American Blues Scene - Walter Trout, Not Your "Ordinary Madness"

BY: Brant Buckley

There’s no autopilot emanating from Walter Trout, but a true a sense of growing momentum, elements of surprise, and a repertoire that continues to be more compelling with each new creation

For Walter Trout, there is no ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Across his five-decade career, the great U.S. bluesman’s music has always been a lifeline and call-to-arms, reminding listeners they are not alone. Now, as the world seeks solace from a tragedy that has touched us all, he comes armed with a boundary-exploring new studio album, Ordinary Madness, with eleven searingly honest songs that bring his fans even closer. “There’s a lot of extraordinary madness going on right now,” considers Trout of the COVID-19 crisis. “This album started because I was dealing with the flaws and weakness inside me. But it ended up being about everyone.” Ordinary Madness was completed mere days before the U.S. shutdown, its cathartic songcraft and themes of shared troubles couldn’t chime better in a period where souls and spirits are under fire from tumultuous global events. Trout has been nothing short of prolific over the course of his seven decades on this Earth. He’s released 27 solo albums over a career that has spanned the globe and delivered notoriety as one of the great purveyors of the blues. Trout’s history is equal parts thriller, romance, suspense, and horror. There are musical fireworks, critical acclaim and fists-aloft triumph — offset by wilderness years, brushes with the jaws of narcotic oblivion, and the survival of an organ transplant few come back from.

In 1973, he left his New Jersey home and headed to Los Angeles. He has followed a road that afforded him an opportunity to share the stage as a sideman for Jesse Ed Davis, Big Mama Thornton, Lowell Fulson, Joe Tex, and John Mayall (following a three year tenure in Canned Heat). When Trout walked away from the Bluesbreakers, he embarked on a solo career that has yielded a catalogue that has established a deep legacy in the world of blues, Americana, and the realm of revered singer-songwriters.

While many would slow down as they approach their 70th birthday, Trout continues to deliver inspired recordings, performances with a voice that articulates relevant ideology and insights into the world that inspires his deep perspective. There’s no autopilot emanating from Walter Trout, but a true a sense of growing momentum, elements of surprise, and a repertoire that continues to be more compelling with each new creation. 

Can you talk about your new record: “Ordinary Madness”?

My last album was called ‘Survivor Blues.’ Originally, I was supposed to be doing two albums simultaneously. One was going to consist of covers of obscure blues songs and the other album was going to consist of original songs. I was going to do both albums together and they were going to be released as a package deal. I finished the Blues cover album and then I had to go on tour. The other record was half done, but I didn’t have time to finish it because I had to go out on tour. When I got back, I started listening to what we recorded and I ended up chucking most of it and starting over. I basically rewrote the whole thing and got rid of what we had already recorded. A lot of the lyrics from this album were written from that tour. When you are in a blues band you are either in a bus or a van driving for five to six hours at a time. I was doing a lot of looking out the window and watching cities, cornfields, and forests go by. I found myself doing a lot of self-reflection about my life and myself. I started writing little notes to myself and I didn’t expect them to be lyrics. I was trying to come to grips with who I am. I can give you an example. I had my little notebook that I write in on the road and I went through it and found, “Sometimes I do my best, but I fail and I know that happens to everyone. Then I try to hide away my shame, but I get all wrapped up in myself.” I also wrote, “I know it doesn’t matter much in the bigger scheme of things.” I had not written it to be lyrical. I started strumming my guitar at home and that became the first verse of my song “Foolish Pride.” That is why the first verse of the song does not rhyme because it wasn’t written to be lyrical. I had to write the rest of the song, but I already had the theme to the song which was examining my own limitations, flaws, and weaknesses. Dealing with your humanity, aging, and relationships are all themes examined on this record.

What was it like recording at Robby Kreiger’s studio?

This is my twenty-ninth album, and I have made a lot of them in Los Angeles. Robby’s studio is called Horse Latitudes and it’s named after a Doors song. It is my favorite studio in the world. There is something very comfortable about it. It has almost become a second home to me. The guy who runs the studio and is Robby’s partner is Michael Dumas. Michael is the nicest guy and he is there to help you however he can. Robby has a huge collection of gear. There are all sorts of guitars, amps, drums, and keyboards. Everything you can imagine is there. Michael is right there to help you and I can give you an example. I have a song called “Heartland” on the record. We were sitting listening to the basic track and I said the song sounded like Americana music. Even though I am a Stratocaster guy, I felt the song needed a Telecaster on the rhythm. Michael walked out and walked back in with a Paisley Telecaster and he said, “Here’s one of James Burtons guitars. He gave this guitar to Robby.” We played it through one of Robby’s old 1950’s Bassman amps. The arpeggio rhythm behind the vocal is James Burton’s guitar played through one of Robby Kreiger’s amplifiers. It is the greatest place to record and I can’t see recording anywhere else in the future. One day, on my song “Wanna Dance” Robby came in and listened to my solo. He stood there and at the end of the solo he looked over at me and he had a great big smile on his face. That felt great. 

