Ulrich and Sabine cutting loose [photo by the awesome Kim Yarbrough]
I’ve been aware that Ulrich Ellison is one of the hardest working guys in the music business, touring constantly and consistently across the USA and Europe. He’s also one of the nicest guys in a coarse business you will ever hope to meet. Wise beyond his years, it’s a pleasure to get to know him on a deeper level than usual via the interview process. With a fresh cd out and a huge tour, his band is one of the hardest working acts on the road.
SPM: “Feet Back On The Ground”…Off the new album “ Rise Up From The Ashes” is a great lead-off tune. What’s it about? A personal experience? What do you call your sound? Southern Rock? More of an indie rock sound? Touches of blues can be found throughout your material…..
Ulrich: Thanks Tim, glad you feel that way. On that particular tune I worked from the title backwards. I had that main idea and melody line that I was hearing to happen over a musical break. Then I found that really cool riff and the groove fell naturally in its place. The song is about finding yourself and changing your old patterns, about being grounded. Musically it’s very rootsy but in the chorus it goes to a different place harmonically which gives it more of a pop feel, which nicely contrasts the driving guitar riff. A lot of my songs have those elements.
SPM: You were born in Germany? Where at? How many languages do you speak?
Ulrich: I was born and raised in Austria, in a town called Graz. I lived close to the mountains, and hiking and climbing was a big part of my youth. My granddad was a mountain scout, he took me on many alpine trails. Because of my parents I travelled a lot. I speak 5 languages.
yes, they stay busy!
SPM: How long have you been on the states, as well as Austin?
Ulrich: Me and Sabine plus our German shepherd Hammy (She passed 2 years ago) arrived in Austin in 2007. I had a Fulbright scholarship to study jazz guitar at UT with Mitch Watkins and was immediately welcomed in the music community. That felt quite extraordinary, and I was soon playing with countless projects ranging from all styles of jazz to salsa, latin rock, blues, hard rock and even country. It was the perfect playground to fine tune my own style, which since then has moved from a more instrumental-technical approach to a more rootsy and song based approach. I still like to practice, though 🙂
SPM: You fit in with many musicians, yet you are your own man. I see you around all over the place. You are a social creature by night. What do you do during the daytime?
Ulrich: These days running my own band keeps me 120% busy. I don’t get to go out that much anymore! But I’m glad you still think I’m everywhere, ha ha. Our band has a lot of business tasks. We book bigger tours overseas and in the US, while maintaining a steady regional and local schedule as well. We have been producing 3 studio albums in the last three years. We do a lot of relationship building and promotions via social media and beyond, that’s all very time-consuming. We also recently built our very own music platform “myTribe.” The idea was created when I realized that with ll the “kickstarters” I could ever do, I would always have to find a way to do it again and again. On “myTribe,” people support us annually with a subscription, so we have a yearly budget to produce a new album/release live tracks, etc. Most people outside the music world don’t realize, while the value of recorded music has massively decreased, the costs of recording a top-notch album is still considerably high. And a new record is the driving force behind all promotion and all touring. Our Tribe supporters make that possible.
To fully answer your question: additionally I play private shows and selectively produce other bands and artists, using the infrastructure I have built with my own band (room to record and audio work place in North Austin). I also have a degree in audio production and enjoy making records, recording and mixing.
SPM: Sabine, how long have you been with Ulrich? Is this the first musical band you were in?
Sabine: Hi Tim, nice to be here with you! Me and Ulrich have known each other for 12 years now, we met back in Vienna Austria in 2004. I have been a professional musician for quite some time before that, playing in many projects, too many to name 🙂 When we first came to Texas I played bass for many local blues and rock bands before Ulrich brought our Tribe to life about 4 years ago.
SPM: Sabine, you had a health scare a year or so ago. I’m glad to see that all worked out. That must have been little un-nerving, to say the least. Can you share with us your thoughts on that experience?
Sabine: I’m just happy that I’m still around after all that. That was really, really scary. WIthout going into details, I had surgery in August of 2014 and still need to go on check ups every three months back to Austria. We are very fortunate to be covered a 100% by the Austrian Health Care System, the doctors over there have been fantastic.
SPM: Ulrich, the second track off your new cd is “River Of Life”. Great crisp production. The drums are crisp, and guitars are out in front. I like your vocal nuances. Cool lyrics, great vocals. Can you tell us about the lyrics?
Ulrich: Thanks Tim, happy to hear that. A lot of my lyrics have a spiritual reflective side, and so does this one. It’s the idea that we need to surrender to the stream of life and let us be carried away. It’s kind of like preaching to myself, as surrendering myself and letting go have become more and more important in my life. Musically, I like the contrast of words like that to the relatively hard-hitting groove and guitars.
