- 25 Sep 23
With Ash releasing their stellar new album Race The Night, the punk-pop maestros’ Tim Wheeler discusses the record’s creation, Foo Fighters, Blur, Pulp and more.
Punk-pop legends Ash return this month with the brilliant Race The Night, another glorious sugar rush of indie anthems. This time, though, the record is shot through with a sense of middle age angst, as the band’s frontman Tim Wheeler wrestles with the ageing process. The record was made throughout the pandemic, during the early stages of which Wheeler, like many, found himself in unusual circumstances.
“It was mad,” he reflects from London, where he has relocated after spending 15 years in New York. “At the start of everything, we were touring in Europe and I was still living in New York. All the borders were shutting, but we hung around in case the tour would still keep going. Then the US borders shut, so I couldn’t get home for four months. I was planning to leave New York that summer anyway, I had studio and apartment leases that were ending.
“I was hoping I would get back in time to move, and luckily I did, with two weeks to spare. I had to go to Turkey for two weeks to get back to the States! It was mental. Before that, I managed to get back to my mum’s place, so I was staying in Downpatrick. When Hot Press did the Van Morrison tribute, I shot my contribution in my mum’s garden! So that killed a bit of time.”
How odd it is now to reflect on that strangest of periods, when we all had to devise new strategies to pass our days. As well as watching approximately 5000 movies, I also found myself revisiting old podcasts to listen to, simply because I’d run out of new ones I liked.
“Everyone did weird stuff,” nods Tim. “I decided I was going to learn old guitar solos. I learned a bunch of stuff off Television’s Marquee Moon, and some stuff off The Number Of The Beast by Iron Maiden, regressing to my childhood. I even dived into ‘Free Bird’ as well (laughs). That was quite fun.”
Although it lasts for about a fortnight, the guitar solo on ‘Marquee Moon’ has to command a place in the all-time power rankings.
“It’s just amazing,” acknowledges Tim. “The two guitarists, Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine, are incredible. The interplay is just magic and the drumming is phenomenal too. What an atmosphere it’s got. For a punk band, they were kind of virtuosos, which is the odd thing about it as well.”
In terms of the intermittent allusions on Race The Night to recapturing youthful exhilaration, the frontman has thoughts on where they stem from.
“When we play as a band, it always connects us to being teenagers again,” notes Wheeler. “It’s the one thing we’ve been doing together continuously since we were 15, and actually with myself and Mark, we’ve been doing it since we were 11. ‘Usual Places’ definitely feels like a song about getting older. But as I say, some things make me feel the same as I did when I was a teenager, music being one of them. I thought that was cool to put into a song.
“When I was living in New York, my life was changing every few years, and I felt like had about three different lifetimes there. There were a lot of places from the first few years that didn’t exist anymore. New York has a way of very unsentimentally bulldozing over its past, and something new appears. I was thinking, ‘All these places and people are gone’, so I felt that was worth writing a song about.”
There’s a strong ’80s vibe to the Race The Night sleeve, which references one of that decade’s best movies, Back To The Future, thanks to the inclusion of a DeLorean car.
“It must have come from the title track,” says Tim. “That was all the imagery that came up in my head when I thought about that song. You could be mistaken into thinking it’s a synth-wave album! But it’s really quite a rock record. I thought it was a nice way to package it really. And there’s always the Northern Irish connection with Back To The Future because of the DeLoreans being made in Belfast.”
Tim’s time in New York coincided with the scene that produced LCD Soundsystem, The Strokes, Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and many other great bands. That now heavily mythologised cultural moment was wonderfully chronicled in this year’s documentary Meet Me In The Bathroom, based on the Lizzy Goodman book of the same name.
The Ash frontman has seen the doc, and notes that he once tried to speak to LCD mastermind James Murphy, “but it was too awkward, so I gave up!” It is remarkable that Murphy and his one-time DFA partner, Tim Goldsworthy, first met when working on a David Holmes album.
Have Ash ever considered asking Holmes to produce them?
“I love what Holmer does,” says Tim. “It would very interesting, and in particular, I love the Cashier No. 9 record he did. He’s amazing. But we’ve ended up self-producing for the last 15 years. It would be incredible to do something with him some day, for sure.”
