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Walter Trout

Biography

For Walter Trout, there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’. Across his five-decade career, the great US 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 and 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.”

Art has a unique power to unite – and though Ordinary Madness was completed mere days before the US shutdown, its cathartic songcraft and themes of shared troubles couldn’t chime better with a period in which our souls and spirits are under fire from tumultuous global events. The album’s loose concept was born, Trout reflects, as he scanned his social media feeds and noted his fans’ effusive messages. “They tell me I’m their inspiration,” he says, “and that me and my wife Marie have the perfect relationship.”

Trout was touched – but he knew they were wrong. Admirably open about his troubled youth, and his own ongoing struggles with mental health, the bluesman had spent recent tours soothing himself by scribbling down his thoughts and feelings. It was only later he realised he’d just written the most honest lyric-sheet of his career – and felt he had an opportunity to let fans share and identify with him. “Everybody is dealing with something,” he says. “And I’m no different from anybody else. Ordinary Madness doesn’t mean you’re gonna end up in a mental institution. It’s just being human. It’s common humanity.”

A lesser artist might have been content to surf the wave of adulation for last year’s Survivor Blues: an album that dove deep into Trout’s scholarly appreciation of the genre, twisting cult songs into new shapes, debuting at #1 on the Billboard Blues Chart, and heaping yet more acclaim onto an artist who regularly triumphs at global events from the British Blues Awards to the Blues Music Awards. “He’s not just surviving, he’s flourishing,” wrote Classic Rock of that latest release, crowning it Blues Album of 2019.

But that was only phase one of Trout’s masterplan. “I wanted to make Survivor Blues,” he explains, “to show my blues pedigree and my history of playing this music. But that’s not all I am. I’m also a songwriter. Of course, everything I do is based in the blues, and I’ll never turn my back on it. Ordinary Madness is a blues-rock album, but it’s also an evolution of my songwriting. The artists I respect most are the ones who seem to be fearless and push the envelope.”

Trout’s formative blues influences are well-documented, spanning from Paul Butterfield’s 1965 self-titled debut alongside Mike Bloomfield to John Mayall’s seminal 1966 ‘Beano’ LP with Eric Clapton. But as he cut his teeth in New Jersey, the young guitarist was also drawn to the maverick songwriters, taking in The Beatles, Dylan and Neil Young’s Crazy Horse. At every step of his career – moving to California in ’74 to back up giants like John Lee Hooker, joining Canned Heat and Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in the ’80s, then flying solo in 1989 – the stockpile of songs kept growing. “Ordinary Madness is not Survivor Blues Volume Two,” he says. “I dug in deep with regard to the craft of songwriting.”

As the title track and conceptual cornerstone of this latest album, Ordinary Madness confirms that, this time around, Trout is doing things a little differently. Led in by an electronic intro created by eldest son Jon Trout (now making waves in his own right as Space Fish), the song sets off on a hypnotic groove with a gloriously languid guitar break that’s anything but autopilot blues. “I’ve broken the pinkie on my left hand three times in the past year,” remembers Trout, “so the guitar playing on this album took a little work, and there’s some anger and frustration in some of the solos. I really like that solo on the title track. It took two or three re-takes. But I think I nailed it.” 

From that jump-off, a career-best album spilled out, as Trout convened his band of Michael Leasure (drums), Johnny Griparic (bass) and Teddy ‘Zig Zag’ Andreadis (keys) – along with long-time producer Eric Corne, plus special guests Skip Edwards, Drake ‘Munkihaid’ Shining and Anthony Grisham. The backdrop, once again, was the private LA studio of Doors legend Robby Krieger. “What a great place that is to record, man,” he sighs. “The whole place is full of vintage gear, and it’s all there for you, whatever you want. The keyboard that Ray Manzarek used in The Doors – it’s just fucking sitting there. I remember, on the rhythm track for OK Boomer, Michael Dumas, who runs the studio, comes walking in and says: ‘Here’s the SG that Robby used in The Doors – wanna try this?’ Then, for the rhythm guitar on Heartland, he says: ‘Here’s one of James Burton’s Paisley Telecasters...’”

