Robin Trower has been a household name for fans of guitar driven British blues, since his solo debut in 1974. Tireless when it comes to touring and highly reliable when it comes to releasing albums, he's currently doing both. He is on tour supporting his new collaboration with Jack Bruce entitled Sevens Moons. I managed to get a good talk with Robin Trower backstage at BB King's in New York just before his show on the second date. For more on Robin's tour schedule, see his site, trowerpower.com.
3/19/08 Interview conducted by Janne Stark (also published in FUZZ magazine, www.fuzz.se).
Stark: How did you initially start to develop your signature sound?
Trower: I think the guitar sound grows out of the compositions that you come up with basically. When you write you're quite often hearing the guitar sound in your head, so that's what you're aiming at. You feel there's a sound that will put that music over to its fullest capability and that's what creates the sound. And obviously all the influences and guitar sounds that you like, like Albert King's tone, Hendrix's tone, Hubert Sumlin's, BB King's, all these things feed into it of how a guitar should sound.
Stark: Back in 1973 when you recorded Bridge of Sighs there was not a big range of guitar effects available. What pedals did you use?
Trower: I was lucky enough to meet a guy who was an electronics wiz. All you could get then was really fuzz boxes and he built me an overdrive unit which basically just used to drive the signal more into the Marshalls. Basically it was just really, really overdriving the Marshalls as Hugh Sumlin would have done with the little amps that created his sound. He would just have them full on, the speakers were groaning and that's what created that sound. I think that was the sort of sound I was after, that overdriven overloaded kind of sound.
Stark: Did he go into business with this pedal?
Trower: No, he was just somebody I knew who worked in one of the guitar repair shops. I took something to him to repair and I asked if he could build me something that's not a fuzz box and he just built me this pedal, which I actually used for quite a long time until they started making the factory made stuff that was more what I wanted.
Stark: Any particular pedals that became your favorites?
Trower: Certainly the last 15 years I've been using Mike Fuller's Fulltone stuff and I'm pretty much hooked on that stuff now. Coincidentally, he's just sent me the first prototype of an overdrive pedal which he says is the combination of two different ones that I like, the Fulldrive 2, which I've had for about 12 years, and I like the OCD. So as he says he's put them together in one pedal and if I like it he wants to put it out as a signature pedal of mine. I used it last night and I'm just gonna mess about with it a little more tonight.
Stark: Any other stuff?
Trower: In the early days I used a Uni-vibe, but now Mike builds this think called the Deja-vibe, which is very, very close.
Stark: What guitars did you use early on?
Trower: I started out on a Gretch solid body, then an SG, a Les Paul, but ever since I switched to Strat — which was towards the end of my time with Procul Harum — I haven't really strayed to be honest. It's just that Strat has this human vocal quality to it. They have a voicing. Since I've had the signature model I finally feel like I've maxed the most I can get out of the instrument. It's a 70s headstock, larger frets than a vintage (jumbo), body and saddle is what they call vintage re-issue, three different types of pick-ups; 50s in the neck, a 60s in the middle and a Texas Special in the bridge. It works for me, especially the neck which has a really sweet 50s sound. I do pick up a lot of RF in various places, so it's not silent, which is a drawback, but it's the only way to get that sound. If you go to a humbucker or a stacked one you can get it, but they don't sound the same.
Stark: I heard it was Martin Barre from Jethro Tull got you into Fenders
Trower: That's right. He had a Strat as a spare guitar so I just picked it up one day on soundcheck when we were on tour with them and I thought it was great. So much more vocal sounding than the Gibson I was playing. It had that sort of crying thing that you can get out of a Fender.
Stark: When I listen to the recently released re-master of Bridge of Sighs, which was recorded back in 1973, is still so fresh and not dated at all.
Trower: No, a lot of that is down to the engineer. Geoff Emerick was the top of the tree around that time. He'd done the Beatles stuff. The thing about him is he was very musical and had incredible musical ear. It wasn't just sound to him, it was music.
