Andy Walo is the guitarist for the Andy Walo Trio. At Springbok in Long Beach he discussed discovering his love for music at age 5, performing as a street musician and getting his first gigs in Copenhagen, and touring with Junior Wells.
As a five-year-old, you listened endlessly to The Beatles White Album.
I’m glad you noticed that. That album is one of my biggest influences.
That’s not what you expect a five-year-old to listen to. At such a young age, what drew you to that album?
Where I’m from, Stockholm, is about an hour and a half away from the UK. We were exposed to the sixties pop bands: The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, The Who. My brothers and sisters, I’m the youngest of five, they had all the great albums and they just left them behind for me. I grew up in the eighties with Spandau Ballet and stuff like that, which I can’t really stand. I like Depeche Mode, but Duran Duran and Flock of Seagulls are not my bag. I was exposed to all this sixties music more than other people in my age group. When I was five years old, I learned to run the turntable. I was just fascinated by that and it got a hold of me. I kind of knew when I was five that I would play music. Instead of going being out playing War, I was just sitting day after day, hour after hour listening to music over and over again. That album was probably the biggest. When you’re a kid, you paint things in your mind when you hear a song. I remember with “Dear Prudence,” I was envisioning a forest, a big ant stack and all the ants running away. It was really trippy, but when you’re a kid you have such imagination. That’s how I got exposed to it very young.
You were in Copenhagen?
Yeah. I was born and raised in Stockholm, and then moved to Copenhagen in my late teens. It’s about four hundred miles from Stockholm and it’s kind of the New Orleans of Scandinavia. Bars stay open all night long, a lot of jazz and blues clubs. A whole different scene from Stockholm, which is very conservative. For me, at that time, Copenhagen was the place to be. I got my first gigs in Copenhagen. I couldn’t get any gigs in Stockholm because Sweden is so trendy. The newest bands, and the newest styles, you have to play whatever’s in, or no one is interested. Copenhagen is more like the Bohemian lifestyle.
What was your reaction when you were in Copenhagen and you were asked to go on the road with Aaron Burton?
I first started playing on the street. I bought a one-way ticket, with about two hundred bucks in my pocket and I said, “When this money is gone, I ain’t going back to Sweden until I’ve made a living being a musician.” The money ran out in about a week. They have this street, about five miles long, that goes all the way through the city down to the port. It’s sort of like the boardwalk in Venice, but it’s bigger. It’s full of street performers, busters, as they’re called. I started playing with this guy from the Caribbean and we did “Under the Boardwalk,” “No Woman, No Cry,” all that standard Top 40, just me on guitar and him singing. We started making a lot of money and then by October, November, it started getting cold. I went into this blues club and I just went on stage and sat in with this guy that used to play guitar for Rod Stewart. His name is Sam Mitchell. I played a couple songs and got a really good standing ovation. The owner came out to me and said, “I’ve been looking for you all summer. I saw you in the street and I wanted to book you in my club.” That was it. That was my first gig. This was 1990. I’ve played music full-time since then. The road thing came later. I started touring. I had a three-piece band and I started touring Scandinavia. It’s a small market. After that, I kind of got bored of it. I never thought about moving to the States. I love American music, but I was doing good playing music for a living.
This band from Chicago was touring Scandinavia and saw me one night at one of my regular clubs. They spent so much time trying to convince me to go to Chicago. I don’t know what it was but they must have seen something in me and wanted to bring me back. Chicago is the blues Mecca. I went the next spring. I was going to stay five weeks. I ended up staying three months until my visa ran out.
You toured with Junior Wells. Tell me what that experience was like.
After The Beatles and Stones, I got into hard rock like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin. After that, I got totally into the blues. It took me more than anything else. I don’t know what it was but I started playing blues non-stop. I remember Junior Wells was one of my favorites. I was the new kid in town, this white, skinny kid from Sweden playing in these black clubs in the Southside, in the ghetto. I was totally careless, reckless. People would say, “You’re crazy. You can’t go into those neighborhoods.” Word got around and they needed a lead guitarist. The road manager called me and said, “We want to try you out. Come and audition for the band.” I auditioned and it took a couple months. They picked someone else but he didn’t work out. They called me back and then I was on the road with Junior Wells, which is like going from nothing to the top. Junior Wells and Buddy Guy were probably the most famous in Chicago apart from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. They used to tour with The Stones in the seventies. That was great exposure to be the lead guitar player for him.
