A Chat With Steve Winwood: Bullz-Eye Magazine
April 24th, 2008
During the course of a career that has lasted for over four decades (and counting), Steve Winwood has gone from the Spencer Davis Group's 15-year-old keyboard player to a member of Traffic and Blind Faith - and then a solo star in his own right, scoring platinum sales in the ‘80s with albums such as Arc of a Diver, Back in the High Life, and Roll With It. Fresh from three nights of packing Madison Square Garden with his old friend Eric Clapton - and on the eve of the release of his latest album, Nine Lives, and a summer tour with Tom Petty - Winwood took time out for a chat with Bullz-Eye's Jeff Giles.
Bullz-Eye: Mr. Winwood! How are you?
Steve Winwood: Jeff! I'm fine.
BE: I realized today that it's been 22 years since the album that was my first Steve Winwood experience, Back in the High Life, was released. Does that feel as strange for you as it does for me? How do you feel knowing you have fans whose first exposure to your music caught you midstream, so to speak?
"I didn't exactly have a deadline to meet, so I just worked on it until I felt it was ready."
SW: Well, of course that was 20 years into my career, and I was well into my 40s then. Yeah, it's been a long road, but it's been an enjoyable road! And I'm fine with all that. You know, I've got young children - I've got a boy who's 16, and he's into stuff like Zeppelin, Hendrix, and Traffic, so I think there's a kind of cyclical part of it. Interestingly enough, when I was on my last tour, for the first time in many, many years, and on more than a couple of occasions, I had fights break out in the audience. It was very interesting, because we've kind of picked up this jam band audience, which is a lot younger, and likes to stand up and dance, and express themselves - which is great. And then I've got this 50-60 year-old audience, which after a good dinner likes to sit down and relax and listen to music. Of course, the two don't go along well together, especially if you've got the younger standing up in front of the older - a lot of friction can break out. It brings home to me just what a cross-section it is I'm reaching.
BE: Your last album, About Time, certainly helped you pick up that jam band crowd. The albums that you made for Virgin were each more produced - and mellower - than the last, and then with About Time, you stripped all that back and made a rock record. How conscious was that decision?
SW: Well, I'm always searching for that element of discovery, whether I'm making music, or just generally. I suppose I found that when I did About Time, it was a huge departure for me, and it was the first time I made a record when I wasn't committed to make one, contractually or on any level; I just made a record because I wanted to, and I made the record I wanted to. Because of that, I think it came out like it did. I tried to make this new album, Nine Lives, a continuation of About Time. In fact, for a while, I was going to call it About Time 2. But as I was making it, I realized that it's different - although the format and the sound are similar in many respects, and it's got many of the same musicians on it, but the music of Nine Lives was based on the music that the players themselves were playing, in jams or during soundchecks, and it kind of inspired me to write stuff around what they actually played. That wasn't the case with About Time, because it was a new band. This new album has a more organic feel, and of course, it was cut live in the studio. We were all playing together, and it's the same band I'll be going out on tour with; I was trying to keep a strong connection between the two.
BE: Nine Lives just showed up here yesterday, actually, and I've been playing it more or less nonstop since it arrived. The review copy didn't come with any credits, but I had planned on mentioning that it certainly sounds live.
SW: Yes, it's got Jose Neto on guitar, who's great - he was on About Time - and Rich Bailey and Karl Vanden Bossche, who both played percussion on About Time. On Nine Lives, Richard played drums and Karl played percussion. And then we've got Paul Booth, who's sort of the new boy - he's a young lad - and he plays saxophone, flute, keyboards...he's very useful to have around.
BE: There is a certain sonic similarity between Nine Lives and About Time, but the new album might even breathe a little more. It sounds like there was a lot of interaction between the members of the band.
SW: Absolutely. I was inspired by what the band played. Whereas with About Time, since it was a new band, I just got the guys in the studio and explained the types of things I wanted them to do, and they did a brilliant job. Now, the band has a life of its own, and the music that comes out is what the musicians themselves play. It's much more organic - although I'm not a big fan of the word "organic." I can't think of another word to say.
