It's all about broken down tour buses, Alan Partridge, high speed collisions, Moby, broken ribs, Mina Suvari, MTV stars and David Bowie as Ash launch a sonic assault on America. So riddle me this: can Ireland's hardest-working rock'n'roll outfit crack the big one?
"Something always goes wrong with every fucking tourbus we get in America."
Mark Hamilton, Ash’s bassist, is not being a whinging rock star: he’s merely telling it as he sees it. Two days previously, their then bus broke down en route to LA in the middle of the desert, close to California’s notorious Death Valley, leaving the band stranded in brain-melting heat with no air-conditioning and a rapidly decreasing stock of water. Thankfully, they were saved by none other than Moby, their touring partner on the Area 2 shindig that has seen them traverse America in the company of David Bowie, Busta Rhymes, The Avalances and more.
Less than three days later, Mark’s words proved frighteningly prescient, when the band were involved in a serious road accident, which left drummer Rick McMurray nursing a number of broken ribs, guitarist Charlotte Hatherley with a suspected broken arm, and the rest of the band and crew severely shaken, to say the least.
The accident happened while Ash were driving overnight from Seattle to Detroit. Their tourbus swerved to avoid a shredded tyre that flew off a truck they were overtaking and the driver only just managed to prevent the vehicle from overturning. The band and crew, who were all asleep at the time, were thrown from their bunks, along with all of their luggage. The incident put their UK Reading Festival appearance in doubt.
Thankfully, Charlotte’s arm was given the all clear and Rick played through the pain barrier as the band triumphed over adversity, with a cracking Reading performance.
The road crash hasn’t deterred Ash from making their mark on America though. Breaking the US market has proved an illusive prize for many Irish and UK bands, but the guitar-slinging quartet are determined to follow in the footsteps of U2 and The Cranberries, and are launching a prolonged assault on this notoriously difficult market.
They have a strong arsenal of weapons to aid them in this battle: a bona fide classic album in the shape of Free All Angels, which has just been released Stateside; a well-honed, shit-hot live show that is seeing them win fans and influence people from New York to San Francisco; and a work ethic that includes being willing to go back to basics and sweat for their art.
Following the hotpress Awards in Belfast in April, Ash set off across the Atlantic to try to repeat their European successes in the land of the free. "The hotpress Awards really were the crowing glory of the album that was Free All Angels, Rick McMurray says. "And then we came over here and started it all over again."
"It’s like our Groundhog album," laughs frontman Tim Wheeler. "We’ve actually been touring it since November 2000, which is either the sign of a good album, or of incredible stupidity."
Ash began their 2002 American sojourn by playing at radio festivals, huge free outdoor concerts organised by the various radio stations across the US, which saw them playing with everyone from Eminem to The Strokes.
"The first radio festival we did, there was this skateboard band on the same stage," recalls Mark. "They went on and the first thing they did was shout, ‘Fuck Afghanistan’, and the crowd went wild."
In a way, this is like a new beginning for Ash in America. They have played there in the past, but gigs were sporadic, rather than the full-frontal siege of their current schedule.
"We’ve been touring over here since ’95 and we have been through two record deals previous to this one that didn’t really work out," explains their manager, Tav, putting things into perspective. "In a weird way, that was good, because the band were very young and having success in America while they were that young might not have been best for them."
This time around, they are signed to the Kinetic label, an independent record company which has strong ties with BMG. "We have an intimate relationship with the label, but at the same time, they’ve got the money to market and promote us. It’s similar to our relationship with Infectious in the UK," says Tim.
Another major change is the fact that the band and their management have effectively moved to America for the duration of this aural onslaught.
"I am noticing a difference in my daily dealings with the record company," Tav notes. "Because you are here in the marketplace, and because the band are touring here, they take you far more seriously. From now until the end of the year, we will have played in San Francisco four times. People are going to know who you are, just in that one town. And if you can replicate that around the country - if you go to Boston four times, Los Angeles four times, and do the relevant interviews etc. – all of a sudden you start to mean something. It is so important you spend time here, playing, touring, like you would back in Ireland and the UK.
