A Career Less Ordinary: Ash Reflect on Their Crazy 25 Year Odyssey

Friday, 14 February 2020 Written by Simon Ramsay

The clear standout on Ash’s potentially disastrous second album ‘Nu-Clear Sounds’, Wildsurf is a title that perfectly encapsulates the band’s 25 year sojourn through the highs and lows of the music business. Since crashing the mid-'90s Britpop scene as fresh-faced teenagers who sounded like, to paraphrase Bono, ‘Brian Wilson in a punk band,’ the Northern Irish trio have been on a non-stop sinusoidal thrill ride.

Their new retrospective, ‘Teenage Wildlife’, charts a heady path through some of the finest pop-infused guitar anthems known to humankind. The set—a double disc best of and a 54 track special edition stacked to the rafters with b-sides, rarities and covers—showcases everything that made Ash one of the most charming, cheeky and addictive bands to emerge from what became an increasingly hollow music scene.

From timeless hits such as Girl From Mars, Shining Light and Oh Yeah to fizz-bomb smashes in Kung Fu and Burn Baby Burn, not to mention the imperious ballad Sometimes and Angel Interceptor’s soaring anthemics, the calibre of Tim Wheeler’s songwriting and knack for penning effortless hooks is on full display. 

That’s not to say these seemingly eternal youngsters haven’t occasionally misfired, though. Following their hugely successful debut album ‘1977’, the aforementioned ‘Nu-Clear Sounds’ was a crushing flop that left the group—who had recently become a four piece with the addition of guitarist Charlotte Hatherley—on the verge of both bankruptcy and extinction. Could they survive such a steep fall from grace?  The answer came in the shape of 2001’s ‘Free All Angels’.  

A magnificently well-crafted opus full of 13 potential hit singles, it was a stunning comeback that delivered everything fans loved about Ash. That such a masterpiece was made under intense pressure is a testament to the band’s character, something that has seen them outlast almost all of their contemporaries.

But, whether battling to stay afloat in high tides or riding the crest of a wave, it’s certainly not been a pedestrian ride for Wheeler, bassist Mark Hamilton and drummer Rick McMurray. We spoke with the delightfully affable frontman about their 25 year journey, discussing the ups, downs and why it’s probably best that Candy was never a number one single.

I’ve heard the three disc version of ‘Teenage Wildlife’ and it certainly seems like you’ve cleared out the vaults. Was that process like looking through an old photo album, where some things brought back fond memories and others made you wonder what you were thinking?

Not much of our early stuff makes me cringe too badly. There are songs I wrote that stand up well. I almost don’t think of them as being old because we’ve never stopped playing them live. There’s also stuff from ‘Trailer’ that wasn’t quite as mature, but I’m pretty glad some of the songs I wrote at 15 or 16 still feel relevant. There was a bit of built in nostalgia in those songs already, so it still works after all these years.      

Recording ‘1977’ with Owen Morris sounds like a crazy experience. You often hear about older producers taking young bands under their wings and straightening them out but, having read some of the stories, who was the worse influence on who?

We were so young and up for a laugh that we didn’t need much encouragement to go for all the crazy ideas. You’d end up going to charity shops, come back wearing old ladies’ dresses and recording in those. I’m not sure if it was because we were young and impressionable or completely on the same level as him. Not every band can stomach working with Owen. 

He often terrified bands from the very first meeting. His approach was very blunt. Among all the praise, there’d be a lot of withering criticism and severe pisstaking. If anyone had a delicate ego they probably stormed out on him.  He went through so many managers because he was pretty unmanageable. He was always walking out of sessions and coming back. There was always drama with him but because he was our first proper producer we thought that was normal.

Crazy stories aside, what did you learn from him that you’ve carried with you to this day?

Basic song structure lessons. He helped us arrange all those songs. Early on I’d write lyrics and he’d send me off to rewrite them, or point out what was crap. He was always playing cool music too, like great Bowie and Beatles stuff full blast. He also helped me get into John Barry and some more interesting chord sequences. When we were working with him I was trying to make my songwriting a bit more complicated. 

