Bill Cummings 17/11/2009

I caught up with Ash's talismanic frontman Tim Wheeler, finding him on fine form enthused by an exciting, unpredictable future for his band. If you didn't know, Ash are the middle of criss-crossing the nation from A to Z with a 26-date UK tour, visiting some of the country's live music back waters, in a bid to promote their mold-breaking A-Z Singles Collection. But how is the tour to all small corners of the country treating a band who have played huge stadiums and festivals in the past. "It's going great, yeah, having fun, it varies every day you don't know what you're in for really. It's eclectic; it goes from backrooms of pubs to Guildhalls like today, we don't know what to expect every day! It keeps things interesting. Its nice being that close to the fans, its intimate really.” But how did they choose the venues for this grand scheme? I had visions of the Ash lads fighting each other to stick brightly coloured pins into a map of the UK. 'I think the process was we got a list of potential towns beginning with each letter than we tried to figure out a way of least painfully routing the whole tour. We knew we didn't want to do any major cities 'cos we've got a year of new music coming out, so we wanted to save them for next year - we were picking more obscure places.'

After mixed reviews for their last album 'Twilight of the Innocence' (the only album bar Trailer not to go platinum), leaving their previous record company and returning to a very different music industry, Ash felt liberated as an act again, trying different things, free of the treadmill of major label tours, album, tours, etc. So: are both the tour and the singles releases a way of staying excited? "It's a fun, wacky idea - we're trying to keep things a bit different and to keep it a bit interesting and to try and draw attention to what we're doing with the singles. We're just trying to find another way of doing things because doing another album would be really tired for us, and the idea of putting out a single every two weeks for a year; its really easy to do nowadays.'

Bored of the traditional album promo treadmill and the decline in CD sales, Ash plan to release a series of singles throughout the next year. It's not the first time its been attempted The Wedding Present tried something similiar in the early 90s with a series of vinyl releases, but the sheer ambition of Ash's singles project which will see them release a single a week from the end of 09 and throughout the next year (26 in total) means that even they don't how its going to be received yet. “Yeah, The Wedding Present did twelve singles in one year in the early 90s - that was really an inspiration for me really. But, its really different because their's was really retail-based in record stores but ours is principally online and using the internet, and having fun.'

Many argue that the changing music industry and the demise of physical products like the CD will be wholly bad, but Tim reckons that it could actually be a positive thing meaning that rather like in the days of punk those artists and labels that do it for passion and the music will survive: 'There's a lot of exciting opportunities that haven't even been explored yet, in some ways it's killing the industry but at the same time it's offering new ways of doing things.” He enthuses, sounding really engaged again, Ash are now releasing the singles through their own label Atomic Heart Records. 'We have total control over what we're doing and total responsibility too, its scary when your fate is in a record company's hands - especially the way things are changing now. They (labels) will be dealing with back catalogue and surefire stuff and probably mostly pop stuff. It's kind of changed; it was a system that did develop new stuff and help bands to develop and I wonder where that's going to come from now. And that's where the most interesting music comes from: it's not the biggest artists that are going be the groundbreaking ones. It's going to have to be a real labour of love for people but that would produce the best stuff. I guess that's how punk started out, just mavericks going for it.” He notes that costs have come down “In some ways technology is in our favour because its cheaper to record now, at least physical releases are more affordable now.' But whilst he embraces the positives of the digital revolution he strikes a tone of caution 'But I can easily see a reaction to digital, a movement emerging saying zero digital nad becoming hermits just listening to vinyl" (I point out that most DJs and some music journalists, are already like that anyway.)

Some may question the idea, wondering how much buying each single will set them back but Tim is quick to note that it will actually work out cheaper and mean that they will constantly be able to surprise the listener. "The way we're doing it is you can buy them individually but we're offering them as a subscription for thirteen pounds, which is cheaper than an album for that many tracks. And we're doing 1,000 vinyls for each for collectors. Every single record we've put out so far has been on seven inch vinyl so we're trying to keep it going." For Tim it brings back memories of the early days of Ash back in the 90s when their video 'Angel Interceptor' first appeared on Top of the Pops and they were still in School. 'In a way this is sort of like back to the beginning. We were totally DIY at the start making our own demo tapes and we used to sell them in Belfast and they used to do well in the local charts, so its like a flashback to that.”

Ash's new single True Love 1980 is also a flashback to the past, since it follows the trend for incorporating 80s synth sounds into more mainstream pop releases - but has Tim always been a fan of that period or is he a newer convert? "I watched that Synth Brittania(documentary), I've been a Joy division fan since I was 16 and followed the way they incorporated synths sounds into New Order I've got more and more into that early synth pop and new wave stuff recently. More through collecting vintage synths and getting into those, sounds myself. I just remember New Order songs reminded me of miserable times but then things come around and it makes sense again."

The video for True Love 1980 is an 80s parody - but is the song tongue in cheek; the opening tinny synth line and schmaltzy, pure pop melody isn't typical Ash, is it? But it's inspiration turns out to be quite sweet, really. "Its kind of got two elements - one was my girlfriend had a necklace given to her by a childhood boyfriend when they were only toddlers and its actually from 1980. I thought that was a great name for a song title. It's sort of representative of super innocent kind of love. I was sort of messing around with some software synths on my laptop and this pure 80s sound came out. Initially I didn't think it was anything we could use for Ash. But as we started working on the singles we figured the more diverse the stuff is the more fun it will be. I think that will be the strength of it if we're surprising people every two weeks. The director came up with the idea I just liked the idea of it. When I was writing the song I'd just watched Pretty in Pink. I love all the John Hughes movies so its a bit of a doff of the cap to all that stuff, the old jocks versus nerds story(laughs)."

