Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Interview & Review: Ashbury at Keep It True Festival XX

Louise of Born Again meets with Rob Davis of Ashbury at Keep It True XX to talk about the best fans in the world, their place in the heavy metal scene and everything we can expect from Ashbury in the coming years, including info on their upcoming album. 

Louise Dornan: Well, welcome back. 
Rob Davis: Thank you very much, it's great to be back here at Keep it True for the 20th anniversary.
Louise: How is it to return after your last show?
Rob: Even more exciting than the first time. It seems that we're meeting more old friends than before, and the welcome is even warmer this time. We've had so many more vinyl re-issues that now I got more things to sign, which makes it more fun.
Louise: You've had a lot in-between! How does it feel to be so embraced by the European heavy metal scene? Is it overwhelming?
Rob: It's always overwhelming and in some ways, it's still a little bit of an enigma, because we are not a metal band. I feel like the hybrid cousin of the metal community because we are not a metal band, yet we are welcomed, embraced and treated like we are just one of the family. So, it's really wonderful.
Louise: What was it that made you realise that there was a surge in popularity for Ashbury and Endless Skies?
RobIt all started about 20 years ago, when record collectors started contacting my brother and I and wanting to know if they could get a hold of large amounts of the original 1983 vinyl. And when someone wants 100 copies, you know they are not keeping that for themselves. So, we asked “What are you doing with all of these?” and he goes “You've got quite a cult following in Europe”.
Louise: Was it one particular person or were there quite a few?
RobIt started out as one particular person, he was a collector in San Diego (California). He was the first one that contacted us and wanted to buy large amounts and we sold him a box of 50. Ten days later he called up and he wanted another one.
Louise: What year was that?
Rob: It was 1997
Louise: And it all spiralled from there?
Rob: Yes, to expand a little bit Louise, we never signed. Our objective in '83 with the album was to sign with a major label. Because there was no Internet, it was very hard to self promote and just from our own personal decisions we had no interest in signing with a small or moderate label. We weren't interested in that, we wanted a big label, and the big labels wanted to change us into something else. They didn't want what we had done with Endless Skies, they wanted to exploit our song writing and vocal harmonies to a real commercial sort of romantic love song type of duo. So, we never signed with anyone. We've never signed with a label.
Louise: But now you've made it here!
RobIt's all happened without doing that, it's happened just from the fans keeping the music alive, which makes the fans seem so much more important to us and so much more personal.
Louise: You seem to play regularly at home. How do those shows compare to these?
Rob: Well, what we do at home also besides playing as the full band Ashbury, my brother and I do what I call our musical day job, where we play a two piece show, just acoustic guitar and it's a lot of throwback covers. We play in restaurants and bars and get paid well so we can stay as musicians. By doing that, I don't have to go on the road at my age and tour...as much as I would like to, because if you do the math we did Endless Skies in '83 which is 34 years ago. It's easy to tell that I'm not young enough where I want to stay on the road for six months at a time.
Louise: That was actually my next question, have you ever had any thoughts about a headline US or European tour?
Rob: Yes, and it's still a possibility as long as my health holds up. Right now, we're concentrating on a new album, but we would definitely love to do something like that and play for more fans. Honestly, I can tell you right now, we have a lot of requests from several countries in Europe; Spain, Switzerland, Italy, some of the places that we haven't been yet, to come there and put together a whole tour. Right now, I'm looking for somebody who knows a bit more about it, I'm not a good band manager and yet it falls to me to do that. That's not one of my strong points, so to do something like that I'd have to hook up with somebody. Right now, Oliver Weinsheimer of Keep It True, just as a personal favour and because he's a fan of the band, has stepped in and helped us do some things and helping out with things like that. We have so many people treating us so nice, so many people reaching out to help; it's overwhelming, it's heart-warming and I almost get choked up trying to talk about it, because people are so good to us. We get treated as good as anyone can be treated.
We're welcomed with open arms at this festival. Bands that we've played with like Jag Panzer and Exciter and such, the fans, you can see them, are just rocking out. You can see the energy pouring out of them. And with us they come up to and go “You're the only band that's made me cry”. So, they're hard rocking, and with us they're standing there, singing and crying tears. It's a whole different thing, see, we're on the other side of the spectrum.
Louise: Has coming into the European heavy metal scene made you see your music in a different way?
