Ash are Fixed on the Future

Chad Peck (Kestrels) talks to Tim Wheeler about Race the Night, and much more.

Nostalgia is a subtle poison: “I am compelled to return to a time and place that no longer exists.” I stumbled upon Ash in 1996 through my friend’s older brother — he had left for university and picked up Trailer and 1977 from the “CD Man,” a guy who traveled from student union building to student union building with milk crates full of used and imported CDs. I heard songs like “Jack Names the Planets” and “Lose Control” and was instantly mesmerized. How did these three teenagers from Downpatrick, Northern Ireland write perfect melodies over such cacophonous music? And perhaps most importantly: I’m a teenager from a tiny village in Nova Scotia — could I write perfect melodies over cacophonous music? 

Because it came at such a critical time in my listening life (age 14), Ash was the first band I considered “mine.” I mailed money orders to the UK in a vain attempt to collect their rare releases (£50 for a CD copy of Live at the Wireless cobbled together over months by saving my lunch money), joined a tape trading network for live Ash shows, and created an Ash website in my grade 10 Communications Technology class. 

Ash was a big deal to me, but this isn’t a nostalgia piece. Ash is a big deal to me now

I’m lucky to consider Tim Wheeler, Ash’s lead singer, guitarist, and principal songwriter, a good friend and mentor — as I advanced in my own music career, Tim has been someone who has provided me with advice and support, even playing guitar on a song called “Dumb Angel” on my band’s 2012 record A Ghost History and programming some drums for the next Kestrels record. As I mention in my talk with Tim, the band has always remained forward-facing: Yes, they have multiple greatest hits compilations and have reissued their first four albums on vinyl, but their eye remains keenly fixed on the future. Ash recently released their eighth studio album Race the Night and it gives me all of the thrill of those early records, with the added bonus of knowing how it was put together. I can’t wait for the next one. 

Chad Peck: Are you someone who reads a lot of your own press? Or is it more like, “I did what I could and now I’m going to let it go”?  

Tim Wheeler: I guess I’m always curious to see what people say. You probably don’t learn that much from it, but sometimes it’s validating if someone notices something that you’ve thought was clever or cool. I definitely don’t avoid them on purpose. I guess we’ve been lucky. You know, we don’t get too many bad reviews.

Chad: Yeah, you’ve done well for sure.  

Tim: Yeah. I guess when you get super, super successful, that’s when you’re a real target for bad reviews. I think overall people are pretty cool. I’ve been doing a few interviews recently and people have been saying how much they’ve been liking the record, and that’s been great.

Chad: Thanks for sending it over to me. I love it. It’s weird because I heard some of it in 2019 and then nothing for a couple years. And I stayed with Mark [Hamilton, Ash bass player] last summer and he played me bits and pieces, but it was quite different. 

Tim: Demos and things.  

Chad: Yeah. I was thinking today, getting ready for this, how no two Ash records have ever sounded the same.  Even if you go a little more guitar heavy or a little synth heavy,  it doesn’t feel like you’re trying to recreate something. It always feels forward-facing.  

Tim: That’s great!

Chad: For a band that’s been around for so long, it’s really kind of rare, actually.  

Tim: I wonder if it’s because we’re a blend of so many different things; maybe it’s hard to get the recipe the same every time. It would be impossible to recreate some of those moments.

Chad: Even with Free All Angels, people thought of it as a return to 1977.  But when you listen to those records back to back, they don’t really sound anything alike.

Tim: Completely different! Totally true. The things that we were listening to and into on both of those albums were completely different really. And yeah, I guess over the years, sometimes an old influence raises its head for a bit on a certain album, and then it fades off again.  

Chad: For sure. I read your recent NME interview and you said you saw Mudhoney and that influenced “Over and Out.”

Tim: Yeah, very much. I saw them in a small venue in Brooklyn, the Market Hotel or something. And it was just so brilliant that they were so good live, probably not that different from what they were in the early ‘90s. It was such a great show to have seen. I went and wrote that riff like a few days later. I was like, “It’s a little bit Mudhoney this, but I don’t care.” It sort of encouraged me to keep going in the rock way, you know? 

