Maybe that’s a good sign. They say, one who’s thought of as dead lives long, so when the news broke of Andy Fraser passing away and then the rumors proved to be wrong, a great sense of relief came. Which turned into something even more uplifting once the legendary bassist went online and announced he had a new album, his first in more than twenty years, ready for release. Quite a time for a comeback! So where Andy’s been all the time we heard of him only through “All Right Now” and other tremendous FREE songs he wrote and played on? Mr. Big is all candid about his travails and looks into the future with sheer optimism.
– You’re emerging after a long silence now. Didn’t you miss music all this time? Wasn’t it a way for you to express all your trials in a sort of cathartis?
Emerging publicly now, but music has continually been a part of my life. That hasn’t been silent, just private. It has always been very therapeutic, absolutely essential actually to keep me sane, even if just singing to myself. Did I miss the crowds? I don’t necessarily need applause to feel fulfilled. I do need a challenge in my life, and just writing, digging deep, being brutally honest with oneself in order to write a decent song, is always a challenge, but additionally right now I’ve got this thing about coming out – publicly. Although things have vastly improved for gay people, there are still so many, like I was, staying silent, and of course in self-denial. I feel I need to take responsibility, add my voice, show my face, so eventually it will be no big deal for, or to anybody else. Just being ‘normal’ is all I want to present – resisting any suggestions to ‘camp it up’ like so many others have felt pressured into doing.
– Long ago, as people recall, you were an angry young man, but seemed to have changed before all those problems you experienced started. What was the reason for the change?
I didn’t know I was thought of as an ‘angry young man’. Well, I guess I’m not young any more. I have been described as having a lot of nervous energy, which I felt for the most part had been harnessed and focused into positive avenues… but I do feel more on an ‘even keel’ these days. Maybe that comes with age? In a sense, I’m a bit of a ‘late bloomer’. I started working very early – fifteen years old – put everything else aside, including growing up, and coming to terms with my sexuality. To be married with two kids, before dealing with it, is very late. Maybe it seems sudden, having not followed me through the struggles and changes.
When I found myself – found myself to be gay, I also found – my perception of – God, and my place in the universe – little speck that I am. All were a big surprise – but it kind of makes sense, and puts the lie to all the bible-bashers, basically selling their own agenda under the cloak of religion. I do feel on the other side now. At ease, and open with who and what I am, and naturally that is reflected in the music.
– Judging by the songs, your new album sounds quite happy. Are you now at peace with yourself?
I would say I am a lot happier now. I am human, so still experience the full range of emotions – up and down. At peace with myself? A lot more so, but still a work in progress. At least not crippled emotionally or incapacitated by my inability to be open and fully expressive about how I feel. I believe it is the artists job, to look inside, and as honestly as possible, using chosen medium of art, channel it to the listener, viewer etcetera – provoking, inspiring, nudging the recipient to feel and do likewise. In so doing, the artist contributes to making the world a better place.
In order to stand “on stage” one must be comfortable in one’s own skin. The willingness to be “naked”. It is indeed overwhelming to see yourself through thousands of other people’s eyes. Can be quite painful in fact – because if you are sensitive to it, you will obviously come face to face with many of your own shortcomings. One has to either change some aspects, or accept those things that can’t be changed – or perhaps try to become oblivious through substance abuse, and we see quite a lot of that! [It] doesn’t work for me, though.
– “Naked… And Finally Free!” – what’s behind the title? Is use of the word “Free” deliberate?
The title “Naked… ” symbolizes my intent to be completely open psychologically, emotionally first and foremost. Some people need to see some skin for that to register, and that’s OK too. I am aware that including the word “Free” helps people connect to who I am after being private for so long, but most importantly it is a truthful expression of how I feel at this stage in life.
– Some of the lyrics on the new album are very outspoken and revealing. Aren’t you afraid to stand so naked before the public?
