Sonny Landreth talks about The Road We’re On and how his longtime friends helped steer him to the source of his inspiration – the blues.
January 22, 2003
It’s been just a little over two years since Sonny Landreth released his compact disc, Levee Town. It was his fifth solo project and his first for Sugar Hill Records. The CD featured longtime friends and guest performances by Bonnie Raitt, John Hiatt and Jennifer Warnes.
Under the art direction of local graphic artist Megan Barra, with photographs by Jack Spencer, the album was nominated for a 2002 Grammy Award for Best Recording Package, along with R.E.M., David Byrne, Squirrrel Nut Zippers and Radiohead. CDs may be smaller than vinyl records, but the nomination was proof to Landreth that the album art is still as important as the music it represents.
On Tuesday, Landreth will release his sixth album, The Road We’re On. With the exception of a couple of new names, he retained the same personnel he used for Levee Town and returned to his source of inspiration – the blues.
We recently sat down with Landreth over a cup of coffee at his home in Breaux Bridge. We shot the breeze and asked him to tell us a little bit more about the road he’s on.
You’ve said before that your last album, Levee Town, wrapped up the trilogy of albums you started with Outward Bound and followed up with South of I-10. Right now, how do you see The Road We’re On?
As kind of cleaning the slate and starting over. I never really intended for those albums to really have any kind of connection, but as I would get into each of those as a project, the songs always seemed to write themselves. I feel like you have to honor that. That’s the way it turned out.
But this was definitely more of a conscious effort to get back to some of the basics. I wanted it to be a simpler production. I wanted the sound to be more direct. I wanted to be playing live, much more like the gigs, and to be blues-inspired. In that regard, it’s a very different album than the other ones.
For years now, there’s been a rumor among your fans that you’ve been cloistered off in a cave working on “The Blues Album.” Is that what this is?
(Laughs) I’d probably have to answer no.
But have you also heard that rumor?
I’ve heard something like that. One thing is that I didn’t want to take three to five years to make an album. I wanted it to sound more fresh than that and to have more spontaneity.
I started writing these songs a year before and wrote probably 90 percent of those tunes in airports, in between flights, going through security checks – the plethora of logistics of getting from point A to B then C. So originally, I would have liked it to be more of a gut-bucket blues album, as some people might say. But as I got into the songwriting part of it and as the songs developed, it just took on a life of its own. I felt it was more important to be more true to that …
Maybe some people will be disappointed if they’re thinking it’s a completely pure blues album. That’s why I say it’s more of a blues-inspired album. There’s definitely the shuffles. There’s slowed-down blues tunes, and there’s also a couple of rockers, like a couple of blues rockers and a Cajun honky-tonk stomp. So, in that regard, it probably isn’t that locked-in-the-cave, stone-blues album.
But I think it comes from that source. There’s always been a blues tune on the albums. On Outward Bound there was “Speak of the Devil.” On South of I-10 there was “Mojo Boogie” and on Levee Town there was “Broken Hearted Road.” So being inspired by those particular songs is the approach we took to those sessions and getting those on tape. I wanted to do a whole album of that, and that’s basically what we did.
So “The Blues Album” is a myth?
I’m not sure. In the back of my mind, something’s always going on. There’s an instrumental album I’ve been working on for a long time. I’ve got a lot of songs for that. I’ve got more blues tunes, too. I actually had to cut this one off. At one point you have to stop recording and move on to the next thing. So there are other songs that fall into that category. Perhaps there will be a collection of songs that will be a lot more straight ahead.
I have to say that some people call this straight ahead for the most part. I just wouldn’t. I just don’t really care. The blues has always been a point of reference for me. It’s always been the thing that got me back into staying interested in playing the guitar and writing. With my early heroes, that music is what spoke to me, and also with the writing part of it, the story songs. When I finally did hear Robert Johnson as a kid, I flipped. I had never heard anything like that. So I go back to that.
I think more than anything I thought with this album I would approach the production somewhat like if you were listening to a Muddy Waters or a Willie Dixon album. It’s a four-piece band, and there are four parts you hear. If it’s a three-piece band, you hear three pieces. I added a few layers of acoustic with the National (guitar), Steve (Conn) played keys on four songs, and there’s rubboard in the right places from Danny Kimball and Zydeco Joe (Mouton). That, to me, spiced it up enough. I think it still stays quite true to form as what we were doing live with it.
