Robin Trower
The Fillmore - San Francisco, CA - May 19, 2000
Music is always in a constant change from new trends to new styles to outright experimentation. One thing that is always consistent, aside from the want of a good song, is memorable musicianship. As it is in the rock and blues world, guitarists really are a dime a dozen. There are infinite number of Eddie Van Halens, Yngwie Malmsteens and anyone else whom you could think of. However, luck and timing are everything and we have been blessed with a handful of truly inspired players whose names shall forever remain legendary or infamous. Amongst those is one British player who has been a mainstay in the blues-heavy rock scene, still touring every year albeit shying away from the usual public hubbub displays. Robin Trower is one of only about ten to fifteen players whose names come up every time a discussion requires naming guitarists of recognizable contributions to music. His playing, most notably on albums such as "Bridge Of Sighs" and "Victims Of The Fury", have become a landmark to many up and coming players - perhaps declining a bit in this modern day of "minimalistic" guitar approach - but influential none the less.
Robin is shy and quiet, quite reserved in the very proper British tradition. This is a man who has kept his roots in tact so far as to record on older style machines in older style fashions. 'If it sounded good to begin with, why change it'. He has been touring constantly, trading in the arena shows for the more intimate settings of theater venues where fans can better appreciate his talents up close, and is releasing a new album in the summer of 2000, called "Go My Way".
We recently had the rare chance to speak with Mr. Trower after his performance at San Francisco's infamous Fillmore. One never knows what to expect from an artist who has been in the industry so long and has become very set in his ways but he was particularly charming and pleasant, sleight in answer in order to accomodate quite the list of questions (some sent in by fans) without wasting too much time, and gave us quite the insight into his love of playing, brief history, equipment used and other little tidbits of information. Knowing that he doesn't give too many interviews as it is, it was a pleasure to be able to meet the master and pick at his mind. To start with, the first question jumped into what many fans always clamor for, a possibility of a reunion of his earlier band, Procol Harum. This then follows into the next subject which concerns the health of former bassist/vocalist James Dewar who had suffered a medical mishap a few years ago. During a minor leg surgery, an infection set in which caused a stroke, leaving Mr. Dewar wheelchair bound and still without much knowledge of things around him. Truly a sad end to a brilliant career. So, on we go...
K2K: We're here with Robin Trower. Hello. To start with, is there ever any chance of a Procol Harum reunion?
RT: Oh, no. No chance of that. I've not got anything against the idea or anything, it's just that I'm so busy doing my own thing that there isn't time for 'one other thing'. It's just like, it's all-consuming. It has been all-consuming for these last four or five years.
K2K: Where did the name Procol Harum come from?
RT: Ah, well, Keith Reid came up with it. He was the lyricist with Procol Harum. I don't know where he got that idea from. It's sort of like this Latin thing. Yeah.
[Upon researching, we found that it may mean something along the lines of "without a harem" or "we have no chicks". - Ed.]
K2K: How is James Dewar doing?
RT: Not very well, I'm afraid. He had a stroke about several years ago now. About eight years ago. People always ask me at shows, "How's Jimmy doing?"
K2K: You're going to be playing in San Bernandino in a few days with your old bandmate, drummer Bill Lordan, opening for you in his own band. Any chance of you two jamming?
RT: I don't think so. My set is pretty much a laid out thing.
K2K: Are you two still buddies?
RT: Oh yeah.
K2K: How's the new guy working out?
RT: Great. Excellent.
K2K: I had heard that this is perhaps the happiest that you've been with a band in a while.
RT: I wouldn't say that. I've been happy. With the last band band I had with Livingston Brown in it, I was very, very happy. Because of the new album and using Richard on vocals on some of the songs on that, you know, it's a naturally evolving thing.
K2K: How long have you been singing now?
RT: I've been singing for about three or four years, since I did an album called "Sunday Blues", which is my last album. It's an old blues album. I just thought it would be fun to have a go at it. I enjoyed it, so on this new album I've written some songs for me to sing.
