Iron Fist Magazine

ASHBURY INTERVIEW: “WE HAD NO INTEREST IN PROSTITUTING OURSELVES OVER A RECORDING CONTRACT”

Epic hard rockers ASHBURY have been enjoying renewed popularity in recent times, thanks to the rediscovery of their private-press LP from ’83, ‘ENDLESS SKIES’; a true lost-classic of melodic hard rock which marries the melody of Wishbone Ash with the delicate vocal lines of James Taylor and the grandiose scope of heavy metal. In light of this much-deserved renaissance, the band has regrouped for several successful appearances at metal festivals on both sides of the Atlantic. Now, this weekend will see Ashbury tread the boards at Frost & Fire II Festival in Ventura, California. JAMES BLACKFORD caught up with band-leading brothers, ROB and RANDY DAVIS to revisit ‘Endless Skies’ and survey the band’s long history…

ON DISCOVERING MUSIC…
Rob:
“Our Dad was in the Army, so we moved around a lot, living in France for three years, as well as in Oklahoma and Georgia. Dad played guitar and loved Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, Elvis and Fats Domino. He owned a state-of-the-art Telefunken stereo and bought records every week, so growing up we didn’t watch TV, we just listened to music. Music and family were Dad’s passions in life, although his first attempts to get us to play guitar were useless! We had no interest, preferring sports to music. I first tried the trumpet in grade school but soon became bored whilst Randy began playing drums aged nine and showed amazing musical ability, from the start. Next came ‘forced’ piano lessons, which only lasted a few months before Randy moved on to bass guitar aged 12, and then on to guitar. By 15 he was showing his talent and throughout high-school devoted all of his time to developing his skills, teaching himself by listening to a wide variety of music – his favourite being hard rock. I began playing guitar at 18, at Randy’s insistence, and that’s when we began working on our harmony vocals. In 1976 Randy moved from Tucson to Oklahoma and began playing country in a house band… he hated it!”

ON STARTING A BAND…
Rob: “Randy was playing in this country band four nights a week when he met the leader of a local rock band, Rigid Spur. He joined the band, and began playing every Friday and Saturday night around Oklahoma. I then moved to Oklahoma to become their sound engineer. Unfortunately, the drummer and bass player were not interested in touring, so I soon returned to Arizona, whilst Randy and guitarist/vocalist Paul Werner made plans for a new band, upgraded their sound system and built their own light show. Randy contacted Noal Morris, a bass player acquaintance, and Tom Clayton, an old friend and drummer in Tucson, and in January 1978 Ashbury South was born, soon becoming a working band playing covers of Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Kansas, Styx and Aerosmith. I returned as sound engineer and the band soon became an accomplished live act with four lead harmony vocalists and dual-lead guitars. In late 1979 Paul Werner shattered his leg in an accident, the band disbanded, and Randy and I moved back to Tucson in the early spring of 1980.
“After Ashbury South disbanded, we decided to relocate back to Tucson and look for musicians to form a new, harder rock band. We began playing acoustic shows five nights a week just to make a living while searching for the right players. The acoustic show was popular but not something we looked at as a long term venture. We found drummer Dave Carpenter, guitarist Lee Smith and former Ashbury South member Noal Morris came out from Oklahoma to play bass. We began performing as Ashbury, debuting at the legendary Choo-Choo’s [The Night Train], which was the premiere showcase club in the State. Many star performers played there including Leslie West of Mountain, Steppenwolf, Head East, Black-Oak Arkansas, and Spirit. After spending a few weeks as a house band in Tucson, we received an invitation to perform at Battle-of-the-Bands in Phoenix, hosted and judged by the rock station KDKB-FM. We won the thing on the strength of Randy’s guitar skills but were still playing covers at that time. Without original music we knew we would never have a real identity as a band, and we’d worked with enough musicians to realise that a good player and a good songwriter are very different things. I had already written ‘Madman’ and an epic poem titled ‘Endless Skies’, which Randy would later rework and put to music, but now I began thinking of expanding the song writing.”

