Tim Wheeler and Mark Hamilton’s friendship and musical adventures began in 1989, when the two 12-year-olds founded (unheralded) heavy metal titans Vietnam in their hometown of Downpatrick, County Down. Though the band ultimately fell apart as grunge re-arranged the face of rock music, the duo remained united, recruiting 16-year-old drummer Rick McMurray for their new vehicle, ASH, a classic power trio inspired by Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Pixies and local alt rock heroes Lazer Gun Nun. The group’s debut single, “Jack Names The Planets,” was funded and released by London-based radio plugger Stephen Taverner on his own La La Land label in 1994, picking up airplay and plaudits from influential Radio 1 DJs John Peel, Steve Lamacq and Mark Radcliffe. That same year, Korda Marshall, the former Head of A&R for RCA Records, snapped up the teenage rockers as one of the first signings to his newly created Infectious Records label.
The group’s first two Infectious singles, “Petrol” and “Uncle Pat,” topped the UK indie charts. The third, the irresistible “Kung Fu,” equally indebted to martial arts legend Jackie Chan and punk pioneers Ramones, marked the trio out as one of the UK’s most exciting new bands. 1995 saw Ash crack the UK Top 20 for the first time, with pop-punk classics “Girl From Mars” and “Angel Interceptor,” before the Top 10 success of “Goldfinger” prefigured their debut album, “1977,” crashing into the UK album chart at number one. The years following were something of a blur. The band closed Glastonbury festival in 1997, headlined Reading festival as a quartet in 2001, and racked up a second number one album (“Free All Angels”), a Top 10 album (“Nu-Clear Sounds”) and six more Top 30 singles in between. “Free All Angel’s” lead-off single, “Shining Light,” earned Tim Wheeler an Ivor Novello Award for Best Contemporary Song while the incendiary “Burn Baby Burn” garnered a Single Of The Year accolade from Q magazine. In 2004, the band’s fourth album, “Meltdown,” showcased a heavier sonic approach, debuting at number five in the charts, and securing the band an opening slot on U2’s world tour.
Flash forward to 2018 — Twenty-five years on from their emergence as teenagers on Belfast’s DIY scene, ASH return with another irrepressible album that more than holds its own in what is a seemingly already over-stocked catalogue of hits. The trio’s seventh studio collection, ‘Islands,’ is due for a May 18 release on Infectious Music and serves as an open-hearted set of songs dealing with love and loss, friendship and betrayal, identity, salvation, redemption and rebirth. Pound-for-pound, it’s also the strongest, most exhilarating long player of Ash’s storied career, an album which reaffirms the trio’s status as one of the most idiosyncratic and thrilling guitar bands. Produced by Tim Wheeler, ‘Islands’ features additional production from Mark Hamilton, Rick McMurray and Claudius Mittendorfer – who also mixed the album at the band’s studio in New York.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Tim Wheeler to discuss the band’s early years, the moments that helped mold them as young artists and the making of their powerful new album, ‘Islands.’
Let’s start at the beginning. How did music come into your life and begin to take hold?
I think I was around 10 years old when I became a metal kid. I was big into Iron Maiden, Megadeth and stuff like that. I started a heavy metal band with our bass player, Mark [Hamilton], when we were 11 years old. Here we are, 30 years later, still playing together! [laughs] Damn! [laughs] Around 1992, we got more into alternative rock, which was around the time Nirvana was blowing up. We were also big big fans of Pixies, Mudhoney and Teenage Fanclub. Then more of a punk influence came into my life, so when we were 15 years old, we started Ash. We got signed when we were 17! Two weeks after leaving school, when we were 18 years old, we had our first hit single, which led to 18 Top 40 hits in the UK over the years and a couple number one albums! We’re still doing the same thing! [laughs]
Well, it’s good work if you can get it! [laughs]
Yeah, it’s awesome! [laughs]
Tell us more about those early years. Ash took off at an incredible rate. What are some memories of the band early on and what are some of the moments that had a big impact on the future of the band?
I really enjoyed the first few years, when we were 15 or 16, going out and playing Belfast and small gatherings with other grunge minded bands. Those were really good times because they were really carefree and fun. We would always have to get our slot finished at a certain time so that we could run, with our guitars on our backs, to catch the last bus home! That was pretty exciting! Things really blew up for us at 18 and we had a year-and-a-half of full-on touring! There was a worldwide fanbase, which was kind of nuts. Our second album wasn’t as successful, so I think we had a taste of huge success and then almost a sense of huge failure quite early on, so I think that was really good for us. It was a good lesson to learn. When we came back strongly on our third album, I think that gave us longevity. Having that difficult time with the second album gave us strength and let us know we could get through anything. I think that’s a big part of why we’re still here today!
What stands out when you think about being on stage for the first few times in Ash?
