Walter Trout: Clarity In The Modern Daze

 By Jeb Wright

Walter Trout has never been on MTV. He’s never been a rock star. He does not have a marketing team on his payroll and he doesn’t pay a wardrobe person to choose how he dresses on stage. He does, however, have a lot of fans.

Trout is one of the top guitarists in the blues/rock genre and with each album he gains more momentum. He recently released his 21st album, titled Blues in the Modern Daze, and it may just be the most complete album he has ever written. Now in his ‘60’s, Trout is taking time to deliver very personal songs about his hard upbringing and his subsequent addictions, and songs on how he sees the world, now that he achieved wisdom.

Read on to get to know Walter Trout a little bit better than you did before. Trout, as usual, hides nothing up his sleeve and freely shares his triumphs and tragedies, hoping to help someone else along the way. In between, he tears it up on the guitar, leaving one in awe of his nature talent.

Jeb: I am enjoying the new album. Musically, there are a ton of great solos, a few songs that the Traditionists will even like and, lyrically, you really are laying it out there.

Walter: I think all of my records are very personal. If I go clear back to my first album, then I can say that every one of my songs has a story behind it. This one, I really almost set out to be an observer of what is going on in the world, almost like a reporter. I just sang about what I see going on in the world through my own eyes.

I wasn’t sure if I should even use all of the lyrics. For instance, on the second song, “Lonely,” I talk about Facebook and cell phones; I actually wrote that song at a Starbucks on a napkin. I showed it to my wife and I said, “Look at this, I can make a song out of this but it is kind of weird.” She said, “No, it is great; go ahead and do it.” I did it and it started me on the path, lyrically, to where I expanded my horizons on this album.

Jeb: I need to know how you came to be writing lyrics at a Starbucks on a napkin.

Walter: My final vice in my life, I’ve been clean and sober for twenty-five years, is strong coffee. When I get up, I want a double Espresso. The first thing the band and I do in the morning is to seek out a place where we can have a double Espresso to start off our day. I have a really nice machine in my house so I can have one when I am at home. Once I have my double Espresso then I am done with my coffee for the day but I need that one in the morning.

We got up that morning and we were in Illinois or Iowa…I think it was a college town because the place was full of people. I ordered and I was standing there waiting to get my coffee and there are people standing behind me and they are yelling in my ear. I turned around to see that they all had these Bluetooth things sticking out of their ears. I thought that they were all mentally ill and were talking to themselves before I turned around and realized that they were talking on a phone implanted in their ear. I looked around and nobody else in the place was talking, as they were all staring at computers. No one was talking to the person next to them and I just thought that it was weird. I’m from a different era. The band and I get like to get our coffee and sit down at a table and actually talk to each other. I grabbed a napkin and wrote the lyrics.

Jeb: You are not a technological guy, I take it.

Walter: I have had a theory for years that with every step we take forward with the next technological advancement, society takes a step backward, in certain ways. With each bit of progress that the world makes there is something that is given up. Granted, the internet and cell phones are expanding our means of communicating, but it also seems that people now need this electronic medium between them in order to communicate with others. I know a guy who wanted to invite his neighbors over to dinner and he sends them an email. I would just go over and actually invite them, face-to-face. I think this is all such a weird phenomenon.

Jeb: I have texted my wife when I am in the living room and she is in the kitchen and asked her to bring me a soda.

Walter: [laughing] See what I mean? There is an old movie called Inherit the Wind and it is about the Scopes Trial in Tennessee in the 20’s. Spencer Tracy, the old actor, has one line where he says, “You can have airplanes now, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.” To me, that sums the whole thing up.

Jeb: I get the title of the album, Blues for the Modern Daze now.

Walter: Technology is exploding at an incredible pace. You get a cell phone and less than a year later it is obsolete. I do not see where the technology is doing anything to increase our understanding, or our tolerance, of each other. I don’t see it doing anything to increase our humanity. It just makes it easier for intolerant and violent people to find each other.

In other ways, I see how it is a great thing. My mother was a librarian and was surrounded by all of this information. Now, you have all of the information in the world at your fingertips, but I don’t think that, alone, is making the world a better place. I would say it is making it an easier place.

Jeb: I think, musically, this album is very diverse, within the framework of the blues.

Walter: When I decided to write this album I wanted to be diverse. As you said, there are even a few songs that the Traditionalists might hear on the radio, and hear that they just listened to a song by Walter Trout and say, “Oh no, it can’t be him.” There are many ways you can do the genre of the Blues. There are many subcategories that you can explore. I really tried to keep the songwriting on the album very simple. There are no attempts of me trying to be clever on this album. In a certain sense, it framed me in when I decided to get rid of some of the bells and whistles and shit and just plow ahead.

