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Ash: taking to the road less travelled

It is unlikely that any rock star has ever drawn a comparison between New York City and East Grange. Yet that’s exactly what Tim Wheeler – the singer, guitarist and creative force behind Northern Irish trio Ash – does while discussing his four years of living in the Big Apple.

“New York’s a great place to make music, as you can find lots of brilliant engineers and technicians to work with,” he says. “But I don’t like going to gigs here -- New York audiences are the worst in the world.

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They’re extra-cool and won’t give anything away, or get too much into the shows. I’d rather see a show in East Grange.”

The reference to East Grange is deliberate. Near Kinloss in Moray, it’s one of the many unlikely places the band will be visiting on their next tour, sandwiched between gigs in Dundee and Falkirk. The three Scottish shows are part of the band’s A-to-Z tour, in which they will avoid the more obvious live music hotspots, such as London and Manchester, in favour of criss-crossing the country in alphabetical order, visiting the likes of Aldershot and Hastings before wrapping the jaunt up at Zennor Village Hall in Cornwall.

“We decided to do the A to Z to tie in with the singles that were being released and then we thought we’d try to go to places that aren’t normally on people’s touring schedules,” explains Wheeler. “So we phoned our agent up and asked if he could book 26 of them in various places. I’m sure we weren’t the most popular people in the booking office for a while.

“It should be interesting. We’re playing a village hall in Cornwall, and I’m guessing they don’t get many shows. It should be great. I remember growing up in Downpatrick, near Belfast, and not many bands would come on tour. You find the more off-beat places have extra-appreciative crowds.”

The schedule, as Wheeler says, ties in with the band’s recording plans, which have also radically deviated from those of most other acts. In 2007, Ash announced that their fifth record, Twilight of the Innocents, would be their last full-length album, and that they would be releasing only singles thereafter. Considering Wheeler and his childhood friends Mark Hamilton (bass) and Rick McMurray (drums) have a fine selection of punky power-pop singles to their name -- Burn Baby Burn, Shining Light and Girl From Mars to name but three -- this was perhaps unsurprising. However, the current decision, to release a new single every two weeks, starting with True Love 1980 next Monday, has surely tested Wheeler’s

songwriting skills. Yet the frontman is in a relaxed mood, and insists the pressure has worked to his benefit.

“There’s more pressure on the song having to be good now,” he explains. “We’ve worked the hardest we ever have, because we’re trying to find that quality and we know there’s going to be more scrutiny on it because it’s not part of an album. But that’s a healthy kind of pressure.

“We’ve done all the production, so we’ve certainly put on a few different hats. It’s all been done in-house as we’ve got our own studio -- I don’t think we could have taken on such a big project without our own place.”

It would appear this is not just a temporary measure for the group, with Wheeler feeling that a return to making albums would be a backwards step.

“Once we’ve proved this can work, we intend to keep it going,” he says. “I’ve always thought non-album singles are really cool. There’s a lot of classic Beatles singles, for example, that didn’t make it on to albums, like Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane. It’s something that’s been lost. Blame record companies for that.”

 

Wheeler also argues that the move towards recording nothing but singles has increased the band’s creativity and resulted in better songs.

“We’ve recorded 24 songs so far, and 20 are the quality we want,” he says. “We’ll do a number of sessions in January and February to get the last ones. It’s a really diverse range of material, so it’ll be surprising to some people. There’s a whole range, from ballads to heavy rock songs; it’s like we’ve been given a blank canvas and just gone for

it. I’ve tried a different way of writing, using keyboards more than guitars, and we feel free to try anything.

“By not thinking about the songs as being part of album, it enabled me to think about it in a different way. With an album you want it to tie together and feel like a cohesive thing whereas this is the opposite -- it’s more surprising and interesting for people. It has let us experiment with different sounds and we can change quite dramatically as we move along.”

Change has never been something from which Ash have shied away, ever since their debut album proper, 1977 (named after the year Wheeler and Hamilton were born), was released in 1996. They expanded to a four-piece for the follow-up, 1998’s Nu-Clear Sounds, adding Charlotte Hatherley on guitar and backing vocals.

Hatherley’s departure in 2006 was as unexpected as her arrival, but Wheeler is adamant that her exit has worked out well for both parties.

“Things were getting complicated with Charlotte,” he recalls. “There was some conflict and at the same time we wanted to shake things up a bit with our sound.

“We certainly weren’t afraid of going back to being a three-piece. We’re still mates, though. I do miss her as a friend on tour -- we had a great laugh together -- and it’s cool she’s doing well for herself.”

Wheeler admits that while he isn’t ruling out adding another member, it’s unlikely the group will expand in the near future.

“It could be good to get someone in for extra guitar and keyboards and add some layers”, he says, “but we’re making a good noise with just the three of us, and I’m enjoying the freedom it gives me when playing guitar. We’ve got a good power-trio vibe going on, but we’ll see how it develops.”

The singer’s relocation to New York is also coming along nicely, with Wheeler clearly content with life in the city, aside from the problem with crowds.

The move has also meant Wheeler is well placed to observe the Stateside music industry, and he recently experienced first-hand the reaction to Kanye West’s infamous stage invasion at the MTV video music awards.

“The dude’s an idiot,” says Wheeler, referring to West’s decision to interrupt a speech made by country-pop star Taylor Swift. “It’s great, though -- it’s made him twice as famous, but perhaps not in a good way, and you need people doing stupid things in music. But I’d have lamped him if he’d tried it with us.”

 

Ash release True Love 1980 on Monday, and start the Scottish leg of their tour at Fat Sam’s, Dundee, on October 23. Visit www.ash-official.com.

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