By Martin Popoff
Now known as the guitarist in Roger Waters’ immense touring juggernaut, Snowy White is actually a bit of an enigma, notching 20-odd solo albums worth of icy and spare blues playing that roils beneath wry reflections on life. His latest is called Something on Me and, well, the sound is steadfast if still stealth-like. Call it J. J. Cale meets Mark Knopfler meets Gerry Rafferty, but don’t call it Roger Waters. Don’t call it Thin Lizzy either, most definitely. And that’s a band we bring up because, in fact, Snowy’s fine work on 1980’s Chinatown and Renegade from the following year might be the actual records for which the 72-year-old guitarist is most famed. But yes, that band’s blustery hard rock and twin lead work are miles away from what White has been quietly crafting since his first solo album, White Flames, from back in 1983. Here’s a look at what makes Snowy tick, and most pertinently, where he’s at with this sly new record of his.
SNOWY WHITE: I think I’m getting a bit more assured with what I do, and a bit more mellow and a bit more laid back. You know, I’ve never been one to push myself and try to be clever with guitar playing. Because I can’t, you know; I’m no good, I can’t do that. And I’ve always wanted to play mostly clean and simple stuff. And I think I’ve sort of nailed it, really, as time goes by. This album is just a progression of trying to make some nice guitar work.
GM: And what about lyrically? What is your lyrical world or the world view you’re trying to put forth on these records?
SW: Yeah, mostly, my lyrics are because I feel I should put some words to some of the songs. (laughs) Because, you know, instrumental things, I quite like doing, but there are things I’d like to say. But I’m not a haranguer, you know, harassing people with my lyrics. I’m not trying to lecture people. I’ve got a few sort of things that go through my head and I put them down. There’s no real particular direction of it; nothing behind it.
GM: Is it just sort of like a quiet rumination? And is there darkness there at all?
SW: Yeah, I like the words 'quiet rumination.' I should’ve just said that instead of waffling on. (laughs) There’s a bit of darkness, and I think it’s coming because I’m getting older and people I know are passing on and dying. And it makes you think. I look back and I’ve been playing the guitar for 55 years. So when you’ve done it that long, you do have a certain feeling of being in control of what you do (laughs), by then. So it’s quite introspective in some ways, some of this stuff. But there are occasions when I thought, this is sounding a bit down, so I would in something like “Cool Down,” which is an up one, get some balance. So I’m sort of aware of what people might want to listen to and how it might affect people when they listen. And I like to do an album that when people get to the end of it, they think, “Oh, I’d like to hear that again, actually.” That’s the only thing that is in my head.
GM: Have you ever overtly gotten any advice from Roger Waters or Phil Lynott about writing lyrics?
SW: No, not really. I did enjoy a lot of Roger’s lyric, especially the early days. I think he’s going a bit repetitive now, because we all do. But in the early days, I thought there were some brilliant lyrics. Phil, well, Phil used to annoy me, actually, because he used to come into the studio with no idea, and used to write them as he was singing them, and it would go on for hours. I would be sitting there thinking, why don’t you just do a couple of weeks’ work and get the bloody things done?
GM: It must’ve been expensive, doing that in the studio, live kind of thing.
SW: Tell me about it. He used to annoy me, because, you know, we’d book the studio from 11 in the morning, and I’d get there because I’m always punctual and I want to get to work. Phil would turn up at 10 at night, ready to go all night. Coked out of his brains. And I’d say, “I’ve been here all day. I’m going home. I’m not gonna spend all night…” And one time I thought, well, Phil’s not here, I’ve got some ideas. And I put it down, and when Phil arrived, I said, “I put a few guitar bits down there.” He just said, “No, I need those tracks for vocals.” And he didn’t even listen. And that was one of the reasons I left. It just got a bit like Phil wanted to be a celebrity and not a musician.
GM: What are your thoughts on Renegade versus Chinatown? What are their personalities?
SW: Well, Chinatown, I went to the studio to record Chinatown two days after I got back from L.A. after doing The Wall show with Pink Floyd. (laughs) So there was no chance to get into a different sort of mindset for it. And I had a few ideas. I had the riff on “Chinatown” and a few other bits and pieces I brought along, and they seemed to work. I quite like the Chinatown album.
The Renegade album was a bit different, because by then I had sort of had enough of the way Phil wouldn’t do any work, basically. So I don’t have good memories of that. But I do like the title track, “Renegade,” simply because I wrote most of it, all the guitars. (laughs) But yeah, there are some good things on both of those albums. Overall, I think the band had lost a bit of direction somehow. I think one or two people thought it was my fault, but I don’t really go along with that. But I don’t think I was particularly suited for that band. I didn’t really fit in a lot of ways. But I thought I brought something to the band and I would’ve been happy to go a bit further if all this other stuff wasn’t going on.
GM: Do you think you brought anything into the solo career in ’83, ’84, that you learned from Scott Gorham or enjoyed doing with Scott?
