A Bid for Airwaves, a Boon for Power-Pop: An Interview with Ash's Mark Hamilton
The bass player for Ireland's foremost grunge-pop quartet weighs in on music, touring the US, and felines.
The Belfast, Ireland pop-rockers known as Ash called their 1996 breakthrough album 1977, honoring the birth year of founding members Tim Wheeler (vocals, guitars) and Mark Hamilton (bass). Almost as significant -- at least as far as Wheeler and Hamilton are concerned -- 1977 was also the year of birth for Star Wars. Charlotte Hatherly joined Wheeler, Hamilton, and drummer Rick McMurray as second guitarist on the band's sophomore release, 1999's Nu-Clear Sounds, and in 2001 the quartet unleashed the critically acclaimed Free All Angels, whose "Burn Baby Burn" earned both an NME Brat Award and a Single of the Year honor from Q.
In a well-plotted career move, Ash decided to record its next album in Los Angeles with producer Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, System of a Down). The result was 2004's Meltdown, a tight, dynamic rock record bursting with airy melodies, amped-up guitars, and thundering bass and drums. Already certified gold in the UK, Meltdown saw its Stateside release in March 2005 from Record Collection, also home to John Frusciante and the LP-record edition of Hot Hot Heat's Elevator. The US Meltdown includes two bonus tracks and DVD footage not available on the European release, which (not to be outdone) features a live version of the album on a second CD. A single from Meltdown, "Clones", is now the theme song for the Star Wars video game "Republic Commando", marking the first time LucasArts has ever used a band's song in anything related to Star Wars. I spoke with Hamilton midway through the band's current US tour and one day before Ash played the city whose music helped ignite the band's career.
PopMatters: Your sound has changed a bit over the years.
Mark Hamilton: Me and Tim [Wheeler] started the band when we were 12-year-olds, young metalheads, and we had aspirations of being Metallica and stuff, but weren't technically proficient. We weren't able to play the music, you know? So, whenever the whole punk explosion and Nirvana happened it was like, "Wow, we actually can play this", 'cause it's basic and simple and it has a passion to it, which we were totally excited by. That was our major influence in the beginning, really. It was Nirvana and probably the whole Seattle scene.
PM: An unusual feature about the band -- or at least about Meltdown -- is how little piss there is in your vinegar. You play heavy, but you're not aggro, something I can't say about Nirvana or Soundgarden. Is that something you work at?
MH: I think we tried to make this album a bit heavier. Tim writes a lot of the songs, and he's a huge Beach Boys fan as well, so that's where the melodies and all come from. I suppose our producer [Owen Morris], who we worked with on the last three albums before Meltdown, was sort of a pop producer -- he did work with Oasis and the Verve -- and we always wanted to record an album in the States at some point, because our influences when we started was all American music. And this time we got to work with Nick Raskulinecz. That was a big thrill for us in a way, 'cause we were almost like fans, and we were just speechless at times. We really just wanted to toughen up the backbone but keep the way the songs were all written, on acoustic guitar, full of good hooks and melodies. We wanted to make it a little bit harder so that we could stand up against what else was being played on rock radio here [in the States]. Give ourselves a bit more of a chance, if you know what I mean.
PM: Meltdown is uncommonly well produced and recorded, especially for this day and age.
MH: Nick really honed in on the sound, and Rich Costey, who mixed the album, is one of the best mixers in the world at the minute. You know, it seems almost fashionable to make these low-fi albums that sound like shit. But we were in the same studio where they recorded Nevermind and stuff, and we just wanted to make a pristine-sounding, sonically excellent album.
PM: When it came out in 1991, a lot of Nirvana fans thought Nevermind was too polished.
MH: Yeah I know, but whenever you hear it cranked through a PA it sounds unbelievable.
PM: What's your favorite song on Meltdown?
MH: Personally I really like "Detonator", cause it reminds me of Nirvana a bit.
PM: Where would you say the band is going?
MH: We don't feel like we've accomplished what we wanted to, yet, you know? We're still totally hungry for success. We kind of strive to get better with each album. You know, everyone says their new album is the best one, but I think, music-wise, Meltdown is by far better than the other ones.
PM: What's the best thing about playing in the States?
MH: Well, for us, being Europeans, the exchange rate is great. So we can just, like, shop. We spent so much time here in the past that it doesn't even seem -- to us it's just normal. We don't feel like we're visiting. We lived in LA for four months making the album, and we toured here nine months in 2002.
PM: Are the audiences noticeably different?
MH: Just 'cause we're not so well known here. That's what we're working on. But the people that are into us are just as fanatical as people in Europe and Japan. So it's all good.
PM: How did you come to have a song used in a Star Wars computer game?
MH: We got approached by LucasArts, the computer part of Lucasfilm. They knew we were fans, that we had been going to their parties for years. They asked us, "Do you have any music that would be suitable? We've got this dark, splatterfest, shoot-'em-up game and we want something heavy for it." "Clones" was probably as heavy a song as we've recorded. And it was a complete coincidence that the song was called "Clones" as well [given the movie title Attack of the Clones].
PM: Sometimes musicians have a passion for musical forms outside their métier. Do you happen to have a favorite ballad?
MH: Weezer do some good ballads. I'm trying to think which one. [Long silence.] Ballads, to be honest, is not really my thing! Ballads are the kind of thing we're always thinking we want to do on our albums, but we never play them live because they're always the songs where people go to the bar and get drinks and stuff. But then sometimes people's biggest hits are their ballads, 'cause they're more commercial and can get on the radio. Aerosmith are the kings of the power ballad. That one from the movie Armageddon's probably the best one ["I Don't Want to Miss a Thing"].
PM: What's something you always wish someone would ask you that nobody ever does?
MH: I don't know... "What's your favorite animal" maybe?
PM: What's your favorite animal?
MH: Any sort of cat. Big ones, small ones. Dogs are cool, but my family's always been cat people. At one point we had 11 cats. I've got one at home, Linda, but 'cause I'm always away I never really see her. My most recent cat, it lives with my parents now, was a kitten that turned up on our back door. It was an abandoned cat, it was smaller than the size of your hand. And it was totally starved. It was totally wild as well. But it was so hungry that it was just going towards the light, almost, to find anyone who would look after it. And I nurtured it for a few days, and then it was really tame. It's kind of hard to train a cat, 'cause cats just do what they want to do, you know? But I can walk around, the cat will sit on your shoulder like a parrot. And it's so big now, it's a huge cat, but I can wear it like a scarf.