Sunday, March 19, 2017

Blade Runner Meets The Blues - Ash Wilson interview Part 2

We closed Part 1 of the interview by discussing Ash Wilson's tussle with the emotional vocals required for the good old-fashioned smouldering soulful numbers on Broken Machine.  Less traditionally though, there are quirky aspects to some of the opening tracks on the album – like, I suggest, the snippets of synthesizer on the title track.
“The synthesizer’s an interesting story," is his response.  "I had a part-time job in a little piano academy, and they had a bloke come in and donate a load of stuff, and the lady who ran the place didn’t want any of it.  So I got this old 1980s Korg organ-string synth out of it, which I think is a similar one to what Vangelis used when he did the soundtrack to Blade
Ash Wilson auditions for guitar modelling work
Runner, it had that sort of sound to it.  So I played it to my brother and said ‘Look mate, you can play the Vangelis thing’.  And he said, ‘We’ve got to play this thing on the album.’  And I’m like – ‘Come on, this sound and our record?  How’s it going to work?’  So Phil took it home with him, and came up with this synth part that’s on the title track, in the chorus.  There’s this low end thing, and a little melody that sort of skips away in the background.  He put it on the title track for a joke, and sent me it, and I thought it was really funny and was like, ‘Yeah, wicked man, take it off though’.  So he took it off, and the pair of us were like, ‘Oh, I think it was better with it on!’” he laughs.
It helps to create a sense of alienation though doesn’t it, I suggest, that Blade Runner-ish sound going with the ‘broken machine’ metaphor?
“Yeah definitely!” Wilson agrees.  “That’s kind of how we sold it to ourselves, because at first we were like – no-one in their right mind would put an organ synth on a blues album!  But then we started talking about this whole ‘broken machine’ thing – I’d got the lyrics by this point, and I was ‘well actually mate, it kind of contextually makes sense, because this thing isn’t working right!’”
All of which leads me to observe that the Wilson boys had learnt something about the different sounds that they could pursue.
“Yeah, for sure.  You don’t need to just stick to guitar, and bass and drums.  If you’re trying to create an interesting thing to listen to, and an interesting thing to sing over as well, from my own point of view as a vocalist the music inspires you a certain way, and if the music pushes you in a certain direction then – it’s that honesty that I was trying to get across.”
If by now you’ve picked up the idea that younger brother Phil Wilson was a key component in the development of Broken Machine, then you’d be right.  He not only plays drums, he’s credited with producing and mixing the album – and as a co-writer of the material.  He may be the junior partner in years, but since the age of 16 Phil has been on the road with guitarists like Scott McKeon and Jesse Davey – much to the chagrin of his older brother, who explains how their musical relationship developed as a result.
Phil Wilson - it's a family affair
I’m ‘Oh man, you just keep playing with these people, that I’m not even fit to stand in the same room as!’  So what that did create was first of all a respect for my brother, because he’s operated on a totally different level, and also because he’s my brother I’m really happy to play things I can’t play in front of him, and sound really bad on the journey of trying to find something that sounds really good.  Because he’s my brother, and it doesn’t really matter.
So I’ll come in with ideas, and play them to Phil, and he’ll go ‘Have you thought about doing this?  Have you thought about doing that?’  And generally I’ll go ‘No. That’s a really good idea, let’s do that.’  What’s really cool is Phil has no knowledge of harmony, so he can’t tell me what chord to play or what type of chord to play, or where it needs to go – so I have to find it.  So we have this bizarre relationship where I generally bring the ideas, and he says things that then create new ideas.”
As Wilson says, it’s a relationship that works for him.
“It works really well, because I can write songs myself, but there’s a certain sound when I write with my brother, and that why I’ve always said ‘We wrote this together’.  Because he pushes me in a different direction, and makes me sound not like me any more, and I can’t do that the same way without him.”
Just as the album came to completion though, Phil got the call from Laurence Jones, and so is otherwise engaged as Ash Wilson starts to take Broken Machine on the road.  Roger Inniss has signed up full-time however, and the breaking news is that he’s now joined by Russ Parker on drums (formerly with Scott McKeon – those connections again!) to form the trio that will be the Ash Wilson Band for 2017.
“There’s a long term plan,” says Wilson, “of trying to get it so that there’s a formidable unit and it’s a regular unit.  And Rog and I have got a few things up our sleeve.
I’m quite restrained on the album with my guitar playing,” he adds.  “I don’t really go bonkers.  But live I have the facility to be a little bit more exciting with my guitar playing, so I think that’ll be one element where hopefully people who are into that will say, well the album’s great, but live he does all this other stuff with the guitar.”

Broken Machine comes out in April.  The road beckons.  Either way, make a point of catching Ash Wilson.  In the meantime, you'll have to make do with the video of the title track - 'Broken Machine' itself.

