Kenny Wayne Shepherd Interview

December 21, 2011 in Uncategorized

Kenny Wayne Shepherd returned to the UK after a long absence to play a one-off show at Camden’s KoKo. He spoke to Blues In Britain before the show about the making of his latest album How I Go, his chart success and his critics. Interview by Moray Stuart; photo by Al Stuart.

It’s been a while since you were last here in the UK?

It’s been a long time! It’s been too long, we don’t plan on it being taking that long again! Actually we’re making plans already on coming back next year. I think the last time was 2000 / 2001 so like maybe ten years ago: I’m not proud to say that!

You’ve got quite a few shows lined up in Europe, including several in Germany but just one here, is it harder getting UK gigs?

I’m not sure why we’re only doing the one here; I think it might be partly because it’s been a while since we were here last and I think they [his management] wanted to do just one and try to leave a good impression so that we could set the stage for us to come back and do more. Certainly when we come back here we plan on playing more than just one in London, and some other shows around the UK. Of course the first time I came to play in London that was with the Eagles, on the Hell Freezes Over tour: played Wembley Stadium three nights in a row. It was fantastic, so I think I came in right at the top of the ladder there!

You’re here to promote How I Go, your 7th album including a live album and the 10 Days Out documentary, and all of those have topped the blues chart at one point or another. It may be a difficult question to answer, but how would you account for that success?

Well, I don’t know, I just do what I love to do and play the music that I love to play and try and make the best album that I can at the time. One of the greatest things about this genre is that fans are lifelong fans and they’ll support the artists that they believe in for as long as they play music, so I really give all the credit to the fans because they’re there for us when we put the records out.

Do you think you’re capturing a new audience for blues music?

I think maybe yes. In the States we’ve had a tremendous amount of success and sold millions of albums: a lot of our audience over there are young people. I think especially in my earlier years it helped that I was young: when you’re young you maybe don’t look deeper than the surface, and on the surface they saw a young kid playing this kind of music. I think that made it more acceptable for them to give it a chance whereas if it had been an older person on the cover they may have just moved on immediately! So we have a lot of young fans both due to my age and my approach to the music, which I think still has a very youthful, energetic approach to it, even at 34 years old.

You’ve had several top 10 singles in the mainstream rock charts?

Yeah! I can’t remember whether it’s seven or ten rock top 10 singles now. My song “Blue On Black” was number one in the States for something like 17 consecutive weeks. It went down from the top for maybe a week, but then went back up so it was there for 27 weeks in total: that set a record at the time. That album, Trouble Is, is still the album that’s been at number one on the blues charts for the longest time. Radio support has been key to the success of this band and I think a part of that was that my dad was a radio DJ and programme director. I grew up listening to the radio a lot, hearing all these songs that got radio play and I think I’ve incorporated some of that into the music that I write. Not necessarily trying to write a mainstream song or a radio hit, just to write a song that sounded good to me.

As a result maybe of that success you’ve attracted comments from some critics about being ‘too slick’ or ‘not blues enough’, does that annoy you?

Yeah there was some of that, and there’s always going to be somebody who will criticize what you do, that comes with the territory. You can’t make everybody happy no matter what you do, so I just have to make myself and my fans happy. I think I had more of that earlier on in my career, but something that helped put that to rest was doing the documentary I did [10 Days Out]. Those people who criticized me didn’t try to find out anything about me as a person or as an artist, they were just looking at the ‘surface’.

The flip side of what you said earlier: if young people buy into you more if you’re not old, then others will dismiss you for being young?

Exactly! But once we did that 10 Days Out project I think that my reverence for the blues and those authentic blues players, and my love, passion and appreciation for the genre and the people that came before me became apparent to them. I think at that point a lot of that kind of negative stuff was put to rest.

I understand your latest album wasn’t exactly rushed into: a year and a bit writing and a year or so actually recording. Was that a good way to approach it?

