Interview – Grammy Winning Guitarist Paul Nelson

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Life is a journey, and life as a musician is a journey filled with amazing stories. That could never be more true than with American guitarist Paul Nelson. Taught by the likes of Steve Vai, Mike Stern, and Steve Khan, Nelson has attained a career like no other. With credits ranging from work with Heavy Metal band Liege Lord to working along side a massive list of legends including Eric Clapton, Leslie West, Rick Derringer, Joe Perry, Dicky Betts, Joe Walsh, and Slash, to name a few, Nelson’s resume is eye-popping. Through it all as a guitarist,songwriter, and producer, perhaps one of Nelson’s biggest accomplishments was teaming up with the late great Johnny Winter. Serving as a partner to Winter in the latter part of his life, Nelson was a key part of the resurrection of Winter’s career, and thus, became a Grammy winner in 2014 with Winter’s album Step Back. Continuing to keep his creative juices flowing, Nelson has plenty left in the tank to offer listener’s ears. Recently we caught up with the accomplished musician to talk about his time working with Johnny Winter, the friendship they developed, writing music, Horror movies, and much more. – You have been involved in music for over three decades and in that time, you have worked with everyone from Johnny Winter to Eric Clapton to Joe Walsh, and everyone in between. What has this fantastic musical journey been like?

Paul Nelson – It kind of creeps up on you. You do your thing, study, prepare and all of a sudden you look back and think about how your resume is developing. After a while, stuff just starts happening, especially when you work with somebody like Johnny. You look back and see the list and its like, “Really?”  But it has great, I am still going and I am honored to have the privilege to do this stuff.  I went to Berkeley and prepared to do this and I really did not want to do anything else, so I made sure I covered all aspects of music-  arranging, writing and playing. When you have all of your ducks in the water, your chances of getting a call back improves. You try to be a well-rounded musician and artist so that the work keeps coming in. – Right, and you certainly have been a very well-rounded musician throughout the years. You have worked in Metal, obviously, you have worked in Jazz, Blues, and Rock. As an artist, do you thrive on that diversity?

Paul Nelson – Yes, and I learned early on through my teachings- I have studied with with Steve Vai, Mike Stern and a few others- the art of wearing different hats for different situations. So, I would become well versed in all musical styles, no matter what the trend was in Metal, Jazz, Rock and Blues. You try to get as proficient in each style so you can work.  But, you study all of these things and you never really know what direction you are going to go in, and it’s usually the opposite direction that you focused on.  Something that happened when I met with Johnny, all of the resources and studies and everything I have done came together to work with him and, eventually, help him out.

Metal Blade Records
Metal Blade Records
Metal Blade Records
Metal Blade Records – As mentioned, you worked with Johnny Winter rather extensively. I imagine that had to be an amazing experience. What was that experience like?

Paul Nelson – Well, he was one of my idols. I had his posters on my wall and studied his music, along with other artists, but Johnny was right up there. Any guitarist should study Johnny, Hendrix, Clapton, BB King and the big names. But, there I was in the studio on the East Coast and in walks Johnny. It was one of those situations where you never know what’s going to happen. So, I am recording the Blues stuff for the XFL, the football league, and Johnny walks in and hears me playing. He says, “Hey, I like your style.” I just happened to be playing some Blues stuff and he said, “Do you want to write for my record?” I wrote a song, he liked that one and he asked, “Do you have two more?” and it just developed.  Then he said “You know, there are other guitar parts on there, do you want to play on the record?”  I said sure and he said, “Well, since you are playing on those, do you want to play on the rest of the record?” I said sure again and he asked, “Well, since you are on the record, do you want to go on tour?”

It just developed until I saw his health was not that good and I thought something was going on and, eventually, I figured out what it was. He asked me to help his career out and the friendship developed. All of these things that I studied came together to help him, and that is kind of what happened during his comeback.  But to play with him, I mean, that was just… at first you get a little bit nervous, or at least you think you should be nervous.  But then, I know what I studied long enough, I know his material, so let’s do this.  It was great, and sitting chair to chair with him recording a song that I wrote for him… I can’t describe the feeling. Then we hit it off as buddies, and that is eventually how I helped him. I never looked at him being as famous as he was because then I couldn’t help him. He had enough people praising him, but he really needed help. That’s the kind of relationship we developed to help him with the comeback that you saw. – You definitely played an intricate part in that, absolutely. Johnny passed in 2014, sadly, and that final record, Step Back, actually won a Grammy for the best Blues Album in 2015 and you received it for Johnny. What was the recording process like for that record, because you had also produced the record?

