Walter Trout is as authentic as you can get, both as a musician and human being. A sizzling guitarist who is criminally unknown to the general public, he is as honest as they come, and there’s no fluff in between him and his songs. He plays guitar straight into the amp with no effects, writes lyrics that come straight from his heart and is completely open about the hardships he’s endured over the course of his 69 years.
A lifelong musician and former guitarist with Canned Heat and John Mayall in the ‘80s, Trout is a walking blues song who’s had more bumps in life than most can withstand. Mental health issues, divorced parents at the age of five, an ‘insane’ stepmother and stepfather chasing him around with an axe, way too many drugs in his youth (he’s now 33 years sober), plus a broken pinky finger which meant recording guitar parts using only three fingers. Cap that off with a harrowing liver transplant several years ago that put him in the hospital for so many months it seemed he wouldn’t recover until a Donna Summer TV performance guided him back to music.
It would be easy for him to just pack it in and call it a career, especially with a pandemic hanging overhead. Instead, Trout went deep, laying himself bare for all to see on Ordinary Madness, his 29th solo album, completed in the days prior to lockdown and set for release August 28 (Provogue Records/Mascot Label Group).
Ordinary Madness is a career-defining, 11-song tour-de-force of tortured blues, wounded vocals, mind-blowing guitar solos and hellish harmonica playing performed by a battle-scarred vet at the top of his game. Most telling, Trout’s honest, confessional lyrics cross into insightful singer/songwriter heartland territory that puts him twelve bars ahead of standard blues artists.
“The word authentic with the blues can get you into trouble,” Trout tells American Songwriter. “People say, ‘you’re a white kid from the suburbs, how can you be authentic?’ I’m not from Clarksdale, Mississippi and I didn’t pick cotton. To me, the only way for me to be authentic is to play from my heart and my soul with all the honesty and meaning I can put into the music. If I can play a gig and then get to the hotel and look in the mirror and say I gave them everything I have tonight and played from my heart with all the emotion and feeling I can convey to them, then that’s how I can be authentic. I have to be authentic to who I am.”
“I never wanted to be someone who comes out in a sharkskin suit and mimics other players. I don’t want to be the Rich Little of music. I have to play what I feel.”
Despite all his trials, the LA-based guitarist is positively upbeat and in great spirits, quick to tell a joke or crack himself up when, in true road warrior fashion, he refers to the hospital room as a hotel room (“Hospital, hotel. They’re all the same at this point!”).
He riffs on old stories of growing up in Southern New Jersey and battling it out as the hotshot guitarist in the area and even has a great early Bruce Springsteen story, when the two played the same area in the early ‘70s. “He’s an unbelievable artist but you don’t listen to him solely for his guitar playing. Back then, we were both local guys. I’d be rip-roaring drunk and high in the parking lot before our shows. I told him I thought he needed work on his lead playing and he told me he was getting more into songs and songwriting. I said, ‘I hope they’re better than your guitar playing!’ (laughs). I guess he showed me!”
On Ordinary Madness, Trout assembled a top-notch group of veteran musicians, including Teddy ‘Zig-Zag’ Andreadis on keys, Michael Leasure on drums, Johnny Griparic on bass, to put their unique touch on each song. The core group keeps it simple, never overplaying, focusing instead on the central message in the song’s lyrics.
“When I die and people look back at my music, I think they’ll say Ordinary Madness and Battle Scars are about as honest and soul-baring as this guy could be.”
You’re confronting your later years on Ordinary Madness. It’s 100% honest and emotional.
It’s ended up where this record has three themes. One is dealing with things I went through as a kid. I don’t want to call it latent mental illness. They don’t affect my life that bad, but they affect me to this day. Those who really know me see right through my façade. I try not to let it affect my relationships with people. That’s the ordinary madness.
Another theme is relationships. “Heaven In Your Eyes” and “My Foolish Pride” are about how when we’re feeling ashamed of ourselves and doubts, we lash out at those we love. That’s sort of an apology song to my wife.
