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Hero. Legend. Good Bloke.
John Peel OBE, 1939 - 2004

Red Lick Records



 

 

Early Blues Interview
Gwyn Ashton, Aussie blues/rock guitarist

© Copyright 2010 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.Gwyn's Biography:
"Welsh-born Gwyn Ashton migrated to Adelaide, South Australia in the Ď60s, picked up a guitar at 12 and from the age of 16, played every bar, festival and seedy biker show imaginable. Aussie audiences are tough and like their rock & roll loud, hard and fast. This is where Gwyn learned how to play his ass off. Entertain or be beer bottled!  

In the Ď90s he moved to Melbourne, played shows with Jim Keays and Mick Pealing, recorded his first two albums and opened for Junior Wells, Rory Gallagher, Steve Morse and Albert Lee.

He relocated to Sydney in the Ď80s, playing stints with Swanee and Stevie Wright. With his own band, he carved up stages nationwide Ė some in the middle of nowhere, fronted with chicken wire, sometimes driving for days through the outback to get to the next show.  

In the 90s he moved to Melbourne, played with Jim Keays and Mick Pealing, recorded his first 2 albums and opened for Junior Wells, Rory Gallagher, Steve Morse and Albert Lee. Following record company advice to base himself where the best record sales were happening for him, in Ď96 Gwyn was UK bound to have a crack at the European market. Promoting his album Feel The Heat, Gwynís band opened for UK rock icons Status Quo on their 15-date British arena tour in Ď99. This included dates at Birmingham NEC and Wembley Arena.  

In 2000 Gwyn recorded Fang It! with Gerry McAvoy and Brendan OíNeil, former Rory Gallagher rhythm section now with Nine Below Zero. He then fronted Band of Friends, replacing ex MotŲrhead and Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian Robertson. This was a tribute to Rory, with Gerry, Brendan, Lou Martin, Mark Feltham and Ted McKenna who all played with Rory over the years".

__________________________________________________________

Alan:  What are your first musical memories as a youngster in Australia?

Gwyn:  Freddie and The Dreamers on TV in about 1964. Years later my brother had a guitar he wouldnít let me play. I HAD to have one and about 4 years later I got a horrible acoustic with 3-foot action on it! I was a Beatlemaniac. George Harrison is still one of my all-time heroes. 

I was born in Wales and we immigrated to Australia in 1965. We landed at Adelaide airport and, along with all of the other Brits, stayed for 3 weeks in a hostel. Weíre talking about 200 people in ONE big tin shed with all of their belongings in it. No air-conditioning walls or doors. 45-50 degrees Celsius, 24/7. I went to school and all the kids picked on the migrants pretty bad. During my childhood we moved house 28 times in 7 years, I had 21 schools by the time I was 15. We drove across the Nullabor Plain from Adelaide to Perth, moving house several times, before it was bituminised. I kid you not; it took a week to drive it. There were 6ft deep potholes that you had to drive around. 20mph was top speed then and it was 1,704 miles. They were corrugated dirt roads. Dust everywhere. There were no hotels and you could drive all day seeing the straightest road from horizon to horizon. This was a tough land. My parents fought a lot. People go crazy in that heat and we were no exception. We had to take food and water and we camped on the side of the road in tents every night. Thatís where I learned how to tie knots and start a fire without a match. One morning I woke up with my arm itching. I opened my eyes and there were about 20 march flies on it. These buggers have a two-inch wingspan and bite. There were only two TV stations in the country then, four if you went to a city and they all shut down at 10pm. My father was a tech guy for radio and television and he was also an electrical draughtsman. This paved the way for my life as a road dog. Itís in the blood. All though school I didnít want that mathematics shit. I was only interested in playing my guitar.  

Alan:  Did you always want to become a musician?

