Hailing from Northern Ireland, Ash is a rock band that has been bringing it for over a decade now. No longer plucky high school kids hitting it big time, they’re looking to gain the success in the United States that they have in the UK and other countries around the world. Meltdown, the band’s latest release, contains a blend of the rock, metal, and upbeat pop sensibilities that have marked all of their records.
I spoke with lead singer, guitarist, and song writer Tim Wheeler about his take on America, growing up fast in the music world, and knife-play in the desert with Moby and Dave Grohl. Tim and the other members of Ash are currently on tour in the U.S. and were in Portland, Oregon at the time of the interview.
To listen to my conversation with Tim Wheeler, click here to access Dumpster Bust Radio: Podcast #2.
Eric Berlin: So you guys have been in the U.S. a lot these days, haven’t you?
Tim Wheeler: We’ve been here for about the last four weeks. It’s going really good. I’m having the best time.
EB: What’s your take on America and Americans?
TW: I’ve spent a lot of time here so I feel really at home. It’s a great place, the people are really cool. You can travel from like New York to San Diego and it’s just so different everywhere you go, really. You’ve got such great changes throughout the country.
EB: So let me ask you about your new release, Meltdown. It’s your first full release in a couple of years. Any reason for the layoff?
TW: Well, we were hoping to get it out last year. You know, it came out in the rest of the world last year, but our record company went bankrupt so we had to find a new label.
EB: Uh oh.
TW: Which is a drag. We always seem to lose any momentum we get. It’s kind of frustrating, you know? It’s not our fault.
EB: I read that you made Meltdown and tried to aim it toward American radio.
TW: Not so much that, but… putting it like that sounds really cynical. It wasn’t really like that. We were going back to all of our American influences and so that’s why we wanted to record in the States. We spent a lot of time here, so we figured why not record here as well? It’s kind of been an ambition of ours anyway.
You know, it just sounds like a bad thing to say, “Oh, make this record just for American radio.” That’s just now what you think about when you make records.
EB: Let me ask you about Meltdown. It’s been said about you guys that you like switch up between a really heavy sound and then on your next album have kind of a lither, poppier sound. Now, for Meltdown, if you followed that pattern, it would sense to go for the heavy mode.
When you look at the album, there’s flames on the cover. It looks almost like a Megadeth album.
TW: It’s crazy, the artwork. It could almost be a Norwegian death-metal band.
TW: I love the heavy metal that we grew up with. Believe it or not, we were actually Megadeth fans when we were kids. It’s kind of strange. It all comes around. But then we got into a lot more punk stuff after that. But we’ve been sort of exploring some more of those metal things in this record as well.
But the record cover: we just thought it looked cool, you know?
EB: On the song “Meltdown” itself, you talk about your head wanting to explode. Is there anything stressing you out these days?
TW: Well, it was really around the time the whole war in Iraq was kicking off and I was on various peace marches and peace protests in the UK. So I was just venting my frustrations in what was going on in the world.
You know, it’s just the fact that governments don’t seem to listen to the people.
EB: Let me ask you about growing up in Northern Ireland. A friend of mine in Northern Ireland told me that the song “Jack Names the Planets” and a Kilkenny beer commercial helped to launch you guys. Is that true?
TW: No, it was a song called “Uncle Pat,” in a Heineken ad. [laughs] Yeah, that helped us to get famous in Ireland, but we were doing okay in the UK at that point. But we got played a hell of a lot through that, which is good.
EB: How do you feel about achieving success at such a young age, and what have you learned in the decade-plus of being in the spotlight?
TW: I think it was good that it happened when we were so young because we learned quickly from our mistakes and bounced back. Anytime we had a hard time, we had the enthusiasm to try and come back, so I guess there are advantages to starting early.
But at the same time, it kind of went to our heads a bit because we had a #1 album in the UK when we were 18-years old. But I think we’ve had a nice long career, and it might be because we started so young.
EB: So why did you make the decision to add Charlotte Hatherley – other than her pleasant looks and musical talent – to the group, to make it a foursome?
