Charlotte Taylor meets with bluesman, Walter Trout, to talk about overcoming his extremely close brush with death, the emotional new album BATTLE SCARS that followed and a subsequent tour that Walter “never would have considered” whilst lying on his hospital bed.
BATTLE SCARS is Walter Trout’s 42nd album release; a blues guitar icon, he has been playing music for half a century, gaining international acclaim and receiving honours that include two Overseas Artist of The Year wins at the British Blues Awards. In fact, it was just before he was taken ill that Provogue Records had planned a ‘Year of the Trout’ worldwide tour and marketing campaign to celebrate his 25 years as a solo artist. But it was not to be. Darker times, living on the streets in the 70s, caught up with a now settled Walter, who was a whole world away with a successful music career, passionate and loyal fanbase and a family he adores. At the start of 2014, Trout was placed in intensive care, suffering from liver disease, losing staggering amounts of weight and muscle, and with no chance of recovering without a transplant. To his complete disbelief, Walter’s friends, family and fans raised almost a quarter million dollars in an online campaign to help pay for the expenses involved in receiving a new liver and the transplant surgery.
This wonderful display of love and loyalty spurred on Walter, as he readied himself to face the next battle – relearning what once came naturally, playing the guitar and writing new songs once again. He had wanted to write a positive album to reflect his new lease of life, but found that what he needed to do was to write about his pain and his experiences. Even though Walter Trout has been through hell and back and his accounts of these times are vivid and heartbreaking; they, like Walter, are also full of hope. Speaking with him, he displays gratitude, humility as well as pride for what he has achieved, and hope for the future of his music and his genre – and he’s also still full of that matter-of-fact charm that he’s become so loved for in the industry.
I begin our conversation with a congratulations for everything that Walter has achieved since his recovery – a new album, live shows and now a worldwide tour. But was a return to music always his goal along the way? “Never at all, if you told me a year ago I would have said ‘no way!'” Walter begins. “When I was at my worst I would say to my wife ‘if I can just survive this and
still get to be with you and be with our kids, if I don’t play again –
so be it…’
“I was prepared to live my life listening to records and watching YouTube videos and saying ‘that’s what I used to do.’ I had visions of cleaning a table in a restaurant or something and being a bus boy and saying to somebody ‘oh I used to play the guitar.’ – And I would have done it, but I’d have been hollow.”
After his transplant on May 26, 2014, Walter moved home and started on the the road to becoming himself again. He made the decision to relearn how to play. “I lost more than half of my body weight. I lost 120 pounds – and that was muscle, not just fat. I had no muscles in my arms, I was skin and bones. I attempted to play when I was still in the hospital. My oldest son, John, came over … he brought me a Stratocaster and said ‘here, you have to keep in touch with who you are.’ I tried to get a note to come out and I could not press the string to the fret. I didn’t have the strength. I broke down and I said ‘take it out of here, I can’t look at it, I can’t think about that!'”
But when Walter moved back home he started receiving physiotherapy and he used this time to work on reteaching his muscles to play the guitar. “I would sit on my couch and at that point I got determined. What else do I have to do? I’ve got three hours a day at this physical therapy place and then I’m home. So it would be get up and try to walk, and sit on the couch for hours and try to get it back…
“It was still there. I still knew how to do it, I was just physically unable to do it … But little by little it started coming back.”
The first time Walter played in front of anyone again was New Year’s Eve 2014. “I played two songs in my driveway for the neighbours with my kids. We have a family tradition, we set up in the front lawn, every New Year’s Eve at midnight we play to the neighbours until the cops come. We’ve done it for 12 years. So I played two songs. I did Born To Be Wild by Steppenwolf and Fortunate Son by Creedence. I played and I sang – but then I had to sit down, I was gone.”
His second performance was a very different affair! “The first time I actually got in front of an audience though was not til June 15 at the Royal Albert Hall , so that was nine months after I got out. It took me that long to feel that I could be in front of an audience and I was still very apprehensive … It wasn’t like going to the local pub.”
“As soon as I counted the four and that band came in – I was at home.” These memories are incredibly emotional and we pause for a second as Walter collects himself. “As soon as they came in and they started playing and I saw those faces I just [thought] ‘I’m at home, this is what I’ve done my whole life. I’ve done this 10,000 times, I know how to do this’. This is,’ he pauses. “This is my life, and I’m back.”
And with each and every gig Walter is improving. His November 21 gig at O2 Forum Kentish Town was one of the most emotional and uplifting live shows I have had the pleasure of attending. There was an electricty and love in the room, fuelled by a sense of gratitude and celebration from his most loyal and loving fanbase, pleased to watch their guy perform again. And from the blues man himself, who played with skill and passion that transcends his emotional story – and a cool, energetic stage presense for his years that made it difficult to comprehend it either.
“I think I’m playing better than I ever have,” he beams, when talking about his live performances. Sadly, before the illness hospitalised him he had been touring for years with a whole variety of health issues. “I was having incredible equilibrium problems and I had to sit on a chair because I would fall over. I was getting these hand cramps where my hand would suddenly close up in pain and I couldn’t play. And then what I would do is, I’d play the harmonica. People thought I was just trying to show that I could play harmonica. No. I was giving my hands a break so hopefully I could finish the set!
“… I had to re-think my playing style. I couldn’t bend any strings and I couldn’t do vibratos – because as soon as I tried to bend the string and use those muscles, I would cramp. So I did the whole [European] tour without bending a string – and how do you play the f***ing blues and not bend a string? I managed to do it and people were like ‘wow.’ All I was doing was kind of playing fast stuff. I was playing it like I meant it and I did, but I had to censor everything…”
To read the full interview please purchase the February 2016 issue of Maverick available here.
Charlotte Taylor • www.waltertrout.com