Gwyn:  I guess so. In about 1972 I used to sleep with a small transistor radio under my pillow with an earpiece. Iíd listen all night to the evil rock music! The radio I those days was full of blues, country and rock and roll. I didnít even know there were categories. I either liked it or didnít. Itís funny because all the stuff I liked was rock, blues or country. I was only 11. Got into trouble all the time from my parents for listening to it! Iíd just tune into whatever station I could find. I zoned in through all the interference of that sweet AM radio. My parents were into light opera and a lot of stuff like all parents were back then. The big band stuff was cool, but the rest was rubbish. To learn a song we had to find the cool artists, source the record from who-knows-where (usually from an import record store, a catalogue or I had groovy friends who turned me onto ZZ Top, Rory Gallagher and Led Zep), put the record on the turntable and really listen hard to what was going on to get the chords or the music. There was no downloading tab and lyrics or access to youtube then. I think it was way better in those days. Less distraction, real purpose with no stupid computer games to get in the way. 

Alan:  How did you get started in music?

Gwyn:  Around 1975, Iíd been playing my guitar for a few years, nothing serious. Originally I had a nylon string guitar and I got a microphone stuck in the sound-hole, plugged it into a reel-to-reel tape recorder, hit record and presto - instant amplifier though the little speaker in it! And I figured it all out myself. I then progressed to an electric guitar, a Tempo Les Paul copy that I had to pay in instalments at my local guitar shop. After another house move I answered an ad in the paper to join a cabaret band. This meeting turned into a life-long friendship with one of the best friends Iíve ever had, an Adelaide guitarist/singer by the name of Niel Edgley. I got the gig. Didnít even have an amp! I had to rent one when we got a gig. We did dance clubs playing Buddy Holly to the Bee Gees (not the 70s stuff, the 60s.) 

I was then working as a tyre fitter in a garage in the Adelaide Hills. I had just bought a 1964 Bedford ex PMG van and had only just got it on the road the day before. I had to replace the crankshaft but I got the van for 60 bucks! On my day off I went to the garage I worked at to fill up with petrol. The attendant checked my oil and when I started the engine the van caught on fire, as he accidentally ripped off a spark plug lead and it landed on my leaky fuel pump. The idiot only chucked a bucket of water on it and the whole thing went up in flames! I ran inside to call the fire brigade and suddenly realised my Fender Strat was in the van. I ran out to it, threw the door open and saved it! I didnít press charges as I didnít want to lose my job. A few weeks later my boss told me to make a choice between my incredible career as a tyre fitter or my music lifestyle that was causing me to yawn all day at work. You can guess the rest. 

Alan:  Tell me about your musical journey in the early days.

Gwyn:  We travelled around a lot. Sometimes we drove for DAYS to get to gigs. Had a mishap with my brakes giving out coming down a mountain. It took 15 minutes to get to the bottom of the Blue Mountains in NSW. I got out and tightened up the rear brake hose that Iíd replaced that morning. Forgot to use the spanner earlier. It was only finger tight! We bled the brakes and carried on the journey. I had to repair all my vehicles in those days. Not enough money around. My parents had broken up at that time. I had a spare CAR at home on itís roof so I could rip parts off it to fix the one that barely went. In 1983 I moved to Sydney to join a rock band that advertised in Adelaide for a lead guitarist. I auditioned, got the gig and a week later was driving my heap of junk 1967 HR Holden station wagon, painted blue with the opposite end of a vacuum cleaner, to Sydney. It was a 24-hour drive and I had to drive at night and sleep through the day in hotels because it was so hot, too hot to drive. That car eventually had to go. You had to turn the wheel left to go right!  

Living in Kings Cross in Sydney was an education. I had my own apartment and I learned 90% of what I know from on the road. Trouble has never been so rewarding or sweeter. I hung out at the Manzil Room every night of the week. The Kevin Borich Express played there every Fri night. Or should I say Sat morning, from 1 Ė 5am. Kevin was one of my mentors. He was a badass guitarist then and still is now. We became very good friends over the years. I was in a band with Jimmy Barnesís brother Swanee and I played with Stevie Wright along with the keyboardist from Sherbet (Howzat). Stevie was The Easybeats singer in the 60s and was toted for the frontman for AC/DC. Malcolm Young used to come and see my band, as his nephew James was my drummer then. It was a good scene. My bands also had guys in it from The Divinyls, Rose Tattoo and I had the very first AC/DC rhythm section Noel Taylor and Neil Smith. I had various other guys in the band over the years and I once caught my bassist and drummer, shooting smack together in a car outside the Manzil Room. The next week I had a new band. I donít condone any drugs in my band, especially after one of my bass players died on that stuff.

