By Brian Robbins
Chances are when you hear the UK-based band Maker for the first time, you’ll swear you’ve heard them before. There’s something about the music that the quartet – Alessandro Marinelli (vocals, guitar), bassist John Austin, and brothers Gavin and Andrew Donaldson (drums and guitar, respectively) – produces that feels familiar. There’s a kindred spirit with classic bands such as the Stones and the Faces and Humble Pie ... but there are also elements of Maker’s sound that have as much to do with Muscle Shoals, Alabama as they do Kent, England.
For this installment of Solder Fumes, we spoke with guitarist Andrew Donaldson from his home about 30 minutes outside of London.
“It’s a little bit strange at the moment,” he allows – pretty much summing up what the world as a whole is feeling under siege from COVID-19. His wife Lianne, as a healthcare worker, is on the frontlines: “It’s scary, I’ll tell you,” says Andrew, home with their 5-year-old daughter Alana and 18-month-old son Dylan.
Andrew was gracious enough to share a bit of his day with us to talk about making music with his brother, the experience of recording under Rich Robinson’s guiding hand, new Maker tunes to come ... and, of course, gear.
Andrew, let’s talk roots: first, how many years between you and Gavin?
Four – I’m four years older than Gav.
So, I’m guessing you led the way into music?
Yeah, I picked up an instrument first, but Gav wasn’t far behind ... and with his personality, he had to be a drummer. They’re a special breed. [laughter]
What kind of stuff hooked your ear early on?
Mum and Dad didn’t play instruments, but they had pretty good record collections and we used to delve into them. I remember listening to Cream at an early age ... and the first Led Zeppelin album – I played that ‘til I wore it out. Even some of the “less cool” end of the spectrum, as well: Status Quo ... Queen ... Plus, we watched live concerts on TV. I remember watching the guitar players and thinking, "That’s my kind of a job.” [laughter]
So, it was the guitar right from the beginning for you.
Oh, yeah: Peter Green was huge; I loved his and Danny Kirwan’s playing on the early Fleetwood Mac stuff. Like I mentioned, Clapton in the early years: Bluesbreakers ... Cream ... Derek and the Dominos.
Free was another band I got into quite early on; Paul Kossoff was a huge influence on my playing.
I can hear that. Man, Paul Kossoff doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Anyone who really pays attention and gets beyond just listening to “All Right Now” ...
Oh, definitely – especially for his age. When Paul was in his teens, he was playing with more maturity and taste than people twice his age ... he was incredible.
Clapton’s Domino period is definitely a favorite of mine. His weaving with Duane Allman on the Layla album is all-time, of course – but I really love that Live At The Fillmore, too.
First, it’s just Eric holding down the fort on guitar ... and as far as I’m concerned, it’s a master class in the wah pedal.
It’s incredible; somehow, he managed to make the Strat – without any big fuzz pedals or anything – sound so woody and thick ... not thin in the least. It’s such a great guitar sound on that live album.
So, everybody has a story about that first guitar ...
Oh, yeah. [laughter] I was maybe four or five years old, searching through the cupboards when I found my Dad’s old acoustic guitar from when he was a boy. It was pretty beat up and not a great guitar ... the strings were a mile away from the fretboard.
And everybody has the same story: that first guitar with terrible action that was painful to fret ...
Oh, God, yes!
But that’s the test, right? If you’re really determined to do it ...
Exactly! If you can get through that, you’ll do all right. [laughter] So, they could tell I was besotted with it and bought me a little Spanish guitar for my birthday. Pretty quickly after that I really wanted an electric, so my dad got me a secondhand one from the local music store – a Strat copy ... a Marlin Sidewinder
A classic! [laughter]
It was a good guitar, really – I learned a lot on it for quite a few years ... it is what it is: a Strat copy.
Too bad they aren’t still making them – they might want to do an Andrew Donaldson signature model.
Who knows, eh? [laughter] I still have those first guitars, as well ... they’re safe at my parents’ house.
So, you began burrowing into the guitar; how old was Gavin when he got into the drums?
