ASH MADE THEIR NAME PLAYING THE SPACEPOP GAME, ROCKETING UP THE CHARTS WITH ‘GIRL FROM MARS’. NOW THESE BOYS JUST WANNA MAKE NOISE. MEET THE BAND WHO FELL TO EARTH…
IT’S THE MORNING after the night before and Ash are sitting in rooms in Hotel Hell, clutching sore heads, moaning about their hangovers. They’d go back to bed, but the mattresses are lumpy. They’re trying to rustle up some cheer but it’s hard. Last night, Ash skulked in a corner at the Brits while Jarvis Cocker upstaged Michael Jackson, while Noel and Liam Gallagher slagged off everyone except for Tony Blair. They just wanted to drink and talk, to enjoy one of their rare nights off. Unassuming in jeans, trainers and windcheaters. Ash don’t notice a beautiful woman crossing the floor, heading right for them. She says nothing, but hands them a calling card: ‘Rock’N’Roll Therapy. Sometimes, It’s Good To Talk.’
Rock’n’roll therapy? Ash are going to need some soon.
Meet Tim Wheeler, the singer with the looks — and voice — of an angel. Rick McMurray, the erudite drummer, is the spitting image of a hung-over Niles off Frasier. and Mark Hamilton, the gangly, auburn-haired bassist, is so bonkers the others keep a careful eye on him at all times. Ash have the us-against-the-world stance of a band that have been friends since they were in the infants’. You’ll know Ash for their pop singles ‘Girl From Mars’ and ‘Angel Interceptor’, both Top 20 hits that gave their classmates in Downpatrick, near Belfast, something real to talk about at playtime. You’ll know them as the band who were so fresh from school — and so famous already — that Tim read out his A-Level results on Radio One’s Evening Session.
Pop music is a young person’s playground. Why are we so surprised when teenagers make records as good as ‘Girl From Mars’ or ‘Goldfinger’, Ash’s new single? Filled with bristling energy and plaintive vocals, ‘Goldfinger’ is spikier than its predecessors, but just as bittersweet. “Because we’re young, people don’t realise there’s loads of thought going into our music. We’re intelligent people, talented musicians and good songwriters. No-one understands us, nobody gets us, they’re always missing the point. People just think we’re this whacky wee band; a happy, bouncy-castle Nirvana. We deserve to be taken seriously and given recognition for being a lot deeper than that. It makes sense to kids like us. They understand, but older people don’t get it,” Tim gripes.
Ash records have punk’s kick and strop, but the band couldn’t give a toss about the fashion statements. The year punk broke, Rick was an infant. Tim and Mark were… sperm. When you listen to Ash, you’re hearing something self-assured. “We sound confident because we believe in our songs,” affirms Tim. “When we did those hit singles, they were pure pop. We made them so people would stop thinking of us as noiseniks. We aren’t here to write throw-away pop about space. The album will have the singles on it, but our new single ‘Goldfinger’ is much more indicative of where we’re going. All of my new lyrics are about relationships, sex and drugs. Just life. The new songs are deeper. Heavier.”
Tim only becomes angry when people mistake his youth for naiveté. Ash won’t become just another young, easily exploited set of musical teenagers. “We have felt like we were losing our youth at times, but we don’t care. We were never interested in having a conventional lifestyle, anyway.” While most of their friends are away at university, Ash have been at Rockfield Studios in Wales, recording their debut with Oasis’ producer Owen Morris. Rural Wales is not full of excitement — the only extracurricular activities are going to the pub and getting stoned, if you’re lucky. “We were very lucky,” Tim giggles. “For two months, it felt a bit like we were in prison. Does your head in.”
Since leaving school. Ash find their lives scheduled, timetabled and action-packed. There’s no time for holidays or larking about, because they haven’t got a free day until December, not even a weekend. Tim doesn’t cry over this type of spilt milk. “We’re doing exactly what we want, but I want more,” he insists. “It’s all about doing a job that you’re in control of all the time. We are not stupid. We took it easy, we didn’t dive in straight away with a big advance. We have a very good lawyer and a very good manager. We may complain about a lack of free time, but we wanted to be busy. And we know that hard work might get us to the top of the charts. The American charts.”
After all. Ash know what it’s like to have too much time on their hands. They grew up in one of those places where you’ve got to make your own fun. Thing is, most of their neighbours weren’t terribly ambitious. “Downpatrick is the sort of place where there’s nothing to do except get out of your head with drink, which most people start doing at 13 or 14,” remembers Rick. “People drink and fight. Or they take drugs and fight. There are loads of casualties because of it. Some of the people are really fucked up.” Tim laughs along. “People even fight when they take E! They knock back whatever they can. You know what people say? ‘Once you pop, you just can’t stop’!”
