Saturday, March 18, 2017

Scratching The Itch - Ash Wilson interview Part 1

Basically, every plan we had didn’t work out,” says Ash Wilson.

The recording of some albums may go like clockwork.  Bish bash bosh, in and out of the studio on schedule.  Done.  Others are a matter of evolution, and so it was with Ash Wilson and the making of his debut album, Broken Machine, as I discovered in the course of a wide-ranging chat with the Skegness guitar man.
At the age of 32, Wilson had played in tyro blues band The Melt in his late teens, been a full-time teacher, worked part-time in a piano academy, and most significantly, was now a year into playing guitar with gritty soul-rocker Sean Webster.  But in 2015 he found himself at a crossroads.

“I was spending time away from home,” he explains, “and I have a young daughter, and I thought if I’m going to be away from home I should be doing what I really want to do, rather than something that I’m into and I love doing.  The social side of Sean’s band was really great, and Sean’s a great guy, and I enjoyed playing his songs, but I think I’d got a bit of an itch that I needed to scratch.
Ash Wilson - "How does that 'Thrill Is Gone' thing go again?"
“So this album started off as a side project, very much.  It was like I’ll keep playing with Sean and then I’ll do this little album in my spare time when I’ve got a chance.  And then it became a bigger thing, and it got to the point where by the time I was three-quarters of the way through I thought, well I really just want to work on this now.”
By that stage though, the album that was emerging was rather different from his original conception.
“When we went into the studio,” he says, “the aim was to record a really traditional kind of Jimmie Vaughan sounding sort of thing, a band in a room, a very lively sounding album, not many overdubs, everything was going to be a 12 bar.”
The ‘we’ in this comment includes Wilson’s younger brother Phil, currently drummer to Laurence Jones and Wilson’s collaborator-in-chief.  And given some of the brothers' collective music experience it may have been a bit short-sighted to believe a straight-ahead blues album was in the offing.  For a start there was their parental influence.
“My parents,” says Wilson, “although they’re not musicians, they were really into music.  So my brother and I were brought up on, not particularly bluesy music, it was more progressive rock really, like Genesis, Pink Floyd, bands like that.”
These weren’t the directions Wilson took with the guitar though, after getting started with it in his early teens.
“Dave Gilmour, when I was 13 or 14 years old, was just too far in front of what I could imagine you could do on a guitar.  So I got into bands like Oasis and stuff like that first of all, because it was chords.”  And after The Melt split up, “I went off in another direction really, and for a long time I was playing indie music and alternative rock music.”
Little wonder then, that the first attempt the Wilson brothers made at recording together had been in a genre slightly at arm’s length to the blues, with a 2014 project they dubbed Infamous Vampires that resulted in an album released on iTunes.
“The Infamous Vampires thing – I suppose it was really a blueprint for this album,” says Wilson, “because it was something we did at home, and it was very much in the vein of bands like Queens Of The Stone Age and bands like that.  We’d both love to be in Queens Of The Stone Age, but obviously there’s not really much chance of that happening, so we just put our own version of it together really!  It was a really fun album to do, and if you were ever to listen to it I think you’d hear elements of what’s in this album – it’s not like a heavy rock, thrash thing, it’s sort of rooted in that blues thing again, but very much more on the rock side of it.”
This time around though, they weren’t planning on home recording.  They’d booked studio time, and finding Wilson’s long-standing bass playing buddy Greg Smith (also now with Laurence Jones) unavailable, they had to look elsewhere.
“We’d worked with Roger Inniss before, with Sean Webster,” says Wilson.  “So to me it
Roger Inniss - something wicked this way comes!
made the most sense to ask Roger, first and foremost because he’s such a good player, and we didn’t have much time booked in the studio.  But also he’s very cool, he’s wicked, and that’s really important if you’re trying to capture a moment, you want everybody to be in a good mood, because I think that really comes across in your playing. And it did, but what manifested itself instead of a 12 bar blues album was what you’ve heard, which wasn’t necessarily the idea, but I’m glad it came out the way it did.”
