Eric Gales is a lucky man. Considered a guitar prodigy in his teens, he quickly fell into a devastating spiral of drug abuse, and ended up spending time in the Big House.
His just-released new album, Middle Of The Road, finds him clean and sober, and in blistering form.
“Were there times when I thought I might not make it this far?” the acclaimed Memphis singer/guitarist posits, somewhat candidly. “Yeah, there were times that I thought that it was... I went off the rails.”
Cocaine and pills brought Gales down: he served three years in prison, getting out in 2010, but just three months later was arrested and charged with possession of coke and Xanax, leading him back behind bars. It took some doing, but thankfully Gale never let himself go completely.
“I just hung in there and for some kind of reason I didn't give up,” he says. “More importantly, some people that believed in me didn't give up on me. That definitely helped out a lot. I just changed my life and now life is a whole lot better for me. I'm in the middle of the road, and that's definitely why I call this record Middle Of The Road."
Middle Of The Road doesn’t refer to any soft, West Coast ‘70s sound. Gale is referring to being firmly in the middle of the road – not hitting the median strip, nor the gravel shoulder. He’s on track, completely in control, and fielding interest from pretty much everyone, everywhere.
“Interest's coming from all over the world, man, about this record,” he gushes enthusiastically. “I must say that I'm very excited, I'm very happy. This record is taking the world by storm. I think it's going to do really well, man. I think it's going to do really well.”
Gales first picked up his big brother Eugene’s guitar, learning licks both from him and their sibling, Manuel. Gales is right-handed, but plays his axe left-handed, strung upside-down, just like Jimi Hendrix used to – but this wasn’t copying a legend, this was just how his left-handed brother taught him, and he never corrected the style.
“I've tried, but it doesn't work,” says Gales. “For me, playing upside down and backwards is very normal for me. By the time I tried to do it the other way, it was too late!”
With three amazing guitarists in the family, it would be reasonable to assume that Gales’ parents were musical.
“Does it run in our blood? Yeah, it does. My mother's father was deeply involved in gospel, church, stuff like that so that's probably the core base where I come from and then the blues and things of that nature,” he explains. “I just took that and incorporated it into stuff that I was being inspired by - walking blues, talking blues, jazz, fusion and all these styles of music - and sort of weaved it into my own.”
The gospel influence can be heard most clearly on opening track, Good Time, especially from wife LaDonna Gales’ backing vocals.
“Yeah, you nailed it - you nailed it right on the head,” chuckles Gales. “It definitely does have some gospel vocal overtones to it. You heard that - that was exactly the intention.”
Gales released his first album at 15, as The Eric Gales Band, alongside Eugene. That was the early ‘90s, and featured mainstream rock hits including Sign Of The Storm and Paralyzed. An appearance alongside Carlos Santana happened at Woodstock ’94, and by 2001 he was releasing the first of about a dozen records under his own name, or as The Eric Gales Trio.
Guest appearances live and in the studio with cats as diverse as Zakk Wylde, Memphis rappers Prophet Posse and Three 6 Mafia, Billy Cox, Mitch Mitchell and Buddy Miles of Hendrix’s bands, Dug Pinnick of King’s X (with whom he recorded two albums as Pinnick Gales Pridgen), and many others from metal to blues, rock to soul and rap appeared throughout his career. Does he consciously go out to break musical boundaries?
“No, but I guess it's starting out to seem that way!” he says seriously. “I've just surrounded myself with stuff that I like all my life, and I guess if you want to say that, I guess, I definitely think I do. I try to go out and break musical barriers, you know what I mean? I try to consciously go out and do what appeals to me. And if it appeals to me, it has to appeal to somebody else somewhere, so I just keep it working, man. That's a very interesting question, and you may be right in a sense.”
That diversity stretches to Middle Of The Road, which features guests including brother Eugene, Gary Clark Jr., Lauryn Hill, and another guitar prodigy in Christone Ingram. Gales makes no secret of the fact that he enjoys collaborating and sharing the spotlight with his talented friends.
“Of course, of course. There's an excitement I get from going back and forth with people - it's fun, and especially Gary Clark, what a fantastic guy. We had the opportunity to jam on Boogie Man (originally by Freddie King) and it was a special moment. We were in the studio and it was really a special moment; I'm really glad I had the opportunity to share a song with him. We got some special things moving forward this year – the possibility of some touring dates coming up, and we've got a lot in store for things to come.”
Middle Of The Road is the sound of a master reborn. It’s also an extremely personal album. Songs such as Change In Me, It's Been So Long, Help Yourself and more all detail his rocky journey with admirable honesty. Is it easy for him to reach deep inside and deal with those very conflicting memories of a difficult past?
“It's very easy to dig inside,” says Gales, humbly. “I could write just from an experience I've been through in life: if my experience can do something to help someone else, then it's all worth it. Even without the music, you hear a story in there. You add the music, too, there's more of an impact, so I'm glad that the message is being carried through to make people know whatever you've been through in life, you can succeed past it. You just got to hang in there and help yourself.”
Middle Of The road is out now. Eric Gale appears at the Byron Bay Bluesfest, happening through April 13-16, full details at www.bluesfest.com.au.