Chad: The record’s got pure energy in a lot of ways, but it does have its emotional valleys. I wanted to ask you about the song “Oslo.” as a duet with Demira, it’s unlike any song that you guys have done before. And it’s heavy with the chugging, downstroked guitars, but it also has the big strings and a super romantic feeling. How did it come together?

Tim: When I first wrote it, I played it to Mark and he was the one who said, “Oh, this should be a duet.” And I was like, “Oh, yeah, we’ve never done a duet.” But I was like, “Yeah, you’re right. This song is perfect for that.”  I knew Demira in New York and I had heard her sing and thought her voice was so cool. I was like, “I think I know the perfect person for this.” So she came to the studio and did it, and it was great. I guess we knew it was such a kind of romantic sweeping song that needed strings. My friend, Ilan [Eshkeri], we’ve done a lot of work with him and he’s done string arrangements for us before, and he wrote the string arrangement for “Oslo.” There were some other mixes of the track that were kind of quite heavy. At the chorus towards the end, it’s that sort of really slow and steady, heavy pace. We mellowed it out a little bit in the final mix, but it does get into kind of a good heavy groove at the end. So yeah, I thought it was a nice one.  

Chad: Yeah. It feels like that one will connect with people. 

Tim: I hope so.  

Chad: Will you do it live? I guess the duet thing is a bit weird.  

Tim: That’s one shame about it. I think after people have heard it and have heard Demira’s voice, it might feel a bit strange and empty without it. So I wonder. It might be one of the ones we don’t play live. Actually, this is one of those albums where I want to play so much of it live, but it’s kind of hard to fit it in the set. So yeah, maybe that’s one we won’t play unless it becomes like a super hit. Let’s see. 

Chad: It should be if there’s any justice!

Tim: Yeah. It would be nice.  

Chad: This record will go down live in a serious way. “Like a God” is guitar fantasyland. Having it slow all the way down…

Tim:  It’s quite a drop that we got away with. 

Chad: I feel like the pit will erupt on that one for sure.  

Tim: Yeah. I can’t wait to play that one live. There’s a bunch of them that… they’re just going to be great. If it didn’t change that much from the rehearsal room, I know we’ll just nail them. Although on “Like a God,” I did add tons of lead guitar just at the very last minute. 

Chad: Oh, really?  

Tim: Yeah, that was like one of the last things I did; I just covered it in lead guitar. So I’m going to have to do a lot of acrobatics to get that in between all the singing and stuff. So it’ll be interesting to see if I can manage to get it all in.  

Chad: Yeah, there’s so many different guitar styles in that song, too. It’s super exciting. And in the headphones, too, it’s all over the place. 

Tim: Oh, yeah. There’s some good panning things going on.

Chad: What about my favorite song on the record? I think I texted this the other day: “Reward in Mind.” It’s got such a great vocal performance, and that weird chord change heading into the chorus. It’s in key,  but it’s not where you would start, generally speaking.  

Tim: I wrote that on acoustic guitar. Some of my best rock songs have started on acoustic and translated really well.  I think I wrote that on Lambay Island, actually, when I was writing the Islands stuff. It was one of the earliest for the album. So it’s almost like one of the ones I’ve kind of almost forgotten about. My time when I was excited about that was five years ago, which is terrible. [Laughs.] It’s taken so long to come out. We were considering putting that on the Teenage Wildlife Best Of that we did. We recorded “Darkest Hour of the Night” at the same time. But one of the good things about not putting it out was, you know,  I was tempted to tinker with it again. And then we got Keith Murray from We Are Scientists to add backing vocals.  

Chad: Oh, wicked!

Tim:  I think I also made the lead line a little more wild sounding. You know, some little subtle changes that wouldn’t have happened but that did make it better. But I do love it. The guitar riff is good. There are some weird chords in it; I always love to sneak weird chords in. They’re not that weird. They’re kind of weird chords that say, you know, Frank Black would have used in Pixies.  

