By Jeb Wright
Guitar icon Robin Trower has released a new album just as he turns 70 years of age. Trower defies both age and social contract, as old dudes are not supposed to play rock and roll guitar this damn good!
Trower is entering a new phase of his career with his creativity and guitar prowess in tact. He is writing and performing better than most musicians half his age—hell, a quarter of his age!
One reason he remains so damn relevant in his musical world is that he has not run out of ideas. In fact, he is coming up with them at such a pace that while this album is being released, he is finishing up recording the next one! Another reason Robin remains at the top of his game is his insatiable appetite to play guitar. His is a musical, philosophical and spiritual quest and he continues to give as much of himself, as humanly possible, to his muse.
The title of his new album may be Something’s About to Change, but in many ways, to this writer’s ears, much has remained the same. The music may have different shades of rock and blues, but the passion, dedication and commitment to excellence is still there.
Read on as Robin discusses the new album, as well as what it was like to be his own bass guitar player and vocalist. We also talk about how he comes up with his iconic guitar riffs, his love of the guitar and how he approaches the lyrics to his songs.
Jeb: Before we get going, I want to wish you a happy birthday! This is a big one.
Robin: Thank you very much. I am going to be 39… again. That’s the way I feel, so that’s why I am sticking with that.
Jeb: There are years that allow us to examine and look back. This is the big 7-0. Did that cause some reflection when you wrote these songs, as they are very personal?
Robin: There is quite a lot of stuff about me on this album, definitely. I can’t say that any one lyric is one hundred percent me, but there is a lot of me in these songs.
Jeb: You are more reserved when it comes to your personal life over the years. Was it interesting to you to reach deep inside? Take the title track, “Something’s About to Change,” for example.
Robin: I wanted to have lyrics that people might be able to relate to, so I talked about things that I think about and things that I have feelings about to try to make it as real and accessible as possible.
Jeb: Do lyrics mean more to you now at age 39 [Robin laughs] than they did when you were younger?
Robin: I have always written a lot of the lyrics to my songs, but this is the first album where I knew I would sing all of the songs myself. I wrote these songs for me to sing. In the past, I would write lyrics with the singer in mind and that actually made it not quite as much of a personal thing. I think that had an effect on the writing for this album. I felt I could dig a little deeper into my own psyche, as it were.
Jeb: Do you have the music first, and that inspires the lyrics?
Robin: That is how I have to do it.
Jeb: You have to transcribe the music into words!
Robin: My whole thing is that the words must, at the very least not detract from the music, and if they are good, then they will actually enhance it.
Jeb: This album has a lot of blues, but there are several moments, usually in the solos, where that classic Trower sound comes through.
Robin: I think I am drawing more on my blues and rhythm and blues influences. I wouldn’t call it blues, as I would still call it rock and roll. I am not only drawing on those influences in the songwriting but in the playing as well.
Jeb: You are very satisfied with the way this came out.
Robin: I worked quite hard on getting every part of it exactly, or as near to as what I wanted, as possible. It came out very near what I wanted before I even went into the studio. When that happens, it is very satisfying. The songs, the arrangements and everything went well. I had very much control over the whole thing.
Jeb: Livingstone Brown, who has been your bass player, as well as your producer in the past, is back to produce, but not play bass. You two have become very close, musically, over the years.
Robin: The thing is that I trust Livingstone and his judgment on things. It is good to have an objective outsider viewpoint. When you are the one writing, arranging and preforming then you need that view point.
Jeb: How do you react when he goes, “Robin, that’s good and all, but… ehh.”
Robin: I would definitely listen and try to see if I could change it to make it better. We get on great so there is no issue there.
On earlier albums he may have had to be my musical conscious more, but on this album I really was in control of it all. From the arrangements to the performances, I was in control. I was very happy the way it all came together. It was quite a lot of hard work as I was playing bass in addition to the guitar.
Jeb: Was this the first time you recorded on bass?
Robin: On the last album, Roots and Branches, I played bass on the song “The Thrill is Gone.” I really enjoyed it and I liked the way it turned out. I decided to play bass on this album because of that.
Jeb: Sometimes playing another instrument instead of your main instrument can be inspiring and help the creative process.
Robin: I think that is right. Definitely. The whole project from going into the studio and writing to recording is really all about having fun. I really am having fun doing what I am doing.
Jeb: Did you ever think you would put out an album at age 70 that was as strong as what you put out in the 1970s?
Robin: Let me put it this way: your next album is always going to be your best album. You are never satisfied and you always hope that up ahead is going to be great. That attitude is what keeps you moving forward and keeps the engine going full steam ahead.
Jeb: Music is about the craft or creation of music over age.
Robin: I count myself very lucky that I am able to keep coming up with fresh stuff. I count my blessings every day.
Jeb: Are you set in your sounds? If you want to rock, do you have the same set-up, or do you still try to dial in new sounds? Same with the blues... Do you have a blues sound you fall back on in terms of your amp and pedal set up?
Robin: I do fiddle about with the sound. I am always working on improving it. In your own mind you probably had it better several years ago! That is the constant quest for improvement that you keep changing.
I used the set up on this album that I have never used before. I do hear different guitar parts having to have a different sound, so I do sort of mess around using different pedals. I am always buying new stuff, amps anyway. I am always trying new Marshall Amps.
