BluesWax Sittin’ In With
By Robert Putignano
Sonny Landreth is well known for his dynamic, Louisiana-styled guitar playing and has played with countless musicians from just about every genre imaginable, including Johnny Winter, Jeff Golub, Ana Popovic, Eric Clapton, Eric Johnson, Irma Thomas, Little Feat, John Hiatt, Buckwheat Zydeco, Jimmy Buffett, Shelby Lynne, Charlie Musselwhite, Curtis Salgado, Scrapomatic, Gov’t Mule, Gatemouth Brown, Dr. John, Kenny Neal, Marcia Ball, Mark Knopfler, John Mayall, Wayne Toups, and the list goes on and on. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Landreth near the release of his eleventh recording, Elemental Journey, this time for his own record label, Landfall Records.
Bob Putignano for BluesWax: Hi Sonny, your new Elemental Journey been receiving strong radio support and is also getting good press reviews.
Sonny Landreth: Really? That’s good to know.
BW: Has this all-instrumental album concept been kicking around in your mind for a while?
SL: It has, plus I’ve done instrumental tunes on my earlier albums, but I wanted to see what would happen if I went all the way with and created an all-instrumental recording. I had done a performance with the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra and that show made me think about wanting to do this instrumental record.
BW: It’s eerie in a wonderful way; the strings you used caught me off guard.
SL: A bit of a surprise?
BW: Yes, and it really worked well for me. It’s an unusual facet to add from a guitarist like you.
SL: Yes it is, and it gave me an opportunity to explore more complex chord changes and a lot of melodies. This was a big part of what I wanted to do.
BW: Your band sounds good and the melodies do flow well. Are you planning to take this instrumental concept with the string orchestra on the road?
SL: With TSA and baggage restrictions, I doubt it. [Laughs] But seriously, we’ll mostly do our vocal set as a three-piece, with the usual instrumental tunes, plus some tracks from Elemental Journey.
BW: From an airplay perspective, were you concerned about receiving a good amount of airplay?
SL: It was a concern, I really didn’t know what to expect. But I hadn’t given it too much thought until I got into the middle of making the album, and thought I hope they’ll like it and play it. But so far, it’s been good.
BW: We’re about a year apart in age and we both grew up with a lot of instrumental music.
SL: Oh yeah! Big heroes for me were groups like the Ventures, Wes Montgomery, and Chet Atkins, who made great instrumental albums from that time. And there were pop hits too, like “Telstar,” “Walk Don’t Run,” plus I also liked the film and soundtrack work that I always wanted to do. Instrumentals had an impact on me early on and figured it was something I wanted to get back to.
BW: I’ve always loved instrumentals too! Sometimes here at WFDU listeners call me and ask, could you please play more tunes with vocals?
SL: That’s too funny Bob, but I love lyrics too. That’s the template. You have to have strong melodies, a lot of it, which has to connect to the music so that it has a lyrical quality. Also, the bottleneck slide that I learned as a kid from those great Delta blues albums was important to figure out how to connect emotionally to lyrics. So the new album is more abstract, but I still had to extract the emotional level.
BW: I am sure you understand how it is so important to connect with the audience.
SL: Yes, I have my own barometer and don’t want to start drifting with the music, but I wanted this album to feel experimental. Once I have that experimental switch on, it won’t let me go until I finish it.
BW: Do you think you could convince Eric Clapton to do an all-instrumental album?
SL: I don’t know, but you never know with Eric.
BW: Clapton’s done some instrumental tracks with the Crusaders, and conversely David Sanborn had him just sing on “Gonna Move to the Outskirts Of Town.” Sanborn told him he didn’t need his guitar! That could have been an awkward moment?
SL: Eric probably loved it, plus he such a great singer. Eric’s done so much, so perhaps at some point he’ll get around to making an instrumental album.
BW: And speaking of Clapton, I just read the announcements that his 2013 Crossroads shows will be in New York City at Madison Square Garden for two nights, and I also heard you were the first guitarist to sign up.
SL: Right, how about that! I think it will be great, I’m really excited about it. It’s a great push to perform at Eric’s Crossroads Fests as our energy goes way up.
BW: Clapton does so much for guitarists like you and others with featured spots where sometimes he sits in, that’s got to be a rush? He even had Earl Klugh at the last festival.
SL: You are absolutely right. Eric’s support of bringing so many of us into to focus to a wider audience really rings the bell for us. It really is a touching experience for us. Clapton’s really heartfelt and sincere about doing these fests, plus he’s such a music fan, he’s right there with all of us, and he also contributes to his charity the Crossroads Center in Antigua. (www.CrossroadsAntigua.org)
BW: I remember reading the book Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Jan Reid, where Duane Allman asked the great producer Tom Dowd if he could come to the Layla recording sessions. Dowd was hesitant to ask Eric, but Clapton answered, oh the guy who played on those sessions with Aretha and King Curtis? Now this was way before the Allmans had their rise to fame, so obviously Clapton knows his stuff. And history was made.
SL: Oh yeah and what a history they recorded.
BW: How did you get hooked together with Clapton?
SL: We had mutual friends for years, and eventually they got in touch with me to do the festival. Eric actually came out to a gig we did in London, which amazed me. It was a club and someone asked if I had a guest list? And it was Clapton, we were worried that he might get mobbed, but everyone was very respectful, and we got to hangout until some drunks came in and he quietly left. But one thing led to another and we became friends. He really helped me when I made From the Reach.
