With a CV that reads like a veritable who’s who of popular music, Andy Fairweather Low has often taken the back seat as the go-to-guy for some of the greatest musicians on the planet, but that’s changing. We talk to the unassuming Welsh star about his new album with the Lowriders Zone-O-Tone.
‘I’m at the age now where songwriting can only be something I want to do and not something I have to do; I found myself in that situation in the mid-70s but luckily the Sex Pistols came along and that was the end of me!’
When an interviewee happily comes out with this kind of stuff at the beginning of a conversation, you know that what follows is going to be from the heart rather than some carefully crafted PR, and speaking to Andy Fairweather Low is rather like chatting to a best friend after a couple of pints. All the more remarkable, then, to consider that this lack of pretension comes from a man who’s held down the rhythm guitar role with Eric Clapton for nearly two decades, become almost a permanent fixture in Roger Waters’ band and currently works with the ace rhythm section of Dino Palladino and Steve Gadd. Far from it being the end, Mr. Low surely has reason to reflect that things haven’t turned out too badly? After all this quietly spoken self-effacing Welsh lad from the valleys, who was once to be seen strutting his stuff on Top Of The Pops with Amen Corner, has had the kind of career that most musicians aspire to, but few achieve.
The roster of artists he’s worked with is staggering and far too many to list. But notably he’s recorded with Joe Satriani, joined Kate Bush on her last album, The Who, toured and recorded with George Harrison and even popped up in a studio with Jimi Hendrix. Now at the age when many of his peers back in Cardiff are applying for bus passes, Andy’s about to undertake a mammoth tour with his band the Lowriders, an outfit that includes more ex-Clapton alumni, Dave Bronze on bass. He’ll be out there plugging his new album Zone-O-Tone, a release bristling with energy and humour which showcases that amazing distinctive high pitched voice, something that hasn’t changed one jot since the days when Amen Corner shifted singles by the lorry load and made Andy a pinup on bedroom walls throughout the land.
Speaking down the telephone from Toulouse where Andy has been rehearsing for a “private bash,” he began by extolling the virtues not of his own band, but the outfit in which he works with Gadd and Paladino, alongside Paul Simons’ wife Edie Brickell.
‘The band is called the Gaddabouts, and we just recorded our third album in New York. Edie is amazing, she’s the writer, singer and is astonishingly prolific. Dino, Steve, and myself lay down the tracks, then if we need anything done afterwards, we bring in Larry Golden on organ and Ronnie Cooper on sax. If you can record with just bass, drums and guitar, then the song has to stand up and it’s always the mark of a very good song!’
It seems a good point to ask Andy about the songwriting process. Does it come easily? ‘It’s tortuous,’ he laughs. ‘I can only do it when I feel inspired to do so and not because a record company is asking me. The boys in the band have been asking me for ages when I was going to get down to it, and I just told them not to worry, it would come.’
Back to Amen Corner. Inconceivable as it may seem now, in an era when lawyers are as vital to an artist’s career as a set of guitar strings, the band was ripped off at every turn. Despite huge popularity, selling millions of records, and working their butts off, the band were usually destitute.
‘We had our fifteen minutes, and done okay, but were badly managed three times, and that takes some doing,’ Andy reflects. ‘We signed one bit of paper, and that one bit of paper got moved on to three other people. In the end the only way we could stop it moving on anymore was just to finish the group. I remember thinking: “If this is what it’s all about, then I don’t particularly want to do this…” I didn’t like the people we were involved with – still don’t like ‘em but luckily don’t think about them too much now. We had a great time, made money from what we actually did on the road playing, but that was only subsistence money. We all lived in the same house and if we wanted things we got them in sevens,’ he chuckled. ‘Seven bow and arrows, seven air rifles, milk for seven people, bread for seven people. And money for selling records? You can forget it. We were on Decca first, then Deram, and then we got sold to Andrew Oldham. The man who coined the phrase “Happy to be part of the industry of human happiness.” I wished he’d put a bank account in there, but he didn’t!’
After Amen Corner fell apart in 1969, Andy turned his hand at a solo career. Songs like ‘Wide Eyed And Legless’ once again pushed him back onto Top Of The Pops, but then came the Sex Pistols.
‘I was finished! No one wanted to hear the kind of music I was making any more, and once again I had no money. Glyn Johns had produced two of my albums and I spent a lot of time staying with him, which, as it turned out, was very lucky. I was at the studio when he produced Slowhand for Eric, and I was there when he worked with the Who. Glyn asked if I’d add some vocals, so I sang on four or five tracks of Who Are You? Then sitting by his pool one day at a time when I still couldn’t get any work, Ronnie Lane asked Glyn if he could put together a charity gig for ARMS.’
It turned out to be a watershed moment in Andy’s career. A stellar line up that included Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Paul Rodgers, and Bill Wyman played the Royal Albert Hall and toured America.
‘It was important for me because suddenly I made all these links. After that I began gigging with Willie And The Poor Boys, Bill Wyman’s band, worked on two Linda Ronstadt albums and with Stevie Nicks. It just went on.’
