AN INTERVIEW WITH ROBIN TROWER
By David Iozzia
Guitarist Robin Trower was a member of the English rock band Procol Harum in the late 1960's and early 1970's. He departed in 1973, forming the Robin Trower Band with drummer Reg Isadore and bass guitarist/vocalist James Dewar. Robin's legendary bluesy-rock guitar style quickly became the focal point of his band's classic songs and live performances. Although the band members have changed throughout the years, his characteristic sound and signature Fender Stratocaster continue to rock music fans both old and new during the 21st century. I was honored in June 2006 to interview guitar hero Robin on the telephone while he and his current band were enjoying an off-day on their North American tour. (To see photos from Robin's Starland Ballroom appearance, click here.)
Dave: Hello Robin, thanks for letting me conduct this interview. You're on the road most of 2006. This spring, you played 20 shows in Europe. Your North American tour just got started, and you've scheduled 30 shows. Many of those have sold out in advance. After that, you're going down to Brazil for a handful of shows in August. A second leg to the North American tour is being scheduled for September. Please comment on your triumphant return to North America and the fan reaction you've received so far.
ROBIN: I've been away for nearly five years and you just don't know if anybody is going to show up. The turnout so far has been wonderful. The response from the audience as well to the music has been fantastic.
Dave: Last year there were postings on your website about how a tour seemed impossible to do in this day and age. It was said touring the U.K. could only happen with a successful U.S. tour. Yet you're touring North America, following a short European tour. Was the release of your DVD the spark that changed your thinking on touring this year, or were there other factors?
ROBIN: I met up with an English manager through a friend of mine. I'm actually managed by an American, Derek Sutton. I decided to take on the English guy to see if we could get anything done in Europe, where I haven't done much before. He worked on getting the DVD made. It was filmed as we toured Europe, and the DVD kept the ball rolling. After it was released, we had to tour to promote it and the European shows in 2006 were scheduled first. Now it's time to promote the DVD and my last album by touring in North America, and we're having a great time.
Dave: When you're on the road, every artist has one of those nights where the travel to that show took forever, you're road-weary, and you're playing to a half-filled venue and a less-than-enthusiastic audience. How do you stay motivated on nights like that?
ROBIN: If you're lucky and the sound onstage is really good, those shows can be spectacular. The tension is gone because you're thinking it's just half a house. There's not so much pressure. Sometimes the best performances are in situations like that. For me, it's all about the sound onstage. If there's not great sound, whether the place is packed or half-empty, I'm going to struggle. I always give the crowd both barrels, whether there's two people or however many.
Dave: You've accomplished so much in your musical career. When this tour ends, I'm sure you could leave all the guitars in their cases and say that you've accomplished everything you set out to do when you started out. What is it that makes you unpack those guitars, plug them in a few days later, and start planning your next musical step in the journey?
ROBIN: I can't put the guitars down, Dave, it's what I do. It's very much a part of who I am. I've always said that while I can still come up with fresh ideas and news songs, then I'm still in the game. Touring is quite an important part of that. It keeps you motivated as well and it keeps you creative. It keeps it all flowing. Once you get in front of an audience and get the energy going, it feeds into the creative side of writing and coming up with new ideas.
Dave: The set list for the North American tour includes a couple of songs from your 2005 release "Another Day's Blues." Talk about the challenge of trying to balance your set list when you have so many classic songs to play, an avid fan base that's always hoping to hear an obscure or rare song, and a new record that you're touring to help support.
ROBIN: Because I haven't toured in quite some time, I'm really promoting two records: "Living Out of Time" and "Another Day's Blues." I decided to include a lot of the classic stuff and only four songs from the last two records. You're right in saying it's a challenge to balance the set list. You get requests, but you just can't do them all. Plus, they don't all work live. You can think about doing certain songs, but if it doesn't meet the standards of your great live material, you have to leave it off the set list.
Dave: Talk about your long-awaited live DVD "Living Out of Time" and how your current set list varies from that 2005 performance?
ROBIN: I hadn't played live for three-and-a-half years, and we only had two warm-up dates before we recorded the show in Germany. It just happened to coincide with my 60th birthday. We got lucky because we had film for only one show, and we played really well and the cameras captured it. The set list is quite a bit different.
Dave: Your band from the DVD performance is the same band you're touring North America with. Introduce your band and tell me what they add to the onstage formula.