BW: Talking about reaching, on Elemental Journey you reached for spots that I’m not aware that you’ve been before?
SL: For me this has been an affirmation of actually going back to old influences. But I wanted continuity to my own sound to keep everything cohesive. Lyrically I felt the slide would be my lead voice so that the music would not get too far from the parish limits.
BW: And you brought in some great guest artists, like Joe Satriani.
SL: Yeah, we met at the first Crossroads fest, then later that year we bumped into each other at a festival in Europe, so we kept in touch and did a few jams together. Then I saw him again in Amsterdam and I invited him to join me on the new CD. Satriani said I’d love to, but I hadn’t thought about a track for him. So two years later I got the song together and I sent it to him as a MP3 to listen to, he actually engineered the track by himself and sent it back to me. This took about three days, and I was worried that the tune didn’t work for him, but he gave us his guitar solo and told us to leave everything that we sent him alone, and that was it.
BW: Sounds like a lot of mutual respect. You are coming to the New York area to perform soon?
SL: Yeah, in September at B.B. King’s on the 27th, and at the Boulton Center on Long Island on the 28th.
BW: You’ve been self-releasing your own music for some time now?
SL: Yes, the big thing about that is that you get to retain the ownership of your own masters, a point I like to often make to younger players. You know the deal with labels and how that goes. We are working at getting at my old catalog and hopefully we’ll get that done soon, like we did with Levee Town on Sugar Hill from 2000. I have a lot of reels of tape in my hallway and started going through them, most were instrumentals, so we went into the studio and listened to them and felt the tracks held up well and stood the test of time.
BW: Were the tapes well preserved?
SL: Yes, I have the air conditioning on in the hallway of my home which helps.
BW: Especially where you live in Louisiana.
SL: For sure, and we went back and expanded Levee Town as a two-disc set.
BW: I always enjoy when artists and labels reach back to cull from older sessions, as there are some great gems buried on some of those tapes.
SL: I love it too. It’s not only good to look forward, but it’s also good to go back.
BW: I live for some of those previously unreleased bonus tracks!
SL: It’s fun.
BW: Is it hard to come up with names for instrumentals?
SL: That’s a good question, and again the names come from an emotional place. I do like the abstract side of it where people get to write songs about their own life experiences, as these songs are in a way stories without words. Similar to recording on a movie soundtrack which is something that was and is attractive to me.
BW: That’s got to be an interesting challenge?
SL: Yes. I’ve had some experience with working with Mike Post, who is amazing to watch and to see how he works. I really enjoy this type of work, it’s a different mindset.
BW: Another art form all in itself. But sometimes the music doesn’t fit the occasion.
SL: I know, but when it works it’s compelling to make that connection in a movie or TV show to raise the bar to a higher level.
BW: But getting back to naming instrumentals and not being a musician, I just cannot fathom how you do that?
SL: When I get an idea for a song almost immediately there’s an image that comes to me that is a working title. I have to have something to work with. I learned to roll with it to see where it takes me and the listeners. Guys like Frank Zappa would make fun of something and come up with outrageous titles. I loved Frank Zappa. In fact he was an inspiration for Elemental Journey. I loved the way he would take things outside and head into different directions, I thought about how he did that a lot. One of my favorites was Hot Rats, which was so innovative and creative. There will never be anything else like that again.
BW: Oh yes FZ’s Hot Rats with Sugarcane Harris, Max Bennett, and John Guerin, what a unit! Sugarcane could play all kinds of music, but up until Hot Rats Guerin and Bennett were mostly jazz session players. Bennett is such a rare musician who not only played with Zappa but he also spent many years with Ella Fitzgerald, how many players have a resume like that!
SL: Not many, but that’s exactly what Zappa was probably looking for and needed.
BW: Did you have any interaction with Zappa?
SL: Unfortunately not, I was just a bystander and a big fan. That time was a real creative time for music. Amazing music was made in the seventies. I think that time era set standards and raised the bar for music. To think about how music was made and how it was done still amazes me.
BW: George Duke told me that Zappa lived, ate, and devoured music nearly around the clock seven days a week.
SL: I’m sure, plus record labels at that time set a precedent to trying different things with lots of different players. From where I’m at looking back at all of those great recordings I try to think where do I/we go with this? I like to keep my antennae up to learn from previous recordings and artists, but I also need to move forward. So I’ve been fortunate to been able to do this.
BW: Having your own label helps.
SL: There’s a beauty and beast to having my own label.
BW: Especially financially.
SL: Oh, that… [Laughs]
BW: All the power to you Sonny. Elemental Journey took your music to a new level. How did you come up with the title track name?
SL: Well, I tend to lean toward one track as being the title for an album, because there’s usually one song or vibe of one song that sums up the feel of the entire album. It’s also kind of a nod to the big bands, like Ellington’s “Sentimental Journey.” I was a big Ellington and Basie fan, got to hear both of them when I was a kid. I was fortunate growing up close to New Orleans as so much music came through town. So the notion that there are all these different influences and different kinds of players that gave me the knowledge to let me take my music to another place.
BW: And you did a fine job Sonny.
SL: I appreciate your support too Bob.
BW: Thank you Sonny.
Bob Putignano is a senior contributing editor at BluesWax, a contributing writer at Blues Revue, and the heart and soul of Sounds of Blue.
About the Author: