After our first interview with Andy Fraser, which took place after he came out of his self-imposed retirement, we’ve been following closely his progress, and it peaked now, once former FREE bassist returned to the big stages to see how revered he still is by his peers and fans and, more so, became a producer, released another solo album, "On Assignment", and put out his autobiography, "All Right Now". And all of this seems like only a tip of the iceberg that Fraser could have been if he wasn’t such warm human being. So one evening we set down, on different side of the Atlantic, for a new conversation.
– Andy, this year marks a surge in your activity, which, to me, is the best indicator of you being in good health. And you’re doing great on the musical front, too.
Yeah. It’s fairly unbelievable to have been down to nearly nowhere and to feel so alive now, refreshed, feeling healthy – healthier than I have in years – energetic. It’s like to be given a whole second chance. I am really revived and so excited about life and what I can contribute [to it].
– Now you’re going to have a second solo album out – I mean second in this period of your life – and it’s called “On Assignment”. So you’re on a mission, then?
That’s true. I think “Naked... And Finally Free” was like a very personal “coming out”, which I needed to get off my chest. Having down that, I feel the need to reach out socially, politically and take on other causes and, perhaps, not to be self-centered. That’s sort of out of the way. And I feel, maybe it’s all about mission to contribute everything I can, but I’m a musician, I’m a songwriter. There’s so many things that needs doing in the world, but it wouldn’t be any good for me to go and pick up a shovel; it would be much better for me to put the message across in a song – and inspire a guy with a shovel to go and do it. So that’s why I feel like I’m on assignment
– The most cutting song on “Assignment” is “This Is The Big One”, but it’s not really a new song – you wrote it about a year ago, right?
That is a mission which, obviously, takes on the global warming crisis, but “Time To Face The Music” is about the Iranian situation, and I feel so bad that they’ve [the West] been squelched, put down for a moment. I suppose and hope that after Syria is taken care of, Iran will be in a weakened position, and they’ll give it another go, ’cause the people over there are very unhappy. And it’s funny how the government likes to keep the kids drugged – heroin is very prolific over there – because the drugged-out youth population keeps their head down.
– And there are rebels. Some time ago, I interviewed an Iranian band who played, of all genres, heavy metal! Bold guys. By the way, in “I Found God” on the new album you sing of you discovering you were gay. So how bold are you to put that in a song?
I’m actually very bold. It’s part of the “coming out” process. And because I got so low, I… I don’t care anymore. When John Lennon first said, “Imagine no possessions”, it’s easy to think about that now, but imagine no friends, imagine no sex, imagine… nothing. And when you strip it down to nothing, what is left? Only God. I don’t know if it’s coincidental or that’s how the Universe works, but literally when I came to terms with being gay, I also found God in my life, and I think that maybe not so accidental. It’s sort of right in the face of all yer religious homophobes. When you find the truth, it’s in all aspects.
– But how much of that cocky teenager who played at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 does remain in you now?
That cocky teenager! (Laughs.) I have mellowed but I suppose I’m still pretty bold: I’ve been very fortunate which allows you to be bold. I hope I’m a little more sensitive (laughs) but I was pretty cocky. The first day FREE met, they were together but they couldn’t find a bass player, and when I played with them they knew, and I knew, I was the bass player. And the first thing I said was, “OK, I’m the leader”. With [Paul] Rodgers, it was like steam coming out of his ears, but they zipped their lips for at least four or five years. (Laughs.)
– That mellowness: is it there in purely stylistic terms or does it come from your age, from your experience?
Both of those things. I’m still very aggressive about discipline, sleep, food, exercise. I can’t wait to get up in the morning and start working; I work till I drop. There’s an aggressiveness still that drives me on, but I don’t get as easily thrown like a teenager. You know, a teenager’s emotions: “Ah, they don’t love me anymore but I don’t care!” Part of coming out is saying, “They don’t like me, [but] I don’t care. I’ve got to live life for me, not for them”.
– Some might say, it’s a millionaire’s point of view, “He has the money, he can afford that”. What would you say to them?
There’s some truth to that. I am sensitive to people who are dependent on homophobe bosses and fear they would lose their job, their home, everything would go upside down, so I do have a sense of freedom. I mean, I care about people. When you don’t need anybody, everybody that you meet, even check-out girl, is an extra, is a bonus. I like to have an interplay, I like to toy with them, make them chuckle. But when you have nothing, everything else becomes a bonus. Feeling normal is so wonderful! It’s unbelievable! And you only really value that when you’re on your last legs, when you’re just about to die.
– I see that sort of mellowness, but many people, including myself, might prefer you to strap on your bass and rock out in bluesy, hard rock way like you used to do.
