Full disclosure: Ash were my favorite band of the 90s and their 1996 debut, 1977, was my favorite album of that decade as well. What 1977 meant to me as a teenager I cannot express in this Rank Your Records because the word count would well exceed what my editor has allowed. In a nutshell though, that album was my everything for a number of years.
Ash began as a trio of young teens—Tim Wheeler (vocals/guitar), Mark Hamilton (bass) and Rick McMurray (drums)—from Downpatrick, North Ireland. Their Nirvana-influenced guitar pop may have made them huge international stars (not so much in North America, but everywhere else) thanks to the advent of Britpop in the mid-90s. But Ash only really had one foot in that scene, reaping the benefits of their nationality to help establish themselves outside of the UK. Their other foot was firmly planted in the post-grunge, alternative rock surge, touring the US with Weezer, Coldplay, and Garbage.
Since forming in 1992, Ash have not only survived the crash and burn of Britpop, two of the three members moved overseas to New York City, the addition and loss guitarist Charlotte Hatherly, and a fickle music industry, but they’ve also built a catalogue of eight albums that range from solid to fantastic. Their brand new album, Kablammo!, is, in my opinion their best since 1977 (out on 5.25 via earMusic). Noisey asked Tim Wheeler to rank his own records, which he did with plenty of difficulty, and unlike most musicians, he did not put his new record first.
Before we get to the rankings, here are some fun facts about Ash worth noting:
- In 2003, Ash wrote, directed and starred in a horror spoof called Slashed that also featured Chris Martin and Jonny Buckland of Coldplay as FBI agents, Moby as himself, and Dave Grohl as “Hysterical Dave Grohl.” Sadly, it still has yet to be released, but bits and pieces have shown up on online.
- Ash’s cover of the Buzzcocks’ “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays,” with Chris Martin on vocals, plays during the end credits of Shaun of the Dead. They also wrote and recorded the title track to Danny Boyle’s 1997 film A Life Less Ordinary, starring Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz. McGregor also narrated Ash’s tour documentary, Teenage Wildlife.
- When he’s not playing angular and atmospheric riffs in Bloc Party, guitarist Russell Lissack is an on-and-off touring member of Ash.
I don’t really like the recording much, and it’s all the songs we had from our first two years in the band. I guess it was the best songs we had, except from “Girl From Mars,” which we held back on purpose. Listening to it I think half of it is good and half of it isn’t so good.
You held back “Girl From Mars” so it would be on the next record?Yeah, because we were still at school our manager and label didn’t think it’d be good for us to have a hit while we were in school. One thing our parents pressed on them was that they really wanted us to finish school at that point. And I think the feeling from the manager and label was that this was a sure-fire hit. So because of that we thought we’d wait until we were 18 to drop this one.
Was it weird releasing that album here in North America in 1995 after ”Girl From Mars” was already a big hit in the UK?
Not really. We were just trying to get America to catch up with Trailer. Because it was definitely going to be on the following album it could have compromised that.
Trailer was released here at the height of Britpop, which Ash was lumped in with. How did you feel about that association?
It was almost as Britpop was starting to percolate, but we were a bit more lumped in with the New Wave of New Wave, so that was kind of when Trailer was coming out. And Elastica were just starting to blow up then, so it felt like 1995, when “Girl From Mars” came out that it was the summer of Britpop. Looking back, most of the bands said they didn’t want to be part of it, but I guess we definitely benefitted around the world from being part of this scene. Although a lot of the bands crashed with it, luckily we managed to get another stab, to ride out the fall out of Britpop.
You didn’t exactly fit in with Britpop. I think it was just because you were from Britain.
The other link was that we had the same producer as Oasis, Owen Morris. So maybe on songs like “Goldfinger” you can kind of hear similarities to the sound of the Oasis records at the time. So that helped people link us to it. I’d say our ears were leaning much more towards our American influences. But it was cool being in a guitar band, and high in the charts in the UK, and being on Top of the Pops. We had watched Nirvana appear on that show years before. And it was great to hear guitars on the radio, so there was good stuff about it.
