MI Focus editor Laura Barnes caught up with Skunk Anansie guitarist Ace ahead of the band’s sold out Brixton Academy show earlier this year to find out more about his work in education and how the music industry has changed during his 23-year career…
When reading up about Martin “Ace” Kent – the guitarist in an alternative rock band named after Anansi – the spider-man of Ghana – with added ‘skunk’ to simply “make the name nastier”, only ever seen in black with matching metal goatee, and responsible for writing controversial tracks such as Selling Jesus and Little Baby Swastikkka – one would be forgiven for assuming he would be an edgy, moody rock start type.
In actual fact, there’s a very strong chance that Ace is the friendliest man in music…
His enthusiasm for not only his band, but also his work in the educational sector, is infectious and authentic, even after his many years in the game.
Skunk Anansie formed in 1994 and to say the band exploded on the scene might be something of an understatement. Within a year, they were voted Best New British Band by readers of Kerrang! Magazine. That same year, Howard Stern predicted the band would be a huge hit, and he was right as more award nominations and wins followed, along with their debut album Paranoid and Sunburnt going Platinum in the UK and Gold in the Netherlands.
At the time, Skunk Anansie provided a punch in the face full of heavy riffs, politically-charged angst and a frontwoman, Skin, who both looked and sounded as striking and iconic as one needed to be to draw people’s eyes and ears away from the slurry of bland Britpop groups that were jumping on the Oasis/Blur bandwagon in the mid 90s.
Five more albums followed over the years, and today, the band continues to perform to its large, devoted following throughout Europe.
During that time, you would assume Skunk’s guitarist had been occupied with gigging, guest appearances, TV and radio spots, and the usual life of a rockstar. While Ace and the band have certainly had their fair share of impressive career highlights – including headlining Glastonbury, and performing for Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama to name but a few – he has also somehow managed to find the time to carve out an impressive career within music education.
“When Skunk first formed, Bruce Dickinson’s band Little Angels had just split up and he told me he was starting a music college in Guilford, which is now ACM,” explains Ace.
“He started it with his friend in a church hall and the first masterclasses he had were myself and Mark (Richardson, Skunk’s drummer) because we were mates with him and we’d just hit the charts – that was about 1995.
“So we did a masterclass and it was really good. For years after that, I kept going back every 6 months or so to ACM to do more of them.”
“I decided that I could do with some more education myself, so they paid for me to do an MA in Media and Project Management based in music education.”
Eventually, Dickinson left ACM to form BIMM, which coincided with the band going on a break. Ace was planning to open his own recording studio, but after finding out his wife was pregnant, he decided to go down a more financially safe route of working at BIMM two days a week – which also meant he did have to spend nights in a dark studio while a baby was on the way.
“I decided that I could do with some more education myself, so they paid for me to do an MA in Media and Project Management based in music education. So I had spent years doing masterclasses in education, I’d worked for two or three years doing classes as a tutor, I wrote the course at BIMM, then I got the MA, then the band got back together and I went out on tour!”
It was two or three years ago when Ace’s educational career settled into a more regular routine.
“By chance, I got a call asking if I wanted to do some concierge recording sessions at Metropolis Studios. I said yeah, and it turns out the studio has an ACM downstairs.”
Ace now works full time for ACM across its three campuses as head of creative industry development for 8 months of the year, then goes out on tour with Skunk Anansie for the other 4 months.
“It’s a very full-on life style but its very invigorating,” he says enthusiastically. “You’re surrounded by creative people and artists. There’s not a day where I don’t bump into someone I know in the business. And I’m interacting with kids on the front end of their journey so they’re not negative and jaded by the whole thing, so that kind of environment is really amazing.
“Then I get to go off into the “real” world and play with the band, do all the big gigs, and get all the contacts for people to come and do a masterclass. It’s a huge circle.”
“When ACM started in the early 90s it was just them. They were the first people to do contemporary music. Now it’s everywhere. But it’s great because the industry is massive.”
Ace reveals that, coming from a poor background, he was encouraged to forgo higher education in favour of getting a steady job, but believes music education has become much more accessible in recent years.
“Look at how many colleges there are now. When ACM started in the early 90s it was just them. They were the first people to do contemporary music. Now it’s everywhere. But it’s great because the industry is massive.
“The contemporary music industry is way bigger than the classical industry so it makes complete sense that people go to college and learn this kind of music, because they can have long careers in it.”
He also believes that younger students should be given more opportunities to learn an instrument.
“Everyone wants to be entertained, so there’s a huge industry there. It’s part of a valid structure to have people learning instruments. And it’s fun and creative and spiritual. It’s a lot better than sitting doing English and Maths.”
While Ace has been fortunate enough to have such a big band behind his name, he reveals that the drastic changes in the music industry mean that it’s now more important than ever that musicians realise that they need to have a few strings to their bow if they want to survive.