I guess the physical feeling of it. The physical feeling of volumes from really loud guitar amps and drums. The vibrations really go through your body and I love that excitement. I’m even talking about playing on the small stages with 10 people watching us! It’s such a buzz! Once you start adding an audience who is getting really into it, there is nothing like it! That first moment when you walk on stage and hear a crowd cheer, that’s one of the best buzzes you can get!
How did moving to New York years ago impact you in a musical sense?
I had only been in New York for four months before we found a studio, which was great. I had lived in London for nine years and we had always wanted to have our own studio and space. It’s kind of funny how quickly I found it when I moved to New York. It was a bit slow because we had to set up the studio and I had to learn a lot about how studios work. I became much more of an engineer. I think that’s something else that has gotten better and better over the years. At the beginning, everything was kind of hard. It was also fantastic to have our own space for the first time! From 2009 to 2010, we did 26 singles in one year. That was a real product of having our own studio. We had really figured out the space by then and became really prolific. That was great and was the kind of thing I always wished I had in London!
Where do you look for inspiration these days?
I always buzz on making new songs. I do this thing quite often where I try to write 10 songs in 10 hours, once a week. That keeps me on my twos. Fun, weird stuff always comes out of those sessions, so I keep finding new ground. I write them with no pressure; apart from the time pressure. There is no quality pressure! [laughs] That keeps it really playful and the fun ideas coming. On this new album, “Islands,”1 I did a bunch of traveling like the islands in Japan, off the coast of Spain and off the coast of Ireland. The traveling also gives you fresh ideas as well!
Tell us more about the 10 songs in 10 hours approach. Are these songs geared toward Ash?
I’m kind of just write anything. Sometimes I might do stuff with a lot of keyboards but as I’m getting close to a time where our drummer, Rick [McMurray], is coming to New York, I might focus more on guitar songs. I just like having fun and there are no real expectations. I know that if I write that quantity of songs, there are going to be a certain amount of good ones and a certain amount of absolute rubbish! [laughs] I’ve found that there is definitely fun stuff in there. In the old days, I used to write at least one song a day when I was in a writing phase. That was my way of defeating writer’s block because if you are practicing it regularly, a lot of pressure can start to build up in your mind and everything becomes so important that you become stalled. My way is to just keep writing all the time, so back to the 10 songs in 10 hours thing. Doing that regularly keeps me going. The other thing about doing this is that I get other friends to do it on the same day! We all get together and play back our ideas, so there is kind of an instant sharing thing. Knowing that I’ve got an audience that I’ve got to play some things to helps the process along. Those are the current tricks I’m using but I might switch it up again soon because I’ve been doing it for four years now and I have 300 songs! [laughs]
You mentioned your new album, “Islands.” How did this record take shape?
I really rely on the others guys, Mark and Rick. They are the ones who will help me filter through the songs. I can kind of tell from their reaction if a song is good. Sometimes, I’m too close to it to know. We spend a lot of time in the rehearsal room jamming through stuff and we can tell what feels good. Normally, we aim to get to get 12 songs that we’re all really buzzing about, sound great with the band and have cool melodies or lyrical ideas. That is always the starting point. The rehearsal process is a big part of what helps shape the album. With “Islands,” we just picked the 12 best songs together and said, “This goes together really well.” That’s how it came about.
You guys have worked together for ages. How has the creative dynamic changed, if at all, over the years?
It’s gotten really easy! It’s a well-oiled machine at this point. It’s fun and we always look forward to it! Rick lives in Scotland and Mark and myself live in New York, so we don’t get together all the time but, when we do, we are normally looking forward to it! There is typically a big bunch of material to go through, which is stuff we are really excited to work on. It’s great! I can really hear the ideas come to life once the guys are playing with me! It really starts to sound like Ash. I think this is a case where things have gotten better and easier over time. We are pretty calm and we’re never really stressed out. We truly enjoy the process!
You have a great variety of songs on “Islands.” I’m sure some come easy and others are harder to nail down.
Yeah! Songs like “Annabelle” and “Buzzkill” sounded great the second we started playing them. “Confessions In The Pool” was a bit more of a challenge because most of the song is based around two chords repeating. It came down to finding a way to make it interesting throughout the whole thing. We had a really long, rock-out, jam-out session at the end of that, which was probably five minutes long to begin with! We knew it needed to be edited down, so reluctantly cutting out bits was a bit of hard work; finessing the end of the whole thing. Some had a slightly different spout to them like “Did Your Love Burnout?” We’d never really played anything like that before, so I had a bit of doubt in my mind to whether it was good or if people would like it because it was taking a bit of a chance. I’m getting really good feedback from it, so I think it’s really worked!
You are involved with every element of the record making process. Do you gravitate to areas you might not have been attracted to initially?
Yeah, I am quite good at programming synths that make appearances here and there. I can do a decent amount of engineering. We used to have quite a big team with us while making records but now I can handle most of it. I wish I didn’t because I would love to have someone’s help sometimes! [laughs] I can do a good rough mix but I wouldn’t do a final mix of a track. The mixing side of it is something I never thought I would understand and now I’m getting a bit of an idea. I’m becoming a real studio nerd! [laughs]
What are the biggest challenges in bringing “Islands” to life?
