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InterviewsSea of Tranquility Talks With Wishbone Ash Founder Andy Powell

Posted on Sunday, January 24 2016 @ 09:05:04 CST by Pete Pardo
Progressive Rock

With a long history dating back to the late 1960s, Wishbone Ash have long been one of the most innovative acts of the British rock scene. Practically creating the 'twin-guitar' attack that have influenced generations of aspiring young bands over the years, Wishbone Ash also fused the genres of hard rock, folk, blues, jazz, and progressive rock into a sound that is instantly recognizable and memorable. Founding member, vocalist, and one-half of the lead guitar team, Andy Powell, took some time out of his busy schedule to speak to Sea of Tranquility Publisher Pete Pardo about his new autobiography Eyes Wide Open-True Tales of a Wishbone Ash Warrior, the bands 2014 release Blue Horizons, their classic album Argus, the rich Wishbone Ash catalog, touring, the bitter court battle over the rights to the bands name, and of course, that Flying V guitar!

SoT: Wishbone Ash are one of the most influential acts to emerge from the British rock scene in the early '70s, and it's a shame that it's taken this long to get the official history of the band. When did you first get the urge to tell your side of the whole story? Was it before or after the whole legal issue surrounding the rights to the Wishbone Ash name?

Andy: One just gets a gut feeling when it's right to undertake a creative endeavor like this. Plenty of people, for years, had been urging me to do it. Of course, when writing a book or a song for that matter, it helps if you've got some living under your belt and I've got a lot of that now. The time was right. I've witnessed all the changes in the music business, rubbed shoulders with some of the key players and also the same goes for all the events that have taken place in this band. - I've lived through them. I've been there unflaggingly, for all of them - the good the bad and the ugly. And, by the way, I don't personally see it as a shame that it's taken this long to lay it out - it actually gives the story more gravitas, to have waited so long.

SoT: One of the main themes that you clearly state in the early part of the book is how important Argus was for the band not only when it was first released, but also throughout subsequent years in creating somewhat of a blueprint for the bands sound. Have you found it difficult to live up to the success of Argus after all these years, or, has the band just accepted the fact that it will always be looked at and remembered as your 'classic' release?

Andy: At certain times, perhaps during the Laurie Wisefield years, it may have been an issue for he and Martin Turner - who personally, himself, seems to have wished to have distanced himself from this era at times. The later incarnations of the band have always seen it in its proper perspective and I believe I've always personally revered it because I put so much much of my heart and soul into the Argus album for one thing. It's great to be credited with being involved with creating a classic. I feel that even more keenly now than when I was younger. That's the truth.

SoT: At times throughout the book you seem a little hard on the '70s and early '80s albums that came after Argus, especially the Laurie Wisefield years, many of which I personally find to be very strong releases with no shortage of signature songs. What is it about some of those albums that causes you to look back on them in less of a stronger light than the early '70s albums?

Andy: Perhaps its due to the music business itself coming of age during that period. There came less idealism and more commercial concerns - there was less of a true band spirit, notwithstanding that some worthy work was created. We certainly were receiving big rewards to do this album work and we certainly spent much of this money on the creative process. Think of our recording contracts as a kind of patronage. The youthful exuberance and spontaneity of the first three albums disappeared when Ted broke the spell by quitting the band in 1974 to rove in the Peruvian mountains aided by a donkey and a rather exotic lady from New Orleans.

SoT: Live Dates and Live Dates 2 are two of the more underrated live albums of that time period. Both contain some sensational versions of classic Ash tunes. For my money, 2 is the slightly stronger set, as the synergy between you and Laurie seemed to be at its peak at that point. What's your take on these two landmark live albums, and how well did each represent the band on stage during those two eras?

Andy: I always felt we were more true as a band when playing live on stage - there was pretty much an absence of artifice, other than Martin's overdubbed lead vocals. Also, don't forget that the art of producing live rock albums was fairly new at that time with classics like the Who's Live at Leeds and the Allman Brothers, Live at the Fillmore and so on. Our first Live Dates album fit right in there in terms of the zeitgeist, production values, artwork and so on. Both albums are fine recordings.