We got to record it in LA at Sound City, which was part of living out our fantasies as teenage Nirvana fans, getting to record where Nevermind was made. But I think we toured Free All Angels so much in the States, and we were sharpening up as a live rock band, and that really fed into the music. And I guess bands like Queens of the Stone Age had emerged as well, and we loved the playing. Rick was all about Dave Grohl’s drumming on that one album of theirs [Songs For The Deaf]. So we were quite influenced by that stuff and all the time we spent in America. Also I think it was written pretty fast, after being so burnt out from touring, so it’s not quite as song-focused as some as the other records.
“Evil Eye” is said to have a backwards message that says, "She's giving me the Evil Eye. Suck Satan's cock." Is that true?
Yeah, yeah! [Laughs.] At one point we also had a song about George Bush in there, but eventually we thought we should leave that one off. I was listening to that again today. The opening song “Meltdown” was inspired by the anti-war marches in London, before the invasion of Iraq. It was unbelievable how many people came out for that, and yet it didn’t make any difference, unfortunately. That was really quite shocking.
6. TWILIGHT OF THE INNOCENTS
This was a record we put out and said it was going to be our last one. I guess it didn’t quite connect with radio the way the other albums had. I’m really proud of it though because it was our first self-produced record and the first one we made after setting up our studio in New York. We put a lot of work into it and I’m particularly proud of the final track on the record, the title track, which was always monumental to play live. We got to work with Paul Buckmaster on the string arrangements for that song. He did “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon, “Without You” by Harry Nilsson, the “Space Oddity” strings for David Bowie and Songs of Love and Hate by Leonard Cohen. He was absolutely incredible. He did strings on a couple songs.
Was it decided that it would be the final Ash album while you were recording it?
I think we actually announced it before it came out. It was at the time when downloads were really affecting the music industry, and I thought albums were culturally changing. They were no longer the be-all and end-all, and there wasn’t that excitement like before. But maybe it was just this album and where we were in our career. I was looking forward to moving away from albums though. We’d been doing the album-tour-album-tour cycle for some time, so we felt that in order to find the next step it’d be good to find a new challenge, and that was to abandon albums.
This was also the first album you made after Charlotte left, when you became a three-piece again.
Yeah, that’s true. There was quite a lot of pressure with that as well. We wanted to go back to being a three-piece, but we also wanted to deliver a record that we could do live and would sound great as a three-piece. I guess we were quite conscious of that while making the record. Things like having Paul Buckmaster’s strings or having some keyboards on different tracks were a way of replacing the extra guitar and Charlotte’s voice. It was quite a transition.
5. NU-CLEAR SOUNDS
We don’t play much of it live so we forget what it’s like, but there are some really cool sounds, some really cool songs. Maybe if two of the songs were better it’d be an absolute blinder. It starts really great with “Projects” and “Jesus Says.”
I imagine there was a lot of pressure trying to match the success of 1977.
Yeah, there were a couple of things going on. We were feeling loads of pressure to follow that up, and we were also trying to redefine ourselves. 1977 we made when we were 19, so it was a couple of years later. And some of the pigeonholing that went on with 1977 drove us crazy. For example, when we were in Germany they really marketed us almost like a boyband. And in Australia they put individual postcards of us in the CD—like real pin-up pictures. That was never what we started a band for. We could never picture someone like Nirvana doing that. We wanted to be taken seriously. I guess we did get a lot of good kudos for our songwriting on 1977, but there was a whole pop success that came with that record. I guess we were trying to put the brakes on some things and made a more abrasive record, but we also wanted to be as successful as before and keep it going. I definitely had a bit of writer’s block and had to work to get back into it. Also I had just left school then gone on the road for a year and a half, and couldn’t really write on tour. So I got to the end of the run and faced all of this pressure to try and repeat that success. So it was quite tough and a dark time.
Nu-Clear Sounds seems a bit reckless and wild, like you guys wanted to unwind and have some fun.
