Applying their own spin on the past as well as the present, The Ace Trio is far more than a simple covers band.
If you are on the hunt for something ACE to occur in order to break up the monotony of the everyday that life has a habit of producing on an all too frequent basis, then unfortunately one such moment would have passed you by only last week (unless you happened to be present of course).
The first-rate incident in question took place at one of Southampton’s finer music venues (something about Brass and Monkey apparently!) involving a trio of musicians bound together by a love of all things rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll and with a wealth of experience behind them. Up on stage, well, ground level with the rest of us actually for this particular live outing, was the rockin’ threesome who go by the name of The Ace Trio. More precisely, the Hampshire-based three piece consist of lead singer and guitarist Mick “One Take” Robbins, the ubiquitous Mark Richards (drums) and for this evening only due to permanent resident Bryan Andrews suffering a nasty accident at work (It’s too gruesome to mention for further details), Pete Hillary, who came to the rescue at the final hour in order to slap the upright bass.
Fortunately for those who were not in attendance during the above mentioned near-riotous affair of rock ‘n’ roll, The Ace Trio can often be seen treading the live circuit. Failing that there’s a new ‘Ace Trio album on the horizon to look forward to, not to mention the opportunity of repeat visits to the band’s debut long player, ‘Sounds Of The Street’ (2009), if you’re lucky enough to own a copy of course (Lead vocalist Mick Robbins informs me that the band’s first album only saw 200 copies produced, and therefore something of a collector’s item these days).
When it comes to The Ace Trio and their sound, it is one that is predominantly based in 50’s rockabilly with a broad variety of songs plucked from that era and given a reworking that is far from being leftfield, and more concerned with subtle differences which sets the band apart from some of their contemporaries who remain insistent on covering the originals to the letter of the law. Furthermore, there’s an ‘ace’ (excuse the pun) in the Trio’s rockin’ set because it’s not only the 50s period they’re concerned with as the band, every now and then, turn their creative hand to rephrasing contemporary songs from the likes of Echo & the Bunnymen (‘Killing Moon’) and The Zutons’ ‘Valerie’; a song often associated with Amy Winehouse that will experience a similar reaction once the mainstream catches up with The Ace Trio’s sublime rendition.
With the above mentioned gig halfway through its set, and The Ace Trio granted a twenty-five minute window or thereabouts to regroup, take a breather and a swift pint or two, before reigniting the instruments for the second half. Thankfully, there was just enough space to accommodate Famous Last Words (FLW) during the midway point of the band’s set where both lead singer and guitarist Mick Robbins and drummer Mark Richards had time to wipe the sweat from their brows before taking an adjacent seat, ready to answer the questions aimed at them.
So, before we get to the details regarding The Ace Trio’s current recording whereabouts in terms of their second album, let’s rewind their history to the point where this all began for the band and their debut album, ‘Sounds Of The Street’.
“When The Ace Trio got together, we rehearsed first of all in Mark’s garage, and we hit it off straight away,” explains Mick Robbins in relation to the early foundations of the band. “When we started, it was just me and Mark with drums and guitar.”
“Basically, I’m in Southampton, and Mick was living in Poole,” remembers Mark. “An advert was put out, and a week later Mick came round and we sat in my garage. I had my kit standing up, and Mick turned up with his amp and his Gretsch, and I knew within two minutes he was the man we wanted, I knew straight away.”
So you’d never met each other prior to this first band rehearsal?
“Prior to that, we hadn’t crossed paths at all,” answers Mick. “I’m glad that I did [reply to the ad] because so many things have led from that because I live in Bournemouth, which doesn’t have such a vibrant rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll scene that Southampton does. There’s a lot of traditional rock ‘n’ roll bands there who are a little bit older, but it’s just a lot more lively around Southampton. For example, in the pubs, the places are a lot better to play. We’ve tried a few times to venture down into Bournemouth and I can’t think of a really cracking date that we’ve had there because it’s just not the same vibe as this city. As you can see tonight, there’s a lot of genuine fans here who’ve come out to enjoy themselves and enjoy the music.”