SoT: You've worked with some sensational guitar players over the years and basically created the legendary 'twin guitar' sound. Can you give a quick statement on each of the guitarists you've played with in WA and what made them so special, and also let our readers know who out of all of them you had the best working relationship with (writing, playing, personal, comfort level, etc)?

Andy: Guitarists are a fickle bunch and quite sensitive, ego-driven souls, of course. All my partners have been so but have each brought their their own chemistry into the mix, perhaps as a result of these traits. Ted was a whimsical, bluesy player and could connect emotionally very well. Laurie was an intensely focused individual, with roots in country music, even though he quickly became a rock player upon joining Ash. Both these guys had strong self-belief, as do I, but with Laurie, despite a 12 year stint in the band, I probably had less in common with him than all my partners. That's weird actually but nonetheless we had a lot of fun at the time. Jamie Crompton was a fun guitar partner and it was a shame that we didn't actually record together. He helped me relax as a player and as a band member. The same goes for Phil Palmer. A consummate pro, he taught me in the studio and on stage, that at the end of the day you just have to get the take and do the job without any fuss. Mark Birch was a very pleasant person to work with and kept his ego in check, while being a very musical partner. Ben Granfelt was an energised individual who pushed me to greater heights, being both muscular and lyrical in his playing. Also, a real pro in terms of getting his sound together and stage set-up. Muddy Manninen is a dreamer and quietly goes about realising his musical dreams and turning them into great songs. He has a real sense of wonder about the world and respect for all things musical.

SoT: Let's move on to more recent times-the band has an extraordinarily deep catalog, with many very strong albums being released in recent years. Illuminations, Bona Fide, Clan Destiny, Power of Eternity, Elegant Stealth, and Blue Horizon all stack up quite well next to some of their more well known siblings from the '70s & '80s. What is your favorite release from this bunch, and how would you describe these releases to someone who was a fan of the bands early material, but who perhaps has lost touch with your music over the years?

Andy: The latest album Blue Horizon is a great one but then so are all of them in their way. I'm not kidding. I really enjoy all of them and sometimes I play selections of songs at home from all of them, as mixes, and they all seem to work - more than perhaps making mixes of the early material, which varies hugely from album to album.

The newer releases are sonically interesting, featuring good songwriting skills, guitar playing a - plenty and there are interesting arrangements in the music. There's plenty of meat on the bone and all the albums can be listened to as complete entities. I'm very proud of the band's latter day catalogue, as you can tell. It's rich, containing all the elements that fans of the older material know and love us for, like the guitar harmonies and vocal textures, of course, but with a modern take, moving with the times.

SoT: Your book is a true account of how life as a rock & roll star is not all glamour, fame, and fortune. Though the band had considerable success early on, since the '80s Wishbone Ash has enjoyed moderate attention mostly from a loyal fanbase that still buys your albums and attends the live shows. Was it a hard transition from top selling albums and large venue shows to what you normally see today, which are digital downloads, dwindling CD sales, music streaming, and club dates?

Andy: It was not a hard transition because the changes take place slowly in one's life and also you are replacing fleeting fame and fortune with some things which are much more enduring; solid relationships and greater integrity of purpose. You also have the luxury of dancing to your own tune without some hot-shot manager calling the tune, or worse, a record label and smooth-talking A &R men or something. In short, I feel very privileged to be doing what I do.

SoT: There has been a resurgence of interest in vinyl in recent years; how has this effected the bands output, either the earlier albums or recent releases?

Andy: Well, we just released a direct-to-vinyl live recording which we did at Metropolis Studios in London last year. The fans are very appreciative of that kind of thing. There are still a large number of folks who firmly stick with their vinyl collections. I believe that this year, vinyl in general, outsold CDs once more, which is amazing.

SoT: The band has continued to be a regular on the touring circuit through the years. How important are live gigs at this point in the bands career? With such a vast back catalog of material, how do you pick songs to play live each and every night?

