Questions asked by Jon Wilde, added to Rock Realms 26th May 2010.
UK rockers Wishbone Ash have been around since the start of the 1970s. With numerous albums and countless tours already under their belts, they are...still touring non-stop, and still producing new music.
With new single 'Reason To Believe' out, we thought it was time to catch up with original member Andy Powell to find out more.
Hi Andy, thanks for taking a moment to answer these questions. Hope you are well?
Andy: Hi Jon, yes I’m feeling well and very upbeat, having just finished a successful Wishbone Ash tour of the UK while managing to avoid the Ash cloud which threatened the thing right at the beginning, and then again right at the end when we needed to fly home.
2010 marks the 40th anniversary of the first ever Wishbone Ash album... Scary, brilliant, or a bit of both?
Andy: A bit of both. It’s definitely pause for reflection. It feels very good. I can honestly say I’m proud of this band and it’s achievements, all the storms it has weathered through the years, all the excellent music and - in particular - the great little global community which we’re a part of. I’m talking about our friends and fans.
The Ash is an interesting band in that respect - it’s bigger than any individual and has a life of it’s own. I like that.
Is there a formula for longevity? How do you explain being around so long when so many others have fallen by the wayside?
Andy: Well, no formula per se other than observations I’ve made through the years. We are modest, pragmatic and humble while being a very proud and diligent musical outfit (I hope). We’ve never been limited in time by a hit single which can date you, but at the same time we’re known in every country. There is not a city in the Western world, at least, where we could not go and play a show and have people turn up.
I think being known as a ‘player’s band’ is cool and we are known for not being afraid to take risks with our musical direction. The guitar is more popular than ever these days and this band is all about guitar playing of course, and that’s a big part of it’s live appeal - that and great sound and accessibility.
Who or what originally got you into music?
Andy: I had an East End family upbringing which enjoyed music. I remember an aunt of mine used to have a ‘radiogram’ and played me songs like Mack the Knife and so on. Also there was a neighbour, a Welshman, who had the most amazing whistling ability and technique. He could mimic birdsong and so on and I would love to sit quietly in our garden next door listening to him whistle while he pottered about. My dad was a pretty good whistler too. A lot of blokes were in those days and they whistled if they were happy.
The first encounter with electric guitar was hearing the Shadows on the radio playing their brand of instrumental rock and roll. Then it was Chuck Berry - he made the guitar solos sound like car horns in traffic.
When Wishbone Ash formed, did it feel bigger and better than the other music projects you had been involved in? Was there an instant spark?
Andy: Most definitely, it felt like there was a plan to ‘make it.’ This came from the leadership of Miles Copeland, our fledgling manager at the time. All the strategy was his - we just had to write and play the music. There was a musical spark between us all, despite coming from very different musical backgrounds. Also, most importantly, this was the first time I’d been allowed to play music 24/7 so it was total musical immersion. Something is going to come out of time spent in this way.
I appreciate you probably didn’t expect to be going 40 years later, but did you always envision the band as a long-term project...or were you simply taking each day as it came back then?
Andy: I think I gave it 5 years because I thought that what we were embarking upon would have taken about this length of time in order to see it through, win or lose.
How have you coped with changing attitudes and musical fashions over the years? Are you someone who does what they do and hopes people like it, or do you always try to keep at least part of what you’re doing ‘on the pulse’?
Andy: I think a part of what we do is always ‘on the pulse’ if you compare our changes with the current musical climate through the years. For example, during the New Wave of Heavy Metal in the Eighties, our sound got a harder edged with albums like Twin barrels Burning and Raw to the Bone, but also during the late Eighties we did an instrumental album called Nouveau Calls which amazingly, had touches of New Age music about it. You can’t get more disparate influences than those two.
Of course in the early Seventies we were what they call today Progressive Rock. Let’s just say that these days we are ‘eclectic’. I will say this though; when punk came along in the UK we felt quite marginalised. It was actually lucky for us that we moved to the USA around then, and in that way we were not impacted to such a degree that it might have broken the band up.
Onto the new single – ‘Reason to Believe’... What’s the story behind the writing of the song?
Andy: Well, a few fans on Facebook started to badger us about why we were not played more on the radio in the UK. You really need a single or something to make people’s ears prick up, since our kind of album oriented rock really only gets played on specialty shows. So the fans started a little campaign - nothing too serious, but it piqued our interest, particularly that of our young drummer, Joe Crabtree, who loves a challenge.
