By Jeb Wright
Photo by Kevin Nixon
Robin Trower’s latest studio effort, 2013’s Roots to Branches, is an album that mixes influential cover tunes with original compositions. He admits that doing the cover tunes in a way that allowed him to put his stamp on them was more challenging than he first imagined. “I did not go back and listen to any of the originals before I did this as I just wanted to go in with what was in my head. I had to have someone write some of the lyrics down for me at a point or two. I didn’t even want to listen to the original to get the lyrics, as I wanted to get the idea of how the song went and I wanted to come up with my own arrangement.”
The new tunes fit in nicely with the cover songs. Fitting them all in a set list has proved more difficult, however. “It isn’t easy. I always try to do the songs that are the most popular, which is the stuff from Bridge of Sighs, which was the biggest selling,” states Trower. “I do some songs off of For Earth Below and I do one song from In City Dreams. I try to stick in some songs from the last two or three albums as they are the ones I have worked on most recently and they are close to my heart at this time. “
Currently, Trower is back in the USA in 2014 to properly promote Roots to Branches on this side of the pond. Robin took some time to tell Classic Rock Revisited how excited he is to be back in the USA as well as discuss the 40th anniversary of his most successful album to date, the pioneering Bridge of Sighs.
Jeb: You are coming back to America. I am glad to see you on this side of the pond.
Robin: Well, I lost my wife a while ago and she had been ill for some time, so I had not been able to tour at all. I am really looking forward to playing live again, as it will be great for me to get back out there.
Jeb: Music brings people together and brings something special to the human experience. Have your figured out what it is that music does for people?
Robin: I think it is an emotional experience to both play and hear music. When it communicates then it becomes something special.
Jeb: I know you love to perform in the USA.
Robin: The best crowds for me have always been the United States. For some reason, the music has been more popular in the States than it has been in Europe. I enjoy playing in Europe and the crowds are nice, but I just feel a bit more at home in the USA, as I have done so much playing there and you all know the music better.
Jeb: An American Robin Trower fan is a fan for life.
Robin: I would hope that would be the case!
Jeb: You have a guitar sound that captivates the listener. Many guitarists entertain a crowd, but you captivate them.
Robin: That is a very nice compliment, I must say. Thank you very much. I am always trying to make everything I do as soulful as possible. It doesn’t always come off, but I think trying to make is soulful first, before anything else, I think communicates to an audience.
Jeb: You were one of those British guys that heard those American blues records when you were younger and they inspired you.
Robin: I first started to get a hold of stuff like that in the early 1960s. A friend of mine was a real collector of music records. He used to write away to a record shop in Memphis. This is unheard of in these times, but back then he would do that and they would send him some 45s and we got to hear stuff that other people were not hearing. I started looking for myself and I found BB King, and he had a huge influence on me. I think BB King is where I started taking my guitar playing away from just rock and roll. We had Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley by then, but hearing BB King made me see the individual emotional way of expressing yourself with music.
Jeb: You’ve come a long way, Robin.
Robin: I started off in a band called The Paramounts, which Gary Brooker was in, who went on to form Procol Harum. I don’t think at that stage we thought about being professional or anything like that. Hearing stuff like James Brown—the first time I heard James Brown Live at the Apollo was mind blowing. You don’t ever think about one day you will end up making your own music and records and start making a living at it. It was all very, very exciting and colorful. It was like a fireworks display the first time I heard that stuff, really. It had a tremendous effect on me, and anyone else who heard it, I would think.
Jeb: You have proven music transcends space and time and even race. You have played with people from all walks of life. I think it adds to the music’s vibe.
Robin: When I left Procol and started with a three-piece with Jimmy Dewar and Reggie Isadore my whole thing was do to a proper combination of blues and rock. I wasn’t the first to try it as Hendrix had done it, as well as Cream and The Stones. I was looking to do a really soulful style of rock and roll bringing all of my influences into what I was writing.
Jeb: When did you know it would work?
Robin: It really did click once we got together, the three of us, and started rehearsing the material. It came together beautifully.
Jeb: Are you happy with your chops, or do you still practice a lot?
Robin: If I am working or thinking about going in the studio or going on the road then I play every day. I do two twenty-minute minimum sessions every day. I am talking about just being at home and doing this before I go into the studio. As I get nearer to going into rehearsal, then I do an hour to an hour and a half a day. You have to play every day, basically.
