When Ash were interviewed last summer as the band were celebrating their twentieth anniversary, frontman Tim Wheeler openly confessed that, ‘I never would have expected to have got to this point really. We never really had a plan of more than six months ahead.’
Having formed in high school and gained considerable success with their punk-infused full-length debut 1977, Ash soon found themselves the victims of their own success. Their sophomore record, Nu-Clear Sounds, lacked the same kind of focus and energy of its predecessor and, despite boasting some of the band’s most underrated songs (particularly opening number Projects), failed to receive the same kind of acclaim.
The future for Ash seemed uncertain, yet a spectacular comeback in 2001 with the Platinum-selling Free All Angels and hit singles Shining Light and Burn Baby Burn proved that the band had could adapt and grow. Arguably the most overlooked album in the group’s repertoire was Meltdown, which saw Ash venturing into metal territory, while two of the tracks (along with B-side Everybody’s Happy Nowadays) finding their way onto the soundtrack to the hit ‘zom-rom-com’ Shaun of the Dead the same year.
Yet when they announced onstage at the Isle Of Wight Festival in 2007 that the song Twilight of the Innocents was from their ‘last album,’ rumours began to circulate online that their time was coming to an end. Following their split with Infectious Records, Ash announced that their next project would be a series of twenty-six singles that would ultimately make up the A-Z Series, commencing with the free download track Return of White Rabbit.
In an interview with NME, Ash explained their motives for abandoning the standard album format; ‘The way people listen to music has changed, with the advent of the download the emphasis has reverted to single tracks. It hasn’t helped that most people have forgotten how to make a decent album. I’m constantly disappointed with records I buy.’ Following the release of a seven-track EP called Little Infinity last year, Ash are once again set to reconvene at their studio in New York to start the next chapter in their long and successful career.
Drummer Rick McMurray looks back on twenty years of surviving the music industry.
In the new issue of NME, Girl From Mars was rated the 14th best Britpop song of all time. Was this a label you felt Ash belonged to and are you surprised that almost twenty years later this is still one of your most popular tracks?
We knew when Tim wrote Girl From Mars it was a bit special; it was definitely a big leap for us in terms of melody and a move on from our more indie sounding material, but I don’t think we expected it to be talked about twenty years after it was written. Although it was released in ’95, it was written in 1993, before Britpop had become a scene. Our influences were much wider than the roots of Britpop in any case. I think we sort got lumped in ‘cos we were a guitar band not from America. That’s imperialism for you! Haha!
With the other members living to New York while you’re based in Edinburgh, how have you overcome the challenges of distance with regards to rehearsing, recording and managing general band issues?
It’s not a big challenge to be honest; budget flights, Skype and crashing on floors take care of it! It’s great having our studio space in New York; I love going over and getting into that head space for writing and recording and I love the intensity of it when we get on a roll with tracking the drums.
In 1998 Ash recorded Stormy Waters, the first song the band had released where you were the sole songwriter. Drummers are not often renowned for their songwriting ability, yet during this time each member of the group were contributing their own material. How competent are you at guitar and did this achievement give you a newfound confidence?
I actually started playing guitar a few years before I took up drums and was pretty competent until I joined Ash on drums. It took a back seat for a long time but I know my way around it reasonably well. As for songwriting, it’s not one of my major strengths; probably down to my lack of organisation. If I don’t get something finished to a reasonable point I tend to lose all momentum. I’ve got loads of little ideas for parts scattered all over my desktop, which I really should listen to and organise but… life. Haha!
The recent EP Little Infinity featured covers of artists as diverse as the Beatles and ABBA; what prompted you to follow up the A-Z Series with this, and with Lay All Your Love on Me being your second ABBA cover (after Does Your Mother Know in 1996), are you a fan that kind of ‘70s music?
Being a child of the mid-to-late ’70s it was pretty hard to escape ABBA and, love or loathe them, you have to respect their songwrting. But yeah, we all grew up on them and genuinely love their songs. We decided to do the Little Infinity EP as we had all these covers we’d done through the years; enough to put out on vinyl. I think it’s a pretty good insight on the band.
Having been featured on the soundtracks to Rumble in the Bronx and A Life Less Ordinary, has Ash ever been approached about scoring a movie and could you imagine this being a project you would want to develop?
Yeah it would be cool to get involved in something like that; we actually had a little taste of it when recording A Life Less Ordinary when we played an arrangement along to some footage, trying to fit it to the editing of the shots. Tim has been involved in quite a few projects of this nature in the last few years, while myself and Mark have been up to our eyes in nappies!
Earlier in your career you were a guest on the music quiz show Nevermind the Buzzcocks with Lemmy from Motörhead. What do you recall of that experience and do you enjoy making TV appearances?
Sheer terror! Surrounded by two men mountains in Phil Jupitus and Lemmy?! It was overwhelming! I loved the show but I never got into a band to be on TV, especially not a comedy show, but it’s cool to have done it.
Of all the albums and EPs that Ash have released over the years, which would you say you are most proud of and is there one era from your back catalogue that you usually avoid playing live?
Meltdown was a great point in time for me; I felt my drumming came on leaps and bounds on that album. But equally there are moments on TOTI that I love and felt I was pushing myself. A-Z too! I guess it took me a long time to get comfortable in the studio! Nu-Clear Sounds doesn’t get much of a live airing these days because it was a pretty dark time for the band. Maybe we should play it a bit more?
Aside from Charlotte Hatherley’s time with the band, Ash has kept the same line-up since you were signed two decades ago. This is a rare achievement, what do you think has kept you together for so long, especially while dealing with puberty, record labels and the darker side of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle?
I’d say it’s because we started the band so young that our early experiences somehow brought us closer together. It feels like we’re family now. How have we managed it? Your guess is as good as mine!
Between 1995 and 2001 you worked regularly with Owen Morris, who helped to define the band’s earlier sound, yet since Meltdown you have opted to work with other producers or handle the recording yourselves. What brought this productive partnership to an end and do you think you would work with him again in the future?
I think after working with Owen on Free All Angels he said we’d taken things as far as we could with him and needed to work with someone else. In hindsight I reckon he was testing us but we kinda took him at his word at the time! I loved working with him and we learned so much about recording and songwriting from him; he has been a massive influence on us. I’d love to work with him again.
Have you begun work on writing or recording for a new album, and do you think you will go back to the traditional studio album format after experimenting with the A-Z Series? We’ll be starting work on new material very soon and I’m really excited about it. I’m off to New York in a few weeks to get started on some new stuff.
Whether it’s an album or some other format remains to be seen, but that’ll be dictated by the material this time round.
Have you done much recording or writing outside of Ash and have you considered launching a side project or working on a solo album?
I was involved in a project called the Red the White and the Blue, which is being released at the moment in a similar way to the A-Z series but with a comic book story that ties in with the music. It was produced by Ed Buller and also has Taka from Feeder on bass. Have a look on FB for more details. People keep telling me to do a solo album but they’ve usually not heard me sing.