Australian Musician is pleased to catch up with Aussie expat guitarman Gwyn Ashton once again. Gywn paid his dues in Australia throughout the 80s and 90s playing with local music legends such as Stevie Wright, Jim Keays and Swanee. He left our shores in 1996 and has gigged extensively in the UK, USA and Europe ever since. He’s toured with B.B. King, Johnny Winter, The Yardbirds, Peter Green and has many high profile admirers such as Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant. Prior to his 2016 Australian tour, AM’s Greg Phillips finds Ashton at his kitchen table in London via Skype.
Travel and music. It’s been a solid combination since the middle ages, when medieval troubadours journeyed from village to village and occasionally performed in other lands. For some musicians, the love of travel is more a part of their DNA than others. They’re just wired for it. UK-based, Australian blues rock guitarist, singer and songwriter Gwyn Ashton is a case in point. Since his last Australian tour at the beginning of 2105 Ashton has driven across Europe three times and played fifteen different countries on each occasion. It’s an annual ritual. As we spoke to him, he was organising his February-April Australian dates while packing his bags for the NAMM music trade show in California. So well-travelled is Gwyn that this year, the adventure-magnet found himself in a place that most of us will never be … no mans land! Quite literally he was stuck in a 100 metre stretch of land between two countries, on the planet but officially nowhere.
“We were touring through The Balkans,” Gwyn begins to explain. “We got to Bosnia and found out that you had to have a list of all of your equipment and specify each item that you have in your possession. The border controls consider that more than one guitar in your possession means that you must be selling and you have to pay tax on the equipment. To get into Croatia, I had to bribe them with CDs and I had to show them YouTube videos of me playing each guitar. I’d still be there now if I didn’t do that. By the time we got to Montenegro, the border patrol wanted to see my list of items again. They looked at it and said that it wasn’t an official government list but were willing to let me out on the condition that I didn’t come back in again. One hundred metres down the road was the border to the next country and they looked at my list and said we can’t let you in, you will have to go back. We said we can’t go back because they won’t let us back in, to which they replied, we can’t do anything about that. In that hundred metre neutral zone where I was stuck, there was a hotel. My agent, who I’d brought along to sort this type of thing out if required, went up there and used their wi-fi to call the owner of the venue for the gig that night. The venue owner’s godfather was a high ranking police officer and he had to call the border police to let us in. He said by the way, the border guys had wanted a bribe and wanted a lot of money from you and it is good that you didn’t do that.” Gwyn continued on his merry way, played the gig that night, then headed to France for a Ten Years After support the next night. It also happened to be the night of the terrorist attacks in Paris. Fortunately, Gwyn’s gig was a hundred miles away from the horror.
With the travels come the stories. With the stories come the songs. An instrumental he wrote called ‘Duchsov’ was penned in the town of Duchsov in the Czech Republic. “It’s a pretty dangerous place,” he says of Duchsov. “The hotel I was staying at was Hotel Casanova. Casanova was from there. It’s a pretty big hotel but they have barbed wire fences around it to keep the gypsies out. I was stuck there for a couple of days so I wrote that song.”
The instrumental is one of three which will appear on ‘Ragas, Jugs & Mojo Hands’, a soon to be released album which he recorded with fellow SA musician Chris Finnen and Melbourne based-bass player Peter Beulke. “Another instrumental on the album is called ‘Moravian Rhapsody’,” he continues. “Moravia is also in the Czech Republic. It’s in the east. To the west is Bohemia, but that song was already taken,” he laughs.
Gwyn had first met Chris Finnen in 1978 in Christies Beach, South Australia, where he grew up and the pair immediately clicked. Finnen had the honour of inducting Gwyn Ashton into the South Australian Music Hall of Fame last year and suggested to Gywn that they should record an album while he was in town. “I had my laptop with me and I went out and bought an interface and we borrowed a bunch of microphones,” says Gwyn. “The night before we did the sessions, I went around to my father’s house and he gave me a microphone. Dad used to work in radio. It was this old AKG D12 microphone which was perfect to mic up Pete Beulke’s upright bass. He had no idea that I really needed that microphone. We got together in Chris’ living room. He made a curry and we just sat down and recorded with his guitars and bits of percussion, banjoes and a bunch of cool gear. I brought it back to the UK because I like the luxury of doing my own tracking and not worrying about studio time. We didn’t prepare for the recording. It was one song after another, like … what have you got next? I’d play a song, he’d play a song until we got ten tracks down.”
