Nearly twenty years into his career, Ash’s Tim Wheeler talks to George Morahan about being on the outside, looking in on a crumbling music industry
At this point, Ash are an institution as much as a band; the Downpatrick three-piece are now all in their mid-thirties and have settled into their role as elder statesmen with grace, if not ease. It helps that they’ve been far removed from the spotlight for the past few years.
With the muted reaction to their last album, Twilight of the Innocents, in 2007, they retired to internet obscurity, but are now gearing up to tour Free All Angels – their most popular album and one that boasts anthems such as ‘Burn Baby Burn’ and ‘Shining Light’ – on its ten year anniversary. Singer Tim Wheeler, who had his A-Level results read out on national radio, is used to the pressure. “We haven’t actually convened at all; the rehearsals start four days before the first show. We found that when we went back to play the whole 1977 album a few years ago, it’s quite easy going back to that, because when you’ve played a record so much in the past, the muscle memory comes back quickly. I think it’ll be quite an easy get together, I’m looking forward to it.”
Though he oozes nonchalance, Wheeler is grateful for the record’s success. “That album really secured our future, because Nu-Clear Sounds, the previous album, hadn’t done very well, so it really helped us to bounce back at a time when a lot of our contemporaries from the mid-nineties weren’t able to. I think songs like ‘Shining Light’ gave us a future again when things were looking grim.”
A hint of cheerful nostalgia highlights his voice as he reveals what Free All Angels means to him; “I definitely feel my writing was maturing at the time. 1977 has this cool, naïve vibe as we didn’t know what we were doing in the studio, but by the time of Free All Angels we’d figured it out a bit more. We recorded some of it in Van Morrison’s studio in Bath, but most of it was recorded in this mansion in Spain and we had a really amazing time.”
That’s a long way from the dark days of Twilights of the Innocents: a time when Ash were worrying about their commercial survival, disillusioned with an industry that didn’t want them, and scrambling for a life line. The band was determined to retain artistic control over their work and avoid indignity at the hands of their label’s accountants and infertile song-writing sessions with outsiders. “The label spent a fortune on making the record and we put out two singles before the album came out. The second single [‘Polaris’] wasn’t getting Radio 1 airplay, so they pulled the whole marketing budget of the album and it just came out with a real whimper. That was quite heartbreaking, because of the sheer amount of work we put into that record. Probably the most work we put into making a record, seeing as we self-produced it. That was hard and convinced me that we needed to strike out on our own.”
They struck out in a big way, committing themselves to releasing a new, exclusively online single every two weeks as part of their A-Z series. It was a reinvigorating experience for the veteran band. “We were working on stuff as it was coming out; it was exciting getting feedback so quickly. Also, we were playing live, intermittently that whole year, as we were recording, so it was a different experience from recording a whole album and then taking it on the road. It was a very inspired time.”
For all the excitement, however, without the safety net provided by the label infrastructure, Ash’s situation was a lot more uncertain. With the transition of our methods of music consumption from simple monetary transaction to the anarchic and immediate modes of the online free-for-all, there are obvious ramifications for the creators of the music we so wholeheartedly devour. Wheeler has felt the pinch, but overall, the revolution have been liberating for Ash. “Financially, it’s a lot more insecure, but we don’t have to worry about label politics or the accountants. We don’t have to go through the horror of making a record and not having it released. There’s definitely freedom, but there’s a financial risk that we found scary.” It has also allowed them to expand their palette without label hostility. “There are maybe a few songs that wouldn’t be conventional singles, but the point was to try something different. I think most of it really stands up. And they’re quite diverse songs, which is exciting to me.”
The hype surrounding the A-Z series was purely focused on the method of release rather than the music, which became tiresome for Wheeler and the rest of the band; he calls the series a moderate success. “We got a lot of attention for it and I think it was creatively successful – we wanted it to be full of surprises. We had a lot of confidence in the studio, thanks to working in such concentrated doses. It didn’t really extend beyond our hardcore fan base and I really hoped it would, as you have to aim for those fair-weather fans.”
