"The Steve Winwood Chronicles":
Creem, July, 1988
By Sylvie Simmons
He seems quite monk-like - steady stare, fish-pale complexion and a faraway look that, if I'd brought a compass, I could guarantee went in the direction of Gloucestershire, where he's got a farm, a wife, a baby girl and a recording studio. This, after all, is the man credited by the NME Book of Rock as having invented "getting it together in the country" as a concept for adult musicians. Right now we're in the restaurant of an uncomfortably plush London hotel, interior-designed in black and peacock and subdued lighting by some actress - I seem to recall reading in some Sunday supplement - who married money. Steve Winwood has all his own hair. He has a bird-like expression, and he's sensibly dressed. If he could manage to give away even less about himself, no doubt he would. Steve Winwood would rather be ritualistically disemboweled than give a quote. Like a native who won't have his picture taken for fear of fading his soul, he sits there, already too pale, muttering monosyllables in monotones.
"I primarily came through rock 'n' roll as a musician," he says, "from the musician's side of rock 'n' roll. Many people think that rock 'n roll is a lot of things .. a way of life, a social statement, etcetera. But for me, rock 'n; roll has always been music. Of course, having said that, I realize that if you sing songs and make records you are actually an entertainer whether you like it or not, and some people say they are artists and all this ..." The quote collapses with exhaustion. Somewhere in the dim lights, coffee is poured.
So what's is say on your passport, Steve: artist, entertainer, or musician?
"I can't remember. I don't see it these days."
Not strictly true. He's been in Dublin and in Canada recording his new solo album, due for release in June, about which he simply says, "I'm already working on it and it's going to be on Virgin. I shall be doing some live work around that time as well," which looks like taking in the States in the summer. He left Island Records (virtually family; found Chris Blackwell produce the early Spencer Davis Group and gave Steve's big brother, Muff, an executive job) 10 years after his first solo album, capping the decade off with the compilation album, Chronicles - on which he helped select the songs. ("I'm quite lucky that I was allowed to take part in the choice of materials, to remix certain tracks. Often, on old contracts, you have no control over what goes out. I really tried to make it a representation of my solo work over the last 10 years, the best out of each of the four solo albums." His personal favorite is "Back in the High Life." That's quite enough info for one bracket.)
His last solo album, Back in the High Life, was his biggest - it went to #1 in the States, spun off a batch of hit singles, and garnered two Grammies (best male vocalist and record of the year). "It's going to be hard to beat", he almost-nods. "I've gained a lot of things to hang on the wall from that album - and that's very serious, they're important to me because they're hard-earned trophies. I'm very proud of that."
Whether it's his record most deserving of Grammification we have to agree to differ on. "Oh yes, I think so," says Winwood, even though it was his least solo album. It was the first where he left the countryside studio for New York, where he left the helm to an outside producer, and where he didn't do everything short of etch the lines in the vinyl himself.
If you were in the mood for hanging someone, you could string up Steve Winwood solely on the grounds that he's probably personally responsible for adult contemporary rock in all its slippery writhing abominations, if you weren't already frying him for inventing supergroups (if there'd been no Blind Faith, there'd have probably been no Asia, etc., etc.). Though it's hardly his fault if he's always been a musicianly musician rather than a rock star type, and came up in an era when that sort of thing was encouraged above passing out in hotel toilets. Would you say you were a sensible sort of person, Steve?
"I suppose I am, really."
And always have been sensible?
He was born in Birmingham in 1948, took piano lessons as a toddler and moved to bass, guitar, and drums. Like Lennon, he was in a skiffle group at 11, then joined big brother Muff's eight-piece jazz band. When Muff left for the Spencer Davis Group - an outfit with a fondness for obscure R&B covers and John Lee Hooker blues - Stevie tagged along. He was younger than Tiffany and sounded like a god, or an older, blacker singer anyway. His final hit with them was "I'm a Man," a song he co-wrote when he wasn't quite 20. In 1967, he formed Traffic with Dave Mason, Jim Capaldi, and Chris Wood. They shunned the press and lived among the cowpats and came out with a psychedelic singles and an album that made the small hairs on your back stand up and salute. Two years later, Winwood and Eric Clapton - a pal he'd worked with on the short-lived Powerhouse project - put together Blind Faith. One legendary album and tour later it was over. Winwood started work on his first solo album in 1970 - lots of jazz and folk and weird stuff, mostly played by himself, the other direction from Dave Mason's AOR pop. But instead he reformed Traffic, turning out John Barleycorn Must Die. And when Traffic finally split, he spent 3 years pretty much out of the music business, popping in the odd, quite odd, musical venture like Stomu Yamashta's Go project, German synth-master Klaus Schulze and salsa group the Fania All-Stars, and building his home studio.
Steve Winwood appeared in 1977. Not one to hurry, Arc of a Diver came three years later, monastically solo and recorded at home. Talking Back to the Night was positively rushed out 2 years later - "I was getting the hang of these solo albums" - followed by a tour with a 6-piece band. It was a big hit, Back in the High Life was even bigger, "and it just continued to teach me a little bit more about how to improve on the next album I make," says Winwood.
If by some miracle or Steven Spielberg movie you were to wake up tomorrow as a teenager and had to start this music business all over again, what kind of band do you think you'd be in today?
"I don't know. I can only say the bands that I enjoy today. The last band I heard that I really liked was a band called Crowded House from Australia." That's it?
