Venue spoke to former Glastonbury headliners Ash ahead of their highly anticipated performance at the Waterfront on 12th December.
Ash, for a generation of Grunge and Britpop hungry mid ‘90s teens, represented all the innocence and promise of indie rock after the sorrowful demise of Kurt Cobain. Here were three fresh-faced and geek culture obsessed sixth formers from Northern Ireland whose envy-fuelling knack for melodic guitar fuzz and unlikely meteoric success delighted and confounded in equal measure.
Making their Top of the Pops debut with ‘Girl From Mars’ (the song is now used by NASA as their “on hold” tone) two weeks after sitting their A-Levels in August ’95, the boys were barely acne-free before topping the UK charts with their classic 1996 debut album 1977 (named for the year of Singer/Guitarist Tim Wheeler’s birth and the band’s favourite movie Star Wars). Even more impressive/ frustrating is the fact that their seven track EP Trailer was released two years previously in ’94, and featured songs and playing advanced to a level of most road-hardened bands at an age when most lads nowadays hear a guitar solo for the first time.
The shining example for every provincial garage rock band who dreamed of appearing on a still music-featuring MTV in the late ‘90s and early noughties, Ash have soldiered through more periods of commercial dips in interest than many a lesser band, and are back to storm UK venues promoting their sixth studio album Kablammo!, featuring what should prove to be a memorable stop-off at The Waterfront on 12th December. Speaking to me on a reflective Monday morning after an action-packed Halloween weekend with his kids (even indie teen rockers must face up to domesticity, it seems) drummer Rick McMurray sounds excited to get back touring.
After a quick chuckle over the blatantly obvious choice of an Irish interviewer for a mutually understandable Irish musician, Rick launches into his thoughts on the band’s upcoming schedule: “We’re really looking forward to this tour. What we normally do is release an album and get on the road as quickly as we can, but as we’ve been doing a lot of festival shows this summer it’s been quite stop and start this time around, but we’re just back from an American tour and it seems that the Kablammo! material is sitting really well with our more familiar pieces, and it’s a good feeling for us to be able to get away with that at this stage in our careers”.
The band haven’t really done an album tour per se for a decade. I mention this to Rick who concurs “we haven’t done an album since 2007 (Twilight of the Innocents) which we stated would be our last. We kind of predicted, going by the state of album sales at that time the death of the long player a little prematurely. It seemed frustrating to us that the music business in general was just sticking its head in the sand over this, so we took it upon ourselves to say “if the industry isn’t going to change we’re just going to try a different tactic ourselves. We took a bit of a risk, it was a great thing to do, but it seems in the intervening years the album has seen a bit of resurgence, which also is great news for us, especially in terms of the resurgence of vinyl, something that as a band we’ve always been into putting out. We even released all the A-Z singles on Vinyl. There was definitely a pressure to live up to that quality of albums we’d done previously, like we were thinking “if we’re going to return to this format, it needs to be right up there with 1977 and Free All Angels.”
Referring to the band’s third album, their second UK number 1, Free All Angels was a triumph for Ash, having effectively made the album with their own money, after their record label was apparently disinterested with their initial attempts. “We handed them the demo of ‘Shining Light’ and they effectively said “well, that’s shit, no thanks, we won’t be funding any more of that”. So we decided to take whatever money we had left to make it with a producer who believed in us and who didn’t expect upfront payment. It really was a make or break record for us, as our second album (1998’s Nu-Clear Sounds) got criticised in the press for being too heavy, it really was the difficult second album for us. Luckily after a lot of hard work and kind support Free All Angels became what is.”
The album hit the top spot in April 2001 the same week Janet Jackson’s All For You failed to. I asked Rick whether the notorious story about him calling Jackson’s record company Sony and singing the chorus of Outkast’s ‘Miss Jackson’ was true-which he heartily confirms. “It was a case of me having a few celebratory drinks and getting a text from our manager saying “her label pumped millions into getting her a number 1 and we’ve effectively done it on the cheap, go on, ring them and let them know!” The story of triumph over record label adversity is a humble lesson for any band, its news quite aptly best delivered with the hallowed tones of Southern Rap.
We spend the rest of the interview discussing on tour habits – no drugs, just mastering the art of playlists and knowing your fellow band members boundaries. Rick mentions ‘Ween’ as a mainstay on the band’s touring iPod, and I mention Pure Guava as a keeper – he responds “all you need is some singalong funny shit to get you through a tour. That and knowing when not to chill together and not”. Discussing an upcoming European tour with long time friends – effortlessly humourous New York post-punkers , We Are Scientists – Rick says “that’s something that’s going to be great. Going on tour with guys you’ve known for a long time breaks the monotony of being in the same band for this many years, and we’re doing a co-headline thing where we both play forty minute sets and then do a supergroup thing where all members of both bands just get up and rock out. We’ve been rehearsing plenty for that set, but the Scientist lads are saying they’re just going to fly over and see what happens – which knowing them, should be interesting!”
If you like to hear the sounds of melodically youthful nostalgia played at an exceptional volume, head down to see Ash at The Waterfront on 12th December. I leave Rick saying I’ll be the loud drunk lad in the front singing along, and he says he’ll catch up with me over a beer. Northern hospitality. Even if we’re in for a cold one, the Ash boys will bring the sounds of summer.