He’s back! An exclusive interview with blues rocker Walter Trout

One year after a lifesaving liver transplant last Memorial Day, blues-rock guitarist Walter Trout has much to be thankful for as he prepares to return to the stage next week. Here’s what Trout had to say when we talked with him by phone a few weeks back about being 10 days away from death, his “third chance at life” and returning health, the upcoming “I’m Back!” tour, and some of the other artists he’s worked with, admired, and mentored through the years, from such legends as John Mayall and Luther Allison to Mike Zito, UK blues-rocker Danny Bryant, and up-and-comers like Laurence Jones and Trout’s own son Jon.

Thanks to Walter for taking the time to chat with us, and we look forward to catching him on tour this summer!

BluesPowR Blog (BPB): Hi, Walter, wonderful to be talking to you – how’re you feeling?
Walter Trout (WT): Right now, man, I feel great. You know, I’m incredibly joyous and overwhelmingly happy to be alive. Being alive has a whole different meaning to me than it ever did before, because I came so face-to-face with my mortality for months and months. The doctors that I dealt with – none of them thought I would make it, and they fought for me – my wife fought for me harder than anybody, but I was pretty much gone. I’m kind of a miracle to still be here, and life is beautiful beyond all expression right now.

BPB: How long before the transplant did you know you were sick?
Walter_Trout_press (400x400)WT: It was a year before the transplant. I knew that I was carrying Hepatitis C but I showed no symptoms and I felt great. I had a lot of doctors tell me “You can carry that for 40 or 50 years and never show any symptoms, and you’ll be fine”…and so they told me “Just live a clean, healthy life”. I had known that for a while, for a couple of years, I think.

A year before the transplant, I was on tour in Europe, in Germany, and I woke up one night at about 4 a.m. and I was swelled up like a balloon with liquid. I had had cramps in my hand and I thought it was due to a magnesium deficiency so I was taking all this magnesium, and when I woke up all swelled up, I thought “Okay, I’ve got an allergic reaction to the magnesium”.

Luckily, I only had a week left on the tour. I did the rest of the tour sitting down, and then I came home and immediately went to a doctor. He said “No, it’s not magnesium; your liver is dying and you have this condition called ascites which is where you swell up”. They actually put me in the hospital and they put a drain in my stomach and they drained 25 pounds of fluid out of my abdomen, that’s how swelled up I was. That’s when they said “Your liver is fried”; I switched to a vegan diet and I stopped drinking coffee and I tried to take care of the liver as best I could. But I still was swelled up and I had to go in every couple of weeks and get drained out of my abdomen.

That’s when I did my last album (The Blues Came Callin’); I did that while I was really sick. I wrote the thing and recorded it while incredibly ill, and at one point, I was like in a wheelchair. Then, right around the time I finished the album was when I was just permanently hospitalized and I was in ICU in UCLA out here in Los Angeles for six weeks. They told me in L.A. that I had 90 days to live. After another month, where I had like 60 days to live, my wife came and transferred me to the Nebraska Medical Center because you have a much greater chance there of receiving a liver; there’s too much of a waiting list in Los Angeles. By the time I got the liver in Nebraska, I had about 10 days left to live; I was in incredibly bad shape.

BPB: And that was around Memorial Day?
WT: Yes, I got the transplant on Memorial Day, May 26th.

BPB: So on a scale of 1 to 10, how would you say you’re feeling right now?
WT: I’m feeling about an 8; I still have some days that I’m kind of low energy or I still have some days where I have some sort of minor equilibrium episodes where I feel like I need to sit down or I need to hold on to something. But that’s few and far between; I’ve got plenty of energy – I’m working out every day with weights and riding a recumbent bike. I’m playing the guitar a couple of hours every day. I’m rehearsing with the band. I’m starting to write songs; I’m going to make a new record in May. So I’m actually feeling great.

(We did our interview with Walter a little while back and we suspect his health has only continued to improve since we’ve talked with him. Here’s a video he and his wife Marie shared with fans recently on the occasion of the one-year anniversary of his transplant, where you can see Walter is looking and sounding pretty great as well.)

BPB: That’s terrific to hear. Some exciting news recently that you’re set to resume performing in June, starting with a show at the Royal Albert Hall in London as part of the Lead Belly Fest. So much for a low-key, quiet return, huh?
WT: Yeah, I’ll tell ya’, it’s going to be a year and eight months since I’ve been on stage, and it’s going to be something to walk out on that stage. It’s not like playing at the local bar or something.

BPB: And from there you’ll be heading around the the U.S. We’re personally hoping to catch you when you play the Heritage Music Blues Fest in Wheeling, WV, in August…
WT: You know that’s a great gig, man. I’ve played that a couple of times and one of my big memories there was getting up and jamming with John Mayall. It was me and Debbie Davies that got up to play with him, he was headlining that night, so I remember that gig very well. I’ve played it a couple of times and it’s always been a great gig.

