Sonny Landreth is one of the world’s best slide guitarists. He is playing the 2015 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on April 25th. Sonny discussed his creative process and favorite Jazz Fest memories. For more info on Sonny Landreth, check out http://www.sonnylandreth.com/
So what first got you interested in playing guitar? How did it get going for you?
Probably, I was like a lot of kids, when Elvis Presley first played on TV. Seeing the guitar at the center of it and Scotty Moore, his guitar player, is kind of what gave me the bug too.
How old were you when you first started playing?
When I was a little kid, my brother and I used to entertain the family playing these little plastic guitars. They were really more toys than anything, but I never got over that. I started playing trumpet when I was ten. I was 13 when I got my first guitar, finally.
You have so many different approaches to playing. Who are some of your favorite players right now? What do you like to listen to?
There’s a ton of great players out there. I like diversity in the way of different types of music and genre. I just came from Jamaica, I was down there with Gov’t Mule. Some of my friends were there. Warren Haynes, Paul Nelson and Anders Osborne were also on the bill. All three very different players. That’s a good example, how they spread it around with their shows. I grew up listening to Chet Atkins, Wes Montgomery, Djhango, all the blues cats, Robert Johnson, and, of course, Elmore James. I saw Hendrix when I was probably 16-17 years old. That year, I also saw BB King. It had a big impact on me. I’ve always liked acoustic instruments too and acoustic players and some of the classical. I think that helped me a lot, just listening to a lot of different types of players and different types of music growing up.
Your sound doesn’t have one style. There’s so much going on.
That’s probably because of all the influences, you know? I’m originally from Mississippi and my family moved here when I was young. I was turned on the Cajun zydeco later and R&B and jazz and all of that. I kept playing trumpet through school and then to college, so I had exposure to classical and jazz as well. I think that all helped me.
Absolutely, because it gives you so many different areas to draw from.
Yeah, right! In the songwriting process, that’s huge because it’s easy to get into a rut and hit a dead-end streak. The more types of music and different instruments you listen to, you’ll be open to anything that’s done well and is appreciated on some level. It might not be the thing that you want to get up in the morning and put on, but it’s something that you learn from. It’s something else that I caught on to early on, as well.
How does your creative process work when songwriting?
I wish I had a formula, it would be a lot easier, A lot of times, the music just comes really easy for me and always has. Lyrics have always taken longer. It can start with a lyric. You can start with a word, it turns into a sentence that turns into a phrase. Something sounds like a title to me and then I’ll write a song eventually around that. I’ll get a musical idea on an instrument, get a riff that starts out something that comes to me and you just navigate with what your instincts tell you.
It can come from so many different areas. How often do you find yourself writing songs? Is it every day?
Yeah, because you want to hit the ground running. Specially if you fall behind and get under the gun with deadlines. It’s something you do because that makes your heart sing to begin with. Realistically, there’s a lot on my plate than used to be coming up. I could sit around all day, play the guitar and write songs, and that was great. It’s part of the flow of the day too. It’s still a learning process and how events of the day or experiences you have inform you as a writer as well. It is reflected in the songs and themes, and so forth.
You obviously write about things that are true to yourself. You write a lot about where you’re from, you know?
That’s true. There are three of the albums I made from 1992 – 2000, Outward Bound, South of I-10 and Levee Town. They’re all thematically very related. They were kind of a trilogy, in a way. I’ve always thought of it that way. It seems like it just came to me in that way. It’s important. It has to be something you relate to. It doesn’t have to be something you necessarily experienced, but it could be someone close to you or something that resonates with you. That’s probably the more important thing. It does give you a different slant sometimes on the song itself and on the subject matter. For me, there’s always been an element of trying to get at the core of it in such a way that there’s an angle that proves interesting or different. At some point, it sheds some kind of enlightenment to some degree or another. Even though it’s something personally for me or someone around me, or about this particular area, it’s still needs to speak to anyone anywhere more universally. I think those are the greater themes that really stand the test of time.
You want to make something that comes from a real place, but can also speak to as many people as possible.
Right. It can be fictitious, but it’s just that that’s the way it’s worked for me. You’re right. it’s something that’s stylistic and that it’s of an area, but the actual themes speak to everyone, to anyone, anywhere.