Well, that is about to happen. I’ve just got back from a month in England with Tobi, where we did a lot of radio interviews, sometimes a few a day, singing a few songs together with guitar and bass and chatting. Then we finished off with Isle of Wight Festival, which went incredible, with some great musicians from the UK and a great guitarist from Germany, and two days after I got back [here] I went back to Germany and did one of their big shows that I won’t allowed to name: it will air in November, when we’ll be touring Germany with Tobi. And through the next year, [the tour] will include Switzerland, Poland, Austria, maybe Russia if we can organize that. Then, by mid-year we’ll hit Asia, which is Japan, Korea and Cambodia. So yes, we’re getting out there. And I suppose Tobi, who’s been an invigorating force – his youth, enthusiasm, freshness, lack of ego – has given me a reason to come alive again. It’s great to be of service to someone, and he’s worthy of it.
– I won’t ask you what did you find in Tobi, but where did you find him?
There was a very good keyboard player in ANDY FRASER BAND about four years ago, a very cool guy. His wife now works for Tobi’s parents in the theater school that they run in London, and she sent me one of Tobi’s songs. And I got very interested and said, “Send me over the various tracks and let me play with them”. They were very happy with what I did, and sent another one, with just acoustic [guitar] and vocals, I sent back the track, and everybody went jazz. Then they came over for three weeks, and we recorded the first album. Just in the three weeks here, he’d grown as a musician. It’s unbelievable, it’s staggering! I’ve played with some of the greatest guitarists, and Tobi’s potential is unbelievable. He’s like a sponge sucking up. We could get good musicians to play with us at the Isle of Wight or whatever, and he just couldn’t get enough of them: “Show me this! Show me that!” He just wants to learn. He’s free as a spirit. He’s free lyrically. He’s not afraid to be self-deprecating or – erm, what would be the right word?.. (Pauses.) He doesn’t need to put on a face to prove his heart. He can be quite sensitive and not afraid to express his fears and hopes, which I think he does for everybody – everybody has them, they just don’t admit it – and he’s free enough to do that. And he’s inspiring because of that.
– Sounds like you’re describing yourself in your teens!
Maybe. Tobi’s so polite, and I’m not sure if I was a little more cocky. (Laughs.) But he’s determined, he know what he wants, and that’s more than half the battle. He’ll just pick up a guitar and play it all day, he’s not easily ruffled if someone tries to get under his skin and call him gay; he’ll just look up from his guitar, smile amused – he’s very confident in his sexuality – and just get back to play his guitar, [it] totally doesn’t bother him. He’s very solid. Very mellow but knows what he wants and is heading straight towards it.
– I read recently that he’s releasing his debut album. But hasn’t it been released already?
It’s officially released in England. We have down at least two-month worth of printed press, ’cause you know that’s how long sometimes it takes to turn around, and next month he’ll be all over the English media: we’ve got a “Mojo” exclusive, a front page in “Bass” magazine, all of the good ones. After we do Wembley [Marshall: 50 Years of Loud, on September 21, 2012], the next day we’ll do a Sky TV interview and we’ll probably play a couple of clips from Wembley. We intend to really make some noise in England over the next month, it’s been a long time in the making.
– And how much of that is down to you, to your fame?
I’m using everything that I have, I’m using myself to open doors for him. So anyone who wants to talk to me ends up getting talked about Tobi, and I’m sure he’ll return the favor in years to come.
– Tobi’s album is out on your McTrax label. So what’s McTrax, why did you come up with it and how is it different from other similar systems?
I came up with McTrax because I felt all the other labels, which now fall under only four conglomerates, were behind the curve. Before CDs, they fought like hell to prevent them. Then when they made them a ton of money, they fought like hell to prevent digital. Instead of trying to squash Napster, they should have embraced it, instead of going to war. I, personally, like the digital age. I enjoy traveling with a gadget which allows me to make calls, watch video, email, read books, etcetera, etcetera. McTrax is a digital delivery system allowing for music and video streaming or download. We now have started McTrax Books, with its first being “All Right Now: Life, Death and Life Again”. For the last couple of fiscal quarters, digital has outsold physical, and will continue to grow. Everyone has a computer, and these days most kids have a smartphone before they have a girlfriend. They want their music now, in their pocket. McTrax delivers. Kids in Thailand, Africa, everywhere are just a click away, and I believe McTrax is doing what everyone else will be doing soon. McTrax Motion is also moving into its first movie, it’s basically a documentary about sea life preservation, starring not so coincidentally Hannah Mermaid, my daughter and her incredible skills. It will be hard-hitting in a Michael Moore sort of way, interviewing the bad guys, filming them either squirm, or sounding off – either way good viewing, interspersed with Han’s mermaid footage, and interviews with her friends who went to Taiji Japan, and were in “the Cove”. McTrax allows me to write and sing what I want, and not some A&R guy’s idea of what I should do, and release songs that otherwise would never get past another label. When you think about how many suits there are between an artist and a listener, distorting the content, it seems silly not to just do it myself. With everything being online, people can type “McTrax” as easily as type “iTunes” or “Universal”, thus cutting out all the crap from my perspective. Besides, I am having great fun making videos, and bringing tomorrow’s artists like Tobi into being. It is different from other systems in that I want to run it like Island or Motown – a smaller family affair, as opposed millions of unrelated artists that the conglomerates are pushing. There is and will be a definable McTrax sound.
