The first time I heard of Sonny Landreth, it was as a result of Eric Clapton’s marvellous Crossroads festival DVDs. Showcasing the very best of blues talent including Jimmy Vaughan, the late, great Hubert Sumlin and B. B. King, Buddy Guy, Joe Bonamassa, Robert Cray and, of course, Eric himself, Sonny still managed to stand out thanks to his unique playing style, his unerring instinct for melody and his utterly relaxed and down-to-earth persona. Opening the festival (something Eric Clapton considered an honour), Sonny Landreth set the tone for one of the most wonderful musical events ever to be staged and it was the track ‘blue tarp blues’ that ensnared me utterly. From that beginning I started to track down Sonny’s albums and whilst ‘from the reach’, for me at least, represents one of the most beautiful albums in Sonny’s impressive canon, I was happy to find that ‘bound by the blues’ perfectly captured the spirit, not only of the blues, but also of the community that was so vividly represented on the Crossroads films. An opportunity to talk to an artist so generous in spirit and so able musically was, therefore, a rare privilege. In a wide ranging discussion we covered the genesis of Sonny’s remarkable talent, the creation of the stunning album ‘bound by the blues’ and the importance of the blues. It is an interview which I am proud to present to you here and I hope that, if you have not already bought the album, it will encourage you to explore the wonderful work of Sonny Landreth, one of the blues’ most low-key and yet unique talents.
Pic: Bruce Shultz
Before we got onto the new album, I’d like to start with the genesis of your talent. You grew up, I believe, in Louisiana, and it’s an area of America with such a vibrant culture, it must have had an impact upon you?
Oh yeah, I’ve thanked my father many times for moving us here because it’s such an amazing culture. Music is a big part of it: the Cajun and Creole tradition – music, food, dance, the whole thing, it’s just the way of life. So I had a rich backdrop, so to speak, to draw from and, the area I live in is like that and then New Orleans, which is just a few hour away, pretty much everything came out of there and that’s where I first heard jazz an R&B when I was a kid, along with everything that was happening on the radio, there were a lot of different genres and a lot of influences to draw from.
As I understand it, you didn’t start with the guitar, rather you started with the trumpet, is that correct?
Yeah, that’s right. I’d already fallen in love with the guitar thanks to Elvis Presley, when I was a kid, and particularly Scotty Moore, but yeah my first instrument was the trumpet, I was ten years old and I played that in school, and I actually continued that up through my college years, but I got my first guitar when I was thirteen, and I never got over that. I somehow talked my parents into buying me a guitar when I’d already had them forking out for a trumpet, but they could see I was serious about it and I’d kept up music in school, and I convinced them somehow. It actually gave me a different perspective to start on the guitar. I think I just had a different outlook. Being a wind instrument player, the phrasing is just so different because you have to take a breath, which is such a big part of the melodic nature of playing a wind instrument. So I basically applied that to learning how to play guitar.
In a past interview you talked about wanting to make the guitar sing – was that something that came out of your experience of playing brass?
Yeah, absolutely, at one point I realised that both my Jazz heroes, which I had from playing trumpet, and my blues heroes on guitar – they all wanted to emulate the human voice and there is a lyrical quality about it, in particular, with the slide guitar. There’s a haunting lyrical quality that hooked me and it’s a big part of it. It certainly relates to the wind instrument players like the sax or flute and wanting that lyrical sound – it’s something I wanted to achieve too.
How did you get into using the slide?
I started out like everybody else with a flat pick and I guess it was… by the time I was fourteen/fifteen… I was getting ready to go to high school… I worked in a music store, which was a great, great experience, and I basically grew up in that store. It was a real vibrant environment full of music and band directors and players and albums… the works, everything. Guitars, amps… but what happened was there was this older kid working there who turned me on to Chet Atkins and he taught me how to play finger style like Chet, so that was a big step for me and I really didn’t know anything about slide until a little later, listening to Delta blues albums like Elmore James, and I tried to figure out how to do it and I started tackling the slide and, as difficult as it was, I did have the right hand technique going for me already, and I related to the Delta Blues finger pickers, and I learned that through Chet, so it was putting those two elements together that set me on my path.
When you play you seem to alternate between muting and picking with your right hand and then slide and chord on your left and it certainly looks to be unique, the way you play…
Well thanks, yeah, it’s something I hit on a long time ago and it really opened up…. It opened the door to another world and the possibilities, harmonically, melodically and rhythmically and once I’d discovered that, one thing would lead to another in terms of learning new techniques and figuring things out and putting that together, and what happens is you’re able create more of a collage of sound and because of the finger style approach, it became more involved. Because part of that was like with Chet Atkins, he’d be playing a melody or a rhythm in the bass line at the same time. And also like classical players, thinking in terms of polyphonic music, so it really works with that approach and all the techniques of the left hand and the bottle-neck slide. The reason I mostly work with a trio is because of the space – it gives me plenty of room to utilise all that and you can hear all the different parts and the changes in technique and textures.
