From injecting some Blues into Procol Harum, through a successful solo career in the 70s to now backing Bryan Ferry in the 90s, Robin Trower has enjoyed a well-travelled career. Douglas J Noble speaks to him about 25 years in music and what the future holds.
After keeping a relatively low profile in recent years, Robin Trower has just played on Bryan Ferry's two soon- to-be-released albums – the covers album Taxi and the all-original Horoscope. The rejuvenated Seventies ' axe hero' meets the suave, elegant ' country gentleman' – an unusual combination, perhaps?
'Oh yeah,' smiles Robin, ' and I hadn't even known Bryan before the album. A chap who was working on the record was a fan of mine and thought it would be a good idea to have some guitar playing so I was called in for Horoscope – the production on it is very lush and layered, using 50 or so tracks which makes it quite complex sounding and not terribly commercial. So, that led to the Taxi album which I played on as well.'
Bryan Ferry, of course, has a reputation for being rather a slow worker – he might now be putting out two new albums within a few months of each other but these are the first new releases from the man since 1987's Bete Noire and this brace of albums will double his post-Roxy Music output since the band split in 1981!
'Yeah, but since I came in towards the end of Horoscope I didn't really notice it too much,' says Robin. 'And for Taxi, we were determined from the outset to capture some energy and excitement to make it feel fresh so we really did bash through as much as possible. Bryan lets everyone play whatever they like then he'll say which bits he particularly likes – he likes people to show him whatever ideas they may have got.
'I used my custom made Strat from the Custom Shop. Since Fender were taken over I've got to know the people there and they've made me about ten or so guitars over the years. I've only had two actually made in the Custom Shop because that was a later thing that they started – before they were built from stock pieces. Of the two, one is my favourite which I use all the time, a comfortable and good sounding guitar fitted with a rosewood neck. The other one is designed like a stock '54 Strat with a maple neck. All my Strats have different sounds, even though I always use Vintage Reissue pickups.'
A veritable connoisseur of Strats, Robin has definite ideas on what he expects from his guitars.
'I always have my guitars built with an American standard neck – a flat neck with a bigger frets. Everything else is Vintage Reissue – a '62 reissue for the tremolo, pickups and electrics, plus gold-plated parts. I find the flatter neck easier to play and it's as close to the real Strat sound as I can get. Whenever I try to change parts I find it goes away from the distinctive Strat sound.'
Bryan Ferry's sophisticated adult rock is a far cry from Robin's musical beginnings, a Southend-based band called the Paramounts. 'We started off as a Rock'n'Roll, R&B band playing covers. We played James Brown, Ray Charles, Bobby Bland, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley – that kind of stuff.'
Robin's big break came when singer Gary Brooker asked him to join Procol Harum shortly after their UK number one single, A Whiter Shade of Pale.
'I had worked with Gary in the Paramounts before he left to form Procol Harum so when they lost their guitarist I was asked to join. Being in Procol was exciting because you knew you were doing something musically challenging and within that context there was room for me to play – not a lot, but enough to keep me happy at the time.'
'I started to write more and more and after a while I felt I was splitting the band in two – there was my kind of guitar-based material on one hand and there was Gary's kind of material on the other. For a couple of albums it worked well but then I felt I needed to have a bit more room to say what I wanted to say.'
On Robin's final album with Procol Harum, Broken Barricades, he really shone, penning three of the the [sic] tracks and with his guitar playing the dominate [sic] factor throughout – but with the obvious consequences he's just outlined for the band's future. Still, the next step Robin Trower's career [sic] was then inspired by Procol's decision to record a tribute to Jimi Hendrix.
'I felt I had better study his playing, 'cause we wanted it to be an obvious tribute. So, I borrowed some albums and sat and listened to them. There were two or three tracks that really, really got into my subconscious; one of them was 1983 from Electric Ladyland – Song for a Dreamer really comes from that.
'Song for a Dreamer showed a style I could be creative within as a guitar player. In fact, all the writing I ever did was only ever to allow me to play something on the guitar – it wasn't as though I was writing songs specifically. I would come up with guitar things I really liked and could solo in – that kind of thing. And that was when I started to really get Hendrix's influences very, very strong.'
Considering it was just 1973, and there were still legions of Hendrix fans mourning the man it was no surprise that Trower's Jimi-esque playing was soon latched on to as the genuine article if not quite the real thing [sic]. What is perhaps more surprising is that Trower wasn't a real Strat devotee until the last days of Procol Harum.