Not that the studio sessions with Inniss got the job done, of course – remember that plan that never worked out?
“We came out of the studio with the majority of the backing tracks and no vocals, because we just ran out of time” explains Wilson.  “So we had to finish the album at my parents’ house, in their spare room.  In fact all the vocals were recorded in an airing cupboard, with me surrounded by towels and duvets!  So we did the main part of the recording, and then we started doing the vocals, trying to find the songs within the music we’d created.  And then it became obvious, in terms of where the album had gone, it was kind of, half of it worked really well, and the other half of it didn’t, so we had to go back into the studio to record the rest of the music, and that’s when we drafted Bob in.”
‘Bob’ being than Bob Fridzema from King King – another example of the blues network in action, as Wilson reveals.
“My brother is really good friends with Wayne Proctor – and I am to be honest.  And Phil mentioned our album to Wayne, and played a bit of it to him, and Wayne said: ‘Oh, it sounds really great, maybe if you put some Hammond organ on it, you should give Bob a ring, he only lives down the road from you.’  And that was it.  So we went to Bob’s, and we recorded nine songs in one day – he just absolutely tore it out, it was amazing.”
Bob Fridzema - all in a day's work.
Broken Machine ultimately does feature some soulful blues, but the opening tracks suggest a more distinctive vein, and if this derived from a number of different factors, one of them was Wilson’s singing – or as he sees it, his limitations in that department.
“We picked keys that I can get my voice to sound good in.  I’m not a naturally gifted singer, as I’m sure you’ve heard from the album.  I’ve done a bit of vocal coaching and to strengthen it, and something I learned from the Infamous Vampires thing is that in order for my voice to sound cool I have to write melodies a certain way.  And melodically make it quite rhythmic.
“And then,” he goes on, “because I started off listening to progressive rock, and then went through the whole indie thing, and then the Infamous Vampires, there’s an awful lot of influence to draw from, so from a songwriting point of view once these songs started to sound less bluesy, it was almost a natural thing where we went: ‘Let’s arrange these songs as interestingly as possible, and then work to create something that we would really want to listen to.’”
Not that this approach got him entirely off the hook in terms of vocal challenges, as he explains in relation to the closing track on the album, the emotional ‘Holding Hands’.
“The hardest song was ‘Holding Hands’,” he says.  “Because as I say we played a lot of that sort of thing with Sean Webster, and Sean has got the sort of voice where I don’t think it would matter what he sang over it, it would sound amazing. Which then made me feel like I really had to, you know, man up.  And I think it took me a long while to work out how to sell an emotional story.”
I mention that he makes good use of falsetto in the process, and he agrees.
“Yeah, and that was because for the choruses I couldn’t do the big male vocal.  So I thought well, there’s certain artists I’m into that have girls singing with them, and maybe I can sing in falsetto.  If I just double the chorus, and try and take the melody there, maybe that’ll make it more interesting.  And then it started to make more sense of the song. And while I wouldn't say it’s the best song on the album it’s the one I’m most proud of, because I really had to dig deep.”
I offer the observation that Wilson’s guitar playing also shines on ‘Holding Hands’ – it sounds like he really gets into the zone, and builds off the melody in a way that connects with the words.
“I really appreciate that,” he says.  “You try to create that – and it’s a lot easier to do live, you know, when you’re on stage, there’s nothing else around you, you’re in your zone.  But when you’re in a studio it’s more difficult.  When you’re in your parents’ spare room it’s more difficult – I recorded the solo for that song in a conservatory!”

It’s a homely picture, but some other songs on the album suggest rather different images – as revealed in Part 2 of this interview, ‘Blade Runner Meets The Blues’.  But while you're waiting, here's the delightfully wacky video for 'Peace And Love' for your edification and delight!

Broken Machine is released on 21 April, and can be pre-ordered from Amazon.
Check out Ash Wilson's forthcoming tour dates.

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