DOWNPATRICK pop-rockers Ash have been going for 26 years, and for many, it’s the relatively early hits – Girl From Mars, Oh Yeah, Shining Light – that still stand out. In fact, it’s been 11 years since the three-piece announced their intention to “never make another album,” something that lasted until 2015, and the release of Kablammo!
Still powering through with the same distinctive vocals and hooky chords that helped them find their niche, eighth album ‘Islands’ has been a slow process, and one held back by factors outside of the band’s control.
“There’s been quite a gap,” drummer Rick McMurray told the Gazette. “The actual process went quite quickly, but there were a lot of changes on the business side that held up the progress of the record. It was finished towards the end of 2017, but it could easily have been a lot sooner. We wrote new stuff while the album was being finished, so we have a big backlog of material.”
The idea of abandoning the album completely is one that’s long in the band’s past now, but at the time they felt like it was a progressive move. “It seemed like we were witnessing the re-emergence of the single,” McMurray recalls of the plan to only release individual tracks back in 2007. “The album had only been out a week at the time, and when we came up with the idea, it really felt like getting ahead of the curve. Everything was going that way. We don’t have a problem with the format, but then vinyl came back, and an album kind of became a work of art again. The return of vinyl meant we had to go back to albums.”
Islands will get the customary new album tour, then, but a follow up is already on the horizon. “I doubt it will be another three years,” McMurray says, laughing about the extended gaps between the band’s records “I expect we’ll have another album out in 2019, some time, though it’s far from definite. We’ve hit on a new method of songwriting that is really working for us at the moment. There’s so much material around at the moment. We probably seem quite lazy when it comes to albums. In our defence, we did put out 52 singles in a year,” he adds, referencing the ‘A-Z’ project that saw Ash experiment with one off tracks throughout 2009 and 2010.
The new release is very much about frontman Tim Wheeler’s difficult breakup. The band live apart now, Wheeler and bassist Mark Hamilton in New York, and McMurray with his family in Edinburgh, jetting in for recording sessions and communicating largely digitally. “It’s pretty easy, really. It kind of suits all three of us. I like working in quick bursts, as that’s just what works as a drummer. Tim’s more slow and thought out. For me, this album was just one big explosion of energy.”
“It’s got very easy to get together and record,” he admits. The way things are is a natural thing. It took Tim six months to make this album, and me two weeks, but that really suits our personalities, at least the recording part.
McMurray did have one regret, though. “I’m a little sad I wasn’t in the studio with The Undertones,” he admits, after Ash brought in the Belfast legends on ‘Buzzkill’, a track that featured backing vocals so uncannily like the old-school punks that they simply had to try and get them in. “I met them later, but I’d have liked to see them in action. Obviously, they’re legends around our way. We found out about them more because people kept comparing us to them in the early days, so we went and found out what they were getting at. They happened to be in New York during the recording, so it fell together well, they were happy to do it. They’re a vital reference point to us, even if we didn’t know much more than ‘Teenage Kicks’ back when we started.”
The return to band format is something that was, at least temporarily, on the back burner. Wheeler released an intensely personal solo album a couple of years ago. ‘Lost Domain’ focused on his dad’s dementia and passing away. ‘Islands’, a euphemism for the idea of solitude and lost bridges, is his break up record.
“The solo album was part of Tim’s grieving process,” McMurray explains. “He didn’t intend this one to be a breakup album, he was just writing songs, and they were always going to be for the band. He’s a little bit uncomfortable with how it ended up. He has this reputation as a ‘nice guy’, which he is, and he’s conscious that he’s just telling his side very publically. That’s why the first track on the record, ‘True Story’, is there, just to say there are two sides to every story. This is just his take.”
The process found a natural name in Wheeler’s approach to writing, during which he found peace on a series of actual islands around the globe, including art loving Japanese island Naoshima, Mallorca (Spain), Santorini (Greece), and even Lambay Island, off Dublin’s north coast. Skellig features in inverted two-tone on the cover, as a kind of distress call meets conceptual ‘it’s not all black and white’ symbol.
“I expect there will be some off-the-beaten-track gigs on the Islands theme,” McMurray tells us. “After you’ve been going as long as we have, it’s the slightly different gigs that stand out, like our first shows in China, or our gig in a hairdresser’s in Dublin [Rathmines’ Abner Browns] a couple of years ago. We’re really open to doing things that are a bit unusual.”
China delivered some particularly quirky moments, such as audience’s love for Tim Wheeler’s solo track ‘Feels Like Summer’, because of its tie-in with Shaun The Sheep. “It wasn’t too weird to play, we have had it in the set before,” McMurray recalls. “It wasn’t a typical tour, though. We’ve never had soldiers with guns as security before. We took some time to do a bit of tourist stuff, too.”
The drummer’s also been active at home, in particular in his campaign against Brexit, which he admits “I’m still not sure it will actually happen. I’ve had to mellow about it a bit on social media. I was very active ahead of the vote, very vocal. I think it’s important to engage, but I did feel like I was preaching to the converted at times.”
Ash starred at a concert encouraging different parties to sign the Good Friday Agreement twenty years ago, and naturally, have some concerns about the agreement potentially unravelling. Islands, perhaps, is quite politically appropriate in its messages of isolation, too, even if the songs are largely personal.
“It’s worrying,” McMurray continues. “The agreement was huge for Northern Ireland. It is possible something might happen, it’s potentially sinister. It does feel a bit like its slipping away. Nationality is not a huge deal for me. I’ve got a UK passport, not an Irish one, because it was convenient. I’m entitled to an Irish one, and I’ll be getting it for myself and my kids next time I’m in Ireland to pick up the forms.”
Twenty years ago, Ash had the status to speak for a certain section of Northern Irish society, such was their popularity. Those days are arguably gone now, though there’s no question they still have a hardcore following in certain quarters. “We have to role with the punches,” McMurray says of popularity and the changing tides of music’s fashion and fads.
“I don’t really know what’s popular, to be honest, I’m past that stage in my life, having kids and stuff. There are so many distractions from music, and I’m not listening to as much as I used to. It’d be good to get a younger audience with the record. Kids use YouTube as a tool now, more than music. Maybe one day YouTube will bring them back to music. There’s so much other stuff now for kids to be doing.”
‘Islands’, then, is the sound of Ash pouring their heart out. It’s not the gorgeous naivety of ‘1977’ or ‘Free All Angels’, but instead hones in on a raw honesty that plays to their melodic strengths. “It’s a theme, a metaphor for mixed up relationships, and for the recording,” McMurray concludes. It’s also a heartfelt, relatable take on the poignancy of human emotion.
‘Islands’ is out on Friday, May 18.
This article is a greatly extended version of my weekly music column for the Dublin Gazette, reproduced here with permission. Note: this column is published in the Dublin Gazette several days ahead of on this website. The Gazette is a freesheet paper available across Dublin, published on a Thursday. Pick up copies at these locations.
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