Northern Irish three-piece Ash return to Rock City on December 12 to mark the 20th anniversary of their debut record, 1977. Frontman Tim Wheeler tells Jamie Barlow why the group were banned from the venue, how they came close to bankruptcy and his favourite song from the album.
Since meeting at school in Downpatrick, a medium-sized town south of Belfast, childhood friends Tim Wheeler (vocalist/guitarist), Mark Hamilton (bassist) and Rick McMurray (drummer) formed Ash in 1992 – reportedly naming the band after the first word they liked in the dictionary.
The pop-punk trio released their breakthrough record four years later which rocketed straight to the top of the UK charts and has gone on to sell over a million copies.
The band continued to rise to prominence as Ash played a concert with Dubliner’s U2 to campaign for the Yes vote on the eve of the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in May 1998, a gig which helped to unite both sides of the political debate and bring an end to the 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland.
Having chalked up a further five studio albums, the band return to play 1977 in its entirety, featuring best-loved hits Girl From Mars, Goldfinger and Kung Fu.
How much are you enjoying the tour?
It’s going great. We’ve been touring recently in the States and doing a few Irish shows and we’re well into the swing of it. It’s a really fun album to play. I’m really amazed that we’re playing a record 20 years later that we made as teenagers. At the time, we didn’t know what we’d be doing in five years’ time. I could never think that far ahead. Also, people didn’t go out and tour full albums back in the Nineties. I feel like we’re playing the record better than we ever did at the time; we used to play everything really fast and crazily. Now we’re playing it closer to how it sounds on the album.
You were at the peak of your powers in 1996 when you released 1977. The mid-late Nineties must’ve been a great time for you?
It was a great time, yeah. A lot of the big songs on 1977 we’ve been playing for the last 20 years. Some of the songs are very current still in a weird way. Some of the deeper songs on the album that we haven’t played much over the last 20 years – those are the ones that bring back flashbacks. When we play them I often remember back to our time in Rockfield Studios, in Wales, where those songs were recorded. I get flashbacks of the recordings and flashbacks of the tours we did at the time.
You’re playing six UK dates, including Rock City. Why did you choose to come to Nottingham?
We had quite an eventful time touring the 1977 album back in the day because we got banned from Rock City. We had a bit of a crazy party after the gig. Backstage wasn’t in the best state when we left. We were banned for a while. But things got patched up and we returned at least two or three times. It’s a classic venue and I think we’ll be a bit more considerate this time. We were just 19 at the time and things went a little bit nuts.
1977 was the year you were born and the original Star Wars film, A New Hope, was released. Are you a Star Wars fan?
I am, but not on the same level as Star Wars lunatic Mark, our bass player. He’s got the entire figurine collection. He practices his Jedi moves with his daughter. We’re all big fans. We’ve done some cool stuff with Star Wars over the years. We’ve even stayed at Skywalker Ranch, just outside of San Francisco. We’ve been to a bunch of premieres. We played the wrap party for The Phantom Menace.
What’s your favourite song off the album and why?
Oh man, that’s tricky. It’s a fight between Girl From Mars and Goldfinger. That’s a nightmare of a question. I feel really sorry for Kung Fu. I think Girl From Mars because it’s come to symbolise the group for a lot of people and it was really our first breakthrough track. I’m incredibly proud of the song writing of Goldfinger, too. Just because it’s melodic and because of its chord structure. I still don’t know how I did it. I’ll choose Girl From Mars then.
The band have lasted 24 years. What’s been the secret to your longevity?
I think total commitment and friendship. We’re all really good mates and we went to school together. At the start it wasn’t all plain sailing. There were some tough times and that’s what strengthened us. When things aren’t going well it doesn’t really daunt us anymore. We really enjoy being in a band most of all. Playing live is great fun, making new music is so much fun. We’ve had some great times as well. It’s amazing to see how much our music means to people. It’s very fulfilling to play to them.
Who were your influences growing up?
First of all we were quite big metal fans and we liked Iron Maiden and Megadeth. Our first band, Vietnam, tried to be a metal group but we didn’t have the technical skills to do that. And then when we were 15, we discovered Nirvana and more punk-rock stuff like The Ramones and Pixies, Buzzcocks and The Undertones. I always like melodic, high-energy music. And I love The Beach Boys. Over the years things have diversified and I like people like Bob Dylan. But noisy pop stuff is my favourite.
Owen Morris – who has worked with Oasis, New Order and Paul Weller – produced 1977. What was it like to work with him?
He was brilliant, a very talented guy. He’s also quite a maniac. He’s an old-school producer who you can’t get anymore because there was a lot of money in making records back in the day. We were able to be pretty decadent. There was a lot of drinking and a lot of mischief. We were definitely encouraged to smash up the studio. There was a lot of bad behaviour. But somehow we got the music done and he made it work.
1977 sold over a million copies. How hard was it to produce successful follow-up albums?
