Robin Trower Rocks The Q&A

Calling from his home in England, the guitarist extraordinaire talked with Pollstar about his latest album, his upcoming tour of North America and how he’s essentially a homebody.

Emerging in the early 1970s when contemporaries like The Who and Led Zeppelin were trashing hotel rooms and scaring town elders, Trower often kept to the straight and narrow during his days with Procol Harum as well as in a solo career that included the 1974 release of the epic Bridge Of Sighs.

Four decades later Trower still prefers a quiet evening to the nightlife. But the guitar slinger still loves to rock, as evidenced on his latest album, Roots And Branches,  featuring his take on classic R&B tunes.

On Roots And Branches you dig into your love for R&B by covering several classic songs from the genre.  How did you narrow down the selections to only 11 tracks?

I had a list of covers I wanted to do. … I could only come up with, what I would call new arrangements – my own way doing those songs – for the ones I got onto the album.  It was very hard to get away from the originals far enough to make it worthwhile doing.

Did the better known songs represent a bigger challenge if only because the most famous recordings of “Hound Dog” or “The Thrill Is Gone” are already embedded in people’s minds?

None of them were easy to come up with.  I was determined to do “Hound Dog.”  I purposely did not re-listen to any originals.  I hadn’t heard them for many years. So I was working with what I kind of remembered about them.  “Hound Dog,” I think, was more influenced by Big Mama Thornton, which was more in my head than Elvis’ version.

Did learning to play the guitar come easy for you?

Yes. … I think from first picking it up, I just seemed to know how to do it.  It’s always been a very friendly thing between me and the instrument.

How old were you when you started playing?

I was 14.  My dad bought me a guitar for Christmas.  My brother was older than me and he was bringing in rock ’n’ roll records – Gene Vincent and stuff.  I wanted to play the guitar.

Were any of the songs on the album ones that you cut your teeth on when you started learning to play, such as “Little Red Rooster?”

No.  And I don’t know why I felt I wanted to do that.  It’s weird but it came into my head that it would be great to have a go at it.

You’ve seen the music business from all different viewpoints.  Is the business of Robin Trower more compact than 40 years ago when you released Bridge Of Sighs?  Does it take less people to run your business than four decades ago?

Yes, that’s true.  I’ve got it down to a family of people that I get on with well.  In the ’70s it was a bigger concern to go out on the road and fill big places. You had to have a great big crew.  It didn’t seem a lot at the time, but when you’re in your 20s … you have a completely different viewpoint. Now I’m very, very comfortable with [the size of the business].  I make the records I want to make, nice tours that are not too hard, and get to play some guitar.  That makes me happy.

Do you feel more in charge of your career than 40 years ago?

I think I possibly do.  In the ’70s, that’s how things were.  You played big hockey arenas.  I had already been around supporting other acts in those venues. … I don’t think I felt less happy about it.  Eventually after playing those huge places, I started realizing I wasn’t enjoying playing because the sound in those places used to be so awful.  You’d be playing on a scaffolding with boards for a stage. You couldn’t get any resonance, any sort of musicality in the sound at all.  Eventually I said, “I’m fed up with this.  I’m not going to do it anymore.”  I kind of quit for four years because I wasn’t enjoying it.

What kind of venue works best for a Robin Trower show today?

I like to be [in a venue] around 400 to 600 seats, something like that.  Where you can see everybody in the room … and the sound is usually much, much better.  I can go up to about 1,500, maybe, in a decent-sounding room.

Can you still walk on stage and forget about everything else going on in your life and just enjoy playing?

Yes.  That’s the moment in the day, isn’t it? It’s what it’s all leading up to.  I think what’s great about these sort of shows, particularly, is you’re playing for a fresh audience every night.  There’s fresh energy for you every night.  That’s what makes it really enjoyable.

Other than hearing a healthy dose of Roots And Branches, what else can fans expect on your fall tour?

I always play the most popular tracks from Bridge Of Sighs, Some from For Earth Below and In City Dreams … and the rest of it, probably six or seven songs, from the last three albums.

We’ve reached the 40th anniversary of the release of Bridge Of Sighs. How are commemorate the album?

I know some people come out and do a whole album.  I’m not interested in doing that.  I like to play the songs I like to play.  I think I choose the best ones for a live performance from the albums.  You’re always stripped down a little bit with a three-piece – guitar, bass and drums. Some of the tracks [on Bridge Of Sighs] had two, three guitars on them to make them work.

When by yourself, can you still pick up the guitar and play just for the joy of making music?

I play every day. … I’m working on new material most of the time, working on song ideas.

Do you ever play a song you might have heard on the radio or in a movie soundtrack, something you can’t get out of your mind?

No.  I’m hopeless at playing other people’s stuff.

So did recording Roots And Branches represent a difficult challenge for you?

I came up with new guitar parts, which semi-makes that song my own.  I created some music for what is basically the top line.  I was only going for the top line.  That makes it a lot easier.  Things like “The Thrill Is Gone,” I hadn’t heard a version of that for 10, 20 years.  But it’s in my head. … same as with “Little Red Rooster.”  It was important that I came up with my own music.

I’m still challenging myself to improve as a player.  I’m always working on that.  That’s part of the process of coming up with new material – pushing yourself as a player.

What about singing?

This new album that I just finished, that’s coming out next year, I really worked hard on the vocals because I knew I could do better.  I did a lot of practicing.