Paul Nelson – Actually, we both got Grammys in the ‘Best Of’ category. The producer and the artist gets the Grammy, just like when Johnny produced all the money stuff, he got physical Grammys.  Which is something I did not  realize. I thought that Johnny got it, so I accepted the form and then, all of a sudden, I get one in the mail. But it was very bittersweet.  Johnny had severe emphysema that nobody really knew about, but he was fighting and that was the one thing that we could not really fix.  Everything else was out of his system, he was physically fit, clean bill of health other than that. In the last gig, he caught a cold in France, then we ended up in Zurich and it escalated and just knocked him out.  Other then that, he was having one hell of a comeback.

Megaforce Records
Megaforce Records
Megaforce Records
Megaforce Records – Obviously, like you said, you really contributed to that and he had an amazing career. He was seventy years old when he passed, its a shame that he could not still be playing music.

Paul Nelson – Just to show how healthy he was in every other respect, we were slated to do two more records with Megaforce Records, as this was a four-record contract series. When I played the mixes to Step Back, he leaned in my ear and said. “If we don’t get a Grammy for this, they’re nuts.”  He wanted that and he never received a Grammy for his own stuff, by the way.  He got it for helping other people, but he never got one for his own album, which is crazy. And this album charted the highest of his career. Still Alive and Well  from 1973 hit 22 on the overall  Billboard charts, that is up there with Beyoncé, AC/DC  and all the top bands.  But this hit 16 and the only reason it did not get the Top Ten was because Amazon could not keep up with the orders, so they registered everything the next week.  It was tons of sales and they could not keep up with it.

  I told Johnny that we have two more and he goes, “Yeah, you know, why don’t we just record them all now?”  That is exactly what I was thinking, so I said , “Just pick the songs, it is the same type of theme. Songs that influenced you and we will bring in guests and they will tribute you while paying tribute the artists you grew up listening to.”  He picked twenty-six songs and said, “You better do that now because you never know how long the other guys would be around.”  He was gung-ho, he did not think that anything would happen. He was worried about the condition of what he considered the older guys. That was the state of the mind he was in.  He was really doing 120-140 shows a year, he was physically fit and working out. 

There is a movie coming out called Johnny Winter: Down & Dirty. The director, Greg Oliver, who has filmed the Motörhead documentary, was brought on board because he was looking to do a documentary on Johnny. I put out the feelers because there has not been one on Johnny and the planets aligned when we met each other. I loved the work he had done on that and thought it would be perfect in a Blues setting for Johnny.  He follows around for three years, up until last year, and this was ready. Johnny saw it when they showcased it at SXSW, we sat back and I bought him a bucket of popcorn while he watched himself on the screen. It’s a really intimate tell-all about his life, Blues Rock, being albino in Texas in the 1950s. There are real interesting cameos by Joe Perry, his brother Edgar. They found his first guitar teacher, who is eighty-two years old, Luther Nally, Billy Gibbons, and it really described about what I was saying about this health and how he was doing well.  He followed us to Japan, China, we  played Letterman, went to Europe.

It is very up close and personal, more than I have seen with any other kind of documentary.  This one is really deep and you really get to see Johnny and this mystique, nobody really knew how he was personally.  It’s very enlightening.  He saw the movie finished, he saw the completion of his record.  Nothing that came out after his passing was not sanctioned by him, or not seen by him, and in that respect was great.  Like I said, the Grammy was bittersweet because he did not get to live to see him receive it, but he knew he made a good record. His voice was strong, his playing was strong and the guests did a great job. It was an honor for him to ask me to produce it. – You just mentioned Johnny Winter: Down & Dirty, it was finished before his passing and premiered at the SXSW Festival. You actually executive produced that documentary correct?

