The original Bratpoppers, ASH, are back! We meet them in Sweden and hear about Ian Paisley, the nuclear-tastic new album and Charlotte’s death-threats
RICK McMURRAY, drummer with Ash, thinks long and hard about the band’s perceived status as Godfathers Of Bratpop. “What’s pink and hard?” he enquires. “A pig with a Sten Gun.” Boom f***ing boom. So that’ll be Ash back, then.
IT’S BEEN two years since Ash released their Downpatrick punk-rock album, 1977, a record that even now stands up as an unimpeachable collision between youthful brio and a precocious sense of how to fit the Technicolor into all the right places.
A year before the album’s release, singer Tim Wheeler and bassist Mark Hamilton took their A-levels as their singles, ‘Girl From Mars’ and ‘Angel Interceptor’, confidently cruised into the Top 10. Lob the casually ebullient triple-whammy of their first singles, ‘Jack Names The Planets’, ‘Petrol’ and ‘Uncle Pat’, and indie classics like ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘Kung Fu’ into the fray, and you’ve got a history that’s barely credible from a trio still snuggling with the vagaries of bum fluff. Four successive singles made the “proper” Top 20 and 1977 sold almost half a million copies. The whippersnappers crackled ferociously.
The band’s success was made all the more remarkable by the fact that they’d come good despite a reputation for excess that made most of their elder rock’n’roll brethren look like Sunday school lightweights. Hell, Mark had even had his wig-out bad trip hospitalisation Brian Wilson period three years before he’d joined the band.
1997 saw a five-night sell-out residency at London’s Astoria, a headline gig at V97, a historic two nights headlining at Glastonbury (the second thanks to the apocalyptic weather conditions rather more suited to the band’s pre-Ash name, Vietnam), another Top 10 single in the form of the title track to the film, A Life Less Ordinary and, thanks to their friendship with the latter’s star Ewan McGregor, a chance for the rabid Star Wars fans to play at George Lucas’ private Star Wars prequel party. And, along the line, the trio became a foursome, recruiting ex-Nightnurse guitarist Charlotte Hatherley.
“We were touring the 1977 album around the world for two years,” says Mark. “It’s weird, cos you’re doing all these songs that were written, like, years earlier and there’s all these people in Japan and America or wherever just getting into them for the first time. People might think we’ve been doing nothing for ages, but we’ve been busy all the time. It’s not like we’ve gone into retirement or anything.”
Signs that Ash still had a whole lot more to throw out/in/up came with a rafter-crumpling secret show at London’s Barfly club at the beginning of the year and a rather more public appearance at the “Vote Yes To The Referendum” Belfast Waterfront show in May, alongside U2 and Northern Ireland MPs John Hume and David Trimble. Both shows gave them a chance to unveil some of the new material from their forthcoming album, Nu-Clear Sounds, mixed, as was 1977, by über-twiddler Owen “Oasis” Morris. Just to embellish their comeback, big-boned Ian Paisley condemned Ash’s appearance at the Belfast show, presumably not finding enough Old Testament divisiveness in the band’s melodic vigour. “I sat next to him on a plane shortly after he’d slagged us off,” says Rick, “but I don’t think he knew who I was. I don’t think we’d have had much to talk about anyway.”
Paisley must be one of the few people not to recognise Rick on the Belfast to London shuttle flights (“The stewardess said, Hello Mr McMurray’ this morning”) since he spends much of his time accruing air-miles by flying to Heathrow from his home in Northern Ireland. Tim and Mark have both relocated to London, while Charlotte has lived in the capital all her life, but while the geographical proximity of the band members may have widened, all four are insistent that it would be dumb to ascribe any significance to where they hang their hypothetical hats.
“We’ve spent the last few years touring or in recording studios,” says Mark. “We don’t go out socialising together much cos most of the time we’re together all the time anyway.”
Are you going to move to London, Rick?
“No. That’s why they invented planes.”
TODAY, THANKS to Ian Wright’s grandparents getting their heads around the aerodynamics thing, we’re transported over the clouds with Ash to Stockholm, Sweden, for the city’s famous Water Festival, an event that vigorously celebrates the fact that Stockholm is surrounded by water and, despite having originally been built on a glorified sewage pit, now boasts the cleanest drinking water in Europe.
The week-long festival boasts a plethora of multicultural events, none of which, alas, involve Abba, Volvos or heavy-set plumbers with handlebar moustaches fixing the ball cock for housewives whose clothes have fallen off. Instead there are such delights as a play about a troll who explodes when the sun conies out (unlikely to happen as the city is shrouded unseasonably in drizzle for the entire week); the Moscow International Film School miming to ‘America’ from West Side Story outside the band’s hotel for ever, and a peculiar cross between the National Lottery and pooh sticks, whereby 20,000 plastic ducks in sunglasses (not a word of a lie!) are lobbed into a river with numbers on their bellies, the first past the bridge downstream making someone an instant millionaire. Let’s rock.
