Ash talk peak Britpop and “1977”: Interview

Alexander Schmitz March 24, 2019

At the height of Britpop when it blew up the charts in the nineties and the scene was ravaged by competition between great bands as Blur, Oasis, The Verve, Suede, Pixies and all those bands that put out amazing music, Ash scored a number one album in the UK charts in 1996 with the release of their epic “1977”, an album apparently named in honour of the year Star Wars hit cinema screens.

Written by a trio of teenagers, for an audience of the same, it preoccupied itself with chugging alcohol, chasing after girls and messing about with martial arts – and young people identified themselves with the message and went berserk at their shows. A slightly younger version of Messed!Up’s editor remembers a rowdy and beer intense gig at the Roskilde Festival in 1996, joining the celebrating choir of the youth at the time. And the band? They were launched into the international limelight.

Now, over twenty years later the Northern Irish three-piece evidently have managed to achieve a longevity that has eluded many of their contemporaries, and they continue to produce music that is uniquely their own.

When they made a stopover in Hamburg Messed!Up Schmitz sat down with Tim Wheeler and Rick McMurray and talked memories of the past and the writing process of their latest album “Islands”.

From the peak Britpop to “Islands“

When you started it was at the peak of Britpop and I always wondered how it was like being in the Britpop wave in London at that time?
Tim: It was exciting!

Rick: It was a fun time for guitar music and there were lots of bands. We felt we had one tour in it, but we‘re also an Irish band. I guess our influence in music were The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, and we were kind of into Nirvana and The Pixies and many American bands,

It felt kind of like we broadened our horizons a bit by having more inluences than Britpop.

I saw on Insta that you were in Asia.
Tim: Yeah. Just getting over the jet lag now. We had a couple of days between Bangkok and Zurich. It was like jumping all around the world.

Rick: Pretty crazy week.

Tim: Yeah, it was good we were in Japan, Indonesia, Thailand and also Australia. There are really nice countries around the world. 

It means you must’ve been to Japan and Australia before your hit album “1977“?
Tim: Many times!

Rick: That album took us to a few places, but the single “Girl From Mars“ was released a year before. Both “Girl From Mars“ and “Kung Fu“ came out in 1995 almost a full year before the album was released. So those songs took us around the world.

Tim: We have a lot of fans in Australia and Japan.  

Let’s talk about the new album. I heard this time you had a special song writing approach. One song every hour.
Tim: Yeah, for ten hours, basically ten hours day.

How did it work out?

Tim: Some days were like four hours and other days like ten. This is something I did once a week in three weeks. And then I took a break, but I took a lot of songs from that.

Maybe it’s a kind of a cliché, but people often say one can write good songs in a depressed mood.
Tim: It’s kind of true and kind of easy.

Rick: Beacuse you got a subject matter and don’t have to think too hard, I guess.

Tim: Yeah, you just got to say what’s on your mind, and actually it’s got a real feeling behind it. Some good songs come out of that kind of easily. And you’re like “When you don’t think, maybe it’s good at the time, but maybe it’s too honest and it’s just so obvious what I’m saying“. But when there’s a real feeling in there it’s actually good.

Rick: Everyone can relate to it, everyone’s been there.

Tim: When you show your vulnerability in a song it can be good because people can connect to it.

It’s kind of tragic. You can’t be always in such a mood.

Tim: Yeah, but then then you have to look. You still write good songs. It’s a different kind of writing. You can use your imagination.

But when you go to the studio do you have the feeling “Yeah, that’s gonna be a hit!“, like when you did “Girl From Mars“ for instance?
Tim: Yes, with “Girl From Mars“ in particular. We wrote it when we were sixteen but didn’t put it out until we were eighteen, because our record label und our manager were all convinced it was a hit and we followed it was a hit too. They said “Don’t put it out until you left school and you’re ready“.

Rick: Ready to support it!

Tim: Yeah, exactly. You’ll go around the world and be on tour for a long time.