Andy: Live shows and tours are everything these days. That's where the action is for any rock band - large or small. You simply don't exist unless you are on the road. That's nothing new for us since we've been there for all time. We have a circuit that goes through North America and Europe each year with Japan and places like South Africa thrown in for good measure. We do about 150 tour dates a year in this way and the set just naturally evolves based on what we are featuring at that time - a new album or a rerelease like Live Dates. We've just lately taken to playing some classic albums in their entirety within a set.

SoT: When comparing live footage of the band back in the '70s to how a Wishbone Ash show looks today, you've basically taken over the role of the frontman. How hard was it initially to step into this role, when in the past you had folks like Martin Turner and Laurie Wisefield who took on more of a focal point? Does Muddy's more reserved role on stage help you to 'be that guy' who gets more of the spotlight?

Andy: No, because I was already bandleader and so-called front man way before that. I will say that playing the guitar to the level I do plus singing lead vocals on tour is a full work out each night. I don't need more spotlight though. Let me make that clear. In this band everyone is free to fulfill their natural role. It's actually always been that way. Even in the early days, my guitar 'spoke' every bit as loudly as whoever was vocalizing. Just look at early footage of ours or photos and so on or read the many articles and interviews from the early seventies. I do enjoy singing though, these days. It's a huge emotional release and constantly interesting.

SoT: You often don't get enough credit for your lead vocals; when did you get to the point where you were completely comfortable with your voice and accepted the 'lead singer' role?

Andy: Quite a while ago actually. Singing lead is something I've been doing for 20 plus years. Before that there were always a lot of harmony vocals to do. I think for singers the voice and vocal approach is always a work in progress. It's something you find out the more you do it. It's sometimes harder for someone who made their name as a guitarist first and foremost because in some way, that would have been your 'voice'. Thanks for bringing the spotlight on my vocals though. It's appreciated.

SoT: Without getting too much into the recent legal battle over the bands name, one gets the impression that you were more hurt about having people who you thought were your friends trying to take your livelihood away from you than anything else. Does the pain of that ordeal still linger, or have you moved on at this point?

Andy: I've moved on pretty much. However, I will say that it was a very interesting exercise - the court thing - because it showed all of us just how we'd evolved, or not, since, each band member had quit on their own terms throughout the years at different points. You see, we never actually broke this band up. People simply quit one at a time. What tends to happen is that then - for those individuals, from their point of view, the band is frozen in time - their time. This was very evident in the ex members' testimonies in court and in various interviews that took place in the press before and after the court scenario. They all found a commonality and suddenly seemed like old mates to each other again and worked hard to give this impression that I was on the outside looking in when in fact, for the fans, it was they who'd rejected it all and were on the outside looking in, trying to figure out what had actually gone down.

Steve Upton in court actually said, "I have no idea at all what Andy Powell has been getting up to" in reference to the last 25 years. Not only was this a supercilious statement but it showed a complete and embarrassing lack of interest in our modern day musical affairs - all of which on a purely business level, should have been of great interest to him, I would have thought. I mean we are talking about a huge musical output since the late 1980s when he quit the band. The reissues and compilations alone, that I directly and personally oversaw, have earned him and the others a lot of money during this period and for absolutely no effort on their part. That's pretty bad…..

Ted would say things like, ' None of us wish to stop Andy Powell's livelihood." or Martin would continually refer to me in the press, from his lofty perch as the band's self proclaimed 'key creative force', simply, and rather patronizingly, as "A fine guitar player," a laughable diminution of my output. Unlike the fans, none of them have much clue as to our recent 20 year history and it's doubtful they've even listened to the large body of music and DVDs that have been produced. Seeing Steve Upton again after all these years was particularly sad because he and I had kept the band going together through much of the 1980s. He had been something of a mentor to me. He seemed, at the court hearing, the most divorced of all of my former partners from the musical life.

SoT: Have you spoken to either Laurie, Ted, Martin, or Steve since the judgement was ruled in your favor to keep the Wishbone Ash name, or are those bridges forever destroyed?

