Irish three-piece Ash returned with their latest album 'Islands' on 18th May. Islands – Ash’s first album since 2015’s Kablammo! – marks their debut for new label Infectious Music – previously home to the band’s number one albums, 1996’s 1977 and Free All Angels in 2001. Produced by Tim Wheeler, Islands is the band’s seventh studio album with additional production from Mark Hamilton, Rick McMurray and Claudius Mittendorfer – who also mixed the album at the band’s studio in New York. Mark Millar recently caught up with Tim Wheeler to discuss Islands, upcoming live shows and Star Wars.
Congratulations on getting a top ten album with Islands.
TW: Thanks very much, it's a good feeling to be back in there.
The band disbanded the traditional album format after the Twilight of the Innocents album and released a single every two weeks which were all finally released as the A-Z Series compilation. What made you return to making albums again first with Kablammo! And now Islands?
TW: I guess when I did my solo record that was when I started to think about albums again. When we decided to go off and to the singles thing with the A to Z series it seemed like albums were dying off and people were downloading single tracks. I do think with streaming becoming popular there is an option to listen to complete records and with vinyl making such a strong comeback we saw albums making a comeback. Also, I think our fans were well up for us making another one. We did explore the single thing to a significant extent by doing twenty-six singles in a year - that gave us a creative break that we wanted. Around the time after Twilight of the Innocents I think if we had done another album it wouldn't have felt very empowering for us at the time but by going off and doing something so different, it cleared our heads in a way to come back to albums.
Did the band go into the writing of Islands with any preconceived ideas how it should sound and what kind of songs you wanted to write about?
TW: A little bit - by doing Kablammo! We wanted to keep the momentum going for Islands. With Kablammo! They were all songs that were great to play live, and we wanted to repeat that. We thought the songs sounded great in the rehearsal room and if they sounded good there, then they would be great on the album. We also did some touring of our debut album 1977 just after Kablammo! Came out - we had been playing that album in full and tapping into our early 'Ash' style - I think we got some of that into Islands, but we also wanted to experiment a bit and play some of the newer techniques that we discovered doing the A to Z series. I think Islands is a perfect mix of early Ash and new stuff - it has got a good diversity to it.
The album is named Islands because you wrote on various islands around the world including Ireland, Naoshima, Mallorca and your home in Manhattan to name a few. Where those writing sessions always fruitful?
TW: Yeah, they were. I would go to a bunch of the islands for ten days and would come back with a lot of songs. I was either coming up with fresh stuff or finishing ideas from what I had written in New York. I think the travelling and the isolation was good for my headspace for writing.
And you challenged yourself to write a song every hour for ten hours. Did you do that on a daily basis?
TW: I would do that once a week for maybe three or four weeks and take a break and then do it again. It can be a pretty exhausting day when you do that. On Thursdays I would get other friends to write at the same time in their studio and then we would all gather later on and playback what we had all came up with that day - it was kind of a big drinking night normally (Laughs) those kinds of sessions would take a few days to recover from - I couldn't do it every day.
You are quite friendly with the guys from We are Scientists are they included in those sessions?
TW: Yeah, Keith and Chris also do the song challenge on the same day as me. That's why there is some humour in some of the songs like Buzzkill because those guys are so funny and they write pretty funny songs when they are doing the song challenge - we do it to make each other laugh when we play them back at the end of the night. Buzzkill was one song that we very much wrote as a joke, but everyone said: "that's a great song."
The song "Buzzkill," from the album features vocals from Damien O'Neill and Mickey Bradley from The Undertones. How did they get involved with the track?
TW: I did a charity acoustic set at Bushmills and the Undertones were headlining. I was watching them from the side of the stage and had just done some backing vocals for the Buzzkill studio recording. While I was watching them I was thinking how much I had ripped off the Undertones call and response style backing vocals. I thought I would love to get Damian and Mickey involved with the track as I imagined they would be perfect on it so I asked them and they were well up for it.
The album sleeve features the island Skellig Michael which is a nod to the band's love for 'Star Wars' in that various scenes from The Force Awakens, and The Last Jedi were filmed on the islands. Are you a fan of the new movies?
TW: Yeah, we went to the Solo movie last night and I really enjoyed it. Its great the last three or four films the band have been altogether because we have been on tour pretty much each time so we always go for a midnight showing the first night it's available.