SPM: I really like your guitar work and Sabine’s excellent bass playing and backup singing. Who’s the drummer on these tracks?
Ulrich: When we first came to Texas, Sabine didn’t sing, can you believe it? We have come long ways with our vocal arrangements and harmonies. Being surrounded by some world-class talent here in Austin definitely helps to stretch your vision as well as your vocal range. And to answer your question – that’s Joel Duhon on the drums, who has quickly become our soul brother. He has a nice singing voice as well and for the first time ever we are able to do 3-part harmonies power trio style, as can be heard on the track “Wallflower”. Joel is the most experienced in the band, he has toured with Van Wilks, Mason Ruffner, Alan Haynes and many more since age 17.
SPM: Sabine, what bass and amp are you using, and what strings, gauge, are you playing? Any toys to enhance it?
Sabine: No toys, I keep it simple, that’s my style 🙂 I play a 5-string Logabass from France which has been my main bass for years. My amp is an Ampeg SVT all-tube head. It’s heavy but sounds so good! That goes into a 800W Bergantino 2×12 cabinet that I really like, too
SPM: Ulrich, the 3rd track off the new release “I’ll Be On My Way” is also intriguing, little more mellower approach. It serves up something not predictable, which I dig. Is that a B3? Who’s playing keys here?
Ulrich: Thats our newest addition to the band, keyboardist and accordionist Jan Flemming. He had just joined on this particular recording session, can you believe it? Jan and me share some common background, he is originally from Cologne, Germany and came to Austin to study jazz accordion. Unlike many keyboard players that play accordion it is his first instrument and he started playing blues on this thing when he was very young. It was quite intriguing how quickly we met and clicked musically, and in relatively short time we have already achieved much together. Originally Jan only came in to play on 4-5 tunes but when we heard him play B3 I quickly decided that he had to become a bigger part of this album. Eventually, at the end of the recording session he officially joined the band.
SPM: “Ouverture” is next. It showcases some wonderful guitar work in it’s short existence. It segues beautifully into “The Traveler”, another surprise approach. Tell us about how you wrote this track.
Ulrich: This track is a fully improvised intro of “The Traveller”. I usually don’t script my intros and solos because to me they are an essential part of how I feel in the moment. I might hit certain signature spots but it would suck for me personally if I had to play the same solo every night. This song quickly developed a life of its own after I wrote it, and when we started jamming, that haunting and ethereal mood started taking over so I decided to enhance that by adding the intro. It’s all based on the mood of the lyrics and overall theme. The outro solo is some of my favorite tone I have recorded so far. I credit my great amps for that, and Chet Himes, Bill Johnson and Gary Hickinbotham behind the faders.
SPM: What gear are you playing on, Ulrich? How many guitars you own, and what are they? What mics you like to use?
We could talk a long time about this 🙂 I’m not a real gear head, though, so I don’t own that much stuff – but I deeply care about good tone. It’s the foundation of playing music and communicating. Tone is the first emotion, like a mom whispering to her baby, or a roaring lion, it has to strike you! I have been lucky to work with an array of world-class guitar manufacturers. I have been a Suhr artist since 2008, and my Suhr Pro Series strat has been my main guitar for a long time. I also play Hauke Guitars which are very exotic looking, alien-like guitars with a unique sound. I use them sparingly but they are very special. Live I mainly use them for my bowing intros (using a violin bow on a long-scale Hauke with overdrive) for a cello-like tone. My newest addition is a JJ Guitars Custom Goldtop which looks a lot like a PRS but feels like a strat with a Les Paul sound. It’s that mahogany body that gives you great sustain but generally that guitar’s responsiveness reminds me more of a strat. Or maybe I just never have played a great LesPaul before, ha ha. It’s the highest quality guitar I own right now. Besides that I have an acoustic and 2 jazz guitars, and my first strat that I ever bought. Amp-wise: I love my custom-built 18W Grammatico especially for recording, but live I mainly use a vintage Ampeg V4 these days. They were dubbed “Marshallkillers” back in the day, and for good reason. That amp has the sweetest tube spring reverb, you can hear it on the intro of the “Traveller”. I use different fuzzes and overdrives, mainly a Maxon SD-9. I have a killer vibe pedal built by Alexis Grimaldo here in Austin TX and I used that quite a bit on this record.
13- “Change Of One Man” bolts out of the gates. More of a dirty rock funk feel to it. Great lead. What are the lyrics about?
