We talk gremlin vocals, favourite vinyl, how to keep Bryan Adams out of his own studio, where to get bulk schoolboy caps, and brand new album PWR/UP in conversation with AC/DC co-founder and lead guitarist Angus Young.
In the golden ‘70s, when AC/DC were touring the world off the back of their already hallowed catalogue, Angus Young enjoyed ambling into the local record store of whichever city the band happened to be camped in. These jaunts occasionally included some typically impish behaviour from then-vocalist, the late Bon Scott. “You’d go into a shop and there’d be an AC/DC record, and [Scott] would move it to the front of everything else,” grins Young. “So if you were looking for Led Zeppelin, tough sh*t – he’d moved it. He got caught a few times, too. Someone would go, ‘Bon Scott!’ and he’d go, ‘I’m just buying some records for my uncle.’”
The air of those early years has returned to bear in a way that’s more than just nostalgic: a big deal has been made about the fact AC/DC’s new album PWR/UP began when Young plumbed the band’s archives, searching abysses of unreleased stuff across the last few decades to pluck out the best lost ideas. This method is in fact why Angus’s beloved, late brother Malcolm Young is credited as a songwriter on the record – the first AC/DC release since his death in 2017.
But that sort of retro-construction doesn’t make these songs any less immediate, or even less ‘new’; when you think about it, no music is created in a vacuum. When you invent something, you’re still standing on the shoulders of your own experiences – you have still, consciously or not, rifled through your own brain-files for inspiration.
Sometimes it’s intangible like that, and sometimes the rifling is literal. For Young, it is surely both, but he’s more vocal on the latter. “Yeah, I looked through whatever [medium] I had those demo ideas on, you know – everything from cassettes to CDs to… what do you call them?”
Maybe MiniDiscs, or iPods – but whatever they were, it’s clear the AC/DC demo archive is almost, I suggest, like a timeline of hardware. “A history of technology! Yeah, that’s right!” Young laughs. “Because you blink and they have another new thing. It got a little bit confusing after a while. You’d [be] explaining in a shop: ‘Well, what happened to those other little things you had, [that] you were nobbling around with for years?’ They’re looking at me going, ‘There’s always a crazy in here.’”
The lead guitarist and co-founder (along with rhythm guitarist Malcolm) of AC/DC has said that PWR/UP is a dedication to his brother, in the same way that Back In Black (1980) was a tribute to Scott. And what a reunion Young has assembled: drummer Phil Rudd, lead singer Brian Johnson, and bassist Cliff Williams have all returned to the fold, having each left the band (respectively) prior to, during, and after the 17-month tour for previous album Rock Or Bust (2014).
You can head to JB yourself to see the range of physical versions of the album available, but let it be known that vinyl is absolutely the primo way to listen to any music, according to Young. “Yeah, that’s my era,” he smiles, recalling those afore-mentioned record store safaris, during international tours past. “Usually I would just buy another copy of an album I had at home, because I went, ‘That’s a great album, I can’t leave it here.’” The one title he could never leave lonely was Are You Experienced? by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. “Whenever I saw that, I’d go, ‘Just in case – I’ll get another copy.’”
On to the present: the face-melting new material was recorded at Bryan Adams’ Warehouse Studio in British Columbia, where AC/DC recorded their three previous albums. It’s a building with a fascinating history, having variously been a wholesale grocer, a City Hall, a jail and even a morgue, before Adams bought it in 1989. “Nice atmosphere – it has a good vibe,” Young says. Adams has occasionally popped in if he’s in the area, but Young suspects the AC/DC culinary habits might have kept him at bay. “He’s a bit of a vegan and we’re kind of the opposite,” he grins. “We fry bacon and eggs and stuff – we’re not exactly health nuts.”
You wouldn’t know it from the palpable energy of this record, which bursts with classic-sounding licks while still feeling fresh as a fish. It’s also the ‘group’ or ‘gang’ vocals – always a joy across AC/DC’s output – which shine, particularly on stand-out Through The Mists of Time and uproarious single Shot in the Dark. Young says it’s all done in-house. “We use what’s there in the band,” he explains. “I’m good for the grunts and groans, if you need a bit of a gremlin about it. I do things like,” – and here he becomes perfectly demonic – “’TNT!’ The growly stuff. That’s my specialty. Then [producer] Brendan O’Brien… will work out a few notes for Cliff and me, for us to try and sing, and make it a little bit sweeter. I don’t call them ‘harmonies’, I call it ‘sweetness.’”
Solos occur mainly on the fly, and Young is averse to getting too finicky. “You can chop up something [digitally] – I’ve seen them try to chop stuff up – but after a while it starts to sound… well, you can tell. And we don’t like to overdo it. You can kill something with too much production. We have to go out and perform this live, and we want it to stand up live. If you get too clever and say ‘I’ll bring in the New York Philharmonic,’ just know that you’re going to have to rent the Philharmonic. And that’s too many on an aeroplane,” he laughs.
“There’s nothing worse than when you hear a band on record, and you get this overdone polished sound, and then you hear them live and go, ‘That’s nothing like it.’”
There are plenty of moments across PWR/UP which display the curiosity still present in the band’s playing, like the creeping little guitar line in the album closer Code Red – an idea which came from demos around the Black Ice (2008) period. Young says he’s always looking for ways to push himself. “Yeah, of course – I still experiment,” he says. “I’m not trying yoga or standing on my head – doing a balancing act on my pinky or something. ‘Look at that guy, he can do that thing like the little hand in The Addams Family!’ If I could do that I’d be asking for a bonus. I’m underpaid.”
TO CAP IT OFF
Young is still getting his muscly pins out in his famous schoolboy-uniform costume (see above-right), which was originally dreamt up by his late sister Margaret – who also proffered ‘AC/DC’ as a possible bandname, having seen the abbreviation printed on her electric sewing machine. The cherry on top of this outfit – the soft-peaked cap – is a staple, which Young says he buys “in batches” from actual school suppliers (mainly out of England). He has “a whole collection of different colours to match different suits,” but steers away from any obvious branding: “I get them plain… I don’t think they want me to impersonate someone from Eaton, y’know?!”
PWR/UP by AC/DC is available Nov 13 via Sony.
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