Across cleansing waters, the pains of the mainland at his back, to six islands this world-weary traveller sailed, an alt-rock Odysseus pining for his Penelope. Tranquil retreats, teeming metropolises, sun-drenched tourist hubs and drizzly Craggy Islands; it took a whole world of hideaways for Tim Wheeler to shed his old muse and drum up a new one.
“I was going through a bad break-up at the time,” he admits, in London from his adopted hometown of New York to promote Islands, the eighth album from Northern Ireland’s pop punk legends Ash, “so I wanted a bit of isolation and I found that when you're getting a ferry somewhere, travelling across water, you're leaving the mainland behind. You can get the best kind of isolation on an island. I just needed some time alone to figure stuff out, so that why it figured, me going to these places.”
Tim’s global island hop began in Japan at the end of the tour for Ash’s last album, 2015’s irrepressible ‘Kablammo!’. “I realised that over about twenty-two tours I’d never really taken the time to see some of Japan. I went to these islands, Naoshima and Teshima, which I'd heard good things about, and that got me on this trip of wanting to visit a bunch of islands.” A love of Robert Graves’ The White Goddess drew him to Majorca for ten days to write, then he communed with more goddesses on the Aegean isle of Santorini. Staying in villages and only speaking to another human when stocking up on groceries suited his mood; next stop was the remote Scottish island of Lambay, population “about six”, before Tim went to the other extreme, recording ‘Islands’ in a studio in Manhattan.
As a result of Tim experimenting with the Ten Song Challenge – writing ten different songs in ten hours - the new album expands Ash’s palette to take in The National’s rock euphoria (‘Incoming Waves’), Arctic Monkeys whiskey bar mood-rock (‘It’s A Trap’), a secret song in the style of the 1920s flapper scene and even a bit of Ennio Morricone funeral music (‘Did Your Love Burn Out?’). But the over-riding emo rock sound of ‘Islands’ was forged – somewhat ironically – on the open sea. “We did a Weezer cruise a few years ago,” Tim says. “It was kind of weird, because you imagine Weezer fans are big nerds - it wasn't like being on a heavy metal cruise or anything, but there was a lot of partying going on. Rick [McMurray, Ash drummer] had been on the wagon for a long time and he fell off spectacularly for the whole week. He was in the hot tub wearing his leather jacket and shades and singing Britney Spears songs in the canteen at 4am with a load of Weezer fans.”
A return to familiar terrain after an off-the-map adventure: the making of ‘Islands’ mirrors the journey of Ash over the past decade. Hardy survivors of Britpop by dint of some of the finest, most ferocious indie pop songwriting known to man (‘Kung Fu’, ‘Girl From Mars’, ‘Petrol’, ‘Oh Yeah’, ‘A Life Less Ordinary’, ‘Shining Light’, ‘Burn Baby Burn’, their singles discography reads like a guide to demolishing provincial indie clubs) they set out to embrace the new models of music consumption in the late 00’s by ditching their record label and vowing not to release albums anymore. People only cared about individual tracks, they reasoned: cue the A-Z Series over 2009 and 2010, a fortnightly run of 26 singles that added formidable new ammunition to their setlists but was ultimately swept aside by the inclusion of streams in the chart, which turned out to be a brick wall in the face of guitar bands.
“Some of the things we did were ahead of our time,” Tim argues. “When we did the 26 singles in a year, it would've done well later, in the Spotify time, and we were trying a subscription service before people were used to doing subscription services. It was a big break that we needed at that time, and doing another album wouldn't have been very inspiring for us, or our fans. It was fun to have a sort of scatter-shot approach. I'm glad we did it, but my dream was to go Top 40 every week and again, we were a couple of thousand subscribers away from that.”
Is it frustrating that the singles chart is now a no-go-zone for rock? “It was great that we had loads of great years in the charts, but it doesn't really feel relevant for guitar bands these days so I don't concern myself with it anymore. It's more ‘let’s make the best album we can’ and try to roll some hits out of that, by making something so awesome that'll justify it.” What are your thoughts on faux-indie boybands like Bastille that can break through? “There's a real blandness in the indie-rock that's in the charts, but we don't really want to compete in that way. We've got a great fan base and don't need to chase that. It is sad though, that that's what indie-rock has become for a lot of bands.”
With ‘Kablammo!’ Ash returned to the album format and for ‘Islands’ they even re-signed with their original label Infectious. Perhaps Tim needed some friendly shoulders around while piecing together an album that traces the break-up fallout from furious bouts of punk rock swearing (‘Buzzkill’) to solemn acceptance (‘Incoming Waves’). “Most of it's about coming to terms with it and the different stages I went through,” Tim explains, dismissing the possibility of making a melancholy acoustic woe-is-me album, “I've always loved the ABBA thing of heart-breaking lyrics with uplifting music. I've always found it cathartic when I listened to that kind of stuff.”
‘Confessions in the Pool’ sounds like part of ‘getting over it’ involved getting blitzed off your cakehole in Miami.
Tim laughs. “One of my lesbian friends had a break-up exactly the same time, so she was like ‘right we'll go to Miami and get the fuck out of New York’. We went down there and had a crazy weekend. Loads of lesbians in hot tubs. Maybe it wasn't the place for me to go, because there were no women interested in me to distract me.”
It’s not the first time Tim has gone off the rails. Having spent his entire adult life as an indie rock hero (Ash were signed in their mid-teens and had their first Number One album ‘1977’ by the age of nineteen), he’s had his moments of self-sabotage. He has no regrets about bursting their initial bubble with the notorious video for ‘Numbskull’ from Ash’s abrasive second album Nu-Clear Sounds, in which he “killed Bambi” with a bout of hooker licking, drug shovelling self-mutilation that Marilyn Manson would watch between his fingers – “just after the initial burst of fame, it got a bit too much, you needed to go down some dark pathway. We were worried we were getting turned into some kind of boy band, and that's what our label wanted us to be, so that was our reaction to it – to make a darker record… we might've been dead if we got any bigger at that point.” But there’s one 90’s night he wishes he’d stayed in for Scrabble.
“Things could have been a bit smoother if we hadn't been so reckless,” he recalls. “We were possibly about to get a big break on MTV in the States and I showed up really late and drunk for dinner with the head programmer. The following day was our big interview and we were gonna get some real coverage, and I woke up curled up in my own vomit. I was a few hours late again, puking in the green room - I just really fucked things up with MTV in the States and that was really important. Our label was absolutely furious and that kinda fucked things up for ‘97; 'Girl From Mars' was about to be the big single and we'd spent a fortune making the second video. So I think I could've handled that better, things might've taken off in the States a bit better if I had.”
There can be no regrets, though, about a journey that has brought this consistently masterful guitar pop band to ‘Islands’. Pull up a lounger.