Jay-Z would feel bad for Tim Wheeler: he's got girl problems, son. Even as a teenager, the Ash frontman was writing songs like "Girl From Mars" and "Oh Yeah" about breakups, albeit with a hearty sense of humor.
Before we explain further, we should point out that only the most musically literate Americans have heard of these guys, who hail from Northern Ireland. Despite a bidding war for their services in 1995, they never broke through in the States despite astounding success in the UK, where they have 18 Top-40 singles and two #1 albums.
But back to Wheeler. The group's primary songwriter, he found himself once again in a state of heartache in 2016, when he embarked on a journey to fix his head and come up with songs for their seventh album, Islands, set for release May 18. His travels took him to Mallorca, Santorini, and other exotic locales where he fed his soul and wrote his songs. The result is a series of tracks that run through the stages of grief, along with an utterly dumb but thoroughly enjoyable single called "Buzzkill."
Since 2004, Wheeler has lived in New York, where he and his bandmates - bass player Mark Hamilton and drummer Rick McMurray - have their own studio. Here, he talks about his writing process and tells the stories behind some Ash favorites, including "A Life Less Ordinary," written for the 1997 movie.
Tim Wheeler: I guess stuff keeps happening to me. It's always been a great outlet for emotions in my life. In a way, it's like a diary. It's a great way for helping to understand what I'm going through.
I've always loved doing it, as well. I've definitely had times when I was writing under pressure and that would lead to writer's block, but I think I've gone way beyond that because now I know there are always songs to be had. If I just keep writing regularly, it's never really a stress. I'm always working on it, and it doesn't dry up, which is great.
Songfacts: When did you have to write under pressure?
Wheeler: Our second album, Nu-Clear Sounds, which I was probably writing in '97 and it came out in '98. That was after our first album, which was called 1977 but came out in '96. I guess I was 19 when that debut album came out and it was a #1 album in the UK. We had probably a year-and-a-half of touring after that, and then during that time of touring I didn't write at all. So when it came to Nu-Clear Sounds I hadn't written for a long time and also, I had to follow up a bunch of hit singles. That amount of pressure I was a bit too young to handle at the time.
Songfacts: A lot of the songs you've written throughout your career have been about breakups, girls, relationships, and that's especially true on Islands. A lot of this stuff sounds absolutely heart-rending. Is that accurate?
Wheeler: Yeah. In a song you get a chance to exaggerate things and you can say the most extreme things. If you're angry about something you can be really angry but maybe in ways that might be inappropriate in real life. You might talk yourself into holding it back in real life, but in a song you can exaggerate and really go for it, and it's very cathartic.
So, sometimes there are bits of fiction but when something rings true, there's real meaning or feeling behind it. It tends to make a good song.
Songfacts: You have a song on Islands called "Is It True?" where you sing about how you broke your own rules. What are your own rules that you broke?
Wheeler: It could be open to a lot of things. Letting yourself be open would be a way, or if you feel like a certain person might be bad for you but you get into a relationship with them anyway. It could be that kind of situation.
Songfacts: Is there a real Annabel?
Songfacts: Can you tell me a bit about that song, like what was going on that led you to write it?
Wheeler: Yeah. It was a bit of an unrequited situation and I imagined what the relationship could have been. It was something that never happened - something that never went further than the song.
When you get a little bit of a crush on someone that can make for fun writing because your imagination can work overtime in those times. It can be good for songs.
Songfacts: It certainly can, and that has happened to you throughout your career where you've had these relationships that have spurred these songs. Are these generally the same girl that you end up on each album writing about?
Wheeler: Yeah, an album will often cover two or three years of my life. At times I've had quite long relationships – five or six years. Sometimes it could be two albums that have covered a relationship I've been in. Nowadays, it changes more often.
Songfacts: Some of these songs have stuck with you over the years. You still play "Goldfinger" very often. Can you talk about what inspired that song and why it has stuck with you so long?
