Many people associate the name Les Stroud with the reality television show, Survivorman. What many people don’t realize is that Stroud is also an accomplished musician! The majority of the Survivorman episodes featured him carrying a harmonica, and every once in a while the audience would get to hear him play. However, he’s also written all of the theme songs for his television series, and has provided score for several independent films. He’s recorded four CDs, with two of them, his 3rd and 4th, featuring documentary films entitled The Barn Sessions. He’s currently working on his 5th and 6th CDs, titled Mother Earth.
Big names in the music industry have shared the stage with Stroud, including Stephen Stills, The Roots, Johnny Lang, and James Cotton, to name just a few. Live For Live Music had the incredible opportunity to get to know him better and ask about, not only his life in the wilderness but, his career on stage.
L4LM: When you were younger, who were some of your role models? Who helped shape who you are today?
LS: For me, it’s an interesting question and topic. On the close relationship – nobody. Zero. I had no mentorship, no guidance, nobody that I really looked up to. I had no favorite uncle that took me out. My dad did take me fishing, but I didn’t really have that. A lot of my role models when I was youngest really started with watching Jacques Cousteau on television or Tarzan movies, or Wild Kingdom. The thought of photographing wild life and being out in nature, or being in the jungle like Tarzan, those were my role models. If you think about it, Survivorman is a hybrid between Jaques Cousteau and Tarzan.
L4LM: In Survivorman you took a harmonica with you during most every show. How did that help you out there in the wilds alone? Did you ever have to sacrifice a harmonica as a tool of survival?
LS: On the practical level, it’s actually a very good warning device for playing as you walk through the bush and it scares away everything up front, from black bear and all that stuff you don’t want to run into, while you’re going through a thick bush. It really works well. It can definitely be a bit of company as you’re sitting by the fire. Though to be truthful, it never was for me. Being a harp player, and being a musician, I didn’t play that much out there. Besides, even if I wanted to, I had so much to do with surviving, and filming the survival, that sitting around playing harp was not going to be on the table.
L4LM: You’ve shared the stage with some big performers, such as Slash, Blues Traveler, and Johnny Lang, to name a few. Is there any particular moment that sticks out above all others?
LS: I happened to be really blessed with those opportunities. Johnny is amazing to play blues with. He really “gets” it and enabled me to really cut loose on the blues. I got to play solo on “School’s Out” with Alice Cooper. Those moments are pretty amazing, and there’s quite a few of them. Certainly, playing with Tommy Shaw from STYX was mind-blowing. The one that you’re looking for is that I got this call, and it was for Alice Cooper’s “Christmas Pudding” concert. They said listen, “Alice is joined this year by Robby Krieger from The Doors and they were wondering if you mind coming and blowing the harmonica riff on “Roadhouse Blues” for them.” I was thinking “Holy shit, are you kidding me?”
Fast forward to the moment. I’m standing there and next thing you know I’m on stage and Robby Krieger comes over and says, “listen Les, when we go to this part here, I really want to do a bit of a solo back and forth with you. Would you mind if we try to meet middle of the stage and riff off each other?” I’m thinking, “sure Robby, that’s ok!” That riff in that song was the first harmonica riff I ever learned. I lived in that moment. I did not miss that moment one bit.
L4LM: Is there anyone you would love to perform with but haven’t yet?
LS: I would love to play with Dave Matthews. I would love to play with Jimmy Page. I would love to play with Buddy Guy. I have a lot of heroes in the rock and roll world. There are some I don’t want to meet. My biggest hero of all time in music is Elton John. I don’t want to meet him. I don’t want to spoil what was when I was 16. In other cases, like Jimmy Page and Buddy Guy, and Dave Matthews, who I’ve met, it would be an honor to play with any one of those three.
Who would you say are your biggest musical influences?
I’m definitely a slave to classic rock. I can’t deny that. I can’t even pretend to say that I love all this other stuff, but I’m a slave to classic rock. With that said, I’m a musician and have been since I was 14. I’m always open to anything that is in front of me, so long as it’s good. I have enjoyed all kinds of world music – flamenco, disco, country, hip hop, rap, death metal, heavy metal, all of that stuff. What I do is I listen and, even though it may not be a style I may purchase or go back to, I still listen to all of it seeking out the good stuff.
No one can deny that Michael Jackson was an incredible performer, writer, and musician. Just because I was a rocker when I was a teenager doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy Michael Jackson. It’s across the board that way for me, but it has to be good. There’s really crappy country, really crappy disco, really crappy hip hop, crappy rock, and crappy flamenco. There’s bad versions of all genres of music so I look for the cream of the crop.