TW: We did a tour with Weezer in the States, when they touring for Pinkerton. That was back in ’96. At the time, we were feeling the limitations of being a three-piece, and we saw how well they worked with two guitars. So we were kind of inspired.
And when we got back from that tour, we said, “Let’s try and look for another guitarist.” And I just met her through a friend. She was in another band and we had to ask her to join us, so she decided to go with us.
EB: I imagine your sound evolved at that point.
TW: Oh yeah. It changed the band completely. It really helped. It made us sound so much bigger.
EB: I heard that the more recent song “Clones” is the first non-John Williams music to be put on a Star Wars-related product. How do you feel about that?
TW: It’s fucking amazing! We’re still kind of shocked. I think they had known for years that we were big fans, and they were looking for music for this computer game. So they approached us and asked if we had any songs, and we sent them “Clones.” And they were just like, “God, this is perfect.” It’s just an honor because we’re such big fans.
EB: Speaking of movies, I also read that you were involved in working on a slasher film called Slashed, in fact, that involved Dave Grohl and Moby, and there’s a story involving Moby and a bus on the side of the road in the desert, and people running around with knives.
TW: [laughs] Yeah, that’s all true. Chris Martin’s in it as well. It’s a film that we never finished, but we did it when we were kind of bored on tour and decided to make a movie.
But it just got bigger and bigger and the plot got longer and thinner [laughs]. And we never quite finished it, but it was quite fun because different celebrities were interested in being in it just for the hell of it.
EB: So what roles did Dave Grohl and Moby take, and yourself?
TW: We were all playing ourselves. It was all filmed as a band being on tour and there was slasher mayhem. A murderer was trying to kill us.
EB: You’ll have to release that in some form, I should think.
TW: If we could get an animated end, then we could maybe cut it together, so maybe we should.
EB: Back to American bands for a second. I read that you’re annoyed at certain American bands, such as Linkin Park, who are a bit angry and take themselves too seriously. What’s your idea of a band who puts out great music but takes themselves a little less seriously?
TW: Maybe Weezer, Foo Fighters, even Queens of the Stone Age. They’ve got a good sense of humor, they’re not too earnest.
EB: I read that you’d like people to take Ash more seriously. Do you think that’s happening now?
TW: It’s not so much the case in the UK. We’ve been around for such a long time that sometimes people take you for granted, is what I mean. But here in the States it’s different because we’re on such a lower level.
I like the cult following that we have here. It’s pretty cool.
EB: What’s your plan for hitting it bigger in the U.S. now?
TW: I think we’ll just keep coming back and then hopefully one day radio will start playing lots if we have the right record. We just like coming back anyway – we have a great time here.
EB: Do you have any take on file sharing – people downloading music and not paying the artist for it?
TW: Personally, even if I put music on my computer, I still go and buy the record just out of principle. It’s something that I support.
But I can understand if someone’s completely broke and they want to hear some music, they want to download it, that’s cool. But I think if you have the money, you should pay for it.
EB: I think you kind of summed up the unclear position have a lot of people have on that. It’s a tough one, isn’t it?
TW: Yeah, it’s a real tough one. It’s tough when someone’s a real music fan and they’re getting sued for listening to music. At the same time, musicians have to eat, so… I don’t know. Maybe if people are downloading music they’ll have more money to spend on concerts or something.
EB: What kind of music are you guys in the band listening to now?
TW: I’m really excited about a lot of music at the moment, like Arcade Fire, Bloc Party. There’s a lot of good stuff coming out of the UK too. It’s a real healthy time – there’s indie rock as well, which is an interesting change.
EB: I’m going to finish up by throwing out a tough question, if you don’t mind. Top Five bands of all time: just throw out some names.
TW: Oh shit! [laughs] I’ll put Nirvana, Ramones…
EB: You can throw yourself in if you want.
TW: What the hell. Ash, the Pixies. How many is that?
EB: That’s a good number. I think you’re close to five, actually.
TW: I could go on. I could go on forever.