Tim Wheeler from Ash (Handout)
Ash is a band that rose to prominence in the '90s and has since sold over eight million records worldwide and are still going strong. The now-New York-based Northern Irish band recently completed a North American tour, put out a greatest hits record last year along with a new covers EP over the summer and frontman Tim Wheeler has an interestingly themed Christmas record out on December 17th. MSN caught up with Tim to discuss songwriting, growing up during a tumultuous time in Ireland, the band’s long-awaited slasher film and Zombie Christmases.
It’s the festive season, so why don’t we start with the Zombie Christmas record.
I made the album last year with Emmy The Great. We’re just putting it out again this year on vinyl. We’ve made a fresh video for ‘Zombie Christmas’. We made it about a month ago in London. It’s pretty fun. We wrote a couple of songs two Christmases ago when we got snowed-in at Emma’s parents place. We were kind of stuck there, and couldn’t go anywhere. We just started writing songs. Basically just started brainstorming and thinking of ways to try and freshen up the whole Christmas thing. One of the ideas was ‘Zombie Christmas’, this stupid meshing of two things. I guess you can pretty much zombify anything. [laughs]
You’ve got a lot of stuff on the go. You just finished a tour, put out a covers EP this summer and now this.
I’ve done a couple film soundtracks in the meantime as well.
Let’s go with the film soundtracks. Are you playing Ash music, or is it more composed?
Yeah, it’s composed. Actually the last one I did was the film Spike Island, which is going to come out in the spring. It’s a coming of age trivia piece. It’s pretty sweet. There’s a couple of bands in it as well, so I had to write songs for bands as well. The main part of it was me doing all of the incidental score music. It was really fun. I did that over the summer.
Writing stuff for other bands. As a songwriter, have you written stuff for other people before?
Not really, no. It was pretty cool, trying to get into that mindset of the early-nineties band. One of the bands was very much trying to be The Stone Roses, making their first album. The other band was made more of a Charlatans kind of vibe. I really quite enjoy it. I kind of enjoyed dissecting a band’s style and see what makes them take.
Do you write differently knowing that someone else is going to sing a song?
Not really. I always have my way of writing melodies. I don’t think that changes. I guess the instrumentation, I tried to think of the little tricks… trying to find notes that would sound good in a Manchester accent. Certain vowels.
Where do you write best?
I definitely need peace and quiet. Writing on tour is really hard for me. You need to sort of be in your comfort zone. I tend to write at home. My parents place is actually a really good place to write. Sometimes I go back and retreat there for a few weeks and get some stuff done. I’ve always even heard that Lou Reed goes into his parent’s place. I imagine him writing ‘Heroin’ while his parents are making dinner or something. [laughs]
You made a big move to New York from Ireland a few years ago. Was it a life choice to move there or something as a writer and musician, you needed to be somewhere else?
It’s a bit of both. I always found it really inspiring. When I would visit here, I would always leave full of ideas. It’s such an inspiring place. The people that you meet are amazing. The city attracts such great people. I get a lot from the energy of the place and the people here. At the same time, I do really like nature. I come from the middle of nowhere in Northern Ireland, the country side. That can work for me too.
Is that why you got into music? Because there wasn’t much to do? That’s why you picked up the piano for the first time.
Yeah. It seemed removed from the rest of the world. It’s a bit of backwater. I guess with all of the stuff going on politically when I was younger, it was even more cut off from the world in a lot of ways. A lot of bands wouldn’t come there to tour. It definitely seemed like a bit of an escape.
That’s interesting that you mentioned the political situation. How did it affect you? Did you see things happening and bombings?
There were constant bomb scares. The army was around all of the time. You’re always getting road-checked. There were bomb scares at school. I saw a policeman get shot when I was a kid. My dad worked for the government, so we used to have to look for bombs under the car every day. That kind of thing. You almost think it’s something normal. Not that I was particularly traumatized by it, you make that look like your normal life.
That might lead you to the music you make. At least the earlier Ash records are more of that angst to them. That urgency. I wonder if the political climate did that.
I’m not sure. It was a vibe that was around at the time. People were listening to that kind of music as a teenager. I don’t know if I can fully attribute the troubles at all. A lot of teenagers are turned on to punk rock and aggressive noises. Having said that, there was a very healthy punk scene in Belfast in the late seventies. There might be a correlation, but I’m not sure.
