Louder Than War talk to Aziz Ibrahim, guitarist with Simply Red and Stone Roses, on the eve of his 50th birthday event
Right on the eve of guitar wizard Aziz Ibrahim’s 50th birthday event at Manchester’s ‘The Roadhouse’ Louder Than War caught up with him to find out what surprises he has planned for what promises to be a very special night honoring one of Manchester’s greatest guitarist. Also covering his new prison work shop, playing homeless shelters and charity work helping his homeland and the people of Pakistan, plus a look back at his time writing / playing with Ian Brown and classic 90’s album ‘Un-Finished Monkey Business’…this is what he said
Thanks for talking to Louder Than War Aziz, Hows things…I know you’ve recently just finished playing at the Great British Guitar show in Birmingham haven’t you?
Yeah, it was the weekend just gone. For me it was all about the companies that have supported me through the years as a musician, you know, like the people at Marshall amps, Godin Guitars and other companies that I’ve worked with. It came about through a British company called Rotorsound, they make guitar strings & pedals. Their owner Jason asked me to come down and play some stuff, then the guy behind the show itself also asked me if I’d like to play on the live stage as well. So I did a gig on the Saturday with ‘Dal’ ( Tabla Jedi; Dalbir Sing Rattan) but he couldn’t make the Sunday show so I sort of put a band together for that day made up of Katie Lloyd(bass) from The Lottery Winners and drummer Andrea Pruck(drums) from Sketchline, who both came over from Manchester. full marks to them for learning my stuff at the drop of a hat!
What’s that like playing to a crowd made up mainly of guitar players, are they more into what set-up you use than the performance?
Well,…some of them do have their binoculars out ha ha…but my approach is about playing songs, not demonstrating but to play as a band and to put over what it is that makes any musician want to be in a band . And It doesn’t matter about being the fastest, the greatest or anything like that, its just all about getting your music & songs. I love it and what it does for my life, and regardless whether its a trade show or any other event its still always a show and about entertaining, I take it with a pinch of salt to tell you the truth.
So where are you at the moment in terms of playing, writing and recording?
Well I’ve been away from Manchester for 6 years. I don’t like kids or animals but I inherited 2 kids & 2 cats when i married and now divorced, I’ve come back and moved to Longsight again. So its all been about getting settled back in. Back into writing and putting things together. I’ve kinda been a bit out of touch regarding playing live since being stuck out in Shropshire. Not much going on there. Since I got some of my studio stuff back here I’ve started writing new material. I think it’s about time. I need it as I got a lot to write about!
I’ve also been thinking about the new album, like if the world has changed in terms of albums, singles and releases, so who knows what I’m going to release next, but all will be announced in due course. There has to be a new approach, you can’t always use the same one every time, those decks are not found in peoples houses as much. How do people buy and get music now? For me personally I have to think whats right for my music. But we’ve got to eat haven’t we? Income streams, what do you release and how. I’m setting up a company to deal with the more business side of things so I can concentrate on music but your a jack of all trades when your in the music world and handling all these jobs, being an artist, I want to make great music and concentrate on writing so you need to delegate the business side of it. But I think collaborations for the future and writing with Dal. I’d also like to write for other people as well, any one who would like to work with me would be great but I would like to work in an electric band, you know drummer bass player etc. Like doing the recent guitar show in Birmingham was great fun and mainly because I haven’t done it for some time because I’ve been playing with Indian tabla for good knows how many years now. So from an acoustic to plugging in an electric guitar, to ‘spank the plank’ so to speak was just great. In fact just a couple of weeks ago I had a little jam with Mike Joyce (The Smiths) which was great to do once again. I’ve also got these friends that I write with. Akala, Steve hogarth (Marillion),Richard Barbieri of Porcupine Tree, he used to be synthesiser player in the band Japan and I write music with him which is a little more complex and reflects a darker side of my writing, ‘the prince of darkness’ as some people call him. But that is it really, just to write and record new material.
