Interview: Walter Trout

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Walter. How are you feeling? “I’m feelin’ fuckin’ great! Feeling better than I have in years. I’m 65, and I feel like I’m 25, except when I was 25 I was shit-faced drunk all the time, so I’m actually feeling better.” It’s been quite an eventful couple of years for you, and whilst I don’t want to dwell on your illness, I would like to ask you about your road to recovery. You had to completely relearn the guitar. How do you get back decades of playing in such a short space of time? “Well, I had the transplant at the end of May, and I got out of the hospital on the 2nd of September. When I got home and I tried to pick up a guitar, I couldn’t play anymore. I had physical therapy every day for an hour and a half. I had to relearn how to walk too. When I first began to play, I said to my wife, ‘I cannot believe how much this hurts my fingers. How did I ever do this? How does anybody really do this?’ I just worked at it, and worked at it, for hours a day. The first time I played in front of people was New Year’s Eve, where I played two songs with my sons, ‘Born To Be Wild’, and ‘Fortunate Son’. It felt great to be able to play, but I could only do two songs before I had to put the guitar down. I could tell then, okay, if I keep working at it, I could maybe get this back to where I could play a set, and not just ten minutes. The true test came at the Royal Albert Hall on the 15th of June, which was my first time back on stage where I played two songs. Then I went with my band to a little bar in Huntington Beach. We set up unannounced, and I managed two hours.” What were the biggest challenges? Did you have to change anything, like string gauges? “I asked my guitar tech to put a set of extremely light strings on one of my guitars, and my wife, unbeknownst to me, said, ‘Don’t do it! Make Walter work!’, and that’s really what I needed. I had to work hard at it. I ended up spending a lot of the time playing an acoustic guitar, because it’s so much harder and I could develop the strength quicker. So I would sit, for sometimes five hours at a time, with an acoustic, and it came back. I think it came back better than ever because I have more to put into it emotionally now.” With your muscles so weak, was there any muscle memory retained? “When I got sick, I weighed 239lbs. Within a couple of months, I weighed 110lbs, and a lot of that was muscle. What I played was still in my head. I remembered how to do it, but my fingers would not do it. It took a long time for the signals in my head to reconnect with my muscles.”  That must have been very frustrating for you? “Yeah it was. It really was.” Your son, Jon, is quite the guitarist himself. Did he help at all with getting you back behind the guitar where you belong? “He lives in Denmark, so I didn’t see him all that much, but when I was in Omaha, in the hospital, still very out of it, and unable to walk or eat, he brought me a Stratocaster, and said, ‘You need to keep playing. You need to keep in touch with who you are.’ I was lifted into a chair, the guitar was placed in my lap, and I was physically unable to play it. I started crying, and I said, ‘You gotta take it outta my sight. I don’t wanna know about it.’ Jon was always a cheerleader for me. When I got out of the hospital he came and stayed with me for a while. He would say, ‘Let’s play a bit’, and he was always saying, ‘Come on dad, you can do it.” Were there ever days when you were close to thinking you may never play again? “Oh yeah, especially in the hospital. Some nights I would go on my smartphone to watch videos of myself, and I could not relate to it. I would think, ‘That’s not me. I can’t do that.’ I had no energy. I had all these hoses in me. It was all I could do to even speak. Some days I wouldn’t even recognise my wife or my children. I had brain damage that they didn’t know whether would go away or not. The shape I was in, man. I don’t know how I came out of it.” You’ve mentioned a few times at how gracious B.B. King was to you. What did you learn from him both as a player and a person? “There were two musicians I met as a kid that made me want to be a musician, and they were Duke Ellington and B.B. King. I got to hang out with Duke Ellington for an afternoon, and it was unbelievable. His magnetism, kindness, sincerity, and humour… He made me feel, at age 10, like I was the most important person in the world. I learnt from both of them, that it’s important to be kind, sincere, and to be interested in caring for other people. I learnt from them musically, that it’s about trying to have honest and genuine emotions in your music. It’s not about posing or putting on a façade, but trying to create a piece of art that says, ‘This is who I am. I’m reaching out to you, and I want to communicate with you.’ We are all bonded by our common humanity.” You were a trumpet player originally….? “Yeah, at age 10. That’s how I got to meet Duke Ellington. My Mom took me to a theatre down the street to get tickets, and Duke and his orchestra pull up. They went down the side to the stage entrance, and my mother said, ‘Walter, come with me.’ She knocked on the door, and said, ‘My son is an aspiring trumpet player, and would Mr. Ellington sign an autograph for him?’ They invited us in and I got to hang out. I got a trumpet lesson form Cat Anderson, and I got to sit on the couch with Duke.” That’s pretty cool. How important is getting out and playing live now? Does it have a greater meaning to you? “Y’know something? Taking a breath holds more importance to me now than it did. I have a whole new understanding of mortality. I have a deep understanding that we’re all here on borrowed time, which by the way, sounds like a good song title. Getting out and playing live is a whole new thing. Before I was hospitalised, I had a load of symptoms that I didn’t know what it was. Chronic fatigue, no energy… I had dizzy spells on stage. I had moments where my hands would cramp up and I couldn’t play. The past couple of years, before my illness, it was terrifying to go on stage, but now I go onstage and I feel like a kid. I have this new-found energy. It’s the same joy I had playing live when I was younger, before I got sick.” Has your recovery affected the way you tour now? Did you have to make any changes? “Every once in a while, I like to have a night off, which I didn’t used to do. If we were going for 35 days I wanted to do 35 cities. I learned a work ethic from John Mayall, and his is second to none. I can tell you one example where we did 75 cities in 68 days! He would say we’re out here to work. Now, I don’t mind a day off. I also will not drive for nine hours with a gig at the end.” I’ve been listening to your latest release ‘Alive In Amsterdam’, and your playing on it is just unbelievable. Do you feel, with this release, you have achieved some sort of closure over the past two years, and that you’re truly back and ready to move forward? “Well, of course I do feel like that, but I’m also aware that you never know what can happen. Yeah there’s closure in a certain sense, but I don’t know if there’s ever really closure.” Talking of playing live, you have Jarred James Nichols supporting you on your UK dates, a great young player. How do you feel about the state of the blues right now? Would you say it’s in safe hands? “I’ll tell ya what, man, I think the blues is in an incredibly healthy condition right now, and there is, especially in your country, a remarkable group of young players. I can name some of them. Of course, I’ll forget some of them, and I hope they will forgive me. Players like Danny Bryant, Laurence Jones, Aynsley Lister… and you have the Nimmo brothers. Both the Nimmo brothers are stunning. Those guys are amazing. Your country alone has some amazing talent… there’s Mitch Laddie and Joanne Shaw Taylor too! When guys like me are dead and gone, this music will be in great hands.” Do you feel you owe it to the fans that contributed to your treatment to keep going? Is retirement ever really an option now? “That crowdfunding thing was organised by my wife, Marie and Danny Bryant’s wife, Kirby. The two of them worked on that together. My wife has a great phrase that she uses, and here it is: ‘Those people that contributed, they bought stock in that liver.’ They are stockholders and the way I pay dividends is I get on stage and I give 150% every night. That’s my responsibility. I’m very serious about that. Without the crowdfunding, and their incredible generosity, we probably would’ve had to sell our house. We wouldn’t have made it. I owe it to those people, and I’m very aware of that. Now, as far as retirement… retirement is for people that don’t like what they do. I wanna do this until I can’t do it anymore. I take inspiration from people like John Mayall. He’s 83, and he’s still touring his ass off!” What else does the future hold for you? “I’m actually going to start recording some new music in November. I have invited, and gotten a ‘yes’ from, some amazing artists to guest on it… big names that I cannot mention right now. The plan is to have it out next summer.” Excellent. Plenty to look forward to then? Walter, once again, I’d like to thank you for your time, and wish you the best for the tour… and the road ahead.   Interview: Colin Plumb]]>

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