Chad: Totally. A major when you should use a minor. 

Tim: Yeah. Exactly.

Chad: Super powerful.  

Tim: And Kurt Cobain was really good at doing that too. 

Chad: Oh, I know. That dedication to those bar chords. It throws you off when you start learning some basic music theory. You’re like, “These can’t go together.” 

Tim: It’s kind of better if you don’t know any when you’re trying to learn those! It’s all about serving the melody.  Some of those songs are songs that only singer-guitarists would write.

Chad: Totally. Along the lines of writing better before you know all the theory behind it, I was wondering if you could just talk about your song challenge process a bit. Because I’ve actually imported it to Halifax…

Tim: Oh, that’s great!  

Chad: My girlfriend uses it. I use it. Some friends use it. And one of the things I like about it is how you have to strip everything away because you’re under the gun, just going first thought, best thought. So maybe you could just talk a bit about what your process is and the benefits you’ve found. 

Tim: I don’t know what year I got into it. I think it was before I was making the album Kablammo! and I met Justin Hayward Young, the singer from The Vaccines. I think he was just about to start writing a new record. And he was like, “I’m doing a 20 song challenge tomorrow. Do you want to join me?” And I was like, “What the hell is that?” He was like, “You try to write 20 songs in 12 hours and make demos of them. Then we’ll get together and play back what we’ve got.” I thought, This is insanity. It was me, him and Matt Hitt from Drowners. Anyway, I think I got, like, seven or nine songs. It was crazy. But a couple of them ended up being kind of decent. The thing that blew my mind was Justin showed up with 20 songs. The recordings were kind of really simple, but sometimes there’d be brilliant lyrics and really cool, clever couplets and things. And he said that this was a thing he would do to kind of purge himself before starting to write an album. I’m not sure if he did this on a regular basis; someone else had tipped him off on doing it. I was like, “Wow, this is cool.” But 20 songs in 12 hours was just a bit too intense for me. I could see the benefits of trying to aim for 10 songs in 10 hours. 

I started doing that with some mates and it kind of grew, you know, and it became a real regular thing. We’d be doing it once a week. Keith from We Are Scientists got really into it with me. It was rare for me to get the full 10 songs in 10 hours, pretty rare. As more and more people got involved, some people would just write one song and it would be really well recorded and stuff. Once the rules started getting broken, everyone started breaking them all the time. It became looser and looser. The cool thing was that no matter what, you normally got at least one song, or maybe sometimes three or so. There were a couple of times I got 10.  But you always ended up with more than you started with that morning. So that was really cool. And the more I did it, the more good songs would start to arrive. The first couple of songs I’d write in those sessions would be maybe stuff I’d had in mind, thinking, “OK, I want to try this,” or I had little ideas. But then once you got to the third or fourth songs, you’d used all those ideas from the front of your brain and then really cool subconscious stuff started to come up. And I guess my life was so busy. It was good to dedicate one day a week to it and know that I was going to be absolutely exhausted the next day and everything. 

I don’t know, I would love to sort of regularly write day after day after day, but there’s always so many distractions.  So this is a way of power writing.  So yeah,  it’s served me really well. The last few years have been so crazy, and then we [Tim and his partner, Julia Restoin Roitfeld] had a baby, so I haven’t been writing much for a while. I’ve been just trying to finish recording, you know, all the recordings we’ve had. So yeah, I do want to get back to it. I haven’t really struck it up in London since moving here. But yeah, I’ve got a really cool backlog of hundreds of songs from New York. All these mad little, little recordings. That’s pretty cool. It was so cool to hear you do it!

Chad: I’m more like a four songs, four hours kind of guy. [Laughs.]  

Tim: Yeah, you see, it’s a really adaptable idea. I think that four in four hours is really good. And it’s quite good not feeling like you have to finish things. It made me way quicker and better at doing demos. I used to be such a perfectionist, but it allowed me to leave placeholder lyrics and not beat myself up about it.

