Walter Trout, an American blues guitarist and singer songwriter chats with Kevin Cooper about his illness and recovery, his fondness for John Mayall, his Battle Scars album and his forthcoming tour of the UK
Walter Trout is an American blues guitarist and singer songwriter, whose career began on the Jersey coast scene of the late 60s and early 70s. When relocating to Los Angeles, he worked in the bands of John Lee Hooker and Joe Tex.
In 1981 he became the guitarist for Canned Heat, which then led to him playing in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Leaving the band in 1989 he formed the Walter Trout Band which made its UK debut in 1990.
In 1998 Trout released his self-titled US debut album and renamed his band Walter Trout And The Free Radicals which he later changed to simply being Walter Trout.
In June 2013, while touring Germany, Trout got the first signs that he was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. With his heath deteriorating, he continued to tour until he was told he needed a liver transplant within 90 days. By 2015 Trout had recovered and was able to go on Tour in Europe.
In 2016, he won two Blues Music Awards for Gonna Live Again (Song of the Year), and the Rock Blues Album of the Year for Battle Scars.
Whilst busy preparing for his tour, he took time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Mr Trout, good afternoon.
Hey Kevin how are you doing?
I’m very well thank you and let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.
No problem, no worries, it is my pleasure.
After giving us all a scare recently I have to ask, how are you?
I will tell you something, I have just been into the bathroom to brush my teeth and comb my hair and I took a look in the mirror and said “I feel fucking great” (hysterical laughter). Does that answer your question (laughter)? I really do feel good.
I have to tell you that is good to hear. It’s good to have you back.
Well thanks Kevin, I really do appreciate that.
You have recently been made a Patron of the British Liver Trust. How did that make you feel when they approached you?
It really is awesome. I feel like I am in a position in the public eye behind a pulpit from where I can preach organ donation from, and I can reach out to people. I feel that it is a great thing. I had never thought about organ donation before I got sick. I knew that it existed and I had heard about it but I never found it on my realm of concern at all. However, I now realise just how important it is and the fact that you can save lives. You can really help other people; not just saving lives but you can do other things such as donating the corneas of your eyes to blind people or your skin can go to burn victims. It truly is an amazing thing. For me to become a Patron of the British Liver Trust was awesome for me. I’m so glad that they thought of me and I was very flattered that they asked me.
I now consider it my mission to spread the word. In some ways I almost feel like that was one of the reasons why I was kept here because by all reasoning I really should be dead. Why I survived what I went through there has got to be some reason, not just to play music or be a dad. I feel that it is because I can go out and spread the word. I talk about organ donation every night from the stage. And every night someone comes up to me after the show and tells me that I have made them think about it and that they are going to sign up for it when they get home. That makes me feel that it is the best thing that I can do in my life right now.
After completing all of your treatments you finally stepped back out onto the stage at The Royal Albert Hall here in the UK on Monday June 15th 2015. That must have felt pretty special?
Well, what can I say; there was a tsunami of emotions. There was joy, there was concern, there was apprehension, there was, wow, I honestly didn’t know what was going to happen. Was I going to go out there, get a dizzy spell and fall over because that had been happening to me for a whole year before I went into hospital. I was also worried that I would open my mouth and nothing would come out. If I played would my hands cramp up because that had been happening to me. The last tour that I did before I was hospitalised my hands would cramp up in the middle of a show and I would have to stop playing. The pain in my hands would be excruciating; my fingers would close and I wouldn’t be able to open them. I simply couldn’t play anymore and for me being on stage was terrifying
So when I walked out onto the stage at The Royal Albert Hall I was constantly wondering what was going to happen. I don’t want to say that I was nervous but I was apprehensive to a huge degree and I will tell you this, as soon as I walked out there and got a standing ovation and I felt all that love from that crowd; the love they sent up to me was just unbelievable. I stood there embracing my wife and we were feeling these waves of love from people. When I turned around and counted off the four and that incredible group of British musicians kicked in behind me, I immediately had this thought; I was home, I live on the stage, and this is what I do. I have been here on stage ten thousand times in my life, this is what I do, this is where I belong, and this feels great. I had a blast. I could have played another two hours for those people.
Were you pleased with just how warmly and well your album Battle Scars was received?
