Interview Magazine, April, 1986
Lynn Geller: Your brother, Muff, was the bass player in the Spencer Davis Group - what's he doing now?
Steve Winwood: He's in London, the vice president of CBS Interntational. He signed Paul Young, because he was doing a lot of producing and Paul Young is his act. Sade, Wham! - he signed a lot of people.
LG: Did you always imagine yourself a lead singer? You play so many instruments.
SW: I imagined that I'd play music. My father's a musician and he's one of 8 brothers and they all play a variety of weird stuff. On my mother's side (she's one of 9 children), her grandfather was an organist and fiddler. And I was fortunate while growing up that there were always instruments in the house. My father would go out and work - if there was a job for a bass player, he'd just pick up a bass off the wall on the way out the door. I got a place in music school when I was very young, two years earlier than usual. But I got thrown out.
LG: Why? Was this a classical music school?
SW: I've had trouble explaining that. The European musical education is very different, much more narrow, and they don't look an anything, aside from what they teach, as being valid. They won't accept it. I was learning classical and modern classical piano and composition. I had been playing in a band and it was gaining popularity. I was thought of as a bad influence by not attending. The deputy principal said, "You either play this or you play that," and I was at the age where I just said, "All right, I'll play that." This was the time of the Beatles and the Stones, '66. The Moody Blues, the Move. There were all the Liverpool bands. But it wasn't like it is now. If you saw a bloke walking down the street with a guitar, you were kindred spirits, whereas now everyone you know is in a band and plays the guitar. There were fewer of us at that time. I met Spencer at the folk clubs and we got together with people we knew who were playing jazz and started playing R&B. Pretty soon we were writing out own stuff.
LG: Then you were being hailed as the "boy wonder", a "rock 'n roll Mozart." What did that do to you?
SW: It can affect you a lot, but in my own defense, I'd say we were quite lucky, as it wasn't an overnight thing. We worked hard and traveled hard and built a reputation. We traveled around Europe in vans, playing small places, extraordinary gigs in places like Ireland, where you'd go down a dirt track to a church where one line of people were on one side and one line on the other, and they were two families. There were a lot of gigs like that in the early days and I think that's different now. It happens quicker.
LG: For some people.
SW: What I'm saying is that, although there are people striving hard who don't get it, when it does come now, it comes very quickly, in an enormous way. Whereas I think I was lucky that the recognition and the money came gradually, rather than all at once.
LG: When was the first time you came to the US?
SW: Even though the Spencer Davis Group had two hits here, I never came with them. Then in '67, I formed Traffic. Four of us bought a cottage that had no road or electricity and we all lived and worked there. One guy left and then there were 3 of us. We came to San Francisco for the first time in '67.
LG: Smack in the middle of the psychedelic 60s?
SW: Well, when we first landed there, aside from suffering from culture shock, we were also suffering from a good deal of other things. Three green young lads of about 20. We got into lots of trouble. We'd hang out for a month or so and try to get what work we could at clubs like the Fillmore West.
LG: Did you meet everyone?
SW: Oh yeah - Janis Joplin. The Dead. Jerry Garcia used to play with us. We had a total of about 3 songs because one bandmember left. We'd have to do an hour-and-a-half set, so we just used to improvise.
LG: That was the era to do it in.
SW: Yes, and we were very good at it. We were a trio and it wasn't just 2 guitars and a drum. We all switched off instruments. We were very close friends; we'd grown up together and had great times in those days.
LG: You had big hits with Traffic.
SW: We had big album hits. This is when FM radio played albums.
LG: Probably because a lot ot bands were into improvising with long, musical breaks then. Do you find today's 3-minute-single approach confining?
SW: It's just a matter of editing, which is an art in itself. Now producers improvise - Trevor Horn, for instance. It's really the same thing musically, variations on a theme. Producers are musicians. They have to be. It just spreads the load.
LG: Why did you decide to stop touring?
SW: When I stopped touring in '74, I thought, "I've been on the road playing in bands for 10 years now - there must be more to life than rock 'n' roll." A lot of people thought I dropped out or retired in the mid-70s. I was doing session work. I worked with a Japanese classical musician and did 2 albums with him. I made an album with some African musicians. I did unusual, oddball things, none of which did very well. A few avid collectors of my stuff might have these albums, but it was very exciting for me.
LG: What was it like to go from having everyone recognize you in a certain way to being in the background?
SW: At one point I went out of my way to get to know people who weren't in rock 'n' roll. There are people whose whole lives have been spent touring in rock bands and I've not only seen it, I used to be like that myself; they can't do anything. They're hopeless, can't get their laundry done, or buy a plane ticket, or go to a bank. They really don't have a clue. I've seen that and I've been like that and I guess I made a point of making my life more than rock 'n' roll. I'd had enough of the touring syndrome and I wanted something else. Suddenly I looked around and realized there was a whole world out there that I really didn't know. Starting out so young, I missed out on a lot.
LG: Could you always afford to work on your own projects?
SW: Traffic made a lot of money. That sustained things, and of course I was doing sessions, which is lucrative. I'd be open to being told what to play, you have to be. You're providing a service.
LG: What happened to the other guys in Traffic - Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood?
SW: Chris died 2 and a half years ago. A lot of musicians I've worked with have died of drugs or alcohol. It tends to make me not want to do anything.
LG: It does give one pause. Who are you still in touch with from the early days?
SW: Spencer Davis. I talk to Capaldi occasionally. He's quite disillusioned by the music business. I missed Dave Mason when he was here in New York. I see Eric Clapton from time to time, fairly regularly, as regularly as one can with all the touring and traveling.
LG: Doyou see any similarities between the '60s and now, or does it seem completely different? Maybe you'll be able to answer that better when you come back off the road.
SW: I think I'll know more after I tour, but basically things don't change much. People enjoy music and have been dressing up and going out to listen to music since the '30s or before that. There was escapism in the '60s and I think people are more realistic now. People realize that they're looking for a good time, for enjoyment, although these charity things are beginnning to change the world.
LG: What about the fact that there's a whole generation of kids now who think, for instance, that Power Station wrote "Bang a Gong"?
SW: It doesn't matter. The Beatles' fans probably thought they wrote "Roll Over Beethoven."