Interview: Ace, Skunk Anansie
Back in issue 334 we featured Ace as part of our Making Tracks series detailing the making of the latest guitar albums. The record in question was Skunk Anansie's comeback Wonderlustre, their first new studio album in 11 years. Here's the full transcript of our chat with former Guitarist magazine contributer Ace as he talks us through his new rig and how it feels to be back with the band after they reunited in 2009.
This is your first studio album together in ten years, did this one come together quickly?
"We thought it was a long time but when you compare our work schedule to most bands, it's actually very short. Back in the day we were writing the albums in a few weeks and recording in a few weeks too. With this one We started on January 11 and finished in March around the 11. We sat in a rehearsal room to write it; five days a week and eight hours a day. Writing loads of music – we gave ourselves a deadline.
"Two months writing and six weeks recording and that's pretty much what we did. For us it's quite a long time in the writing process but in reality we used to write back on the tour bus in the old days so it all works out the same."
Has the actual writing process changed?
"We're very quick to know what sounds good and what we like. We'd chuck it out there and then, it would only take one person in the band not to like a piece. Because we were making it out of pieces – if there was a riff and they said, Not sure about that because it sounds too old fashioned or too soft or too metal… whatever… we wouldn't labour the point with, But that's my bit! It was quite an easy process because of that. Very organic. We set up in a room – Skin had a guitar and amp too – with a bunch of amps and effects. We sat there everyday."
It sounds like you've taken more of an organic approach to your guitar tones on this album…
"On past albums I was a bit more sound-based in the way I used to write songs. It might be; here's a cool riff with really weird sounds and we would work on that but just two notes but this time it was more based on chords and notes first and then adding the sounds afterwards.
"It is a more organic tone [now], yes. I had a whole bunch of new stuff but a couple if things I used on our last studio album just really worked well. They sounded really good. My old 1976 Les Paul Custom was one of them that I've recorded with since the beginning. The Marshall JCM 900 head too has been used on all our records – that's never changed. But there were loads of new things on top of that."
Can you give us an overview of the new gear?
"I love my PRS Tremonti – I've changed the pickups on it now. When I got it I went into Headline, the distributor, and told them I'd been playing a Les Paul for years and wanted something kind of the same but a bit more exciting, modern. One thing we agreed in Skunk was that when we came back we didn't want to be retro – play some nineties music and be in and out in a year. We wanted to pull the back catalogue out but tweak and modernise our sound.
"Guitar-wise, because I've got a lot of guitars I was looking for just one really great one. I went to Headline [PRS distributor]and they pulled out loads of different guitars including SEs. The neck was a bit too fat on one, one sounded too bright and so on but then Gavin [Mortimer, Headline Music] pulled out a Tremonti. There were about five of us there including the techs and I plugged it in, everybody in the room went. Wow! Gavin said, I think that's your guitar there. It was a real instant decision. They locked the bridge down because I don't use tremolo. They put a mahogany block in the bridge so it increases the sustain.
"I took it out on tour and it was beautiful to play and sounded great but when we were in the rehearsal room the band said that when we were on tour the guitar wasn't as fat sounding as it could be. Cass [Lewis, bass] got out his Music Man and we played it side by side with Mark playing the drums and I could see what they meant. So I went back to PRS and they put the 5708 pickups in.
"I've burned those in and now it sounds absolutely monstrous – it's got that vintage Les Paul tone but with a little more grind in it. It's the best guitar I've ever owned. I've often mixed and matched guitars on stage but for the last tour I've only played that. It worked for all the songs and didn't go out of tune.
"For festivals, because of the temperatures being up and down I brought my original Les Paul and I was swapping between the two for tune ups. I love the PRS but I've started to out stickers all over it so I'm sure the PRS people are saying, Nooooooooo!"
So you're a PRS convert now?
"I've ordered a 25th Anniversary SC 250in the Matteo Mist – I saw it and I thought, I have to have one so I rang up PRS and said I have to have one of those and I don't care how much it costs, I want it!
"I've got a couple of other PRSs too, an SC 250 with chambers which is really nice to play. A lot lighter than the Tremonti and a hardtail. It's got a bit of a fat neck so feels more like a Les Paul Custom. I've also got a Custom 24 Artist one and I use that on recordings. I'm really interested in the 25th Anniversary Mira with soapbars – interested in hearing that because I've got an old Gibson with sopabars but it's kind of falling apart. I'm looking for something new to batter around."
Are you very selective about the guitars you buy?