To be honest with you, I was totally blown away with how well the album was received. I didn’t put any thought into what kind of song I should be writing. I wrote that whole album in two days. In fact I wrote six of the songs in one afternoon. It all just came out of me. I didn’t know how it would be received, but what I did know was that it was rather dark and graphic but it was something that I had to do for my own self. Writing the album was my therapy session. I still suffer from severe PTSD after that experience which I went through, and instead of going to a therapist and trying to talk about it I just put it all into music. The way the album was received just blew my mind. It warmed my heart too.
Battle Scars has just been voted as the Blues Rock album of the year. That must make you feel good?
To be honest with you it is hard for me to describe just how that makes me feel after what I went through and just how close I came to death many times. You have to remember that I was in the hospital for seven months and so for me to come back and have my career rejuvenated like this is amazing. It is totally amazing.
I totally love the album and my favourite track is Fly Away. What was the inspiration behind that particular song?
(Laughter) okay, I will tell you. Some people think that I am crazy when I tell them this but here goes. Right before I went into the hospital, I was not in there yet so I was not high on Morphine when this happened to me. I was lying in bed at home feeling very sick and I was visited by spirits. These spirits took me out of my body and I experienced, I believe, the other side. They offered me the opportunity to go with them at that point and I knew that meant that I would die. I told them no because I wanted to watch my children grow up and suddenly I was back in my body. But I saw myself in the bed; I had had an out of body experience and people can say “what were you on” but I wasn’t on anything.
It was one of the most real things that I have ever experienced and it changed me heavily. The next morning I couldn’t even talk to my wife or my kids as I was just grinning from ear to ear. I had seen what I believe is the other side and now I think that I know what awaits us. It is very personal but that is what that song is about. It is about those spirits visiting me and taking me flying through the air. It’s about them speaking to me and basically offering me a way out of what was just about to happen to me.
Would you agree that Battle Scars is your best work to date?
Boy, I don’t know. I think that in some ways it is my most personal but I have always tried to write personal songs. Every song that I have ever written has a story behind it. I don’t just sit down and write songs as an exercise, I write about things that I feel or experience. Things that I believe, things that I might have seen happen to my friends or things that I have read about in the newspapers. I simply can’t answer that question. It has to be a subjective opinion and that is up to the listener. However, I have certainly received a lot of emails and messages from people that say that they have been fans of mine for twenty-five years and they think that this is my best album. I certainly get a lot of that.
Are you always writing?
What I do is I basically sit on the couch whilst watching the television. I will have my Strat in my hand with a small amplifier next to me. While I am watching the TV I will be playing and suddenly a small idea of music will come into my head and I will record it onto my mobile phone. So after a while I will have a whole load of musical ideas on my phone and when it is time for me to record an album I go through all of those musical ideas. I will think about what I am trying to say and at that point I will start writing words which are basically poems and then when I have a few of those I will start putting them to music. However, I have to say that a lot of the songs on Battle Scars were not from that catalogue of ideas. For example, with Fly Away I sat down with an acoustic guitar and that song came out exactly like that.
As a matter of fact all of those songs were written when I was sat on my couch with an acoustic guitar. I simply pressed record and some of those songs came out both lyrically and musically, they just came out of me as they are. I still have the original recording of Please Take Me Home and that came out of me just like it is on the album. I just sat down thinking about the time that my wife would climb into the bed with me and I would tell her “get me out of here, I’m going to die. You might as well just let me die at home”. However, she wouldn’t do it so I thought about that. I closed my eyes and out came that song word for word.
Are you currently writing for a new studio album?
I am going to start writing for a new studio album in November. I recorded an album some years ago now called Full Circle where I had a guest on every track. We basically went into the studio and we jammed. I had John Mayall, Joe Bonamassa, Jeff Healey together with all sorts of other people join me on that album. We would all just basically jam in the studio and I am intending to record a Volume Two. I have already got some amazing people lined up to be on there.
Can you give me any names?
(Laughter) I couldn’t possibly mention them yet. But I have to say that we are talking about some really amazing names that are lined up to do this record with me. I am going to start doing some tracking in November when I get home from the tour. I will then do some more in early December, January and then finish it all off in February.
Do you have a release date in mind?
Hopefully, and I truly mean hopefully, it will be released sometime next summer.
You have mentioned Joe Bonamassa. I was speaking to Joe recently and he simply can’t speak highly enough of you. He only has nice things to say about you.
That is really great to hear, that’s awesome. I do have to say that Joe played on the Full Circle album and we had a ball. When I went to hand him a cheque he said “no, I won’t take that, this has been fun for me. I won’t take your money, please use the money to promote your album”. I thought that was a really beautiful gesture. That was an amazing gesture.