It would probably be my dream Irish collaboration.
“Okay,” chuckles Tim, “then we have to make it happen! It was cool when he did the Noel Gallagher records as well.”
Ash have now been with us for almost 30 years, and one of the pillars of their longevity has been their immortal 1996 debut, 1977. For me, it is one of a quintet of true Irish rock masterpieces from the last 50 years, alongside Loveless, Achtung Baby, The Undertones and Inflammable Material. I’ve always felt Ash are the one Irish group who wrote about the ennui of smalltown life with the brilliance of Blur, Pulp and Suede, all of whom were among their mid-’90s peers.
“Yeah, and we recorded 1977 at Rockfield Studios in Monmouth, which was a bit like staying in Downpatrick actually,” Tim recalls. “It was a really rural town. I guess that was the good thing, there was a lot of storytelling in all those songs.”
Ash exploded onto the scene at the same time Britpop was in full swing, and this summer has seen the aforementioned triumvirate all playing full houses. Exactly two weeks after interviewing Blur for a Hot Press cover story, I saw them perform the first of two triumphant shows at Wembley, subsequent to which I headed down to Cardiff to see Pulp. I and many other others have literally been partying like it’s 1999.
“I saw Blur at Wembley as well,” says Wheeler. “I kind of did the same thing as you. My girlfriend’s a huge Blur fan, so I saw them four times in a row this summer! I also saw Pulp at Finsbury Park around the same time. I was struck how good the lyrics and songwriting were, and how many amazing songs both those bands had. It’s cool seeing them come back and be so loved, and also seeing how many young folks were into it as well.
“Looking back, it was a time of really high quality music, and I guess there was a lot of competition between all the bands that fuelled it. It was nice that Blur came back with a new album too, and I thought ‘The Narcissist’ was a brilliant song – it’s up there with a lot of their best stuff. Pulp didn’t come back with any new stuff, but it was still just as great a show.
“Damon Albarn’s quite a unique guy, who’s seriously kept his aura in terms of making music nonstop. For him to dive in and say, ‘I’ll just bash out another Blur album’, he’s still totally at the top of his game. And if any of the misty- eyed good vibes bounce back onto Ash, that’s cool with me too! I don’t mind getting nostalgic about it.”
Following the sad passing last year of the Foo Fighters’ much-loved Taylor Hawkins, Ash’s drummer Rick McMurray was among those paying tribute in Hot Press. The band have encountered the Foos and Dave Grohl quite often over the years.
“Taylor was such a lovely guy,” says Tim. “We’d always run into Foo Fighters quite a bit from early on. He was such a dude, such a character. It’s really tragic. One of the last times I saw Dave and the guys was when we played with them at Slane. We also did Fuji Rock with the Foos the year Dave broke his leg, that might possibly have been the same summer.
“I hung out a couple of extra days at the festival, so I popped by after the festival and had a good chat with Dave. He had to stay and get treatment on his leg with some weird boot, for like an hour afterwards (laughs). All the rest of the Foos had left to go back to Tokyo, so I had a real hang with him. I saw Taylor briefly then, that was probably the last time I saw him. He’s a very sadly missed guy.”
For all the chatter about rock’s demise, it has to be noted that it’s been a hell of a summer for the old guard, with the Britpop bands all playing to packed houses, and the Foos, Manic Street Preachers and Queens Of The Stone Age all absolutely killing it at Glastonbury.
“They’re still making good records as well,” says Wheeler. “You have those new albums from the Foos and Queens. It would be nice to see a whole new breed coming through and getting massive as well. I’ve seen Queens live quite a few times, including at Glastonbury on the Songs For The Deaf tour, with Dave on drums. That was nuts.”
Ash are no slouches on the live front either. I’ve seen them several times over the years, most recently when they played a brilliantly intense show at Dublin’s Academy in 2018.
“I think Mark broke his bass that night,” says Tim. “He didn’t even smash it or anything, I think it just broke! He has put them through a fair deal of abuse over the years (laughs). It’s gonna be crazy this time around with The Subways as well, they’re such a good live band. I can’t wait to dig into this album live.”
• Race The Night is released on September 15. Ash play the Academy, Dublin with The Subways (October 9). See more of their upcoming tour dates here.