In fact, learning the songs first and going out and playing them and then going into the studio – now there’s a concept – was the plan, which we did. I really liked the fact that we got out, played these songs and copped a groove before going into the studio and pinning it down for the first time, getting it fresh like that and still being spontaneous. Know just enough, but don’t get to know it too well.
You just said, “There’s a concept.” Are you saying you usually work in reverse, nailing the songs before going into the studio?
A lot of times I have a vision or an idea or thought, and I make my demo here at home. For the most part, we’re in the studio, and I’m showing these songs to the guys. Some of the songs would make their way into the set list, and the new songs perhaps would take a longer turn. Whereas this time, it was more about getting them out and seasoning them a bit before going in (to the studio). I think it paid off.
How long did it take y’all to record this record?
It took probably a couple of weeks, which for me is different. (Laughs)
It’s been said that you’re pretty meticulous in the studio. Is that fair?
That would be fair, a fair assessment. I have opened up to the strong possibility that perhaps now would be a good time to outline the space more, leave some parts left alone and honor the moment. If you’re going to honor the song, in turn, you can honor the moment, too. It’s two different things.
You make an album. It can be like a painting. I was thinking of that when we were out there yesterday at Elemore’s (Morgan Jr.) place. He has this incredible art and these beautiful paintings, so full of vision, his heart and his soul. Recording a song, mixing a song and producing a song can be very much like that. You have different textures, different layers. You want to support the lyrics in a certain way at a certain point in the song. That’s all really fascinating to me. I get really caught up in it. It is an art form.
On the other end of the spectrum, another way to do it, is that you go in and you just play what comes out in that point in time, just like on a gig. It’s a different feel. That’s basically what we wanted to capture this time around. It feels good, though. I think I’m going to be here for a while.
In some ways, this record feels like you’re speeding down the road on an old truck. It’s about to fall apart, but you’re still trucking. The bolts are jiggling, but it still holds together.
It’s a hurtle through space by the seat of your pants. There is an excitement about that because you’re on the verge of either something quite grand or something quite frightening at all times. That brings out a certain kind of energy and excitement. That’s very appealing. It always has been.
I think the difference with the production on the other albums is a different approach and philosophy. It all depends on what you want to accomplish and what you’re shooting for. I like that it’s more intimate. You really get surrounded by the nuances of each instrument. Every time you add something else to the mix, you’re making a bigger sound overall, but you’re thinning out individual voices and sounds. Each instrument you put in there has a combination of frequencies that define that instrument. It’s all in how you treat it. That’s what I like about it …
Does that take you back to the days of playing with Clifton Chenier, when he called it, you played it, and there was no time for thinking?
Absolutely. When he went in, he would record a whole album within a matter of a couple of hours. I was inspired by that with Blues Attack. For the most part, we went and cut the majority of those tracks in a couple of hours. I went back and did some acoustic tunes and Dave (Ranson) and I did an acoustic instrumental. Merlin Fontenot came in and played fiddle. We added little things to that to make it something special overall. But I like that. I like getting back to it. I don’t know if I would treat the instrumental album in quite the same way. It might be a combination of the two.
But just because you don’t polish something doesn’t mean that it’s sloppy. There’s a difference. I’ve played with plenty of people who didn’t care what they were doing. But there’s a difference between that and laying it on the line and being brave enough to leave the mistake in.
Clifford Brown was a great trumpet player many years ago. That was one of the things that endeared him to so many people. He would be playing along and just take an approach on a solo that came out of left field. He’d hit a wrong note, or what would typically be thought of as a mistake, and that would propel him into another direction to play something brilliant. There’s something about that that’s sustaining. It’s real music.
Maybe this is a little bit of a backlash from all the technical music being made and going through this era of time when these productions on television, forget it, you’re not hearing anyone performing live music. A lot of that has escaped us over the years. When you go to hear a band or a concert and the magic happens right then and there, you’re part of it. I think that’s the intimacy, too. The drawing in brings people in and makes them part of the experience I was trying to point out earlier with this approach.
It’s hard to listen to The Road We’re On without reflecting back on Blues Attack. Does that strike you as well?
You’re right. That’s part of the model for the way we wanted to approach this album. I think, too, that you come to a point where you become more trusting. Maybe in 1981 I wasn’t quite as trusting. Another thing is that I’ve always wanted to make albums that sounded good, and that takes time to do that. It takes time to learn how to do that. It takes time to go through that process.
What do you mean by “more trusting?”