A lot of the time he’d tell me something simpler was required so I learned how to do things in a simpler way that were just as effective. We were more American influenced than some of the Britpop stuff, too, and he helped give it more of a Britpop sound. But we still managed to get our American rock and Sonic Youth influence into it and that was different than what a lot of Britpop bands were doing.   

He had a great ear for songs too. He helped us with Goldfinger by pointing out that it was great. I didn’t have many songs when we started the ‘1977’ sessions. I’d been on tour and hadn’t had much time to write. I remember sitting in my bedroom playing him tonnes of ideas. Goldfinger was way down my list, it was like the 30th song I played because I thought it was too weird. He was like ‘Ah! That’s the next single, we’ll record that.’ I thought it would have been a quirky b-side but he zoned in on that and it was our highest charting single.  

How did Charlotte joining change the dynamic within the band, because you three had been together as a tight unit for a long time?

It was great. We did a tour with Weezer, and were still a three piece at that time, but I loved how their two guitars worked so well because they were two guitarists who both had a high ability. I wanted that in Ash. It added a new dimension to the band, took pressure off me in terms of focus and also playing live. It opened things up for us musically, we could do more things live and experiment more in the writing stages because there were two guitars. Charlotte’s also a great keyboard player and added great backing vocals. It was a good move.

‘Nu-Clear Sounds’ was the classic ‘difficult second album.’ What was your mindset like when you made that?

We were pretty burned out with touring and didn’t have much time to make sense of going from school to being a big success. Also, because of how much we toured I didn’t have time to write. There was pressure on to deliver a follow up. We knew we had this big fanbase and assumed whatever we did they would go with. We felt we could try something different, but I was definitely in a darker space. It was all pretty fucked when I was trying to get my head together to write that. 

We’d moved to London and got a rehearsal space, this little studio we were trying to write in, but after one month we had one almost finished song with no finished lyrics. Then we went to Owen’s house for a couple of months to write because it was obvious we weren’t getting anything done in London, there were just too many distractions. I wasn’t writing full songs very well so some great stuff came out of jamming more. 

The songs I was writing by myself were real downbeat ballads, there’s about four or five bittersweet sad songs on it. It wasn’t the ‘pop hits’ feeling. The closest would have been Wildsurf, but it wasn’t on the level of Girl From Mars and Oh Yeah. We also worked with Chris Kimsey and as we started to mix it realised it didn’t have the edge we wanted. 

He was a Rolling Stones producer from the ‘70s and ‘80s so I don’t think he understood the heavier guitar sound that was a big part of us. We ended up getting Owen back in to mix it. Some tracks we trashed a bit, almost on purpose, but others definitely got a lot better. It’s a weird record but I love it, actually. The album didn’t sell anything near what ‘1977’ had sold. There was definitely big pressure on the follow up. If we’d continued that trajectory we would have been done.  

‘Free All Angels’ sounds like you didn’t have a worry in the world when you were essentially fighting to save your career. How did you deliver the goods when the pressure was truly on?

The thing that made ‘1977’ big was songs that had done well on the radio.  Strong pop songs made our success so I had to deliver those again. I knew it would take time. I went through a break up, met a new girl and that put a lot of positivity back into my life. I went back to my parents’ house and spent almost a year writing that record and started getting good songs in the bag like Burn Baby Burn. A real turning point was writing Shining Light. When we got that I was like, ‘This is a song we need.’  

So we worked with Owen again, went to Spain to record and had a good laugh. I had this thing in my head that I’m going to enjoy everything this time. I can relax, not overthink things and if we have success again we’re gonna have a good time. We had a dream that if Candy was a number one hit we were each gonna buy yellow Ferraris. We never got those, but it definitely re-established us. The moment we breathed a big sigh of relief was when Shining Light came out and we went top 10 again. We knew we were back.  Not many of our contemporaries from a few years before were having hits like that. It turned out to be a great year, we won a bunch of awards, went up a level and it was great.     

There have been various accounts of why Charlotte left the band in 2006 following ‘Meltdown’. To quote a song title—what’s the true story?

