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Andy Fraser - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 30 / 6 / 2013

Andy Fraser - Interview


Lisa Torem chats to former Free bass player Andy Fraser about his fifty years of making music and current solo career

Andy Fraser’s bold bass solo is one of the masterstrokes of the 1970 single ‘All Right Now,’ recorded with the groundbreaking Free. Although the band was enormously successful, it only lasted a few years. Andy eventually recorded two albums as a solo artist, penned material for other vocalists, and learned to cope with the devastating diagnosis of cancer and Aids, by maintaining a positive spirit, staying fit and keeping himself involved in creative and charitable projects. Andy is currently touring the UK and producing young vocalist and guitarist, Tobi, on his own McTrax label, Andy caught up with Pennyblackmusic to share his inspiring outlook on life as he reviews the highlights of his fifty-year career. PB: Your mum was a single mum and you were one of four siblings. AF: That is true. Not many people know that. I have an older sister and I’m number two. I have a younger sister and a brother slightly younger than her. We were within a year of each other. PB: You must have had a pretty busy household. AF: My mum was left when I was about six, and she held down about three jobs a day to support us. She paid her dues, and I always remembered from a very young age she would be looking in the newspaper and dreaming of owning her own house because we used to live in the Council Estates in Row Hampton, South London, and I was very pleased before she died – she was about forty and I was about eighteen or nineteen -- that I was able to buy her a house and a car and see her really pleased. One day I went round there and it took her ages to open the door. She had this terrible headache and we called the doctor, who did the usual, take two of these and I’ll see you in the morning, so that was not right and I called another doctor and she was admitted immediately to Hoburn Cancer Hospital. Within two weeks, she was out of it, and a week after that a brain tumor had completely taken her away. PB: I’m sorry to hear that. AF: I was very pleased that from the age of 15 that I could bring in some rent money. PB: You had a strong motive at an early age. Maybe that made you ambitious. AF: Yeah, I was quite the hustler, I suppose. I see that especially in my oldest daughter. I mean both of them are very bright but the younger one gives the false impression that she’s mellow and demure when, in fact, she can be like a rock in the road. The older one, the life of the party, wherever she is, and who is fantastic company, is a real hustler. She’s like, “Go get ‘em.” In fact, she’ll be starring in our first movie released through McTrax, ‘Tears of a Mermaid’. You can see the trailer on www.tearsofamermaid.com. It will explain itself, but we’re just thrilled out of our minds and, of course, you’ll get to hear plenty of Tobi’s music and have your head blown off from what she can do. PB: Let’s review some of those early years. You replaced Keith Tillman in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. You were thrown into a touring situation quite young. Did you learn a lot or was it intimidating? AF: It was a fantastic learning experience. I had become very close to Sappho, who was Alexis Korner’s daughter, and I more or less moved in there, and they became substitute parents. He always let me play his guitar and one day John Mayall called up and said, “Alexis, I need a bass player like yesterday…” He said, “Well, there’s this kid who hangs around the house, plays my guitar and says he plays bass. I tend to believe him.” So off I went round for a quick blues jam with John Mayall. He says, ‘You got the gig.’ This was on a Sunday. Monday, I told school, ‘Take a hike.’ We bought a new bass, hi-fi system. We went to court where John Mayall swore up and down to the magistrate that I’d be in bed by 8 ‘o’ clock. And on Tuesday, we were in Amsterdam, and Mick Taylor and me were out in the back toking up on the best that Amsterdam has to offer. It was onwards and upwards from there. It was a fantastic, learning experience. I regarded all of them as seniors and all I had to do was learn. And playing blues songs? John Mayall would call out, “Key of C”, set the tempo and off you would go. PB: So you were free to be very inventive. AF: Yeah. This is the key. This is the tempo. One, two, three, let’s go. PB: To this day, you’re known as a very melodic bass player. Sometimes hearing your work is like listening to a Bach invention. Your lines have always been very strong, very independent. You’re your own person. That was groundbreaking back then for a bassist. AF: It’s so difficult to be objective, because, first of all, I never thought of