ON RECORDING ‘ENDLESS SKIES’
Rob: “We were very picky about the studio and engineer, choosing Westwood Studio in Tucson and Roger King as the engineer, whom we had worked with previously on some demo work. The recording process took place in January, 1983, and mixing was done in February. We mastered the album in Phoenix at the Mastering Plant. The tracks were recorded one instrument at a time. Drum tracks took 13 hours and then Randy took over with bass, electric rhythm guitars, electric lead and dual leads and classical guitar. I added acoustic guitar, keyboard synthesizer and finally the vocals and backing vocals. Jerry Van Dielen, a high school friend of Randy’s was brought in to play the piano passage on ‘Endless Skies’, which I now play live. The entire process was a roller-coaster ride, working fervently and pitting time against money. The down side was we never thought about capturing the recording process in pictures, for posterity. We weren’t concerned with ‘Hey look at us, we’re recording an album’, but rather getting a good finished product on our limited budget. So, no pictures exist from the sessions or of the beautiful studio.”

ON THEIR MUSICAL INFLUENCES…
Randy: “Jethro Tull was a major influence for both of us, although we never had any desire to add a flute to the instrumentation! Beyond that, our influences varied greatly; I leaned more in a hard rock direction; Rob more to the acoustic style. Overall, we listened to many bands… hard rock, Southern rock and lighter acoustic artists, including James Taylor. ‘Endless Skies’ was a merger of these styles; Rob’s acoustic writing with my full arrangements, incorporating electric rhythm guitar, dual leads and harmony vocals. One of our financial backers – who also came up with the Ashbury Rocker logo – was a heavy metal fan at the time. He suggested we write a song with a ‘metal edge’. I had my guitar in hand and immediately took off on the opening riff of ‘Vengeance’. Rob added the melody line and lyrics, loosely based on ‘Lord Of The Rings’… the Dark Lord… the Nine Rings and Black Riders. and the song was completely finished within 15-20 minutes. We got a big thumbs up! It’s probably one of the most popular songs on the album with metal fans.”

ON INSISTING THEIR RECORD BE PRESSED ON VINYL…
Randy: “I was determined to have the very best quality available. The cover itself was printed on textured paper, which was so expensive at the time that almost no one used it. However it made the colours so vivid we ignored the cost. To protect the textured paper and quality of the cover, we had the albums wrapped in a heavy plastic sleeve instead of shrink-wrap. To this day those original pressings still look beautiful and new. The vinyl was ‘virgin-vinyl’, the heaviest available. To this day the vinyl has held up without warping, and the cover still looks fantastic! We only pressed 1,000 copies. We wanted them to hold up for years and years. It was an expensive process to manufacture and package, but they have held up so well that the 1983 original ‘Endless Skies’ LP has become an expensive and highly sought after collector’s item.”

ashbury2ON THAT INCREDIBLE ARTWORK…
Randy: “We knew exactly what we wanted. The trick was finding an artist who could bring it to life. The guy that did our logo knew an artist named Ernie Polo, who was painting a wall mural in a local mall. We described to him what we wanted and he painted the original on canvas, quite a bit larger than an album cover. We were very happy when he unveiled the painting; no changes at all were needed.”

ON THE ALBUM’S RECEPTION UPON RELEASE IN 1983…
Rob: “’Endless Skies’ received praise from local radio stations including KXCI-FM in Tucson, which began giving it airplay immediately and asked for an on-air interview. They compared it to Jethro Tull and the Moody Blues, and commended the musical performances and song writing. KSTM-FM awarded Endless Skies the ‘Arizona Album of the Year’ in 1983 and 1984 (no, we were not friends with anyone at the station!). Tower Records were also impressed and gave the album distribution to their stores, even though this was a private pressing and they usually only carried major label releases. I took the album to LA to pitch to the major labels. Most just sent a letter saying they had no interest. Polydor was different; they scheduled a meeting and made an offer… for us to completely change what we were doing. They didn’t want to release ‘Endless Skies’ or even for us to re-record it with their producer. They wanted to shelve it and start again with something very different. They liked my writing, Randy’s guitar work and loved our harmony vocals but wanted to give us a much more commercial identity and sound, think England Dan & John Ford Coley. My reaction was negative; I explained that we had no interest in prostituting ourselves for a recording contract. Their reply was ‘We’ll make you rich and famous’. When I reiterated that we had no interest in that, he said, ‘You don’t want a career in music very much, do you?’ My final statement was ‘We’re not wearing make-up and pretending to be someone we’re not’. That was the end of our interest in major label record companies!”