I think he was about six – so I would’ve been ten – and we started playing together straight away. We were trying to do Cream songs and Hendrix songs, even at that age. Kind of threw ourselves in the deep end. [laughter] A baptism of fire.
A power duo!
It was at first, yeah! [laughter]
I’m guessing you influenced each other along the way.
Oh, yeah – we have similar tastes in music, but we both introduced each other to different bands growing up.
And, you know, having your brother in your band ... we fight a lot; we disagree about stuff; but I think we get to a better point with the music because of that. It’s not just glossed over.
You’re not afraid to have it out with your brother over the tiniest things: “That chord you played there just ruined my life ...” or “You played the high hat when you should’ve gone to the bathroom” or whatever ...
In the end, I think it ends up for the better.
Where you were that much older, was there a period where the two of you weren’t playing together?
Yeah, where I reached the teenage years first, I was in a band early on without Gav. But I quickly found that – especially back then - nobody in our area was really into what me and Gav were listening to at that time. So, after a while, I just said to Gav, “I’ve had enough of these bands; let’s get together, find a bass player, and become a power trio.”
And was John that bass player?
Not originally. At first, we basically put a bass in a friend of ours’ hands and taught him how to play it. [laughs] By the time we went our separate ways, John was actually our sound engineer.
He was a good guitarist; it took me and Gav a year to talk him out of those extra two strings and into playing bass for us – six months per string. [laughter]
As soon as John joined the band, his style of bass playing – coming from a different place that’s very rhythmic and groovy – gave the band a different feel straight away.
And John’s style as a bassist gives you some freedom that you might not have with someone else.
Yeah – he’s very tasteful; he knows where to fill things out and where to lay off ... we play off each other very well. We used to jam on guitars when he was our sound guy, and it was a very easy push-and-pull between us ... I knew it would work fine on the bass.
At that point, was the trio known as Maker, or did you become Maker once Alessandro came on board on vocals and guitar?
We were already Maker; we started out being called The Afterglow – after the Small Faces' song – but after a while we thought that was a bit obvious. We wanted to change our name for a battle of the bands, and off the top of his head, Gavin said, “Let’s call ourselves Maker; we’ll decide on something else afterwards.” And we never did. [laughter]
And when did the three of you cross paths with Alessandro?
Ooh – now you’re testing me ... I’d say maybe ten years ago?
After John joined, I was on the lookout for a singer; I’d always done the lead vocals up until then – reluctantly.
We met Ally at a pre-show kind of warm-up thing for the Black Crowes – a secret little in-the-know club thing – and I got talking to him: “You look like a singer ... do you sing?”
“No,” he said, “I’m a guitarist ... but I’ll have a go at singing.” [laughter]
So, he came along, had a couple drinks, and sang the Faces’ “Stay With Me”. For somebody to be able to sing that song in that register ... we said, “He’s gonna be all right.” [laughter]
It’s ironic that you met Alessandro in that setting, as the Crowes are an easy comparison when people are describing Maker’s sound, I think – but they aren’t trying if they can’t get beyond that. You tell me: how would you describe Maker’s sound?
Definitely there are elements of the Black Crowes; I think Ally’s vocal style pulls peoples’ ears to that reference. The Faces ... the Small Faces ... Humble Pie ... they were huge influences on all of us.
But, we also listen to a lot of soul and funk: Sly and the Family Stone; Parliament; Al Green; Aretha Franklin ... and that sinks in to the point where rock ‘n’ roll kind of meets soul; you get interesting rhythms and grooves going on – not just the straight-forward four-to-the-floor rock ‘n’ roll.
Don’t you think that sometimes it’s a matter of being comfortable in that space between the beats – that territory that, say, Keith Richards is such a master of?
Yeah – absolutely. That push-and-pull of the timing being slightly off ... I mean, I love Keith Richards’ and Ronnie Wood’s rhythm playing. They’re both masters at chopping it up and making it sound dirty ... laying back on some of it and push-and-pull at other times. It’s so much more interesting to the ear than being on the beat.
