Walter Trout is an artist for whom honesty and authenticity is more important than any number of accolades. His connection with his fans is legendary and his playing a reflection of his own shifting moods and circumstances. His live sets, each one unique to the night, are the stuff of legend, a feeling that has only increased since Walter passed through hell and back as he suffered liver failure and an agonising wait for a transplant that seemed increasingly unlikely to take place. Where most artists would have retreated from music, Walter completed work on ‘the blues came calling’ in the most appalling of circumstances (circumstances which are laid harrowingly bare in the following interview) before succumbing to his illness entirely.
It was to be seven, gruelling months before Walter returned home and another year of re-learning how to play the guitar before he felt able to return to action, but when he did it was with the remarkable ‘Battle scars’, an album that took a long, unflinching look at the toll disease can take upon a person and the perseverance required for recovery. Dark, visceral and yet remarkably human, ‘Battle Scars’ should be a near unendurable body of work and yet such is Walter’s joy at his recovery that it remains evident in the explosive solos and gigantic riffs that power the album and the result is an album that, whilst unafraid to peer into the abyss, is ultimately a tale of survival and redemption. It is that inspirational quality that makes ‘Battle Scars’ a landmark album and, on the eve of yet another trek to the UK, we were privileged to be able to talk to Walter about the experiences that led to the album, the blues community at large and the live performances that sent us into a foaming frenzy earlier in the year.
I look at the recent body of work you’ve done as representing the story of the journey you’ve been on – obviously ‘Battle Scars’ is an explicit tale of your illness, but there’s also ‘Luther’s blues’ which, I think, belongs at the beginning of the cycle because it gave you the amazing ‘I’m back’ that you’ve been using on recent tours as a celebration; and then there was ‘the blues came calling’ which you recorded when you were very ill and which captures both the defiance and worry of that time and finally there’s the redemptive ‘Battle Scars’ – so I see those three albums as musically telling the story of that whole period.
Well, that’s exactly what it is. I have to say that I didn’t set out… I didn’t have all of this in mind. How can I put this? It wasn’t some grand scheme, it just worked out that way and that ‘the blues came calling’, I really thought that that was it for me, I thought it was my final statement and that I was not long for the road. ‘The blues came calling’, I was determined to do one more little statement and, to me, on ‘the blues came calling’ my grand statement was ‘the bottom of the river’, which was a metaphor for what was happening to me. But, in that song, ‘the bottom of the river’, I come out of it OK. The guy’s drowning in the river, but he makes it to the surface and is able to swim to the sure, you know, and he’s actually going to live. That was a hopeful, wishful thinking song for me, that the guy was drowning, but he makes it. But I didn’t think I was going to make it and literally three days after I finished that record I was put in hospital and I was there for seven months. It was a difficult album to make. Really difficult. I was incredibly ill. I would drive up to LA, and I was able to play and sing for maybe an hour, and then I would have to stop because I didn’t have any strength. Some of the vocals on that album, I would have to do a line at a time. I would tell Eric “roll the tape…” Roll the tape?! It’s computers now, of course, that’s how old I am, Roll the tape… Anyway, “Push record” I’d sing a line and then I’d have to sit down, gather my breath, and then I’d say OK and ask him to push record again, sing the next line and so, I thought that was the end.
Then I miraculously, after seven months, re-emerged with the new liver and worked hard to get back to snuff. I had to practice every day for five hours for a year to relearn how to play the guitar for a year, because I couldn’t play anymore, and yeah, as you said, ‘Battle scars’ was trying to tell the story of the illness and coming out of it OK, hence the last song ‘gonna live again’. So, in hindsight, when you look at all that, it’s almost like a story, like you said, but I didn’t set out with that in mind. I really didn’t expect to live to be honest Phil, I didn’t expect to make ‘battle scars’, you know.