The third one is aging and dealing with the realization of your own upcoming mortality.
“My Foolish Pride” is very majestic. There’s something about the key of C, which the song is in, and the simple chord progression, that lets your vocal and guitar playing soar.
I listened to the full record on my way to a doctor’s appointment today and I have to say I think “My Foolish Pride” is the best vocal I’ve ever done on my 29 albums. I was bordering on tears singing that song. It’s very emotional.
“Wanna Dance” is an interesting, harrowing song. There’s a vocal note of desperation you let out in the chorus line.
I’m using dancing as a metaphor. ‘We ain’t gonna live forever/tonight I wanna dance.’ That means I want to live every moment with my love, my kids and my career. I want to enjoy and celebrate every moment being alive. Experience life to the fullest while I can. There’s a recent movie called JoJo Rabbit about a young German kid with an active imagination who has an imaginary friend in Adolf Hitler. There’s also a Jewish girl hidden in his attic, kept away from the Nazis. In one scene the mother, who is played by Scarlett Johansson, starts dancing. His son doesn’t understand and she says ‘dancing is a way of telling God that you are celebrating the gift of life.’ I looked at my wife and said ‘there it is. She just said exactly what this song is about. She summed it up in one sentence.’
Musically, it’s built on that classic Em jam-forever chord motif, which Neil Young pioneered and is just fun to solo over.
I had Neil Young and Crazy Horse in mind when I wrote the tune. The way the two guitars play off each other. I recorded the song and brought it home and was playing it for my kids and my 18-year old said it sounds more like Neil Van Halen and walked out of the room!
There’s a nice musical harmony part toward the end of the song “Heartland.”
That’s me and the organ player. I played that lick, we listened back, and I thought it would sound good with a harmony. It wasn’t planned.
“Heartland” is about a young woman wishing for a better life somewhere else. Where did you find the inspiration for the song?
I had a dream that my wife and I were sitting on the couch, watching a TV show called Heartland. In the dream the show ended, and the theme song came in. I woke up and thought to myself ‘I didn’t really like that show but I liked the theme song,’ before realizing it wasn’t a show, it was a dream. I have a guitar and phone next to my bed and I recorded what I could remember of this imaginary TV theme song. The first verse is exactly as it was in the dream. I had to write the rest, but that song was just handed to me in a dream.
That’s happened to me a few times before. When he went solo in ’89 I did my first album which was only out in Scandinavia and in 1990 I signed with a label that was picking it up for distribution in Europe. Soon after, Stevie Ray Vaughan died and the label wanted to market me as the new Stevie Ray, which infuriated him. “I do something that’s very different from him, why do you have to compare me to anyone? Why can’t you market me as Walter Trout?”
I had a dream where I was dressed up as Stevie Ray, the hat, the whole thing. And I had gloves on and could not play. In the dream I threw the hat away, ripped the gloves off my hands, and played a song called “Playing With Gloves On.” I jumped out of bed and recorded the song. I needed to tell the people to let me be myself. The gloves were a metaphor for how they were trying to market me and that they needed to get rid of it. About 80% of it was in the dream the way it came out.
Let’s talk gear. You’re able to coax sounds out of the guitar that sound like you’re using effects. But I was told you don’t use any.
I plug straight in. That’s all I’ve ever done. When I learned how to play in the sixties and started playing in bars, pedals did not really exist. And your amp was not mic’d up. The only thing that was mic’d was the vocals, so you wanted it balanced with the vocals. You would turn your amp way up and turn the guitar volume down when they were singing. When it was your turn to solo, you would crank the guitar volume back up. You control the balance with the guitar. That’s still how I play. And I play with my pinky around the volume button.
Is there a particular amplifier you use?
When I started playing with John Mayall 35 years ago, I got my first Mesa-Boogie around then and they endorsed me. When you have that amp and know how to set it, you don’t need any pedals. It’s all in the amp. I set my amp for death metal, with the third channel gain cranked. When I want to play clean, beefy rhythm, I set the guitar volume at 1 or 2. Then I take it up to 5 or 6 for a crunchy, Marshall-y sound. And then between 6 and 10, it depends on how much gain and sustain you want for soloing.
