It’s clear to me from the numerous interviews I’ve watched or read over the past weeks that Ashley Wallbridge is more than just his title as a producer, DJ, and co-owner of Garuda Music, he is a Personality.
The parody duo CVNT5, alongside Gareth Emery (Gaz), readily springs to mind – a sarcastic jab at DJ Mag’s annual Top 100 DJs poll, and a comedic swing at the world of ghost producers, click farms, and EDM culture.
Charismatic, hilarious, and genuine are some of the words that could describe him, and I feel welcome when his face appears on the screen from the kitchen of his Manchester home. His quarantine length hair hidden under a black toque, AirPods protruding on either side. He’s been playing Call of Duty: Warzone on the Xbox he admits is his first console, a side effect of the lockdown.
With numerous festival and show cancellations affecting his schedule, Ashley still finds a bright side to his surplus of spare time, “Right now I’m working on a new album which I’ve nearly finished writing, but I just need to produce it now,” I make note of his process – songwriting first, followed by the engineering and production, “but when you’ve got not gigs, there’s no money. Fuckin’ sakes! But, we’ve noticed a massive increase [in sales and streams], so the label is making more money. It’s weird.”
Speaking of money, Ashley seems optimistic that the advance from Garuda will cover the fees for the vocalists he’s looking to make a part of his sophomore solo album. In fact, he says, “eleven or twelve of the fifteen songs,” on the album will be vocal tracks, ten of those being “brand new vocalists.”
Meighan Nealon will make an appearance, the Jamaican-Irish singer featured on several of Ashley’s early tracks, including Faces, his 2009 collaboration with AVA boss Andy Moor. When I press him on his dream collaborations, he hints at having Australian trance legend Emma Hewitt on board. “We’re really good friends, and every time we see each other, we’re like ‘We’re gonna do a track?’ but never manage to lock anything in the studio.” The pun is not lost on me, and I’m certain Trance addicts would love nothing more than to hear the result.
“The good thing about doing an album is you can express yourself and your emotions,” he described. “So, on this new album, there’s a lot of dancey stuff, some commercial stuff, trancey, some house, there’s everything, but staying true to the sound. You can tell it’s an Ashley Wallbridge track.”
He points to last year’s Kingdom United as an example of how he and Gareth Emery explored a vast range of different sounds while still being unmistakably Garuda. After twelve years of releases, it’s good to hear he’s still playing around with new sound design and talent.
One new skill he’s discovered is his ability to write lyrics. He’s genuinely excited when he tells me he’s written every song on the new album. “Every single track on the album has a meaning behind it – my fiancé, my family, the current climate, every single track. It’s a big project for me.” He goes on to say the album will even include a short description of each song and the meanings behind them.
Ashley found this talent for songwriting with his latest work, Still Alive. He penned the heartfelt words (along with Gaz) while recovering from a near- fatal struggle with Meningitis last year. It carries a powerful message of the connection within the dance music community, as Ashley describes finding the strength to keep fighting in support of family and friends and the numerous messages of thoughtful fans around the globe.
The message resounds stronger than ever. As Ashley conveys the positive effects of feeling connected in crisis, I find it hard not to draw parallels to our present isolation. Our collective mental health is now so reliant on messages and video chats in lieu of hugs and raves.
“I think for some people, it’s even more meaningful now,” I observe.
“Yeah, it’s so weird how I wrote Still Alive because of my experience of near death, but all this [pandemic] has come about and there’s a lot of people fighting for their lives now in hospital, and we’ve had so many people reach out to us and say, ‘Wow, this track’s connecting a lot.'”
It’s not just talk about connection and abstract values, either. Known for their anti-bullying campaigns and research, Ashley explains their partnership with non-profit, Ditch The Label, and worked with the charity in 2017 for the chart-topping anthem, Saving Light. “We’re going to be putting percentages of [my] album towards people who are suffering from mental health and other things. It’s impacted me a lot; we just want to give something back.”
I thank him profusely, “As someone who suffers from mental health issues, thank you.”
“I’ve been there myself,” he relates, “That’s why we went with [Ditch the Label].” I am encouraged by his attitudes. The struggle with mental health has gained increasing attention over the years, and it resounds deeply with many artists. Demands of the lifestyle, pressures of the industry, the isolation of life on the road can easily be overwhelming. I wonder aloud what his habits and tools are for maintaining his career and sanity.
“The music industry is quite a fickle place; it can get very stressful. Friends and family is a big one, and it’s reaching out, it’s making that initial phone call, that’s the biggest thing because a lot of people suffer in silence.”
There is an empathy born of experience that I feel. Ashley’s struggle with mental health and isolation have shaped his music. Not just lyrically or creatively, but in the fiber of his identity as a musician and label owner. “It would be quite hard for me to do it if I hadn’t been there myself, but because I have suffered from mental health. I can connect; it’s quite easy to do.”
The album release will coincide with Mental Health Week as well as Amsterdam Dance Event, and he’s planning a massive non-profit party with an ambitious £100,000 goal. Right now, it seems like a distant objective, subject to many factors far beyond our control, so Ashley is staying focused on what’s at hand.
Besides producing an entire album, “there’s still like nine remixes to come out [from Kingdom United],” he laughs. He’s hopeful they’ll be released soon but says the label has been going through recent changes, namely a departure from their former distributor, Armada Music.
It’s a big move for a boutique label like Garuda to cut ties with dance music giant Armada, but it’s strictly business as the former partners have maintained positive relations. This has been somewhat of a journey for Ashley, who, until 2017, was in an exclusive deal with Armada, then joining Garuda first as an artist, and soon after as 50-50 partners with Gareth, with the stated goal to “push the label up a gear.” Three years on, the label is setting out to handle their promotion and distribution, giving them total control over the creative direction they wish to pursue. “Garuda is now a self entity,” he’s proud to say.