Wheeler: When I was writing that, I was just finishing school and the band was just taking off. So, I was kind of leaving behind my provincial life in Northern Ireland. We were recording that record in Monmouth in Wales, which is quite a similar town to my hometown, Downpatrick. Just a small town with not much going on and not much in the way of escape. Probably the main way people would escape would be smoking hash and stuff like that - drinking.
That kind of a town was the kind of place I was imagining because, in a way, it's slightly romantic to me because I was leaving it behind. So, I was kind of writing about that.
As I was writing it my younger brother was going back to school, and I was like, "Shit, I've left that behind, I'm never going back to that." So, I just wrote this little romance story in this small, shitty town. I was maybe imagining like a young drug dealer and his girl in the song.
Songfacts: Why did you name it "Goldfinger"?
Wheeler: Well, the middle eight we nabbed some chords from John Barry. It wasn't actually "Goldfinger" but, it was a rehearsal room nickname that just stuck because there's a sneaky minor chord that we threw into the instrumental break.
Early on, unless the title was glaringly obvious, I used to really struggle with titles. I regret that for one of our biggest songs it shares a name with a famous John Barry song, but hey.
Songfacts: Yeah, but you've done that with a lot of other songs, "Angel Interceptor," for instance. In a way, that gives your songs a unique, mysterious feel to them. I'm kind of surprised you regret that.
Wheeler: It's just because "Goldfinger" by Shirley Bassey is such an amazing song. But, I think in the context of the whole album you're right. There was a lot of pop culture references like Jackie Chan in "Kung Fu" and "Angel Interceptor" and "Goldfinger." So, yeah, it fits in, but I just regret the confusion with that. Anyway, it didn't stop it being a hit, which is good.
Songfacts: You did a lot of traveling in the last couple of years, where you wrote a lot of Islands. Where did you write your best stuff?
Wheeler: I think it was in Mallorca in Deià, which is this town on the west coast of Mallorca and just such a beautiful and magical place. Artists have been going there for quite a long time, like Robert Graves, the poet, and like the Soft Machine guys – Kevin Ayers – and people like that. I found that to be quite a magical place and I wrote "All That I Have Left" there and "Incoming Waves."
Yeah, that was when I was getting over a breakup and that was quite a good place to meditate on everything. It was quite a weird 10 days because I wasn't talking to another human, apart from when I was buying groceries, but it was quite a healing time and it was a good place to write.
Songfacts: You mentioned "Incoming Waves." Could you describe writing that song?
Wheeler: I guess it's really quite simple. It started with that keyboard motif that runs through the whole thing, and then I just made a loop of that keyboard line and started throwing chords underneath it. Eventually, I found a really nice little sequence.
I was listening to a lot of Sigur Rós at the time, and I liked how they would have a keyboard motif going - I figured out it would repeat through the whole thing. I was trying to do something similar to them. And then the chords came under and they were quite nice.
The place I was staying was really close to this nice graveyard that looked out over the ocean, and it's actually where Robert Graves is buried, so, "Great day for walking among the graves" has a double meaning, like Robert Graves' grave is right there. It's just perched on top of this mountaintop looking out across the ocean, and at sunset, the sun is directly west looking out, and west is towards New York where I live. I was thinking of that, really.
Songfacts: What a contrast geographically. Your hometown, and then New York City where you've been living for about 12 years, and then Mallorca, where you don't see people for 10 days. You've written in all of these places. Can you do a compare-and-contrast between those places?
Wheeler: Yeah. When I lived in London, I found I couldn't write very well there, so I used to go back to Northern Ireland a lot. And, I think it was helpful to go home because I would really tap into the thing that made me want to write in the first place. I guess music was a way of connecting with the outside world and getting out of Northern Ireland.
Even though I love Northern Ireland - I don't want to slam it or make it sound terrible - but I came from a small town. I think music was a way of getting out and connecting more with the outside world. And, I guess Northern Ireland could have a small-town mentality. There was a lot of religious fighting and stuff going on when I was growing up. So, I think it was a bit backwards because of that kind of stuff.
