Tim Wheeler doesn’t sound like a rock star. He’s shy, perhaps even awkward, stopping and starting and interrupting himself as he answers questions. The soft consonants that feather the edge of his singing voice are replaced in his speech with a curious, Anglicised Northern Irish timbre.
I start by asking him about Ash’s A-Z project, in which they are releasing 26 tracks throughout the period of one year. The first half of their alphabet was released as a compilation earlier this month.
“Doing an album just doesn’t quite cut it nowadays – they’re not enough. We’re producing a constant stream of music and it brings us much closer to our fans. And it’s a new challenge for us as a band. We’ve done like five albums; we’ve actually been going eighteen years.”
Ash formed, in fact, when Wheeler was only 15 years old. The biography in their earlier singles collection Intergalactic Sonic 7”s paints them as a group of misfits and outcasts who picked up guitars, took on the world and won.
I ask Tim if he misses the days when Ash rode high in the charts – or if he prefers the closeness he now has to his fanbase and the more dedicated cult following the band have picked up. “Well – I miss being fucking huge!” he says but he laughs warmly – this clearly isn’t a topic of remorse. “But I’m still completely enjoying myself. We do things entirely on our own terms now.”
The new record comes wrapped in the sort of sci-fi graphics that have formed the visual backdrop to Ash’s music on and off throughout their career. “We’ve always liked sci-fi and we like incorporating it into our image. We all started out as big Star Wars fans and we put sci-fi references into a lot of our songs.
“It’s really cool actually – we’ve become closely linked with Lucasarts, [Star Wars creator] George Lucas’s company. We’ve gone to stay at Skywalker Ranch a couple of times, which is a bit like childhood dreams coming true and stuff.” His excitement as he tells me about this is not the sort of excitement one would expect from a 33-year-old popular musician.
I ask Tim if he thinks Ash’s stardom interfered with the more personal and aggressive aspect that underpins many of his lyrics. “Possibly, yeah. I’ve always liked pop music that has melancholy lyrics. It’s going back to the Phil Spector and the Motown stuff I grew up with, I guess. I like that contrast of pristine music with dark lyrics.”
Our conversation turns to Ash’s breakthrough on the cusp of the shattering of the manufactured music bubble in the late ‘90s.
“I mean, the whole Brit-pop time was a culmination of underground indie music becoming the mainstream. I guess it couldn’t last forever but it was cool at the time. It goes in cycles, I guess. At the moment we’ve got all the Pop Idol stuff. It might be time to regroup and sort it out.
“It’s all gone underground again – there’s lots of bands; it’s just harder to get the music out there. Everything’s in flux. With the internet there’s no filter to select what comes through. The established way of doing things has completely disappeared. There’s no rules anymore. But it’s fun as well. It forces you to try new things.”
It’s interesting, then, that Ash have set themselves some rules to create their new material. They’ve lost the structure of the conventional album – but A-Z gives them a structure that must be equally confining. It reminds me of the sort of project poets and novelists often undertake as they get older, setting themselves the task of writing something new every week or every month. It’s an idea that Tim relates to immediately.
“I think that’s a nice comparison. We’ve been kind of released from the album format. We didn’t have to worry about everything fitting together. And we’ve had some great and surprising results.”
There is no doubt that Ash have grown up to become mature and thoughtful musicians. But in many ways Tim Wheeler is still the 15-year-old boy who formed a band of oddballs and nerds at school. I ask how Ash’s popularity has affected this image of themselves. Surely they must now officially be cool?
“It doesn’t mean much. We still feel we’re on a mission trying to get heard. It gives us our energy and drive – it’s in our music. It’s in the drums and the guitars.”
And then, with the same glee with which he talks of Skywalker Ranch, he tells me: “I like to make music that’s fast. I don’t think that’s changed much.”