Interview with ANDY POWELL
WISHBONE ASH are unlikely heroes of British rock. Thirty years of playing the most original melodic hard rock didn't propel the group to stardom - but being the musicians' musicians is an award in itself. And that's what the band are. Led through all these years by guitarist Andy Powell, they're still there, with Andy always eager to explain this longevity.
- Andy, from time to time while talking about ASH's twin guitars you mention a quite unknown band, BLOSSOM TOES. But what about FLEETWOOD MAC with their three guitars? Didn't Peter Green's and Danny Kirwan duets inspire you?
No question, FLEETWOOD MAC inspired me, but in another way. You see, at that time I was more familiar with them as a blues band, having seen their first ever gig and several thereafter, prior to Danny joining the band. I thought their rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John MacVie was awesome - still do!
- What kind of music were you grooving to at the time - more folk or soul/blues?
I was listening to a whole range of sounds. I particularly liked what PENTANGLE were doing with their two guitarists, John Renbourne and Bert Jansch. I was also a big FAIRPORT CONVENTION fan. I loved the whole British folk thing. However, just prior to joining WISHBONE I had been in several strictly soul/rhythm and blues outfits, where I was doing more of a Steve Cropper impersonation!
- Once you answered the ad by Martin Turner and Steve Upton in "Melody Maker" you got to the audition. Was Ted Turner already there or you were the first to get into the fold?
Martin and Steve had already played with Ted on an audition. His mother had in fact answered the advert on his behalf and he'd gone down as a young lad to meet with them. I think it was felt that though he was a very emotive player, they weren't quite sure. So, to hedge their bets they invited me down. I don't think Ted was at this audition. From memory, I believe I met him at a later date and we all jammed together and hit it off then, so to speak.
- Was there a kind of rivalry or jealousy between you and Ted?
No, I don't think so. I think we were so pleased to be playing in a pro set - up with something of a perceived future. There was just so much to do in writing the songs etcetera. There was a very healthy, positive attitude in the band at that time.
- How did you choose who'd be singing certain vocal part and playing a certain solo?
It was all quite gentlemanly, really. With regard to the singing, Martin did the rockier things like "Lady Whisky", since he had an exciting high register, rock voice at the time, but we found that his voice and mine, sounded really good on the folkier things when we sang the entire lead part in harmony. This was almost as distinctive a sound as the twin guitars. Ted naturally covered the bluesier things like "Blind Eye" and "Jailbait" and the same thing became apparent with the guitar soloing. We just played to our strengths. I tended to do the more frenetic stuff like "Sometime World" and "Vas Dis", whereas Ted excelled on the bluesier things like the opening to "The Pilgrim", although he could also rock out on stuff like "Phoenix" and "The King Will Come".
- You seem to be one of the first playing "Flying V" guitar. Why did you choose this shape?
Well, until the "Flying V" came along, the coolest looking electric guitar was probably the Fender Stratocaster. There was the Les Paul, of course, which was considered more of a blues purist's guitar. This was until I saw a picture of Albert King with a V. Dave Davis and Keith Richards had also been photographed playing them, but it was so rare to even see a photograph, let alone the real thing. When I found mine, it was like it was meant to be. I just became one with it. I was very skinny at the time and simply made myself fit with the instrument, wearing it fairly low slung, often resting it on one knee on stage, so much so, that I wore out several pairs of pants on the knee section. It didn't worry me that it was impossible to play sitting down etcetera. It was love at first sight!
- ASH's first albums have a certain theme. Could you describe their conceptions?
Not really, save to say that we were a very close-knit unit at the time, spending so much time together that we thought pretty much as one - a true band spirit. We were all discovering the world together and used to pass the same books around and had many "philosophical" discussions during our travels. I suppose this is where the lyrical and musical themes were born. It all came to a peak with the "Argus" album which combined our essential Englishness with a loose concept. The music is also truly emotive giving weight to the lyrical themes, as for example in the anti-war song, "Throw Down The Sword".
- Weren't you fearful to not include cover songs in your first outings?
No, we were not fearful because it was, at the time, almost imperative that, as a new band, we relied on our own material. The closest we got to a cover was probably the obscure Jack McDuff tune "Vas Dis".
- How did it come to your playing on the RENAISSANCE's "Ashes Are Burning"? Was John Tout's participance in "Argus" a sort of "thank you"?
It possible was. I believe "Ashes Are Burning" came after "Argus". We were bands under the same management and I had known John Tout since the days of his previous band, RUPERTS PEOPLE. In fact, John had known Miles Copeland longer than any of us since RUPERTS PEOPLE was actually the first band Miles had got involved with. That was the connection. We were always bumping into each other in rehearsal rooms or at parties and had become familiar with John's playing. It was therefore natural, that when we needed the Hammond organ sound that he was "the man".
