Ace, guitarist with Skunk Anansie, chats with Kevin Cooper about his memories of Rock City, advertising for an umbrella roadie, his thoughts on a new studio album and performing at the Brixton Academy on 14th February 2017
Ace, guitar player and backing vocalist with Skunk Anansie, a British rock band whose members include Skin (lead vocals, guitar), Cass (guitar, bass, backing vocals), and Mark Richardson (drums and percussion), who formed in March 1994; disbanded in 2001, and reformed in 2009.
They have released six studio albums and are often grouped as part of a Britrock movement, running alongside Britpop. In 2004 the band were named as one of the most successful UK chart acts between 1952 and 2003 by the Guinness Book Of British Hit Singles & Albums, with a total of 141 weeks on both the singles and album charts.
Ace has been playing guitar for over thirty years earning a reputation as being one of the top guitarists in the rock world as well as an author, teacher, session player and musical entrepreneur. He has also been producing records professionally since 2001 and has worked on records with many European bands with varied musical styles.
As a tutor, Ace has taught Live Performance and A&R courses as a module leader and lead assessor. He is also a guest tutor and delivers masterclasses at various UK and European colleges and has an MA in Media and Project Management based in Music Education from London Middlesex University. He is currently Head Of Creative Industry Development at the Academy of Contemporary Music in London and Guildford UK.
He is also the founder and driving force behind The Ace Guitar Academy in Europe which provides courses for beginners who wish to learn to play the guitar.
Whilst rehearsing for their forthcoming tour, Ace spoke to Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Hi Ace, how are you?
Hi Kevin, I’m very well thank you. How are you?
I’m feeling great today thank you and before we move on let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.
No problem Kevin, it’s my pleasure.
And just how is life treating you?
Life at the moment is very good actually. We recently finished our big run of festivals; we played thirty festivals and then found ourselves in New York. We worked our way all across Europe and then we played the Afro-Punk Festival over in Brooklyn which I have to say was really fantastic. The organisation of the festival is great; the vibe and feeling is fantastic with quite possibly the best looking crowd that you have ever seen. We saw some of the funkiest looking people that we had ever seen (laughter) so that was really good. Since then, we have been working on a new single and video ready for us to take out on the road when we tour again this year. So as you can see whilst things are good they are also keeping me very busy (laughter).
On the subject of the forthcoming tour, I hear that it is proving to be a little harder than you anticipated getting back into shape for life on the road?
Who the hell has told you that (laughter)? Well, I have to be honest with you and say that over the past few weeks I have literally been relearning some super old songs whilst dusting off some of my old pedals and racks and things (laughter). We are going to be shaking things up a bit once again with this tour because for us every tour is either a new album or a greatest hits tour. With this tour because there is no actual new release apart from the single, it will be a totally new stage show, new songs, new look, new clothes, everything will be new. So actually, that is what I am up to right now.
Going back to the festivals for a moment, you received some fantastic reviews throughout Europe. Were you satisfied with just how things went?
Yes I was, in fact I was amazed actually. To be honest I am always amazed, right from the day that we had our very first song on the TV and the band started to take off. For me it has always been a pleasurable journey. However, it still amazes me after all of this time. It will be twenty three years this year, in fact the first album was actually released some twenty-one years ago now. So it has been that long and we are still doing massive shows; we are selling out festivals where we are playing to fifty thousand people every night, we are either headlining or are playing second or third from the top, so the popularity has been constantly overwhelmingly brilliant. Unlike most bands we have never had a dip in popularity when we thought that it was all going to fall apart, we have always gone onwards and upwards throughout our career.
So for me it is really gratifying and also very humbling and I have to say it is kind of amazing too. I come off the stage and I say to other members of the band ‘wow I can’t believe it, we are still doing this’ (laughter). We are so very lucky and yes, the festivals were brilliant and as you said, we received some really excellent reviews. For me the best thing was that out of the thirty odd festivals that we played in Europe we only had two days of rain, and I thought that was really good.
You will have to tell me the secret to that because whenever I go to photograph a festival it rains so heavily that I need a boat to get around the site (laughter).
(Laughter) well, this is it you see, we didn’t play any English festivals (hysterical laughter). The only ones where we had rain were one in Germany, and believe me it always rains at German festivals and one in Hungary which is normally like a heat wave; you would usually die from the heat, but this time we actually played through the one hour of rain that they had in Hungary (laughter). There was something rather strange about it because it rained so hard it was unbelievable, but the crowd stayed there which amused me in a certain way. Also, the rest of the band were using a wireless system so that they were at the front of the stage getting soaked to the skin with the audience whereas I had to hang back in the dry because I was plugged in to everything (laughter).
That’s a good enough excuse for you to stay dry (laughter).