I actually enjoyed it because my life has changed so much now. Early on it was just one thing after another; I would write for a couple of months, go into the studio to record for a couple of months and then mix, finish the album and hit the road. We’d tour for a year and a half then go right back again to writing, recording and touring! Now my life has changed, and there are so may different aspects to my life, one of the most important being my family life. I’ve three kids, a wonderful wife and a very rich family life. So this longer approach was the best balance of both my personal and professional lives, I was able to all the different things that are important to me now. It might have taken a bit longer but it also allowed me to reflect on what we were doing each time: we’d go in and record for a couple of weeks then I would spend the next month or two living with that material, listening to it and analysing it. I got space to think ‘What could be better?’, ‘Does anything need to be better?’, instead of putting the record out in quick time and then thinking ‘Oh no, we could have done that differently!’ This allowed me to do that for the first time.

And was the end product done in a ‘live in the studio’ way or was it overdubs, cut and paste etc.?

Most of it is as live as humanly possible: that’s my approach. The live performance is the essence of what my band is all about, hopefully you’ll see that tonight! So when people listen to our records I don’t want it to sound contrived: I want it to sound like we’re just playing music together. Ultimately, because you’re doing new material and it’s so fresh, a lot of the time you are really learning the songs as you play them and new ideas come to you as you’re putting it down. There are going to be some changes as part of the creative process, but we like to do as little overdubbing as possible. In some cases I lived with some material we’d done for a couple of months and at first I’d think I was happy with it but then I’d change my mind and we’d go in and recut it, rather than just try and overdub and overdub until we forced it into submission: we just went in and totally recut it and got it the way it needed to be.

You do a lot of your songwriting in conjunction with other people, do you find that collaboration works?

For me it does, I’ve always found that when I write with somebody else they inspire something from me that wouldn’t have otherwise come out. It also helps where if I find I’m hitting a creative wall they won’t be: their presence can help progress continue. These guys I write with are really talented people. One of their biggest strengths is lyrics: we all three collectively write lyrics and vocal melodies but certainly early on in my career one of the biggest helps that collaboration brought was with vocal melodies because I wasn’t much of a singer at all. I only sang one song on my first album so vocal melodies weren’t something that came naturally to me at that point. Now I can do all of it to some degree but I still really enjoy working with other people: it’s the same kind of difference between playing solo or with all these great musicians behind me making the music better.

As you say a lot of the songs aren’t going to be sung by you, does that make writing harder?

Well at that point I don’t know if I’m going to sing a certain song, because I can sing most of them if I want to, but there are songs that I know that Noah is going to sound much better on than if I sang them, because our voices are totally different but, as you’ll hear a lot on the current record, the combination of the two is really great and complimentary. On my fourth record, the rock album The Place You’re In, I sang all the vocals, and my voice lends itself currently (although I’m working on it!) more to mainstream sounding songs, maybe I could have had a career as a pop singer! But the music I like to play is blues, and I want to sound like a 50 year old bluesman but my voice hasn’t reached that point - maybe it won’t ever, but that won’t keep me from singing. Noah is such a great singer, and he’s become a big part of my sound: he’s been in the band for 14 years now. It’s like co-writing, I have the best of both worlds. I don’t have to worry about getting sick or losing my voice because I have Noah’s voice to rely on. Also when he sings I get to completely concentrate on playing the guitar which is really what I love to do. If I ever do want to sing I have songs in my catalogue that I can sing the lead vocal on, so it really is the ideal scenario for me. Sometimes from the get-go I know a song will be one that Noah’s going to sing, just from the style but with others I’m not as sure, so we’ll go into the studio and both sing it: on some of the latest songs I originally sang lead vocal, and then Noah went back in to put the final vocal on instead.

There are a couple on the finished album that are you singing though?

Yes, “Cold” and “Who’s Gonna Catch You Now?” To me, it’s not about ego, it’s about making the best record possible: if that means I only sing lead vocal on two songs so be it.

You’ve got 3 quite unusual covers on the album, what made you chose those songs?