Was it an enjoyable experience recording the new album?
Yeah, it was great. We have had our own studio in New York since 2006. We have got a really fun flow when we work together and we knew we had a great bunch of songs and wanted to bash them out it wasn't really any stress making the record - we didn't have any anxiety worrying if the songs were good enough. The only song I wasn't sure about was Did Your Love Burnout? Because it was in a different style than we would normally do - it had a different tone to it that had never been on any Ash songs but once we got to the end of it I realized it worked and it has been getting a really good response.
By the time this interview goes out, Ash will have played BBC Big Weekend in Belfast on Saturday night. Are you glad to be back in Belfast performing?
TW: Yes, I can't wait for a lot of reasons - we were the first band ever played on BBC Radio 6 Music and it's just brilliant they are doing the festival in Belfast with such a good lineup. Its unusual for Belfast to get such an interesting bill - I think its fantastic and I'm really proud we are part of it. It's a great time to play a week after the album has come out and the Northern Irish fans are always very supportive we can't wait to play for them. And it's always good being able to see our families.
Do you still keep an interest in the music scene in Northern Ireland now?
TW: Yes it's a bit hard to keep up all the time being over in New York but when we come back to play its a normally a good chance to catch up with whats going on. We had a great night when we played at the Northern Irish Music Awards a couple of years ago - the talent there is amazing. I love when bands from Northern Ireland do well.
What advice do you have for new bands starting out?
TW: I think for any band anywhere the two most important things are writing great songs - they will take you far and a great live show. They are the two most vital things bands need to hone and both of those will come from practice. Write as much as you can and great songs will emerge and play live as much as you can because that makes such a difference - especially if you get out touring you need to play as many nights in a row as possible. Try not to do one-off gigs as touring is the thing that gets you match fit.
Ash has been doing this for 26 years now. Looking back do you have any particular highlights?
TW: The whole breaking through with Girl from Mars and hearing ourselves on the radio and getting to play Top of the Pops was so exciting and touring world for the first time was amazing. It’s almost the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement gig that we did with U2 that was an incredible thing to be part of. Also, we managed to make a comeback with Shining Light and Free All Angels in 2001 after many of our contemporaries were dropping off the radar and we managed to come back really strong - that was another great time for the band and probably why we are still here now.
You mentioned Girl from Mars can you dispel an urban myth about that song? Was it originally called Girl from Ards?
TW: I love that question (laughs) but no - it was always Girl from Mars. I had the title before I had the song. the whole idea of it was that it was an outer space song - we are such big Star Wars fans and I was really into Sci-Fi rock around that time - The Pixies album Trompe Le Monde was all about aliens which I was obsessed with and our practice room had a big 'Life on Mars' painted across the wall from my big sister because she was such a big Bowie fan. Although Ards (Newtownards) is a great place - it wasn't an influence. (Laughs)
Do you have a record that you always return to?
TW: Live and Dangerous by Thin Lizzy was one of the first rock albums I heard - I always come back to that and Astral Weeks by Van Morrison is another one that has had millions of listens - I can never get bored with it.
What have you been listening to recently that you could recommend?
TW: I have been listening to the new Arctic Monkeys album which seems really crazy but we are all enjoying it a lot and I really like what I've heard of the new Parquet Courts album as well. It was mixed at our studio and I got to hear little bits of it through the door. We share a studio with a mix engineer and I was hearing bits of that while he was working on it - I'm looking forward to hearing the whole thing.
The band’s full live itinerary follows – tickets for shows can be purchased via the band’s website
10th CORNWALL Boardmasters
11th LISTOWEL Revival Festival
17th CHELMSFORD Rize Festival
18th DURHAM Hardwick Live Festival
1st DALKEITH Midstock Festival
15th BOSTON, MA Brighton’s Music Hall
17th TORONTO, ON The Velvet Underground
19th CHICAGO, IL Schubas
21st LOS ANGELES, CA The Echo
22nd SAN FRANCISCO, CA Brick & Mortar
16th SHEFFIELD Leadmill
17th GLASGOW O2 ABC
19th BRISTOL SWX
20th BIRMINGHAM O2 Institute
21st NORWICH Waterfront
23rd MANCHESTER O2 Ritz
24th LONDON O2 Forum