Van Life: Ash Gray

Ash Gray is no stranger to a life of travel. Spending part of his time in Sheffield, the rest in either Austin, NYC or London depending on where his creative muse may court his attention, Gray is a musical traveller by definition. His latest album, ‘Chicken Wire‘, a buoyant mix of storytelling and Texan rock’n’roll, is out now. Americana-UK catches up with the songwriter putting in the miles in the American Southwest where he has just played shows at SXSW.

So, I’m guessing you must be accustomed to travelling miles and miles in a van given your love of hopping across the Atlantic so many times? Does it get any easier? Or is it just part and parcel of being a touring songwriter these days?  Being stuck in a tin can for endless miles doesn’t sound very good but I guess it really depends on the type of can and who’s in it. Most of the time while doing small tours of the US and Europe, it’s been a few band mates piling into a small car with some back space to store things or as in a more recent tour of Germany, two small cars.

It hasn’t been super uncomfortable and not luxury either, of course, but I get along well with the people who are in my bands. It’s necessary, of course, to be considerate of each other’s space and that includes musical tastes. Most of my musician friends like myself have eclectic taste so we can usually agree on quite a bit as far as music listening goes.

Currently, I am making my way through the Southwest United States via West Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Part of the tour is with just the drummer and me after the bass player returns to Austin. That usually means several Spotify lists I’ve made combined with my bandmate’s choice of recordings he’s saved to his phone. I tend to use Spotify as a way to satisfy my mix tape craving which is great on that long eight-hour stretch through the West Texas desert toward El Paso on the way to New Mexico. Luckily, I’ve broken it up with a gig in Marfa, Texas. A beautiful artsy, desert town.

I’m conjuring up in my head the perfect soundtrack to that sort of journey that features Calexico and Desire-period Dylan!  That’s me, I guess.  What essential records do you need for those long days stuck in the van?
I love really upbeat, driving music when at the wheel and in addition to plenty of new and old singer/songwriter stuff, I always like some hard rock in the mix.

Usually, I will have some tracks by Angel City, also known as The Angels by their native Australians. Some long-time favourites would be ‘Take A Long Line, ‘I Ain’t The One’ and ‘No Secrets’. These songs to me are amazing examples of good melodic hook-laden rock with driving rhythms and keep you tapping, awake and chanting the choruses.  Other stuff along these lines I really love is some AC/DC-esque bands like Rhino Bucket and Airbourne. Rhino Bucket’s ‘Beat To Death Like A Dog’ and Airborne’s ‘Black Jack’ are prime examples of real get-up-and-go rock with heavy, crisp guitar tones and high energy, screaming vocals which I love. The dynamics in this type of rock always lead to dramatic builds and keep you feeling nicely on the edge of an explosion.

On the lighter side lately, I’ve been really into some of the new stuff produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. His own tunes ‘Waiting On A Song’ and ‘Shine On Me’ remind me a little of The Traveling Wilburys or Rockpile in sound and production. ‘Waiting On A Song’ feels a little Steve Harley to me in a ‘Come Up And See Me’ type way, whereas with ‘Shine On Me’ it feels like a Dave Edmunds ‘Playing With The Queen of Hearts’ kind of vibe. His influences remind me of my own. Kind of all over the 60s and 70s. The song, ‘The Boy’ by Shannon And The Clams is great. Dan Auerbach has helped produce this band also. Again, Auerbach has really tapped into something very retro with his production of this band. With The Clams he’s sort of channelled early 60s records and his own material feels similar but it’s more 70s folk rock and is a varied bag.

70s country and Southern rock is a real big part of road travel for me. I love really mainstream, Nashville-produced 70s stuff like The Oakridge Boys’ ‘Ya’ll Come Back Saloon’. The Oakridge Boys always have amazing harmony and the build in to this song is slow and mysterious. It’s a good heartfelt storyline and you can smell the smoky honky tonk he’s talking about in the song.

A good Southern Rock tune that I never get tired of is Molly Hatchet’s version of the Allman’s ‘Dreams I’ll Never See’. This tune has great chugging rhythms and nice traditional, southern, three-guitar interplay. Molly Hatchet always had a nice hard edge to their sound and Danny Joe Brown’s vocals were always very distinctive.

Another essential one for the road that is sort of a Southern folk hybrid is Barefoot Jerry’s, ‘Smokies’. This song feels kind of dark and at the same time very hippy in a Grateful Dead kind of way. Good country harmony with an almost psychedelic Southern drive and strange breakdown make this a favourite for me.

‘Chicken Wire’ is out now on Lableship

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