Generally when we do cover songs we go deeper into people’s back catalogues, we don’t just go for the most obvious pick. I hope that inspires my fans to go deeper into the back catalogues too and learn about them. If you look at the songs we’ve covered in the past, we did Hendrix’s “I Don’t Live Today”, Bob Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken”, Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well”; all of them not the obvious choice for those artists. The Beatles’ “Yer Blues” was one I had wanted to do for years. I’d known the song for a long time but one day I heard it on the radio five or six years ago and it just struck me, it was like I was listening to them but hearing myself play it. I was hearing in my head then exactly what you hear on the record today, I knew the way it could sound. I thought it was a cool song, I love its primal nature, its rawness: Ringo’s drum parts are really spectacular, and the guitar playing with the really heavy bending of the low E string, all those things. We like to cover artists we respect, go deeper than the surface and find something unique where we can keep the spirit of the original but also bring our own sound to it. We did that with “Yer Blues”, and we did that with Albert King: he’s got “I’ll Play The Blues For You”, “Cross-cut Saw”, “The Hunter”, all these songs you might think of before “Oh, Pretty Woman”, but it’s such a sexy song, the groove is really nice and kind of greasy, and it gave us an opportunity to bring the horn section in. That’s my first time using a horn section on a record, and because we had it we also used it on a couple of other songs like “Dark Side Of Love”. The Bessie Smith song “Backwater Blues” was Jerry Harrison’s suggestion: I’m from Louisiana and my home state has been through a lot, what with hurricane Katrina and all the flooding of the Mississippi River and he thought the song was lyrically relevant to what had happened. The song was written about a natural disaster over 100 years ago but it’s just as relevant today. He wanted us to do it as kind of a tribute to all the suffering that there’s been there. I think it was cool: Riley, my keyboard player, is a monster on the piano intro and it’s a good shuffle. We did it very differently to the original but I think we still maintained the integrity of the song.

The album covers fairly wide spectrum of blues rock, from some pretty heavy stuff like “Come On Over”, through the melodic AOR of “Who’s Gonna Catch You Now” to quite a funky blues in “Dark Side Of Love”: is the variety a deliberate choice or just the way it turned out?

It’s all reflective of who I am as a musician, taking all these influences I’ve had all my life and figuring out how they all fit together. A lot of that, again, is influenced by being around radio growing up and seeing every live band that came through town. I heard every single that was released to radio, a lot of it rock, some of it country, and my dad played blues all the time around the house and in the car and all those things found their way into my subconscious and so into my music: really, all those genres are related, even country is originally just ‘blues with a twang’!

I’ve read that you want to be more selective in your soloing rather than go for the ‘look how fast I can play’ style, is that a natural progression for a guitarist?

I think that’s a personal thing. If you look at some of the fantastic guitarists, not necessarily blues players, but the likes of Steve Vai, Joe Satriani or even Joe Bonamassa, those guys play lightning fast, and they don’t show any signs of slowing down: that’s fine, they are so good at it. I enjoy playing fast, but it’s personal preference. When I listen to Albert King and BB King and Muddy Waters, even Stevie Ray and Hendrix, I notice that the moments that make me clench myself in happiness and go “Yes!” are when they play something that isn’t lightning fast, it’s when they choose the right note or couple of notes at the right time and put their heart and soul into it and just nail it. Consistently those are the ‘Yes!’ moments and I thought, ‘That’s what I want people to feel listening to my music, if I react like that to what they’re doing maybe my fans will too.’ That’s not to say there aren’t any great flurries on this record; in “Yer Blues” there’s some pretty smoking fast playing at the end, so it’s not like I’m abandoning fast playing. You’ll hear some in tonight’s show, there are going to be some moments when there’s some speed there, but hopefully when I’m doing “Shame, Shame, Shame” every night, I’m not just tearing it up all the time! I do a lot of Albert King stuff and Albert was all about milking the note and just bending the shit out of the strings: that’s when you see folks in the crowd doing high fives and stuff, that’s how I want to affect people.