With one single already out 'True Love 1980' and single two in the series, the heart on sleeves, fuzz pop anthem 'Joy Kicks Darkness' on the way, I wondered how far through their alphabet of singles for next year, the band had planned for? "We've sort of pretty much got the ones that are mixed but we're going to do more. We've got 46 recorded - only 23 are good enough so we're going to record more next year. If I was going to write a manifesto for doing this, I would say you've got to record double what you actually release. At the moment we're taking chances and doing a lot of new things so I guess you don't know how it turns out till its actually finished."

But are Ash leaping aboard the 80s bandwagon, and what does he make of the likes of La Roux, Little Boots and Keane et al plundering this genre? After years of being derided as naff, the synth sound has become accepted again by the mainstream who want a watered down noughties pop version. It seems that with Ash this delve into the new romantic might be a one-off though. 'It's all been given a new context the way people are using it. They're taking it and making it palatable again. Certain periods get mined until everyone gets sick of them.' I point out that the early 90s has already started to be plundered in the last few years, maybe in future years there will be a slew of bands that will cite Ash as a influence ”I know we were actually an influence on a lot of the bands in the last five years” Tim points out 'but we weren't like a cool influence they could talk about, I know that people like Bloc Party I believe that Kelle met the guitarist in an Ash tribute band at this party (laughs).'

Requesting questions for the interview with Tim, I was met with a barrage of hostile comments to put to him, but faced with such enthusiasm and passion and bloody good Northern Irish Charm. I kind of wimped out, though I do ask whether he gets fed up when his band get attacked for being pop when at their best Ash have always been an emotionally charged pop/alt.rock/punk act with some killer melodies. Does he even bother about the Ash critics anymore? "I do care but at the same time I've grown a thicker skin, I remember in 1996 playing Goldfinger and talking to some fans and they even figured we were changing with that song. There are people who think we sold out with Trailer and there're people who couldn't handle us going metal. That's part of what's actually exciting for me is surprising people you're gonna lose in some ways but you're going to win too."

With such a vast back catalogue, looking back it must be hard to choose a favourite album, but Tim is straight in their with his favourite picks and the rather downbeat 'Nu Clear Sounds' doesn't make it into his list. "I guess the two biggest ones are 1977 and Free All Angels; it's a bit obvious but we're on tour at the minute and when we play those songs we get the biggest reactions. But I do love them all in their own ways."

With a greatest hits release a few years ago "Intergalatic Sonic Sevens", and a series of hit singles but often lesser-known albums, you have to wonder whether Ash will always be considered by many to be purely a singles band? 'I'm fine with being a singles band. I know people that love our album I always think we can do better that's what keeps me making music anyway, they may be imperfect but you know there's some fucking great songs we never put out shit anyway!(laughs)!' He agrees that each album is different and often people only get to hear the singles anyway, for that he's thankful at least. 'The thing with them all is they represent such different times in our lives. There's great singles bands, I love, the Rolling stones best record is Hot rocks and I love Abbas singles and Buzzcocks and stuff. Like with New Order I've never loved their albums but there are individual songs that are blinding moments, I do I love power corruption and lies that's an awesome one in fairness...'

Charlotte Hatherly left the band in 2006 after Ash's proto heavy metal album 'Meltdown' she's since gone on to a successful solo career and appeared in the back band of the great and the good. But was there any bad feeling and are they still in touch? 'I saw her (Charlotte) in the summer playing with Bat for Lashes, we're still in touch she's doing great....'

With such a long tour it's perhaps surprising to learn that there aren't a plethora of support bands on Ash's vast November A-Z tour. 'We've got the Panama kings who are supporting us on the whole tour. There's a great music scene going on in Belfast now there's a lot of live music going on when we were starting it was minimal. We did a festival last summer in Northern Ireland it was like two or three stages of purely northern Irish bands it was unbelievable it shows how much the country is changing and the music is changing I think its more accepted. Panama kings have got great tunes and great time signatures, I think they're better live they haven't quite nailed it on record yet, but they've got really cool songs going.' But is there anybody else was he keeping an ear out for in the music scene right now 'I like the Joy Formidable they remind me a bit of us they're like the early 90s rock music, they're really interesting group."

With big name collaborations in their past you might expect there to be some star guests or big name producers on some of the new recordings, but Ash are taking things right back to basics of just being a three piece unit again. "We kept it all really in-house because we were doing so much it made sense to keep it all in house its the product of four people three of us in the band and our engineer we recorded it in New York. Me and Mark(bassist) live there Rick(drummer) lives in Scotland now, but he was commuting over.” Tim positively revels in how tight knit his band are sounding again live, and how with the new releases the next year is really up for grabs creatively. 'Its very autonomous we can be very focussed and self-proficient and self reliant and very compact. We recorded shitloads of songs we recorded forty-six with it being so many singles we wanted the quality to be really high. We picked the first few coz we had to get the vinyl in production the whole last six months is still up in the air.' Then he reminisces with a smile 'My favourite time in the band was when we were at school because we weren't allowed to record an album we did like Kung Fu, Girl From Mars, Angel Interceptor and each new single was like a new reaction for us.... ' Something that he hopes Ash can repeat over the space of twenty six single releases that will span from the end of this year and throughout 2010. We shall see!

Ash's new single Joy Kicks Darkness was released on Monday.

The remaining dates on Ash's A-Z tour:

17TH NOVEMBER - VENTNOR Winter Gardens (01983857581 / );
19TH NOVEMBER - WORCESTER Dive Bar (01905740800 / );
21ST NOVEMBER - EXMOUTH Pavilion (08712200260 / );
22nd NOVEMBER - YEOVIL Orange Box (08712200260 / );
23RD NOVEMBER - ZENNOR Village Hall (08712200260 / )