Talking Blues & More – Part Two
Continuing Pete Sargeant’s conversation with the guitar ace – Part One concentrated on the Roots & Branches album and now Pete and Robin move on to other topics
JLTT: Can we talk a bit please about – and just going back to the artists thing – our earlier series of albums, in fact all your albums have got a distinctive touch on the artwork. Now the original ones were by Funky Paul, who’s also a great drummer.
RT: Yeah he IS! That’s true…
Yeah, I saw him a couple of years ago playing with a friend of mine, Saiichi from Japan. He’s a very competent prog rock drummer. I wonder if you are still in touch with him at all?
Occasionally,. but.not a lot really, because I’m not on a computer
I think the art was part of the impact of those albums.
Oh yeah, definitely. I knew him from Procol Harum days and I bumped into him when we were recording the first album ( ‘Twice Removed From Yesterday’) at Barnes and he was living there and when I met him I told him the album title and I said ‘Have you got anything?’ and I think he may have already had it because he’s painting all the time
Very complementary to your music.
Yeah, definitely. I think from that point on I think when I gave him the title he would create something for me, for the new release
Can we go back to guitar playing for just a second? Do you ever play acoustic guitar?
Yeah I do. I’ve written quite a lot of things on acoustic.
But you don’t seem to feature it much on the records.
No. I put it on a few things… but as you say not much.
But it intrigued me because clearly with your range of moods it could come into the picture a bit more ?
I can’t say why. I mean I never think I must not do acoustic – but overall it’s all about the electric, cranking up quite loudly through an amp.
Yeah but having said that, it’s the subtleties that come in, the overtones that you use that draws you into the music. Do you ever play slide?
Yeah, I played slide on one thing I’ve done and that was on the ‘Someday Blues’ album.
I was quite surprised there wasn’t a slide track on this new ‘roots’ set
I think probably I have started to think that the slide is a little bit clichéd for blues now. There’s some great slide players about, still about in fact. I can’t get near that. There are specialists who are really great at it and… I’m not one of them ! (laughs)
There seems to be, as I perceive it, very little country influence in Robin Trower’s music.
You mean country blues or country and western?
I have written some, what I would call country songs which I’ve not felt the need to do myself. I do really like, especially the old time country.
I don’t really know Doc Watson. I’m thinking more like Hank Williams that swing kind of country. That I really love all that early stuff.
Did you ever see Commander Cody a West coast band?
No, never did..
With Bill Kirchen, the Telecaster player. He’s the king of that rockabilly country style.
There’s still people who can do it today. There’s still players around but that old style stuff had such a vibe about it. But then I love for my own listening…I mean I listen to music from the Thirties, Forties mostly…and Howlin’ Wolf.
Benny Goodman or Woody Herman?
No mostly just pop music. I am really keen on Al Bowlly and early Frank Sinatra. But I’ve got a lot of what were basically hits from the Thirties and I’m really into that stuff.
Could I quickly throw a few names at you of people that you’ve worked with because I’m interested to know how you got on with them and all that sort of thing. Bill Lordan?
(Brightly) Oh Bill Wonderful drummer, really hot drummer. I mean I got on great with him. He brought a real bit of ‘fizz’ to the group
Do you think he was part of the reason your reputation built in America?
No, I don’t think so. You see, ‘Bridge of Sighs’ was already a huge hit and he joined after that
Well he had such a beautiful mood about what he played.
Brothers weren’t they?
Yeah,.. three of them
And he passed three years ago?
Yeah, very sad
I wonder if many drummers could’ve played on ‘Twice Removed’?
No, Reggie was unique, what he had. I mean you could listen to him just sitting there playing a beat on his own and it would have a mood bout it. Yeah ,he was unique
It was like he was a bear. The power was there, but he wasn’t trying to impress you.
I think the main thing about Reggie was his love of music. And that’s what comes through when he played
Jim Dewar? He was in ‘Lulu and the Luvvers’ wasn’t he? What a voice !
Oh I said all along, that the reason we were so commercially successful was because of his voice. That voice and his singing was the crossover to popular music you know, rather than being just an underground success
But he didn’t ever scream, he sung
Beautiful, beautiful voice. Very underrated was Jimmy
I don’t think he’s underrated by musicians, Robin. The public maybe and they might not even know who he was because your name was on the records
Yeah that’s right
Jimmy was an absolute iconic hero to most singers in this field
No doubt about it. He was as good as you can get
I mean – Mr Dynamite ! Unbelievable.
The energy he has…..
The combination of his voice and bass playing is mind blowing. And to play alongside it is a completely different thing for me because the support is so great coming from him – I didn’t have to work hardly at all (laughs). It’s just amazing
And yes I understand what you’re saying. The dynamic of a bass player like that is…
… Like a one man orchestra, really?
You can do your legato, your sustained lines and it’s bubbling along under you
True, you can take your time a bit more. And Gary as well.- Gary Husband
He’s not just a drummer, he plays keyboards as well
Yeah, he’s an amazing musician.
Dave Bronze? Now he’s great because he can adapt to everything – Clapton, Eric Bibb or you!
Yeah and Tom Jones. When he was with me he was my rock. I used to rely upon him and he was a great support all round
I’ve met him a couple of times and he always seemed a real soothing character to me. You don’t think much will go wrong if he’s around
Yeah like I say, he’s a solid guy
Do you ever get nervous when you play?
