American blues guitarist Walter Trout has had an amazing career.
After picking up the guitar at a young age, he played in a number of local bands in his hometown of New Jersey before relocating to Los Angeles in 1973 where his career as a sideman was launched, supporting a number of legends from John Lee Hooker to Percy Mayfield.
In 1981 Trout joined the blues-rock group Canned Heat and later teamed up with blues giant John Mayall in his John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers band.
Inspired by working with Mayall, Trout set out on a solo career in 1989 and since then has released 20 albums including the current Common Ground.
Trout began a tour in support of the album last week and will be making a stop in Auburn Hills on Thursday, March 24 at Callahan’s.
I spoke to Trout before the tour began.
Q: You have a date in Auburn Hills on the 24?
A: Yeah at Callahan’s.
Q: You’ve played out this way quite a few times? Do you enjoy playing in this area?
A: Many times, yeah. I sure do enjoy it! I used to play back there also with Canned Heat and I also played there with John Mayall. It’s been numerous occasions.
Q: When does this leg of your tour begin?
A: Well I start on the 9th in Dallas and then I kind of work my way out to the East Coast and I hit Boston and New York and then I head over to Chicago and Milwaukee and Detroit. I’m pretty much covering a lot of the country in the next five weeks.
Q: What can people expect on this tour?
A: Well we’ll be doing a lot of songs off the current record so if they came out and saw us last year when we weren’t doing those tunes because the record wasn’t out yet it’ll be a chance to hear them. We will be doing probably almost half the show with new songs. You know we’ll be playing with as much energy and inspiration as we can muster.
Q: Is there a song in your setlist that stands out for you?
A: You know it’s different every night. Sometimes you know a song that you are doing over and over every night you might find one night that you can’t find anything new in it. That’s why I try to find new things in them because when you’re playing twenty nights in a row that can get a little difficult but then all of a sudden maybe if I don’t do a song for a couple of days and then pull it out of the hat again it’s fresh again; it’s new. The title track off of the new album we do that pretty much every night but I’m able to find inspiration on that song I think because of the lyrics. So as far as being a particular song that’s different from night to night. Our shows are very spontaneous. We don’t have a setlist. We just come out and start playing and I kind of, along with the new stuff, pull old stuff up out of the blue. Stuff the band doesn’t expect and it kind of keeps them on their toes. It’s different every night I find.
Q: That is a good thing for the audience as well not knowing what to expect. Especially with avenues like Youtube where you can pull up video of every show on the tour.
A: I think so to. I think with bands that do the same show every night and the same solo and every note is worked out is something that I feel would get rather boring. I think that if you’re up there being bored with what you’re doing that has got to transfer to the audience. Especially guys that come out and do the same solo every night and there’s a few of them out there I won’t name but they come out and do the solo right off of the record. Why sit here in the crowd? So we approach it differently every night. It keeps it fresh for us and I think it keeps it fresh for the audience.
Q: So you switch up the way you play the songs as well?
A: Oh yeah. Yeah we do. We do it sometimes with the tempos and the dynamics. We’re liable to get to a solo part on a rock tune of mine or something and I’ll turn around and bring the band down to a whisper which we didn’t do the night before. I don’t want it to sound like the record. I want it to have spontaneity. I want me and the guys in the band to be involved in it instead of just going through the motions. It’s gotta have inspiration or it loses something.
Q: Your touring band is not the same one that recorded the album with you?
A: No. I had the mega big-time studio musicians who are friends of mine but there was no way I could afford to take them on the road with me. I had Kenny Aranoff who has worked with people like John Fogerty, Elton John, Beyonce and James Taylor. He’s just the top and he’s a friend of mine and he likes playing on my records. He’s done two of them with me now. I think he likes it because I don’t really give him any direction. It’s just here is how the song goes and to me you’re the best drummer in the world so just play it however you feel like playing it! So I give him a lot of freedom. I had John Cleary who plays with Bonnie Raitt and he played keyboard for Eric Clapton. I had Hutch Hutchinson who plays with Bonnie Raitt also on the bass. It was just really fun having those guys basically for four days in the studio. They were my band. It was awesome. Now that doesn’t mean that my band isn’t good. My guys are great and I’ve had them on records too. In fact, I’m gonna be working on a new record at the end of the year and it’ll be with my own band. It’s just when you have a chance to play with those caliber musicians you can’t turn it down.