Both live and on record you have a really beautiful tone – is perfecting such a tone more about style and feel or is it about the gear you’ve amassed over the years?
Well, it starts with the hands first and foremost, but certainly, yeah, gear is a big part of it and I’ve spent a lot of time working on that and tone is everything. It’s how you make your statement, it’s the thing that defines your sound and it’s the thing that shows your style. A lot of it is just woodshedding and trying everything you can get your hands on. Growing up, we just didn’t have much. It’s not like today. Now there’s just so much. There’re all these boutique companies making everything from pedals to pickups and everything else…. Guitars, you name it. Gear is… you can get lost in that world easily. But back in the day you were lucky if you had one guitar and, even later, an amplifier and if there were any effects at all. But the cool thing about working in the store was that if anything did come out then I had access to it and I would take it home on the weekends. And that’s how I discovered the tape delay, the echoplex, I fell in love with that, I was never the same. The other was the first maestro fuzztone came out and that was the first pedal I ever played through, so I blasted through that and put things through the echoplex and it was a brave new world, you know?
My first guitar teacher had one of those old tape-delay units and it was magical to me when I first saw and heard that…
Yeah, me too, and I still feel the same. In fact there’s a guy in California, whose name is Mike Fuller and he owns a company called Fulltone – incredible – he does a version of the tape deck and he’s even made improvements, for example using mastering tape, and I use that on all the tracks on the new album.
The new album is wonderful and it’s a tribute to the blues, but you also name check a lot of artists and it seems to me to also be a tribute to the community that is at the heart of the blues.
Oh absolutely, that’s a big thing on the album. Blues as a universal language and how that connects us all. And everyone has their own experiences and challenges and struggles and trying to find grace and strength in adversity, and that’s why the music has such a powerful way with people all over. So yeah, it’s a tribute to the artists who made the music, the music, and, like you said, the community, and I really think of it as a world community. There’s nothing like blues fans around the world. And, you know, I’ve been wanting to get back and do a blues album and I think the fans have wanted it to, but I had to find a way to make it unique and to make it really personal and that’s what happened. And once I decided to do it, it kept going to another level and I love it when that happens. You stumble on an idea and all these pleasant surprises happen that make it more creative.
When you were writing the album, it sounds very spontaneous – how much of it was written with the band and feeling for what worked and how much of it was you writing separately?
I had half of the songs, those are the classic tunes right, and they’ve been coming and going in the set list for forty years or so and there are songs like ‘key to the highway’ that have always been with me, so we’d already been playing those songs and it gave us a great way to jump start he project and cut those live, basically, and then, the idea was to take, as a tribute to those songs, the idea was to write the other half of the material inspired by those songs. Another thing that made it more personal to me, as I got to the writing part where I’ll typically make a demo for the guys or show it to them and I actually like to go out and play those songs – there’s nothing like playing a gig to find your way around the songs and to let the song find its way, somewhat, and take on a life of its own so that when we’re in the studio we had most of the ground covered. There were a few, like the instrumental ‘Simco street’, that was a riff that I had from a long time ago but I never finished it and turned it into a song, and there’s nothing like having a recording project going to make that happen. And I actually went to cut it with the drummer and then the bass player came in and we worked on his parts, so that was more of… that would happen more in the studio in a way, in production. And then the other song would be ‘firebird blues’ – in tribute to Jonny Winter – I just said “guys, let’s think about Jonny, it’s a slow blues, it’s in G, there’s going to be a break,” and that’s it, and we played it, and it’s very much in the moment and very spontaneous, and I love that feel, and that’s the way he did it, that’s the way Jonny always did it, that was important to do it like that.
Capturing that spontaneity, that’s something that technology has maybe made easier now that you don’t have to fight with tape as you would have done…
Well, you know, that’s true up to a point. But then because of the technology and the flexibility, there’s so many options and you can get lost in that. But I feel really good about that now. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I have a sort of a built in sense about that that tells me “OK, that’s enough!” –You know? Not to overwork it or beat it to death, so I feel really good about that. The other thing that’s probably even more important, it’s different now than twenty years ago because, for the longest time going into a studio was such a big deal because it was hard to get into one and there weren’t that many around here, where I live, so to get an opportunity to go and record you saved up your money, you worked out a deal with the owner of the studio or whatever, but it was a really big deal and you got that shot at it and you went home with what you had. But now you can record an album in your bedroom, the technology has developed, and there’s a liberating thing about that and I think it’s good and it’s enabled people to get more creative and not have to depend necessarily on the minimal amount of options in terms of where you can go to do that. That’s something that’s certainly changed a lot.