Chad: I used it for my new record and it was cool. You talked about the front of your brain and the subconscious stuff. It was weird how many subconscious images kept showing up in my songs over and over and over again. It did connect me to how I was as a young person playing guitar. Those early, “Oh, my god,  I’ve got the coolest riff ever” feelings. It brought me back to that, but with whatever skill I’ve acquired in the last 30 years or whatever. 

Tim: Sometimes it’s annoying if you get something that you think is really good but you know it needs a bit of time.  It eats a lot of time if you get caught up in something. I remember writing “Moondust” for Kablammo!. I was like, “Oh, hang on. This has a lot of potential.”  I ended up cheating and spending a bunch of hours on it instead of trying to stick to an hour. I love a song like “Buzzkill” (from 2018’s Islands). I don’t think I would have written it if I wasn’t goofing around so much. That was the other thing: I would sometimes write songs just to make the other people laugh. Sometimes stupid dumb songs end up being really good.   

Chad: Yeah, dumb riffs can all of a sudden make a lot more sense. I read something the other day about how waiting for everything to become perfect is a good way to never do anything. With this process, do you still labor over songs? 

Tim: Yeah. For example, “Crashed Out Wasted”: the first minute and a half of that was the song challenge, just this kind of strummy acoustic thing. Actually, I kept some of the vocal lines from the original demo from the song challenge in that. It kind of had a vibe. Anyway, I thought it was a cool song, but it’d be good to expand it a bit. And then with Mark and Rick [McMurray, Ash drummer], we were jamming it and then trying to find a good beat. We thought this hip hop beat could be cool. We started jamming and then we got to the end and we really chilled it right out. And then we just kicked out and rocked out completely. I was like, “this feels fun.” Then I knew how we had to record it and we did a demo of that. And then I was like, “Hang on, during that whole big outro section, I could do a big guitar solo.” I spent maybe a day or two just figuring out the guitar solo. Then Rick heard the demo and he was like, “These drums sound way too straight at the end for a song about being wasted. I’m going to put all my years of really hard drinking and experience into this.” He quit drinking a few years ago,  but he’s like, “I’m going to go back into that persona.” He wanted the end to feel like you’re falling all over the place, so we added way more crazy drum fills. So the initial germ of the song came in like, you know, probably 20 minutes and over time we shaped it. Often in the song challenge, I won’t really finish the lyrics as well. I’ll try to get the main idea of it, but I don’t have time to write a second verse. So I’ll just repeat the first verse and then, sometimes it’s a bit of a headache trying to get back to where I was. And sometimes I need to write a middle eight or sometimes I need to write a guitar solo or something, but the main bones of a song are often there.  

Chad: That song is amazing. I don’t really know another song that sounds like that. I mean, it’s got a little bit of a Weezer vibe in parts of it, but just structurally, I don’t know how you made that work for that long while keeping it fresh. 

Tim: Thanks. The first part of it had quite a lot of space in it, so I could find some cool little textures for it. My friend Ilan, I got him to do some like little violin trems and things, you know,  but I wanted it to be very loopy.  That was the one thing I knew I wanted, loops. And there’s even the same sample that is on tons of hip hop records, that “ahh” vocal sample [heard prominently in “Dilemma” by Nelly featuring Kelly Rowland].  I don’t know what made me think that would have been cool, but I was like, “hang on, this song needs that.” And then I sprinkled some bell-like celeste and glockenspiel sounds in there as well. Drew Citron’s vocal was really pretty in there too. And then Claudius [Mittendorfer, mix engineer] just compressed it in a really cool way. I told him I wanted this whole first half to feel lo-fi and then the second half to sort of expand. So it’s funny how it just sort of percolated over time.  It just took a lot of time. I do like when the initial idea is quick and then you have a lot of time to finesse it.  