Q: Is there someone in particular that you want to work with in the future?
A: Well I mean there’s a lot of musicians out there that I’d like to work with and play with and maybe get to record with. I get asked a lot if you could get up onstage with anyone who would you like to get up and jam with and I’d like to get up and jam with the Rolling Stones. I used to play with Mick Taylor a long time ago who was their ex-lead player so I got to play with one of them but I’d like to get to be up there with the band. A friend of mine who I’ve known since he was a little kid played guitar with Mick Jagger on the Grammys and he just had a blast.
Q: I’m reading the Keith Richards’ book right now and I don’t personally play any instruments but I’m struck by how interesting it is when he gets into breaking down his own guitar playing.
A: Yeah he’s very intelligent and pretty eloquent in there I think. Sometimes you hear him interviewed and he comes across as kind of a dope or whatever but his writing in there is very interesting.
Q: What were some of your biggest influences?
A: Well I grew up in the Sixties. I’m actually older than rock n’ roll because I remember Elvis on Ed Sullivan show. I was a little kid and I remember sitting with my parents. I was five and I still remember sitting there in the living room staring at this huge tv with this little screen and it was in black and white and my mom freaking out about this guy. So I’ve kind of been there through the whole gamut but growing up in the Sixties I really was a regular kid back then who listened to The Beatles and the Stones and Jimi Hendrix and The Animals and B.B. King. You know Buddy Guy and Paul Butterfield. It was a pretty exciting time to be a teenager who was into music. The Sixties were really a vibrant time with a lot of experimenting going on and it was just really cool. So really just all of the stuff that you would expect to hear from a Sixties kid like The Beatles and Hendrix and all of that played a big part in my music.
Q: You’ve said in the past that you don’t want to put your music in one genre; that you just like to go where the music takes you.
A: Yeah I sure do and when I became a sideman years ago I started getting hired by all these blues acts. You know I love blues and I played it and played it for years with all these legendary blues guys but I was still at the time listening to Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills and Nash, The Band and Bob Dylan. Dylan was huge to me. So I didn’t like to just stick with that one genre. I kind of like all of it. I love, for instance, Fifties rock and roll. Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. I love that stuff.
Q: Do you find that you listen to much current music?
A: I don’t really listen to much of it. Not at all really. There’s a couple of bands that my kids play that I like. I like The Black Keys but most of the stuff I hear I don’t really care for. I’m kind of lucky because my kids who are seventeen, one’s turning fifteen and the other is nine, they kind of sit around and they listen to the same stuff I like most of the time. I’m not saying it’s bad but it just doesn’t speak to me. I wrote a song a few years ago back when they had the ads for “I Want My MTV”. I wrote a song that was on an album called Go The Distance called “I Don’t Want My MTV”. It just says, “I don’t want my MTV because everything they’re playing don’t say a thing to me.” I don’t get any emotional involvement in the current music. I probably sound like a cranky old man but that’s just my opinion!
Q: When you sat down to write Common Ground and the title track what was that like? It really speaks to what is going on in the world right now.
A: You know I had that title and I had this phrase “lead us to the common ground” back when Bush was in and I thought this country was really heading in a bad direction and I tried to write it for years as a political song about the polarization in this country. About the two sides left and right just screaming at each other and not being able to sit down and talk. I just never could get it together as a political song and one day it just came to me that it really just sort of needed to be a prayer to whatever your idea of a higher power might be. If you believe there’s something somewhere greater than us and I sure hope there is because I think we’re incredibly flawed as a species and almost comically messed up. If you believe that there is something that can influence things in your life and the world to speak to that power and ask for help. That’s really what that song is about. It’s not aimed at any particular religious denomination. I am a Christian but I don’t push it on people because I find that turns people off and it used to turn me off before I became a Christian when somebody would knock on my door and start quoting the bible to me and telling me I’m going to burn in hell. I’d slam the door in their face. Who are you to tell me that you’ve got the answer but over the years I did become a Christian but I’m not going to push it on people. It is in there subtly but it’s not a Christian song. It’s just a song asking for help because I think we’re floundering as a species. I think we’re destroying our planet and I think we just have some massive problems facing us that are new in the history of mankind. Maybe we sort of need to come together and realize our sort of common humanity and our common weakness and our common needs that we all have and try to deal with that.
Q: What makes this album stand out for you?
