Overview and interview by Jason Hillenburg
No one expected to be here. Nearly forty-five years after first convening in the south of England, the original Wishbone Ash is remembered as an outstanding musical unit responsible 1972's Argus, one of the era's neglected masterpieces. For a band that never consistently charted high and peaked commercially by 1978, the enduring impact the band's music left on its contemporaries and its multi-generational appeal is a testament to the combined talents of its membership. There's no question that neither of the currently active members of the original lineup expected to be still playing "Lady Whiskey, from the band's first album, over four decades later.
The band released eight studio albums, arguably peaking with Argus, with two different lineups during the 1970's. By the early 1980's, the band's flagging commercial fortunes ruptured their second incarnation and launched twenty plus years of frequent lineup changes. No one saw a third act for Wishbone Ash, much less a creative resurgence. There is ample evidence older acts never recover the creative synergy of their youthful peak. Chops improve, the songwriting matures, but the intangible spark firing the first flush of fame deserts the performances. Changing tastes squeeze out already marginal acts. The odds of a unique English band unable to be pigeonholed in a particular style assembling a new lineup that not only proves profitable, but hits a new creative peak in the band's history, is nothing less than surprising.
The resurgence began with 2002's studio release Bona Fide. The addition of songwriter and second guitarist Ben Granfelt sparked the band's first album of new material since 1995's Illuminations. Bona Fide ranked, at the time, as the band's most cohesive effort since 1978's No Smoke Without Fire and marked the debut of current bassist Bob Skeat on a collection of new songs. Despite the album's high quality, the lineup remained unsettled. The band toured two years in support of the work until Granfelt, citing family concerns, departed in 2004. He used the occasion to recommend his former band mate, Jyrki "Muddy" Manninen, from defunct Finnish rockers Gringos Locos. Manninen's songwriting skills and flair for blues guitar are considerable, but this all-around versatile player quickly proved himself a key element in the band's future.
2005's Clan Destiny swept all doubt away and continued the band's artistic resurrection. The lineup featured Powell, Manninen, Skeat, and longtime session drummer Ray Weston. Following a round of touring, Weston decamped and the move threatened to sabotage the band's unlikely recovery. However, after enlisting an interim drummer to make future dates, Andy Powell faced a crucial vacancy to fill. Joe Crabtree's arrival came without fanfare. While he took on his new role with an untouchable musical pedigree, his limited live experience stood in sharp contrast to a band of long seasoned professionals. However, with Manninen, no one needed to worry. The band began recording their 17th studio album, The Power of Eternity, in the early months of 2007. At Manninen's suggestion, the band recorded the basic tracks in Finland. Crabtree slid seamlessly into this diverse, inventive material. Seventeen years passed before the band found a rightful successor to original drummer Steve Upton.
"The Power" ranks as one of the band's finest album openers thanks to Crabtree's crisp timekeeping, the elastic strut of the guitars, and a fine Ian Harris lyric. Harris, a songwriter and performer under the name Terry Tonik, had worked with the band before. The recording of the Bona Fide album, however, saw him contributing lyrics for the first time. His writing on The Power of Eternity and the following albums has literary sophistication long missing from the band's work. While 1972's Argus remains rightfully regarded as an impressive musical and lyrical achievement, subsequent efforts regressed and stepped back into standard, commercially minded lyrical fare. In a Harris lyric, however, the rhymes are never forced or arbitrary. Harris writes lean, precise lines packed with information and possibilities. The final full verse in "The Power" realizes this ideal when Powell sings, "But here as I move/Into great silence/I dig deep in my soul/And come to the essence/I find that there is no past/Only this hour/So let me take that chance/And harness the power.
The band promoted the album through a heavy touring schedule until reconvening in 2011 for the recording of Elegant Stealth. Three years and another studio effort removed from its initial release, the second album from this new lineup still plays as a supremely inspired statement and ranks among the best rock albums of the last twenty years. Powell and Manninen's musical collaboration filled the songs with winding melodies and a muscular rock edge, but Powell's performance is particularly inspired. The exhilarating opening track, "Reason To Believe, is another Ian Harris penned gem that refurbishes this relatively stock phrase with fist-pumping verve. Powell responds to the song's themes of perseverance and holding onto hope in spite of past experience with, arguably, the finest studio vocal of his career.