Chad: For sure. I know the violin part reminded me of parts of “Astral Weeks,” and a little bit of “Walk on the Wild Side.” 

Tim: Yeah. I told him I wanted it to be a drone through it because there’s a note hanging in the guitar chords. It’s mostly that, but with little swells and trills and things.  

Chad: Well, congrats on the new record, man. I love them all, but I really, really love this one. And like I said, it feels fresh, you know? So, well done. 

Tim: Oh, thank you. You know, we just never, never stopped drilling. 

Chad: When I think of a rock & roll fantasy narrative, you guys have kind of done all of it, from recording with Owen Morris at Rockfield, having two number one albums, world tours, going to Dave Grohl’s Halloween party, and having your own studio in New York [Ash had the lease on the former Wu-Tang Clan studio on W28th Street in New York for 15 years]. What other things you still want to do that maybe you haven’t had the chance to do yet?

Tim: Oh,  I’d love to have a studio again. I can’t believe we managed to pull that off right in the middle of Manhattan.  

Chad: That was a special place.  

Tim: Yeah. Now I’m in London and to get space, you have to just go further and further out. At the minute, I’ve got a small place, which is kind of cool. But yeah, I’ll always miss having that. We’re sort of halfway through what we’ve been calling a synth-y album. It’s almost like an experimental pop record; not such a guitar-y record like Race the Night. We’ve got half the tracks for that done and we’re halfway through finishing the other ones. So I think that’s going to be a cool new chapter and kind of a cool companion to this. I’ve always wanted to make a record a bit like the Violent Femmes, an acoustic punk record.  

Chad: Very cool.  

Tim: Yeah, so maybe we’ll do that after the next one. That’s far enough into the future that I can think at the minute. We recorded on tape recently again. We did one track, a cover of a Subways song on a day off on tour in Melbourne early in spring. We are going on tour with them. They’ve got a single called “Oh Yeah” and we’ve got a single “Oh Yeah,” so we covered each other’s “Oh Yeahs” [both tracks were released on a limited edition 7” and are streaming now]. But we recorded to tape and it was so fun doing that again. I loved the sound of it. There was just something smooth about the whole thing. We’ve played for years and years now so we can play really quite tightly together, even better than the original days we were recording to tape. We’d like to do another proper session on tape. Maybe the acoustic thing would be good on tape.  

Chad: Totally. Would you ever do another solo record? [Tim released a solo record, Lost Domain, in 2014.]

Tim: Yeah,  I’d like to. I’ve got a bit of a backlog in my mind of Ash stuff I want to do first. If I get through all those next two albums, then it would be nice to start trying to do that again. It was fun. And I guess that had a real narrative to it about my dad and Alzheimer’s. So it would be kind of nice to make fun solo records as well. It was very heavy, but it was very cathartic as well. But I’d definitely do some completely different things. It was kind of cool because I wrote a lot of that on piano. I’d try to find something that would make it different enough from Ash to warrant me doing it.

Chad: Yeah, that was a beautiful record, man. Oh, my god.  

Tim: Thanks so much! Yeah, I find it hard to listen to, but I will check it out every couple of years. I do like all the extra tracks that I did for it. There’s the Sheltered Youth EP that I put out with it. That’s almost the stuff I like to listen to the most, maybe because it’s not quite as connected to the story or not quite as heavy.

Chad: Is that EP the one with Johnny Marr on it?  

Tim: Yeah, he’s on the track “Ariadna.” He was very cool. I love how I had Johnny Marr on a solo song and didn’t even put it on the album.  

Chad: That’s real swagger. [Laughs.] 

Tim: What was I thinking? 

Chad: How was it moving? You obviously had a very different lifestyle in New York, so have you caught your groove in London? Is it the same London you remember or is it very different? I guess you’ve been there a lot through touring.  

Tim: Yeah, I’m sort of really settled in now. It’s been three years. I guess it was very different from my New York life. Now it’s a real family life. We moved during COVID, so that was the first year and a half. Then the last year and a half has been baby life as well. So it’s been three years. It’s not been the same. I have way less time, way less time to do everything. I have a massive list of things I wish I could do. Once we’ve got the baby in bed, we’ll all had dinner and stuff, then I’ll maybe go to the studio for a little bit. 