"It is certainly having an effect on record sales," the manager enthuses. "The record has been out four weeks now and we’re selling two and a half to three thousand copies a week, mainly in these towns we have been back to. Every time we revisit a town, record sales go up. Plus, ‘Burn Baby Burn’ is getting a fair amount of radio play and the video is being played on M2, so the band are getting noticed. If we can keep selling three thousand albums a week, that will soon snowball into five, six or ten thousand albums a week through word of mouth."
"We feel kinda like a new band again," explains Tim of the back-to-basics nature of their current touring in America. "No-one has any preconceptions of who we are. We’re playing to total strangers, who we’ve got to win over: I think that makes you play better."
"When we tell people we’ve been together for 10 years, they can’t believe it," smiles Charlotte. "Everyone over here thinks we’re a new band and that Free All Angels is our first album."
"It’s a good first album," quips Tim.
It should be explained that we are conducting this interview in stunning sunshine. It’s 11:30am and the four members of Ash and myself are seated on a terrace outside a coffee shop cum breakfast emporium just off Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles.
The previous evening saw Tim and Charlotte wow the assembled punters with their acoustic guitar wizardry and top tunes at an in-store performance at Fingerprints in Long Beach, California. Their short, but perfectly formed set included a wonderfully cheesy cover of ‘Tonight You Belong To Me’ from the Steve Martin movie, The Jerk, alongside standards like ‘Shining Light’ and ‘Oh Yeah’. The audience reception was quite muted at first, but by the end, they had fallen for Tim’s laid-back charm and the ridiculously infectious songs themselves. Afterwards, the full band sat in for a signing session, as well as posing for photographs with all and sundry.
The band have been playing a number of in-store gigs on this current jaunt across America. "One in-store that we did was in Chicago and we got an amazing turnout," Tim recalls. "We played a short gig and got a great reception. Afterwards, we were doing the signing, and the first person who came up was Irish. That was cool, but about 50 people into the queue we realised that almost every single one of them was Irish. They were all students, over for the summer on their J1 visas, although we were relieved to eventually hear an American accent." After all, the object of this particular exercise is not about preaching to the converted.
In-store over, it was back into the hired van for the hour-long drive back to West Hollywood, where band, crew and yours truly are staying, along with none other than Robbie Coltrane, who is spotted on numerous occasions over the next few days, soaking up the California sunshine in the company of his wife and kids.
The journey to and from Long Beach is like driving through a movie set. Oh look, we’re on the Santa Monica Boulevard. Hang on, is that the Whiskey A Go Go venue, where everyone who’s anyone has tread the hallowed boards?
There’s the Hollywood Palladium… what are the queues of goths doing outside"? Oh, Siouxie and the Banshees are playing!
If you’d care to look out your left window, you will see the famous Capitol Records building. Further over, the iconic Hollywood sign is smiling almost nonchalantly from its vantage point in the Hills overlooking the city of (fallen) angels. Then we’re driving through and around areas whose names are as familiar as those of your family: Beverley Hills, Melrose Place, Sunset Boulevard, Venice Beach, Santa Monica.
“Being in LA is like living in the movies alright,” Tim laughs. “Plus, there’s rock’n’roll history everywhere you look.”
Ash are in LA for three days, performing two in-store gigs as well as one date in the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, at Irvine, just outside LA, on the Area 2 Tour, the line-up for which was handpicked by headline act, Moby.
“Putting Area 2 together is kind of like baking a cake,” Moby explains. “You need a variety of ingredients in order to have an interesting, well-rounded festival, and Ash are a wonderful band who are unlike anything else that we had on the festival.”
The shaven-headed dance guru feels that the Northern guitarniks have been a huge success. “The response to the tour has been phenomenal, and the response to Ash has been equally phenomenal,” Moby says. “A lot of people in the States weren’t familiar with Ash before this tour, so they made a lot of new fans.”