K2K: I'm surprised that you hadn't done it before. Why didn't you?
RT: Because I've always had great singers. There was never the kind of space to 'move into', if you know what I mean. Whose going to sing when you've got James Dewar on vocals, you know. I think it just came about because when I thought about doing a blues album, I thought to myself, "Well, there isn't a blues artist, a solo blues artist, ever, that isn't a singer." They're always the singer.
K2K: Well, except for one - Kenny Wayne Sheppard.
RT: Uh, no, I'm talking about blues, not rock and roll. Blues.
K2K: You're not the only one who thinks that way.
RT: Well, no, it's fair enough. He's a great guitar player. I'm not saying he's not great, I'm talking about blues artists. It was something that I did as enjoyment.
K2K: I'm glad that you started doing it.
RT: I enjoyed doing it.
K2K: Do you ever dabble on the internet at all?
RT: No.
K2K: Do you ever think about it?
RT: No.
K2K: Do you have any thoughts on MP3s?
RT: I think it's a sort of.... there's two sides to it, isn't there. It's good thing that there is sort of a democracy that everyone can get what they want. On the other hand, artists put an awful lot of work into that stuff. Like for me, on this [upcoming] album, I've been working on it for two years, and then somebody would get it for nothing.
K2K: That's true. What about bootlegged shows that you wouldn't be selling anyway?
RT: That's not a problem. I don't have a problem with that.
K2K: Do you ever answer emails?
RT: There is the I have actually answered a few questions.
K2K: Somebody had said that Scott Sutherland's site was the "official" site. Is that true?
RT: It's got the most information on it. It's amazing.
K2K: OK, now to get some old stories out of the way. One was about guitarist Frank Marino [of Mahogany Rush]. Do you remember playing a show with him? I believe it was in Texas.
RT: I've played with him a few times.
K2K: Was there ever an incident where you didn't like his playing or something for his Hendrix 'influence'?
RT: No, no. Not at all. I had said, when I heard him from backstage, that it sounded just like Hendrix out there. It was amazing how close he got to it.
K2K: I guess somebody, the promoter, had gone backstage and told him that you had wanted him to leave the building because you were upset with him.
(Based on a story that Frank was told Robin would not play with that kind of "Hendrix rip-off" in the building. - Ed.)
RT: Oh, absolute crap. That is such crap. Please put that straight.
K2K: Someone else asked you a while back who you would like to still play with and you had said that the question had caught you off-guard and you would get back to that.
RT: Someone asked me the other day who would be my 'ultimate band' to play with. I said, "Dead or alive?" and he said it didn't matter. So, I said Albert King on guitar. I would play rhythm for him. Bernard Purdy on drums. Willy Weeks on bass. Bernie Worrell on keyboards and James Brown on vocals.
K2K: Quite the cross-section of music there.
RT: If you could put that together, I'd enjoy being in that. (laughs)
K2K: If you had a chance to be in any other popular big-name band in rock history, who would it be?
RT: Um, Rolling Stones probably.
K2K: Had you ever considered it at the time [when they were looking]?
RT: No.
K2K: How do you like the direction that popular music has twisted and turned into during the past couple of decades?
RT: It's like always, to me, like always. There's some really good stuff and the bulk of it is pretty forgetable.
K2K: Is there anything new that people might be surprised to find out that you like?
RT: I did really like Jeff Buckley. Another thing that I really liked, which is quite a while ago now, was Blue Nile. A few odd things here and there. Yeah.
K2K: Anything in completely different styles of music?
RT: Well, I listen to classical music and stuff like that.
K2K: Favorite composer?
RT: Shoskatovich.
K2K: Really? Most people usually claim Mozart or Beethoven.
RT: No, I tend to like the modern ones like Dubussy and Ravel.
K2K: OK, here is some word association. I'll name off a guitarist and you tell me what you think in a sentence or so. Eric Clapton.
RT: Great.
K2K: Michael Schenker.
RT: I don't know enough of. I don't think I've heard him.