"You can always get another amp. Say, I had a [Cornford] Roadhouse ten years ago, I want another one – that kind of thing. But guitars are much more individual and I'm very selective about them. I'll try out loads and loads before I get the one I like. It's got to be right on day one, not something that beds in. I have a belief that [the PRS Tremonti] was waiting for me. When I went into Headline and paid an open E on the Tremonti I just knew I was going to leave with it."
There's varied overdriven tones on the album but you've retained your trademark cleans…
"That's the unique thing about Skunk with the ballads – because we've got such a unique singer we can almost venture into pop music at times. Classic rock ballads right up to punky, edgy stuff. We're quite lucky in that regard because last week we played with Mötley Crüe and the week before that we played with Amy McDonald! We can hop around and always be in good company – do a gig with Florence And The Machine or Rage Against The Machine. As a guitar player you're lucky when you've got a real gem of a singer."
It's not as heavy or aggressive as your early work, but do you think this is a more emotional album?
"When I listen to the lyrics I think it is, because I know where they're coming from. It's very charged – songs like You Saved Me and The Sweetest Thing are very honest. Skin never gives it all away because it's her personal details but she can write a song in a way a lot of people can relate to it. She can capture that because her lyrics are honest but ambiguous too."
What about the guitar perspective?
"For me it sounds organic and very warm. It's nowhere near as heavy [as the past]. There's not as many riffs, and I am a fan of the riff. When we were in the writing sessions I must have come up with a hundred killer riffs that didn't get used.
"But writing this album was ten years on since out last and we had to develop. We wanted to write an album of lots of pickable songs for people when they went on iTunes. Short songs that are fun to play live – we thought about that but we didn't think, we must make a commercial record. We wanted to make a modern and current album that we really enjoyed playing and it came out that way. It's a lot softer than the other records but music is different now compared to what it was in the nineties. The nineties were a very in your face era."
There's some nice delayed leads coming into your sound on songs like Over The Love…
"In the studio I used the DigiTech Hardwire [DL-8] for the cleaner parts. For the weirder parts I used the [Danelectro] Dan-Echo – the purple one that makes it sound like a tape. That was used on the lead lines and the solos, then elsewhere I'd use the DigiTech Hardwire. A really clear, clean delay."
Do you use any other pedals from the Hardwire range?
"I use all of them! My live setup is all Hardwire pedals and a Whammy. I've used DigiTech effects for years but I also used to like the DOD effects when they made the weird units like the Gonkulator [ring modulator]. I'd built a relationship with them anyway but I found the only problem with the DOD pedals is they were really flimsy and used to break all the time. I ended up going out live and using a couple of BOSS and Electro-Harmonix pedals which always used to break as well!
"When I cam back to Skunk I realised all my gear was fifteen years old and I thought that when I start stamping on this stuff it's all going to break. So I retired it all and went looking for some new pedals. I got in touch with DigiTech about a new whammy and ended up trying their new Hardwire range. I tried the CM2 overdrive and it sounded as good as my really old Tubescreamer. I used them in the studio but the really great thing about the Hardwire pedals is you don't lose any signal going through them live. I changed my pedals, my cables and put the six Hardwire pedals all in a row; the tone was really clear.
"The only non-DigiTech pedal I have on there is my Pearl Octave pedal because it's the only thing that can give me that specific sound. I use the CM-2 [Tube Overdrive], the chorus and the delay which is absolutely brilliant and another one but I can't remember what it is. I have two rigs with the same pedals on each and nothing has gone wrong so far. Really good."
You've been through a lot of effects over the years because you used to write the FX Files column for our magazine…
"In the studio I also had my huge box of effects – I got half of them out and half of them didn't work! A couple of pedals from there were really great.
"I've just got hold of a Dickinsonoverdrive pedal. Dickinson amps are the big metal ones – Chris [Wolstenholme] in Muse uses them I think. I've got the overdrive pedal with tubes in it and it's about nine or ten inches square. It's got a couple of knobs on, hardly anything to it but it sounds really good – more like a preamp.
"I was using that for solo overdubs for more of an organic, hotter tone than just plugging in a Hardwire or Tubescreamer. It might be a little too big to fit in my pedalboard at the moment though! It sounds really good through a clean amp though – it's a handmade prototype pedal."
There's an interesting, discordant effect on the You're Too Expensive For Me solo – what effect is that?
"Ah yes – the backwards sound. It was the Hardwire reverb I think… ah yes I remember, it was the backwards reverb feature on it. We're going to be bang on live as well – we're aiming towards making everything sound more or less the same. The cool thing about this record is when you listen to it there's not that much weird stuff – it's mostly Fender, Gibson and PRS sounds with a few pedals."
