Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Andy Powell - Zen and the Art of Wishbone Ash

Andy Powell doesn't rattle easily - he's driving down the highway to his first gig of the year in his adopted home land of America, and he sounds as relaxed as if he were driving to the South of France on a holiday, even though he's left his bassist of 15 years, Bob Skeat, behind in Britain.

Andy Powell: "Yeah, well....That was a last minute thing - it's unfortunate, but we've got a great stand-in for him for the next five shows." (Longtime bassist Bob Skeat will soon re-join the tour)

Mind you, Powell says this with the nonchalance of a man who's deciding which jeans to wear, but I know that Wishbone Ash's material is, to say the least, a bit tricky - there are more twists and turns in one of their classic fifteen minute songs than there are in most bands's catalogs, but over the next hour, I discern that there's little Powell hasn't already seen and dealt with in his 44 years as the band's only continuous member.

Wishbone Ash is kicking off their latest US tour, and while Powell may be the only original member, this lineup has been together for six years (longer than most bands's careers), and judging by their latest studio effort, Elegant Stealth, it may be the strongest since the band's original roster. I ask Andy what it felt like to be starting yet another American tour:

Andy Powell: "Well, we're right at the beginning, the first show is tonight! I'm just glad we missed the bad weather in the North East a couple of weeks ago, as we were in Germany. Another year comes around and everything changes ever so slightly, so I don't have a truly clear picture of how it will be, as yet. 
"The area we have the most experience in is probably what some musicians would find a grind, and that's touring. The endless touring thing (Wishbone Ash maintains a schedule of approximately 150 show a year), and that's the biggest difference - if you're a gigging musician, and you go out every day.  
"We just really go out in blocks of shows, and the thing is just to get into the mindset. It's not the music that is that much of an issue, it's probably the schedule that you must adjust to. Using a lot of patience, and just going with the flow."

I ask Andy how he manages to keep himself healthy and sane with such a demanding workload:

Andy Powell: "I do a bit of yoga - stretching and stuff on the road, because you're traveling a lot and you just need to loosen up. I try to eat right, and to get my seven, or eight hours of sleep a night.  
"That's really important, and to really ration out your stress level - that's the biggest thing, to keep your stress level under control, and not let things phase you too much. It's hard to do sometimes, with these distances and with such tightly scheduled tours (Ash are currently doing some twenty dates in just over three weeks). If you give yourself plenty of time, and plenty of leeway, you'll be OK. 
"Another big thing is thinking ahead - try to visualize the next day as you're already halfway through the previous day, then you can kind of get through it. Physically, it can be quite challenging. A big thing is food - trying to eat the right food on the road isn't always easy."

Wishbone Ash has just released Live In Germany - Road Works, Volume 3, the latest edition in a series of live performance recordings, and it provides a tremendous glimpse at just how powerful this outfit is in concert - it features an incendiary seventeen minute workout of the band's classic, Phoenix, and many other tunes from their long history. I asked how the series was working for the band, and their fans:

Andy Powell: "It's copacetic, really! It's for the fans - if we weren't doing it, there'd be tapeheads doing it at the shows. The technology is such that it's very easy to record everything on the fly. People love it, they love that we're doing it. 
"We'll give the people what they want - people can walk out of the show with almost a recording of that show. We can't quite go there yet, but we're getting close to it. 
"People are getting more and more accustomed to getting access to a band. One of the things we did on the last album was before we actually recorded the album, we recorded a documentary of the making of the album. People love stuff like that, if you're a fan , you want to know how they come up with stuff, what it might sound like in different venues, they want to hear a slightly different take on a song. For the diehard fans, something like the Road Works series is just great, you know?"