myself as a bass player. I started on piano and sort of went to guitar when I became a teenager, and I only became the bass player when nobody else in the school group wanted to be anything other than the singer, drummer or guitarist. I tuned down my strings an octave. It must have sounded like crap. but I was a diplomat and I became the bass player. I was in several soul and R & B ska blues bands at thirteen, playing all across in Woolston and Howes until four o’ clock in the morning, scaring the life out of my mother – dragging my thirteen-year-old butt in at four in the morning, but it all paid off. PB: You started seriously writing songs for Free on their eponymous second album. Did you and frontman Paul Rodgers approach songwriting in the same way? AF: It was a great learning process for both of us, and I think in the early days we both sort of needed each other to complete an idea. And then we learned enough from each other to complete ideas on our own and by the last album, ‘Free At Last’, I think half the songs were mine and half were Paul’s. That’s how that developed. I have to say I learned an incredible lot from him and I suspect he did from me. PB: Did you discuss having one person doing the melody and one a riff or was it communal? AF: He’d show up one day with a riff and a couple of lyrics or I’d show up one day with a chorus and a bass riff, and we’d just jump in and finish what the other one started, and it was a natural collaboration. And one of the strange things I have come to see about our relationship is – we have such diverse personalities – I mean, I’m the sensitive gay boy, and he’s the tough Northern fighter that needs to shave his back twice a day. A and Z really have personalities, but we found common ground. And for that time, it invited, more or less, the whole world in because it encompasses all types of personalities, and I think that was the magic about it. Once we learned to do it by ourselves, I think we’d sort of come to the place where what I’m doing by myself works, so why do I need to come to the middle? And I suspect that’s true of both of us, these days, and why it’s so difficult to get back on the same page. PB: What about the Isle of Wight concerts - a sea of faces or something more personal? AF: It was faces went beyond the horizon. We flew in on a helicopter, which was a very wise move by Chris Blackwell, Island Records. At the last minute he decided to get us a chopper and get us in. You know yourself, you go to those big gigs, and you’re exhausted by the time you get to where you want to be, right? Imagine you’re a band and you’re exhausted by the time you hit the stage. It’s not a good thing. So he choppered us in and we went right onstage and we were still fresh and ready to go. And when you meet half to three quarters of a million sets of eyes and the energy is focused towards you, you try to meet it and respond in kind. Within fifteen minutes, we were sucked dry of energy, but it was a momentous occasion. We came off and kind of stared at the walls for about three hours. (Laughs). To do it again, forty years later with Tobi, him being the same age as I was, was like come full circle. And I think it was the same time as the Queen’s Jubilee. I felt like I had one of my own. Life is good. PB: Robert Palmer, Chakha Khan, Wilson Pickett, Rod Stewart and many more artists have covered your songs. Are you generally satisfied with the cover versions? Do you assume your bass lines will be included in the arrangements? AF: The bass – its job is to support the singer and the song, and if it’s better that I just play tambourine or in ‘All Right Now’, if it’s better that there’s no bass in the verses, that’s what I do. I do what’s appropriate, be it a little or a lot. That is my role to make the whole thing work even if it means not doing anything, and sometimes that’s appropriate. The fact that they’re all good singers is the biggest compliment because when a good singer wants to sing your song, nothing is a higher compliment, but it’s nothing to do with the bass at all. In ‘Every Kinda People’ the riff that you hear, (Andy sings the “riff”) was actually done on the bass, and Robert Palmer just transposed it to other instruments. I loved Robert. I’d known him when he lived up in Scarborough and would come and see us in clubs. He was Alan Robert Palmer, and I always thought he came to see Paul, being a singer, and he told me years and years later that he actually came to see the bass because he thought of himself as a bass player. We became very close once he signed to Island, and he’s the one who turned me on to Marvin Gaye. I’d go around to his place and he’d say, “You’ve got to listen to ‘What’s Going On’,” and I had never conceptualized anything like this. And when he heard, ‘Every Kinda People,’ he said, “I’ve got to do that.” PB: It’s exciting how those connections kept happening. AF: What goes around, come around. PB: With the Andy Fraser Band, you produced some very soulful roots music. I’m thinking of songs like ‘Keep On Loving You.’ What were your favourites from that era? AF: I like ‘Changed Man.’ We had just done that vintage TV show the other day, and one of the songs I picked was by Go West - I think they’re one of the few true English soul bands - and in walks the singer, Peter Cox. He says they used to be a cover band for Free material. That thrilled the life out of me because I think they’re so great. He said just recently they started playing ‘Changed Man’, and I couldn’t believe it. I always sort of liked that song, and to hear someone who I really admired say, “We do that one,” – Wow, that’s very cool. PB: On your 2005 solo record ‘Naked…And Finally Free’ you sang so candidly about personal events, dealing with anguish and confusion. That sounded like such a raw time for you. How did you translate so much of that pain into concrete music? AF: That’s what I do. That’s why I’m a musician. Songwriting is therapy for me. That’s how I get stuff off my chest. Instead of writing a diary like other people do, I write songs and the idea, I think, of a true artist is to try to be honest about one’s own shortcomings and express your hopes, dreams, ambitions, complaints and to turn life into a form of expression. My particular vehicle is music. The writing isn’t so difficult; it’s the actual coming to terms with it personally, coming out of self-denial, actually admitting to myself that this is, in fact, the case. This is who you are and you need to love yourself, and if you can’t change, learn to love yourself – come to terms with it and it took me quite a while and I feel unburdened. ‘Naked…And Finally Free’ is like a coming out album. It was very cathartic and very therapeutic. It got it off my chest, where it had me paralysed before, because you can’t really stand on stage unless you’re comfortable in your own skin. This is me. I have no secrets. My life is an open book. I feel unburdened and life has completely turned around. PB: Some artists have a great need to preserve a sense of privacy, which might create a wall between themselves and the fans. -“You’re here to listen to my music, and then the rest remains in my sanctuary.” AF: I say they have every right to say that. I just can’t do it that way. That’s difficult. What you see is what you get. I wear the same thing offstage that I wear onstage. My life is one continuous thing. It’s not an act that you see onstage. That is me. Life has become easy. I don’t need to pretend. Everything is all in line. PB: In the song ‘Jungle,’ you’re also very vocal about your social and political feelings, and in ‘Hands of Time’ your perspective is very personal, too. You’re not afraid to let people know you. AF: That’s really an artist’s job and to tell the truth. That’s one of the things I like about Tobi. He’s an artist in the true sense. He gets in touch with his true feelings. He’s courageous enough to be vulnerable and honest enough to say how he truly feels, and that’s what an artist should do in my perspective. So that is the appeal for me. That’s why we’re so happy to have him on the McTrax Label. When we play every night, there’s someone who can kick my butt. I’ve played with some of the best guitarists in the world and Tobi’s on that list. PB: Do you see yourself in him - young guy coming up with lots of talent and drive? AF: Kind of, yeah. My nickname was Tobi and we called one of my bands, Tobi, and the bass I play is called a Tobias and his actual name is Tobias. PB: How did you come up with the visual narrative for your recent video and song of the same name, ‘Beautiful?’ AF: It’s a total true expression. It’s about someone and that’s how I felt - I hope it lasts forever, and, although the relationship has moved into more of a friend than significant other, we’re still very close, and it’s a very simple, true sentiment. I found someone who fulfills my every need and it’s as simple as that. I hope it lasts forever. It’s beautiful to have found someone who understands my every need. It’s as good as it can get. PB: Where was it filmed? AF: In Southern California, near Laguna Beach, although some of the shots, especially of the whales and the mermaids, were filmed in Tonga, where the whales hang out. You actually do see the occasional whales go by, but not that close in Laguna. PB: And that mermaid is your daughter, isn’t it? AF: Yes. PB; Your daughters have been instrumental in your musical career, haven’t they? AF: Yeah, we’re totally on the same page. They get my humour and they make shopping fun. I hate shopping these days, but when I’ve got a video to do I say, “Hannah, let’s go shopping.” If we could have made a video out of Hannah running around, throwing