Beginning, Middle and End: Ash's Tim Wheeler On Crafting 'Islands'

Tuesday, 14 August 2018 Written by Simon Ramsay

Once we had survived a punishing winter that would have made even your average White Walker cling to their hot water bottle, it came time to talk ‘soundtrack to the summer’. As ever, the conversation pretty much started and finished with Ash. Possessing a typically enchanting feelgood factor that belied the heartache at its core, the Northern Irish trio’s new album ‘Islands’ was tailor made to accompany bright blue skies and long lazy days topping up your tan.

For those of us who grew up with the music of Tim Wheeler, Mark Hamilton and Rick McMurray, the fact they’re now in their early 40s is something of a shock to our increasingly world worn systems. Surely it hasn’t been over two decades since they crash landed on the scene with their debut album ‘1977’? Yes, it has. And, gulp.

Fear not, though, for one listen to their latest record, the seventh of their career and second after they thankfully abandoned their decision to stop making full length albums following 2007’s ‘Twilight Of The Innocents’, is enough to sweep aside any despairing thoughts about the inescapable aging process. With its eternal teenage hunger and timeless energetic spring, ‘Islands’ goes some way to suggesting that 40 may be the new 17. Honest.  

Yet it also showcases a band maturing as songwriters, musicians and people, pushing boundaries while still creating music that sounds like vintage Ash. With the band on the road and soaking up that other great summer pastime, festival season, we spoke to their evergreen frontman Wheeler about shaping ‘Islands’.

Ever since ‘1977’ Ash albums have always been synonymous with summer, and ‘Islands’ is no different. Why do you think your music works so well when the sun comes out?

Because it’s upbeat and very melodic maybe? For us to drop our record in May is the perfect time because the album, now it’s out there, I think people will be enjoying it throughout the summer. Even if the lyrics can be down the music is good uplifting stuff to listen to when the sun shines.  

You went through a painful break up and, as a result, your new songs sound very personal. Did you ever consider turning them into a solo album like ‘Lost Domain’ or were they always intended for an Ash record?

I always thought it would be an Ash record. I know what you mean because with ‘Lost Domain’, and losing my dad, that did feel personal. But Ash is a good vehicle for heartbreak songs. I’ve definitely channelled that in the past. With ‘Lost Domain’ I was wanting to experiment and write in a different way, but I was raring to do another Ash album after ‘Kablammo!’ because I felt we had a good momentum building with that record.  

You do cycle through a lot of grief but it’s still a characteristically uplifting Ash record.  How do you pull that off as a songwriter?

Songwriting is very cathartic so there’s something about writing songs that does make me work through feelings. Marrying difficult subjects with uplifting music is a good way of overcoming it. That’s one of my favourite things about ABBA. It’s really uplifting pop music but the lyrics can be about something quite heavy. There’s something a bit deeper going on in ABBA songs than you might think on first listen.

Do you find it easier to write from a place of heartache and suffering than when you’re blissfully happy?

It’s very easy to write songs when you’re going through something hard because you just say what’s happening and it resonates. You don’t have to look very hard for something powerful.  It’s filtered as well though. Some of the really depressing ones we never touched. I wrote about 80 songs around that time, about other stuff as well, but these were the songs that seemed to have a bit of a story about them.

You said you wanted to make ‘Islands’ a classic album. For you, what constitutes a classic?

Consistency of great songs from start to end. Feeling a bit of a journey as you listen to a record. One of my favourites is ‘Astral Weeks’. That encapsulates a whole mood and, even though it may not be completely clear what’s going on, you can tell it’s going on a journey.  Also, the sequencing is very important from the first song to the end. You’ve got something that introduces everything, that’s what True Story did, and then Incoming Waves sends the whole album off on a kind of epic thing. The last song is very important because it has to make you want to go back and press play again at the start. Beginning, middle and end. Like a good book.

You visited some wonderful locations while writing for the record.

