Interview: Tim Wheeler
Published on December 8th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
Let’s just put it straight out there: Ash are flipping fantastic. Unfortunately, they are also all-too-easy to categorise, marginalise, write off as little more than an archetypal power-pop band whose melodic sweet tooth might throw up the odd hit single but ultimately will not change anyone’s life. And that, world, is why we invariably get the top 40 we deserve; that is, if people even pay attention to such matters anymore. Rocksucker for one stopped caring many moons ago.
Much like Supergrass did before their sad dissolution, Ash hark back to a not-exactly-long-gone age where writing a blinding pop tune could open more doors for the aspiring songwriter than wearing the right kind of jeans could. It’s not hard to see why such straightforwardly brilliant songwriting has fallen by the wayside of proper critical consideration: misguided attempts at relying on a song’s core ‘strength’ are now so prevalent that only praise for earnest experimentalism and opprobrium for cynically conceived chart fodder would appear to be relevant any more. There ain’t no room for fun and artistic credibility within the same listening experience anymore, didn’tchaknow?
And yet, how many of the propagators, willing or unwilling, of this elitist construct would go decidedly apeshit when presented with “Girl From Mars” while their guard is down? Let’s say, while merrily sozzled on a night out with friends. Furthermore, let’s consider the same scenario soundtracked by “Burn Baby Burn”. Or “Oh Yeah”. Or “Shining Light”. Or “Envy”. Or “A Life Less Ordinary”. Or “Candy”.
Or “Kung Fu”. Or “Goldfinger”. Or “Angel Interceptor”. Or “Walking Barefoot”. Or “Orpheus”. Or “Jack Names the Planets”. Or, provided they’ve been exposed to more than just the hits, “Lose Control”, “Cherry Bomb” or “Ichiban”. Yep, thought so: tailless catarrhine primate faeces all over the joint. Not life-changing, huh? Depends on how you live your life, really.
Even this implied fulsome praise of Ash fails to do the Downpatrick group justice. Their A-Z Series, a two-CD collection of singles released one-per-fortnight between 2009 and 2010, flaunts a willingness for genre-straddling that first came to prominence on the oddly Dr. Dre-ish “Candy” from 2001’s Platinum-certified Free All Angels album. Good grief, we’re five paragraphs into the intro and we haven’t even mentioned how young the band were when they first burst onto the scene. Lead singer/songwriter Tim Wheeler turns 35 in January. “Girl from Mars” reached number 11 on the UK charts in 1995. Do the math(s), as they say,
So carried away has this intro gotten that it’s yet to even mention the predominant reason for its taking place: that is, the recent release of This is Christmas, an album’s worth of yuletide pop gems courtesy of Tim and his girlfriend, the wonderful Emmy the Great no less. It’s so yummy that you could stuff your turkey with it and no-one would notice until they were picking bits of shiny binary data out of their teeth while passing out in front of The Great Escape.
Should we mention The Best of Ash and accompanying Teenage Wildlife documentary (narrated by Ewan McGregor) that came out in October? Suffice to say, Rocksucker had the honour of chatting to Tim recently. It went more or less like this…(not the choice cut from This is Christmas immediately underneath; the text below it)…
Congratulations on a splendid Christmas album. However, you do face some pretty stiff competition from such luminaries as Justin Bieber, Michael Buble, Mick Hucknall and, bizarrely, Scott Weiland…
And Kate Bush. You could keep the list going. Bieber, Buble and Bush! (Rocksucker says: cue the “One of These Things is Not Like the Others” song from Sesame Street…) Yeah, it’s such a competitive time to release a record, and you have such a short time to promote it. You hope it will connect and come back year after year. We’re getting a great reception.
It’s a hard thing to get right, a Christmas album, but I think you judged it very well indeed.
Yeah, we’re dead proud of it. We just started it for fun and it sort of took on a life of its own, so we threw everything at it: strings, a pretty big production… It was a real laugh to make and a lot of it was done between May and August, so it was bizarre to be making a Christmas record then! (Laughs) But that’s the time you have to do it.
Didn’t you guys start writing the songs last Christmas?
Yeah, we got snowed in last Christmas so we wrote three songs. We were quite surprised by how good they were so we started recording demos of them to see if they worth doing, and ended up with two more songs. Then we were like, okay, we’ve got to make a full album of them now.
Has listening to The Best of Ash and watching the Teenage Wildlife documentary brought on any profound emotional responses within you?
Probably more so with the documentary because that’s been on the shelf for years, so it’s been quite cathartic to get it out there. It charts one of our most successful times but it was actually also one of the hardest times because we were trying to adjust to everything at such an early age. Going through the Best of wasn’t so bad because we play a lot of those songs live all the time, so you’re constantly familiar with that stuff, really.
You must get a lot of people who can’t believe how young you still are.
(Laughs) Yeah, it’s crazy. I don’t believe it myself sometimes!
