The last time Vanyaland caught up with Ash frontman Tim Wheeler, it was June 2015 when the band had just released their sixth album, Kablammo! and were getting set to open up for reunited shoegaze legends Ride in New York City. We talked about the then-upcoming Star Wars film The Force Awakens, as the film series has always played a part of the Northern Ireland rock trio’s music, beginning with the opening seconds of their impeccable 1996 debut, 1977, which features the sound of a TIE fighter shooting through space.
1977 — whose title is in part a salute to the year the first Star Wars came out — turned 20 this year, and the trio is celebrating by playing it in full on tour, including a stop tonight (October 3) at the Middle East in Cambridge. Interestingly enough, we showed a unique obsession with the album’s hidden track “Sick Party” in our prior conversation with Wheeler. It turned out the recorded sounds of sickness were acid fueled and it only made sense to put them on tape. Regaling the singer then with the tale of a British friend of ours who despised the track so much that she had to record the CD onto cassette sans the vomit fete, Wheeler still marvels at the dedication.
“I love how it didn’t put her off the rest of the album!” he said, adding that Ash will be careful not to pull out the mess during tonight’s gig.
This time around, Wheeler takes part in our 617 series, and talks about what it was like being teenagers when 1977 first came out, how performing it live might influence the outfit’s next album, and what sport he’s taken quite the shine to in recent years. Of course, there’s a good bit of Star Wars talk.
Michael Christopher: When you recorded 1977, you were just kids, barely out of high school. Looking back 20 years later, how do you see yourself as a songwriter — and as a band; are you like, “How the hell did we pull that off?”
Tim Wheeler: Yeah, I’m quite amazed really. It is good revisiting the album, like, to sing it live. There’s definitely half of a record we’ve very rarely played. For the last 15 years, so it does bring back a lot of memories and there is a bit of perspective and distance on it. I’m impressed there’s some things I could do with my songwriting then that I don’t really do now; there’s a lot of interesting chord key changes in the songs and weird diminished chords. Nowadays, I think my writing is simplified a little bit, so I kinda give my young self props for doing some smart things I don’t really remember how to do anymore [laughs]. Also the fact that we’re still touring it and people are coming to see it 20 years later, it means it’s really stood the test of time; I can really see that when I see the audience reaction.
One thing I’ve noticed is there was already a built in nostalgia in songs like “Oh Yeah,” so it kind of works to go back and do it 20 years later knowing how big a part of it it was in the lives of our fans who were the same age as us at the time, you know, pretty young. So, it’s not a record that just covers our adolescence, but speaks to other peoples. It’s a good one for a nostalgia trip.
What was that time like for the band? It was in the midst of the Britpop era, you had bands like Pulp, Oasis, and Blur topping the charts, then you guys come in and are getting slotted at the top of the bill at the Reading Festival alongside the Prodigy, Mansun and Foo Fighters?
It was exciting because there were so many possibilities for guitar music at the time. Music from the British Isles was getting a real buzz all around the world, in the States, Japan, and all around Europe — we went to Australia. It was nice because guitar music had dropped off a little bit. After Nirvana, and it was cool to see it come back really strong. But yeah, it was awesome — great fun to be a part of. Also, part of it was we were so young, just trying to keep our heads above water because it was so insane; I guess just trying to be an adult for the first time. It was all just mad [laughs]. We’d never left Europe, I think I had gone to the UK and France until I was 18, so all of the sudden we got to see the world.
A lot of times when artists are revisiting albums from their past, it inspires them going forward. Metallica for instance, have said that their new album is partly inspired by revisiting their debut Kill ‘Em All.
Right, yeah — exactly. You can hear that in the new song I heard recently.
Playing the songs from 1977 every night, do you think it’s going to shape how the next Ash record might turn out?
Yeah, possibly. We did do an Australian tour for 1977 two years ago, so I think that definitely influenced Kablammo! because we wanted to go back to a record that wouldwork instantly as a live record for a three-piece. I think that brought us back to our original sound on Kablammo! and I think going forward will be the same formula for that, for the next record.
