Walter Trout has announced his plans to return to stages across the globe in 2015. Following a liver transplant, and extensive rehabilitation, the esteemed Bluesman feels strong enough to resume his career of fifty plus years.
Walter Trout’s 2014 release THE BLUES CAME CALLIN’ captured Trout reflecting on his omnipresent thoughts about mortality and his renewed appreciation for being alive. Amongst the twelve new songs, ten are originals. One is written by John Mayall for the occasion, and the other is a J.B. Lenoir cover. Trout searches his soul on this album and lays it bare allowing the celebration of his career to be infused with new appreciation for life. THE BLUES CAME CALLIN’ was produced by Walter Trout and Eric Corne.
In 2014 Walter Trout shared, “To play my music for people has become even more important to me. When I think about looking out into the crowds of people and connecting with everyone on a soul level, and sharing the experience of music with them, this is what keeps me fighting to get back: My family and my music is my lifeline. These days, it means more to me than ever before.”
The Levity Ball was privileged to spend some time to learn more about Mr. Trout…the music, but more importantly THE MAN.
Marc Boriosi: Thank you Walter for taking this time to chat. Your career spans nearly the past half century. Is there any way to sum up that kind of success?
Walter Trout: “How about what a long, strange trip it’s been, we’ll call Jerry Garcia there.”
MB: I like it! You mentioned that your fans sent messages of support and prayer, in addition to sending that same love and support to your liver donor and his family. How much does it mean to you that your fans were so supportive during the past year of your health crisis?
WT: “I’ll tell you what, man: a big part of my fighting to stay alive was the support I was receiving from those people. It was unbelievable how they, when we said that I was ill, when Marie put that out there, and she was posting those updates, and so many people were sending me messages and cards, and I could just feel this love and this concern. Between my wife being there at my side holding my hand and fighting along with me, the support I received from fans was overwhelming. I didn’t know that I had that many fans, and I didn’t know that my music meant that much to them. How can I put it … The fact that I was receiving these messages, that my music mattered to them, was a big part of me keeping going, because I felt like, “I want to be able to keep doing that for these folks. It means something to them, and I want to be able to keep going.” It really became like a dream of mine to stay alive and be able to get back to doing this.”
MB: Wow. That’s beautiful. You have an extensive European and North American tour lined up; you’re taking off at the legendary Royal Opera Hall in June. What it’s like to start off this tour at such an iconic location?
WT: “Well, I’ve never played there. I’ve played Royal Festival Hall in London, which is a big beautiful Symphony Orchestra hall, but it’s much more modern, it hasn’t been there as long. I don’t know, I’ve seen a lot of films of the place, and I’ve seen photos, and I’ve seen all the videos of Cream playing there and stuff, but I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s got to have an incredible vibe in the place, because it’s so much history going down in there.”
MB: “The Blues Came Callin'” really takes a look at the toll your health took on your life, and your new found appreciation for life. Do you think this recent experience will influence all your music to come?
WT: “I think it will. I think it influences pretty much every breath I’m able to take here, the fact that I’m still alive, and I feel really good now. I think when I play, it’s going to have a new meaning for me, even though I used to really try hard to put meaning into every note that I would play, I think it’s going to be twice as heartfelt for me when I play. The other day I was rehearsing with the band in my garage, we’re rehearsing quite a bit now, and we did a slow song. I played a long solo in the middle of it, and I just had a breakdown at the end; I was so incredibly emotionally moved, playing. I just was overwhelmed, and I think that might happen a few times out there. I hope the public will bear with me if I have to stop at the end of a tune and weep for a while. I know it’s going to have much more meaning. Everything has more meaning for me. To take a step, I don’t take it for granted. I hear a bird singing; I break down. It’s a whole new thing to be alive, and things I took for granted before that I didn’t even notice, now I don’t take them for granted, and they just jump out at me like: “Look at this!”
MB: Would you say this is your most personal album, today?
WT: “Oh, they’re all personal in a way, and they’re all sort of reflections of where I’m at, at the moment that I write them, but this one was really tough to do because I wasn’t sure if it wasn’t to be the final one. I definitely felt like I needed to write about what I was going through and what I was feeling, but some of it came out kind of dark; I mean, “wasting away,” that was a true story. I had lost 120lb, and I could barely walk; I was walking with a walker. I stumbled into the bathroom one morning to brush my teeth, and I looked in the mirror, and I did not recognize the person at all. I’m like “Who is that?” I wrote that song in about five minutes after having that experience. “Looking in the mirror, I don’t know who I see.” That’s the first line. The whole thing was kind of dark, and it was kind of therapeutic for me to write some of that stuff, but it’s hard for me to listen to some of it.”
MB: When did you fall in love with the blues?
