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INTERVIEW – Ash Grunwald, January 2014

| 15 February 2014 | Reply

INTERVIEW – Ash Grunwald, January 2014
By Shane Pinnegar

Ash Grunwald spent most of 2013 recording the Gargantua album and touring with Scott Owen & Andy Strachan from The Living End, so 2014 finds him itching to get back out there as a solo performer with a mini-tour of WA’s south west taking in The Indi Bar on Wednesday 5 Feb, The Prince Of Wales in Bunbury on the 6th, Settlers Tavern in Margaret River on Friday 7 Feb, Fremantle’s Fly By Night Club on the 8th and finally the Ravenswood Hotel on the 9th.

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“Yeah, it’s an exciting little window at the moment,” he says enthusiastically, “after doing the thing with the boys from the Living End and playing like a rock three piece for a year. It’s really good. The last three months or something, I wasn’t playing many gigs, just doing a gig here or there, so I had time to reflect and practice and learn and pick up a new instrument – I started playing the harmonica – and you know, just see my music from a distance in a way and think about some of the things that I enjoy. Yeah, it feels good and fresh.”

Ash says that after years of being pretty much a one-man band, the experience of being part of a rock power trio changed the way he looks at his solo work.

“Yeah it did. I mean, I did a couple of years of band stuff before [my solo career], then I did The Living End thing,” he explains, “but with the old band stuff, I played like I was playing solo anyway and added percussion and other elements, so this was the first time I added elements that meant that I stopped playing a lot of what I normally play, so it was a big steep learning curve and just in terms of guitar playing, you know to have that responsibility to uh… it’s ironic because people think that solo is more responsibility, but once you’ve done that for 10 years and it’s just so natural to you to hold down, kind of, everything, you are not really expected to do anything crazy solos or anything like that. But you know, then I found myself in that position. It was fun because I went back to, kind of, my teen years of dreaming of being a Hendrix styled guitar hero!

“So, I let myself go and just had fun with that and practiced playing the guitar so I could do a good solo again. It was really good, and it was really mainly good because those guys were such good players that it wasn’t like, I didn’t feel like it was a rehash or something that’s been done a million times before. Because that was my concern with playing with a three-piece power trio setup – I swore I would never do it because it’s just been done, you know, whereas the solo thing is more original.

“So I was sort of basically tired of it, and I was part of a movement of a handful of guys, you know, coming through that route where it really did feel like a fresh sound. So, yeah, it’s fun because I love the eras that I’ve had with my music. I feel really lucky, like I was playing with Vikka and Linda [Bull] for a while and that really was, to me, all about vocals, so I got to use my vocal singing. And I have since used hip hop producers and that was really all about beats and trying to do something, I guess, different in the genre.

“So, I just think you bring in different elements and felt like it’s not like you changed the core of what you do at all, but it just gives it a different perspective and it’s all about, a bit of self-interest, in that it’s all about my own learning, but I just feel that if the artist keeps it fresh for themselves and exciting, then they will make something fresh and exciting, hopefully.”

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There’s no doubt that Grunwald revels in working with different collaborators and genres and tries to push himself in different musical directions – and that’s something that isn’t going to change in a hurry.

“Yeah, I think that’s important and there’s an irony there sometimes,” he laughs. “The more you mess around, the less you sort of need to change the core of what you do to make that interesting and exciting to yourself and other people, and I do feel like the core of what I do doesn’t ever really change.

“But, if you want to keep playing music,” he continues emphatically, “and keep making music that’s fresh and interesting, you do have to mess around. Like, I guess this next studio album that I’m working on will be my eighth studio album, so that’s the eighth time I’m going, ‘Now what the hell am I’m going to write about, what the hell am I going to play that I haven’t played before?’, you know.”

Grunwald is one of the most exploratory of Australian blues & roots performers, fusing the genre with newer styles by putting loops and beats into the traditional framework, and it’s obvious he considers music to be a constantly evolving, living thing.

“I do,” he agrees, “and I also feel like, as time goes on – I mean, the album is almost dead, I mean, I see that as a bad thing actually, but, the positive of that is that we are surrounded by music now and we change things and the production changes, you know. Like: next song, it’s Little Richard in the ‘60s, oh, we are just listening to some dance music that just came out last week. Now, you know, listening to Little Richard, now we are listening to this, now we’re listening to that… and the style, where it’s coming from geographically, what era it was written in, changes the next song and so, we’re listening to massive variations.

“So it has probably created a little bit of change to jump around. I think, as an artist, I could – we could all do to think of that more and think, do whatever you feel like. Don’t muck around and don’t second guess yourself all the time and kind of wreck it for yourself trying to… I must say, although I have changed stuff a lot over the years, I still have held myself back a lot from doing that and I don’t even k now that you need to. You should enjoy it to do whatever you feel like.”

If Grunwald’s meaning here is unclear, it’s because he’s working it out for himself as he says it. In his own words, “this whole conversation is probably a little bit of therapy as well”, but he’s saying that he has the freedom to be as diverse as he wants to be, to try new things and have faith that his instinct will ensure that he is on track and his fan base will stick with him.

“And [I have to] think about that sometimes,” he muses, “and go, ‘well, you’ve got this far, your instinct must be right, just do it.’ It’s funny because I still do agonize whenever I’m in the place I’m in right now, which is the song-writing phase and demoing and stuff like that, and probably every album I go into, apart from my first where I didn’t really have a clue, every other album I’m always sort of, yeah, agonizing and thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll never come up with a cool song again,’ and then as luck would have it, it tends to happen in the end…”

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Despite all the exploration and soul-searching, Grunwald insists his roots will never stray far from the blues.

“I’ll never the change core of what I do,” he says, “it will always be pretty frank [stuff] I’m writing, I guess, and pretty musically bluesy even if the bells and whistles are, you know, some crazy different thing.

