Smooth JazzNotes

Acoustic Alchemy
Going "This Way"

 

Experimentation and diversity have always been a key element to Acoustic Alchemy, and their 18th CD in 20 years, “This Way”, is no exception. The interconnection guitarists, Greg Carmichael and Miles Gilderdale share is beyond description. Their common bond give the listener the impression that their guitars are extensions of each other as their harmonies flow smoothly and effortlessly. Continuing to stretch the limits, the nylon string guitar and the steel string guitar compliment each other, giving them a cohesive sound.

Smooth Jazz Notes met up with Acoustic Alchemy at the Waterbird Entertainment show at Camp Kennolyn in the Santa Cruz Mountains above the small coastal community of Soquel in Northern California. A beautiful venue with a panoramic view overlooking the Monterey Bay, they feature wines from local vineyards and hors o'derves from local restaurants. Find them at http://www.waterbirdentertainment.com

 

 

 

SJN: We are so pleased to see you come over so often to see us here in the states and we love your new CD. Please tell us what inspired you to name it, 'This Way'?

Greg: We spend a lot of time looking for a title, as we always do. Usually the title of the CD is the last thing we do. We write the music, then we name the tunes. The title of the CD has to convey where we are at that particular time. We struggled with this one, I remember. Miles and I sat down together and tried to think of a title. Miles came up this the idea of calling it ‘This Way’ because we wanted to say this is our music, this is what we do, this is where we are at. We have been doing it for a long time and we do it ‘our way’, so we called it ‘This Way’

SJN: From the very first song, it is different, starting out with vocals, and for Acoustic Alchemy, the prominent use of horns is very innovative. What inspired you to take this avenue in your 18 th CD?

Miles: We didn’t know that we were going to open the CD with that track. The track order tends to be one of the final things you do after you have actually recorded the tracks. Once the tracks are sounding good and they are finished that is a good time to start thinking about how they are going to be ordered. What is going to be a sensible and interesting order. So, we didn’t know we would be opening the album with that particular track and in the event that we did, we thought that track, ‘Love Is All There Is’ would need quite a big production. We had already decided fairly early on with that track that we would give it a real sort of theatrical treatment. It’s just the way the album turned out that we opened with that. It is quite an unusual track, not a typical opener, not a typical Acoustic Alchemy track that would ordinarily open an Acoustic Alchemy CD. That was all part of the plan. People hear it and they think that this is very different. In fact, Greg, it was a track that you had that was an old track.

Greg: Yes, it is part of a track I wrote a long time ago. We looked at the bits and pieces and we decided we liked that bit, but we won’t keep that, and so on. The hook was already established.

SJN: Rick Braun plays Flugelhorn on “Carlos the King”. You have used a Flugelhorn once before, in 1990 when you had Randy Brecker play on “Back on the Case”. Please tell us why you chose this rather unusual instrument?

Greg: Rick is a great player, a fantastic player. We both really like his tone. He is incredibly melodic and he’s got his own sound…

Miles: …he’s very fluid…

Greg: …and you can hear something he’s playing on and you know that it is Rick Braun, definitely Rick Braun. We have bumped into him a number of times over the years on the road when we have shared shows with him. And, it seemed like the right instrument for this particular spot. It’s quite a long solo, actually and he seemed to be the right guy. I think he did a fantastic job (Miles in background saying ‘fantastic’) and it’s a great solo. I really enjoyed listening to him.

SJN: You usually work with a small core group of people on your CD’s, on This Way you seem to have branched out. Why did you decide to take this route?

Greg: I think that the songs kind of warranted it, being structured. We wanted to make them rather different than a normal Acoustic Alchemy song, which is quite concise. It has the tune, the melody, the middle, a bit of soloing, and the end. On this one, we wanted to stretched the songs out a bit and we know a lot of great players and they were very keen to playing on this CD, so we actually gave them more room than perhaps we would normally and I think that has been very successful. There’s some fantastic soloing on this CD and some wonderful players.

SJN: Greg, how old were you when you first started playing an instrument?

Greg: When I was eight, but not the guitar, the ukulele.

SJN: How did you progress to the guitar?

Greg: Well it was a bit small. I wanted something a bit bigger, with more strings. (laughs) It only had four strings. I actually had three ukulele’s. My first one was a plastic one, my second was a better plastic one, and then I got given a wooden (laughing) and then when I finally proved to my parents that I could play seriously they got me a guitar when I was 12.

SJN: Do you play any other instruments?

Greg: No, but in college I played the cello, because you had to have a second instrument, but I wouldn’t dare play it now.

SJN: Did you play music in college?

Greg: Yes, I went to music college in London when I was 18. I did a four year course at the London College of Music on classical guitar. Apart from that, you had to have a second subject, as well, and I chose Cello.