I think of myself. I always put a great amount of trust into my fellow musicians, and I’m very proud of everything I’ve done up until now. Everyone I’ve worked with has done a great job. I have no regrets of anything I would change. It’s like John Lennon said, once they would finish a recording, he would never listen to it again. You can always keep changing it and making it better. So from that perspective, you have to learn to let go. That’s something I’ve had a little bit of problem with in the past. I think I’m beginning to own up to that a bit more. And there’s the trusting part. Yeah, let it be. Leave it in. Have that moment the way it is.
I’ll admit, from a practical standpoint, I don’t want to wait three to five years to put an album out. I think that that’s hurt me somewhat in the past. You have to keep something out there in order to stay on the road, to do the festivals, to tour. It’s very much, “Well, what have you done for me lately?” out there. There’s so much volume of new material coming out at all times. They have to account for the new music from the groups coming up and the ones that have already been established. So if your album starts to lag into the third year, your phone doesn’t ring as much. So there’s a practical part of it, too.
I couldn’t really just say, “OK, I’ve got to make an album because I’ve got to keep money coming in.” I’ve never been able to do that. Obviously, I’ve never done this for the money. Obviously. But, at the same time, this all sort of came together in the right way. I wanted to get back to the blues. I wanted it to be a simpler approach. I’ve got a lot of music that I want to get out. I want people to hear it. I want it to see the light of day. Each time you do a project, it goes out into the world and takes on a life of its own …
You’ve done a lot of work out at Dockside Studio in Maurice with a beautiful setting right there on the bayou. I guess if you get frustrated, you can just walk out to the bayou. At Tony’s place, though, if you walk outside, you’re at Dwyer’s Dumpster. Does that, and particularly the recording environment, have anything to do with the mood of this record?
(Laughs) I love Dockside. That’s just heaven out there. It’s like my other home. I love Wish and Steve (Nails). They’re very dear friends. They’ve been wonderful to me and supportive over the years. To go out there and just get set up and be in the middle of that paradise, you’re absolutely right, it affects me. I’m able to walk outside onto 12 acres of beautiful property. At the same time, there’s this big two-inch Studer machine and a Neve console. It’s great. It worked perfect for South of I-10 and Levee Town.
But I needed to go to the city to get that down-in-the-alley vibe, that Clifton Chenier used to say. So when you walk out the back door, as you walk down (looking) into the Dumpster, you’re there. It’s a funky element about it all that we just needed …
You’ve worked with Tony Daigle a lot in the past, but according to the credits on the CD cover, he seems to have played a larger role than he has in the past.
He’s there from the get-go, from the time we turn the lights on in the studio until the time we turn the lights off at the end of the whole thing. When everyone else is going home, it’s me and Tony.
(R.S.) Bobby Field, my co-producer, who’s truly gifted and great to work with, only had a certain allotment of time to give the project. So again, it’s Tony and I. Tony had a lot to do with it. He had everything to do with the sonics and the decision-making. It’s good to have someone like that. When you get close to someone like that, when you work as a team, it’s great to have that feedback and to bounce ideas off of each other. Let’s face it, that old cliché about the forest and the trees, sometimes I don’t have a clue. I just step back and go, “What in the hell was I thinking? The problem is I’ve dragged us all into this thing, now let me try to help get us out of here.” But it’s part of the adventure. There are definitely ups and downs. Some things work, and some things don’t. You’ve got to be willing to take chances, though. Tony was certainly there every step of the way.
Talking about your approach to the music this time around, there’s a line from the title cut, “The road to freedom is the road we’re on.” Is that what this album’s about for you?
Yeah, that’s why I chose it for the title track. It really summed up the whole thing.
For all of our ciphering and trying to figure things out and analyzing and all that, there is a process that happens, and it’s a bit of an evolutionary process. I once used the term, “the essence of direction.” You’re making all of these lefts and rights, and you get off the path, but you’re actually making your way there. I think that sometimes what we really want in life is right in front of us anyway. Some of the greatest truths are the ones that are face-to-face with us when we get up in the morning. Sometimes we don’t realize that, and that’s part of the intention of that, too. I think it speaks in the music as well.
But what is freedom?
I think freedom is when you own up to truth and when you let things be, in a way. You can take that in all different categories of how you live and your thought process. Everything from being in a zydecoldsmobile driving down the Breaux Bridge highway at two o’clock in the morning with the windows down because the air conditioner doesn’t work, and you’re taking in everything. It’s the middle of July, and the air is so thick. That’s an experience. I kind of wanted that for this as well.
