U.K. guitarist talks about 1977 turning 20 and what’s ahead
By Gary Graff
October 7, 2016
Twenty years ago, a teenage trio charged out of Northern Ireland with a career-defining debut album. Ash’s 1977 — released six months after the group members finished high school — fused punk, grunge and Britpop into a fiery 12-song blast that’s stood the test of time well. It topped the U.K. album charts at the time, while the New Musical Express has ranked it as one of the 500 greatest albums of all time. This year Ash, whose core trio (singer-guitarist Tim Wheeler, bassist Mark Hamilton, drummer Rick McMurray) still intact after nearly 25 years and another five studio albums together — and had a fourth member from 1997-2006 — has been playing 1977 in its entirety, and it’s also released an archival set, Live on Mars: London Astoria 1997, from a five-night run at the venue. There’s a new album on the way, too, but singer-guitarist Tim Wheeler is happy to be partying like it’s 1977 again…
FGPO: Has celebrating 1977 felt like having your life flash before your eyes?
Wheeler: [laughs] A little bit, yeah. It’s mainly when we’re playing certain of the album’s songs we haven’t played much since the ’90s that it feels that way. Stuff like “Girl From Mars” we’ve been playing constantly for 20 years; it still feels like a current kind of song for me. But certain cuts on the album we don’t get to play very much; they bring memories flooding back.
FGPO: With 20 years of hindsight, and now playing the album in its entirety, what kind of new perspectives have you gleaned about 1977?
Wheeler: I was thinking the other day as I was playing it that it’s quite a nostalgic album — which is probably why it works well to go back and visit. We started making it at the end of my teens, and our lives were going through a really seismic change. I think I was already feeling nostalgic about leaving all my friends and youth behind. I knew my life would never be the same, so there was that touch of nostalgia to it. A lot of the songs were looking back — even though we hadn’t gone anywhere yet.
FGPO: You were so young. How long had you been playing guitar at that point?
Wheeler: Oh, I think I got my guitar when I was 12, so at that point it was six or seven years.
FGPO: What led you to consider music as a career?
Wheeler: It offered a whole alternative kind of life, I think, the whole escape from normality, from Northern Ireland. I think that was the big appeal. It seemed a way to get out of Northern Ireland and into the world.
FGPO: What were you into playing at the beginning?
Wheeler: I loved all the metal stuff at the time, so [Iron] Maiden and Guns N’ Roses, Megadeth. I spent the first couple of years trying to play that really complicated stuff, which was way too advanced for my skill level.
FGPO: So what were the touchstones for what became Ash’s sound?
Wheeler: All of a sudden I discovered Nirvana and punk rock, the Pixies and that kind of stuff. All of a sudden, I could be good at playing that instead of being laughed at by anyone when I tried to do the [metal] stuff. All of a sudden we were right. We simplified everything, and we were quite good.
FGPO: By simplified you mean…
Wheeler: All of a sudden we sounded a bit more powerful, ’cause we locked into these punk kind of rhythms. We had songs that only had a couple simple chord sequences, sometimes just one chord sequence instead of intricate, complex segments. And I had a lot more love of the more melodic music, anyway, deep inside me. Nirvana were a great band because they were heavy but also very melodic. So maybe it opened me up to being more of a songwriter and figuring out how to write songs. Kurt Cobain had interesting songs; that showed me you can have quite simple chords and quite interesting melodies, and it would work.
FGPO: Was there a key or “Eureka!” song for 1977 that you felt really established the Ash sound?
Wheeler: I guess yeah, a couple. “Girl From Mars” was something I wrote when I was 16. We didn’t put it on our first album, [1994’s Trailer]; we were still in school and too young to go promote anything if it was a hit. So we sort of held it back, and two weeks after school it was a big hit. I think having it on our back pocket gave the label real confidence to push us. Knowing we already had a hit single before we recorded the album was really nice. It also added to the pressure in a way — “OK, now we’ve got to make the rest as good as that one!”
FGPO: Are you surprised by the legacy this album has?
Wheeler: I enjoy that. I definitely know it left a big impact with a certain generation of kids. It’s really nice to meet people who say that album defined a really important time in their youth — exactly the same as it did for us. That’s cool. We also found it appealed to a lot of older punk rockers. I’ve met people like Steve Diggle and Pete Shelley [of the Buzzcocks], Joe Strummer and Mick Jones [of the Clash], Bernard Sumner [of Joy Division and New Order]. All these people were into us. They were OUR heroes, so it was amazing to get some recognition from an older crowd as well. Joe Strummer asked me for my autograph the first time I met him, ’cause his daughter was a big [Ash] fan. I was thinking: “This is completely the wrong way around…”
FGPO: What was the experience like of getting those 1997 tapes out for the Live On Mars album?
Wheeler: Well, we played everything really fucking fast [laughs], and quite messy, quite raw. But it captures a good time. It’s all about the energy in the room. It captures how we were live at the time. Those shows we did were at the end of almost a year of touring and a bit of a victory lap in London, five sold-out nights in one of our favorite places to play. It did inspire me to dig out a couple of covers we haven’t done for awhile, like the ABBA song, “Does Your Mother Know.” Coming back to the live album made us dig that out again to play on this tour.
FGPO: Do you think playing 1977 is making an impact on what you’re writing for the new album you’re working on for next year?
Wheeler: I guess probably it will sink in subliminally. Some of the songs have a bunch of weird, diminished chords like on five or six songs in 1977; I didn’t realize how much I was using that little trick until I was playing it recently, so maybe we’ll sneak some of that in. It’s sounding very guitar-y. It’s picking up where we left off with [2015’s] Kablammo!. That’s a record we can play really well as a three-piece, live. On the A To Zed series we were using the studio to experiment like crazy and just trying to find different styles. With Kablammo! we wanted to make songs that just sound very much like we’re in the rehearsal room and live. We’re going off on that template again. It’s all about the songs, really, and the songs are really strong.
FGPO: You, Mark and Rick are still together after nearly 25 years. What’s the trick to keeping it together?
Wheeler: I think there’s a very strong friendship and a real love of what we do. We also weathered storms early on. We just never felt like stopping, really. It’s such a buzz making music, getting that excitement, wanting to see how people react to it, looking forward to playing it live…That hasn’t worn off, for any of us.