I’d imagine that you get asked this a lot but I’m not sure I’ve encountered a definitive answer one way or the other: can you envisage Ash reverting back to the album format?
Possibly. You can’t say never because everything’s changing so quickly, what with the internet. So possibly. I’m really glad that we experimented with the whole singles thing. I think it was a great success, but it was so much work. It was crazy, the most we’ve ever worked in our lives! So maybe we’ll do something simpler next time.
Does it bother you at all that your public profile in the UK is not quite what it was around the time of 1977, and then again with Free All Angels?
I think it’s a typical problem for someone who’s been round a long time – it’s hard to maintain it – but I’m constantly working to try to keep the name there. It gives us something to fucking strive for all the time! (Laughs)
Whatever happened to the long-touted Ash acoustic album?
That was something that was on the cards for quite a while; we just never got round to doing it. I don’t really know why. It would have been pretty nice, to mix a lot of strings and acoustic stuff. We did a great acoustic session once for this radio station in Vienna. We were pretty impressed by how good that was, so we thought we could do something similar. Yeah, it’s just one of those things that we never got round to.
You had Charlotte [Hatherley, former lead guitarist turned rather excellent solo artist] back on board for the recent Free All Angels shows. Can you see her being involved when the time comes to work on some new Ash material, or will you revert to being a three-piece?
I don’t know. We felt that we couldn’t do Free All Angels without her, and it was good fun to do. In the meantime, we’ll probably be back to a three-piece next, but I don’t know. We’ll see.
Ash and We Are Scientists recently recorded a cover of Robert Manning’s “Washington Parks” to raise money for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. As Chris Cain of We Are Scientists explained: “The concept of the song is that if you listen to it on headphones or stereo the musicians of Ash are on the left channel and all the We Are Scientists guys are playing it in the right channel. We’re playing the same song essentially but in different ways.” Whose idea was this?
My idea! (Laughs)
Had you come across something like that elsewhere, or did it just strike you as being something that was worth a try?
Yeah, I’d never heard it done before. It’s quite interesting, those sixties records from when stereo was first coming in and people were experimenting with all the vocals on one side, all the drum kit on the other [and so on]. When we thought about doing a track together, we thought, you know, we could really experiment with this. It’s cool: if you hear it coming out of your laptop speakers, it sounds like one band. If you’re listening with headphones, you can take one off and just hear one band. And it’s for a great charity as well.
How was last month’s Alzheimer’s Society Music Benefit at Ulster Hall alongside The Divine Comedy and The Undertones? What a line-up!
That was amazing. I was very proud of that because my dad passed away in January, and he had Alzheimer’s so I wanted to do something to try and raise some money for that. It was a very personal night, because Neil Hannon’s dad has Alzheimer’s as well. It felt really important for us both to do it. Then getting The Undertones was the icing on the cake. It was amazing.
Has Slashed been permanently shelved, then? It could be quite amusing if you carried on from where you left off with everyone ten years older and with no explanation as to why…
The whole thing was filmed except for the end, where I was meant to get brutally murdered! It’s kind of unfinishable now, unless we used the power of CGI or something. I don’t think it’s quite worth it. But we did put together some old footage with one of our tracks, called “Binary”, which gives you the gist of the first half of the film.
You could always take the Ed Wood route: when Bela Lugosi died halfway through the filming of Plan 9 From Outer Space, he simply replaced him with a man holding a cloak in front of his face…
(Laughs) That’s what we need to do, then.
Apparently, you funded the early Ash demos with an “infamous tuck shop scam”. Care to elucidate?
Mark [Hamilton, bassist] used to go around saying that story, but I don’t know how much of it’s true. I can’t really remember. (Laughs) It kicked up for a while because (mumbles something semi-intelligible about “Northern Irish newspapers” and “school”, concludes with “no comment!”).
During your 2001 Reading set, I crowd-surfed and lost all of the following from my pockets: my phone, my keys and all my money. Can Ash reimburse me for that? It’s clearly your fault.
Maybe talk to Reading Festival about that! That must have made the rest of the festival a nightmare.
It’s okay, I’d only have lost them some other daft way eventually. Now, did NASA really use “Girl From Mars” as the ‘hold’ music on their phone line?
Yeah, I think that was like ’95 or something. That was fucking amazing!
You toured with Weezer in the early days. What do you think of the direction their music’s taken since then?
Well, it’s been quite disappointing after the highs of their first few records, but I checked out Hurley recently and I was pleasantly surprised by some of it. You just have to know that it’s balls-out cheesiness and that it’s not as ‘cool’ as their earlier stuff, but there are still some good tunes and it’s still pretty fun. A lot of fans are quite disgusted with it, though!
Are there any obscure and/or up-and-coming acts that you’d like to recommend or give a shout-out to?
Finally, what would you say is the most underrated album of all time?
Spirit of Eden by Talk Talk. It is a classic but you don’t hear about it as often as you should do.
Tim, thank you.