Downpatrick-born Tim Wheeler of Ash tells KATHRYN MCKENNA how music helped him get through his father’s tragic Alzheimer’s battle, and why the band’s new album will appeal to fans of their “classic” sound.
Friendly, polite, humble, and softly-spoken are perhaps not words one typically associates with the frontman of a hugely successful alternative rock band whose career has continued to soar for decades since launching their debut, number one album, 1977 at the tender age of 19.
But multi-talented singer song-writer and guitarist Tim Wheeler of Ash, 41, the sensational Northern Irish group who formed way back in 1992, is exactly that.
With no question out-of-bounds, the charismatic showman’s ability to engage with people is one thing that certainly translates into his everyday life - it is just via a refreshingly down-to-earth demeanour. Having been responsible for penning the band’s famous, critically-acclaimed hits in addition to his own haunting solo album written in response to the tragic passing of his father, George, to Alzheimer’s, it is perhaps unsurprising that Tim chooses his words carefully, in a voice which hasn’t lost his native Downpatrick twang despite moving to Brooklyn, New York, 12 years ago.
Clearly enthused at the prospect of launching their seventh studio album, Islands, Tim’s excitement is palpable as he agrees their latest track Annabel, sounds resoundingly like a classic Ash single - with its soaring guitars enveloped in a widescreen chorus.
Reflecting upon the second track to be released, Tim explains: “I definitely think half of the songs on our new album could have stood alongside some of our best-known tracks in the past, and I feel like half of the album also goes off in some new directions as well, so I think it is a really good mix.
“My main concern is are the songs are great, and I think it is a really strong album, and stands up to some of our best stuff.”
Reflecting on the video directed by Luc Janin which features 23-year-old Clement Vannini, an “amazingly inspiring” French skater who was born without his right leg, Tim adds: “I think this song has very sweet, protective lyrics to do with looking after someone and overcoming adversity. This video really stood out to us. He is such an incredible skater and we felt it tied in nicely with the themes of overcoming fear and adversity. Clement’s story is so inspiring.”
Ash’s seventh studio album comes after the band announced a return to albums with Kablammo in 2015 following a hiatus which saw the band release 26 singles in response to what Tim describes as the “music industry crisis around 2007”.
“All of the illegal downloading was really affecting sales and record companies were laying off staff and dropping bands. We swore we would never do another album, but here we are!’’, he laughs.
“The streaming services have actually stabilised the music industry now and a lot of interesting things are happening, like the return of vinyl, and the album didn’t die the way I thought it would. I am glad to say we have gotten back into making albums.
“I think doing my solo album helped, because I felt that had to be a whole album to really tell the story. But by the time we had split off from albums we had done five already, so we felt like doing something different and not worrying about the songs all fitting together. Since then, I’ve come back to liking how there’s a general feel and concept to an album. This one definitely feels like a whole body of work, we go on a journey.
“If you’re a fan of our old stuff, you’ll enjoy this album. The songwriting is up there with my best stuff and there are also some good, fresh vibes on it too. And it’s going to be great live as well”, he smiles confidently, his passion for music evident.
The solo album Tim refers to is, of course, Lost Domain. Released in 2014 it serves as an unflinching elegy to his late father George, a former district judge, who was 75 years old and retired for less than a decade when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Two years after diagnosis, George was admitted into a dementia ward from which he would not re-emerge. In January 2011, George sadly passed away. Tim’s album raised both much-needed funds and awareness for the Alzheimer’s Society. His single ‘Vigil’, with its haunting lyrics, was particularly well-received.
Asked how it felt to help people suffering similarly testing times, Tim responds: “It is wonderful. Mostly when I am writing songs, especially with these ones, I was really trying to understand everything that had happened and process it, so it was very hard to write those songs, very painful, but I definitely felt better after finishing them.
“I have been amazed at all the kind messages over the years from people going though loss or having a loved one go through an illness. In a way it has been somewhat of a surprise because I wasn’t expecting it, I wasn’t thinking about that when I was making it. When anyone takes the times to send me a message saying they have gone through loss, or going through it now, and that my music is helping, that is genuinely the best thing I can ever hear. It is brilliant.
“Music is very healing. I think doing any kind of art is because you let your subconscious come to the surface and you really understand your feelings. Sometimes you don’t realise quite what you are going through and art is a great outlet to help you understand.
“Music is a great thing for sharing and connecting people. When my dad was in the ward and couldn’t speak very much, there were a couple of moments where we sat down on the piano and he just remembered how to play. He got through the Alzheimer’s even just for a few moments - it is just amazing how music ties in so very closely with memories. It is definitely therapeutic and has gotten me through so many hard times.”
Speaking of the treatment his father received during his time in hospital, Tim adds: “When we were at a place when we couldn’t really look after our dad ourselves anymore the nurses were just amazing. Anyone who works in a hospital feels like an angel to me. The kindness and caring that they give really blew me away.
“Any chance I get I like to raise awareness for the Alzheimer’s Society, because when someone you love has it, you feel very powerless. We need to create awareness by highlighting the importance of the issue because as we get more of an ageing population it is going to become a bigger and bigger problem, so we need to address it.”
A career of highs spanning three decades
Ahead of Ash’s highly-anticipated performance at BBC Big Weekend Belfast show recently Tim revealed: “The two albums that really were our biggest albums were 1977 and Free All Angels and we were really proud of those, they both went to number one and did really well for us. So we play a lot of those songs live still, but really all the albums capture different periods of time in my life.
‘‘It is coming up to the 20th anniversary now of our second album Nu-Clear Sounds, which wasn’t as commercially successful as the two albums either side of it, but when I look back on that time it was just really such an intense and interesting time of my life, so I am really fond of that record.
“We started as friends so I think that’s been a great foundation”, Tim explains when I ask what the secret to their longevity is.
“We did have some extreme ups and downs early on and learned a lot from our mistakes. My favourite times are when it’s just us three sitting in a room making new songs together. It hasn’t changed since we were 15!”
Tim added he couldn’t wait to get back onstage in Belfast: “We were the first band played on BBC Radio Six Music. They played Burn Baby Burn as their first song. So I would have been mad if they’d played this festival in Belfast and didn’t invite us. We had to be there representing,” he laughs.
Ash’s new album is available now. Visit ash-official.com.