Paul Nelson An executive producer is an overseer of the whole project.  The director has an idea of what he wants and I help out to make sure it happens.  I also make sure that there are elements that I think should be in there on behalf of Johnny.  It is a think tank type of thing, but the director is the king of the project, just how a producer is the king of a project.  I enjoyed working with Greg in that respect and he put together an unbelievable documentary, it really it knocked me out.  You do not really know how it is going to be when you are in it. How is this situation is going to look with the editing, the flow of it and the look.  When you see the final project you are like wow. It covers three stories at once and they all come to a head at the end, it is pretty interesting how he did it.

Secret Weapon Films

Paul Nelson – Exactly, and that is what was happening when I started working with Johnny in the 2000s, I had to go to “Johnny school.” I had to research him and if I have to help out. I have to know what happened.  The 90s was a really bad decade for me.  When everybody was riding the retro bandwagon, like Clapton and BB King, sitting in with famous artists and boosting their own careers, Johnny was being written out of history. He was not in the documentaries, he was in bad shape. He could not really give the details, he could speak but it was not elaborate so nobody would have him do these things.  When I met him, we played an amazing game of catch up and that was starting to happen and that is why people were so surprised of his passing.  They knew how healthy he was because he was in the public eye doing television performances. 

The younger crowds were getting into him and they knew he was an intricate part of jam bands. Some of Johnny’s songs were sixteen and seventeen minutes long with intense jamming. That was why he rubbed elbows with The Allman Brothers and he was part of that as well.  He was like the missing piece of a puzzle, when they go back to research it is like, “Wow, I gotta find out about this guy.”  There is some other stuff going on too, the story about substance abuse, stardom, the history of the Blues and comeback stories as well. There are a lot of elements in there, plus his fans that were with him at Woodstock and that generation. They wanted to see what happened and why he was in that shape, and it explains a lot of that. It is going to have an impact in a lot of areas I think. Agreed. It will be exciting when it received mass distribution release for everyone to see.

Paul Nelson – We have been doing these shows, myself and the Johnny Winter Band. We had Edgar sit in, did one with with Warren Haynes and Sonny Landreth in Jamaica paying tribute to Johnny.  We played the movie ahead of time, as a little teaser, and the fans were laughing and crying. It is very emotional and it is uplifting to see and as you watch, you see Johnny get younger during the coarse of the movie.  He really captured that whole period of getting Johnny off of this stuff and seeing him get better. There is a trailer out now and that will be on Sony Mega force world wide. Yes, the trailer is available on YouTube who have not seen it. Now, seeing the vast experience you have had over the years, working in various different projects and such, what are some of the more important things you have learned, as a musician and in the business?

Paul Nelson – The first thing that comes to my mind like an ink blotter test, less is more.  It is a cliché statement, but it is so true. People throw it out there like, “Oh of course less is more.”  But they never do it, it is like you love this musician because he plays so little, but it is like why don’t you do it then?  Why are you so busy? It hold true in live performances, in production, in song writing.  There is a lot of elements to music, lyrics, making stuff original and keeping respect for traditional stuff. The most that I’ve learned is to stay in the business. you have to be in all of the right places all of the time, you really have to be well rounded as a musician.  It is very hard to be a one man one band and not flighty, like when you are in a situation you give it your all.  Do not give the impression like you are just riding this to get out of here, you do it.  You have to be well versed in the business of it and in the performance. When you get the call, you have to be ready.  I got the call with Johnny, but I also got other calls with other people.

If you want to stay in just music, I always made sure that, no matter what I did, it was under the umbrella of music.  It could be business related, music business, engineering or producing, I just liked being around music and music people, that’s my gang.  And the gang can consist of the guys on Johnny’s record, or a friend like Sonny Landreth and Warren Haynes, or the gang can be hanging around with Hendrix’s producer, Eddie Kramer. It is the whole scene. You have to keep it fresh and viable. You have to study and listen.  My big thing is I love playing. That is all I ever wanted to do and that’s all I ever wanted to do with Johnny, is play guitar.  But it developed into something else and I had the experience to do other things, and he saw that. He is the one who produced Muddy Waters and he was like, “Paul, do you want to produce me?” I said that would be great and he knew I could do it. 

