INTERVIEW: Sonny Landreth, Blues guitarist and band leader

After a dozen acclaimed albums, virtuoso slide guitarist and bandleader Sonny Landreth found himself at an artistic crossroads. He wanted to finally create the full – length acoustic collection his fans had long requested. But he was also itching to capture the sound of his stalwart electric trio augmented by a couple of his favorite collaborators. And the time was certainly right for an elastic, career-spanning double- live album. ‘Recorded Live in Lafayette’ is an album you need to hear if you love the Blues infused with the sounds of Louisiana – it’s 93 minutes of full-band acoustic and electric bottleneck lightning.  

We caught up with Sonny, Grammy nominee and winner of back-to-back Blues Music Awards for Best Guitarist and Best Blues Album to talk all about his ‘Blues Attack.’ 

Mark: Thank you so much for talking with us today. I’ve just been listening to your wonderful new album I think for about the tenth time. You’re well-known and well respected back home in the US but probably not as well known to Australian audiences. Can you tell us a little about your journey – how did we get to this wonderful career spanning double album?

Sonny: Well it’s interesting because next thing you know you look back and forty-something years have blown by. I started out playing the trumpet in school, but the guitar was my first love and by the time I was thirteen I’d begun that journey really. And once I discovered the Bluesmen, the repertoire and all the great Blues cats, in particular bottleneck slide that set me on my own path. I always had my own bands, I always wanted to write songs, and eventually I made a couple of local albums that got heard by other people and one thing led to another and then I met John Hyatt and put a band together for him and when I did that he really opened the door for me on a national level, and that was way back in 1987. And that led to a few more opportunities that led to making my own albums for a major label for a time, and years go by… A big part of the business is that you never know who’s gonna be in the audience, or drop by the studio or somewhere else and that leads to another experience. I’ve been really fortunate in that respect. But I love all kinds of music and the Blues is just a way to crystalize all those different genres and styles an influences, particularly with the slide guitar.

Mark: You recorded in Lafayette – could you have recorded anywhere else and it turned out so heartfelt, or did the location make it extra special for you?

Sonny: Well you know what I could have but in this case recording an album at home, I live in Lafayette, Louisiana. It has a beautiful new venue there that’s been there for a few years, it’s a beautiful performance arts theatre and my engineer lives just a block away and I’m just down the road so we could pool our resources with all the equipment and gear. And the band’s all in the area so it just made a lot more sense for everyone to be able to go home and sleep in their bed at night. (laughs) It was nice to have all my gear, my amps and speakers and the works all set up. And also it gave us the opportunity to record three nights and take the best for this album. There’s nothing like having a home town crowd to get the energy up, and we wanted to capture that ass well.

Mark: With so many albums under you belt dating back to 1981, how hard was it choosing the songs?

Sonny: Well that was quite a process, but you know some of them were easy because they just had been around and been that way for many years in and out of the set. But more to the point were the songs for the acoustic album, it had been an idea that had been around for any years but I also wanted to play with my trio and a couple of other cool cats but we’d never done that exact configuration and I go way back with both of those guys. And then I thought maybe I should do more of a retrospect of all different songs from different points in my career, and in the end we just ended up doing all of that! So that helped me to select the songs and I though what would be interesting with the acoustic set was to pick songs that were amped up more or had bigger production in the studio and do those in that setting and that would be more dynamic. And we found that worked quite well for certain songs and also coming out to do a short acoustic set and opening the evening lie that, taking a short break and then doing the electric material – I thought that range of material worked better that way.

Mark: The acoustic treatment brings out new sounds and textures to some of your best known songs were you pleased with the results and are we likely to hear more acoustic blues in the future? Had you even tried that before?

Sonny: Some we had, but you know what’s really interesting A lot of players will tell you this, when you’re working on a song in the early stages a lot of times it starts out on an acoustic instrument. You’re sitting round the house and you get an idea, so often I’d make a demo like that, and often that would be the core of the song and we’d then take that into the studio and it would become something else. So it was cool to kind of go back and embrace that again and build each song that way, and let that be more the version. And really it was cool, I thought that ‘Creole Angel’ and ‘Bound by the Blues’ – those songs really spoke better and the ideas of the songs, the content and the context got across better that way.

Mark: As an artist is it an interesting process to go back to the roots of the songs? Do you have different thoughts now than you did at the time? Do you rediscover? Wondered what would happen if you took a slightly different path with a song?

Sonny: I know what you mean, but I learned a long time ago that you really don’t want to get into looking back: thinking what about this or what about that. I think as you grow you improve on ideas and how you get them across, everything from the lyrics to how you support building the layers of a song. And technically in the studio you grow and sometimes you think maybe I shouldn’t do that but you move on, and I don’t really get too hung up about it. But what I mostly wanted always to do was to write songs that stood the test of time, so if I could go back all those years pick a song and still get something from it, that’s a good thing and I think if it shows more in the long run than it did at the time I originally did it, that’s worked.

Mark: Does inspiration change as you grow older? Do you seek it out more than it finds you?