Stark: How was it recorded?
Trower: Mostly live in the studio, some of the solos as well, but mostly we would put down a backing track and I would do the solo and Jimmy the vocals on the top. Things like the long solo on Too Rolling Stoned and Little Bit of Sympathy — they are live.
Stark: The sounds is really big.
Trower: Well, that was in a big room and Geoff, I think he was the first guy to do the special recording where he had mikes down the room just on distances away from the guitar. So basically you're hearing more of the room than you are of the actual up-close mike. That was a big room. Air London was the studio.
Stark: Listening back to it now, how do you feel about it?
Trower: Well, I still think it's got some very very good stuff, very strong material, but there's still some guitar playing I can't listen to. Jimmy's vocals stand out and are truly great.
Stark: How has the recording process changed on later albums?
Trower: I've toyed with different ways of doing it. I did an album called Go My Way which I put down guitar, bass and drums, but only guide guitars so I could replace them. I think it's the only album I've actually done that on. I was trying to get a more layered thing, which was a bit different for me. Mostly I just go in guitar, bass and drums and put down the backing track live and that's it.
Stark: No leakage between the instruments?
Trower: I never bother with that. You either get it all in a take. If somebody makes a mistake you re-take it. I do none of that patching up business. Once you get into that it becomes something else.
Stark: I hear you, today it's sometimes more of a good-enough-to-fix mentality.
Trower: Yeah, they just put it in a computer and move it all about. To me and to Jack (Bruce) as well — he's the same — recording is all about catching a performance and it's gotta be real otherwise people know. OK, they may not know consciously, but subconsciously they know when it's real.
Stark: How did you record the new Seven Moons album you did with Jack, to tape or digitally?
Trower: Seven Moons was recorded to 24-track. Tape first and then it ends up as a digital thing when it's mixed.
Stark: How was the recording set-up for this album?
Trower: I did something really different. I played through two small 20 watt amps which were made by a guy called Dennis Cornell, called Cornell Plexi. They've got one 12" speaker in each. It's a combo. I wanted to play quite quiet because I thought if I play too loud, we're in the same room, and it was important that we played in the same room. I don't wanna use headphones. Mostly I just a use a (Shure SM) 57 up close within about 8-10 inches. It's all pretty much close miking, because I'm always working in small rooms.
Stark: Not too many use the room anymore.
Trower: Well, there aren't that many big rooms anymore. And if there are they are prohibitively expensive. For me anyway, since I don't sell enough to spend that kind of money.
Stark: I heard you also record with two amps, one being more clean.
Trower: That's right I often do that. One I'll have straight into it and the other will go through an overdrive, just so you've got an option of the voicing.
Stark: What other pedals do you use today?
Trower: From the guitar I go into the Fulltone Deja Vibe 2, into the Fulltone Clyde 2 Wah, into the overdrive, and then split into two amps. One JCM800 and one JMP. One I run loud and one I run quiet, so they have an option up front.
Stark: With the world being flooded by replicas of old pedals. How do you feel they sound compared to the originals?
Trower: Well, I actually haven't tried them. I've been so happy with what Mike's been giving me and I haven't bothered trying the other stuff. I know there's tons of stuff out there, but you can go on forever. And there's a million ways you can use an overdrive, so many different combinations and settings and that's difficult enough plus then you have to settle on what to use.
Stark: Going back to Bridge Of Sighs. Do you have any idea how many times a song like Day Of The Eagle has been covered?
Trower: No, I don't. You hear occasionally about people doing it, but I don't think I've ever heard a cover version of it.
Stark: Nord, Tesla, Steve Stevens?
Trower: Never heard of them. Excellent. It's a great compliment that somebody else likes the song you've written well enough to wanna do it, that's great!
Stark: If they change it, and you like what they've done, would it influence you to change your version?