Johnny took me under his wing, I was his prodigy, he became my teacher.  He did this with a lot of people, like Tommy Shannon, and he was like, “Listen to this record!” I’d say, “Oh, T-Bone! Okay, I will get every album.” He would say, “Oh no no no, listen to this song and that riff.”  That is the one I learned.  H would point you right in the direction. That was huge for me, I really enjoyed that, he turned me into so many artists.  I hung around and played with him for so long, you start learning his solos and he shows you these things and you hear it constantly. That would have been enough for me and it led to so many things. 

It became a friendship and my main concern was keeping him alive in the beginning because he was in really bad shape and he did not even know it.  He was in such a fog in the 1990s, he does not even remember how bad it was and he says that in the movie.  But to see the difference to help out, you are on a bus fourteen hours in a day and someone in the band is falling asleep in their food.  We gotta fix him, and at the same time he has a public image and you have to keep that.  A lot was changed, we were really good buddies.  We lived close to each other and when we got off the road, I would take him bowling.  A lot of people do not know I brought him to get laser surgery, he was no longer legally blind.  It was a one hour visit, but nobody ever checked, the old management never checked.  He had cataracts, nobody looked.  Fixed it in one hour, after how many years?  He started walking on stage, standing for a few songs and nobody was helping him anymore. 

Johnny Winter & Paul Nelson
Johnny Winter & Paul Nelson It is unbelievable how the people around him just let him wilt away like that. They were not helping him, they were  just letting him fade away.

Paul Nelson – He was no angel, he asked to do certain things and wanted certain types of drugs, he was a child of Woodstock.  It was just like The Emperors New Clothes, nobody said, “Hey, you’re not wearing anything.”  But then I came along and I said, “If we’re going to work together, you’re going to have to change a few things.”  He had a trust in me, so that was pretty cool.  It was one of those weird regimes where they would give him whatever he wanted, and I did the opposite.  I took it all away, I said you can’t do these drugs, this stuff has to go, start from a clean slate.  And then he got healthier in a natural and normal way.  I was able to produce him, which allowed him to just sing and play. He did no have to worry about anything else.  He picked the songs, I brought in the guests, I brought in the sounds he wanted, arranged the songs and made it very comfortable for him.  I knew it was time to record, his voice was better and then he honored me with playing on it, as he did with all of the other ones. 

Maybe he was setting me up to do this, because I really made sure I tried to get the authentic sounds of the past but still kept it current. With the recordings and bringing in horns, I had to be really careful with what he wanted to hear, what the public wanted to hear, and do a nice blend.  When I did go get the award for him, it was rough.  They were playing the music and it just hit me, like a rush of thinking all of the time we spent together in the studio, each thing we worked on. You hear the songs, but you hear and see in your mind what was involved in making that song, like coming into the studio. It was rough but I am glad he got that.  Like his family said, he really left on a higher note, higher than ever.  Especially in this generation, inquiring minds want to know more than they would have before because he was so prominent. To win an award like that and to be in the press, the kids were like, “Who is this guy?” Then they hear their idols saying, “He’s THE guy.” So, it worked in that respect.  It is just a shame that he is gone. Of course, it certainly is. One can imagine in the long run, he really thanked you for all that you did for him. You got him healthy and once he got out of his fog, he was probably grateful.

Paul Nelson – The thing is, if you are going to take somebody of that stature, and say you can not do something, people get defensive.  When someone says, “Every time I light up a cigarette, take it out of my mouth and break it in half,” it lasts for about two days and then you hate the guy for breaking the cigarette.  But, if you show results and show that the press is into it more, that you are getting healthier feeling better, and more talkative, people around you say that you look good, then this is working.  You have to show progress, it was a carefully orchestrated thing between he and I to make steps to get better and to give examples of  “Look at how you played, the reviews,” it was very important.  It was a real good chemistry and we got things done very quickly.