I remember reading a previous interview that you did, I guess six months ago, and you were talking about the struggle that you went through making ‘the blues came calling’, much like you have been now and that you found it to be a difficult album to listen to for you because it was so closely associated with the memories of the struggle that you went through, but, as a listener, even though there was awareness of your illness before the record came out, it still sounds very much like an artist who is fighting to continue and, particularly the song you referenced, ‘the bottom of the river’, there’s still hope there and a desire to fight. It felt perhaps more hopeful than the album now feels to you in hindsight…
Well yeah there was hope, but there was desperation. I was walking on a Zimmer frame at the time and there were many days when the studio was booked and I would have to tell my wife that I couldn’t go and that we’d have to cancel the day. And I would just lay in bed because I was too weak. When I listen to that album, a lot of it… all I hear is how weak I am, I hear how I don’t have any breath when I’m singing and the reason I had no breath is that, one of the conditions of liver disease is called Ascites which is when you swell up with fluid. And every two weeks, I would go in and they would put a drain in my abdomen and they would drain out literally twelve litres of liquid. And it was pressing on my diaphragm and pressing on my lungs, so I couldn’t breathe. So trying to sing was really rough and, when I hear that album, that’s what I hear. Maybe it’s not so evident to the listener, but when I hear I hear the shape I was in when I did the track. A lot of the soloing, I was getting incredible cramps in my hands… I can tell you a story that I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody, but the song on there called ‘tight shoes’, I had to play a line… and it’s an instrumental… I had to play a line, take a break and then wait until the cramps went away. Then we’d press record, I’d play another couple of lines, my hands would cramp up again, we’d stop… Just recording a two-and-a-half-minute instrumental probably took six hours. It was a difficult album, but I was determined to get that thing done. I was just determined and it was really difficult, but I really figured that this was my last statement on life here and I was going to get it done.
When ‘Battle Scars’ came out, I think it hit home with far more force how ill you had been, because you dealt with your experiences in such a forthright and eloquent way. That album is incredibly moving and incredibly evocative – it must have been difficult for you to return to that period and write those lyrics?
Well, I can tell you this. My wife manages me and has for years and years, and I told her that I had a whole different outlook on life; that I’d survived and that life was so beautiful and that I saw things so differently and that my perspective was so different and that I was so incredibly, deeply happy to still be here that I wanted to do another record. And I sat down to try to write that into music and everything that I was writing was coming out clichéd: see the daisies, and smell the daisies and blue skies and sunshine… and I told her “this is just clichéd shit, I don’t know what to do…” I had musical ideas, I had grooves, I had melodies, but every time I tried to write lyrics, I couldn’t find a way to say what I wanted to say and hot have it be… just a cliché – smell the daisies?! That bulllshit! It’s been said! And my wife said “look man, it might be difficult for you, but what you need to do is to sit down and write about what happened to you. Don’t write about what you feel now, write about what you went through. Tell your experiences.” And when she gave me that idea, I kinda took it in, I could see what she was saying. So when she went out for the day, maybe in the course of five hours, I wrote six of the songs on that album. They just came out… and the next day I finished it. It took me two days, it was easy!
There’s a juxtaposition there though, for me, in that lyrically it’s dark and tackles themes that I think few artists would dare to tackle, yet musically the joy that you feel at still being alive still leaps from the speakers and, even at the album’s darkest points you’ll get a solo that leaps out and it’s so vital and alive and, as an audience member you hear it and it’s kinda “woah!” for want of a better word! That sits at the heart of that album for me.