BPB: We’re looking forward to seeing you there. And then after the U.S., you’ll be going back to the UK, the Netherlands, Germany… On those days when you’re not feeling as well, do you ever think it might be too much, too soon or are you feeling pretty comfortable with it at this point?
WT: That’s one of those things I’m going to have to get out there and find out.

I rehearse with the band one day a week, and we’re out in my garage and we’re just raging, we’re really sounding good, playing with a lot of energy and I think I’m playing better than I have in a long time. When I’m done rehearsing and everybody leaves, I’m sitting here with my wife and I say “I am chomping at the bit to get back out and do this”. But as far as getting up on stage and wailing for 90 minutes, we’re going to have to see. I think I’m going to be fine. My wife is the one who really books the gigs with various promoters and agents; she is making sure that I have some days off out there.

I used to go out…I had a hard work ethic: if we did a 60-day tour, I did 60 shows. I didn’t believe in days off. I got that work ethic from John Mayall, who was unbelievable on the road. One time with John we did 78 cities in 65 days, so think about that one… so I learned with him. He used to say “We’re out here to work; we’re not on vacation”. And then he had a quote which I always cracked up over; he’d go “Sleep when you get to L.A.”.

So I got that work ethic from him and I didn’t believe in days off. I tell my band “We’re out here to work; let’s work. What do you want to do: you wanna’ go play music and have a good time or you wanna’ sit in a hotel room and watch TV?”

But this time we’re getting days off, just to see how I do.

BPB: Sounds like a good idea. So what can fans expect from you on this tour? Obviously, it will be the first chance to hear you play songs from new album, but have you looked at what you were doing before and using this an opportunity to make big changes or, other than doing the new songs, do you think it will be kind of picking up where you left off just before the transplant?
WT: Well, with my band, we have a new bass player (Johnny Griparic), who’s awesome by the way. He’s played with Steve Winwood and Slash and Branford Marsalis, and the guy can literally play anything – he’s a master. He’s got incredible energy, and he really likes playing this music. The first day he rehearsed, for instance, he showed up and when we took a break, he said “Yeah, I got a call this morning from Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics; he wanted me to come over to his studio to make a record with him, but I told him no, I’ve gotta’ go rehearse with Walter.” And I was like “Man, that’s awesome. I really couldn’t have blamed you if you said ‘Hey, I can’t rehearse today. I’ve gotta’ go make an album with Dave Stewart. But the fact that you’re here, with me, God bless ya'”!

Because he’s brand new, we’ve sort of started over with the rehearsals. I’ve gone back through my old catalog and we’re doing some songs that we haven’t done in a long, long time. But I want to stick to my old catalog – I don’t want to suddenly come out and do Joni Mitchell songs here and say “Well, I’ve changed”. I want to give the people what I’m known for, which is energetic blues-rock stuff.

But we have gone through the catalog and pulled out a lot of older tunes, so we’ll be doing that and we’ll be doing songs off the latest record.

BPB: Are there any particular songs from your catalog that you most enjoy playing live?
WT: One of the ones we did at rehearsal recently was a song called “Work No More”. It’s a song I wrote as a memorial song to a really sweet old lady I had known for 30 years who had sort of been my surrogate mom after my mother passed on. My wife and I are godparents of this lady’s grandson; she was just really sweet to me, and when she passed on, I wrote her this memorial song which I did on Relentless. We did it in the garage the other day and I was just transported while I was playing. I ended up having a breakdown and weeping like a baby, and I think the band members were weeping. We were kind of transported and we were sort of levitating while we played that song, so I think I’ll be doing that one.

BPB: We look forward to hearing it; it sounds like there’s a lot of feeling to it…
WT: There was a lot of feeling to it. And also after what I’ve been through and stared my mortality in the face and fought it, I don’t know, the song had new meaning to me.

BPB: Understandable. Let’s talk a little about the The Blues Came Callin’ album: when we did a review of the album on this blog, we pointed out that it sounded like you were singing and playing with a fierceness and desperation like there’s no tomorrow. You can really hear that in songs like “Bottom of the River”, where at the end you talk about making it to the surface and that day you changed forever. It’s hard to believe that you actually wrote those songs before the transplant…
WT: Right, I wrote those while I was sick and I was waiting for the transplant, and I did that whole album while I was really sick. There were times that I was unable to, for instance, walk into the studio; I’d have to be helped in there. On “Bottom of the River”, the thing “I cried in realization that I had cheated death”, I think that was a hopeful statement because at that point I had not yet cheated death. I feel that song now, like yeah, I did cheat death.

