Ashdown Engineering is now a decade and a half old and their bass amps are used from the tiniest clubs to the planet’s hugest stadium gigs. Michael Heatley pays the company a visit
There’s something very British about Ashdown Engineering, the bass amplification company formed by Mark Gooday 15 years ago. ‘Cars are my second waste of time and effort,’ Gooday admits – which is why vintage sports car enthusiasts will note the likeness between the ‘Ashdown Engineering’ badge and the Austin-Healey badge. Even the attention-grabbing VU meters have a car dashboard style to them.
‘Ashdown’ is actually Mark’s wife’s family name, and the moniker of guitar amp subsidiary Hayden has a family connection, too. ‘Lovely old Jim Marshall used his own name,’ Mark laughs, ‘but an amp called “Gooday” was never going to happen.’
There are other parallels between Ashdown and Marshall, another proud British company: Ashdown don’t pay out for artist endorsements, and they are keen to manufacture as much as they can at home. ‘I try very, very hard to make more here,’ says Gooday. ‘I make our “proper” valve amps here because the cost of transformers, metalwork and tubes is similar throughout the world. If people are prepared to pay a bit more, we’ll make it in England. We enjoy doing that… but it’s bloody hard work.’
When the company started manufacturing in China, Gooday found himself out there every two to three weeks. ‘It must have been 18 times,’ he grimaces. ‘If I didn’t go out as much, the fit and finish wouldn’t be right. Electronics are fine – it’s the little details.’
America is a nut Ashdown is still trying to crack. ‘We jumped in there early and did a huge “made in the USA” campaign. We thought we were going to crack America, but no… they preferred the made-in-England stuff!’ Nevertheless, Ashdown’s profile in the States rocketed in 2009 when U2 played an inauguration show for Barack Obama and a massive great Ashdown rig was seen on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. ‘I was getting phone calls from all over the world!’ smiles Gooday. ‘That was an absolutely amazing moment.’
Mark Gooday made his name with bass amplification specialists Trace Elliot before going it alone. ‘We don’t have any funding – it’s all me and the banks, which from time to time can get a bit hairy. When we only had three models in the range, our Japanese distributors – a massive great company I’d been doing business with at Trace – sent me an order for 20 grand’s worth of gear, in inscrutable fashion, and sent the money upfront. That started things off for us.’
Closer to home, the Bass Centre not only bought his personal collection of basses – ‘including the ’65 Jazz everything was designed on’ – to help raise start-up funds, but were influential in helping Ashdown establish themselves in the bass community.
The support of one or two key artists like John Entwistle proved equally priceless. ‘I built two amps for him; one I did overnight for his birthday,’ Mark remembers. ‘I took it down there, having finished it at two or three in the morning… and it didn’t work! That was a bit embarrassing, so I came back and built him another. We put the original amp right and it somehow found its way to John Henry’s rental company. It’s been used continuously for 15 years since. John sold the amp that did work to a guy who’s still using it today.’
Ashdown’s next break came with the band Catatonia. ‘They got us on the TV all the time. Months later, we had the Foo Fighters buying gear in Seattle.’ Then came U2’s Adam Clayton (Gooday still laughs at the memory of a ‘U2 Limited’ cheque landing on his doormat) and, later, the ubiquitous legend that is Paul McCartney. ‘Paul records with Ashdown globally, so whichever studio he chooses has an Ashdown in. He uses one engineer all the time, and he always makes sure Paul records with an Ashdown.’
The Price Of Success
So rapid was little Ashdown’s rise, in fact, that six years into the adventure the mighty Fender came calling with acquisition in mind. ‘That was an experience, spending time in Corona,’ Gooday admits. ‘They were all ready to go, contracts signed, offered me an awful lot of money. I could have happily retired… and then they went and bought SWR instead! Fender were real gentlemen about it, but I look at it as the best thing that happened to me. It gave me a kick up the arse.’
But progress nearly came at a terrible cost, as Mark reveals. ‘Around nine years ago I was on business in America, didn’t sleep very much for three days, flew home, curled up in a corner and had a stroke.’ Gooday was hospitalised for four weeks, couldn’t talk and was paralysed down one side – but he didn’t let it faze him. ‘They let me bring a laptop and a phone in, and when everything had calmed down we ran the company from the corridor.’ Ashdown player and close friend JJ Burnel called Mark’s wife nearly every day to check on his progress – a sign of the close relations the company has with its artists.
Small is beautiful
Gooday has what he calls ‘a nice little team’ around him. ‘There’s only 15 of us. Dave Green, who was at Matamp, is my tube man; he can do a lot more than tubes, but it helps! He’s engineer for our new line of boutique pedals.’ Son-in-law Lee Alexander is the UK sales manager; Chris Bates – ‘he’s basically family’ – has been with the company since he was 15 and is in charge of export; son Dan looks after artist relations and marketing, including the impressive website. ‘We probably overspend on image and marketing,’ Gooday admits.
Mark’s worked with designer Clive Button for 35 years, including his time at Trace – and, though he now lives in semi-retirement in Indonesia, Clive is still a key member of the team. ‘I see him once every five years. I tell him what I want, he’ll do the board, we’ll make it here and test it. I’ll send him one, he tweaks it over there, we tweak it over here. It would be much easier if he were here, but with modern communications and AutoCAD andPCB packages, as long as you’re all working from the same page it’s okay.’
Everyone and everything else is local; Dave Green even lives on a boat on the estuary not far from the office. The marketing building is a converted barn in the grounds of Gooday’s house in Essex, and he owns the adjacent industrial estate. ‘We have very low overheads, and none of us take big chunks out of the company. We leave the profit in so we can grow without outside funding.’
Reliability, Gooday emphasises, is what sells Ashdown to the pros. ‘They want something that works and doesn’t go wrong. That’s where we’ve been exceptionally lucky. We’ve just sold Jimmy Ashhurst [from Buckcherry] a valve amp and he said “I hope this lasts as long as the 800 gigs the last ABM has done”. U2 have toured the world for the best part of 14 years with the same gear.’
But reliability has its drawbacks when it comes to selling more amps and growing the company. ‘I have a very good banker friend who funds companies and would like to give me money to make the company grow. He says I have a problem: if the amps last forever, you’ve got to keep reinventing product to sell more. Otherwise, without the PR machine rolling in magazines and on the internet, you’ve got nothing to say.’
The Ashdown Engineering philosophy is first and foremost all about a reliable, great bass sound. ‘The other side of our company is supporting the customer – whether they’re a star or Joe Bloggs. It’s not unusual that if you send me a service email on Sunday night, I’ll answer it. It’s what we do. Look on Facebook – we’re a little company, but we have the biggest following because everyone here is single-focus. We live and breathe what we do.’
And Mark Gooday’s wishes for the future? ‘I want my family to carry on the business and for me to play with designing. I’m not a very good businessman, I like making things. We have a great product and it sells. Right now I’m enjoying tweaking in the custom shop. There’s a great team, and I’m hoping in the next five years I can do more messing around rather than the serious running of the company. It could be quite interesting!’