In Ď90 moved back to Adelaide for a year, then Melbourne for 5 years and then back over to Old Blighty in Ď96. 

Alan:  What kind of material were you playing then?

Gwyn:  In the early days we were playing biker music. ZZ Top, Zep, Bad Company, lots of blues, party music. Stuff Iíd cut my teeth on plus some of our own material that wasnít particularly good, but we thought we were the shit! I never did the play-the-hits type band so we could work. Iíve always played what I dug. If anyone else likes it itís a bonus, which is why I left town. You couldnít play that stuff and make a living in Adelaide anymore. In the 60s and early 70s, Adelaide was a haven of some of the countryís best talents in rock music. Mississippi (later renamed Little River Band), Zoot (Rick Springfield), The Masterís Apprentices, Jimmy Barnes, and Bon Scott were all from there. Many more. Everyone eventually gravitated towards Sydney or Melbourne to hit the big time. For a while Adelaide was the capital of jazz, rock and blues. We always glued it all together.  

Alan:  I hear it was pretty raucous performing in Aus in the early days - did you really perform behind chicken wire on stage, and did you ever get beer bottles thrown at you?

Gwyn:  Yeah, but I ducked! We were booked to play for a week in Darwin. We played, then the strippers did their thing, then we played again. On Sunday we had to back the talent contest, in between the baked bean wrestling girls! All the black guys had come from reservations from HUNDREDS of miles around to sing at The Nightcliffe where we played. All their mates were in the crowd, talking 600 people here, and chucked anything at Ďem that wasnít nailed down! Chairs, tables, bottles, each other!!!! And on Iíd go playing what they called ďthe white manís electric thunderstick!Ē This was the most fun gig Iíve ever done! It got pretty wet, though. It probably hasnít changed. Darwin has always been a haven for drug dealers and various other illicit people who you donít really want to run into on a dark night. I loved it. It was a big part of my learning curve and great for song writing.

My agent booked me into the Regent for a solo gig in Sydney. I thought, Great, The Regent in Sydney is like the Hyatt. I thought I was off to a function type gig then I read the address. Same name but it was a black bar in Redfern, a particularly dangerous place for a white guy! I got there and all the walls were painted bright orange with black graffiti on them. That was the INSIDE of the pub. The only access to the bar was through a little window covered with bars that they could only JUST get a glass through as this place had a reputation for violence and a lot of bottle throwing. I actually made friends that night, they liked my music and I spent time playing pool with the locals. Funnily enough, even when I won a game, I still had to buy my opponent a glass of Port! 

Alan:  What first attracted you to the blues?

Gwyn:  The rawness, the truth, the vibe, the guts, the emotion. The blues is life. The essence of the being. Thereís no bullshit in the blues. Just the way some people play it!  

My first exposure to the blues came about in about 1978 in Adelaide when, out of the blue, Niel told me we were going to see a blues band in the Adelaide Hills town of Aldgate. I thought he was nuts and that the blues was old-peopleís music. Was I wrong!  At that stage we were playing 50ís rock n roll stuff. Chuck Berry, Buddy HollyÖ and I never realised that all was revved-up blues. Anyway, this band blew me away. They were loud n sweaty, it was a hot night, we were in a hippy kind of pub and there were people cross-legged on the floor, smokiní heaps of whacky tobaccy. It was rammed full of people having a wild time. That night changed me forever. They were a real tough Chicago blues kinda band. I then discovered Chris Finnen. This was a night that he opened up for another Adelaide band Mickey Finn who used to be called Fraternity when they had Bon Scott singing and playing recorder with them. Bon joined AC/DC and they changed their name to Mickey Finn. They had a crazy harmonica player, Uncle, who would hang upside down from the rafters and blow amazing blues harp. The two guitar players each had 2 x 100w Marshall amps. The good old days. I always remember the gear! 