RobIt's just made us feel very much more fortunate. It hasn't made us think that we need to be more like a metal band, because then we are not being true to ourselves or our writing. We stick with what we've always done; we write music from the heart and the soul. We leave the kick-butt metal to those that are already doing it. We'll stay on the road that we do and not try to become something that we're not. It seems to work right now, it's what the fans want.
Louise: Is it strange to be part of the heavy metal scene even though you're not a heavy metal band?
Rob: It's wonderful because it's the best fans in the world. We had a show in Tuscon (Arizona) one time; we had the metal fans come in from California, and they are up at the front of the stage you know. They're looking back at the people sitting down at the tables and having the waitresses bringing them drinks, saying, “What's wrong with you people? You're just sitting there!”. They're just not people who listen to metal, they like rock music, but they're not into the metal actions, so there is that contrast. But we love the metal fans the most. There's nothing like it, nothing like the energy they give you, the love they give you. There's just nothing like it. It is the best, to be included in that is a privilege, it's an honour. It fills us with humility and pride.
Louise: Who do you listen to the most and has it changed over the years or stayed pretty steady?
Rob: I listen to a lot more of the bands that we've played with; I just met the guitarist from Medieval Steel and told him “Hey, I've been listening to you guys on Spotify”. So there might have been some bands that would have just gone past me. Other than that, I still listen to a lot of classic rock. Jethro Tull has always been a big influence. I was listening to Black Sabbath when I was 17 years old and that was a huge influence, not that I could ever sound anything like them, but their music just moved me, it captured me. And, some of the bands that I call the Godfathers of metal; I even think Jethro Tull was a godfather of metal. Also, Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, I still listen to all of that, all the classic rock. It's so easy for me to find new music as well now, the Internet makes it so easy to discover new bands and new-old bands.
Louise: So, you're writing some new music now, does it feel any different to writing music in the early 00s and the 80s?
RobNot really, but we have listened to the fans, they want something more like Endless Skies, and that's a big request. We can't re-create it, that can't be done, you can only record one album one time. But, at the same time we have tried to re-capture the feel of what the fans want and with staying true to our own music, our own writing style. We think that we are going to present much more of an album comparable to Endless Skies.
Louise: Is there any release date in mind?
Rob: We're planning on a late summer/early fall release. The album is completely written, completely arranged and it's going to be called Ashbury-Through the Eye of the Stygian Witches. It will have a song called 'Eye of the Stygian Witches', some of the other titles are 'Faceless Waters', 'Good Guitar', 'Celtic Cross', 'Out Of The Blue' and 'End Of All Time'.
M Godding:  Just touching on that, will there be instrumentals in between songs as done previously?
Rob: I think we only have one planned for this album. Randy (Davis) has written a song that we are keeping completely acoustic, with vocals. To me, it's by far the best melody he has ever written. He's also written one which we are going to debut here at Keep It True; 'Faceless Waters'. It is the closest thing, we weren't trying to do anything out of our style, but it's got a little bit of a Robin Trower blues to it and at the end it's the closest thing to heavy metal that we've ever done. That's the best way I can describe it. I hope you don't hear it and think “What? They didn't live up to that!” (laughs). We got the title from travelling over to Keep It True last time when we were flying over, at about 500 miles off the coast of Ireland, just looking down it came to Randy “I'm looking at the faceless waters and there's nothing looking back at me”.
The song 'Good Guitar', I actually wrote that, and not specifically about Randy although it may sound like it. It's just “he's a natural-born rock n roll star, he plays a good guitar”, and it's just a simple straight forward rocker. But, it's not specifically written about my brother being a guitar player, it's just written about every guy that picks up that guitar. He was the inspiration, just the way I see him through my eyes, playing guitar he's always made it look so effortless. I've tried and it's not easy. I watch so many great guitar players and they just make it look so simple, they can move you with that instrument.
Louise: Finally, do you prefer either of the two albums that you have released or are they both something special to you?
RobThey are both special, but I have to be completely honest, Endless Skies is like having your first-born. I wrote most of it, as a song writer I sat there my acoustic guitar and I write these songs in a simplistic form. Just the basic, raw, here it is, nothing but me playing the guitar, transferring the melody to Randy and the lyrics. He takes that simplistic thing I wrote and makes the full arrangement, drums, bass, guitars, dual guitars, whatever it ends up being arranged to, he puts that all into this little thing that I hand him. So, Endless Skies was written that way. Since it was the first, and it's still so embraced by the fans, I have to say that's probably always going to be my favourite.
Louise: It must be quite incredible to see something that you've created made into something else.