Oh, don’t get me going – we’ll be here all night. [laughter] I will say: I love the music from the Mick Taylor period of the Stones, but it was a more defined line between his role and Keith’s. To me, one of the best examples is “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”: that starts off with an all-time classic Keith riff and ends up jamming in Mick Taylorville.
Oh, yeah! That’s kind of a call to arms, that song – you hear those first notes: grab a drink and off you go! (laughter)
So, there are recordings out there for anyone who isn’t familiar with Maker’s music: there are the Move Your Feet and Girl Quit Your Crying EPs, along with your full-length album, Dead Ends & Avenues. To me, it sounds like you’re fans of capturing your sound live in the studio.
Definitely; cut the basic tracks live as a band and if it doesn’t have the right feel or the right timing or it’s not quite working, then leave it – record another song and go back to it. We always start with the live band ... even some of Ally’s vocals are live; as much live as possible.
And your guitar solos?
Sometimes the solos are live in the moment to get the feel, then the rhythm guitar might be overdubbed underneath that – the other way around from how you’d normally work. It’s all about getting the right feel with the basic track when you’re in the studio.
There are so many ways to approach things: there are the people who polish and polish and polish – and that’s to be admired, too – but sometimes it’s a completely different animal by the time you’re done polishing. It depends on what you’re after, I guess.
Yeah – it’s an easy trap to fall into and we try not to do that.
So those recordings are out there currently for folks to dig into; let’s talk about the sessions you did last year with Rich Robinson of the Crowes producing. I’m lucky enough to have heard those tracks and I have to say: I don’t think I’ve ever fallen so hard for an album that didn’t exist. [laughter]
Well, thank you ...
That’s not a compliment; it’s a statement of fact. [laughter] We’ll talk about the recording process, but first – how did you guys connect with Rich?
He was playing in London at the Borderline – that was pre-Magpie Salute; he’d just released his solo album Through a Crooked Sun – and, of course, my brother being bold as brass managed to talk his way backstage. [laughter] Gav basically announced that Maker was there to meet Rich Robinson.
And it worked.
Yeah! [laughter] A couple of people went to get Rich – as if he was supposed to know who we were – and he came over and talked to us. I think he kind of liked the cheekiness of it.
We got along really well and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. Anytime he comes over to the UK, we’ll meet up for a drink and a laugh.
What led you guys into the studio with him?
Magpie Salute was over here promoting their second album [High Water I] and we were talking to Rich backstage. Ally and I asked him if he’d ever be interested in producing us ... and he kind of jumped at it: “Yeah – definitely! I’d love to do that. But you’d have to come over to the States.”
Which you were open to doing.
Absolutely. It seemed to happen pretty quickly after that: Rich called us back with some dates when he’d be available ... and we got together.
Where did you record?
We were over there for two weeks. The first week was at Levon Helm’s barn.
Oh, man ... my wife and I have been there a couple of times. What a magical place.
Oh, you’ve been there? Yeah – it’s amazing. It’s very palpable when you walk in: you can feel it. Apart from being in awe of the place, the sound and the feel are incredible – very inspiring.
But the Barn was already booked with gigs for the second week we were recording ... funnily enough, for Chris Robinson – and he and Rich weren’t speaking at the time. [laughter] That first week at the Barn we wrote the six songs that are on the EP, rehearsed, and did demos.
The following week we moved into the Clubhouse studio in Rhinebeck, NY. That’s another awesome place – with very cool equipment; every vintage amp you could ever think of. It was like a playground for us.
So, what existed of those six tracks prior to you arriving in the States?
Rich said to get a lot of ideas together and send him a few rough demos, so we did that. We had bits that we were working on – not really complete songs, though some of them were nearly complete.
Basically, Rich did a full production thing: he would rearrange songs: what we thought was a chorus might become a verse or a pre-chorus or a bridge ... he was really dissecting and changing what we presented to him to make it into its final form.
There were times when he’d say something like, “I’m going out for ten minutes to get a coffee; write a middle eight for that and make it good.” [laughter] So there was a hell of a lot of pressure; he’d come back and we’d say, “We’ve got this ...” and he’d be, like, “Okay ... yeah ... that’s a start; we’ll work on that.”