First, it was very slow to work on everything, but because of his past status it just took off.  Key things like reappearing on TV and doing Crossroads were huge things that covered more of a fan base than ever before because of social media.  In his day, he would have to play Woodstock and that was it, if anyone did not go, they would just hear about it. He was amazed that we could reach fifty Woodstocks with the press of a button.  But, he had to be healthy and ready so everything was worked on from his band, finances and record deals. Everything was in shambles.  It worked, but he ended up where he should have been a long time ago.  The old management was really a mess, it is described in the movie as well.  It was really bad. At least everyone got to see him sent off the right way. That is an excellent way to look at it.

Paul Nelson – Of course, the fans wanted answers with the old management. Finally they got it and they wanted their idol to be healthy again.  They wanted to hear more music, more records, see him play and be proud of him when he walked on the stage unattended. I listened to the fans, but I already had an idea of what had to be done because I was a fan as well, I was the ultimate fan. Imagine if a fan of an artist was allowed to help out, with a fan mentality, but had the resources to do what had to be done business-wise.  It is a great combination.  Playing on the road, I was able to see the progress instantly. It helped to be side by side with him playing and it helped being on the bus. It sounds like a great story. Now, you actually released a solo record back in 2001 entitled Look, so it has been almost fifteen years. Do you have plans for another solo record or are there any new projects on the horizon?

Paul Nelson – I am signed with Sony and I have a deal.  I just finished my record last week.  I got some great musicians, it is my own project.  I have a singer from Europe, Morten Fredheim, he was number two on The Voice, Chris Redden on drums and Chris Alexander on bass. For the past four months, I have been working on this but I actually wrote the material very quickly, it just spewed out of me the minute I was working with this singer.  It is not Instrumental Fusion like I did last time.  I could have gone in that direction. Johnny’s fans were like, “Paul you’re the guy, do we follow you?” because Johnny handed me the spoon.  That happens in the Blues world, they pass the torch.  I will never be Johnny Winter and I did not want to pretend to be I just wanted to make music for people and see if they like it and, if they do, they will ask me to play more by getting the records and coming to the shows.

What started coming out was a mixture of jam bands, Blues influences, Rock and Pop, I was able to make a nice blend of all of those styles and I formed a band with a lead singer, which is something that’s kind of disappearing recently and is hopefully coming back.  You have all of these guitar players that sing, but there’s no front man anymore.  Everybody appreciates AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Sabbath, Aerosmith but nobody is playing it.  Nobody is paying respect to it.  There is this big void happening right now and, plus, with the new sound now is a mixture of everything. You are allowed to do everything on a recording and that is the kind of music I am making. It is a mixture of all of my influences, and influences of everyone I know, so it is custom made to fit this void that has been created.  I hope it does well, I enjoy it, the band enjoys it and the record company certainly enjoyed it.  That should come out around the same time as the movie.

Cd Baby
Cd Baby
Provogue Excellent, that will be exciting to hear. It sounds exciting and refreshing, so we will be excited to hear it.

Paul Nelson – It has been like this secretive thing, but I want it to be released professionally with the right kind of support and I found the right label to do this.  It is time, it has been a year since Johnny passed and, actually, Johnny wanted to play on this record back in the day when I told him when I was thinking about doing a project. He was always supportive of what I did, he really was a fan of my playing, which was a huge honor. This is something I am pretty proud of, so we will see how it does. They are songs, it’s just not a shredding jam, I could have done that but I’m really thinking about the sake of the song.  This is not the show off kind of thing, like let us see how many riffs you can put in. This is vocals,  guitar, sound, solos that makes sense in a song. That is what I have always done, arranging and producing, So, that is what is coming out.  We will see, it is a lot of material. Songs are what matter. There are a lot of musicians out there that have  self-serving music, but the song is what matters.

Paul Nelson – Exactly, with the hook and chorus. I have gone back and paid homage to the older rock sounds of the 1970s, that kind of thing. To really capture bands like Boston, Steve Miller, Bad Company and Queen. People say they love that stuff, but no one is doing it.  Not saying I am coming out like Queen or Aerosmith, but there are elements in there that shows that in my past. The stuff that we are doing is not dated, it is fresh but it pays homage to that. At the same time, there are elements of Blues in it jam band, which is I really is the new sound.  Everyone asks what is coming out, well it is a mixture of everything, almost like mutt Rock.  It is just everything, which is great for artists now. Before, if you played Blues, you had to play it a certain way. If you had any other instrumentation or deviate from the genre, you are not part of the click anymore.

