Ash on playing Stendhal and Reading festivals and recording two new albums
Downpatrick indie rockers Ash headline the Stendhal Festival in Limavady next weekend. Bassist Mark Hamilton spoke to David Roy about the gig, their imminent 10th appearance at the Reading festival and recording not one but two new albums
SUMMERTIME is music festival season, when bands can look forward to playing a succession of gigs affected by unpredictable sound mixes, changeable weather conditions for crowds consisting of faithful fans, curious onlookers and those too mangled to know who they're watching.
Still, for the right band at the right festival at the right moment in time, such gigs can become career highlights – as Downpatrick trio Ash discovered in 1996 when they played the Main Stage at Reading a couple of months after their debut LP 1977 topped the album chart.
The previous year had found Tim Wheeler (guitar/vocals), Mark Hamilton (bass) and Rick McMurray (drums) making their debut at the iconic music event with an enthusiastically received afternoon set in the Melody Maker tent.
However, it was their fast and furious hit-packed Reading appearance in 1996 which marked the moment that Ash cemented their status as bona fide festival favourites.
Impressively, that reputation remains intact today, as the band contemplate a headlining Irish festival date at Stendhal in Limavady next week prior to their 10th Reading Festival appearance at the end of the month.
"It's probably the one show every year that we get nervous before," admits Mark Hamilton of the latter engagement.
"It is our favourite festival, because every time we've played there we've always had fantastic reactions. But, because we've had such a great track record, beforehand we always think 'aw, what if we screw it up this time?'.
"Sometimes I think that bit of nervousness can work to your benefit. If you're a bit on edge, it can add an extra something to the show."
It certainly worked in 1996, when the third-billed Ash performed to an expectant crowd stretching as far as the eye could see just prior to one of their favourite bands.
"I remember we were absolutely cacking ourselves," recalls the towering bass man, who is based in New York.
"We were playing directly before Sonic Youth and then The Stone Roses were headlining. We came out and just launched into the set – I heard it afterwards and remember thinking how stupidly fast we played, just because we were so nervous.
"But we had the perfect slot right when the sun set and it was just people as far as you could see all the way to the horizon. It was incredible."
Mischievously, Ash also managed to literally steal The Stone Roses' thunder by 'accidentally' setting off the Manchester favourites' pyrotechnics at the climax of their own set during a blistering performance of Kung-Fu.
"Our manager always liked to pull hi-jinx," chuckles Hamilton of the guilty party, Stephen 'Tav' Taverner.
However, while Reading looms large in the Ash live calendar, the trio also play a lot of the smaller independent festivals too.
Stendhal is a case in point: their first live date following an extended period spent in the studio working on the follow-up to 2015's Kablammo! LP, the festival will also mark the Down trio's first ever show in Limavady.
"I can't think of anything we've done there before," muses Hamilton, who formed Ash in 1992 with Wheeler and McMurray.
"As much as Reading will be a big highlight, it's great to play some of the smaller festivals like Stendhal as well.
"Quite often you get a lot of people at those who aren't regular festival goers or who aren't used to having a festival happen in their town – that can make them pretty good, so we're looking forward to it.
"Stendhal sounds great, and we absolutely loved playing Glasgowbury up in the Sperrins, which was a fantastically run small festival back home. It was just incredible.
"Last year we played a small independent festival outside Dublin (we think he means KnockanStockan in Co Wicklow) which had one of the best vibes of any festival we've been to.
"It started out a few years ago with a bunch of friends playing in a field with their guitars and gradually they started pulling bigger bands and building actual stages.
"They've grown it every year but still managed to keep that 'small festival' feel. The original vibe hadn't been diluted at all."
Back to that new material the band have been working on: it seems that Ash will have not one but two new full length records ready for us in the near future.
"We've the first one almost completely finished," reveals the bassist, who also tells me that the band are about to sign a new major label record deal to back the releases.
"It's going to come out early next year, but we're planning to have the second one finished before the release so that we can go out on tour and then drop it instantly.
"Quite often we've done an album and then disappeared for three years to do the next one – and you kind of lose all your momentum that way.
"We've got pretty much all the songs written for the second one, we've just got to record them. They're both quite different from each other: the first one sounds kind of like what you would expect from us, and I think we've got about four or five singles on there that will hopefully get us back on the radio.
"But the second one is going to sound quite a lot different: Judging from the early demos, I think the music is going to be quite a departure – it's more pop and there's a lot less full-on overdriven guitar.
"Tim is experimenting with his sound a bit more, so who knows – we might be able to open ourselves up to a whole new crowd."
Finally, the organisers of the Reading Festival once promised Ash that they would erect a statue of the band to mark their 10th appearance on the bill.
With that momentous occasion now imminent, has there been any confirmation that their status as Reading veterans will be given a permanent memorial?
"We are waiting to find that out ourselves," says Hamilton.
"We feel quite strongly that they should have to stick to their word and that there should be a proper unveiling during the Reading weekend.
"It may have been said in jest, but you know – don't say it if you don't mean it."
Over to you, Festival Republic.
Ash headline the Stendhal Festival on Friday August 11. For tickets and full line-up information see Stendhalfestival.com