Sunday 8 March 2015

Tending To Wounds: A Legacy Without Athon

Jonathan Vincent Athon
(Photo by: Angela Boatright)

Andrew Fidler unzips a little black bag and pulls out the glass jar that takes shelter inside it. Decorated with an oval card picturing the late Jonathan Athon, smiling as he always was with his long, almost wizard like beard, inside is what remains of him. I’ve never seen a dead man’s ashes before, hell I didn’t even know why they were white – instantly an image of Keith Richards snorting a line of his father’s ashes comes to mind, empty bottles of Jack scattered about, Keef cackling in a drug fuelled haze. But coupling itself with that debaucherous image is one of a more stark, poignant nature. Like a lead weight to the chest on a chokingly cold and bitter day, my own sense of mortality hit me and hit me hard. In this small, thin jar before my very eyes was what’s left of a man – and a giant one at that – I had the pleasure of meeting, speaking to, laughing with and being graced by the presence of his towering but graceful, charming and life-loving character.

News of Athon’s death came crawling out of the darkness unexpectedly. Like a tarantula breaking out from its hiding place to strike upon its prey, death had come without warning. His motorbike had crashed into an oncoming lorry – one that had left his girlfriend, who was on the back of the bike, in intensive care and with mountainous medical fees – and that was it.

Yet the band speaks matter of factly about it all: “Athon’s dead,” Andrew had remarked, relating to the reality of it all with an admirably brave face. “But we made a decision. Black Tusk has been going for ten years as of this year so it’s been a defining part of our lives and we didn’t wanna stop it. Athon put ten years of his life into this too, the last ten years of his life, and he wouldn’t wanna see it,” he stops to click his long fingers, the sound they produce echoing briefly in the backstage dressing room where we sat, “go up in smoke just like that.”

“It’s what I would have wanted if it was be who had died,” chimes drummer James May. “I wouldn’t want people other people to stop doing music because of me. At the end of the day,” he starts to point around the room to the rest of the band one by one, “him, him and me are all musicians first. I wouldn’t want them to not play music anymore because I had died. And the band is a little bigger than just us now so we want to keep going.”

Says Andrew: “It’s different without Athon. Black Tusk is kinda taking on a new identity, but Corey [Barhorst, the band’s new bass player] is our brother, he’s been our friend for over ten years. We’re tackling it head on. We have a good chemistry on stage and we’re forging new territory now.

“We had to decide what we were gonna do pretty quickly because we already had this tour with Black Label booked,”
adds James. “If we were gonna back out of it we were gonna have to let the Black Label guys know as soon as possible. We had to cancel a US tour because that was like two weeks after so it was just not gonna happen.

Their answers may be blunt, but the transparency with which they’ve carried out their actions since Athon’s untimely passing have bashed away any talk of them continuing the band for any other reason than for the love of what they do and to continue Athon’s legacy in the best possible way as if such talk were merely fly hovering around their freshly made lunch.

When I greeted the band, led to their dressing room by their burly merch guy, Tim, I was forced to apologise once more for the dreary, overcast Mancunian weather. I swear, every time there isn’t an American band in town the weather is delightful, but as soon as they head to our city, the weather gods decide to spitefully give the visitors a taste of traditional northern atmosphere. But Andrew laughs, waving his hand nonchalantly: “We’ve been round the block a few times so we know what to expect.” And it’s that travelling which reflects their legacy. 2015 is their tenth year as a band, they’ve toured the American homeland and Europe umpteen times and this time around, they simply refused to do it without their dearly departed brother and comrade.    

“We were talking with Athon’s mother and she gave me his ashes. We’ve been spreading a little bit as we go, so I’ve gotta make this last six weeks. We’ve done a bunch of spots in the UK already and in mainland Europe,” Andrews tells me, cradling the jar of ashes in his hands. Pictures of the band sprinkling the ashes across Europe in serene locations, accompanied by the simple hashtag #ripathon are incredibly moving. But for a travelling musician who loved life as much as Athon did – even from my brief meeting with him a few years ago that was painstakingly obvious – to spend the rest of his days in a vase on a mantelpiece simply wouldn’t feel right. Now he floats down the River Cylde, down Hamburg’s Elbe River, in Amsterdam, in the La Seine River in Paris and more. It’s beautiful and it’s perfect. 

Andrew: “A Savannah artist called Pan Handle Slim, who’s pretty popular back home, makes paintings of famous people with quotes by them. When he heard about Athon he wanted to do one for him. It’s a pretty big painting so we’ve hung it at the bar where he used to work and drink and where we still work and drink so that’s nice.”

Corey: “Normally he does reasonably small paintings but this one is fucking big and he did it within three days of his death. He was also the vocalist for This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb.”

And so, as that jar of ashes slowly empties, what lies in store for Black Tusk? With their forthcoming album already written and recorded before Athon’s death, it would appear that his legacy has one last song to sing.

“We’re shooting for a summer release of the record so we’ll start touring again then including some European festival dates,” Andrew reveals before adding, teasingly that “we have a name but I’m not gonna tell you!

We’re now starting to pick out the lyrics and find a common theme across the album. We’ve then gotta deliver that to John Baizley [Baroness and artist of the band’s album covers] and let him make something of it. You never have a clue what you’re gonna get back, it’s always amazing but it’s never what you expect or anything like you had imagined in your head. We have our hand in what we want in the art, we have our ideas. I always have a picture in my head of what I imagine it to be like so we have direction in the art but what we get is his version of that which is awesome. Then he starts to explain all the elements of it and how there’s lots of little references to things we were talking about. He never lets you see it until it’s done.”

Athon and John both have art degrees and graduated art college so they have all this art history knowledge so they’d always go back and forth referencing different things and John would slide little aspects of that into all the covers,” concludes Andrew with a retrospective smile, a glint of something in his bright eyes. “You know, this tour is a chance for us to play in front of people who’ve never seen us before, so that next time we play Manchester hopefully there will be more people at our shows. We just need to keep building and reach new people who would have never found us otherwise.”

Onwards they forge, then, to charters new, adding to what has been a crazy but immense ten years for the band. They may have lost a brother and comrade in the physical sense, they may have lost a man who’s colourful character filled every room he walked in, but backstage here in Manchester, there is no sense of emptiness. Death is such a hollow thing. Those unfortunate enough to attend a funeral can vouch for that. But here, there is not that same sense of loss hanging overhead and that’s because the spirit, legacy and love that Jonathan Athon possessed is still very much with us. God bless Black Tusk. 

Words and interview by: Phil Weller