The (British) empire strikes back
It seems like every week a new band is the darling of the fickle British press: A look, an attitude, and a halfway decent single is enough to generate a healthy buzz from Melody Maker or New Musical Express. Bands come along with the regularity of the morning paper, each touted as the long-awaited "next big thing (NBT)," the group that will cross the pond and show America what music is all about, Stoneslike. But it almost never happens (see the Stone Roses).
Americans--throwing off the yoke of oppression to the end--dislike being told by British journalists what to like, oftenrejecting bands on principle. That is a shame, because good bands--bands with originality enough for 20 Hooties--have missed out on the stateside success that they deserve. It happened to Suede; it happened to Blur. Oasis escaped the trap, only because so many thought What's the Story (Moring Glory)? was the next Beatles anthology installment.
Ash, a young trio from Northern Ireland, is the latest attempt to win over the American public, armed with the heartbreakingly standard-issue NBT status and massive U.K. popularity. The band has as good a chance as any of breaking through, possessing talent, timing, and youth (singer-guitarist Tim Wheeler and bassist Mark Hamilton both are 19; drummer Rick McMurray is 21).
The threesome also has the right attitude for U.S. crossover; although the band is brash enough to turn down supporting slots with Pearl Jam and Oasis, Ash lacks the greatest-band-in-the-world arrogance that has turned many away from British music. Unlike some, the band doesn't believe that success in the United States is entitled to them.
"I mean, we want to be big everywhere in the world, so, yeah, being successful in the U.S. is important to us," says McMurray. "I don't think there's any reason why we can't be popular in America. It's just a matter of it working out."
The time is right: The success of Oasis has radio programmers scrambling for new British acts. Ash, which could only be heard previously on specialty radio shows like "The Adventure Club" on KDGE-FM 94.5, has now become the most added act on American radio, moving onto many stations' regular playlists.
The band is in the midst of its second tour of America, where McMurray says awareness of the band is on the rise. "It's been pretty cool so far. We're getting a really good response," he reports. "A lot of different people are coming out. Last time, a majority of the people who came to the shows didn't really know us."
That is not surprising. Ash has seemed to come out of nowhere. McMurray says that is the biggest misconception about the band. "Quite a lot of journalists seem to think that all this has happened quite suddenly, but we've been at this for four years now," he says.
The band started to come together in 1989, when Wheeler and Hamilton, both 12, received guitars for Christmas. Lacking the skill to play covers, they began writing their own songs, drawing heavily from Iron Maiden-style metal; three years later they convinced McMurray to join the band, and Ash was born.
In 1994 the band signed with U.K. indie label Infectious Records and released two singles, "Petrol" and "Uncle Pat," which shot to No. 2 and 3, respectively, on NME's independent charts. Later that year, Ash released Trailer, a mini-album produced by Elastica's Marc Waterman that debuted at No. 3 on the U.K. charts and remained in the Top 5 for several weeks. Trailer was later rereleased in America by Reprise as a full-length album, with four B-sides fleshing out the contents. That fall, the band landed the supporting slot for Elastica's U.K. tour.
All this happened while the band members still were in high school. The perfervid pace of Britain's star-making machinery often makes stars out of schoolchildren, and when a kid starts receiving preferential treatment, an entire childhood can be lost. Neither Wheeler nor his schoolmates really noticed.
"It was quite cool, really," Wheeler recalls. "People didn't really know what we were up to, what we were doing...I mean, of course they did eventually, but it was never really a big deal. It was quite normal."
1995 was an even better year: Wheeler and Hamilton graduated from high school, freeing the band from its weekends-and-holidays touring schedule. Ash set off on its first national U.K. tour as headliner, playing shows at 1,500-seat venues. The band released three additional well-received singles ("Kung Fu," "Girl From Mars," and "Angel Interceptor"), which led to its signing a U.S. deal with Reprise and then its first tour of the United States.
This year, Ash released its first full-length album, 1977, a title significant for several reasons, all of which play an important part in the band's music.
The album actually was named for the year the film Star Wars was released. The three band members are all big fans, and begin the album with the sound, clipped from the movie, of an Imperial TIE-Fighter streaking by. Ash also covered a song from the film ["Cantina Band," originally played by the house band in the Mos Eisley Cantina "bar scene"] that ended up as a B-side on the "Girl From Mars" single.
1977 also was the unofficial start of the British punk movement, the year the Buzzcocks' Singles Going Steady was released. Ash cites disparate influences--everything from the saccharine pop of ABBA to the metallic sludge of Black Sabbath--but its sound is most reminiscent of the Buzzcocks, the same energetic, guitar-fueled pop-punk that can stimulate 1,500 kids to pogo as one.
In addition, 1977 was the year when Wheeler and Hamilton were born. Although they write lyrics about typical teen-age kicks--first loves and pop culture--the band doesn't truly show its youth until the last cut on the album, a hidden track that, courtesy of Hamilton, features the most disgustingly plangent vomiting ever captured on tape.
"We had a bit of a party down at the studio one night, and we were all a bit off our heads," McMurray says. "Mark had been drinking quite a bit and he started to get sick. We had a microphone inside (the bathroom), and he said, 'Let's record it.' So we set up the microphone, and it just kind of happened from there."
Late-night drinking binges aside, the making of 1977 proved to be a challenge for the band. Wheeler, the group's main lyricist, fretted that the band would not have enough songs to fill the album, so Ash holed up in the studio for weeks writing more songs. After finishing "Lost in You," which was written and recorded on the band's last night in the studio, Wheeler and producer Owen Morris were reduced to tears.
"It was really quite draining, a lot harder than we had thought going in," Wheeler says. "It took about three months to do, but it felt really good when we finished."
McMurray says that the experience brought the band members closer together as a band. "It was kind of tough, because quite a lot of the stuff we hadn't really played or rehearsed, because a lot of it was written in the studio," he admits. "But we stuck together, and really helped each other out as far as songwriting and stuff...We're really proud of it."
The effort paid off. 1977 is much stronger than Trailer. It shows the maturation of the band, from school side project to full-fledged band of rock superstars. The tempo has slowed down some--the songs are more fully developed--but the band retains the same exuberance that marked its first single.
Wheeler hopes 1977 is a big success in the United States, but if it's not, he won't worry. "I don't care if we're the biggest band in the world," he says. "But I don't see why we can't be...It would be nice, though. Especially since we left school last summer."
Ash plays the Galaxy Club Monday, August 12. Muzzle opens at 8 p.m.
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