Fifteen years ago, if you had asked that question, the answer would have been “Yes”… to the point of incapacitation. I couldn’t imagine it, and consequently have been very private in between. Always knew that if I couldn’t bridge the two worlds, being on a ‘stage’ would be suicidal. One has to be comfortable in one’s own skin, or it will eat you up inside. Hiding, pretending, being vague – anything other than being totally ‘up-front’ doesn’t cut it, especially in public. Living with the fear of being ‘outed’ – would be impossible! and there are those who just love to expose ‘dirty laundry’. This takes all that power away, puts the ball back in my hands, free to just be. So, now – fifteen years later, and it took me that long, here I am. Take it or leave it! I am sensitive to being ‘too in your face’ about it. I don’t want to provoke a reaction like, “Dude, put your shirt back on!”, rather, to nudge or inspire the recipient to also feel free to be up-front and real.
– When will your album be available for people to get?
I plan to go to radio, on June 6th, in US and satellite, and [it] should be available very shortly thereafter. We will have purchase and download links available on the site, AndyFraser.com, so people can just keep checking in, or leave email address, to be notified directly.
– You wrote in your biography, you “still live by the values formulated at that time” – the FREE time. What are these values?
The integrity of art always comes first. It’s great making money at the same time, but music shouldn’t be sacrificed in order to do so. Very fortunate to do both, but if forced to choose one or the other, I choose music – the free, undiluted expression of one’s personal journey, as opposed to second guessing ‘the market’ and formulating a commercially viable product.
For instance, when FREE was together, we would never have okay’ed the five-CD box set. Truthfully, I think there is perhaps, a really good single album there, and having people pay so much money to find that out was a rip-off, and hurts the memory and integrity of the group. I fought with lawyers in that belief, and only later did Paul [Rodgers] tell me that he actually agreed. The fact that he kept quiet at the time, and just let me be the bad guy was a little disappointing. During the group’s time together, I believe he would have been leading the charge to keep things right, and those kind of values had a deep, lasting influence on me.
– Getting into showbiz at a very young age – was it a blessing or a curse?
To everything there is a pro and con. I would say there are more benefits than not to success at an early age. It has enabled me to follow my heart – and one cannot contemplate the ‘higher spiritual realities’ when forced to concentrate on where the next meal is coming from. (Ironically) Oh, very deep dude! The downsides include being somewhat coddled, and pampered, having people do everything except clean your teeth, and I found there came a time when I had traveled the world, and still didn’t know how to book my own plane ticket. A little intimidating! And I swore not to let myself get so easily seduced again. Fame is dangerous. With so many people telling you that you’re ‘great’ it is very easy to believe your ‘own publicity’ so to speak. One must ignore that, and also the voices tearing you down. Just do your thing.
– What memories have you retained of your stint with BLUESBREAKERS and of great Dick Heckstall-Smith who died recently?
Because I was so young in comparison to them, except maybe Mick Taylor, and the four- or five-years difference with him made him obviously my senior, I mainly remember feeling young and eager to learn. To go from school – college – into a full-on touring band meant I had to get sharp fast. The band played at least six out of seven nights a week – lots of traveling. In the back of the van was a big foam bed for John Mayall to sleep on, which he did for most of the time, the rest of us in the front seats… It suddenly seemed like a lot of money for me – I believe it was fifty pounds a week, so I was more than happy, and able to help with my mother’s expenses, who raised four children with no father. Basically it was three-chord, twelve-bar blues, and Mayall only needed to shout out the key, and set the tempo with a count-in, and that was it.
Dick Heckstall-Smith seemed very much my senior. Twice my age I’m sure. I didn’t really feel in the same league as him. He was always very nice to me. Everyone was, except Keef Hartley, who thought I was a little snot – and maybe I was! After getting gig on Saturday, a new bass and stereo on Sunday, on Monday I had to quit school and get court permission to work abroad as a minor, because the BLUESBREAKERS were due in Germany that week and other countries after that. I had to have promises sworn to the court that I would be in bed by such and such time and so on.