I suppose that I could have walked on to the stage with a roadie holding an umbrella over me couldn’t I (laughter). That’s it, ready for this year’s English festivals I will advertise for an umbrella roadie (laughter).
You have mentioned the forthcoming UK tour; you will be playing the Brixton Academy on February 4th. Is playing that venue something special for you and the rest of the band?
Yes it is, and I will be totally honest with you and say that the only thing that ever makes us nervous is playing in our home town Brixton. There is something about playing in London; your friends are there, your family are there, the music people are all there, the record company is there, and in fact all of those people who you need to carry on impressing are there. Also, we have quite a demanding fan base in London and they are used to being spoilt by every international band in the world playing there. It’s not like you are playing a gig in deepest Russia and the last band that played there was Sonny and Cher (laughter). It feels like the day before you perform, Led Zeppelin have played, it’s that sort of vibe (laughter), so the pressure for us to perform really well is on which really makes Brixton an amazing show.
People will always come up to me and say ‘one of the best times that I ever saw you was at Brixton Academy’ and then they will go on to name all of the Brixton Academy shows. So we all know that there is a certain amount of pressure on us to make that show something special and it always seems to pay off. But we are always nervous beforehand and it always turns into a family affair as we try to get everybody who you know in to the gig and then backstage (laughter). You find yourself running around all day doing that. It is a stressful but rewarding event. Having said all of that, I feel that this tour is going to be pretty heavy with lots of riffs going on. There is going to be electronic stuff in it. With the stage set there is going to be more beauty in it. We will also be playing some of the songs that haven’t been released as yet.
I have heard that you will be drafting in another member for the tour. Is that correct?
(Laughter) who told you that. Yes that’s correct. We will have an extra member with us on stage, the beautiful Erica Footman will be touring with us. Erica toured with us on the acoustic tour, she is a backing vocalist, piano player, and she will be helping us play some of the more beautiful songs, some of the newer songs together with some of the bits and pieces that we can’t play on our own (laughter).
Why are you playing just the one date at Brixton?
You know what, I don’t know (laughter). I was going to make something up then but I wasn’t quick enough (laughter). I don’t know actually, but the only reason that I can think of is the fact that maybe it’s because of the UK tour which is coming up after the Brixton date. That would make sense to me. We haven’t played a UK tour of the latest album as yet so that is most probably why.
The last time that I saw Skunk Anansie was on November 17th 2010 here in Nottingham at Rock City.
Really, Rock City is a great venue isn’t it. I used to go to Rock City when I was a kid of about sixteen or seventeen years of age. I used to go there to watch gigs before I was playing with Skunk Anansie. I have always loved it; it has always been a great venue. It’s not massive, but it has got a good vibe and good sound. Nottingham is a great rock heritage city as well for rock-goth people and it is always great to play there. What I used to like about Nottingham was that back in the day I can remember going to Rock City and it had three parts to it. I can remember there being a rock ‘n’ roll night, there was a line-dancing club in the middle bit and upstairs it was a traditional rock night, all happening at the same time (laughter). It was such an amazing mix of people, everyone got on and there was never any trouble; it was one of the greatest nights ever.
I personally think that your 2011 album Black Traffic is a great piece of work. However, I feel that you received some rather unfair criticism from certain sections of the music press. Would you agree with that?
You know what, I never read any of the reviews so a lot of the time that you do interviews you don’t actually see them mainly because they are printed and broadcast in other countries (laughter). What I found was that I only ever experienced the positive side because we went out and played the songs and they went down really well live. For us, if they are going down well when we play them live, we know that the fans like them plus the album is still selling well, so we know that everything is alright. Also, if we do hear or read a bad review we never take it to heart. People are always saying that Anarchytecture is far too electronic but saying that I am currently learning tracks off Black Traffic and I have to say that I personally feel that Black Traffic has got more electronic in it than the new album.
What I love about Anarchytecture is the fact that it is so fresh and it’s so simple. Whenever I am travelling on the tube at the moment I am listening to all of the songs as I am trying to put together a new set list with Skin and when I get to that album it doesn’t lose the flavour of Skunk Anansie, but it is so fresh and so simple. Its sounds so modern and warm. I am really proud of that album. Me and Skin were talking about it a few days ago and to be honest I think that it is one of her favourites actually.
You have mentioned Skin, I have recently read one of her quotes “still underdogs, still outsiders” is that how you all as a unit still feel after twenty-two years in the business?
(Laughter) we do, but I suppose that everybody does. I think that it is because we are not part of any particular scene. People can mention Oasis and then also mention a few other bands who are of a similar ilk, for example you know Oasis then you must know Ocean Colour Scene. Whereas you can’t really say ‘you know Led Zeppelin, then you must know Skunk Anansie’ (laughter). We haven’t really got a scene so to speak. We do however have a fantastic fan base so our fan base, I suppose over the years, is what has made us a big cult band in my mind. I never begrudge it, sometimes I just think that we are not recognised in certain ways.
