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Ash: Mission world domination

Published: June, 2002
Source: CMJ

Fallen warriors before the age of 23, prank-loving Brit power quartet Ash dusts itself off and puts its eyes back on the prize with a sunny new record that has been a smash in its homeland. “We’re our favourite band”, vocalist Tim Wheeler proudly notes. Will America think the same?

When self-proclaimed “North Irish surf punk” group Ash released its glittering 1996 debut full-length, 1977 (the year of the band members’ births), it set the British music press afire with tales of Ash’s drunken debauchery and souped-up guitar pop. Graceful guitarist Charlotte Hatherley joined up with core Ash-ers - singer/guitarist Tim Wheeler, bassist Mark Hamilton and mohawked drummer Rick McMurray - in 1997, after which the newly gelled quartet released 1999’s Nu-Clear Sounds, which was largely ignored, and even dissed, by critics. The band briefly teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.

Never the types to let a challenge slide, Wheeler and Co. cranked it up to 11 and came back with a vengeance for their latest effort, Free All Angels, released on Infectious overseas and their first for the Kinetic label (known more for its dance-friendly acts than its rock roster) in the States. The record soared up the UK charts with a string of hit singles; the very Southern California-sounding Free All Angels even knocked midriff-baring Janet Jackson out of the No. 1 slot its first week out of the gate. The victory was too sweet to swallow, prompting the band to get the digits of a hapless Virgin exec and assail his voicemail with a boozy rendition of Outkast’s “I’m Sorry, Ms. Jackson” chorus.

The churning schematics of the new album aren’t the only thing keeping Ash in full-throttle mode. The impish band has a heavy summer tour slate (including the Reading and Leeds festivals, as well as Moby’s Area:2 tour in the US, plus rumours of sharing a bill with Coldplay on its tour), and a handful of UK music prizes. On May 23, frontman Wheeler soundly defeated Dido and Blur’s Damon Albarn for the Ivor Novello Best Contemporary Song prize, which is given out by the British Songwriters Academy. CMJ took time to chat with Wheeler, Hatherley and McMurray while they were hunched over a hangover- curing lunch of coffee and BLTs in New York City’s grimy, hip Meatpacking District.

Tim, I read somewhere that you like to write a song every day. Are you still trying to do that?

Tim: No, I have to be at home to do that. I find it rather hard on the road. That’s the way they need to be written, because then you’re not under so much pressure all the time. You just have to kind of get it out - you can never plan when you’re going to write a good song. You just absolutely have to write every day, or as much as possible. We have a little studio setup in our hotel room; I have a little laptop and stuff.

Do you use ProTools?

Tim: Yeah, it’s wild, really simple and versatile. It took me the time to record one song, and by the time we finished it we knew basically what we needed to know [about the software]. And now anyone can really record anything anywhere. It’s kind of scary really.

How did the signing with Kinetic happen?

Tim: Steve [Lau, Kinetic’s president] who runs the label used to run a label out of Reprise, and we were on Reprise for like five years. He heard the album and signed us straight away. We got it sorted out and came out here later, started touring.

Did you ever think the new record would blow up like it did in the UK?

Rick: We had no way of deducing it, as we’d been away so long. We were out of it two years.

Tim: And rock was definitely not in in the UK when it hit. It was bizarre enough that all this female/male pop group stuff was being played on UK radio but at the same time it was playing our stuff. It was like guitars were being heard on the radio again; we kind of fit in there somehow.

Obviously the first thing a lot of people ask you is how concerned you are about Ash making it in America.

Tim: Uh, we won’t get our hopes up because we’ve been there twice before, but we’re so happy to be here touring again in the United States. [The experience] has levelled us.

Well, you’ve changed a lot since then.

Tim: Not being famous is OK; we just want to be recognized in the village of music. That’s why we’re here. We need to come and tour here, so we can be recognized, so people can hear us.

It’s great that you can have success back home, which enables you to come here to the US

Tim: It doesn’t really translate, though. I think if we do well in America it can help us around the world - if we were No. 1 album of the week there, we can go further.

I wouldn’t be too offended if you’re not, though. We are the country that put Britney Spears on the map. There are huge pockets of bad taste in America.

Rick: Same in the UK, really. I guess you just don’t hear about it as much.

What do you think about the popularity of bands like Starsailor and Travis? You’ve had a few encounters with people from other bands. Tim, I know you’ve had some run-ins with James [Walsh] from Starsailor. What do you think of all the bands who are kind of wimpy-sounding?

Tim: We were kind of getting sick of all that downbeat, maudlin kind of stuff.

Rick: There are all these people in the UK just shuffling around with acoustic guitars. There’s no gravity to it.

Tim: We like high energy to get you going. We’d like to hear some upbeat music, which is what we like to make. I think that’s why we got so much attention and the Q Award last year, maybe, because we were making upbeat pop music against the grain.

It’s funny, though; didn’t Q slag your last record and then they come running back to give you an award? I’d be like, ‘Fuck you!’

Tim: (laughs) Ah, I don’t care. Just give me an award!

Rick: It’s not that they were saying we were shit before, they were just unaware.

Charlotte: Yeah, they didn’t say anything about [Nu-Clear Sounds].

Tim: NME is more hype-jumping, but Q is more considerate - they liked us tons. Now we can maybe stay around rather than be a flash in the pan.

It’s been five, six years since you were technically together as the four of you. Where do you see yourself in five more years?

Tim: Drinking coffee! Shit… I guess we’re sort of at a crossroads right now, you know? We need things to go well over here and then maybe we’ll be holed up at [legendary Beverly Hills rock star hang] Chateau Marmont, totally strung-out while working on our 10th album. Who knows?

Rick: I’m hoping to be living on Sunset Boulevard in seclusion, like in the film.

Tim: That’ll be our “beard” stage - even Charlotte will grow one!

By Kristy Martin