(Robin does actually appear on a 'best of' compilation called "Back 2 Back" with Michael Schenker. - Ed.)
K2K: Jimmy Page.
RT: I'm not mad about Zeppelin, I must admit. I mean, you know, great band but, from a guitar players' point of view, it's not bluesy enough.
K2K: Do you think it was just a "cool trend" to like Zeppelin back then?
RT: No, no. There's no doubt that the guy can really play. There has to be some blues in there for me to be really interested.
K2K: Santana.
RT: Great.
K2K: Jeff Beck.
RT: Excellent!
K2K: Yngwie Malmsteen.
RT: I don't really know his work at all.
K2K: Mick Ralphs.
RT: Yeah, I like Bad. Co. but the guitar didn't really stand out to me.
K2K: What did you think of all the "speed demon" guitar players during the 1980s?
RT: Technically they were brilliant. There has to be a bit of soulfullness in there in order to catch my ear. Brilliant players.
K2K: Do you think that they brought around the demise of the "guitar hero" bands with an overkill of the music?
RT: Yeah, maybe.
K2K: Biggest joy for you - recording or performing live?
RT: I can't seperate it. It's all one thing. The creation and the performance are all one thing.
K2K: Most memorable show that you've done?
RT: I'm going to have to say here at Winterland in San Francisco the first time we've ever played Bridge Of Sighs. 1974.
K2K: Here are some equipment questions for you. What kind of guitars do you play?
RT: Fender Strats. They're all made by the custom shop, yeah.
K2K: Do you ever have problems with the Fender whammy bars putting the guitar out of tune?
RT: Not the modern ones because they have locking tuners.
K2K: Which setup are they?
RT: I'm not sure what make they are but they lock the string on in place. I don't have real problems with tuning.
K2K: Did you ever have a preference of Floyd Rose or anything?
RT: No. It would change the sound too much. Part of the Fender sound is those saddles. You have to get the vintage ones to get the proper sound. They're cast, I think.
K2K: Do you swap guitars in the studio?
RT: No. I usually have a favorite that I play all the time.
K2K: What effects do you use?
RT: I use a Deja "Vibe" by Mike Fuller, a Full Drive by Mike, a Box Wah and a Tremelo unit.
K2K: Did you ever use Cry Babys? (Wah unit - Ed.)
RT: Yeah, I used to use Cry Babys.
K2K: Do you prefer the vintage ones as opposed to the newer ones?
RT: Well, I haven't played one in such a long time that I don't know. I've played Vox for a long time.
K2K: Was the Vox good for you?
RT: Oh I like it. It's very, sort of, raucus and expressive.
K2K: How are your effects wired up?
RT: Wah first and then I split. One side is the Deja side and the other side is the Tremelo. The Deja "Vibe" goes into the overdrive unit, the Full Drive.
K2K: Any customization on the Marshalls?
RT: No, they're just straight.
K2K: Any favorite pedals from the past?
RT: The old Univibe. That was the sound of Bridge Of Sighs and all that. The Deja "Vibe" is sort of a modern version of an attempt to sound like that but it doesn't really have the sound effects.
K2K: Going back to the 1980s, do you think that a lot of the tricks that guitarists used were overdone, like whammy usage, etc.?
RT: It's all pretty dead and gone, isn't it? Yeah. Tricks for tricks' sake.
K2K: Do you plan to keep singing?
RT: Oh yeah. I think I sing about seven or eight on the new album.
K2K: I do like the new songs that you played.
RT: Good, good.
K2K: The first song that you played tonight, "Breathless", is a sure radio hit.
RT: Really? That's great.
K2K: It's that minor chording and all that is in these days.
RT: Yeah, I really like that song.
K2K: Is it easy or hard for you to sing and play?
RT: Oh, bloody hard. Really. Some of the songs. I mean, the blues thing was relatively easy doing just that stuff. These new songs, I still haven't got it quite under control. You've got to be in two places at once. It's like "oooh".
K2K: You've been in bands from three to six members in the past. Do you have any preference or is this three-piece format what you like finally?