You have briefly mentioned your forthcoming UK tour; it kicks off here in Nottingham at Rock City.
It does although I wasn’t aware of that fact until someone pointed it out to me. It will be good for me to get back to Rock City as I haven’t played there in years now.
What can we expect from the show?
Well, I have to say that the band is kicking ass (laughter). Right now I think that it is the best band that I have ever had. We will be playing a lot of the songs off Battle Scars together with some old blues songs. We will also be playing some of the old songs from my back catalogue and we are killing it right now. It’s an awesome band and we are so excited to be getting back out on the road over there in the UK.
I understand that there is another reason why you enjoy playing here in Nottingham?
(Hysterical laughter) who has been talking (laughter). I have to say that Nottingham has one of the best curry houses in the UK (laughter). It is just down the street from Rock City and I can guarantee to you that we will all be there after the show (laughter). We know the owner there, he is a good friend.
Just to let you know that I will be shooting the gig at Rock City.
Okay, but I really do hope that you mean with a camera (laughter). Remember I’m from America and sometimes that phrase can be a little scary (laughter). If you were in Texas on tour and somebody said “I will be shooting the gig” I would tell them that I’m not going to the gig (laughter).
After all that you have recently been through, does touring still excite you?
Oh fuck yes man, are you kidding me, it is so much fun. There are certain musicians who hate going out on the road, one of whom was my biggest inspiration, Michael Bloomfield. Michael hated touring; he really couldn’t stand it. I’m one of the lucky ones in so far as I actually love it. I consider it an adventure; I consider it living the life of a gypsy, being an artist. I spent five years with John Mayall and John just loves being out on the road. He blossoms out on the road; he comes alive on the road and I feel the same way.
I have never been a huge fan of live albums because they can sometimes feel cold and distant. However, I feel that with your Alive In Amsterdam album you have captured the very essence of one of your live gigs. Would you agree with that?
Well thank you. Recording that album was a pretty high pressure gig. We recorded it in the formal, beautiful Concert Hall venue; in fact you could say that it was The Royal Albert Hall of The Netherlands. It is actually the Queens Royal Theatre. We had one shot at it, we went out there and played and whatever came out was what we got and to be honest with you I thought that we pretty much nailed it that night. Once again, there was a lot of love in that room and you can hear that with the crowd. It really was a beautiful experience. The welcome that I have received since I have come back from the brink is almost overwhelming to me.
Knowing that you only have the one chance to get it right, does that make you nervous at all?
It’s not really like being nervous, it was like the feeling I had at the Royal Albert Hall. It is not nerves, it is apprehension. Being nervous means that you are scared that you are going to go out on stage and fuck up or something. I’m not worried about that. I have done enough gigs that I know that I can go out on stage under just about any type of circumstance and I can do the gig; I can get through it, I can pull it off. However, there is apprehension especially when you are playing a solo, you do think about nailing it because that is your one shot.
Am I correct in saying that you do not believe in doing any retakes or overdubs?
Too fucking right I don’t. A lot of people will record a live album and then they will take the tape home into the studio where they fix stuff and redo stuff. I would not do that. I am not going to do that, the fans are going to get whatever we do. There are a few solos on there that I wish that I could have done over. I can hear that I am overflowing with adrenalin and I need to relax a little bit. However, having said that it does add a little fire to the whole thing.
You have recently played on A Force Of Nature by Sari Schorr. How was that?
Sari is a really dear friend of mine. She is such an incredible artist. It was great to be able to work with her on her album.
She covered one of your songs, Work No More. Were you happy with her interpretation?
Oh god yes. Sari is really amazing don’t you think. That’s right, she covered Work No More and I played lead guitar on it. She is truly a force of nature. And I am so glad to see her finally getting the recognition that she deserves. I think that she is just starting off and I think that for that lady the sky is the limit. It was a real privilege for me to be involved with her first recording. It was a real thrill for me to be able to work with Mike Vernon too.
Is the blues currently in a good place?
I think so. In fact I would say that the blues is in a great place. You have people like Joe (Bonamassa) who have broken through and taken it to a higher level of acceptance and have put it out there in front of people. It has always been a bit of a niche market if you know what I mean. But there is always somebody who comes along every generation and breaks through which Stevie Ray Vaughan did twenty-five years ago and now it is Joe. Every town that I go into there is always kids of about thirteen years old who play the blues. There is an entirely new younger generation coming up that in ten years from now there is going to be a whole new generation of blues guitarists.
