Walter Trout - The journey back from Hell

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When it came to the 42nd album of his career, Walter Trout found himself facing a dilemma. The blues had stopped calling. Having cheated death by a whisker in May 2014, and left hospital with a box-fresh liver, on a tidal wave of goodwill, he naturally wanted to capture that rebirth in song. “But I’d sit down to write,” Trout growls, “and every time, it came out flowery and smell-the-roses, all this bullshit. I had all the chords and licks. But my first attempt at a lyric was: ‘It’s great to see you after my fall/It’s great to see anyone at all.’ And I did feel that way, but when I put it down in music, it sounded fucking absurd. It didn’t have any depth. And I was like, ‘This isn’t it.’ Then my wife said, ‘Well, maybe you need to put yourself back there…’”

So began the true genesis of Battle Scars. To use the bluesman’s own terminology, this is a concept album, but mercifully not of the variety involving gatefold sleeves and nine-minute suites about Arthurian legend. Instead, these 12 tracks reel you in to Trout’s headspace circa April 2014, as he waited at the Nebraska Medical Center for a donor liver that seemed doomed to never arrive.

With unflinching, fly-on-the-wall lyrics bookended by the wail of sirens and shouts of medics, Trout’s memory bank is a compelling place to visit, but most assuredly, you wouldn’t want to live there. Emotionally, he admits, it was hard to approach the album this way. “Even now, if I’m watching a movie with my wife and some scenes come on of a hospital, I have to leave. I don’t want to see it, I don’t want to know about it. So it was very emotional, and some of this album was kinda hard writing. Omaha and Haunted By The Night, y’know, some of those lines were written with tears streaming down my face. But I put myself right back into it, and in the end, it was very therapeutic for me to do that.”

Thankfully, if the narrative is bleak, the music stops Battle Scars from wallowing. Right from the Zeppelin-worthy opener, Almost Gone, these tunes are boisterous, visceral and screamingly well-performed, while Trout has never stretched his songwriting palette further. “I’m incredibly happy with how it’s come out,” he agrees. “Every song has a story and I think my singing and playing are so much more inspired. I have to say, it’s probably not strictly as bluesy as some people are gonna want. But as my wife says, I’ve managed to write an entire album about facing death, and what’s more bluesy than that?” Here, he talks us through each track…

Almost Gone

“When I set out to tell my story, the main thing I thought about was my wife, Marie, who was my biggest supporter and cheerleader, and the one attempting to give me the strength to hold on. There were many times she’d be stood by the bed, holding my hand and saying, ‘Fight, Walter, hang on, don’t go’ – but I could tell that both of us felt I was not gonna make it. So for me, it was like, ‘I love you, and I appreciate you standing here giving me this incredible love and support, but I’m not gonna make it and we both know that.’

That song is about that depth of hopelessness. “That’s me playing the harmonica. We recorded the song, and I came home and played the track to my son, Mike, and he said: ‘All you need now is Robert Plant and you’ve become Led Zeppelin.’ Then [producer] Eric Corne says to me: ‘This song needs some harmonica, but it doesn’t need Little Walter, it just needs somebody who plays kinda like Robert Plant or Mick Jagger – not technically great, but with meaning.’ That cracked me up. He said: ‘Just go out there and play some harp and see what happens.’ “I think the song worked out great, y’know, and especially having this new bass player, Johnny [Griparic]. He really took the song to a new place. I mean, if you listen to the bass on* Almost Gone*, he’s so energetic and aggressive, and everything that I try to be in my music.”

Omaha Prelude

“I basically told Eric that I wanted to start off the song Omaha with all the sounds I remembered as I was laying there in the hospital. I wanted to portray that, and what was in my head. Every night, I would lay there in that bed, and my room was right over the emergency room so I’d hear the ambulances, and up above was the helipad where they’d be bringing people in. Over the intercom, you’d always hear them announcing: ‘Code Blue: Room 626.’ And Code Blue meant somebody is dying, right, so you gotta get there quick. You’d hear that all the time, and if you listen to that track, you’ll hear a guy yelling: ‘Code Blue!’ That was originally the beginning of Omaha, but Eric said, ‘Look, there might be people who want to just get to the song.’”

