Following Steve Howe’s departure from Asia in 2012, the band launched a massive search in hopes of finding a suitable replacement for the legendary guitarist.
Enter Sam Coulson, a young gun recommended by Paul Gilbert. And by "young," we mean someone who wasn’t even born during Asia’s first wave of success in the Eighties.
Coulson’s arrival brings a youthful energy and new-found technical savvy to Asia, whose eponymous 1982 debut sold more than 7 million copies and included the hits “Heat of the Moment," “Only Time Will Tell” and “Sole Survivor."
Asia’s new album, Gravitas, features Coulson’s guitar work coupled with the vision of producer/songwriting partners John Wetton and Geoff Downes. The result is a new twist for the band that tastefully complements the classic Asia sound.
Asia — John Wetton (vocals, bass), Geoff Downes (keyboards), Carl Palmer (drums) and Sam Coulson (guitar) — are preparing a fall U.S tour to showcase the new album and introduce their new guitarist.
I recently spoke with Wetton and Coulson about Gravitas and more.
GUITAR WORLD: Can you tell me about the departure of Steve [Howe] and how you discovered Sam?
Wetton: Back in 2012, Steve was about to announce that he was leaving. So I called Carl and Geoff and asked them asked if anyone had any suggestions for guitarists. We discovered that we had a short list of two: Steve Lukather and Paul Gilbert. Both were very flattered but were already deeply involved in other projects and weren’t able to do it. So we asked Paul if he knew of anyone. He told us that he knew of this guy who was a bit of an unknown but didn't have any “baggage,” was happily married and has a vibrato to die for. Sam clicked all the boxes for us, plus he has a great sound and is technically gifted.
Sam, tell me about your relationship with Paul.
Coulson: I first met Paul at NAMM a few years ago. We had been emailing back and forth and he was kind enough to invite me to be one of the instructors at his Great Guitar Escape in New York. He’s one of my biggest influences, and for him to put my name forward was an immense honor.
What's it like having to fill the shoes that were once occupied by Steve Howe?
Coulson: It can be daunting trying to fill the shoes of such a legend, but what I try to do is be respectful of his legacy with the band while also trying to stay true to myself. I remember when I first sat down with John, he said, "We're not looking for someone to be a clone of Steve Howe. We want someone to do their own thing." That really put me at ease. It’s been great being able to put my own stamp on things while still trying to be as respectful as I can to Steve's guitar parts.
How has the fan reaction been to your arrival?
Coulson: We did quite a few European dates last year and just recently completed a few shows in Japan. The response from the fans has been really good. Everyone has been super-nice and I feel very accepted and part of the Asia family.
What was the writing/recording process like for Gravitas?
Wetton: Before Steve left, Geoff and I had already written songs for the album based around what we thought the band should sound like. What we’ve always done from the very first album (and for every album we’ve ever done together) is to make very rich, chordal, melodic tracks and then put on top incredibly personal lyrics. It’s almost like you’re reading out of my journal.
Coulson: John and Geoff really have an incredibly strong writing partnership and knew exactly what they wanted. For the solos, I was given pretty much total freedom. It was a case of, "OK, Sam, go ahead and stretch out!" [laughs].
What’s the secret to your vibrato?
Coulson: I've worked hard on my vibrato because I really love the sound of it. I'm a big Gary Moore fan and he just had an impeccable vibrato. Whenever he played a note you could tell he really meant it. Stevie Ray Vaughan also had incredible vibrato technique where he involved more of his arm instead of just the finger. One of the hardest things to do on guitar is put good vibrato on a bent note, and I've always been drawn to players who can do that really well.
What is your live setup like?
Coulson: I’ve got endorsements from Charvel and Fender, and I'm a big fan of Super Strats with Floyd Rose and humbuckers. I'm also using the Engl Powerball II. They’re amazing amplifiers and are so reliable. These days the bar is set so high in terms of tone, and the Engl really delivers. I don't run very many pedals on the floor. Just a wah, delay, chorus and an extra boost for solos.
John, was the band aware of the impact the first Asia album was going to have back in 1982?
Wetton: We really had no idea; just an inkling that it might do better than originally projected. I think the prognosis for it was somewhere in the range of around 300,000 units. But we had already done that within the first week. The fact that MTV picked us up and had featured us for the first six months was huge. Airplay-wise, we could do no wrong. However, I do remember the president of Geffen Records taking me to one side right before the album was released. He said, "John, the album sleeve's a bit dark, the logo is illegible and frankly, I don't hear a single." It was a good thing he wasn’t in charge of marketing! [laughs].
What excites you about the next chapter of Asia?
Coulson: It's been great fun and a dream come true. These are the nicest guys you could possibly meet, and it's really taken a lot of the pressure off. There's so much of the world I haven't seen before and I can't wait to hit the road again.
Wetton: The band turned what might have been a potential disaster into something we're really quite proud of. There's a lot of love and energy in the band but at the same time, there’s no animosity. Steve was an integral part of this band for a long time and we love him. But it's a different animal now. We have a great management company behind us and can make the records we want and play virtually anywhere in the world we want to play. The sky’s the limit. In the great scheme of things, we're right where we're supposed to be.
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.