No I don’t think so. The energy level sort of comes up, you know. Starts to bubble a little bit before you go on,
I find that once I know everything is working and the sound is ok, I completely relax
I like to warm up for at least twenty minutes on the guitar before I go on because I change. I have new strings every night so to a certain extent you’ve got to break them in with so much bending and what have you, the vibrato’s. If I’ve warmed up well and I’ve enjoyed it and got into it I’m fine. I can start off up here rather than having to work my way up to it.
Ok, one thing I’ve always wondered I actually put one of my guitars down two semi-tones so that I’m D to D, conventional tuning spaces, but D to D… But you do that and you use twelves (guage – PS)
Yeah, the idea of coming down to D tuning is so I can use heavier strings to get the tone. It’s all about the tone. Anything lighter than a twelve, you can’t really get the tone out of it. If you haven’t got a good resonance even on the top string, your not gonna get the sound out of it
It did make a difference. I mean, usually I have one guitar on open D for slide. But I do find on D tuning that especially around A, A flat, G that the guitar response is a bit different, triggers my effects differently. What’s the dynamic at work there?
I have no idea, but I just know it works. I’ve always worked on the principle that with a Strat, that it’s got to sound good acoustically before it goes into anything. So in other words, the strings have got to ring out and have a nice resonance. All the way up the frets before it even goes into anything. You can’t get it on a ten or an eleven and you’ve got to have quite a high action as well so by tuning down you get slacker. You can still do the bends and what have you. Then I get as much crank out of the amp as I can, rather than use the distortion pedals. So the opposite to what you’re doing. Because my way you’re getting all the burning off the valves
See, I only like playing through Fender and Orange stuff I don’t like playing through Marshall stuff at all, but you’ve mastered Marshalls. How do you do that? I mean I know Jimi did but not many other people have
I think because I’ve always used them I just know my way round them, but since they came out with this ‘vintage modern’ that is the amp to me that makes it all possible.
For what reason?
You can actually get great sustain and everything out of it even without using an effect. So it means I can use minimal overdrive stuff.
Ok, so you’re doing your amp settings. Do you have the master fairly low?
No, loud. Do you know the ‘vintage modern’? You get these two pre amps volumes or gain I think they’re called and one is detail and one is body. So you can crank out the sort of amount of drive into the output so I have the master up. On this album I was using fifty watt combos , so I had the master up about two thirds and I have
the detail pre amp up about two thirds. I don’t use the body because I use a neck pickup which has already got a lot of body to it. You get a lot low end so you don’t need to add to it.
So you use the neck, not the middle pickup?
Neck. On some things I do use the middle pickup, if I’m doing ‘Bridge of Sighs’ for example that’s done on a middle pickup
You see, like Japanese players they’ll turn the master right down and the volume right up and then they will tweak the master to exactly the level they want. But it gives almost like a stabbing sound. But obviously, that doesn’t suit your sound of playing
I like to really drive the output out of the speakers. I like to really push them
Oh yeah !
In the studio as well?
Yeah. Oh yeah, definitely…
Oh yeah, you’ve got to get the amp and guitar starting to interact you know. The pick ups have to work hard…
But I find I can only get subtle tones if I have the volume on the amps as low as I can get it and it’s clear. I don’t like having loud amps, I really don’t
Everybody’s different, aren’t they? Everyone’s got their own ear and what they wanna hear coming out.
I’m surprised you get such a clear personal sound with that kind of set up.
Well, I get a very clear sound out of the guitar to start off with so you get quite a lot of front.
Using the amps then or on the way to the amps?
Both. There, I mean it’s a combination.
See, I put my distortion boxes ahead of any flanging chorus or whatever.
I don’t, I put them after..
There’s a sound you’ve got that I can’t do. As much as I try. The ‘Somebody’s Calling’ flange sound
That was….. a Fender Blender with an Electric Mistress as far as I can remember. I mean I had a lot of weird pedals in those days. I think that’s what it was.
Wonderful player !
Wasn’t he ex Sly and the Family Stone?
Yeah, he came in through Bill who recommended him.
He was obviously a funky player, but he did mesh in with your style didn’t he?
Oh yes, he was a great musician.
How did you approach that as he was new to the band?
Well the first thing we did with him was the ‘In City Dreams’ album. We went into the studio and we had Dewar singing this time and Rusty playing bass. He had an ear for songs
I really like that album because there are little bass runs that Rusty puts in every now and again which are fabulous on ‘Somebody’s Calling’.. but not often. It was trance music before it was invented !
(Laughs) Yeah. I do love that number too.
Some of your stuff finishes too soon?
Too short? Or fading too early
Fading early.. I wish some of it was longer..Davey Pattison ?
Ah – another great figure..a friend of mine from Procol days played me some demo’s they he’d got Davey to sing on..he was local, in San Francisco…though he’s from Scotland. Bill Lordan had heard him and he recommended him to another guitar player..er..Gamma
Yes ! so that’s how he came to be in San Francisco. I got hold of Davey and said come and sing on the next album
No offence intended here, Robin – but I could understand you working with say Joe Cocker or Terry Reid, but how was it that you worked with Bryan Ferry ??
Well Bryan asked me to come in and play on an album..I didn’t know him then..so I did play on some material he was working on..and we got on very well..eventually I became co-producer for these tracks.. I always had thought his singing was special…must have been months of work, but we had great fun, I have to say…
( We talk for a while about Procol Harum and I mention ‘Whisky Train’ )
Yes, now ‘Whisky Train’ was a very successful song..that’s probably the one that set me thinking, maybe I can be a writer….come up with some ideas
It was a different side of Procol ..
Yes, it wasn’t like anything they were doing
Procol were a much more versatile band than they are given credit for
I think that’s right..that was a great line-up….
Thanks again Robin, Golly, Alan