Now all of these bands are playing all different styles at the shows and bringing in this variety of guests. It is actually opening doors to artists to be allowed to put out a fusion record and not just have to put out a Blues record. Now the record can have everything and you are appreciated for it. Being in the music business, I talk to people I know what is coming, I have an inside source.  There is a lot of fear from record companies and booking agents, they say, “Who do we get rid of, who do we keep? Where is this going?” and I’m thinking there is a giant hole here. Who is going to replace AC/DC?  Is that a dying art? No.  It may not be me, but there is going to be a group of us performing that stuff because we still listen to it and appreciate because it is in us no matter what. I hope I am not getting too deep, but that is the premise behind it. I could have gone the Blues route, but yeah.

Set for release 2-5-2015 via Friday Music
Set for release 2-5-2016 via Friday Music Very true what you are saying about music, Who is going to carry the torch for that type of music? There are still people who adore that type of music, and it should be adored,  cherished and carried on.

Paul Nelson – Exactly. I like writing music when someone says it reminds them of something it is new and it grabs their attention.  I want to put influences that I enjoy, but at the same time I want people to want to listen to more, and I have some great musicians. I have my own studio here called the Chop Shop where I am producing Joe Lewis Walker’s album, Lance Lopez’s album, I am all over the place.  I am guesting a lot with people, playing with Warren Haynes, Sonny, Edgar, Johnny A. It is a nice click, but the main thing right now is my own project and the movie that is coming out. Those are things people are going to look forward to, absolutely. My last question is pertaining to movies. covers all types of music, but we also cover all types of movies, particularly Horror and Science Fiction films. If you are a fan, what are some of your favorite Horror films?

Paul Nelson – I will tell you Johnny’s favorite right off the bat, his favorite movie that he watched over and over again.  He did not like the Horror that really shocked you, or went to the gore and everything. He is from an older school of appreciation.  He liked the Psycho (1960) type of movies, where you do not really see the murderer, but you know they are in the shadows and scare the hell out of you.  He loved, and watched religiously, 1408 (2007).  He loved that movie, it scared him, he had to watch it over and over again. For some reason he loved that movie.  As far as my taste, I love every Horror movie.  We are on the bus so much, so musicians are big movie buffs. You are driving all of these hours and there’s only so many ways you think of to occupy your time, so it turns into movies. 

Johnny and I amassed a collection of Horror movies, humor, classics. We watched Pumpkinhead (1988), I love the look and the feel of that.  I also loved The Cabin in the Woods (2011), brilliant. I love films like the original The Evil Dead (1981). The ones that really freaked me out were the films  that Rob Zombie did, The Devil’s Rejects (2005), House of 1000 Corpses (2003).  All the classics, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Friday the 13th (1980), the original A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).  There was this little-known movie that came out called Xtro (1982). We watched stuff like Metropolis (1927) and Nosferatu (1922), the black and white movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). We have gone through every variety of movies, like C.H.U.D. (1984), Lake Placid (1999), Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959), The Crawling Eyeball (1958). It goes on and on. You would not believe how many movies influence musicians.  So many musicians would love to do film scores. We listen to music and how suspenseful it is when an ax comes out comes out and that comes out into our playing. 

New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

Tour Dates:
Jan 21 Anaheim Convention Center Anaheim, CA
Feb 24 Regent Theater Arlington, VA
Feb 25 Tupelo Music Hall Londonderry, NH
Feb 26 CHANS Woonsocket, RI
Feb 27 Trinity On Main New Britain, CT
Feb 28 Brian’s Backyard BBQ Middletown, NY
Mar 03 Violets Barrie, Canada
Mar 12 Stanhope House Stanhope, NJ
Mar 18 Violets Barrie, Canada
Mar 19 Buffalo Works Buffalo, NY
Mar 20 Callahan’s Music Hall Auburn Hills, MI

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