Robin Trower: Guitar Icon Returns to Form

Procol Harum's self-titled 1967 debut album featuring the hit "Conquistador," and more importantly, "Whiter Shade of Pale," produced more than just a couple of classic rock radio standards. The album, psychedelic though it may be, announced the coming out of a young guitar whiz named Robin Trower. Modern rockers may not recognize the songs, or the band, but the more, uh, advanced among us know Trower for his unmistakable sound and sweet, dreamy style. The young Brit went solo in 1971 and scored big in the mid '70s with moody, guitar-driven albums such as Bridge of Sighs, Long Misty Days, and In City Dreams and his guitar-bass-drums power trio was a mainstay on the arena rock circuit for years.

With his latest release, Go My Way, Trower has returned after at least a five-year, three-album adventure that leaned heavily on the blues to his rock roots. In this exclusive interview, Trower talks about his jazzy, open-stringed chords; James Brown-inspired rhythms; and how he unleashes his creative impulses. And in the accompanying video guitar lessons, Trower teaches the finer points of some of his newest gems (Go My Way and Breathless from his newest album) and his most covered cuts, the bar-band favorites "Day of the Eagle" and "Too Rolling Stoned." Enjoy. Tell us about the new album, Go My Way, and the new record label. What's going on with your career these days?

Robin Trower: Well, the album, I've been working on for about two years, in and out of the studio. I think this album is the most time I've ever spent studio-wise, certainly on any record I've made. So, you know, I'm pretty pleased with the way it's turned out. I'm very, very happy with it. Did you do this recording in professional studios or home studios?

Trower: As a matter of fact, my friend, Paul Page, who co-produced most of the tracks with me, he's got his own studio. And we worked together on the whole album apart from two tracks, which were produced by Livingston Brown, at his studio. Where were the studios?

Trower: Well, Paul's is in Essex, near where I live. And Livi's is in London. Are these Pro Tool studios or are these analog recording systems?

Trower: Paul's studio is analog. We worked on 24-track [tape]. And Livi's studio is computer, so two tracks we did at Livi's. How do you feel about that whole world of PC based recording?

Trower: It's a good experimental place, you know. You can do things that you can't do in analog. But, overall, I prefer working in analog because the sound is just better, you know. It sounds much more beefy, the real thing. What equipment did you use in the studio? Some nice vintage amps?

Trower: Well, it's a combination. On this album I used a brand new Twin that I got from Fender. I got a '69 Marshall 100 Head, and an old Hiwatt 4x12, and a [Fender] Blues Deville, which I've had for a few years, which I really like for some things. And I just blend them all together, really. Usually, I always record the guitar sort of stereo. Your sound is such a classic sound that people want to emulate so often. Has it changed over the years, the gear you're using?

Trower: I think it's fundamentally the same sort of concept, you know. But, obviously, you change equipment all the time. I mean, just this past year, I've been using this thing called a SansAmp, which I've used for most of the album, in conjunction with other things. I've always used some sort of swirl-y kind of effect. In the old days it used to be called a Uni-Vibe. Now I use a Deja 'Vibe, by Mike Fuller. And what I was doing on this album was I had a Deja 'Vibe on one side of the stereo, and on the other path the tremolo, so, you get the shift from side to side, you know. Is there any stuff, any gear, from your past that you are still trying to re-create?

Trower: Oh, no. I feel like I'm always trying to move forward. I don't believe in looking back. I mean, I like the guitar sound from the past, but it wasn't quite what I was after. I think I'm getting closer to it now. When you look back on your career and where you?re at now, how do you balance evolving, as a player, with staying true to what your original musical ideals were?

Trower: I think it's very hard. I count, sort of, the whole period of the '80's. I look back on it as being some kind of artistic write-off, really, because I feel like I got completely lost, you know. I got so bound up in this thing with record companies and trying to do stuff that would get played on the radio, and all that kind of thing. I definitely feel like that was a very barren period there. But once my manager had the idea of me having my own record label and being able to do whatever I wanted, musically; I feel like I started to come back on song, and started to write whatever I wanted to do, basically, and not worry about who might like it or not. When you mentioned your own record label, is that what you're doing now?

Trower: No. We've had three releases on our own label, V12 Records. But this new album is out on a new label called Ezra, which we just signed to. So, this will be my first sort of proper release, if you like, for quite a while. This stuff that you did on your own, with V12 Records, why did you decide not to continue?