“Moby seems to be a fan of ours,” Tim tells me later, sounding somewhat surprised at the fact. “He said he first heard us in a car in Italy about four years ago and he’s been into our music ever since. The thing I didn’t really know about him is that he was a punk rocker and he’s really into rock ‘n’ roll just as much as dance music. He seemed to be really chuffed that we were doing this tour and we’re incredibly grateful that he brought us over here. It’s really cool. And he saved our bacon in the desert the other day: we were going to be vulture meat.”
There they were, baking away in the unforgiving West Coast sun, and they decided to take some photos to pass the time, posing with an axe (where they got an axe in the middle of the desert is another story), when along came Moby, like a modern day John Wayne, to the rescue.
“We saw their sad, little ‘almost famous’ bus sitting on the side of the road in 108 degree heat and our hearts were moved to pity and altruism,” laughs Moby.
So how have the Ash posse been getting on with the world’s most famous vegan, then?
“It took us a while, maybe a week into the tour, before we invaded his dressing room,“ Mark admits.
Tim joins in: “After these massive gigs playing to 20,000 people, if you wander back to his dressing room it’s just him chilling out with a couple of people. They obviously need someone to liven up the party and that’s where we come in.”
Rick grins, “The thing is, we’re playing in the middle of the afternoon, so when we come off stage, what is there to do but get totally and utterly arseholed, stumble into Moby’s dressing room and give him a wee slap around the head?”
In truth, Ash have been getting along really well with all of the other acts on the tour.
“Everyone seems to really like us, even the Busta Rhymes crew,” Tim chuckles. “They’re all stoned out of their gourds the whole time, talking about their cribs in New York and LA.”
One of the other acts on Area 2 is the thin white duke himself – Charlotte’s all-time hero, as readers of the hotpress 25th Anniversary Special will know. Bowie has been wowing the punters every night with a set that is part greatest hits, part showcase for his new Heathen album.
“He’s in great form at the moment. His show is really class,” Charlotte gushes. “I actually went up to him, shook his hand and said hello. I touched the hand of Bowie. It is really bizarre seeing him wandering around a dressing room: it puts me on edge.”
“After the first gig, all Charlotte could talk about was Bowie’s ass,” confesses Tim, while the guitarist has the good grace to look slightly embarrassed.
“He really looks like he’s 28 or something,” Charlotte enthuses. “Considering the amount of fags, booze and drugs he’s consumed, you’d think he’d be quite haggard by now but he’s very well preserved.”
It’s the night before the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre gig, and we’re all invited to one of Moby’s parties. After grabbing some dinner at a shit-hot Thai restaurant on Sunset, we make our way downtown, to where the bald one is playing host to a party the likes of which I thought only existed in the movies. Apparently Nicholas Cage and Lisa Marie Presley were spotted leaving just before we arrived – doh!
The party is being held on the roof of a really swish downtown hotel in LA’s only high-rise district. Having made our way through the seriously heavy security, we emerge into a scene pulsating with a combination of fame, money and sex appeal. A band are playing jazzed-up cover versions, everything from Bowie to Sinatra, while the bold and beautiful prance, preen and chatter around the bar, swimming pool and even on the waterbeds that proliferate around the poolside.
I’m halfway through my fourth vodka-martini when the two young women standing beside me start to look familiar. Hmmmm….oh fuck, it is none other than Mina Suvari and Thora Birch. Hang on, there’s Tim Burgess from The Charlatans, lounging about on the couch, and isn’t that the girl from Road Trip talking to Moby?
This isn’t the first time the Ash posse have come in contact with well-known celebs on the batter. While on the East Coast, they happened upon a certain comedy star who doubles as one of the most famous chat show characters on this side of the Atlantic.
“There was a party the night before the New York show, and it turned out that the premiere of 24 Hour Party People was happening on the same night,” Mark recounts. “We met Steve Coogan, and ended up talking to him. Himself and his assistant got into a Limo and we had decided to follow him. Then I jumped into his Limo, said that our cab was full and did he mind if I travelled with him? He said no, and we ended up drinking with him until about half five.”