We noticed that when you play My Ugly Boy live, which has a great meaty overdrive sound when it breaks, Skin is playing guitar too…
"In the studio I played two guitars on that – a Gibson Les Paul on the neck pickup for the one string riff. Then on the rhythm I was actually playing Skin's Gretsch Black Falcon. I played that through a really old Vox AC125 head.
"When we were making the album everyone said, that amp sounds shit and we'll never use it for anything! But I thought it was a great head. We went to a different studio with another producer for My Ugly Boy and I plugged it in, it sounded amazing! And on the breakdown in that song it's the Gretsch's acoustic sound recorded as well as through the amp so it sounds like a resonator."
Did Skin come up with any ideas on guitar?
"Yes she was playing an acoustic or a Tele. She was coming up with chord progressions then we might write the other parts or a riff that would go over the progressions. We'd all write as a band."
So her contributing guitar is a new thing for Skunk Anansie?
"Yes she didn't play guitar much before. She'd done bits and pieces but not as intense as this. When we were doing a lot of the solos, we did them last because we wanted to make the album sound really simple. We wanted it be really hooky, poppy in a way.
"We had an agreement because Skin and I work really well together and when everyone else has gone off for a cup of tea, we'll work out most of the hooks and the solos together and record them there and then. Back in the day I used to go away with a tape recorder and play over the rhythm part of songs like Hedonism until I had a solo. This time we wanted a really hooky, poppy sounding record and didn't want anything to conflict with the vocal line.
"We wanted melodic solos – I'd play half and she's sing half then we'd piece them together. Then we'd record it there and then. The difficult thing is last week I had to learn the album and I could remember all the rhythm parts but had to relearn all the solos.
"I did them in a few days – we'd sit there together and I'd come up with a hook and Skin might suggest playing a different note. Another thing she's really good at is changing the timing. I'd play a hook in the place I'd expect it to be, in the rock place. But she'd put it in the funk place – on the second beat in or something. She'd sing it where she wanted it and I'd play it. It was a brilliant experience to make this record in that sense."
In that sense you're moving into new areas as a player?
"Definitely – the hardest thing I did before was Squander, which was a new song we did for the hits album [2009's Smashes And Trashes]. Skin sang it to me and I learnt it and played it in the studio because she wrote the song. I had to learn them as she sang them and record right there and then. That was really challenging."
What about amps these days – are your Framus Cobra and Cornford still in the picture?
"The Framus is out of the picture again now. I chop and change. When we reformed Skunk I decided to get a brand new set of amps and a more modern sound. So I got the PRS, the Cornfords and I grabbed that Framus amp because it was the only amp I had at home that had a really good clean sound. But when it came to the album we all went for more warmth in the tone."I brought all my stuff in; we had Fender, Orange, Marshall Plexis. It was like a guitar shop. I decided that what I used in the studio to record, I'd take out live – which is kind of what I did before.
"I ended up playing an amp called Koch, from Holland. It's a Powertone 2 – a 120-watt all tube head, it's like a massive Fender head. I think it's quite new for them. They sent me one when I was in the studio and the clean sound of that amp is absolutely phenomenal. It sounds like an amazing sounding Fender but you can turn it up twice as loud. It's got amazing distorted sounds as well. It's like looking in the back of a Mesa/Boogie – it's full of valves."
"I told them I was using it with an Orange cab but they made me some cabs. They're slightly bigger than the normal 4 x 12s and really heavy, but heavy stuff always sounds good. I can't see me changing now because it's the best clean amp I've ever had. Beats the hell out of the Fender, and a lot warmer than the Framus. I was using the Fender Twin for years but could never get that thing really loud without it sounding too grungy. I had to put a sonic maximiser on it to get it clean and the Twin would always break down. Marshall was too dull. I was really particular about it.
"I got a combo version of the Koch the other day too for doing stripped down acoustic-style gigs. That's fucking amazing too – a really great sounding amp. So I run the clean Koch through a DigiTech 2120 rack because I like some of the effects through that. That's all on that side.""On the distorted side. I've got Cornford cabs – Greenbacks because I've always liked the vintage Greenbacks sound. I've also got the G12s as well. Head-wise I brought in my old Marshall 900 because I used it in the original Skunk and the band thought we were missing something on songs like Weak.
"The Cornford amp I really like is the Roadhouse. I was using the Mk II for ages which I thought was the best he [Paul Cornford] made, I've had it for ten years or something. But the Roadhouse is great – it has two gain stages on it, off sounds like a really good Marshall [JCM] 800. Then with the gain stage on it sounds like a Marshall 900. I used to use two Marshall 900s back in the day but now for live use I'm using the old Marshall 50-watt 900 from the early nineties and the Roadhouse for the stereo sound to blend it. Now it's burnt in a bit it's got this great warm, ringing tone. Not scooped or lacking the attacking of a Marshall, which I sometimes felt with the MK II. The Roadhouse is really simple too.