Another sign of the band's increased confidence is subtle, but telling. A number of tracks feature arrangements and instrumentation not commonly heard on a Wishbone Ash album. Brass adds an unexpectedly entertaining touch to the dramatic "Heavy Weather" and a choir on "Searching For Satellites" fills that song with a beautifully ethereal spirit. One can argue the financial impracticality of reproducing these cuts in a live setting renders their inclusion self-indulgent, but album performances are standalone moments no band is obligated to recreate. Instead, their inclusion clearly signals confidence and clarity of vision. Unlike the world of people "living on shaky ground" in "Heavy Weather, the ground beneath the band's feet had rarely been firmer than on Elegant Stealth.
If that album is the sound of Wishbone Ash charging into the future with the wind at their back, 2014's Blue Horizon is the sound of them taking flight. The collection pivots from Elegant Stealth's muscular rock aesthetic and instead unfolds as a glorious re-imagining of Ash's once prominent progressive edge. Songs like "American Century, "Being One, and the opener "Take It Back" are dazzling tracks and challenging guitar workouts brimming over with melody and finesse. Former guitarist Roger Filgate contributed the sly and inventive "Strange How Things Come Back Around" while Manninen takes a lead vocal on the relaxed, playful blues "Mary Jane.
The twin peaks on Blue Horizon, "Way Down South" and the finale "All There Is To Say, are lasting contributions to the band's legacy. The former is a deeply resonant and flawlessly performed character study reaching beyond the headlines to express fundamental human longings and wraps up with a jaw-dropping guitar solo. The latter is, perhaps, the most personal song Andy Powell has written in his long career. More than the lyrics alone convey this impression. The multi-part conclusion plays like an impassioned synthesis of Powell's influences - echoes of blues, The Beatles, folk music, and his own past inform the song.
The band recently concluded their second leg of American touring this year and have launched a UK tour in recent weeks. Upcoming dates are plentiful for the coming year and the band's annual fan convention, Ashcon, recently ended another successful year. It is apparent that this resurgence isn't an extended blip in an otherwise downward trajectory and the band appears poised to continue. There is no reason to believe that this lineup has reached its creative peak. No one expected to be talking about Wishbone Ash in 2014, but unlike the figure in one of the band's earliest classics "Phoenix, the band is still flying and basking in the sun.
Interview with Andy Powell
PSF: The band's lineup has been stable now for a number of years. I'm sure you don't really think in these terms much, if at all, but do you envision this being the band's final lineup?
AP: That's a good question. Bands are like marriages. You always want and hope that this is a stable setup and certainly seems to have been so. There are internal dynamics in any group of four people and they bend, mold, and change as the years go by, depending on how the individuals change. Whenever we do meet each other at the beginning of a tour, it's all hugs, slaps on the back, and asking each other how things are going. We all lead pretty interesting lives independent of each other and that helps keep things going. I don't have any false hopes or illusions about these kinds of things though. Any kind of marriage is always a work in progress. It's a long answer I'm giving you, but as you said, I don't particularly think in those terms, but I do have a smile on my face when I look back and see how well we're functioning with potential to go. It feels good.
PSF: This question is more relevant to Elegant Stealth than other albums, but the band lived together, essentially, during the writing. Obviously, Wishbone Ash has recorded great albums when, perhaps, the inter-band relationships weren't so solid, but how important is that sense of family or community to you now and could the band function without that?
