Written for Rhino Records UK / Warner Bros. Records, October 2011.
“At the start, people would always ask how long we’d be doing this for,” begins Ash’s vocalist and guitarist Tim Wheeler. “I couldn’t ever think beyond five years in the future because I found it hard to get my head around it. We’ve had some real lucky breaks, but also some real fights to keep it going.”
That five-year forecast has now extended to almost twenty full years of hedonistic highs and melancholy lows, set to a backdrop of an industry that has constantly morphed and contracted since the band issued their debut EP Trailer in 1994. This is a band that lived every rock ‘n’ roll dream imaginable when they became teenage superstars, that made a huge comeback just as people were writing them off, and, most recently, launched a DIY subversion of the music industry’s long established album-tour-album-tour life-cycle.
2011, says Wheeler, is a good time for him and his band mates – bassist Mark Hamilton and drummer Rick McMurray – to look back at what they’ve achieved with the release of The Best of Ash. We can reminisce with them as the album features the first ever release of the infamous tour documentary Teenage Wildlife, a self-funded film narrated by Ewan McGregor to a brilliantly acerbic script by the late Stephen Wells.
One of the film’s earliest shots depicts the band, then in 1994 unknown to the world at large, inspiring a hall full of other Downpatrick teenagers to leap around with reckless abandon. It’s a moment sandwiched between two extremes. Just a few years before, Wheeler and Hamilton had just start playing and were forced to write their own material as they were too inept to perform covers: two years later, the band’s debut album 1977 went straight to the top of the charts.
Wheeler recalls the early days of record executives flying to Northern Ireland to see the trio in action, watching his parents sign his first recording contract on his behalf and being on the cusp of potentially great things. The band were even flown to Los Angeles to be wined and dined by two major labels. “It was exciting, but also we played it down with our mates at school,” recalls Wheeler. “I didn’t tell anyone where I was going other than a few really close friends. I don’t think I even told the teachers why my homework was late. We were going around in limos, puking in hot tubs and having a crazy time.”
The debauchery of the Los Angeles adventure was undermined by the absence of Hamilton, whose psychedelic experiments suddenly had grave consequences: “He had this trip that just didn’t go away, so he walked out of art class at school and walked himself straight into hospital. It was a strange, uncertain time. There were all these incredibly exciting things going on, but we were really worried about Mark.” Hamilton never did return to school and spent the first few years of Ash’s global tours on medication.
As the release date of 1977 approached, Ash’s profile grew exponentially with a string of hits – Kung-Fu, Girl From Mars (which had deliberately been held back from appearing on Trailer), Angel Interceptor and Goldfinger – each of which expanded people’s perception of the band. When the album subsequently went straight to number one, Ash had soared to the top seemingly from out of nowhere.
Having appeared on Top of the Pops just after leaving school, Wheeler found himself getting his A-Level results live on Steve Lamacq’s radio show. For most people that’s an event that lives long in the memory. Wheeler appears to flick through channels in his mind for a recollection of the moment. “In the six weeks between leaving school and getting my results, everything had changed,” he eventually explains. “Two days after finishing my exams, we were playing at Glastonbury, a couple of weeks later we had a huge hit with Girl From Mars… by the time it got around to the exams, they were almost an afterthought.”
Success took its toll as the months followed: tours would suddenly extend by weeks at a time and a daily conveyor belt of promotion meant that the band were travelling the world without really seeing any of it. All three members were on the verge of a nervous breakdown and, as Teenage Wildlife clearly depicts, would break the monotony with an additional routine of heavy drinking and trashing dressing rooms. Wheeler almost cringes at the memory: “I got really freaked out by some of the fame of 1977 because we were on the cover of Kerrang, NME and Smash Hits all around the same time. It was a very broad appeal. Some of the Smash Hits pin-up type stuff freaked me out because where we were coming from was being massive Nirvana fans. That’s the kind of world we wanted to be in.”
Fame certainly had its advantages though. After recording the title song for Danny Boyle’s film A Less Less Ordinary, they befriended Ewan McGregor who subsequently invited the three Stars Wars obsessives to perform at the wrap party for The Phantom Menace. “It was a completely bizarre night where all of our dreams coming true at once,” states Wheeler, still grinning from ear to ear at the memory. “And it was a pretty debauched party too.” A few years later when they were also invited to stay at George Lucas’s filmmaker’s retreat Skywalker Ranch and performed at Industrial Light & Magic.
