Pat Travers was not what I expected. Sure, the guitar legend has played with damn near everyone, and sure he’s revered by anyone who touches a guitar. I expected to hear about Hendrix and his prolific back catalog. And I knew that everyone from Alex Lifeson to Kirk Hammett think the man is an untouchable master of hard rock guitar.
But I didn’t expect to talk about Gino Vanelli or Shawn Colvin. Or to learn that he is forging ahead with three (!!) new albums in the next year alone, among them his thoroughly researched, reverently irreverent hard rock re-imagining of historic blues songs entitled Blues on Fire (released July 31).
Like increasing numbers of his generation of musicians, he has embraced social media, self-promotion, and hand-signing CDs in his kitchen. In fact, it was while listening to a stream of old blues music online that he got the bug to record blues songs from the early 20th century by the likes of Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, and many others.
Pat is a funny, smart, and tirelessly upbeat guy. I caught up with him in brief lull in his US touring schedule to talk about what he’s been up to, some of his favorite records, and how he’s using Facebook to connect with his fans like never before.
You said on your Facebook page the other day that it “seems like I’ve been recording forever…”
Yeah, especially this year! It really started right at the very beginning of the year. Cleopatra Records – they do a lot of tribute albums and things – so occasionally they’ll toss me what I call “busy work.” They’ll say “Hey, we’re doing a Who tribute album, can you cover ‘Behind Blue Eyes?’” And I’ll say, “Yeah, sure, why not?” because it’s fun to do. I did this Black Keys one for them, which was unusual for me because the guy sings mostly in a higher, falsetto voice. And I had lost my falsetto voice about 30 years ago! [Laughs] It just disappeared. I used to have this incredible… if you listen to my first three albums, all those vocals and backing vocals are all me, I did all of it. It just disappeared, I dunno.
And then it came back Christmas Eve! So, it was the strangest thing. I don’t know why and I even asked one of my doctor friends and he said, “Well, maybe the swelling finally went down.” As strange as that sounds… so I have this new sort of vocal thing going on, and I don’t know if that was what prompted the folks at Cleopatra to ask me if I wanted to do these songs from the 1920’s [for Blues on Fire]. But I did.
Anyway, my point was that this year I did three separate things for Cleopatra, then they asked me to do the twelve songs for [Blues on Fire], which I agreed to, and then I signed a new record deal with Frontiers Records in Italy, and then I produced a live CD for them, and I’m in the middle of recording a CD for release next year. Then I also released my own EP [Dogs & Guitars] and am selling it off of Facebook. I’m signing every one and numbering them, which has been fun. It’s an unusual thing to do.
So, do you prefer being in the studio or out on the road?
No, I think now I’ve got a real cool system going with regards to the recording studio. The one I use exclusively is literally a mile up the street from my house, and it’s my old drummer Sean Shannon who runs the studio. I go in there and, like with [Blues on Fire], in the morning I would take four or five of these artists from the ‘20s, listen to two or three songs from each one, and I would have to get the lyrics because sometimes it’s pretty hard to figure out what these guys are saying. If I found a song where I could get a handle on the lyrics, I’d go find something in the guitar part – some obscure little hook – and I would grab that and amplify that, and that would become the main guitar riff for that particular song.
Then I would just do it with the guitar and a click track, then add bass and another guitar, then put some vocal on it and last thing would be the drums, and we just got this nice flow going. I’m having a ball in the studio! I’m super creative for some reason this year and just seem to be never runnin’ out of ideas. That’s a lot of fun, and they all seem to be good ones, too. [Laughs] I’ve always had lots of ideas, not all of them were great, but this year seems like most of them are pretty good.
With Blues on Fire, the records due out next year, the Rock Legends Cruise, and your current tour – plus a European tour – you sound pretty motivated.
I know! It’s a lot of work, but I guess it just has to be done. Like I said, as long as the ideas keep coming for the songs and stuff… and they just seem to keep coming! I’m happy with that, and I’ll just keep recording this stuff as long as I keep writing it. A lot of things sort of converged here all at once or… maybe I know more what I’m doin’, I guess, finally. [Laughs]
You picked some pretty heavy songs for Blues on Fire. “Death Letter” by Son House stands out…
That’s an awesome song. I love the lyrics in that song. They are so… they give me the creeps. That particular take was the third one I did, because there was no way… I had to do it all in one take. I had the guitar and I’m singing and playing at the same time, and there was no way to stop and start. It had to be one complete take. I had to really be in the mood to do it, too, which wasn’t hard to do with those lyrics. It really was easy to somehow put myself in that position of the person singing that song. I’m actually anxious to try that one live where I’ll do possibly the first half of it by myself and have the band really kick in about halfway through. It should be pretty deadly.