AP: I think it'd be kind of hard. The band does actually spend a lot of time living together and I think, in most bands, when you undergo that, it has a positive impact on the music. It did on the original lineup. We were together for four years, which at the time seemed huge, often living on the same street or in the same apartments in London, traveling together all the time, experiencing new countries together, that's also important. All of those things helped spur on things like Argus, the third album, when you're almost thinking as one because you're sharing the same experiences. It's a similar thing now. I'm working with guys, with the exception of Joe, who are older and we're all going through these same sort of experiences. So, yes, I do think that communal experience helps produce great music. [laughs] I often liken it to the military because you're like this little unit wading into skirmishes, going to different countries, and going in as one. You present an united front and that feeling comes out in the music. That's why Elegant Stealth is good and I think the other albums have elements of that same communal spirit.
PSF: What's 90 minutes on stage like with this band?
AP: It goes by like it's 20 minutes. There's something about playing music on tour in a band like this, your perception of time changes. It's kind of like being in a good workout session. There's points too where you're flying, almost transcending the moment, I love it when it's like that. It's very invigorating. Music's like that anyway, whether you're listening to it or participating in it, it's a fantastic thing we humans do. It's uplifting, transcendent, and when you're in the process of doing it, you get all of those things too.
PSF: My next two questions are related to The Power of Eternity. Was it Muddy's [Manninen, second guitarist] idea and what sort of effect did it have on the finished product?
AP: It was Muddy's suggestion. I think he was trying to bring in the Finnish component and educate us, me in particular, about his culture so that, in some ways, it would be a two way street rather than just him coming over to an English experience and trying to be all things English. It was nice to take him up on that. It was also Joe's first album and the studio was in a deserted cement factory. We would break every day at midday and have lunch with these very [laughs] countrified construction worker types. So there we are, thrown together in this environment, and it was a real test! It was a new studio we weren't familiar with, we were working with Finnish people in this completely alien environment, and we've got this brand new drummer. When you're cutting basic tracks, that's all about the drums. It's when you see if you really can make an album and see if you've got an internal groove going, so there was a lot of pressure on Joe. I'd gotten there a week before to work with Muddy on finessing the tracks and staying at his home, so there was all of this intimate interaction going on in what was, for us, an alien culture. But it's also great because it gave Muddy a bit of power, it gave him the position that he was our host, so that was a good thing to do at the time. I don't know if I'd want to repeat it. [laughs] We've made some albums in weird places, but an abandoned cement factory is one of the weirder ones. In Finland. In winter. [laughs]
PSF: It's a collaboration all around, whether you're performing or writing music, but I was listening to The Power of Eternity last night and wondering what your initial impressions were after writing with Muddy for the first time?
AP: Musically, we have the same influences, so even if there are big cultural differences, we were able to throw around ideas and immediately tap into the same energy. There's no problem with that. It's amazing how music can so easily transcend cultures. He was fascinated by the guitars I used on other early recordings and would play things asking me, "Don't you remember this? How did you get that sound?" We'd talk about how I didn't use any pedals, or something like that. He's that much younger than me that he wants to know and imagine it, so that kind of thing gets plugged into the writing process. It can take a while. I've had a goodly number of guitar partners in my career, so I know that process enough now to know that it takes time. You have to give it time to flower. I think it's so great, playing with Muddy because not only is he a great player, but he's a musicologist as well, so he has this almost professorial way of looking at popular music. He's so knowledgeable and I've gotten a lot out of that as well, though I am older and, perhaps, more experienced in certain ways.
PSF: Another question about The Power of Eternity. I noticed there was additional studio time booked for vocal and guitar overdubs at three different locations. Was this a result of scheduling and scattered residences?
AP: Yeah, absolutely. After such an intense period of laying down tracks, we needed to get back home. Muddy, at that point, was still living in Finland and I was in Connecticut, so we both took time at different studios to do those things. We had all mapped out and knew what we wanted to do.
PSF: I remember when we talked last time you mentioned having some initial misgivings about whether Muddy or Joe would hold up under a heavy tour schedule. How long did it take before you knew it would work?
