Photo by Paul England
October 10, 2019

We recorded the drums, bass, guitars and keys, as we always do. Then if I remember rightly, Andy put a monitor in the toilet…

First off, let’s set something straight – Austin Gold is the name of a band, not a person. It grew out of a standard Peterborough pub blues band, and is named after a guitar effects pedal – but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Backtrack to five years ago, when a guitarist named David James Smith and his wife had their first child. Many of us know what an intense time that can be, and Smith just wanted to blow off some steam, as he recalls, “We had our first son and I just had to take the heat off a little bit from searching for the deal. So I had this idea, I said to my wife I want to do this blues band – BB King, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix. Rootsy, bluesy rock stuff, a bit of Gallagher, Bobby Blue, Cream, in that kind of vein.”

Although born and raised on the Sussex coast, Dave is now based in Peterborough. “The music scene is really thriving at the moment; it was quite barren for a little while about 15 years ago. But I teach as well, so we’re kind of connected; everyone knows of each other, like any city I suppose. So I made a couple of calls to some good pals and we just struck up some jamming. My first thing was, I needed a keyboardist. I hadn’t done much work with keyboardists in the past, I had to get keys, so I rang my good pal Russ Hill, and he was straight away Yeah, I’m in man, I’m in. Then Chris and Lee. We did have another guitarist, Jack Cable, he was rhythm guitar, so the core of it is guitar-led, keyboard-influenced classic rock. It sounds a bit corny, but straight away there was this kind of synergy. Everyone went into it without an agenda about how to dress up or having a certain haircut, or to be seen playing these cool clubs in London, none of that. This was about let’s just play; I just wanted to get out and wail on guitar frankly. We were called the Red Wine Blues Band. It was a favourite tipple at the time!”

So to summarise, the band at that time consisted of Dave on vocals and lead guitar, Jack Cable on rhythm guitars, Lee Churchill on bass, Russell Hill on keys and Chris Ogden on drums. They are all in their forties or early fifties now, except for the youthful Ogden, still in his mid-twenties. “I’ve told him, he’s in the band just to keep the average age down, but he’s getting old now, so we might have to chop him in!” says Dave, with a mischievous chuckle.

David James Smith goes full rock god – photo courtesy of wrinklyrockersclub.com & rockpix.com

Well so far, so just-like-a-million-other-covers-bands; we’ve all been there and it’s fun. Dave’s a songwriter too though, and one day he brought out some of his stuff at a band practice. “The boys said yeah, it’s really cool, so I said well, there’s a bunch more.”

So the local 5-piece started branching out into original material and, like every gigging band, they started to think about cutting an EP or something. Everyone needs that break though, and when yours comes along, you gotta take it. Dave feels thoroughly indebted to those who helped his dream get off the ground. “We did a self-released EP called All the Way Down to sell at local gigs, and we had some investors come along and discuss making an album. We also had three very kind friends who invested quite heavily, which enabled us to cut the first album. Then we got on to BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, with Sue Marchant; our label heard us on that, and from there it’s just escalated and it’s going great now.”

That sounds annoyingly convenient when summarised into a single sentence, but this was no overnight sensation. Dave was already staring his 40th birthday in the face when his big break came along. “Well in the media it always looks like overnight success! But I’ve been doing this for 20-odd years in different bands, I’ve always been the main songwriter, through various directions – heavy, post-hardcore stuff, melodic rock, female-fronted rock, full-on thrash and acoustic, so I’ve explored loads of rock avenues. I play drums as well, but guitar was my first instrument.”

Contrary to what you might have read elsewhere in the media, the Austin Gold after which the band is named is not a drum pedal, but a guitar pedal – and Dave owned one. “I bought this pedal when I was 19. I remember thinking that it looked so good in front, beautiful pedal, very mild overdrive for solos. But I thought that would be a great name for a band! So when we got this kind of blues, classic rock stuff going on, we switched it from Red Wine Blues Band to Austin Gold, did the EP, then we got the deal and away we go!”

They engaged a top producer in Andy Hawkins and headed for the Nave studios in Leeds, a town that has been crucial to their development. “We did really well in Leeds. Leeds has been great to us; we’ve got some great pals up there from that. Then we did some shows locally; Wales, festivals and stuff. But then we got on our first tour with King King, that was really cool, that was up in Clitheroe and Whitley Bay, up the north. That was a great experience, a real eye-opener, great lads, that was with their original line-up. We learned a lot about the craft; that was really rewarding. And then we did a tour with Gun, and Kris Barras. I know he’s flying now, but the three of us did a bunch of dates and that was great. The Nave studios is an old converted church, huge. It’s divided into something like 5 different studios, but Studio A was the main congregation I suppose. Massive ceiling, big works everywhere, it’s majestic, it’s amazing. When you hear the drums, it’s like Bonham, play a 4/4 and the natural reverb from that is incredible. So we got started and put the album out, great reviews, then we started traveling up and down the country.”