I personally think that the blues is thriving and my theory is that it is a backlash against all of the corporate produced computerised shit that the mainstream media forces down our throats. Kids who grow up hearing that shit on the radio all of the time suddenly hear a Stevie Ray Vaughan album and it blows their mind. They can’t believe that it is a human being playing an instrument. They can’t believe that there is emotion and feeling in it. It’s visceral and it comes from the gut, it’s not slick bullshit. So I think that there is this incredible new crop of young blues musicians who are coming up. It’s a backlash against all of the shit that they have been raised with and so the blues is in a healthy great place I think.
Is there anyone in particular that we should be looking out for?
You have a plethora of incredible young players over there in the UK. I can start naming some of them and I know that I am going to leave some out but you have got Danny Bryant, Oli Brown, Mitch Laddie, Aynsley Lister, Ben Poole and Joanne Shaw Taylor. It’s an amazing list and I am sorry to whoever I have left out of it because it is an amazing list. Those are some of the ones that I know personally. A lot of those I have tried to help too when they first started off. Also I have played on a lot of their records. I think that the blues is thriving over there in the UK almost more than it is anywhere else in the world right now.
I know that there have been lots, but if I had to push you what would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
Coming back from the brink of death and starting over again (hysterical laughter). I can’t mention one particular gig because there have been too many but to come back from the brink of death and start over again has to be at least one of the highlights. When I got out of the hospital I couldn’t play, I had to start over and relearn, which took me over a year. So for me to get back and suddenly have my career hitting new heights I would have to say is the highlight of my career. With regards to my musical life I am at the very best time of my life right now.
You have played with some of the greats, Big Mama Thornton, John Mayall, John Lee Hooker and Joe Tex to name but a few. Who has given you the greatest pleasure?
The five years that I was with John Mayall I have to say was probably the most fun that I have ever had as a musician. It’s not that I haven’t had fun on my own but when it is just me then there is a certain pressure there. People come out to see me and if I am not on my game they say “we saw Walter Trout and he wasn’t so good”. But touring with Mr Mayall I just had to tour the world, have a great time, play four or five solos every night and his sense of humour is second to none. It was like touring the world with Monty Python (laughter). It was so much fun and he is such a character and so unique. He manages to lead a band by keeping it light-hearted. Even when it gets gruelling out there and you are tired, had bad food, there is always humour. That was the most fun that I have ever had, those five years on the road with him.
What was the first record that you bought?
The first record that I ever bought was Al Jolson when I was eight years old. But the first rock and roll record that I bought would have been The Beatles album Meet The Beatles. I was thirteen at the time and that was it for me. As soon as I saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show I knew what I was going to do with my life.
Who did you first see playing live in concert?
When I was a little kid my father took me to see Clyde McPhatter, Chuck Berry and Gary U.S. Bonds. That was an amazing experience; it was awesome. After that my mom took me to see Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Tony Bennett, James Brown and Ray Charles. To be honest with you, I saw a lot of them when I was a little kid because my parents were really cool. They knew that I loved music and so they took me to see lots of people.
You have mentioned The Beatles inspiring you from an early age. Is there anyone else?
Well they have certainly inspired me. But also I would have to say Michael Bloomfield and Bob Dylan have inspired me tremendously. Those are probably the big three for me. Then there is all of the rest of them, for a guy who grew up in the sixties and who plays the guitar is going to say Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton of course. But I have to say that Michael Bloomfield was it for me. I should also mention The Rolling Stones; there are a lot of British musicians in there.
What was the last piece of music or song that made you cry?
Oh boy. I think that it was probably listening to the live version of Please Take Me Home when I was driving because it just bought back so many memories. A lot of the songs on that album are hard for me to listen to because they put me right back in that bed.
Does Walter Trout have any ambitions left to achieve?
I just want to keep playing. I want to keep making music. I want to be a good father and a good husband. I am hoping to go on for another thirty years with my new liver. I was inspired by people like my old boss John Lee Hooker who was eighty-five years old and was still playing gigs two days before he died. That to me is what I would like to do.
If you could pick three dinner guests, past or present, who would you pick?
I would pick Greg Farley who is a guitarist who taught me so much and who I haven’t seen in over forty-five years. I have no idea where he is. I would then probably pick Dr Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln.
On that note Walter let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me. It’s been a pleasure.
Hey thanks Kevin. Come along to the gig at Rock City and shoot me in the British way, not the American way (laughter). Make sure that you come and say hi Kevin and I will see you at the gig.