We’d already started work on the new album while in France and had this song idea which had some pretty catchy guitar parts and a danceable groove. Muddy Manninen and I worked on refining the guitars and, meanwhile, Bob Skeat came up with the title and chorus melody. We already had a sheaf of lyrics by our friend Ian Harris who has collaborated with us over the years. I’d worked out the vocal phrasing and melody in the verses and bridge. Muddy came up with the hammered guitar riff after the chorus. Joe Crabtree came up with the interesting drum parts and helped work the guitars and vocals. It really was group effort and all came together very well. In fact it was the first thing we recorded in our new studio which we put together this year.
It really has been a very rewarding project and a catalyst for many things, hiring a PR company, working the campaign and building our new recording studio. Even if it does not become a ‘hit’ on the radio, it’s been a very positive experience.
How different are the two mixes of the song (dance/pop & radio edit)? Do you have a preference?
Andy: They are two totally different mixes. For example the radio edit is a flat out rock song in a major key, played live in the studio. There are actually two dance mixes. The New York dance mix for example is totally different, with part of the bass line enhanced and bought to the fore and featured as the main musical motif. The real genius of the mix though, is that the key has been changed to a minor one, giving this very upbeat song a darker vibe.
How does ‘Reason to Believe’ fit into the Wishbone Ash timeline? How does the new song compare style-wise with other recent and not so recent tunes?
Andy: It’s one of the most powerful songs we’ve written. We’ve had guitar lines within songs like these but recently they’ve been buried and perhaps more subtle. I’m thinking of some of the twin leads in a song like ‘In Crisis’ from the Power of Eternity CD. What we’ve done with ‘Reason’ is we’ve made these things more up front, much in the same way we would have done years ago with a song like ‘Blind Eye’. It says ‘this band is a guitar band’ loud and clear. The song has all the melodic style of older Wishbone songs and some killer twin guitar parts.
And this song is a precursor to another album?
Andy: It came about through our writing sessions for the new CD. These took place in an old manor in Normandy, France, last summer. In fact, we videoed the whole week spent there and it’s being made into a full length documentary with the working title ‘Mad in France'. There, you’ll get a real ‘fly on the wall’ view of how this song was really put together and how a band like us actually constructs it’s music. Even I found this fascinating to watch!
Why the decision to release the song as an official single? This is your first one since, what, the late 1980s?
Andy: To shake things up, to have a little fun, to flex our muscles and show what a great band Wishbone Ash still is.
The song is accompanied by (what we consider to be) a seriously cool video. How did the design and execution of that come about?
Andy: Well, thank you. Again, Joe Crabtree - Crabman - has many contacts which we employ from time to time - bright and talented friends from his university days and friends from the music scene in NY and London. We all, in fact have a network of people who we can call on for different things. Videographer Gary, was called in for the task of creating the video.
The brief was specific; make it cheap, make it without us, since we were on the road and make it cool. Gary came up with the idea of really featuring the lyrics penned by Ian Harris, our stalwart Ash collaborator. We personally came on board and changed some ideas at the end and had others featured more prominently. Joe personally went into the studio and worked on some of the pre production things. It all took a lot of intense work with green screens, stand ins, carpentry - you name it.
Did you have any involvement in the shooting of the video, or did they use a stunt Andy for all the silhouette parts?
Andy: It’s a stunt Andy. Even I was fooled at first! Actually, the theme of the vid is a bunch of wannabe musos trying out for a support slot on one of our tours, but in this case the main dude with the V looks so much like me, except that I probably wouldn’t be wearing my trousers so low and baggy like that. Ha ..ha...
Do you ever stop touring?
Andy: Hopefully not. I joke with the guys that I’ll probably meet my end on stage like Tommy Cooper. That’s not a bad thing in my book. A friend of mine was present in the front row of Tiny Tim’s last concert where he passed out and keeled over. Everyone thought it was part of the act. Luckily, on that particular show, my friend and his brother leapt to Tiny’s aid. It wasn’t long before he left this mortal coil though. Stop me. I’m getting morbid.
For anyone who hasn’t seen you guys in concert, what is a Wishbone Ash show like?