But even though you sang professionally in other bands, you had vocalists in your band during the first years of your solo career.

I was lucky enough to have such great singers that I didn’t have to try.  I got to the point that the songs I was writing, I could only hear myself doing them.  Because they became more and more personal and detailed in a way that is hard to communicate to another singer.

What can you tell us about the album coming out next year?

It’s all originals.  But it’s definitely what I would call a follow up from Roots And Branches. I learned a lot about what I could do, what I could create, and what I could play.  I think that’s all fed into this album coming out.

Is your personal universe a musician’s community?

Not at All.  The drummer I’m working with, Chris Taggart, who plays on Roots And Branches, and the new album, he was recommended to me by my producer, Livingston Brown.  I didn’t know him before that.  I know very few musicians. I don’t move in that world at all. I’m out in the country. I’m lucky enough to have a studio that’s half an hour away where I can go in, without having to go into London, to record [and] invite the guys I get along with and like the way they play, to come in.

[With] Roots And Branches and the next album, I go into London to record because the studio I work in doesn’t have a [Hammond] B3.  Apart from that, it’s a very low-key musician’s life.

But back in the ’70s when rock stars were carousing in London bars every night – were you a part of that scene?

No. When I joined Procol Harum, I was engaged to be married, I got married soon after [and] we had a young family after that. … I think I’m a bit of a homebody.  I like to watch football on television.

Would you say you’re somewhat introverted?

I’d say I’m not outgoing.  I feel like my music is outgoing.

Many of your contemporaries from the first 10 years you were performing are no longer with us. Do you see yourself as a survivor of those times?

I’ve started to think of myself as that.  To be 69 and still rockin’ – I feel proud about that.  It think it’s because I haven’t burned out.  I’m still creative, still trying to push ahead, trying to get better. That’s the excitement that keeps me going.

Having done press and interviews for more than four decades – is there anything you’ve wanted to tell the world but no one has asked you the right question?

I must have done enough interviews to tell everything I know by now.  And then some things I don’t know.

“I play every day. … I’m working on new material most of the time, working on song ideas.”

Robin Trower’s tour itinerary:

Oct. 4 – St. Louis, Mo., The Pageant
Oct. 5 – Kansas City, Mo., Harrah’s North Kansas City / VooDoo Lounge
Oct. 8 – Madison, Wis., Barrymore Theatre
Oct. 9 – Milwaukee, Wis., Pabst Theater
Oct. 10 – Chicago, Ill., House Of Blues
Oct. 11 – Indianapolis, Ind., Egyptian Room
Oct. 14 – Columbus, Ohio, The LC Pavilion
Oct. 15 – Cleveland, Ohio, House Of Blues
Oct. 16 – Royal Oak, Mich., Royal Oak Music Theatre
Oct. 17 – Greensburg, Pa., Palace Theatre
Oct. 18 – Buffalo, N.Y., The Tralf Music Hall
Oct. 21 – Albany, N.Y., Hart Theatre @ The Egg
Oct. 22 – Londonderry, N.H., Tupelo Music Hall
Oct. 23 – Boston, Mass., Wilbur Theatre
Oct. 24 – Huntington, N.Y., The Paramount
Oct. 25 – Ridgefield, Conn., Ridgefield Playhouse
Oct. 28 – New York, N.Y., B.B. King Blues Club
Oct. 29 – Newton, N.J., The Newton Theatre
Oct. 30 – Glenside, Pa., Keswick Theatre
Oct. 31 – Jim Thorpe, Pa., Penn’s Peak
Nov. 1 – Washington, D.C., The Howard Theatre
Nov. 4 – Durham, N.C., Carolina Theatre
Nov. 5 – Charlotte, N.C., Fillmore Charlotte
Nov. 6 – Atlanta, Ga., Variety Playhouse
Nov. 7 – Knoxville, Tenn., Bijou Theatre
Nov. 8 – Chattanooga, Tenn., Track 29
Nov. 12 – Saint Petersburg, Fla., Jannus Live
Nov. 13 – Orlando, Fla., Plaza Live Orlando
Nov. 14 – Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Parker Playhouse
March 18 – Verviers, Belgium, Spirit of ‘66
March 19 – Arnhem, Netherlands, Luxor Live
March 20 – Eindhoven, Netherlands, Effenaar
March 21 – Zoetermeer, Netherlands, Boerderij
March 22 – Hoogland, Netherlands, Cafe De Noot
March 26 – Lincoln, England, Engine Shed
March 27 – Bury St. Edmunds, England, The Apex
March 28 – Birmingham, England, Town Hall
March 29 – Salford, England, The Lowry
April 2 – Chester, England, The Live Rooms
April 3 – Gateshead, England, Sage Gateshead
April 4 – Glasgow, Scotland, The Arches
April 5 – Aberdeen, England, Lemon Tree
April 7 – Stockton, England, The Arc
April 8 – York, England, York Barbican
April 9 – Sheffield, England, Sheffield City Hall
April 10 – Holmfirth, England, Picturedrome
April 11 – London, England, O2 Shepherds Bush Empire
April 14 – Crawley, England, The Hawth
April 15 – Exeter, England, Exeter Corn Exchange
April 16 – Salisbury, England, Salisbury City Hall
April 17 – Milton Keynes, England, The Stables 

For more information, please visit Robin Trower’s website, Facebook page and Twitter feed.