He pulled it out of you ...
Oh, yeah: he was literally sitting in a chair six feet in front of the band for the whole time we were writing and rehearsing. He was the only person sitting there ... it was a little bit intimidating at first [laughs] but you have to get on the horse and tame it, don’t ya?
Oh, Lord. [laughter] And did Rich himself play on any of the tracks?
He played with us during rehearsal a couple times just to jam out things and work on ideas, but he wanted it to be us on the recordings.
Did Alessandro play guitar for these sessions?
He didn’t on these recordings. When we got to Levon’s, there was a grand piano set up. Ally’s not really a piano player, but he dove right into it at the Barn – and most of the songs ended up being kind of piano driven. think Ally might’ve played some acoustic guitar – he normally plays a lot of guitar live, but on this it’s mainly myself – and John did a couple of guitar tracks to beef things up.
Along with Ally’s piano tracks, Rich brought in Adam Widoff, who’s played keyboards with a bunch of people, including Lenny Kravitz. We also had Magpie Salute drummer Joe Magistro playing percussion on all the tracks and his wife Katrine Ottosen, who played piano on the song “Memoirs” ... they’re all very cool artists.
And the Black Dog title that’s on the mix I’ve listened to?
Black Dog is just a working title for now – that’s the studio that we mixed the tracks in once we got back to the UK; we actually don’t have a name yet.
Well, I’ll tell you, Andrew: it deserves to be heard.
Thank you. We have been in talks; we can’t get into much further detail than that, except that we’re very keen to get it out there and have people listening to it – so’s Rich. He produced it, but he wanted us to do the rest of it ... instead of being handed anything by him, you know what I mean? Kind of an older brother’s guiding hand, if you will.
So, we’re working this next phase out on our own. We can’t give any release dates yet, but it’ll be as soon as we possibly can.
It’s a tribute to you all as a band and Rich as a producer: he definitely had an influence, but he didn’t get in the way of Maker being who you are. It sounds as though he did the right thing by you all.
Yeah, Rich was really into it: we did some co-writing with him on some bits; other bits he was rearranging and polishing what we already had ... it’s the first time anyone’s done that, really. We’ve always had free rein with our arrangements and writing but to have another person in the fold – especially someone with his track record and experience – was a very different way of working.
It was a challenge, but really rewarding at the same time.
Let’s talk about gear. Do you have a number one guitar?
Basically, our sets split up pretty evenly between open G tuning and standard tuning – and I always have two guitars tuned in each of those to pick between. My two most heavily leaned-on guitars are my 1973 Fender Telecaster Custom – it’s beaten to crap. [laughs] It’s been beaten to within an inch of its life over the years, but it’s just brilliant; it’s a dirty rock ‘n’ roll guitar ... that’s probably my number one. And then there’s my Les Paul, which I bought on the way to an Oasis gig years ago.
I have a 335 which I use quite a bit, as well – a lovely, beautiful guitar.
The Telecaster is usually my preferred open G guitar and the Les Paul for standard; I don’t stick to that, though – I can change it around from gig to gig depending on the night.
How about amps?
Oh, I love amps – I think amps are where it’s at, you know? I think you can have a god-awful cheap guitar and a good amp and you’ll get an amazing sound. But a really great guitar and a bad amp? You’re not going to get far ... sorry!
Amp-wise, I’ve played vintage Marshalls – early 70s metal-front no-master-volume Marshalls. My current setup is a JTM 45 that was hand-wired by a guy over here in the UK named Barry Woodhead. It’s basically a recreation of the mid-60s Clapton Beano amp.
Sadly, Barry’s since passed away, but the amp’s still going strong.
Apart from that, my other main amp is a hand-wired remake of the ’57 Fender Tweed Deluxe. It’s just awesome – probably my main recording amp; I use it live as well to blend in with the JTM 45.
But you didn’t have those with you when you came over to record with Rich, of course. I’m guessing you might’ve brought guitars, but –
No? No guitars?
