Interviews & Features
Robby Krieger Lights A Fire
The Doors’ guitarist looks back at early days and the glory that followed
By Gary Graff
December 16, 2016
Some 51 years ago the Doors opened — and haven’t closed since. The Los Angeles group is among a rarefied corps of heritage bands whose influence and relevance maintains it as much more than a nostalgia act. The Doors’ music — eight albums between 1967-72 — sounds as fresh in 2016 as it did when it first came out, and its wealth of archival releases in recent years, including this week’s London Fog 1966 from the earliest live tape know to exist of the quartet, has demonstrated a continuing appetite to hear more.
And while frontman Jim Morrison gets the lion’s share of attention for his provocative theatrics, guitarist Robby Krieger is the Doors’ secret weapon, a fluid, innovative, genre-splicing player who was also a major songwriter — including hits such as “Light My Fire,” “Love Me Two Times,” “Touch Me,” “Love Her Madly” and more. With Morrison and keyboardist Ray Manzarek both gone, Krieger and drummer John Densmore are carrying the torch — mostly separately, but with the intent of making sure next year’s 50th anniversary of the Doors’ first album gives both it and the band that created it their due.
FGPO: There’s a strong blues flavor in the performances on London Fog 1966, in both the originals and the covers. Where did that fit in the group’s makeup at the start?
Krieger: Blues was a big part of it, obviously. Ray especially had grown up in Chicago and he had his band with all his brothers, Rick & the Ravens, and Ray had his own thing called Screamin’ Ray Daniels. He wanted to be like Muddy Waters, y’know. John loved the blues, too. It was cool to play the blues. At that time rock ‘n’ roll was kind of corny, we thought, until the [Rolling] Stones came out. So we thought it was cool to play blues because the Stones were kind of the first white guys to play blues, and then there was the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. They were one of my favorites — and, by the way, produced by [future Doors collaborator] Paul Rothchild.
FGPO: And as you listen through to the catalog, the blues never really left the Doors, did it?
Krieger: Not really. In any rock ‘n’ roll there’s always some element of blues. But Jim always loved blues, and when he would get drunk he would love to just do blues — “Let’s do blues! Let’s do blues!’ — the three of us kinda got a little fed up with that [laughs] but on the L.A. Woman album you do see quite a bit of blues coming back.
FGPO: So where were you coming from at the beginning?
Krieger: I was into folk music, flamenco — and blues, yeah. I discovered blues because of my friends. A guy who I grew up playing guitar with, Billy Wolf, and his buddies were into all the old blues guys, Lightnin’ Hopkins, all of ’em. The guy I liked was Blind Willie Johnson; he was kind of a slide player and really cool vocals. And then Robert Johnson, of course, which everybody discovered later.
FGPO: What’s it like to listen to the London Fog release all these years later?
Krieger: It’s pretty cool to hear. This is the earliest stuff I’ve heard of the Doors. We were obviously just starting out. We’d probably been together for maybe six, eight months, even a year at that point, maybe longer. But we hadn’t really found our sound exactly. We were still doing a lot of cover songs, and Ray was doing a lot of singing and Jim was still kind of shy and hadn’t really come out of his shell yet, but you can hear that it’s us.
FGPO: What do you hear when you listen to the kid playing guitar back then?
Krieger: I obviously was in the early stages of figuring it out, and I hadn’t been playing electric guitar more than a year at that point. But I can see the beginnings of my style developing there. The sound is kind of crummy; I don’t remember what amp I had, but I think we had a deal with Vox at the time, so it might have been a little Vox amp, so it was kind of a teeny sound. I had no pedals, just straight in, but I think that was a good way to start because you have to make it happen with your fingers rather than rely on sounds and pedals.
FGPO: You did manage to create a very unique and distinctive sound. Were there discoveries or epiphanies along the way that got you there?
Krieger: I don’t remember any epiphanies, particularly. Really, and especially with my slide playing, I wanted to make it different than what I’d heard before on the blues records. I wanted to make it rock ‘n’ roll, and so I kind of said to myself: “I’m not gonna play those blues licks like everyone else does.” That’s how I came up with “Moonlight Drive” and stuff like that. A friend of mine told me when he first heard “Moonlight Drive” he thought it was a theremin; he didn’t even know it was a guitar. So basically I just wanted it to be different, sound different.
FGPO: You also asserted yourself early on as a major writer for the group, which was pretty impressive considering how new you were to electric rock music.
Krieger: Well, it seems pretty quick, but it probably was six months of playing with those guys before I even thought of writing something. You know the story; one day we realized we didn’t have enough material if we were gonna do more than one album, so Jim says: “How come I have to do all the work? Why don’t you guys start writing something, too?!” So I went home and wrote “Light My Fire.”
FGPO: What kind of plans are there for celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first album next year?
Krieger: We’ve got some ideas; I can’t give ’em away yet, but there will definitely be some cool stuff happening with the Doors. I think they’re going to be doing a festival in London that’s going to be dedicated to the Doors, and I’m sure we’re going to get something in L.A. that we’re gonna do. And we are trying to make a film out of this Ray Manzarek tribute that we did at the Fonda Theatre [February 12], so that’s going to be pretty cool.
FGPO: Does it feel like 50 years?
Krieger: It doesn’t — especially when John and I played at Ray’s tribute, it seemed like yesterday. And, y’know, I’ve been playing Doors stuff ever since…well, for about 20 years there I didn’t play it, any Doors stuff. I was doing my jazz-rock and all that, but little by little I started putting more and more Doors stuff back in, so to me it really doesn’t feel like 50 years.
FGPO: What’s your sense of why the music has endured so well?
Krieger: Probably the guitar playing. [laughs] I think it’s just all the songs; that’s what really counts. I often wonder if Jim were alive today, if he hadn’t died at 27, whether the Doors would be as big as we are right now. Who knows? Maybe we’d be bigger.
FGPO: Are you ever surprised by other players who cite you as an influence?
Krieger: I get that from a lot of people, and more and more lately, it seems like, as time goes on. And, yeah, it surprised me because when I hear their playing now I can’t really connect it to that much of what I do, but a lot of times people will say: “I never would have been a guitar player if it weren’t for you,” so that’s really cool.
FGPO: Are you working on any new music of your own right now?
Krieger: Yeah, I’ve got a new album that’ll be out next year at some point, and I’m excited about that. It’s mostly instrumental stuff that I’ve been working on with some of the Zappa band. It’s kind of in the vein of my last record but it’s more of a group effort from playing with these guys for the last couple years. It just goes on; I can’t stop creating, you know?