This is definitely the one where I’ve done the most engineering. I think self-motivation was a big thing. There would be times where I would come to the studio by myself without anyone’s feedback. The guys are here a lot in the early stages of a record but once it gets into guitars, keyboards and vocals, I often just do that by myself. The hardest thing is to get the discipline to come in and also to say something is finished. It’s nice if someone else is there to go, “OK, that’s good. You don’t need to work on that any harder!” [laughs] Knowing when to stop is a big challenge! [laughs]
How have you evolved as an artist over your career?
I guess I’ve got a much bigger overview of the whole thing. I can remember our first times in the studio and not really knowing how to arrange a song or shape it from beginning to end. I remember our first producer, Owen Morris, was really good at helping us edit stuff down. He was really good for quality control. Now, as soon as I write a song, I can picture how the whole thing is going to sound from the drums, bass line, where additional embellishments need to be or when there needs to space on the track and when it needs to be full. Normally, right from the get-go, I have a clear idea of where I want it to get and then I work toward getting there. In the old days, I was a lot more blind and needed a lot more help along the way! [laughs]
Can we expect Ash to hit the road in support of “Islands” in the months to come?
Yeah! We’ve got some UK festivals in August. I think we’re also doing a short US tour in September and, if that goes well, hopefully some more stuff early next year. We are also doing the UK and Europe later this year as well. Hopefully, we’ll be playing Japan and Australia as well! We’re trying to get out in the world!
What goes into planning your shows? You have an incredible back catalog, so it can’t be easy! As you move forward that catalog gets thicker and thicker!
Oh my god! It’s such a headache! [laughs] It comes down to what songs to leave out these days. There is always a bunch of new stuff we are excited to play but it is about finding a balance between that and what fans want to hear. It’s very hard to get a full spread of everything without playing three hours and going full Bruce Springsteen! [laughs] We normally like our shows to be about an hour-and-a-half. We definitely make some tricky sacrifices on what we play! The dream would be to play loads and loads of the new stuff but I know the fans want to hear the old stuff too!
This album is fresh but it sounds like you have your eye on the future.
Yeah, we’re actually quite far into recording a follow up album to “Islands” already. I’m working on that at the moment, so I’d love to get that out next year as well! I’d like to keep consistently releasing while the songs are flowing! It’s got a bit of a different style to it now but we will see how it shapes up!
You’ve done a solo record in the past. Is there another one of those releases in the cards?
I’m not really in a hurry to do one of those for awhile. The main reason I did that one was my father had passed away and I was writing a lot about that, so it felt like a very personal project. I did enjoy the whole learning process of working outside the band, which was quite interesting. At the moment, Ash is a great vehicle for everything I want to say at the minute. Perhaps, if I wanted to do something really different, I could do another solo record but, at the minute, our new album is quite weird! [laughs] So, no complaints there!
You have been in the music business for most of your life and have seen changes. As an artist, what do you enjoy most about the industry in its current form?
I think it’s great that you can have such a direct connection with your fans through social media. You can have a great worldwide reach in today’s world. Within seconds of creating something, you can have it out there! That’s great! I guess the flip-side of that is there is so much music out in the world. In the old days, there were certain filters in place. Now, maybe it’s a little harder to get noticed sometimes. There are definitely pros and cons. It’s cool that, these days, you don’t necessarily need a record label and can be self-sufficient. You can get by with the support of your fans whereas, in the old days, if you didn’t have a record deal it would kind of seem like the end of your career. We’ve done self-releasing stuff in the past but we are on a label for the new album, “Islands.” It’s nice having a team behind you as well! It’s so different! It’s such a different world but I think there is room for everything out there!
What’s the best way for fans to support you?
There are the obvious things like sharing videos and coming to see us live. There are also things like putting our stuff in Spotify playlists and sharing tracks on the streaming platforms. I hear that is really good these days. Buy some vinyl! That would be awesome! [laughs] Any of the above would be great! It’s always changing, that’s the trouble! Nowadays, it’s always evolving!
What’s the biggest lesson we can take away from your journey as an artist?
I guess I can’t see myself having survived any of this without my bandmates. I think, had I been a solo artist, it would have been pretty hard. It’s great when you can rely on and trust in other people. It’s great when you have a few people committed to one thing and what you can achieve. That’s the great thing about being in a band and the reason why we became a three-piece when we started out. We knew we needed a small, tight unit that was fully committed. Also, try to be humble and work hard! [laughs]
Well said! Thanks for your time today, Tim. We couldn’t be more excited for this album and everything else you have in the works! We will spread the word!
Thank you so much, Jason! It was an absolute pleasure chatting with you! Chat soon! Cheers!
For all the latest news and tour dates for ASH, visit the band’s official website at www.ash-official.com. ‘Islands’ will be released on May 18th via Infectious Music/BMG on CD, LP and digitally – Click here to pre-order!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.