Andy: The judgement just ratified what was always the case in real life. The promoters and business associates we work with in the field were demanding action due to confusion over the name in the marketplace. It was Martin who tried for the name grab and who decided he wanted to rewrite history and involve the ex members, having them go in front of a court of law saying that despite having left for many many years, the band's name was always an 'asset' of theirs. The music yes, but not the name. That carried on as names and businesses do after partners resign. They found that concept hard to concede to. Finally a judge had to rule on it. If you quit something, you naturally forfeit many of the rights and privileges that go with being a full time member or partner. Pretty obvious to most people I would have thought.

Andy: I've not spoken with the old guys though I've read some things that they've said in print and so on.

SoT: You devote a very interesting and fun chapter in your book to times visiting & playing in India. Are there any other places in the world where you've perhaps had similar odd experiences that you didn't get to write about in your book?

Andy: We recently spent a great 10 days touring South Africa. That was full of adventure - wild life photo safaris and exploring wine country down on the Cape. There are quite a few stories of old that did not make it into the book, of course. These days I'm always looking to build in an interesting life experience into our tour program. Life's short as we've seen during recent weeks in the music world.

SoT: Wishbone Ash has now kept the same line-up for a number of years and albums-would you consider this one of the strongest versions of the band you've ever worked with?

Andy: It is definitely one of the strongest versions of the band that I've ever worked with.

SoT: Blue Horizon came out in 2014, continuing a trend of a new album just about every 3-4 years. Are we still looking at that schedule for another studio release? Is the band driven to record new material to satisfy your own creative juices or does the fanbase still want to hear new albums from the band, or both?

Andy: I would say it's a bit of both. The fan community definitely plays a part but in real terms you only want to be creating when the muse is with you.

SoT: Eyes Wide Open comes across as one of the more honest rock autobiographies I've read in a long time. Since you've finished it and looking back, is there any aspect of your career you think you might have forgot or left out, or would you say this is as definitive of the career of Andy Powell & Wishbone Ash as it gets?

Andy: Well, it's pretty close. I'm not going to dig way, way deep and talk about extremely personal stuff that was precipitated on the way and in any case I don't think people want or need to go really that deep. What folks want is how the life and times unfolded in relation to the musical side of things. At the very least, how personal circumstances sometimes can impact this. Health issues for some musicians are very personal things that some of us don't wish to get into but they can affect, very directly, one's professional output or creativity at any given point. Fortunately, I've been pretty lucky in that way.

SoT: Martin has released a very fine album of his own titled Written in the Stars, which follows the Wishbone Ash blueprint yet is clearly named and marketed as a 'Martin Turner' solo album. Have you heard the album, and do you think the fans are ok with having both of you out there creating similar, but separate music?

Andy: I'm sure fans would wish to hear anything by any former member of this band or from a current band member. I've not had the pleasure of listening to Martin's album but I applaud him for getting his finger out and producing. I'm just amazed that it's taken him so long…

SoT: Last but not least, I'm sure the fans want to know just exactly what makes the Gibson Flying V so special and your guitar of choice for so many years? Can you also talk about your current choice of gear as far as amps and effects go as well?

Andy: The Gibson Flying V aside from being an arresting looking electric guitar has some interesting sonic traits. It's very vibrant sounding and this is due to the extended wings of the V shaped body. For a Gibson, usually a builder of mellow sounding, mahogany guitars, it has twang. Not as much as a Fender but it's got good tonal warmth and sustain. I enjoy the shape of it on stage. It's made for that. It's a big guitar and when I was a skinny youth, it was a lot of guitar to control. You had to get very physical with it, kinda propping it on a raised knee and so on.

I'm currently using Fender amps - Prosonics. I always did use two vintage Fender Concert amps in the recording studio so I've just reverted to that on stage now, since we don't need the firepower of the old days when we used Orange amplification for example. I do like 10inch Jensen speakers and the Prosonic combos feature these, plus I can run them as class A amps. I'm a big fan of Analogman effects. Mike Pierra is a neighbor of mine in Connecticut so I'm always interested in what he's coming up with.

Pete Pardo

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