Andy: It kicks in with a hard rocking tune or three, then we get into the Argus vibe and it goes a little more stadium rock like, then we get into a big musical piece like The Way of the World or, in the case of this recent tour, Tales of the Wise. A song like this allows the guitarists to stretch out a little. We may do something like Vas Dis, allowing Joe to take a solo, and then we’ll start ramping the energy even higher with some ancient rockers like Jailbait or Living Proof. You know, get the crowd more physically involved so we are hitting the head, the heart and finally the body.
It’ll all culminate ecstatically (hopefully) with the song, Phoenix, which has all the Ash elements and goes back to the very first album. It originally came to life out of a jam session and we sill jam out on it. You can’t top it. The encore will most likely be, these days, Blowin’ Free, our most well known song radio-wise. On the last tour we’ve been featuring a gentle head turner, Leaf and Stream. I once saw the band Little Feat use this tactic after a rousing show of theirs and it really works. To think laterally and play a soft song as an encore, catches the audience of guard and and allows them to reflect and bask in the whole performance, I believe.
You’ve obviously played a fair few gigs over the years, but do any really stand head and shoulders above the others?
Andy: London’s Marquee Club was always special. I was recently informed that we’d played it over 17 times, back in the day. Everyone did it of course. To play on that stage where all the greats strutted their stuff, the Who the Stones and so on, was magical. On the other end of the scale, I always enjoyed headlining the Reading Festivals in the UK. Very special gigs - amazing vibe. The Filmore West was a kind of Valhalla in rock & roll terms and to have played there and appeared on one of the venues famous posters was a special memory; as was the memory of the dense cloud of marijuana smoke as we entered the stage in the murk.
Our first gig in the USA in the early 70‘s, opening for the Who at the Satsop River festival near St. Louis was mind blowing. The crowd was 70,000 strong. Just going out on stage and playing the first note was an intense rush. Ironically, we’ll be playing that revived festival again, this summer.
Is there any chance of you retiring to a mansion whilst you can still enjoy it?
Andy: Nah, retirement is for pussies. What else am I going to do? Barring some health issue or something, I’ll keep on until it doesn’t seem right anymore. Right now it seems more right than ever.
Is being in a rock band better than getting a real job, or is it actually surprisingly hard work?
Andy: Both. I’ve dabbled at ‘real’ jobs of course and from my perspective, they can bring their own unique rewards; physical labour, intellectual pursuit but for me and people like me, we were born to perform and travel and to make music. It IS extremely hard work, long days, little sleep while on tour but there’s a sort of freedom and romance to it all which we all feed off. It works for me. I often tell young musicians they’d better like lifting things and traveling for hours and hours. As Charlie Watts said when asked about 45 years spent drumming in the Rolling Stones. He said; “43 years of hanging around and 2 years of playing” - or something like that.
If you could go back and do it all again, what - if anything - would you change?
Andy: Not too much. Even the ‘downer’ experiences in hindsight, have given me something to gauge the ‘upper’ experiences by. After all you can’t have success if there’s no failure or struggle to measure it by. The struggle is what keeps you sharp and alive. Being born is a struggle you know. Not to say it should be a life full of misery and drudge, just that I don’t take anything for granted and try to retain a sense of perspective about it all. It is a privilege to spend your life doing what you love.
Strategically, I could have suggested to the band and management back in the day, after the huge success of Argus, that we take a break and regroup and figure out the next career move a little more carefully than just rushing back into the studio to record Wishbone Four. I sometimes think that. On another tack, I wonder if I’d not taken such a back seat role in the later 70’s that things might have moved in a different direction creatively, but then again I was deeply involved in my family life and others were running with the ball a little more in the band. Coulda, woulda, shoulda.
Any question you love being asked that I’ve missed? If so, what’s the answer?
Andy: Not really. You’ve posed some good questions that touch on my personal work ethic and outlook.
What are you up to once you’ve finished answering these questions?
Andy: Tomorrow, I leave for shows in South Africa with Uriah Heep and Deep Purple. The schedule for the summer includes more festivals with people like Toto and of course, we’ll be hard a work on the next CD.
Anything else you would like to mention?
Andy: No, I’ve really enjoyed answering your questions.
Thanks for your time.
Andy: You are welcome!
Thanks again to Andy for his time. Keep an eye out for the new album, and make sure you catch these guys on tour. They are bound to play your town or city at some point!