Charlotte takes over the story, “He [Coogan] was absolutely bolloxed drunk and he started turning into Alan Partridge. As I was leaving, he said [Charlotte adopts Partridge-esque tones] ‘Oh, don’t go, you’ve got to stay. You’re just so beautiful, you’ve got to stay’. What a dirtbag!”(laughs). “But it was OK because it was Alan Partridge.”
Getting up on stage the following day proved a rather difficult experience. “We had only stopped drinking nine hours before we went on stage,” Rick recalls. “Me and Mark were asleep on the floor of the dressing room before we went on.”
True professionals that they are, by all accounts Ash still put in a blinding performance. Indeed, the band are tighter than any time I’ve seen them in the past. “Getting up on stage every day and having to win over an audience who haven’t necessarily heard of us before has been really good for our stage-craft,” Tim readily admits.
This fact hasn’t been lost on their manager. “I remember years ago, going to see bands like The Pixies at the Bull and Gate and even though there might be only 10 people there, they would be so fucking tight, because they had spent the last three years touring around America,” Tav says. “There would be some British band supporting them and they would look shite: they’d be sloppy and unrehearsed. American bands have this whole mindset that they’re going to get in the van and tour, and that is why, nine times out of ten, American bands are better players, are better live and put on a better show.”
“A lot of European bands come over here with a crew of 10 people, demanding a big superbus and staying in posh hotels,” Mark opines. “After a month, they realise they’ve spent a fucking quarter of a million dollars on tour support, and the record company can’t afford for them to tour any more. You’re not going to break America in a month.
“We’ve been touring with a skeleton crew. It’s just us, the sound man and the tour manager, who is also doing all the tech work, so it is really back to basics.”
Tim agrees: “This is really no frills. The good thing is, all the work you do does add up. In Europe, when you tour, you’re in a new country almost every day. Here, it is a vast expanse but it all adds together and you feel like you’re working towards one goal: you aren’t starting again in every new State. We have the fanbase that we’ve always had here, but we just have to expand it.”
Expanding that fanbase and breaking America is something they are extremely serious about. “America is a country where you have to really try,” Mark says. “If you want to be really big time, you have to do it here.”
Tim sums it up, “If you want to join the greats like The Clash, The Stones, U2, you’ve got to do America.”
“It’s the holy grail. Every band wants to crack America,” Tav adds. “If we do it the right way, by people seeing Ash play and getting off on the fact that they’re a great live band, we’ll have a long career here. If you build it up through word of mouth, you build a much stronger fanbase. Whereas, if people just hear about you on the radio, you’re only as good as your next single. They need to be able to see you, feel you, smell you.
“Ash must be the hardest working band in this business: the amount of promotion they do, the amount of touring. And they never moan, never complain. Just two days ago, I asked them if they wanted a break before the end of the year and they said no, because they know they have to work hard and they know that the harder they work, the more they will reap the rewards.”
If much of America is starting to fall in love with Ash’s singalong pop anthems and easy charm, the feeling is certainly being reciprocated. In fact, the band have been quite overwhelmed by America, at times. “One of the best things I ever saw was in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in New York,” Tim says. “We come from Downpatrick, where Saint Patrick is buried, but we have the most rubbish little parade ever. Over here, it is a non-stop parade, with new people joining all the time from all these neighbourhoods that used to be Irish neighbourhoods and are now multi-racial. So you have all these black and Asian kids marching in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, wearing green. It was great – but it made me quite homesick!”
Ash have managed to get home to Europe for a couple of festival dates during the summer, however, including a celebratory set at Glastonbury. As soon as Area 2 is over, however, they are going back out on the highways and freeways of the US with Coldplay – with a big push on that will take them through to Christmas.
It is highly unlikely that anybody on this side of the Atlantic will forget about them in the meantime, though. While they may not be here, they are bound to be all over the airwaves, thanks to the fact that their singles collection, Intergalactic Sonic 7”s, hits the racks on September 6th. Delivering what is essentially their ‘Greatest Hits Volume One’ is not a bad achievement for a band who are only in their mid-20s.
