Ash's Tim Wheeler on 20 years of 1977 and becoming a Legend
As Downpatrick indie rockers Ash prepare to mark 20 years of their chart-topping debut LP 1977 with a special Belfast gig tonight, David Roy spoke to frontman Tim Wheeler about the gig, that pivotal album and accepting this year's Oh Yeah Legend Award
TONIGHT is set to be a memorable evening for Downpatrick trio Ash: Tim Wheeler (vocals/guitar), Mark Hamilton (bass/stunts) and Rick McMurray (drums/hats) are back in Belfast to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their debut album 1977 with a special gig, before which they will accept an award named for one of their biggest hits.
Part of the NI Music Prize ceremony, the annual Oh Yeah Legend Award is given to Irish acts who have made a lasting impact on our music scene.
Of course, the very existence of the Oh Yeah Centre – the Belfast music facility named for Ash's top 10 single, their fifth consecutive hit from the 1977 record – has already confirmed that.
A full album performance of 1977 will then offer fans and band alike the chance to revel in some good old fashioned nostalgia, conjuring memories of July 1996 when Ash played their biggest Belfast headline show to date at Maysfield Leisure Centre after topping the album charts two months previously.
After touring the world, the trio returned to Ireland at the end of 1996 to headline the Point Theatre in Dublin – the same arena-sized venue their heroes Nirvana had played only four years earlier, when Ash were just starting out.
Two decades later, while frontman Tim Wheeler is happy to be marking the 20th anniversary of the record which confirmed Ash's graduation from pop punk contenders to pop stars, the New York-based Downpatrick man is keen that people should not read too much into their freshly minted Legend status.
"It's cool – but I'm a little bit reluctant to become a 'legend'," chuckles Wheeler.
"It's so nice to be recognised at home, but I don't want to feel over-satisfied with myself at all. I'm proud, but I've gotta keep thinking that there's way more still to come!"
Back in 1996, the huge success of the debut album and its singles – Oh Yeah's aforementioned ode to teenage lust, pop punk classics Kung Fu and Girl From Mars, space ballad Angel Interceptor and Goldfinger's sublime, smouldering guitar pop – meant that Ash became caught up in a whirlwind of touring and promotion that none of them were really prepared for.
Their then 19-year-old frontman and chief songwriter was still recovering from the intense, drugs, drink and cross-dressing-fuelled pressure of the 1977 album sessions with madman producer Owen Morris and already struggling with how Ash were being portrayed in certain areas of the media.
"By the time we started touring 1977, things took on a whole new level of insanity," admits Wheeler.
"We started doing a lot of press that I didn't really want to be in – a lot of teenage pop magazines, whereas I wanted us to be recognised as a more serious band.
"But it was cool too: I think we were on the cover of NME, Kerrang! and Smash Hits! all in the same week. I don't think that there's many other bands that would have actually been able to straddle those three worlds.
"The shows were amazing, I loved seeing the world for the first time and there was a lot of partying and burning the candle at all ends. It was kind of all I'd ever wanted, but then I was also wondering why I wasn't feeling really happy. I think I was mostly just exhausted, to be honest, and maybe too young to know exactly what the hell was going on.
"I didn't enjoy it as much as I should have and that's why, when things went a bit south with our next album (1998's shell-shocked sounding Nu-Clear Sounds), I really wanted to work hard to have that level of success again so I could actually enjoy it."
Sure enough, 2001's focused and re-energised Free All Angels saw Ash back at the top of the album chart, a fresh assault on mass conciousness heralded by brilliant singles such as the Ivor Novello-winning anthem Shining Light and their effortlessly catchy rocker, Burn Baby Burn.
"A lot of the awards that we've won over the years have been shared among the Wheeler, Hamilton and McMurray households – but I keep the Ivor Novello on my desk," admits Wheeler of his gong for Best Contemporary Pop Song 2001.
However, the seismic-impact of their beloved 1996 debut album continues to reverberate 20 years on.
Ash's latest record, Kablammo!, found the band reverting to their power trio roots following a period of more experimental work – a sonic manoeuvre partially inspired by revisiting 1977 for some 'full album' dates back in 2008, which left the band hungry to make another record which they could easily replicate live.
As for performing the album front-to-back in full, that would never have happened back in the 1990s, long before the ATP-backed classic album concert series Don't Look Back made it a 'thing'.
"The only time we ever played an album in order before the 2008
gigs was at a show in Boulder, Colorado," recalls Wheeler of a particularly 'special' gig on the original 1977 tour.
"We'd barely sold any tickets so we decided to just have some fun and play the whole thing in order. It was the only time we ever did it – and only because we thought no-one was actually going to be there!
"At the time it was just a way to make an empty show seem interesting to us, but now those kind of shows are really desirable – people will pay a lot of money to see us do the full thing."
With writing for their next record already in hand ("I'm hoping we can put it out next year," the singer/guitarist enthuses), Ash are not about to start resting on their laurels – Wheeler has already ruled out any similar anniversary tour antics for Free All Angels.
Tonight, however, it's time to party like it's 1996 at what will hopefully be a suitably legendary gig for band and fans alike.
:: Ash, tonight, NI Music Prize, The Mandela Hall, QUBSU, Belfast. Tickets £16.52 via NIMusicPrize.com.