Interview with ANDY POWELL (WISHBONE ASH)

April 2015

Andy Powell

“Live Dates”: the title of WISHBONE ASH’s classic concert album has long become their modus operandi and sometimes a framework for giving the fans the band’s old material to enjoy – as witnessed by this scribe right after our conversation with the ensemble’s leader Andy Powell took place. Yet, unlike many of their contemporaries working the same, and even bigger, circuit, the group continue to deliver new material such as 2014’s "Blue Horizon" album which is on par with the veterans’ old recordings. So there’s no reason to stop, and that’s what you see in Powell’s eyes: the youthful energy, something that was there from the off.

– Andy, WISHBONE ASH have been around for forty-five years. Did you think, when you started the band, that you’d still be here and playing for so long?

No. I don’t think anyone who was starting a band in 1969 or 1970 thought that they would be doing it four or five years later, to be honest. (Laughs.) But we didn’t realize that that was very special time in music and that the music would live on. So it’s amazing to me even now that it’s lasted so long.

– Do you feel there’s resurgence of interest to the bands like yours? I mean NAZARETH’s latest work were strong, URIAH HEEP are going from strength to strength, and your albums of late are almost on par with what you did in Seventies.

Well, no, because I’ve been doing it so long that I feel this is like cycles, it’s a little bit like blues. When I just started touring in America, blues guitarists were struggling – they had no recognition – but not so long ago, there was a resurgence, and people like Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, B.B. King and so forth were playing fourth, fifth, sixth down on a bill at festivals. And there was this reawakening in a lot of other styles because of the public’s attention to blues, so we’ve had this ten, fifteen-year period where blues has done very well on the circuit, and rock music from the early Seventies is a little bit like that. We have young bands coming on and playing with us now, who are in their twenties, and they’re influenced by bands like FREE, and it’s very fresh to them all of a sudden. So it’s a cyclical thing, you know.

– So who would you call your successors, who do you think you influenced? THIN LIZZY?

Oh yeah, most definitely, THIN LIZZY were influenced by our twin-lead sound, because, when they first came out from Ireland, one of the first shows that Phil Lynott saw was WISHBONE ASH playing “The Lyceum Ballroom” in London, I know that for a fact. And, of course, IRON MAIDEN is well-documented as a heavy metal band influenced by us as well as more alternative bands who bring the twin-lead into their music. Well, everybody’s influenced by everybody else, and we’re certainly influenced by bands that we grew up with.

– What is WISHBONE ASH for you personally, as the only one who’s been with the band for all these years?

For me, it’s a lifestyle. It’s a way of life, it’s a passion. It’s to do with positive thinking, it’s to do with many things other than music, while music is the key to it, it’s a core of it. But what keeps me going is the life, the life of a touring musician, the great community that we’ve created – this is more important in many respects than much of the other stuff. We travel all over the world, we have friends, fans, helpers, whatever you want to call them in every quarter, in every city, in every country. That’s a huge part of my life.

– At the merchandise stall I saw a “Bona Fide” album whose cover shows you as a kind of samurai…

(Laughs.) Really? That’s what you see? There is lot of the warrior about it, and we have a song called “Warrior”; it’s kind of going out fighting a good fight – that is a big part of being in a band and, particularly, in this band, because of the recognition you’re going to have for getting out there and fighting the fight. Every day is a battle: getting through customs and borders, dealing with people you meet on the road – it’s not always a friendly environment, you know – so yeah, samurais. I like that! The samurais of rock! (Laughs.)

– More so, you have a belligerence in your music.

Yeah, there is a belligerence: in some way it’s a facet of our music, because rock music is about attitude, but not in a nasty way. It’s not a nasty kind of belligerence – there is a feeling of pushing a way through it, because to be recognized and have your voice heard you have to shout a little bit louder. So when we turn our guitars up loud in a room, there’s an attitude comes out. It’s rock, that’s what rock is.

– Judging by this attitude and your musician followers, and that’s what many of your fans think, you’re a hard rock band. But in fact you’ve never been it.

Not really. We’re melodic, and there’s an element of English pastorality about our music, so some of our songs are quite mellow and thoughtful. I mean we can rock – when we need to rock, we certainly rock out, and you’ll hear that tonight – but it’s all about dynamics, light and shade. We can be very soft rock and we can be hard rock.

– So why do you think there’s this perception of you as hard rockers.

