Slide guitar ace Sonny Landreth discusses his new instrumental album with Pete Sargeant
For this reviewer familiarity with the work of Louisiana slide guitarist and singer starts with the impressive “South of 1-10” album of 1995. Born in Canton Mississippi, Sonny’s family, eventually settled in Lafayette, Louisiana. His current home is in the Breaux Bridge area. What caught my ear was the fuzzy waspish slide sound on opening cut “Shooting for the Moon”, all set against the very rich ensemble vocals. Also the voodoo-driven“Congo Square” painted a picture to me as it’s quasi Bo Diddley beat thumped along with fluid guitar runs threaded through the number.
PS: A warm welcome from Surrey England and I have been listening to your’ Elemental Journey’ album, Sonny and scribbling down impressions. Where are you at the moment?
SL: I am actually at home at present. We have a couple of days off before going to Japan where I’ll be on tour with Johnny Winter.
PS: Johnny Winter? !
SL: Yeah we go to Japan Wednesday
PS: Wow, his “Second Winter” set is a key slide album for me ,as an influence.
SL: Yeah he’s one of my big heroes too of course. It’s a great honour to be on the bill with him and moreover in Japan. To play our music out there to an appreciative crowd is such a thrill
PS: I do remember the opening track of his first Columbia album and on ‘I’m Yours and I’m Hers’ there’s a double-tracked guitar solo with slide bursting out of on one of the channels
SL: Yeah man. It’s a no frills powerful sound and what he plays is so exciting..the technique , the figures, the drive
PS: I saw that band at a “Sounds of the 70s” show, Royal Albert Hall with Taj Mahal on the same night. Winter had his trio plus Brother Edgar on sax and Keith Emerson on keyboards. What a five piece! ….I have your other records and your phrasing vocally sometimes evokes the late great Irish musician Rory Gallagher, is he someone you have listened to?
SL: You know people do mention Rory to me and I have heard some of his work. I can see why some people see a likeness in what I do despite our very different backgrounds, of course
PS: Your ‘Native Step son’ is pretty close to a Celtic jig or a reel…..
SL: Exactly! The Creole culture and the Cajun culture in Louisiana does have a direct line, a thread. There are definitely some shared musical patterns and tempos influenced by Appalachian and of course blue grass music that somehow connects to the Celtic way of making music but there are other influences on top of that which create what you hear from this area. It’s that hypnotic element that drives the music into your soul, I guess.
PS: Yes – I use open D guitar tuning a lot and whatever I play on the third string as I move it around that hypnotic feel is there. It’s like a Raga…
SL: Yeah. It’s the Celtic drone…..
PS: Well the two Ds humming and the melody moving inside of that….. I really liked your ‘Congo square’ song.
SL: Well thanks. It’s a favourite with a lot of fans
PS: On this album you’re not using words at all so you’re relying on wood, metal, your fingers and your brain to put pictures into our heads. What made you want to create an instrumental album?
SL: OK this really goes back to the early guitar instrumental recordings by artists the Ventures (the Yank counterparts to our Shadows or Dakotas–PS) all those records back then really struck me and excited me and I tell you what Pete “The Ventures in Space”, all the sounds that you hear are made by real instruments. All these other worldly sounds were created on instruments by human beings. The records are creating landscapes, if you will, so yes I heard all that stuff along with other instrumental tracks of the time and of course also film soundtracks and sometimes the tunes can actually be more atmospheric than by using vocals !
PS: Yes, it’s a beautiful album cover, by the way, I love that blue cover. It immediately says to you – there are pictures in here brother, now listen up… I’m going to give you a chance to laugh at me, to laugh at my stupidity. OK? I have notes here on the tracks made as I listened to the album. Your head, your fingers, your instruments are putting these pictures into my brain. Now, ‘Gala Tribe’, it’s got a powerful stealthy tempo and twists and turns. The powerful slide guitar is almost like wordless singing, in the soprano/alto range. OK, what were you doing there?
SL: Well you’ve got that very well. That’s what is definitely is. The guitar is the voice. It creates a lot of tonalities and it’s really important how you phrase that. It’s creates a lot of different melodies also the mix and the chord chemistry are working in there to create the vibe
PS: The next note I’ve got says that the Satch (Joe Satriani –PS) seems to be in Zappa mode, the baroque strings –
SL: Ha ! That’s exactly what I wanted (laughs) nobody has said that to me yet! That was the intended concept, that’s how it’s supposed to work….
