He's spearheaded one of Britain’s greatest bands for over a decade. So why can’t we figure out what makes Ash’s Tim Wheeler special?
In a spacious hotel room in Liverpool Tim Wheeler is taking things easy. Ash’s fifth full-length studio album is done and dusted, its first single, "You Can’t Have It All," is working its magic and Tim is standing back and admiring his handiwork. You’d think so anyway. From the calm, unrushed manner of his conversation he seems to be completely unflustered at the prospect at another toe to toe round with the British music media. Which comes as a mild surprise, considering his band is down a member (one Charlotte Hatherley) and it’s been three whole years since their last album.
But for a 30-year-old whose band signed its first deal when they were still at school, he’s seen it all before. From tiny Downpatrick in Northern Ireland to London to New York City, Tim’s learned to look at the big picture.
“If I could go back maybe I would have warned myself not to work too hard and not to tour so much,” he explains. “So I could make more records and spend more time in the studio. We’ve had long gaps between albums, because we’d tour and tour. We just loved it. It would have been cool to have twice as many songs by now. I definitely could have done it, but if I go on tour I have to stop writing. Writing needs to be a relaxing process and you need peace and quiet and the right stuff around you. Whenever we take a break I could write a song every day, pretty much.”
Ash released their first min-album, Trailer, back in 1994 -- a time before MySpace, file sharing or even the Spice Girls. When you’re in the music business for thirteen years you learn a thing or two.
“Yesterday I was thinking of all the music scenes that have come and gone since we started. In the beginning it almost stressed us out. We’d think, will we be swept away by fads? But now I see a new scene coming along and I don’t even care.
“When we started we got swept up in the whole thing. We didn’t expect things to go the way they did. I remember the last year of school we did Trailer and I started writing a whole new batch of songs and we began to show the potential we had. We had a great string of singles leading up to 1977. I got my song writing together and we started to feel quite ambitious, that we could do it for a long time. We kept getting asked where we saw ourselves in the next five years, because interviewers didn’t expect us to be around. We never had an answer because we didn’t know. We just wanted to keep making albums. To thrive you just have to keep delivering great music because otherwise people lose interest. We’ve found that some people have lost interest in us, and our way to fight that is to go to the studio and try to write the best songs possible.”
It’s an interesting point to raise. Because Ash have had their public falls from grace. 1977’s follow-up, Nu-Clear Sounds, was a critical and commercial flop, leaving Ash with a shrinking fan base and twitchy record company. Two and a half years later their third album, Free All Angels, landed at number one; a right touch, considering that before its release the band was £1000 away from bankruptcy. Tim knows there are no guarantees in the music business.
“It totally happened to us with Nu-Clear Sounds,” he sighs. “We turned things around with Free All Angels but we knew we were looking in trouble. We’d kind of been written off and it was hard, because we’d taken all the initial success very seriously and being so young it really went to our heads. I guess we believed all our hype. It was a real kick in the teeth when Nu-Clear Sounds just didn’t connect the same way and a lot of fans deserted us. But we knew it was down to the songs. We knew it was the songs on 1977 that people had responded to and we knew we had to write songs as good as that or better to recapture people’s imaginations. The songs saved us. Like "Shining Light". That was a real epiphany when we wrote it, and "Burn Baby Burn" turned out to be a great hit as well.”
And "Burn Baby Burn" had cheerleaders in the video.
“That’s what swung it!” he laughs. “It was such a cheap trick. We’re going to try to make good videos without resorting to that. Maybe we’ll get naked.”
If Tim can lie back and smile about the tough times, it’s because he’s always had the talent to write himself out of a hole. 1977 and Free All Angels were number one albums. And if there’s a pattern to Ash album releases, it would suggest that the new is a chart-topper too.
“I know this one is a really strong one so I’m not worried,” he says with no trace of hesitancy in his voice. “It’s a strong collection as a whole.”
Tim thinks it’s strong but whether the media will agree is a different question entirely. Ash’s longevity and awesome back catalogue should make them national institutions up there with Oasis and Damon All-bran. Fact is, they’re not.
“I wish we’d get more recognition,” admits Time. “We found with the last album that people are getting bored with us, so we needed to make a really exciting album to get people excited this time round. We knew we needed direct songs. We went back to a style of song writing that people are familiar with. The last album was really built around riffs. This one was built around chords. So I guess the melody is the most important thing on them.
“Because we changed the line-up it forced us to play things differently. The bass is definitely a lot more dominant on this record. It just drives the whole thing. Mark had to get a lot more inventive with his bass lines to fill out the sound because there’s less guitars. Our original idea was to make a real three-piece record, but inevitably we ended up going to town on overdubs. The core of it is a three-piece sound, which is cool.”
Perhaps it’s the abject lack of controversy that makes Ash so unappealing to the media. Although they were hardly choirboys on their never-ending road trips, what went on tour stayed on tour. Even discussing the departure of long time band mate Charlotte Hatherley can’t solicit a bitchy comment.
“It was our decision in the end,” claims Tim. “We could tell she wasn’t happy and she was doing her own thing. We’ve definitely got so much respect for her. I think she’s really going balls out for her new record and I’m dead proud of her. We need more female artists like her. Now the world gets two albums instead of one.”
Tim’s worldview would appear to be a sunny one. When he’s not playing music he’s writing music. And when he’s not writing it, he’s playing it. Perhaps the lack of media storm is because he doesn’t act like a rock star. He’s an ordinary guy, never happier than when he’s locked up in his Manhattan studio working on new stuff. For a band that released a track of themselves puking on their debut (* see sidebar), despite the charm of the rock and roll lifestyle, four albums later they know it’s only really about the music.
“The View are doing enough vomiting for all of us now,” smiles Tim. “The good thing about doing that stuff was it was all so natural for us. We were young and enjoying everything. In a way I’m kind of proud of it. We were just doing what other teenagers were doing. But ours is recorded. I’m more into looking after myself now -- trying to mentally and physically keep myself together. It’s pretty demanding being on tour so I don’t drink as much. I’m into looking after my voice so you can’t get shit faced all the time. If you’re doing four gigs in a row your voice gets fucked unless you look after it. I realised this about four years ago. Seven years into a touring career.”
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* Ash’s 1977 is a classic debut, and its vomit-strewn climax invented Dirty Sanchez nearly a decade before cable TV caught up. On its ten-year anniversary Tim Wheeler recalls the genesis of the greatest secret track of all time.
“We were making our first real album so it was complete studio madness. Owen Morris, the producer, was introducing us to all sorts of drugs. We were working on this track "The Scream", which was basically 48 tracks of us screaming and doing whatever weirdness we could think of. We spent about two days working on this. On one of the tracks Mark decided he was going to puke. He wasn’t feeling very well in the first place, but then he shotgunned a can of Budweiser to really help him. Then he shoved his fingers down his throat. We were on acid at the time. Me and Rick were laughing and Mark was trying to puke. And our guitar tech Leif was trying to puke as well. I think Owen takes a piss at one point too.
“The most disturbing thing was I was on acid when we were listening back to it and I was actually dancing to the sound of Mark puking.”