Interview: Wishbone Ash

"I’m just high on life. . . Drugs and alcohol can take you away from celebrating the essence of life. . . I’m at an age now where I like to value every day. I feel so privileged and so grateful for the life I’ve been able to live – it’s fantastic."

Andy Powell joined Wishbone Ash in 1969, their foundation year. After headlining HRH Prog in the spring, Andy talked candidly about the band’s unique twin guitar sound, his contemporaries (past and present), Argus and his biography, Eyes Wide Open.

(((O))):  How was the show at HRH for you?

Andy: It was really successful. I didn’t know what to expect – I don’t live in the UK anymore, so I wasn’t so aware of the festival. When we got there it was very well run and I was impressed by that from the beginning. Once we got on stage, everything just went right; we had a fantastic monitor sound and right from the get go we hit the ground running.

(((O))): Festivals give bands opportunities to play to casual fans and those not so familiar; were you surprised to receive such a warm reception?

Andy: It was in a way. Whilst we do regular tours of Britain we usually play the theatres, art centres and clubs. We’re not that visible on the festival stages. So it was very heartening that people remembered the music we were playing from the records. Looking out at people’s faces I could see that they were making connections and reacting very strongly. We were and are a great band and we’re very proud of the band. So it was very heartening to see all that when it’s not our regular crowd.

(((O))): Tell us about your book.

Andy: I’ve been in this band for 47 years. I’ve never done anything else, actually, so my whole perception of music is through the eyes of someone being in this band. So about 18 months ago I wanted to put it out as a guitarist who became a songwriter, and a singer, then a manager. What’s unique, in my eyes, about it is that I was born in 1950, so I was able to talk as a rock guitarist in a band like this, who are internationally acclaimed, but also to relate it to the phases that music has gone through and how I see that through my eyes. It’s my thoughts on life in general, as well as being a touring musician. A lot of people through the years have said to me “you really should write a book, as you’ve so many anecdotes” but you have to have enough music and life under your belt before you can undertake such a thing. I’m really gratified in the way it came out: I worked with a co-writer, Colin Harper, who’s a journalist and writer himself, but he didn’t ghost write the book, we really co-wrote it. I did a number of chapters on my own, but he also added a lot of the contextual stuff; he’s a great student of popular culture so he was able to reference the time frames I was talking about in the book and add what was going on at the time. So when we had a number 2 hit with the Argus album, what else was happening at the time? That was Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick.

(((O))): It’s 45 years since Argus was released. It seems to have stood the test of time best of your records in terms of its critical appraisal. Why do you think it’s so well loved?

Andy: That was the period where bands were taking on the long playing record, it wasn’t just a collection of songs or your singles. Argus is when the LP really got into its stride: its songs and lyrical themes that are inter-related and carried over from song to song. So when people analysed that record it was a concept album by default. We were just making the record that we wanted to at the time. In the US, FM radio ruled the airwaves and you couldn’t play songs that were longer than 3.5 minutes. In this country you had disc jockeys like John Peel who wouldn’t have a problem playing a song that was 20 minutes long. That helps to put it in context: what was the zeitgeist at the time.

(((O))): You’ve made a lot of albums since the 70s. Is there an album made between now and then that you’d recommend to our readership?

Andy: We’ve gone through a recent period of intense creativity, so there are a couple of albums I’d recommend highly. The most recent one is Blue Horizon which again has elements of progressive rock. I’d say progressive rock with a blues-folk edge. The album before that was an album called Elegant Stealth and these are guitar records. Some of our arrangements are definitely progressive. If you’re a prog fan you can find elements you can definitely get off on, on these two albums. They’re good for guitar playing and guitar fans – there’s extensive jamming on these two albums, but specifically they’re highly organised with intense arrangements. Enough to whet the musical appetite if you like melody and interesting arrangements: it’s not just four-bar blues.

(((O))): Tell me about the evolution of your unique twin-guitar sound.