Well there was joy. It’s kinda weird and yeah, there’s a dichotomy here because I was feeling joyous as I was writing it because hey, this is what I went through, I’m telling you about it, but I’m on the other side of it, and when I wrote ‘almost gone’ I felt immediately that that was how I had to start this thing. And then, the second day, hell actually it was the first day because I remember my wife coming home and I said “I wrote six songs!” and I played her ‘gonna live again’ and I said ‘I’m gonna end it with this song.” And I played it for her on the acoustic guitar. So, once she gave me that idea the whole thing took shape in my mind and it was just right there. I t just came right out man. You know what I did, I’ve got a little recorded on my phone and I sat down with an acoustic guitar and I would say to myself that I wanted to write a song that I’d made it through this, but I was going to have a little conversation with God in which I asked why I was kept here, what was the reason that he’d kept me here because I shouldn’t be here. I was gone man, I was fucking gone, and I was back and I wanted to know why I’d been kept here. And as soon as I had that idea, I’d turn the recorder on and out came ‘I’m gonna live again’, exactly how it is, word for word, note for note. The whole thing happened like that. The songs just came out, they required no work at all and I just channelled it. It was an incredible experience, like I’ve never had before and it probably won’t happen again.
It’s always felt to me that in different genres different themes can come to the fore front, for example in metal there can be honesty but there can also be fantasy and extremity, whereas in blues it’s always felt like there’s almost a duty of honesty where the artist channels emotions and maybe that’s what’s at the core of the blues and what you tapped into on this album, and the result is beautiful.
Well thanks, one thing I tried not to do was… I din’t censor any musical impulses that I had. There were times when I’d sit down to write a song and I’d think “well, I’m kinda considered to be in the blues genre and this song doesn’t sound like that…” I did an album of songs like that, a little while ago, called ‘common ground’, and on that album there’s a song called ‘open book’ and if you listen to the song, it’s not the blues, it’s a singer-songwriter track. So I tried to stay in the blues vein, but on this one I did not censor anything. When I came up with the lick for ‘fly away’, I didn’t think to myself that it wasn’t bluesy enough, I just went with it. Whatever came out, came out. I love the blues and I am, at heart, a blues man. But I want that to be a basis and foundation for what I do, I don’t want tradition to be a chain around my neck, I want it to be a springboard to do things. Does that make sense?
Absolutely – for me the blues has always been about invention and re-invention – you take what feels right for you and it heads off in some tangent and you end up with ‘sunshine of your love’ or whatever…
Well sure! There’s a whole group of guys out there in the blues that think that it has to be a twelve bar shuffle and you have to play through a tweed amp and you have to have a guy playing Albert King licks or it’s not the blues, you know, and I’ve never been one to try to please those people, the blues purists or, as we call them, the Blues Taliban! I’m not out to please those people, I’m out to be an honest artist and to express myself with honesty and that’s paramount importance to me. To me, authenticity is being honest, it’s not trying to fit into a mould.
I was privileged to see you on the recent tour, and you played quite a lot of ‘Battle scars’, particularly the first half, but it’s interesting that you re-sequenced some of it – was it ever an idea to play the album in sequence and then things got moved as you adapted to the live environment or is it something you shuffle around as you feel?
It’s whatever I feel like doing. I’ve had my own band for twenty-seven years now and I’ve never gone on stage with a set list. We go up there and we start playing and whatever song we feel like playing next, I call out to the band and that’s what we start playing. It’s very spontaneous. To play the whole album from front to back is an interesting idea that I hadn’t thought about and that might happen in the future. But on this one we’re going to be doing pretty much what we have been doing, which is six or seven songs off that album and then some old songs of mine that I like doing, a couple of blues numbers, you know standard blues tunes. Pretty much we’re still doing what we were doing. Next year, when I come back, I’m planning on doing something completely different, but right now I have a need to do the songs off ‘battle scars’ that we’ve been doing. I picked the ones that I enjoy the most.
Another pleasure of the tour- I saw you at the Robin in Bilston, and you bought along your sons’ band who blew me away and, I think it was Marie who said in her introduction, that the band was their way of connecting with you whilst you were ill.