Alan:  Which blues artists do you admire (both old and new)?

Gwyn:  Son House, Lightniní Hopkins, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howliní Wolf, Skip James, Hound Dog Taylor, Blind Willie Johnson, Reverend Fred MacDowellÖThe list goes on. Roy Buchanan, Billy Gibbons, Rory Gallagher, Jimmy Vaughan, Buddy Guy. Theyíre the contemporary cats I like. Chris Whitely NAILED it and he hardly played the blues. It was there, but so was a lot of other stuff. David Lindley, Ry Cooder, Ben Harper is way cool. As far as Aussies go Chris Finnen, Ian Moss, Kevin Borich all rocked my world. Phil and Tommy Emmanuel used to get me up to play with them at various clubs in Sydney when I was a youngíun. As far as modern players go, I hate to say it but I feel the scene is pretty bland in the UK, full of copycats and not much original music is being generated. I just want to become a better player and find my own voice. I feel Iím getting closer to it. A lot of guys playing the blues these days havenít lived. Seems to be a big influx of young blues guitar players whoíve never had any hardship, their parents buying them all the nice equipment. Good on them for getting into the art-form but they ainít GOT the blues. How many times can you regurgitate the same Stevie Ray Vaughan licks? Itís all part of paying your dues!  

Alan:  Who has influenced you the most in your music writing and playing?

Gwyn:  All of the above but you really have to have your own personality and have something to write about. Itís great to have your influences and heroes but you canít just repeat the same conversation. I really like the poets of the blues. Chuck Berry and Billy Gibbons have such a great way with words. I write in a lot of different ways. Sometimes I find a riff or Kev stars a groove and it makes you play different. Other times I hear somebody say a phrase and if itís rhythmical it can be turned into a song. 

Alan:  You've toured with many famous names - I'm sure you must have some stories to tell.

Gwyn:  Jamming with Canned Heat was cool. Marc Ford played bass with us one night in Germany. Got to tour with some big names but mostly they keep to themselves. Touring with Quo was good. Theyíre fun guys. Mick Fleetwood rolled into a club I was playing, at 2am in Adelaide back in 1990, and we cranked old Fleetwood Mac numbers out together for about an hour. Guys like Robin Zander from Cheap Trick, Coco Montoya and anyone else who happened to be in town came to our late-night graveyard-shift-midnight-til-5am shows quite regularly. We were the house band at Adelaideís notorious Ko Klub, two nights a week. It was the only place open for live music in those hours of the day.  

Alan:  What is your favourite guitar?

Gwyn:  It depends on the day. Iíve got old guitars, some nice and some crap. It really depends on my mood at the time. Itís nice to have a bunch of guitars and just grab one you havenít played for awhile. Sometimes something new comes out. Iím finding a lot of trashy guitars can make you play really differently. I like guitars that you have a to fight a bit to make happen. High action and thick strings work for me. I like old Airlines and Japanese 70s things. 

Alan:  Are there any particular songs that you play that have special meaning to you?

Gwyn:  One-Way Ticket To The Blues is dedicated to my mother who was actually very functional in pushing me as a kid to achieve my goals. She passed away last year before actually hearing it, which is really sad. All the rest of my songs are road stories, lost love, found love, someone elseís loveÖ Some songs have deep meaning but others are there to rock out to. Rock and Rollís about checking your problems at the door. People donít always want to be reminded of their own reality. They want to go out and have fun. This is where we slip in and boogie for Ďem.  

Alan:  What brought you to the UK?

Gwyn:  A bloody big aeroplane! Seriously, my albums were selling better in Europe than Oz. On a whim, a push from my record company and great encouragement and road stories from my friend Peter Wells (Rose Tattoo guitarist who passed away last year), I sold most of my possessions, packed everything else into a container and shipped it on a one-way ticket to England to try it over here. I had no contacts, except for a friend that I could stay with for a little time before getting on my feet. THATíS the blues! It was a three-month shipping so I flew via the USA. Got a ticket to LA and one from New York six weeks later. Iíd never been before. I had six weeks to get myself from West to East. Went to LA, San Francisco, Austin, Marthaís Vineyard (I had a gig booked there from someone who saw me play in Melbourne), New York and then London. This was an experience in survival. Caught trains, planes and buses. I met a LOT of people, jammed with various musicians and got caught in a few situations that I never dreamed of. It was like a movie. I did this on my own and loved the freedom. 