– During our conversation you used the word “free” many times. So what does it mean to you? The band? A state of spirit?
That’s exactly what it is, a state of spirit. And I think that’s why FREE broke up: because we lost that spirit. Paul [Rodgers] I think was in the beginning phases of wanting to put together a BAD COMPANY type of thing, which was a slimmed-down, two-dimensional version of FREE – sort of stadium-ready and not too sensitive. I miss that side of him, by the way, because he’s written some of the greatest mellow songs. But when we started to become a cover band of ourselves, that’s when you’re not free. Fame and fortune are no substitute for freedom. I want to be free and remain free.
– So is it true that FREE were asked to get together for London’s Olympics?
Yes, and we actually agreed to do it. Paul and Simon Kirke and myself all said we would do it, and then in negotiations it all went sideways. I went so far as to talk to the company that did the hologram of 2Pac, I was going to put together a [Paul] Kossoff one so we would be playing with what looked like Kossoff statue and his actual taped music. But it all fell apart. And it’s sad, because it would have been a worthy thing to do, as I’m behind the Olympics. It would have been good, but there you go.
– Last time you got together with one of your former mates, Simon, was at the launch of the “Free Forever” DVD. It was said to have everything, all the footage of the band, yet it’s lacking clips from a Japan tour which took place once you left the group. Wasn’t it included on the DVD because of you?
Noooo. I don’t know about it and I don’t think anybody else does. So maybe you should share it with us.
– It’s available on YouTube.
I’ll have to check it out. I didn’t even know it existed. I’m very interested.
– That launch was in London that you recently visited again. For how long haven’t you been there?
Maybe a couple of years. I try to only go [there] when I have to. It’s usually cold, and this trip, although it’s been in the middle of summer, it rained every single day. Maybe you’ve heard about the Isle of Wight getting rained out: it was cold and windy, and I thought, “This is why I left”. It’s just horrible! Ain’t nothing like California.
Yes. Now I meet him every time I go to England. He came to that DVD opening where we invited a lot of people. And we did a Gibson showcase a couple of days before the Isle of Wight, with Tobi, where Frankie came down, and it was great to see him. I love Frankie, he was the best man at my wedding. It’s amazing how much work he did before he was stopped in his tracks [by a stroke], he wrote a lot of songs.
– Is he able to speak now?
Only kind of. When I saw him he was trying to tell me something, he had this picture and he was drawing diagrams. He kept saying, “Pree, pree”. I couldn’t figure out what he meant, and I felt so bad. I don’t see him performing again. It’s very, very sad.
– Also on the Isle of Wight you met Terry Reid, another former teenage start from England…
(Gladly.) Yes, yes. Terry Reid, as we all know, has been one of the greatest singers. What he did in his early days was just unbelievable. He definitely likes his drink now, and I think that has affected his voice, which is a kind of a croak now. But he’s still a very, very nice guy. He was an incredible singer, but at the Isle of Wight he was playing a kind of country music which was strange.
– And now you’re going there again to play this Marshall event.
That will be really great. We will go on probably somewhere near the end: they squeezed us in in the last minute. We’ll have Tobi sing a little bit, and I’m set to play “Mr. Big” with Glenn Hughes, who is also another wonderful person, such a nice guy. And then Glenn will do his set after ours. So we’re really looking forward to it.
– Also you have a book out, “All Right Now”. How long did it take you to write it?
It’s been two or three years in the making, and it was only a half idea in the back of my mind. It was written very quickly, and then it took as a while to decide when was the right time to put it out. And it came about because Mark Hughes, a guy who wrote it with me, wrote in one sentence: “I’ve just read your biography on your website, and I want to write a book”. And I knew immediately – he got it: he got me, he got FREE. And I trusted him immediately, and I invited him over for a week to stay in California, and he just kept the tape recorded running. And I put everything aside, and he just recorded everything I said.
– Is it going to be in print?