PS: When I play a guitar solo I often have someone and their style in my head as appropriate for the moment. Usually it’s someone like Elliot Randall who can play a million times better than me!
SL: The thing with Zappa is that his sound could make long instrumentals work. And they were very thematic. They just flow along. Si I asked Joe to have that Frank thing in his head when contributing
PS: Well yeah,’ Watermelon in Easter Hay’ for a start.
SL: It’s almost more important with an instrumental to keep that tension… when you think of a drone, as we were discussing, I think that for those twists and turn there’s things harmonically, rhythmically, melodically all combining and all that has to come together to create the whole picture.
PS: Now the next note I have says that baroque strings do sound just right but very European (this in contrast to the warm West Coast string arrangements as used by Wes Montgomery on, say, ‘Bumpin’ OR the great Harvey Mandel on ‘Christo Redentor’ –PS) on this the string arrangement doesn’t seem a great distance from ‘finlandia’ or a piece like that.
SL: OK yes – this was definitely an influence and believe it or not it goes back to my days playing a trumpet and working with an orchestra. Now fortunately I had good teachers they were always keen to expose us to all kinds of music, from the classical world, including Eastern Bloc European works. We wen tot Moscow and Belarus, there was just something in the air, all theseplaces with a lot of culture as different parts of the world often have their own distinctive vibe. If you key into it you can pick up on something that you will use in your own music later. So I can hear these melodies in my head just walking around the streets, soaking it all up , as a visitor…
PS: I often have a film soundtrack sort of playing in my head and yes it’s an inspiration. The next track “For you and Forever”, you know, that put in my head Savannah, Georgia… and I’ve never ****ing been there! There’s a book called “In the Garden of Good and Evil” which your tune evokes to me. Do you know this book, there was a film starring Clint Eastwood?
SL: I don’t know that book.
PS: It had that stately Southern feel to it.
SL: For me, on that one the main guitar here has a Chet Atkins feel and it’s in his memory so there’d be something filtering in from that perhaps?
PS: Oh hell, I’ve noted Chet Atkins in my upcoming note on track 4!
SL: Oh really? I confess…. he’s a huge influence….rhythms, note choice, phrasing, tone…a big influence
PS: Track 4 is called Wonder Ride, it made me think of ‘downhill skiers, Chet Atkins feel and Alpine Bridge’… by that I meant a Winter Wonderland atmosphere.
SL: That’s beautiful,…. inspired by Tennessee and other places. Back in the 80s though I was around Colorado and the Rocky Mountains and maybe the winter touch is from that…that time spent.
PS: Sorry we jumped over track 3. ( ‘ Heavy Heart Rising’ – PS) – What I have down here is “Did Sonny have ‘Dear Prudence’ in his head composing this one?”
SL: For me that’s a heartbreak sounding one. Instrumentally, yes, it’s that descending line. The finger pattern creates the harmonic feel around the melody and theme. So the link with ‘Prudence’..yes it may be there
PS: That clawhammer picking technique was something John Lennon was taught by Donovan Leitch. My favourite track on this is 5, ‘Passionola’. It has a detective film or mystery movie feel to it and the great Eric Johnson, your friend is playing on this one. Was he playing a Les Paul on that?
SL: No, Pete he’s playing a Strat on that and so am I. We were going for a mysterious feel .
PS: It should open an ‘L.A. Confidential’ type film.
SL: Yes, it’s all anticipation and tension. Going for the edgy atmosphere…could indeed be in a film scene, I agree
PS: Now ‘Letting Go’, I’ve written down – ‘very sad, the fairground has left town ‘….
SL: It’s about a relationship thing where you’re breaking up with the one you love. People letting go, that’s exactly the mood. Or it could be for parents letting go of a child ? or an emotional event in that kinda territory
PS: The art of life is knowing when to hold on and when to let go. Those being the words of the sage Keith Urban. Often you say to yourself in life ‘I hung onto that too long’ or ‘ Ilet that go too soon.’..
SL: Yes, again I think you’re living in the moment and one would hope that you would recognise that. I find myself a lot more worried than I used to be. I didn’t do much worrying in my 30s and 40s. It’s a different perspective that I have probably evolved to. What we’re talking about is you’re trying again to gather the emotional aspects of something and then set suitable music to that.
