Western Star Records : Home of West Country rockabilly and psychobilly
Marking their 10th anniversary with several festival dates scheduled for later this summer, Western Star Recording Company is the brainchild of producer and label boss Alan Wilson. For those more familiar with the work of Alan Wilson will also know that he spent several years performing with neo-rockabilly and psychobilly band The Sharks, who built a solid fanbase and reputation which has led to the band reforming in recent years due to the fervent clamour for their music to be aired publically once more. Such is the demand for The Sharks to re-enter the live circuit that the band can almost reform at will, as recently seen with a more than successful excursion to Moscow, but this also has something to do with the daily duties that Head Supremo Alan Wilson has to perform in order to keep the Western Star wheels a-turnin’.
Set in a secluded area of the West Country, Western Star Recording Company (WSRC) has built a solid reputation, since its inception, as the place to go if you want to set your creative impulses to tape but also receive expert handling and advice courteously supplied by Alan Wilson. Not only does the Western Star supremo offer his expertise verbally, but it is likely that he will be seen lending a hand when it comes to certain musical parts that require keys or a guitar lick or two and therefore acting as an extra member for the artists walking through the Western Star door. In fact, due to the passion and genuine love for all Western Star releases, Alan Wilson seems to adopt a different persona by the end of each recording session, which is that of a mother relinquishing the thought of letting her offspring out into the wild for the first time due to the painstaking hours of love and attention given to each and every album marked with the Western Star seal of approval. Tough as these decisions may be, it would seem that with the passing of time such inevitable departures still do not get any easier for the Western Star label boss.
“When you’re recording an album for someone, you really throw yourself into it for a couple of weeks and you help a band achieve what you think is their potential. Then you basically give that record away, which is not always the best feeling,” opens up Alan Wilson regarding his thoughts on the ownership of his production work. “Financially speaking, that’s how you get paid for it and that always bothered me a little bit because I’ve worked on some projects that I didn’t really want to give away, but of course they’ve paid for your studio time and you have to hand it over.”
Such difficulty of relinquishing the keys of control once the finished works were in place was proving to be something of a burden mentally. In order to seek some form of balance between ownership and control, Alan Wilson decided to break with his former work routines of offering his production services to other studios and apply these skills, and expertise, to his own business; hence the Western Star studio and record label were born.
“The actual studio started in 1999, but the label is 10 years old now,” confirms Wilson. “I was doing a lot of record producing in between tours and I was really in to that, as that’s really my thing more so than the tours. So I thought that because I’m doing so much work in other people’s studios, that if I had my own studio then I could keep all of that money. So in 1999, I decided that I wasn’t going to pay other people’s studios anymore by bringing my work to someone else’s studio and try and keep that work in my own studio. That still didn’t solve the problem of handing over the product at the end, so after three years of working Western Star studio I engineered a situation whereby if I had my own [record] label I could still do work for other people, but the projects I really want to keep will be become a part of Western Star Records. Of course that’s a balancing act because you’ve still got to feed yourself and your family and keep a roof over your head, and therefore still give some projects away.”
After such initial turmoil, a semblance of inner peace was finally reached once the final part to the Western Star legacy was put in place, with the record label being added to the studio wing.
Ten years later, Western Star Records has not looked back as the label has gone from strength to strength with a more than credible array of rockabilly and psychobilly releases, and in the process launching the careers or providing a pep up to others of well-known luminaries such as Jack Rabbit Slim, Rusti Steel & the Star Tones, The Bonneville Barons, Luna Vegas, The Cheaterslicks, Frenzy, Kings of Outer Space, The Atlantics, as well as more recently providing a platform for the legendary Chas Hodges, of Chas & Dave fame, to realise a solo project.
With such a prodigious line up of releases included in the Western Star catalogue, it seemed natural for the record label to announce its tenth anniversary this year. Such is the demand for tickets, Western Star will be providing many different events between now and the end of July with a series of festivals as the pinnacle of the anniversary festivities.