I’m personally curious as I ask, “What’s the big draw, going from the biggest label in Trance, to having your brand?”
It’s a decade’s old question for independent musicians, whether to aim for the exclusive record deal or to build a brand for yourself, and there is no right answer. Perhaps the journey is more important to shaping the artist than the decision itself.
“There’s always pros and cons,” he admits. “The pros: you’re always going to get heavy support, you’re gonna get put into a lot of big playlists, which will then generate higher income, but the cons are you’re always going to be competing against a lot of different people, and you can never necessarily have the release date you want.”
Creative control and budget are other factors at play. He explains, “You’ve got to trust them and what they’re doing. Could they be doing something better? So when we’re doing our releases on [Garuda], we don’t need to be asking those questions.”
Ashley offers the Still Alive promotion as a prime example. The video consists of heartfelt thanks from Ashley, and several clips from close friends describing what he survived. It is touching in its simplicity and directness, it is effective, and it “didn’t cost a penny.” Something he says would have required a costly campaign and planning on a big label.
The musical freedom comes at the cost of an increased workload. While before his routine revolved around making music in the studio, family, and time on tour, he now has to balance the responsibilities of running the label on top of that. An enormous portion of that is devoted to listening to all the demos that come into Garuda. “Gaz and I feel that A&R’s should not be in control of the music that [labels] release.” A refreshing opinion, especially for hopeful producers looking to sign to the Garuda imprint.
Instead, they employ a different method to sift through the many records, “It should be [decided] by the DJs that play the music. Are Gaz and I going to play the track? Yes? We’ll sign it.” He says they try to follow up with detailed feedback and grow the relationships with those artists. Now more than ever, the scene is teeming with rising producers competing for attention. I seek out Ashley’s sagely advice, as a veteran producer of nineteen years, to upstart Trance artists.
“The first thing you’ve got to be prepared for is it’s a lot of work. I started making music when I was thirteen, I failed music in school, but that didn’t stop me because I knew what I wanted to do, and I did have a talent for it.”
Though his path was much different than the traditional music student, his passion and dedication were unwavering. He laughs, he still couldn’t find chords by name if you asked him, but he’s more than capable of playing them. His advice through it all is simple, commitment. “Keep pushing and going and going. If it’s a choice of you going out with friends or be on the computer working, you’ve got to be dedicated to making the decision [to be working].” He knows from experience that it can be difficult to handle early on, but he’s now seeing the rewards for his years of labor.
His other piece of advice is to push forward into new sounds. “Don’t follow trends. If you think it sounds cool, go with it. If it doesn’t [work], try again.”
I’m once more encouraged by the drive towards innovation and am very interested to see how Garuda’s sound evolves in the next era. The Kingdom United remixes are one of the label’s most exciting and varied foray into a wide world of dance genres, featuring heavy hitters within every style of Trance and far beyond.
He continues to tell me he’s launching a new program for young producers on Starsona. The platform connects fans and artists, providing personalized messages from the stars. He hopes it will bring producers with questions and provide tutorial content on some of the specific aspects of his productions. Tutoring is a growing trend in the industry where many fans are also aspiring artists, and collaboration has always been at the heart of dance music.
Tutorials also provide another avenue of income in the highly competitive music industry, which is undergoing rapid change in the face of venue closures. We share the worry that quarantine will have lasting effects on the music industry. Speculation is that larger venues and gatherings could be restricted for more than a year. Even before government mandates, many fans were avoiding gathering, and no doubt, similar sentiments will linger for many.
“It was weird. I didn’t think my last three shows were going to go ahead. I played New York, and there were about 300 people in the club.”
The current business model relies on touring as a musician’s primary income. The prospect of a protracted period without that option is already posing new challenges to promoters, labels, and artists. Ashley hopes the strength of the Trance community will help the industry bounce back quickly.
I hypothesize another challenge I have been pondering – Is Brexit going to have an impact on the UK Trance scene? “Not to get too political about it,” I smile across the video chat.
He laughs, stepping out to light a cigarette, “[Gaz and I] wrote Kingdom United because of Brexit! It’s a good question because I think we haven’t seen the main disruption yet.” While UK artists can currently work abroad in many countries without a visa, the US being the notable exception, travel restrictions and fees could become a major hurdle for smaller artists to overcome, especially compounded on the current crisis. Ashley maintains hope the effects will be minimal, although he concedes it will likely involve spending a lot more time queuing in airports.
There is still one question on my mind as we trail off in the conversation. Having tuned in on his Instagram stories, I know, like many of us, Ashley has publicly considered shaving his quarantine head of hair. “Are you wearing the [hat] because you did shave your head?” We share another laugh, something we have done a lot in the past hour.
“I spoke to my manager, and we said, let’s do it live on Facebook stream, and let’s do it for charity!” Although his fiancé has expressed misgivings, we still might see this happen in the next couple of weeks. It’s one more hilarious reminder of the Personality I’ve come to expect from the multifaceted man – even with a joke, and he’s still looking for a way to give back.
In parting, I reminisce about the last time I saw him perform live at the stunning Laserface Seattle. He hints at a big new Garuda production that is on hold for the time being. The thought of a full Garuda line-up with Laserface level production is a tantalizing one, but it will have to wait for now, he offers no concrete details.
While the future seems uncertain for many in the Trance scene, and the world, I am confident that Ashley Wallbridge will employ his proven perseverance, determination, and creative innovation to help lead Garuda into whatever might come. For all of us waiting for our next dance floor, we have his very own words to trust in, “I’ll come back for you, help you survive.”
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