It started at the end of a tour in Japan. I was thinking that, after being there for well over 20 tours over the years, I’ve never taken any time to see Japan. I’d heard about these islands called Naoshima and To-shima and they sounded like interesting places. The population had almost gone down to nothing, then a couple of art foundations came in and built incredible museums there. It’s this amazing mixture of wild islands with incredible architecture and arts, so I was intrigued to travel there.

A couple of months later I started writing more songs. I’d always wanted to go to Deià in Majorca. It’s the village where Robert Graves, the poet, used to live. Fionn Regan wrote this great album, ‘100 Acres Of Sycamore’, about it. Kevin Ayers [Soft Machine] used to live there in the ‘70s as well. I went there for 10 days and started writing and then, a few months later, I was like ‘There’s a couple more islands I really want to go to’. So I went to Santorini in Greece and then this island off the coast of Dublin called Lambay, which pretty much has about eight people living on it all year round. So that was pretty wild.

How did those locations influence the music you created?

I remember being in Deià and seeing this rich artistic heritage in this small village. It also faces west across the Mediterranean, so the sunsets there were amazing. When I was writing Incoming Waves I was thinking about that and this beautiful graveyard where Robert Graves is buried. It’s right up on the hill, almost looking out across the ocean. The lyrics came directly from that. I also had a great sense of isolation. People didn’t speak much English or they were very quiet, hidden places. It was really good for writing, just to be alone and thinking. The Irish island, there’s hardly anyone there, so it’s a good place to detox from the digital world, to write from and get in touch with your emotions for music.

Forgetting the deeper stuff for a moment, Buzzkill is brilliantly old school and silly isn’t it?

It was kind of throwaway and fun. It definitely wasn’t a serious song. There was a little bit about the first stage, when you’re trying to move on from a break up, and the thought of being reminded of things can kill your buzz. I kind of personified it and it’s quite tongue in cheek. It’s way more over the top than in real life but I think that’s what makes the song fun.

Some friends from the Undertones added their backing vocals to it too. How did they come to appear on it?

We did some gigs with them last November and, just prior to that, had pretty much wrapped Buzzkill up. I was watching them from the side of the stage and realised how much the backing vocals I’d written were aping their style. I was feeling a bit guilty and thought if I ask them to be on it maybe they won’t mind so much. They were well up for it. It’s very much their call and response style. I love it on Undertones records where you can hear the Northern Irish accent in their backing vocals, so there’s a bit of that too. It was a great honour to have them on it.   

One of my favourite songs is Did Your Love Burn Out?, which begins like the Animals’ House Of The Rising Sun but then goes down a very different path.

Yeah, it’s got this bluesy folky thing and then goes quite funky. It came out of guitar figures, the vocal melodies were following the guitar melodies I had written. If it had stayed slow and ambient we probably wouldn’t have done it because we might have thought it was too depressing, but when I got the upbeat funk part I wanted to go there to keep it interesting.  Once we started playing it Rick had a great groove on the drums and we were like ‘This is way funkier than Ash has ever been’. I wasn’t sure if people would be able to stomach us doing that but it’s been getting a great reaction.

‘Islands’ definitely mixes old Ash with new but also goes in directions you’ve not ventured before. In that respect it actually reminds me of the ‘A-Z’ series, only with everything bound together by a strong theme.

I’d agree. There’s definitely songs on the record we’d never have attempted if we hadn’t been through the whole ‘A-Z’ Series. Some of the production on Confessions In The Pool we learned from doing songs like White Rabbit and Arcadia. The ‘A-Z’ Series was great because there was total freedom, not worrying about stuff gelling together.

The theme on the new album does keep things together and there’s enough in common sonically, on the older stuff, to tie it together, even if the styles are a bit different. The cool thing is we’ve tapped into songs that could have fitted on our first few records, like Annabel and Buzzkill. On other stuff some styles are completely fresh. I’m happy this feels like it’s backwards looking and forwards looking.  

