It’s good to know that domesticity hasn’t slowed Ash Grunwald down any. As his young daughter cries over a misplaced bathing suit, her father merrily confesses, “I’ve just woken up, extremely hungover,” he chuckles. “After this interview I’m going to go buy some cymbals.” And what could be better when one has a hangover than trying out some new cymbals? “Coffee, cymbals... it’ll be all good. The reverse order doesn’t work.”
As it happens, cymbals aren’t in great evidence on Now, his new (and, amazingly, ninth) studio album. It does, however, sound utterly huge. That’s at least partially down to the production of Australian-residing US producer Nick DiDia, who has crafted similarly massive-sounding records for the likes of Stone Temple Pilots, Mastodon, Rage Against The Machine, Pearl Jam and Powderfinger among others.
“Well, when you were saying that, that’s what I was thinking: it’s the evil work of Nick, I think,” he laughs. “That’s one of his specialties, doing big, and it was a good opportunity to do big with this album. He does tasty too, but one thing I knew going in was that it would sound large. And I think he does that by making space on the recording. The album was the last to be recorded in the legendary Byron Bay studios of 301, and I feel very lucky to have recorded in that room, through that beautiful Neve desk. It’s World Heritage Listed! It’s a one-of-a-kind.”
Naturally, that had an impact on the sound. “I’ve done other recordings that have been pretty big – like ‘Walking’, that was pretty big-sounding, but that had 160-odd tracks of audio on it. So it was a different version of big, squashing as much in it as possible.”
And that’s not quite Nick’s approach? “Nick does it in a very considered way, by leaving a lot out. Especially on the drums, getting that really big sound by leaving out a lot of cymbal. And Pete [Wilkins, drummer, ex-Blue King Brown] is already a very tasty drummer and not one to over-play, but even so Nick even walked into the live room and took the cymbals off the kit. He just left the hi-hat. Poor Pete: it’d be like taking a few guitar strings off and saying, ‘Right, now play’. But he was up to the challenge.”
The material was worked up just before recording, with Gunwald knowing that “I wanted to do a power trio, I wanted to do some psychedelic rock and I wanted it to be different to any psychedelic rock that I’d ever heard before, and there were a few things I knew I wanted – like Moog synth instead of bass guitar. That was one of the biggest things I wanted for this album, and the first thing you hear in [lead track] ‘River’ is that big WOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGHHH Moog noise, that big ‘70s analogue synth.”
The third element in the mix was Wolfmother’s organist Ian Perez. “I’ve used keys before, but that was when I was recording in a more beats-oriented way, whereas this is a rock band set up, all live-played, and all about musicianship. So it’s a little less expected. But I knew I wanted someone to play synth bass, and I knew I wanted it to be fat, and Ian brought so much more to the recordings than that – and even played so much more than I thought he would play on the album. I didn’t realise his skill set when I first got him to play, and he’s amazing.”
Sadly, Perez’ more outstanding contribution didn’t make the final cut. “There are a lot of, ahem, anthemic outros on the album, and Ian got on the grand piano and started playing along, and everything he did was superb – and it pained me to do so, but at one point I had to cut this section where he’d done all these arpeggios and crazy stuff. It was amazing, but I had to go, ‘Right, this is starting to sound like ‘November Rain’.”Can something ever sound too “November Rain”, though? Really? “Yes it can. But it was great. It’s the first time that I’ve ever translated melody lines to someone via a keyboard – normally everything happens on the guitar. So that was really interesting as well.” That’s not to suggest that there’s not still a whole lot of guitar on Now: after all, this is still an Ash Grunwald record.
“I’m still playing a lot of National Steel, using a lot of the boutique amps that were in there – I can’t even remember what the amps were, but it was similar to what my live setup would be. Normally I would have a JMP, a Mesa Boogie and either a Vox or a Fender with heaps of tremelo at different points of wetness. So it was mixing and matching tones with that multi-amp approach. And I did a lot of soloing on this album, more so than normal, using a lot of Gibsons as well as the National Steel.” The increase in solos was due in part to having a rhythm section that could look after the bones of the song while Grunwald played – a new experience for a man more used to covering all the parts himself.
“I came up through the blues rock thing in the late ‘90s, and when I was a teenager I wanted to be Stevie Ray Vaughan and Hendrix and Buddy Guy and all that kind of thing, and when I had my first album out I just did solo blues, acoustic blues, and slowly I’ve been bringing those solos back. But I’d been growing up with that mindset that too many solos is cheesy – or that too long a solo is cheesy – and I’m just coming out of that. I still feel it’s a little guilty indulgence to have a little shred.
There’s almost a self-consciousness involved in it. But it’s bloody enjoyable!” And there’s a lot to be said for a good solo – and hell, at the end of the day, it’s your damn album. And Grunwald’s learned that sometimes you just have to stop thinking and start playing. “That was one of my theories,” he laughs. “When you’re playing a big guitar solo, there’s one guy in the room loving the shit out of it – and that’s the guy playing it.”