SW: No, not really. No, because I’d been in touch with my friends who played on my first album, and I’ve known them for years, and I always intended to get together with them at some point to do some recording. So that whole thing was already in my head, before Thin Lizzy. So I was just ready to go into the studio with my friends and do my own thing. I don’t think I was particularly influenced by anything I had done before. I was more influenced by wanting to play with my mates, Rich (Richard Bailey – drums) and Kuma (Kuma Harada – bass), get those grooves going, and play some guitar that I liked. I already had a strong idea. Obviously, you do get influenced subliminally by what goes on in your life, musically, and other things, but nothing that I can put my finger on there.
GM: On this record, there seems to be just a very, very slight bit of a reggae feel here and there. I mean, is that true? Is that valid? Are you at all a reggae fan?
SW: No, not particularly. But I’m not not a reggae fan either. There are certain things that suit my mood and suit the song I’m writing. What I used to do is get the skeleton of the song, and then in the studio, as a band, we would kick it around. And Richard and Kuma would come up with some really nice grooves and shoot it off in another direction. This particular album now, Something on Me, was a bit more regimented and it was mostly my ideas on the grooves.
GM: Now, what do you think you do more as a guitarist versus other guitarists? And what camp would you kinda put yourself in? Who do you think you sort of make records like?
SW: I’ve no idea. I mean, I don’t want this to sound wrong. I don’t think anybody plays exactly the sort of style that I play. I think it was more prevalent in the old days when the blues boom was there, with lots of people playing this sort of thing. I sort of stuck with that, and I think more modern guitar players seem to have just a slightly different attitude, and possibly a slight lack of respect for the instrument, somehow. It’s difficult to explain. I mean, there are great guitar players out there. I just think, well, I could never play like that. But I think in the ’60s, when people like Peter Green were playing, and that era, there was a lot more respect for the actual instrument, for actually making it sound good, making it sound sweet and playing the notes so that they were really sweet. And how to bend a note exactly the way it should be. I mean, I spent months and months learning to bend notes to get them sweet. I don’t want to sound like an old curmudgeon, but there’s a different vibe, that’s all.
GM: And what about singing wise? Do you think you picked up anything from Roger or Phil, any tips or tricks?
SW: No, because I can’t sing. I’ve never been a singer. And I found that especially in the early days when I started out, my voice was really quite weak. So I’ve never tried to sing like Roger or Phil. It would never even occur to me to sing like that. And I ended up just trying to do my own thing. In fact, when I’ve got my first band together, I was always looking for a singer and I could not find anybody. But because my songs, a lot of them were quite personal, it didn’t sound right with other people singing them anyway. So I persevered and I got more confident, and I think when I record — and in fact when playing live — I sort of sound all right. I sing in tune and it’s OK. It’s not offensive, you know. (laughs) And I’ve got enough confidence to just go and do my own thing now. But I’ve got the sort of voice that is what it is.
GM: Another thing I’m just remembering here. I guess one of the problems with these Thin Lizzy records, and why you ended up on two tracks on Phil’s solo album, is, there was that complication with Phil not even kind of letting on where the songs were going to go, right?
SW: Yeah, I remember Scott moaning about that. “I don’t know whether we’re playing a Thin Lizzy song or one of Phil’s solo songs,” he said. “If it’s gonna be one of Phil’s solo songs, he should pay me a session fee.” (laughs) Well, it’s true. It all went a bit strange. Phil wanted to be a celebrity, really, not a bass player. He wanted to be a rock star. He just lost direction, really.
GM: And then you start the solo career, and you’re right in the sort of New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Did you look around and say, why is there all this heavy metal all over the place all of a sudden? And where do I fit?
SW: It may surprise you to know that I really like heavy metal. I like listening to it. I can only take it in short bursts. But the guitar and all that, fantastic... but I can’t do that because it’s not my personality. I think it’s a young man game, isn’t it? Heavy metal. At least it is for me. And after a while you mellow. But I’ve always liked the guitar riffing. I mean, who wouldn’t like “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks? But if you play heavy metal, you need to have a powerful singer, you need to have a powerful frontman, and I’m neither of those things. I learned to tailor my output of music to keep it within the parameters I was comfortable with and that’s not heavy metal.
GM: One of the really cool lines here — which is actually the final line on the album —is: “But I don’t worry much about it, because I was fine before I was born,” on “One More Traveller,” and then the song switches direction, right? Tell me a little bit about that line.
SW: Yeah, well, I’ve never been really that confident about my lyrics. I do come up with the odd line that’s really good, and I thought that’s a good line. Because in fact, you know, you get older, and I’m 72, believe it or not, and your friends start dropping by the wayside, and you start to get a bit more introspective. And it’s always been my call that, you know, I was fine before I was born, and if I die I’ll go back to that, and I’ll be fine again. So I’ve managed to work that into that song, which I thought was rather neat, actually. I’m quite pleased with that particular line.
GM: Are you sort of happy with the way the whole career has gone? What is the most important thing to you that you’ve done? People probably ask you about Thin Lizzy records quite often, but obviously there’s a massive Roger Waters and Pink Floyd piece. Or is it the 20 solo albums? Of those three actualities, which do you feel kind of most proud of?