AP: When it comes to Joe, I think he's made the transition better than anyone I know really. He has a truly eclectic bunch of friends everywhere, he just dives into the deep end and makes it work for himself. He's a true child of the digital age and I never have an idea what continent he's on usually. [laughs] After the last tour ended, he jumped off in Canada, then he was in New Jersey, then it was off to New York for some drum lessons with Bernard Purdie, and he's either there still or back in London. [laughs] He's really embraced it. Muddy, though, was different. His last major band, Gringos Locos, had been signed to Atlantic, but it had been a long time ago when he came to us and he had quite a different life up to that point. He's completely in the swim now, but when I first met him, I wasn't sure at all because he'd missed out on a few years of doing it at all. Bob Skeat [bassist], on the other hand, comes from a musician's family, his father and uncle were professional musicians in 50's and 60's dance bands, so he was groomed, if you like. Muddy had a somewhat different time, but this band now is such a well-oiled machine, not just musically, but organizationally. If I say, hey guys, we've got three gigs in Poland and, by the way, we're going to stop off in Portugal on the way back, so are you OK with that, the emails will come back saying yep or let's go. It's as simple as that.
PSF: I'd like to talk about Elegant Stealth for a moment. You produced alone on the preceding two albums, but on Elegant Stealth, you brought in Tom Greenwood. What prompted that?
AP: Production is a multi-headed monster. People think production is just putting the sound together, but it's not- it's getting the job done on time and on budget. That's a big responsibility. I've reached a point now where I'm delegating a lot more than I used to. I was a control freak insofar as I believed that if I wasn't doing the job, I didn't think it would be done properly. I realized I had a great team around me and needed to take a hand's off approach. Joe, being younger, often sees that in me, it was he who suggested his friend Tom come on, and it's been a pleasant experience. I like being just a part of the band and having the objectivity of a producer, just like we did in the old days, that's just great. A lot of this came about because of changes in the music business itself where bands carry more of a burden and we produced this recent slew of albums in that climate. I got this idea that I had to be there twenty-four seven and needed to be there at every mix, but with Tom, I can just say, I want to get this kind of feel out of the mix, try a couple of ideas, and send them to me by email. That's been really, really nice. It helps that he's a musician too - most of the best producers are. They know what it takes to get the mechanics of a track down.
PSF: Was the decision to convene in France and work on material a response, of a sort, to the scattered recording of The Power of Eternity?
AP: It probably was, that's often the case. Subconsciously. There was no angst about it, but I just think you go in kind of a different direction each time. We had other people egging us on as well. The documentary producer who filmed This Is Wishbone Ash during that time, Christian Guyonnet, really likes realism and he was kind of the executive producer over the whole project. He was really pushing us to be real. Of course, if you're working like we were in previous studios, that is not very real. So we wanted to go for the approach on Elegant Stealth that resulted from all of us living under one roof, producing everything at the same time, warts and all.
PSF: At this point, only "Migrant Worker" and "Searching For Satellites" from the album haven't been performed live. I can't recall an album in the band's past that has received such significant live exposure so soon after its release. The band was even playing "Reason To Believe" and "Can't Go It Alone" long before the album came out, another rarity in the band's history. It suggests to me that the album ranks very high for you and I wanted to know what sets it apart for you?
AP: I think it's the reality of it. You're looking to make music in a band, you're looking to have your own songs to sing, and that album felt so natural. It was natural to sing and play it. It's that simple really. If you record a track, there's almost a process where you have to reconstruct it to play it live, but we didn't have to do that with songs like "Reason To Believe." All we had to do is tap into experiences we had in the studio and just recreate it.
PSF: It plays like a very inspired album, like there's a great deal of enthusiasm behind it, and that's the same attribute I would use to describe Blue Horizon. Going back to the songwriting process, you've mentioned in other interviews that you didn't want anyone really bringing anything in and, instead, you wanted the band to work things up together. How long had it been since Wishbone Ash had worked that way?