Rob: It is incredible. And even more incredible is, people sometimes say “what is the best part of all of this?”, the best part is when you get on stage and there's 300 or 3000 people or whatever, singing the lyrics of your songs with you, that for me is as good as it gets. That means that I did something that means something to someone, and it's going to last. That's priceless, that's something that you can wish for. You can't buy it, you can't make it happen, it has to happen naturally. That's the best part. Just knowing that I wrote something, like, last night at the pre-party, somebody came up and his words were “You changed my life, Endless Skies changed my life”. I don't know how to react or answer things like that, other than it makes your heart feel so good because you know whatever they are saying, or whatever they mean by that is a good thing, it's not a bad thing. 99 % of me doesn't believe I deserve it, but being part of that is really special.

Interview: Louise Dornan

Asbury review: Keep It True Festival (20th Anniversary)
Two years after their first appearance at the prestigious 'Keep It True' festival, Ashbury have been invited back to grace classic rock and heavy metal fans with their presence once again.

It was back in 2008 when I first heard Endless Skies. I remember the album really making an impression on me and I desperately tried to find the a vinyl copy, with no success. Luckily it's the days of the Internet so I was able to listen to the album online as much as I wanted.

Circumstances over the years meant that I was unable to catch any of Ashbury's previous European dates, so I resolved that I wasn't going to miss them again this year.

It's been a full on weekend so far in Lauda-Königshofen, but as soon as the crowd for Leather Leone begins to disperse, I'm darting through it to secure a spot at the front barrier as I don't want to miss anything. This was good thinking on my behalf because no sooner do I get a good position, than the influx of Ashbury fans arrive behind me.

Ashbury was formed in 1980, and Rob and Randy Davis have remained active as musicians over the years, regularly playing acoustic shows as Davis Brothers Ashbury. But it was their 1983 debut album, Endless Skies, that gave them a platform to reach a wider audience, first released on vinyl and then on CD, all achieved without having been signed by a label. Luckily for us fans, long gone are the days when you had to keep an eye out and fork out over £100 (British pounds) for an original vinyl copy; High Roller Records re-released a couple of (now sold out) batches of this record, with a 3rd pressing due out in July this year.

Humble as anything Rob and Randy walk out onto the stage grinning from ear to ear. Joining them are John Bujak (third guitar), Joey Moreno (bass) and John Gimmler (drums). The crowd is ecstatic for this much loved gem of a band, and this is evident as soon as the familiar intro to the 'The Warning' sounds through the hall. Everybody is singing along with Rob, and I myself am in a surreal daze, witnessing effortless guitar playing; all three guitars are in perfect timing with each other, with Randy nailing each and every intricate melody.

Ashbury come as a much needed break during the day from the hard and high energy sounds of heavy metal; a moment to bask in epic hard rock tinged with folk and progressive influences. John Bujak slots right in with the band, having moments to allow his own playing to shine whilst being respectful to the original songwriters Rob and Randy. All three guitarists are backed by a strong rhythm section.

'Take Your Love Away' follows before the soothing acoustic and soft electric intro to 'Hard Fight' delicately resonates around us with Randy singing, backed by the crowd. The brothers have a special partnership bonded by a passion for creativity and a love for music.

We are treated to more of our favourites from Endless Skies, including 'Mystery Man', 'Madman' and the title track 'Endless Skies'. All astonishingly well constructed songs with a mix of acoustic and electric guitars and vocal harmonies. In fact, I have no qualms saying that the whole album is magnificent, there is nothing you can fault. The album comes alive.

Ashbury's 2004 release Something Funny Going On is not neglected during the set with the upbeat 'The Cold Light Of Day', an album that was released 21 years later, collecting together material that was written during that time.

The crowd waits in anticipation as Rob announces that they have been working on new Ashbury material set for release in the late summer/ early fall. Titled Eye Of The Stygian Witches, they debut the track 'Good Guitar'. During Born Again's interview with Rob the previous day, I remember that he described it as a “Straight-forward rocker”. Any doubts that they could match their previous material vanishes immediately, and Rob was right, it is a classic rocker with that very distinctive Ashbury edge. They follow this immediately with 'Faceless Waters', and we are left in total awe at their ability to effortlessly create such excellent songs.

'Vengeance' ends the set, rivalling the heaviness of any of the 'heavy metal' bands on the bill.  It's been a sobering moment during the day, to be able to witness such a special band which has transcended musical genres.

Stay up-to-date with Ashbury news here, and for those who haven't heard their discography, please please do have a listen, you wont regret it!

Score: 5/5

Review: M Godding
Photography: Christophe Vernimmen

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