Since forming nearly two decades ago, ASH
have become the brightest champions of alternative / pop / punk rock to emerge from Northern Ireland. Their career is practically one long repertoire of greatest hits and there’s no sings of stopping them, especially since they’re all at least ten years younger than any other band with similar life spans. In 2009 they embarked on the extremely adventurous challenge of releasing 26 singles within the space of 12 months, working out at a new single every fortnight. This was done to combat the boredom they had begun to encounter while strapped into the machine that is, the music business. Titled the A-Z singles,
the project proved to be a massive success and not only showed that Ash could more than hold their own in the ever changing landscape of releasing music, but it also added a healthy new dose of incredible music for fans to enjoy.
2011 sees the band gearing up for a summer tour that’ll take in dates across mainland Europe, Japan the UK and Eire, including dates in Dublin, Portrush, Belfast, Sligo and Cork. We managed to catch bassist Mark Hamilton for a quick chat while the band were camped in London rehearsing (or ‘messing around’ in Mark’s words), to discuss the success and challenges of the A-Z project, the forthcoming tour, band changes, grotesque videos, debauchery filled documentaries and parenthood…not in that order.
TT: So the tour kicks off this weekend, are you looking forward to it?
Mark: Ah yeah, obviously there’s a lot of things to get ready. Number one we haven’t played in six months and number two we’ve got a new drummer, or a stand in drummer for this tour because Rick’s (McMurray) about to become a da.
TT: Really? I hadn’t heard. When is the baby due?
Mark: It’s overdue now so he’s waiting with bated breath for the baby to arrive and we’ve got in Alan (Lynn) from LaFaro, who are friends of ours from Belfast. Rick’s at home with his feet up, having his last few days of freedom before the baby arrives. I’ve got a two year old and he does not know what’s about to hit him (laughs).
TT: Speaking of bringing in other musicians, Last year you roped in Russell Lissack from Bloc Party for your live shows. Will he be joining you for this tour?
Mark: Russell’s got some other things he’s got to do for the next couple of weeks so unfortunately he won’t be with us for June, but he will be back in July. We’ll just be a three piece in June and then Rick and Russell will be back in July so the four of us will be back again, just in time for the show in Cork.
TT: Before you hired Russell, did you have anyone else in mind for the spot?
Ehm, he was the first person we thought of. We knew that Bloc Party were taking a bit of a break, cause Kele (Okereke) was doing his solo album, so we’d met Russell on tour in the past and he seemed like an obvious fit. We knew that he’d played in an Ash covers band when he was younger so it seemed like such an obvious person to ask and it worked out really well. We didn’t really think of anyone else, it was just perfect. So, the answer to that’s no (laughs). The first person we thought of worked out.
TT: You’ve mentioned before that you miss Charlotte in the band and that having another person on stage helps add layers to your live sound. Would you ever consider recruiting another musician full time or do ye want to remain a three piece?
Mark: I think it works in the studio and creatively and stuff to just be a three piece, but it’s been fun having Russell around on tour and it’s certainly worth while having another guitar. A lot of the songs have more than one guitar and have dual guitar parts so it works live. Going forward Russell will go back to Bloc Party whenever they start up again. I don’t know, we haven’t really looked that far ahead yet.
TT: Going back to the tour, Any hints about the set-list you’re planning or will it change from date to date?
Mark: Ah we’re just working that out. Obviously all the core singles that people expect to hear will be in there and then we’ll mix in some of the new A-Z songs and I guess a selection of albums tracks from all the years. We’ve essentially got eight albums worth of material to choose from so…
TT: You’re not stuck for a few tunes?
Mark: We’re not no (laughs), everyone’s going to hear what they want. We’ll go up and play for an hour and half and hopefully everyone will be happy enough.
TT: Have you ever considered doing a full tour of every A-Z single?
We talked about doing that once, but then we just thought it would be too much new music for people. I don’t know, we talked about it very briefly and maybe it’s something we could look at again, but I’m not sure. It would be a pretty long show (laughs). Would anyone have an attention span to listen to like, three and half hours of new music? (laughs).
TT: Speaking of the A-Z, A few years ago you publicly announced that you would stop using conventional album formats to release your music and soon after you released the A-Z single series. Now that it’s all over, are you happy with the decision you made?
Mark: Well, I think we said that knowing what we were going to do next, well having an idea of what we wanted to do next with the A-Z and it was the biggest artistic challenge and project we’ve ever worked on. I don’t know if we’ll every try to do something that big again because it’s essentially four albums worth of music when you count all the tracks that we didn’t use, because we recorded something like 56 songs.
It was the biggest creative challenge that we’ve ever undertaken but we’ll try to do something inventive and something different again, but maybe not quite as BIG (exhausted sounding). I don’t know how we’ll go about doing that yet. You have to come up with new ideas and the idea of releasing another 12 track album just doesn’t sound very appealing. The A-Z idea was a very daunting idea and that fact that we were going to be making it up as we were going along was quite exciting as well.
TT: You didn’t have all the songs written in advance?
Mark: No, not all of them all. We certainly had a bunch of then but not all. We were still writing them as they were being released.
TT: Did you find it harder to promote the series compared to an album?
Mark: Well the art work was very generic, it was basically just a colour and a letter (laughs). That was the thing that tied everything together. For videos we kind of picked 5 main singles and we allocated small budgets for each one. It was funded from our own pockets so there were only low budgets allocated for those (few singles) and you can’t afford to make 26 videos.