How did you get involved with music (question to Mick Robbins as Mark gets accosted by a nearby fan looking for his signature on a piece of the band’s merchandise)?
“It’s in the family,” replies Mark before adding. “My father has three brothers and they had a band together, and we’re talking about the 50s then. I grew up in the 70s and by then my dad had a four-piece jazz and pop band playing songs of the time with Beatles’ covers and stuff like that. In my house, (I grew up with two older brothers), it was full of instruments with piano, organ, drums, guitars and my dad playing clarinet and sax, so it was all there, and we were immersed in it. Also, we had records on most evenings rather than TV, so we heard a wide range of music.”
Do you remember how old you were when you started playing the guitar?
“I was about twelve,” responds Mark. “My older brother, who is ten years older than me, was going abroad and was getting a bit religious and was giving away all his possessions at that time. He gave me a nearly new guitar and he’s regretted it ever since, and I’ve still got it!”
“Good old religion!” adds Mark laughing.
“He’s changed his mind again now as he’s into possessions again,” laughs Mick. “So by the time he came back from travelling around the world for six months, I was picking out chords and things. The music of my time was the late 70s, and it was a great time for guitar bands. If you think about bands such as The Jam and The Police, it was very guitar orientated and that’s what got me into it really.”
So it wasn’t all about rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll for you earlier on?
“I still like things across the board,” says Mick. “I really like the American Song Book, jazz and country music. I would say that it’s been the last fifteen to twenty years that I’ve really got into rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly. I’ve been over to Vegas to see the Viva Las Vegas [show], and I had a great time there. If I could go every year, I’d be on the plane because it’s heaven to go and see all of that. But I do like a wide range of music.”
Referring back to The Ace Trio, who makes the decisions in the band when it comes to selecting the cover songs to perform live and when recording?
“Quite often the material is down to what I know,” explains Mick. “The others in the band are great at following me in terms of what I’ve gone away and learnt. We don’t really have rehearsals, but often we talk about songs under consideration. We did have some [rehearsals] in the beginning that got us going, but since then to be fair we’ve kinda thrown things in as we’ve gone along. So it’s down to what I can learn.
“It’s always a joint decision however, regarding the choices the band makes when selecting the songs to cover. When we made the first album, we’d already played live a fair bit and we knew what was going over quite well. So there were songs that were pretty obvious that people wanted to hear, ‘Valerie’ being one of them, but we just vary it really. In the rockabilly genre you’ve got different stuff by what we call the two-step where the bass takes place by playing two notes a bar, and we’ve got a walk-in bass where the bass is doing that (mimes with hands). So on an album of twelve songs for example, you’d have four songs with a walk-in, two, two-steps, some where the rhythm is a bit more square so it’s less swingy if you like, and some songs that are bit slower and something flat-out fast, and there you are, twelve songs where you’ve got a bit of variety by mixing it up in that way.”
What about influences when it comes to choosing the cover songs?
“We’ve got all the classics such as Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Johnny Burnette and we play a fair bit of their stuff. There’s a little bit of Elvis and some Johnny Cash, and also some Stray Cats (which they honour this evening with a rip-roaring version of ‘Rock This Town’) because there was a [rockabilly] revival in the 80s and I remember that happening in the charts with Brian Setzer coming to London with the Stray Cats.”
It was a big surprise to see ‘Killing Moon’ by Echo & the Bunnymen on your debut album as it’s not often you hear of rockabilly bands wandering some considerable distance from the 50s era. Why the decision therefore, to record this particular track?
“Bryan [Andrews] brought the idea to the band,” answers Mick. “He had a playlist on his iPod at the time, with a version of that [song] by The Quakes [psychobilly band], which is really excellent, and as soon as I heard it I thought we’ve got to do that and that’s why it ended up on the first album. We’ve actually re-recorded the song as we’ve put another album together. We thought that it’s such a strong song, and with the first album being out of print, that we wanted it to be available, so we had to record it a second time. Hopefully, the new album should be out later this year.”
Does it ever become argumentative when the three of you are making the final choices in terms of what you are going to record?