“I’m still yet to write a song in a major key as such, which means, for people who don’t really know music in that way, it’s never going to be musically, ‘ding, ding, ding’, uh, like happy, like a nursery rhyme or anything like that. It’s always pretty minor-y or pretty bluesy, I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”

Grunwald is well known for tackling cover versions in new and interesting ways, from old Delta & Chicago blues tunes through to Chain’s OzBlues masterpiece Black And Blue, and Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy. He says even when relaxing and listening to music part of his brain is always tuned into catching a spark for what he might be able to do with a song.

“Yes, there’s a lot of that that goes on, constantly.” He says. “You know, you’re always constantly thinking – you don’t think you are working on an album but then it comes around to the time when you look, and you have been working on an album all that time and thinking about what you can do, and the same goes for covers.

“For me, I’m always scanning about what I can do next. You’re right, I love covers and yeah, I might even do more in the future because I reckon people get a kick out of it. It’s great to have original music, I think that’s what it is all about and it’s great, songwriting, but if an original band [has] written songs that mean things to people, then it becomes really interesting to hear their covers of different songs. I always get a kick out of it.”

As the conversation turns to the WA Tour, Grunwald says he’s got a bit of an idea what he’ll be playing.

“I think definitely I’ll be putting in The Last Stand,” he says thoughtfully, “which was the single from Gargantua because, well, you know the last time I went around WA and all around Australia, I showed a little mini film at the start of the gig about me interviewing people in Australia’s Coal Steam Gas fields, and I’m still very passionate about helping people in [that area] and since I’ve put that stuff up and just, with the change of government and everything, it just seems like it’s full steam ahead to divide up the country and cut the country up.

“So, I would feel a little silly and superficial not to do that song and maybe a couple of other politically motivated ones and then the rest is like, good time party music, at this stage. The good thing about playing solo is that it is really up to your mood and the mood of the crowd so, I’ll just proooooooobably just play it by ear…

“There might be a few bluesier ones in there so that I can keep practicing my harp a little bit,” he adds.

A multi-instrumentalist already, I wonder if he’s had a crack at any instruments unsuccessfully. It doesn’t sound like it…

“Well, I can play drums pretty well,” he says, “I can keep a beat on drums, but I’ve never really been able to do rolls or anything like that and if I’m jamming, like no-one’s listening too hard, I can do a little solo on the old Joanna [piano] in a jamming sense, but I can’t really play the piano or anything like that.

“I’ve avoided the harp for a long time because I’m almost feel, ‘Ah… it’s too predictable for a solo guy and the harmonica’ but I just wanted something that was new that wasn’t me mixing with a synth or it wasn’t some computer-y recast kind of thing, you know, I wanted something that was new and organic because I haven’t done that for a very long time.

“Normally everything new is new technologically so it’s been really interesting. But, that’s made me feel like when I was a teenager and I was learning to play guitar, because I’ve listened to so much blues for so long, recorded albums with Chris Wilson and Ian Collard – two of the best harmonica players in Australia. My ears are good for it, so as soon as I get the skill level up to a level that will be pretty fun.”

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From business perspective, Grunwald considers himself lucky to be able to do this for a living as he realises it doesn’t keep many people afloat.

“Well, I’ve been pretty lucky,” he agrees, “I think it’s very hard to be a musician because everyone wants to be one and I sit around sometimes with friends who are in the industry and we sort of look around and go, ‘wow, we are just so lucky.’ There are so many great musicians around, but not many people slip through those cracks and just have the right mix of being in the right place at the right time and tenacity and whatever it takes to be in that position that they are able to be financially prosperous and artistically prosperous. So I feel very fortunate. I think if you’re hard working, it helps too, you know.”

With time running out, I want to know if the Gargantua collaboration with Scott and Andy of The Living End achieved the goals Grunwald had set for in his own mind.

“Yeah it did,” he says without hesitation. “It was so… I’ve never done anything near as spontaneous as that, you know. I’m self-managed [so] it’s always pretty much spontaneous, but we were only planning to do a tour and before we knew it, we’ve done an album and we are releasing it and they had a song on the radio and this and that, and it got to be more than we intended it to be.

“You know, there got to be this funky line between the guys getting up and having a jam with me and it being a side project. The expectations, uhm, I don’t even know – I have to find out how many it sold thus far and all that business, but yeah, I think it was really good. It was kind of … the boys… they got to do something different from their end; in the last year [The Living End only had] a handful of gigs because of Chris being in L.A., so they were in that phase where they were not doing a hell of a lot, and for me it’s neat for the audience to experience them.

“Our version of Crazy was play listed on Triple M all around the country and we were doing sort of TV slots and different things. I’ve done a little bit of that in the past, but I’ve never been play listed on Triple M and stuff like that. So, [it was] a bit more in the mainstream and I think that was obviously due to the boys’ reputation and what you were saying before, doing a good cover is sometimes a good move. It was good from a lot of perspectives.

‘I think the best thing was actually quite legitimately the music though – it was very different, although it was some of [Grunwald’s older solo] material, the level of push was different and that rhythm section just, they got on top of it and they lift you up musically and push you forward and that’s great.”

It sounds like if for no other reason the Gargantua project was a raging success in that it’s instilled Grunwald with a real fire in the belly to get back out there as a solo artist and take his music in yet another new direction.

“Absolutely.” He agrees. “You want things that inspire you and ignite things and not drain you and make you feel like it’s all too hard. Yes, I feel fired up and excited to be out there on the road. Originally, I was going to have sort a bit of a hiatus this year, but at the moment I’m thinking when I get back from overseas, you know later in the year, I will want to play as much as I can just to get that solo show really up and running and get that harp playing really good.”



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