ICYMI, check out Part 1 of the Ash Wilson interview - 'Scratching The Itch'

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

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.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Stevie Nimmo Trio - Backstage, Kinross, 11 March 2017

And so to the homely environs of Backstage at the Green Hotel in Kinross, a neat venue festooned with rock’n’roll memorabilia, to see the Stevie Nimmo Trio.
The comfortable theatre seating may not be so rock’n’roll, but that doesn’t stop Stevie and chums from getting stuck in, with opener ‘Roll The Dice Again’ sizzling to a conclusion by way of a wah-wah heavy solo before seguing into ‘Still Hungry’, which features heavy riffing and some great bubbling bass lines from Mat Beable.
The Stevie Nimmo Trio - music for pleasure
Having warmed everyone up sufficiently, they go to town with one of the current highlights of their set, really conjuring up a mood on ‘Running On Back To You’.  They keep it on a leash to begin with, but the tension is eventually released when Nimmo uncorks his second solo, tearing out some gut-wrenching chords in its midst before Beable and drummer Craig Bacon weigh to produce a mountainous crescendo.
The initial run of tracks from Sky Won’t Fall ends with a funky ‘Change’, getting heavy as they rip it up at the end, and a crisp take on the Allman Brothers’ ‘Gambler’s Roll’.  Then it’s time for a backward glance at Nimmo’s earlier solo album The Wynds Of Life, with the country-tinged, bright and breezy ‘Good Day For The Blues’.
If that’s a long-standing favourite, tonight they decide to unveil another cover for the very first time, namely Eric Clapton’s ‘River Of Tears’, a slowie that features an extended intro with some lyrical playing from Nimmo – and heaps of vibrato.
"Shit, this guitar neck's upside down!"
They return to Sky Won’t Fall for the muscular ‘Chains Of Hope’ before cutting loose on‘Lovin’ Might Do Us Good’.  As ever, it’s fun and funky, and the focus for a bit of jamming – and Craig Bacon shines in the process, bringing the swing big time as he makes full use of his kit to vary the rhythm.  With or without the injection of ‘Jessica’ that they give it nowadays, it’s intriguing that they manage to blend the funk vibe with a healthy measure of Southern rock.
Set closer ‘Going Down’ is a raucous affair, with Nimmo giving his guitar a serious seeing to along the way.  And since that’s just not enough for a vocal audience, they come back to deliver a sublime reading of Big George Watt’s ‘The Storm’.  It’s a song that creates a picture in music, surfing something wild and untamed, and Nimmo catches the essence of it before closing with perfectly controlled feedback ebbing away.
It’s always great to see an outfit as well-grooved as the Stevie Nimmo Trio.  But more than that, the ease they have together infuses their playing and connects with the audience.  Music for pleasure, I think it’s called.

Check out other Stevie Nimmo Trio UK tour dates here.


Saturday, March 4, 2017

Rainbreakers - Rise Up EP

If you like the opening tracks on the Black Keys’ album Turn Blue, then Shrewsbury 4-pice Rainbreakers may well be for you.  Their Rise Up EP is marked by a dreamy, mellow sound that’s both bluesy and modern – with a cover pic of a burning sun that catches the vibe well. 
Opening track ‘On My Own’ fades in, and with Sam Edwards’ trippy drums well up in the mix there’s a sense of floating along on the blissed out beats.  They convey an excellent sense of space, with restrained lead guitar from Charlie Richards evoking the mood.
Rainbreakers - "Which way now, lads?"  (Photo by Mark Lloyd)
The title track goes for a funkier sound, albeit controlled, with Peter Adams’ bass creating a hand-in-glove jazzy groove with Sam Edwards’ drums, while the guitars dovetail nicely over the top.
‘Waiting On You’ takes off in a soulful direction as hazy, ‘Rain Song’-style strumming performs a slow dance with a melody that brushes with Smokey Robinson.  Ben Edwards captures the mood beautiful with his best vocal on this set.  Always controlled and on the money, I sense he can develop further vocally, just as Dan Auerbach has done over the years.
Those shuffling beats are back to the fore on ‘Perception’, with Adams’ stuttering bass also to the fore while Richards is content to ping his way around the margins delivering licks in a spare, echo-laden manner.  If there’s a glimmer of Dave Gilmour in that sound it also suggests modern sensibilities, bringing to mind something like White Denim’s ‘Street Joy’.
The EP closes with ‘Living Free’, which features some more muscular riffing as they get their wail on a bit and build a stirring crescendo, with Richards cutting loose on guitar.
Rise Up is a grower.  It may not grab you by the short hairs right away, but on repeated listening its subtleties get their hooks into you.  It’s encouraging to find a young band like Rainbreakers explore a refreshingly different take on blues-rock, and do it with confidence – so tune in and turn on, people!

Rise Up is released on 7 April.  Rainbreakers are touring from March.