On Melbourne’s vibrant blues scene you’ll find more besides grizzled exponents of traditional blues music.
Alongside these virtuosos are exciting artists using their Australian roots and new technology to evolve the blues into the 21st century, while still evoking their many and varied influences.
One of these bluesy young things is Ash Grunwald, a solo artist whose live shows have won him much respect and admiration. But is this the start of something rather bigger?
For those who’ve never seen the one-man-band that is Ash Grunwald in operation, his method of performance bears a mention, beginning with percussion.
“The technology is not that subtle,” says the dredlocked one. “I use the stomp box on my left foot and a tambourine on my right.”
For stomp box, read essentially a miked-up wooden box that he stomps on.
“I also use a foot controlled sampler. I layer in percussion by recording myself hitting my guitars (the sound goes to the sampler via my acoustic pickups) and creating loops on the spot.”
Well, that accounts for the hitting and stomping. But then there’s the slightly more subtle technology that lets him overlay it all and make it into a sound that is distinctively his own.
“I use a Boss phrase looper. It looks pretty much like a normal guitar pedal except it has two pedals, one for record and one to stop. I can layer as many overdubs as I want down. The only tricky bit is that if you stuff up you have to start again because you can’t take a layer away!”
So when Ash does a live show, you really know it’s live. Sometimes he does stuff up and has to start again, but he’ll keep talking through it all, and the audience won’t want to do anything but follow his latest tangential ramblings.
“I try to keep my shows fresh and to me that means no set lists,” says Ash, explaining why he makes his life so difficult. “As the gig flows, different things come up and it’s cool if you can react to them and turn them into funny situations. If something goes wrong it’s good to turn it into a song or a story.”
A case in point was when his DI connection to the PA system caused problems at one recent gig in Melbourne. He made up a song on the spot called I Hate That DI.
“It’s cool if by the end of the gig everybody’s shouting and stomping and having a good time,” he continues. “It’s like you’ve been on a journey together, and it’s a great privilege to lead the journey. You wouldn’t believe how fun that is. I feel really lucky to get to do that for a living.”
Aside from lap steel, dobro, voice and percussion, Ash also “mucks about” with bass, hand percussion and harmonica and has played acoustic and electric guitar when younger. But lap steel and dobro are his things.
“I learned lap steel and dobro completely myself,” he says, humbling your interviewer. “They are easy instruments to play. I switched to the dobro because I wanted to get a bluesier, older sound and incorporate a bit of new school in there as well. I was always a fan of Ben Harper and Jeff Lang so it was only a matter of time. The lap steel leads me on a different musical path to the dobro. It’s not so easy to strum, so I tend to do a couple of more ambient tunes on it. Although I get riffy on both of them.”
And just how riffy might be a surprise to those virtuoso trad blues boys – because Ash is into Jimi Hendrix too, and is not scared of rocking as he picks up the tempo.
“I really got into Hendrix in my mid-teens,” he confirms. “I think he was an absolute genius. I love his Band Of Gypsies albums and his blues playing the most, although he’s got so many great songs… I would love to create something that would blow people away like Voodoo Child blows me away.”
But if you’re not into blues, I ask him, which albums might persuade you that you’re missing out? I already know he’s a huge Muddy Waters fan, but his record collection extends rather further than that.
“When you’re new to blues, if you listen to very old dirty blues, it can take a while to get used to,” he explains. “There’s a certain barrier that you break through after a while and then you start to really dig the soulfullness of it.”
So he recommends… “Howlin’ Wolf. New listeners should start on the London sessions and work their way back. I just love everything the guy does. John Lee Hooker – same thing. Start with newer stuff and work your way back.”
“Albert King. He’s an amazing simple soulful guitarist. And Callard Greens and Gravey from Melbourne. An amazing band – swampy and soulful. And Buddy Guy‘s Sweet Tea album will lead you into the hypnotoc North Mississippi sounds of Junio Kimberough, RL Burnside and T-Model Ford.”
But what about Ash Grunwald? When does the world outside of Australia get to hear him? He says he hears “great things” of Europe, but surely it’s about time Europe heard him?
“I do want to expand my horizons and travel more overseas,” he enthuses. “I also think that with the right amount of hard work, it would pay off.”
But there’s a problem…
“I love touring Australia. I spend a lot of touring time surfing, skating, snowboarding and just checking stuff out. It’s so fun, it’s very hard to leave.”
“It might,” says Ash. “It’s catchy and soulful, and once people are exposed to it they often get addicted to it. It’s also about due for a decent revival. We had the Hendrix/Clapton Brit-blues-rock thing in the late ’60s and since then nothing has changed that dramatically in blues. I hope it does. What I’m doing is kind of a cross between old delta blues, and hip-hop-ish modern roots, so hopefully if there is a blues resurgence I’ll be in on it.”
There’s little doubt he would be. Oh, and one other thing. “If it happens, I’ll buy you a new Jetski for your birthday!”
Dear readers, you know how much I want a Jetski. Make it happen!
Interview – Ash Grunwald
Interview – Ash Grunwald
Ash Grunwald @ Manchester Lane, Melbourne