Definitely! And if we put “A Life Less Ordinary” it would’ve done well, because that was the in-between single. It never found a home on a record. Looking back, I think that’s one of my big regrets. That would have been a good move. Nestling it between tracks two and three, it would’ve been fantastic.
This was the first album with Charlotte. How did she change the dynamics of the band?
It was great for me to work with Charlotte. We toured with Weezer in the States for Pinkerton in 1996, and I loved the interplay between Brian and Rivers, and that’s something I really wanted to get. I always dreamed of having a second me in the band I could ask to do stuff while I was singing. Charlotte was such a fantastic guitarist and she added a lot. We sort of discovered as the years went on how much her backing vocals added to the songs, but we didn’t explore that much on Nu-Clear Sounds. She was a good writer as well, and “Projects” was written between Mark, Charlotte and myself. And she looked awesome on stage! [Laughs.]
4. A–Z SERIES
It was experimental in both the method of release and the music we were doing. We were trying to surprise people every two weeks with a different style, but it was such a big challenge. It was really exciting and a very creative time. Definitely the hardest I’ve ever worked in the studio. We were also self-releasing, so that was crazy. We were completely winging it all the time. And we did vinyl for every single, every two weeks. Part of the idea was that it’d be digital, but because we did the seven-inches we needed two months lead time to press the vinyl, so that made things quite hairy at some points. We also did a subscription service, which was quite interesting. Our big dream was to go top 40 every two weeks. I think if we only had 2,000 more subscribers we would have done that, but we came quite close. That was the kind of statement I really wanted to make.
Were you recording them as you were going along or were they all recorded first?
We gave ourselves a bit of a pillow. We had the first eight singles lined up before we started, but we still had 22 to finish as it was going on. But I really wanted to break away from writing an album and touring it. I always got the feeling after finishing an album that my creativity was flowing and I wanted to keep writing. This project was great because we saw people get excited every two weeks, while working on new stuff.
You ended up releasing all of the singles together as an album. How do you feel about the flow of A-Z from beginning to end?
It jumps from style to style, from track to track, but I think there is a nice flow to it. There just isn’t that cohesion of an album that was made to be an album. It’s quite a lot of music to listen to. Both volumes together are more than two hours of music. It was kind of designed for the people listening to it every two weeks, but I’m really proud of the work we did. Our manager calls it our best body of work. I think it’s very professional sounding for such a homegrown product.
I'm most excited about it this minute so I’d like to put it first but I've got give it a bit of time. I'm going with tried and tested at the top of the pile. [Laughs]. I feel it's got the essence of what's best about Ash. I think because we'd gone away from making albums for a while. I'd definitely felt the pressure of living up to 1977 and Free All Angels, in the sense that there needed to be stronger songs. I spent a long time focusing on songwriting. I think there's a sense of nostalgia and looking back on songs like “Hedonism” and “Bring Back The Summer.” I think you can still hear we’re having fun. That's part of the reason why we called it Kablammo!—we wanted it to be a fun and exciting pop record.
Before Kablammo! we'd been pushing ourselves for about ten years trying to develop new sounds. We wanted to make a record that sounded great as a three-piece rock band that would translate instantly live. We weren't trying to sound like anybody but ourselves. You can hear we're really confident and comfortable in our own skin on this one.
You said after A-Z, “Right now, I can't see us ever returning to that way of working and putting out our music.” And now we have Kablammo!.
I definitely got burned doing the whole single series. At the end of it was just so exhausted. So, I guess if I kept going with it I could have sustained it, but after a break we felt we needed another challenge. In between that I did a Christmas record with Emmy the Great, which was quite fun. And I did some soundtracks and my solo album [Lost Domain]. During that time I saw the re-emergence of vinyl, and I started listening to vinyl more, just to try and get the essence of what an album was again. I sort of knew the fans wanted us to make an album, but for a long time I didn’t want to admit that we would. I like to be an honest person and not go back on my word, but I felt this was a challenge that Ash needed to take again. So then it was a question of how do we equal the best of our records? I looked back and thought the ones fans love the most are 1977 and Free All Angels and I needed to find what it was we needed to tap into.