WT: “Oh, man, I fell in love with the blues at a very early age. I heard it in my house when I was growing up. I was very lucky in that I lived in a house where everything played. I was telling my wife last night, she knows the story well, but in my house, my father would play. We were the only white people I knew who had records by John Lee Hooker and B. B. King, back in the mid-fifties when I was a little kid. My dad had that stuff, and in my house, over the course of a few hours, you might hear a John Lee Hooker record, then you might hear John Coltrane, then you might hear Bill Monroe, then you might hear Elvis, then you might hear Johnny Cash, then you might hear Charlie Mingus. It was just this incredible cross-section of music. When I heard all that stuff, I was hearing John Lee Hooker, I was hearing B. B., and I was kind of in love with it from the start, but what really blew my mind was when I heard the first Butterfield album with Michael Bloomfield, because they were playing that same stuff, but they were doing it with this incredible kind of rock-and-roll energy thrown in, and all this fire. I was hearing Muddy Waters as a kid too, and all that stuff. My family was very hip, musically. They didn’t play; they just loved the music.”
MB: All right, Walter. You’ve always been very upfront about your drug and alcohol use. How do you put in focus the meaning of that time of your life and where it led you?
WT: “It’s hard for me to … At times, I go, “Boy, if I had to do it over, I wouldn’t do that,” and that’s the truth. Knowing what I know now, I’ve been, as of this July 9th, I think it’ll be 27 or 28 years, I can’t remember, my last high where I did anything was on July the 9th, 1987. It’s been a while. I can’t do the math; I’m not good with numbers here. Trying to put it in perspective, I don’t want to say I regret it, because in many ways it sort of made me who I am today, and I know what I know now. I’m able to; for instance, tell those stories to my kids. I have three sons, and all of them are really anti-drug. They know my stories; I’ve told them everything. It’s all in that book about me, too. They’ve all read the book, and they know all the depraved stories. I can talk to them out of experience and say that: “This was my experience. I thought it was this way when I was doing it, but now I know it’s not.” I don’t want to say I regret it, because it made me who I am today, but it also … If I had to do it over, if I knew what I know now, I certainly would have done things differently.”
MB: I’m actually, by profession, a drug and alcohol counselor at an inpatient treatment facility, so I’m very impressed with everything. Congratulations.
WT: “At a time in my life, I actually was a drug counselor in Philadelphia at a program. I was a drug counselor for a year and a half before I ever … Well, at the end of it, I had a nervous breakdown, drove out to California, and immediately became a heroin addict. I did it backwards. Yeah, I was a drug counselor in Philadelphia at a program called Transition, which was run by Jefferson University. It was an experimental program which was run by the National Institute for Mental Health, and this was during Nixon, because drugs were becoming something that was not just in the ghetto, but now there were middle-class white kids getting loaded. The government decided to try to do something about it, and it was an experimental program where they had group therapy, they had occupational therapy, it was run by a bunch of psychologists and psychiatrists, but it was an experiment to see if they could also rehabilitate addicts through the arts. They had a music program, they had an art program, they had a film production crew, they had writing, they had all sorts of things. I was initially hired to run the music program. I would sit in on the group therapy sessions, and these psychiatrists that ran the place, they said to me, “You seem to be like a natural at group therapy. How about if we train you to be a therapist. So they sent me to these accelerated classes for a while, where I studied being a group therapist. I came back to the place, and they threw me in a room with a bunch of hard-core junkies and said, “Here you go.” It’s kind of a long story, if you don’t mind me bending your ear.”
MB: I don’t mind at all.
WT: “These people came in out of jail, and the thing was, it was an outpatient program, so they could live in Philly at their houses, and they had to come in here eight hours a day, and it was like a school. If they did good for a year, and they had clean urine tests for a year, they were out of jail. If they got a dirty urine test, they went right back to jail, because there was only room for a certain amount of patients. When they came in, they had to choose a major, just like a school. They chose art, drama, film production, whatever, and a lot of them wanted to choose music. I had a big room full of instruments, and I would teach them bass licks and guitar licks and drum licks and keyboards, and we had a junkie band, and we’d sit around and we’d play stuff like ‘Louie Louie’ for like 20 minutes, and they’d just go off and have a great time. I was basically a music therapist. Then they trained me in group therapy. The story I’m trying to get to is, when they signed up to have music as a major, I was their counselor. I was the guy in charge of them; they were my group of people. There was a kid who came in there, and he had a 15-year-old girlfriend, and it turned out they were living in an abandoned house in South Philadelphia, and he got her pregnant. He wanted to get a job to support her. Now, they had to have clean urine tests for nine months. After nine months, the occupational therapist would get them a job in Philly, but they couldn’t get a job until they’d been there nine months clean. Well, this kid had been in there three months, he gets the girl pregnant, he needs a job to take care of her. They wouldn’t let him, and he was one of my counselees, and I kept having to tell him, “No, you can’t get a job, I’m sorry.” Well, he had to have money, he did the only thing he could do, because he was backed into a corner, and he started selling dope at the program: the ultimate sin, the cardinal sin. I had to tell him, when we found out, I had to tell him he was going back to jail, and I told him he had to go back to jail. First, he tried to kill me, and then later, about a day later, he hung himself. That was when I realized, “I don’t want to do this. I just want to play the guitar. I don’t want to send people to jail.” I had a nervous breakdown, and I hopped into my car and drove to California and became a heroin addict. That’s all in my book. To make a long story short, yes, I used to do what you do, and I respect you greatly for it. It’s a hard job. It’s hard to go home at 5:00 and not take it with you.”