Maybe. I’m not… I’m not so excited about print these days, I’m very inclined toward digital. I mean people try to give me a book, and I say, “No, let me get in from Amazon so I can read it on my iPad”. (Laughs.) I really do prefer that. There may be some offers to put [the book] in print, and I’ll look at them as they come up. Are you a book guy or electronic guy?
– I like to have something tangible in my hands, a real book.
Oh, really! See I hate that! Even before iPad, I would get a book stand and put a book on a stand, so I didn’t have to hold it. I hate holding newspapers, I just don’t get that, and that’s what a lot of people do.
– The preface to your book looks like you’re preaching there, like you’re proselytizing. When I started reading it, it jarred me a bit but I said to myself, “I’m ready to take it from Andy because I know him and his story”, but then, when you got to this story, I was amazed how extremely honest you are writing of your life. Why did you decide to do it now?
I have a need to be totally open and honest: that has been one of the big changes in me. Coming out is a form of being honest, even with yourself, and being in a closet is an incredible self-denial. And you have to come past your own self-denial, which took me years. So now I’m at the point where I don’t care – everything is out there – so I’ve got nothing to hide. Honesty requires that. I suppose, maybe, I’ve always been quite self-critical: to recognize your shortcoming and go out changing you can grow.
– Does it make it easier for you to write new songs?
Every song is a like the first song I ever wrote. It didn’t get easier, you still have to dig as deep. You have to be honest, open, and sometimes that can be painful, and you have to say to yourself, “OK, how do I take my personal thing and make it universal? So every song has to be better than the last one, there’s no resting on laurels. I have to get better.
– Bettering it all the time may result in overdoing a song and killing it. But your songs sound very easy. How do you keep the balance?
That’s a good point. I think in the writing of them, in the overall concept, in the message and vibe I try to put out, I try to be critical and honest and as open as possible. But when I come to record [the songs] I try not to get too tangled up in technical action and just get in the groove.
– And now this groove is reggae…
Well, I’ve found, with getting closer to myself, it’s actually quite a natural part of me. My father was from Guyana and raised on calypso, and I think I inherited that. And reggae is the modern version of calypso, so it’s in my blood and it will always be there. In fact, I can imagine FREE songs done in a more reggae way, along with everything else.
– “Rasta On A Pony”?
(Laughs.) That’s good! I can hear a reggae version of “My Brother Jake” quite easily, or “Remember”. So I suspect there’ll always be a little taste of it. But I don’t want to shy away from getting heavy when it’s appropriate.
– When I saw your picture with Glenn Hughes, whom you met for the first time recently, what struck me was he’s older than you but he’s preaching at your altar. Many people talk of you as a bass god, but you always sound like a bit surprised by that. Is it so?
Yes. I never actually thought of myself as a bass player. I started on classical piano when I was five, and then I went to the guitar, so I’m happy not to play bass or play tambourine, if that’s what makes it work – I just do what is appropriate, and if that means not even playing, then I’m happy with that. So I’m not trying to be a bass god. (Laughs.) And when people say, “You are”, I find that amusing.
– In recent years, you’ve been going on stage rather often to sing without your instrument. Do you feel comfortable or strange having your hands free?
A bit of both, because I think I sing better when I don’t have to play the bass as well. I mean everyone only has one hundred per cent, and if you do two things, it’s best to give fifty per cent to either. So it was important to go for it as a singer, strengthen my voice, and more and more it’s become easier to be a singer and a bass player. By the way, it is very typical, and I credit people like Sting and Paul McCartney, because it’s a very weird combination being at the front line and part of the back line at the same time. A bass plays in half-time, and a singer usually sings double-timeс and always ahead of the beat. To do both at the same time is a kind of schizophrenic.
– Do you think of commerciality now, when you write, or you just do it for your own pleasure or for the pleasure of people who like this genre or who like Andy Fraser?
I don’t think about it but I’m aware, or I try to stay aware of what else is going on, and I think it has an influence without me being forced to sound like THE BACKSTREET BOYS. I don’t try to make it sound like this or that, or like something current, I’m just aware of what is current and try and live in the present – in fact, more so than a lot of classic rock listeners. Sometimes these people like classic rock – that’s it – and nothing else, but I get the feeling [they’re] like our parents who liked Perry Como or Frank Sinatra and you had the feeling that was the music they would listen to when they were dating or getting married or something: they got stuck right there for the rest of their life. But I like to live in the present, I don’t want to be doing what I did as a teenager. I just turned 60 and I want to express how I feel now, not how I felt then – that would be a lie. I do have the luxury of my own studio and I don’t have to worry about it costing a hundred dollars an hour or that if I go for a crap it’ll cost me five bucks. And I don’t have someone breathing down my neck saying, “It’s got to sound more like this”. So there is a freedom.