Mark Hamilton was still a teenager when he became a rock star. Following his short-lived high school garage band Vietnam, bassist Hamilton and singer Tim Wheeler formed Ash with drummer Rick McMurray and, inspired by the American grunge scene, released the seven-track EP Trailer through independent label Infectious in 1994.
As the UK revelled in Britpop, Ash enjoyed success with their pop rock hits Kung Fu and Girl from Mars, followed by the critically acclaimed album 1977. After a gruelling tour and the addition of guitarist Charlotte Hatherley, the band recorded their second full-length album Nu-Clear Sounds, which saw them departing from their earlier commercial sound and instead embracing their love of New York punk.
2001 marked the release of Free All Angels, their best-selling album to date, and the hit singles Shining Light and Burn, Baby, Burn. Two tracks from 2004′s Meltdown were also featured in the blockbuster Shaun of the Dead, as well as the b-side Everybody’s Happy Nowadays. Following Hatherley’s departure two years later, Ash relocated to a studio in Manhattan to record their fifth album and their first as a three-piece in over a decade, Twilight of the Innocents. In 2009 they embarked on an ambitious project known as the A-Z Series, in which they issued twenty-six singles that were later assembled as a double album. In October 2011 Ash released their second career-spanning retrospective The Best of Ash, following on from 2002′s Intergalactic Sonic 7″s.
Over the years Ash have littered their music with pop culture references; from Star Wars (1977 opened with the sound of a TIE fighter and ended with the track Darkside Lightside, while also covering Cantina Band as a b-side) and cult movies (with song titles such as Day of the Triffids and Goldfinger) to heavy metal and punk rock (the riff from I’d Give You Anything owed a debt to Black Sabbath, while I’m Gonna Fall was a nod to The Velvet Underground). Their music has also been featured in such films as Rumble in the Bronx, A Life Less Ordinary and Road Trip. Twenty years since they first formed in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland and Ash – still in their mid-30s – continue to enjoy commercial and critical acclaim.
Mark Hamilton discusses surviving in the modern music industry.
Your last project A-Z was a daring concept; what prompted the decision to release twenty-six singles instead of a traditional album?
We’d already released six albums and releasing a seventh conventional album felt like we’d just be going through the motions and wasn’t very inspiring at the time. Tackling the A-Z concept which was a huge project was really daunting and challenging which was part of the reason we got excited by the idea. The twenty-six singles then got complied into two volumes, which essentially became our seventh and eighth albums.
Billy Corgan chose to release his last album a track at a time online; do you feel that musicians opting for these kinds of methods are a reaction against illegal downloading?
I dunno if it’s a reaction to illegal downloading but more of a desire to produce regular content for a fanbase which is always hungry for more. It’s kinda like if you have a favourite TV show, you’re always looking forward to the next episode. If an album only comes out once every three years that’s a long wait if you’re a fan. We wanted to do something which kept our fan engaged over a long period of time.
If Trailer was inspired by grunge and Nu-Clear Sounds owed a debt to The Stooges and The Velvet Underground, what artists were inspirations on the ‘80s sound of A-Z?
Good question! A-Z was really an experiment, where we tried out a lot of different styles, because we had the freedom to do so; each track was taken in it’s own direction without thinking about an overarching ‘sound’. There were definitely more synth sounds used throughout the whole series and I guess songs like True Love 1980 was clearly influenced by New Order.
Out of all the songs why choose Return of the White Rabbit as the song to give away as a free download?
It seemed like the perfect curveball to throw as a first release. Nobody expected us to come back with a song that sounded like that!
Is there a specific Ash album that you feel was a disappointment and wish you could record again?
Nope. Obviously when certain albums don’t perform commercially there’s disappointment but there are many factors as to why an album doesn’t sell, and quite often it has nothing to do with the quality of the music. We always spend a long time writing, recording and producing new music and we never allow its release unless we ourselves are happy with it. If anything we probably like to go back and revisit the production or mixing on Trailer but it has its own naïve charm that we might lose so it’s probably best not to go back.
How do you feel that relocating to America has changed your approach to writing and recording?
I personally dunno if it has…we have our own studio here which is great, so now we don’t have the time constraints that maybe we’d have if we were paying per-day in somebody else’s studio. New York is also a very inspiring place and when we first moved here it was a great place to write songs about. It’s got great energy.
Does each Ash album represent a certain era in your lives and if so does it feel strange to perform songs from when you were teenagers all these years later?
Yeah they do, but it doesn’t feel weird at all to perform songs like Jack Names The Planets or Kung Fu which are like almost twenty years old now. Those songs are still live favourites and it feels like they’ve grown up with us. When a crowd still reacts to any particular song many years later it’s a testament to its longevity.
Having worked with Owen Morris and Dave Eringa, do you feel that having produced Twilight of the Innocents yourselves it was the first Ash album where you were able have full control over everything?
We were always co-producers and never let ourselves to be pushed to do anything we didn’t agree with so it wasn’t such a big change. We felt we’d learnt enough from enough different people over the years to be able to take on the responsibility ourselves.
Do any recordings of your first band Vietnam still exist and did any of the songs you wrote during that time ever make it into Ash?
Yeah we have those tapes somewhere but they’ve never been digitized for good reason, we don’t want them circulated! Luckily for everyone, Vietnam songs never got recorded as Ash!
What’s the story behind Slashed? Is it ever likely to be completed?
It was basically a slasher movie that we shot ourselves with a camcorder when we were touring the US and had a lot of time to kill. We never finished it but some of the footage was used in an online promo for the single Binary which you can find on YouTube.
Do you ever include your early b-sides like Hulk Hogan Bubble Bath or 5am Eternal in your sets?
No, but maybe we should someday. From time to time we do dig out old b-sides, but very rarely.
Have you ever been approached about composing a soundtrack to a movie and would you consider producing an experimental album without vocals that could be used as a film score?
A Life Less Ordinary was written on request for the movie of the same name. Tim actually just finished the score to a movie called Ashes. We’re always open on any kind of interesting projects.
What kind of music have you been listening to recently and are there any new artists that you are following?
Recently been listening to Bon Iver, and was playing Roulette with them in Vegas without releasing who they were…doh!
Where will Ash go from here?
Tim’s been working on some solo stuff this past year and Ash is going to reconvene later this year to start writing for the next project. We’ve got a few festivals this summer and are also heading to China for the first time which should be great.