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Q&A: Steve Winwood

The former Spencer Davis/Traffic frontman and R&B veteran speaks about adapting to a music industry in meltdown.

Multi-instrumentalist, gold-plated vocalist and rock icon, Steve Winwood has been making music for more than 40 years, since his teens where enjoyed chart success with the Spencer Davis Group in the mid-60s. After that came Traffic, whose influence stills resonates today, and then Blind Faith, one of the world’s first genuine supergroups which also featured former Cream members Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker. Over the past couple of decades Winwood has enjoyed a successful solo career, and, aged 60 this year, releases a new album, Nine Lives, in May.

These days isn’t it suicidal to release an album of new material on a major label?             

[Laughs] Madness, I know. It is Armageddon for the music business. It’s going through an industrial revolution, which I don’t think is a bad thing. And coupled with that, the last album, which came out on my own label, was quite successful. But at the end of the day everyone wants to reach more people. It’s a one-album licence deal, so we’ll see what happens. There are definite changes going on and I think it’s good.

The new record has a very organic sound, in contrast to the more produced work you released in the 80s.                                    

[Laughs] Yeah. Well, you know, everything is slightly derivative.

Where does the title come from? Is it a concept album?                                                    

It’s actually the opposite of a concept album; it’s more like a book of short stories. It’s nine fairly unrelated songs. So it’s my ninth album, with nine songs on it. And it was cut pretty much live in the studio.

*Do you always write, whether or not you’re planning the next record?   *                      

I’m not enormously prolific. Sometimes I have to work a bit hard to write things, and sometimes things come very quickly. In Traffic we were musicians, and first and foremost we wanted to jam. But because at the time we were being played on the radio and had a record deal, we needed to write songs of a certain length. So that became the first reason we wrote songs: as a vehicle to play music. With songwriters it’s the other way round; they write because that’s what they do.

In a way Traffic are responsible for the current burgeoning nu-folk scene.                                  

Yes, well it’s quite circular, isn’t it? That twisted, mushroom, pixie rock, that’s not far away from what we were doing. And of course Zeppelin were flirting with pixie rock a bit, weren’t they?

How did Blind Faith come together?

Eric and I had met in the early days when he was playing with John Mayall and I was playing with the Spencer Davis Group. He took me under his wing; he introduced me to his mates and we listened to records together, and we briefly recorded together in Clapton’s Powerhouse and we always had the idea of forming a band. But then I formed Traffic and he got Cream together. And when that folded he just said it’s time to get something together. He had a vision of what we wanted to do, and I think the record stands the test of time and represents what we trying to do.

What were Blind Faith trying to do?

Well, we were trying to make music that went outside the scope of what we had been doing. The music we did with Blind Faith was a bit more delicate than the heavy rock the audience we were playing for was used to. But now when we play something like Can’t Find My Way Home it’s become a rock anthem. But in those days, when we first went out touring playing big arenas, the audience didn’t want to see a couple of guys fiddling around on acoustic guitars, they wanted loud rock. So it didn’t really work live. And so it was doomed from the start.

After Blind Faith you re-formed Traffic and made John Barleycorn Must Die, which is still an influential album to this day._  _                     

An important album for us. It could almost be described as the definitive Traffic album.

When did things for Traffic start unravelling? Did the band have major problems with drugs? 

No; we used sit round and smoke a bit of wacky baccy. Chris Woods [sax/flute] had a few substance abuse problems in the end. But Jim Capaldi [drums/vocals] and I didn’t. Everybody used to think Capaldi was completely stoned, but he was just like that anyway. And I wasn’t particularly out of it; I probably smoked a bit too much. Even though we were with a small, boutique- type record company [Island] nobody knew what we were doing, and they assumed that we were in some kind of drug haze. We just made records.

Why did Traffic call it a day [in 1974]?

It had really run its course. I’d been in bands for 10 years, and I had missed out on my youth because I was just working [in bands] from when I was about 15.

People who start a music career when they’re as young you were usually have a story with a sad ending. How did you manage to survive relatively unscathed? What has kept you motivated?

The only thing that motivates me is that I started out with the love of music. That’s how I came to rock music. That may sound obvious, but a lot of people came to rock music for a lot of other reasons: they wanted to change the world, or get laid, or get stoned... whatever. Or just to do something that wasn’t as hard as doing a proper job. I went to music college when I was 13-14. I got thrown out as well [laughs]. But the music is the thing that never dies, and it’s fascinating and it never ceases to amaze me and I hope I never cease to learn from music.

What inspires you now?

Plainsong. Gregorian chant. I listen to a lot of that because I sing in the local choir.

Tell me about your recent reunion with Eric Clapton. 

We started off doing the Countryside Alliance benefits. I live in a rural area, and there are a lot of issues that are quite close to me and I have a lot of support for the Countryside Alliance, so I wanted to do something. I did one thing but only played 45 minutes because there were other bands playing. And then I got the word that Eric would only do it if he could play with my band. So I said great, let’s do a couple of songs each and then we can come on together. But we ended up putting together a set’s worth of material [laughs] and ended up doing a whole 45 minutes together.              

KIDS’ STUFF

While most kids under the school-leaving age of the 60s might have seen the odd music great, before Steve Winwood was 15 (having played guitar in his dad’s band when he was nine) he’d played keyboards with some of the pillars of blues, including T-Bone Walker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Memphis Slim and John Lee Hooker.

While most of Winwood’s teenaged pals were idolising the likes of The Beatles and the Stones, at 15 he’d co-founded the Spencer Davis Group and was soon appearing alongside such 60s pop greats, belting out hits like Gimme Some Loving, I’m A Man and Somebody Help Me

I'M NOT DROWNING

FIVE THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT WINWOOD

  • He plays organ on the Jimi Hendrix song Voodoo Chile, which is featured on the Electric Ladyland album.

  • He played live with the Ron Atkinson Band when he was eight. 

  • Winwood and Clapton first played together in the shortlived Eric Clapton And The Powerhouse in 1966.

  • Winwood went all reggae in 1976. when he appeared on the Toots & The Maytalls album Reggae Got Soul.

  • He has two Grammy Awards.

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