How did a lad from deepest Leicestershire become one of the UK’s finest bluesmen? TIM HUGHES catches up with Aynsley Lister.
AYNSLEY Lister doesn’t look anything like your typical bluesman.
He hasn’t had a hard life, he wasn’t brought up in a shack in the Deep South, has never riden the rails in a boxcar, has failed to build up a respectable gambling debt, and hasn’t even watched his wife walk out on the same day his dog dies.
But, boy, he sure sounds like a bluesman.
One of the UK’s finest proponents of rocking blues, this fresh-faced one-man powerhouse plays the guitar with such verve and incendiary passion it’s hard to believe he hasn’t made a pact with the devil at the crossroads. Though, in Aynsley’s case, that crossroads would be somewhere off the M1 in the heart of the rural England.
“There is still this idea that blues guys have got to be black, have something wrong with them, have a crazy name, and come from Mississippi,” says Aynsley, spending an afternoon at his home on the edge of rocky Charnwood Forest, in deepest Leicestershire, after a fast-paced morning spent riding pillion with his bike chick partner and tour manager, Steph.
“I don’t look like a blues artist, and don’t have a deep gravelly voice. I haven’t lived a terrible life – though I have had my ups and downs, and write about my experiences. But you don’t have to be a grizzled cotton-picker from the Delta to play the blues.”
Starting at an early age, Aynsley first picked up a guitar at the age of eight – he has been playing under his own name for a good 16 years.
So how did this passion start? The blues, after all, is still an unusual choice for a kid from Leicestershire – a county better known, musically, for brash indie-rockers Kasabian and, cough, Englebert Humperdink.
“I grew up surrounded by my dad’s record collection – which was stuff from the 60s and 70s,” says Aynsley, 35.
“I love John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, The Who and The Stones... and listening to them persusaded me to pick up a guitar, learn to play and start writing. I was also listening to the blues. I would just sit in front of the stereo, with headphones on, staring at the turntable. It grabbed me!
“I had my first gig at 12. I was in a school concert, and there was a guy in the audience from a local covers band who asked if I’d ever played a gig. He invited me to play at the village pub, and at the end of that show asked me if I wanted to join the band, which I did.”
It wasn’t quite his type of music, though, he recalls. “We were playing stuff like Showaddywaddy in working men’s clubs,” he laughs. “I was 16 years-old, and the other guys were my dad’s age. Then a couple of years later a few other guys said let’s get our own band together, which we did. And we built up quite a following.”
His big break came at the age of 21, when he was signed to Rough Records. The German label packed him off to the continent where, within 18 months, he had covered Holland, Germany, Belgium, France, Switzerland and Austria.
“I loved touring then, and still love it now,” he says. “It’s my job and I earn my living from it, but I still enjoy it all. I love being on stage and seeing people react.
“The guitar was the first thing I was interested in, and nothing much has changed. I have 20 guitars, with at least one in every room, and not a single day goes by without me picking one up and playing.”
With his own band of talented artists (former drummer, the beautiful Sarah Jones went on to join nu-rave pop act New Young Pony Club), he has played festivals (headlining a stage at Glastonbury) and supported some real heroes, including the mighty ZZ Top in Norway.
“That was really cool!” he says. “I’ve been a fan since I was a kid, so it was great to meet them and talk about guitars and amps. It’s easy to put these people on pedestals and treat them like superhumans, but they are just normal guys and were using the same kind of equipment as us... it’s just that they are really good.”
This coming week, he plays the Famous Monday Blues – one of the country’s longest-running sessions, held by local legend Philip Guy Davis at the Bullingdon, in Cowley Road. And, Aynsley says, he can’t wait to be back.
“I have been playing the Monday Blues for as long as I can remember,” he says.
“I first played in Oxford about 16 years ago–- it was one of the first gigs I did. Since then the Monday Blues has moved from what was the Fuggle & Firkin in Gloucester Green, to what was Jongleurs and to the Bullingdon. I still play it once a year.
“Over the past few years, a lot of these sessions have struggled to survive, which makes it all the more important to support what Philip is doing in Oxford.”
So what can people expect? “Melodic blues-rock,” he says.
“The blues is the foundation of my influences, but there is also a bit of ZZ Top and AC-DC. I am not just a guitarist who goes out and only sings because he has to. There’s a lot of everything. Even people who are not into the blues will come along and enjoy it.
“It’s very honest music, into which you put your whole self,” he says. “I listen to contemporary music and like good melodies and choruses, but so much of it is churned-out, generic and written to a formula, without passion or quirkiness. I’m not technically-perfect, like a lot of music you hear today. But I’m not trying to be. I will carry on writing and touring. If I don’t do that I get withdrawal symptoms; I have to play!”
* Aynsley Lister plays the Famous Monday Blues at the Bullingdon, Cowley Road, Oxford, this Monday. Music starts at 9pm.