'I was using a Les Paul until the last couple of years,' he revealed in 1988. 'I like the Les Paul because of its darker characteristic voicing, the darker tone. It was so long ago, it's hard to remember the exact set-up. As I recall I was playing through a Marshall head with a Marshall bottom. When I switched over to a Strat, I was using a Hiwatt and an equaliser as well. It was a fairly primitive set-up really; they didn't have the technology in those days.'
The fact the the [sic] set-up was so basic probably explains why the Hendrix comparisons came thick and fast for, like Jimi, Trower specialised in lightning-quick fast funk, hazy atmospherics and gut-wrenching blues. In retrospect, Robin is philosophical about the Hendrix comparisons.
'In a way I felt, "Well it's right" – I mean I was influenced by him and the influence was obvious. At the same time I felt people were missing what I was doing because they couldn't see beyond it. But that was mostly a negative thing in this country. In America I didn't suffer from it at all so it wasn't a problem. In fact, to be spoken of in the same breath or the same sentence as Hendrix was a great thing, you know!'
After Procol Harum, Robin formed a short-lived outfit called Jude [picture here] with Frankie Miller. ' I got together with Frankie just to write with him. Where we went wrong was trying to put a band together. The original idea was the best idea – I was going to be a bit like a Steve Cropper with Otis Redding. Frankie brought in Jimmy Dewer [sic] on bass and Jimmy joined me later when I did the three-piece thing.'
Jimmy Dewer [sic] joined Robin for his first solo album, Twice Removed From Yesterday. Displaying the obvious Hendrix influences that he'd recently acquired, this album also contained Robin's version of BB King's Rock Me Baby, a live favourite which became Robin's encore number. 'What a cheek, eh?! The arrangement is partly lifted from Muddy Waters' You Shook Me with the guitar and the voice doing the melody together.'
Around this period Robin started tuning down a semitone. 'I stumbled upon it – I think I was stringing up one day and didn't tune to anything, ending up a semitone lower than normal. In actual fact now I've gone down another semitone to D. The point is you can string very heavily and still get the bends and the vibrato. I was only using a .10 on the top string when I went down a semitone but I wanted to go even heavier – I did actually use .12 for the top string but that made things harder than they should be even though it sounded great. So now I tune down a tone and use a custom set of strings – .12, .15, .17, .26, .36, .48'.
Robin's second solo album Bridge of Sighs album [sic] is generally regarded as being his best but how does Robin remember it?
'Bridge of Sighs was one of those rare occasions when everything comes together. There was a magic about the whole thing – Jimmy's singing was at its peak and my writing was as good as I've ever written. If anything, I think some of the guitar playing lets it down! I was using a brand-new maple neck 70s Strat, although I had two at the time – one with a maple neck, one with a rosewood neck. I usually had one of each 'cause they've got different sounds. The maple neck has slightly more highs 'cause of the harder surface and you get a little more snap from it but it doesn't have the same warmth of a rosewood neck – that's how I hear it.'
'At the same time the Strats all had 3-way selector switches for the pickups but I've never been into the in-between sounds anyway – they're too twee and poppy sounding for me. My current Strat has a 5-way selector but I never use all five positions. Bridge of Sighs was all middle pick-up and I used the Uni-Vibe quite a lot – it was either the Uni-Vibe or a wah-wah or straight through a Marshall.'
No longer in production, the Uni-Vibe simulated the sound of a rotating speaker cabinet with either Chorus or Vibrato modes and a foot pedal which controlled the speed of the effect.
'I used to have it set so it couldn't go at any other tempo – I used to like that one tempo. It was a very musical effect although being so noisy I started to think that it just wasn't acceptable. I've recently got Roger Mayer's version which hasn't quite got the heart of the original one but it's a lovely effect and very quiet.'
One of the highlights of Bridge of Sighs was Too Rolling Stoned, which has gone on to become one of Robin's best known tracks. 'I came up with the riff when I was just sitting down playing the guitar. I remember trying to make it like a James Brown song – that's where the funkiness comes from and the phrasing of lyric [sic]. I came up with the jam at the end much later on so the song developed over quite a long period – some of that album, Bridge of Sighs, took ages to write and a lot of it got played live before we recorded it. I remember the first time we played Too Rolling Stoned live – it was at Winterland in San Francisco and it got a standing ovation!'
Through constant touring, Robin built up his concert stature from being a support act to headlining to audiences of 20,000. 'I started to tire of non-stop touring in the mid-Seventies. For the music I was doing, playing arenas was just too much like hard work. We were just a three-piece and PA systems weren't up to today's standard so it often didn't sound very good. You were sending energy out and it wouldn't come back to you like it did in smaller venues. I think we'd have been better sticking to theatres where we could have had more fun. So, in the end I took about five years off, trying to concentrate more on writing.'