Despite its stormy, ambient guitars, Wanna Dance nods to happier times after his life-or-death liver transplant of 2014, when a rejuvenated Trout rediscovered his joie de vivre, taking swing-dance lessons in Long Beach with wife and manager, Marie. “Musically, I was thinking of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, with nasty distorted guitars – although my son said, ‘the solo sounds more like Neil Van Halen’. Lyrically, there’s some confessional stuff, with lines like, ‘I’ve been the victim of desires that only brought me down’. I guess it’s saying, ‘I’m a little fucked-up here, but come on, baby, let’s not worry about the world. Let’s get past our mental states and live life to the fullest’.”

Musically, Trout’s antennae are up, as he pushes the envelope on the psychedelic layered vocal harmonies of The Sun Is Going Down, a song about dealing with ageing. “With that vocal intro, it wasn’t planned, it was just one of those experimental things,” he says. “I just knew I wanted it to start with something fucking weird. And I love the way that song whips into that almost heavy-metal jam at the end. Lyrically, it’s about running out of time. You gotta look at death, deal with it, accept it. That’s a condition of being alive.”

On the blissed-out anthemics of Up Above My Sky, which include nods to peak-period Pink Floyd, he states, “I told Marie that I had a dream I was playing a song called Up Above My Sky, but that I didn’t know what to do with it, and twenty minutes later, she came back and said, ‘Here are the lyrics’. She’d written about her observation that at night, in the darkness, we can see much further into the universe than we can during the day. It is a metaphor about the fact that it is when we face our own darkness that we have a potential for understanding the universe within – including our connection to the light.”

Elsewhere, the new material runs the gamut. “One day, riding in the van, I just wrote down: ‘Sometimes I do my best but I fail/I know it happens to everyone’,” remembers Trout of the lyric that became the sweet, country-touched lilt of My Foolish Pride. “Heartland is a metaphor for anyone who realizes that if they want to achieve their dreams, they may have to go and be somewhere else. With Final Curtain Call, I was thinking of a Led Zeppelin-type approach, but it turned into something else. It’s another song about dealing with the passing of time and the inevitability of death.”

Always a sympathetic collaborator, Trout worked with the US blues singer Teeny Tucker on the bereft All Out Of Tears – a tribute to her late son. On the haunting Heaven In Your Eyes, Walter was stunned by Marie’s lyrics about the desperation of trying to find ways to reach the person you love but being unable to find the words. They co-wrote the lyrics for the hilarious sign-off, OK Boomer. “When ‘OK boomer’ became a derogatory phrase about my generation,” Trout remembers, “I was sitting with my kids and my son Mike said, ‘Well, look at what you guys are leaving us – the whole fucking world is on fire!’ Well, he’s got me there. All the peace, love and hope from the ’60s, that all went out the window, man. What happened to the hippies? But with that song, I wanted to say that there are members of my generation who do care deeply about the world that we are leaving for future generations. So that was an anthem. It’s a good one to end with, after the intensity of a whole album about latent mental illness and fucked-up relationships.”

As with all great confessional albums, Ordinary Madness is both deeply personal and utterly universal. As these songs unfold, their message speaks from the perspective of the songwriter, while ultimately chronicling the human condition. And in these unprecedented times – when all seems dark and already-fragile headspaces are pushed to the breaking point – this album finds a relevance that even Trout couldn’t have envisioned when he caught it in the bottle.

“As the lyric says in Up Above My Sky,” he reflects, “sometimes you have to see through the darkness to find the light. I can’t wait get back out there again, meet the people at shows, hug them and pose for a photo. And I’m really looking forward to playing these songs live. Because I think this album speaks to these times…”