Aussie guitarist Geoff Achison talks about Delbert McClinton, Allman Brothers, IBC in Memphis, & Les Paul

"Digging deep into our very souls for honest musical expression and inspiration"

Geoff Achison: Down Under Soul Digger

Geoff Achison is an independent Australian musician who has forged his own path to a successful career that has won him fans all over the world. Having taught himself to play in the isolation of rural Australia, he has developed a blues/funk style all his own that can be delicate one moment and explosive the next.

Unaware of how the sounds he was hearing on his limited record collection were produced, he invented some of his own techniques - without the aid of pedals or gadgets. Just watching him wrench a myriad of sounds from his simple set-up can be something of a spectacle. He is also a very capable vocalist with a gritty, soulful quality to his voice. Inspired by the great Blues and R&B music of yesteryear, Geoff’s live set features an infectious mix of gutsy original tunes, improvised jams and dynamic new arrangements of blues & soul classics.
In his early 20's he found employment as lead guitarist with Melbourne's top blues band 'Dutch Tilders & The Blues Club'. After 5 years relentless touring around Australia Geoff departed to pursue his own musical ideas and formed the first incarnation of his own band  'The Souldiggers'. Geoff started his worldwide explorations in 1995 with his first trip to the USA. Geoff has also conducted his guitar workshops at Jorma Kaukonen's Fur Peace Ranch guitar camp in Ohio.
He spent 2 eventful years living and working in the US performing with local musicians and racking up thousands of miles on the road.
Since returning to Australia as home base, the relentless touring has continued with regular visits to the USA, and Europe.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Geoff, what made you fall in love with the blues music?
I loved the rawness of it, the fact that you could hear the musicians really play. The mics even caught the creaking of the chairs and the stomping of the feet on those old recordings. It was ‘real’ and I related to it I think partly for the feeling it gave me, but also because it sounded like people I knew. People who worked hard and struggled to make a living. The pop music of the day sounded kind of plastic by comparison.

What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?
I used to go and see a Melbourne group called ‘Blues On The Boil’ led by jazz pianist Bob Sedergreen. It was pretty raw but musically adventurous blues which I loved. So far as learning I guess I just focused on improvising over standard slow blues and shuffles in the 12 bar blues form. Not songs as such but the general art form.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
There’s been a lot of ups and downs but winning the Albert King Award in Memphis back in ’95 was probably my favourite memory. It was the point at which things really got going for me in the USA. I got hooked up with Gibson Guitars which in turn got me the Fur Peace Ranch gig and that led to me securing a meeting with my current manager and so on it goes.  On the down side I could cite any of a dozen tough-as-shit gigs I’ve found myself in but perhaps the worst moment was when we were playing in Derby in far North West Australia. They don’t get many bands from Melbourne passing through. They totally didn’t get us but we were trying our best to win them over with our heartfelt playing. Somewhere in the second set I heard some wolf whistles and applause and thought ‘Great, we’re getting through to them!’ but when I looked up it seemed the locals had had enough and we had a naked man dancing in front of us. It’s pretty funny now but at the time we were so pissed at the audience’s treatment of us that we left for Broome that night against all local advice NOT to drive outback roads at night. We were nearly taken out by kangaroos and cattle and chugged into Broome at dawn with about a half-a-cup of petrol left in the tank. We ain’t going back to Derby anytime soon.

How do you characterize your music philosophy, and how do you describe Geoff Achison’s music?
I named my band The Souldiggers as an attempt to describe our approach to the music. ‘Digging deep into our very souls for honest musical expression and inspiration’.  That’s the idea anyway.

Do you remember anything funny or interesting from the 'Dutch Tilders & The Blues Club'?
Dutch was a very knowledgeable man. He could talk with authority on any subject imaginable. Sometimes though, this would cause quiet anxiety when spending a lot of time with him on the tour bus. It seemed none of us could make the simplest comment without being corrected or more fully informed by the boss. He was always right of course but sometimes there’d be a rolling of the eyes in the seats behind him as he began yet another lecture. Another thing folks might find interesting is that Dutch never used a set-list. We never knew which song he was going to begin with or end with. He’d decide once he got on stage and sometimes he’d just make something up as he went. It was our job to follow him which meant you could never relax or ‘goof off’ whilst on stage with him. I learnt a lot from that and it’s one of the most valuable things I took from playing with him. To this day I prefer to work without a set-list. It even seems a bit of a strange thing to do now.

What does the BLUES mean to you?
To me it’s freedom of spirit.  When I’m playing I’m aiming to surrender completely to the music and hoping it will take me on a journey. I’m not a trained musician and so I guess the blues afforded me a simple format on which to attempt musical expression. I still practice my scales, chords and exercises to give me the motor skills, but in actual fact I put more energy into allowing the power of music to take over. On a good night we sort of disappear some sort of parallel universe where music is everything. Attaining that feeling every now and again is what keeps us all keen to play again.

