Ash’s Best of – Interview with Tim Wheeler
On 17th October the Best of Ash is being released in celebration of the band’s 20th anniversary. We have interviewed frontman Tim Wheeler to ask him how he chose the songs, how he got Ewan McGregor to narrate the documentary on the bonus disc and why they are going to play Free All Angels in full.
Why did you decide to do a “best of” and why did you decide to do it now?
It is a good time because we were taking a break from recording new stuff and we actually got proposed this [idea] from the record company and we were like: that’s a good idea.
We had a singles collection in 2003 but I think sometimes people are looking for a ‘Best of’. The collection was called Intergalactic Sonic Sevens so for someone looking for [our] Best of this is a familiar name, plus we’ve done some great music since then, so we have collected that all together and our 20th anniversary’s coming up too. It’s the perfect time to do it really.
How did you choose the tracks on the record? Are these the biggest hits or just your favourites?
After years playing them live, you come to know which ones you like to play and can connect with the audience. But we really have [put together] a nice selection which was very hard. We had to leave out quite big singles to make it all fit. We didn’t include every one and that’s just the nature of it. I guess it’s a great way to introduce the band to people if we’re new to them, otherwise people would focus on our old collection. If they come to see us live they’ll hear a lot of the record, so it is a good demonstration of the live side of the band as well.
Actually you are coming to the HMV forum at the end of October – I’m going to be there!
Fantastic. That’s going to be good. That night we’re doing all of Free All Angels with Charlotte [Haterley], she’s playing with us for the first time since 2005. It’s gonna be a great night.
Why did you decide to do a Free All Angels tour?
Well that’s because of the 10-year anniversary of the album. We have done quite a lot of touring in the UK for the last couple of years and we have a Best of coming out, so we had to do something special.
We did a 1977 concert a couple of years ago and since that people have asked us to do a Free All Angels show.
I thought that wouldn’t be right without Charlotte, so…we asked her and she’s on board.
Since she has left the band you seem to have a great relationship, do you still see each other?
Yes, we write to each other every few months and when she comes to New York we hang out.
It’s been nice. We haven’t actually played music together in that whole time. I remember the last show: it was at the Olympic stadium in Rome.
There is a re-recording of a track of yours called Jack Names the Planets. Why did you decide to re-record it and include it in the Best of?
There are a few reasons. I guess the first one is that I was never totally happy with the recording, it’s the fourth time we have recorded it. We did a demo version, then a single version, then we re-recorded it for a trailer. When you look at pre-recordings, it’s like learning the roots, we didn’t really know what we were doing when we were in the studio.
It’s the closest now to how I figured it would sound and it’s actually like the first demo version. It’s fun that we are playing it after writing the song in 1994. It’s a really cool thing but by the time we finished it, we were still kind of awkward and crazy, it was at that point that we began to try and take things more seriously. It kind of seems like the right time to put it out. Now, we look back and see that a lot of time has passed, but I think it’s very entertaining.
How did Steven Wells and Ewan McGregor get involved in the documentary which comes along with the bonus disc?
Steven was a really funny, mad writer. He directed our video for Kung Fu and the script for the documentary is kind of crazy. He was great. Then I think we met Ewan around the time of the movie A Life Less Ordinary. He got asked to narrate the film and he did it, then after a day of narrating it he invited us to play at the rock party of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. After the final night, we played on the set. It was completely mind-blowing, one of the maddest things I’ve ever done. George Lucas was hanging around; Kenny Baker, Liam Neeson, R2D2 were on the dock. It was a really crazy party, really cool.
Speaking about film, there’s an independent horror film called Slashed which you and a bunch of rock stars were involved in, and it was your project – but it was never finished! Is it going to be finished?
I think it’s just impossible to finish it at this point, it was during the tour in America, I think we ran out of energy towards the end after doing so much for it. At the end I had to get killed but we never filmed that scene, there’s no real way of going back and doing that. We wrapped together the first half of it into a little story from a video combiner last year.
I don’t think the whole thing will ever emerge. We might be able to get a video with more footage, I think there is more good stuff.
There is some tough acting from Chris Martin and Jonny Buckland from Coldplay: they are FBI agents, but very English, almost like Sherlock Holmes as an FBI agent.
Speaking of Coldplay, you were in the studio during the recording of the new record?
It was back in January or February, I just went to visit for lunch and we like jammed with the guitar.
Is it going to appear on the record?