Jeb: I have heard there is a new Robin Trower album coming?
Robin: I just finished a new CD and it will be out next year. It is all originals. I think there is a bit of everything on it. I think there is more blues stuff on it then on the classic stuff I have done. I am very, very pleased with it as it has come together really nicely.
Jeb: The trap of a musician is that some of your fans just want Bridge of Sighs over and over and over. Then when you make music in that style they say you have no new ideas.
Robin: I think it is very hard to do anything after Bridge of Sighs as that was a purple patch in terms of writing; the material was very strong. It was one of those fortunate things that people really liked it. At that time, that kind of music was played on the radio, so a lot more people go to hear it. At the same time, when you’re writing new material you want to touch on some things that are a little fresher for you.
Jeb: Bridge of Sighs is forty years old. Do you get nostalgic about it?
Robin: No, there are things on the album that I can’t even hear now because I don’t like the way I played then. I wouldn’t say all of it, but there are things on it that I just can’t hear because it is just not right. I am proud of it in terms of how it set my career up. You can’t knock it.
Jeb: How important was Geoff Emerick to that album?
Robin: I think he was a very big part of it as he created the sound of it. He recorded it in such a way that was really different and new. He experimented to get this big guitar sound. He gets a lot of credit.
Jeb: Geoff really used microphone placements…
Robin: He would walk around the room while we were sort of warming up and trying material and he would be placing these microphones around the room. I think he was the first to really do that; to place microphones around the guitar amps. It was a big part of why that record sounded like that. I saw him start to place them around the room and wondered what he was going for, but we are talking about the top engineer in Britain at the time, so I didn’t question it.
Jeb: Did you learn a lot from him?
Robin: I don’t think I ever tried to copy what Geoff did because that was a specific room that we were in. We were in a very big room that was really for a full orchestra. You could mic up the room as it were. I have not always worked in studios that size. In smaller rooms you have to adapt.
Jeb: “Lady Love” and “Little Bit of Sympathy” were done previous to the rest of Bridge of Signs.
Robin: That’s right. You really know your stuff! They were recorded at Olympic Studios already. I think we polished them up a bit when Geoff got a hold of them. I can’t remember if we did the vocals again or the lead stuff or not. That is part of why Bridge of Sighs was so quick to do. We had already played “Bridge of Sighs” and a couple of others on the road before we went into the studio. We really banged it out quickly. We were in the studio for only seventeen days. We were ready and we had a formula and a way of working that worked really well for us. We put down the live backing track and then I would overdub the guitar and Jimmy would put the voice on. If you’ve got it together then it is really a pretty simple process.
Jeb: I have to go back and ask what it is about Bridge of Sighs you don’t like. I like it all. Do you not like your guitar solos?
Robin: Yeah, I think it is the soloing more than anything.
Jeb: You’re being pretty tough on yourself, Robin.
Robin: Some of that soloing was live…I don’t know; the vibe is good but I can’t really listen to it now.
Jeb: Jimmy Dewar was amazing on Bridge. His vocals on “Day of the Eagle” and “Too Rolling Stoned” are amazing.
Robin: I have always said that I think it was his vocals that made the music radio friendly. I think that made Bridge of Sighs the big hit that it was. I think it was his vocals more than anything. People notice the vocals first when they hear something on the radio.
Jeb: He had the smoky Paul Rodgers-thing going on. He also had his own style.
Robin: He had a lot of musicality to what he did. He had a very musical sound to his voice. He was exceptional.
Jeb: Where did you find Jimmy?
Robin: I was working with Frankie Miller. I am not sure if you have ever heard of him. We formed a band and he brought in Jimmy on bass and background vocals and we had Clive Bunker on drums. It didn’t really work, but while we were working together I discovered what a great voice Jimmy had. When I decided to have a three-piece with bass and vocals then I had Jimmy right in front of me.
It was meant to be.
Jeb: Last one: I saw a photo of you in a remastered version of Bridge of Sighs, and you and your band appear to be playing on a boat in England. What do you remember about that photo? You are wearing an impressive fur coat.
Robin: Oh right, yeah, I think we were being filmed for a TV show. I think that might have been around the time of the first album. It was very early. We were filmed miming to a track on a boat going down the river Thames. We were not really even playing. I think that was an Afghan coat.
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