By Jeb Wright
Where You Are Going To is the latest release by guitar virtuoso Robin Trower. The album mixes Robin’s love of blues with his classic rock grooves from his most popular era. This is a welcome return to the classic sound his fans have been waiting for. Trower plays guitar (duh) but also handles lead vocals throughout, as he has done on his last few albums. Joining the iconic guitarist are Chris Taggart on drums, with Livingstone Brown playing bass, co-production and mixing/mastering. Robin even generated the album cover concept which was turned into cover art by graphic artist Eric Krause. There will be a limited run of vinyl LPs available, too.
In the interview that follows, Trower opens up about the song details on the new album, how he composes his tunes, and what music means to him. We also talk about why he left Procol Harum way back when, and discuss few of his most popular tunes of all-time.
Jeb: Now, you’ve been doing this a long, long time. At this stage of the game, when you go into the studio—do you have a game plan or do you just pay attention to the ideas and go with the flow?
Robin: First of all, the music starts to come and that is a natural thing. The songs and the music that I’m writing comes naturally. Once you are three or four songs deep into the next album, in terms of your writing, I think you take hold of an idea of what you could do as an overall picture.
Jeb: You think in terms of albums?
Robin: Yeah, I do. I think it is good that you can tie all of the songs up in terms of an overview. I think that makes for a much more satisfying overall feeling about the music that you’re listening too. When you listen to an entire CD it is nice if you can tie them all together.
Jeb: The opening song, “When Will the Next Blow Fall” has such a cool guitar groove. You are singing on the album, but then there is that damn lead guitar sound that is so ‘you’. You nailed it.
Robin: Thank you very much, I really appreciate that. I think I am very fortunate that the creativity hasn’t dried up. I’m still churning out lots of songs. I’m sort of six or seven deep into the next album already. I try and do a little bit every day. If I’ve got anything coming up, which I usually do, I usually have the studio or a tour, then I like to play every day. That is how I stumble across ideas.
Jeb: Talk about “Where You Are Going To?”
Robin: That is a song about when I first started out. It’s about when I first came out to America in the ‘70s with Jimmy [Dewar] and Reggie [Isidore] and became quite successful. I suppose it is looking back, but it applies to anybody who was suddenly successful today in music. No one asks where you came from or where you’re going to. Just because you’re successful you just sort of float by.
Jeb: Are these all brand new songs?
Jeb: Do you carry a recorder around and tape ideas, or do you just go into the studio fresh?
Robin: There is one song where I had the idea for when I was on an American tour, it was the tour before last. I had the idea while I was on the road in my hotel room so I put it on my iPhone. That doesn’t happen very often. Mostly I work at home and I put stuff down on a recorder. I’m coming up with ideas all of the time. I just have to choose which one I am going to put a lyric to and then I am stuck into it.
Jeb: Did you turn 71 years old yet?
Robin: I did.
Jeb: It is hard to envision a 71 year old guy ripping a guitar solo the way you do.
Robin: I still have quite a bit of fire in the old boiler. I mean, I think I am playing as well as I ever have. I feel as turned on, personally, playing the guitar. It is still magical to me to play the guitar.
Jeb: Is your signature sound made by your effects pedals, the secret gauge of strings, the amp tubes and tones, or your fingers?
Robin: There is a certain amount to the fingering and picking of the note as that is what makes the sound first. You treat it afterwards. I go into a pedal and into a Marshall amp. The way the guitar is set up… I use very heavy strings. That has a lot to do with it as well. The fingers on the neck and the way you hit the strings is important. I also play very loud. Well, I don’t play as loud at home as that is not the place for it. In the studio I play very loud. That is the only way I can get that kind of tone.
Jeb: You use volume as a tool.
Robin: Yeah, that’s right. You can’t replicate the effect you get by cranking a loud amp, by cranking a Marshall 100 watt amp… that is the only way you can get that sound.
Jeb: When you play at loud volume it can be hard to control feedback and even touching the guitar can make nasty noises…
Robin: Control…. you’ve got to be able to control it, obviously. I’ve always played that way, so it is just natural to me. It is not something that I even need to think about. I think right from Procol Harum I was always driving the guitar through something else to make it very loud. That’s always been my thing. Before they even had overdrive pedals, I used to play through a small practice amp and then put that into a Marshall 100 watt amp to overdrive it. I was always trying to imitate that early Howlin’ Wolf guitar sound. He had a really driven amp and a big fat sound. That is what was always in my mind.
Jeb: Today’s studios have too much available, in my opinion... The creative process needs to be able to allow people to experiment organically and discover sounds… not just push a button.
Robin: I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. What you’re seeing now is how it has become something different. That is not to say you can’t still make great music with all of these preset sounds. But… the fundamental of my sound is the guitar and the way it is set up into an amp that is turned way up. It is just a different way… I may have an old fashioned way of doing it, but that is my way of going about it. What they do today is something completely different, but it doesn’t make it any less valid.