They were mostly pitched on-line and that’s the way we did it. Most of the things we did were on Facebook or social media on the net. We released through our own Atomic Heart label so we didn’t have the big machine of the record company advertising campaign behind us with back pages of the NME advertising our album ya know? It just wasn’t there any more so it was more streamlined, a different kettle of fish altogether.
TT: You mention that you wrote almost 50 songs for the release. Did you hold back at all for future projects or are you working on all fresh material for the next release?
Mark: Ah no as most of them have been released in some shape or form. A lot of them have been used as bonus tracks in different ways. Some were given away as bonus tracks in Japan, a lot of them were given away as bonus tracks to subscribers on the website. Some were also given away on ITunes and websites, so they all ended up getting used inevitably. There’s probably a handful that are still left but they will get used, probably not on a new project but they’ll get used as bonus tracks in some shape of form in the future.
TT: Did you worry at all about trying to keep people’s attention for the year while you were doing the project?
Mark: It was much more low key because of the very nature of it, but I think our fans were very engaged with it because they had new music coming every two weeks and they had something to look forward to and that was quite exciting. Obviously we didn’t have the big public profile around the whole thing but, the core fan base were very engaged throughout. It was interesting to see how it played out.
TT: Over the past few years you’ve been filming footage for your very own ‘slasher’ flick and last year finally saw some of this footage appear. The one question of everyone’s mind is what happens next and when do we get to see it?
Mark: Oh yeah, there’s more. We kind of did a bit on the Binary video, but there’s a good bit more. I don’t know when it’ll drop it though, but we probably won’t wait too long. There’s a lot of the Coldplay boys in it so we’re kind of holding it until they come back with new material. Whenever their profiles back up it’ll come out (laughs).
TT: The question of adventurous music videos has come up in the past with the video for ‘Carnal Love’ being an excellent example. Have you ever entertained the notion of exploring further into the film field?
Mark: Carnal love, the weird food fetish one (laughs), very strange. I guess, when you start a band you don’t do it to make videos let’s say, but it’s one of those things you end up having to do. Whenever we started we thought they were really annoying, ‘oh you’ve got to make videos, you’ve got to enjoy making them and look the way the director’s making you look’. They kind of annoyed us to start with and then after a while we realized we should probably get a bit more involved in them and start, you know, have a bit of fun with them. So over time we got more involved and have more fun making them. The Carnal Love video is quite twisted (laughs).
TT: ASH fans are always speculating about another notorious video you made during the making if 1977. Any chance that’ll ever see the light of day?
Mark: Yes actually, we had a meeting about that this morning. It was a tour documentary filmed over a year and a half after 1977 came out and It’s been hidden away in a vault for almost fifteen years. We’ve always been wondering when we’re going to release this thing and I think we’ve worked out a way how that’s going to be done. It’ll probably be released before the end of the year.
TT: Are the rumours about the bands various ‘Dionysian’ escapades true?
Mark: Well, as you say at the time we didn’t want it to be released because we didn’t want out parents to disown us (laughs).
TT: For nearly twenty years Ash’s core line up of yourself, Rick and Tim have survived massive success, line-up changes in one form or another, major label backing, DIY creativeness, constantly changing styles of popular music, all the while never losing your energy or ending up in court suing each other. What’s the ASH secret that as alluded so many other popular bands?
Mark: Ah, I don’t know. We’re basically just mates from school. I guess it’s become like a second family and families have fights and feuds or whatever but you always get over it. When you’re younger you can be a lot more precious about your music and more stubborn and not willing to bend or try new things out. Now we’re older and we try to change and experiment more and try things out that we wouldn’t have when we were younger. For example, ‘Twilight of Innocents’ or ‘White Rabbit’, are maybe not what you’d call ‘classic Ash’.
TT: A few years ago you set up your own record label to release music through. Have you enjoyed the freedom this has brought you?
Mark: Oh yeah, you can do exactly what you want you know? We didn’t have to answer to anybody so in that way it was nice (laughs).
TT: Have you found it any harder getting your name out there without the record company backing and Do you think things have changed a lot since when you first started out?
Mark: To some degree you’ve got a prejudice there, or preconceptions of who you are. You know, we’re not a new band so we’re not going to get that media hype around us because we’ve essentially got two decades of what people think we are. So, even if we come out with new material which sounds like nothing we’ve done in the past, people will still think ‘oh it’s Ash’. To some degree you’re always going to be fighting against that, but you also have to respect that. We just have to go out there and try to think of clever ways to catch peoples imagination and that’s what we’ll keep trying to do.
The A-Z single Vol. I & II or on sale now. Catch ASH on tour in 2011 at the following dates.
||Rock im Park Festival, Germany
||Rock am Ring Festival, Germany
||Dublin Whelans, Ireland
||Portrush Playhouse, N. Ireland
||Belfast Empire, N. Ireland
||Temple House Festival, Ireland
||Pinkpop Festival, Holland
||Breda Club Mezz, Holland
||Abart Zurich, Switzerland
||Roma Vintage, Italy
||Rock Planet in Pinarella di Cervia, Italy
||Trouble Festival, Italy
||Naon-Mugen Festival, Japan
||Sheffield Tramlines Festival, UK
||York The Duchess, UK
||Coventry Kasbah, UK
||Bath Komedia, UK
||Southend Chinnery’s, UK
||Indiependence Festival, Ireland