Alan:  Who impressed you musically the most when you first came to the UK?

Gwyn:  Todd Sharpville was the first guy. Heís a real nice player. I did a radio show in Kent back in 1996 with Bert Jansch. Ian Seigal is really cool, too. My first gig was with Peter Green, another hero, at Nth Bucks Folk and Blues fest in 1996. Bernie Marsden was on the bill. Heís killer. Micky Moody, too. Met them with Don Airey at a Snakes gig we played at in Middlesbrough. Don was on my last album, Prohibition, along with Sensational Alex Harvey Bandís Chris Glen and Ted McKenna. I dig Seasick Steve, The Black Keys and The North Mississippi Allstars, but theyíre not from here. 

Alan:  How healthy do you think the blues scene is in the UK compared with Australia?

Gwyn:  Venues are closing everywhere, here and Australia. Thereís more opportunity on a multi-cultural level over here. There are some good players here but there are still players in Australia that scare the shit outta me. We have a big roots and blues thing going on back home and thereís quite a bit of competition. A lot of killer lap slide players, too. I like living here and having easy access to the continent. The trouble is a lot of pub bands think the blues is Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gary Moore, who are great in their own rite but it goes WAY beyond that and you need to trace the roots of it. Itís easy to play a 12 bar but itís also easy to make it sound like shit. I really like Will Killeen. Heís an Irish guitarist who I saw last week. Heís the only guy Iíve seen for a long time who I can sit and watch for an hour. 

Alan:  Tell me about how you got together with drummer Kev Hickman, and why a duo?

Gwyn:  I met Kev about four years ago at a jam night I was running and he came to every single one, still does this day. He showed a lot of promise and his attitude was good so I gave him a bunch of things to listen to: The Band, Little Feat, Allmanís, Hendrix, Rory, Johnny Winter, Muddy Waters, Howliní Wolf, Miles Davis, Buddy Rich, Max Roach. If youíre gonna start an instrument, might as well learn from the best. He does a lot of research too and has shown ME a coupla things! We started playing together last December and weíre rockiní and swinginí real good now. Itís a duo because I got bored with a trio. I never found a bassist who plays like Keith Ferguson and I was having more fun thumbpicking my solo gigs. It was just a blast bringing a drummer in. Now Iím having the most enjoyment Iíve ever had on stage. We arranged certain things to make the duo work and Iíve got an octave pedal to take care of the low end and Iím using a looper. I play bass too and I lay down some octave pedal bass lines while Kev moves the kick patterns around a bit in the solos. Drums are stage-right and Iím on the left. We have visual communication and it rocks. I absolutely LOVE this format and itís a bit more modern, whilst retro. Being different is what makes it work. Iíve even just put a vocal pedalboard together with an echo, a harmonizer and a Boss Bassman pedal to get that ďsinging down a harmonica mic into an ampĒ sound. I might even put another loop pedal into THAT! 

Alan:  With your one-man band shows, what instruments do you use?

Gwyn:  I use a National or Busker resonator guitar, various acoustics, a couple of 12-strings for slide in various tuning, a Weissenborn Hawaiian lap slide, an old EKO Ranger VI with a Dearmond 210 soundhole pickup for slide. In fact several of my acoustic guitars have got the Dearmonds in them and they all have nickel strings. I want to get the same sound as Lightniní Hopkins and all the Mississippi guys got. Iíve got a mic gaffa-taped into a plank of wood for a stomper and I use a loop pedal. Iíve also got a 1940 Rickenbacher Lap Steel that I love. I blow some harp too. 

Alan:  Tell me about the making of your new album 'Two Man Blues Army'.