It was very hard to do the next one: Nu-Clear Sounds was really tough. One of the things 1977 brought was that it crossed over into a pop album. Some of that stuff was a bit confusing. We didn’t really love being in Smash Hits magazine, a kind of pop magazine. As Nirvana fans, we never expected to end up there. The follow-up record that we made, we wanted it to be taken more seriously. The songs that we had on it weren’t really hit singles like we had on 1977. It put our career in jeopardy. We wanted to rebel and go in a different direction and it was tricky. But the third album did really well – it was another number one record, Free All Angels. We weren’t just a one-album band after that point.
After releasing your second record, Nu-Clear Sounds, Ash were reportedly £1,000 away from bankruptcy. How did you get to that stage?
We made a tour documentary in 1996 and we spent about £250,000 making it. Ewan McGregor narrated it and we spent a fortune doing that. And then we didn’t release it because Charlotte Hatherley joined the band and it didn’t make much sense anymore. It would’ve portrayed that life on tour is pretty hard. And we were struggling to cope with everything at the time. Nu-Clear Sounds was not a very successful commercial record. We, like a lot of our contemporary bands, were putting out second or third albums and any bands who’d done well during the Britpop era were starting to struggle and get dropped by their labels. So it was a bit of a last chance saloon for us. We were a grand away from being bankrupt. Then Shining Light, on the third album, went into the top ten again and all of a sudden we were back in the big time. Free All Angels had a bunch of singles on it as well which was great.
What’s the proudest moment of your career?
Of all things I’m proud of, the Good Friday referendum show with U2 in 1998 was probably the biggest. It had a big impact. It was historical. Luckily, we were the right band at the right time. We were 20 or 21 and we were able to represent the young people of Northern Ireland. U2 brought massive clout, but they were also an older band from the south. The balance of the two bands really worked and in some ways they needed someone like us to make it happen. John Hume and David Trimble won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year and it was such a change to the Northern Ireland I’d grown up in. Things aren’t perfect but it’s so much better than it ever was.
What’s been the lowest point of your career?
One of the hardest things was adjusting to the music industry. The system that was there was disappearing and in 2007 it was a time of real uncertainty. I was wondering if it was still possible to have a career without record labels. In the Nineties, if you didn’t have a record label your career was pretty much over. But nowadays it’s completely different. Around that time, we were seeing our record label lay-off most of its staff and make huge cuts. Navigating around that time was one of trickiest times. It’s amazing how it’s worked out and that we’re still going.
Over the years, do you think your song writing’s improved?
I don’t know. There’s some things I did in my writing when I was 18 or 19 that I couldn’t repeat. I don’t know if I could write a song like Goldfinger again. I was experimenting a lot with key changes within songs. I have a slightly simpler approach nowadays. I think I can write more consistent records nowadays. I have a bit more control in my writing whereas, back then, I used to wait for inspiration. I used to have writer’s block and I was writing Nu-Clear Sounds amid a lot of pressure. I’ve learned tricks to get around that nowadays. I think I’ve got a bit more confidence now. I still try and write to express my feelings and the best songs are always the ones where they process something in my life. They come from my subconscious. It’s almost a form of therapy for me. Sometimes I go two-three months without writing songs and then as soon as I start writing again I feel so much better. It gives me a feeling of wellbeing.
You’ve supported U2 and Coldplay, two of the biggest bands on the planet. That must’ve been surreal?
It’s been cool. Those shows sometimes sound better than they are. Just because you’re stepping into someone else’s stadium production and you don’t get all the benefits of their amazing wrap-around LEDs and streamed stage. And also there’s sometimes quite mainstream fans who aren’t that interested in other music. But it’s a good chance to put yourself in front of a lot of people and you always get a huge kick playing in front of a massive audience. I love the grandeur of stadiums. A big thing is that both bands are Ash fans.
Are you friends with Bono?
I wouldn’t say we’re friends, I don’t text him or anything. But anytime I see him we get on really well. I do have some family connections with the band. My aunt was a dinner lady at their school. She took them under her wing quite a bit. I think Bono was quite a tough teenager. His mother died when he was really young. When my aunt died they all sent flowers to her funeral. I think Adam Clayton used to babysit my cousin – I’ve got a bunch of north Dublin relatives. I’ve got some bizarre links to them.
What’s next for Ash? Have you plans to release a new album or do you hope to produce your second solo record?
At the minute we’re working on a new Ash album. The plan is to release that next year. I’ve got quite a lot of work to do on the lyrics. It feels like we have a really good, strong bunch of songs. Like Kablammo!, our last record, we’re trying to make a great album we can play live. We’re always looking for stuff to freshen up the live set. It’s a challenge to beat some of the old classics. We’re challenging ourselves in that way. I would like to make another solo record some time, but I think I need a strong reason, or a theme or an idea. The last one was very personal, it was about losing my dad to Alzheimer’s. It felt too personal a record to be an Ash album. If I had a style I wanted to try then maybe that’d give me the drive to do it. In the meantime, though, I just want to make another Ash record.
- Ash play Rock City on Monday, December 12. Tickets are £27.50 from alttickets.com.