clothes at Tobi, and me…”Try this one.” Jasmine, she’s in the next stall, before I’ve paid, and there’s Tobi’s dad, the headmaster, carrying bags and bags of clothes trying to keep up with us. That would have made the video by itself. PB: Do you have any other videos that show gay romance these days? AF: Actually, that’s the only one. There are some more videos to come. There’s one, ‘This is The Big One,’ about catastrophic climate change and mainly deals with that issue, but there’s another one, upcoming, ‘Totally Yours,’ which is more of a spiritual thing and it’s really, when you get right down to it, God, or another person. I can see God in other people. There’s all of this stuff going on in our lives, wars, this and that, all these things that totally distract us but for this moment I’m totally yours. I’m here in the moment. God is present. The world can stop turning, you and me. For this moment we’re on the same page, and that’s what the song is about, and that’s what the video portrays. We went to a lot of trouble to incorporate a lot of technical tricks to bring all of that to happen ,and so you have that to look forward to. PB: Are people becoming more proactive in the fight against global warming? AF: It’s off of the headlines, and today we’re on to Egypt and the guy who released America’s top secrets. There are people, like someone who came up with this Algae idea, or are still hard at it, but it’s not on the front page. My confidence lies in, like as an individual, you don’t learn from your mistakes without making them, and I think maybe, for us as a global population, that is true, too. We’ll get to the stage where we just have to do something about it, probably just in the nick of time, and that’s how it will sort itself out as have everything else in the world’s history. PB: Andy, if you could go back to any period of history and spend a day with somebody famous, who would you choose? AF: (Laughs). I would loved to have been around 2000 years ago when Jesus was strutting around because I believe there’s a lot of misunderstanding about him. A lot of people think of him as the Messiah without knowing what the Messiah meant. For the Israelites at that point, the Messiah meant the person who was going to be the political leader to lead the Israeli people out of the yoke of human bondage. Now Jesus wasn’t here to be a political leader of any sort. He was here to bring a spiritual teaching, and was saying, “Don’t blame this Messiah stuff on me! I’m not your guy.” And even his mother was really disappointed about that, that he never took up that mantle and there’s great confusion. This conversation could go on for a long time. Nothing would thrill me more than if, say an alien, which I’m sure are out there, suddenly appeared in my back yard, Oh, man, do I have some stuff I want to learn from you. Please show up! History. I would imagine people like Albert Einstein to be a bit of a John Lennon, who had a genius streak and also a mean comedic streak, who could slice you in two with a word. That would be interesting. Quite interesting question you posed there. PB: How would you like to be remembered? AF: I’ll leave it to other people. I feel having been given a second chance, before I’m off for good, I really want to have made a contribution, socially, politically or something to have made some contribution to the planet that makes me worthy of moving on to the step of whatever comes next. A bass riff or something doesn’t quite do it for me. The more I become aware of those less fortunate than I – the African kids who don’t have the medications or the money to pay for it, like I do, who watch their parents die and just think that’s the future for me. It just makes your heart cry. If I can do anything to help that or a million other causes - one current thing that me and Tobi are on, right now – we’re part of a current project called Rock Against Child Slavery, and it’s being masterminded by the producer Gary Miller in the States, and it will be an album full of Sting songs sung by other artists. Fergie and Slash did one, Tobi and me did ‘Every Breath You Take,’ Glenn Hughes is committed; there’s talk of Stevie Wonder and Bruno Mars. Tobi and me knocked out ‘Every Breath You Take’, and it turned out quite good actually. There are so many things that need our attention. It almost makes you feel guilty that you can’t give them all their due. You don’t have the amount of money that Bill Gates does. I’ve got to credit him. I’m a Mac guy, but, man, does Bill Gates put his money where his mouth is and I love him for that. And it looks like Steve Jobs – his wife is on the same track now. She’s putting all that money in the right place. PB: Thank you, Andy.

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Andy Fraser - Interview

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