RT: It's great being a three-piece as a guitar player because you've got so much room and so much space. But, playing with people is great as well because you can get that big orchestral kind of noise going which is all quite emotionally potent as well.
K2K: Do you ever think about adding extra musicians?
RT: Yeah, I often think about having another player.
K2K: Would you ever add horns?
RT: No. I hate to say it's kind of a cliche kind of noise, if you know what I mean. It's very hard to make it anything but that.
K2K: Would you ever consider adding a full-time singer as opposed to how you are currently doing things?
RT: I have done that. In the 80s I had Davey Pattison on vocals, so it was a four-piece then.
K2K: In the studio, do you do most of your solos in one take?
RT: Yeah, pretty much, pretty much. I might have several gos at them, but there all pretty much as they go along.
K2K: Are they inspired?
RT: Yeah. I don't like to write stuff out, solo-wise.
K2K: Are lyrics important to you?
RT: Very. Yeah.
K2K: Do you write all the lyrics?
RT: Yeah.
K2K: Is it easy or hard for you to come up with material?
RT: Hard. Harder and harder as time goes on. The more songs you've written, the less you've got to write, you know what I mean.
K2K: Who do you believe has left the greatest legacy to music?
RT: 'Left' the greatest... You're talking about electric, sort of pop, in rock?
K2K: Two part question then - In rock and historically.
RT: Um, I wouldn't know classically. The greatest legacy? I'd have to say Beethoven, but...
K2K: And in pop?
RT: Well, there's several, isn't there. Hendrix is one. Elvis has got to be one. James Brown is probably, to me, the most important musician since the war. Before that, I would think Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
K2K: Have you ever met Jimi Hendrix?
RT: I sort of said 'Hello' to him on a show that I was on with Procol Harum.
K2K: Have you ever had the chance to play or jam with him?
RT: Oh no. I just said 'Hello' and that was it.
K2K: What were your influences when first learning how to play?
RT: My first big influence, I would have to say, is any of the early rock 'n' roll guitar players like Scotty Moore and James Burton with Ricky Nelson. Guys like that, until I heard B.B. King.
K2K: What got you into music?
RT: I just loved it. My brother used to bring to me, he was older than me, bring home these records.
K2K: What would you have been doing if not this?
RT: God only knows. I haven't got a clue.
K2K: Your style apparently changed quite a bit from doing Procol Harum to doing your own solo stuff. Why did it change? Was it conscious act?
RT: I think it was evolving during my time with Procol Harum. On the last album that I did with them, I was starting to write more stuff and there's more of my solos on there. I think it was just a natural progression out of that. There's a very strong Hendrix influence that I picked up by doing the tribute song that Procol Harum did for him called "Song For A Dreamer". Because we were going to do a tribute song, I really studied his music to make the track sound like he could have done it. I think it had a tremendous influence on me because I had never really studied anybody that hard, except for maybe listening to B.B. King before that.
K2K: Married?
RT: Yes, very.
K2K: Any kids?
RT: Three. All grown up. Yeah.
K2K: Had you ever felt that there had been any rumors or reports that may have tarnished your image ever?
RT: No. Not that I know of. (laughs)
K2K: How would you like to be remembered?
RT: As a soulful player.
K2K: What advice would you give an upcoming guitar player or musician in general?
RT: Well, what I would say is, by all means listen to music that you like but don't ever try to learn what other people are doing. Listen to it, absorb it and then try to express yourself.
K2K: Any hobbies?
RT: I don't really have any hobbies. Not really.
K2K: Any last words?
RT: Nope. (laughs)
With that, Robin was off to do a "meet 'n' greet" with some of the fans that had gathered for autographs and well-wishings.
Written by Philip Anderson

Philip Anderson is a musician, in addition to being a writer/photographer. He has performed as a guitarist/vocalist, as well as songwriter, in several bands over the past 20 years. As a writer and photographer, he has been published by several magazines and in several books, and had his works appear on television.

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