Andy: From my own perspective, I started playing when I was a teenager, and I had gravitated, with the bands I was in, to become a rhythm guitar player. Those were seven- or eight-piece bands that we’d call soul bands, with a Hammond organ and a horn section. I was in other kinds of bands as well, but I spent a lot of time doing this in my teens and I really enjoyed playing in R n B and soul bands. I love Stax, Tamla Motown. A lot of that involved working out horn parts. So that was a precursor to doing the same thing with electric guitar. One of the first songs we wrote in Wishbone Ash was a song called ‘Blind Eye’, which had a staccato riff that was really like a horn riff; and because of working with a horn section I refined my musical ear and I could work out a lot of musical arrangements by ear, with the horns. It was quite a natural progression to transfer that to guitar. In addition to that we would also experiment with bringing the bass in, so you’d get a third-part harmony and counterpoint, whilst at the same time functioning as part of the rhythm section.

(((O))): When was the last time you talked to Martin Turner, your bassist from the 70s?

Andy: In court! With a band that’s been around as long as we have, you have your high points, low points and contention points. On a legal level, I never left the band. Martin was a founder, but he left the band, and was out of the band for 18 years. So in all that period of time, a band is also a brand. I kept that thing going as naturally he’d resigned from all the limited companies, partnerships and the rest of it, so that was all divested to me, and I carried it on. Then he re-joined the music business after an absence of many years and came back into the marketplace using the legal term. We tried to work it out amicably but he wasn’t having it, so in the end we had to get it adjudicated. I wish him well with his music and am glad he’s come back to the stage – he’s a fantastic composer and bass player, but we went our separate ways decades ago.

(((O))): After Martin left the band, you briefly worked with John Wetton, who recently passed away. Do you have fond memories of John?

Andy: It seems to be the case that in Britain we produce very good bass players. Part of that is the background and influence that both guitar players and bass players have that comes from classical and church music. Bass players are listening to the bass lines, whether it’s Bach or other English or European chord progressions. John was definitely out of the same mould as Martin, but he was perhaps a little bit more aggressive a bass player – a very strident sound. It was really a pleasure to work with him on the Number the Brave album. We never actually took it out on the road but he really did drive the band along on that particular album. I have nothing but praise for him as a bass player and as a composer. We weren’t together for long enough to have any routes compositionally. Shortly after that he joined the band Asia. That’s quite a different band from Wishbone Ash in the sense that it was more keyboard based, whereas Wishbone was more specifically a guitar based band. In a way, it was the natural course of events for him to go on to that.

(((O))): Tell us about the current line-up of Wishbone Ash: Bob Skeat, Muddy Manninen and Joe Crabtree. [Shortly after this interview was conducted, Powell dropped the curtain on the longest standing line-up in Wishbone Ash’s history, with Muddy Manninen replaced by Mark Abrahams on guitar.]

Andy: Bob’s been with the band for 19 years, so longer than Martin Turner. He’s a fantastic bass player – more of a groove player than Martin was. He’s more of a feel player, although he’s able to do very complex stuff; he’s probably the best musician in the band, ironically, which is often the case with bass players. Muddy Manninen has now had 12 years in the band. There seems to be a great school of blues or rock guitar playing up in Scandinavia. He’s a slightly different generation, but a very rootsy player who I’ve connected with on many levels. That’s really important with this band. Joe Crabtree, he’s spent 10 years in the band. He’s played with Pendragon and the David Cross Band; a phenomenal drummer and also educator. He has a fantastically special app on the iPhone, it’s a “polynome”, a musician’s tool that’s an adaptive metronome. Joe for us is really the link between analogue and digital – a very brilliant chap. So I’ve got this team that’s been together for many years – you’ve got to cover many bases; it’s a great band.

(((O))): You reference on stage the heady days of the 70s – sex, drugs and booze. Do you go into detail about this in the book, or do you focus on the music?

Andy: I don’t pull any punches. You couldn’t be in a rock band in the early 70s without being exposed to vices, and I don’t regret any of that. It was really something that you had to accommodate, to protect yourself against and to come out of the other side from. Some of my contemporaries didn’t. I’m now really grateful that I’m not surrounded by that on a daily basis. In my way of thinking I don’t regret going through that but it was a distraction from music. I never found marijuana particularly appealing; I never found cocaine to be particularly helpful, although it was present in recording studios everywhere. I’m just high on life – I like to keep fit; I like to be engaged in life. Drugs and alcohol can take you away from celebrating the essence of life; if I need any enhancement it’s possibly a nice glass of wine and that’s about it. I’m at an age now where I like to value every day. I feel so privileged and so grateful for the life I’ve been able to live – it’s fantastic.

Wishbone Ash tour extensively in the US and UK throughout September, October and November

Photograph: Thomas Lieven

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