One funny experience was sharing a joint with Mick Taylor in Holland or somewhere, and going back to my hotel room, laying on the bed, and being acutely aware of all the blood in my individual veins, from all over my body, surging towards my dick and getting a raging hard-on. This was such an unusual experience, I had to go and explain it to Mick, who just looked at me like, “Kid, you’re really stoned!!!”
– What’s the origin of your leading-bass playing style? Was it only a piano playing or was there anything else?
To be quite honest, I never thought of myself as a bass-player. I actually only used the bass-guitar because the other kids in our school-band wanted to be the singer, or drummer, or guitarist. I have always thought of myself as doing whatever was necessary to make the whole thing work. I’m happy adding piano, or tambourine, or anything that helped. Never as a traditional part of the rhythm section – keeping it tight on the low end etcetera. This has probably made it hell for the drummers I’ve worked with. Maybe that’s why Keef Hartley thought I was such a little snot!
– How long did it take to come up with the “Mr. Big” fantastic solo?
Well I never really ‘came up with it’. During the course of the band rehearsing, and working out that songs arrangement, each time we would get to that section, I would try something else, add to it, or refine what I had tried before. I would say the same about Koss’s approach to solo’s. Some of the ideas in “Mr. Big” were flashbacks to some of the stuff I overheard my sister’s boyfriend Binky Mackenzie, doing. Only imagine one hundred times better than what I did, and you get some idea of the brilliance the world lost after he killed four cops with his bare hands, and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
– A bit awkward question. What did you think when Phil Lynott, another great mulatto bassist appeared on the scene?
That’s funny! I had never given any thought to him or myself as mulatto. He was a close friend of Frankie Miller’s, who would always speak very highly of him. I never in any sense felt in competition with him, or anything like that. Frankie was always saying we should meet, which would have been fine with me. And, of course, the title “Boys Are Back In Town” is a real winner.
– What intent was there when you formed TOBY?
First my intention was to start developing my voice. Stan Speak, the drummer, was suggested by Alexis Korner, and I tended to follow his advice without much question, and Adrian [Fisher] the guitarist we thought had something special going on, but mainly I needed to get my experience and confidence level up vocally. Not a very good commercial move, but entirely necessary, especially when one looks back with the perspective and advantage of the present. Have to start somewhere, and I was prepared to start at the beginning. It would have been very easy to hook up with some other ‘famous musicians’, and form a ‘supergroup’, but now I feel others will see, it was the right move to get me to here – and I think I am in the right place now.
– There are some recordings by TOBY on the FREE box set, but was there enough material for an album?
A whole album was recorded and shelved. The ones that did made it to the FREE box set, were against my wishes. I felt they were sub-standard, and hate to feel the buyer would be ripped-off.
– How did you hook up with Frankie Miller?
Very early on Frankie had called me out of the blue, said he was with Chrysalis, and would I be interested in writing together. He came over and we kind of hit it off musically and friendship-wise. We always stayed close – even being ‘best-man’ at my wedding… saying things in his Scottish accent like… oochh! “Andy Mahn, do ye have to get married in the morning, I’ve still got a wee headache from last night, and the sun is awful bright!”
– How did RUMBLEDOWN BAND come about?
I don’t even remember how the RUMBLEDOWN BAND came about, except whenever Frankie needed help with something, and I was available, I would show up, and if he called it RUMBLEDOWN BAND, that was fine with me. It was really about Frankie.
– Is it true that Frankie’s RUMBLEDOWN BAND featured not only you but also Paul Kossoff?