AP: Probably the early 70's. [laughs] I think we were confident enough on that album to fly by the seat of our pants. The times in the band's history that I've enjoyed the least is when it's been its most contrived. I think everyone rose to the occasion. We all got the brief, what the mandate was, and we never got to that feeling of oh no, what have we got, we don't have anything. We had a lot of confidence in our ability to throw the gauntlet down to each other. There were some times when things became convoluted and we went up some blind alleys, but that's what you do. When four of you are struggling with a song, things can get a bit manic, but we never fell out and just worked through it.
PSF: My assessment, from years of interviews and press, is that you're a musician who takes a relatively dim view of taking too much time in the studio. It seems to me that not every band can do what this lineup did and does - go into the studio, put their heads down, and be productive.
AP: A good point. I do realize that, during the creative process, it is helpful to have time for reflection. However, I was a victim and perpetrator of the hugely wasteful time we spent just trying to figure things out. Some of it was just about learning your craft, I get that, but there was just an enormous amount of time and financial waste. I remember those times and never want to repeat them. [laughs] People don't realize that behind the scenes there was an enormous amount of "hurry up and wait" going on. So when you say (that) I have a bit of disdain for that, yes I do, but it's more of a weariness with that sort of negative energy. It's like when you're in school and doing just what you have to do to get through a class when you aren't digging the teacher. There were a lot of these sort of mind games being played back then. I don't want to go back to that or have any interest in it. That's why I like this outfit. Everyone is work orientated, positive, and if there's some time wasting or jerking off going on, people just walk out of the room. [laughs] A lot of that went on in the 70's because of the infusion of money, but we don't have any money now, and it's much better. [laughs]
PSF: Regarding Blue Horizon, Joe Crabtree joined you and Tom Greenwood behind the console for production duties. Between three such talented people, how do you jointly produce an album without stepping on each other's toes?
AP: There are frustrations here and there. I remember with Tom that we kept going around and around trying to get the bass sound right for the relatively simple "Deep Blues," but they are just things you work through to reach that point where everyone is satisfied. There were no egos really. I saw frustrations rise up when we had technical breakdowns or scheduling issues, but no ego clashes. Tom's a very easygoing guy and has his own mindset. He is very much about things being the way they should be, but he's also an excellent listener and that's not always the case with someone who is a musician as well. It's a very civilized, gentlemanly group of people I work with. [laughs]
PSF: You are welcome to disagree with this assessment, but I think that The Power of Eternity and Elegant Stealth are, on the whole, more positive albums than Blue Horizon. Even in darker songs like "In Crisis" from Power of Eternity or "Heavy Weather" from Elegant Stealth, those songs feature narrators fully engaged with the world. In comparison, there's a lot of introspection and, in some cases, even isolation on Blue Horizon. It ends on an ultimately hopeful note, but it feels like a hard-won victory. I am curious if you went into the writing and recording of the album with any sort of thematic direction in mind?
AP: No, but I don't think that's an inaccurate way of assessing those albums. I think Blue Horizon has came out of a time and general feeling we're picking up on of world-weariness. The music is just as hard hitting as before, but I think that, lyrically, you're right that there's a feeling of things being hard won. There's a dark whimsy in "Tally Ho!" and a yearning for escape in "Way Down South." It's a feeling of the times, people feeling like the world is coming in on them with 24-hour news media and social networking. The world is getting smaller and I think that feeling pervaded the writing of the words and music. I think that's a strong analysis of the album and I hadn't really thought of it that way because, typically, if the word negative comes within my purview, I squirm away from it. Negativity, however, isn't a bad thing to tap into for your art.
PSF: There seems to be a distinctly different creative approach defining each of the albums from this lineup. Is it important to you that you take a different angle with things on each new project?
AP: I think it is because you're trying to fit in with the context of what's going on in your life and the world at that particular moment. For instance, we're a guitar band, so it's important we revisit how we lay out guitar parts. It's important to revisit how we produce an album. You don't want to over-think it. This sort of cuts across the question I get a lot about when we'll record a new album. It's more organic than that. You think you've got something to say within the context of producing records in a certain time and can add your voice to the plethora of other voices out there.
Also see the Wishbone Ash website
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