Ash: The A-Z Series

‘We’re seeing kids turning up at our shows because their parents are fans. That’s when it hits me how long we’ve been going.’

Founded while members Tim Wheeler, Mark Hamilton and Rick McMurray were still at school, Ash are the Ulster band who took the music world by storm. The ‘guaranteed real teenagers’, as they were branded early in their career, have sold eight million records since forming in Downpatrick in 1992. They have had two number-one albums and 25 hit singles, performed at most of Europe’s major festivals and toured the USA with David Bowie, along the way befriending everyone from Bono to Star Wars creator George Lucas.

But after 2007’s Twilight of the Innocents failed to reach the British top 10 – the first Ash album to do so – the group announced that they were to largely abandon the traditional physical-record format, and that most future releases would be download-only singles. The plan bore its first substantial fruit in October 2009, with the launch of The A-Z Series, which sees Ash release 26 songs as digital downloads and limited-edition seven-inch vinyl records over the course of a year.

The series was promoted on a unique, 26-date, alphabetically routed UK tour, which took the band from Aldershot to Zennor. Backstage at a gig in Carlisle, Wheeler is in good form. Former Ash support acts such as Snow Patrol and The Answer may have overtaken them in terms of record sales and attendance figures, but Wheeler insists his band are far from a spent force. Indeed, the singer and guitarist insists Ash are still attracting new followers.

‘We’re starting to see kids turning up at our shows because their parents are fans,’ he says. ‘Their kids are 14 or 15, and they’re starting to get into music. That’s when it hits me how long we’ve been going.’

Ash played many of their early Belfast gigs at the now-closed Penny Farthing pub on Donegall Street, alongside such long-forgotten acts as Confusion, Peppermoth and In.Decision. ‘It was just brilliant, so much fun,’ says Wheeler. ‘We were relying on friends in other bands to give us gigs with them, as there weren’t that many places to play back then. It was a do-it-yourself scene in Northern Ireland, where people helped each other out. We got a lucky break when our music made its way into the right hands in London and we got a manager.’

He adds: ‘The only way you got attention in Northern Ireland at the time was through a few fanzines. Today you have festivals like Glasgowbury, where it’s a whole day of Northern Irish bands. That was unthinkable back then.’

In early 2007, Ash became active endorsers of Belfast’s first dedicated music resource ‘hub’, the Oh Yeah Music Centre. Nearly three years on, Wheeler remains enthusiastic about the project, the brainchild of former NME journalist Stuart Bailie and Snowpatrol frontman Gary Lightbody. ‘Oh Yeah would have been so helpful for us when we were younger,’ says the Ash frontman. ‘It’s an honour to have it named after one of our songs. I’d love to do an all-ages show there sometime.’

TracersAsh are committed to supporting Northern Ireland music, having taken numerous Ulster groups on tour in recent years – the Debonaires and the Black Tokens, to name two. Currently, the Panama Kings are their opening act of choice. ‘Any chance we get, we try to have a Northern Irish band on the bill with us,’ comments Wheeler. ‘Aside from anything else, it’s always good fun to hang out with people from home.’

Wheeler, bassist Hamilton and drummer McMurray are now approaching 18 years together. The trio’s longevity is a rare feat in the volatile world of rock music. ‘We’re like brothers,’ says Wheeler. ‘We went to school together, are from the same place, shared so many experiences and are very similar in many ways. We always knew we could rely on each other and, when things got tough, one of us wasn’t going to flake out and let the others down.’

As for the future, it appears to be more of the same, at least for Wheeler. ‘I’m still so wrapped up in music,’ he says. ‘I go to the studio five days a week and work until after midnight.’ His bandmates, though, may be planning for life after Ash. ‘Rick is talking about writing a book,’ says Wheeler, ‘and Mark is interested in 'Earthship' buildings – which don’t require water or electricity – and is trying to develop them. He’s also got a family now, so he’s not the maniac he used to be!’

The next single from The A-Z Series, ‘Tracers’ is out now on digital download and seven-inch vinyl. For information on how to subscribe to The A-Z Series, click here.

Andrew Johnston