"I'm not one of these people who believes that good music stopped in the mid-'70s - but a great difference in being a teenager today and beginning a career in music is that the technology is very different, very much more advanced, and I would have welcomed this kind of technology when I started my career in music. I would have found it useful. I'm not saying I would have sounded technopop or anything - I don't think the use of technology dictates how it sounds - but just to use it as a tool to enable you to make better music."
But could there, seriously, be better music than Stevie Winwood singing "When a Man Loves a Woman" or "Stevie's Blues" with the Spencer Davis Group?
So was the blues merely a nice musical sound at the time?
"The Spencer Davis Group, we just used to try and take the old blues songs and try and copy them and try and emulate what these great blues musicians and R&B musicians were doing. Of course, having done that, it never sounded like the originals did, so our own style began to form from that. I think that was in common with a lot of bands at the time, like the Rolling Stones, the Animals, even possibly the Beatles. Their own style began to form out of copying original R&B hits. There was never any question about the fact that what we were copying was better than our attempts at it; I don't think any of us had any illusions about that."
But how did a 15-year-old sing the blues so passionately?
"I think it's something - your ears have to be there, I think; that's something you're born with, and then it's just a matter of getting your voice to do something according to what your ears are hearing. I certainly didn't try to destroy my voice to make it sound better."
What about trying to destroy the rest of you? The drugs and degeneracy of that period ...
"Well, you know, a lot of people who were very close to me are no longer with us. I saw them go down the wrong road - maybe that's what kept me from following them."
And you've always felt this way?
"For a while, yes, since I saw a lot of my friends - I think over a period of time my sense of that has increased more and more."
You say you got into rock as a musician, but are you telling me that at the age of 15, dangerously riddled with hormones and adventure, you didn't get into the myth?
"Well, there was probably a certain amount of glamour." His word. "But especially in those days it was really hard work and the glamour was comparatively less than it is now, the money was less, and the work was harder. You spent a lot of time in the back of a van travelling at night. And I do realize that a lot of people get into it for other reasons, but I came into it through folk and jazz and through R&B. I got in through the music."
Does music mean as much to you today as it did 20 years ago?
"Oh yes, very definitely."
In the same way?
"Yes, in exactly the same way. No difference at all. I'm interested in the making of music, I always have been, I probably always will be. I'm probably interested in slightly various aspects more, like the recording aspect, more than I was 20 years ago. But I'm every bit as interested in the end result now as I used to be."
Of the musicians who started around the same time as you did and stuck it out, which - if any - do you still feel has something to say?
"An obvious one is Eric Clapton; I think his latest stuff is simply fantastic. Mick Jagger's new stuff is certainly good. Paul McCartney, I don't know what he's been doing recently - someone told me he'd just produced Duane Eddy, but I haven't heard that either, so I can't comment. There aren't that many people still going, are there?"
Does it amaze you that you've been going this long, that you've been famous virtually all your life?
"Or at various stages of it. I think Michael Jackson has said that it took away certain areas of his boyhood, which is probably true. But you also gain something. And it's never too late to lapse into childhood again, anyway, so you can always catch up on what you miss out on. I'm still doing that. I like to plays games like children do - and now I have a six-month-old baby girl of my own to play with! And I love toys." Especially his studio. He used to be the sort of person, he says, that had to be dragged out screaming, "but you have to develop a certain amount of discipline to work at home. It's like living over the shop, as they call it. It has its advantages and its disadvantages. You certainly have to get some kind of regimen going. Plus I find that if you work too long - some people can do 12-hour days; I generally don't. If I work too long, the next day I find that what I did in those last three hours was really no good at all."
Do songs come easy or with much tearing of hair?
"It's never easy. Some are easier than others, there's really no telling."
You've said you find touring very difficult; have you come to terms with it now?
"I still find it not as fulfilling as working in the studio. I much prefer studio work. Touring's not exactly my favorite thing and I'm not very well-travelled. But I can live with a bit of live work so long as the tours don't go on too long."
In the past you've dabbled in ethnic music - the salsa band, Stomu Yamashta, Klaus Schulze, and, uh, Marianne Faithfull. ("She's pretty ethnic too!") Do musicians who've been around a while naturally gravitate towards foreign stuff just for something different, or what?
"I think so. During the time I worked on the salsa stuff and with those African musicians in the mid-'70s and Stomu, I was really looking for different things to do. It was also a deliberate choice to look at slightly more unusual stuff. I'm very interested in all the different kinds of ethnic and traditional music, and as a musician I shall continue. I think I tend to draw on ethnic influences in much more subtle ways now instead of definitely playing a reggae song or an African song or a Brazilian samba - combine it with something else and use it in my own style."
Instead of doing a Paul Simon?
"I didn't like to actually say that, but since you said it: yes, probably."
Do you ever sense that British and American musicians are almost ashamed of playing rock and pop music, silly love songs, and look for a music that's more meaningful or important?
"I think rock music in America is a lot more respectable than it is in Europe. I've never been quite sure why that is, but I think some of it has to do with the fact that in America it really is their heritage. That's their culture, their serious music, where as in Europe the culture is Sibelius or Elgar or something. I was working with a French guy who was doing just phenomenally in New York - he'd studied at the Conservatoire and he was working with Nile Rodgers on some fantastic albums. But his parents, when he went home to France, would say, 'When are you going to do something with your life?' And he couldn't explain that here he was with the cream of American session musicians. The answer to your question is, it varies a lot. I am a musician and I am fairly serious about my music. I think it's a serious job. I'm not really into trophy-hunting. I just want to continue to do work as best I can and hope that people appreciate it."
Someone once described you as a nice, sensible old hippy. Does that sound like a fair description?
And sensible. Very, very sensible.
-- Sylvie Simmons