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“Lose the dumb flowery shirts, kid!”

Published: September, 2008

Ash frontman Tim Wheeler is interviewed about Ash’s classic debut album 1977.

Based on the last question in Mark’s interview… are we going to see you wearing bell bottoms and loud shirts at these shows?
I doubt it. Our music from 1996 seems to have stood the test of time pretty well, but thankfully I can’t say the same for our dress sense from those days.

Trailer was meant as a precursor of sorts to 1977, and had 3 classic singles in “Jack Names the Plants”, “Uncle Pat”, and “Petrol”. However, it’s obvious from the opening chords of “Lose Control” that 1977 was a whole new monster. Was it a conscious decision on your part to take it up a notch or did the songwriting just evolve naturally?
It’s that classic thing of having years to write your debut and only a short time to write the follow up. Except in this case it was a good thing because we were so young when we started the band. With Trailer we used the best songs from our first couple of developing years as Ash, which cleared the decks for writing 1977. By this time we were doing 1977 I’d learned so much more about songwriting and had a clearer idea of what we could do. We were leaning less on our early influences. A lot of that was down to hanging out with Owen Morris. We’d been doing sessions with him over the previous year where we’d come up with “Kung Fu”, “Girl From Mars” and “Angel Interceptor” and he taught us so much.

Here is a question that has troubled the minds of songwriters everywhere. How the hell did you come up with the key changes in “Goldfinger”? I’ve been listening to that song for 12 years and it still blows my mind (and if I remember correctly, Rivers Cuomo asked the same question). Take us through the writing of that classic single.
I guess this comes down to what I was just saying about having more experience and trying new things. I’d been listening to a lot of Beach Boys, and Brian Wilson is the king of nutso chord changes, he gets away with it because they perfectly support his melodies and he’s a genius at making it all sound simple.The clever thing is that the average listener doesn’t realise that the chords are unusual for pop music, it’s only when you try figuring them that you end up going what the fuck?

At the time, I was also really into John Barry, the songwriter and arranger who did all my favourite Bond themes and his chords are strange, sad, beautiful. He uses a lot of bittersweet melancholic minor chords.I was writing the melody for Goldfinger, with vague ideas of where I wanted it to go. The melody would lead me then I’d try loads of different chords until I’d find the one that seemed to fit underneath it. I wrote it over quite a long time. I can actually remember where I was when I wrote which bits.I started it in my bedroom in Downpatrick in September, feeling a bit confused and out of it after the psycho summer we’d just had. There, I came up with the main verse pattern. I couldn’t figure out where to go next so I left it.

I probably tried getting the next part every time I picked up the guitar but it didn’t come until we were in Japan. It was our first trip there and I had crippling jetlag insomnia. It was my first experience of jetlag. We were only there for around 5 days. I had my 1961 Les Paul Junior (SG) in my hotel room and I was wide awake after going to bed exhausted round midnight and suddenly waking up 2 hours later and feeling totally wide awake and very frustrated. I tried playing some guitar to chill me out and I was playing the verse I had. When I got to the place in the song where I was stuck I tried an E Minor and then an A 7th which were in some whole new key entirely. It made for a really interesting melodic diversion and then I returned to the regular verse key. I thought wow that’s cool, I’d better not forget it. Still I didn’t know where the hell to go next.

A few weeks later we were on tour somewhere in America, sharing a bus with China Drum. I was killing some time during the day playing my guitar in the back lounge of the bus when the chorus came to me. I got the first couple of chords and the rest just flowed out. For a while this made me think writing was some sort of divine thing, that you just have to be patient and the good stuff will come to you, like a gift. It felt like it all was given to me out of nowhere. In reality, I’d been working hard on this fucking song for a few months, every time I picked up my guitar I was trying to figure out where it should go. So if you ever hear me getting all mystical about it again just remind me I’m bullshiting. This left me with a really nice verse and chorus, but I didn’t know where this song would fit, it seemed very different for Ash, I thought it might just be a cool B-side. In December we had 3 weeks off at home to write stuff for the 1977 album sessions that were going to be kicking off in January. I didn’t really have that many song ideas, we actually had no complete songs. Owen came over to Northern Ireland to stay for a few days and run through any ideas we had. I remember we rehearsed “Oh Yeah” and “Lose Control” with him and he helped us get the arrangements into order, but he wasn’t that sure whether we had enough other material.

We were sitting in my old bedroom, he asked me to go through all the ideas I had, I played through everything I thought was good. He wasn’t too excited by anything, so finally I went… all right this is the last idea I have, it’s a bit weird and probably would be nothing more than an interesting B-side. I played my weird little verse and chorus and all of a sudden he got really excited, it was the one he’d been looking for. We went out to the freezing cold cottage we used to rehearse in and played it through for the first time as a band. Owen got us to play round the chorus instrumentally as an intro and it really worked, it sounded powerful and different.

