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Progressive Rock Interviews

Wishbone Ash

Interviewed by Jason Hillenburg

Interview with Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash from 2014

MSJ:

I've had a chance to listen to the album over the last couple of days and I think it plays like a much more intimate, even introspective, effort than its predecessor, Elegant Stealth. Would you agree with that?

Yeah, I would, in a way, because Elegant Stealth was done in a group situation where we were just brainstorming and hashing ideas out in a rehearsal room. You can see that on the video we made of that, a DVD, of the recording sessions in Normandy, France where we worked. On this one, I decided to throw it open to a wider net and bring songs in, as they were kind of half or fully formed in some situations into the studio, you know, because we were recording at the end of UK tour and right before the beginning of the European tour we started this year. So, yeah, I guess in that way you've got kind of more songwriter orientated material and there were more songwriters involved. It's a different approach from Elegant Stealth, but it's still the same players, I'm singing, so all the threads are going through it, you know?
MSJ: Yeah, I definitely got that vibe from it in a very strong way.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
MSJ: Oh, that's a fantastic thing for me. It seemed like there was a lot of spontaneity, but a more singer/songwriter approach. There certainly isn't any kind of attempt. . . I mean, "Deep Blues" is a really nice rocker, but there wasn't any attempt at some sort of big, booming rocker. It seemed closer, more intimate, like I said.
Yeah, well, that's something we weren't afraid of doing back in the old days and I think, in that regard, it's a very honest album. You know sometimes, especially these days, you try to get so heavy and bombastic and end up just disappearing up your own thing. Being musical, it isn't always that way, and I was happy for it being that way. The band actually wanted to cut some of the jams on these songs, in a couple of cases, and I said “no, this is a way for us to show here and there, on some of the songs, that we were jamming out a bit as well as playing very constructed songs.” So I think it has a nice balance of the two and flows nicely. It is a bit mellower than some albums, but then it rocks out some here and there as well.
MSJ: I couldn't agree more.
The song "Blue Horizon" is a 3/4 kind of thing, a bit of a ballad, in a way. But then it transitions into that kind of upbeat end section. . . so yeah, it's got everything I wanted, I'm really happy with it.
MSJ: Well, I think it's fantastic from beginning to end, really. So it sounds like you went into this with the vision that you would cast your net a little further afield than, perhaps, on Elegant Stealth and to make this, I don't know, for lack of a better word, a community effort?
Yeah, I did because, if you look at a lot of the acts in R&B, they'll have some success and then they'll form production companies. I certainly look at the team we're working with as an extended family. We always have that, like Tom Greenwood who's produced a couple three things for us. We've got Pat McManus, who plays in his own band, but I always try to get over and see him in Ireland in the summer and we do some shows together. He contributed to Elegant Stealth, so he's an outside songwriter that I really trust because he really knows this band and knows what I like, and then we've got our lyricist who chips in here and there and did a lot on this album actually, Ian Harris, and he and I have been working on stuff way back. Also, I'm doing so much else. I'm managing the band, I'm producing, my efforts are split in so many areas that I realized there are more people now who understand this band than just me. I really trust Muddy Manninen with the direction and the songwriting. I mean, he and I have worked together, we know each other's style, we know how we think, so he produced a lot more songs on this album. I felt it was a really cool thing to do. And then there was a former member from the 1990s, Roger Filgate, who contributed a song and we interpreted it. I think that's another example of just casting the net a little wider. It was a completely different approach than the last album, but you can still hear elements. All of the players are the same, but the thread goes through the material because it's the same players and production team. So yeah, that's how it's worked out here and now, but what we'll do on the next album, I have no idea! (laughs) I kind of like this, this production thing. My son was involved and he came out on the road with us a year or two ago. He's another guy, it's in his DNA. He grew up watching us, (laughs) He was virtually in his diapers watching us record and write. He's a drummer and guitarist in his own right. But yeah, that's where we're at, it's a bit more relaxed, more of a team effort.
MSJ: All working to a common end. You know, that's probably what results in the best albums, everyone working on the same page working toward a common goal. You were mentioning threads and a thread that's stuck with me through the last albums, including this one, like Elegant Stealth, Clan Destiny, and Power of Eternity, is the theme of emotional resilience. It's throughout the lyrics, including "Take It Back" from the new album, and at risk of sounding a little philosophical, can you tell me what words like “hope” and “gratitude” mean to you?
