Quite frankly, you couldn’t invent a band like Ash. This group of teenage Black Sabbath fanatics and Star Wars obsessives’ endless bubblegum punk anthems stopped everything that was Britpop in its tracks – at least for a moment – in the mid-’90s. Their very specific obsessions culminated in acclaimed debut album 1977, which legend has it was partly funded by stolen cash and, depending on what you believe, the lads’ double lives as rent boys. Whatever the truth of the matter, Ash bassist Mark Hamilton proves to be little help in sorting fact from fiction.
“I don’t remember, honestly, a lot about that time,” he offers after a prolonged pause. “All I know is we were desperate to get out of school and make something of ourselves in order to get out of having the drudgery of work/life balance – whatever that is supposed to mean.” Speaking to BRAG ahead of the Australian leg of their 1977 tour, Hamilton finds himself a last-minute interview stand-in for vocalist Tim Wheeler, who has disappeared somewhere within the band’s hotel. One pastime of which Ash have never tired is checking in under assumed names, making it impossible for journalists and crazed fans alike to track their movements. “Our thing is to check in under the names of our road crew, and they use our names … It just means we can get a bit of privacy.” Laughs Hamilton, “The guys [crew] don’t mind. They filter our calls – it’s all part of the service.”
Hamilton’s notoriously cheeky side is still well intact, but his memory lacks the same prowess. Famously, Hamilton wiped himself out in grand style long before Russell Brand made such activities into a full-time career. His recollections of Australia, however, are clear. “It feels very familiar now, because we have been touring there since our first album came out.” In 1996, when Ash toured internationally for the first time, they had yet to complete high school. Soon they found themselves learning what it meant to be global stars. “We had no concept of society outside of Ireland. Not even outside of our own backyards really. What made it so great was everywhere we went, we found the people who were most into us were just kids like us. We weren’t playing to older audiences really, and now our fans have grown up with us and so that has kind of stayed the same.”
In any discussion of the Britpop era, the topic of Oasis inevitably rears its head. 1977 producer Owen Morris had recently completed a successful session on Liam and Noel’s immense (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? before taking a chance on this little-known Northern Irish combo. “Owen was still pretty young at the time, and he was all about creating a certain vibe in the studio in order to capture the mood on record. That would often mean taking drugs, drinks or being in drag in the studio [laughs]. It was all about keeping it on the edge and capturing that spontaneous magic.”
1977 has often been cited as a tribute album of sorts to Ash’s heroes, such as Star Wars creator George Lucas, actor Jackie Chan and bands like Black Sabbath and the Ramones. “When it started out we didn’t have too much of a game plan, to be honest,” Hamilton responds. “We wrote what we thought of as a bunch of singles and a few extra songs to finish the album off. I mean, there are obviously influences in there … I can’t remember what we were doing and if we had a plan or not! Ask me about a song on that album, and I will tell you what influenced it.”
Considering Ash’s run of short, sharp pop-punk singles – ‘Kung Fu’, ‘Girl From Mars’, ‘Angel Interceptor’ – was broken by the slow-burning, goth rock ballad ‘Goldfinger’, I choose this one to question Hamilton about. “‘Goldfinger’?” he sighs. “This was us trying to show that there was maybe more to Ash as a band. Tim had this James Bond-like guitar sequence already written, and he kept playing it at rehearsals. I didn’t see what the appeal was at first, but Owen kept on at us to do something with it. I didn’t think of it as a potential single, but it ended up going Top Five in the UK and I am kind of glad about that, because I think we were in danger of being seen as one-trick ponies.”
“Mind you, the days of having Top Five anythingare behind us, because we don’t have the huge label machine working for us, you know. We tour our ‘major label hit album’ in cycles and record and release music as an independent band, so it’s a bit of a double life we’re leading”. Given Ash are playing their debut album ‘in full’ on this tour, its closing song ‘Sick Party’ raises a serious question. Is the track – a tape recording of Hamilton vomiting violently while Wheeler and drummer Rick McMurray cackle insanely in the background – worthy of a live recreation? “I just wanna say that it’s never planned but sometimes it just happens. Let’s face it; we are the kind of band people expect to see passing out in a pool of sick – but you’ll have to wait and see.”
BY LEIGH SALTER