“We are celebrating our 10th birthday this year with a lot going on as a result of the tenth anniversary,” comments Wilson. “First of all, I’m releasing a book of the history of Western Star. In addition, I have given the Western Star approval to several promoters who will be organising big Western Star events to celebrate; one’s in Spain, another in Wales and the other in Bristol. The events will run from about May to July, with people having big Western Star label nights, which is great because it lifts the profile of the label. I will run a record store there as well, and the book will hopefully be launched at one of these events. The promoters have actually chosen the bands and not me. The one in Bristol is a two-day event. The first day is a pyschobilly day with about eight bands performing, and the second day is about eight rockabilly bands with Jack Rabbit Slim headlining that one. I’ve also got the BBC broadcasting live on the radio from the event. So there is a lot going on, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
There is no doubting the frenzied excitement the Western Star festivities and festival dates are providing in the FLW office as concentration levels have been dipping ever since. If that was not enough to disrupt our general working patterns, then the background information regarding various artists the Western Star boss has had the pleasure of working with nearly derailed FLW because the desire was evident to discover more regarding the Western Star legacy.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen that Kevin Costner film where he builds a baseball stadium and mentions that ‘If I build this stadium, they will come’, so it’s a bit like that as that’s how it’s worked out with this studio because the legends and childhood heroes I’ve worked with in this building you just wouldn’t believe! Even some of the up and coming bands are great to be working with. Jack Rabbit Slim is a good example as those guys I’ve seen go from a brand new band, who didn’t know what they were doing, to the top of their game over the last 10 years. When you work with them, it’s just like a team effort and you can almost feel the creative effort cooking in the room.”
Jack Rabbit Slim (JRS), it is safe to say, is part of the Western Star furniture as the band’s career has evolved with the record label and recording studio due to returning for more of the Alan Wilson production wizardry time and time again. Therefore, due to such a close-working relationship, Alan Wilson has watched the band steadily mature over the years from pretty much a ramshackle crew to a fully-fledged rockin’ combo ploughing more or less their own material.
“I remember recording one record with them here, ‘Hightone Woman’ taken from the ‘Sleazabilly’ album, and if you’re into rockabilly and have a depth of knowledge of rockabilly, if you listen to ‘Hightone Woman’ there is a vibe on that record.”
A more accurate description could not be catered for as the ambience of ‘Hightone Woman’ is pretty much resurrecting the ghost of Johnny Burnette and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio such is the close resemblance here. More notably, though, it is the authentic delivery and brashness of sound that really captivates and literally transports JRS back to a bygone era.
“I remember saying to Bob [Butfoy, lead singer JRS] that we’ve got to mix it now because we were going to track it and mix it the following week, but it sounded so hot that we had to do it there and then. When I listen to that record now, and I honestly think if you could take all the rockabilly records ever made, including the original 50s American stuff, you’d have a job to beat ‘Hightone Woman’ for the pure vibe and the rockabilly feel. If I had to choose a Top Ten of all time rockabilly that [song] would be in there, which for any UK band is quite an achievement.”
Changing track via a return ticket to Wilson’s other pastime, the aforementioned ‘Sharks, FLW takes it upon itself to interrogate the Western Star owner about this equally interesting period in his life but also because The Sharks have released their first album in15 years to much critical acclaim. Therefore, just how good was it to be a member of one of the pioneers of neo-rockabilly and psychobilly during those early days with The Sharks?
“It was great!” states Wilson without a moment’s hesitation. “The Sharks didn’t last very long initially, due to a fallout between band members, but I’ve got a lot to be grateful for with The Sharks. First of all, it was the first time I knew what a record contract was like, and we ended up with a really good label whereby I also learnt a lot about the [music] industry. Secondly, when I started to become a record producer, instead of being Johnny new kid on the block, I was that bloke from The Sharks and therefore people took me more seriously. Also, I have been all over the world with The Sharks for free, and I cannot possibly complain about that!”
Having formed in the late 70s and then going through a line-up change that witnessed Steve Whitehouse perform slap bass duties and Paul Hodges take to the drums, Alan Wilson’s The Sharks took refugee with Nervous Records and churned out their first album within the space of two arduous weeks. The album was titled ‘Phantom Rockers’ and was released in 1983, and to this day still manages to attract attention among the rockabilly and psychobilly fraternities as a point of frequent discussion regarding its merits; some going as far as hailing it a masterpiece. Alan Wilson, however, views this debut offering with slightly less rose-tinted glasses as he recollects this period of The Sharks history.
“The first ‘Sharks album on Nervous [Records], we were given a record deal and deadline of two weeks. So we literally had to go into the studio and write it there and then, so no real thought went into those songs. However, people now tell us it’s the naivety of those songs that is the charm. I hate saying stuff like this because it sounds if I’m blowing my own trumpet, but people say that the first ‘Sharks album ‘Phantom Rockers’ is a classic of that genre. I can’t see it, and I personally don’t like the sound of that album but a lot of people do, which is great of course.”