Hope and gratitude, wow...I'm always in a state of hope, you know. I live in a kind of hopeful manner. My mother always used to say I was looking over the garden fence as a kid. To me, I always hope that there's a brighter day out there and tomorrow. I'm never satisfied with what I've done. One of the reasons why I've been in the music business for so long is I'm always hopeful the next one will be better, you know? Not that I'm not satisfied with what I'm currently doing, but I think that's a state that most musicians and artists feel. If you feel you've arrived, well, (laughs), then you're done. And gratitude… I always try to keep a sense of humility about the unbelievable gift to be able to make music and survive at it for so long. I never, ever take that for granted, so I'm just really grateful for that. I think it's just an incredible thing to be able to have a vision. Yeah, when I was young and all through my teens, I worked really hard and I really struggled finding a niche for myself in life, so when success came in my twenties, I reveled in it and it was a huge party. But as I've gotten older, I certainly never look a gift horse in the mouth. I'm too grateful for that, the life and the life that it's given me. I'm making music, which continues to be one of the most amazing things, like speaking in tongues or something. To be able to communicate with people in a way that's outside the norm. You know, music's just awesome.
MSJ: I couldn't agree more, and that ties into something else I was thinking about before our call. Listening to the album, I know it's a studio recording and not a live recording, but an impartial listener can't help but be struck by how absolutely tight this band is and how fantastic you guys play together. Joe Crabtree just kills it on the album and I'm astounded at how endlessly inventive he can be with his parts. I was wondering, this lineup's been together a few years, and how do you feel about the progress of this band? I'm sure you feel great, but did you go into this lineup with this kind of hope?
No. In fact, when Muddy joined the band, I was quite apprehensive. I was nervous because I thought, “here's a guy who's got deep roots musically, but I didn't know if he would hold up well on the road personality-wise.” Culturally, he comes from a completely different culture. He's from Finland. And then the same with Joe, I got a recommendation to try Joe, and we threw him into the deep end on The Power of Eternity album and he did real well, but I wasn't sure. So much of being in a band is holding up under the lifestyle. It has to do with living the life and, you know, it's only about ten percent musical a lot of times. It's a lot of travel, it's a lot of personal self-management, and, you know, I wondered about that. But the inevitable did happen, insofar as we worked a lot of hours, we spent a lot of time with each other. Hell, we spend more time with each other than we do our wives and girlfriends. (laughs) All of that has to work as well and so I do think that really has an impact on it, but I couldn't have predicted it works as well as it does. Joe's a very musical drummer. I know that sometimes onstage I catch him trying to catch my guitar licks with his drumming and I'll sometimes look at him and grin. He's just got a mind that runs at full tilt. He's always working, always thinking about the band and music, managing the band. He's a huge asset to this band, as is Muddy, as is Bob. So, you know, it's definitely a team and, like you said earlier. When you get that energy going together, it's massive. You're really combining the brainpower and energy of all these people. It's phenomenal. I get a huge kick out of it.
MSJ: Bob and Joe just cook as a rhythm section.
Fantastic! Bob's one of those guys, it's just easy to overlook because he's doing such a phenomenal job of keeping the groove together, of pushing the groove that you can take it for granted. He's probably the best musician in the band, in a way. It's just seamless what he does and the way he works with Joe. I mean, they pull things together in the blink of an eye and they'll do it with a nod or a wink or maybe a small comment if we're in the studio. At sound checks, they'll be correcting stuff they weren't happy with from the night before. I'm like, that stuff in the old band would have been huge. We would analyze something and people would try, especially with the rhythm section, I can remember a lot of that stuff and time and protracted conversations going in and out about things like “where does that kick drum go?” Or, “should I push the bass line there” or “should I lay back or should I play on all of it?” These guys, though, they just have the experience and they just do it without batting an eyelid. It's unbelievable. It's like magic.
MSJ: I think that's attributable to chemistry. I used a word last night on Facebook to describe the experience of listening to this album and that's “groove.” There's just tons of groove on this album. I was quite pleased to hear how that rhythm section locks in.
No question and that comes from intelligence. You know, you can groove, which is an intrinsic thing, like a song you get from the dance floor, but when you're playing rock you've got to be aware of the history of music, you've just got to be listening to your partner and keeping the groove together.
MSJ: Do you have any particular favorites from the album?
I'm not a fan of the title so much, but I like the song "Tally Ho!" I do like that. It has a kind of wistful whimsicalness about it. I like that side of the band. I like "Blue Horizon" and "Deep Blues.” You know, every time I've listened to it. . . I've tried to give myself a break from it after we finished mixing it, but I've been playing it lately in different scenarios: in the car, moving around, and different songs come up that grab me. I wasn't so crazy about the song "Mary Jane" when we did it because I thought it was a cute sort of throwaway, but I was listening to it yesterday and thought, “that's a really good song!” So, you know, things just hit me in different ways, but at the moment, "Tally Ho!" is the one I'm listening to.
MSJ:

