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Fire that still burns at the heart of Ash

Published: November, 2009
Source: Belfast News Letter

Tim Wheeler has been the singer, guitarist and frontman of Downpatrick rockers Ash since the band formed in the early 1990s. Back then, he, along with bassist Mark Hamilton and drummer Rick McMurray, were the Ulster teenagers who took the music world by storm.

The trio topped the charts with their debut album – which was called 1977, but released in 1996 – and went on to sell more than eight million records across the globe.

Hugely popular both at home and abroad, they have become one of Northern Ireland’s leading musical exports. Today, Ash are four singles into the A-Z Series, which sees them release 26 songs as digital downloads and limited edition seven-inch vinyl records over the course of a year. The unique project coincides with the end of a tour that saw the band performing across the UK in towns that begin with each letter of the alphabet.

Now in their 30s, Ash return to the Province for a concert at home next week. “We’re starting to see children turning up at our shows because their parents are fans,” Tim said “That’s when it hits me how long we’ve been going.”

What is your earliest memory of childhood, and what sort of childhood did you have?
It was pretty happy. My earliest memory is playing in the snow when I was young – I’m not even sure what age I was. I’ve seen photographs of it, and maybe that’s tied into the memory. I was lucky because my mum and dad had jobs where they could take off all summer. They were amazing; we’d go down to Co. Kerry for a couple of months and have a great time in a caravan there. My parents were together and happy, and that’s the main thing for a child.

Did the Troubles have much of an impact on your life?
I remember Chinooks flying over the house and stuff like that, thinking it was cool to see these giant helicopters flying so low. Then there were bomb scares and things like that. I did see the aftermath of a shooting when I was in Belfast as a boy, going to Leisureworld. A policeman had been shot and I saw the body covered with a tarpaulin in the street. That was the closest I came to real violence. I also remember going on a peace march in Downpatrick with our church after a bomb blast on a police or Army Land Rover. Like most children from Northern Ireland who grew up with the Troubles, it seemed like normality at the time.

What subjects were you top and bottom of the class at in school?
I did music at school, but I wasn’t good enough to do it at GCSE level. You needed to achieve a certain grade to do it at GCSE and I didn’t have that, which is one of my biggest regrets. We had a cool music department in the school, though, and they would lend us things like four-track recorders to make demos.

What are your memories of the early days of Ash?
It’s 15 years since we starting putting out records. We formed as a band in 1992, playing gigs in the Penny Farthing in Belfast. It was just brilliant, so much fun. We were relying on friends in other bands to give us gigs with them, as there weren’t that many places to play back then. It was a do-it-yourself scene in Northern Ireland, where people helped each other out. We had to build things up, but we just got a lucky break when our music made its way into the right hands in London and we got a manager. The only way you got attention in Northern Ireland at the time was through a few fanzines. Today you have festivals like Glasgowbury, where it’s a whole day of Northern Irish bands. That was unthinkable back then.

How supportive was your school, Down High?
They were great – the headmaster was cool and he didn’t take much convincing to let us take time off to do things. He let us do a fundraising gig for Comic Relief in the school assembly hall. When we were 17, and Elastica wanted to take us on our first UK tour, our manager came over and spoke to the headmaster, and he gave us a fortnight off.

What was it like being on the road at that age?
It was brilliant, but I was sent off with a load of homework to do. I remember sitting down to do it on the first night of the tour when everyone was partying around me. I eventually put the homework away and didn’t touch it for the rest of the tour. During one half-term, we were flown to LA to meet record companies. I didn’t tell anyone at school about that. Then you come back in the following Monday and the teacher is asking you where your homework is – it’s bizarre, I suppose.

How did your schoolmates react to the success of the band?
We used to get a lot of stick from people who said we were rubbish, but that just spurred us on, so it worked in our favour. But there were teachers who were great. Our English teacher at the time was David Park, who writes novels now. He gave us Clash and Undertones records. We were sound checking in the assembly hall one day and his classroom was next door, so he must have heard what we were doing. We were determined to make music, get recording and keep on doing that. But we had no idea how to go about it. We were lucky enough to meet people along the way who made it possible.

What has been your favourite Northern Ireland show over the years?
One of my favourites was a show we played in Christmas of 1994 in the Limelight [in Belfast]. We were starting to get a buzz around us and had done some support shows for other bands, but this time we were headliners. All the stuff that happens when you’re on the up is just so fresh, new and exciting, and you’ll always remember it. The U2 gig in the Waterfront Hall [in support of the Good Friday Agreement, with the bands joined onstage by David Trimble and John Hume] was strange but cool, as was the show with U2 in Botanic Gardens. Then we did a concert at Belfast Vital with The Darkness, which was one of the first festival shows we did in Belfast, which also stands out.