Ulrich: I wrote that song in Switzerland while we were on tour. Before that me and Sabine were on a short vacation and took the train from Austria to Germany where we saw a lot of Syrian refugees, mostly families. In those days, the rules of how many refugees were allowed into Germany/denied at the border would almost change daily. The lyrics are a direct reflection of that. What’s the responsibility of one man? Where do we cut the border? Later on the tour, a young Syrian refugee asked us to give us a ride at a deserted rest stop. I intuitively said no but part of me wanted to help. It was a very deep and shaking experience for me.
SPM: “Texas Town Central” is cool too, an instrumental, a smart offering a nice break in the set of 12 tracks…It starts out teasing, then erupts into a rocker. When you write, is it Out Of The Blue, or are you a more methodical writer?
Ulrich: That song is very Texas-inspired, kind of like a road movie sound track. When I write I usually have one idea come to me first, and then it weaves all the other stuff together, which can take 10 minutes or ten weeks. I have a schooled background but most of my ideas come from an instinctive level. Check out the modal shifts in that song, those mood changes are what makes this track stand out to me. It’d a fun tune to play live as well.
Ulrich Ellison, front and center [photo by Andreas Golab]
SPM: How many CDs do you have out now?
Ulrich: This is my 5th studio release. You can find them all via the Tribe store on my website or on iTunes, etc.
SPM: Sabine, where do you hail from? Are you multilingual as well?
Sabine: I am also from Austria.I learned English and French in high school, and German is our mother language.
SPM: The next track “Rescue Me” has a ZZ Top feel to it. What’s this story about here? This has a nice power muscle pop feeling to it. This feels like a single. What 4 songs off this release would you hope that radio explores?
Ulrich: Oh well, you tell me! You seem to have a good instinct about that. The question is, what does radio mean these days? As far as the roots/blues genre is concerned I feel that “Feet Back On The Ground” might be the most attractive, followed by “River Of Life” and yes, maybe “Rescue Me.” It has a nice dance groove to it. We already recorded it for the last album in a different arrangement but I wasn’t a 100% happy. The sleazy-cool vibe it has going now works much better I think. And yes, now I also hear a bit of ZZ Top!
SPM: “Wallflower” has some Robin Trower influences on it, guitar-speaking. Who are your main guitar heroes in your universe? Great track!
Ulrich: I love this track for its powerful riff and the vocal harmonies. Guess there must have been a little Kings X influence in there somewhere. Speaking of guitar players, I respect all guitar players that put being an artist before their instrumental prowess. Mainly those are, in no particular order: Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Robin Trower, Eric Johnson, BB King, Freddie King, Albert Lee, early Steve Morse, Wes Montgomery, Robben Ford – too many to mention really.
SPM: “My Revolution”, another gutsy rocker, is followed by the haunting “Until Our Ashes Are Gone”, this is one of my favorite cuts off this excellent record. The guitar work is pretty, the accordion is sweet, who plays that? It does a sweet favor, playing off your pleading vocals.
Ulrich: That’s Jan Flemming again. I haven’t explicitly told you – this whole album was recorded on Dec 1st, in one day, at Firestation studios in San Marcos which has a nice live room with high ceilings.. All instruments were played live by the four of us. We did redo the vocals and I added a few guitar parts here or there where it felt appropiate. At 7pm of that session day, we had our supporters from “myTribe” come in and played them a live set. This particular take of “Ashes” was taken from this concert, and you can feel the live energy. We also captured this concert on video, one video was released already and more can be found on YouTube soon. I had decided earlier that on this record vibe and atmosphere would be more important than ever before. And that’s what you are listening to 🙂
SPM: The cd closes with “Just You,” an instrumental. It has a blues guitar pop feel to it, and you play some great licks here. Sabine hovers in the background perfectly. This is a great track. It isn’t overdone or overwrought, it’s a perfect blend of subtlety and power. Great tune. Tell me about it, and how it came to be an album closer?
Ulrich: We have been playing this song as part of our set since 2012 and it was already recorded once on a demo EP with a different line up. In the meantime this tune has grown so much and is one of the highlights of our live show. We have had several requests where to get a recording of it so it only seemed perfectly appropriate to close this CD with an epic, timeless jam.
SPM: Where do we go from here in 2016? You are quickly becoming one of my favorite writers and guitar guys. That’s a compliment, since I know many great ones.
Ulrich: Thank you so much, Tim. I know you worked with many of the best. We have our big Austin CD Release show on March 11th at the Backstage and then will go on a two-month long European Tour. The tour will start in Italy where we will participate in the finals of the 6th European Blues Challenge, representing Austria. We will end the tour with 3 dates in Norway, a crossover to Poland and two festivals in Northern Germany. We hope that our new album will reach many new ears and that we will be able to make a huge amount of new fans this year! We love to play and meet new people and spread the word of the Tribe!