A FARWELL TO KINGS? THOUGHTS ON RUSH AND NEIL PEART’S ‘RETIREMENT’

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Last week, Neil Peart announced that he was “retired” from touring, throwing the future of Canadian prog legends Rush into doubt. My thoughts on whether the band could and should continue without him are now online at Ultimate-Guitar.

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AN INTERVIEW WITH WISHBONE ASH’S ANDY POWELL

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Wishbone Ash, Norwich Waterfront

Back in 2008, I had the pleasure of interviewing Wishbone Ash head-honcho Andy Powell for Maddog Magazine. I’ve been hooked on Ash’s twin-guitar led rock since my high-school chemistry teacher lent me a copy of the band’s seminal ‘Argus’ album (thanks Mr. Dwyer!) and remember being completely psyched when Andy agreed to talk to me during their 2008 world tour. Generous with his time and receptive to the questions of an over-enthusiastic rock journo newbie, he struck me as a man whose passion for great rock music remains undiminished after forty years on the road. The original article is long out-of-print, so I am reposting here.

You have been performing with Wishbone Ash for almost half a century. After Forty years, do you still get nervous before going on stage?

A little bit of nerves is useful. I get excited more than nervous. The only time I get nervous is if I’m not fully prepared or if I haven’t done my homework. Overall I’m very comfortable on stage. I very much enjoy it

I’m guessing that’s something that doesn’t happen too often?

These days I’m fairly well prepared, but sometimes an audience member will shout out a song request and we’ll just do it, even if we haven’t played it for a year or two. That’s always slightly worrying, but it gives it a bit of extra edge. We’re not a requests band, but every once in a while, if the mood takes out, we’ll do that

So your sets are quite fluid in that sense?

We do a lot of touring, 150-200 dates a year, so we have to keep it varied for our own sake. Even though we do a lot of improvising on set, we like to change the set list every tour.

Have there been times when you’ve tired of being on the road, is it a lifestyle to which you have become adjusted?

I’ve totally become adjusted to it. In fact, being off the road is more of a shock to me. In the old days I would be hankering to be home, but eventually I realised that the secret to being on the road was buying into that lifestyle. We do stuff on the road so we’re not bored. Sometimes in the early days you used to get stuck in hotel rooms, not quite knowing what to do. But now there’s so much to see and it makes touring really pleasurable.

Does that mean you have more freedom than previously?

When you’re 19/20 and you don’t know where you’re going and you’ve got tour managers and agents controlling everything, it’s quite bewildering. These days, we’ve gotten accustomed. Now, I can go to, say, New York and it’s like I’m living there. I’ve come to frequent the same hotels, gotten to know the same staff. It’s an art and I’ve refined it to a fine degree.

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Wishbone Ash, Norwich Waterfront

You self-produced the latest Ash record [‘Power of Eternity’]. Was that freeing for you?

A lot of people have seen through the façade of record companies. I’m just gradually gravitating towards managing the band, producing. You gradually become the master of your own destiny. It’s all built on experience. With recording, we’ve worked with some of the best producers in the world and I’ve definitely learnt a lot from those experiences. I’ve witnessed the whole development of recording from 4-track analogue through to Pro-Tools and digital. I feel quite competent doing that. It’s the same with song-writing. I feel very comfortable writing songs and playing guitar and touring.

Where does the new album fit into the Wishbone Ash back catalogue?

It’s got all the old trademarks but it’s a lot more mature. We’ve gotten more sophisticated with the playing and the song writing, but we’ve gone back to a more simplistic approach recording wise. There are lots of references to our former sound, yet it’s got a fresh twist. I couldn’t be in the band if I felt it was a heritage or tribute thing. It’s a developing entity and has been all the way through its career. The band’s got many styles that it enters, it’s quite eclectic. I really like that, it’s stimulating.

Talking about the eclectic nature of your sound, how would you pin it down if you were forced to do so?

We came up in the prog rock era, when bands had their own stamp or sound. We were encouraged to shape it a bit to be different. Our roots are very English. We’ve got folkiness to our sound, we’ve got rock. We’re a bit difficult to pigeonhole really.

I mean, these terms that come up every once in a while, you kind of just have a nod and a wink to them. There’s a new one at the moment, heritage rock, which cracks me up. At the end of the day, people know the name, respect it. I’m pretty happy with that to be honest.

It’s impressive that a band of forty years has maintained a dedicated fan base…

The thing about the fanbase is that it’s broad. It goes from teenagers to sixty year olds… it’s become something of a community, largely due to the internet. We do things like fan club conventions in Germany, America, even on cruise ships. We really like bringing people together. They’re into it from a lifestyle point of view as much as we are… It’s not quite “dead-head”, but it’s got an element of that about it

How do you react to the hardcore fans? Does the level of their dedication ever daunt you?

It used to, but there’s now a level of maturity in most of them. With the stuff we’ve done on cruise ships, you’re quite confined with the fans. A lot of them have interesting stories and they’re generally quite mindful and respectful. We seem to pull a really nice crowd. A lot of them have become friends, a lot of them are almost like a street team that help and promote the band. In the early days, I was quite intimidated by fans. Nowadays people have a lot more understanding and respect of what it means to be a travelling musician I think, because people are travelling a lot more.

You’re credited as being the pioneers of the twin guitar sound in rock music. Do you feel a responsibility with that title?

It sits well with me. I’m appreciative that other bands acknowledge the influence that we’ve had on them, bands like Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden. I think you can even hear echoes of our stuff in young bands like Franz Ferdinand. A lot of younger people are checking out the roots of rock

Given the changes that you’ve seen in your career, how do you feel about the current state of the music industry?

Everything is up for grabs now. There’s still great talent around, but it’s a much shorter shelf life for bands and music. Reality television has created a grab bag of stuff. Some of it is not so great. I don’t hear lasting songs, the craft of song writing seems to have been lost. The industry has changed a lot. I don’t think it’s so bad that record labels have some competition and that artists are perhaps waking up a bit to their freedoms and what they can and cannot do. There was quite a good testing ground for talent in the old days and there were a lot of experts in the field around musicians and the music, great producers, great studios. A lot of that seems to have gone by the by. Technology is wonderful. It’s given us a hands on approach, new freedoms.

I go back to the days when you would do a session at the BBC and the engineers would be wearing brown overalls and ties. It was a very special thing to do a recording session. You were ready to give your absolute best. It wasn’t any causal affair. On our early albums, we played live, we didn’t know about double tracking or overdubbing. You can hear that in the early recordings, there’s a real vibrancy about them. You talked about nerves earlier. That was how it was when you did a recording session. There was a sense of occasion.

What are the plans for Wishbone Ash for the future?

We’ll convene in France in June to start demoing the new album. We’re doing a big 40th anniversary show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, which we’ll probably record for a DVD. If we can get that out before the end of 2009, I’ll be very happy. Touring is the lifeblood. There’ll be just as much touring as ever. There’s plenty of stuff for us to get our teeth into.