Gwyn:  Itís a homemade psychedelic, alt. blues, indie, rock power-duo noisefest that I recorded in a workshop on my laptop with a few mics and my friend David Mitson helped engineer. David was chief mastering engineer at Sony in LA for 15 years and he helped re-master their blues catalogue. Heís also worked with everyone from Michael Jackson to The Muppets!

It took me 6 months to learn how to mix it and I formed my own label (fab tone records). We have great distribution in place. We are a small label set up for the sole purpose of getting my material out in the market place whilst maintaining artistic control and integrity, which doesnít always happen when you have other people in control. This is MY life and I know what I want to hear. Weíre not looking to sign anyone else at this stage. As far as this record goes, I finally got the guitar sound down that I wanted to hear. Iíve always suffered from compromise due to studio costs and record company budgets in the past. The songs are all first or second takes and we baffled off the amp from the drums with furniture! We drilled holes in the wall to poke mic cables and there was no soundproofing anywhere. The amps spilled into the drum mics, the drums spilled into the distant guitar mic and it all has this live sound that I love. I hate over-produced music. Phil Spector did it right in 1962. I donít care if the snareís rattling a bit. Itís real honest music. 

Alan:  I read a quote 'Two Man Blues Army is still the blues, but not as we know it' - how do you describe your interpretation of the blues?

Gwyn:  We go into some other territory. We add some country and rock n roll, rockabilly and sometimes it gets downright grungy. One German magazine described it as ďpunk blues.Ē Thatís ok by me. We improvise a hell of a lot and we change feels anywhere either of us feels like it. It can go into double time, half time or from loud and trashy into a hip-hop or reggae feel instantly. We experiment every night and no two shows are the same.  

Alan:  'The Road is My Religion' - how much of a buzz does touring give you?

Gwyn:  Itís in my blood and if I donít go somewhere every couple of weeks I get impatient. I love taking this on the road and seeing people happy. I get itchy feet if I donít go on the road. 

Alan:  Do you still give guitar tutorials and masterclasses?

Gwyn:  Occasionally. Iíd like to do more. We did one recently with our other band. Itís called The Hub. The other members are Robbie Blunt (Robert Plant), Mark Stanway (Magnum), Mo Birch (who has sung with everyone from Culture Club to Paul Rodgers), Marc Michalski (Mud, but we wonít hold that against him!) and, of course, Kev. I did one in Exeter and Ian Jennings (Big Town Playboys, Van Morrison) just happened to be at my soundcheck. He went home and got his upright bass and we did it together. I once did a 26 hour flight from Australia, got picked up at Heathrow at 7am jet-lagged, eyes hanging out of my head and driven home 130 miles. I got into bed and 2 hours later got a phone call reminding me of a masterclass I had to give in London that night that I totally forgot about. Not wanting to let anyone down I jumped in the shower, got dressed drove 130 miles back to London, did the class then drove another 130 miles back home. Never again! 

Alan:  Some music styles may be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do you think that is?

Gwyn:  As I said before, itís life, a heartbeat, itís in the water. You can change stuff around and invent new styles but the roots will always be there. 

Alan:  How do you see the future of blues music?

Gwyn:  Music will always evolve and I think the blues will always be the base of whateverís around. Hip-Hop is the blues or folk music of the ďnowĒ generation. Itís all relevant. Those guys are telling stories of their lives and lifestyles just as the blues guys did in the 1930s. I like to think of music as a big melting pot. Chuck it all in and see if it sounds good. I donít understand bands just regurgitating songs about Chicago and theyíve never been out of Essex or Sydney or wherever! Iím a white guy from a bunch of places, Iíve never picked cotton or been a slave but Iíve been through enough shit to know what MY blues is.  

Alan:  What are your future plans / gigs / tours / albums?

Gwyn:  Weíre getting new songs together for another album. We will play anywhere in the world where there is a stage and people who want to hear us. Iím gonna rock til the day I die.

Alan:  Thank you so much Gwyn , I really appreciate your time.

Alan White  -  earlyblues.com

Gwyn Ashton: Two-Man Blues Army

Album now available - see Gwyn's website for details

www.gwynashton.com

www.myspace.com/gwynashtonmusic

www.myspace.com/gwynashtonsolo

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