Stepping back from current events, I wanted to hear Andy tell the tale of the beginnings of Wishbone Ash. Though you may not know it, the band was perhaps the first to regularly employ twin lead guitarists (Powell and Ted Turner) who featured harmonized solos, and lead figures. Without question - without Wishbone Ash, you don't have Thin Lizzy, Iron Maiden, UFO, and Judas Priest, just to name a few. Indeed, Andy was there at the creation:

Andy Powell: "The band was formed in London, under the aegis of Miles Copeland, who was our manager - of course, he went on to help The Police, and starting up his own label. 
"We were the first band he managed - auditions were being held, and on the short list were myself, and Ted Turner, the other guitar player. The story goes that they couldn't really decide between the two of us, and then there was some talk about having a guitar player and a keyboard player - some keyboard player came by.... 
"I think it may have been myself who said, 'Look, if you can't decide what the lineup should be, then why not let's try jamming together as two guitar players. I'd already been in a band with another guitar player, and we'd done some rudimentary twin lead stuff. The four of us got together in London, and we hit it off. 
"We started to experiment with a few things, and one of the first songs we wrote, Ted and I, was Blind Eye, which featured a rather epic twin lead and riff. It really just went on from there. We decided that if we were going to have two guitar players, we shouldn't squander the opportunity to make something more out of it than just a lead and rhythm, or jamming. We just decided - we verbalized it, that we wanted to utilize the guitars like a horn section. I'd already had a lot of experience playing in R&B, and soul bands with horns, and working out horn lines, so it was a natural progression from that. You couldn't afford a horn section, even if you'd wanted one, but we certainly wanted to do more with the guitars than just solos. From the outset we developed those lines that produced our signature sound."

Obviously a fine story teller, I asked Powell if there was an autobiography somewhere up the road:

Andy Powell: "Well, I enjoy doing blogs on our website. I've certainly got a lot of anecdotes - at some point there is a book in me, for sure. I love books, I love reading, love biographies, but I'm still living a life here!  
"I haven't really put my feet up and sat back to reflect upon it. I'm still productive, so I don't think the time's right, yet. But certainly, it's something I've thought about."

After all these years and years of coming up with new material, and playing with different guitarists, I was curious as to how Powell went about devising interesting new songs, riffs, and leads with his co-guitarist of the last nine years, Muddy Manninen, who's fiery playing brings a lot to the Wishbone Ash table:

Andy Powell: "There are many different ways, really. A couple of schticks that we use - obviously, if we're trying to come up with new riffs and hooks, we'll jam together at sound checks, or if we're really lucky, we can actually devote some rehearsal time somewhere on the planet. 
"Whether it's in the UK, or over here, we'll rent out a rehearsal room and do it, or we might just doodle about independently, on our own. We come up with ideas for progressions, and we just throw them in the pot. A typical conversation will go, 'Well, what have ya got?', and we'll come up with a few lines, or a chorus. I may have written down some lyrical passages. 
"I keep a notebook with me while we're traveling, there's some of the inspiration I get for the lyrics when I'm moving around and observing people, and situations, or whatever. I'm an avid consumer of culture! I just throw that back at the music, and that's how the songs come about, really."

2012 saw the release of Wishbone Ash's 23rd studio album, and it may be my favorite from the band since Argus came out in 1972. Filled with not just heaps of great musicianship, it is a great collection of songs, and Andy Powell seems to be getting better and better as both a singer and a songwriter. I asked Andy to talk about how the album came together:

Andy Powell: "We sat down, and we really thought about how we wanted to do it. In that situation, we decided that we wanted to almost write collectively in the rehearsal studio. So we took over a house in the North of France, and we just created an environment where we could just throw material into the pot.  
"I suppose that album, it started right there in those initial sessions. So, the backing tracks, the music, came together in the time we spent up there. Then the actual recording took place over the best part of a year, because we were adding to that block of work, we were refining it. 
"Then we took the material into a studio in England and recorded the backing tracks. I did some guitar tracks in Connecticut, Muddy did some guitar overdubs in Helsinki, we sent stuff back and forth over the Internet, and we just kept building it up. The initial tracks went very quickly, but the refining of it took the best part of a year. Really, in between tours, to be honest with you."

Reason To Believe is the lead track on Elegant Stealth, and it's one of the most commercial rockers the band has ever recorded. Filled with tons of melody, an irresistible chorus, and of course, some great guitar work, it's also a bit of a defining moment - I asked Andy to explain:

Andy Powell: "The phrase came, and we have a gentleman we work with, Ian Harris, who's sort of like....he's participated in the band over the years with album sleeves - he's a great artist, and he's also a lyricist, so he came up with the meat and potatoes of the verses, and Bob Skeat came up with the title. It's just one of those kind of looks at life, you could almost say it's a comment on being in a band like ours. It gives you a reason to believe!"