We got Rick doing some cool drum fills during the breaks in the verses. By the time we got to the end of the second chorus we realised we needed somewhere else to go. As I said earlier, I’d been listening to a lot of John Barry stuff and I was in love with his minor chord changes, so we grabbed two chords that I thought were out of Goldfinger that I’d be able to do a guitar solo over. Turns out they were from some entirely different song, but because of the misconception we ended up nicknaming our new song “Goldfinger”. Owen was so into it that it became the first song we did when we got to Rockfield. I had to write lyrics when it came time for the vocals and I spent a long time coming up with lines that fitted in with the melancholic moody atmosphere that was already in the song. My younger brother had just gone back to school after Christmas, I’d been talking to him on the phone the day I was writing the words. It was a whole world I’d just left behind and it seemed strangely profound to give a nod to it in the lyrics over those emotional chord changes.

We all decided it should be our new single so we didn’t have long to think of a title as it was going to come out in March. I was so stressed trying to come up with lyrics for other songs that we just went with our nickname of “Goldfinger”. I guess in a way it’s a shame because it confuses it with the other was more famous Shirley Bassey song, still it has stuck and it didn’t stop it being our highest charting single. It was one of the best songs we’d ever made and it did a lot to change peoples perception of us as being more than just a pop punk band.

Who were your main influences when writing the album?
I was listening to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars album a lot. Also lots of Beach Boys and John Barry and The Stooges. Frank Sinatra, Neil Young, Teenage Fanclub, Buzzcocks, Nirvana, Beatles, Sonic Youth, Thin Lizzy, Ramones, Abba and Black Sabbath.

“Lost in You” is one of the most classic tracks on the record, and I think everyone agrees that it deserves a place on there. However, writing/arranging/recording a song in ONE DAY is borderline insane. What drove you to write/record that song on the last day in the studio?
The fact was that we didn’t have enough songs. It felt like there was something missing from the album. We had 3 pop punk songs left, 2 of them didn’t seem strong enough, they went on to be B-sides (“T-Rex” and “Everywhere is All Around”, and one which we never finished (It was nicknamed “Diamond Rick”, we’ve since lost the master tape of it).

Owen told me we needed another song, so I just went and wrote it. I’d been listening to Frank Sinatra and was figuring out the chords to “Strangers in the Night” a few days earlier. So I came back to the first 2 chords of that song and wrote a whole new song from that starting point. I’d been impressed by that old style of song arrangement where there is no real chorus. The verse isn’t repetitive and develops slowly, the melody is like a journey. Almost all our songs have a repetitive verse and chorus pop structure, so I wanted to see if I could write in this different way.

We didn’t quite record it all in one day. We did the majority of it on that last day in Rockfield with the clock ticking. It was our last chance to record the drums, so it was down to the wire. But I remember finishing the guitar overdubs and the solo in London, I can’t even remember the name of the studio. I also wrote the lyrics in London, inspired by missing my girlfriend at the time, we were in a long distance relationship and I’d hardly seen her while we’d been recording. So I did the vocal in London too. “Lost In You” turned out to be exactly what we needed to balance the album out and complete it.

Mark and Leif have both alluded to the fact that they had a load of free time while you were working on lyrics and vocals for the album. Did you feel an intense amount of pressure to finish it? Or was the lyric writing process an enjoyable time?
I was under a load of pressure because we went in to recording the album with no complete songs, and I normally only write lyrics once we have a complete song arrangement. Prior to this, we’d had an insane 7 months with a lot of touring and I hadn’t had any space to come up with many lyrical ideas.

Once we got a song arrangement complete at Rockfield I had to go and write the rest of the song, I think the pressure made it more difficult and I could spend a day or two coming up with the words, which got quite hellish. There was also a lot of pressure coming from within myself to come up with something great, a debut album that would define us. I went pretty crazy with this stress and had a nervous breakdown later on once we’d finished the record. Meanwhile the others would get up to all sorts of mischief due to the boredom of sitting around. I can’t say the lyrics writing was an enjoyable time for me, but I’m happy about the words that came out of it.

Are there any album tracks that you are really looking forward to playing at these special shows?
Innocent Smile”, it was always so much fun playing the crazy freak-out section. Also, “Lost In You”, that’s a sweet song I wish we had time to play at all our shows.

You guys have your own studio now, and are self-producing from here on in. Looking back at the production of 1977, are there any songs you feel didn’t get the proper treatment?
Not really, Owen Morris took care the recording perfectly to my ears. The only thing I’d change would be the title of “Goldfinger”.

If you could give Tim Wheeler circa 1996 a piece of advice, what would it be?
Give yourself enough time to chill out and follow up this great album you’ve just made. Take an few extra months off when you finish touring and don’t stop writing, as you’re about to do for the next year and a half.

Also lose the dumb flowery shirts, kid.