SW: It’s very easy to answer that. It’s basically, you know, Thin Lizzy, Pink Floyd, Roger Waters — I’m playing someone else’s music. That doesn’t equate to success for me. It equates to a good job and earning lots of money, so I can afford to go in the studio do my own thing. People say, “Oh, you’ve been really successful, traveling all around the world and riding in private jets.” But I’m playing someone else’s music. You know, there’s a success there in a way. You have to be of a decent standard to be asked to do it. But it’s not where I’m at. And I can tell you, my most favorite time in my career was in the mid-’90s when I had a little three-piece band, and I went to live in Germany for a year-and-a-half, and there were two Dutch Indonesian guys from Holland, and we were a three-piece band. They were great. And we gigged all around Europe over and over, and the humor in the band was great, the musicianship working together was great. We’d play anywhere. We would play people’s front rooms on a Monday night. It would always be a fantastic sort of vibe. And those particular gigs where the vibe was so good, where the audience was great, the sound was good, we were all in a good mood and everything. And we had those moments on stage when it gelled, it had the sort of high points, I’d be hot because I was in the mood… those are my favorite memories of my career. Forget all the stadiums and all the stuff playing somebody else’s music.
GM: And how have you been able to stay centered and quiet on those gargantuan Roger Waters jaunts? Did you have survival instincts that kicked in?
SW: Well, when you travel around on that sort of level, which is the top level, you’re in a bubble. You don’t really get involved in anything other than going to the gig, playing and coming back. And the travel, it goes on for months, so you become slightly dulled, I think (laughs), to everything that’s going on around you. Because when there’s something like The Wall show, I think we only did like maximum four gigs a week, Maybe five if we stayed in one place for two nights. Sometimes only three. So we had a lot of time off. We’d be in some resort hotel somewhere with three days off. So you can relax and sit by the pool and go and have some food, go for a walk. So it’s not high-powered; it’s not endless and constant. It’s just, oh, gotta go do a gig tomorrow night. (laughs) After you get that done for three hours, then back to the hotel, we jumped in the plane and you go to the next venue and then you’re in the hotel by midnight. So the thing is, it was so well organized that you don’t have to do anything. You’re just like a sheep. You get into that mode. And it’s fine; that’s how you survive that. So I survived. I just turned off my brain, really, just ended up like a sheep. I’ve got no complaints. I thought I was very lucky to have all those experiences. To go to all those countries that I would never have gone to before.
GM: And what was Roger Waters like as a boss?
SW: He was heavy-duty as a boss. As a friend and a guy, he’s great. As a boss, he can be pretty scary if you don’t step up to the plate when you’re needed. You get the look. Nobody wants the look. (laughs) No, he was very, very fair. He treated the band extremely well — extremely well. I can’t complain. He was fantastic. He’s pretty strict, because his reputation depends on putting on a good show.
GM: Why do you have that separation of not playing on his solo albums?
SW: He didn’t ask me. (laughs) I used to go… I went to his house once or twice to do some demos with him, you know, put some guitar on the demos, and we did some recording in Compass Point once for two weeks, and Doyle Bramhall was there, and we kicked a lot of ideas around. I don’t think any of it ever found its way onto his albums. It’s not something that is really in my mind. I don’t worry about it at all.
GM: Does he not think the Snowy sound is needed?
SW: No idea. I mean, he was very loyal to me. We toured for 13 years on the chop, from 1999 to 2013. And every tour that came up, his manager would ring up, “Yeah, you available?” “Yeah.” “Great.” So it was always very friendly in that respect. I think Roger needed… because I knew Roger quite well. I’ve known him since 1976, so he’s comfortable with me, and I know where the boundaries are. I think he feels comfortable. Because I think on tour, the social life for Roger’s quite important. He needs to be mixing with people who he likes to be with.
GM: Do you feel that even subliminally you picked up anything from Kit Woolven or Chris Tsangarides when you made those Thin Lizzy albums? Did you learn anything technical back then that you use now?
SW: No, not really. I didn’t even take any notice of what they were doing. No, I found the Thin Lizzy sound tended to be a bit thick and muddy for me, mostly. I needed more space. Because every time we put a rhythm guitar down, they would want to double it. And it sort of lost the power, sometimes. I always wanted clean sounds. Where individual instruments can shine through, as opposed to trying to muddy it up and disguise things. In 1965, I heard a radio broadcast from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, with Eric Clapton, actually, and Eric had this really clean sound. It was great. It must’ve been a Telecaster or something. It was so clean. It was a BBC Radio broadcast session. And it really hooked me. I wanted to know what it felt like to play that. I wanted to know what it felt like to just play blues, simple stuff, simple chord progressions, and that’s why I play the guitar. That’s what I wanted to learn. I wanted to know what it felt like to play the blues. And I never really went beyond that. I’m still the same now, really. I still want to know what it feels like. (laughs)