ROBIN: The bass and drums are critical to my band. With Pete Thompson drumming and Dave Bronze playing bass, I have two of the best. They're a great rhythm section. Davey Pattison on vocals is one of the great, unsung heroes of rock and roll. He covers my early stuff very well, in addition to the material that he recorded with me later in my career.
Dave: You've had a few live CDs released but never a live performance on either video or DVD. Was there a reason you waited this long or did it just time out that way?
ROBIN: It just happened that way. I always wanted to get a performance captured on film, but it never came together. Luckily enough, it's done now and it becomes a "record" of what I do live and it's there for all time now.
Dave: XM Satellite Radio broadcasted your New York City concert from B.B. King's. From a recording artist's perspective, is having your concert air over satellite radio better exposure than having that concert aired by a nationally syndicated radio show like the King Biscuit Flower Hour?
ROBIN: I don't know what offers the recording artist more exposure. I really don't have a clue about satellite radio because we don't have it in the U.K. It's easy to do because we're playing there anyway. They'll put it out live and it might reach a few more people. That's the way I look at it.
Dave: The Internet and computer technology have impacted and changed the music industry, yet they were not factors when you started your musical journey. Which of these two statements is more true and why?
Robin Trower has adapted and embraced the Internet as a way of marketing himself, selling his CDs, and getting his new music heard.
Computer technology, downloading, and CD burning have hampered Robin Trower as a recording artist.
ROBIN: Probably your first scenario because it hasn't hampered me. Computer technology is still in its infancy. You have to allow all of the adjustments that are going to be made as you decide how to use computer technology as a tool. No matter the technology, the bottom line is still trying to get your music across to as many people as possible. Me personally, I'm not computer literate. I don't own one, I don't go on the Internet. I know nothing about it. I use computers, via an engineer, in the recording studio. But I wouldn't know how to run them myself. Computer technology has been a boon as far as recording because you can do so much more. It's limitless. Young bands have proven that without a record deal, you can sell and market your material, sometimes managing to make a career just through the Internet.
Dave: As an outsider looking in, your presence on the Internet is huge. In addition to your official website, I found fan websites that keep fans connected with your band. Reading some of the things that people posted gave me a real feel for how passionate your fan base is. I'm sure a big percentage of your fans are not computer-savvy teenagers, so is it surprising that your fans have embraced the internet as a tool to stay connected and express their passion for your music?
ROBIN: It's amazing that the older fans have adapted and embraced new technologies. The best thing is that the Internet gives fans a voice, they can be heard and their thoughts can be listened to by other people. I think all of that is great. It's democracy in action isn't it? I, personally, don't read any of it but it gives people an outlet. Fans don't have to just bite the bullet, they can express their passion. The Internet certainly makes a big world a little bit smaller doesn't it?
Dave: Should your fans expect new Robin Trower studio material in 2007?
ROBIN: I'm doing some writing with Jack Bruce to do a record together, and I'm also working on a new album. That's coming along nicely. So there definitely will be new material next year.
Dave: Since you brought up Jack Bruce, did you see any of the Cream reunion shows and what did you think?
ROBIN: I did, but only on television. I didn't attend any of the shows. I thought Jack was amazing. He was brilliant.
Dave: It seems like a new fad that so many bands are putting out "all covers records" including Def Leppard, who just released one. I have a few in my collection including one by singer Annie Lennox where she covers Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale," and another by Bryan Ferry called "Taxi" that you co-produced and played guitar on. Have you given any thought to a blues cover record where you can pay homage to B.B. King, Albert King, Muddy Waters, and all of your blues influences?
ROBIN: I can't come near what some of those guys do on guitar. You can't top these guys, they're the greats. I'm not in favor of a covers album, I like to write my own stuff. It's difficult for me to play other people's songs on guitar. I have so much material of my own that I don't really need to. Covering blues classics is a real dodgy place to try and get to. You can't come anywhere near the original. The only thing that makes it worth doing is if you can do your own version. I've done a few classic blues songs that I guess you could call covers, but I've done my own arrangements of those songs. For example, I did B.B King's "Sweet Little Angel." He played it as a slow tune, but I did it as a mid-tempo shuffle.
Dave: Fender Guitars released a Robin Trower Signature Model guitar in 2004, and you're renowned as a 'Strat player. It wasn't always that way because Procol Harum fans remember you playing Gibson SG's and Les Pauls. Why did you make the big switch to the Stratocaster?