Talking about the past, let’s go to the covers record. There are couple of old tunes on there. There’s The Beatles’ ‘Hello Goodbye’ and The Beach Boys’ ‘Do You Want to Dance?’ How did you curate the covers record? Are these song that you grew up with or are these songs that you just felt liked playing?
They’re all artists that we liked. A lot of them are quite poppy songs, and that’s something we like doing when we’re kicking off a session. We like to do a cover just to get our heads back into the studio. Sometimes there’s a real mystery to the song and you have to unlock it. The best way of doing that might be to do a cover. Dissect a bit and try to re-create it. We just sort of accumulated enough that it felt like a good time to compile them.
Does covering these songs influence the way you wrote afterwards?
I wonder. I guess like ‘Lay All Your Love on Me’, the ABBA song, that was around the time we hovering into a bit of the electro vibe on our stuff. I was loving all of the crazy arpeggios in that stuff, trying to figure that out. That definitely crept into songs like ‘Binary’ for us. It’s got like Bach vibe going on through that ABBA song a well. It’s pretty cool how they added that to disco.
You tweeted about seeing Dinosaur Jr. with Johnny Marr the other night and how great a show it was. Does watching a band like make you want to get back out on the road immediately, does it inspire you?
I love it. Dinosaur Jr. was one of the first bands that I really listened to right in the beginning of when we started Ash. In fact, ‘The Wagon’ was a track that we covered, like the very first rehearsal that we did together. I love shredding guitar solos. I’ve always slotted them into our stuff. Sometimes that’s not cool in the indie world but we’ve always done it. It was a pretty amazing show. It was like two and a half hours. One thing I did pick up from it was, “Maybe I should extend some of these solos a bit.” [laughs] He’ll really just go on and improvise for a few minutes. It’s really cool. They did have a good variety to the show. There were even a couple of songs that Lou Barlow did on the ukulele. That’s something else that I picked up. Having a diversity. Almost a complete change in the set for even just five minutes can freshen things up at point in the set. It’s cool.
You just got off the road. What’s the plan for new year?
The main thing is just going to be getting back into the studio and start writing. I’m working on some new Ash stuff. I can see us maybe returning and making a pure guitar record. No keyboards, possibly. Even though I’ve built up a pretty sweet collection the past few years. I think it might be time to really go back to the roots. Who knows? You always start with one idea, but you have to let the songs take it where they want to go.
What’s going on with the slasher film you guys directed? I know it’s about ten years old, but you finally, recently, screened it.
Yeah, we made it on tour opening for bands like Coldplay, Moby, and Dashboard Confessional. We kind of did like a year of non-stop opening slots in the States. Because we had been finishing early and the sets were short, we had a lot of time on our hands. One of our ideas was to make this slasher film. We were writing it as we went along. We roped in people like Chris Martin, and Dave Grohl for cameos. Actually, two of the Coldplay boys had quite big roles in the whole thing. We just never really got around to finishing it. Everyone got killed except for me. My death was supposed to be the end of it, but we never filmed it. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s something we can actually ever finish. But we’ve got up little teasers for it. We made a video for a track called ‘Binary’. You can sort of get an idea of what was going on. This year we had a 20th anniversary show, and we had a projector screen and showed the audience most of the film that exists. I think people enjoyed it. I don’t think it can ever get properly released because that complete film doesn’t exist. I think the mystique helps it. The myth is better than what it is. [laughs]
What was opening up for David Bowie like?
We met him a couple of time. He was so f*cking cool. I think at one point during the tour he went to the store and was buying a couple of records. He was checking us out on the side of the stage a couple of times. It was cool to see the human David Bowie. Like the guy trying to give up cigarettes. The guy who was out trying to promote his new album. Trying to fight to get his current work seen amongst such a substantial body of work. He was talking to me a little bit about that and trying to get on radio. Here’s a guy trying to make it as a musician, even though he’s one of the greatest of all-time. [laughs] It still mattered to him. It was cool to see.
Five quick questions. One word answers.
Road or Studio?
Lennon or McCartney.
When you hear a song, what usually hits you first: Lyrics, melody, or rhythm?
Song you’ve written that you’re the most proud of?
And in one word, Ash.