2. FREE ALL ANGELS
I always described this album as “a mature 1977.”
It’s not quite as noisy as the previous two, but it’s up-tempo and rocking. Alan Moulder mixed it, so it has a slightly more posh sound. I think it has a great bunch of songs, a great bunch of singles on it. Some of our defining songs are on there. It was kind of a hard time after the Britpop scene fell away, pretty much all of the UK indie bands were flopping with their follow-up records and then getting dropped. If this record hadn’t been a success it probably would’ve been the end of our career. I knew I had to get back into the pop style of writing, like I did on 1977, because I thought that is what we hadn’t pushed enough on Nu-Clear Sounds. That was the one thing that was missing, definitely.
It definitely won. Free All Angels went in at number one, the album sold platinum, you won an Ivor Novello Award for “Shining Light.” And Coldplay covered that song, Noel Gallagher praised that song…
Annie Lennox did a cover of it too. It was her single on the greatest hits she released about five years ago. So, great honors came with that. I sort of had a feeling that song would put us back to where we needed to be. It was kind of lucky because we were almost bankrupt at the time.
You sampled Burt Bacharach’s “Make It Easy On Yourself.” That was a big, bold move.
First we had to clear the sample with whoever owned the Walker Brothers records. And then we had to okay it with the publisher. It was all done with the label and the publisher, so I don’t know how the negotiations went, apart from it being approved. I can’t remember what money it cost. I thought it was a really cool song, but it was quite divisive for some of our fans because it was probably the furthest we’d moved from guitar rock at that time. When we recorded it though we were certain it was going to be a massive hit. But it wasn’t. It still was a top 20 single though. There is definitely a good portion of our fans that hate that song. [Laughs].
I guess it’s the album we play most songs from, so we’re still very much in touch with it. A lot of the songs are what defined us and how people view us. I’m very proud of it because of how old I was when I wrote it. Some of the songs are simple, but some are clever and I’m surprised when I look at them. We still play a lot of it live and it stands up with everything we’ve done.
You guys were 19 when it came out and it debuted at number one on the UK charts.
It was crazy exciting. We couldn’t quite believe it. I think we were the first ever Irish band to have a debut album go in at number one. Even Thin Lizzy, U2, the Corrs. [Laughs]. It was a big deal, and a very exciting time being all over the radio and getting to travel the world. It was really big in Japan, Australia, and Germany, a lot of Europe.
The album is stacked with singles.
We had a killer run with the first singles—“Kung Fu,” “Girl From Mars,” and “Angel Interceptor.” Then the pressure came when all of a sudden we had to record the album and I had to come up with some more singles that were up to the level of those three. Luckily I did. It was quite a lot of pressure making that record because we had success with those previous singles.
How do you feel about “Sick Party” these days?
Oh, I like it! [Laughs.] I think it’s very endearing. It really sums up what we were like being teenagers in a band and getting all this kind of success and getting to party as much as we wanted. That’s what teenagers with success will do, they’ll just go crazy.
There is a Tie Fighter sample on this record. Was it hard to get permission from George Lucas?
I’m amazed we got away with that one. I think our label was owned by 20th Century Fox at the time, so I think that’s how we managed to get away with that. I’m not sure if we asked. We must have. It’s pretty cool.
The initial copies of 1977 came with two pre-hidden tracks. You had to rewind track one to hear them. Where did that idea come from?
I wonder how the hell we found out about that, because there’s a weird glitch in the CD manufacturing that you can do that. It’s probably out of the mind of our manager or the label. It was quite a small team at the time, but between all of us we were always trying to find inventive ways to do things. That was fucking cool!
Not too long ago you did a 1977 tour. How was that?
We did it in London, then Belfast and maybe six shows in Australia. It was actually quite strange going back and playing the full album, because then you see the weaknesses in some of the tracks. In a live show, some of the songs aren’t as good as some we’ve since written. I’ve gotta say I enjoy playing the main songs, but it’s pretty weird going back and playing the whole thing. But people get a big kick out of it.
We love it when Cam Lindsay geeks out. He's on Twitter.