ROBIN: I just picked up a Strat one day out of the blue, and it immediately spoke to me. I went out the next day and bought one and I've been playing them ever since. They have a vocal quality to them, almost a human voice quality. I don't know what would have happened to the Strat if Jimi Hendrix hadn't come along. He showed everyone that there's a different way to get this instrument sounding. Now everybody plays them.
Dave: Speaking of reunions, we already mentioned Cream. Can you comment on the rumors of a Procol Harum reunion tour and live DVD?
ROBIN: No, I don't think anything's happening that I'll be a part of. Gary Brooker continues to tour as Procol Harum. I really don't want to go back that far. It's difficult enough trying to play my old songs.
Dave: Many musicians choose the solo album as an outlet for playing different material or working with different musicians. You chose to leave Procol Harum instead. What was your thought process back then and was getting away from their keyboard-based sound part of that decision to leave the band?
ROBIN: It was exactly that. I was writing more material that the band couldn't do because of its keyboard-based sound. I had to find an outlet for all of the stuff I was writing for guitar. So I put together a band around the material I was writing and interested in playing. That's how it all came about.
Dave: Procol Harum's London debut in 1967 saw them supporting Jimi Hendrix, yet you joined the band a month later. Did you ever get the chance to share the stage with or jam with Jimi Hendrix?
ROBIN: After I joined Procol Harum, we were on the same bill in Germany. That was the only time I saw him live. We never jammed. I wouldn't get on the stage with him, he was too good. If you were in the same place as Jimi Hendrix, you just wanted to hear him play. You didn't want to get in the way of that.
Dave: Many bluesy rock guitarists of the 1970's were unfairly compared to Jimi or they were called Hendrix wannabees by music critics, yourself included. How do you verbally respond to your detractors and that type of criticism, or does your 40-year career of touring and recording say it all.
ROBIN: I think my career says it all. If there was any comparison, I'd say that's fair enough because he was a big influence on me. What I did worry about was that people may have been missing what I've created and added to my playing style.
Dave: Speaking for my generation, most of us remember where we were and how we heard about the murder of John Lennon. Where were you and how did you hear about the death of Jimi Hendrix?
ROBIN: I'm pretty sure I was at home. It was only three weeks after we played with him in Germany so that hit home a little bit. I was shocked but not surprised at the same time if you know what I mean. He was burning very brightly, there was no doubt about that.
Dave: I've attended thousands of concerts by hundreds of different bands in a hundred different venues. The Robin Trower Band was the first band I ever saw play live, when you opened a 1975 show for Jethro Tull at Shea Stadium in New York City. Do you have any memories of that show or tour?
ROBIN: I can't remember anything about my band's performance, but I do remember being onstage in that huge place. That was one of the biggest crowds my band played in front of. Procol Harum played to a bigger crowd at the Isle of Wight Festival.
Dave: My most vivid memory was not of your band's performance. It was your band's format. I learned that day that both visually and sonically, the power trio would be my preferred band format. There's just something magical about a three-piece band: three different instruments and one of the musicians handling lead vocals. Your comments?
ROBIN: Why the power trio can be so good is that everybody has one- and-a-half jobs to do. You have to make up for the guy that's missing. There's more tension and the energy level has to be greater to make it work. It's challenging to be the guitar player in a three-piece, because you have to cover a lot of area and fill in a lot of space. The space a power trio gives me to work in, and the freedom it allows, defines my sound. Apart from "Another Day's Blues," which I envisioned having a Hammond organ on, I've always written for guitar, bass, drums, and voice.
Dave: Your early albums were known for the cool cover and graphic designs by Funky Paul (Olsen), yet on the last couple of albums, you designed the covers.
ROBIN: That was a lot of fun. My albums tend to be just for my fans. It gives them a little bit more of what I'm all about when some of my ideas are on the covers. For me, it makes it a much more complete package. The cover says something about what's inside.
Dave: That's all the questions I have for you Robin. Thanks again for allowing me to interview you. Is there anything I've neglected to cover that you'd like to promote?
ROBIN: No Dave, I think you've got it all covered there.
Dave: Do you have any closing comments for your fans worldwide?
ROBIN: Thanks for the years of support, and I'm looking forward to seeing everybody at the upcoming shows.
Full Name: Robin Trower
Birthday: March 9, 1945
Favorite beverage: Italian coffee
Favorite food: roast lamb
First record you ever bought: probably a Gene Vincent record but Im not sure
Last CD you bought: a compilation of music from the 1930s
Favorite U.S. city to visit: theres many
Favorite international city: Rome
Favorite film: Ben Hur or Random Harvest