You always keep a very low profile onstage when you appear with Eric. Is that intentional? ‘I never wanted a crack of the whip, and I got a lot of flack from Eric’s fans who didn’t think that I could play because when I had the chance of a solo, I wouldn’t take it. But I always felt that if people were going to an Eric Clapton gig, then they wanted to see him play and not me. Maybe if I’d been Albert Lee I would have thought differently – but I’m not! It was even written about in Eric’s fan club magazine once; they couldn’t see what I was doing there. The punch line was: “He must be good on the bus.” And that’s true – I am good on the bus. I know how to behave, keep out of the way, I’m self contained, I don’t need looking after, and if I work for somebody, I work for them as I’d like them to work for me. I’ve been the main man, standing up at the front and there’s such a wide gap between doing that and sitting on a chair at the back; it’s unbelievable. There’s just no strain and to keep the job you need to stay thinking about the guy you’re working for and his songs; those songs have to mean something to you. With some of the American musicians Eric’s used in the past, certainly the songs didn’t mean as much to them as they meant to me.’
It’s also long been said that Andy operates as something of an MD for the Clapton tours, rehearsing the band until the main man can join in. So is there any truth in this? ‘No, of course not,’ he laughs. ‘That’s all a bit too black and white. I have done a lot of work in the background on songs though. Eric’s knowledge of music is phenomenal and he educated me in Chicago blues by giving me a Jimmy Rogers album called Chicago Bound. He said: “Listen to that for an example of combo playing” and it was phenomenal. It was Muddy Waters’ band and absolutely every lick was perfect and exactly how you should make that kind of an album. My background was Stax and soul music; I only got into the blues when I joined Eric in about 1995. The truth was that Eric had a life, but my life was playing with him and luckily I had the time to devote to it. And when you listened to the records of these old guys, there was usually a trick in there. Robert Johnson might sound the same to some people but whether it was Lightnin’ Hopkins or John Hurt, there was always something that made their music that little bit different.’
It must be good to tour with your own band rather than always fulfilling a set role in someone else’s music… ‘It’s true,’ he admits. ‘My gigs with Eric have always been that of the rhythm guitar player, and I’m absolutely patently happy to do that and have been for years. But in that time I also learnt a bit and I needed to put it into practice; my job has always been to play specific parts but sometimes I’d find myself veering away and playing something that wasn’t appropriate. After all that time I wanted my opinion back! You do get a free rein playing with Eric and Roger [Waters], but if I put a CD in front of Eric and say: “I like the way that’s played” I’d usually hear the words: “No, Andy.” It was the same with Roger. So I got to the point where I wanted to make an album and think: “Yeah that’s it – I like that.” Play a bit of rockabilly, play the guitar solos, and if I want to play ‘Lightnin’ Boogie’ then I’ll play ‘Lightnin’ Boogie’ If I want to play a bit of Jimmy Reed for a minute, then I can do it; all the things I hadn’t been doing by working with these other people.’
As you’d expect Andy’s main stage instruments are suitably workmanlike. His favourite is a semi-acoustic made by Robert and Gordon Wells of Knight Guitars, played alongside a beaten up Martin.
‘The Knight’s a fabulous guitar and I use that for most of my songs. But my Martin which is a 000 Eric Clapton model, unfortunately fell out of the back of a van when we opened up for Eric on a European tour. It only fell four feet and was in its case, but it split all down the middle of the top; you could open it up about 6 inches. Eric offered to lend me one of his for the gig the next day but I like mine, so I gaffer taped the whole top of the body. I restrung it and when I plugged it in, I swear it sounded better! So I’m doing that Willie Nelson thing,’ he laughs. ‘I should have looked after it better but it’s mine now and I’ll keep it. The moment you start using pickups in an acoustic it becomes an electric guitar of a kind, it’s not as though the body is that crucial; for a working guitar it’s great. My main concern was that so many of the new models all sound too bright. I use a Mark acoustic amp and take off most of the top on that amp, otherwise it sounds like an early Ovation. If I play with my fingers it sounds fabulous but with a plectrum it’s an electric. But I need the warmth – I can’t play otherwise.’
‘I started using the Mark amp because I got fed up with doing gigs where I was getting the sound through the monitors and it just didn’t inspire me, so I decided I’d make the sound and then take a DI to the PA. To this day I still have problems between that whole thing that separates a great guitar player from a good guitar player. A great guitar player can access his information when he needs it, but for me sometimes the doors are shut. I know it’s in there and hopefully it’ll come out some day, and the more I play with my own band I’m finding the wheels are getting oiled. For 25 years my job was just to play a part, the intro or whatever was needed, but now I’m playing a few more solo parts and trying to look as though I know what I’m doing. For a long time I just sang but deep down I always wanted to be a guitar player. It’s taken a long time but it’s my pension and I’d better make use of it!’
Andy Fairweather Low’s Zone-O-Tone is out now. Andy tours the UK with the Lowriders later this year.