Words by James Hendicott
It’s been a strange few years for Ash. Having made a Radiohead-esque commitment to rejecting the traditional album format, they’ve spent the last two years glued to their studio recording their A-Z Series, a selection of singles that number the equivalent of four normal albums. The series has revived a profile that – just two or three years ago – seemed to be waning considerably. Both Tim Wheeler and Mark Hamilton have permanently relocated to the States, the latter after meeting his now wife on the final day of a US tour, while drummer Rick McMurray (now based in Scotland) is sitting out the latest round of live shows, replaced by LaFaro drummer Alan Lynn, while he awaits the birth of his first child. Almost 20 years since the band’s formation, the Downpatrick lads might find themselves some way from home and all grown up, but some things never change. AU caught up with bassist Mark Hamilton to talk A-Z, mellow years and how long things can keep rolling on…
You’ve finished with the A-Z singles series, and you’re on record as saying you’re not going to release another standard album. Where does it go from here?
Good question. I don’t know yet! We’re still winding that down, and we haven’t really decided what’s going to be next. We’ll be doing a few shows over the summer to wrap up that A-Z campaign. That was almost two years’ worth of recording, and when you include all the extra tracks – the online exclusives etc – there were about 54 tracks. The idea of sitting down and going through that writing process again is very daunting, but we’re going to try and come up with something inventive for the next project. This year we’ll just be doing some live stuff, though. We’re not even thinking about recording any new music until 2012. We do actually already have a couple of songs we’re going to release this year, but they’re more kind of ‘one-off’ things for special reasons. One of them is a charity collaboration with another band, but I don’t want to blow the lid on it! You can probably work it out, though. It’s connected with our ‘supergroup’ WASH [a collaboration between Ash and We Are Scientists].
Playing every ‘letter’ on the A-Z tour can’t have been easy?
There were a couple of really tiny ones, little places we’ve never really heard of. One of them was called Zennor in Cornwall, where we played to about 100 people in a town hall. We wanted to do the A-Z properly so it meant we had to go there, and it turned out to be great. There was a really quaint little stone pub, and we moved the gig over there afterwards, with Tim on acoustic, and just played all night long. When you go to different, little places people probably don’t even know who you are, but they hear that something’s going on and they want to come down and check it out. Maybe they’re not used to anything happening!
Does it change the way you write songs when you’re not writing them for an album, but for individual releases?
Yeah, though I think that comes more on the production side of things. Whenever you’re in the studio for an album, you have to keep some kind of consistency on the production side of things. A lot of album tracks are picked based on the ones that work together, while the others are left as B-sides. On the A-Z, every song was completely on its own merit. We didn’t have to think about being cohesive, and so we got a lot of variety in it. We didn’t want to release any songs that sounded the same. To some degree, Tim’s voice is Tim’s voice, and you can’t change that element. But as far as the music behind it goes… The A-Z was the biggest artistic challenge we’ve ever faced. We basically recorded four albums’ worth of material over two years.
How difficult is meeting up to record now you’re spread across two continents?
Well our studio is in Manhattan, and both Tim and I live in the city, so that’s kind of our hub. Rick flies in on a direct flight from Edinburgh for a few weeks whenever we’re recording. It seems complex but it’s not really that difficult. We can’t just call each other up and go, ‘I’ve got a really good idea, meet you in the studio in ten minutes’, but with a couple of days’ notice…
Can you see yourselves ever going back on a major label? Or any label other than your own?
Well we were on Warner – or at least it became Warner – for six albums, and they want to make another ‘Best Of’ for 20 years. Can you believe it’s been nearly 20 years? There’s no set date, but that’ll be coming at some point. So we’re not completely done with majors.
The ‘Best Of’ thing can seem like a cap on a career, yet this is your second one… Is it something you’re happy enough to be involved in?
Yeah, I think it’s good for people who aren’t necessarily hardcore fans of the band, just to collect together a few gems. They don’t need the attention span of, say, 10 albums. What we actually like about it is that it might help set us up for reintroducing ourselves next year, with new stuff. It’ll up the profile a bit.
Will there be something a little bit like Cosmic Debris, too, to keep the more hardcore fans interested
Yeah, I don’t know what the title will be yet, but it’ll essentially be Cosmic Debris 2. I can’t even think how many B-sides we’ve released now, over the years. I wouldn’t want to say just how many tracks it’ll be, but it’ll be a lot.
How do you go about picking out a set list these days? You must be choosing from coming up to 200 songs?
Well, there are songs people would be unhappy if we didn’t play live. You know a certain percentage of the crowd will go home disappointed if they don’t hear certain tracks. Then we want to put in maybe 20% of the set that’s relatively recent music or new stuff that we’re pushing. Then the rest of the set is just picked from our entire back catalogue. We want a good mix that’ll please the hardcore fans, too. We’ve got somewhat of a formula for it.
Do you get sick of playing songs that you might have written – some of them at least – 18 years ago now?
You might think that, but some of the really old songs are the ones that get the best response from the crowd. I can play those songs in my sleep, it’s just motor-muscle memory. You’re just playing it, and enjoying the crowd’s reaction. If you had a flat crowd for it, it wouldn’t be very fun. If you’ve got a crowd that are really into it, though, you can’t really get tired of that. You get off on that adrenaline rush.
What is [Bloc Party guitarist] Russell Lissack’s role in the band now? Is he just for live purposes?
He hasn’t been involved in any songwriting. He joined just after we finished all the recording for the A-Z, and it just sounded better with him. It was Tim’s idea, and it just made sense, it’s really good fun. I guess he’s just a ‘special guest’ member for a year, while Bloc Party take a break. It’s still essentially just the three of us, but it all depends on people’s schedules and things. I’m not sure Kele’s solo stuff was quite as successful as he wanted it to be, so we’re not really sure how long Russell will be around.
How have the dynamics of the band changed over the past 20 years?
You could write a book about it. We’ve gone from three school friends to essentially a second family. There are complex relationships within families and it’s the same within a band. I think because we’ve been together since we were so young, we’ve been able to work through problems. Perhaps that’s why we’re still together – none of us came in with big egos or big ideas on what people wanted us to do. We’ve been through so much that the option of packing it in when things get tough is not even there. You don’t decide who your family is, and it’s kind of like that for us, as well. No matter what we do as a band, I still think we’ll always be a band. Tim wants to do a film score this year, completely independently, and the subject matter is very close to him personally. That’s what he wants to do and that’s fine, it doesn’t interfere with the band. Rick’s about to become a dad, so he’s going to have a hell of a time adjusting his life. 2011’s not going to be a defining year in our careers; it’s kind of like a stopgap year. But we’re rebooting and working out the next step.
Is Ash ongoing indefinitely at this point, or can you see a time when you’ll have had enough?
We still want to record and get out new material. A big thing for us is we’ve just changed manager, and our manager before was with us for 17-18 years, so that was quite a big change. It had kind of just run its course, so we’ve got a new team. Whatever we do this year will really be setting up infrastructure for next year. So at the very least we’re looking at continuing through 2012. If anything there’s a kind of prejudice against older bands – people expect you to just remain the same, and for that reason you have to keep reinventing yourselves. You have to come back and be drastically different, without alienating the fans you already have. It’s a balancing act.
As published by AU Magazine, June 2011.