Over the years Robin has gained four Gold records in the States but without the equivalent success in the UK. 'Perhaps people here didn't like it as much?! I think they're more into guitar playing in the States. You've got to remember that when I came along there wasn't anyone on guitar having success anywhere on guitar [sic] – I kind of broke the mould with Bridge of Sighs. There were still acts from the Sixties around but in general the music scene had moved away from the guitar.'
Disenchanted with rock, Robin brought in American producer Don Davies to produce In City Dreams and Caravan To Midnight, both albums having more of an R&B feel. 'When I heard myself on Rock radio in the States I couldn't relate it to all the other Rock I was hearing so I thought perhaps people were hearing me differently from how I heard myself and I wasn't making the records I thought I was making. So, those albums were an attempt to escape that.'
'Unfortunately, the R&B thing didn't really do anything sales-wise so the record company were pushing me back into doing the three-piece Rock style and encouraged me to co-produce Victims of the Fury with Geoff Emerick who had engineered Bridge of Sighs – that was my first attempt at production.
'I had always been a big fan of Cream and even though I had never met him I thought it would be nice to work with Jack Bruce,' says Robin, explaining how the Bruce, Lordon, Trower line-up came about.
'Unfortunately we didn't have enough time to get to know each other musically – Jack was working on another project at the time. I thought we had done quite a lot on the first album, BLT, but didn't see it going any further – I didn't want to do the Truce album but the record company wanted another.'
Shortly after, Robin left Chrysalis and signed for GNP. 'At that time, if you wanted to make a record it had to be one that would be played on Rock radio in America. Looking back, I can't say I'm very happy with most of that stuff from that period. The production of, say, Passion, puts far more emphasis on atmosphere and songs at the expense of the guitar – the commercial pressures leave very little room for self-expression and it didn't suit my style. That's partly why I'm attracted to my current Blues project – it's an area which is totally open to self-expression.'
'The last solo album I did was In The Line of Fire from about three years ago on Atlantic but that wasn't even released in the UK. Again, the record company wanted a Rock album and brought in Eddie Kramer to produce it – they weren't interested in anything else so I thought I'd go along with it. But you can't work like that and if you're not doing something you like then the audience doesn't really believe it.'
'Since then I've done some live work in the States but not a lot else until the albums with Bryan. I did a tuition video after Arlen Roth phoned me up one day and asked if I'd be interested. I said "no" for months 'cause I didn't think I could explain anything. I gave it some thought and it ended up working pretty well, even though I'm more of an instinctive player – in the video I try encourage people to get their own thing going and not be influenced by other players too much.'
In '91 Procol Harum reformed for The Prodigal Stranger and a tour, Robin playing on the album but not the tour. 'I loved the songs but in the end there wasn't enough room for me to do my thing without ruining the songs and I was wanting to get back to playing Blues.'
Straight Blues, of course, has come back into fashion recently with a younger generation of players such as the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray and Jeff Healey, but Robin still prefers the older Bluesmen. 'I admire these guys as players but the music isn't quite deep enough. I really love Jimmie Vaughan's playing with the Fabulous Thunderbirds – now his playing is deep. I've yet to hear a white guy who really is "the stuff", but Jimmie Vaughan comes pretty close.'
'Of all the Blues guitarists I've seen, Albert King is definitely my favourite of all time. I've never seen anyone play with as much feeling – so soulful! I also like a lot of early, raw BB King. That's probably the biggest single influence on me as a player with the phrasing and everything. He's still a great player now but it's not the stuff I was getting off on before. There are a lot of other great guitarists but Albert and BB are my main ones. I'd love to have jammed with some of these people but when you don't think you're worthy you're not going to put yourself forward, you know? I've never thought of myself as in the same league.'
There's no doubt that Trower's relative absence from the music scene in the last decade has seen him go overlooked as one of the UK's finest power Blues players although the Ferry albums and a forthcoming project might put him back centre stage.
'Lately I've been working on material for a Blues album. I've found that to really play Blues I have to work really hard and I'm finding that I'm not so much working out solos but working out a style with very few notes. Before I would just blow over chords in my soloing but now I think more in terms of melodies. I think Albert King was the best example of that – he used very few notes but managed to get a lot out of them. That's what I've been doing on the guitar for the past year – total concentration on Blues. To make 12 bar Blues songs actually work – boy, that's a tough one! I've always had a thing about trying to play deep but this is going into a different dimension!