SJN: It’s been 20 years since the release of Red Dust & Spanish Lace, when the song “Mr. Chow” became an instant hit for Acoustic Alchemy. Back in 1987, Smooth Jazz was in its infancy, making you one of the pioneers of Smooth Jazz. What inspired you to create this type of music that was new and unheard of at the time?

Greg: It was just something that Nick and I did. Mr. Chow was just a track. Acoustic Alchemy was originally Nick’s child. He had this concept of combining steel string guitar and a nylon string guitar because he thought that they complemented each other. he thought that they sounded really good together. Also, he didn’t just want to be playing covers, playing other peoples music. He thought that was an interesting idea, but he thought Acoustic Alchemy should be playing its own music, its own original music. So, when I first met up with Nick, after the original nylon string player Simon James left, we were going to continue writing our own material. Mr. Chow was one of the first things we wrote together. We wrote it in his basement flat in London. This was way before we had any idea it would be accepted over here because this was before we thought of coming over here. It was just one of our little tunes that we were playing in pubs and clubs in London. There was no contact what there was a thing called New Age over here in America!

SJN: Can you tell us how you first met Nick Webb, and had you ever heard of Acoustic Alchemy at that time?

Greg: Acoustic Alchemy was struggling when I first met Nick, they didn’t have any kind of presence at all. I first met Nick when he and Simon were splitting up. He wanted to keep the concept of the two guitars going so he needed a nylon string player. This was in 1984-85, and there were very, very few if any nylon string guitarist playing in a band situation, quite unusual, who were also into jazz, not just classical guitar. He had heard about me and the timing was quite good because I was a bit fed up with the band I was playing in. He came along to a gig we were doing and he kind-of came up after the gig and said ‘Hi, I'm Nick Webb, I got a band called Acoustic Alchemy and I’m looking for a nylon string player. Are you interested?’ I gave him my phone number and then we met up. I thought that it was an intriguing idea I thought that he was a very together guy. He seemed to have quite a business acrimony, he had a good sense of it. He was a good songwriter, so I decided to go with Acoustic Alchemy. It was then that we started writing music together. And this was still before we knew that we would be going to the states.

SJN: Yes, we have heard all about your story about the Virgin Airlines trip and they decided to have a band on board?

Greg: Well yes, it was when Virgin Airlines was just starting up and they wanted something a little different, a promotion they had, a different angle for the entertainment. So, they had musicians after dinner, before the film started, because then everyone didn’t have their own screens, there was only one screen. They had musicians coming up and down the aisles playing instruments. (laughing)

SJN: Strolling Musicians? (laughing)

Greg: Yes, strolling musicians at 30,000 feet! (laughing)

SJN: So they brought you over here and at that point you went to Nashville and got a recording contract from your visit there? Did you only do this once for Virgin Airlines?

Greg: Yes, it was just a means to an end, simply to get to America to see what would happen. When we did that, we didn’t know that we would be going home with a record deal, we were just giving it a shot, we had nothing to loose.

SJN: Didn’t you go home and find out that you had a record deal later?

Greg: Yes, Tony Brown rang up about six weeks later because they liked what they heard on the demo tapes and they were issuing on the MCA label, six new albums and they had five and were looking for a sixth. They had a couple other people in mind but they decided to go with this British group, Acoustic Alchemy, and I’m glad they did!

SJN: And Miles, when were you first introduced to music?

Miles: My folks bought me a guitar when I was ten. I had already shown musical inclination before that which is why they paid four pounds for a guitar. They wouldn’t have shelled out four whole pounds for a guitar if they thought that it was a waste of money. (less than $10) It was a second-hand. I was a choir boys first, but I didn’t like being a choir boy because the tunes weren’t funky enough for me. (everyone laughing) They bought me a guitar and I taught myself. Then I got a French Horn and had proper lessons on the French Horn. Then I went to college and got a degree.

SJN: You studied the French Horn in college? What drew you to that instrument and how did you end up playing guitar?

Miles: Because the school only had one French Horn and in my quest to be unique, I decided that it should be me.

SJN: So you play a string instrument and a horn?

Miles: Well, I sort of abandoned the horn after I got my degree. I realized I didn’t really love the horn enough to play it for a living. I got much more of a kick out of the guitar, I was far more interested in the music. I was a lot more interested in jazz, and blues, and pop then I was in classical music written for the horn…which there hasn’t been a great deal…just a bit of Mozart, and a bit of Beethoven. You can’t play jazz on a French horn!

SJN: You joined Acoustic Alchemy in 1996 to add a layer of electric guitar and became a lead musician playing acoustic guitar with steel strings because of the death of Nick Webb. Looking back what were the hardest adjustments?

