Ash—Revisiting the Wild Life

Tim Wheeler, Ash vocalist/guitarist, is calling from his apartment in New York’s West Village, where he has lived for the past 15 years. But today, his native Northern Ireland is on his mind. After decades of political unrest that spilled over into violence, that country’s peaceful recent years have made it one of the hottest tourist destinations in Europe. “It’s changed a lot over the years,” Wheeler says. “It’s good it’s finally a place where people can recommend [visiting] it.” His connection to his homeland remains strong: he says he returns to see family and friends there several times a year.

There was a time, though, when Wheeler wasn’t so pleased with what Northern Ireland had to offer—leading him to form Ash in the first place. “I think I wanted a different life than the one that was laid out for us—probably wanting to escape,” he says. “Northern Ireland wasn’t an inspiring place to stay in the early nineties, after coming out of the eighties. [It was] still a really rough decade there. Music offered us a different world. I really wanted to avoid a normal life, I think!” he says with a laugh.

His strategy ultimately worked, but the band had to face some adversity first. Growing up in Downpatrick, a small town just south of Belfast—Northern Ireland’s capital city—Wheeler formed Ash with bassist Mark Hamilton when they were only twelve years old. The lineup became complete when drummer Rick McMurray joined, and they began writing catchy, high-energy rock songs with lyrics chronicling the joys (and lows) of teenage life. But their youthful exuberance and honesty wasn’t initially appreciated by everyone.

“We had a few years of people telling us that we were terrible and that we’d never do anything,” Wheeler says. This did not deter them—he says they always remained “stubborn and persistent—we knew we could get through the challenges.” Looking back, he believes that encountering criticism was actually helpful to them. “Right from the start, we had something to prove. I think that strengthened us early on.”

In 1994, the trio released Trailer, a seven-song debut “mini-album,” and memorably billed themselves as “Guaranteed Real Teenagers.” Singles like “Jack Names the Planets” and “Petrol” grabbed the attention of influential DJs in Britain, so that by the time the band released their first full-length album, 1977, two years later, it was met with immediate success, with singles like “Girl from Mars,” “Oh Yeah,” and “Goldfinger” all hitting the charts in several countries. They’ve gone on to release six more studio albums, racking up 13 Top 40 singles in the U.K.

With their naysayers long silenced, Ash are celebrating their quarter-century anniversary with the release of Teenage Wildlife: 25 Years of Ash—a career retrospective compilation featuring three dozen songs that the band members chose themselves, showcasing their best work from every phase of their career. 

Teenage Wildlife “is a great way to tell the whole story of the band up until now, but it was a hard challenge compiling it all, just trying to whittle down that much music that we love, but I think we got a good selection. We went with our favorites, but we had to spread it evenly over the years, as well. It meant that there’s a couple of hit singles that didn’t make it. But I think we did a pretty good job. I definitely look at it and go, ‘Damn, that’s a great bunch of tunes!’” Wheeler says with a laugh.

“I think it’s a really good introduction for new fans. Also, for fans in the early days, it’s a good way of catching up on the highlights over the years since then,” Wheeler says, adding that even the most ardent and longtime fans will find some surprises here. “We also put together a rarities disc for the special edition CD—a bunch of B-sides that haven’t seen the light in the digital era, haven’t been available to stream, and probably aren’t even on YouTube or anything like that. It’s really good that will get to see the light of day, as well.”

At first, Wheeler says going back through all their songs didn’t trigger too much nostalgia “because it seems like a lot of the older songs that made it on the compilation are the ones that we play a lot, still. They don’t feel like they’re from the past.” Then he pauses, reconsidering. “I think it made me go back to our second album [1998’s Nu-Clear Sounds], which was kind of a difficult album. I was pleasantly surprised by it. A lot of memories came back from that, actually. It’s got a really interesting sound to it and atmosphere. I guess it’s very different to anything else we’ve done. And I can also listen to it and go, ‘I could never come up with that stuff now. It just wouldn’t happen.’ So it’s kind of a strange, objective way of listening to it. I was a very different person at the time.”

Even though Teenage Wildlife emphasizes Ash’s string of past successes, it also points toward the band’s future with one brand new track, “Darkest Hour of the Night.” The song is classic Ash: lively and hyper-melodic instrumentation, but with lyrics frankly describing breakup heartache. “Ever since you went away/I felt so torn and frayed/My friends tell me that I must be strong/It’s not so easy when your reasons have gone,” Wheeler sings, somehow managing to sound vulnerable and animated simultaneously. It serves as the single for this compilation release, and, Wheeler says, “It’s starting to get a real buzz, actually. U.K. radio played it for the first time last week.”

Wheeler says “Darkest Hour of the Night” was originally written for the band’s as-yet-untitled next album, which Wheeler says they’re working on right now in the studio that they’ve owned since 2006, in New York’s trendy Chelsea neighborhood. Wheeler says that using their own studio, instead of spending money to rent someone else’s, has given the band “a lot of freedom and enabled us to expand a lot,” but he also admits that this arrangement can also slow things down. “I can tinker with things endlessly, which is dangerous to do,” he says cheerfully, but quickly promises with a laugh, “I’m going to have to wrap it up! I’ve been chipping away at it for almost two years now, but it’s mostly recorded.”

Before that album can be finalized, though, Ash have signed on to do an extensive European tour this winter and spring, and they hope to set U.S. dates after that. Now in his forties, Wheeler says it’s still easy to tap into the exuberance from his youth at shows. “I always get taken back to being a teenager when we start playing,” he says. He also thinks that audiences’ enthusiasm helps them keep up the energy to make it through such lengthy tours, especially because there will be fans who have supported them right from the beginning. “I think we established a pretty loyal fanbase early on, and the fans have stuck with us. We know there’s always been someone to make music for. That’s really cool.”

Wheeler also points to the band members’ tight friendship as another reason why they still enjoy doing this after so many years together. “We weren’t a bunch of session musicians put together—we started as mates.” And it is rather remarkable that Ash has retained the original lineup all this time (though it should be noted that, from 1997 to 2006, the band was a quartet, with guitarist Charlotte Hatherley). Wheeler says that they’re quite committed to keeping Ash a trio now. “It works pretty slick. You’re definitely limited in some ways, but I guess limitations are our strengths sometimes.

“We started Ash around the time Nirvana were big, so it gave us the courage to be a three piece. It’s also so much easier. You could be a good functioning unit as long as all three of us were fully into it. The only trouble with being a three-piece is, if one of you falls out, if there’s anything that goes wrong, then the whole thing falls apart. It’s a high-wire act the whole time!”

It might be argued that Ash’s entire history has been something of a high-wire act, with the band demonstrating again and again that they can overcome challenges and adversity. Looking back, even Wheeler seems a bit surprised at how well it’s all worked out: “Sometimes I think, ‘Oh shit, I really got away with it for a long time, I’ve gotten way further than I’ve ever thought I would without ever having had a job!’” He laughs. “I do pinch myself, really. It’s pretty cool.”