Ash used Downpatrick better than that, but it was a complete accident. Tim, Mark and Rick started bashing away on cheap instruments six years ago, the kind sceptical parents buy as Christmas presents. “Mine cost £80,” laughs Mark. “Santa brought it! Nobody had ever spent that kind of money on me before. Now I just tell my parents it was one hell of an investment.” It was. “I think my parents regretted letting me take up the guitar for a while, because it took my mind off everything they would have wanted me to become,” remembers Tim. “But I wasn’t into being a professional person, a doctor or lawyer. Music is my thing. I only stayed on at school to finish my A-Levels because I’d started them.”
Once their parents switched on Top Of The Pops and saw their sons on the telly, they understood what was happening. “They see that ever since we left school, we’ve done nothing but work,” Tim explains. Sheer madness set in soon after. “My mum teaches in a school. She went out to her car at the end of the day, and one of the girls had written ‘I LOVE TIM’ in the dust on the boot.” He blushes. “But that’s not the worst of it! There was a girl in New York that was convinced Rick was Jeffery Dahmer. She gave me her photograph and she asked Mark to marry her. Personally, I think that’s pretty weird.”
These days, when they speak to their parents, or their old mates in Downpatrick, there’s lots to talk about. Tim’s girlfriend in London. The weirdness of being able to walk out of a hotel room and find rows and rows of shops. “I talked to them today, and they could not believe I had champagne with Robbie Williams,” raves Mark. “Oasis too. Noel got five bottles that cost £100 each. I was definitely nursing a sore head.”
“You always are, ligger,” scoffs Rick. Tim tuts disapprovingly. “It sounds shitty to name-drop like that. We’re not liggers. We’re not best mates with any of these people. I try and keep my lifestyle as normal as possible, keep it down to earth, but it isn’t really. I mean, we’re not going to Browns every night and living it up as mad pop stars.”
In the big city, Ash claim they feel free, but they also feel weird and awkward. Maybe it’s the Ulster accents. The ceasefire is over and Londoners are a touchy bunch. “We’d been in town shopping and we hailed a cab to take us back to Fulham, where we’ve been staying. The driver refused to carry us, he said there was loads of traffic and we were better off walking. Walking!” sneers Rick. “We’d been getting dirty looks out shopping too, just because Mark, bought so many videos they had to give him a bin-liner to carry them in. People really show their ignorance sometimes. But maybe it wasn’t a good idea for Mark to yell ‘bang’ in the middle of Lillywhite’s air-rifle department!”
Not a good idea. If anyone in Ash rates a visit from the rock’n’roll therapist, it’s Mark. “They must have seen me coming!” he laughs. “I had to go to shrinks last year because I was sick. I always had headaches and nobody knew why. I’m better now, though. Shrinks are fucked-up anyway, because they always want you to come back.” Mark is very fragile, even without a hangover. Tim and Rick seem to protect their bassist from everyone — except themselves.
Mercilessly, Tim sings ‘Teenage Lobotomy’ loudly to his friend. Mark laughs, but he’s clutching his cuddly toy, a tartan bunny that’s seen the wars. “It’s older than I am. My relations in Canada sent it to my mum before I was born. It’s the world’s best-travelled rabbit.” Tim scoffs. “What if you’d been stillborn, Mark? That rabbit would have gone down a treat!” Rick and Tim weep with laughter. Mark’s distraught: “That is one of the sickest things I have ever heard!” Rick wipes his eyes, just about regaining his composure. “‘Stillborn Bassist’ is a heavy metal song waiting to happen.”
Mark isn’t down for long, though. From his bag, he produces a limited-edition boxed set of the Star Ware trilogy. It looks just like a suspect parcel. As might be expected, all of Ash are Star Wars obsessives, and Tim claims to lose his head reading fairytales and myths. When he discovers George Lucas cobbled Luke Skywalker together from the pages of Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces, a scholarly tome which established common links between the hero-myths of different cultures, he’s impressed. He understands: “Where do I get it? That would be a great title for our album!”
The trials and tribulations of the classic heroes make a great allegory for Ash: coming from nowhere, but somehow marked as chosen ones, they’ve struggled to be understood and will eventually triumph. “We don’t want to wind up as has-beens,” reasons Tim. “We’re going to consolidate our success to make sure that doesn’t happen. When our new record comes out, we’ll make a lot more sense to people and they’ll appreciate us for wanting to do things our way.”
Ash may have left the wide-eyed wonder of space for Planet Earth, but Luke Skywalker would approve. Remember, every hero takes a fall before they rise and shine.
© Susan Corrigan, i-D, April 1996