By Jeb Wright, February, 2013
Robin Trower is one of the most talented guitarists in the world today. He is a master craftsman as well a talented songwriter. He is able to combine both the technical aspect of guitar soling with songwriting that captures the imagination of the listener.
While best know for his classic tunes “Too Rolling Stoned,” “Bridge of Sighs” and “Day of the Eagle,” Trower is a multifaceted artist with a deep appreciation for the music that first influenced him, the Blues.
On his latest album, Roots to Branches, Trower has taken a two-step approach, recording his own takes on classic Blues tunes that influenced him as a young guitarist, along with new material that reflects his love of the genre.
In the interview that follows, Robin discusses how the ground rules he lived by to record the classic tracks, his hopes for an upcoming USA tour and why he still loves playing his classic songs from the past.
Jeb: When I heard you were putting out Roots and Branches I thought it was going to be all covers, but you have some of your own songs on there.
Robin: I started off with the idea of doing all songs from the past that I really loved when I was younger. I had about fifteen songs that I was working on. I was determined to come up with my own arrangements.
I was only able to come up with six or seven arrangements that I was happy with and that were strong enough to be saying something a little bit fresh. I struggled after that. I decided that I would put some of my own material on there. I stuck to the same formula with these songs that I stuck with on the old tracks.
Jeb: Were all of your original songs written specifically for this album?
Robin: About four of them were. I had a concept that I was trying to do with things like “Hound Dog.” I had an idea of what I wanted to try and achieve with it. When I arranged my own songs, I used the same concept. I think it helped it all blend together.
Jeb: Was this a labor of love? Did it take you back to the old days?
Robin: It was certainly was a labor of love. I’m not sure it took me back. I tried to do the songs from memory when I started off. I didn’t listen to any of the original versions, as I had the songs already in my head. When I was trying to work out what the guitar should be doing in these songs, I wasn’t too plugged into the originals. For instance, “Hound Dog” I got it into my mind to do the version by Big Mama Thornton. I was looking for something fresh to bring to the guitar for that type of version of “Hound Dog.”
Jeb: You got a great vintage guitar sound on that song, but it still has that Robin Trower stamp on it.
Robin: That is what I hoped to achieve. I took the skeleton of the songs like “Hound Dog” and then I put my own music to it.
Jeb: You know these songs so well it could not have been super challenging for you.
Robin: Actually, I probably had to work harder. To bring something fresh to something that has been around that long, and been covered so many times, really made me work harder than I would have to work on my own stuff. I made it a rule, before I started, that if I could not come up with something that was my own, then I would not do the song.
Jeb: “Born Under a Bad Sign” you really made yours. Yet, you still pay homage to The King.
Robin: Albert King, along with Jimi Hendrix and BB King, made me think differently about playing the guitar. Albert King’s version of “Born Under a Bad Sign” is just amazing and it is a classic riff. It is not just Albert, it is the entire band. I had to come up with my own riff, a new riff, to put behind that song. I had to do that in order to be happy with it. I didn’t listen to Albert King’s version of it because I had the rough idea in my head. Once I got the arrangement, then I had to listen to it to get the lyrics.
Jeb: You have become very comfortable singing over the last several years. However, you are taking on B.B. King on “The Thrill is Gone.” That is a soulful vocal, was it daunting to think you were going to tackle “The Thrill is Gone”?
Robin: Absolutely, you can’t match the great versions of these songs. Hopefully, you can bring a little bit of your own to it. I tried to make “The Thrill is Gone” a little more dreamy and I spread it out for the soloing. I really stretched it out.
Jeb: Talk about “Sheltered Moon.”
Robin: That is one of the songs that I already had and it was already recorded before I started doing the covers. I felt it fit right in because it had a really soulful and bluesy feel to it.
The other song that was recorded was “See My Life.” Those two fit in with the overall idea. They were for a batch of songs that I had recorded a few months earlier. The other songs from that batch would not fit in with this new album.
Jeb: “I Believe to My Soul” is a great tune. I had not heard that song in ages.
Robin: I had not heard the original version of that song in many, many years, decades even. It is a song that has always stayed with me, as a musical thing. The changes in that minor key are wonderful. I tried to make it quite dreamy as well. Richard Watts does a beautiful vocal on it. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, but I ended up being very happy with it.
Jeb: You would have to have been very objective to make sure you succeeded in what you set out to do.
Robin: That’s right. I was doing two or three days in the studio and then, I was coming away from it and not listening to it for a couple of weeks. I would then listen to it and decide if I wanted to try it again, or redo the guitar and the vocals. I went through that with quite a few of the songs until I was happy with it.
Jeb: One that sounds very natural for you is “Little Red Rooster.”
Robin: That is actually one of my favorites on there. It is such a great song. I loved playing that. That is the original guitar I recorded, I didn’t change that. I think it was the first thing that I put down for the album. I put the guitar down to a click track with a bass part. Later on, I added the bass and drums proper and the organ came in. I am pretty sure the guitar and the vocal were the first things I put down.
Jeb: It is a little more traditional.