MB: You often talk about connecting with people on a soul level. What do you mean by that, when you say that?
WT: “I mean that the music that has always moved me and appealed to me is something that hits me at the base of my gut, and at the base of my emotions, and moves me, and something that, at the end of it, I feel like I’m a little bit different person than I was when I went into it. It’s the same thing with plays or movies or books. I want something that strikes at the core of my humanity. I’m not looking for light entertainment. I want to play to people, I want to look them in the eye, and I want to attempt to move them. I want it to mean something to them. I want them to feel our common humanity between us. I’m not an artist who wants to go out there and have an invisible wall between me and the people in the crowd. I want them to know I’m right there with them. I understand that everybody is fighting a fight, everybody has pain, and everyone has heartache. I don’t give a fuck if they have 10 million dollars in the bank or if they’re homeless. Everybody has heartache. Everybody is struggling to get through this life every day. I want to appeal to that and basically say, “I understand. I’m right there with you, and let’s kind of have a moment, here, where we face it together.” That’s, to me, what great art should do, and I aspire to that. I don’t know if I ever reach it, but that’s my aspiration.”
MB: That’s beautiful Walter. Tell me a little about your wife.
WT: “Well, my wife is the love of my life. She’s the most incredible, amazing person I’ve ever known, and I’m continually fascinated and amazed and moved by her, even after almost 25 years together. She saved my life in many ways, much more than just the fact that she saved my life through … In the last year; she’s the one that kept me alive. The doctors in Nebraska performed medical miracles on me, but without her support and her fighting next to me, I wouldn’t have made it. There was one or two days where I told her, “Look, I don’t want to be here anymore. This is too painful. I can’t do this. I don’t have any strength left in me to fight to stay alive,” and she persuaded me, “No, you have to fight. You have to fight. You have to look inside you; you have to find whatever strength is there, and if you say you’re out of strength, take some from me. I’ll give you my strength.” She’s the most magnificent person I’ve ever known. Right now, she’s writing her dissertation for her doctorate degree. She’s an amazing woman.”
MB: Who’s been your favorite artist to collaborate with?
WT: “Wow. I would say probably John Mayall. I’ve played on his albums, he’s played on a few of mine, and we still remained really dear friends. I just, as a matter of fact, spoke with him four days ago. He was my mentor. He put up with a lot, back when I was doped out. Some of the stuff that I did when I was in his band, I don’t know why he kept me in the band, because I was quite a clown. I was a doped-up, drunked-up clown, but he believed in me, and he stood by me and helped me, and when I was trying to get sober, he was my biggest support group. I’ve loved collaborating with him.”
MB: Anyone else out there that you’d like to collaborate with?
WT: Yeah, Paul McCartney. I know that’s not going to happen, but I’d love to do it. If he wants to play acoustic backing up Kanye fucking West, maybe I could get him to collaborate with me.
MB: All right. How do you connect with your fans outside of shows now? How do you think the younger generation should get to know your music?
WT: “I love to connect with my fans. One of the main joys of my line of work, for me, is that after I played for them I get to go out to the front, and hang out with them, and talk to them, and get to know them, and communicate with them. My music is about communication, and as far as young people, there’s a whole new crowd of them out there. I haven’t played a gig now in long over a year, but one of the things I remember is there’s always been this little crop of young people that come out now to the shows. I think they’re discovering this type of music something they’re not finding in the corporately pushed and produced mass-media stuff that is kind of shoved down these kids’ throats. I’m moved that they want to come out and hear me play, and not just me, but guys like me, guys that are trying to actually still play music and play instruments and write songs, without auto-tune and computers.”
MB: Well, we’re definitely on the same page…
WT: “I’m not going to go there, but…”
MB: I know.
WT: “I don’t get it.”
MB: I don’t get it either.
WT: “I know I don’t get a lot of it. I try to have an open mind. I really do, I try it, and I just come off as some old guy, who … I can’t say it’s like my parents, because my dad loved all sorts of music, so did my mom. I remember my mom coming to a show and me yelling out … My mom’s in the audience, and it was Mother’s Day, and it was me saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, there’s my mother, and just because it’s Mother’s Day, any song she wants to hear, I’m going to play,” and she yells out, “Red House by Jimi Hendrix!” My parents liked all sorts of stuff, but I don’t want to come off as some old guy who says, “Ah, this shit sucks; this is not what … ” I just don’t … Maybe it’s, I don’t understand it, that’s all, and it doesn’t move me. Like I said, I’m looking for art that moves me, that creates an emotion and a feeling, and something that I think, in its own way, is presenting some sort of universal truth. To me, when I hear “Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom” by Little Richard, for me there is some sort of universal truth there. Don’t ask me how I pick up on it, but it’s there.”
MB: Well, it has been a true pleasure talking to you. It really has.
WT: “Thanks, Marc, I’ll look forward to meeting you in person. We can have a good talk.”
MB: Sounds great.
WT: Okay, take care, man.