"I'm always changing my mind though – trying new stuff out. I used a Diezel amp but it sounded a little too vicious for me. Then I tried the Koch Supernova, which is like their flagship amp. But there was too much going on for me. I've got a [Mesa/Boogie] Rectifier and loads of different amps. But for me the fat tone that works really well in a band is the Roadhouse and the Marshall."
No other band filled the space of Skunk Anansie while you were away – do you appreciate how unique you are now more than before?
"Yes – we think about that now. Nobody filled that space so when we came back everyone was up for it. In a way it's like Led Zeppelin, everybody wanted to see them because there was nobody like them. The thing that's similar with us, not musically, is we're a unique band – a different singer, image and the songs don't sound dated now. I'm quite pleased about that.
"The lucky thing with us is there's never been another Skin and the songs stood the test of time. But when we finished YouTube and MySpace were only just starting so all of a sudden there's a whole new young audience excited about checking out music. Our YouTube plays went into the millions. When we came back the gigs sold out and the new fans knew the words. It couldn't have happened two years ago."
Skunk Anansie from left: Skin (vocals), Cass Lewis (bass), Mark Richardson (bass) and Ace.
So the changes in the industry have been beneficial for the band?
"The only disadvantage is nobody buys physical records. But apart from that the gigs are better, technology is better in terms of access. The interesting thing is we might not be physically selling a lot of records but actually moving them has been phenomenal. Hundreds of thousands are illegally downloading our albums. With [hits album] Smashes And Trashes there were 160,000 illegal downloads in a week. And that was what they could track.
"In one way it's really bad because you're not making money from the records but in another way it's good because more people are hearing your music. If your gigs sell out it gives you a longer life as a band."
You're back with the band and busier than ever now but a another side of your career is you've also been a tutor at the Brighton Institute Of Modern Music. Will you still be involved there?
"I was down there about four days ago believe it or not. We're at the tail end of our festival touring and we've done 35 festivals. We've never done that many but it's the new way of playing now and you have to go out live to finance your band. There's no other way of doing it. We do a big festival season to keep us going through the winter and make the next record.
"With BIMM I'm still in touch with them and went down there to play and show them techniques. When I can get down there I go.
"When Skunk was in its recess I was producing records and actually working all of the time. Which was amazing – I thought how can I get away with being a full time record producer and make money! Then my son was born and I said to [BIMM director] Bruce [Dickinson not the Iron Maiden singer!], I can't work in a dark room all my life. So he invited me to do a few days a week down at BIMM and I did the two things.
"By accident I happened to excel in it and ended up doing an MA at Middlesex University then became the module leader of the degree and the lead assessor of the higher diploma. Then I was writing the exams. They ended up offering me a top job and I was really tempted. I was right on the edge of taking it and then Skunk reformed. I got the phone call and said, That was good timing! But I love the people down there and the tutors. All the time I was there I never had a problem with a student. It was amazing. There's some really great players there."
Back to guitars, you mentioned your original Les Paul Custom earlier on. That's obviously a guitar very close yo your heart…
"I always wanted a Les Paul Custom. That was the one – I had various guitars up to when Skunk Anansie formed but I was skint. I bought my gear from doing odd jobs – I had an old Gibson SG and a FenderStrat but dreamed about a black Les Paul Custom.
"When we got signed, the next day we were told we could go into town and buy some new gear. I went straight down to Denmark Street and tried all the black Customs. I found a 1971 that was great but battered. I knew it wasn't going to survive the touring. I ended up in Macaris and tried out all the guitars on the wall. I got to the 1976 Custom and it's the same one I'm playing today seventeen years later.
"It's a funny think but the guy who sold it to me became my roadie. I'd been around all the other shops and I was young and scruffy. But I had two or three grand in my pocket to buy a guitar. I didn't say that to anyone but they all treated me with disrespect, What do you want? That kind of thing. They didn't think I'd ever buy anything – just some scruffy bloke trying out guitars. I went to Macaris and the bloke was really cool, let me try anything out I wanted. Then I pulled out the money and he didn't expect it. He was so cool about everything so I asked him if he wanted to come out on tour. He gave up his job and came out on tour with us!"
"That guitar has now had the headstock break off five times. Everyone's had a go at fixing it – including myself! I was going to retire but when we got back to rehearsals everyone thought it sounded too good. But it's so heavy! I'll have to go to the gym more. With my PRS Tremonti and that on the road I feel really satisfied."
Thanks to Ace for many of the pics used here. Keep up to date with Skunk Anansie at www.skunkanansie.net