It’s the same old story, really. Band that’s huge in Britain and in other countries across the globe, try as they might, can’t seem to get a break in America. Despite the fact that Ash has released enough superlative pop singles over the course of their three proper albums to rival any band’s best-of compilation, they’ve gone without much notice in this country. In this case, it’s yet another story of bad timing, evil corporations, and a lobotomized public.
But while other bands eventually give up and go home, Ash isn’t taking no for an answer. After ill-fated stints with Reprise and Dreamworks, the members of Ash dusted themselves off and inked a deal with a smaller label, Kinetic, which has just released their third and possibly most immediate album to date, Free All Angels. This US version also features a handful of goodies, including a DVD with bonus tracks, live footage, and a documentary. If that wasn’t enough, they are currently in phase one of ambitious game plan to crack the US market. Not only have they won a coveted spot on Moby’s highly successful Area2 tour, but they’ve also been tapped to open for Coldplay in September. If they do finally bring America to its knees, it’ll be the farthest thing from an accident. Recently, drummer Rick “Rock” McMurray chatted with PopMatters about the band’s commitment to the cause and what really sucks about major labels.
PopMatters: How’s the tour going? Any run-ins with Busta Rhymes yet?
Rick McMurray: Not yet. We just did the first gig last night, and we do the second one this afternoon. We’re kind of getting used to playing big, all-seated arenas at the moment. We’ve never done that before.
PM: Well, don’t you play big arenas back home?
RM: Yeah, but they’re not seated. It’s a different vibe, especially when there’s not a full crowd but little pockets of people all around the arena. So you’re not playing with an audience directly in front of you. And there are quite a few distractions, like they have a dance thing going on . . .
PM: Sounds like a bit of a circus.
RM: It takes some getting used to, but I think we’ll be settled in by the time we get to Chicago.
PM: I heard that you’ll be opening for Coldplay on their fall tour. Is that for a few dates or will you be supporting them the entire tour?
RM: I think we’re doing three weeks in September. We’re hitting Chicago again as well.
PM: So is it fair to say that breaking America is your top priority right now?
RM: At the minute, yeah. We’ve already toured the rest of the world. Free All Angels came out last April, so we’ve had like a year of touring everywhere else. We’re definitely focused on America right now and we think [the album] has a good shot of doing well. Kinetic is really backing us.
PM: I think the album stands a chance at breaking too, but at the same time America has always been tough, even for bands that have tremendous appeal in other parts of the world. What problems do you think the US presents that other places haven’t so far?
RM: I think it’s just the geographical size of the place. It’s one big sprawling mass. You can tour England in less than a month, but in America, if you were going to do it properly, you’d be touring one state per month. I think a lot of UK bands don’t realize how much work you have to put into America. They come over here with the idea of playing six weeks maybe and that’s it. You know, acting like rock stars. But we have the attitude that we’re starting all over again, and we know we have a lot of work to do.
PM: I know some members of Ash, Tim in particular, really like Weezer. You’ve covered “Only in Dreams” in concert on a number of occasions. And I actually hear quite a few similarities between the pop-punk of Weezer and Ash. Yet so far, you haven’t had the sort of success that Weezer has had in the States. What do you chalk that up to? Weezer’s cult-ish fan base or maybe the fact that you’re from Britain?
RM: Well, I think they had a lot of success here early in their career. They had catchy songs that sort of kick-started them.
PM: I don’t know. It just seems natural to me that a lot of Weezer fans would be Ash fans, but obviously that hasn’t been true so far.
RM: Yeah, I would agree with you. We actually did tour with them back in ’96, when they were supporting Pinkerton.
PM: Ha. Well, looks like you caught them at the wrong time.
RM: Yeah, they were at their lowest point then. I guess we chose the wrong tour.
PM: Okay, switching gears here: Kinetic is an odd label for you to be on considering that they’re mostly known for their electronica/dance acts. Why did you choose them over more obvious record labels?
RM: I guess it was the size of the label. It’s very similar to the setup we have back at home. [Infectious Records] started out with a couple of people and then grew organically. It’s not like a corporate major where you’ve got your A&R man and you’re constantly fighting for attention and space.
PM: Did your experience with Dreamworks scare you off from a major label situation?
RM: I think the thing with Dreamworks and Reprise was that shortly after we signed with both labels, our A&R men either left or were sacked so we had no one in our corner, which I think is what you really need at a label of such size. There are so many bands there fighting for the spotlight. You need someone at the label who’s gunning for you every day [to make it work].
PM: I may be the only one to say this, but I think Nu-Clear Sounds (the album that preceded the new disc) is every bit as good as Free All Angels. I know most people don’t feel that way about it. We’re you surprised by the negative reaction that album got when it came out? And are you still proud of that record?
RM: Oh yeah. It’s a very distinct-sounding record and definitely a lot darker than our other records. I think that’s what makes it stand out. The weird thing about it is that the first week it came out in the UK, it got really good reviews. But then when it didn’t sell as well [as 1977], many journalists began calling it our weaker album. At the time though, they seemed quite into it. Sort of weird . . .
PM: I was also surprised when I was looking over the liner notes to Free All Angels to find that Alan Moulder had mixed the album. I thought that was strange because he hasn’t really been known for his ability to mix pop-punk records. He made his name with distortion-heavy bands. So I was wondering why you chose him and how the pairing came about. Had you wanted to work with him for a while?
RM: Yeah, we love his records. The Nine Inch Nails and Pumpkins stuff is great. He gets a good mix, a real full-on guitar sound. But at the same time you can still hear everything that’s going on.
PM: I have to say that my favorite Ash song is one that didn’t even appear on any of the UK editions of your albums. It’s “A Life Less Ordinary”, which you included as a bonus track on the US edition of Nu-Clear Sounds. Is there a song in the Ash catalogue that you’re particularly proud of, one that you point to as the best song the group has produced?
RM: I don’t know. “Shining Light” has always been special because it was written when we were still waiting for the perfect comeback single. Tim [Wheeler] called and played if for us [over the phone] from his parents’ house where he was writing. And everyone was just like, “Yes, this is it!”
PM: Is there a certain song that comes across well in a live setting?
RM: I think “Cherry Bomb” [off of Free All Angels].
PM: So the new stuff is going over well?
RM: Yeah, definitely. And “Burn Baby Burn” seems to get people excited as well. It’s the set closer at the moment. The hardcore fans really like it and even the people who aren’t familiar with us may have heard it on the radio at this point.
PM: Most British bands that come over here wind up doing a club tour, but you’re going the opposite route here. Do you prefer playing larger shows?
RM: We like to mix it up. We’ll play shows of any size. It’s good doing support tours right now though because it gets you exposed to a larger audience and one that hasn’t had a chance to hear you before. I think that’s what you need to over here to begin with. If you’re doing a club show, you’re going to be playing to a small group of hardcore fans, but you’re not spreading-
PM: Yeah, you’re not expanding your audience.
RM: Playing in front of someone else’s fans gives you a chance to get more people into the band.
PM: Had any time to write new material on the road?
RM: Tim does a lot of writing. He keeps an acoustic guitar around and collects a bunch of little ideas. But we need some time off to knock them into shape. We have a few, like three demos or so.
PM: I know you’re all big Star Wars fans, so I have to ask. The bigger dud: The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones?
RM: I don’t know. I haven’t watched The Phantom Menace in years.
PM: That says it all, doesn’t it?
RM: Guess so.
Ash is currently on the Area2 tour. Tickets range from $22 – $53.