And God has given me a third chance at life. When I was young and I was crazy and out of my mind and I was so wasted on drugs, I should have been dead years ago. The fact that I was able to get sober and make it through that and still be alive I felt was my second chance. So now I’ve been given a third. God’s been really good to me.

So that whole album – I feel there’s a lot of dark lyrics on there. “The Blues Came Callin'” is a dark song lyrically: “you’ll never be the man you used to be”. I thought that meant that, even if I survived, I was still going to be not in good shape and maybe not able to play. Now I realize it means I have a whole new perspective on things; I have a whole new view of life and appreciation of it. It’s like the last line of “Bottom of the River”: “I noticed so much beauty, as I crawled on the shore” – I notice beauty now where I didn’t see it before. If I hear a bird singing through the window when I wake up in the morning, I cry at the beauty of it.

BPB: Just realizing it’s one of so many things we tend to take for granted going through life?
WT: Yeah. I took for granted even being alive. I took for granted having a career; it was just something I did, I went out and played for people and it was no big deal. And now I’m like “Wow, am I gonna’ get to do that again?”

I really want to play every note like I mean it. I wanted to do that before but now I really want to do that. The other day when we played that song: I didn’t play it like “I’m at rehearsal”, I played it like there were people listening. I’ve found an involvement in the music that I’ve never felt before.

BPB: Do you have a personal favorite song off the latest album?
WT: I think “Bottom of the River”. Lyrically, that’s something I’m really proud of and I feel like it came from somewhere else. We did the musical track long before I wrote the words; I just had this idea for the music and I called it “The River”. And my wife would say “Well, what’s that song going to be about?” and I’d say “You know, I don’t know, but I have this feeling it’s gonna’ be about some guy who falls into a river and had some sort of experience.” That was before I got really, really sick.

After I got really sick, writing those lyrics took me about ten minutes – it just flowed out. I just feel like that was really almost a divinely inspired set of lyrics. It was about what I was going through.

BPB: You’ve worked with some greats – you mentioned John Mayall, for example. Are there any artists you wish you would have had the chance to work with or who are out there now – considering you’ve been given this third chance – that you hope to make a point of working with?
WT: Well, you know, a big dream of mine – and it’ll never happen – but it would just be a blast to play a tune with the Rolling Stones. I’m such a fan of those guys, and I’m a friend of Mick Taylor. As a matter of fact, right up on my wall I have a handwritten letter from Mick Taylor telling me he hopes I’m going to be well and he’s praying for me. I’m just a fan of that band, so just to get up there and fuckin’ play guitar with Keith Richards would blow my mind. That won’t happen and I’m okay that it won’t but after that, I’d be willing to go to the big blues jam in the sky.

BPB: Are there any younger players out there that you’re kind of keeping an eye on?
WT: I have some kind of young protégé guitar players, some English guys: Laurence Jones is a guy I’m going to play with at Royal Albert Hall, him and his band. Danny Bryant. Here in the states, I’m an incredible fan of Mike Zito. I think Mike Zito is one of the greats we have in this country; I think he’s sort of a national treasure. And also, he hasn’t really been heard yet, but my oldest son is a blues-playing virtuoso. He’s just getting going. He actually did a tour with my band in the summer; I had a tour booked and I couldn’t do it, so Danny Bryant and my son Jonathan went out and did the tour and fronted my band. I think Jon has a big future ahead of him; he’s a great player.

BPB: We look forward to hearing more from him. We really liked the Luther Allison tribute you did before this last album: any plans for more like that, paying tribute to other artists?
WT: I haven’t really thought about that. The Luther tribute I felt like somebody had to do that and it fell to me to do it. I kept waiting for somebody to call attention to the work of this incredible artist. I was like “Well, I’m gonna’ do this because I’ve been expecting somebody else to do it” – there’s all these tribute records out there and nobody paid attention to that man. Not only was he an incredible artist, but he was an incredible person. He was a mentor to me and one of the most beautiful, genuine, sincere, soulful human beings I’ve ever known. I had to do that, just really for my own piece of mind. I haven’t really thought about doing something like that again. Right now, I’m just trying to write my next record that I’m supposed to do in May. I’m trying to come up with some tunes.

BPB: Any advice for those aspiring young blues artists or guitarists like your son?
WT: I always tell him and I tell my young sort of protégés that to play this kind of music, it’s not about technique, it’s about developing the ability to express your emotions through your music. The technique gives you a greater vocabulary to do that but the focus has to be on expressing feeling. When you go to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, they have a big quote on the wall as you walk in; it’s Van Gogh telling someone why he became a painter and the quote is “to express a sincere human emotion”. To play this kind of music, that’s what it’s about. It’s not about trying to impress people; it’s about trying to move people.

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