“We don’t actually think of it as a Greatest Hits,” Tim notes. “There is something kinda final about a Greatest Hits, but I suppose if you stick a Volume One at the end of it, it isn’t so bad. But releasing that album gives us a whole new lease of life.”
TV viewers will soon see a rather bizarre television advert for the album, starring none other than Cold Feet star, James Nesbitt. As Tim explains, “He [Nesbitt] sent me a text message the other day saying, ‘Just spent the day bollock naked with a dice and a hoover for you guys’.” Trust me, you’ve got to see the ad.
Nesbitt, it transpires, is a huge Ash fan. “We met him in the Guinness Brewery last year, when Chris Evans was doing a Saint Patrick’s Day broadcast from there,” recalls Tim. “It was seven in the morning and they were all bolloxed drunk. James Nesbitt interviewed us and in the middle of the interview, he said, ‘My uncle is good friends with your dad’.
“Then, when we were in Australia, they were there filming Cold Feet. He came down to one of our gigs. We did ‘Teenage Kicks’ at the end and he went apeshit. He raced down to the front row and went mad in the mosh-pit. We got great video footage of him.”
Ash’s current single, the supremely catchy ‘Envy’ (which is the only brand new track on Intergalactic Sonic 7’s) was recorded while on tour in the States. In fact, the band have been doing quite a bit of recording on the road: Tim has a portable studio with him and, on our first night in LA, the singer doesn’t venture out, preferring instead to remain in his hotel room, working on some new material.
“We’ve been doing a lot of recording, any chance we get, doing B-sides and stuff,” he explains later. “We found all these really weird little studios in the backwoods of America, all these really old gospel studios from the ‘60s. We recorded ‘Envy’ out here, in Hoboken, New Jersey, and we did the video on a day off in LA, just down the road from here.”
One of the ‘stars’ of the ‘Envy’ video, an American comedian called Andy Dick (he’s the cabbie at the end of the video), who does an MTV show, turns up in the tourbus the following day, as we are making our way back to LA for a final pint or two before the band head off for San Francisco.
Ash are basking in the glow of another job well done. Their set earlier in the day at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre was a stormer, their infectious rock ‘n’ roll going down a treat with those brave enough to face the full force of the desert sun. For his part, Mr Dick is waxing lyrical on his mobile phone, because he has just met one of his all-time heroes.
There we were, waiting for a mini-bus to take us to the tourbus proper (this being America, we weren’t allowed to walk), when all of a sudden who should walk over and join us only David Bowie. All smiles and disarming cockney charm, Bowie is the epitome of good humour, even posing for a photograph with yours truly (he looks younger than me), while laughing about his gig earlier in the day. During a stunning show, Bowie had to re-start ‘China Girl’ due to the fact that his microphone fell apart in his hand and the short-sighted superstar was left to fix it on his own. Ash, Andy Dick, Bowie and me… again I pinched myself… only in America.
Two hours later, Dick is centre stage in a particularly bizarre scenario. We’re in a bar called Red Rocks on Sunset Boulevard where every Tuesday, an informal acoustic session takes place, called ‘Red Rocks Unplugged’. Completely unaware that one of the best live rock bands in the world are in the room, somebody asks Andy Dick if he’ll get up and do a song/spoken word performance/rant.
Dick and his guitar-playing accomplice take to the stage and word filters down that the famous comic is performing for free upstairs. Soon, the place fills and Andy starts into his first number, an x-rated little ditty called ‘Little Brown Ring’. Ash watch with amusement from amid the crowd.
The anonymity they’re enjoying is a luxury they’re unlikely to have in six months’ time. If things go according to plan, that is.
“To say that we are breaking America would be a lie,” Tim admits. “We are trying to break America. But it is good timing, because we can really concentrate and give it a crack, which I guess most bands from our side of the pond don’t get a chance to do. We’re going to give it our best shot.”
- John Walshe