ON THEIR HIATUS…
Rob: “After recording in January and February 1983, the album was released in late May. We relocated to Phoenix from Tucson and there formed an excellent five-piece band capable of performing ‘Endless Skies’ perfectly live. In very little time we had written another album’s worth of material, which was added to our live show. Unfortunately, we were not having the level of success that we should have had. I was the first to lose interest based on the disgusting state of commercial music in the US – we despise Michael Jackson! In hindsight, we should have gone straight to Europe at that time… however I decided to leave and that’s a decision I still regret. The band broke up and we went our separate ways. I became a major market DJ in Phoenix while Randy returned to Tucson having lost faith in music as a business. Randy continued to play and write music, but it would be years before we would start recording and taking music seriously again.”

ON THE 2010 ALBUM ‘SOMETHING FUNNY GOING ON’…
Rob: “’Something Funny Going On’ was never intended as a commercial release. It started out with Randy recording a couple of songs he had written in his home studio. At the time our father was ill and not expected to live much longer so we decided to record some songs that were favourites of his. Then we decided to put some songs we had written for Ashbury together and we recorded them. We put them all together in an album format and my son worked up the cover art and layout, and put it on CD. We only duplicated 100 copies on CD-R format, intended for local fans, friends and family. However after Rockadrome Records did the ‘Endless Skies’ reissue on CD in 2007, word got out that there was another Ashbury album available. Eventually we gave in and had the CD replicated and it is available from Rockadrome and our website. We’ve had a good response and strong sales, even in the metal community.”

ON THE ‘ENDLESS SKIES REISSUE’…
Randy: “We were very pleased with the vinyl re-issue of ‘Endless Skies’. Many different labels wanted to do it, both in the US and in Europe, but we stayed with Rockadrome Records who did the first reissue on CD and we have remastered the album two more times for subsequent pressings and replications. It was a fast sell-out; the coloured vinyl sold-out in pre-orders.”

ON THEIR COMEBACK SUCCESS…
Rob: “Ashbury being embraced by the heavy metal community has been great, beyond words! The greatest and most adamant fans we have are those that love this genre and our favourite shows are the metal festivals. At a show in Tucson in 2013, some metal fans came from out of state. We also had local fans there that were not metal fans, sitting at tables to enjoy the music, while our metal fans swarmed the stage. One girl asked ‘What’s wrong with those people – they’re just sitting there!’ That’s the best account we can give of the difference in genres! We brought back Johnny Ray [drummer on ‘Endless Skies’] for some reunion shows in 2013, which included Hammer Of Doom in Germany, and Ragnarökkr Metal Apocalypse, in Chicago. The shows were extremely well received and enjoyable for us, but the best part was finally meeting long time fans who expressed their delight over seeing ‘Endless Skies’ performed live; which many said they never expected would ever happen. We’re extremely pleased to be included in so many metal festivals, being that we are not a metal band. I would describe Ashbury as an epic rock band, so we are very fortunate to be included in shows that truly have the best fans in the world. Keep It True and Muskelrock will be the highlights for this year and we are looking forward to being there amongst the outstanding line-ups these festivals always deliver! Our biggest thanks goes to the fans who still get excited about hearing ‘Endless Skies’ performed live. And the future…? We’ll continue to play music and see where providence and inspiration lead us. There is another album’s worth of material written, which definitely leans toward the style of ‘Endless Skies’, which we hope to finish recording and release soon. We want to thank everyone who continues to keep the music alive and who keep ‘Endless Skies’ still going strong, even after 32 years now!”

originally printed in Iron Fist #15

 

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