Omaha

“I could never sleep in the hospital. They’ve got me in this horrific bed, I’m laying there, I got a ventilator in my throat, I got a tube in my nose, I can’t eat, I got IVs in both arms, I got a heart monitor strapped to my chest that’s beeping and shit. Then every hour they come in, they stick a needle in my arm and take blood. So Omaha was one of those musical ideas where I was just thinking, ‘What did it feel like to be in that position, and if you had to portray it in sound, how would it sound to you?’ I would sit down and think to myself, ‘Okay, now I’m gonna put myself back to when I was laying in bed in the liver ward, and the guy in the next room dies and his family is out in the hall and they’re screaming and crying.’ And out came that lick…”

Tomorrow Seems So Far Away

“The way it works in the hospital when you’re awaiting a liver transplant is that they tell you: ‘When we got a liver for you, we will call you.’ They don’t come to your room. They call, and then you have 20 minutes to say yes or no, and if you don’t respond, they go to somebody else and offer them the liver. So they got my cell number, they got Marie’s cell number. And so every time your phone rings, you’re thinking, ‘This is it.’ We’re in there for months, right, and every time the phone rings, you’re like, ‘Oh my God.’

“But the phone is on this food tray next to your bed, and sometimes the lady comes in at 4am to take blood, and she moves the tray away from the bed, then she doesn’t put it back, and you’re laying there, and your fucking phone starts ringing! And it’s like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t get to it! I can’t get out of bed because I can’t walk, and this could be it!’ And if you don’t get to the phone, you don’t know who to call back. It’s like, ‘Who do I call? I want the liver!’ So it’s terrifying. “And that happened quite a bit, where my cell phone would ring and it would be somebody from nutrition, or else it runs out of battery. So you’re waiting, and you’re so uncertain, and that’s why the line says, ‘Sitting here waiting for the phone to ring/the uncertainty will kill me before anything.’

Because you have no idea, man. “All the guitar parts on there, I wanted to do a little tribute to Jesse Ed Davis because I loved him and he was my mentor. If you listen to his early work with Taj Mahal, especially a song called Leaving Trunk, I was trying to replicate Jesse’s playing in the rhythms and the solo.”

Walter’s band: (l-r) Johnny Griparic (bass), Sammy Avila (keys), Trout and Michael Leasure (drums).

Walter’s band: (l-r) Johnny Griparic (bass), Sammy Avila (keys), Trout and Michael Leasure (drums).

Please Take Me Home

“I didn’t particularly enjoy writing that one. It was written with tears in my eyes. There were a lot of times when I was unable to speak, especially when I sorta had brain damage. Marie would climb into the bed and hold me, and to me that was going home. It wasn’t physically being brought back to Huntington Beach. It was like, ‘If you get in this bed and just hold me close, I will be home. And I’m probably going to die, so take me home so I can die in your arms.’ That’s still a hard song for me to listen to. I’ve listened to the long guitar solo on the end 200 times and it always brings me to tears.

That song was going to be a fade-out, but then when Eric and I listened to it, we were like, ‘Fuck, man, just put the whole thing on there, don’t fade it.’ “On The Blues Came Callin’, I was really struggling with my playing because of the hand-cramping thing, and being ill, and having no energy or strength. I really don’t like listening to that album because I know, when I hear it, how weak I was. But now, I’m not struggling. All the guitar-playing on this album is just joyous for me. It’s back, big-time, and I’m having the time of my life. “I think, in some ways, I’ve sorta calmed down. Although I’m bursting with energy on there, I think I’m phrasing a little more than I used to. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove – I just have something to say.”

Playin’ Hideaway

“Well, that one is about me, and it’s an attempt to describe the despondency and the depression that I was in. When I sing the line, ‘You don’t have a lover and you don’t have a friend,’ that of course wasn’t the reality. But there were times when I would lay down or I would look in the mirror and that’s how I felt. I felt a depression and a desperation that’s hard to explain. I was always happy to see Marie but other than that, I didn’t want to see anybody. I didn’t want to have to talk to anybody. That is really me singing to myself, and that is an attempt to describe my mental condition while I was waiting.”