Jeb: The 1970s had a lot of different styles of popular music. I’ve never thought of Robin Trower as a rock star, more of a guitar guru…
Robin: No, I’ve always thought of myself as being a musician. That is job number one… to make the best music I can make. Without a bit of fame you don’t fill out the rooms and you don’t sell CDs, so you need it. Rock star? That’s not me.
Jeb: Do you have an unearthly respect for music?
Robin: I think I do. I love all good music and it doesn’t matter what genre, if it is good… particularly voices that are great instruments. If it has that voice, then I don’t care what genre it is. James Brown is my all-time favorite artist. Not only is his voice an unbelievable instrument, he just is the most soulful guy. His singing is so soulful. When you put that against that incredible feel it is quite a combination. I saw an interview the other day with Mick Jagger and he was saying that when James Brown Live at the Apollo came out, every musician in England had a copy of it. That’s how important he was.
Jeb: You have had a big Jimi Hendrix comparison. Is that okay with you?
Robin: He was a big influence on me. He is a big influence guitar-wise for me. He is probably the biggest. I’ve always admitted to that. When people then don’t go on to recognize what I’ve actually created myself, I am disappointed. If they say I am just a Jimi Hendrix rip-off then I find that uncomfortable. I think he opened some doors for me and I rushed through them, to be honest.
Jeb: Jimi was out before you were in Procol Harum. Do you remember hearing his music for the first time?
Robin: I remember hearing “Hey Joe” on the radio and really loving it. I think it is still my favorite Jimi Hendrix track.
Jeb: I wasn’t around for Procol Harum as I was just being born. I’ve studied your career. How did you know it was time to leave that band?
Robin: The thing is that I was starting to write more music. I was starting to come up with a lot more song ideas and there just wasn’t room in Procol Harum for me to become one of the principal writers. Gary Brooker was the main writer and it was a keyboard band. If I was going to do all of this guitar music I was coming up with, I had to leave.
Jeb: Back in those days it was hard to make a buck as a musician.
Robin: We were ripped off royally. I don’t think I made any money from Procol Harum.
Jeb: That must have made your choice easier.
Robin: It was comfortable in that band, but I was driven by creative ambition, really. When I left I just told them I had to go on and do something else. It was a good breakup.
Jeb: Did you have the classic Trower sound ready to go?
Robin: No, I don’t think so. I formed a band with a singer called Frankie Miller who I really loved his voice. That didn’t really work. Through Frankie I found James Dewar, who was in that band. That helped me form my sound. That band was called Jude. We never recorded together. We never got it together enough to go into the studio. It kind of fell apart of its own volition, as it were. From there, as I say, I was lucky enough to discover Jimmy who was an incredible singer.
Jeb: Imagine him not doing the singing in a band. That’s hard to do.
Robin: He was doing bass and background vocals behind Frankie. Frankie was a great singer. When I heard Jimmy’s voice I just loved it. I could hear that he would be great singing the stuff I wanted to do.
Jeb: He could stand next to Paul Rodgers in his vocals.
Robin: Don’t get me wrong, I love Paul Rodgers but Jimmy was really, really special.
Jeb: When you left the previous band and started having success on your own it was much bigger than you had before… You were pushing 30 by the time you hit big.
Robin: I was 29 or 30 by that time.
Jeb: For a rocker that might be considered old. That maturity may have helped you from going off the deep end.
Robin: Being in Procol Harum was a great schooling. They had already had hit records and toured America and Europe. I learned about recording and touring from them. It was really great schooling and I learned from it.
Jeb: Did it teach you any business sense?
Robin: No, I’ve never been interested in that to my great loss here and there. That has never been the important thing to me.
Jeb: Sometimes in America we have a short memory. Many people I talk to don’t remember or realize who you are, even today. You had some huge years in America. Look at the photo on the live album. You were selling out everywhere.
Robin: We had great success and we sold a lot of records. We did great. Things changed. Things started to get less free in what they could play on the radio. It got more poppy and more sort of Bee Gees and disco. If we had a star, it started to fade and that’s all there was to it. Plus, I was doing stuff that was more off the wall. I am thinking about In City Dreams which was a space age rhythm and blues album. There wasn’t an audience for that.
Jeb: I think that is a strong album.
Robin: I’m very proud of that album but you can see what I mean by saying that it didn’t fit what people were expecting from me and it didn’t fit the times. My producer Don Davis later on, God rest his soul, told me that he thought In City Dreams was more in tune with the ‘90s than it was back when it came out.
Jeb: I love “Somebody’s Calling” and “Falling Star.”
Robin: “Somebody’s Calling” we do live all the time. I love to play that one. I am very proud of that album. The thing is you can’t have your cake and eat it. You can’t go and just do exactly what you want, musically, and then cry if it isn’t a hit. If you want to have hits then you’ve got to do all of the bits and pieces that fit what makes a hit. You can’t just go down your own road and assume it is going to be a hit.
Jeb: With the new album I think it is kind of neat that you revisited the blues and now you’ve returned to a more rock sound.
