a great song, what a great song! But again his version is completely different to that, I just used it as a skeleton to create a subtle guitar blues thing
JLTT: Yeah you can’t cut Ray on the vocal, can you? That’s Alright Mama?
RT: Yeah, it’s just one of those 15 songs that I came up with a different way of doing it. Don’t think anyone has ever done it as a shuffle. I thought it up on one of my walks I suddenly felt the vocal in that groove, you know? So I started from there to build the guitar parts up. It’s mostly worked out all the guitars through that. Which is what I call a proper arrangement. If you hear me play it live, it’ll be exactly the same
JLTT: It’s kind of a weave though isn’t it? In that you’ve got a cycle going there. A lot of Albert King’s songs have the guitar ‘commenting’
RT: Yeah. To be honest I was thinking of the Elvis, Scotty Moore kind of vibe. You’d have the Elvis’ line and then you’d have Scotty Moore do a bit of something. I was thinking of trying to create that, Pete
JLTT: When young players ask me what the feel of a shuffle is I tell them get a groove going and try playing every note twice. That’s a shuffle!
RT: The hardest thing for me there was to come up with a bass part that wasn’t a cliché. Because that tempo, most bass players play a ba-bom ba-bom thing. I had to work quite hard on getting the bass part right on that. Without it being like someone in a pub playing. They are very sticky tempos and if you can’t come up with something, they sound a bit white!
JLTT: A bit meat and potatoes. Born Under A Bad Sign? Most people know the Cream version.
RT: It’s one of my favourite Albert King songs. I felt after I’d done it, I shouldn’t have done it, but I was so happy to have come up with that arrangement for it, the guitar riff, I thought it’s a great guitar riff, it can go on the album. Bit different, you know
JLTT: It’s not a re-tread it’s a re-approach.
RT: Yep, definitely.
JLTT: I was quite relieved when Save Your Love was not Renée and Renato! [RT forces Pete to sing the cheesy pop song and laughs]
RT: I’m always very, very pleased to write an original blues, to write an original twelve bar is great! That song helped define what a lot of the album is about. I’d written a song that could’ve been written thirty or forty years ago
JLTT: If someone asked me to play a track off the new Robin Trower album I’d play that. You get this, you get what he’s doing here. Is that fair?
RT: Yeah I think so! I’d be hard pushed to name one that I favour more. I think the guitar playing, the feeling of it, the song, you know, it just all came together
JLTT: I would’ve started the record with that. Put that as lead track.
RT: Super! That’s what I would hope. For me it shows that there is life left in blues. There’s still life to be put into it
JLTT: There wouldn’t be 17, 18 year olds playing blues, unless there wasn’t some magic there, something enduring
RT: The point I’m saying is there, the greats are the greats and that they will always be great, but what I always hope is that it proves that you can put something down that is still blues but is new. You know what I mean? I must admit I was daunted a little bit because you can’t really compete with the classic stuff, the stuff that inspired you. You can’t compete with it. So, you sort of think, I’m going to look pale by comparison
JLTT: I know what you mean, you couldn’t write a modern blues number now about forgetting your PIN number. It would sound stupid! Let’s talk about See My Life. It sounds like an album title
RT: Again, it’s the first line that I came up with and started to write. That does give you the story straight away, you know. ‘See My Life as one long day’…
JLTT: May I say, I don’t think I’ve heard you sing better than on this record
RT: Thank you very much, I appreciate that! I do enjoy singing, I know I haven’t got quite THE singing voice but I really enjoy doing it because when I hear it back, I like to hear the feel of the voice and the guitar being in the same… territory
JLTT: I know what you mean because when I was really young, I loved Captain Beefheart, his voice was very boomy, very Howlin Wolf but the guitar arrangements are very spikey and very jerky and that roaring voice, it really did work, the juxtaposition with the guitars
RT: Incredibly powerful voice that!
JLTT: But over a smooth, L.A. airbrushed type of backing it would’ve sounded terrible
RT: That’s right !!
JLTT: It had to be in that edge of chaotic guitar arrangement. It was super charged Country-Blues, the Ry Cooder slide n’ all
RT: There’s a lot of young bands around now where the vocals really let them down
JLTT: Mercury Rev, fantastic players, but the singer doesn’t connect with me at all
RT: I find that with a lot of stuff these days. It’s important that the end product, the thing I listen to is trying to create something that is a whole thing that works as one idea, if you know what I mean ?
JLTT: So, if you’ve got Roots And Branches coming out, you intend to, presumably, feature that on your upcoming tour. How are you going to approach this, Robin, are you going to have a set of that or are you going to mix it with other material?
RT: The last live work I did, in Germany, earlier in the year, we did That’s Alright Mama which Richard [Watts] sings, I did See My Life and Little Red Rooster so I think that’s enough new stuff. People will still be coming to hear a lot of the classics
JLTT: I had a great chat with Ernie Isley once and I said “how do you choose a set list?”. He said “You can’t pick everyone’s favourite. We made how many albums? 70, 80? We do our best!”
RT: You can’t play ‘em all! Most people want to hear tracks from Bridge Of Sighs, especially in America…
[In Part Two, Robin talks to Pete about Jack Bruce, James Dewar and much more…]
… Thanks Golly and thanks Alan