Sonny: Well it’s true when I was younger man that I was so fired up nothing could stop me! But you know I still get excited about playing the shows and at a lot of these Festivals that we do that’s a great chance to hear some of my colleagues and other contemporaries and the best new musicians. And that’s still really cool, that inspires me. I still get inspired by other instruments and other genres of music and it’s always cool to see other people work especially the studio side of things to see how others tackle things from a production angle. So I just from way back decided keep my antennas up 24-7 and you always hope that someone else cosmic dust rubs off on you somehow! (laughs) Keep filling up the mojo!

Mark: You’ve got a great band behind you and you’ve played with a lot of great musicians over the years – is there anyone you’d love to work with who maybe time and circumstances have conspired to mean you haven’t had the chance to yet?

Sonny: well from the guitar hero part of it I’d sure like to work with Jeff Beck, and it almost happened a couple of times but that one hasn’t happened just yet.

Mark: When can we see you next live? Are you taking this set out on tour?

Sonny: Oh yeah, we’re kind of changing some of the songs to keep it interesting for everyone involved and we’ll work that into a rotation, but the album is the core of what we’ll be doing live: we’ll come out and do an acoustic set, take a short break then come out with the electric. And it’s fun. I predict we’ll be back in Australia next year because I’ve done a lot of interviews (laughs) and I’m excited – we played Byron Bay a few years back and that was great so I’m looking forward to stretching it out more and play a lot more places.

Mark: When did you know music would be your life? Was it something that hit you early?

Sonny: well it’s funny, even as a little kid I knew that was what I wanted to do. Elvis Presley was the big deal of course when he broke out, I was born in Mississippi and we were still living there when I was a little kid and I had an older brother Steve, five years older than me and he was always bringing music into the house and that’s when I heard those records. And then on Elvis’ first TV appearance they panned over to Scotty Moore and I thought “That’s the sound”! That’s what I wanted to do so it was really more about Scotty for me than Elvis. I had other interests as a kid growing up but it always seemed like it was deemed to be and I’ve had no regrets. It’s the thing that gets you out f the bed in the morning and gives you value and fulfilment and I feel really fortunate in that respect to have felt that so early on and still be doing it all these years later. I’ll keep doing it as long as I can and as long as I’m able till someone pulls out the trap door, you know.

Mark: And you’re continuing to give a lot of people a lot of pleasure. What advice would you give to a young aspiring Blues guitarist today?

Sonny: Well I do talk to a lot of kids and do workshops every now and again, and I just tell them to do your homework, woodshed and get your chops together, but also dig in deeper to the history and the back story to these songs and who made the music and who were they influenced by, and what was their story and their experience, what did they go through? And it just takes it to another level it’s not just a matter of learning the licks because at some point you’ve got to take that technique and turn it into music. And having that understanding enriches it a lot. And just be open to anything that’s well done on any instrument in any genre because that also takes you a long way down the road.

Mark: I’ve got three impossible questions for you now if that’s OK?

Sonny: (laughs)

Mark: If you wanted to describe the Blues to someone who had never heard of it – what song of yours would you play them that best exemplifies the best of that genre of music or at least what it means to you?

Sonny: Well I think probably ‘Bound by the Blues’ simply because it was intended a tribute and also layered with the meaning from the backstory I was just explaining, and how our heroes influence us and how that’s carried through the generations. It’s about taking the torch and running with it and that’s a real important lesson. And that song addresses that head on, I mean actual Blues songs speak from themselves. But from my perspective the Blues is a universal language no matter where you are – it’s about people that live and try to move on in the face of adversity and those challenges unite us more than you’d think, and that’s what I really love about the Blues.

Mark: If you could have been a ‘fly on the wall’ for the creation of any great album, just to see how the magic happened, what’s that album for you?

Sonny: I’d have to say ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ I love it. We were in London one year at the old BBC studios and I actually met George Martin one year at there at Air studios with Mark Knopfler and he’s playing a track I overdubbed on and when he gets to my solo, and I’m sitting on one chair is George Martin and then Mark Knopfler, and there’s Mark is pushing up the levels of my amp and George Martin is tapping his foot! That was a big moment!

Mark: (laughs)

Sonny: That made me really happy. But yeah I have to say that album.

Mark: Incredible album, and hard to believe its 50 years old this year.

Sonny: And they did it with two four track recorders! It just goes to show you! Such an epiphany in terms of creativity and impact, but they had the content so it wouldn’t have mattered what they recorded it on! It influenced everyone and opened up all kinds of possibilities.

Mark: And finally – what is the meaning of life?

Sonny: The meaning of life is finding something you can do that gets you through the day and makes you feel like you’ve made a difference. Whatever that is, if its creative and you can build upon it you’ve got something! That’s all I got!

Mark: That’s all you need.

Sonny: That’s all I got! (laughs)

Mark: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to The Rockpit today Sonny, it’s been a pleasure. And that is all I got!

Sonny: (laughs) I appreciate it, if we make it down there make sure you come up and say hello.

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