FLW is in unison with Alan Wilson’s comments regarding ‘Phantom Rockers’ because the songs pale in comparison with the band’s recent effort ‘Infamy’, which many will argue is down to advances in technology. It is, however, more to do with The Sharks maturing as a band and therefore bringing an overall quality that is evident from the off with its tales of infamous characters and quirky musical nuances that thrill.
“The last Sharks’ album [‘Infamy’] I put my heart and soul into it, and that’s probably my favourite album,” comments Wilson regarding The Sharks recent output. “There are a couple of songs on the album that I’m personally quite proud of, and very close to me, due to their personal nature. I wasn’t interested in making another record for twelve years, despite still writing songs without committing them to tape, but the beauty of that album was that there was no pressure to write songs, and I’d only write something if I was moved to do it. Therefore, every song on that album is quite personal to me as it meant something happened in my life to trigger that emotion to make me write that song. That sounds like I’m getting really precious about it, and I’m not precious about it at all, but I like to write songs about real things.”
Are there any songs, in particular, that you’d like to elaborate further on?
“For example, I am mates with Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber, so I wrote a song about him,” replies Wilson to the FLW request. “I think real life is stranger than fiction. There are a few songs on the album about real people, and I met a guy through Ronnie Biggs, actually, who had the most incredible life story and I wrote a song about him called ‘The King of London’. This guy was one of the hardest men in London; a bareknuckle boxing champion in England. He was also a villain and was in Broadmoor [prison] for eight years, but he was a lovely, lovely bloke.”
It is interesting to note that the last ‘Sharks album was not predominately occupied with the ubiquitous theme of things that go bump in the night, a common subject of the psychobilly scene, as ‘Infamy’ is more concerned with certain people of notoriety rather than fictional characters.
“Most bands on the psychobilly scene write about graveyards or ghosts and that’s ok and great for them, but for me, if you actually look at somebody’s life, there are people whose life story is much stranger than a Hammer [House of Horrors] film you could watch. So it’s quite personal the album, as there are things on ‘Infamy’ nobody would know what it’s about except me. So I would say that ‘Infamy’ is definitely my favourite Sharks’ release.”
Would you agree though, that The Sharks has elements of the psychobilly sound if not always concerning itself with the more gory aspects of the lyrical contents?
“It’s all a matter of perspective because in the early days, during the tail end of the rockabilly revival when we recorded our first album, we were considered outrageous psychobilly. Therefore, the rockabilly people didn’t like us because we weren’t retro and more forward thinking. But like any kind of genre, psychobilly has evolved in the last 30 years and is now more like heavy metal with a double bass and much heavier, darker and scarier than it was back then. So when people refer to our first album, they mention that the sound is not psychobilly due to being too light. If I was to describe our sound, then we are essentially a rockabilly band at heart, but it’s a bit revved up and the subject matter is different. I think the main difference is that rockabilly music is quite naive in its moral standpoint as it’s often about looking forward to Saturday night and seeing my baby and drink a milkshake and get in my convertible car, whereas psychobilly is the same in terms of instrumentation but the sentiments are much darker.”
Considering the volatile rollercoaster ride The Sharks experienced during their initial years before deciding to reform only if the circumstances felt right and time allowing permitted, it still remains something of a miracle that the band managed to produce several bodies of work in addition to the recent ‘Infamy’. As it turns out, The Sharks seemed to have a knack of being in the right place at the right time even when band members or, more to the point, bass players resembled a revolving door; something of which Alan Wilson fully acknowledges.
“I was working on an album; Morrissey’s bass player was the bass player in the band I was working with. I was absolutely staggered when he said that The Sharks used to be his favourite band; I couldn’t believe it! So he said that we should reform the band and would do well because there is still a big demand in Europe and the rest of the world for the band. I mentioned that I hadn’t seen the bass player for ten years, when he offered his services. So we reformed, but with a different bass player, and made some records together and got a deal with a bigger record company and toured all over the place. The problem here, however, was that whenever Morrissey clicked his fingers he, naturally, had to go out on tour. So after a while we realised that this couldn’t carry on and the bass player decided to bow out and go back to Morrissey full time. We then decided to bury the hatchet and ask the original bass player if he wanted to be a part of things again. To our amazement he agreed, and we all met and realised that we’re ten years older and a bit wiser. So we decided to carry on for approximately 5-6 years.”