A: Well I really tried to work on the songs. On a lot of the other ones the songs are sort of an excuse for guitar solos. I have some guitar playing friends who are very well known and we have this little quote among us that we say among us, “when you’re a guitarist like we are the songs exist just as a vehicle to get us to the next solo”. On this album I tried to really concentrate much more on the songs and I almost think of it as more of a singer/songwriter album that has guitar solos on it instead of a guitar album that has songs. I think the songs are more important on this one than just ripping guitar.
Q: When you sit down to write where do you find most of your inspiration comes from?
A: Boy, there’s really no rhyme or reason to it. I spend a lot of time on tour and I sit in the back of that van and I close my eyes and I start thinking about things that affect me or things that move me and make me emotional and I start writing I guess what is basically poetry and I fill up notepads of this stuff. Then when it’s time to write a cd like I have to do for the end of this year I get those notepads out and I start going through them and if a line or a couple of lines grabs me I take it from there. There’s no formula for it and there’s no rhyme or reason and I can’t really say where it comes from. “Common Ground” I had that phrase in my head for years but once it dawned on me that it needed to be a spiritual song and not a political song it took me about ten minutes. I have a song on Unspoiled By Progress called “They Call Us the Working Class But We Ain’t Working Anymore” that’s kind of my take on what’s been going on. I wrote it in 2008 when the crash was really happening and that was something back in 1974 where I was in a little diner in Hollywood and I heard a little old lady at the next booth say that to the guy she was sitting with. I said boy that’s gotta be a song and that stuck in my head until 2008 and then all of a sudden it just came out. When I play that song in Detroit, by the way, it goes over really great. It’s amazing. When I play it in New York City I kind of get a little splattering of applause but when I play it at Callahan’s it goes over really well.
Q: You were exposed to music at a young age but what made you gravitate toward the guitar?
A: Well I started on the trumpet when I was five. I started taking trumpet lessons and I got pretty good at it actually. I was playing in high school bands and stuff like that but when I was 10 or 11 my older brother brought home a acoustic guitar and he had a book of chord charts and I just sat down and started goofing around with it. One day he came home and there I was playing his guitar and at first he was like hey what are you doing and then he started to listen and he was like hey maybe you better keep going with it because listen to what you’re doing. I was already playing songs and you know figuring out Bob Dylan songs and stuff and so I don’t know little by little the trumpet got left in the closet and the guitar became a lot more important. I also realized that with the guitar you could accompany yourself and sing whereas with the trumpet you just had to play single notes and it just really appealed to me. The playing and singing at the same time, I got into that pretty early.
Q: Do you find that you have a pretty wide fan base?
A: Yeah I do actually. I’ve been noticing the past couple of years a lot more kids. I really like that. It seems like a lot more fourteen and fifteen year old kids kind of stand in the front and watch me play and study my fingers and it cracks me up because I used to be the guy who would go see Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix and I would bust my way up to the front and stand there and study their fingers and steal licks from them. That’s how I figured out how to do a vibrato and bend the string. I forget who it was I went to see. I think it was Moby Grape. The guy was bending strings and I was like that’s how they make that! So now I have kids down in the front row watching me and it’s just like the circle continues. A lot of times I know they’re aspiring players and they’re watching me so I’ll walk right up to the front so they’ll get a close up view of my fingers as I’m playing so I can kind of pass it on here and it can keep going.
Q: You’ll be recording the new album at the end of the year but do you have any other future plans?
A: Well after this tour I get home on April 11 and then I have a few weeks off and then in May I got a run to Vegas. Then I have the big blues festival out here in Orange County called Doheny which is right out on the beach at Dana Point and it’s a big one. It’s maybe 20,000 and that’s gonna be with I think Derek Trucks and John Fogerty. It’s gonna be fun because Kenny Aronoff plays with Fogerty so we’ll get to hang out a little bit. Then right after that I head to Europe and I do a month there of festivals in June and into July and at the end of that I come back and I go right out into the States again and I do month of festivals starting in California and then work my way across the country with festivals in Vermont and Massachusetts and a bunch of stuff. That takes me into September where I’ll do another short run up into the North in Seattle and the Portland area. Then in October I’ll record my new cd and then in November I’m going to go to Europe and I’m gonna do a tour called The Monsters of Blues Rock with Papa Chubby and we’re gonna be double-billed and do France and Germany and England. That’ll bring me to the end of the year around Christmas where I will come home and attempt to get to know my children again.