by Nancy J Price
For more than ten years, Ash have been generating hit singles in Britain. Their last studio album topped the UK charts, spawned five singles, and sold over a million copies worldwide. Coldplay — fans from way back — sometimes even play Ash songs during their live shows. And if all that’s not impressive enough, wait ’til you hear this: The four band members are still in their twenties.
Quite simply, fellow Americans, Ash is one of the best bands you’ve probably never even heard of.
The music could be described as rock or power-pop or punk — or some combination thereof — depending on who you asked, and when you asked it. And as their platinum status abroad will attest, it’s not for lack of quality that they have remained all but invisible stateside. Nor is it for lack of trying. The Northern Ireland foursome — Tim Wheeler (vocals/guitar), Mark Hamilton (bass), Rick McMurray (drums) and Charlotte Hatherley (guitar) — have toured the US extensively over the last decade.
But one of the biggest problems is the fact that they haven’t had a record company behind them for any length of time. Says Hamilton, “We’ve never had any sort of stability at a label — we’ve been on four different labels.” How has that happened? “It’s bad luck, or things always change,” Wheeler adds. “I mean our A&R guy leaves, or the label goes bankrupt — there are different reasons every time. So we just lose all momentum. It’s just frustrating.”
But these guys, who were talented and savvy enough to have hit singles while they were still in high school, aren’t going to give up too easily. Ash’s fourth studio album, Meltdown, was released this year by Record Collection, and the band hopes to crack the US market this time around. New year, new label, new album — new hope? “I feel good,” says Wheeler. “It’s an artist’s label, and it’s got Warner [Bros. Records] behind it, so we’ll give it a chance.” With a favorable climate for British music as of late, maybe this time it will stick.
What do you ask people who have been asked it all before? Easy: Come up with total nonsense. The whole band sat down with me to do a little free association to words that rhyme with ash — the name they picked out of the dictionary all those years ago.
Word 1: Cash
Tim: Cash. Yeah, made a bit. Spent a lot. (laughs)
Rick: That film project we’ve done, we spent a lot of cash on, and never actually released.
Mark: We spent a quarter of a million on a movie around the 1977 album. It was just sort of following us while touring. And it was all pretty mental. We never released it.
Mark: I don’t know. (laughs)
Come on, there’s got to be a reason.
Rick: Yeah, it kind of started off that it was going to be like a two or three weeks around the UK on our tour. But then it just sort of spun out of control, and it just stayed with us for the entire year. And by the time it came to edit it, we’d just kind of finished the whole “1977” thing, and Charlotte had just joined the band as well. So it just kinda felt a little bit irrelevant to where we were.
Mark: I mean, the real reason was that we didn’t want our parents to see it… because it was a bit incriminating.
Tim: We’ll probably work on it over the next couple years.
Word 2: Clash
Tim: Well, we hung out with Joe Strummer a few times. In fact, the very first time I met Joe Strummer, he asked me for my autograph for his daughter. So that was a bit of a trip.
Were you a big fan?
Tim: It was before I was into The Clash. I just met this old dude, who seemed to do a lot of drugs, and he asked me for my autograph. But then we hung out for quite a bit. We met at a festival in Japan again, and. He took us all for dinner — like, a really expensive dinner — in Japan.
Rick: He was telling us all kind of stories about The Clash in the early days… and then we went back to his hotel. And he was just sort of rolling joints in the lobby of the hotel. And drugs are really seriously illegal there, and he was like, “Well, you know, if they’re that illegal here, no one’s gonna know what it is.” (laughter)
Rick: And sure enough.
Tim: Sure enough we were fine, yeah.
Word 3: Crash
Mark: We had a bus crash once.
Rick: Yeah, yeah.
That was up by Seattle, wasn’t it?
Rick: Yeah. Portland to Seattle.
Charlotte: We ended up missing the last gig of that tour. The bus was just f—ed. It happened in the early hours of the morning, and I got thrown out of the top bunk and landed on Rick and really hurt his ribs. It was a pretty unpleasant experience.
And you had to cancel some dates?
Rick: Just one.
Charlotte: Well, it was the last gig actually, so it was a bit of a shame, ’cause we never got to say good-bye to the all the bands we were playing with.
I heard that there was a tire in the road or something like that?
Rick: There were shredded tires lying in the middle of the road, and the bus driver swerved to try to avoid them.
Tim: And it got sucked up into the engine.
But no one was seriously hurt in the crash?
Tim: Rick broke some ribs.
Rick: Yeah. They were cracked. I still feel them from time to time.
So did you all have bus phobia after that?
Tim: No. I think maybe the first time we got back on a bus after that, but we have been on the bus for last year nonstop, so we’re over it.
Word 4: Bash
Tim: That reminds me of Coldplay’s drum tech — he’s quite a mad party animal.
So how do you know Coldplay?
Tim: We toured with them in the States actually a few years ago. But there are actually a number of Coldplay connections — they’re all old Ash fans. Chris [Martin] used to come see us live — he’s a big fan.
How does it feel to have such a huge band be fans of yours?
Tim: It’s cool, it’s really nice. Same with Bloc Party — their guitarist was in an Ash tribute band. We only just found that out at South by Southwest. It just happens, if you’ve been around a long time, your fans are going to turn out to be influential people. You know, Chris sometimes sings Ash songs in the middle of Coldplay gigs — things like that. [Chris Martin also contributed backing vocals on a cover Ash did of an old Buzzcocks tune, “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays.”]