Are there any memories from Delbert McClinton, which you’d like to share with us?
I had the amazing good fortune to have a slot on a music cruise run by Delbert’s people. It was basically a floating music festival with concerts all day everyday for a week! Meanwhile I had freedom to watch whatever shows I wanted and had only three of my own performances in that time. I got to see a lot of acts I’d either not seen before or hadn’t heard of until then ... but all this and we were on a cruise to Mexico too! We stopped at a couple of ports with very Mexican names and ran up a huge bar tab. That was a dream gig if ever there was one.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
On record it’s probably those two guys. I’d cite Robert Johnson as my main man for acoustic style and Freddie King for the electric stuff. Otis was such a great vocalist and performer. The guy I actually learnt the most from though was my old bass, Dutch Tilders. I played guitar for him for about 5-6 years and we did a bunch more gigs after that time too. I watched him like a hawk on stage and picked up a lot of skills that I use to this day.

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had?
My regular band in Melbourne has played the St Andrews pub on the city’s outskirts for many years. Those are nearly always memorable shows. We made a DVD there some years ago because we were so sure that if the cameras were rolling we’d capture a good night there. Playing with the UK Souldiggers at The Bottleneck Blues Club in Kent has never failed to deliver either. It has three flights of stairs to load in and no elevator. That part sucks but the gig itself is totally worth it. At The Blues Tavern in Mobile Alabama they throw money at your feet – literally. It’s sort of a tradition there that if they dig the band they drop their tips on the floor in front of the band. It’s kind of sacred money too – nobody touches it – and then the band leader (moi) is given a little shovel to scoop it all up at the end of the night. Crazy.
Somehow New York City has been the site of some amazing jam sessions for me. On my very first visit there opened a show for Hot Tuna at the Beacon Theater and afterward got invited to a club and found myself onstage with Levon Helm playing drums! Years later I got to sit in with the late and great Les Paul which I can still scarcely believe happened. More recently I sat in with the Allman Brothers Band in New York which was a definite highlight for me. Impromptu jam sessions happen all the time in this business but, yes, it’s definitely a thrill to communicate on a musical level with people you admire.

What do you learn about yourself from music?
There are things that can be said through music that mere words can never get close to. Essentially you’re figuring out what YOU sound like. Music that relies heavily on the artist’s personal interpretation and encourages improvisation on the theme is a perfect vehicle for achieving this. Very few of us will ever feel like we’ve quite finished the project. There’s always more to learn.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?
Well, I think that in general the more experiences you have, the wider the spectrum of emotions and observations you can draw upon to assist in expressing a musical idea. That’s the one thing we know – music is life.

What do you think is the main characteristic of you personality that made you a bluesman?
A. I’m a minimalist. I don’t like to use lots of fancy gadgets and electronics when I play. That’s part of what appealed to me with the blues. It’s simplicity in form and execution. That doesn’t mean that I don’t dig electronic music or that I’m against wah-wah pedals. It’s just not for me.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is?
That’s a good question. I can’t say for sure but I know that as I explore different sounds and styles there’s sometimes when don’t hear or play the old blues for a while. Then when I go back to it it’s like going home. Somehow it rejuvenates and centers me. And I fall in love with it all over again.  

Why do you play GUITAR & what were your favorite guitars, effects and amps, back then?
I’d always wanted to be a musician and tried several different instruments as a kid. For some reason it was the guitar that immediately felt like it belonged in my hands. Now it gives me such joy to make music that I begin to feel depressed if I don’t play every day. My first professional instrument was a gold finished Gibson Les Paul which I played through a Marshall 50 watt amp. That’s still a classic combination for a great, robust blues tone. Like early Eric Clapton and Peter Green.

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis?
I remember I was tired! We’d stayed up all night trying to get a ride from Helena, Arkansas where we’d been at a music festival. Anyway, that worked out but I’d not slept a wink. When I got up to play I was the only Solo Acoustic act which was pretty daunting after about a dozen loud, electric bands had done their thing. My theory is that I gave the judges a bit of a break from the electric guitar onslaught. I can imagine them thinking ‘Oh thank goodness for that - an acoustic guitar!’ … perhaps I got extra points as a result!

Tell me about the beginning with Jorma Kaukonen's Fur Peace Ranch. How did you get together and where did it start?
It was through my Gibson Guitars endorsement deal. I was in the office at Gibson finalizing details of our agreement when Robi Johns, my host there, showed me a flier describing Jorma’s ‘soon-to-be-opened’ Fur Peace Ranch. Robi gave me a brief description of the Ranch’s aims and asked if I’d mind if he suggested me as a possible instructor. It was as simple as that. I had no experience as a teacher but Robi had seen me play and I guess he was confident I could do the job. It was a little awkward at first as I was definitely an unknown quantity and unsure myself whether I was really what they wanted at the Ranch. Fast forward 15 years later I’m still visiting and I’ve made some very close friends at what I’d agree is Guitarists Paradise.

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to have met?
Probably Robert Johnson, Freddie King and Otis Redding. Just to say thank-you.

Are there any memories from THE ROAD, which you’d like to share with us?
Well, a couple of years ago I was playing in a bar outside of Melbourne and I was employing the age old technique of bending the neck of my electric guitar to achieve certain sound effects. It does sound great but has the added bonus of looking pretty cool too. I’ve done it for years.  Well, on this night I busted the right off! My favourite electric guitar - I wanted to break down and cry … but of course I had to laugh and make a show of it and carry on with my acoustic guitar. That’s a story to tell the kids.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
You’ll hear that the business is really tough these days. Well, the fact is that it’s always been tough. As technology advances some things get easier and other things get harder. The important thing is to stay focused on the music. Honesty and conviction will always shine through in the long run. Keep practicing, aim to improve and above all never, ever give up.

Geoff Achison - Official website

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