It’s beautiful really. My son John, the guitar player, the oldest one who was playing the leads. He’s played all his life, but it’s not something he ever really thought about. As a matter of fact, when my boys were little, they did some shows opening for me, they came out the three of them, and they were just little kids and they did ‘highway to hell’ and they did ‘fight for your right to party’ by the Beastie Boys and ‘Blitzkrieg bop’ by the Ramones, and they did a Johnny Cash tune. The front man was four years old and he was up there singing ‘highway to hell’ and… they were a hard act to follow! They just blew the doors off the place, a four-year-old singing ‘highway to hell’ was not something you see every day. But John never really went forward with it. He played some chords and he knew how to play, but when I got sick, he told me that he felt it was on him to carry this on. He delved into the guitar and went at it heavily and all three of them went at their instruments, and in a way, because they didn’t really expect me to make it either, it was a way for them to try to bond with me, even if I was going to be gone and it was beautiful and it moved me to the depths of my soul to have my sons do that. All three of them are virtuosos, it’s pretty amazing. My middle son, Mike, who sang and played rhythm guitar, he’s in a music college in Denmark right now. He’s actually majoring in bass guitar. My son Dillon here, who’s fifteen and the drummer, he’s in an academy of performing arts here in Southern California, and they’re getting ready to do a show where they’re going to play ‘Pet sounds’ by the Beach Boys and ‘65’ by the Beatles – two albums they’re going to perform. I’m quite proud of my boys, quite blown away really.
The song that sticks in my mind was a version of ‘Lord have mercy’, which they performed with Andrew Elt, who’s also been with you for years, on vocals and that was amazing, they damn near blew the roof off!
Yeah, and that’s one of my songs, I was blown out that they decided to do that song. They didn’t tell me they were going to do that. And then the first show, they had it planned with Andrew, and I didn’t know. They did it to surprise me.
That was the crux of the whole tour – Marie introducing you both, your boys on the tour and then you, and that brings me round to the wider idea that the blues is a community and one of the things that I’ve seen you discuss in previous interviews is the way that the community, not just your family, but your extended, blues family if you will, rallied around during your illness, and that’s something that I think sits at the heart of the blues – that community spirt…
You know, you’ve tapped into something there that is very, very real. I really saw that, it worked when I got sick and the way that the blues community rallied around me. And when my wife did that fund raiser and they contributed so much, so quickly, and they actually made it so that we didn’t have to sell our house so that we could come up with funds for my transplant, it’s really beautiful. The blues community, it is a large family and they look after their own and I really saw that when I got sick and I have experienced it since. Not only the financial support, but the cards and the letters and the prayers and the concern that they all expressed when myself and my wife and my family, when we were all going through this, it meant the world to us. It was astounding really, and I learnt something there. It is a large community and there’s a lot of love there being spread around and it’s beautiful.
Perhaps that love, as much as your own joy, helped to inform that sense of spirit on ‘battle scars’? I love to sit and listen to music and whenever I hear that album, although there are those dark lyrics, I think it’s the vitality in the music and there’s spirit and there’s heart and I think that’s something the album really enshrines.
Thank you, you know, I have to say that the whole album, I was just channelling something. I was kinda astounded when the thing was done and I sat and listened to it. I’ve had things happen out of that album, I’ve had numerous people write to me and say that they’re going through something similar and that my music on the album, my story had given them hope and inspiration. I received an email from a kid who was in the Paris terror attack. He was in the Bataclan theatre and he was a musician in the audience. He was shot, he almost lost his life, but he survived and his left arm was damaged and he could no longer play and he didn’t want to live. They gave him that album, and it gave him hope and it changed his idea and he decided that he wanted to live and he wanted to fight and it completely inspired him. Getting an email like that means more than any review or any chart position or any album sales. It means that the album I did means something to people and, as a matter of fact, after we hang up, my wife wrote a long article about that kid and she interviewed that kid. She got in touch with him, the kid from the terror attack, and if you go on the website the Daily Beast, a news website in the United States, the Daily Beast, and you type in Marie Trout, you can read her article [you can read the article in its entirety here] and she interviews the kid and he talks about that album and how it changed his entire perspective on what had happened to him.
So I have to say, I was just amazed when I put that album on and went “my God! Did this come out of me?” It came from somewhere else.
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with me and spending this time with me.