It really is a gut-punch of a song, and I had to slow it down. If you’re familiar with all the versions that Son House did, they’re pretty peppy because he has this particular rhythm, this slap, kind of right-hand thing that he does, and so it’s a little faster. But when I actually read the lyrics I thought, I gotta slow this down and just let these words ring out and tell the story.
What was your process when you were deciding how to interpret the songs on the album?
The first track I did was “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and I originally thought that that was going to be mostly the direction I was going to go, with kind of acoustic guitar and I even used an acoustic fretless bass on that and kept it pretty simple. But then I don’t really know what happened! [Laughs]
Well, I know what happened in one case on “Black Dog Blues.” A real good friend of mine, Ronnie Montrose, died this year. The morning I found out I had to go into the studio and I thought, I’m just gonna do this for Ronnie. I just wanted to sound as much like him. So when you hear that opening chord on “Black Dog Blues” that’s me doing Ronnie Montrose as best I can. Every time I hear it I think, “Yeah! He would’ve loved that!” There’s no thirds, it’s all fifths. I was glad I was able to have that outlet because it was not fun to find out what he’d done.
What records in your collection at the outset of your career influenced your playing style the most?
Well, to the early/mid ‘70s were when albums really ruled. In so many ways, you know? The artwork… bands were trying to release a different record every time and not rehash something that may have been a hit on the album before. You really wanted to see what your band was up to! Had they all grown beards and gone acoustic? Bastards! [Laughs]
When I was about 19, I had a Marantz power amp and couple of Advent speakers and a Thorens turntable. I remember one of my favorite records then was Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. That was a double album and there’s really not one bad song on that entire thing. Every song has got something going with it. That’s a lot of work! [Laughs] And it sounded awesome, too, the production was always really, really good.
Another album was Hendrix’ Electric Ladyland, which is kind of a funny-sounding record because they tried to cram a LOT on one side. I know people have a certain nostalgia for [vinyl] albums and they can sound awesome. They really can. But when I started to make records myself I was always so disappointed when I was in the studio, making the recording, and it would ultimately end up with your ½ inch/30 inch cassette and master tape and it sounded awesome! And then you’d run it over to where they cut the actual record and the first thing the engineer did there was lop off all the bottom end and lop off all the top end! [Laughs] It was like, “Aw, man! What’d you do?” [Laughs] Immediately we were losing something. What’s cool is that XM Radio has digitally re-mastered stuff so you’re not listening to the album version, you’re listening to the original studio masters. There’s so much more bottom and top end on them.
Do you feel like there’s anybody in particular that you heard where you thought, “I want to sound like THAT?”
The desire to play guitar started very early for me, when I was about nine years and I saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. I mean, right away I said, “Man, that’s what I want to do!” Even at nine years old! So, I was pretty secure in that idea, I got my first guitar when I was twelve and I really never looked back. Of course, hearing Jimi Hendrix for the first time – that was like hearing an alien – a close encounter of the third kind. It was so different and still today. Much copied, but never duplicated, ever.
It wasn’t like he didn’t have a lot of mud on him. He’d been around. He started basically about the same age I did. He even played some of the same songs that I did when I was in bands at 15, 16 – “The Midnight Hour,” “Knock on Wood.” But then when he went to England, I don’t know why, but he just blossomed and he was so prolific and recorded two albums in nine months! That sort of happened to me, in a way, too when I went to England. I was only 21 and I was scared to death! But on the other hand, you have this desire that you can’t fail, that you’ve gotta succeed. It was all new and scary and whatever, but I got lucky and it worked for me.
What happened once I got signed to a record label and they wanted us to produce albums and go on tour and all that, over and over and over again, it kind of got difficult to listen to music for pure enjoyment. I remember… the last time I really enjoyed listening to music was when I was in Coconut Grove in about ’78 or ’79. I used to listen to Gino Vannelli’s Brother to Brother album because the drummer was awesome and the album sounded awesome, too.
Some people might not know that you’re a multi-instrumentalist. Do you write for guitar first, or do you write for the band first?
Guitar is definitely my main instrument, but I write music for every instrument. Well, at least guitar, bass, drums, and some keyboards, vocals and things. I just add my guitar part later. It’s kind of an afterthought because I’m building the song from some structure that I start with and then I syncrohnize the bass and the drums with that, add a second guitar part, then put the vocals over it and then go, “Oh, by the way, I’d better add some dazzling guitar solo at some point.” [Laughs] And I do that, too. [Laughs]
The “Daily Musical Rx” posts on your FB page are really interesting. You choose from a variety of songs to show your fans…
Well, it was my wife who started the Facebook page almost three years ago. Initially, I paid no attention and she, for the first four or five weeks posted as me. But then I saw the person counter and I saw it approaching 500 and I guess I’m kind of competitive and I wanted to see that clicker click over a lot more times, so I started posting and kind of experimenting. Sometimes I would do non sequiturs… I really didn’t know what to do and I was kind of learning my way. I hit on this idea: If I’m thinking of a song I really liked and I want to share it, I’ll do that and I’ll tell [my Facebook fans] why this song is important to me. And people really responded to it. So, I started to call it “My Daily Musical Rx.”