Chad: Oh, wow. 

Tim: Yeah, just because that’s the only time no one else is asking me for anything. Just between band business or whatever. I think gradually as the baby gets more and more days of nursery and stuff, then maybe I’ll get more time.  But yeah, It’s been mad, really. New York, especially the last few years, before I met Julia, it was a single life and I just had tons of time to do whatever I wanted. Then we got together and she already had her daughter who was six when we met. So then it started already becoming a bit more of a family life. It’s kind of different, but it’s good. I haven’t had much writing time because with any spare moment I’ve been trying to finish recordings. I think it will be quite interesting for me when I re-approach writing, how it’ll be different. Will I go back into the song challenge way or will I go back into my older kind of ways of trying to write a bit every day? I’ll see how it goes.  

Chad: Yeah, you’ll have to let me know.  I do find sometimes not having enough time is actually a really good motivator to actually finish stuff. I’ve always found I have to book mixing or mastering dates or I’ll tinker forever. 

Tim: I know what you mean. When I do get a bit of time, I’m fast and furious and try to record quickly. 

Chad: You’ve been doing some producing lately. 

Tim: Yeah, I did a track called “Surrender” with this band The Gulps. That was really fun. They are a great band.  They’re really cross-cultural. Two Spanish guys, an Italian guy, a French guy. They had a Lebanese drummer whenever we recorded, but I think he isn’t in the band anymore. It was just such a cool melting pot in one band and they’re such passionate rock & rollers. So we had a fun time doing that. It was good because I could bring nice guitars down to the session and they were loving the gear as well.  

Chad: Yeah, I know that feeling. Do you feel much pressure to engage with current marketing approaches? I know when we send stuff to our radio plugger, they always say “We’ve got to pick the shortest song.” Or the new one is “Have you thought about how to leverage TikTok?” And it’s like, I don’t know? Do you have much of that stuff weighing on you? 

Tim: A little bit. Every album we’ve put out had such a different way of approaching streaming and publicity. I kind of like the current thing. You put out a load of singles leading up to the album. They call it waterfalling the tracks. Each time there’s a new one on, it makes a slightly longer EP. This is the first record we’ve put out since that’s been the thing. I guess it’s kind of good. We’re lucky we’ve got a good fan base who we know is going to pre-order a certain amount of vinyl for the album. I guess every album we put out now it’s like, stick it out and hope something connects further than just the fan base. But it’s nice we know we’ve got the fan base at the very least. We just see what happens, really. It’s hard for me to grasp, especially being in a band that’s been around so long. We’ve just seen so many different methods of promotion over the years. Radio, street teams and all that stuff. MySpace. So, I don’t know. I don’t worry about it too much anymore. Just see what happens, really.  

Chad: Yeah, you guys have such a rabid fan base. I went to your show at the Ulster Hall last December. I’ve seen you guys play before, and we’ve played with you guys too several times in North America. But to see that room full at Christmas time, the vibe was like, you could feel it in the air. So many of your songs have connected with so many people for so long. It was really powerful to see that in your hometown.  

Tim: Yeah, I loved that show. That was a 30th anniversary gig; it was emotional. Although I’m glad we got out of the way and now we don’t have to think, “fucking hell, we’ve been around 30 years.” It’s like going through a big birthday.  

Chad: Yeah, I turned 40 last year. I felt 39 was worse to be honest, but 40 was like, “OK,  I’m ready for it.” 

Tim: Yeah, I know what you mean. The year leading up to it, all of a sudden you start thinking, “what am I going to do?”  Keep going. That’s all you can do.  

Chad Peck is the singer/guitar player in Kestrels and We Need Secrets. He also runs Noyes Records. He is based in Lornevale, Nova Scotia, Canada, where he teaches high school English.