A chat with Tim Wheeler of Ash

Having recently released the seventh studio album of their 26-year long career, Islands, in May, Ash are still around, are still touring Europe and Asia, and still going strong on all fronts. If you haven’t heard of them, Ash are a three-piece rock band from Northern Ireland whose endurance and consistency has won them the quit-but-firm position as one of Ireland and the UK’s most loved rock bands. Giving a whole new meaning to the concept of never changing, Ash have remained steadily on their particular wave and style since day one. Delighting their fans with yet another trustworthily great album, described as “an open-hearted set of songs dealing with love and loss, friendship and betrayal, identity, salvation, redemption and rebirth… all the important stuff” and promised to be “the strongest, most exhilarating long player” of Ash’s career, Islands certainly delivers, reaffirming the trio’s status as one of the most idiosyncratic and singularly thrilling guitar bands to originate from Ireland.

We got to speak with Ash frontman Tim Wheeler while the band were in Milan on their tour back in November. Although Ash’s album came out in May, their touring was a little later than it usually would be after an album release, it being the beginning of festival season.

You guys played at a few Irish festivals this summer. Which one was your favourite?

“Electric Picnic, that was really fun. We played on the Friday this year. We only played there for the first time last year on one of the smaller stages, but this year we played on the main stage so that was great! We played a festival in Belfast, The Biggest Weekend, and that was on a Titanic slipway – that was cool because that was like a punk band show.”

You originate from Northern Ireland, but where are you all based now?

“I’ve been in New York for thirteen years now. Mark lives there too, and we’ve got a studio in Manhattan as well. Rick lives in Edinburgh, so we get together whenever we need to.”

You guys go way back. How did Ash come about all those years ago?

“We started in school. Myself and Mark started a band when we were twelve years old. It was a heavy metal type band, we were trying to be heavy metal… We struggled with that for a few years and then we discovered more alternative rock stuff like nirvana in ’92, so we started ASH with Rick then. So, it started in school and we’ve been playing ever since really! We were fifteen when we formed, and then we were seventeen when we got a record deal and started getting away and touring the mainland, and then it all kicked off in ’95 when we brought out ‘Girl from Mars’ – that’s when we started touring all over the world.”

Do you think the music industry has changed much between now and then, at least from your experience? Do you think it’s harder nowadays to make it?

“I think so, yes. I think there was more of a music industry, as in there was more money, I think in it that would help bands and young artists to develop. I think now you have to be quite clever and economical. Touring when you’re beginning is really expensive – you can lose a lot of money. We’re lucky that we had different companies to support us back then. Having said that, there is a way – you can promote yourself on social media, you can do a lot more stuff yourself these days that you would have needed record companies and press agents to do for you back in the day. It is probably harder to sustain yourself as a young band these days.”

Do you think streaming sites like Spotify have made it harder for artists to make money out of their music and what they’re doing?

“I think Spotify is starting to bring more money into the industry, just that it doesn’t necessarily go to the artist. It’s definitely better than no income coming in. As opposed to people downloading for free, at least it’s still bringing money in. It’s probably the next best thing to when people bought a lot of records. People are willing to spend a lot more money on vinyl nowadays and that can help a bit, the way vinyls have come back.”

Who were your influence back when you guys were getting started with the band? Once you got signed to the label and started working in studio, what material were you drawing inspiration from?

“When we started out as ASH we were really big into Nirvana, Pixies, Teenage Fanclub, all that kind of scene. Then we started getting into more classic stuff, like when we started working with our first producer Owen Morris he got us into Bowie a lot, The Beatles and Beach Boys as well. I like a lot of punk stuff like Ramones, Buzzcocks, Undertones… so we’re kind of like a hybrid of all that stuff; pop song writing with punk and alternative rock energy.”

At what stage in the bands career did you go from national to international and start touring all over the world?

“After we got signed we started touring all over the UK and Ireland, with maybe the odd weekend in Europe. And then as soon as ‘Girl from Mars’ hit and we left school – it was a hit two weeks after we left school, pretty much – at that point we did our first US tour, and Japan and Australia. From then on we toured Europe a lot as well.”

You toured the States with Coldplay in 2002. How was that?

“That was good. Coldplay were actually really big ASH fans from when they were at university. When we first met them they were really big fans, and then we became friends and they wanted us to come on tour so we did! That was just as their second album came out – they were getting really big at that point. We did a lot of support tours in the States that year, we were really trying to break the States so we spent the whole year pretty much supporting people.”

You supported David Bowie at one point too! David Bowie, Coldplay, Moby – was this year of touring with these artists a highlight for the band?

“It was good, but we definitely prefer when we’re headlining and touring on our own success as opposed to supporting people to be honest, but it was good fun! Maybe some of our shows in ’96 when we were at our peak or in 2001 when we were at another peak, when 1977 went to number one in the UK and when Free All Angels went number one, the tours of both those albums were our peaks – those are probably the best times really.”

You guys are known for the particular attention you pay to the lyrics in your songs. I wanted to ask you about your song writing process – what is your approach, and if you had to give advice to aspiring song-writers, in terms of dedication and attention to lyrics, what would it be?

“I have a lot of different approaches. I guess it’s often best if it is something that came from personal experience in the lyrics, y’know if it rings true and there’s a bit of real feeling in there, even if it is disguised a lot… Sometimes I write a lot and realise later what it is I’m trying to say, or sometimes my feelings will come out in the lyrics a lot. Say like ‘Girl from Mars’; I wrote that not long after breaking up with my first girlfriend and I think it was the loneliness and sadness I was feeling about that that somehow came through in a song about a girl from outer space, y’know – it wasn’t literal at all but I think there was some real feelings in it, that went into that song. I think don’t be afraid to take chances and write some weird shit because it’s way better than being boring – take risks and don’t be afraid to look stupid.”

You guys released albums in 2012, 2015, 2016 and 2018. Will we be seeing a release in 2019?

“I think so! We may have a new single, possibly, and I think an album out in early 2020. Half-way through recording the album already but we’ve been doing so much touring it’s been on hold for six months. If we hadn’t been doing so much touring it would be finished already… We’re looking forward to getting back to the studio and finishing it up!”

Originally published in University Express 2018/2019 Issue 9, on Tuesday 12th March 2019, Byline Interview by Byline Editor, Ciara Dinneen.

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