When Robby Krieger joined The Doors in 1965, he was 19 years old and had only played guitar for a couple of years. But over the course of his tenure with Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek and John Densmore, he proceeded to create several landmark recordings in the history of rock guitar. In the years since Morrison’s death, Krieger has continued to explore the instrument, often branching out into the areas of jazz and fusion. While he has reclaimed his Doors legacy with a series of projects with Ray Manzarek, Krieger has continued down his own path, as well. In the past year, he even garnered a Grammy nomination for his album, Singularity.
With the announcement this week of the Gibson USA 50th Anniversary Robby Krieger SG and the various releases this year in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of The Doors’ classic L.A. Woman album, Krieger is in the spotlight now more than ever. Gibson.com caught up with the soft-spoken guitarist by phone from his L.A. home to talk about his momentous year.
Well, first off, congrats on the Grammy nomination last year for Singularity.
How did that record come about?
It started about 10 years ago with my friend, Arthur Barrow, who has been playing bass with me on and off for years. He was Zappa’s bandleader for a while. We decided, when Miles Davis died, to do a tribute to him. We had always liked the Sketches of Spain [album], so we decided to model it after Sketches of Spain. So I decided to start with the flamenco guitar and then we based the songs on what I played on the flamenco. But then, we kind of lost interest in it after about six months and we just kind of forgot about it until last year. And we decided, “Hey, we’ve got to finish that thing.”
I assume you were pleased with the success.
Oh, yeah. Definitely. I wish we had won the Grammy; but you know, I don’t mind losing to Larry Carlton, because he’s like my idol.
How important is it for you to keep working on things that are not tied in with Ray [Manzarek] and The Doors, but to do things that are really just “you”?
Well, you’ve got to. I mean, I love The Doors. And for a long time, I didn’t play any Doors music. I was just doing my own thing with fusion and that kind of stuff. But then, I started sitting in with these Doors tribute bands and I noticed how much fun they were having playing The Doors’ stuff. (laughs) So, I said, “Wait a minute. I should be doing that.” So I started playing more and more Doors over the years, and then about 10 years ago, Ray and I got together and started doing the Ray and Robby of The Doors thing.
This is a big Doors year. It’s the 40th anniversary of the release of L.A. Woman. What are your memories of those sessions?
Well, it was really a fun album to make because we produced it ourselves. That was the first one that Paul Rothchild didn’t produce. And you know, he was a great guy and a great producer, too, but a lot of times he could be very anal— you know, taking hours to find drum sounds and that kind of thing. And it became more work than fun, you know? So this time it was like, while the cat’s away the mice will play. (laughs)
How important to the creative process was Bruce Botnik, then?
Well, he was always a very big part of it. Just a great engineer, basically, and we just trusted him to get what we needed sound-wise. And it was his idea to use Jerry Scheff (bass) and Marc Benno (rhythm guitar) for the album. So, yeah, he was very important.
Correct me if I’ve got the chronology wrong here, but you guys had a show in December 1970 in New Orleans that was borderline disastrous. Jim basically shut down on stage. And subsequent to that, the band walked away from doing stage work—and you lost Paul Rothchild. How did you go from those potentially derailing events to producing one of the best albums of your career?
(laughs) Well, that’s a good question. You know, the live thing… the whole problem was Jim had this trial hanging over his head with the Miami incident. And because of that, he was drinking more and kind of going nuts, you know? And so, we just decided after that show to stop playing live for a while. But that didn’t mean we couldn’t record. And the way we did it was just so much fun, because we brought all the recording gear into our rehearsal studio—so it wasn’t like we were under the gun, you know, with studio time and all that stuff. So it was just very relaxed and it was just the thing to do at the time and it seemed to be fun for everybody.
So once you were able to get into that comfortable home environment, you were able to block out the legal issues?
How different was Robby Krieger, the guitarist on L.A. Woman, from the Robby Krieger who joined The Doors in 1965? How much had you grown during that time as a guitar player?
Uh, well, I hate to admit it, but not really that much. You know, I never really practiced guitar or anything like that. I was just kinda The Doors’ guitar player. And whatever it needed, I provided. I learned how to play guitar with The Doors, but as far as practicing and improving, trying to learn jazz and all that, that didn’t come until later, until after The Doors.
And I never really got into music for music’s sake until I met some guys from England who were, like, real studio musicians and real serious musicians. Phil Chen, mainly, who’s still playing with us. And a couple of guys like that. So when I was in The Doors, I don’t think I progressed that much as a guitar player. Now, maybe you can hear something that I don’t, but… (laughs)
Well, there were some things you explored in the songwriting later on that were outside anything you’d done early on. I mean –
Yeah, but some of my favorite stuff that I played was on the first album and the second album, too. But I love what I did on L.A. Woman, too, so don’t get me wrong.
How did the song, “L.A. Woman,” come about?
I wish I could remember more about it, but what I do remember is… to me, that was like a quintessential Doors song—the way it came about. Because as far as I can remember, we were just kind of jamming around in the studio and one thing led to another and Jim came up with the idea of L.A. as a woman and it really was like a group effort, you know? Everybody just kind of started playing. It wasn’t like one guy brought the song in—like normally Jim or I would bring the bones of the song in and we’d all work it out—but this was like a real group effort and it was really fun.
So much of how the rest of us picture Jim Morrison is “the character.” You know, the guy who was onstage, the guy who was in the Oliver Stone movie. But when it was just the four of you guys in a rehearsal room, hashing out songs, pulling out blues numbers—stuff like that—what was that Jim like?
Well, you know, when we were working, he was just a really cool guy. Just a great guy to work with. And you know, if he got drunk, then he was horrible. You couldn’t work with him at all. We called him “Jimbo.” When he would start drinking, that’s [when] Jimbo would show up. And you couldn’t get anything done. But when he would be serious about the music, he was just the greatest guy to work with. Just a real genius songwriter, and I’ve never worked with anybody like him ever since. He was my favorite songwriting partner of all time.
There were other landmark tracks on that album—“Riders on the Storm,” “Love Her Madly,” etcetera. Do you think of that album as the band’s creative peak?
You know, each album has something good on it. In fact, each album has a lot of good stuff on it and that’s why I think The Doors are still happening today. A lot of groups have maybe one or two good songs on a record, but we just wouldn’t give up until every song was how we wanted it. And because we didn’t do a lot of touring, we had a lot more time to spend making records. And I think it showed.
Click here for Part Two of The Gibson Interview.