Haunted By The Night

“During the days, Marie would come in and we’d hang out, or maybe the physical therapist might try to get me walking around in the hall. There was stuff going on. But at night, it lasted forever. I mean, those nights felt like they were weeks long. It was rough. I couldn’t sleep because they were always coming in and sticking needles in my arms, and I had these IVs that would start beeping for some reason and they wouldn’t stop. So they’d come in and change the pump, and I’d be laying there and I’d have the TV on, and it would be three in the morning, and the IV would go ‘Beep!’. And it was just constant. So that line, ‘Push the button’ – that’s the call button for the nurse. “Everybody at the Nebraska Medical Center is fantastic: it’s a state-of-the-art, magnificent place. But there was one nurse who got tired of me calling her to stop the beeping and she just stopped coming in. So I’d be laying there with that thing beeping and I’d be pushing the button and I’d hear the nurses in the hall, and nobody would come in. Marie found out about it. She went to the people who run the hospital and said, ‘Keep that nurse away from my husband!’”

Fly Away

“I’ve told a few people about this song and some of them look at me like I’m nuts, but it’s the truth. I was visited by spirits. They were little white lights and they took me out of my body. I flew and I saw myself, laying in the bed, and I experienced being pure consciousness and spirit. It was a near-death experience. They spoke to me and I said, ‘This feels so incredible, not to have any physical body, any pain, any carnal desire, any weight, but just to be joy and consciousness.’ And they said, ‘Do you want to come with us?’ Which I knew meant I would die. And I said, ‘No, I want to hang on, I want to fight.’ And then they said, ‘Okay, we’ll see you soon.’ I was not high. It was a very real experience that I had, coming that close to death and seeing the other side. “The music to that one just transpired. I sat down with a guitar and I put it in an open tuning and out came that lick. And I thought, ‘Boy, I like that, I’m gonna pursue this.’ And once I had the idea to make it about that experience I had, that whole thing took, like, five minutes. Boom: there it was. Part of songwriting for me is, you gotta focus in lyrically on what you want to say. As soon as you get a crystal-clear idea in your head, it’s pretty easy.”

Move On

“I did pretty much this whole record on my white road Strat. I’m not a guy who comes out and plays 20 guitars at a show. I’m a one-woman man and I’m a one-guitar man. When I get a relationship going with a certain guitar, I like to just go with it. So what you’re hearing on there is my road Strat. “Lyrically, Move On is really about the period after the transplant, when I was still in the hospital but it looked like I was going to survive, and that maybe a year later I would be able to have a life again. And it’s about how my perspective on things has changed. Like, it says, ‘Everything has changed, priorities are rearranged/things that used to get me before don’t bother me any more.’ My whole outlook has changed. There’s little things that used to bug me and they’re almost humorous now. I just can’t be bothered any more. My joy and happiness at being here, being able to play, being a husband and father, just being able to breathe and walk… It’s astounding, the different view I have of it now. I’m so overjoyed to be here. It’s very hard to explain. My gratefulness and joy at being alive is very hard to even express.”

My Ship Came In

“People are gonna say,‘My Ship Came In? What does that have to do with anything?’ Well, that song is directly about the fact that Provogue Records had planned for five years to do a big push on my 25th anniversary, and to publish a book, and to make a documentary, and to put all my stuff out on vinyl. They were gonna call it The Year Of The Trout at the record label, and they were gonna give me the big publicity push that I have hoped and waited for my entire career, right? So there it was, right in front of me – and I had to cancel the whole thing! So that phrase, *‘My Ship Came In’* – there it is. It’s what I had been waiting for, and boom, it went away again.”

Cold, Cold Ground

“That one is pretty self-evident there, but it’s about how I don’t want to die. This story that I’m trying to tell on Battle Scars, it’s not in chronological order, it’s more in musical order. Because chronologically, you could say that Cold, Cold Ground should have been at the beginning of the record, because, for instance, Move On is about after the transplant and getting on with life, but* Cold, Cold Ground *is really about when I’m on the edge of death and I don’t want to die. But musically, it’s much better where it is. I wanted one song that just primal-screamed: ‘No, I don’t want to go yet, I want to stay here.’