Can you tell me about some of the project work and mentoring you’ve started to do ?
I started mentoring a gifted young artist from Longsight called Natasha Sky, who had been studying with a friend of mine called Barrington Stuart who sadly past away not long ago. But he knew her since she was 11 years old. Now at 22 and a child I’m kinda continuing where he left off in a way.For me it just felt right to start mentoring young artists, help them along because though I had good musicians around me I never had anyone as a mentor as such and I think if you can do it it’s well worth it. Your work becomes a business so its good to contribute, gives you a good feeling. I’ve mainly started around Longsight but it doesn’t matter what area it is, its just something I thought would be worthwhile and good to get into.
Coming back to Manchester though, I think it was, A..I got divorced and B I came back because Manchester is what I missed! Living out there in the sticks, in Shropshire…I was like the only Asian in the village ha ha, and stuck out there not doing much at all. Not playing as much music as I used to, it was more like lord of the manor, not hands on and getting them dirty which I’ve missed, you know what I mean.
You know, I can’t sleep without the sounds of police sirens, car chases, helicopters and shootings! lol.
You also played a homeless shelter last Christmas didn’t you, how did that go?
Yeah, well I did that with the charity Crisis.org who run homeless shelters and I played one of them at the Royal Docks at Christmas. It was that which gave me the idea to carry on doing more and I approached them about it, they said they had ten shelters all together so this year I’m planning on how I can get round all of them with the workshop programme I’m doing.
On top of that I’ve just started to negotiate music/guitar workshops in prisons. At the moment I’ve just got in with H.M.P Risley and it seems to be going OK. The Governor’s been very receptive as well as the inmates and they seem happy for me to come in. I’m going to try and build it up and then go nationally with it.
Kinda of yeah, I think they help to raise the equipment, guitars and so on and donate them to the prisons but for me this is more me on my own and more hands on. I’ll be going into the prisons, teaching and working with inmates more, and what ever else I can do within the workshops whether that be song writing courses, guitar playing or any instrument, it doesn’t really matter. Its more like a general music programme. I’m doing it myself and its not funded in anyway, its all volunteer founded.
So were does the inspiration come from to start-up and create these projects and charity work ?
Well for me I kinda felt its all well and good me having achieved what I’ve achieved but its like I don’t feel complete as a human being, with all the receiving I feel like I’m doing without giving some thing back in return, its like it balances you as a person. It got more serious for me after playing the homeless shelter and talking to some of the guests there, Then the idea for the ‘Johnny Kashmiri’ prison-tour came to me and I thought, ‘why not’. The organisation in the prison itself ‘Belief In Change’ through the introduction from the Rev David Grey have been very helpful and have encouraged me to put the workshop together.
I believe that people should never be forgotten or generalised, I’ve experienced that, been tarred with that same brush, you know that label of being one of them…and prisoners are the same, you can’t label all people the same. Even outside of prisons we all break the law in some way or other at the end of the day.
The venue for your 50th birthday event is at The Roadhouse, a well known and established Manchester venue
Yes its the Roadhouse, I had initially approached other venues in the city. My first was Band on the Wall because of the type of programme I’ve got planned for the night, a real eclectic and ethnic mix which the venue is largely funded for. But I wasn’t too successful there, I also tried the Ruby Lounge too but The Roadhouse were very receptive and liked the idea because its a charity night and so they’ve waived all fees, they’ve been very helpful. I’ve played there before and in fact Ian Brown has played there before as a warm up show for one of his solo tours, so I’ve got ties to the Roadhouse and really pleased to be staging the event there.
Thoughts on hitting 50 years old then, does it mean anything to you or is it just a number?
It is just a number to tell you the truth, I’ve never felt my age, its only when you can’t read the menu in the restaurant that reminds you of your age and makes you think ‘I better act my age or buy a pair of shoes and a shirt instead of trainers and a hoodie’ you know…But I still feel the same way I did when I was a kid and was first allowed out of the house. I’m still working and grafting as hard as I can, re-stringing my own guitars and carrying my own cases. I don’t feel tired or like slowing down, I still feel like full-on about playing, if anything I still feel like I’ve got much to do and more to achieve before I pop my clogs!