No ... we didn’t even bring plectrums. [laughs] We came over with nothing. Everything was on loan.
If I could’ve changed things, I probably would’ve taken a guitar or two ... but it was all done kind of last minute.
That’s an added degree of difficulty ...
Yeah; it was a bit strange ... [laughter] It was kind of a challenge to make things feel comfortable, but Scott from BMF sent a small care package of a few pedals to help me get something out of the amps that was familiar.
BMF to the rescue!
Right! [laughter] He sent a stock wah pedal – his own personal wah, as a matter of fact – along with a GB boost, which I use a lot with my own setup; a silicon Sisyphuzz; and a GeSpot germanium fuzz, which I also use over here. He sent the NKT 275 version, which was lovely – I ended up falling in love with it and bringing it home with me.
Well, there – and I guess the lesson there is, pedals can help to provide some familiar footing in strange settings. Where did you first cross paths with Scott?
He got in contact with me through a mutual friend and said, “Are you interested in trying these pedals?” Usually I’m wary of that kind of thing – I’m quite picky; very fussy about gear – but I looked at what kind of work he did and it was exactly my sort of thing.
A better person couldn’t have contacted me about pedals.
We worked out something and Scott sent some pedals over; they were brilliant. They were kicking others off my board left, right, and center. A lot of very revered boutique pedals were getting left behind once I got the BMF stuff. That was, what? Maybe three ... four years ago, I guess.
It meant a lot that Scott made the offer because he really dug our music. It wasn’t until after I started using his pedals that he asked if we were signed to a label. He reached out purely on the music – not the advertising potential, if you see what I mean.
Very cool of him; very cool – he’s got soul.
Do you remember what some of those pedals were in the first batch that you tried?
I think the Fat Bastard clean boost ... the Son of Bastard clean boost, which is on my board to this day ... his stock wah, which I still use. I think there was also a Rocket 88 ... and shortly after that, he offered to send a Ge Spot fuzz, which got me into germanium fuzzes.
Oh: and he sent an El Jefe overdrive, which is a great pedal – Ally uses that in his setup.
Have you tried the various wah voicings Scott offers with his swap-out boards? We talked about that Derek and the Dominos Live at the Fillmore album earlier; that’s one of my favorite BMF boards.
I’ve tried three or four different ones; they’re all great and they all have their place – but I ultimately went back to his stock wah board ... it’s very user-friendly and works with a lot of stuff.
It’s a nice-all around voicing.
Oh, yeah: it’s throaty; it has a wide sweep; it’s got enough quack for when we get into the funk kind of things ... it does everything very well.
You mentioned the NKT 275 version of the GeSpot: is that your current fuzz?
I have that on my board currently. Originally, I had the “House Blend Fuzz Face” Ge Spot and that was really cool – but I was using it with humbuckers a lot and wanted something with a little bit more bite.
Scott had just done his Tonebender version of the GeSpot and was coming over to the UK. He showed up at a festival we were playing – he delivered it all the way from the US.
That’s customer service for you: five thousand miles to deliver a fuzz. [laughter]
So, at this hour in early April of 2020, we can tell folks that Maker is looking forward to releasing these new tracks soon – and getting back to playing live as soon as it’s safe to do so.
We’re itching to get out and play these songs live for people. It’s been really fun rehearsing them, ‘cause we did it all so quickly over there and recorded it ... we had to listen back to what we recorded to see what in the hell we were playing! [laughter] A lot of it was one or two takes off the cuff. Rich wouldn’t let me play solos during the rehearsal – he banned me: “I want your first gut instinct solo.” So, a lot of those were on the spot: “Chuck a solo on that.” “Throw a bit of slide on that one.” “Do a bit of an outro on that.”
It was all seat-of-the-pants kind of stuff, but we worked hard on it, man. There was a lot to get done in a short amount of time. Five days of writing and rehearsing; five days of recording.
Andrew, thank you so much for doing this. Take care of you and yours.
Cheers – thank you, Brian. It’s been great to talk to you, mate.For all things Maker, please visit: https://www.makerofficial.com/