Having been without industry backing for four years, Wheeler is in a better position than a lot of established artists to comment on the critical blow file-sharing has dealt the music industry. His opinion is a lot more fatalist than one might expect. “It definitely upsets me and even Spotify annoys me. I can understand the new ways, but it’s expensive to make a good-quality record, even with the new technology. I find it hard to accept, but I can see that’s the way the world is going, it seems impossible to reverse at this point. We just have to be economical in the studio and make records as cheaply as possible. I think people would be shocked as to how much a record can cost,” he says. “It’s nice that people can have all this music, but it’s overwhelming to think that they can have everything. It’s just very hard to make money from recording music these days, but we have to [keep recording], we love to.”
Undertones singer and head of UK Music (the organisation representing the British record industry), Fergal Sharkey’s position on illegal downloading is especially clear, and Ash were able to rope the Undertones and the Divine Comedy into doing an Alzheimer’s benefit gig with them, this November. It’s a cause that means a lot to Wheeler. “My dad had Alzheimer’s – he died in January – so I’ve been living with that for a few years and I’ve spent a lot of time at the hospital and with Alzheimer’s patients. It’s a growing problem and I wanted to do something, as I felt very helpless as my dad grew sicker. I think the people who work with Alzheimer’s are incredible; they’re just so generous with their spirit, so I wanted to recognise them. And Neil [Hannon of the Divine Comedy]’s dad also has Alzheimer’s, so he was in straight away.”
They were lucky enough to book the Ulster Hall for Belfast Music Week and the prospect of Ash sharing a stage with Sharkey and the forefathers of northern Irish punk certainly appeals to Wheeler. “We were already into a lot of alternative music – Pixies, Nirvana – but one of my teachers heard us playing and he gave us a few records to listen to, one of them being the Undertones’ first record […] It was great stuff and we recognised how close we were to the Undertones in our sound. I liked the really concise, strong, melodic songs and it was so fast too.”
It’s a pop-punk template that Ash themselves have exploited to great effect, and attempts to evolve beyond it, such as the aforementioned ‘Polaris’, have been roundly ignored. It could be said that their youthful spirit has left them as they’ve matured as people and songwriters, but Wheeler sees no signs of Ash slowing down anytime soon. “I’m in a band with two great guys who are like brothers, who I can trust and rely on. We started as schoolmates and we’ve been through all sorts of ups and downs. When we get back together it just clicks into place very quickly. We’ve always enjoyed playing round and kept things interesting for ourselves. It’s a strong passion we share equally.”
Formed in 1992, with bassist, Mark Hamilton and drummer, Rick McMurray, Wheeler & Co. have finally gotten around to releasing a definitive ‘Best Of’ collection, and assembling it has allowed them to observe their progression from teenage upstarts to venerable patriarchs with a different perspective. “Compiling it brought back some old memories, because some of the old tapes were quite hard to find and there were some weird and wacky other versions of tracks that I hadn’t heard in a long time. Those early days were great times; we were still at school, having fun and getting our head around the whole thing.
“We started strongly; a large part of our set is made up of the first eight years of our band. I’m always reflecting on what’s going on in my life, I definitely wouldn’t write a song like ‘Oh Yeah’ now, it’d just sound wrong.”
With the release of The Best of Ash on former label, Warner, Ash have come in from the cold. And now former guitarist Charlotte Hatherley is back in their ranks (for the Free All Angels tour, at least), it seems the band fallen back into old rhythms easily enough. Whether they’ll push on and reach a new creative zenith is doubtful, but their continued existence, through all the mutations of the modern musical landscape, is encouraging. It’s comforting to know that the likes of ‘Orpheus’ and ‘Girl from Mars’ will be played in venues for years to come.
– Ash plays The Academy on October 18th. Tickets are priced at €20. The Best of Ash is out now.