Sunday, July 4, 2010

BRINGING THE VIBES - An interview with Ash Grunwald

Prolific acoustic funk-rocker-bluesman ASH GRUNWALD’s new album Hot Mama Vibes is all about riffs, hip-hop collaborations and getting universal. ANDY HAZEL passes it round.

“I’m on the Gold Coast at the moment,” says Melbourne-born blues-rocker Ash Grunwald, on the road at the start of a phenomenally comprehensive Australian tour. “I’ve got the band and my family in the motor home, they’re coming with us to Europe too”. This tour not only takes in every state and territory, but he it wants to expand as it progresses. “We played a pick-up show in Gladstone last night,” he says “this town that one of the guys in the band is from. They hardly ever have music there and we love to do it old school, bring the music to the people, bring the feel of old blues performers so we just added it in.”

This attitude of universality, one that infuses the music of Grunwald, his approach to releasing and performing albums, writing and collaborating, perhaps begins in his genes. “Well, my name is German or Dutch, but half of my family are coloured South African. I’ve always felt drawn to rhythmic music so in a way me playing this is bringing my roots full circle.” Given that his gigs often see an Australian playing African-American influenced music to a European audience, this idea of interconnectedness is redolent throughout his now six-album canon.

Hot Mama Vibes is an album borne from four different state capitals and completed by Grunwald at his home studio. “Once we finished touring the last album, Fish Out Of Water, I thought we’d try a new method of recording. I got the band into the studio and we jammed for about 16 hours, just to see what happened. It was really fun; just freeform partying and having a good time. Then I painstakingly went back and re-recorded parts, edited them and turned jams into songs. Then over that I’d sing verses and brought in collaborators.”

Grunwald’s use of collaborators has favoured hip-hop artists such as Count Bounce from TZU and Chasm and Ozi Battla from Astronomy Class letting each producer and beat-provider flesh out their own sounds for each song. “In the early days I always thought of myself as a cross between a blues musician and a DJ; I was playing music for people to party to. I’d always try to generate a feedback loop with the audience where people would be influencing the music. It’s kind of like the approach I take to making music now; I just meet people and things happen. I tend not to seek out collaborators, more let life bring them to me,” he ponders. “The Lady Luck beat came from Chasm – I had Ozi Battla hit me up for a chorus one time, so he owed me a beat. With Mr Trials, I knew the Hilltop Hoods crew through a friend and he liked Fish Out Of Water. We did a track together called Little Did I Know that went well for us mutually. I liked his style, he’s really rough and bluesy in a hip-hop sense and we ended up doing four tracks and touring together.”

Unlike the US where blues and hip-hop are genres that rarely meet, Grunwald suggests that as a musician in Australia mixing up styles comes more easily. “For me the groove you find in hip-hop and loop based music is a groove that I love. It’s hypnotic and fits perfectly for me because it’s a great way of making more riff-based music and almost all my stuff is riff-based.” When asked to identify something that he carries through the various collaborations and shifts between styles, Grunwald is pensive. “Every album will have a story song on it, that’s when you get later in the album usually, but the bread and butter of what I do is riff-based. Vocals and guitar tend to be bluesy and usually looped beats made in a hip-hop style, that was the case before I worked with hip hop producers too. Early stuff was bear bones; me in a room with a guitar and a stomp box. The second album was me playing with junk percussion and loops. On the next album, we did a combination of styles and everything was looped but we put in hip-hop beats and samples, buried in the mix a bit. I wanted to have that cool loops thing but not obviously derived from the hip-hop scene, I was kind of reluctant,” he confesses. “There was an element of thinking ‘people are going to think it’s too weird’ since I was known as a blues artist, but as time goes on it doesn’t matter -it’s probably fine to mix stuff up like that. In fact,” he says laughing at his younger self, “I really do wonder why I talk about it so much in interviews, I’m sure the audience doesn’t care about this stuff. You usually find that you get feedback afterwards and people have barely noticed, but it does make me think that maybe I was boring before,” he says with another laugh.

When it comes to composing the tracks on Hot Mama Vibes (which may or may not be about settling down with his girlfriend and daughter in northern New South Wales as some have suggested), Grunwald is keen to emphasize the influence of the producers involved. “Making this album was really different. I recorded a lot in Brisbane with Chasm, as well as in Melbourne with Count Bounce [from TZU and Urthboy], in Adelaide with [DJ] Trials [from Hilltop Hoods] and Sydney. Listening back I can hear the producers work is really varied; Count Bounce’s production is really punchy and cooking for that particular song [Never Let You Go], it’s like a dance Aussie rock kind of feel and then we sort of put the dirt in from the room down afterward. The stuff I did with Charles came from dirty samples, he blasts it out there and crams it in and make it big, rip the speakers. They both sound phat – different producers give a different flavour. When I was recording, I didn’t want the album to be too varied, but now I think they’d rather sound that way. You spend your life listening to playlists these days anyway. I think our ears don’t mind a bit of a change in the production, it keeps the interest levels up.”

So where might album number seven find Ash Grunwald? Further into domestic bliss? Jamming with visiting friends in his studio to create backbones for the next album? Grunwald’s response is less certain. “I don’t know what we’ll do next. [Band member] Fingers Malone has been doing some dance stuff so we’ll see what comes out of that when we have a muck around.”

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