July 8-9, 2022
About the Artist
There's no such thing as a 'definitive' history of anything. All you can do is try and remember things as best you can and hope you don't forget anything too important! So here's what I remember about how the band got started. But don't quote me on it...
In the early 1980's I had been playing in a latin band in London called the Holloway All Stars and as a side line I did some gigs as a duo with the double bass player from the band, playing wine bars, pubs and pre-theatre shows (at the time you didn't need a license for live music for a duo so lot's of smaller venues could put us on). On one occasion Julia Doyle the bass player couldn't make it and so recommended a gentleman called Jeff Clyne to cover for her. In conversation with Jeff he mentioned that he had been playing with two guitarists, Nick Webb and Simon James who were calling themselves Acoustic Alchemy and playing similar venues. Simon was about to leave the band to pursue a solo career and I might be a good fit to take his place. So just over 33 years ago I met Nick for the first time. He came to see the Holloway All Stars playing at a large venue in Islington, London and after the show approached me and asked if I would like to join the band. I took my guitar to his flat and listened to a few songs he had demos of, including a track called Casino that later was released on our second album. We seemed to click instantly, and I was struck by the way his steel string acoustic and my nylon guitar worked so well together. There were a few gigs already lined up in small theatres and bars so I learned the material he had then but we also started writing new material together. The very first song we came up with was Mr. Chow, our now famous "Chinese reggae" tune. It was clear to both of us that there was definitely a future together and so we kept writing and playing and looking for a chance to make an album.
One night we had a wine bar gig, myself, Nick and Jeff when Jeff showed us an interesting advert he'd seen in the local paper. It read "In flight entertainment needed for Virgin Atlantic flights. Fire eaters and jugglers need not apply." It was quite a strange idea to play music on a flight but somehow we both felt that whatever the experience would be like at least it would get us to America where we felt we had a better chance of finding some kind of deal than in England where at the time there was no real interest in contemporary jazz.
And so, armed with two guitars and a suitcase full of demo tapes we played on the flight to New York, along with Julia on a mexican bass - there was no way we could get a double bass on board, and set off to get our tape delivered to as many record companies as we could.
We'd bought a bundle deal for flights around the USA from New York and our first stop was Nashville. I knew Dave Pomeroy from playing with him in a few bands in London and he was now based in Nashville doing session work which meant we had a couch to crash on. He picked us up from the airport and on the way back to his we played our demo tape on his car stereo and told us this was exactly the sort of thing that was just starting to take off in America. Music to our ears. He loved the material and set us up with a meeting with Tony Brown at MCA Records in Nashville. After listening to the demo Tony said he was just about to launch the "MCA Master Series" which was to include people like Larry Carlton, Albert Lee and Jerry Douglas and thought Acoustic Alchemy would fit in well. We went round a few other labels and returned to England both excited and nervous, hoping that this could be the start of something big.
We had a manager in England, Stewart Coxhead, who at the time was running a big promotions company in London. He said later that he'd never really expected Acoustic Alchemy to do much (remember, there was literally no radio stations in England playing instrumental music, no record labels putting out records) but was impressed with the bands determination and so had offered to help out in whatever way he could. When he got a call from a major label in America saying they would like to sign Acoustic Alchemy for a 3 album deal he apparently replied, "Yeah, OK. Who is this really?".
We went from being a small unknown duo playing local gigs in London to suddenly having a record deal in America and so we finally could go into a real studio and record our first album. The demo had only 4 songs on it so we needed to get writing. Nick had a friend from college, John Parsons who was living in Germany at the time, and he thought he would be great to bring in to help write and produce the album. The three of us spent a few weeks at a cottage we'd hired to write the album and put together the material for what would become Red Dust and Spanish Lace. John had recommended a studio in Germany called Hansa Haus and so we all flew to Germany to record the album. The studio was absolutely incredible and to this day we have used it on every album we have ever released.
The album was released in America in 1987 and immediately started getting played on radio stations predominantly on the west coast, stations such as The Wave in Los Angeles and Art Good's Jazz Trax, but spreading fast to the rest of the country, so we suddenly had an audience to go and play to.
Our early tours were incredible for us. Going from playing small bars in London to a handful of mostly uninterested diners to venues like Humphreys in San Diego, The Arcadia in Dallas and the spectacular Catalina Jazz Festival was just amazing. Real audiences who actually knew the material and knew the band. It was a dream come true.
1996 - 9 albums and innumerable gigs later was one of our busiest years ever. We were touring more than we were home. We'd just got home in time for Christmas and shortly after Nick started to feel unwell. We put it down at first to just exhaustion, but after a while it became apparent that it was something more serious. Nick was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Touring was off the table but we carried on writing, often between courses of chemotherapy. We finished writing the record, Positive Thinking, when sadly Nick passed away in February 1998.
The album was released as a tribute to him, with his old friend John Parsons recording Nick's parts. Looking back on that time it could quite easily have been the end of Acoustic Alchemy. When you lose a founding member and writing partner you get a feeling of "can I carry on?". There were two things that made me want to continue: firstly we felt that owed it to Nick. We had spent so many years together writing music and building the band from a small local fan base to an incredible world wide audience, and I knew that Nick would not want it to just be put on the shelf. Secondly we had an album of songs that myself and Nick had written and I wanted to go and play those songs to the band and Nick's many fans.
I couldn't have gotten through that period and carried on with the band without two people in particular: John Parsons and Miles Gilderdale.
John Parsons for stepping up like he did while Positive Thinking was being made, not only writing with Nick and myself, playing Nick's parts when he was too sick to play them himself but also coming on the road with us on the Positive Thinking tour.
But filling Nick's position on stage was always a temporary thing for John and so I needed to find a new partner for the band. For a few years we had been lucky to have Miles Gilderdale on electric guitar touring with us, and so it felt really natural to have someone who I knew I liked spending time with, someone who was an incredible musician who could take over the steel string guitar. You would never know it now but at the time Miles was slightly nervous about doing it as his entire career he'd been an electric guitarist and had never really spent much time on an acoustic guitar. He decided to give it a go and spent a few months locked in a room getting to grips with the instrument and learning the parts and I'm forever grateful he did! It's never easy to take on someone's place in a band, I think you're always finding a balance between being yourself, bringing your own voice to the mix and remaining faithful to the songs that have come before you, and Miles does that perfectly and it's a tribute to him that the band has continued to evolve and draw new fans without ever losing the old ones.
You can hear that on the first album Miles and myself did together, "The Beautiful Game". I think a lot of people were nervous about what the next album would be like, but looking back it's up there among my favorite of our albums.
Over the following few albums I think we really started to hit our stride as a live touring band as well. Miles has a background in really tight, funky music and the live show developed to reflect this. Our current line up has the incredible Greg and Gary Grainger as rhythm section (both legends in their own right!), Fred White on keys (who was great when he joined the band as a young man and has gotten even better over the years) and Myself and Miles on guitars, and I can honestly say I've never been happier with spending time, both on and off stage, with them.
I'd like to say one more thing. With any history of a band the musicians recollections are only half of the story. We have always been incredibly proud of our fans, and realize that whatever it is we do, the writing and touring, it means almost nothing without the people out there who are listening to the songs. We've been lucky enough to meet so many over the years and get brief glimpses into how our music has been the soundtrack to people's lives. So it's important to say that the history of the band includes all those many people over the years who have been good enough to buy the records and tickets and who continue to allow us to do what we do. Thank You.
London, May 2018