I am in the middle of recording a new album at the moment and I just switched the Marshall Head I was using. On this album I was using two different sorts of amps that I have gone away from now. All of the pedals that I use are pretty much the same ones I always use. Fulltone makes them.... Mike Fuller makes them out in California.
Jeb: This album is just coming out and you’re already making another one?
Robin: [laughter] Yes, it is true. Thursday I finished the seventh track off the new album. Something’s About to Change I finished quite a while ago, but it took a while to come out. I finished it in the summer of last year. I, then, did the tour of the USA.
Touring, particularly in America, always reenergizes me, as I get that energy from playing in front of an audience. The songs came quickly, and because I am having so much fun, I wanted to get into the studio and get these down right away.
Jeb: The new album has some blues on it but i would not say it is a blues album though, as there is some classic Trower soloing on this thing.
Robin: My theory is that if you are going to play real blues then you have to have African blood running through your veins. I think what I call my rock and roll has a lot of blues influence in it.
Jeb: You will tour Europe first and then I have heard you are coming over to the USA…
Robin: As far as I know, we are coming in June and July of this year. I am really looking forward to it.
Jeb: America loves the past music that artists like Robin Trower make, but we are not very supportive of new music by a classic rock artist, beyond the hardcore fan base. Does it get frustrating that you can’t get your newer music heard?
Robin: No, I think I gave up on that a long time ago, back when the business changed so much and you could no longer get on the radio. The thing is that I’ve got to do what I do, I’ve got no choice. It is very satisfactory to me if I can sell enough CDs to pay for the next one and that is all I need, really.
Jeb: Playing guitar is to you like eating and walking is to other people.
Robin: I think that is right. It is as big a part of me, as an outside thing can be. I count myself very fortunate to still enjoy it as much, if not more so, than I ever did. I love to play guitar and that is the engine that drives the whole thing.
Jeb: Do you ever wonder why?
Robin: When I hit a certain phrase, or even just a certain note, and I get such an emotional response from within that it becomes a real sensation and a joyful experience... it is a bit like being addicted to it, I suppose. Like any good art, it can be the better part of us, if you know what I mean.
Jeb: How many new songs can you fit into a live set?
Robin: I only choose songs that work great live. Anything I put in the set has to work great, bearing in mind that we are a three piece. Some tracks have a keyboard part, or they may have a second guitar and they are hard to make sound right as a three-piece. I will probably put three, maybe four, songs off the new record into the set.
Jeb: I see no reason not to open a show with the song “Something’s About to Change.”
Robin: Thank you very much. That is definitely one I am going to put it in. Well, I have not rehearsed it yet, but I am going to try it and it if works, which I think it will, it will make the set.
Jeb: Do you feel more akin to your new music because it is new, or do the classics mean more?
Robin: If you ask me to look back to the earlier stuff, then I will admit there are always going to be tracks on each album that I love and there are a lot of tracks that I am not so mad about.
Apart from the album In City Dreams, there are only two or three tracks that I love on each album. On In City Dreams, I am pretty pleased with every track on there. Most other albums I am only proud of two or three and the rest are okay. The new album, I must say, I am pretty happy with all of the tracks. I think in terms of the way things turned out, I am very pleased with the new album.
Jeb: You created the album art for the new album. Funky Paul made some classics for you back in the day. Did you learn how to do this from him? How did you approach the cover art?
Robin: This is the third cover I have done, maybe the fourth. I did the last three and there was one I did a few years ago as well. While you’re recording, you get an idea of what the title can be. Sometimes you get an idea from a title of song and sometimes you come up with an idea that, visually, can be quite strong, which is how this one happened. I just came up with an idea and I worked on it a few days until it looked right.
Jeb: Is it difficult for you to talk about riffs that you create?
Robin: It is not difficult, but I just can’t always explain where these ideas come from. Quite often I am just playing guitar for my own amusement and I just stumble across things. That’s how it happens.
Jeb: So you are hanging out watching TV and out pops “Bridge of Sighs.”
Robin: [laughter] Well, I don’t know about watching TV, but certainly I do feel like I just stumble across things as I am playing. If I come across a strong idea, then I record it right away. I won’t pursue an idea unless I feel like I really want to play lead guitar on it.
Being the lead guitarist is my number one job and it is what I want to do more than anything. I am interested in writing really cool material, but I will drop an idea if I feel that I won’t love playing lead guitar over it.
The songs are always there on the recorder. It is like a notepad where you just jot it down so you can always come back to it. I have to feel like I am really going to love playing on this track or I will let it go.
Jeb: Give us a hint about the new album you said you’re working on now… Is it heavily blues influenced as well?
Robin: All of those influences are all there, but this one will be more of a rock and roll album. With Something’s About to Change I felt I had gone as far as I can with writing that kind of stuff. I felt I needed to move into a different phase, if you like.
Jeb: Last one: anything else you want to talk about from the new album?
Robin: No, but I think you’ve done a sterling job!
Jeb: Thanks Robin, that means a lot. So I am going to ask you about a lick you came up with... You mentioned In City Dreams. The song “Somebody’s Calling” is one of my all-time favorite Trower tracks. Is that one you just stumbled upon?
Robin: Yeah, I think it was! That grew out of that guitar riff, the one that I came up with in the song. The whole thing just grew out of that one!
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