Firstly, to clarify, it was never really a band. I always did what I could to support Frankie. But I always considered it his thing. If he called it the RUMBLEDOWN BAND, I figured that was his business. In fact, I was only vaguely aware of the name later maybe. We would write songs together, and if he said, “Would you be able to come to this rehearsal, or should we make decent recordings of these songs?”, I would just support him. We never had a deal together, or were ever on the same label, I just helped Frankie. I believe one night when in the studio, Koss dropped by – in fact he lived just a couple of streets away from Islands Basing Streer Studios, and agreed to put on some guitar. He was even less a member of ‘the band’.
– THE SHARKS’ “First Water” was quite a good record, so why you felt disillusioned in the project and left to strike on your own a bit later?
Just before SHARKS, I was about to get into the mode of developing vocally again. That was the intention when it was still me, Chris Spedding, and Marty Simon the drummer. Before I knew it, Snips was in, and I was backing a singer that quite honestly I thought was fairly average, and I was making no progress as a singer or an artist. I thought it best to get out fast, and let them continue under Snips. He and I were never on the same page, so I think it was better for them too. They could just go in one direction.
– If others could invite Snips without asking you, that means SHARKS weren’t originally your project – or were they?
Originally, Marty Simon, called me out of the blue, came over, jammed a bit, and I thought he was an incredible drummer. I don’t quite remember how Chris Spedding came into the picture, but it was quite soon, and there was no doubt about his abilities. In my mind, I was still thinking this was going to be another way to develop more experience and confidence vocally – we were doing my songs. Perhaps Marty and Chris – maybe Island, I am not sure – sensed I wasn’t ready, and really before I knew it Snips was on board. I have to admit to some sloppiness on my part by allowing myself to just drift along with the proceedings. I certainly learnt the hard way, one should not find out one is in a new band, only after reading about it in the newspaper. So I was indeed very sloppy. Have to take responsibility.
Noting the different attitudes reflected in my answers about Frankie and Snips, it is also apparent to me, that when I believe in someone, as I did Frankie, I will put my thing aside to do yours. That wasn’t true of Snips.
– “The Andy Fraser Band” is a fantastic album where songs like “Double Heart Trouble” and “Ain’t Gonna Worry” showed how considerable your songwriting in FREE had been. Didn’t you feel it was unfair for many to assume Paul Rodgers’ contribution was greater?
That never entered my consciousness. I was credited where due, and haven’t spent any time second guessing what others may or may not have assumed. I don’t take anything away from Paul Rodgers, I tried to learn all I could from his skills as a singer and songwriter. I am aware that most people see a band first and foremost through the singer.
– Would it be right to say you and Paul strongly influenced each other?
He strongly influenced me. I will let him speak for himself. Only a fool would not take advantage of learning all one could from one’s partners. And I felt we were all in a four-way marriage – learnt from everyone, but some marriages end in divorce…
– Where does this vocal style of yours come from?
Well, Paul of course was a major influence, and all the people we listened to together. Which would include Aretha [Franklin], Otis Redding, BEATLES, Gladys Knight, BB King, Steve Winwood, Ray Charles, Mavis Staples – the list is endless. Before FREE, it would include a lot of the soul singers, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, all the Motown people, and afterwards, it would include Stevie Wonder – especially since his “Music Of My Mind” period, but he was always great – Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On”. And today it would include Marriah Carey, John Mayer, Anastacia, Luthor Vandross, Whitney Houston. So many good people, it is intimidating. Of course, Frankie Miller and Robert Palmer had a great influence on me.
– There are quite a few of your songs – and I don’t mean “All Right Now” – covered by famous artists such as UFO, Robert Palmer and even Wilson Pickett. Which of those versions you think is the best? And how do you feel when someone takes your brain-child to interpret?
I’ve always thought of others covering your songs as paying you the highest compliment. Difficult to say which I thought was best. A little bit like seeing yourself through somebody else’s eyes, and it’s always, perhaps, mildly unnerving, but always, because it is their interpretation, a window into their world, which one is not as aware of, even when the same artist is singing someone else’s song.
– What prompted you to join Paul Rodgers at Woodstock in 1994? A thought of FREE skipping the original festival?
