Ash were a great band that worse themselves down after releasing a new song every two weeks for a year. Tim Wheeler tells us how he got his groove back.
When the Irish alterna-punk trio Ash released Twilights of the Innocents in 2007, it was supposed to be their last album. From that point on, singer/songwriter Tim Wheeler and his band intended to release music to the public in a manner that reflected the prevailing listening habits of average consumer. With that, Ash mounted the lofty A-Z Series where subscribers were treated to a new track every two weeks for one year. The final package for the A-Z Series included 26 singles, 21 b-sides, 13 remixes, and 9 more acoustic/live tracks. Ash had succeeded in moving away from the traditional album format. They also nearly wore themselves out.
Drama, pressure, and burnout are nothing new to this band. Their history is checkered with lots of commercial ups and downs that put their musical consistency in an even more flattering light than if it had been smooth sailing all along. After a promising start with Trailer, Ash came close to flattening everyone's 1996 year-end lists with the smash album 1977 (an album bookended by the noise of a passing TIE Fighter and the sound of wet vomit). Recognition for the singles "Girl from Mars" and "Kung Fu" gave them a full touring schedule, one where Ash found that they hadn't set aside enough time to write songs for their follow-up. Even after hiring guitarist Charlotte Hatherley to help fill out the sound, a number of critics and fans felt that Nu-Clear Sounds was the sound of Ash cracking under pressure. Tim Wheeler had to learn his own coping techniques for writer's block the hard way: while everyone was watching.
By the time Ash reclaimed their ground with Free All Angels and Meltdown, Wheeler had learned how to ignore the pressure and just write songs in large quantities. This career strategy allegedly saved Ash from certain bankruptcy (more than one source claims that Free All Angels came along just when the band were down to their last £1,000). Ash and Hatherley parted ways after Meltdown. Back to being a three-piece, Wheeler, bassist Mark Hamilton and drummer Rick McMurray began to think of their music in less holistic terms. When they announced that Twilight of the Innocents was going to be their final album, fans mistook this to mean that the band was splitting up.
As much as everyone's listening habits have changed over the years, Wheeler just can't hide from the fact that he likes to make albums. Ash's album Kablammo! came to be after he became reacquainted with vinyl records, embracing the notion that you can kick off your album's second half with instrumental surf rock ("Evel Knievel") and end it with all the earnestness you can pull from the hair decade ("Bring Back the Summer"). In between it all are future Ash classics like "Machinery", "Free", "Hedonism" and the single "Cocoon". Tim Wheeler chatted with PopMatters about recording Kablammo! in Ash's private New York studio, how thinking about albums affects his writing and how a forthcoming Ash release might be coming sooner than we expect.
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After Ash released Twilight of the Innocents, you had all decided to stop releasing music in the album format and instead focused on singles for the A-Z Series. What changed your mind to go back to that traditional album format?
I started getting back into albums again. I started to collect vinyl again. I started to rediscover it again after being very playlist-oriented for a few years. I think I was listening to music the same way everyone else was around 2007, 2008; just picking single tracks. I wasn't listening to full albums in the ways that I had used to. But then I started to have a bit more time at home and I started listening to full, complete albums and I found that my favorite way of doing that was on vinyl. Then I ended up making a Christmas record [This Is Christmas with Emma-Lee Moss, aka, Emmy the Great] and I made a solo record [Lost Domain]. With Ash, we actually said we wouldn't make another album, so it took us a while to sort of admit to ourselves that we should do it. So we went for it.
Was it hard to convince the other guys to go along with it?
A little, yeah. Doing the singles series was a long, crazy process. I think we were a bit exhausted at the end of that. Maybe by taking a break from it, it was quite nice to return to making an album. We had been in the cycle of album-tour-album for a long time before we did the singles series, so I think when we made Twilight, we had a tough time getting creatively excited about doing another album at that point. Having taken a break and done something really different meant that it felt refreshing to come back to it. It was also quite a challenge because we said we would never make another album so it's got to be really good if we are actually going to make one.
Does that change your writing at all?
Yeah, I think so. With the A-Z, when you're putting out single tracks, you aren't worrying about cohesion and there's also a real freedom to it and you can indulge any idea. When we make an album, we're kind of aware that it had to fit together and be really strong. It just took a different focus. And we were comparing it to our first and our third album [1977 and Free All Angels], which are our best-loved albums by our fans. It was a lot of pressure because you're thinking, It's got to be as good as those.
Now that you've done the A-Z thing and you've returned to the album with Kablammo!, which format do you think you prefer now?
I think probably an album. I think it's the easiest for people to come to. They're looking at a bunch of songs that have been curated specifically been put together to listen to in, say, 40 minutes. I really enjoyed the singles series, but it's quite a daunting thing for people to come to now because there are 26 tracks. It's about two hours' worth of music. I think it's great for people who were part of it at the time and were getting a track every two weeks. But maybe in hindsight it's a daunting project to get into, it's almost a triple album. We're just about to go out and tour with this new album and I think it's quite fun that there's going to be a bunch of songs that people will be have listened to a lot recently and will be excited to hear. Yeah, maybe I'll admit that I like the album [format] better now!
And producer Claudius Mittendorfer worked on that singles series?
Yeah, we've worked with him since 2007. He was an engineer on Twilight of the Innocents and he's been co-producing with us since then. He works with lots of other bands, so he mixes a lot of albums and he' been working on a few other records. I don't think [the singles series] was as hard for him as it was for us. I think he enjoyed it.