But, anyway, when I would go back to Northern Ireland I found it a really good place to write because I would tap into this thing. I'd really want to write when I was there because I'd be reminded why I was so passionate about it in the first place.
But now, in New York, I write really easily as well. I love the creative energy here and we've got our own studio, so I've got everything set up really well just to have my own space. Carving out your own space to write is very important as well, and I never really found that properly in London. I lived there for nine years.
And then with this album, I wanted to do some traveling just because I wanted no distractions and New York is quite easy to get distracted in.
Songfacts: Yes, absolutely. Tim, who is the "white Goddess" in "A Life Less Ordinary"?
Wheeler: Ah yeah, actually it just goes back to Robert Graves and that's kind of the reason I went to Deià. I never properly fully read The White Goddess - I tried reading that book when I was young. In school, in English class, I did a project on First World War writers and one of them was Robert Graves. I read his biography Good-Bye to All That, which I really love because it's about this poet. You can tell he's an artist through the whole thing but he's experiencing the trenches. At the end of it, he leaves the UK behind and goes off to Deià to live, and at the end of the book vows to never go back.
That's where he wrote The White Goddess. That's where he just wanted to go and be a poet and live simply. He was very interested in Greek and Roman mythology and the origins of poetry. The "White Goddess" is the muse. I could kind of understand it when I was a teenager and songs would come to me out of nowhere - I was fascinated how that happened. Reading The White Goddess gave me a bit of a glimpse into this force outside you that will deliver you inspiration.
So, I really loved that idea, especially when I had all this success with the songwriting. And then when I wrote "A Life Less Ordinary" I hadn't written for a year-and-a-half. That was my first one when I was trying to invoke the goddess to come back and give me some more good music.
Songfacts: Did you write it specifically for the film?
Wheeler: Yeah, I did. They sent a script. I was trying to find some way to tie it in, but the film was a love story so it's kind of a weird song for me to have written. But I wrote it about a love song to the muse.
Songfacts: It was nice that you didn't have to get the title in there.
Wheeler: Yeah, it would have been tricky.
Songfacts: Tell me about a very popular song of yours, "Burn Baby Burn."
When we were making Nu-Clear Sounds we had a version of that song, but it had a different chorus. So, it had the intro, the verse, the guitar solo, but a different chorus. All the music sounded amazing, but once it got to the chorus is was just a bit lackluster. We started recording it for Nu-Clear Sounds but it got abandoned around the demo stage. But then, as we were writing Free All Angels , Mark our bass player said, "That song's really good, you should try to get a better chorus for that."
I was driving in my car back from Belfast to my mum and dad's house, and the chorus just popped into my head, like something about the rhythm and the rhyme scheme. So, I went home and wrote the chorus down, and then I remembered, "This would work with the rest of the music from 'Burn Baby Burn.'" I tried it and it worked great. All of a sudden it was a good song.
I think because it had been over a long time, quite a long labor, I wasn't very excited about it. I thought it was really good, but I thought it was just a good song on the album. But then, when we got to the record label, they were all like, "Oh, this is a single. This has to be a single." And, I was surprised that it turned out to be a really successful single for us because I thought it was a good song, but I didn't think it was amazing.
Songfacts: What inspired the lyric?
Wheeler: That was a breakup that I had a couple of years before Free All Angels. The first girlfriend I lived with. Another breakup song, really.
Songfacts: I wonder if you think sometimes, "Here I go again."
Wheeler: Yeah. Nowadays, I will only write a breakup song if I'm actually going through it. Hopefully, it will be less and less.
Songfacts: What's the lesser-known Ash song in your catalog that deserves more of a listen?
Wheeler: Interesting. There's been some nice B-sides. I'm not sure it's a definitive one but there's one that popped into my head last week. There's one called "No Place To Hide," which is a B-side and it's not a very good song title. I was just walking around the other day and it popped into my head and I was going, "Oh, that was a damn good song." I kind of wish we'd put that on an album instead of just being a B-side. So, that's today's option.
May 11, 2018
Get Islands and more info at ash-official.com
photo (2): Marcus Valance
More Songwriter Interviews