Alan Wilson is a musician, singer, songwriter, producer, record label and studio owner and author, phew!
Way back in 2012 I did a series of interviews with Alan for Scootering and Milkcow Magazines and UK Psychobilly Gig Guide, covering the three things that he is most well-known for – being the founder member of one of the most iconic Neo-rockabilly psychobilly bands The Sharks, the Klub Foot recordings, and his recording studio/label Western Star.
Western Star is responsible for recording and releasing music from many of the UK’s current Rockabilly and Psychobilly bands as well as a host of legendary British Rock n Roll artists, with the studio itself being solidly booked up for many months in advance.
As Alan is celebrating 15 years of the Western Star label, I thought it was about time we caught up with him again to bring us up to date with things.
Let’s start with a couple of questions from the original interview where we go right back to the 1980s.
You have said that one of the reasons for quitting The Sharks in 1983 was to pursue a career in Sound Engineering/Producing, how did you get into that line of work and what was its’ fascination?
The allure of sound engineering goes way back to my childhood. I can remember as a kid, modifying microphones and hi-fi amps, and getting told off by my Dad as he was sure I was going to electrocute myself. I even remember suspending a microphone in a dustbin lid using elastic and finding the lid’s focal point, (in much the same way as a satellite dish works) and recording sounds from long distances onto a portable cassette player. I guess I was around 12 at this time. I liked making sound effects and just generally messing with the sound.
Later, in my teens I had 2 cassette players rigged up with a live mixer between the two. I could play guitar onto deck one, replay it and play a second guitar part alongside it live, and capture both onto deck two. Then if the cassette from deck two was put into deck one again, and played, I could play a third part alongside it and capture all 3 on deck 2. I would lose hours and days doing this. I remember once when I was seventeen, calling in sick at work, and recording all week in my parents’ lounge.
When and how did you start up your own studio?
When I was about 19 my parents – who were always really supportive of my music, bought me a Tascam Portastudio. It was at that time, a cutting edge 4 track cassette-based multi-track recorder. This was when home recording was in its infancy. Wow, it was the best thing I had ever seen!
I set about soundproofing a large shed my parents had in their garden and before long I had a lovely little studio. This was a really productive time for me song-writing wise. But I was learning all the basics of sound engineering. And when you have such restrictions – like only 4 tracks, you have to be really creative, and you have to always think ahead as to where you put what and on which track…. Not like today where you have the luxury of unlimited recording tracks to work with. So it was a brilliant learning process.
After a while, I was recording local bands and became really busy. From there I had a purpose-built extension constructed on the side of my house and had a nice little home studio at my house called X-Ray studio. By that time I had progressed to 8-track open reel (this would be the late 80s).
I recorded loads of Rockabilly & Psychobilly bands there, mainly because I had been in the Sharks, and back then no one really knew about this type of music. Most bands would go in a studio and the engineer would run a mile when he saw a slap bass. So I got loads of the type of work.
At X-Ray, I recorded bands like The Frantic Flintstones, The Caravans, Number Nine (their first album), Twenty Flight Rock, Rockin’ Bandits – and too many others to list.
In 1991, you went freelance working in various studios producing bands from all over the world, then in 1999, you started Western Star. Has it always been predominantly rockabilly and psychobilly and do you run it as a one-man outfit?
No, I have worked with many different styles of music, from punk to grindcore, to pop and indie but because of my past (and my present I suppose) I do tend to get a lot of work with rockabilly-based music. I started doing freelance work in about 1990, alongside X-Ray, but when I got divorced in 1993 I closed X-Ray and started working in other larger studios. I’ve worked in some nice places and with some great people over the years. It’s all experience and it’s the sort of job where you can learn so much from others you work with, and you never stop learning.
Eventually, I realised that when working on an album, you put so much into it, your heart and soul goes into making that record. Then you hand it over to the label and that’s it. I didn’t like that. It felt like giving away one of your kids.
So in 1999, I decided to start my own studio and label. That way I didn’t have to hand anything over. I could work on projects and stay in contact with those tracks forever. Sounds simple, but it wasn’t that easy, nothing worthwhile ever is, but as tough as it has been, it’s been well worth it.
I built Western Star Studio in 1999 and outgrew the premises after 5 years, moving to larger premises that I converted to a studio in a nearby business park. I have had a few employees over the years but pretty much everything is down to me so I work crazy hours…. I love it really!
I couldn’t be any more pleased with how the studio and label have thrived in such tough times. I’ve recorded some fantastic bands, released some great albums, recorded, produced and even played on records for many of my childhood heroes. It’s been almost like a dream. So the long hours, financial risk and hard work have been worth it in that respect.
You also play on some of the bands’ albums, is this normally planned in advance or do you just end up joining in? How does it feel playing material that you haven’t written yourself?
Sometimes they’ll ask me to play on something, like quite often these days I seem to be playing piano parts on other people’s tracks, or Hammond organ (which I love) but that’s normally a spur of the moment thing.
I played Hammond on the Pirates last album – that was super cool. A while back I played Hammond on a stoner-rock band’s album whilst they were recording here, but it wasn’t planned, they just needed it and couldn’t do it themselves. I don’t normally play guitar on a client’s tracks as most bands who come here are more than capable themselves and I would certainly never try to impose myself in that way.
However, sometimes I’ll play on tracks or sessions if it’s a project I am putting together myself, or if it’s a project where the client is a singer and they book my house-band to back them. That’s totally different. Examples of this would be albums by John Leyton, Graham Fenton, Robb Shenton and so on. These guys book the studio AND a band to back them. I have a crack-team of hot session players here that we call The Western All-Stars and we have backed loads of singers on albums. I don’t mind playing on stuff I haven’t written. I also quite like just playing a keyboard part off the cuff as it often works out better than if it was meticulously planned!