OK...there’s no such thing as a true story! There was a little bit of tension with her. She started doing a lot of solo stuff and had her own manager. Around that time it started to feel more like there was the three of us and then her. The touring was awesome but when we were making ‘Meltdown’ she was also making her solo album in LA. She wasn’t in the studio as much as we were after a certain point.

Around 2006, when myself and Mark moved to New York, it felt like we were going in different directions. It was a shame. There’s big parts of it I regret because she added so much to the band. It sort of felt like ‘OK, another big change right now would be to go back to being a three piece.’ We thought it would be cool and because we’d had big success as the original three piece and felt confident it could work. Who knows if it was a good idea or not, but it might have been inevitable at some point.      

Your final album before the ‘A-Z Series’ was ‘Twilight of the Innocents’.  Why didn’t your record label give you the support you needed for that album, and how much did it influence your career trajectory after that?

That came out as the record industry was in a big crisis...losing so much income with CD sales falling off a cliff because of downloading. Labels were dropping lots of bands. It was the last album of our contract and the label had to pay more money for each album, that was the way our deal was set up. We were an expensive band to keep around so they were ready to let us go if it wasn’t a big success. Polaris was starting to get a bit of radio play but didn’t get a Radio One A-List and that was the point where they pulled funding for promoting the album.  

We were worried about the future. We’d been on this cycle of album tour album tour, so started feeling ‘let’s do something different next time’ and announced it as our last album. There were a lot of negative moves going on at that time, like going back to a three piece, leaving our record contract, uncertainty about what was going on in the music industry. That was a very hard time. 

Followed by a very positive move with the ‘A-Z Series’.  Listening to those songs, you can almost hear your minds exploding with possibilities.

Definitely. With ‘Twilight...’ we’d set up our own studio in New York and it was also our first self-produced record, so the beginning of a new chapter.  With ‘A-Z’, and having our own studio, we had the freedom to do something different. ‘A-Z’ was the first thing on our own label and we decided to do something ambitious with a single every two weeks. It was freeing, not thinking about making an album. We could do any style of music every two weeks so experimented a lot.

We recorded so many tracks to get 26 we thought had the quality to be singles. There were probably 28 bonus songs as well. All really interesting and strange. Listening to some recently, I’m like, ‘Fuck, that’s cool production, that sounds really cool.’ It was crazy but great. Because we were only doing bits of touring it felt like I was writing throughout that year and it was nice to keep our foot in the studio all the time.     

You’ve released two albums since the ‘A-Z Series’ concluded and clearly have the taste for it again. Let’s look forward to the next 25 years.  If we were chatting again in 2045, what would you like to be saying?

Oh my god! It would be cool if there’s a lot more musical stories to tell. We’ve made a hell of a lot of music in the last 25 years. If I even do half of that in the next 25 I’ll be happy. Any artist who has been around for a long time will have ups and downs but it’s always cool when you see someone having a late blooming period. Some of those late period Bob Dylan records have been interesting. 

Not to compare myself to one of the greatest songwriters of all time but it’s inspiring when you see someone doing something cool down the line when people don’t expect it. Anyway, hopefully there’s some good shit to come. I don’t see any point slowing down. We still get such a kick out of working together. As long as the ideas stay fresh and there’s always something interesting to write songs about...

Ash Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Tue March 17 2020 - LEEDS University Style
Wed March 18 2020 - NEWCASTLE O2 Academy Newcastle
Fri March 20 2020 - GLASGOW SWG3
Sat March 21 2020 - MANCHESTER O2 Ritz
Sun March 22 2020 - NOTTINGHAM Rock City
Tue March 24 2020 - BRISTOL O2 Academy Bristol
Wed March 25 2020 - PORTSMOUTH Portsmouth Pyramids
Fri March 27 2020 - LONDON Roundhouse

Click here to compare & buy Ash Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

UPDATE MARCH 16: Ash's March tour has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. They are hoping to reschedule for later this year. Please keep checking back to Stereoboard for updates.

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