Can you talk about working with your eldest son, Jon Trout, and wife Marie on “Ordinary Madness”?

Jon is getting ready to start at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Denmark as an Electronic Music Major. As great of a guitar player as he is, since he has been twelve, he has also done electronic music. He auditioned at the Royal Conservatory and was accepted and is going to start there in a couple of weeks. I asked him if he would contribute a weird electronic part at the start the first song. The album starts off with a little electronic psychedelia thing that my son put together. I think what he did really fits the theme of the song. I have three sons and all of them are amazing musicians. As a matter of fact, my other two sons are Dylan and Mike. We recorded a concert that will be broadcasted three times on Sirius XM at the end of the month. They are at home and they are great players, so I have a built-in rhythm section when I’m in California.  There would not be any music without my wife Marie. She has managed and guided my career for twenty-eight years now. She has negotiated every record deal I have had since nineteen ninety. She is my booking agent in Europe and she books all my shows over here. She works relentlessly with the record label, agents, and promoters. I would not have anywhere near the career I have right now if she hadn’t of stepped in and taken over twenty-eight years ago when I was really at the low point of my career. I was down and out. I didn’t have a working automobile and I had to pawn guitars to pay the rent. All my money had been stolen by very dishonest management people. My wife took over and we were at the bottom. We are doing great now. That is due to her hard work.             

Do you have a favorite song off the new record, and if so, why?

One that I find myself listening to the most is called “Heaven in your Eyes”. It has sentimental value to me because I was sitting around the living room when I was putting it together. I was strumming my acoustic guitar and I came up with this very melodic kind of tune. The melody was very much like a McCartney song. It needed a lot of words and the only line I had was heaven in your eyes. I didn’t know what to do with it. I played it for Marie. She walked out of the room and came back half an hour later with the lyrics. Lyrically the song is all her. She is also the lyricist on three other songs on the record. We have become the songwriting team. “Heaven in your Eyes” really tears me up for sentimental and emotional reasons. 

What did you learn from Jesse Ed Davis, Canned Heat, and John Mayall?

As far as guitar playing, I couldn’t have had a better teacher than Jesse Ed Davis. The guy was the cream of the crop. He was the greatest. He made two albums with John Lennon, played with Bob Dylan, and he’s in The Concert For Bangladesh playing with George Harrison. The first three to four Taj Mahal albums are all Jesse. I learned so much from him. If you listen to my guitar playing on the song, “My Foolish Pride”, I am trying to pay homage to what Jesse taught me about playing melodically and what he taught me about vibrato and phrasing. When I played those solos on that song, I was trying to channel Jesse. He was a major influence on me. I played in his band for two years and I was a young man. My God he taught me so much. By the time I got into Canned Heat, I had learned all this music from Jesse Ed. What I learned with Mr. Mayall was pretty profound. I learned how to get on a big stage and play spontaneously. The whole thing is about being in the band and fitting in as a member of the unit. He will feature you, nurture, and support you. He puts you out in front of people and yells your name over the mic. Your focus has to be that you are playing with one of the greatest band leaders in history and you have to be a part of the band. You have to learn to work with others. You could be at Royal Festival Hall and he will say key of C and count to four and you better know what you are doing. You have to learn how to play spontaneously. That’s a lot of what I learned from John. To this day my love and respect for him is immense.     

If you had to step outside yourself, how would you describe yourself and your career?

I think I would say this guy has spent fifty years doing this and has always tried to be in his music and be as honest to himself as he can be. I don’t worry about what critics say. For a long time, I was vilified by a lot of Blues purists and sometimes I still am. There is a well-known traditional guitar player who I won’t name who went on Facebook and just slagged me and said a lot of nasty stuff about me. I am not going to change what I do to try and please anybody else. I have a muse that I follow. I have never taken my attention off the muse and the music I hear inside of my heart and mind. I have played it as honestly and truthfully as I can. What they get is truly who I am. They don’t have to like it. There’s room for all sorts of music. If you think I am playing too many notes, you can go listen to somebody else and that’s fine with me. I have to be honest. After a gig I have to be able to go to that hotel and look in the mirror and go I just gave them the best I have and I gave them an honest version of who I am.