Miles: I was very nervous at first, nervous about even picking it up because I had put all my energy into playing electric guitar. I thought that although this is a challenge, I should push myself, and give it a go because the guys were very generous. It was a big part because characters are very important. Were not just a musical collective where session players come and go. It is important that people do have a good comradely. They knew that I was a trouble free guy and they gave me the chance to have a go. They were very generous, so I just locked myself way for a few months and spent bone hard on it and that was the scary thing, especially playing for Nick, I had been playing the behind for a couple of years. Nicks real strength with the guitar was that he could deliver a melody, very eloquently. He wasn’t a chops player, he never professed to be. It was pretty frightening to thinking, ‘Can I deliver a melody like that.’ So I gave it a go and it was good enough for the chaps.

SJN: On the personal side, please tell us about your families. Greg, we understand that you are married with three grown daughters?

Greg: My youngest is 19 and she’s on what is called gap year. I’m not sure you have that term in America. She has finished school and did pretty well on her exams, but before she goes to university, she has been deferred for a year to travel and experience a bit of life. She just finished spending three and a half months in Australia and New Zealand and she is off to the university in October. Then my middle daughter, Louise is 22. She is an incredibly organized person, it’s funny how they are so different. She’s very organized and good at organizing people. She is very quickly working her way up as a manager in a fashion store in London. She loves that job and the interaction with people. She’s doing extremely well and is well liked and recognized. My oldest, Nicola, is 24. She the one who is the most similar to me, in as much as she hasn’t taken up music, but she’s an ice skater and she loves performing. She recently went to Portugal and ice skated with the circus. So, she ran away to the circus for a couple of months! They’re all doing great! Louise has actually left home, Nicola is still at home and Penny, the youngest will disappear when she goes to the university because it is in Bristol which is a bit of a way from London. My wife, Janet, and I just celebrated our 25 th wedding anniversary last year and things are really, really good. She’s coming out here in August when we come back here.

SJN: Miles, we know that your son Milo was born in 2003, anymore kids?

Miles: No, me and my other half are getting sort of a bit older now. If one was sent along, we’d give it a good home, very happily, but at the moment, it’s just looking like Milo. He keeps us pretty busy. Four and a half year olds, as you well know do keep you busy.

SJN: The music business has changed dramatically in the last few years with the advancement of the Internet and the iPod. What do you think the future of the record industry will be?

Greg: I’d like to think that it keeps going because I am kind of old school. I like the idea of having a recording contract. You do your job and the record companies do their jobs. They are the ones who do the things I can’t do and wouldn’t want to do. Whether that continues or not, I don’t know. Sales generally dictate these things.

SJN: Sales are down 20% again this year!

Greg: So obviously there is going to become a point.

SJN: Since the younger generation doesn’t have the desire or need to “hold it” in their hands, do you think that CD’s will disappear completely?

Greg: They might, it’s kind of depressing. I remember when they appeared, I didn’t like them as a format. Then you kind of get used to them. I used to like the album. It was always like a book and you could see it and it was a big thing you could hold. But, the CD came along and replaced it and you kind of went with that. I wouldn’t loose any sleep over it because it’s a thing I cherish. There would definitely be another kind of electronic format.

SJN: Well, if that format ends and people just download songs, there won’t be a need to have an album with 12 songs on it, so the formatting will change?

Miles: The nice thing about an album is that it’s a entity, a collection with some sort of purpose. If you just start chucking tunes out as you wrote them…it’s just scary to me!

Greg: It’s a body of work, what’s the point, isn’t it? Another important thing is having a deadline. If you have a deadline, you really have to work and if there isn’t a deadline you’d just drift on forever changing the songs and never saying ‘this is it’. That’s kind of what record companies do.

Miles: It’s a horribly gray scary area. We will just have to roll with it if we want to survive in this glorious new world. We’ll just have to see what comes along.

SJN: Do you think Smooth Jazz will continue as a genre?

Greg: Well it seems quite strong out here in America, especially on the westcoast. There are quite a few core artists and quite a strong following. Whether it carries on depends whether a new generation of people come up with it. We are all getting older and if Smooth Jazz continues with these same people who eventually pack up when we pack up, or is it going to have young people who keep it alive, I don’t know.

SJN: Are American and English audiences different?

Greg: English audiences have the reputation of being more reserved. When Acoustic Alchemy first started with Nick and I, we were playing to audiences in wine bars and we were largely being ignored. We were playing Mr. Chow in wine bars and people weren’t paying any attention to us. The very first gig we ever did here was in Dallas, Texas at the Arcadia Theatre and we got this incredible response from the audience. They were shouting and moving; we just couldn’t believe it. I turned to Nick and we were so surprised. They liked all of the songs. Having said that we have built up a bit of a following in England and they are a solid following.

SJN: Do you think that people in England have changed over the last 20 years?

Both: Ya, ya, they are a bit looser.

 

Acoustic Alchemy at Camp Kennolyn
June 30, 2007

 

 

This Way
June 5, 2007

 
  American/English
March 29, 2005
 
  Radio Contact
June 24, 2003
 
  AArt
September 25, 2001
 
  The Beautiful Game
May 23, 2000
 

Find out more at: www.acoustic-alchemy.net

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