PS: I find when I leave a stage I’m not happy just to have made people rock or dance I want people to have been taken through different moods.
SL: Yeah, you do want to transport them somewhere. GIve them a time in another place, sonically
PS: There are bands who play AT the audience…. but you play more FOR the audience.
SL: Hmmm yes to that…I would say FOR and WITH the audience. It combination of taking that energy, giving it to them and then is coming back and you’re right that’s the thing that makes me happy. If I don’t do that… I haven’t done my job.
PS: You know yourself when you’ve played well and when you haven’t. Whatever comments people make afterwards. You know when you’ve played to best of you’re ability and when you’ve not quite got there. You know in your heart when you’ve connected with something outside your body. On the title track you seem to be playing on your guitar a saxophone line, something that Dave Samborn would be playing. Bu I could be totally wrong.
SL: No – I started off playing trumpet when I was 10 years old before I got my first guitar when I was 13. Sometimes a horn line comes out when you’re playing guitar ( the late Paul Butterfield commented when he heard Jeff Beck play guitar that he sounded ‘ like a horn’ – PS)
PS: The drumming’s great on that track. Right, ‘Brave New Girl’, again I’ve put Zappa in mode and mood and I half expected a deep monologue !!
SL: ( Laughs) Well to help the overall feel of the album, to emphasise the thematic element we wanted that tone….that Zappa element here and there
PS: Well I could play that tune to somebody else and they probably wouldn’t know that was you.
SL: Yeah and I do feel good about that. We used the rhythm guitar on the demo more like a click and we built on that and played around in the studio. Then we went out the road last year and it would get that very reaction that you just said, it was indeed unlike anything they’d ever heard me play before BUT t they were really touched by it.
PS: I’ll grab a point for that one. ‘Forgotten Story’ has got this steel drum, Caribbean lope again it put a film theme in my head, Leonardo DiCaprio in a white suit wandering into Trinidad with a new identity trying not to be found out by the people he’s double crossed. Moving on, track 10, ‘Reckless beauty’ which is the most readily identifiable as you and it’s got that galloping tempo. It’s got this great counter point keyboard sound, that made me think of the Charlie Daniels band, stretching out on these moody songs. They’d play their hits and then they’d go into Southern Rock mode, jamming….
SL: I know the segment of the song you’re talking about, ! wanted to stay close to the roots rock feel here. The chord changes made that richer texture, using that energy for the build…
PS: This album that I’ve been listening to quite a lot, believe it or not. It’s got some pastoral moments but overall it’s not as relaxed as I thought it would be and has more tricksier moments. It’s not an album for when you are cooking dinner, you wanted this to be like an art gallery didn’t you?
SL: Somewhere between the two. I do understand what you’re saying on the art gallery point. Entirley Because these ARE like paintings, yes…. individual pieces with an intended mood to give the listener the intended impression.
PS: you know what I’m saying, when you go into a gallery you don’t look at the old or the new pieces you take them all in. I think musician’s help themselves if they have an art gallery approach. Your roots are blues, folk, zydeco, swing but you’re taking them somewhere different. For your own personal a rt gallery your fingers or you voice makes is your own. This was much more a trip through moods than I thought it would be.
SL: I appreciate that. I wanted to take the roots and create new things from them. I wanted to say here’s the music without any visuals. That way you the listener can interpret it all your way and yeah I like the art gallery analogy. This is our way of achieving that. All these imaged and emotions it’s the difference between a gig where you are in the moment, with raw emotions ruling and in contrast this project which is a production piece where you add your open colours to what you hear
PS: When you’re painting you can cram in lots of detail or leave things stark or any place in between. A couple of details in a pastoral scene can tell quite a story.
SL: And when you play if you move outside your comfort zone it’s such a help in developing your art.
PS: Finally Sonny, will any of these tunes end up with lyrics added to become songs?
SL: Not for me they won’t! That would take away a lot of the integrity of it…
PS : Enjoy Japan…I’m sure they’ll enjoy you !
SL : Thanks a lot, we will !
Sonny Landreth’s ‘Elemental Journey’ is out on Landfall Records (Thanks Will, thanks Al)
Pete Sargeant www.fairhearing.co.uk