‘Everything is changing, just go with it’ An interview with Sonny Landreth
Sonny Landreth is performing at the Big Muddy Blues Festival on Sunday, September 4. As possibly the best slide guitar player in the world, Landreth has a long and storied career. I rang the Louisiana native up to chat, and he glided across topics from the Deep Water Horizon fiasco to Eddie Van Halen.
Joe Duepner: Hey, how’s it going?
Sonny Landreth: It’s going good. I’m home, that’s a good thing. We’ve been in the studio and working on a new album. So we plugged holes in the schedule so we could have the time to do that. I’m hoping to have everything finished in January. And release it in April of next year.
Sounds great. Are you working under a title?
I have a few that are in the running (laughs), so I guess after assembling it, I’ll get working on it.
I know on your last album there were a few songs that dealt with Katrina. Do you have anything about the BP Oil disaster on the new album?
First of all that was horrible. Beyond imagining. I’m sure at one point there will be a song out of me as everyone else around here. But this project I’m doing is going to be my first all instrumental type. So you know, there’s a few titles yet to make their way into it, so there might be one that makes its way into it yet.
How did that affect the crawfishermen situation down there?
Yeah, well it really messed all that up. It was really rough, of course on all the locals, distributors and fishermen. It is a lot better now, but the craw fishers, it was especially tough on them.
Such a terrible thing for the entire area. On that note, what’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you on tour?
Well, the worst thing would have to be, there’s no question, we were in New York City for 9/11, and that was absolutely the worst. Not even to mention the tragedy, which is mind boggling, and dealing with all that, the damage to the psyche as individuals and the entire city, the entire country, and the world. That’s something I’ll never forget.
Then just the practical logistics of trying to get out of the city. Everything was shut down. I was with John Hiatt at the time, so it was John Hiatt and the Goners. Fortunately our road manager somehow found the last van in the city, and was able to get some of the crew out across the bridge with our gear. They had parked the bus on the other side of the bridge because there’s no place to park in Manhattan. So the rest of us went down to the train station and caught a train to Philadelphia. Then when the crew could finally make it across the bridge and get on the bus and pick us up on the bus, we headed straight for Nashville.
The bass player and I jumped out there and Avis [Rental] was giving out free cars to anyone affected by event so we drove straight home to Lafayette, La. There was just a lot going on, you know what I mean? This is a long-winded answer, but we went back [to the East coast] a week later to go back and see all that. Drove by the Pentagon and all that. We did shows in the area and radio things involved in all that.
The other thing was, we were out on the tour with BB King, so we had to go back and finish out those gigs that we missed. And I felt good for that, because that’s what we had to offer: a distraction and a good way for people to kick back and enjoy music.
On the flipside do you have a favorite single moment you had on tour?
Well, it’s been a lot of them. It’s a tough call. One in particular I’d have to say: Eric Clapton walking out and sitting in with us at the Crossroads Festival. That’s a real highlight for me. He’s one of my original guitar heroes, a huge influence. That’s pretty top of the charts.
Will your new album feature a lot of collaborations as on “From the Reach”?
Well, not as many. There are going to be a few guests. I’ve got my shortlist and I’m in the process of working that out now. I’d love to do that again, and in fact kind of my next idea in that direction would be an acoustic album with some of my acoustic guitar playing friends. Just try and do a completely different type of thing like that.
When you were working with Mark Knopfler on “From the Reach,” did you actually jump across the pond to work with him?
No I didn’t this time. I have before, but not this time. As was the case with Eric Clapton, it was great because some of the guys were just coming off of long tours and I made the invitation if anyone wanted to come here we’d give them the Southern Louisiana hospitality. But I knew everyone would want to be home after the long time. I said of course I’d come out there. But it was just a lot easier the other way. They all have their own studios and engineers. It’s beautiful.
It’s one of the great things about the technology today. I couldn’t have made that album [From the Reach] 20 years ago. Also, I did work with Dr. John in New Orleans and I went up to Nashville and worked with Vince Gill. The plan was to go work with Robben Ford in his hometown in Ojai, California. But unfortunately the only two days he had to do it I had like the next day to be on the East Coast. Literally, I couldn’t make the gig from out there. It was an early show, I think it was a festival where I went on early in the day. So I didn’t get to do that. But there is a next time.
Speaking of technology and 20 years ago, I don’t know if you’re aware, Eddie Van Halen used to play with his back to the audience so nobody would be able to see how he made certain sounds on his guitar. With today’s technology, people can see close-up shots of your technique on the Internet. Are you worried that someone might steal your licks or do you like people learning how to do what you do?
No, for me to the fact that anybody cares enough to do any of that. To go to the trouble, I’m honored. I used to worry about infringement, copyrights, and all that. Because I come from the old school in that regard. Then I realized that everything is changing, just go with it, and look at the Grateful Dead and how they were. They let them all have their own area in a field, set all their gear up. I just have a whole different attitude about it now. The music should speak for itself, that’s the most important thing. If there’s something on guitar that someone else picks up, and they take it and do something different with it then, then that’s great. And certainly my heroes, I had inspiration from them from the technical standpoint. I think in a way it’s got a life of its own, and I’m glad that anyone really cares. That wasn’t always the case.
You’re coming to St. Louis for the Big Muddy Blues Festival. Is that just a one off?
It is actually. I’m trying to stay home and get ahead, or at least hit a deadline as I’ve already blown through so many for myself. The problem of being the head of your own label, I’m also the janitor, and also the A&R guy, and inherent problems built in with that for someone like me. But that’s one I really wanted to do. So when it came up I said, “Let’s just go do it and do it well.” I’m really looking forward to it.
We’re looking forward to having you here for the festival. Thanks for coming up.
Hey, thanks for listening.
Sonny Landreth performs at the Big Muddy Blues Festival on September 4.