I was wondering if it wouldn’t be even better ot have that kind of success two years later or did it just turn out perfect for you the way it was.
Tim: I think it’s better. We wouldn’t have been mad if we were fifteen or sixteen. It’s good that we had time slowed down. I mean, it wasn’t that long, maybe a year before we started putting out singles.

Rick: You don’t really learn your craft until you go out on long tours and play every night. If we had been spotlighted at that point and had bigger shows it would’ve been a sham.

Tim: I mean, we could handle it all. It made a big difference. “1977“ came out when we were nineteen years old and that almost killed us so if we had been seventeen it probably would’ve been even worse.

Gear talk with Ash

You built your own studio in New York. What was the idea behind it? Did you want to be independent and record as long as you want?
Tim: Freedom. It sort of helped us especially during the years when we were without a record label. It gave us the freedom to record as much as we wanted.

I don’t figure we could’ve done the A-Z series if we didn’t have our own studio. We found that it’s really a productive way to work.

Is there something you have always with you when you go to the studio? Like something you cannot do without?
Tim: Certainly particular instruments. You [Rick] change your kit a lot.

Rick: Yeah, I change a lot. It’s weird a drummer does that. You have a guitar and go to an amp. There’s a lot of stuff there but you wouldn’t record without your Les Paul.

I guess Mark would be a good one to ask that question because he always has stuff written down on a sheet. Tim has to teach him the changes and stuff like that, he has this book full of chord changes.

Tim: He calls it “The Book of Wives“ (laughs) which is a reference to “League Of Gentlemen“ a TV show. Just a little joke reference.

How important is gear to you? I’ve seen live footage and I guess you’re using the same guitar 26 years now, is that correct?
Tim: I got main ones I use all the time. The Flying V I’m using live I got in 1997 and my main recording guitar, which is a Les Paul, I’ve had since 1997 as well, I think.

Yeah, I’m a fan and I particularly love using them but there are other ones that I use here and there.

Do you change the drum kits?
Rick: Yeah, I got tons, way too many, drum kits. I need to get rid of them because I can’t quite get in to play them anymore (laugh).

Tim: They’ve taken all the room (laughs)?

Rick: Yeah. It’s like a battle, fighting through drum heads and cymbals to get to my kit. I either like really nice vintage stuff or like a piece of shit falling apart. In between kits I can’t handle them.

Tim: But aren’t there brand new ones?

Rick: Nay. If it’s high end, it’s fine. If you beat a polished kit it’s going to be fun. You can make a good out of that and you know you’re doing something right.

The things we always wondered about

There’s a few things that’s been on my mind for a very long time. For a start, why do you never stick to a band logo?
Tim: Well, often a new record feels like a new start. We always like kept moving on because we changed so much now we never felt settled with one. I like our current one a lot, it might stick for a while.

I’m asking because I grew up with “1977“ and the logo and was confused the first time I saw the new one on the cover of “Nu-Clear Sounds“.
Tim: Yeah, but that logo almost looks like a kids logo and as we grew older it didn’t make sense to us.

As a final question: did you ever regret the hidden track on “1977“ where you clearly hear you being drunk and someone throwing up in the background?
Tim: Not really. It captures what we were like, drunk teenagers being silly. A lot of people remember it, it really got stuck in their minds. They were young at the time and think it was funny (laughs). We were into the tour at the time and it really captures an album that we made when we were youths.

Rick: I saw someone talking about it and replied with six music tweets about secret hidden tracks. So it ended a friend played him that and he almost got sick (laughs).

Tim: It was a crazy thing to do, but it sums up what we were like.

Rick: I guess it’s what a lot of fans probably doing every weekend anyway (laughs).

Photographer: ©Julia Schwendner
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About The Author

Music nerd from Cologne (yeah, we are sorry) because of the Highlander movie thus buying Queen’s “Kind of Magic”. Equally interested in eurodisco – although it’s crappy – 60s stuff and ska punk but under much influence of Nirvana. In an ongoing beef with the editor – that bastard – about who’s gonna interview Blood Red Shoes. Loves squirrels and horses. Get over it!