“You create all your opportunities. So to survive in the music business you’ve got to be on a constant hunt. You cannot just play the guitar. You have to do lots of other things. My advice to musicians is to have two jobs!”
Speaking about some of the major changes to the music industry, Ace believes that “there is no product anymore”.
“No one is even buying a download now. No one is making money out of streaming because it offers such a low percentage, but streaming is massive. It’s not product-led anyone and everybody knows that.
“It’s fragmented now so that if you want to survive in music you have to do more than one job. So you can’t just play a guitar in a band, you have to think: “I’ll do a bit of teaching, and I’ll do a bit of live sound somewhere, and I’ll do a bit of artwork here and produce a band there.” You have to make an accessible and flexible income stream.”
Ace reveals that even though Skunk Anansie is still making money, especially in Europe, it’s not like the 90s “where you can just go buy a house”. The lack of record sales, even for big bands, means that the cost of touring and its overheads take a bigger chunk out of everyone’s wages.
“Whatever everyone thinks about YouTube and putting stuff online, it can’t survive without people connecting at gigs and people playing instruments.”
“Basically, if you want a nice lifestyle you have to do more than one job.”
One thing that Ace enthuses hasn’t changed is the way live music works.
“Even after 20 years, we still go back to Germany and play the same venues. The people look the same, the sound system is even the same!
“The connection of music with people at live shows will never change.
“Whatever everyone thinks about YouTube and putting stuff online, it can’t survive without people connecting at gigs and people playing instruments. Fundamentally, music has not changed and I really like that. I still plug into an old piece of wire with an amp that’s 30 years old with a bunch of pedals on the floor – it’s great.”
Ace’s set up is quite similar to what it’s always been throughout his career, with a few things coming and going as they need to be renewed.
“I have two sides of dirty amps, so it sounds like two guitars when I’m playing, then in the middle is a clean amp,” says the guitarist as he explains his gigging set up.
“For the clean amp – a Koch Powertone III with the relevant 4x12s – I use digital racks. I press one button and a patch comes up for the song and it has the delay and the chorus and whatever – all those modulation effects all at the same time.”
On the distorted side, Ace has a Marshall 900, which he’s had since he was a kid, with 4×12 cabinets with vintage greenbacks and Cornford G12s. The other distortion side is made up of an original re-wired Marshall 800, Cornford cabinets with vintage greenbacks and a Marshall Slash.
“On the floor, pedals wise, I’ve had a loose Digitech endorsement for 20 years. They made these HardWire pedals that were really good for touring, the sounds on them was spot on. So I basically replaced all my knackered old stuff with DigiTech HardWire – apart from the odd one or two.”
“If Gary Moore tells you you’ve gotta change your amp, you’ve gotta change your amp.”
After running through his vast array of guitars, including his PRS customized Tremonti, his own SE signature and his Martin and Larrivee acoustics, Ace reveals that he loves talking about and experimenting with gear and is always looking for ways to improve on things. He reminisces about the time guitar aficionado Gary Moore gave him some sound advice.
“I has swapped the Marshalls out for some Cornfords and I was thinking: “God, these sound so great.” I played the show and Gary Moore came back stage afterwards and said: “Ace, man, you gotta put the Marshalls back in your rig, they don’t cut through the same.” Skin looked at me and said: “If Gary Moore tells you you’ve gotta change your amp, you’ve gotta change your amp.” Good ol’ Gary, he was awesome.”
We round up our interview by discussing some of Ace’s biggest career highlights. As well as the aforementioned Glastonbury, Mandela and Dalai Lama gigs, he divulges that he is still amazed when the band plays big shows. “The achievement for me is still being here after so long.
“This year we’re selling out a 5-week tour of Europe – that ranges from big clubs to arenas. And we’ll do a few festivals as well.”
Despite all this, Ace cites one of his biggest achievements as a more personal family moment.
“Back in the day I would say to my mum: “When are you going to see me play live?” She would always reply: “When you play at Wembley.” I remember when we made it to Wembley Arena and she came and saw me play with Skunk for the first time – that was a good achievement within my family!”
Back to 2017, and as well as the band’s current tour, Ace will be keeping himself busy with booking up masterclasses for ACM.
“Every three weeks there will be a masterclass, so that’ll keep me busy. I deal with all our sponsorships as well. I bring them in and we do deals and they offer jobs to our students. It’s busy but it’s great.
“The good thing about Skunk Anansie is that when we’re not together, we all go off and do our own thing and we’re too busy to be worried about what everyone else is doing. Then when we get together, gig and have fun, then we’re back to our own projects again.
“After this tour we’ll have to go away for a bit and write. If you stay around too long you can’t sell tickets, people get bored of you and they want more products. So you have to disappear every now and then.”
Main image: Tim Tronckoe Photography