“Marie and I sat at the kitchen table and came up with that one. We’re still into some heavy PTSD. I just got back from the tour two days ago and last night Marie cooked a big meal and I’m sitting at the table with my wife and my three sons, and I looked around and everybody’s smiling and laughing – and I just lost it. I never thought I’d get to do that again.”

Gonna Live Again

“I wrote that song on an acoustic guitar sitting in my kitchen. It’s funny: my wife and boys went out to eat breakfast. They were gone about an hour and when they got back, I said: ‘I got a new song, let me play it for you.’ With that song, I wanted to have a conversation with God and ask him: ‘Why have you given me this chance? Because at many points in my life, I’ve been an asshole, not a good person. And I know it. I know I’ve done people wrong. I’ve done a lot of things that I’m not proud of in my life. But you’re giving me this chance, so how come? Why have you kept me here?’ “I feel now that I have the chance to be a better man. I can look in the mirror and say: ‘Okay, I’ve not been the best person I can be, but here’s a chance to start over.’ Y’know, *The Blues Came Callin’ *had that line with ‘You’ll never be the man you used to be’, and all that. But I’m better now than I used to be. I just didn’t know that then. “So the record starts off where I’m looking in my wife’s eyes and we think I’m gonna die, and the final track is saying that now I’m gonna live again – but how come? And what is my responsibility, now that God has given me another shot at life?”

Battle Scars is released on November 13 via Provogue. Walter Trout tours the UK throughout November – see www.waltertrout.com for details.

“The band is playing like we’re kids again!” Trout on his triumphant comeback tour – and November’s UK dates.

“I was really apprehensive about playing the Albert Hall [in June 2015]. Like, ‘Am I gonna be able to do this? Am I gonna fall over? Is my hand gonna cramp?’ I was also thinking that maybe I was a little insane for choosing that venue to come back. Like, y’know, maybe I should have played the local bar! But as soon as I got out there, I felt right at home and I started joking with the audience.

“I walked out and I said, ‘Boy, this is a swanky place. I’m used to playing to a bunch of drunks in the local bar.’ Everybody laughed, and it was like, ‘Yeah, I remember this. I can do this. I’ve done this 10,000 times.’ I had a great time there, man.

“This entire tour, we’ve been kicking ass every night. Some venues that we used to play that we didn’t sell out, we sold them out on this tour, and we tore it up. We played at Buddy Guy’s place in Chicago, BB King’s in New York – we were packing these rooms and we were killing them. We were playing like we’re kids again, and the band is flying now. Talk about Fly Away – that’s what my band is doing every night. The new bass player, Johnny, is really taking my band to a new level. We’re four guys playing as a team and it’s fucking scary.

“Every night, I tell the story of what happened to me and I discuss organ donation from the stage. Like, ‘Hey, sign up, man.’ In the States alone, there’s 150,000 people waiting for organs. Every year, I think at least 8,000 of them die waiting on organs. And God knows there’s plenty of people out there dying who could be donors. There’d be plenty of organs if everybody just signed up. And I know that Wales has passed a law where if you don’t opt out, you’re automatically in, and that’s really the way it should be. “Marie and I have this thought that the people who gave us all that financial support and prayers and messages, they sort of ‘bought stock’ in me, and I feel that it’s my responsibility now to give back to them. What I have to give back is music, and I have to play the very best I can, every night.

“I’m really looking forward to the UK tour in November. It’ll be great to have Stephen Dale Petit there, and I’m sure I’ll get him up to jam sometime. I’m also hoping to bring my son Jon, and I’ll be giving him a little feature spot because he’s turned into a monster player. You can watch the videos from this last tour of Jon getting up and jamming and it’s kinda frightening, because anything I throw at him, he throws it right back at me. I can’t go easy on Jon because he’ll leave me in the dust!”**
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