Word 5: Dash
Rick: Dashboard Confessional. We toured with them as well for three weeks. That was the first tour I’ve ever done in my life on the wagon. I only got drunk three times. (all laugh)
Mark: But we’re always really late trying to get somewhere as well.
Tim: We’re always dashing. Especially me.
Mark: Trying to get to the airport, get on the airplane. And then getting stuck behind an orchestra at check-in.
Rick: When we were checking the guitars and oversized hand luggage, and had the entire orchestra just queued up, with all their bugles. (laughs)
Word 6: Flash
Rick: Freddie Mercury. He’s awesome. And it reminds me of a Christmas that I remember.
Tim: He [gesturing at Rick] goes around Belfast flashing people. (laughter… and then dead silence)
No comment there?
Rick: No, that’s it. (all laugh)
Tim: Yeah. I occasionally strip naked for money.
Get a few bucks outta that?
Word 7: Smash
Rick: A friend of mine — she’s half Irish, half French — and she’s got really strange eating habits. And there’s this stuff, it’s like dried mashed potatoes, called “Smash” in the UK. She would eat yogurt, watered down, and then sprinkle dried Smash on top of it.
Mark: There was a band called S*M*A*S*H .
Tim: A band called S*M*A*S*H in the UK, like about 12 years ago.
Mark: Part of “The New Wave of New Wave.”
Tim: They were actually a kind of big band when we were starting out. There was one of those scenes that, you know — Alaska was also one of those bands in that scene.
Mark: And These Animal Men.
Tim: Yeah, and These Animal Men. They tried to lump us into that scene. But it just kinda shows that we’ve seen a lot of scenes come and go.
Word 8: Brash
Tim: Brash. That’s quite close to bra. Which sometimes Rick wears. (all laugh)
Tim: If you take off the ‘h’. (all laugh)
Tim: I suppose sometimes our music is brash. I mean, it’s in your face.
Word 9: Stash
Tim: Actually, I have an interesting story about Stash. I was once in Costa Rica around the millennium. And somehow myself and a couple of friends got roped into doing a gig in this little bar round about midnight. And we borrowed a guitar from the band called Stash. So we used that, and we played “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads, and “Cecilia” by Simon and Garfunkel. And that was it — that was kind of our party piece.
Word 10: Thrash
Tim: Thrash metal.
Rick: That was kind of was the new sort of genre of metal that was going on just as we were growing up — you know, with Metallica and Megadeth. These guys were really into Megadeth and I was really into Metallica when we were ten years old.
You were all little metalheads?
Tim, Mark & Rick: Yeah, oh yeah, yeah.
Rick: It started with Iron Maiden and then, sort of…
…went downhill from there.
Tim, Mark & Rick: Yeah — yes it did. (laughs)
Rick: Well, Metallica were better, I think.
What do you think about them now?
Rick: We watched their movie. [The documentary “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster”]
Tim: Yeah, good film. It’s sitting around here somewhere.
Rick: It’s hilarious.
Metal aside, what are you guys listening to now?
Charlotte: The new Mars Volta. It’s pretty amazing.
Tim: Just got the new Queens of the Stone Age album, but I haven’t heard it yet.
Rick: And I bought a load of Marilyn Monroe movies yesterday.
So “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” is what you’ve been listening to?
Rick: Yeah. I did actually listen to that last night, yeah.
Word(s) 11: White trash
Tim: There’s a great bar in Berlin called White Trash that we frequent when we get the chance. The guy makes killer margaritas using an industrial… what would you call it?
Rick: I don’t know what it is.
Tim: It’s, eh — it’s like — almost like an earth churner, or something.
Rick: They make it in big buckets.
Tim: Yeah, they make buckets of the stuff.
Rick: They set this big bucket on your table.
Tim: And there’s some sort of big industrial machine he uses to make it. It’s really cool.
For mixing paint or something?
Tim: Yeah, for something like that, maybe. Yeah.
Rick: And Denny’s.
Right — back to white trash. You end up at Denny’s a lot?
Rick: At South by Southwest, the hotel we were in was right beside a Denny’s, and we ate there a lot, and I didn’t feel very well, so…
Tim: It’s really bad. Our tour manager really, really likes it, so we used to end up going there all the time.
Where do you usually end up now?
Tim: We just buy some supplies to eat on here. Cereal. It’s better.
Tim: Yeah. Cheaper. Healthier.
Word 12: Rehash
Mark: We did a Greatest Hits — well, with the singles — about three years ago. Like ten years’ worth of stuff. [A two-disc set called “Intergalactic Sonic 7″s: The Best of Ash”]
Rick: We did a couple of songs that were what I suppose you could call rehashes of songs that didn’t quite make it on to Nu-Clear Sounds.
Rick: Like “Cherry Bomb,” which was really this sort of big acoustic thing. It had a harmonica on it — a really sweet song, and then we just added Weezer to the mix and came up with “Cherry Bomb.”
Tim: Yeah, all of a sudden that was one of the biggest singles off Free All Angels. It didn’t even make it on Nu-Clear Sounds. That’s kinda strange.
You also said there have been a lot of Ash tribute bands. Do you ever go out to see them?
Tim: I’ve never seen one. Sometimes you get sent videos and stuff. There’s a quite funny one — the guy actually looked quite like me. But, Russell from Bloc Party — he was Charlotte, in a different…
Does that trip you out that people are into that sort of thing?
Tim: Yeah — it’s really cool… Nothing wrong with it. It’s really nice.