It’s amazing watching artists in the blues community working together and relating to one another – something you see on the Crossroads performance films…
Oh it is and that’s the ultimate for me. That’s a big part of it. But when you’re travelling and you’re working you hardly get to hear anyone anyway and so in that case, there are many of my favourite players on the planet all in one place. I come on and usually play first and Eric considered that an honour, and I did too, to kick the whole thing off and other than doing some interviews was free to just hang out and watch everybody play. There’s a tremendous respect amongst everyone and you could feel it, it’s definitely in the air and it affects everyone and it’s really inspirational.
That’s the last time I got the chance to share the stage with BB King, and I’m so thankful for that.
His loss was an absolute tragedy…
Oh man, I gotta tell you man, he was… has to be the greatest success story of all time. Not just the longevity, obviously, but what he did and what he gave us and how that just grew and grew… he was just so iconic for a reason and I think he, probably more than anyone, with Lucille, made the call and response and it’s such an epic journey that became so much of the conversation that we all grew up with and learned to love. It’s a great loss. Personally I have a lot of memories. I met him when I was a kid and began my love affair with him and his music. The thrill was never gone from that for me. I have a lot of connections with him over the years and a lot of personal history. He was, more than anyone else, he was a big one for me.
That was part of what made the Crossroads shows so special – you could see the love and respect that you all had for him, but also the love and respect that he had for all of the artists playing with him or playing on the same stage as him and it’s a wonderful thing to see and very heart-warming.
Yeah, it really was and he was always so gracious and that’s such a part of who he was, and that’s probably the greatest lesson that the master can teach the student. You know, here’s the music, here’s the technique and here’re the chops and so forth and all that goes with that, but there’s that element of gratitude, humility and graciousness that he imparted because that’s how he was and when you experience that up close, it really affects you in the most positive way and I think that’s part of what you were feeling even through the time warp of digital editing and all that goes in to the recorded layer on a digital disc… it’s a beautiful thing, a magical thing when it makes that kind of a leap.
And that seems to me to be really everything… the emotion that you get from ‘bound by the blues’, you seem to have really captured that humanity behind the blues and that’s what makes it such a wonderful album to hear.
Well I appreciate that, that’s huge for me because that’s exactly what I hoped for and what it needed to be. You know, more than just a collection of songs. I mean anybody can do that, and it’s been done over and over. But for it to become a personal experience and to take it to another level, it needs to be that. It has to have a quality of experience that people relate to and it’s that important and it does have a life of its own in a way. I look back at all the albums I’ve made and I think of them that way and I think this one is more so because of the nature of the blues per se and what that means is that you’re actually living these songs and I gained a newfound appreciation for them making this record and I realized how much, over the years of playing these songs, they’ve changed so much in the way I play them because I’ve changed so much. So as I evolved as a musician I’d bring all these techniques and things I’d learned back into these songs and, again, the songs would inform the technique of what I was doing and it just became that much more of a personal statement for me.
You’ve been so gracious and I only have one last question. On this album, more it’s about your journey with the blues, but I wanted to ask one question about ‘from the reach’ because it’s a beautiful album and it’s the first of your works that I heard – it seemed to me that that album was more influenced by being out on the road and the environment that you find yourself in and that album feels like a journey for me.
Well sure, and that is it. I mean it’s not… if you look at these ideas and you think about where you can go with it and you set about taking it into production and turning a collection of a songs into an actual album and it’s not unlike, I suppose, for an artist where you take different colours and different techniques and you put that on canvass and it turns into a work of art. It’s a journey and there’s a thing about getting out in the world, experiencing other people and their customs, and their traditions, the things that make them tick and the things that are important to them and the things that are a part of their daily life. All of that influences the music and becomes a part of it in a way. Maybe it’s not so obvious at times, but it’s there… and ‘from the reach’, speaking of heroes, getting a chance to work with some of my great heroes and people I’ve become friends with, it involved their experience in a direct way in the form of those duets, so to speak, whereas this was more, probably like you say, the relationship with the blues and how profound that is and to this day it still resonates and it’s grown and you just appreciate even more, as each day goes by, where it all comes from and what you’re about. So I think it’s important sometimes to take a look and see what’s down there and to appreciate what you have.
Pics (other than mentioned) by Robby Dupleix