BE: You made About Time without label involvement, but for Nine Lives, you dealt with Columbia Records. How did that affect the process?
SW: Well, About Time was a success for us, and it did go very well. It was a great experience being an independent label like that. But the record business is changing a lot, and I don't think to the detriment of music - I think, if anything, it's helping music. It's to the detriment of the business in some aspects. In many ways, you might say this is not the time to be going back to the majors, it's the time to be leaving them, which is a good point, but we just felt that we put a lot into the making of the record, and ultimately, we want to reach as many people as possible. We thought we'd give it a try on a major label, and I don't have a long contract - it's only for one record, and it's a licensing arrangement with them, so it isn't like I'm tied into the label at all. I want to see how it works. If it doesn't, who knows?
BE: How long did it take the songs on the new album to come together?
SW: It was over a period of time, basically because we were doing a lot of things in between - a lot of shows, and actually a lot of the material came out of the band playing. I'm also now of the belief that, you know, it's important to play regularly and often, because it just helps your playing, it helps your relationship with the musicians, it just makes everything better. So we played around the world, and put the songs together at various points. I didn't exactly have a deadline to meet, so I just worked on it until I felt it was ready.
BE: How did you decide on the album's title?
SW: Well, it's nine songs, and it's my ninth album, and it was cut pretty much live, so...it's got nothing to do with cats! (Laughs) In fact, I was thinking about having a dog on the album cover.
BE: Clearly, you've been in the mood to play with other musicians lately, but you also went through a period when you handled all the instruments on your albums yourself. Can you see yourself switching back again at any point?
SW: Yeah, I mean, it's quite a valid way to work. There are different benefits to working that way. But then, there are also many benefits to working with musicians, and playing at the same time. I'd never say never to either one, because there may be a situation for both. The good thing about playing with other musicians is that it's much easier to make the translation to playing live. It's much more difficult if you're trying to take something you've overdubbed alone on stage. But again, there are some benefits.
"Well, it's nine songs, and it's my ninth album, and it was cut pretty much live, so...it's got nothing to do with cats! (Laughs) In fact, I was thinking about having a dog on the album cover."
BE: I've always loved the story about how you accidentally erased the drums on the introduction to "While You See a Chance," and subsequently ended up with the now-famous synth intro.
SW: Right, yeah. You know, a lot of things like that end up being happy accidents. The mother of invention in music is necessity, not Frank Zappa!
BE: Right, and I enjoy that story because I've known a lot of musicians who record that way - who play all the instruments on their albums - and it's very easy to lose track of yourself and get bogged down in making sure everything is "perfect," rather than letting those happy accidents happen.
SW: Right. It's also very easy when you're working on your own - especially for a musician - to make a stupid mistake like that! And of course, those were in the days when it was all recorded to tape. These days, if you do something like that, you can just hit the "undo" button. Unfortunately, back then, there was no "undo" button.
BE: Getting back to playing with other musicians, you just finished a three-night stand at Madison Square Garden with Eric Clapton. How was it?
SW: Absolutely wonderful, magical. Eric's such a generous person and a generous musician, it was great. We had a scaled-down band, which certainly made me work a little outside of the box. It was fantastic, I think - a great success.
BE: Have you read Clapton's autobiography?
"The mother of invention in music is necessity, not Frank Zappa!"
SW: Yes! I have, and it's interesting, because I think I actually learned some things about his relationship with me from reading his book that I didn't realize at the time. Eric and I were out of touch for a long time during the ‘80s, and so I learned quite a few things from reading it. It's a great book, and it shows what a great person he is to lay his life out like that. No punches pulled.
BE: On behalf of everyone who wasn't able to make it to one of the shows, please tell me there are plans to release a CD or DVD. Or both.
SW: Yeah. Well, I don't know that the plans have necessarily been made yet, but it was certainly shopped, and we recorded them for our own archives. We'll look at it and see what we think, and probably something will come out.
BE: Excellent. And now you're getting ready to hit the road with Tom Petty...
SW: Yes, that tour starts at the end of May and runs through the end of August. If you're able to come to a show, be sure to come back and say hello!