Q & A: Eric Clapton
On touring with Winwood, reuniting with Cream and hanging with John Mayer
“I’m still roaming, still trying to find a place,” says Eric Clapton, who has spent the past few years leaping from one high-profile collaboration to another: He reunited with Cream, recorded with BB King and JJ Cale, and jammed with Jeff Beck. But his rekindled partnership with former Blind Faith bandmate Steve Winwood is setting off the most sparks: In three shows at Madison Square Garden last year (captured on a live CD and DVD, out now), they displayed enough easy chemistry to suggest their Seventies pairing ended too soon. “Cream was all about the fact that we were coming from three totally different directions,” says Clapton. “But Steve and I modelled ourselves on the same kind of people.”
You seem happiest when Steve is singing and you’re the sideman.
If I’m the frontman, I feel obliged to engage with the audience ”“ and I’ve always felt that if I do that too much, I’m missing what’s going on behind me. I remember when we were playing Live Aid in Philadelphia, there was a big jam at the end and all the people got up on the front, like Madonna, Lionel Richie, God knows what. And I darted to the back of the stage, next to the drums, and started wailing away. And that’s where I wanted to be. At the time, I thought, “That’s a career decision.” I feel more affinity with the music that’s being made than with the event.
Steve is hot on guitar and keyboards ”“ do you have a second-best instrument?
At one time, I thought I might be able to play keyboards or drums, but only because I was emulating Steve. In truth, to do these things you have to sacrifice a certain amount of time, and I don’t. I’m just a guitar player and a minimal singer.
You’re in an interesting phase of your career. What’s driving all of these recent collaborations?
Believe it or not, at the age of 64, I still haven’t made what I consider to be my best album or found the best live repertoire. I’m still scraping away to find the deep inner me, and it still seems like I’m a long way off. Maybe all that mucking around with substances stunted my growth ”“ but then I wouldn’t be who I was without having gone through that.
So the retirement that you’ve threatened on and off recently is nowhere in sight?
No [laughs]. Not until next time, you know? I retire at the end of every tour. When I’m on the road, I’m gritting my teeth and putting up with hotels and sleep deprivation and upset tummy. But when I’m off the road, the road suddenly sounds like a magical idea again. I’ve had about a month’s holiday, and I’m chomping at the bit. It’s just the nature of the beast.
What’s your next studio project?
I’m going to experiment a bit more with JJ, write some more tracks together. And then I will probably start to record another album just for myself.
Do you have songs written for that?
Absolutely not. I’m really as slow now as I’ve ever been. I’ve got to find a way of writing things quicker.
How did you leave things with the guys from Cream?
We’ve stayed in touch. I think I was clear that I don’t think we need to go there again. But I’d never say never. A Cream hysterectomy would not be a good idea [laughs]. You never know, do you? But I think we’ve gone as far as we could with that.
It’s fascinating to learn that you wanted to make Steve a fourth member for Cream.
It was not a favourable idea with the other two guys. They liked it the way it was. We would have had to start a new band with a new name and a whole different philosophy.
Do any of the young blues-rock bands ”“ the White Stripes, the Black Keys ”“ resonate with you at all?
I think it’s OK, but you could probably know what I like by what I’ve got on my iPod, and that stuff isn’t there. I’ve seen ’em, I respect it, and I have no objection, but it doesn’t move me. I’m not motivated by looking for new things in the younger generation ”“ that’s never been my MO. I’ve always looked for the older guys. That’s where I think the value is. I just went to see Van Morrison on Saturday, and it was the greatest ”“ it lifted me so high, for so long. If I check in on someone I really admire and get high on that, that’ll keep me going.
In general, after Cream you turned away from louder, faster blues ”“ even Zeppelin wasn’t your thing.
It turned me off, and a lot of what we did with Cream turned me off. I find it very difficult to listen to that stuff we did. I kind of look at it as a novelty, really.
John Mayer stayed with you for a week a couple of years back. What’s the
story behind that?
I think there was a record-company agenda behind it to see what we could cook up, but we just sort of hung out. We did write one thing, which went on the JJ album, but other than that we were just talking about watches and cars, you know?
Right. You may know that he immediately started collecting watches and
buying nicer cars.
[Laughs] That’s the way. If you want to know how to play the blues, live beyond your means. It’s simple.