‘Ragas, Jugs & Mojo Hands’ is exactly what it sounds like, a couple of guys sitting around trading licks on personality-filled old instruments such as resonators, Weissenborns, and assorted acoustic guitars. Adding to the vibe is Beulke’s sublime upright bass and Finnen’s collection of more exotic gear such as chumbush, dumbuka, cajon, and clay pot. Also left in the final mix is a lot of between-song banter which perfectly suits the style of the recording. “I brought all the files back on a hard drive and took them to a friend in Reading and he mixed it for me,” explains Gwyn. “He said, I love the vibe of this, we have to leave some of the banter in there and it makes it all sound so live.”
Making great use of his time in Adelaide and the availability of Peter Beulke, Gwyn also recorded some electric material. “Pete Beulke came over from Melbourne to play on the album but in the day time, we went into the studio Mixmasters in Adelaide and we put down a couple of electric tracks with Swanee, Dave Blight on harmonica, Mick Morena on drums and Pete on bass. After that we went around to Chris’ place, ate the curry and made the acoustic record.” Ragas, Jugs & Mojo Hands has been completed and is due for release to coincide with the Australian tour. The electric recording however, is a work in progress.
Gwyn will no doubt slot some of the new ‘Ragas, Jugs’ material into his set when he tours Australia again from early February through until early April but if he does it will be on a whim rather than a plan. “I don’t really have set lists,” he tells me. “I play what I feel like. I will chuck in some new things though. I actually have one or two gigs with Chris Finnen, one at Motor City Festival in Geelong and we might even do some more recording.” Toward the end of his Aussie tour, there’s one gig in particular he is looking forward to performing. On April 7th, he will be playing with UK vocal legend Graham Bonnet at The Gov in Adelaide, further adding to his already impressive resume.
Gwyn has just played yet another special gig in the UK. While he was touring through Europe, Gwyn received a call from a guy named Sticky Wicket, a drummer who has played with many British music legends. It’s not widely known that Gwyn currently owns a drum kit which formerly belonged to Black Sabbath drummer Bill Ward. Bill recorded the song “Paranoid’ on this kit. It turns out that Sticky is an old friend of Ward’s and owns the snare which belongs to the kit. “I got a call from this guy Sticky Wicket, a drummer who played with Chris Barber, a jazzman over here and he also has a 17 piece swing orchestra,” Gwyn says. “He was a good friend of Bill Ward from Black Sabbath. He was supposed to get the drum kit that I have got. He had the snare drum from the kit and I had the rest of the kit. He asked if he could come and look at the kit. I told him I was playing tomorrow night, and said why don’t you come along and have a jam. So he came and had a jam and we put the kit together. He has played with Steve Marriot and Humble Pie, Rory Gallagher, Bryan Ferry.” Bouyed by that initial jam, Sticky and Gwyn got together again on January 14 in Stourport, with the complete kit for a full gig. “It’s been a very interesting year,” says Gwyn.
Watch a video from the Sticky Wicket gig here:
Visit www.gwynashton.com for Australian tour dates and to purchase his music
GWYN ASHTON: ESSENTIAL BLUES RECORDINGS YOU NEED TO HEAR
• My first album was The Blues Breakers with John Mayall and Eric Clapton. From that I went back and discovered where he got it all from.
• There’s a live Muddy Waters album which is really hard to get. It’s on Charly Records I think. it’s from around 1976, live in Chicago. A text book for playing the blues, especially the bass. Kelvin Jones was just fantastic on that.
• Hound Dog Taylor maybe. Some cool Buddy Guy stuff too …. and Lightnin’ Hopkins.