Trower: Basically, because we felt, with this album, we had a chance to reach a lot more people, with this music, on this album. And, it needed a proper label, a proper setup, to be able to get it to radio and do the whole thing with it. Is this because of the changing public taste in music that you see is coming down to a rock standpoint?

Trower: I'm not sure if that's the fact or just the fact that the album itself is more accessible, or has maybe a potential broader appeal, or whatever. A lot of the songs that you write seem very introspective. Is that a true representation of your own personality?

Trower: Yeah. I think that is me, all those lyrics. I mean, you know, a good percentage. I'd say 75 percent are generally just thoughts that are buzzing around inside my head. And how about the musical texture?

Trower: Yeah, I guess. The whole thing is tied up with my own personality. There's no doubt about it. I've tried to, mostly over the last 10 years, just write music that felt right to me and not worry about fashion, or whatever. Yeah, that seems like it's good to me. Are there things that, influenced you when you were younger, that you still listen to today that you see in things you do today ? B.B. King or somebody?

Trower: Well, I don't have to listen to those influences anymore because they're in there [Robin points to his ear]. I do, occasionally, listen to B.B. King. I listen, occasionally, to Live at the Regal, which was kind of my Bible for a little while there, in the '60s. I think, all the very strongest influences I've had are very much a part of everything I do. But I think, on certain songs, obviously, are more me than anybody else, you know. There's quite a few like that. Do you think about, either in the writing or recording process, do you consider fan expectations?

Trower: No. I leave that to my manager. I'll play him something and he'll come out with his honest opinion of, "Well, your following isn't going to get that, or They are going to get that," you know what I mean? So, he keeps me in touch that way. But, I'm always trying to write some music that I feel is something sort of challenge to me, as a guitar player, and maybe a place that I haven't quite been before. You're always trying to find places that are exciting to go in to. Do you work on things that are outside of what we normally hear you play?

Trower: On the guitar, you mean? No. No, I don't think I do. I think, pretty much most of what I come up with ends up on a record. When you say, on the guitar, do you play other instruments?

Trower: No, it's just I was thinking about I've done production work for other artists, so I've done other work that people don't hear. I'm not familiar with your production work.

Trower: Well, I co-produced two Brian Ferry albums, a little while ago. You know, I sort of strayed away from my own career a bit, for a few years. Is that a refreshing thing to do?

Trower: It is very, very much so. And I feel just being a producer for awhile helped me look at my own stuff, in other words, this album. I was able to be objective about it, as well as, being involved. I could see it from both sides. I could see it from the artist side. I knew what I was doing as an artist but while I was actually making the record, I could take it out and listen to it as a producer and say, No, this isn't right, and that's not strong enough, I need to recount it, or whatever. Whereas, I think, if you're just the artist and not the producer you tend to have too much invested in it, emotionally, to be able to see it for what really does work. I didn't look at the producer credits, did you produce Go My Way?

Trower: Yeah. I co-produced most of it, as I said, with Paul Page. He engineered it, he played bass on it, we co-produced it, and we had various drummers. And then there's the two tracks that were done with Livingston Brown, which Livi produced. How do you deal with producing yourself? Is that a tough thing for you? Are you too critical?

Trower: Well I wouldn't have been able to do it if I didn't have a lot of time. The key thing to producing yourself is to be able to get away from it. Have a break. Don't listen to it for a couple of weeks, or even longer if you can, then put it on and see what the real affect of it is, instead of just listening to it from inside. So that was the key to it, really. I had a lot of breaks. Sometimes I had a couple of weeks, or sometimes almost a month, and I'd be able to listen to what I'd done so far and then I go back into Paul and say, 'Well I don?t like this," or "This isn't happening, I better do this again," or whatever it is, I like it, this is fine. That is the key. There's no doubt about it: that's the key thing. Because otherwise, I think, if you're working on it all the time, you're just trying to get it finished and before you know it you're album' s out and then 6 months later you listen to it and say, "Oh, no that's not right." So that to me is the most important thing. You like being able to live with it for a little while?

Trower: Yeah. That's one thing that I really feel is most important about this album. I?ve never done that before. I've always gone in six weeks "bang" do the album. But I'll admit, it's been successful sometimes. I mean, Bridge of Sighs is a very good example of that. But, this thing is great. It's great to be able to pick and pour over it a little bit more.

Just can't get enough? Check out...