“No, I can’t think of a time that has happened,” responds Mick. “I think we keep things in perspective as we’re older now, and we’ve all been through times of falling out and we don’t want to do that now as we want to enjoy ourselves. Plus we’re all in other bands, and that gives you another perspective as well because each one is fulfilling a little part of the puzzle for you, and we don’t want to mess it up.”
“The good thing with this band is that everyone brings a different style as well,” Mark adds before being interrupted once more with another punter requiring his signature.
It’s time therefore, to ask Mick Robbins what his memories are of the recording of the band’s debut album, ‘Sounds Of the Street’?
“It was a great experience because by the time we had made that album, I had made probably six albums with another band in a full studio,” says Mick. “The album was recorded in an old-fashioned way as we recorded on a boat (The Boathouse Studio) and we were in the same room where I could see Mark with his drums, the double bass with Bryan and there I was with my guitar and amp. We did it all at once. We did overdub some things, some harmonies and some guitar parts, but basically what you hear is like a gig and that was deliberate. For example, other albums I’ve made with other bands are a bit more sterile because the drummers behind a glass screen in another room, and I’m on my own with my guitar in the control room with my amp in the corridor. So with this album you get a bit of spill, you get those leaks, where a bit of my microphone is picking up some drums with the reflection, and I was instantly pleased with that leakage and that old-fashioned sound.”
Did you record the new album at The Boathouse Studio as well?
“Yes, and since the first album Bryan (producer) has now got a proper designated area of the boat for recording and much more sophisticated recording gear now with very expensive mics,” Mick enthuses on the additions made at the recording studio. “I haven’t heard the new album as we recorded it in January this year, and we’ve all been really busy and we haven’t been able to get together and hear the new album. It will be interesting to hear if it’s still got that old sound with that spill that we had on the first album, which I like and always wanted.”
The Ace Trio must have brought a few more years of experience to the table when recording the new album considering your debut was back in 2009?
“There is so much water under the bridge,” Mick explains. “I mean, I’d only just started playing with the band and since then, I’d done approximately a thousand gigs in trios – this one and another one – so I’ve probably developed, I hope, and become more experienced and learnt to bring something different to each song. Some of the songs are similar and therefore you need to find the little thing that makes that song THAT song if you know what I mean, and not the same as the one you played five minutes ago.”
You can definitely hear from ‘Sounds Of The Street’ that The Ace Trio is certainly putting their own spin on each and every track.
“I think because of the style we play in, we’re not an authentic rockabilly band,” Mark explains. “We play in a completely different style and there’s probably not many bands that sound like us because of the three people in the band have all got different styles, which we put together, and I’ve not heard a band that sound like us, which is a good thing.”
Have The Ace Trio ever written any of their own songs?
“Not together, no,” Mick replies instantly. “I’ve got some in the other band, but they wouldn’t be suitable and I’m trying to keep them for that other band as well. We don’t get together except when we’re gigging, which is a good and a bad thing. The bad thing is that we don’t get to share ideas, so the red light goes on at a gig so to speak, and we chuck it in the pot and it happens there and then.”
Is it something that the band will consider in the future by writing your own material?
“There’s a bit of me that would love to devote a lot more time to it to see where it could go, but we’re all too busy,” says Mick with a hint of frustration in his voice. “We’ve all got other bands, and I’ve got my job and I travel all over the country and I do solo gigs as well. So we’re already spreading ourselves thin, and you can’t give everything that you’d like to give, and it’s really quite frustrating.”
What’s the one track from your debut album that still stands out for the band?
“It would be ‘Killing Moon’,” says Mick with no hesitation. “Bryan did a great job of mixing it because he made it sound very different than what we put on there with a lot of echoes and delays. He did a great job on it, and that’s the standout song for me.”
Are you fans of Echo & the Bunnymen or just that one song?
“Not particularly, but I knew of the song and I prefer The Quakes version to Echo & the Bunnymen’s version, and that’s just how it is you know,” answers Mick.
Do you have a title for the new album yet?
“‘Seven Year Itch’,” comes the reply from Mick. “The reason being is that there are seven years between the two albums. We suddenly said one day that we should do it [second album], and a week later we were round Bryan’s house doing it.”