I want the night to reflect the affection I have for my friends and fans for the support they have and still give me down the years. That support is something you should never take for granted or the influential things that have happened in your careers and your life, if it wasn’t for those people or events then maybe it never would have happened. There’s a lot of musicians who’s careers never took off, who never got the support they needed to make a career out of it and I feel privileged that I’ve had that support, and so the night is my way of saying thank you for that and recognising talented individuals still in or not in the music business.
Your 50th birthday event is all for charity too, can you give us some details on the charity your raising funds for?
When I was asked about presents for my birthday event I just thought I don’t really want anything, in fact the best present for me would be to donate some thing, anything, towards the charity C.D.R.S. The night will be raising money for. C.D.R.S which is a charity that is helping those who have been victims to the earthquakes or floods in Pakistan and is based out there, a very hands on charity. Set up by an American musician who sold up everything he owned, moved to Pakistan and started to help victims of the earthquake all over the country, the north west frontier, the Kashmir side and other areas effected. He’s an amazing guy and its a charity close to my own roots, I want to help them raise money for medical supplies, an ECG machine and other things they need. Plus they have an orphanage for young girls, a school for kids as well as re-building houses…there’s so many things they do. There’s tens of thousands still living in tents, the mortality rate is still very high among the children and mothers so there’s a lot of work and help needed out there. I’m just trying to address that balance between music positivity and political negativity. To be able to help provide funds for these things and facilities out there, it means a lot to me.
So I’m directing people to justgiving.com/aziz ibrahim , any donation will be massively appreciated, and if I could raise some thing by the end of the night that would make me very happy and for me a great 50th birthday.
Another point to this is that I do a fair amount of charity work for a number of charities here in the UK, raising money for the country I live in or giving time to people that need help but this is more for my parental heritage, where my roots came from, although personally for me, there’s no difference between the two. Its all raising money for the right reasons that count, whether its Pakistan or the UK the two both go hand in hand. The damage that the media have done in demonising 170 million Pakistanis and the population in this country needs to be addressed. More positive things have to be promoted as apposed to the negative press of a few people. It’s always the poor and weak that suffer the most whether it be UK or Pakistan.
It feels like its going to be a special birthday party/event…what’s the plans for the night, DJ’s, live bands/artists?
Yeah I’ve got ‘tings’ going on bro! DJ ‘s and a range of artists, like I say a real collective mix, even an actor wanna be musician as well. Can’t say much though as I want to keep it a surprise but I’ll give you one person, Clint Boon will be coming down and spinning a few tunes. He’s always been a great friend and great guy/musician. But for the night, its really about showcasing Manchester music & talent. Its history is not just The Smiths and Factory, it’s so much more and on the night I want to recognise the diversity. From the indie nights to a soul nights, the reggae scene, the house scene and even heavy metal, its really wide and far reaching and the night will hopefully reflect that. I originally came out of the rock-a-billy scene then into the reggae scene and if it wasn’t for that background I probably wouldn’t have made that move to Simply Red, which was some experience really, like all the groups and scenes I’ve played in. The cities heritage is rich in diversity, the clubs, the musicians and all manor of music. It’s more than just shoe gazing.