That’s a pretty deep question. We could go pretty far on that one. As an artist or as someone struggling in the music business, it’s having the freedom to create and owning up to the fact that there is no end to creativity. To think that there is a perfection is to presuppose that there is an end to creativity. I don’t believe that. I think it’s constantly changing, constantly evolving, but that’s exciting. I think truth is like that as well. But, hey, that’s just me.
For the most part, the musicians backing you on this album have appeared on your other albums, but there are a couple of new names.
I wanted to work with the band we had out on the road. The summer before last, that was Mike Burch on drums and then it was Brian Brignac. We use both Mike and Brian. Mike played on some of the tracks, and Brian played on most of the tracks.
Dave Ranson is on bass, of course. He and I go way back. Another thing I love about this album is how much that comes out in the mix to me. He’s brilliant. No one plays like him. He’s the best. Tony and I talk about that all the time. Bobby Field has the best description, “It sounds famous.” Dave is the “Duck” Dunn of South Louisiana. Donald Dunn played on all of those great songs that are classic and timeless. And that’s how (Dave) plays them.
Danny Kimball played rubboard on “Gemini Blues.” Danny’s the guy who studied under Cleveland Chenier. He learned from Cleveland, that whole approach, that whole style, that unfortunately these kids missed out on. They’re doing a whole different thing. And I like it. Don’t get me wrong. It’s just that it’s a whole different approach. It’s a lot more complicated and rhythmic in a way. That’s what I love about it. I love that sound, and it brings me back to when I was playing with Cliff’s band.
Then Zydeco Joe Mouton played on “Gone Pecan.” He’s bringing in his style with his spoon on the rubboard, a kinetic frenzy that’s so powerful and a deep groove that’s perfect for that tune. We almost kept it three- piece, but I could just hear Joe on it, and he really added that bit of spice we wanted.
Then there’s my dear friend, Steve Conn. I regretted that we couldn’t have him here with us when we cut the songs, but it was just a matter of logistics. He had his album he was working on at the time back in Nashville, and I don’t know who we could have gotten to get a (Hammond) B-3 organ up those steps past the Dumpster anyway. So I thought, well, there’s Stevie back at home, and he’s got his studio with the coolest keyboards known to humankind. He’s probably got two of each, his B-3, the Leslie (speaker) and all that stuff. I just sent him the tape. And that’s the other part. I totally trust him. I know I can send it to him. He’s going to pick up on the songs and the feel and do the magic he always does. I love the work he did, especially on “A World Away,” the way that he builds it up. And on “Falling for You,” it just really brought the track to another level.
But when I was out playing gigs, out trying to pay for this thing, left to their own devices, Tony got Marc Broussard to come in, and he and Bobby produced the background vocals. Here’s the other thing you always hope: that there’s one gem of a surprise, you have no idea where it’s coming from. Well, that’s “Natural World” for me. Of all the least thought-out songs, it was the least of the least. I didn’t have a big arrangement for it or anything like that. So we went in, and we just blasted that thing down. Everything’s all improvised. We had the riff, and Bobby helped us zoom in on that to come up with an arrangement that defined it, using that riff. So when we came back, they played this for me. They had mixed it, and Marc came in and did the background vocals, this real spooky, breathy chorus which really gave a vibe to the song we wanted. I listened to it, and I thought it was perfect. There was nothing I wanted to do to that. That was right about when Bobby had to leave. He had to split. But to me that one’s outstanding, as a production piece. Much of it was on the fly …
How long are you going out on the road for this new record? Are you going out on one long stint? I’m not going to say the word “tour” here …
You know that always brings me back to David Ackerman, my dear friend in Colorado. He was from New York, living in Boulder, and he was a fixture on the scene for years. He had that New York vibe and attitude about him. He was just great. He could come up with these one-liners. He was one of our regular hostels, where we could land and camp out in his back yard. Those were our options in those days – camp out or have someone’s house we could go stay at. That would have to be somebody we really liked or at the very least could put up with us. And we’re in his back yard. Everybody’s getting their gear out, getting ready to lay our sleeping bags under the trampoline or whatever. Mel (Melton) made the mistake of saying, “This tour is going to be taking us on out to Crested Butte.” Ackerman goes, “Wait a minute. You said tour. Aren’t you using that term loosely?” You know, as we’re rolling the pots and pans out of the trailer, the skis and boots and poles and camping gear, rolling our sleeping bags out under his trampoline, I thought perhaps touring is not quite the word. Maybe we should come up with another description here.
So what’s the word? An extended trip?
Man, for me, it’s just the road. However you go down it. Whatever way you can get there, it’s just the fact you’re doing it. It doesn’t really matter …