Are you using your ‘61 Strat on tour?

That’s my main guitar although I do have a couple of others, a ‘58 hard-tail and a ‘59 hard-tail that I use in the studio, and they’re all original guitars and sound incredible but for this tour I’ve just brought some of my own Fender Signature series guitars: I’m a little wary of the airlines. I don’t want my old guitars ending up with a broken neck, or as a lost piece of luggage!

The story of how you found your ‘61 Strat is amazing: you spotted it in a Hollywood store when you were 16, couldn’t afford it but then a whole year later when you came back it was still there?

I didn’t think it would still be there! That’s one of the reasons I was so devastated when I had to leave it there the first time: I was thinking this is the only one I’m going to have and I couldn’t buy it. I’m so glad I went back and so glad it was still there! Chris Layton was telling me that Stevie Ray’s main Strat used to belong to a well-known musician from Austin but that he just didn’t like it and sold it to the guitar store, and Stevie walked in, bought it and loved it, that was his main instrument from then on. Similarly the guys in the store where I got the ‘61 Strat told me that it had been sold to them by Ben Harper [Grammy award-winning US singer/songwriter] so it’s interesting how one guy just doesn’t have a connection to a particular instrument and another will find it and it’s like their life-long search is over!

And lucky for you that you could persuade your dad to stump up the cash to get it!

Yeah, it was my dad, my attorney and a guy from the record company who were with me: we were on our way to a venue to do a soundcheck and I said we’ve got to go back in here, and there it was! So they’re saying that it’s time to go, and I said, ‘I’m not leaving here without that guitar’. So I basically forced them into finding a way to make it happen, and they did: I got it!

So your dad has had a big impact on your music in more than one way! You mentioned he was a DJ, he was also involved in concert promotion I think?

He did occasional promotion, that’s how I met Stevie and those guys; he did a couple of Louisiana music festivals; he booked Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker to come to town and I went to that when I was three. Being in radio he was getting tickets and passes for all the shows that came to town, so I was getting to meet all these iconic musicians as a little kid. I had a unique insight and perspective into at least one facet of of the music industry and how the business works, so it all kind of unknowingly conditioned me for what was to come.

You mentioned earlier the 10 Days Out CD and DVD project, that must have been amazing to play with such legends, many of whom now must no longer be with us?

Yeah, I think nine of them have passed since: Pinetop Perkins, who passed recently, and Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown. Six of them died before the project was even released. Some of these people, like Cootie Stark, Neal Pattman, Etta Baker and some of the others, tremendously talented blues artists, the rest of the world wasn’t really familiar with them. That was the point of the project: first of all to give a unique project to the blues fans, give back something to the community that had supported me all these years and to show my appreciation for the musicians that had come before me and made it possible for me to do what I do; also to find a handful of these artists that had never had mainstream success but deserved it due to their talent, to get them on a project with the likes of ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, BB King, and Muddy Waters’ and Howlin Wolf’s bands and associate them with that calibre of musician to hopefully raise awareness for those artists. Little did I know it was actually going to create a legacy for some of these people, as well as preserve the existing legacy for others, to continue to allow their music to be heard by new audiences.

You’ve been doing this as a pro’ now since you were 16?

Well I’ve been playing on stage since I was 13 so it’s going on about twenty years or so!

Is your attitude to playing music the same now as when you began?

Doing it to me is really the big pay off. I used to get off just listening and playing along, pretending I was on stage: now walking out on stage, hearing the applause and seeing the fans reaction to the music is great. People send me letters saying a particular song has captured a moment in their lives for them or helped them get through stuff. Someone posted on my Facebook page yesterday night, that their 41 year old daughter had been killed by her husband, and they’d just buried her that day: they played ‘While We Cry’ from my first record at the funeral procession and they said how much that meant to them. That’s a devastating story to hear, but to hear that my music is making that connection, that is a big thing.

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