“So there’s been seven years between the first album and the second album,” says Mark and continuing, “which is quite a long time, but like Mick said earlier, we’ve all been busy.”
What can we expect to hear once the second album is finally released?
“There are covers on there, and some songs that we don’t play live such as ‘Golden Rocket’, which I can’t remember who the original was by. We have done a Johnny Burnette song with ‘Rockabilly Boogie’. Also a song called ‘Number 9 Train’ and that’s my favourite on the album from what I’ve heard, with the original recorded by Tarheel Slim. We’ve got two lead vocals on it at the same time in a harmony, and I’m pleased with that. We’ve covered two Space Cadets songs actually with ‘Big Moon’ and ‘Get Closer’.”
“They’re a great band,” says Mark enthusiastically about the Space Cadets. “They’re an all-star band, with members of the band in other bands.”
Any surprises on the album?
“We’ve done a Jack Earls song called ‘Slow Down’, which is normally like a country two-step and we haven’t done that,” Mick explains. “We were messing around and came up with a riff a bit more…not a psychobilly track, but it’s getting towards a psychobilly style riff that runs through it, which completely changes that and that’s probably the surprise song on the album. Actually, Mark’s song is on there with ‘Too Many Late Nights’,” he finishes looking somewhat surprised at the memory of this song.
“Yeah, ‘Too Many Late Nights’,” confirms Mark looking equally fazed at the memory of this and further proof that this trio really are spreading themselves too thin because hear this folks, The Ace Trio has included one of their own compositions for the new album which, quite frankly, FLW can’t wait to hear. “We play that live quite a lot, but maybe not tonight.”
“Yeah, we’ve got a different bass player, so we’ve got to play stuff that he knows and to guess what’s coming because it’s fairly well-trodden chord sequences.”
Do you feel that the whole rockabilly scene is in a healthy state at the moment?
“I think it’s quite healthy,” considers Mick. “When I went to Vegas last year, I watched a lot of rockabilly. There were American bands performing as well as British bands, but I thought the British guys showed them how to do it, I really do. The Space Cadets smashed it for example. Also, musicians such as Darrel Higham are at the top of their game and you’ve probably heard of him. He’s a great player and very authentic. So I think it’s quite healthy and it keeps my interest.”
What’s next for The Ace Trio?
“We’ve got quite a few gigs coming up as usual,” says Mick. “We get some interesting and different gig offers, and people seem to like it. For example, we did one about six weeks ago (private party) and it was really great weather and just acoustically it was good.”
“The good thing about this band is that we can dip in and out and everything comes to us, we don’t go halfway to get anything, it all comes to us, which is a nice situation to be in. It’s so diverse the venues we play and the people that we meet, and we’re having a good time doing it,” replies Mark.
Finally, as a band, is there an overall philosophy that you live by?
“You’ve got to enjoy it or otherwise it’s not worth doing,” Mick answers. “I do a lot more travelling with another band, and I must enjoy it as I get in the van at 10 O’ Clock in the morning to go and do a gig the other side of the country, before arriving home at 6 the following morning. People ask, ‘How do you do it?” and I can’t answer the question, but I must enjoy it.”
We thought that it's such a strong song, and with the first album being out of print, that we wanted it to be available, so we had to record it a second time."
Mick Robbins, The Ace Trio
FLW - From the Tapes
Such invitations seem to come out of nowhere as The Ace Trio experienced when they were invited to a traditional wedding ceremony in Lithuania, provided they brought their instruments with them of course.
“Easily the most amusing thing was a weekend we spent in Lithuania together,” remembers Mick. “We played at a wedding. We were invited over there, it was a paid gig, they flew us over and they looked after us like kings and put us up in a hotel. We gate-crashed another wedding the first night after we’d been drinking all day, and that was great and a very memorable night. The actual wedding took place over a whole day the next day on the Saturday, and they did the ceremony three times in three different ways. We travelled in a coach to see a pagan ceremony; a formal one in the Town Hall, and a Lithuanian ceremony out in a traditional centre. We had such a great laugh, and we keep talking about that because it was a real standout weekend.”