People respond to it and I’m gonna branch out and do a podcast. Now, I know I keep talking about this and I even have a webpage dedicated to that and all I have to do is start recording. Once I do that, I’ll be able to play the song in real time and talk about it as opposed to just typing a few sentences.
What song has gotten the biggest reaction from people so far?
Blue Cheer’s “Summertime Blues.” I couldn’t believe it! First of all, I told my wife “I’m going to post this.” And she said, “Don’t you post that there!” Anyway, I had to go out of town and was in a hotel room so I posted it anyway, and everyone went nuts! They just loved it, you know? It was awesome! You never really know, so I try to come up with a variety of things. I’m also aware that people like certain things more than other things, so if I see some of my numbers lagging I know maybe it’s time to put up an AC/DC tune or something like that.
Or something from your back catalog?
[Laughs] My wife, when I’m away, she sort of takes over the Facebook posts. She is the one who generally plays songs of mine. I try to do other tunes; very rarely do I post one of my own songs.
Do you have a favorite song of your own?
Well, this material that I’m working on right now that nobody’s got a chance to hear and won’t hear ‘til next year, is some of the most exciting stuff. I really feel it’s so strong and catchy and I know what I’m doing, now. So that’s exciting. I’m happy about the blues album. I listened to it the other day and I was going, “Wow! That sounds really good!” I was on a roll with that one, that’s for sure. It came out sounding great, I think. Maybe we’ll get a Grammy nod. That’s what I’m looking for. [Laughs] Nothing too much! We don’t even have to win – I just wanna be invited to the party! [Laughs]
You probably should tone down the whole “exposing the music industry for what it is” stuff if you want to get a Grammy nom.
Well, yeah I kinda stopped doing that for a while. But people love it, you know? People love that stuff.
There’s a system in front of new artists – the internet – that allows you to develop your own fanbase and really decide what you want to do. You just have to put a lot of effort into it and you don’t have to necessarily win the lotto and get the record deal. These days, record deals are horrible! I mean, the one I signed with Frontiers Records was kind of crappy, but I knew what I was doing. They’re gonna promote and put the (next) CD out next year, and that’s fine so I needed to do that. But I wasn’t thrilled about it. But we just released our own EP and had orders for over 300 of them, which is about the capacity that we can handle anyway ‘cause we’re burning them and packaging and mailing them.
The cool thing about an album was that because it contained the analog and the music was on there it was important in itself. Now CDs… not so much. Once you rip it, it doesn’t matter anymore. So I thought why not make the CD itself something that has a little value. If I sign and number it it gives it some… people can still rip it, but they can keep the CD. They have something that’s got some soul to it – it was produced right here in our kitchen! [Laughs]
So, what you’re saying is that you still don’t have time to sit and really listen to music.
[Laughs] Music, unfortunately for me now, it’s hard to listen to something for just your enjoyment. I tend to sort of tear it all apart and listen to the production. It kind of takes all the fun out of it. But if I listen to something like the old blues stuff or what I call the Chicago “big voice” blues – Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters – there’s just something about those guys that projected this thing and it just speaks to me and makes me feel good. It makes my ears feel good as opposed to a lot of other stuff that’s over-produced and over-compressed and over-everything.
Something else I listen to for enjoyment would be like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony or some Howlin’ Wolf or something – I know those things are completely different. Another thing I really like is something like Shawn Colvin because her voice is so pure. It’s like ear candy for me because her pitch is so perfect. She never misses anything. It’s awesome for me to hear that.
You love so many different aspects of music, your record collection must be pretty random.
Yeah. Now with the internet… unfortunately I’ve been so busy working on one album after another this year… I’ve felt guilty if I hadn’t been working on a current song. I’m kind of under the gun here and have quite a bit of work left to do, so I can’t really allow myself to listen to music for the fun of it. If I’m going to be listening to music, it has to be my own music and I have to be finishing these songs. My homework is due September 1st, and I don’t know if the dogs can eat it or not! [Laughs]
Blues on Fire, a collection of historic blues songs re-imagined by the guitar legend, is out now on Cleopatra Records. Catch Pat Travers on tour this summer at one of his East Coast or West Coast dates throughout the summer.