The album in question was their full-length debut, Before Dark Clouds, released on the Jig-Saw label in September 2017. The album garnered a couple of awards and put the guys firmly on the circuit. Nevertheless, Dave credits those early investors for giving them the kind of album they wanted, and needed, to have. In the words of George Harrison, it takes plenty of money to do it right. “To be quite honest, if we hadn’t had that early investment to cut an album at the Nave studios with Andy, to get it to that polished level, that sound, it wouldn’t have opened doors! It’s really hard, you’ve got to chuck money on your recording and get a good producer, because then straight away you’re going to be taken seriously. You’re going to get reviews and interviews, because people can tell you mean it. You can have the best material and record on the cheap and it’s kind of indicative of the level you are. Chuck money at the recording, that’s always been our motto. We work hard all year, and the label as well, they’re great, so it’s heavy investment on the recording, but it pays dividends. And it gives it a bit of longevity as well, if you’re not trying to fit in with any particular trends. I know there is a great resurgence of classic rock at the moment, but it’s not charting, it’s more specialist radio stations, specialist magazines – but it’s massive live. The New Wave of Classic Rock is ace! And what we’ve noticed at our gigs is that although you would stereotypically set the demographic at 40, 50-ish, predominantly geezers, there is a huge spectrum of ages; couples are coming, families as well. We did a gig at the Key Theatre in Peterborough, our home town, it sold out in two days, which is like mega, it’s a huge thing. And people travelled from Wales, came up from London, families are coming down from Liverpool, Newcastle, just because we’ve been playing around, and this was like a big show, a two-hour gig.”

The next step was a return to The Nave with Andy Hawkins to start recording new material, but a change was on the cards – rhythm guitarist Jack Cable left the fold and the guys were left as a 4-piece. This left Dave freer to play around with the guitar parts, but also slapped quite an onus on him as the front man and now, only guitarist. “I have always sung harmonies, backing vocals, but I wanted to really develop my voice as a lead singer with this band. When we had a second guitarist, it freed me up a little bit, I could drop in on solos and concentrate on the vocals.” Now he has to concentrate on both of course, but he claims to have got the hang of it. “Now I’m kind of cool with both! We needed a sort of a cut-off point. There is a significant change, although you wouldn’t know it, but we do.”

Then backstage in the dressing rooms we’re all hanging out with the Black Crowes and then to play that size stage with all those thousands of people…

2019 saw another massive milestone, as the newly-formatted 4-piece landed a main-stage appearance at the prestigious Ramblin’ Man fair, a classic rock festival in the heart of the Kent countryside. Dave doesn’t even try to be cool about it. “Ramblin’ Man was something else! When you pass your driving test or get your mortgage or anything like that, it’s like a life cog, literally a shunt. That was definitely one for all of us; it was quite a surreal experience. When we arrived there, it was a beautiful day, baking, like 28 degrees at 10 in the morning. The stage manager was obviously very tired, kind of the quintessential stage manager, pair of shorts, fag, and I’m saying, ‘Hello mate, it’s Dave, Austin Gold,’ and he’s like, ‘And…?’ We’re saying this is like the biggest gig of our lives, and he says, ‘Good. Set your gear up then. Hang on, hang on … let me just confirm … Yeah, yeah, you’re all good; they’re not coming till later.’ So I’m like, ‘Who’s that…?’ and he says, ‘Foreigner.’ Like, wow! Very surreal, you know! Then backstage in the dressing rooms we’re all hanging out with the Black Crowes and then to play that size stage with all those thousands of people… it’s been a real journey from a little club where we started, only about 4 or 5 years ago, to play some blues licks with some pals, drinking too much red wine, to playing this massive stage, all pro, drinking water and early bed, you know, a real professional outfit! It was a real achievement. Like with any band I’m sure, you’re constantly looking forward, looking to the next thing. New material, next album, next tour. Sometimes it’s quite nice just to take stock a bit, and that was a good moment. It’s been a hell of a year for us this year actually.”