Will you be playing on the night, will we hear your classic covers of ‘I Fought the Law’ and one of the formers hit records you did with Ian Brown with ‘My Sitar’, a beutiful reworking of my star…as well as your own material like ‘Morassi’ and ‘Middle Road’ ?, both taken from the ‘Rusholme Rock’ album
The only cover I really did is ‘I fought the Law’ which I love to play because its just a great song, written by Sonny Curtis of the Crickets in 1957 its gone on to be covered by a host of groups/artists like The Clash, Greenday and the Manics’. I think, a few bands have had a go at it and so I wanted to do some thing a bit different with it, with acoustic guitar and Tablas. The songs I co-wrote with Ian Brown I’ve always felt a strong connection with so I have no problem playing and performing them live, but my original and own solo material are defo’ long in the tooth, but at the same time a lot of people have never heard them. Another aspect of the night is it wont be what you probably expect it to be, its not going to be an Aziz and Dal gig, its a birthday party. There will be live music on the night but not so much of us. Its about enjoying a range of different sounds, genres or artists you’ve maybe not come across before. But I don’t want to name any, I want to keep it a surprise for everyone who has bought tickets, I want them to enjoy the event and the music on the night.
How about looking back on those songs you co wrote with Ian Brown, some amazing and memorable tunes…which ones stand out to you as highlight tracks when you look back?
Obviously tunes like Corpses and My Star because of the way they came about, not because of their success but how they came together. It was a very old-school & fun way of writing music, just sitting there with an acoustic and writing to his lyrics and slowly creating music at home on a portable studio, as opposed to the computer or digital editing to create a song. That’s why Corpses, Ice Cold Cube, My Star, See The Dawn and Getting High are close to my heart. But that album ‘unfinished monkey business’ is a very unique album. Not everyone gets it. They don’t understand it. Its a very daring album, not in terms of production techniques, that’s not what its about. Its kinda of anti production and about letting it artistically flow, taking a chance and not needing a producer over the top of it, its a very organic and Mancunian album. Obviously it had the genius of Mr Brown to take it forward but at the end of the day I think the album speaks for itself. It separated the men from the mice in a way too because the ones who criticised it don’t know what music is all about and would be better of buying a Kylie or Justin Beeber album. Where as any Manc or any city in this country will have an affinity for original writers and cutting edge music.
The album ‘Unfinished Monkey Business’ comes from a unique place and time, doesn’t it
Well Ian was contemplating what he was going to do next, I was kinda at a lose end because the Roses imploded which actually kinda gave me the opportunity to start writing from scratch with Ian. There was also no interference as such from anyone, the only contact we had with labels was a fax machine so we were left to our own devices. It was just us both writing and Ian had already written some stuff, some of it was done prior to that with Robbie, Nigel & Mani which were really Roses tracks for what you could call the 3rd coming. On the second album, ‘Getting High’ is another track close to my heart because I just wanted to stick this raunchy riff I had into something and then Ian came up with some fantastic lyrics for that which Dave McCracken, the producer on Golden Greats enhanced and we watched it really grow. That album was a bit different because Ian had spent his time in Strangeways and that’s what you hear in Golden Greats, I wasn’t really sure what was going on and where his train of thought was around that time, so it was a little different writing for that but we still managed it and I contributed a few tracks for that.
But then things started to change where I was developing my own band as well so I got together with Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce and did that first album, ‘Lahore To Longsight’ and so I think at that point I didn’t didn’t really participate in the album Music of the Spheres, which generated Ian’s biggest songs of his solo career Fear. But at the same time I came back to do the whole tour for it. So it was probably the albums after that in My Way and Solarised like with the tune ‘One Way Ticket to Paradise’ and ‘Happy Ever After’ and Solarised,then onto Greatest Hits again. But there were a lot of good B sides as well, like one track which I was slightly disappointed that didn’t make the album ‘Unfinished Monkey Business, which was ‘See The Dawn.’
But I enjoyed that first album because John Squire had left a lot of his guitars, amps and equipment when he left which I inherited. Using and playing the 1959 Les Paul a dream come true, the 1959 ES 345 which you see on the Love Spreads video, the pink ‘Resurrection Strat’ and the amps involved like the Fender twins which were modded, also the Echoplex, the old tape echo unit used a lot on Second Coming.
How about 20 yrs of ‘Un-Finished Monkey Business’, its seen as a classic 90’s album in its own right and to hear it again would be magic…what would you think to getting together with Ian again to tour the album once again?