L4LM: Tell us about what you feel is your proudest accomplishment to date.
LS: My proudest accomplishment to date is two-pronged. It’s pretty easy for me to be able to answer in short form and say the creation of Survivorman, which created an entirely new genre of television. Survival TV would not exist if Survivorman hadn’t have been created. That was all me. So I’m very proud of that. I can’t not be. The secondary sentence to that is I’m proud of the fact of it staying true to it’s core. That core was about connecting people to nature and teaching people about the earth. That’s really the reason why I did Survivorman, and it stuck to that.
If I can project to the future, and my next thing, it’s what I’m doing now. It’s the same core of celebrating nature, reconnecting people to the earth, but it’s laying on the platform of my music. Survivorman gave me this wonderful 16 year experience that has opened a ton of doors, and the music is the next thing.
L4LM: Is music your main focal point right now? What projects are you working on?
LS: Yes, it’s absolutely my main focus, however, I’ve always been hopefully smart enough to realize that I’m not going to deny the fans that have come along this far, the Survivorman fans, fans of survival and wilderness adventure, outdoor adventure and all that. So, I’m also launching a webcast TV network called SMTV. On that, I will be able to celebrate nature and Survivorman, survival, big foot, and all sorts of environmental films. This will give me the opportunity to continue on.
Absolutely, the music is the main focused push, but launching SMTV as a place for everybody to go in terms of what Survivorman does is also happening. There are literally hundreds of thousands of people that still enjoy that thing, so sure, why not give some instructional videos. Why not go out and shoot another episode for fun.
I will never forget Billy Joel talking about his song “Piano Man.” He didn’t play it for 25 years and then he came to peace with it. Now he plays it at every concert and the whole crowd sings. I’m not putting myself on that level, I’m just saying that I came to peace with Survivorman so now I’m having fun with it and not denying the fact that there are a lot of fans, young and old, that love that work.
L4LM: You have a bunch of CD’s out there, with two new ones coming up. Tell us more about these current musical projects.
LS: I’ve got four CDs out now and two brand new CDs that are done. One is mastered and we are ready to launch it. The other is ready to be mastered. In both cases, it’s turned a corner. They’re both produced by Mike Clink, who’s a legendary rock producer. Slash plays on a song. Steve Vai plays on a song. We’re still trying to get Eddie Vedder on it. The idea here is that music is all about celebrating nature and protecting the earth so that’s why Mike Clink got involved. Right now we’re talking to the record labels. We’ve got a lot of strong interest out there.
Will a tour be happening in conjunction with the CD release?
LS: Absolutely. I love the stage. That’s where I bring it all home. The cool part about when I perform my concerts is that I take the time to answer questions. I do a little Q&A right in the middle. I sit down and talk about Survivorman. It’s a blast! Then I grab the acoustic guitar and the band will come back on, so the touring I absolutely adore. I’ve got a tour starting – a mini tour – starting April 2nd in Seattle and going through to the 8th in Bend, Oregon. If I could play 200 – 250 times a year I would. I absolutely love it.
I live in the U.S. and in Canada, and to be frank with you, it’s a much bigger fan base in the United States. In fact, the tour I’m doing is two dates in Canada, with the rest in America.
L4LM: You know how to survive in any situation in the wild. You’ve been in situations where the choices you made determined life or death. Has there ever been a time when music has saved you?
LS: Now. Right now. I’ve been Survivorman for 16 years. As much as there are thousands of people who want me to build another shelter, I’m an artistic soul. I need to be about progression. It’s why I did the Beyond Survival series and Shark Week. I need artistic progression.
I walked away from music a long time ago, maybe when I didn’t need to, but I did. Now, I’m not walking away from Survivorman, but I need this. That’s why to answer your question properly is to yes, right now. Right now is when it’s absolutely saving my soul. Not that my soul is in jeopardy, or that I’m in trouble. I’m not in a dark place at all, I’m in a great place. It’s just that it’s time to get back to this.
L4LM: You’ve traveled all over the world. What place left a lasting impression on you musically?
LS: The album, Survivorman’s Mother Earth, includes all kinds of recordings from around the world – while I was in the middle of jungles, out in the desert with a shaman in the middle of Madagascar, and singing from Inuit throat singers. I was about looking on the street corner for a person playing an instrument I’ve never seen before or the very ancient women in the Kalahari Desert. I wanted that stuff. The album is focused on that.
As far as where and what inspired me, it’s a little bit tricky. I suppose at the moment, the Arctic has really been a place that has inspired me greatly. I should mention that I’m letting a little bit of a cat out of the bag, but it looks like I am teaming up with a Canadian songstress named Susan Aglukark, who is an Inuit singer who had a big hit up in Canada. Her and I are putting together a tour that is all about the story of the Arctic. Right now my inspiration has been strongest up in the Arctic, but I have been writing about the deserts, the jungles, and the oceans too.