You mentioned playing with U2, and you also toured America with David Bowie. Have you ever been star-struck when meeting people like that?
Over the years, I’ve realised more and more that rock stars are normal people. But there are those performers that you have so much respect for, because they’ve been doing what they do at such a high level for so long. As you get more experienced, you go from being star-struck to trying to pick their brains about what makes them so successful. We got to meet [Foo Fighters frontman and former Nirvana drummer] Dave Grohl in LA – he came to the studio where we were recording because he was friends with the producer. He was such a nice guy, too. When you’re hanging out with people like that, you always think back to the moments when you were a kid – I remember going to see Nirvana in the King’s Hall [in Belfast] in 1992 – and you have to pinch yourself.

The line-up of Ash hasn’t changed over the years, save for the addition of guitarist Charlotte Hatherley from 1997 to 2006. It’s quite unusual for a band to stay together for so long.
We’re like brothers. We went to school together, are from the same place, shared so many experiences and are very similar in many ways. We always knew we could rely on each other and, when things got tough, one of us wasn’t going to flake out and let the others down. There’s a total commitment and implicit trust there that I think is essential with a band – each member has to completely believe in it and really want to do it. We don’t really fight that much, except for the occasional time in the studio. But when we do argue it’s more a family thing, where you know at the end of it you’ll still be together.

How did you feel about Annie Lennox covering your song “Shining Light”?
I got an email last summer to say she was doing it, but, because she had a back injury, it didn’t come out until January. My first reaction was ‘wow’ because she’s such a legend and a great singer. Then I was wondering how it was going to turn out, but I really liked it – I take it as a compliment that she wanted to do our song. A lot of or fans thought it was bizarre, but she’s an incredible artist.

Is there anyone you’d like to hear performing an Ash song?
It’s always weird for me to imagine someone else singing one of our songs. But we did Oh Yeah with Neil Hannon [of the Divine Comedy] once and it’s a real buzz hearing someone else singing the lyrics. It’s a great feeling, and I’d love to hear more people covering our songs.

Talking of “Oh Yeah”, you have been involved in the Oh Yeah Music Centre in Belfast. The idea of having a musical resource centre in Northern Ireland – something like that would have been so helpful for us when we were younger.
It’s an honour to have it named after one of our songs. I’d love to do an all-ages show there sometime. Any chance we get, we try to have a Northern Irish band on the bill with us. Aside from anything else, it’s always good fun to hang out with people from home.

Now that you are in your 30s, how have things changed for the members of Ash?
Rick is talking about writing a book, and Mark is interested in ‘Earthship’ buildings – which don’t require water or electricity – and is trying to develop them. He’s also got a family now, so he’s not the maniac he used to be! I’m still so wrapped up in music – I go to the studio five days a week and work until after midnight. It was a big project trying to get all the singles organised for the following year. Writing music is something that comes easily to me; it’s the lyrics that take the longest time. But it would be interesting to write a movie or something – I think if I was branching out from music, that’s what I’d like to do.

What is your favourite Ash song or album?
Probably our first album, 1977, because it sums up a very intense time in my life.

Certain songs, like “Girl From Mars” for example, have been very good to you over the years. Do you ever get tired of playing them live?
Never. As soon as you play the opening chords of that song at a gig, people chuck their pints in the air and go crazy. There’s a real energy release and I get such a kick out of that. Songs like that are your secret weapons when you play a show and I can’t understand why any band would leave their popular tunes out of a live set. We’ll be playing some of our new songs in Belfast, but don’t want to play them all, so we can leave people something to discover. Then there will be all the hits.

What five people would you invite to a dinner party?
The Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, Phil Lynott from Thin Lizzy, the philosopher Carl Sagan, Bono from U2 because he’s good craic and Bjork.

Favourite book?
On the Road by Jack Kerouac – I re-read it every couple of years. I live two doors down from where Allen Ginsberg and William S Burroughs used to live in New York, and where Kerouac used to stay a lot. That’s where he started out on a lot of his journeys.

Favourite film?
Apocalypse Now.

When was the last time you cried?
The last time I really, seriously bawled was flying back from Japan to New York and I was watching Atonement. You know the way on planes they show films on a loop? Well, I’d seen the end of it and then went back to the beginning and watched it from the start. I knew what was going to happen, but it really got to me, and I’m not sure why. Watching films at 37,000 feet seems to make the whole thing more intense.

Tell us a secret about yourself#
I’m asthmatic. And partially colour blind.

Interview by Andrew Johnston