The closer, "All There Is to Say", is probably my favorite at the moment.

Well, thank you. I've put a lot of energy into that one. I've stepped away from it, I'm discovering other gems on the album, but I was really keen to make that one stick to the wall. It has a lot of combined elements in it and to mash those elements up, songwriting-wise, was difficult. So, I appreciate you saying that. That's definitely one of my favorites, for sure.
MSJ: I hope this isn't some played out question, but is having legendary status a double-edged sword?
(laughs) Well, I just happen to get some of that sometimes because I was in the right place at the right time. It's gratifying, in a way, now because I've been around so long and the band's been around so long. If you've got roots in the 70s, it kind of bestows some sort of cachet on you; but in the 80s, for example, we were totally out of fashion and legend didn't come into it. It was more like dinosaur. It's so many years further ahead now that people use words like that. It's kind of nice because it bestows a sort of endorsement on yourself, on your band, and everything, but on the other hand you can't pay it too much mind because we've got to be creative, we've got to think we aren't worthy and we have to be, like you implied at the beginning. It is a double-edged sword, it's true, I mean when you use words like "legend,” jeez. . . (laughs) But I understand how it's meant.
MSJ:

Yeah, I understood what you meant when you said it's a kind of validation for those years in the wilderness, so to speak, like the 80s. Another question, out of curiosity, but what are you listening to or reading lately for pleasure?

Funny enough, I'm listening to some of the more alternative bands, like MGMT the other day. I'm listening to a band from Brooklyn called “Lucius.” My son's kind of involved with them, modern stuff. Before you called, I was just going back through the Cream catalog. I just found some of that old stuff I listened to refreshed my mind with some of the bands around at that time and how they approached music. I think Muddy and I both find that very interesting.
MSJ: What was the last concert you went to?
I went to a Paul Simon concert the other night.
MSJ: What have you been reading lately?
Reading? I'm not reading much lately, I'm reading a lot of magazines. I find when I come off the road I almost crave. . . I almost cut myself off when I'm on the road. I'm just thinking about the tour and the band. We were on the road for two months and when I came off, I had a ton of magazines, so I'll read The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, anything. I'm a magazine freak, but that's not to say that I don't read books. The most recent book I've read is about an Australian ex-convict's travels in India called “Shantaram.” I read that one not so long ago. When I'm off the road, that's when I replenish, I get more whimsical and pick up a book here or there, or maybe go see a play or whatever, and that's when I'm fueling my imagination and I'm more ruminative, you know?
MSJ: You talked about your son's involvement with the album and I think it gives a whole new meaning to the term "family operation". How did his involvement come about?
Well, like I say. . . I suppose my real musical family is the band. I've got three sons and he happens to be more of a musician than the other two who are more involved in the visual arts. He's always been around the band. Well, they've all been around the band, they've been in tour buses, they've seen the life. They don't make any distinctions between that life and the real world or so forth. He lives and works in Brooklyn with a number of different bands. I always trust his impressions about the music I'm making and once in a while, I'll invite him to get involved, like he got involved on a European tour and played. I mean, he did everything on that tour: percussion, keyboards, mandolin, and guitar. And then he's always songwriting and threw this one idea at me, the middle of last year, "Take It Back,” and I said, “wow, that's just such the direction we're headed at the moment and I'd like to use it.” He said, “yeah, feel free.” He has other material that's just totally not appropriate, but that one absolutely was. I think it just comes out of osmosis.  I think he just picks up the kind of musical language that we've laid down, our musical vocabulary and it can come out like him, though. I think he has a much broader musical palette in many regards than I do. He can get into jazz deeply, which I don't particularly. So yeah, it was by osmosis, I think you could say.
MSJ: It's a fantastic opener. A few moments after the album started, I thought, “I'm with this completely.” Another thing I've been thinking about - I don't think anyone can say you took the usual path to lead singer status in the band. Backing vocalist for a lot of years, but you've been the lead singer now for quite a while. How do you feel about your singing at this point?
Well, I became the singer by default. For me, my voice was always my guitar, you know, but I think what happens with a lot of guitar players, they eventually find their voice and I really enjoy singing, actually. I find it a hugely therapeutic thing to do. I think I've gotten better at it, more relaxed in the studio, Certainly on stage it's no problem, I astound the band sometimes because I can sing night after night after night and hold it together which I know a lot of singers can't. They'll get problems with their voices. I do give a lot of power on stage, but I enjoy being in the studio because I can sing much more softly, more nuanced in the studio, and that can give you a lot of pleasure. On stage, I tend to belt it out a bit because I'm working against a loud rock band and I know that's a problem for a lot of singers. But yeah, I became a singer and I enjoy it - which is the simple answer. I enjoy it very much, huge, huge therapy.
MSJ: Well, I think there's no question, I mean you were never a bad lead singer, but you've made enormous strides since the 1980s. I enjoy it very much.
I have to add as well that, vocally, I had huge input on the vocal approach in the band in the early days because I don't think that, anywhere in the band, there was a true lead singer, like a Paul Rodgers or a Roger Daltrey or anything like that. A big part of the band's sound in the early days, a lot of bands did it actually, was this kind of communal vocalizing which we did in the early albums. I mean, Martin did more lead vocals obviously, But when we really seemed to get people's ears to prick up was when we sang in harmony, those two-part things. That was the kind of ear candy we later abandoned and I think it was a mistake in a way. But, you know, I had a lot of input on the vocal arrangements, let's put it that way. So you know it was always there, it was just waiting to come out.
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2014  Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.
You'll find concert pics of this artist in the Music Street Journal members area.
You'll find an audio interview of this artist in the Music Street Journal members area.
 
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