Leslie West Discusses the Roots of Mountain in 1987 Guitar World Interview
"I mean, I idolized Cream, and here was a chance to play with one of the best musicians in rock 'n' roll. And one of the best writers, too: “Theme From An Imaginary Western" is a great song. I'd love to have us do it again and put it out now, as a single, 'cause Mountain never did and should've. You know what it's about Cream going on the road. 'When the wagons leave the city / The sun is in their eyes' -- it's all about stardom and the fights and everything. Jack had it written in Cream but Clapton didn't want to do it, said it was too complicated. Now, it's not a regular blues progression, there are a lot of changes in it, but it changed my life.
“Why? Because I found out I could use a relative-minor scale over the changes; it's in the key of A, but when it came time for the solo I went to F-sharp minor and pretended I was playing blues. That's why it sounds so sweet, it's almost like country."
Life on the endless road grind was not so sweet, however, and claimed West as a casualty. ''I've done 17 albums and I don't know how many tours now," he declares, "between Mountain, West, Bruce & Laing, and myself, but all the stuff with Mountain and West, Bruce & Laing was done over such a short time -- four years, man. It seemed like a helluva lot longer than that.
“We worked about 285 jobs a year, one-nighters; it was killin' man, really stupid. I didn't enjoy myself, got too concerned with being famous -- and got into drugs."
And so it was that he found himself in Milwaukee in 1977, shedding the heavy junk habit he'd developed and about to change his musical life via a chance contact.
"I'd stopped playing, didn't even want any guitars around," he says. "But while I was there I went to see two shows. One was because Neal Schon said to me, 'l.eslie, you gotta check out this kid who's opening for us; he plays guitar like an organ, like a Bach organ fugue. I was totally taken aback – it was Eddie Van Halen, and he impressed me the way C1apton impressed me. And then the next night I went to see Sammy Hagar. What a co-inky-dink, eh?"
That coincidence brings us up to the present, where it has extended to find West opening for the second leg of Van Halen's current tour. Besides co-writing two songs with the young whammy master -- one of them a moving description of life behind bars over a hooky and hard-rock riff, whose lyrics were penned by a group of prisoners -- Mr. Mountain has been having a blast offstage as well as on.
"Alfonso Johnson, Carlos Santana, Eddie and me were playing in a hotel room one night for an hour and a half without stopping at all. Man, I had the time of my life with those guys. And I've learned how to write by myself, too; I spent two years, '77-'79, working hard with Corky Laing in that, and he was a terrific help."
Whatever else may have changed, though, his approach to his ax remains pretty much the same as ever: "Felix used to tell me, 'Don't think, just play.' You know, most guys when they pick up a guitar, if they play lead they start playing leads right away.
“I learned that you should think about the song, think about the chords you're playing behind, and so most of my solos come right out of those chords. You play the notes within the chords and try to pick a melody from there. For a solo I'll have a theme in my head to start, 'cause it's like Keith Moon said: 'Your entrance and your exit should be devastating, and everything in the middle is filler."
You can hear that fierce attack at work as he plays through the photo shoot at the Collector's Choice studio. West's reissued Junior played through Peden's vintage amps sends scraps of tunes spinning past in that creamy thick tone and wide, warm vibrato: "Beat It," "Mississippi Queen," "Crossroads," "I Feel Fine," "Outside Woman Blues," "Foxy Lady," "The Wind Cries Mary," various squalling, screaming blues from the string-bending school of Albert King.
His eyes close, his mouth works in mime to the raunch erupting from his amp, he sways his bulk gently -- and Leslie West is back.
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