Speaking of Metallica, have you ever noticed the similarities in the guitar and drum progressions to parts of their 2000 song for Mission: Impossible II and the song from 1977 “I’d Give You Anything?”
Really? No way! I need to check that out.
You might have to grab James and Lars and being like, “Guys…”
Well, I can’t really complain about it because I was trying to play a Stooges’ riff at the time for that song [laughs]. I’m definitely going to give it a listen though.
One of the coolest things about 1977 is all the nods to Star Wars on it. The last time we talked was before the new film came out. What did you think of it and are you excited about the upcoming ones?
I enjoyed it; I think it was a big improvement in direction on [the prequels]. I was a bit disappointed when the storyline was kind of telling the same story again in a new way, but it sort of makes sense because it’ll get it out of the way for a new generation and then the next two films can go off on a new tangent. I really enjoyed it, but was like, “Oh… I’ve seen a lot of this before.” But at the same time it made me excited for the next two to come. It’s really good moving back to that live action stuff instead of leading with CGI so much.
Ash is known as an Irish band, but you personally haven’t lived in Ireland since you were, what, 18 years old? How does having grown up there and now being so far removed from it shape you not only as a musician, but as a songwriter?
I do still have so many family ties there and I go back a lot — at least four to six times a year, if not more. It’s never been that far away to me really. We play there a lot too; that’s the great thing about being a musician is it tends to bring you home. I guess moving to New York was a nice thing because I could live a really normal life for the first time, and I moved there when I was coming up on turning 30. I’d had a certain degree of fame since I was 18 and there’s a certain kind of self-consciousness that comes with that and moving to New York I could just relax and completely be myself. I liked that a lot and I think it’s helped me to grow up a bit in some ways, so I’m sure that’s affected the songwriting because any personal changes will effect the music. And I’ve always loved the energy and creativity that’s in New York; it’s in just everyone that you meet there pretty much. I really buzz on being around that.
I’m gonna recommend a sport [laughs]… Muay Thai kick-boxing?
Oh yeah — nice!
That’s the one thing I get quite evangelical about and always try to get my mates to come do a trial session. It’s a great way for staying fit, but also because there’s so much to learn and it’s just amazing mentally. Then you can go to Thailand and train there which is really cool.
Have you done that?
Yeah, yeah, I went and trained in Bangkok for, like, 10 days. It’s just such an awesome sport.
How long ago did you get into it?
About three years ago. So I’m not at the level where I’m competing or fighting yet. Maybe someday I will [laughs]. It’s a big passion of mine these days, so it’s cool to give it a shout out.
::SEVEN OF SOMETHING
Give me your seven favorite Star Wars characters and why.[Laughs] Alright, this is a good one.
Han Solo is my number one, because of his don’t-give-a-fuck attitude.
Boba Fett, because he — or she — can fly [laughs], and it’s pretty amazing with a jet-pack, I was always really jealous of that as a kid.
Chewbacca, he’s definitely the ultimate sidekick. If you’re gonna have a bar-fight, Chewbacca’s the guy you want on your side.
Princess Leia I’ll go with for number four; I’ve always had the hots for her as a kid. We were once on the same plane as Carrie Fisher and [bassist] Mark [Hamilton] went and got her autograph [laughs].
I was gonna put R2-D2 next but I feel a bit bad for Luke Skywalker, so I’m go with Luke, cause he’s the main man. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have been wishing I was a Jedi when I was a kid.
R2-D2, lovable little droid.
Obi-Wan Kenobi — the master! I wish he was around to set me on the path.
You guys are friends with Ewan McGregor, so which is your favorite Obi-Wan; is it Alec Guinness or is it Ewan?
Uhhh… I love Ewan, but, it really has to be Alec Guinness. I think sort of the age and wisdom is an important part of the character’s appeal. Even if he was apparently a bit reluctant to do the film, he did an amazing job.