Soon extended to a quartet with the addition of guitarist Charlotte Hatherley who debuted at the V Festival, Ash’s second album Nu-Clear Sounds maintained the band’s knack for infectious hooks and melodies, but the likes of Death Trip 21 and Numb Skull delivered Wheeler’s retrospective mission statement that they were “kicking against being a pop band.” The situation had been made more problematic as Wheeler hadn’t written anything new during the eighteen months of gruelling touring that followed 1977, while the employment of two producers pushed the budget to the extreme. Now, though, Wheeler confesses to loving the album: “I think it set us up for the longevity that we’d had, even though it was a step back. It was really important for us to put our foot down at that time.”
At the time, however, things were looking desperate in the Ash camp. Money had been reinvested in the unreleased Teenage Wildlife documentary and Nu-Clear Sounds didn’t connect on the scale that 1997 did, leaving the band in a precarious financial situation. With many of their contemporaries falling away, they realised that the solution was deceptively simple: “It was the strength of the songs that had got us there in the first place, so I knew I had to write another serious batch of songs to get us back going again.”
Wheeler admits that the release of Shining Light “could’ve been the last roll of the dice for us.” Happily, it sparked Ash’s second life as the track lodged itself into the top ten, became the band’s biggest selling single and set off a run of five hit singles from its parent album Free All Angels. It was followed by rewritten Nu-Clear Sounds leftover Burn Baby Burn which would become one of the band’s signature tracks, helped in part by a suitably energetic video packed full of cheerleaders and basketball players.
With Free All Angels returning Ash to the top of the charts, Shining Light – later covered by Annie Lennox – earned Wheeler a prestigious Ivor Novello award for Best Contemporary Pop Song. “It felt amazing,” he begins, seemingly struggling to find the words some ten years later. “It was a dream to win that award. It’s the ultimate accolade.”
That momentum continued with 2004’s Nick Raskulinecz-produced album Meltdown which was recorded at Sound City Studios in Los Angeles – the very same place that Nirvana created Nevermind. The album was previewed with Clones, the first ever #1 single on the then unofficial downloads chart which also had the distinction of being the first ever song to be licensed by the Star Wars franchise when it was used in the game Republic Commando. Clones and the album’s first full single Orpheus (another Top 20 hit) demonstrated the most visceral aspect of the band’s sound, yet the follow-up – the brooding ballad Starcrossed – again emphasised Wheeler’s ability to craft poignant, lovelorn lyrics. Again the band featured notably on the big screen with three soundtrack contributions to Shaun of the Dead, one of which was a collaboration with Coldplay’s Chris Martin on a cover of The Buzzcocks’ ‘Everyone’s Happy Nowadays’.
By 2007’s Twilight of the Innocents, everything had changed. Wheeler and Hamilton had relocated to New York where they founded their own studio, their long-standing label Infectious had been incorporated into Warner Music and, most importantly of all, a mutual separation saw Hatherley depart after almost a decade together. The album would be their first to be self-produced. “It was like going back to our DIY beginnings,” says Wheeler. “The music industry was changing and there was a lot more uncertainty with making records. It was a stressful record to make, but very rewarding.” Previewed by the band’s twelfth Top 20 hit ‘You Can’t Have It All’ and unencumbered by the restraints of studio costs and outside producers, the album found the band freshly revitalised. Their willingness to evolve and experiment resulted in the epic progressive title track which remains a stable of the set to this very day, while the renowned composer Paul Buckmaster (Elton John, The Rolling Stones) contributed orchestral arrangements to the album.
Before the album had hit shelves, Ash had already confirmed details of their next project, the A-Z singles series which would see the band release a new single every fortnight for a year. “I wanted to experiment with the format of a download and the instant nature of it,” enthuses Wheeler. “Something that frustrated me about doing albums was the length of time between recording and actually releasing the music. I find with songwriting that when you’re in the practice of it, it’s really easy. I didn’t like the switching on and off thing you’d do with albums. I found that cycle very frustrating for the creative side of my brain. It was just a really good creative time because we never ran out of ideas.”
Supplementing the single releases was the A-Z tour in which Ash visited a British town beginning with each letter of the alphabet (albeit with X necessitating a little cheating with Exmouth). They ended in the Cornish village of Zennor playing a packed hall to seventy locals. “It was one of my favourite nights in the history of the band,” admits Wheeler.
As for the future? “We still love playing and people still love seeing us,” he concludes with a steely passion in his voice. “It’s all about finding ways to keep it interesting.”