WHEN a group of 15-year-olds from Downpatrick started jamming in a garage in 1992, they could hardly have imagined that they would achieve the kind of fame that would see them supporting the Pixies in Paris and Berlin, playing a gig between performances by Iggy Pop and David Bowie, selling eight million albums worldwide, scooping an Ivor Novello Award for the insanely catchy Shining Light and being the only people at Chris Martin’s stag do.
Ash - the band took their name from the first word they liked in the dictionary - are one of Northern Ireland’s greatest contributions to cool.
Frontman Tim Wheeler is a posterboy of indie-rock who seems to easily find the right words to fit the riffs: Shining Light, Oh Yeah, Kung Fu, Girl from Mars, Angel Interceptor, Goldfinger - he understands the craft of belting, rock-out and then slow melodic-anthem lyrics. There was Mark Hamilton, Rick McMurray and for a time the brilliant Charlotte Hatherly in the line-up, exuding cool and power-pop brilliance.
However meteorically their star ascended, the band never forgot their years playing smalltime gigs in backwater places; a love of performing has sustained them. In 2009 they decided to give up on albums and instead released 26 singles followed by a gig for every letter of the alphabet. This meant they played a tiny village called Zennor in Cornwall and the rather cramped Loughborough University Students Union -not at all the kind of locales you’d expect a Novello-winning band to fetch up in. But playing small gigs allowed them to relive some of the magic of their early days when everything was still to play for and they were teenagers cutting class to rock out.
Last June they headlined on the John Peel stage on the last night of Glastonbury; this year they have a Greatest Hits record in the works. But on the whole things have been quieter for the band since their 2007 album Twilight of the Innocents failed to hit the commercial honeypot in the way previous albums have. But they keep gigging and pursuing individual projects. Tim, although now based in New York, is in London for the summer working on the soundtrack for a film starring Ray Winstone and tonight, at the Willowstone Festival in Killyleagh, Wheeler will play a one-off acoustic set with his singer/songwriter girlfriend Emma Lee Moss aka Emmy the Great.
Emmy is from the ‘anti-folk’ scene - think Noah and the Whale, smart and funny lyrics.
“I love playing festivals,” says Tim, 34. “Willowstone is practically just down the road from where I grew up and there’s been a great buzz about it since it started a few years ago. It’s such a beautiful location looking out over Strangford Lough and the Mournes. I think this part of Northern Ireland is one of the most beautiful secret places in the world.”
for a film called Ashes starring Ray Winstone.
Tim looks back on the fast beginnings of the band with justified pride and enthusiasm. What stands out for him, when he looks back over the accolades and parties, the packed-out gigs and champagne-sodden glory?
“Our debut album -I’ll always be proud of that,” he says emphatically. “It was the first debut album by a band from Ireland to go in at number one in the UK charts. Not even U2 did that - it was incredible. We celebrated with a lot of drinks. It was so exciting and we were shocked trying to deal with this massive change in our lives.
“The Ivor Novello Award for songwriting will always stand out for me too.
“Supporting the Pixies was awesome - they were all teetotal at the time and one of them kept sneaking into our dressing room when they heard we had bottles of whiskey. We supported David Bowie in east Berlin, then we played with him in America in 2003 along with Moby. Bowie arrived in a limosine and stood around backstage smoking a cigarette. He was really nice and was talking about how hard it was to promote his new album. We were like ‘what? You’re David Bowie!’ He was very down-to-earth.”
Tim doesn’t usually listen to Ash songs, but the other day in the car Oh Yeah came on and he loved it. “For a 19-year-old, as I was when I wrote it, I thought, wow, that’s pretty cool!”
n Tim Wheeler and Emmy the Great perform in the Acoustic Tent at the Willowstone Arts & Music Festival, Delamont Country Park, Downpatrick, tonight. Visit www.willowstonefestival.com for ticket information.