Paul had called a few days before it, and was uncharacteristically clear about asking me, ‘would I do it’. Sometimes he can call and spend an hour on the phone, giving no idea why he called, and all the subtle prompting in the world doesn’t seem to help. Usually when people are up-front with me, I tend to say yes, so it was as simple as that. I was also very interested to see where he was at head-wise at the time, and I thought it a perfect opportunity to find out. It had nothing to do with FREE. Without a murmur, I played along with BAD COMPANY songs etcetera, some of which surprisingly sounded better than what ended up on DVD. I think “The Hunter” was chosen because it had all the “stars” on stage, whereas I feel it’s always better to go with what sounds best – which in this case, I thought was a BAD COMPANY song.
Interesting aside. Brian May was also scheduled to play with us. He arrived in New York fully under the impression we were going to do some QUEEN songs. When Paul said no, Brian, understandably very pissed off, collected his people and equipment together and flew back to London. Obviously, today they must have got past that, and one gets the sense there is a real camaraderie in the project they are doing currently. I heard a couple songs from their first thing together at that UK Awards show – “All Right Now” and “We Will Rock You” – and thought it was the best both songs had ever sounded.
– At Woodstock, you played BAD COMPANY songs, but have you followed the band’s progress in the Seventies? I mean, it must have been impossible not to hear, say, “Can’t Get Enough” on the radio… What did you think of their songs back then?
I was very aware of BAD COMPANY and heard most of their songs. Everyone knows of their talents, and I thought that they were very fortunate in having “Can’t Get Enough” and other Mick Ralph songs, which is what put them over the top. As a band, I thought they were definitely better than your average rock band, but creatively sort of one dimensional. They found a niche, and didn’t stray too far from it. Didn’t move the ball forward artistically, so to speak. Imagine if THE BEATLES for instance, thought after “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” they had found the formula and stuck with it. I always loved their persistence in breaking new ground – ‘daring to go where no one has gone before’ – very brave… BAD COMPANY provided lots of people with good solid rock and roll – nothing wrong with that I guess! Except for me it would have felt like getting stuck in a time-warp. But what is right for me, isn’t necessarily right for others, so I make no judgment.
– There are great lyrics in “Be Good To Yourself”. Do you think you’ve been good to yourself all these years?
Actually I do! It hasn’t been easy at times, but such is life for everyone. I feel very blessed that I have been able to do exactly what I wanted, even if it didn’t seem a good commercial idea to others at the time. All quite indispensable to my personal and artistic growth. I am also very hard on myself, still driven, disciplined – even more so now with AIDS, where exercise, regular food and sleep, no drugs and so on are simply not an option.
– Looking back at your life, what do you think is your greatest achievement – not only in terms of music?
Coming to terms with being gay – not only personally, but publicly. Being able to share that with my daughters, which has enabled the most open, loving relationship imaginable. Family acceptance is important to everyone, and now having their incredible talents supporting, and working on my behalf really feels like a winner. Essentially being seen, and shown through their eyes, I couldn’t look any better. With their skills – Jasmine building the web-site, Hannah photography and CD design – both directing video, I believe we have something truly unique.
– What would you change if you could start all over again?
What would I change if I could start over? Nothing. When one is going through a difficult period – pain, physical or emotional, of course one wants to change it, and fast. But when one comes out the other side, one can see how it has strengthened you, enabled growth, and some of the best works of art are born out of pain. “Healing Hands”, for instance, which for me is one of the clearer ‘channelling’s’ if you like – basically a prayer I guess, which came from one of my most desperate moments – I guess when one cries out for God. So I accept that I am only human, with many imperfections, the pain we go through to get it right, and in the end feel I wouldn’t change anything. Of course, I have hurt people, and wish I hadn’t, but one can’t learn from one’s mistakes without making them. Just say sorry I guess.Andy Fraser talks life, not music