- What musicians were you friends with then? Maybe some interesting stories?
There was a healthy scene in London at the time and we often got to meet
other musicians at parties. Miles Copeland often had parties for the other
acts on his roster like CLIMAX BLUES BAND and RENAISSANCE. I was first
introduced to the music of LITTLE FEAT by Robert Palmer who I remember
meeting at a party in Hampstead around 1972. The guys in AVERAGE WHITE BAND
were friends, since they'd opened for us on one of our British tours under
the name of GLENCOE. In fact, I remember selling Hamish Stuart a black Fender Telecaster which he still uses to this day. There was MOTT THE HOOPLE and, of course, THE BEATLES.
- Are (or were) you in touch with Ritchie Blackmore through the years?
No, I can't say we are or were in touch, except that by some weird coincidence, we both ended up living in the same small town in Connecticut, USA. My son and I fancied playing a little soccer and heard of this team of ex-pat Brits who were having these games on the local green. It turned out to be Ritchie and his crew. So, we had a very enjoyable afternoon playing soccer. But, that was it. Bizarre!
- What is the story of a guitar duel between you and Ritchie?
Quite simply, I cheekily started joining in with him while he was sound checking at a place called Dunstable Civic Centre where we were opening act on a DEEP PURPLE show. Ritchie was a respected guitarist and I was new to the scene. We traded a bunch of guitar licks and he was impressed enough to ask whether we had a record deal. When I said "no", he offered to help and the rest is history!
- What was it that was symbolised by the BROKEN wishbone on the 1st album's cover?
I think it's up to the person looking at it to decipher. It's really a very literal interpretation on the name. I was not really in favour of the design at the beginning, thinking it too obvious and not obtuse enough. However, it has served us well. Some say it represents "wishes turning to ashes" Could be.
- ASH seems to be one of the few bands never getting in any scandals. Were you indeed such serious and sober people?
There were never any major scandals except for the occasional drug busts - once in Scotland and once in the States, which ended in deportation for our crew. I believe Ted ended up in court at one point. There was plenty of sex, drugs and rock and roll though, particularly during our first tours of the States. You couldn't avoid it really - that was the scene. I'm only grateful that we didn't fall apart like FLEETWOOD MAC or Jimi or so many others. It was a close call though at times. I was lucky to have a strong partner who kept me focused.
- Argus - multi-eyed person from mythology, why did you decided to use this name for your best LP?
It was Steve Upton's idea and it seemed to fit so well with the perspective of the songs, giving them even more weight and a kind of remote objectivity; a little touch of genius on Steve's part, which the designers Hipgnosis captured perfectly.
In ASH always was a certain Englishness which increased a lot on "Argus". Why such a change in the style?
I think we thought that we knew better and also that we became a little self concious of this style which we had created. Commercially speaking, it was a mistake to change. We should have continued down this road for a little longer. People liked it.
- "Argus" contains quite great lyrics. Who was the primary lyricist in the band?
Martin Turner was the main lyricist at this time and did us proud.
- What's the story behind "F.U.B.B." ("Fucked Up Beyond Belief" - is it true?)?
Well, recording in Florida in the 70s it was kind of hard to avoid the drug thing so you could say that title is a comment on the general state of mind during the recording sessions.
- Title "There's The Rub" - what did it mean?
It is a phrase from one of Shakespeare's plays and generally means there it is or there you have it.
- That album was produced by Bill Szymczyk, later known of his work with THE EAGLES, and the next, "Locked In", by another master, Tom Dowd. Why did you stop producing yourselves and why later return to Derek Lawrence producing?
Well, there was always the quest for more success and you could say that getting back with Derek was an attempt to repeat the vibe of the early album sessions, which were more straightforward and businesslike than the way we later became. Perhaps we were getting a little too self-indulgent. When you have an independent producer, it cuts down the number of arguments and so on.
- Could you say that it was through WISHBONE ASH that Miles Copeland sharpened his teeth at as a great manager?
Absolutely. Miles tried everything he was later to become famous for, using us and our experiences as a test bed, whether it was promoting festivals, empire building, image building, publicity stunts and breaking new acts in the media. For example, I noticed many parallel events in the early days of the POLICE's career.
- Did you knew Miles' brother Stewart before his stint with POLICE?
Yes, we knew him as Miles's kid brother, during his school days and later on when he joined CURVED AIR.
- Shed some lights, please, on your sessions with THE BEATLES ex-members.
Well, I played on only two sessions; one with George, Ringo and Cilla Black and one with Ringo when he was involved with an Australian songwriter signed to Apple at the time. It was absolutely great to meet these people who were so influential to all of us at the time. I must say that George and Ringo treated me very kindly.