Jeb: This may be one of your best albums. I think this may be my overall favorite Walter Trout album.

Walter: Why thank you, it is mine too. I have listened to this a lot and I am still feeling it. This is my 21st album. When people ask me, “What is your favorite album?” I say, “My 22nd album.” I want to keep growing; I don’t want to go backwards. I think this album is coherent as a statement from beginning to end and I think if flows. It goes in a lot of different directions and, in that way, it is like my live show. In my live shows I have always tried to take the listener on, what I call, The Rollercoaster. I want to take the audience through the ringer, emotionally. I want to take them on a journey and this record does just that.

Jeb: The opening song, “Saw My Momma Cryin’” is a great song. Is that a true story?

Walter: That song is a tribute to my mom. She raised me by herself. I had a step-father, but he had a lot of mental problems stemming from being a prisoner of war in World War II. He had been tortured, and he became a violent, alcoholic type of man. I loved the guy beneath all of that, but his problems meant that there was a lot of violence and abuse. We would run and move around to get away from him, but he would find us, apologize and then my mom would take him back. There was a lot of traumatic stuff going on. She struggled and did her very best.

A friend of hers heard the song and said, “Walter, the lyrics are sad but the music is not sad.” When I think back to my mom, I don’t get sad. I am thankful for what she did for me. She supported my efforts in music and she was always behind me. She believed in me and I was very happy that I got to have her as a mom. Today, on the band’s Facebook page, I posted a live version of that song.

Jeb: Talk to me about “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

Walter: I used to live with this lady and she always watched that show with Robin Leach. I would look at her and say, “Why are you watching this bullshit? It just makes you envious and not like your own life.” One day, I told her, “I wish that just one time this guy would go out and do a show on ‘The Lifestyles of the Poor and Unknown.”

When it was time to do this record, as an observer of what was going on, I wanted to write something about the housing crisis, and the mortgage crisis, and how the bankers got us into this by giving people loans that they knew they couldn’t afford and that they could not pay back. They put them in these houses that they couldn’t afford and then they go and take the houses back and put these people out on the streets. I wanted to do it with a humorous slant. The song is kind of in the tradition of someone like Willie Dixon, who did a lot of tongue-in-cheek that had a play on words.

I have always had this thing in my band where after we do a gig we go, “Well, we’re big time.” I threw that in the song in the second verse.

I will tell you a story that I’ve never told anyone outside of my family. When I was 15 years old, I had to get out of that place, with the crazy guy. I decided to go to the Jersey Shore, which is where my biological dad lived. It was 3:00AM and I was a kid – I might have been 14. I hitchhiked into this town called Pleasantville, which was basically a ghetto. A car load of young black guys drove up and I thought that I was probably going to die, as it was, like I said, in the middle of the night, on a Saturday night, in the ghetto and I am 14 year old kid. They drive up and this kid leans out of the window and says, “Where you going?” I say, “I’m going to Ocean City.” He looks at me, and then he looks at his buddies, and he says, “You’re walking to your destination” and they all laughed and they took off. So, I put that line in the song. Right after that experience, I found a phone booth and called my dad and he came and got me [laughter].

Jeb: The song “Recovery” is very dear to your heart. I, too, have been clean and sober for years. It was very cool to hear a song written from the perspective of long term recovery. Most songs about addiction are more about the early days when life sucks.

Walter: I talk about how, at first, I tried to deny it and then I sang that sometimes I still get the craving. Anybody like us, who has been at it a long time, for years, knows that they still get the craving, once in a while. I will be at a gig and somebody is drinking a beer and I think, “God, I’d like to have a beer.” I am honest enough with myself to know that if I have that bottle of beer then I am going to have to have a line of blow. If I have that line of blow then I am going to have to have a bottle of whiskey. I know that I just can’t start.

I laid it all out there in that song and it is a very personal number. I played it for my gardener, who has about four years clean and sober. He was working on the front lawn one day and I said, “I want you to hear this song.” He listened to it and the man broke down and started weeping. I think that song is, hopefully, going to speak to some people and mean something to them.

Jeb: I love the guitar solo in that song, as well.

Walter: In that song, I do a solo where I do a double lead, a guitar harmony, and that was an attempt to, musically, do the ‘before and after’. I put a lot of thought into that one instead of just doing a solo. I wanted it to be a musical representation of how the old you keeps walking right along side the new you, and how you can never forget that.