Confessions In The Pool is certainly one of those fresh numbers. How did it develop?

It came out of experimenting. I do this thing in the studio where I try to write 10 songs in 10 hours. Sometimes a good song comes out of it, sometimes good production techniques come out of it because it’s a chance for me to play around with more MIDI based sounds. Years ago I had samples of a piano that was at a studio called The Magic Shop. It was the same piano we used on Arcadia. I loved the sound so sampled every note on that and turned it into a sampler instrument.

I completely forgot about it for a couple of years and then, one day on my song challenge, I was looking through my banks of sampler instruments seeing if some sounds would trigger the idea for a song. I came up with the arpeggio lines using this sampler and it just spun off from there. All because I spent a good few hours being a nerd five years before. So you never know where a song’s going to start from. I also had the song title in my head from a trip to Miami so as soon as I had the arpeggio going it seemed to sit with the lyrical idea.  

How have you improved as a songwriter over the years?

We’re more versatile as musicians now so can play in different styles and it doesn’t sound awkward. There have been times where we’ve tried to do new stuff for the sake of it and now we’ve learned it’s OK to be simple. Things don’t have to be complicated to be good. That’s one thing we learned from going back and playing ‘1977’ live. I think that’s filtered through to the last two records we’ve done, that simple songs can be OK. It can be really strong.  

And you always have great hooks binding everything together. What age did you discover you had a knack for writing those?

I think around age 15, around the time Nirvana blew up. At that time I was getting into a lot more alternative music like the Pixies. Before that we’d been trying to play complicated metal and, once I discovered the more primal punk rock stuff, that’s when I figured ‘Get a great riff, get a great melody and just repeat them tonnes’. If you get a really good melodic line, just repeat it a lot. That’s kind of what I do. Jack Names The Planets was probably the first we wrote in that way and was where we nailed the formula, or stumbled upon it.  

Many people will always equate Ash with being cheeky teenagers. How do you retain that youthful essence in your music while maturing artistically?

I think it comes from the age we started playing. There’s some kind of muscle memory that goes on seeing as, when we started playing, there was a lot of youth in our music. The challenge is to keep the writing maturing while keeping that energy. I think that energy will always be with us when we play. I’ll be intrigued to see what it will be like if we’re doing gigs when we’re way older. Hopefully it will be a way of feeling young.

Being the Rolling Stones' age and playing Buzzkill?

Yeah, that’ll be really cool.  

And how does it feel being one of the old guard now?

I don’t like to think about it too much because I want to think of us as a current band. I want to draw attention to the new music and don’t want to be seen as a heritage band because there’s a lot of life left in our new music. The biggest buzz for us is introducing new songs to the set, especially if they’re connecting like they seem to be with the new album. That’s such a great feeling. It’s great to be back in the charts and hopefully we’ll keep building with the next one.

Talking of the next one, last August Mark said you’d recorded two new albums and wanted the second finished before the release of this one. Is that still the case?

Yeah, we’ve got most of the songs together for the follow up to ‘Islands’. If we can get enough studio time, hopefully we can finish the album by the end of the year and get it out next year. It’s quite different to ‘Islands’. Lyrically,.the mood’s a bit different. Musically, it’s more all over the place. We’ve got the choice if we want to go really out there or rein it in a bit. We’ll see how it shapes up.

'Islands' is out now.

Ash Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Tue August 14 2018 - BEDFORD Bedford Esquires
Tue October 16 2018 - SHEFFIELD Leadmill
Wed October 17 2018 - GLASGOW Glasgow Garage
Fri October 19 2018 - BRISTOL SWX Bristol
Sat October 20 2018 - BIRMINGHAM O2 Institute
Sun October 21 2018 - NORWICH UEA The Waterfront
Tue October 23 2018 - MANCHESTER O2 Ritz
Wed October 24 2018 - LONDON O2 Forum Kentish Town

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