Mesa built me a custom handmade Mark IV. Every solo on this album is played straight into that amp. Certain songs I have the gain up louder. On “All Out Of Tears” I turned the gain down.
How about guitars?
I play a road Strat, which I had put together. A San Diego builder Scott Lentz made me a body that weighs just about nothing. I took the neck of one of my Strats and put it on there. Seymour Duncan made me the pickups. He’s a Jersey guy and we bonded on that. We played the same circuit in the ‘70s.
How do you approach your guitar parts in the studio?
I’m really critical in the studio. For solos, I like to do one take if I can. On this record I had to do it all using three fingers because I have a broken pinky. I would try the solos a couple times and wait a day or so to see if I liked it and try it again if needed. The solo on “Ordinary Madness” was my third pass. I want to feel it, I don’t want to think. As soon as I start calculating, it’s gone. I have to play spontaneously. The next day I went in and laid it down.
On “Heaven In Your Eyes” we rolled tape, I played the solo and Eric Corne, who’s been my producer for 14 albums, said ‘that’s it. You’re done. I don’t want you to play it again.’ So that’s the only solo on 14 albums where I didn’t at least try it again. That was unique.
This record was recorded at Robbie Krieger’s studio. Teenage Walter must have been living out his dream recording with him in that studio.
I love that studio. I feel like it’s my second home. On “Wanna Dance,” Robbie came in and was standing there between the speakers. After the solo, he turned around and looked at me with a big smile on his face. That was awesome- the seal of approval on the guitar solo.
And there are so many awesome, amazing instruments that you can use! I would discuss how I wanted a song to sound and get handed a legendary piece to use.
We tracked “Heartland” and I decided I wanted to do an arpeggio rhythm part on a Telecaster. Michael Dumas, who is Robbie’s partner and runs the studio, walks in with a paisley Telecaster and says here’s one of James Burton’s guitars, which James gave to Robbie. Then we recorded it through one of Robbie’s old Fender Bassman amps that he used in The Doors. He also has Dwight Yoakam’s old Gibson acoustic, which I also used on the track.
On “OK Boomer” I wanted to have it sound like chaos, like a bunch of sixteen-year old kids in the garage in 1966 just having fun and jamming, not caring if we were playing together. I told Michael it would sound good with humbuckers and he brings me Robbie’s SG that he used in The Doors. The place is filled with great stuff.
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
The first song I wrote was a surf instrumental, but it sucked! The first real song I wrote was when I fell in love as a teenager. It was called Earrings On The Table. I recorded a version for my second album. It’s just me and an acoustic guitar and I recorded it the same way as when I was a kid. I thought it was a really good song. It was written out of a love for this girl. I wrote her a lot of songs in a short amount of time. My song “The Love That We Once Knew,” a ballad which was a Number One hit in Europe was also about her. My first album has a song called “The Mountain Song” and the lyrics were written the same week. I went through a phase where I wrote like twenty songs in a week about the same girl.
You had a rough time several years ago and needed a liver transplant. Was music a comfort for you?
I wasn’t writing during the liver transplant. Honest to God, I was so close to death for months. I didn’t have a bite of solid food for six months. A lot of the time I was in ICU or a coma. I can’t even understand how I’m still here. There was one day I lost all my blood and they had to pump 22 pints into me. It was a nightmare. So, I wasn’t thinking about music then! I was thinking about making it through the next 30 seconds!
I didn’t want to hear about music. It was too painful. Then there was one night in the hospital where I was laying in my room. It’s impossible to sleep in those rooms. IV’s are beeping and they’re constantly coming in to check up on you. One night, I was perusing the TV stations and an old Donna Summer concert came on and it all came back to me. The joy, the beauty, the majesty, the magic of music came back. I wept like a baby for hours.