You’ve played with a lot of different musicians. Which was your favorite?
I’d have to say Junior Wells because I didn’t pursue that gig. I love the guy and then when I got the call from his people, it was great. He had a bunch of different guitar players after Buddy Guy and I was kind of standing in Buddy Guy’s shoes. I was very nervous so I was always backing up on stage. He always gave me those dirty looks. I thought I was too loud, so I backed up more and turned down. He just gave me more angry looks. I thought I’m not going to last in this band. I’m gonna get fired. Something’s wrong. Why doesn’t he like me? One night at a hotel in Minneapolis, he took me aside and said, “When I’m on stage, I want you up there with me.” I realized I had misunderstood the whole thing. He wanted me up there with him. He needed somebody to back him up. It was all relaxed after that.
He was very philosophical.
He grew up in the segregated south, east Arkansas, then moved to Chicago at twelve, in the ghetto. One time on the bus, touring with an eight-piece band, and I’m the one white guy from Europe. They asked me, “Andy, how come you play the blues? We grew up with the blues in Chicago. You being white and all…” Junior Wells turned around and said, “Who are you calling white? He could sit for hours and just talk spiritual, philosophical things. All those old blues guys, they aren’t blues Nazis. He listened to Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush.
Exactly! I wish we had some time to work out more stuff. He did that one song with Tracy Chapman (sings a few bars). He did the Grammys with her. We were up for a Grammy too in 97 for best blues album. I don’t know if there’s any more guys like him around. Quite a character. I wish you could have met him. What a performer. I learned a lot from that. What else were you asking? I just keep yapping along. I got so many memories. We were in Japan, and I made good money. We toured the world with Allman Brothers, BB King. Japan, we were treated like rock stars. I’ve never experienced that before. I was on the same floor with Van Halen and Bruce Springsteen at the same time. He told me, “Andy, pretty soon you’re going to go ahead and do your own thing.” Because that’s what he did with Muddy Waters. I said, “Yeah, you’re right.” I always wanted to pursue my own songs in my own style and he was cool with that.
I remember one time I was late for a gig in Seattle because my immigration papers weren’t ready. I had to fly from San Francisco to Chicago to get my papers to go to Canada the next day. I fly back from Chicago to Seattle and it was raining like crazy. Imagine that. The flight was delayed and I showed up for the gig half an hour late. Immediately I got docked. I lot of African-American groups, they get docked. That’s just the old discipline. The next day Junior took me to his room and paid me the full amount behind the manager’s back. It was his band but they were kind of running everything. The band leader doesn’t really have a say. It’s their thing but they don’t have access to their money. After those thirty, forty years, and playing the ghetto, he finally crossed over. It was quite an experience. I would say he was my favorite.
But I’ve jammed with a lot of people: guitar player in Chicago named Timmy Johnson. I played with Bobby Rush, Magic Slim. I got offered a gig with Ozzy Osbourne but I turned it down. The lawyer almost choked on his cigar when I said no. I didn’t want to go back to do more side-man stuff. I love Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath, but what am I gonna do, be Randy Rhodes? I did the same thing with Rod Stewart when I moved to LA. And I love Rod Stewart. Sometime you have to decide to do your own thing even if you have to start from scratch. I could never see myself being Andy Walo, ex-so-and-so, formerly of…you know? Even though the money is good, money doesn’t buy happiness. Now my thing is starting to take off, which is good.
What would you be doing if you weren’t playing music?
That changes from period to period. If I didn’t play music, I’d probably be in the military. That’s something that’s always been really strong for me. My dad was a submarine captain in the Swedish Navy and maybe he passed it along to me. I’m a World War Two fanatic, I love history. I’m very interested in history and wars. I’d probably be running around with a gun somewhere. Luckily, I have my guitar now and I feel I can do more good with that.
For more information, visit http://www.andywalo.com/ or http://www.myspace.com/andywalo.