She’s a tremendous singer. We split the show half and half, but we’re going to be bringing on an Inuit throat singer to open up for us. That will be just one thing, maybe 20 to 25 shows a year. She is Inuit and she wants to tell the story of her people, and I want to tell the story of the land, and we’re combining that. It will be very classy.
The other thing is that the music I’m doing now will sound very roots acoustic, which I wanted it to be. The new album is roots and roots rock, and the second album, of the two new ones, is a very ambitious studio rock album. I don’t want to be cliche. I follow my musical muse and allow the lyrics to go through no matter what the genre I’m playing in. I’ve even worked with a rapper recently, and it’s just phenomenal.
One of my goals is to create a whole new genre of music called “earth music.” Jack Johnson does a song or two, Ben Harper does a song or two, and god bless them for it. This is about the whole album, the whole concert, the whole tour celebrating nature and protecting the earth. I know it sounds ambitious, but I’d like to create a whole new genre of “earth music” and if I wanted to be a bragger, hell, I did it on TV. Now it’s time to do it in music.
I love being on the new end of anything. To simply say, I loathe derivative. Before he died, David Bowie said something like, “I want to be in that spot when you walk out into the water and it gets deeper and deeper and deeper. Just when you get to that spot where your toes start bouncing off the bottom, that’s where I want to live.” I get that. That’s a feeling you can’t get anywhere else. After that you’re swimming and before that you’re walking. In that one moment, I like that artistically. It might not seem like it because I’ve done 70 episodes of Survivorman and Shark Week and it’s all very machismo with rugged outdoors, but in my heart, musically, I want to be on the edge of something new. I think this earth music is that.
Great if there’s young people doing this. The difference between a young 22 year old, dreadlocked hippy playing acoustic guitar, singing about love and nature is great, and that can happen. But if Survivorman does it, here’s a guy who’s been all around the world in every bit of nature there is. I definitely am able to bolster a credibility.
L4LM: Bringing it back to Survivorman, what is the most interesting moment that you had during filming? What’s that “oh my god” moment that stands out?
LS: Well, I’m going to exclude big foot for now and I’m going to say, and I’m copping out a little here, but it would be an amalgam of all of the moments where I did something for survival that a., I’ve never done before and b., I wasn’t sure was going to work, and then c., it did work. When that happened, it was always like “yeah! wow!” because I’m truly surprised myself in the process.
Viewers are watching and for you, the response is, “that’s so cool,” and for me, I’ve done this a thousand times. So when it’s stuff I’ve never done before, I’m blowing myself away. In fact, I’m thinking “this pretty awesome! Well that worked. Looks like I’m eating tonight.”
L4LM: What has been your most surprisingly favorite place in the world?
LS: I can’t answer the jungle because I definitely knew it was going to be, and it was. I was going to say the Arctic, but I suspected that was going to be amazing. You know what place I didn’t realize was going to be as breathtaking as it was? The high Andes of Peru. Could not believe it. I just didn’t expect what I saw. I would encourage anybody to go there to do a mountain hike to Machu Picchu. Those mountain walks are really unbelievable. I did not expect that.
L4LM: Do you have any words of wisdom for young musicians who aren’t sure if this is something they want to do?
LS: It’s difficult to answer. It comes down to them figuring out what they want to do. First of all, don’t panic. Not everybody is sure at 17 or 21 or 24. If you’re not sure, then try everything until things resonate with you. Then go down that road. Follow your muse. If you are sure, it’s about dedicating your all to it.
I will tell you this much, if all you’re going to do instead is hang out smoking cigarettes, smoking pot, and drinking beer, you will live to regret that. You will look back and realize it was wasted time. Get busy now. If you work hard when you’re young, and play when you’re older, it’s a lot more fun to play after 30 then it is before.
L4LM: Any last thoughts you would like to share with our readers?
LS: I think that the basis of everything I do is about reconnecting people with nature. My call to action to everyone is to just get out there. It doesn’t have to be to Peru or the jungle or the Arctic. It can be the park at the end of the street.
I’m not saying do this or do that. Just get out there. Once they get out there, the earth and the energy being amongst the trees, will do whatever it is your soul needs to be done.
For more information on Les Stroud’s music, and tour dates, please visit his official website.
Check out his video for “Arctic Mistress,” that was fully shot by Stroud in the Arctic during filming of Survivorman.
Words by Sarah Bourque. Photography courtesy of Laura Bombier.