One can't talk with Andy Powell, and not expect to talk about guitars and amps, as once again, he's something of an innovator - his use of a Gibson Flying V kickstarted that guitar's road to fame as the twin leads and Flying Vs were heard and seen by many, and imitated by a large portion of the '80s metal movement. I wanted to know how the Flying V came to Andy, and how it's managed to stay in his hands for over four decades:

Andy Powell: "I used to make guitars back in the '60s. The first decent guitar I got was a Gibson SG, I used that for the first year in Wishbone, and then it came to my attention that there were two Flying Vs in a store in London, on Denmark Street, which we knew as London's Tin Pan Alley.  
"The Flying V was in no way, how can I say it, a popular guitar. These guitars were already five, or six years old - but they were brand new. I picked one up, and I made a decision. I was ready to get a guitar, but I never thought I'd get a Flying V!  
"I was aware of Albert King playing one. I just immediately related to it. It was very different sounding.  It was a very vibrant guitar. At that point, it was either a Les Paul, or a Stratocaster that people wanted. So, I became instrumental in making the Flying V probably the third most popular guitar. It had been around since the '50s, but it had never caught on. It was Gibson's idea to kind of combat Fender, who had the Telecaster, and the Stratocaster, and they were kind of futuristic guitars at the time. I think everyone just thought the Flying Vs were a little, 'too far out,' hahaha! It was really the sound of the thing that got me."

I mention having spoken in the past with my old boss, Michael Schenker, about the influence of Wishbone Ash, not just musically, but also in the choice of the Gibson Flying V:

Andy Powell: "Oh, that's so cool, I've heard that! He's such a brilliant player. I also think that his brother Rudolf of The Scorpions was involved in that - he's actually bought a few Flying Vs off of me, that I owned - he's got a huge collection!"

I've noticed that recent photographs reveal Powell playing a sharp V, but it's not one of the '67s:

Andy Powell: "Well, in the studio, it's still the '67, you know, the original one I first bought. I've bought many more since then, I've got several late '50s models, and a few prototypes. 
"On the road, a friend of mine in Wales made three clones of that guitar (the 1967), and they use a guy named Kevin Chilcott - we call this guitar, The Angel, which is pretty much a clone. So, I use one of these on the road. 
"It really is, with a few refinements, a very similar guitar. Honduras mahogany, matching components - the one thing I have done is to add a piezo pickup on the bridge, so I can bring in an acoustic guitar sound as well, which I quite like."
Photo by Bob Greaves 2007
Moving on I asked if there was a particular amplifier that he favored:

Andy Powell: "Yeah, I generally, in the studio, I'm going to be using something like a '59 Fender Bassman. I used old Fender Concerts back in the day, I used them a lot on the classic albums. The Bassman is the one I pull out in the studio, but it depends on the song. If I need something really dirty, I'll go to an original Mesa-Boogie from the early '70s. 
"Onstage and occasionally in the studio, I'm using Fender Prosonics - a discontinued Fender. I have a bank of four of them onstage, and I love that amplifier. They're very flexible - amazing what they produce through two 10" speakers! Of course, those were designed by Bruce Zinky. I've actually got one of his new amps, as well.  
"I like a sound that is really between a Marshall, and a Fender, and the Prosonic kind of gives me that."

Sticking with gear, I asked what was in his signal chain these days between the guitar and amp:

Andy Powell: "My main effect for overdrive is the AnalogMan. I live in Connecticut, so Mike, who is the owner of AnalogMan products is there, so I can just buzz down to his workshop. I'll use one of his pedals, then I'll have an Ibanez Tube Screamer and he'll tweak it for me, kind of scoop the mids, or do certain things to any of the pedals I buy - it's like having my own custom shop just up the road! 
"I also use his Chorus pedal, I use the overdrive, and for Leslie effects I use a Rotosphere by Hughes & Kettner. I have all sorts of things, it really depends on my mood at that moment, what I'm going to pull out of my bag, and take on the road with me."