Apart from the previously mentioned songs that you had rattling away before finally committing them to tape, was there anything else which made you get back in the saddle for a Sharks’ reunion?
“We got offered a gig in Germany, as a one off, as it was thirty years since our first album came out. I always said I wouldn’t do it, but we did the show and it was good timing because we had an album to promote. The gig was unbelievable and as a result of that now, we’re doing five or six gigs this year. So it’s a bit weird really, as I’ve suddenly found myself on stage again as I vowed it’s something I’d never do again, but because we’ve had a break from it, I’ve really enjoyed the one gig we’ve done so far.”
It would seem, therefore, that Alan Wilson, despite what has gone before, still has a deep affinity with his first true love.
“I love the fact that I was in a band and I’ve got a lot to be really grateful for,” says Wilson proudly. “I’m really proud of what The Sharks achieved, as we never took it that seriously as we didn’t have managers or anything like that. So we dealt with everything ourselves. It was all by accident and could’ve all gone horribly wrong, but we were always lucky as we worked with good record companies. We worked with Nervous Records in the early days, as I mentioned earlier, and they were the label to be on in those days. Roy Williams, who started Nervous Records, I turned to for advice when I started my label, and he has been brilliant. When we reformed the band 10 years later, we signed to Cherry Red Records and did a couple of albums for them. They’re a really great company to work for as I actually do a lot of work for them now in terms mastering. Therefore, The Sharks for me was a learning curve, as it all happened so quickly.”
With the wheels already set in motion for the 10th anniversary of Western Star Records, and several dates planned for further live outings with The Sharks, as well as a fully booked diary consisting of production duties, Alan Wilson remains one of the busiest men on the planet.
“I’m in the studio fully booked until about November at the moment. I’ve already got in the bag about 4-5 albums recorded, which will come out at strategic intervals throughout the rest of this year. Then I have sessions planned for releases next year. For example, this year alone I am just about to do an album with a female singer called Jean Vincent, as she’s already on Western Star. I have Jack Rabbit Slim booked in for another album with the new line up at the end of the year. Frenzy, who is one of the bigger names on the psychobilly scene, is doing an album with Western Star and booked in for October. So there are lots of positive steps in the right direction really…David Brent moment there [laughing]!”
Bearing the David Brent ‘Brentisms’ in mind, all that remains, therefore, is to ask Western Star’s genial maestro whether there is an Alan Wilson philosophy.
“Not really. I have goals that I aim for, but they’re not set in stone if something were to happen tomorrow that they couldn’t change. I just work hard and try and be as honest as I can, as I believe in doing things right.”
For further information regarding Western Star Records 10th Anniversary celebrations please check www.westernstarrecords.co.uk. In addition, there are several Western Star releases which have been reviewed by Famous Last Words Records (FLW) in our Reviews section.
The last Sharks' album ['Infamy'] I put my heart and soul into it, and that's probably my favourite album,"
FLW - From the Tapes
Alan Wilson of Western Star Records lets FLW in on a few things he’s looking forward to in terms of forthcoming releases, and his thoughts regarding the perception of rockabilly music in terms of the music press.
“I’m looking forward to the new Jack Rabbit Slim album as I’ve been told the new line up is really, really hot. In addition, I’ve just released an album by a band called The Bullets, which is a rockabilly trio from London and Peterborough, and they’re really good. The Bullets write all their own material and I will be disappointed if they don’t take the rockabilly scene by storm because they’re kind of everything the rockabilly scene likes and needs at the moment.”
“It has got better in my opinion. I think rockabilly suffered for a long time from being almost classed as some kind of weird novelty music, but thanks to people like Imelda May and people that have gone through that rockabilly thing and ended up having successful records, I think they’ve helped make the word rockabilly not a dirty word anymore because for a while it had a kind of Russ Abbott or Showaddywaddy connotation. For example, JD McPherson that is a very credible retro type of music now, and Imelda May did wonders, and we’ve all been in her slipstream for the last couple of years, because what she did was make rockabilly hot again. So I think it has got better but I still don’t think it [rockabilly] receives the amount of coverage it deserves but then again, if you get the wrong kind of coverage we don’t want that either.”