Speaking of songs fitting together, Kablammo! has "Moondust" followed by "Evel Knievel".
Right! Did you find that jarring?
Certainly not in a bad way.
We saw "Evel Knievel" as starting side two. Some people can imagine flipping a record over at that point. Although we think more of cohesion on this record, we do have quite a few styles we like to play in. I think our musical tastes are still quite schizophrenic. There probably is still a lot of freedom of the A-Z still with us in some ways.
Then there's the last song, "Bring Back the Summer".
It's almost like a 80s/"Kokomo"-Beach Boys kind of thing. It's got some electronic percussion. There's no real big guitars on it. It was a song I just came up with one day and I demoed it in that style. Although it's not a typical Ash track, it did have a nostalgia and charm to it. A lot of our best-known songs have been about summer and had a real summer feeling to them. We were looking back on our old Ash records with this [new] record and that track fits us. I feel like it's a sweet way to end a record, with a bit of nostalgia.
Do you have any particular fondness for the '80s-style production?
I think a lot of the A-Z stuff was influenced by new wave sounds and 80s sounds. I collected quite a lot of synths during that time, and drum machines. That track is the closest thing than could have been part of the A-Z series.
Turning back the clock to the time of Nu-Clear Sounds and Free All Angels, you suffered from a bit of writer's block. Is that something that bothers you anymore?
The worst was going into Nu-Clear Sounds. That was the hardest because 1977 had been pretty successful and we toured it for a long time. We did about a year and a half of touring and then I hadn't really written songs during that time because we were on such a crazy schedule. All that sudden I had to sit down and follow up a record that had been really successful but I was really out of practice. I think it was a bit of fear to start and fear to fail. I think it was on Free All Angels where I was determined not to let that happen. We gave ourselves a really good amount of time off to focus on the writing and try to come back.
Around that time we sort of learned tricks, which is mainly just to start writing without any worry about [whether] it's good or not. Just try to write every day. Eventually the good songs will come. Early on I used to fear that no songs would emerge, that I'd "lost it." I've since discovered that it's just a matter of writing a lot and you get back in practice and your mind is switched on and receptive to ideas. It'll start to come out in the songs. Someone from The Vaccines told me that he tries to write 20 songs in a day to kick writer's block at the start of a writing session. I really got into doing that, but I could only really write about seven or eight songs a day. I would do these really long 12-hour writing sessions quite frequently and quite a lot of the songs from the album came out of doing those speed-writing sessions.
I did about eight of those marathons: "Bring Back the Summer", "Evel Knievel", "Go! Fight! Win!", "Let's Ride", "Machinery", "Moondust", "Shutdown". [laughs] Eight of the tracks, probably! I found that to be really effective. It's really exhausting but it's really good.
You have a stateside studio, right?
Yeah, in New York. Actually right in Manhattan in Chelsea. Had it for probably nine years. We did Kablammo! there. The only thing we didn't do were some string sessions which we did in London.
What are some of the big differences between recording in Manhattan versus elsewhere?
One of the biggest factors is that it's our place and I can be here as late as I like. I can show up at whatever time suits me and be here as often as I like. I do like the enrgy of the city as well. I like that I can leave the studio at 4:00 in the morning and there's life around and I don't feel cut off from everything. New York has been home for almost ten years so I feel really comfortable here. I think people make a lot of sacrifices to live in New York because it's so expensive. I think it attracts quite interesting people who are very driven. A lot of creative people come here.
Do the other guys live in New York too?
Our drummer actually lives in Scotland, so he comes over and stays with me for ten days or two weeks and we do a lot of work. Then he goes home and comes back two months later. Our bass player Mark lives in Hokoben, NJ, so it's really close.
So you probably demo everything up before your drummer makes the long trip.
I kind of get them half written or half demoed and then we start to play them in the rehearsal room. That's how I know which songs to finish. We shape them up as a band, together.
Ash has existed as a trio and a quartet. Do you have trouble performing the quartet songs live?
I think we're very comfortable as a three-piece now. For a while we had Russell Lissack from Bloc Party playing with us on tour for a few additional guitar [parts]. Then we ended up doing a lot of touring as a three-piece, especially our recent touring in the states. There's only a couple of songs where there might be some things missing in the guitar side of things, but I think I've become quite comfortable in covering it all. Initially it was a bit more work for me, singing and playing guitar and having to play lead parts at the same time. But I think I'm good at it now [laughs]. When we made Kablammo!, we were trying to write it to make it sound really good as a three-piece as well. I didn't want to do too many guitar overdubs and I wanted to translate to live straightaway.
So is Ash ready to settle back into the album-tour-album cycle?
Yeah. I'd like to do another album soon-ish. We've got quite a lot of touring to do this year. It's important for us to take the time to write songs with the right strength. I could see us putting out another album in early 2017, maybe. There are quite a few good songs that we had to leave off [Kablammo!] for time, so I think we might put out a mini-album next year as well. I'd like to record one more song. There are six really good tracks sitting there, ready to go.
Do you ever do the hotel room demo thing?
Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes we tour in a van, sometimes we tour in a bus. In a bus, you can wake up in the city and there's a bit more time. I sort of doodle a little bit on my laptop as well, that's kind of more electronic kind of things. Sometimes [they] evolve into good Ash songs. In our current mode we're focusing on being a guitar band.