Whenever you see shows such as The Biggest Bands Of The 90’s Skunk Anansie are never ever featured (laughter). We have headlined Glastonbury, we played for Nelson Mandela, in fact we did a lot more than a hell of a lot of nineties bands but we never seem to get any recognition. But at the end of the day I suppose that you don’t do it for recognition, you do it in order to be able to play live, sell records and increase your fan base. So I’m not really bothered that the business is not rating us really just as long as we are doing what we are doing. As I have said previously whilst we continue playing these festivals and they continually sell-out it is still amazing, so we must be doing something right for the public if you know what I mean. For me that is the most important thing.
It’s all down to the good old BBC, they can’t pigeon hole you so therefore you must be outsiders (laughter).
Or maybe they just didn’t take enough footage of us back in the day so they don’t have enough to chop up from the archives (laughter).
The BBC really does annoy me. There are so many new bands out there trying to make it in the music business but because the BBC can’t pigeon hole them they simply fall through the cracks never to be seen again.
That’s very true, there are so many bands now. The amazing thing is that Skunk Anansie seems like a cult underground band which is really weird. Whenever people approach us it’s never ‘oh my god it’s you’ type of approach like it would be if Madonna walked into the room. Anyone would say that because she is a famous face. But the funny thing is that everyone knows who we are (laughter). A couple of weeks ago I met Jimmy Page at a friend’s party. I have never met him before and he is my all-time guitar hero. I finally plucked up the courage to go over and speak to him and he said ‘Ace how are you doing. I really love Skin and the whole Skunk Anansie image’ (laughter).
I just thought ‘holly fuck, Jimmy Page knows who we are; he knows our music and he likes us’. I have found that happening a few times now, even when I am in America. Whenever I meet other people they know who we are and they like us because we have got a credibility that has never been mainstream sell-out I’m the man kind of thing. I find that is enough for me. The other day we played with Robert Plant and he was joking with us saying that we looked so young and fresh (laughter). I just thought ‘oh my god this is the biggest rock god in the entire world’ and he is such a cool person. That recognition for me is just priceless and truly is amazing.
Are there any thoughts on a new studio album?
We will start writing a new album towards the end of the year. What we will do is tour with this album, go into the festival season and then after that we will probably start writing a new album. What you have to remember is that whenever we write a new album it takes us around a year and a half to write it and then another six months to record it, master it, mix it then get the artwork done. So you are really looking at a couple of years between albums for us. The next project for us is a bigger and better stage production plus adding lots of new songs to the set list. We are going to be playing stuff that we haven’t played for years. So that is going to be really good for the fans who keep asking us to play some of the old stuff that we haven’t played for years now.
I have to say that I was as guilty as the next person in that I thought that you would write a new album and go into the studio to record it all in the space of twelve weeks (laughter).
(Hysterical laughter) you do if you are a punk band (laughter). And sometimes twelve weeks is the length of your entire career (laughter).
Recently PRS released The SE Ace Signature guitar. Just how did that make you feel?
To be totally open and honest with you, it is a great honour and very flattering to be immortalised by my own signature guitar. To be considered worthy as a player is an amazing achievement and I’m very excited about it. It was copied from my specs of the one I play, so I am happy with the reproduction and representing it. Long after I am dust it will live on in my name. They can bury me with one.
Your Ace Guitar Academy is doing extremely well; that must make you feel proud?
Yes, it makes no money but it makes people happy and better players. That’s the main objective. I have fun visiting them and meeting the students and playing guitar with them too. It’s a feel good factor of ten which is great after all the hard work I put in setting it up all on my own. I think I’m the only British player that has ever done it, as I wrote the course too.
Who has musically inspired you along the way?
That would have to be The Sex Pistols, Motörhead, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Nick Drake and Rage Against The Machine as contemporaries.
Is Skin really that scary?
(Laughter) well I have to say that everyone is scary if you get on the wrong side of them. We are like the fantastic 4, mild mannered until you cross us and then we unleash our special powers (laughter).
As an ideal start-up kit I would suggest one of the following amps; an Orange Crush 15 watt amp, a Marshall MG 15 or a Blackstar ID 15; they all are good sounding cheap practice amps for the bedroom. When it comes to a guitar there are quite a few good starter guitars out there such as a Squier Telecaster, a Stratocaster Epiphone or a Les Paul. PRS make a few SE models which are all good quality for beginners and are good value for a lower money price bracket.
On that note Ace let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me and I hope to see you in London. I am off to buy my guitar.
(Laughter) Good luck Kevin. Thanks, I hope that this is all good. You take care and I will see you in London. Bye for now.