My sobriety day is July 9th. If I am doing a gig on that date, then I go up to the microphone and say something like, “Hey everybody, as of today, I have 25 years sober.” After the show, a guy always comes up to me and says, “How are you going to celebrate being sober 25 years?” I say, “I am going to celebrate by going out tonight and getting totally shit-faced!” They go, “NOOO!” I laugh and tell them, “Don’t worry, it was just a joke, man. I’m not going to do that.”

Jeb: Sometimes, I think that a lot of people who relapse, just don’t wait long enough for the miracle to happen.

Walter: I’ve got to be honest; I just couldn’t imagine getting fucked up now. For instance, when I play gigs in Holland, and the place is so full of pot smoke that, after about an hour, I start feeling it. I start feeling a little effect and I actually hate it. I hate not being in control of myself. I, then, get paranoid and start thinking, “What if the place catches on fire?” I am not even stoned; I’m just getting a very small feeling of it because I am standing in a cloud of the stuff. I hate it. I want to be very fine tuned into what is going on around me at all times. I can’t imagine getting fucked up and really being out of control. I have a lot going on now, however. I have a good career going and I have a beautiful family. I, now, have everything that I’ve ever wanted out of my life. I am 61 years old and having the best time of my life. I just can’t imagine fucking that all up.

Jeb: Who is the song “Puppet Master” about?

Walter: It could be your boss, or it could be the people who run the country. It is not about anybody in particular. It is about people in authority and power and who have a heavy hand over those underneath them and demand obedience and authority and then, when they don’t need you anymore, they just toss you away. It is a symbolic song. It was a poem that I had written. When I tried to expand it into song lyrics I had trouble making it into a song. My producer decided that we would just put some weird music behind it and that I would just recite it and then we would put “Money Rules the World” with it.

Jeb: Another song I want to talk about is “You Can’t Go Home Again.” I moved away from where I grew up at age sixteen and I get nostalgic about it.

Walter: You want to go back but when you get there you discover that it is not the same place you left. I wrote that song, specifically, for somebody that I don’t want to name. I am very close to this person and they go through these very romantic ideas of where they grew up. When they go visit that place, after about a week, they can’t wait to get the hell out of there and get back to California. It is a direct message to that person.

Jeb: Do they know it is about them.

Walter: No, that is why I won’t name them [laughter].

Jeb: In the songs that contain your social commentary, I hear a lot of discontentment in your voice.

Walter: I think you hear that because there is a lot of discontentment in there. I am 61 years old and I am an old hippie. Back in the ‘60’s, it was the Age of Aquarius and all of that bullshit and now we are passing the world off to the next generation and it is much more screwed up than it was when we got a hold of it. We didn’t do so good. I find that the world is in a sad condition. This country, whether you’re a right winger, or a left winger, is in a bad way, as nothing is getting done. There are people in the government that are only concerned about achieving power.

I am afraid that this country is turning into The Corporate States of America; they are doing great. I saw, yesterday, in the news that while the unemployment rate is still up, and people are still struggling and losing their houses, Goldman Sachs reported that their profits doubled in the last year. Big banks and big corporations are doing better than they have ever done in history while everyone else is taking it up the wazoo. It is a no brainer if you would just look around.

Jeb: Getting away from music for a moment, do you think it is too late?

Walter: I don’t know. The first thing that has to happen is that we need to get the money out of politics. My wife is from Denmark. She is a Danish citizen, as are my children. In Denmark, it is illegal for corporations to donate to political parties and to political candidates; it is against the law. They understand that if a corporation gives a candidate a million bucks and then that candidate gets elected that they owe the corporation something. My wife does not understand the entire concept of lobbyists. In her country, if some corporation lobbied like we do here, then he would go to prison. The government is actually geared to the people there.

I find it interesting that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street actually want the same thing, which is to get this country in order and give power back to the people of the country. They have different philosophies of how to do it but the ultimate message is the same.

I love this country. I grew up in Philly. My mom took me to see where the Constitution was written and we went to every single Revolutionary battlefield that was around. I want to see Democracy reborn. When I vote, I want it to have meaning. I don’t want it to just be a facade.

Jeb: Let’s end this interview on a positive note. Even with all of our issues in this country, we still have you playing live music across the land. You either love playing live, or you’re as good an actor as Spencer Tracy.

Walter: You got the first one right; I love playing live. The greatest thing in my life is getting up and playing music in front of people. I am getting ready to take this album out on the road. I start the new tour May the 5th in Oklahoma and I will pretty much keep it going through November.