[No.] It didn’t make it to the record, it was a version of that song [which made it].
They were just kind of getting stuff together, almost like a demo working of the song before properly recording it. It was a song that eventually became Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall. I think they worked a lot to get the song to certain point – if you don’t think [a recording] is really great, you scrap it and completely rework it. I’m sure most of the songs in the record have been through 5/6 versions.
I really bet I was probably on the third version but I still had a great experience. Brian Eno was there that week and we jammed together: me, Brian and Coldplay. I loved that. He wanted to try some backing vocal ideas, I was going to sing with Brian Eno!
Going back to your “best of”: doing it and releasing it, did it allow you to get a perspective on the band’s career over the years?
Not too much, I’m kind of used to playing new songs a lot. They live with me all the time.
It’s a bit more strange…going back and playing Free All Angels because we haven’t played half of the album live for about 10 years. I’m looking at stuff that I haven’t looked at for a long time…and that has opened my eyes. It made me feel really good to see how strong a record is.
There was a lot of strange stuff going on…we have moved record companies, our old label got merged into Warner in maybe 2002/2003. So our master tapes have moved around a lot over the years and it was quite hard to find the original versions and the original mixes. When you start to look for master tapes you find completely different versions of a song that [you] have completely forgotten about. There was some stuff I hadn’t forgotten like Kung Fu because originally it was supposed to be a B-side and we put a lot of stupid stuff in it. It has breakdown section [featuring] Scooby Doo and Gary Glitter. Once we made the new single we ditched all that stuff and re-mixed it to make it sound better. It was really hard to find the mix that we actually used, we found about five versions, really stupid ones, as well as the studio version.
Speaking of Kung Fu – are you a super, huge kung fu fan?
There was this one Christmas and they were having a Jackie Chan season on Channel 4 so I was watching that all the time as well as listening to the Ramones. We had signed with our producer, and I got a lot of CDs from the American label company so I was listening to a lot of Ramones, and watching a lot of Jackie Chan. It was our Christmas holidays at the time and we hadn’t recorded at all over the holidays. It was like two days after Christmas and we had a little rehearsal and we were about to fly to Wales. At the end of the rehearsal I had a kung fu song in my head. I had watched so much Jackie Chan and listened to so much Ramones it just came out in like two minutes. My dad was trying to get me in the car to take me to the airport and I was like: “Wait, hang on, I just want to write this really quickly”, and I wrote it in just a few minutes. So then we got into the car and went to the airport. The next day, we recorded it in 5 minutes and it turned out to be great.
Half a year later we became honorary members of the Jackie Chan fun club and it got used at the end credits for Rumble in the Bronx.
What’s your favourite Ash album throughout your career?
I would say 1977 or Free All Angels. The sound of 1977 wasn’t much to do with Ash, we still didn’t really know what we were doing in the studio, we were really young, 18-19, it was really mad getting used to the guitar.
The whole thing just sounds really cool [today]. People come up to you and say: “How did you get that sound?” I mean, I know about a lot of the techniques we used, but I think it was a lot to do with our producer’s ear and the way he heard things.
Now the Free All Angels tour, do you have any projects for the future?
I just did a film soundtrack in the summer, a movie called Ashes – which is a complete coincidence (the name link). Starring Ray Winston, it’s kind of like a thriller and it’s coming out in the springtime, I think. I’m also gonna start working on a soundtrack for some other guys and actors for a film which will be recorded in spring next year. I’ve made a Christmas album with Emmy the Great and that’s coming out on November 21st. I’ve also got an Alzheimer’s Society Music Benefit gig with Ash and live comedy at the Undertones in Belfast around November.
Once you get that stuff out the way you can just relax and things will get better. We have a lot of tours coming up, I’m going to Brazil for the first time in November, then early next year we will start writing again for the new record.
What kind of soundtrack did you do for Ashes, just music?
Yes, a cool composition with Ilan Eshkeri. He is quite an established song composer, very up and coming. I played guitar and strings mostly, we recorded it in Abbey Road studio 1. Big room, beautiful sounding. It’s all instrumental music, there are no songs except one at the very end.
It’s a very intense thriller so it’s moody and dark. It was really fun for me actually and very far from the pop-song structures and melodies. This is really about applying tension and emotion to the film.
First time I’ve done a real film soundtrack. I loved it.
Photos: Sara Reverberi
For further information on Ash and to pre-order Best of Ash visit here.