Over 22 years since their first major release, Ash are as busy as ever. The boys done good from Downpatrick have spent much of this year touring to support the release of their latest album Islands. Heading as far afield as Asia, they are bringing the tour back to Ireland later this week with shows in Cork, Dublin and Belfast. That link to home was evident during their UK tour earlier this year when they brought local favourites Brand New Friend along for the ride.
Aaron Cunningham caught up with Ash frontman Tim Wheeler in the midst of their European dates to chat Islands, Northern Ireland, Brand New Friend and balancing their legacy.
► Whereas Kablammo! seems more similar to Ash’s earlier work, there’s newer sounds on Islands. Was that a conscious decision to put new things out?
I think on Kablammo! we were really trying to get back to stuff that would be really good as a live three-piece. After all the A-Z stuff where we experimented a lot, we wanted to do more of the rock thing. That was a bit of a starting point for Islands but then some experimentation crept back in. It’s been great to play live, as much as Kablammo! actually.
I’m not sure it was too conscious, I think we just thought we’ve got a really great bunch of songs here, let’s record them and go for it. Some of them are a bit different like ‘Did Your Love Burn Out?’, I think that’s like nothing we’ve ever done before. ‘Confessions in the Pool’ has got some really fun stuff in it like programming synths. I think songwriting is maybe a bit Free All Angels but we weren’t afraid to play with some more production tricks on this one.
► Are there any tracks on the new album that you’re most proud of?
I love ‘Incoming Waves’, the very last track on the album. We don’t often play mellow, slower songs but it’s really nice live. It’s a good slow burning one. I was listening to a lot of Sigur Ros when I was writing that one actually. I liked their way they have a motif running through a song, with chord changes underneath it. So I just started with a piano line and wrote the song underneath.
► There’s still a massive appetite with your fans for 1977 and your early work. Do you find it difficult to balance that legacy with putting out new music?
We know everyone always wants to hear it so we always play the hits from 1977. Then we play a couple from Nu-Clear Sounds, Free All Angels etc. I guess the ones that are a bit harder to fit in once we’ve played from the new album as well are the off-the-beaten track songs and b-sides. Also we’re not playing much from Kablammo!, A to Z or Trailer at the moment. It’s kinda hard, it’s a bit of balance. Sometimes I wish we could play two nights in each place to dig a bit deeper into the catalogue. We pretty much always play the hits because we enjoy playing them and it gets the crowd going. I do wish we had time to get into that secondary, more obscure stuff, or even just singles from the other albums that maybe weren’t big hits. But at the minute we’re playing seven tracks from Islands, then our main hits and that’s pretty much the set.
► Any time I’ve seen you play whether that be a freezing cold field at Stendhal or your own show, you still seem to have that enthusiasm playing live. Is that still very important to the band?
I think if we didn’t feel that we wouldn’t be doing it any more. We always get a big kick playing live. As long as we’re enjoying it and getting a great reaction, we’ll keep doing it. The adrenaline is still there, it’s never worn off.
► How does the tour downtime look these days?
Me, Rick and our sound engineer got really into backgammon in the last six months and that’s keeping us going with all the time in airports and stuff. It’s been getting quite competitive. I never thought I’d have a moustache and be into backgammon, I’ve gone full seventies.
► Is there a lot of difference with your tour life now than in your early days?
I guess it was so chaotic in the beginning and a lot of non-stop drinking. It’s probably a bit more civilised and organised these days. Not as much carnage or as many hangovers.
► You’ve still got plenty of connections to Northern Ireland, picking up the Oh Yeah Legends award a couple of years ago for example. Do you still try to keep that link to home?
We’re very proud of where we come from and it’s always important that we can play home. Anything we can do for the Oh Yeah Centre or help the music scene, we love to do as well. I try to come back at least six times a year, I still feel really connected even though I have been away for a long time.
► How important do you think places like the Oh Yeah Music Centre are to helping young musicians on their way?
I think the Oh Yeah centre is amazing and I wish something like that had existed when we were beginning. We were lucky that we did fall into a community and a local music scene in Belfast and in Downpatrick when were starting. But it was pretty limited where we could play. Having more places like the Oh Yeah and the great events they put on, we would have loved that when we were starting. They’ve got everything you’d need in one building. I think it’s very important, a lot of great music has come out of it.
► I suppose one of the ways you’re still supporting here is bringing along Northern Irish bands like Brand New Friend, who you had on your UK tour earlier this year and now these Irish dates. How was it having them on tour with you?
I can’t wait. If we can get a chance to support a local band then we love to do that. Our first tours when we were trying to get over to the mainland to play, it was tricky. We were lucky if we got some help, people like Therapy? would help us out.
Brand New Friend are brilliant. They have fast, punky but also super melodic songs. All played with loads of energy that reminds me of us for sure. The enthusiasm and excitement they have is like our early days. But they’ve got their own thing going on as well of course.
We’ve actually known Taylor [Johnson, Brand New Friend] for a long time, about 8 years or something since he was really young. I don’t know if I’ve met a more enthusiastic person ever in my whole life. And they’re great because they convey that live, even if they’re playing to an audience who have never heard them, they always win them over. So I’m excited to play with them back in Northern Ireland as well as Cork and Dublin.
►Do you still feel a special connection playing at home? Is there a different reaction from the crowd?
There’s definitely something a bit different because there’s family and friends coming to see us. There’s always a funny kind of pressure playing back home, but it’s a nice kind of pressure in a way. It always reminds me of where we came from and how it all started. A lot of people are coming to see us, we’ve been doing it for years and years. It is kind of like playing to a room full of family.
► With your solo album Lost Domain, in response to the death of your father, you’ve raised funds for The Alzheimer’s Society, and there is a big drive currently over mental health in music. Do you think it’s important to raise money and awareness through your platform as a musician?
Whenever I did all the stuff for The Alzheimer’s Society it felt so good actually. It felt very perilous and I felt helpless when my dad was ill and it made me feel really good that I was able to do so much. It’s a subject that really needed to be talked about. It helped give me a lot of catharsis from being involved and we raised so much awareness. Anything I can do now for The Alzheimer’s Society, I like to get involved like collecting at gigs. Our fans are always so generous as well. It’s nice when you do have this platforms and it feels good to use it for something really positive. Even just last month, growing a moustache for Movember.
► From your own experiences, do you think there is a link between mental health a career in music?
It’s hard to say. I’ve definitely had times when I’ve struggled, especially when I was young. We were still young when we had our first success, that was quite a lot to deal with. I think everybody goes through ups and downs, it’s important to be open and talk about it because that makes such a big difference.