Trower: Well, the thing is when I write the song the arrangement is an integral part of the song because it always starts off with me, always with the guitar part, so basically you're starting off with the arrangement and then you add the top line and the lyrics to it.
Stark: So, when playing Day Of The Eagle or Too Rolling Stoned for millionth time feel you never feel like changing it or just flipping out?
Trower: No, because I think it's right as it is. That's the thing about when I come up with a guitar arrangement and I've finished it I think it's perfect. Not too many notes, not too few (laughs). Each song is a little gem the way I look at it and if I want to do something different I'll do a different song. I like the way they work, otherwise I wouldn't play them live if I didn't enjoy them, then I'd just drop it rather than mess about it. I've got so many songs. The tour that's coming up I'm doing two or three I've never played live; For Earth Below, Chain the Devil and Suspicious and I've put in The Fall of Me which I haven't done since 1974. So there's always something you can have fun with.
Stark: You've also worked with several good singers like James Dewar, Livinstone Brown, Davey Pattison etc.
Trower: I've been very lucky to work with some great people, like Jack Bruce. Like the new album we have out now. We've kept talking about it and finally after all these years of talking we got around to it. It's quite different from the stuff we've worked on before in the 80s because this one we've co-written every song so it really is a coming together of the two of us really.
Stark: When you started writing with Jack for this album, did you start from scratch or bring in riffs and ideas?
Trower: I came to him with guitar ideas and we started from there. Basically I came to him with an idea and he turned it into a great song (laughs).
Stark: Who was the singer you used at Sweden Rock a couple of years ago?
Trower: Richard Watts. He's a singer I've used on and off and also done some writing with. Really great singer. He should be doing something. I sort of help him get going himself as a solo artist but there's still plenty of time.
Stark: Another of you old albums which is a favorite of mine is Victims Of The Fury.
Trower: All right! Well, it did very well in America, in fact I do do Victims in my set now. I put it in the last time I was out. I really enjoy playing it. There's some good stuff on the album. I like Into the Flame, which I'm toying with doing live. We do Roads to Freedom in the set, too.
Stark: How about the album 20th Century Blues?
Trower: For me, apart from one or two albums, on every one there's always two or three things I'm really pleased with. I really had a great time working with those two, Livingstone Brown and Clive Mayuyu. A unique sound. They're coming from a completely different place and meeting me half ways. It was really interesting. The same as when I'm working with Jack, it's a matter of him and I meeting half ways and coming together at a point. It stretches me to work with somebody like that and takes me off in a different direction which I love.
Stark: You also did some singing on that album.
Trower: I did a couple on Another Days Blues, but that's the last thing I sang. I do enjoy doing it but it just that when you're working with such great singers it best to keep your head down, is it (laughs). I wouldn't try singing some of the stuff I write, because I don't have the instrument for it, but there's one or two I can get away with.
Stark: I heard you did a Paramounts re-union.
Trower: Yes, it was couple of years ago we got together for a 40th anniversary, the original Paramounts from 1962. It was great fun. Some of those songs I hadn't played for 43 years. I really enjoyed it. It was just a one-off at a pub in Essex where we used to play back then.
Stark: Anything more with Procul Harum?
Trower: I haven't got any plans to anything like that. I have got plans to do an instrumental album actually. You never know, but that may be the next thing I do. I'm also working on new non-instrumental stuff too for a new album. But we'll see what comes first.
Stark: Okay, an instrumental album sounds interesting. Bluesy?
Trower: Well, I don't know any other way than bluesy (laughs). I think more of a late night kinda thing, but it's still gonna be soulful, but that's something I'm open to experiment with really. It would be nice to do something different, really different. Although the album with Jack is well away from my usual stuff. Obviously I'm in a place with my compositions.
Stark: Jack's bass playing is also quite different
Trower: Oh, unique! Both his playing and his singing, there's no one else like him.
We at the Dinosaur Rock Guitar would like to thank Robin Trower and Janne Stark for this interview. Copyright ©2008 All rights reserved.