Robin: People like Howlin’ Wolf fade into a lot of what I’ve done. Howlin’ Wolf has something magical and deep about his stuff. I think over that period where I went more blues it all started to come through. I was coming up with these ideas and I was grooving on it and I wanted to play lead guitar on it… so I did! Again, I can only do the songs that I come up with. It all goes in cycles anyway. You sort of discover a new slant on an old thing.
Jeb: Did you come up with the idea for the cover art?
Robin: Yeah, I did. It is the same thing as with a song, you’ve got to have an idea. Once you’ve got the idea then you just work on it until you’re happy with it. The idea is the thing. The inspiration was that I would have doors going away into the distance. I had to try and make that something that looked like a piece of artwork.
Jeb: It is the modern day and going back to the beginning.
Robin: I’ve always felt my very rock stuff had a blues influence in it. As I say, the Howlin’ Wolf stuff and the James Brown stuff with the funky grooves all fed into it. All of the music I love is feeding into what I come up with all of the time.
Jeb: Will the next album have the rock feel like this one has, or are you going somewhere new?
Robin: It is hard to say. I am very pleased with the new stuff and there are some quite fresh ideas on it, for me anyway. I think it is going to be pretty rocking with some bluesy and some rhythm and blues vibes. That is what I am hoping. I think it is another guitar album.
Jeb: As an artist that has some specific songs anchored in his set for a long time, are there any you wish you didn’t have to play every night?
Robin: I wouldn’t put them in if I didn’t enjoy playing them. There may be songs that people want to hear that I don’t want to play, but if it is in the set then I enjoy doing it. That early stuff has a real sort of power to it. It plays you rather than you playing it.
Jeb: Let’s talk some classic Trower. “Too Rolling Stoned.”
Robin: That’s a very James Brown influenced song. The turnaround part I lifted from a James Brown track called “Down and Out in New York City.” I know it doesn’t sound like James Brown. The lyric is all about my time with Procol Harum. If you were not told that then you wouldn’t be able to guess that.
Jeb: “Lady Love.”
Robin: That’s an oddball song to me because it is more of a pop song. I love the guitar riff on that and Jimmy did a great job. I co-wrote that with Jimmy and he made it into a really good song.
Jeb: “Bridge of Sighs.”
Robin: That is an interesting song, that one. I came up with the guitar part and then I came up with the verse lyric, but it took about six months to come up with the turnaround. That was a long time writing to be able to finish that one. There are all sorts of things in that song. There is a lot of stuff feeding into “Bridge of Sighs” even though it is done as a power-trio thing there are a lot of blues influences there. I think I was already working on other stuff at the same time I was working on that song. I eventually finished it off and we started to play it live before I had even finished the lyric on it. It was a great thing to play live right from the beginning.
Robin: “Hannah” is mine and Jimmy’s. There is a big part of Jimmy on that. The vocal on that is fantastic. He didn’t seem to have any problem singing that one live. In the studio we used to put the backing track down first and then he would do the vocals separately. There is no way he could do the bass and the vocals in the studio to get that kind of performance.
Jeb: Did you like playing the smoky clubs or the stadiums?
Robin: I do like clubs because the atmosphere is great and you get a great sound, but the ideal place is a theater. The thing is in a bigger room you can get a sound, especially on the slow stuff like “Bridge of Sighs” and “Daydream” you can get it rolling down the room. It is more open and it gives you a freedom because the sound is sort of going around the room. It is harder to connect in the outdoor shows. That is something else. You can’t get that same thing outdoors for the slow moody stuff, especially in the daylight.
Jeb: Are you happy with your legacy?
Robin: I think there is a lot of stuff that I really, really am very proud of. There is also stuff that I don’t like at all. I think probably everybody has got something in that kind of balance.
Jeb: Would you consider doing an instrumental guitar album?
Robin: I have done the odd instrumental. I don’t find it as satisfying because the lyrics add so much to the atmosphere to a piece of music. It adds dimensions to it that you can’t achieve with just instrumentals. I think there is enough guitar playing on the new album, though.
Jeb: The new album is on my iPhone, and it is in my CD player in the car, and I have a second copy in my house...
Robin: Brilliant. That’s great.
Jeb: You have never done acoustic songs. Are you anti-acoustic?
Robin: I don’t play acoustic. I have some. I have written the odd thing on acoustic, but these last few years it has been in a cupboard and I haven’t got it out for years and years. I’m all electric guitar, and I’m all about that.
Jeb: Last one: What was your inspiration to pick the guitar up in the first place?
Robin: I think I loved Scotty Moore who played behind Elvis. I think that is the first time I was really aware of electric guitar. I asked my dad to buy me one and he bought me one for Christmas. I was 14 when I had my first guitar. It was an acoustic but it wasn’t long before I got a pickup for it. I remember with my first guitar I plugged it into the back of the radio. I don’t know how I did that and I probably shouldn’t have done that. I probably could have electrocuted myself. That was the first time I ever played through something.
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