Musical interruptions to this smorgasbord of the pathologically peculiar include performances by Björk (herself no stranger to the Marble Lost Property Room), Portishead, Fun Lovin’ Criminals, The Stockholm Folk Blues Big Band and, inevitably, Ash. As we potter along the motorway into town from the airport, the cab driver explains that the delay is due to the cortege taking The King Of Sweden along to see Björk. Somewhat more appealingly he also tells us that Swedes have no word for mud. Maybe he’s not been watching the right videos.
And maybe we’ve not been watching Ash. Having gone ahead of us, they’re soon nowhere to be found. So begins a search that takes in the karaoke bar in the lounge of their hotel, a 7-Eleven selling confectionery called “Kack”, “Plopp” and “Kex” and, oddest of all, a bar where all the seats have holes in the middle and there’s a toilet and a cactus in the window. But no Ash. The next morning, Ash’s manager sketches out some of the previous night’s shenanigans.
Apparently the band dropped by to see Björk, went to her party with Fun Lovin’ Criminals and pretty much drank the city’s entire supply of alcohol in a single, attack-from-all-sides gesture. The last thing anyone remembers is Mark, having already been thrown out twice and having reprimanded the bouncer for being shit at his job, attempting to get the taxi to keep its engine running, “while I go back and twat him”. Surprisingly, none of the band have ended up in jail. Instead they’re all hung up to dry on either side of that thin line between still being pissed and emerging from 38 winks with a head like a jackhammer and a mouth like Bosnia.
And, like it or not, it’s time for them to talk about the new album.
YOUR ROCK’N’ROLL bands, as a rule, like their albums to speak for themselves. Indeed, they’re almost hysterically happy to insist on it. Objectively, Nu-Clear Sounds is an unequivocal statement of intent, taking Ash’s original whoop-di-whoop thrasherama and showing what it would be like with a few pauses and a little more poise. The self-explanatory racket of ‘Numbskull’ is, if anything, even more basic than anything on 1977, but the album’s opening salvo of ‘Projects’, ‘Low Ebb’ and the new single ‘Jesus Says’ shows them bringing the noise towards the prospect of a ravishing future. By the time they get to the album’s stand-out track, the extraordinarily beautiful ‘Aphrodite’, it’s obvious that they’re not about to huddle under any louchely retarded Bratpop umbrella.
“That Bratpop thing’s just ridiculous,” says Tim. “When you’re young you want to be in a band. It’s not like you do it to be part of a scene or anything.” Still, it must seem funny when you see the news about people getting their A-level results.
“I remember when we got our A-level results,” he continues. “We were in Cologne. We’d just played this gig in, like, Chichester or somewhere and driven over to Germany. We were drinking champagne and I thought, ‘Oh, the exam results come out today,’ so I rang back to get them.” Why did you bother? “It was just, like, ‘Well, what the f***, we might as well’.”
Do you wish you’d stuck with your education? “Oh, yeah, right!” Charlotte Hatherley did her exams two years later than Tim and Mark. And she’s equally resolute in her determination to make a “proper” job out of being in Ash. Charlotte was drafted in for last year’s V97 show through a friend of a friend. While her role was initially temporary, it soon became obvious that her contribution gave the group a whole new dynamic, and after playing on the ‘Life Less Ordinary’ single, she was rewarded with permanent band member status. How much of a leap into the dark was it for her?
“It was surprisingly easy,” she admits. “All along, I kind of thought it was going to be permanent and when they officially gave me the job it seemed completely natural. It’s funny though, cos I used to do all these compilation tapes from The Evening Session and I’d put loads of Ash songs on them. Then, there I was, up on stage at V97 playing those songs.”
Was there a lot of guilt about leaving Nightnurse?
“I suppose so, but that’s all in the past now. I tell you, the experience of being in another band before Ash has helped so much. And I’m a lot better than I used to be. I still get terrified before gigs, but I think I’m actually quite a good guitarist now. And I can bring something to the band, hopefully.”
Indeed, her creative contribution already includes co-writing on a couple of the album’s songs and even singing lead vocals on a forthcoming B-side. Does this mean she’s infiltrated any perceived laddish enclave?
“Ash aren’t a laddy band,” she insists. “We’ve spent enough time together recording the album for me to have picked up on the in-jokes and, yeah, I’m not from Northern Ireland, but I’m not stupid. I do have some idea of what goes on. Being in Ash isn’t about being in a boy’s band or any sort of geographical thing. It’s about making a certain kind of sound and I think I’m as capable as anyone else of contributing to that. I’m not a confrontational person, so it’s not like I stomp around the studio telling everyone what to do, but I certainly make suggestions and try to come up with ideas. It’s obviously not something that happens overnight, but I certainly feel like I’m a proper member of Ash now. And it’s brilliant.”