Andy Powell's guitar voice is singularly his own - ultra melodic, and unconventional, his playing style and tone define musicianship. When I hear him play, I don't easily identify his influences, so I thought I would ask him just who his guitar heroes may have been:

Andy Powell: "Really, early on I think, one of the first guitarists I ever heard was Django Reinhardt - I think that was the case for a few guitar players in England. I know Peter Frampton was influenced by him. I think there must have been a period in the '50s on British radio where Django was being played, and I still remember that sound. 
"And, of course, you couldn't avoid The Shadows. Hank Marvin really influenced so many British guitar players. If you grew up in the '50s in England, you would have been influenced by Hank, and that very, very clear tone he always got. A Fender Strat, a wonderful player, even now I listen to his stuff, he was a big influence! 
"Then, in the mid '60s, like everyone else, I got into the blues. Albert King was probably the most prominent blues guitar player that grabbed me. He was so muscular, and so powerful - and I liked his songwriting, too. Born Under A Bad Sign, Personal Manager, some of those songs with that sardonic wit about them. That was very impressive to me. 
"But Django - that gypsy flair. I loved that!"

OK - now we know the early influences, what are you listening to today?:

Andy Powell: "Well, you know, I listen to everything! 
"Black Country Communion, some of the heavier bands that are coming out in that classic mold. I mean, you can't escape Joe Bonamassa, he's everywhere! He used to open for us on tours. Certainly people like that, Michael Schenker, I listen to those kind of heavy guitar players. 
"For my own listening pleasure, I probably listen to more songwriters than anything these days. The new Dylan album - it's amazing, but I'm listening to stuff right across the board, not just rock. 
"People think that rock guitar players go back home, and listen to rock music all night, but not really! Our drummer, Joe Crabtree, and me, we were listening to classical music before we left the house. That's just the way it goes, picking up things wherever I go!"

So - when can we expect a new Wishbone Ash album?:

Andy Powell: "We're thinking that perhaps this summer we might well get back in the studio, because we have a fairly low key summer. Our busy touring time seems to be through the winter, spring, and fall - maybe some festivals in the summer. So, we might take some time and start laying down some tracks again. 
"Some new material in the studio! That's what we really need, because at the end of the day, the songs are what drive it forward. Coming out with new songs is inspiring for us, and for our audience!" 
"I think we've all got stuff we want to express. We've got material - riffs, song ideas, lyrics, and I think it'd be a great time to put some new material down."

I mention that I am seeing more and more artists who seem to be discovering new wellsprings of inspiration and productivity - I mention my friend, Glenn Hughes:

Andy Powell: "I have a huge admiration for Glenn. He's kept it real - he's been through some rough times, but he's out there really, really just putting out. Guys like that never fail to inspire." 
"I think it was a watershed period in the late '80s/early '90s, I was kind of burned out a bit at that point. I had to just step back a little bit. I never really considered doing anything else, because music is what I'd spent my life doing, but I did re-evaluate how I was doing it. 
"I just cut the influences of people out of my life that weren't doing me any good. I started listening to my own instincts more, and more, and that was a real eye opener, because very often you're looking and you're reaching around you for help, and what you need is close at hand. It's actually within you, you just stop underestimating your own skills, whether it be musical, or self management, or promoting yourself - just taking the bull by the horns. 
"I started looking really squarely at the people and the influences around me, cut the crap out of it, and got down to basics. I really dropped the worst aspects of my lifestyle, get rid of those. I was a parent, I had three young kids - you just start to get real, and you start to smell the roses, and stop blaming everybody else for your problems or whatever, and start to make it all work. That was a very real time for me, and I'm glad I went through that phase, because it put me in good stead. It really set the canvas for what we've done over the last twenty years. 
"The music gives it back to you. The business has changed massively, how you do things - but there's lessons to be learned every day, and the day I stop learning will be the day I stop doing it, really.

And there it is - as easy as crossing the street. When you've done it as many times, and as well as Andy Powell, you start to get the gist of it.

1 comment:

Homer Brockner said...
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