Robin: I came up with my own riff for it, which was the key. That is really it. I stretch out on the guitar on that one. Recording the track, for this album, was the first time I had ever played that song. I am sure everyone has played it, but I had never played it before I started to make the album. I am very pleased with it. There are always things you hear on an album a few months later and you go, “I don’t know about that.” Overall, I am pretty happy with it.
Jeb: “Save Your Love” is another strong track.
Robin: That is a song that I had that I had not recorded before I started this project. That song was in the right alley with the concept of the album. It is just a straight slow blues.
Jeb: You really nailed “That’s Alright Mama.”
Robin: I am glad that you like that one. That was quite hard to come up with a new arrangement for that song. I was thinking of the original by Arthur Crupdup. I managed to get somewhere between his and the Elvis version, I thought.
Jeb: You have never been a guy to do a lot of remakes. You have mainly been an original artist. Was it fun to do something different?
Robin: One of the first things I thought of when I first thought of doing old songs was that it would be a lot of fun to do. Particularly, from a guitar point of view, those three and four chord changes are wonderful to solo too.
Jeb: Tell me how the recording of the solos went.
Robin: The Howlin’ Wolf song, “Little Red Rooster” was a one take on the solo. “The Thrill is Gone,” the lead was the second time I came at it. I had done a version of it once and lived with it for a bit and wasn’t happy. I went back in the studio and did it again. I am pretty sure all of the lead work on the track is a one take version when I went back in.
Jeb: When do you know that you’ve nailed a solo? Is it when you listen back to it?
Robin: As you are playing it you realize if it is happening, then you have to live with it. You have to come back and hear it in the cold light of day. If you’re still happy with it then, then you know it is pretty happening.
Jeb: Do you still struggle with solos at times?
Robin: Oh yeah, sometimes I will wait a couple of weeks and listen back to something and not be happy with it. When that happens, I will sit at home and start sort of playing different ideas and working out different phasing, or a different set of notes to find a new way of putting it together. I had to come up with something a bit more inventive on “The Thrill is Gone” in order to hit the nail on the head.
Jeb: You play the best solo on this album on “Born Under a Bad Sign.”
Jeb: I can’t help but crank that up every time it comes on because of the solo.
Robin: I am glad you like it.
Jeb: Do you ever listen back to your songs and have favorite moments where you go, “Damn that was good.”
Robin: [laughter] I have to be honest, I don’t really listen to my earlier stuff at all. I am always trying to move forward, so once an album is finished; I tend not to listen to it. At the moment, my musical mind is tied up working on a whole load of new material. Most of the time my head is completely into what I am doing for the future.
Jeb: A lot of your peers, at this stage in their career, do not have an easy time creating new music that is as good as their past. You do not seem to have that problem. Music still pours out of you. How do you explain how you are able to keep doing this at such a proficient level?
Robin: Its sounds a bit pretentious, but I think it is actually a gift. Hard work comes into it, but it is a gift and I am thankful for it every day. I am able to just keep coming up with ideas.
Jeb: Are you putting these songs into your live set?
Robin: I did some touring in Europe last year and I put three of the songs off this album into the set. I played “That’s Alright Mama,” “See My Life” and “Little Red Rooster.”
Jeb: What were some of the songs that you struggled with and did not include?
Robin: I tried to get something for “Maybellene” which is one of my favorite Chuck Berry songs. It is on the back burner, but I didn’t think it quite fit with the other things that I had come up with. There is a James Brown song that I always loved called “I Go Crazy” which I was going to have a go at, but I couldn’t quite pull it off. We may see them yet, if I can come up with the right arrangements for them.
I would have liked to have had 15 songs on the album, but I couldn’t come up with enough of my own ideas on the others. I may still continue to work on some of them.
Jeb: Would you like to do another album like this?
Robin: I feel the concept of Roots and Branches has really fed into the new material that I’m writing at the moment. Even though I think the next one will be all new material, it will be very much in that vein.
Jeb: Is part of that because you are comfortable, vocally, with this type of material?
Robin: That is definitely part of it; I think you’ve caught me right there. I am very comfortable singing this type of music. I feel very much at home with it.
Jeb: Do you still enjoy playing the older material live?
Robin: The classics?
Jeb: Stuff like “Too Rolling Stoned” and “Day of the Eagle.”
Robin: I do still enjoy all of that stuff. It is very potent music and it carries you. The songs, themselves, are so potent that I love playing them. Particularly, I love playing “Bridge of Sighs.”
Jeb: The opening riff to “Bridge of Sighs” really did a lot for you, Robin.
Robin: [chuckles] I know, but you don’t come up with one of those every day.
Jeb: Is your hope to bring this music to the States?
Robin: I am thinking about coming to the States towards the end of the year, although nothing is concrete yet. Hopefully, it won’t be much longer than that before I can get over.
Jeb: That is cool tree on the cover; very modern art.
Robin: Thank you very much. That is my collage.
Jeb: Last one: Tell me about the title of the new album, Roots and Branches.
Robin: Once I started putting my own songs in there, I felt that, in a way, I could show what my roots were with those early songs like “Hound Dog” and “Little Red Rooster” and show what that has grown into. It just seemed to emphasize that title. I had the roots there and I had the branches that they became.
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