- Why did you refuse to play with John Lennon? How did he learn of WISHBONE ASH?
I didn't refuse to play with Lennon. It was at the end of a long day and I was very tired, I think. It was pretty stupid of me, looking back on things. Things were kind of vague back then... vibes and suchlike. You did something if the vibe was right. Sounds silly, but it's true. Anyway, Ted got offered the session, so that was cool.
In 1972 John Wetton toured with RENAISSANCE. It's from that time that you know him?
No, I think I first met him when he was playing with a band called MOGUL THRASH or it could have been with COLISEUM. [Well, Wetton played with MOGUL, not with COLOSSEUM if that's the band Andy meant.- DME]
- How did Wetton appear in ASH's ranks?
It was at the suggestion of our manager, at the time, John Sherry.
Why did he sing only "That's That" and what songs offered by John and rejected later appeared on ASIA albums? Some words on Wetton as person, please.
I think "That's That" was John's statement of the way he felt at the time. He had a lot of angst, personal and otherwise. To tell you the truth, I can't remember too much about the songs of his we supposedly "rejected". It wasn't ever as clear cut as that. It gets back to that "vibe" thing again. It just didn't feel right at the time. Nothing personal. It was probably a much bigger deal to him as regards his expectations. Anyway, he later went on to make millions from those songs, recording them with ASIA.
- Was Trevor Bolder meant to be a permanent ASH member or he wanted just to have vacations off URIAH HEEP?
As much as anything was permanent at the time, yes, I think in our minds it was so. However, I think with HEEP, Trevor later realised that he'd met his real soul mates in life. We always got on very well though. Trev is the "salt of the earth" and a great bassist!
- Did you know him before inviting him in the band?
I didn't know him personally before he joined ASH but, of course, I knew oF him from THE SPIDERS, Bowie's band on "Hunky Dory" etcetera. Now that was a band!
- "Nouveau Calls" was a pure instrumental album recorded by original line up. Why instrumental?
Because that was Miles's concept. Don't forget, New Age music was a big deal at that time and everyone was kind of maturing.
- In your opinion WISHBONE ASH is a hard rock band, blues/boogie band or... what?
Well, that's the big question, isn't it?
- WISHBONE ASH was one of the first Western bands to play in the U.S.S.R. Your feelings once you were proposed to play there?
Well, we went during the Glasnost era and it was a dream come true. We were definitely a little nervous and not without reason. Meeting ordinary Russian people was a thrill and seeing some of the country. The poverty was tangible. The scale of things was impressive. St. Petersburg blew me, although I wasn't too crazy on Moscow. Lithuania was cool. The food sucked. It was the coldest place I've ever been to. The place seemed to have this feeling of struggle about it definitely a major eye opener for all of us.
- Some details, please, on the "Night of the Guitars" thing.
The "Night Of The Guitars Tour" was one of the most fun things I've ever been involved with. Ted and I were given the opportunity to shine in the context of all those different, great players. The rhythm section of Clive Mayuyu and Livingstone Brown was the best and each day was full of interest both in the many different European cities we played in, and what with all the shenanigans on the tour bus. You had larger-than-life characters like Miles and Leslie West to spice things up. How could it fail? The people loved it and so did the musicians. It was an event!
- I still haven't heard the 'Bare Bones' album but its content prompts some questions. And the first one is: Why did it take so long for ASH to record an unplugged album? I mean, such an album was to be made by THIS band!
You are right inasmuch as many of our early songs started out their life this way. Sometimes the obvious thing to do is staring you right in the face and it almost seems too obvious. Anyway, I'm glad that we eventually did make it a reality, and it was actually a very enjoyable album to make.
Fans seemed to be waiting for more classic songs on 'Bare Bones'. Why did you choose to concentrate on the late period - not seventies?
That's a good question. It just seemed more appropriate. Perhaps we'll save "Throw Down The Sword" and "The King Will Come" for the next one!
- Being now the only original member of the band how often do you meet with the other three?
The answer is, very rarely, if at all. I often think we lived many lives together and while you can never erase the experiences we had, the truth is that we have all had to do a lot of catching up on our own personal lives. We gave each other a lot of ourselves and perhaps there's not a lot more to give. This happens with many bands - it's an intense life, often to the exclusion of everything else.
- This year the band's celebrating its 30th anniversary. What kind of events are planned to commemorate the date?
Well, there's the concert at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire. A book on the history of the band is being written. A guitar tablature book of our music is being published. We will release a new live album together with a video and DVD of the 30th Anniversary concert. That's it for starters - oh yes, and we'll be touring Europe and the States!