Not perhaps so brilliant for a sad minority of female fans who’ve put together a “We Hate Charlotte” website and who, only the day before the interview, issued a death threat if she so much as wandered near Mark. Annoying?
“Of course it’s annoying,” she says. “I mean, there’s this group of people who think that the only reason I’m in the group is because I want to sleep with one of the boys. It doesn’t exactly show Girl Power in a good light, does it?”
So, is she intending on pursuing the nervous breakdown approach as tried and tested in Ash already?
“Oh God, no. I haven’t earned that yet. I don’t deserve it.”
Charlotte rules. And anyone who disputes her current indispensability to Ash can f*** right off.
“It’s great now Charlotte’s in the band,” says Tim Wheeler. “The sound is definitely a lot bigger.”
So you didn’t want to follow up 1977 with, well, 1978.
“No way,” says Mark. “We were going for 1979-and-a-half at least.” Was there any sense of responsibility to the fans, giving them more of the same old same old that had gone down so well?
“Well, there’s obviously an Ash sound,” says Tim. “But we made that first album when we were a lot younger and there wouldn’t have been much point in just doing the same thing all over again. The new album’s probably a lot more diverse, but it’s not like we’ve completely abandoned everything we’ve done before. I mean, there’s songs like ‘Numbskull’ that are probably even dumber than anything we’ve done, but something like ‘Projects’ or the new single, ‘Jesus Says’, that’s a kind of step forward. We had an idea in our heads of what we wanted it to sound like and for a while it seemed like we weren’t really achieving it. Then when Owen Morris did his mixing, it kind of brought it all out. We’re really pleased with it.”
And do Ash, as veteran pop prodigies, expect chart success?
“Well obviously it would be good if other people liked it,” says Mark, “but it’s not like we really have to prove anything. We know how good we are. Or at least how we’ve made the record we wanted.”
So, if it’s not Number One, there won’t be tears?
“Er, probably not.”
How low are you prepared to settle for?
“Look,” says Tim, “if it’s under Number 17 in the charts, I’ll be gutted.”
Admirably precise. As is his assessment of just how good he thinks Ash are.
“We’re good, but we can be three times better. Three times better exactly. Wait and see.”
THE STOCKHOLM gig certainly suggests that there are a whole load of new ways that Ash intend taking their razor blade melodies. Playing on a giant pontoon, accessible only by boat, against the backdrop of an almost absurdly perfect sunset, the band tear through an hour’s worth of truly thrilling songs, Charlotte’s presence reshaping not only the visual aesthetic of the band (and emphasising Mark’s right to claim The Clash’s Paul Simenon’s Bass God mantle), but also introducing a few more enticing sonic flurries. Even old songs like ‘Jack Names The Planets’, ‘Girl From Mars’ and, particularly, the hypnotically syncopated swish of ‘Kung Fu’ are given a new lease of life, slipping alluringly alongside a handful of teasers from the new album.
Afterwards, Paddy, the band’s press officer, a man who has seen more Ash gigs than is perhaps psychologically healthy, admits that it’s one of the best performances he’s ever seen them do. The band concur and, as Huey and Fast from Fun Lovin’ Criminals settle down with them backstage to aid their research into the effect of vast amounts of weed and booze on the human constitution, Ash can’t hide their delight at the world of possibilities unfurling in front of them.
“We spent so much time touring 1977,” says Tim, “and that was good, but it’s better to be doing something new. Are we back? |Yeah, f***ing right, we are.”
“This will be the first time I’ve actually done a proper tour with the band,” says Charlotte, “and we’ll be going to places like Japan, so I suppose I’m going to see how well we get on when we’re around each other 24 hours a day. Will I be doing scissor kicks? Not just yet.”
In five hours time, Mark and Rick will have drunk enough to floor battalions, will have got caught up in a pseudo-fight of cartoon-type proportions and will have had a good five minutes sleep before heading off to Germany to do it all over again. It’s a routine that will be repeated for the next year in the UK, USA and any planets that will have them. And, as ‘Jesus Says’ becomes the first hit off an album brimming with winners, they’ll be marking Tim Wheeler’s wise words of advice.
“You’ve just got to do things.”
Things it is then. All over the place. Welcome back.
THE GREATEST SINGLES BAND OF THE NINETIES?
(Those ten gems in full!)
1 . ‘Jack Names The Planets’ (1993)
2 . ‘Petrol’ (1994)
3 . ‘Uncle Pat’ (1994)
4 . ‘Kung Fu’ (1995)
5. ‘Girl From Mars’ (1995)
6. ‘Angel Interceptor’ (1995)
7. ‘Goldfinger’ (1996)
8. ‘Oh Yeah’ (1996)
9. ‘A Life Less Ordinary’ (1997)
10. ‘Jesus Says’ (1998)
© Paul Mathur, Melody Maker, 12 September 1998