You’ve written with much enthusiasm about sessions with Vince Eager, what’s it been like to record and play with so many of your musical heroes?
Well firstly, Vince is a great bloke, and such fun to work with. He called me up as he wanted to do an album. He had so many of his old mates on that album that it was wonderful for me, a lot of my musical heroes from the history of British Rock n Roll.
Off the top of my head, joining Vince Eager, we had: Chas Hodges on piano and he sang on a track or two. Chas played bass in Joe Meek’s house band The Outlaws in the early 60’s and went on to tour as Gene Vincent’s bass player, then Jerry Lee Lewis’ bass player before eventually becoming well known as half of Chas & Dave. What a lovely guy he is.
Albert Lee played on 2 tracks and sang on one too. Albert is kind of THE guitarists’ guitarist. Clem Cattini played drums. I’ve worked with Clem a lot over the years. He was an original Pirate with Johnny Kidd, then he formed the Tornadoes and eventually became an in-demand session player for records such as The Kinks, Cliff Richard, etc – a legendary drummer who played on just about everything that moved in the 60s and 70s – he has played on 45 UK number 1 singles!….
Colin Green played guitar on some tracks. Colin played guitar on a few Gene Vincent records in the early 60s and was also one of Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames. He also spent around 8 years as Shirley Bassey’s musical director. We had Tex Makins on Bass. Tex is a sweet guy and is ex Vince Taylor/Billy Fury/Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames, so he has been around a bit.
Marty Wilde guested on a few tracks too! He still has a brilliant voice and he seemed to have fun in the studio. It was a great atmosphere. So as you can imagine I loved that session.
How do you scout new talent for the label with such a heavy workload?
It’s not uncommon for me to sign a band from just working in the studio with them. You can tell a lot about a band when you’re all locked up in a confined space for a week! – So I don’t always feel I need to see them live. Apart from the music, I also have to like the people if I am going to consider signing a band. That’s really important to me.
Plus often, bands on my label will tell me about a band they’ve met on the circuit who are good so I’ll sometimes scope out a band via the internet. But one thing I decided early on with Western Star records is that I will only release music I record here at Western Star studio. That’s not me saying we’re the best or anything like that, it’s more a marketing and identity thing.
Have you come across any new bands lately that you think could be the next big thing on the rockabilly and psychobilly scenes?
You know what? It’s hard to actually narrow it down to naming one band. But what I can say is that I’m constantly amazed at how many good bands keep popping up and its brilliant working with all these enthusiastic bands.
Just after we last spoke back in 2012 you released a book featuring all the bands who recorded with you, any plans for a follow-up? “Western Star Recording Company – The First Decade” was a great read.
My biggest enemy is time. I have a few ideas for books but I think they’ll have to wait a while – maybe when I retire.
Can you bring us up to speed on what’s been going on with Western Star since our first interview?
As always I’ve been flat out. What started as a few releases a year has turned into a label that puts out around 30 releases a year nowadays. My own website sales grew to such an extent that I have had to outsource that side of the business. I also take the Western Star marquee to a lot of weekenders these days. I did 17 last year and will do about the same this year. That’s great fun as it generates a lot of sales but also we get to meet a lot of people and see a lot of bands.
Also, Vintage Rock magazine (an international publication that is available in supermarkets/airports/newsagents etc in UK, USA, Canada, Australia and some European countries) came to me 5 years ago to do a Western Star cover-mount CD. It was so successful that they repeated that every year and I’m currently compiling the 5th one – which will be on the cover of this years December issue. It’s great for the label and the bands. The print run of CDs is 75000 copies, so that’s a massive reach. It’s been good for me and my mail order goes ballistic in the months following publication.
And what’s this about a new Howlin’ Wilson album?
I’m gradually putting an album together. The problem is that my studio is booked solid and always about 10 months in advance, so I can only really work on my own songs if I get a cancellation or similar – which is rare. I’ve managed to put out a few Howlin’ Wilson EPs in the last year though, they sold well. One sold out in 2 weeks so I repressed it in a different colour vinyl.
It doesn’t look like you’ve got any intentions of slowing down, you’ve now started an annual festival The Rockin Round-Up, can you tell us a little bit about that?
This is a Rockabilly weekender that I have now staged 2 years running. Both years have sold out and been a massive success. We take over a farm in Somerset, near Weston Super Mare, put on the best line up of bands and DJs we can. We always have BBC radio broadcasting live from the event. So imagine 2 pasture fields full of around 600 drunken campers made up of rockabillies and psychobillies and even a few old teddy boys.
The venue is a massive barn which has been converted into a great venue. It has a stage and a 50-foot bar, so no waiting for drinks. We have hot food vendors, clothing stalls, record stalls etc outside and inside. It’s just a brilliant event. People have been raving about it, describing it as the best new weekender in years.
So, the studio has reached the grand old age of 15, congratulations, that’s quite an achievement. You’re celebrating with a Western Star night at Bedlam Breakout which is a really strong line-up in my opinion, how did that come about and what’s next for you and Western Star?
The studio is actually 19 years old. It’s the label that’s 15 this year. I had the studio a few years before starting the label.
Yes, I’m very happy about the Bedlam Breakout thing. Those guys are doing me proud. I have done a special 15th anniversary Western Star/Bedlam Psycho compilation that will be handed out free to the first 500 punters through the door at the next Bedlam. It came about after I went out for a curry one night with Phil and Tobe from the Bedlam Breakout crew – when we were all attending the Alan Mills memorial night in Northampton.
For the future…. I just plod on doing what I do. I enjoy it and like watching the catalogue and the brand grow.