Live, you kill it. It’s something else to really see you get out and to dig deep into your songs.
I know what you mean. That’s what I love about the live part of playing and recording. You are in the moment and you are kind of going for it and not holding anything back. I think that’s important too. Working in the studio, I love that as well, but it’s a different kind of energy. Maybe more like painting a picture, whereas live performance is more in that moment and you are feeding off the energy from the crowd. No way I could play like that sitting on my couch at home.
I think that’s part of the mutual experience for everyone involved with the audience and performers. The sum is greater than its parts. That’s what makes it such a unique experience.
How do you go about crafting sets every night? Do you write a setlist or do you just go at it?
Yeah, we do. I like to get a setlist and kind of see where we can go with it and run with it for awhile. I find that then you do have a way with it. There’s a rhythm and a cadence to that and it effects the songs individually. Then you change it all up and add different. Sometimes just changing one or two songs gives it a different feel. It depends if we’re playing multiple nights in one place, then I think it’s real important to make those changes and not get static. It keeps it fresh too.
You want to keep it fresh for the crowd but also fresh for yourself.
Exactly. If you get stale with it, it’s certainly going to reflect that for the audience.
You come from this history of playing with so many different artists over the years. It’s got to be fascinating to have played with so many diverse people throughout your your career. How did you meet Clifton Chenier?
Actually I met him when I was a teenager. A buddy of mine had heard about this guy that played blues on accordion and I couldn’t even begin to imagine that. This was the same year that I heard BB King and Hendrix. Within a year and a half was the time I heard BB King and Jimi Hendrix. So we went over, we heard about this club where he played regularly. Ten years later, of course, I learned that was his office, in a way, and central command for zydeco at the time. It was the Blue Angel Club in Lafayette and we went over there. He saw us at the door and invited us in and that’s the first time I felt that vibe with the Creole community. He just blew my mind. I never got over it. That’s that same year I was telling you about earlier. We would go here and play a lot over the years and it just got to be a better and better experience. He had the most incredible band at one point. Fast forward to years after that, I was playing with a band called Red Beans and Rice. I would go sit in with them every now and then. They had this little creole joint they played at every week, so Cliff came out and they set up a table for him right next to my rig. This place was really like a shotgun, we were at the other end of it. He heard me play and invited me to go sit in with him at the Boucherie in St. Martinville that year. That led to him inviting me to go down to New Orleans and we played, I think it was at Jed’s. We used to play Tips, played Jed’s and of course, played the Fest. I think that first gig was at Jed’s. I hung out with him, we were down there all weekend and he invited me to join the band and that’s when my real education began.
What do feel are some of the biggest things you learned from him?
A lot about rhythm and a lot about how to treat a song. He had this amazing repertoire. We’d always do one song I’d never played with him. The other thing he’d do, he’d change up the keys to the songs and have you come in at it in a different key. It had a different feel, a different sound. I learned a lot about that thinking, in terms phrasing and how he would do that. That really influenced me too.
Working with him, I’m sure, just opened things up totally for you in a totally different way.
It did. He loved guitar. He was a big fan of Elmore James. When he heard me play slide, he loved that. He liked incorporating that. He still had his guitar player, so we had both guitars and we ended up putting him on one side and me on the other. That mainly happened because when we were set up next to one another, he’d give a nod in one direction and we didn’t know who was who. We’d both start playing at the same time. That would really piss him off! Then, we put me on the other side and then there was no problem after that.
It’s good to get that straightened out. That would be rough. You’re playing Jazz Fest this year. What have been some of your memories of playing Jazz Fest over the years?
That would have been one them, playing with Cliff. Early on, I was playing with Michael Doucet and BeauSoleil. Michael has always been into bringing other people onstage and jamming, really shaking it up and changing it with Cajun music. Those have always been fun gigs over the years. One year, I had my band, Bayou Rhythm, and Cleveland Cheneir started playing with us and CJ. CJ and Cleveland sat in with us. That was a pretty special year. It was one of the last gigs we ever did with Cleveland. Of course, it was unbelievable. One year, Quint Davis had Jimmy Buffett sit on the side of the stage and that led to Jimmy inviting me to play on an album. He recorded one of my songs and then I ended up doing shows with him for quite a few years. He basically said, “Whenever you want to come out, come join us.” I’d do up to 10 shows a year with them. I got to be real close to him and his organization, his band and crew. A few years back, we did an acoustic set at the last minute. It was just he and I and Mac McAnally and his percussionist. I forget how that came about. It was really different and really unique. It was a different take on those songs. We came up with a completely different repertoire and that was really cool.