L-R: Lee Churchill, Chris Ogden, David James Smith, Russ Hill – photo by Olivia Johnston

All of which brings us to the half-recorded second album. They recorded six tracks while Jack Cable was still in the band, and it seemed like a natural break – so rather than go on to complete a full-length record with half the album missing a guitar part, they took the decision to wrap up the existing songs as a 6-track mini-album. This was released on 27th September and is simply named Austin Gold. For the guys though, it is their second album, and Dave refers to it as AG2 – a crunching set of original full-on electric blues rock songs. Proud as he is of the result, Dave admits the reduced format lacks some of the subtleties of their debut. “It’s slightly heavier, so what you’re hearing on the second album is about as heavy as it gets on the first album. That one had more dynamics, more light and shade, because it’s over 10 tracks. So this is kind of a strategic plan from our label; they said they wanted a good slice of rock for the summer. We had a bunch of festivals booked in, and we had a couple of singles out with Planet Rock and Radio 2, so it was a nice, concise 6 tracks of rock. The first album – which is actually more where we are – had far more dynamics; elements of Pink Floyd, up to kind of Foo Fighterish, some Zeppelin kind of riffy stuff, slightly more Bad Company, Free, soul stuff. We are currently working on album III, which is more of a combination of both – the dynamic and the power.”

Dave himself is clearly into classic gear as well as the classic sound; the current mini-album was recorded on to analogue tape and presents a decidedly classic persona. Opening track We Are Lightning (which actually was the second single from the set, behind the AC/DC-influenced Caught On You), opens with a rumbling bass riff so deep as to be almost at sub-woofer level. Dave credits Lee the bassist with imagination and skill, not just in his playing, but with the sounds he is able to wring our of his gear. “Lee is a fantastic player, a fantastic musician. We work really well as a team, it’s a constantly-evolving quest of new sounds, new pedals. And he’s found this great sound, he’s got a Darkglass pedal, where you can also boost the unaffected signal, we record it all then we can re-amp it accordingly depending on the song. Caught On You just needs to be really solid, whereas We Are Lightning, that needs to ‘ave it! And he replicates it to the exact point live, it’s uncanny.”

The band’s lo-fi sensibilities are thrown into sharp relief on the slow, ominous prog-rocker Here To Stay. The intro comes across as if it was recorded in someone’s living room on an old piano-key tape recorder, mono and totally dry apart from the room dynamics. Then the band seeps in over the top and we are back in the present, in a manner reminiscent of the intro to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. It sounds simple, but the guys sweated blood to get that sound, as Dave reminisces with relish: “Andy and I laboured over this! We recorded the drums, bass, guitars and keys, as we always do. Then if I remember rightly, Andy put a monitor in the toilet. And it’s quite a big toilet-shower room kind of thing. Then he fed the drum signal and my guitar and vocal through the monitor and miked it up, in the bathroom of the studio suite. Then he recorded the monitor, and whatever reverb you’re hearing is from that room. We experimented with loads of things like that. And the whole point was, when it comes crashing in, it’s like a juggernaut. We haven’t explored that dynamic point as much on this album as on Before Dark Clouds; it was a conscious decision because we wanted to keep it ‘rock’. But dynamically, we do have a wider palette. Even then, Andy said rein it back – it can be big, but we don’t want to go full-on Smashing Pumpkins here. It has to be able to breathe.”

Austin Gold at the 2019 Ramblin’ Man Fair, Maidstone, Kent – photo by Olivia Johnston

The big thing for me with the guitar is that I want to hear the wood. So if I’m using my Firebird I want to hear that mahogany. If I’m using my Tele, I want to hear that alder; I want to hear the difference. If you layer it all up, it can get a bit of a mush, a bit of a wall, So we’re conscious of that. A good example of those kinds of woody tones is the intro to (album closer) Lifelines. When you hear that E minor pentatonic riff, you can really hear that guitar. You can hear the wood, and you can hear the cabinet of the speakers, and that’s what we really went for. But I love the drums on this album, they’re just massive; they’re great. It’s a big record. It’s a pleasure, when you’ve got a room that sounds that good, throw some mikes on it, it’s a bit of a black art, but Andy is incredible. We worked with him on the first album and the second mini-album and we’re currently working with him on the third. He really extracts the best out of us. Take the track we’ve got out at the moment, a track called Caught On You. It was a little bit more flowery on the drums at first, a little bit more intricate, the riff had more parts in it, there were some big Hammond slides and stuff – and Andy said “Whoa, whoa whoaaa! Let’s just be a bit more concise about this. Let’s just think about big stages – keep it you know, muscular.” And straight away we’re like, that’s it, that’s the treatment! So he’s a real asset; when you find a good producer you can work with, where there’s mutual respect, it’s so important, so intrinsic to the overall sound. I’m a bit of a perfectionist myself, in rehearsals, because I write the songs, I have quite a definite idea of how I want it to go. So the band rehearses it, we polish it and it grows, then Andy comes along and is equally important. So we’ve got a good thing.”

All modern musicians are aware of the impact of the internet and social media in getting your band noticed and your sound heard, and Dave and the boys are fully behind it. Nevertheless, sometimes you just yearn for the old country. Last word goes to Dave, who summarises their attitude in typically southern style: “Hang on, let’s just do a gig! Let’s go and play man! Get some sweat going, sink a few beers and crack the amps and let’s just ‘ave it.”

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