September 01, 2008

Trevor Menear On the Road to Greatness

By Max Putnam


Trevor Menear

TREVOR MENEAR is a Chicago-based guitar god in the making. His version of John Sinclair on the John Lennon compilation album, Instant Karma, certainly made waves, and his latest album Introducing Trevor Menear will surely gain plenty of new fans of blazing blues guitar. He's been around music since he was 2 years old – his mother sang and his father played guitar – and now he's making his name as a songwriting guitar sensation.

So, you grew up around music; your father played in a cover band and your mother was the backup singer. How did that early exposure influence your career?

It definitely helped in many different ways. That started when I was two years old, my dad had a band that would cover lots of classic rock artists. The ones that I remember him playing are "The Great Gig in the Sky" by Pink Floyd, "Peaches en Regalia" by Frank Zappa, and "L.A. Woman" by The Doors. Those were the ones that stood out the most. And while they were branching out my mom was singing backup and they would rehearse in our basement.

Do you feel that listening to live music when you were so young, and having parents that were musicians, helped you feel more comfortable when you actually started playing yourself?

Well, my parents also had a drum kit that I used to play when I was that age, and I took piano for about a year, and I always had an ear for music. I really had an ear for roots music. Like one of my earliest memories is seeing this gospel program on TV around Christmastime, and that really stuck with me, and I tended to gravitate more towards blues and roots music. I started to teach myself for the first three years and listen to the radio and try playing along with songs on the radio, so I remember practicing along with Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots. But all of that early exposure geared me more towards being a guitar player, rather than a singer/songwriter. To be honest, I didn't really ever want to sing in the first band but I ended up doing it because no one else would. I always considered myself more of a guitarist than a singer.

So you talked a little about the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Soundgarden, but you say that Nirvana's Nevermind sparked your first musical epiphany. What set them apart from the rest for you?

I was over at my friend's house playing around, and his older brother had just bought the album and he was playing it in his room. We started listening to this album through his door and then went inside. As we were listening to it I opened the liner notes and was looking at the pictures, and there's that picture of Kurt Cobain flipping the camera off. And for some reason I loved everything about it. It sounded like nothing I had ever heard before and it made me want to play guitar. As soon as that happened I bought their earlier CD Bleach and then I just kind of fell in love with them. Eventually that kind of led me to get into the grunge scene, just being a music nerd and hangin' out and watching MTV back when they were still playing music videos.

So tell me a bit about your high school blues band. You opened for acts like Ted Nugent, Johnny Winter, and even James Whiting. What was that like for you at such a tender age?

That's when I really started getting into the Allman Brothers and I started checking out Duane's influences. When you find somebody that's really impacted you, you start to check out their influences and go backwards. When I heard Duane, I just – his playing is more along the lines of trying to mimic a vocalist, and I was hearing all these Delta vocalists in his playing. And when I started checking out Duane, then I got into Elmore James and Bobby Bland and King Curtis, and all those guys. So in high school that's where I was at. Our cover band was half covers half originals; we would do a lot of Chicago street festivals, and we would also play at a couple local bars. One of these bars was Joe's, where we opened up for Johnny Winter, and that was a huge deal for me. I was totally freaked out before we opened up for Johnny Winter, but I got a really good response, and he actually even called me into his tour bus and I got to talk to him for a little while. So that was one of the memorable gigs. Ted Nugent and Sugar Blue [James Whiting] were both outdoor festivals. With Sugar Blue, I was sitting in with my dad's cover band, and he took the stage and sat in with us. That's when he first heard me, I guess. Then flash forward probably about two years: I was working in a butcher shop, and every October they do their own October outdoor fest. And they're grilling and they have bands come. Sugar Blue's band was one of the bands that came through, and he remembered me and I actually got to sit in with his band for most of the entire night. I just showed up and brought my guitar and actually got to sit in with his band, and that was definitely a trip.

In what way?

I was just expecting to get up there and sit in with him, and then he asked me, ‘what songs do you know, like, kick something off!' and I was just like, ‘Well, do you know "Killing Floor"? and we played Hendrix's version of and it was like Bam - we just kicked right into it.

Jimi, Stevie, Kurt, and Duane are the players who've had the deepest impact on you, they also all learned to play by ear. Coincidence?

Well they all peaked my interest, you know? Made me go back to the woodshed and start practicing all over again. You know they made me think differently when I heard them, and made me re-evaluate everything that I was doing. When I started studying jazz a little bit more, I had to get in there and make my way and learn how to read charts. So I got into college and I noticed that all of the theory training was making me write differently, and I couldn't get back to just throwing chords together or hearing riffs. I couldn't play a chord without thinking about numbers, or, you know, how it relates to the key that it's in. So, in a way I tried to mix both of those worlds together, and it's a frustrating process of trial and error, because you don't want to over-think everything too much.

When did you start pursuing a serious solo career?

Honestly, I wasn't keen on the whole solo artist thing, until I left college. I initially started out college at UT. I kind of wanted to be around that southern vibe going on, and I wanted to start a collaborative band. I was looking at studying jazz, and trying to brush up on my skills as much as possible, and get all these other outside influences incorporated into my playing. I was in a couple side projects that never really went anywhere, and after two years I figured, you know, the stuff that they were teaching me was very helpful, and I learned a lot, but it got to a certain point where it's all what you put into it and how you're going to develop all those skills on your own.

All that knowledge is in records; you just have to listen. It�s in books you can check out. I knew that it would be a long haul, so I wanted to learn that kind of language. When you hear stories about Charlie Parker woodshedding in a garage for two years, and isolating himself and not talking to anybody, that�s how he got where he got. But it was like, �I haven�t found a serious band yet, and if I just apply this stuff on my own time and really practice, then yeah, I can get this down.� So it was like a turning point, like okay, what do I want to do now? How am I going to reach that point? And I figured that the best thing I could do was live alone and practice as much as I could. And initially I was set on just trying to practice and be this mean monster guitar player, then I started actually writing lyrics and focusing on songs.

When you've written a song, what do you feel most attached to when you play it and think of it as an entity? In other words, are you tied more to the music or the lyrics, what are you most proud of at the end of the day?

It's a tricky question to answer because it tends to change for me. Sometimes it's song by song. Let's take this record, for example. My focal point was mainly on the guitar solos – setting a structure for the solos, then an outline for the music, and then hearing some sort of melody for the lyrics. Poetically, it doesn't stand up to anything that's groundbreaking, but for this album, it was focusing on song structure and melody, not so much the lyrics. But lately I'm finding that the new material I'm writing, that if I write the lyrics first I tend to appreciate the songs a lot more. I'll have stockpiles of unfinished ideas all over the place and I'll combine different lyrics just to fit a melody. Or sometimes it'll take the opposite route. I'll have the whole song finished lyrically, and then I'll put the melody to it. So I don't have a certain method figured out yet.