That’s awesome! Jazz Fest crowds, they are always open-eared crowds. You can try a lot of different stuff and it’ll work.
Yeah, if you have the right people and you have that chemistry, they absolutely do. They love it. I think that’s one of the things that keeps me coming back. It’s the element of surprise. We played Rock ‘n’ Bowl, David Hidalgo popped in and sat in with us. Things like that and then it just becomes something really special.
That is a really fun spot too. A decrepit bowling alley.
It’s not decrepit anymore!
No, no, they upgraded it. They took the stairs out.
Back then, you are right, it was a funky vibe. People loved it. It’s a great place. We’re kind of like one of the house bands for the weekends and that’s always been fun. I tell people out in other parts of the world and they can’t quite wrap their minds around it. “You’re playing a bowling alley?” I admit the first time I heard about it, I thought it was pretty wild. I actually grew up bowling. I was into that as a sport when I was growing up. I started thinking, “Well, perfect fit. Music and bowling.”
It’s nice you could combine your hobbies. You have a new album coming out.
Basically, I went back to the blues. People have ben asking about that for a long time and I’d been thinking about it. I had it on the back burner. Half of the songs are old standards that probably no one should ever record again, but I did anyway. It presented a different kind of challenge. How do you take something like “Key To The Highway” or “It Hurts Me Too” and do something with it that hasn’t been done before? That in it’s own way has it’s own reward if you hit right. The other half are songs I wrote for the project that were influenced in that regard. I’m really happy with it. We just went in with the band, just me and Dave Ransom on bass and Brian Brignac on drums. We cut it with an engineer I work with, who’s been helping me produce albums for a lot of years. His place is this old house that he’s converted to a studio. Perfect vibe for it. I’m real happy with it. We’re out playing, we’ll be playing some of those songs too.
That’s got to be fun to dig into some classic tunes, really gut them and switch them up, give them your own spin.
Yeah, it’s best as a three piece band because everything counts. Anything that doesn’t work is dead space as a trio anyway. It pushes you in a way that it doesn’t when you are in a larger ensemble. Everything has to count. I love that about it and I think that’s probably what helped breathe some new life into some of those songs, hopefully.. We really stretched it out. We didn’t worry about how some had been done before, the length of it or anything like that. It’s real in the moment. We recorded mostly live in the studio. I had to redo my vocals. I was having a really tough time with allergies. It was a struggle. It’s really frustrating. I think people will like it. I hope so.
That’s one of those cases where it’s like everybody has to pull their own weight in a trio setting.
In that respect, I think Dave and Brian really got a chance to shine even more. They definitely stepped up and came up with the goods.
You’ve worked with some many different people over the years. Do you have any folks you would like to work that you haven’t worked with yet?
I’m always open to opportunities when they present themselves, if they do and when they do. I respect each one for where it came from, what it’s about and what that artist is about. One for sure is Jeff Beck. I’ve always wanted to work with him. We had a couple of close calls, but nothing’s happened yet. I’d also like to work more with Warren Haynes in that capacity. We’ve done a lot of playing together onstage and he’s kind of overseen a few things that I’ve done for him. We’ve never really worked together in the studio. He’s another one I’d really like for us to have that chance.
That would be fun to really get down to it with him.
Yeah! Amazing band. Their repertoire is just mind-blowing. When we were down in Jamaica, they played four nights and never repeated a song. Just unbelievable. They could have stayed down there a month. It pushes you to come up with something. Some of the improvisation is such a big part of the sound in what they do and that’s something I’ve always loved too.
I could see you doing something like that too. I could see you doing improv for an entire album.
It pushes you to think like that more. I haven’t really explored that as much, at least in the recording aspect of it. There’s a bit more of that on this new album for sure, but to really stretch it out like that would be a good space to go. We do that more often onstage than we do recording in the studio. It’s great when the two come together.