Of course that’d be a pure pleasure to do that album, I’ve got no qualms about playing music from the past because you can owe a lot to certain songs, what they’ve done for your career as well as for other people. Even to this day I get people saying how monkey business helped them through a bad time or how it was at the best time in their lives, even the instrumentals I’ve written like Morassi is like that. It makes me happy to know it means some thing to some one else or that they’ve used it in some way to help themselves.
But with the The Stone Roses back together touring, writing and so on they look pretty busy but you know, if that situation ever arose I’d be made up to do it but at the same time I’ve moved on. But you know its strange you say that because I was at a rehearsal not so long ago ‘dawn saaf’ and was asked to join a group with Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey who played in the original Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars… but unfortunately Trevor passed away last year but they both at the time wanted to reform Ziggy Stardust, take it off from where it finished, Hammersmith Odeon (where Bowie announced the end on stage to the surprise of the band & the audience). So they had the idea of putting the band back together and launching it from there and go on to tour it, inviting musicians to play with them, who have been influenced by the band. I know there were going to be 2 guitarist, I think the other was Phil Collen from Def Leopard. It was a real honour. I think they asked me because I knew every single Ziggy song. Mick Ronson and people like Marc Bolan were a massive influence on me so I would of loved to have got out there to play those songs that had played a big part in my life. But sadly it never happened but what I’m trying to say is for me its a pleasure to play things that bring so much happiness, its not about playing covers or old songs, but great songs that shaped me and many others.
Can you tell Louder Than War what happened regarding the trouble you had with the U.S.A immigration over your working Visa?
It started when I started working with a friend of mine, a guy called Steven Wilson from a band called Porcupine Tree which are a big prog band. Steve’s the lead vocalist and a grammy winning producer. Because I wasn’t doing much living out n the sticks and wanting to get back out there I agreed to do the tour with them, but after the European leg ended up denied during the US & Canadian leg because the US deemed me not worthy to enter their country (working visa denied, though in the end successfully gaining the visa it was too late to join the tour) I got it in the end but it was too late so never toured with them after that. I guess the band didn’t want the grief. The US consulate even said ‘It’s probably because of your name! I said at the counter, ‘Is it cause I is Welsh? lol. Sorry Manc humour. Its strange how fate deals you these cards, knocking you off the ‘yellow brick road’. Its like when Ian when to prison, as angry I was, it sent me on a different direction, it definitely did Ian, the way he was thinking and writing, what ever he was thinking we won’t really know but it all affects you and maybe that’s the way it should be. its all a mystery, Like starting out in a rockabilly band then reggae, suddenly joining Simply Red to then jump to a prog rock group called Asia via Hot Chocolate then to join the coolest band in the world (The Stone Roses) whilst writing, playing and recording with Paul Weller! I’ve no idea how it happened…you can just image my wardrobe! lol.
Your diary must be a fascinating read, playing within so many genres and music scenes, its so unique?
It’ll all be in the book..ha ha.
How about plans for your next release?
I wanted to put some thing out for my birthday but I don’t think it would be ready in time, but I’m hoping to release a single anyway. In time I’ll announce what I’m going to do and release as I do on my site, http://www.aziz.co.uk/ … and on the usual social media sites too. I operate from my own record label Indus Records and it can be a hard slog but worth it, it is what it is.
Hopefully I’ll get a look in at the festivals this year. You can be riding high for a time but then if you start financing your own projects its almost like starting again, though obviously you’ve got the experience & contacts.
Lastly Aziz, for you what would be the best thing that could happen for your birthday, your birthday wish?
If I could wish anything for my birthday it would just be for everyone to donate something, raise sufficient funds for the CDRS charity and have it put to good use…job’s a gud’n.
Aziz Ibrahim – aziz.co.uk.
Indus Records – indusrecords.com
Crisis – crisis.org.uk
Just Giving – justgiving.com/azizibrahim
All words by Carl Stanley. More writing by Carl on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.