Well, sometimes people don’t have the imagination, and these days everybody is very used to put music into certain brackets, so they see pictures of us with guitars and they think, “Oh, this has got to be hard rock,” but it’s not necessarily.

– Speaking about this Englishness – and I asked you about that some fifteen years ago – you seem to be coming back to it lately, on songs like “Tally Ho!” and “All There Is To Say.” So is it a conscious return to your roots, to the times of “Argus”?

In a way… It’s a little bit conscious and a little bit unconscious. We do talk about it – we talk about our sound, we talk about infusing our new music with references to the past, musical references – but most of it comes naturally, from the heart, because we’re living together on the road, we’re traveling together, so we know how we play together. And when it’s time to write, we’re writing with the band in mind – we can imagine the band out on the road playing a song that we write and how it will be delivered – so it’s a little bit of everything that you say.

– But you’ve been experimenting from the off on a pieces like “Valediction” with its reggae section, and “Vas Dis” with its jazz. Why don’t people feel those influences in your music?

I think some people do, I think people recognize the eclectic nature of our music, but those with, perhaps, a little less imagination might be just interested in one genre. But we, in WISHBONE ASH, are free enough to mix it up. That’s their problem, not ours, really.

– Back in 1971, reggae wasn’t so popular a genre. Where did you hear it?

I grew up in London’s suburbs, and I used to listen to ska. And I used to play in bands where we played ska music. Prince Buster, we used to do stuff like that and put it in a rock song. Why not?

– What about these electronic experiments: “Trance Visionary” and “Psychic Terrorism” as well as a bonus track on "Elegant Stealth"?

“Psychic Terrorism” and “Trance Visionary” were a kind of inside joke. We did this great progressive rock album called “Illuminations” and it didn’t sell so much, so we thought, “Hey, let’s just do something completely left-field,” and we heard this kind of music on tour and decided to do it. It worked in a way, because we got into some of the clubs, we got to different areas, it just broke things out a bit. After that, we reset the machine if you like, we recalibrated it, so I think we needed to do that.

– And you still called it WISHBONE ASH. You didn’t want to change the name together with the style?

Well, I was the only one in the band – everybody had left the band – so I was free to do whatever we wanted to do.

– So what makes you keep the trademark and not go out as a solo guitar hero?

When people left the band, they left it piecemeal, one by one. There wasn’t a point in, say, 1981, where we all sat down and said, “Hey, you know what? Let’s disband, let’s break up!” So for a period in the Eighties, for six years I was working with just Steve Upton, the original drummer, so he and I were the original two members, and eventually in 1990 he left, and I was the last man standing. And I thought, “There’s no reason why I should call it THE ANDY POWELL BAND. It’s still WISHBONE ASH, so let’s carry on.” It’s just like a football team will carry on: Manchester United didn’t cease being Manchester United because David Beckham left – they carried on. For me, it was quite natural because we had recording commitments, we had recording contracts we labels, and they wouldn’t come to me and say, “You’re the last guy and we can’t call it WISHBONE ASH anymore.” They were like, “So what you’re going to do next?”

– Don’t you find that you created a new prototype of a guitar hero, the bespectacled one?

(Laughs.) There are not too many guitar heroes with glasses, that’s true, Yeah, and (points to his shaven head) most of them have hair.

WISHBONE ASH

WISHBONE ASH

– There’s a lot of harmony in WISHBONE ASH – the twin guitars, vocal harmonies – so how does this harmony inform inner dynamics of the band?

You mentioned the vocal harmonies, and a lot of people always go for the guitar ones as a trademark sound of the band. But the vocal harmonies that you hear on early material like “Vas Dis” or songs from “Argus” – and “Argus” is vocal harmonies all the way through; a lot of the lead lines like on “Errors Of My Way” were twin vocals – they formed our sound, too. It’s the overall quality, it wasn’t just the guitars, and that forms a lot of the essence of the inner dynamics of the band. That’s the thing that’s often not mentioned: the harmony vocals make us sound like a very melodic band, and I like melody. If I’m playing a guitar solo, I always think, “What kind of melody can I create? Where is the solo going? Where is the beginning and where is the end?” I’m not just shredding, I’m not just playing a bunch of licks.

– I actually meant not only musical aspect but a personal, too. On, say, “No Smoke Without Fire” where Laurie Wisefield dominates, there’s like a struggle in the band.

