By Poppy Tohill
Whilst Sonny Landreth is a well known slide-guitar master, zydeco enthusiast and phenomenal blues legend, what you may not know about him, is that he is one of the nicest gentlemen in the entire universe. A fact we quickly found out as we sat down for a chat about his career-spanning double-live album, Recorded Live in Lafayette, which was released last Friday, June 30.
“There’s more than I could ever count, but Scotty Moore [Elvis Presley’s guitarist] was probably my earliest influence,” Landreth admits as we begin discussing his influences and earliest musical memories. “When Elvis did his first TV appearance, the camera would briefly pan over to Scotty and I was like, Woah! that’s who is making those sounds,” he chuckled. “It was then that I immediately fell in love and knew playing music is what I wanted to do with my life,” Landreth revealed. “When I was seven years old, my family moved to Louisiana and I became immersed in their culture, which music is such a huge part of. Then in time I discovered Clifton Chenier, the king of zydeco and BB King, who just blew my mind and both became very profound influences,” Landreth concluded.
“I got my first guitar at age 13, after playing the trumpet from age 10,” Landreth announced. “After a few boring guitar lessons, I soon learnt that who you get as a teacher makes all the difference, so yes, I’m basically self-taught,” he chuckled. “Of course we didn’t have the internet back then too, so if you wanted to learn a song, you had to get in the car and find the record and I think that experience goes a lot deeper and richer. To have that kind of exposure to music is a lot more personal.”
Before earning his own status as a legend, Landreth crossed paths with many greats, happily sharing the stories about his childhood run-in with Jimi Hendrix and his first interaction with long-time friend Eric Clapton.
“Many years ago my friends and I drove miles to try meet Jimi Hendrix and believe it or not, we did!” he laughed. “There must have been 15 of us that tried to go up to his hotel room,” Landreth reflects, “I actually remember looking up to his [Hendrix] hotel room and he was sitting on the end of his bed, smoking a cigarette and listening to some tracks on a reel-to-reel tape player, but his road manager soon caught us, so we scattered! A few of us went and hid in the convenience store of the hotel and Jimi eventually walked in to buy a toothbrush, so we just wandered up and started talking to him, so cheeky!” Landreth chuckled.
“The thing with Eric Clapton was interesting,” Landreth confessed. “It’s a big part of the reason I tell all of these young musicians to get out there and record their music, because you never know who may hear your material. For me, I made a little demo tape for a publishing guy I was working with at the time and somehow Eric ended up with it and when I found out later, I felt so embarrassed, it was just my vocals and guitar recorded in my living room! Apparently he still plays the tape now too!” he gushed. “I didn’t meet him [Clapton] until years later when he invited me to play the first Crossroads Festival, but that’s where it all really started for me.”
Now fast-forward thirteen years, eight records later and Landreth talks us through his latest release [Recorded Live In Lafayette] and decision to make a live record. “I wish I could say I had planned it all out like a mastermind,” he responded with a laugh. “Last year when I was trying to make decisions on which way to go with the new album, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to do an acoustic project, which I have considered doing for a long time, or just keep it electric,” he confessed. “So all of these questions started to evolve into a concept and I realised that this would be a great opportunity to make a retrospective project, a complete body of work from the different times in my career, so we sort of just went for it. You never know, you just have to take chances and I feel like it worked really well, so I’m pretty pleased. I think the fact that this whole album is live just embraces another dimension,” he concluded.
“The truth is, I kind of went into this record with an attitude of - well, I’ve got all of these great musicians so something great is bound to happen and a part of that is leaving room for that spontaneity factor,” Landreth admit. “We ended up playing three nights and taking the best of those, which just happened to be the last night, and listening back to all of that material we didn’t once do the solos in the same order or play the arrangements in the same way, and that’s exactly the freedom I wanted with this record.”
Initially considering making an in-concert album in Japan or Europe, Landreth revealed the advantages of his final decision to record the album in his hometown of Lafayette.
“As cool and as exotic as those places sound, and don’t get me wrong there’s a vibe no matter where you go, but by recording it at home I knew we’d have that proximity advantage. My engineer
lives just a few blocks away, all of our equipment and gear is already close by and the beautiful venue which was designed for performance art was absolutely perfect for our show,” he declared. “Also to have that hometown crowd, the folks that have been coming out to hear us play, some of them since the earliest days, creates a very cool energy, which of course affects us musicians too.”
“It’s very much the same between the difference of playing an indoor venue and an outdoor festival,” Landreth responded when asked about the differences between recording a studio-record and a live-concert album. “The studio for me is more like a painting where you’re adding colours and there’s more of a thought process involved,” he explained. “I really like the production side of things in the studio, because there’s a lot of techniques you can use to enhance a song and help tell a story. Then with the live factor there’s a strong element of taking chances that comes with it. I think it depends on the material too, because sometimes songs just have a life of their own and come alive on stage in a way that just can’t happen in the studio.”
Whilst 'Recorded Live in Lafayette' is Landreth’s second live-concert album, Grant Street Record  being his first, Landreth went on to fill us in on why the two are very different from one another. “They’re totally different in quite a few respects,” he confessed. “Not the least of which, Grant Street was an old brick warehouse so the sound just reflected like crazy which gave the album a very raw feel. Whereas this time around we were in a very different type of venue, people could sit down and there was a different vibe sonically which again effects everything. The other thing,” Landreth continued with a laugh,”a friend of mine who owns the great recording console company API, was generous enough to send us the big 48 panel console that U2 had just finished using to record their live album, I couldn’t believe it!”
As our conversation drew to an end, Landreth revealed some sound advice he likes to share with all young musicians. “Hear as much live music as you can and listen to the greats. Do some research and understand the history, particularly when it comes to blues music,” he went on. “Learn about what it was like in their lifetime, the challenges they faced and how they found grace, because that’s what the blues is all about to me. That backstory goes deeper than just learning riffs. It’s good you can play and you need to spend time working on those techniques and making music, but don’t forget to take the time to understand the great songs from the past, because that is the greater experience of music.”
Recorded Live In Lafayette is out now via Mascot Label Group