The Irish band’s frontman Tim Wheeler says songwriting is as much about understanding life now that he is in his 40s as it was when he was a teen, writes Ed Power
THE cliche of growing up in public has never been more applicable than to Ash’s Tim Wheeler. He was just 16 when the band put out their mini-album, Trailer, in 1994. Now in his early 40s, the native of Downpatrick, Co Down, has endured all of life’s ups, downs, and sideways drifts — including the death of his father, who had Alzheimer’s — in something approaching the glare of the spotlight.
In terms of his career, the toughest spell was the the failure of Ash’s second album, Nu-Clear Sounds, in 1998. The record was panned and flopped. Acclaimed since he was still in school, Wheeler found he was in danger of falling out of fashion. Had the decline gone on, it could have been curtains.
“The follow-up [2001’s Free All Angels] was a success, which was important,” he says. “If it hadn’t, it might have meant the end of our career. We could easily have been dropped.”
Adversity was the making of Ash, which grew out of an Iron Maiden covers band that Wheeler had formed in 1992, with classmates Mark Hamilton and Rick McMurray (auxiliary guitarist, Charlotte Hatherley, later joined, and then departed). They’ve gone on to notch up four dependably thrilling albums, the latest, Islands, one of their strongest yet
“There was a time when there was a concern over whether a new record would make the charts,” says Wheeler. “Now, we’re happy doing our own thing, because we know we have a fanbase there for us. The main priority was doing something we enjoy.”
Along with falling out of favour in the late 1990s, the biggest challenge for Ash was the advent of file-sharing in the 2000s and the consequent plummet in record sales.
The band’s response was to briefly abandon the album format and institute a singles club, by which subscribers received a new seven-inch vinyl release every fortnight for a year.
With streaming bringing revenues back to the industry, the doomsday scenario of music becoming a hobby rather than a job has receded somewhat. This has made life easier for groups such as Ash, though the situation is still quite different from when the public bought physical albums.
“A lot more money is coming into the labels,” says Wheeler. “It isn’t necessarily getting to the artists. The labels are definitely able to invest in bands, compared to a few years ago, when they were afraid to support acts.”
Early on, Wheeler was heralded for his ability to convey in his songs the heartache of teenage romance. What he’s discovered is that, as you get older, life doesn’t get any easier, which ensures there is plenty of grist for his songwriting. “I tend to write about what’s going on in my life, he says. “It’s a real channel for feelings and figuring things out. Your subconscious definitely comes through in songs. I wrote an album about my dad’s Alzheimer’s [2014’s solo album, Lost Domain], for instance.
“I was processing that through song. Often, I’ll start with just a title. ‘Girl From Mars’ began that way, as did ‘Shining Light’. You have the title and it triggers loads of ideas. You get the central image and take it from there.
“I had a little bit of writer’s block around the second record. I learned a few tricks to get through it. You have to sit down with a blank page every day. It will start to flow, if you keep at it.
“I know that if I sit down to write a song, something will come out. The ideas don’t have to be of fantastic quality.
“You just have to write them. Every day, you’ll get a song and, at some point, there will be a good song. The trick is not to worry.”
Islands is out now. Ash play Listowel Revival Festival, August 11.