There was a struggle. Like any band who’s been together as long as we have, in one shape or another, there were points where we lost our way. In the mid-Eighties we tried to play heavy metal a little bit, and we lost our focus, and certain people rose to the top trying to give it some direction, as you mentioned Laurie. But there was never really this band feeling which was the original feeling of WISHBONE ASH that was a band entity, that was “all for one, one for all.” I think we’ve got back to that now with this band, and this band has been together for a long time now. In the last few years and on the last few albums you can see a progression, you can see a real band working in a studio, working on the road – and that’s what we always had in the original band. But some individuals from the original band got frustrated and that’s why eventually they left, because they thought that maybe it should have been their band or maybe it wasn’t going in the direction that they wanted, so they tried and pushed in that direction and it wouldn’t go so they’d leave.

– Can we say that this Phoenix-like longevity of the band is down to your personal flexibility?

Yeah. I’m very pragmatic, very easygoing person. I like bands, I like groups of people, I think it’s really good when you get a group dynamic and pull out people’s strengths and their weaknesses and, ultimately, that’s the concept which has kept us going as a band. Otherwise, it would be BOB SKEAT’S WISHBONE ASH or ANDY POWELL’S WISHBONE ASH, but it’s just WISHBONE ASH, that’s what it is.

– But is it true that you didn’t want to record John Wetton‘s “Here Comes The Feeling” that would become a hit for ASIA and recorded THE TEMPTATIONS’ song instead?

No, no, no. You know I can’t even remember “Here Comes The Feeling” by John. John Wetton said a lot of things in print which were absolute bollocks, complete bullshit. When John came along, and the manager at the time told him he was going to be the singer in the band, which I didn’t know. I watched John in KING CRIMSON and MOGUL THRASH, and I knew him as a great bass player – I had no idea he could sing! When he came to rehearse at my house, he was just playing bass, and Laurie and I had already written songs for “Number The Brave.” So we went to Florida, and then John comes in the studio and he’s sitting down at the piano and starting playing all these “la-dee-da-dee-da” ballads. I couldn’t imagine that he had ASIA in mind, and I certainly didn’t know the song that you mentioned. We were, like, “Let’s get on with the album!” And then, of course, when he got on the bass, he was laying it down like a motherfucker that he was – there’s no-one like him, he’s fantastic! But afterwards, I read all these interviews where he said that he was frustrated and that he was playing the songs that we weren’t picking up on, but I had no idea he was told he’d be a singer and he was presenting me a song when he was noodling in the corner.

– “Get Ready” by THE TEMPTATIONS: how come WISHBONE ASH decided to play a Motown soul?

I’ve no idea how that happened. I used to play in soul bands when I was sixteen, eighteen, so maybe I was playing the riff in the studio and producer said, “Let’s try that!”

– Is there any particular style that you’d never play?

That I would never touch? I don’t like heavy metal so much, I can’t do that very well. Rap? I like to listen to it, I like hip-hop yeah, why not?

– Back to your past, why do you think people consider “Argus” the band’s best album?

You were talking about inner dynamics, and that was where we found our voice as a band, not as individuals. That’s what people love about “Argus”: this was a complete band – like GENESIS were a complete band or THE WHO, these great British bands who did well, and we certainly did. Also it was so good because it was our third album, and a lot of bands take at least three albums to reach this stride, so it was a band on the top of its game – a band that was road-tested, a band that was just starting to go into really big auditoriums and venues. All of that came together; we were moving out of the clubs and were producing this bigger sound; we were opening for big bands in America – THE WHO, DOOBIE BROTHERS – we were getting into these big American rooms and they needed a simpler sound, more simple arrangements… well, they were deceptively simple. [That’s why there were] bigger, almost classical statements in songs like “Throw Down The Sword.”

– Do you personally think it’s the best WISHBONE album?

As time moves forward, I still think, yeah, it’s the best album.

Andy Powell during the interview

Andy Powell during the interview

– What about “Blue Horizon” that, to me, is like a sequel to “Argus”?

It’s a great album – there’s so much color in it, there’s so many varied songs. But it’s still very much [about] a band playing the music. It’s a really fine album.

– What’s next, then? You’re going from strength to strength with “Elegant Stealth” and “Blue Horizon”: your next one should be a smash.

Maybe you’re right but who knows? I don’t think about smashes. We’ve got lots more material to dig into, so it might go further on, we might take it further, and I hope we’ll do. We seem to be on a roll, and that’s good. Since we are able to play so well together, we can try many different things, and there’s still more to do. Most definitely.

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