Tim Wheeler: Headlining Glastonbury 'by accident' was our best festival experience

Ahead of making their live return at Stendhal Festival, the Ash frontman recalls stepping in to top the bill on the Pyramid Stage 20 years ago

Aside from Jeremy Corbyn's news feed-dominating appearance on the Pyramid Stage, much of the musical focus at this year's Glastonbury Festival justiably centred around Radiohead's mesmerising headline set on the Friday night. The performance marked 20 years since the band's now near-mythical close to proceedings in 1997, coming just weeks after their studio masterwork OK Computer.

But what's often forgotten, or simply overshadowed, is a band whose career has enjoyed similar longevity, who came to the rescue to bring the curtain down on the Sunday night that same year. Ash are one of the best-loved and most successful acts to ever hail from Northern Ireland, and have graced the stages at some of the most revered festivals in the world. And yet despite only being in his teens at the time, the day he and his bandmates filled in for Steve Winwood at Worthy Farm still stands above the rest for frontman Tim Wheeler.

'Probably our best festival experience was at Glastonbury the year we headlined the Pyramid Stage by accident,' he recalls. 'We were booked to headline the Other Stage, which was amazing in itself but a bizarre string of circumstances brought about by the fact that it was an incredibly rainy year, meant that the band who were due to headline the Pyramid Stage on the Sunday night couldn’t get on site. We on the other hand couldn’t get off site, so we were asked to fill in. It was amazing and I think we might still be the only band to headline two different stages at the same Glastonbury.'

The ensuing two decades have seen the Downpatrick trio sell millions of records, win countless awards and cement their status as a national treasure when it comes to music in Northern Ireland. After spending much of 2016 celebrating the 20th anniversary of their landmark album 1977, this summer will see the band set their sights back to the road ahead, starting with Stendhal Festival on August 11.

Visitors to Ballymully Cottage Farm in Limavady will get to witness first-hand what's lead them to the stature they now hold, as the band look to set the pace for a string of UK dates that barely stops for a breath.

'Gigging is always a buzz,' says Wheeler. 'I think it always will be and in terms of our performance at Stendhal as it’s the first night of our tour, it will be that extra bit exciting for us. We can’t wait to be honest.'

Of course, headlining Glastonbury isn't the only notch on Ash's muddy bedpost in terms of festival pedigree. They also return to the hallowed fields of Reading and Leeds over the August Bank Holiday weekend. 'Reading is always really amazing in terms of crowd reaction so we always have a lot of fun playing there,' he adds.

Despite the glittering CV of stages they've played, number of units sold and amount of awards won however, Ash is a band who is always seeking the next big challenge. It was afterall 10 years ago when they decided to ditch the traditional album format in favour of an innovative series of singles titled after letters of the alphabet and released exclusively (at least at first) as digital downloads.

'We really try not to dwell on the past and rest on our laurels,' says Wheeler. 'In many ways we have the exact same mindset now that we did when we were just starting out. We love the energy and excitement of gigging and recording.'

Ash have certainly come a long way from their early days in Downpatrick and have been an inspiration to now several generations of aspiring musicians from Northern Ireland. But while Wheeler agrees the infrastructure is much improved now compared to when his band were cutting teeth, there remains two key aspects in his view which can't be overlooked.

'It really is all about the songs and the live performance,' he says. 'There are more venues now that host live music and places like the Oh Yeah Centre which are of great benefit to young musicians but it really boils down to having good songs and a good live show. If bands can get those two things down, then they have as good a chance as anyone.

'The system is very different now. We were lucky in the sense that we met the right people, had a great label and great management who provided us with support, but we always placed songwriting above style and we toured like crazy to get our live show to a high standard. For any young bands out there – you develop most when you are gigging, so gig as much as you can.'

Ash were honoured last year at the NI Music Awards when they received the Legend Award. It is no more than their career deserves when you consider the success they have enjoyed. For Wheeler and his bandmates it was a wonderful evening but at the same time one that they are keen not to dwell on.

'It was amazing,' he says, 'we were really proud to get that award and to get the recognition that comes along with it but it was also a bit strange accepting a Legends Award because we have plenty more to offer. We are still hungry for music, be it gigging or writing, we have a new album in the pipeline which we hope will be out in early 2018 and we always feel that despite what we have achieved, we always need to prove ourselves.'

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In terms of the current crop of Northern Irish acts Wheeler is encouraged by what he has seen coming through and hopes that the country can start to produce more showstoppers on an international level, the likes of which hasn't emerged arguably since Two Door Cinema Club.

'As far as up and coming guys from Northern Ireland go at the minute, for me Ciaran Lavery is the stand out,' he says, citing the County Antrim troubadour who is due to release his third studio album this year and also features as part of the Stendhal Festival line-up.

'We are always very aware of our musical heritage and very proud to represent Northern Ireland. There is always someone at every gig wherever we are in the world from Ireland, so it is a big part of who we are and it is amazing for us to be even a little part of the musical heritage we have.'

Festival-goers planning on making the trip to Limavady next month can expect to be rewarded with 'all hits, all the time' type of show, as Ash look to blow the cobwebs away with a barrage of joyous guitars and choruses which over time have become part of the national hymn book.

'It’s special too because Stendhal is one of only a couple of festivals in Northern Ireland at the minute,' Wheeler adds. 'When we were starting out, we wish we could have had the opportunity to play in a festival setting in Northern Ireland, but that just wasn’t an option for us. For young and up and coming bands, festivals provide a phenomenal experience which can get your music to a wider audience.

'So for us, we are delighted that we can come home and play Stendhal as it has a bill made up mostly of homegrown talent and that is a hugely positive thing for music in Northern Ireland.'

See Ash in addition to nearly 100 other musical acts including The Magic Numbers and Sharon Shannon at Stendhal Festival in Limavady on August 11 and 12. For further information and ticket booking visit www.stendhalfestival.com.